The Reluctant Vegetarian …

May 24, 2013 § 2 Comments

So, I’ve become the reluctant vegetarian.

What, you may ask, does this have anything to do with being Buddhist?

Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid /

Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid /

Not necessarily very much, as for lay practitioners, it is not particularly required for us to abstain from consuming meat. Of course, this seems to depend on what you’re reading and how you’re interpreting what you’re reading. Ultimately, Buddhist practice includes living with Right Intent and Right Mindfulness … and honestly, knowing what I know about the food industry, I could no longer make the claim that I am living with good intent or mindfulness if I were to continue to eat meat that comes from such a heartless and soul-less source. Since turning to vegetarianism, I can honestly say that I feel better on a more conscious level than I had before. Looking at pieces of meat or sausage now has a whole different significance than it did before. It has certainly made me all the more aware of the fact that the sausage being grilled is made of much more than ‘meat,’ it’s muscle, it’s flesh, it came from a once proud, living being.

So Why Reluctant?

Aside from my concerns regarding health (I became anemic when I was in my 20s, the last time I was vegetarian — my intent back then wasn’t quite the same as it is today), my reluctance to turn to vegetarianism are twofold:

Image courtesy of Tom Curtis /

Image courtesy of Tom Curtis /

  1. I love meat. Love it. There isn’t much better in life than the taste of a nice juicy grilled steak prepared by my husband. I hate to brag, but I also make a pretty mean roast chicken that — according to my husband — beats my mother-in-law’s. Some of my favorite dishes are meat-heavy.
  2. I dislike many ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ foods. Despite the fact that my aim is to one day be pretty much vegan, I’m very turned off by some of the recipes I’ve found out there. Some of the most horrific-sounding foods include soy protein shaped to look like whole roasted dead animals, ‘facon’ as I call it (and I’m sure someone else has already coined the term), and any ‘meat replacers.’

As a meat-loving vegetarian, I can’t get over the sick irony of trying to make tofu taste like turkey, bacon, or beef. If you are going to be a meat-eater, be a meat-eater. If you’re going to be vegetarian or vegan, EMBRACE IT. Don’t try to make … *shudder* … orange soy squares that look like that fake American cheese that we’re all ashamed to admit we love. If you’ve never tried the soy ‘equivalent’ of it, don’t. It tastes and smells like baby barf and has the texture of Moon Sand.

There are several cultures out there that already use little to no meat. Think Indian, Japanese, some Chinese, Mexican and Lebanese foods. They all lend nicely to the use of tofu, beans and lentils combined with delicious greens and spices. You can eat real, delicious foods that have nothing to do with meat that will satisfy you. Plenty of flavor, plenty of textures, and filling, too.

The Philosophy 

Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap /

Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap /

My approach to being vegetarian is influenced by all of the factors I mentioned above: My love of meat, my distaste for the hypocrisy surrounding eating ‘meatless meat’ and my knowledge of Buddhism, such at it is.

My approach to my vegetarianism has also been about not being pushy about it. I’ve not demanded, nor will I, that a vegetarian option be made available to me when I enter someone’s home. My husband — bless him — has always been mindful of my decision and shopped for food and cooked meals with me in mind (yes, I’m a lucky gal). I also make sure that when I make a meal, in addition to my vegetarian/vegan dish, I offer food that my husband and children will also enjoy, that includes meat.

Why no pushiness? Well, let’s see … When a certain person from a certain sect approaches your door with pamphlets, sticks his or her foot in your door and insists on pushing their point of view on you, how much do you feel like listening to them, let alone considering their point of view?

Yeah, exactly.

If I want people’s interest to be piqued by my way of life, I’ve found it better to just quietly follow my own path, and welcome those who show interest in it. After all, my vegetarianism is mine, and mine alone. It’s my choice. Not the choice of my children, my husband, my friends or anyone else in my family.

So, will I eat meat if I have no other options? 

Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap /

Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap /

You bet. And here’s why:

“When a monk partakes of the four requisites, he should contemplate them first. If, on contemplating, he sees that the food in front of him — whether it’s vegetables, meat, fish, or rice — is pure in three ways in that he hasn’t seen or heard or suspected that an animal was killed to provide the food specifically for him, and also that he himself obtained the food in an ethical way, that the lay people donated it out of faith, then he should go ahead and eat that food. This is how our teachers have practiced as well.”

— Luan Pu, via Access to Insight

While this quote is directed to Buddhist monks, it can be applied to all of us who decide to no longer take part in  using animals for food. Our decision is our own, and we make it because we have been informed, and have chosen to accept the information AND act on it. While we may find good reason to act on the information we received, we can’t expect everyone to do the same. At least, not before they are ready, if they ever are.

I will accept meat from those who make food from meat, and who do so with the intent of providing for their friends and family. They may not be informed about the food they’ve prepared as we have been. Am I saying they are stupid? Absolutely not. They have just not turned their hearts in the same direction as I have, yet their heart is still in a place of good intent.

Will I bring to any ‘bring a dish to pass’ type events, a vegetarian option that I can go to, and that others may enjoy? Absolutely yes. But if invited to a dinner or a restaurant, I’ll not sit there empty-plated if there are no meatless options for me, only to insult my hosts. That’s not the statement I’m going for.

I’ll do what I can to make sure that no animals suffer for me. I will not, however, cause ill will because of my decision, and I will also do what I can to let people see that being vegetarian does NOT equal being obnoxious. Nor does it equal eating jiggly, soy-based, turkey-shaped fake meat. Let’s face it, meat-eaters use that as ammunition to remain anti-vegetarian. I want them to turn to me, not away.

My best evidence to date that proves to me that my approach is effective?

Not long ago, I prepared a meal for my family: Grilled, marinated tofu for me, grilled, marinated chicken for my husband and children. The table was set, we sat down to eat, I dug into my dish and my daughter picked at her chicken. She turned to me and asked “Mommy, can I try some of that?” I was surprised, but said “Sure, of course.”

I put a small cube of the tofu on her plate, she popped it in her mouth and … “Mmmmmm! Mommy that’s good. Can I have some more please? I don’t care for the chicken.”

First. Time. Ever.

I gave her a full serving’s worth, and she ate it all. ALL. Then asked for seconds. My husband then also tried a piece, and also liked it.

It’s not a revolution, but it’s a small start.

And that, folks, is how I plan to take over the world.


December 15, 2012 § 2 Comments


Copyright Miyo Wratten 2011

Every once in a while, something happens in the world that makes you want to take you and your loved ones to a remote island, and pretend that the rest of the world doesn’t exit. Today, such a tragedy occurred.

My children are of the age of the many who were murdered in Connecticut today. I was unaware of what was happening while I was at work, thank goodness, and while my children were at their school. As soon as I realized what had happened (blessing and curse of having a Smart Phone), I felt what every parent, grand-parent, aunt and uncle, brother and sister, felt: Nausea, fear, grief, anger, and loss.

As I wrestled with these feelings, tears welled in my eyes, and all I could think, was “This could happen anywhere.” My children sang happily in the back seat of my car as I tried my best to act as I always do, but I really felt a deep sadness, and dread, and fear.

“Those could have been my kids.”

“If that ever happened to us …”

We all have our own things we turn to at these times to help us make sense of what happened. Some turn to prayer. I turned to my practice.

Copyright Miyo Wratten 2011

Copyright Miyo Wratten 2011

As my anger toward the individual who robbed us all of our sense of security rose; as my grief for the loss of all those young lives rose; as my terror of the world around us rose; I looked at what was going on in my head. “Stories,” I mumbled to myself as I swept away images of myself waiting nervously to hear if my child was alive or not; “Future, fantasy,” I muttered again as I pictured my daughter’s terrified face at hearing the sounds of bullets ringing through her classroom.

Those are the images that bring us nightmares, fear and anxiety; those are the thoughts that bring us despair for the world around us. They are natural thoughts, but unreliable as they are not grounded in fact — they are our imagination, and best set aside, not given the legs to run around.

Letting those images take us over to cause those feelings of terror is what gives that act of violence power. More power than it deserves to have, power perhaps beyond its original intent. We have the ability to take that power away by casting those thoughts aside.

Letting those images go gives US power to fully indulge in the embrace we give our children when we are done with the commute home. It lets us hear the words of the happy song that they were singing while we were terrifying ourselves … while we let that gunman into our minds.

It lets us understand that we need to love each other now, hold each other now, enjoy everything that is right now. Because now is the only thing that is certain. And while on the one hand that may sound scary, what could be more secure than that which you can feel and see and hear?

“Sherrrrrrrrry, Sherry baby …” followed by giggles. When perceived with a mind and ears not clouded by thoughts of what might (or might not) be, nothing is more reassuring.

Copyright Miyo Wratten 2011

Copyright Miyo Wratten 2011

What The Buddha Said … Or Did He?

August 6, 2012 § 5 Comments

This is just “a little something” I came across while doing some hunting and pecking online for another essay I’ve been working on and has to do with all those little quotes we see on Twitter, Facebook, posters, greeting cards, coffee mugs, Android and iOS apps and anywhere else you can think of. You’ve probably seen them: Buddha Bless is one common source of these quotes that I’ve seen my friends posting on Facebook, but there are others, too.

Free image courtesy of

I was adding a signature to my forums profile for the Secular Buddhist Association that I’ve been trying to post to more often lately. I wanted to find something interesting that Siddhartha Gautama might have said. While on my search, I queried on Google “Buddha quotes,” and came across this:

In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.

This, according to is something that the Buddha said. Now, because I’m not familiar with the suttas and this is a line that I’ve never heard being referred to before, I wanted to be able to cite in my signature exactly where this came from — as in which sutta/teaching what have you. So, I searched further by plugging in the whole quote into with “Who said ‘quote’?” Lo and behold, among top in search results was Fake Buddha Quotes, and specifically, it pointed out the fact that this quote is NOT one of Sid’s.

Fake Buddha Quotes is a blog kept by someone I haven’t managed to identify yet, but is full of quotes found circulating online and elsewhere. This individual, since 2009, has been finding and receiving e-mails about quotes found here and there, and figuring out if they are real or not. What’s great about this blog is, that not only does this person tell us if the quote is real or not, he or she also does the research to figure out what the actual source is, if possible! Even if the quote is true, he or she backs it up with a reference to the particular sutta from which it comes.

I’ve really enjoyed going through this blog, as there are the occasional pieces in which the blogger has had to defend himself/herself from readers who apparently don’t like the fact that this person is identifying fake from real quotes, or other issues that come up here and there. This writer very skillfully defends his/her position, and regardless of the verity of the quote, the reader always comes away feeling like they’ve learned something. I’m not much of a blog reader really — I find reading on the computer uncomfortable and awkward, so I tend not to do it much — but I’ve gone through much of the archived blog posts and enjoyed finding out that many, many of the quotes that various of my friends put up, are in fact attributable to more (relatively) modern sources, and definitely not Buddhist sources.

So I guess the question is, why shouldwe care if a “Buddha quote” turns out not to be so Buddhist? Well, I know for myself, had I just popped up that quote into my signature, and later found out it wasn’t in fact a Buddhist quote, I would have felt rather silly — especially since I would have had to admit that “I Googled it” and didn’t actually get the quote from an ‘acutal Buddhist source.’ Finding out the truth led me to more learning, more knowledge, and, it hasn’t prevented me one bit from using the quote in my signature. I just won’t look the fool by attributing it to someone who didn’t actually say it! Rather, I’ve given it the attribution of ‘unkown,’ as the blogger’s research led to multiple possible sources, and in the end, was inconclusive.

Free image courtesy of

Another reason is what the Buddha himself would want — it seems this blogger has run into situations where readers have said that the Buddha would not mind or care about having quotes attributed to him which are not his own. There’s no way in heck I could do a better job than this blogger — who is clearly a scholar of Buddhism — of refuting this line of thinking. So here’s the link to what he has found as far as the Buddha’s stance on being misquoted, or having others’ words attributed to him: Read that blog entry by clicking this 😉

If what the Buddha would have thought doesn’t really concern you, we could also point to the practice of Right Speech. Would blindly letting someone tell me the Buddha said something be skillful of me? Would I be contributing to spreading a false impression of something that someone said? Also, what about those people who are the actual originators of those quotes? Do they not deserve credit for that intellectual property?

Of course, when push comes to shove, I shouldn’t really let my search stop at reading up on the Fake Buddha blog. If I were being a GOOD studier of Buddhism,  I really should go and see if this blogger’s information is right, by checking the information out myself, too. He does make the information awfully easy to find as he points directly to the sources.

Perhaps I will sometime … when I don’t have my child whining at me that she can’t find the remote, when the dishes aren’t piling up, dust bunnies under the couch aren’t taunting me and rapidly multiplying, and lessons aren’t sitting around waiting to be planned.

I’m just heartened to know that there are people out there doing the hard work of research so laypeople like me can depend on them for right information. Thanks to all of you!

Impermanence and Real Life

July 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

So there’s this bouquet of dried flowers my mother keeps on a wall in her house. It’s like a lot of other dried flowers that people keep — it’s from a bunch of roses that someone gave her a long time ago, and in an attempt to preserve that special moment, the beauty of the bouquet, or what have you, she dried it, and hung it up.

I remember doing that too, except that I wanted to keep the unusual color of the bloom for as long as I could, so following the advice of some friends, I lacquered the rose with lots of sticky hair spray and carefully dried it.

This is a good example of our very human attempts to hold on to a special moment — everything from replaying it in our minds, to preserving anything that we may connect with it, whether it be a ticket stub, flowers, airplane tickets or anything else. We hope in holding on to these things, that we can relive the joy of the moment, that excitement we felt as the bouquet was handed over, or of the camaraderie we felt with the group of friends with which we went on a trip.

Ever notice, though, that in recalling these moments, you get that twinge of ‘nostalgia,’ or regret, of sadness? That, that twinge, is ‘dukkha.’ For some, that twinge could be the ‘stab of sadness’ that send us over the edge and into tears, and depending on the situation and our disposition, into absolute sadness — the kind that makes us want to hide away from the world.

In Buddhism, part of helping us get rid of ‘duhkkha,’ or what in English gets roughly translated as ‘suffering,’ is accepting the idea of impermanence — that is to say, that nothing stays the same. Everything changes, grows, wilts, and dies. There is no ‘unchanging self,’ either — this central core of a person who never changes. On the surface, you might say “Well yeah, duh,” but what do YOU own in your home that is evidence of trying to preserve that which cannot be preserved? We all have them, and they are all causing us some form of dukkha, if you think about it hard enough.

My blog isn’t really about that today, it really addresses more of the issue that crops up on occasion with those who look at Buddhism from the outside. Part of what we do in Buddhism, is to reduce the amount of dukkha in our lives. In doing so, we do things like acknowledge impermanence, the absence of that Central Self that doesn’t change, we try not to cling, and let go as best we can of our attachments.

To those who are new to Buddhism, this may sound like Buddhists aren’t allowed to care about anything, aren’t allowed to have feelings, reactions, or recollections. It also might sound to some as though we couldn’t have the ability to have moral or values, either. It’s a difficult point to make to those who look at Buddhism and hear us say things like ‘no self,’ ‘no attachment,’ ‘no clinging’ and such. The reality is, that it is quite the contrary. We of course have our families, our spouses, our friends, and of course our possessions. The difference in how we view them and their place in life in general  — NOT how we love them, or whether or not we love them.

The point I’m trying to make can be found by going back to my mother’s house. On that particular weekend, my family and I had the pleasure of going up to visit her, and also see her sister (my namesake), her sister-in-law, and my cousin. I hadn’t seen any of these people in just about 30 years! Of course I had *some* anxieties over this meeting: Would I remember my Japanese? Would I understand what they were saying? How would my husband feel around them, not having ANY knowledge of the Japanese language? What about my kids? Would they be able to bond with their Japanese family in such a short time? Finally: When would my tears come? Because I knew they would.

Having walked the Buddhist path for about two year now, I don’t feel really experienced by any means, but I am helped when facing these kinds of situations. In the past, I would have been wracked with anxiety, losing sleep for days before hand and letting my stomach churn with nerves, hoping that people are just as I remembered them. Feeling sad at the idea that perhaps some people may look older than I remember them, and thinking how sad that would be. On a more visceral level, I would yearn for those days of childhood when I felt embraced by my Japanese family — especially my one aunt, my mother’s sister.

Now, however, I fully recognized the fact that they’d look nothing like the picture in my mind, which was formed when I was 8 years old. In those 30 years, they have lost family members, I have lost family members, we’ve gotten married, had children, been hired, fired, and changed jobs, gained and lost weight, wrinkles, gray hairs, and more. Years and distance have changed the dynamics of our relationship, as they should, but they would have even if I had stayed in touch with them or lived in Japan with them. Things change, that’s what life’s about. Again, sounds obvious, but if you look closely at that ‘twinge’ feeling you get when you think about your childhood, you’ll see that you’re holding on to that memory, and wishing for it to come back.

So, when approaching this situation now, instead of feeling really anxious, I was able to approach it with more curiosity than anything. I was also fairly excited — but in a good way. Not a nervous way. Knowing that people change in fundamental ways, because there is no unchanging self, I had no real expectations or hope, per se, as to how my ‘favorite’ aunt would be. My recollection of her was as a warm-hearted, soft, energetic, fun-loving woman. I had no real idea if she were the same at all, or of how my cousin would be, or how my second visiting aunt would be. I was able to let go of any expectations that I might otherwise have had, and was really able to enjoy seeing them this weekend.

We carved pumpkins (which was a new one on them), enjoyed some delicious Japanese comfort food (home made, yum!), strolled down memory lane and got to know each other all over again. I was able to do all that with no let-downs, and through simply enjoying the moment as it presented itself. I believe it’s called ‘equanimity.’ Perhaps I’m wrong in saying that’s what this was, but that’s what it felt like.

The Daily Struggle …

November 9, 2011 § 5 Comments

It really is, the daily struggle! That grind that you feel like you’re just pushing yourself through.

That’s really what I’ve been encountering these last couple of months. The last time I posted anything, we were in the long, lazy days of summer. While I had plenty to keep me busy, I did have time to just sit and write, and think about what I was going to write, to give my study of Buddhism a lot of time, attention, and thought.

Then, it all fell apart. As the school year approached, there was a whole new routine to adjust to, and my schedule this school year hasn’t worked out in a way so as to afford me much free time. I’m finding myself dragging stacks of work home to grade and correct, and tons of lessons to try to plan out — not even ahead of time. Just to keep my nose above water.

As these stresses piled up, I found myself letting things go here and there — the first thing, was exercise (ack!). Then, it was my reading of anything, on Buddhism or otherwise. Slowly but surely, my meditation practice also disappeared and eventually, I’m feeling like my life has been swallowed whole by the Stress Monster.

A few days ago I was sitting here feeling like a big failure — I’m a Fake Buddhist, I told myself. A Real Buddhist wouldn’t give up their meditation practice because they got tired or stressed out. They wouldn’t stop studying because they had too much work to do. A Real Buddhist would find a way to make it All Work, right?

Now, the reasonable part of my brain realizes a few things: 1) I would probably be less stressed out if I DID let myself set my work aside and make more time for exercise and meditation. After all, those two things are the meat of stress-management; 2) No one is perfect; and 3) This is what accepting impermanence and change is all about — not letting yourself get all bummed out because things changed, and not seeing yourself as a Bad Person or a Fake anything because you felt that you had to set one thing aside for a while in exchange for something else.

That being said, no matter how much you try to be at peace with this fact, it’s hard to see a state that you were quite happy with change, and change in a direction you don’t like. I love studying buddhism, I was really pleased with my meditation and exercise routines — they both just balanced out my days nicely.

In the past, a change like this in my life would have done a lot of bad things to me — avoidance (sinking into video games, eating, or just generally finding something to help me avoid ALL THINGS, including work and family), and anger in general, striking out in all directions OUTWARDLY — that would be blaming everything and everyone around me, but not looking AT ME.

Instead, I’ve made myself take a look at what’s happening INSIDE. Why am I doing this? Are all the changes I’ve made for the good? What can I do differently to make me feel at least a little happier? Am I making the best choices (intent) in general?

I’m thinking this is an example of how having a buddhist practice that you’ve groomed can come into play in your life when things get tough — it’s taught me to look at the issue head on, and make sure I’m on The Path — right intent, right action, and also at Why I’m Doing This. I know there are things I can do differently, and I’m hoping that I’ve correctly identified them, and hoping to get back to some things I’ve had to set aside — my main outlets which include writing, reading, exercising and meditating. It’s not happening all at once, but I’ve started with making sure I find time to stir exercise and reading back into my day.

Next up are going back to writing (I’ve had several blog posts in the works and just “never have time” to finish!), and meditating.

Unfortunately, there are some things I can’t change — for now, I’m having to set aside my group in Second Life, as well as the area I’ve set up for the reading group in SL. Preparing for discussions unfortunately takes more time than I have — at least, preparing for them the way *I* think I should 😉 That being said, I have plans to try to start a study group in the summer … we’ll see.

But that’s OK, it’s all about change, accepting the change, and not allowing myself to be attached to a set of expectations. For now, I’m doing what I can, when I can. I remember this mantra from when I first started my studies … how did I let myself forget????

Meditating While Exhausted ….

July 12, 2011 Comments Off on Meditating While Exhausted ….

There aren’t very many things in Secular or Skeptical Buddhism that I’ve found are really ‘required’ for anyone to do. In fact, from the time I began studying, the format has always been pretty free-form, which I truly appreciate. Being of the Type-A category of personality, I’m very driven by lists, going in the ‘correct order,’ and having things ‘in their place.’ Without these, I feel lost, confused and very out of

In Skeptical/Secular Buddhism, meditation is firmly grounded in the idea that it is for building up the ability to go through our daily lives in a more minful way. Nothing mystical about it!


So, it took me some getting used to this less structured, more free-form approach to something. At first, it was disconcerting. I kept looking for rules, structure, scaffolding, a ladder, ANYTHING. Thanks to the guidance of those I practice with, however, I’ve been able to let go of my attachment to such structures, and allow the entrance of a more organic approach to walking that path. The result has been that, rather than being restricted by a structure, a strict order to do things in, I’ve been able to fit parts of the Buddhism into my life as time and circumstance has allowed. As a busy mom, this has been a real helping point!

That being said, there is ONE thing that all of my sangha-mates have insisted is something that one cannot forgo in Buddhism, and that is meditation. What has also been made clear to me over the months, is that getting meditation instruction is also instrumental in developing GOOD meditation habits. Things like retreats were also mentioned, where in-person instruction and guidance are given on techniques in meditation.

Being a parent to two not-that-little any more kids (5 and 7) and a teacher (read: my vacation dates are decided for me by the school district), I’m not so much at liberty to pick up and go on a three-month, let alone weekend, retreat to learn how to meditate. Living in a VERY isolated region of the country, I would also need to travel at least, AT LEAST, an hour one way just to find a group of people who DO meditate (without crystals and chanting — big no-no for me).  Because I’m the primary parent for transporting kids to their sporting events, dentist and doctor’s appointments etc., I just CAN’T devote that kind of time to chasing down instruction. So, my options were few.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t pursued meditation! At first, I tried it on my own, and was really wary. I’d looked into meditation in my college days. The book I’d found back then had clearly been written by some hippie somewhere who was all about psychotropic drugs — the book talked about closing my eyes and letting go, observing the ‘colors of my mind,’ letting things like my ‘aura’ and ‘spirit find their way to the light.’ Those aren’t direct quotes, but it was that type of thing. I don’t recall the title or the author, but it was a lot of hoo-hah which I didn’t really trust back then, and that I openly scoff at now as an adult. After chasing these false goals, I gave up and had a hard time ever since taking the idea of meditation very seriously.

After I met my current sangha-mates, it was made clear to me that there is a much more practical, down-to-earth approach to meditation. So, I tried again. The first time, I was really disturbed by how many thoughts there were zinging around in my head! I couldn’t stop them. I knew that part of what I was attempting was a ‘quieting of the mind,’ but I had no idea how. I grew angry and frustrated, and after 5 short minutes I stopped. I could NOT understand how this was supposed to help. GOOGLE TO THE RESCUE! I found a couple of guided meditations online, some of which came from Insight Meditation Center, based in California. I really liked those last ones. The instructors all had very calm voices, there was nothing about ‘waves’ and ‘aura’ and ‘spirit’ in there. Just ‘breath’ and ‘thoughts’ and ‘concentrating.’

So, I stuck to the stuff from Insight, and gradually, got the idea. I started with just two or three sessions a week — honestly, it is always hard for me to get in very many sessions in a week. Mornings simply aren’t available — it’s when I wake up, work out, jump in the shower and then start fetching breakfasts and start the house work. Then the day gets going. By the time my day winds down, my kids are in bed, and I’m not too far behind. I’m exhausted. Every moment, every minute of my day is PACKED with obligations, appointments, things that need to be taken care of. No different than anyone else out there, right?

Right. Well, thanks to a dharma friend, I was alerted to an online course on Mindfulness Meditation that the Insight Meditation Center was offering. It was just what I was looking for — all instructions online, anything audio posted on their web site, questions and answers for ‘homework’ could be done through e-mail. This was something I could easily fit into my daily routine.

Without going through all the nitty gritty details of how things went, suffice it to say that it is clear that taking a course IS necessary. While I recognize that in-person instruction also has its advantages, this course was a great alternative for me. I’ve been able to refine my practice of meditation, and it’s been an invaluable experience. Who knew there were so many layers to the mind, to one’s thinking? You know that scene in ‘Shrek,’ when Donkey asks if ogres are like onions, or parfaits, with lots of layers? That’s the mind, lots of layers — which I suppose some of us are aware of (we speak of them in terms of ‘conscious’ and ‘subconscious,’), but I don’t think we ever believe we have control over some of those layers. We do. More than we think! I can’t tell you how that has shaped my every day life, you just have to experience it.

Also, the importance of making the time to sit “even for two minutes at the end of the day, to form the habit,” as my instructor e-mailed me, was made clear. Somehow, making the conscious effort to sit, even for two minutes before I go to bed, has allowed me to up my number of sessions from two or three, to probably about five or six. Sometimes it’s closer to four or five, but it’s an improvement! I don’t sit for hours, I don’t even sit for more than about 25 minutes at a time, really — it’s just not happening (any longer than that and I’m just passing out, really). That habit, that observation of the mind, has done more than I could say. And I’ve only just scratched the surface. I know I still know just the fundamentals, and there’s much more to what I need to practice to really be an experienced meditator.

In any event, I suppose the main purpose of this post is to show that we can all have a meditation practice — even we Jane Schmoes with kids who play T-ball and Bush League, full time jobs, meals to plan and a house to run. That’s not to say that we don’t nod off a bit while we try to meditate at the end of the day. It’s not to say that some days, we  don’t occasionally throw in the dish towel and crawl into bed with a few choice words to launch at the idea of meditating; but it’s possible to do. You CAN fit a regular practice in there, and doing it right, matters.

Take a course, and see!


NOTE: The Skeptical Readers of SL, in conjunction with the Skeptical Buddhists, are going to be meeting beginning on July 23rd at 8:30 a.m. PST to follow Insight Meditation Center’s six-week course, “Mindfulness Meditation.” While it is not a ‘live’ course officially administered by the instructors at IMC, all the materials they offer are posted on their web site, and as a group, we will be following the materials together. Our weekly meetings will be used to check in with each other, and share notes on the ‘homework’ that is assigned through the course, and address any questions/issues/problems we may be experiencing.

The course is meant for individuals who are just beginning their meditation practice, or for those who wish to renew the basics of Insight meditation.

If you are so inclined, please do join us. We will be meeting at the Skeptical Buddhist’s Sangha.

Sangha — What’s In A Word?

July 3, 2011 § 3 Comments

Like Buddhism itself, the meaning of the word "sangha" has shifted over time. One may feel the need to say 'goodbye' to the ancient word and use a new one that is more relevant to Western practitioners.

I’m going to start this post in an unconventional way … with the concluding paragraph of Martine Batchelor’s article “Sangha in the West”:

Sangha is the third jewel and refuge on the Buddhist path. In the West there are many opportunities to cultivate and develop this jewel in a modern setting. We can learn from all the different models we can find, from traditional hierarchical ones or more modern consensual ones. Each will teach us and support us differently. This is a very important aspect of the practice that Westerners who come to Buddhism cannot ignore. It is inspiring that people are being creative in finding new ways to create meaningful communities.

Over the past few weeks, the Skeptical Readers of SL reading club has gotten together to talk about an article by Stephen Batchelor, called “Creating Sangha”. The article talks about what “sangha” means — right from what it was when Buddhists first gathered to practice, to what it appears to have come to mean in modern, Western practice. For those who are completely new to the term, Sangha is a community of monks and/or nuns who devoted their lives to attaining Enlightenment. Martine Batchelor’s article quoted above explores the various attempts in Western cultures to adopt the notion of sangha in Western culture, both for those who might have the opportunity to practice as a monastic, and for those who are lay practitioners (like myself!).

Between the two articles, and the discussions we’ve had in Second Life, it is clear that in order for Buddhism to survive in the context of modern, Western culture, a compromise of some sort must be reached. Stephen explains the how and why of the origination of Sangha as it has existed until now:

As Buddhism developed over centuries in different cultures, its form was determined by the economic and social conditions of former times. All traditional forms of Buddhism share in common the stamp of a medieval social structure. They emerged in societies with fixed class distinctions in which the course of a person’s life was determined at the time of his or her birth. The division between monastics and laity was as sharply defined as the division between classes. The life of the majority of the laity consisted of agricultural labor and the raising of families. A formal education was very limited if not absent. Monastics, in contrast, were largely free from having to engage in manual labor and had no family responsibilities. They were able to devote themselves entirely to the Dharma: through the study of philosophy, the practice of meditation and by serving a pastoral role in the community.

Stephen then goes on to question whether in today’s modern, industrialized, Western culture,  if there is still the need for monastics such as has existed previously. During our group’s discussion, I believe we unanimously agreed that in the context of OUR culture, there is no need for this structure. Monks and nuns really aren’t as needed as they were previously. We live in an age when public education makes literacy *almost* universal. Access to information is *almost* even across the plane. Inequalities do exist, but unlike in Buddha’s time, most people today learn to read, write, do math, use a computer and more. Speaking of computers, they also have made information more easily accessible. We also have much  more leisure time (though some may be hard pressed to agree — I’m making PBJs and fetching milk for my kids between paragraphs). I no longer need to seek out a Buddhist monk to give me the teachings. I can Google it, verify that the information is good, and use it if I so choose. I can commune with individuals on Facebook, in Second Life, and on various other discussion forums.

Don’t mistake me, we all still need teachers, and personally, I do see value in the existence of those who are able to devote their time to attending retreats and on their own, closely examining the teachings, right from their original forms in Pali or Sanskrit. Many people who do just that are, in fact, monks and nuns. In our North American and European cultures, there are many who do become ordained monks and nuns. There are many others who do not, because we have the reality of familial and/or professional obligations and commitments to which we cannot or do not wish to stray. Those individuals, however, may yet pursue knowledge in the field of Buddhism without becoming ordained. I’m lucky enough to have learned a great deal from people who have never been ordained, but know a LOT about the teachings in Pali, about Buddhism, and what the Buddha taught. In many ways, to my eyes, these academics are our modern-day ‘monks,’ to whom I don’t give bowls of rice … but who do give me invaluable pieces of insight and information.

In order for Buddhism to survive, and in order to practice Buddhism successfully, what has always been called ‘Sangha’ is necessary. Many of us who gather weekly (or more

In its 3-D virtual environment, the Skeptical Readers of SL group meets in what many of its members consider to be their 'sangha.'

often) in Second Life consider our group of peers our “sangha.” Could Sid have EVER imagined that one day, in a virtual 3-D environment, humans would have gathered to discuss, talk, and learn about his teachings? Would he have considered that to be a Sangha? What is the essential in the idea of Sangha, that third pillar of what is called the Triple Gem? If we take away the idea of having monks be a part of the group that gathers, talks, learns and teaches about Sid’s words, is it no longer a ‘Sangha’? If we’re not going to call it “Sangha,” what should we call it? Would we still call our practice ‘Buddhism’ if we don’t have monks in our sangha? Christians have ‘church,’ in Islam we have ‘mosk,’ in Judaism we have ‘temple.’ What should the new Buddhists have?

Ultimately, the answer probably doesn’t matter. Perhaps then, neither does the label — both the label of ‘sangha’ and of ‘Buddhism’. For the sake of simplicity, though, wouldn’t we want a word? Would sticking to ‘Sangha’ really be so terrible? Or would something in a romance language be more apropos?

After all, what is in a word?

I don’t pretend to have any answers to these questions, and while we discussed this topic over a few weeks, we definitely didn’t narrow down to any answers either. Here ARE some ideas that came out of the gathering, though:

  • We all value our gatherings, and basically consider the spirit of ‘sangha’ to be present in our gatherings and the groups that exist in this virtual platform. This includes Second life, Facebook, our various blogs and web sites, too.
  • Specifically considering Secular Buddhist communities, it is probably in our best interest to try to unify the various groups scattered throughout the virtual environment into one cohesively networked unit.
  • Networking with additional, existing Western Buddhist groups in Second Life would help connect with other like-minded Buddhists who may not yet have discovered Secular or the closely-related Skeptical Buddhism.

Tonight, the Skeptical Readers of SL group will be meeting to talk about these bulleted issues, specifically regarding networking and creating a cohesive unit. I realize this post is coming really late, but if there ARE any readers of this blog who can make it to our meeting tonight (July 3, 5:30 p.m. PST), you can do so here:

Most of all, to further the development of a strong practice in our culture, continued, mindful discussions on topics such as this are very important. Do consider following any one of my links, and engaging in a healthy discussion on a message board somewhere, post a comment here, or just join a group to learn more. The more you engage, the healthier our practice will be.

Hopefully, I’ll get to meet you soon!

Mind Over Clutter

June 14, 2011 § 2 Comments

Buddhist Monk Sweeping

Buddhist principles have their place in everyday household routines -- and even help alleviate some of the stress associated with doing them!

Housework — it’s that thing in our lives most of us dread doing. I used to get very frustrated that my house didn’t look like it belonged in a magazine even after hours of cleaning. That frustration would grow when, just moments after I polished off a surface, food would get eaten, crumbs would fall onto the counter, dishes would begin to make their grubby presence known in a once sparkling, pristine sink, and a bread bag would get left open on the kitchen table, hanging open and growing more stale — and ugly — by the passing moment.

Feelings of resentment toward those with whom I co-habitate would grow: Why can’t they just pick up after themselves? Why am I the only one who seems to know how to replace the roll of toilet paper in this house??? Does no one else know how to wash a dish? Turn on the washing machine? Make the bed? Put dishes away???? Good lord!

I’d love to be able to say that Buddhism helped me see through the fog of all this resentment which, by the way, usually results in complete avoidance of the tasks that need to be done to remedy the situation (“Why should I do the dishes again, I just did them! It’s ‘someone else’s turn now.”) To be honest, there is another source that helped me work through all of this. This other source, though, I’ve grown to find shares common threads with Buddhism. That’s my topic for today — That, and how the Other Source AND the Buddhist point of view have helped me with the issue of resenting housework.

Perhaps some of you already know about FlyLady .  Despite this strange name (which she explains on her web site, along with what FLYing is), she offers words of wisdom that really snapped me into reality when it comes to everyday living. Her mantra, “Jump in where you are,” urges those who feel that they are drowning in the “should do’s” around their house to just start — anywhere. Because if we wait for that perfect moment before we start cleaning, we’ll never get started. Nothing will change unless we just start SOMEWHERE.

Through a routine which she helps individuals establish through her Baby Steps, she instills in those who subscribe to her e-mail service (and Web site) this idea of cleaning, and shedding what we in Buddhism would call dukka. She refers to what we would consider ‘labeling’ and ‘judging’ as ‘negative talk’ and gives examples through testimonials sent in by subscribers of how these things causes our own suffering. After a while, we see her message is one of letting go of expectations and accepting impermanence.

Another common theme in her daily messages is the letting go of the idea of ‘Perfect’ (a big part of expectations). She tells us to clean, dust, put things away, and “put out hotspots” (clear surface area clutter) for anywhere from 7 to 15 minutes, whatever fits into our schedules. The important thing being, to just do it. Whatever it is, just do it for a few minutes, and STOP. Look. Admire what you’ve done. Slow down. Appreciate … starting to sound familiar? Yeah, once I started looking at Buddhism, it did to me too.

Mindfulness 101, here you go. Another good one in the mindfulness category is “Do one job, and finish it. Don’t start another one until you’re done.” It’s the anti-multitasking message which is also part of what being mindful has taught me to do. Concentrate on what you’re doing. Give it your full attention — doing that will allow you to be mindful of your actions, ‘being in the present’ helps us approach aspects of our lives with less anxiety, stress (aka “suffering), and from the FlyLady’s perspective, it allows us to get things out, sort, purge, put away, and actually see the job through to the end.

My absolute favorite message of all that belongs to not just Buddhism, but also to the FlyLady, is the Anti-Perfectionism message. If you wait for perfect, you will never start cleaning. If you wait for perfect, you will never be satisfied with what you have. If you strive for perfect, you will hurt yourself, resent those you live with. If you strive for perfect, you will start to perceive your co-habitants as keeping you away from achieving perfect. “Perfect” is an illusion, it’s expectation, it’s dukka! FlyLady nails that idea right on the head, and it’s central to her message of Finally Loving Yourself.

My favorite chore of hers she gives us to do once a week? “Vacuum each room, JUST THE MIDDLES (no going along the corners or edges, and NO moving furniture allowed). Set your timer for 10 minutes and STOP!” No matter what. If we think it’s not perfect, she urges us to put the vacuum cleaner down, and take a REAL look at what we’ve done. Notice everything, including the fact that post-“imperfect” vacuuming, the room is already much better than it was. Be happy in that.

LOVE that message.

So, here’s a side-by-side of what Buddhism teaches, and the messages I’ve received from the FlyLady over the last few months. What I’ve learned from FlyLady is in parentheses, what I’ve learned from Buddhism are not … if this isn’t practice applied to every day life, I’m not sure what is:

Impermanence (accept the breadcrumbs on the kitchen table, it wasn’t going to stay clean for long anyway)

Letting go of expectations (accepting the fact that after 10 minutes of dusting, my house was still going to be a 150-year-old farm house in serious need of updating — it was NOT going to turn into a quaint New England farm house ready for one of those magazines)

Mindfulness (the ‘stop and look,’ ‘pay attention to one job at a time’)

Right Intention (am I cleaning the house to make a point to those who co-habitate, or am I cleaning it so I can feel good about where I live? Am I cleaning with the intent to be perfect, or am I cleaning with the intent to provide comfortable living space?)

It’s been about a year now, since my more serious study of Buddhism, FlyLady and I have crossed paths. It’s taken a lot of practice and training of both Buddhism AND FLYing to get myself there, but I can now happily say that I hang the laundry on the line and feel thankful for the few minutes to do what I call a “standing meditation” — that is, notice the hanging laundry, the motions, the breath, the thoughts, label my past, future and thoughts of fantasy, set them aside, and bring my mind back onto my task with equanimity — no resentment, no grumbling, no expectations. Dishes get the same treatment, as does any other chore.

The result? Not a perfect house, but people can walk in any time, and we’re not mortified any more (FLY Lady calles that “C.H.A.O.S. [Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome]”), and best of all, I’m not angry any more — no mess to make me stressed, no resentment while cleaning, which means happier me, happier kids, happier everyone all around.

Thanks Sid. Thanks FlyLady 🙂

Dharma in Parenting

March 29, 2011 § 6 Comments

Since beginning my studies of Buddhism and really taking a look at how I view the world we live in, and how I approach the events that arise in it, I’ve been surprised at times at how what I’m learning about will crop up in my daily life.

I do try to meditate here and there, grab snippets of time for study (reading articles and blogs to learn myself up!) and sangha time. Mostly, though, my life is about being a mom, a wife, and a secondary school teacher.

Brushing my hair with a peanut-butter smeared hair brush and rushing in to work with dried up kids’ toothpaste smeared on my work pants is just daily reality for me; more so than thinking about dhamma and mindfulness, the eightfold path or the four noble truths. That’s hardly the image I see in my mind when I think “Buddhist.” You know, serene, calm, golden aura all around this unflappable person. A BUDDHIST. That Buddhist, is not me. It’s not most of us.

That being said, there are moments in this daily life in which the teachings will just scream out to me, and I’ll find something we talked about during sangha, or something that I read about popping into my head and out of my mouth.

My kids are still pretty young — 7 and almost 5 — so very impressionable and still in the shaping phase of their lives. I hope they pick up a couple of things here and there.

A few days ago, I had what in the teaching world we call a “teachable moment.” It’s that moment, completely unexpected, when you have a golden opportunity to impart some knowledge on someone, and THEY are the ones who are asking for it, and are fully ready to receive. I had such a moment when my son’s heart almost audibly broke when he realized he would NOT be getting an iPod touch any time soon. We had to tell him that an iPod costs about $229 for a brand new one, and that most kids his age don’t get their own. He is, currently, exposed to a couple of his friends who DO have their own — and also have their own TV in their room, their own computers, and who knows WHAT else.

We had to explain to him that on the salaries of two public school teachers, there just really wasn’t any way that we’d afford a $229 present for him … and that it would take him the better part of almost two years on his current allowance to save up for his own iPod.

I’m sure this is a familiar speech for most of us — either because we got the same speech from our parents, or because you’ve given the same speech to your own children, or both.

I found myself saying “If you keep looking at what others have that you don’t, you’ll always be unhappy. You’ll always feel like life isn’t fair. Look at where you are now, and what you DO have, and try to be happy in that. Be happy with where you are NOW, because you’ll only be unhappy if you keep your eyes on where you think you WANT TO BE.”

What’s this? Dukkha? Suffering? Coveting? Attachment and ambition causing suffering?

I think I would have used almost those exact words, honestly, regardless of my having studied the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path, or anything else about Buddhism. The difference, though, is that I now feel that I have a deeper understanding of the message in those words. Rather than repeating in an empty way, something that my parents told me, there is a more fully developed Intent (yes, with the capital “I” because, I mean the Buddhist Intent) behind the words I am using to communicate with my son. I can also back it up by example in how I lead my own life. It’s not just something I say, it’s also what I do. As a teacher, I call that ‘modeling,’ and it is considered the most effective way of communicating a behavioral concept.

I don’t know that he’ll get it, although not being biased AT ALL (haha) I think he will. I don’t necessarily want he or my daughter to be Buddhist — it may not be ‘for them.’ I do, however, want them both to learn to be TRULY happy.

If I’ve learned anything in my studies, it is that happiness comes from where we are NOW, appreciating our reality the way it IS. That’s not just a Buddhist concept anyway. Take the Latin expression ‘carpe diem’ — ‘seize the day.’ While the origin behind that expression is not necessarily the same as the Buddhist ideal of ‘living in the moment,’ it shows an awareness of the importance of the here and now. You hear that platitude “Yesterday is past, tomorrow is a dream, today is a gift, that’s why they call it ‘the present,'” (which makes me want to gag, as an aside), which also demonstrates that awareness of the need to appreciate the moment, the immediate surroundings and where we are NOW.

I’m going to have to thank my children some day for bringing me daily reminders of what is important in everyday life — and for highlighting the teachings for me, even while I’m rinsing out jam from a dress-up princess costume.

Anywhoo, there’s a sink full of dishes with my name all over it — someone please find me the dharma in THAT, ok?

Finding Yourself (Or Not) In Buddhism

February 25, 2011 § 7 Comments

The concept of "No Self" in Buddhism is central in understanding parts of the Four Noble Truths, but is a difficult concept to grasp.

So, you’ve undertaken this journey. This study, this way of thinking, a philosophy, which finally SPEAKS to you. You find thoughts in it you knew you’ve been thinking all along, and you find they’re not just YOUR thoughts, they were also the thoughts of one important person who lived thousands of years ago — his name was Siddharta Gautama. Happily, you read along and learn about the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and slowly but surely, this thing creeps into your consciousness … You realize, there’s no “you” in Buddhism.

You read along and you wonder, WHAT? How could I not be me? How could there be no “me”? “I”‘ve been here all along! Look, “I”‘m still here! See? See that? “Me”! Lookit, there “I” am again! Oops “I” did it again! Here “I” am see? “Me”!

But no, says Buddha, there is no you. The “you” that you think of as “you”, nope. Not there. Not, there, at, all.

And that’s about where I’m finding myself right now in my studies, and BOY is this a tough concept to wrap my head around. It’s an especially tough concept, I think, for most Western-thinkers because of how we structure our idea of ‘self.’Truly, we have a pretty set idea of who ‘we’ are — democrat, republican, Christian, atheist, liberal, conservative, Mom, Dad, Wife, Husband, Brother, Sister, and any combination of those things. We’re any of those things, and that’s it. We don’t really change it. Everything we think and do must fit into the parameters of those things that we’ve identified as part of who that “I” or “self” is.

What I see, though, from what we’ve been reading with the Skeptical Readers of SL book club that I run, is that part of letting go — part of the cessation of ‘dukkha’ or suffering, is understanding this very concept of what is often referred to as ‘no-self.’

Part of understanding the idea of the “I” that we refer to is in taking a look at the Five Aggregates, which I’ve got links to articles and explanations for on my Terminology page. Even with these articles, the idea of there not being a ‘self,’ is really tough to grasp. At one moment I feel like I get it, and the next moment, I clearly do not.

Taking into consideration previous discussions with my virtual Sangha-mates and group discussions, my readings, research, and desperate attempts to wrap my head around this, I’ve come up with this analogy (I need to work in analogies because concepts like this? Yeah, I need to put them into terms I can understand. Remember, I’m SO not academic, ugh.)

“No-Self” is like the color white because …

  • just like white is composed of all the colors of light in the spectrum combined, the picture composed of ‘myself’ comes from the Five Aggregates — how “I” react to various stimuli — sensory, mental, etc., makes up the ‘me’ that I know.
  • just like the color white, that ‘me’ is not unchanging. It is reflected differently at different times — just like the color white can be on cloth, stone, a flower or clouds, and it’s still ‘white,’ “I” take different forms as well.

So, it’s not really that there’s ‘no me,’ just like there’s no ‘no color’ in ‘white,’ it’s just that “I” am made up of the Five Aggregates, and how that ‘me’ is reflected out depends on, well, the ‘material’ on which they are being reflected by–just like all the colors of the spectrum that make the color (soon to be known by me as ‘no-color’) white. White doesn’t change, just what the white is on.

Uhhhhmmm, so am I even close? This is how far I’ve developed my understanding of this question. I’m hoping that I’ve gotten it, or am getting close to getting it, because understanding this idea of ‘self’ is central to fully understanding the concepts of ‘suffering’ (second part of the Four Noble Truths) and the ‘cessation of suffering (Third Noble Truth).

Understanding the self, and how it clings, and how the idea of self and how it should actually be formed are important parts of the idea of reaching nirvana, nibanna, or however else you say ‘enlightenment.’

Not that I ever really expect to actually REACH enlightenment, realistically speaking, but I would still like a shot at trying to gain a glimpse of it, anyway 😉

So, yeah, if any of you who do read this have something to add, a point to clarify, or a way of making me (and consequently others) see this more clearly, I very much welcome you to share! Thanks 😀