Adam Caira / Staff Photo l-r Konrad Ryushin Marchaj, Sensei, The Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastary in Mount Trapper New York, Shastri Bill Brauer, and the Venerable Amy Miller speak at a Buddhist Teaching Panel at the Unitarian Church in Montpelier Vermont on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, discussing the theme: Unconditional Happiness- Buddhist Perspective on Happiness in a Challenging World.
MONTPELIER — It’s a given that everybody wants to be happy, but at the end of a long Vermont February, it’s sometimes hard to find the silver lining in the endless clouds. That said, several hundred central Vermonters packed the vestry of Montpelier’s Unitarian Universalist Church Thursday hoping to find the answer to the ongoing search for satisfaction in our challenging and chaotic world from some of the region’s most respected Buddhist teachers.
In a move that might have been considered a bait-and-switch for those hoping for a laundry list of tricks to making life more joyful, panel moderator, former Vermont Life editor and Zen practitioner Tom Slayton started out the evening by recognizing the elephant in the room. “The Buddha’s first teaching was that life is suffering; how does happiness fit into that?”
The good news, according to the four individuals seated around the floor, is: There is a path to . The complicating factor is that it starts with a recognition and exploration of our own suffering. In other words you can’t have the silver lining without that big gray cloud. And we need to get really familiar with that cloud.
“I think there is a basic happiness we aren’t giving attention to,” said Rev. Taihaku Priest, resident teacher at East Calais’ Shao Shan Zen center. “Our suffering is obstructing that.”
Instead of turning away from the things that make us unhappy, whether it is the state of our woodpile, or a life-altering illness, if we can let go of our desire to have the world turn according to our plans we can access a genuine happiness, or contentment, not based on circumstances. How we get there is by intensively exploring the nature of our own mind and we do that by developing a meditation practice.
“Spiritual practice is about being comfortable with the uncomfortable,” said the Venerable Amy Miller, an ordained Tibetan Buddhist nun, and head of the Milarepa Center in Barnet. “Not trying to escape from our reality ... not trying to put a bandaid on a hemorrhage. We need to understand that happiness is not the absence of suffering. What we are seeking is known as calm abiding.”
“We need to cultivate being in the now,” said Shastri Bill Brauer, a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. “Having been born human in our profound nature we are fundamentally good. We can be playful and engaging, and we have the capacity to fully belong to a community of people who will take care of each other.”
That such a conversation can pack a church vestry to the rafters on a Thursday night in the smallest state capital in the country can be directly linked to the, now deceased, charismatic and controversial Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chogyam Trungpa who planted the seed for an American Buddhist movement in the wilds of the Northeast Kingdom town of Barnet.
Today, more than 40 years after he founded Tail of the Tiger, now Karme Choling, Buddhism has entered the nation’s mainstream and Vermont has become a national center for Buddhist practice and study with retreat centers, and meditation groups drawing teachers and students from around the world.
This growth in Buddhist study in the west is vastly transforming the 2500 year old religion, as the practice and study of meditation was widely limited to monastic situations in the East. Here it is understood that a key to understanding Buddhism is the willingness to engage in meditation practice. And it is in meditation practice that the various flavors of the different Buddhist lineages can emerge.
Speaking from a Zen Buddhist perspective Konrad Ryushin Marchaj, abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery in Rochester, N.Y., talked about simply relying on awareness of our own breath as a basic practice. Sit up straight and relaxed, breathe, and let go of the thoughts that arise in between breaths. As we deepen our practice our understanding of the nature of our world shifts. When we look, said Marchaj, those thoughts become more transparent and less solid.
Miller, who studies and practices in the lineage held by the Dalai Lama, spoke about the need to intensely examine our thoughts during another variety of meditation. But whether you’re watching your out-breath, or examining the depth of your neuroses, meditation is the key.
This spring, Vermonters will have an opportunity to study meditation with one of the country’s best loved Buddhist teachers, the American Buddhist nun Ani Pema Chodron. Chodron, who will teach at Pema Osel Ngo Dak Choling, is a student of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, one of the most popular in the second wave of Tibetan Buddhist teachers in the west. The program, a benefit for the construction of a Buddhist temple in Crestone, Colo., will likely sell out within hours after the tickets go on sale March 10 at 7 a.m.
“Pema really draws people to her,” said Joey Waxman, a teacher at the small and elegant center that sits on sidehill amidst gardens. “She really sees the basic goodness in people. She is a very reassuring presence. The last time she taught you had to be sitting by the phone when the tickets went on sale, and I have no reason to think it won’t be the same this time.”
For those curious about learning to meditate and are unable to attend Pema Chodron’s program, there are myriad opportunities to receive basic meditation instruction in and around Central Vermont, and all of the teachers concurred that anyone interested should do some individual exploration to find the best fit for them. It is important, said Miller, that we remember that there is a reason that it is called meditation practice. Like learning to play an instrument, “practice makers perfect.”
“There’s just something in the air right now,” said Brauer who was a long-time student of Trungpa speaking about the rise in interest in Buddhism and meditation. “Every where I give a public talk I’m seeing more students. Other teachers are all saying the same thing.”
As for enlightenment, none of those speaking claimed any realization for themselves. When asked by an audience member whether or not meditation practice got deeper with more and more levels as one studied, Marchaj, looked straight at the audience and concluded, “never more than right now.”
For more information
Karme Choling Shambhala Meditation Center, Barnet
Shao Shan Temple, East Calais
Pema Osel Ngo Dak Choling
Zen Mountain Monastery
Mount Tremper, N.Y.
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