My Blind Good Samaritan

Winter sky

Winter sky

I was visiting my son in Geelong for a week and I went into Melbourne on my last day, in order to do a bit of research on Japanese-Australian history at the Victorian Archives, before flying out that afternoon. I had planned my trip out to the airport – down to the last minute and down to the last dollar, leaving just enough time and just enough money to get back home again. I had to walk from the Archives to the nearest train station, which would take me one short stop into the city, from where I would take the airport bus. However, when I got to the station, which was unmanned, there was nowhere to buy a ticket and when I used the station phone to talk to a rail employee, I was told that there was a new system in place which meant I had to buy a travel card for $6 and then add the minimum of $5 to it in order to travel. But I was on my way out to the airport and I didn’t have time to walk the distance to the airport bus and I didn’t have enough money to pay $11 to travel one stop!

It seems this station is nearby to a training facility for the sight-impaired and a blind man who was walking onto the station platform heard me talking to the station employee and offered to help me out. “Look,” he said, “I know it’s illegal, but it seems pretty crazy to have to pay so much just to go one stop, so if you sit with me on the train and an inspector comes along, I’ll tell him that you’re my carer.” Well, I didn’t want to miss my flight, and time and money were running out, so I thanked him and we sat down together and chatted while waiting and travelling on the train.

My Good Samaritan told me that had been a builder and lost his eyesight about twelve years ago when he found out his son had been sexually abused by a priest: he became so angry that he actually burst the veins in his eyes and went blind! Since that time he has become very active in support groups and lobbying to help to ensure that this doesn’t happen to other fathers. He said that he found great comfort in his activism and it helped to channel his anger and frustration, so much so that these days he’s actually much calmer and relaxed than he was before he went blind. He makes incredibly intricate ornamental wooden boxes, one of which was in his bag, just finished, that he showed me. It was  beautifully and very delicately engraved using modern technological instruments that actually talk to the user. He told me that his grandkids all lived nearby to his home and visited frequently and he felt his life was rich and rewarding in ways he never imagined possible. “Don’t get me wrong,” he smiled, “I’d still rather see, but I appreciate my life now in a way that I never thought possible and so to some extent I’m actually grateful for my blindness – there were so many things about myself that I just didn’t see before, but now I do!”

When we got to the central station, I walked – guiltily – through the turnstile with him, but actually no one even asked who I was or stopped me! My Good Samaritan then proceeded to lead me through the station and take me to the airport bus station. He quickly and efficiently navigated his way by using his stick along the raised guidelines on the ground, and I followed along one step behind like a little kid. When he deposited me at the bus station I asked him if his home was nearby. “Oh no,” he laughed, “I live another 80 kms on the other side of the city. I just thought I’d better first get you to your bus safe and sound so you wouldn’t miss your flight!” He then said goodbye and walked back towards the train station.

Geraldton wax - harbingers of Spring

Geraldton wax – harbingers of Spring

I was so grateful for his generosity, and it reminded me too that help can come from the most unexpected sources. In one of the Buddhist sutras that I study, the Kuan Yin Sutra, it says that the deity Kuan Yin will appear to whoever needs help in whatever form is needed at that moment. It then recites 33 forms that are examples of her manifestations, including the ones we might expect such as gods and goddesses, monks and nuns, but also in forms that we might not expect such as children and animals, but much more surprisingly is that Kuan Yin may even appear in the form of criminals and demons and monsters! In other words, if our eyes are open – that is, if our inner eyes and hearts are open – and we are not blinded by our own judgemental attitudes, then we will find whatever help we need on our path through life. It is our own prejudices that blind us to the goddess standing before us ready to help us on our way. See?

The Way of Toast

Tea pots in my kitchen

Tea pots in my kitchen

I was in the kitchen making breakfast the other day when my husband, Russell, glanced over at me and with a wry smile commented that the complicated ritual I have for making my toast should be called “The Way of Toast”, like how the tea ceremony is the Way of Tea, or calligraphy is the Way of the Brush, or any other kind of ritual art. We had a bit of a laugh about that because it is true that over the years I have created a certain ritualistic way of preparing my toast “just so”. But later I thought about what is meant by “The Way of …” and it seems to me that just about anything that you engage in in your daily life could be made into a ritual art that expresses your spiritual practice.

Although we might see tea ceremony as a beautiful but complicated ritual art shrouded in mystery and largely unintelligible to the non-initiated, it is basically simply about making a cup of tea and sharing it. Shunryu Suzuki, a much-loved and respected Japanese Zen Buddhist monk who is largely responsible for bringing Zen in the United States, would make tea ceremony using a polystyrene foam cup and instant coffee to show that you didn’t need fancy implements or some special occasion to share the essence of tea ceremony with another person. The purpose of the ritual is in fact to practice a way of emptying your mind to such a degree that all that remains is that single, precious, present moment of connection, of communion with another person – or even if you are alone, communion with the cosmos. The ritual helps you to be fully present and engaged without the background chatter of mind interfering. The longer the process, the more you have to really concentrate and the longer time it takes to master. This long-time investment of your energy and practice is a reflection of your own commitment to perfecting a ritual art and, despite our insta-everything world, reveals slowly the peeling away of the layers of mind chatter as you continue to practice. My dear friend in Japan, a tea ceremony master who had learned the art from her parents since childhood, once told me that she looked forward to her 60s because then she thought she might have reached a stage of being able to perform the tea ceremony with a “true heart”.

Cumquats ready to pick

Cumquats ready to pick

But you don’t have to aspire to become a master at a particular ritual art – what about becoming a master of the art of your own life by just fully engaging in the small rituals of everyday life? A spiritual practice can be developed by making your whole life into a ritual art: a work of art that is ever-evolving. This ritual practice can be fully realised even when you engage in the most seemingly trivial of acts such the act of peeling a humble potato and experiencing a moment of joyful awe at how it is that you and this here spud have arrived at this very moment in time together, a moment of being fully present. Now that might sound a bit OTT but in fact it is possible to live a life deeply imbued with a sense of wonder and joy whilst engaging with any moment of your life. It begins with bringing into your consciousness the awareness of every little action of your body when it moves through the routines of everyday life – cleaning your teeth, drinking a glass of water, putting on your clothes, making a cup of tea or preparing toast! When your mind is fully occupied with being aware of what your body is doing, that is a great spiritual practice because by emptying your mind of its usual white-noise chatter, you are creating an open space – this space is the place where spiritual transformation is possible, a space within which the pure joy of being is able to flow freely.

So next time you make a cup of tea, take a moment to feel the way your body moves step by step through the actions of creating a cuppa – feel your footsteps, hear the sound of the water boiling, feel the heat of the cup in your hand, feel the weight of the cup, feel the steam rising into your face as you raise the cup, feel texture of the cup as it meets your lips… and really feel the tastes and textures in your mouth as you drink, feel your breath coming in and out in rhythm with your drinking. It might sound a bit crazy, but the moment of enlightenment might be right there in your next sip! Enjoy!

The heart of the matter

Jonquils - Spring is here already!

Jonquils – Spring is here already!

I’ve been thinking about starting another blog specifically for exploring the Heart of Wisdom Sutra, the shortest of the hundreds (thousands?) of Buddhist sacred texts, that encapsulates the profoundest teachings of Buddhism. It has been the foundational text of all my spiritual learning and continues to provide me with deep insights every day. As many of you may know, the Heart Sutra is a focal point of my teaching as a Buddhist priest as well, and although I don’t refer to it specifically, it underlies everything I talk about here in this blog as well as everything that I have so far learned about the nature of reality and the meaning of Truth: the Heart Sutra is the gateway to enlightenment and paves my spiritual path to understanding ‘Being’. But I might have to wait until my final semester of study is complete before leaping into another new project! In the meanwhile, please enjoy this beautiful video with the chanting of the Heart Sutra…

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the meaning of the word “heart”. In Japanese, the name of the Heart Sutra is 般若心経 (Hannya Shingyo), and the third Japanese character 心 means ‘heart’. In English, we tend to distinguish between ‘heart’ and ‘mind’, whereby the heart is the location of emotions and feelings and, of course, a symbol of love; and the mind is the location of consciousness and thoughts and knowledge. But in Japanese, the word 心 means both heart and mind – there is no separation. This becomes quite a problem when translating into English because I must stop and ask, well which one is it – heart or mind? But lately I’ve started to question this apparent separation between heart and mind, feelings and thoughts, as realise that it’s not that clear cut after all.

The full name of the Heart Sutra is the Heart of the Practice of the Perfection of Wisdom; that is, heart as ‘essence’, as the intrinsic nature or deepest underlying quality of something. And this is what we mean when we say we are getting to “the heart of the matter”: getting down to the essential and profound aspect of something. It also means to realise in a clear thinking way some deep underlying truth about something. When we get to “the heart of the matter” we gain some insight into the “truth of the matter”. Beyond just knowledge, getting the heart of the matter brings forth an awareness of wisdom from the core of our being; it is through our hearts that we can gain wisdom, which we recognise with our minds as containing some deep truth. In that moment of insight – at the heart of the matter – we are using our minds to understand this; that is, there is no separation between heart and mind at that point.

Mushroom in my garden - that is its true colour!

Mushroom in my garden – that is its true colour!

And when we offer our “heartfelt” thanks, what do we mean? Something “heartfelt” means coming from the very core of our true being, it means something that is fundamentally authentic and true and pure: the wellspring of our being. So “heart” also equates with the essence of who we are – natural and unadorned and truthful. But when we offer our gratitude, in that “heartfelt” moment it is through our minds that recognise this gratitude and we think of words to express our thanks. Again, there is no clear separation between our heart and mind in that moment of offering heartfelt thanks.

So after thinking (with my mind) about the meaning of “heart” I realise that heart is the location of wisdom, of authentic being, of love, but that this realisation can only be made manifest through mind that enables us to experience and appreciate and share. We may say “heart” and “mind” but really they are just the two faces of our pure being. So, I just want to say…

I heart you!

Hello again…

Dappled sunlight on the scroll in my kitchen today

Dappled sunlight on the scroll in my kitchen today

My retreat from cyberspace wasn’t quite as I expected. In fact, not long after I decided to take a break from all things internet, I started another blog as part of my university studies! This is my last year in completing my BA in Japanese and I am starting to look for a specialised area in which I can develop my professional translation skills, so if you’re interested in Japanese cuisine, you can see what I’ve been translating at my Kyoto Kitchen blog, which I’ll be continuing as part of my studies at least until the end of this year. In fact, I’m still on the computer every day because I have been undertaking some units as an external student, so my cyber retreat seemed somewhat hypocritical and a bit of failure.

But in this “failure”, I have learned something about myself that perhaps might resonate with you too. I realise that in my desire to withdraw from the cyberworld I actually wanted to be living in a different world – one that doesn’t exist any more. I have felt quite nostalgic for the pre-computer world that I grew up in, where we might have shared a ‘real’ cuppa together, where neighbours dropped by unannounced, where the pace of life was slower, where bread seemed to taste and smell more ‘breadlike’, and so on. But that world only exists in my own imagination. And by harking back to another time that sometimes feels more real than the present time, a world that I have made up with my memories, I create a kind of sadness that this world, this reality, is not more like the one I have created with my memory and imagination.

It dawned on me then that this is the essential teaching contained in the Buddha’s words:

“All that we are arises with our thoughts;
With our thoughts we create the world”

Wattle in my garden today

Wattle in my garden today

Whilst of course its fine to take a break away from the computer screen, there was more to it for me than just to rest my eyes for a while. Because, as I said, in my uni studies I was at the computer every day, so it clearly wasn’t just about taking a break. The root of my retreat was this nagging feeling that somehow this “cuppa” wasn’t as real as sitting across the table chatting with you face-to-face, and that led me to feel a kind of sadness. But my nostalgic melancholy stems from the creation in my own mind that there was some other kind of reality than what presents itself to me right now, right in the moment of typing on the keypad and chatting with you. This connection is far more real of course than anything in my imagination because it is a real event, happening right now, and so this is the only reality that can possibly exist. My whole being is connecting with you right in this very moment and that is a cause for happiness and celebration. So whilst I know that I will slip into my nostalgic ruminations, my spiritual path is to continue to practice immersing my whole self in experiencing this very moment. And right at this very moment, I am sharing a cuppa with you. Thank you for being here.