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 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.

108 Blessings

2013.01.01 bell03New Year’s Eve in Japan is not an occasion for partying (that happens with gusto during the cherry blossom season!) but instead is a time for reflection upon the passing year and for honouring the arrival of the coming new year. It is not sombre, though, because it is a time for communities to get together and share in bringing in the New Year. Temples around the country ring their great bells 108 times at midnight and throngs of people gather in the freezing cold for a chance to thrust the huge log ringer against the massive bronze bell, which is said to bring good luck for the coming year.

This tradition was observed even in the small rural village where I lived. I remember vividly the first New Year’s Eve I celebrated there in 1995 because it was snowing as I walked up the mountain pathway with my young children, who were so excited about having stayed up so late, joining the other villagers and their children as we made our way up to the temple. Although now fallen into a state of aged disrepair, needing far more money than this small village could ever hope to raise to bring it back to its former glory, the temple was once a large training centre, focussed on mountain asceticism. Now there was a single priest, who had inherited his position from his father and his father before him, and who was more often to be found in the local bar than in the temple! The belfry, however, was still quite grand. It was a separate standing bell tower of wood, which held a magnificent ancient bronze bell that was rung only on New Year’s Eve or in the event of fire, using a massive log which was held by ropes and swung onto the side of the bell, creating a wonderful deep sonorous gong.

2013.01.01 bell01We huddled around a huge brazier kept stoked with firewood from the mountain forest, everyone chatting and laughing as we waited for midnight. Although a time of reflection, it is also an important community event and gathered together in the dark, in the snow, in the middle of the night, everyone was excited and in a heightened good humour. There was a great kettle over a stove that held amazake, a thick sweet beverage made with the lees leftover from making sake, with freshly grated ginger and sweetened with sugar. A perfectly delicious hot drink to have while standing in the snow at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

The bell was rung 108 times, each gong made by one of the villagers. The priest insisted that my family go first because it was our first year in the village. At the base of the rickety steps the priest told us to clear our minds and hold in our hearts a feeling of gratitude for all the good things that had come our way in the past year, and that this feeling would make the bell sing. Actually, I was a little afraid that I might fall off the platform with the force needed to release the rope, but instead took a deep breath of cold snowy cleansing air and thought of all the blessings that I had received that year. I drew back the rope – let it swing in once, then back again to build up momentum, then… GONG! The deep sonorous sound vibrated throughout my body and I felt cleansed.

As I descended the steps on the other side of the tower, I was met by one of the village elders who carefully counted out and placed three peanuts in their shells into my hands. Thinking there was ritual significance to this act, I reverentially asked what the peanuts symbolised. The old man looked puzzled for a moment before saying, “It’s a snack!” I just burst out laughing because it was another good reminder to me that in Japan the sacred and mundane are not separate, yet everything you eat, thing and do can become a special moment of awareness and connection.

These days, back in Australia, with the kids all grown up and off doing their own New Year’s Eve things, my husband and I have a new tradition. We go down to a small lookout in Yalgorup National Park, from which you can see west out over the ocean, east out over a large estuary and hills, and north and south over the forest and bushland of the national park. It is a magnificent view. At sunset, watching the sun sinking into the Indian Ocean and the forest turning deep pink in the sunset, we use a prayer mala of 108 beads to name 108 things for which we are grateful. After listing these blessings I always feel filled with an enormous sense of gratitude for simply being alive in that moment, surrounded by the glorious beauty of nature, and my New Year wish is that I continue to be able to bring into my life that feeling of simple gratitude that I am able to appreciate this fact of being alive and feel the connection to the natural world of which I am a living part. Why not try it for yourself?

2013.01.01 Yalgorup

Happy New Year of the Snake to you all, and may your year be full of blessings and peace.