Reading Diary: Reviews from Inside My Practice
The Barn at the End of the World: The apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd by Mary Rose O'Reilley
A major factor in my deep love of reading and study, and a goal never far from my mind, has long been attempting to better understand myself, others and the world. Central for each person are the questions: Who am I? And how should I live? For me, at the end of my twenties, this led to graduate studies in philosophy of mind and throughout my life it has led to a passion for poetry, and many kinds of fiction and non-fiction, where being witness to the lives and ideas of others presents me with different lenses for viewing the world. Particularly, I have developed a real appreciation for spiritual memoir...the examination one person makes of his or her life, perhaps in a sweeping way, but more often in a moment by moment way, passing through some particular set of experiences.
I encountered The Barn at the End of the World while attending a Zen retreat in 2003. One of the “work” tasks I took on to support the Zendo was beginning the cataloguing of a small library. I read this book for the first time there. When I came home I purchased my own copy and I've read it many times since. I've also gifted others with copies. The book speaks to me deeply.
It is a book about ordinary things. The author, like many of us, has lived a life of the mind. And she feels compelled to return to a life of the body, to learn something about being more complete, perhaps. In no small way this book was the impetus for much of my journalling about my own spiritual journey and my choice to share my own experience through my blog and eventually my own book.
Her observations give the reader tools for looking at personal experience. This is not voyeurism but immersion.
As a homemaker, as a kennel operator, as a yin teacher, for instance, I understand from the inside, this observation:
“...I cannot think about anything. This is a natural consequence of doing the kind of repetitive work called 'mindless' by those who disdain it. Yet my mind is not so much absent as still. It is not at its usual station in my head, but diffused throughout my body.”(p.5)
As a meditator, I find confirmation in this:
“...to meditate well is not to enter an altered state of blissful repose: rather, it is simple observation of what is. That's why, in the long run, paradoxically, it's relaxing. It teaches us to sit quietly with fear or depression or elation or whatever inhabits from moment to moment the freakspace.”(p.299)
She invites reflection with this observation:
“Anger seems naturally strong; meditation practice grows at the rate of stalagmites. Is this fair?
I suppose one might say that it's easy to make a lot of noise banging with a drumstick on a coffee can, hard to play the violin. Most people in modern times prefer the cultural equivalent of banging on coffee cans. The only reason, nowadays, that I play the violin, badly as I play it, is that it changes me. I get Bach into my blood and bone, even if I never play well enough to make another human being happy. So I should meditate to change me, not the barn.” (p.193)
I cannot recommend this book too highly. I looked for it on inter-library loan to no avail, but it is readily available on Amazon, despite being published in the year 2000. I have since read other works by O'Reilley, who writes beautifully about teaching, her “other career”, as well as other subjects. Enjoyed and found value in them all though this is my personal favorite.
Walking the World by Ajahn Sundara
Ajahn is a Thai word, a title meaning “teacher”, used in the Theravada tradition for senior monastics who devote much of their time to teaching Dhamma. Ajahn Sundara, the author of this book, is a British nun who follows the longtime tradition of monks giving talks without notes or preparation. This book is a selection of transcribed talks Ajahn Sundara gave on retreats over a period of eight years in Britain and the U.S. Despite being presented on the printed page, there is a wonderful in-the-moment feel to these teachings so that they read as if you were in the room with her, listening to the wisdom of a kind and understanding friend.
Ajahn Sundara was a dancer before entering monastic life. Although she had developed body awareness as a dancer, she came, through practice, to the realization that she was actually making the very world she moved and walked in. This is the place she comes from in her teachings here: We walk the world we make in our minds.
Ajahn Sundara is honest and practical in her instructions and encouragement. “We seldom read in books about what practice really involves,” she says (p.77) “We don't often read books about moments of difficulty: about having to begin again, feeling stupid for days, feeling inadequate and obsessed with worries and anxieties even after practicing for years.” Her recognition of the obstacles on this daily journey, and her patient encouragement, are gifts for those of us dedicated to the practice but often experiencing the human emotion of being discouraged with ourselves.
As is customary with Dhamma teachings written by monastics, this book is available free. You will find it in e-format free at:
Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chodron
Pema Chodron is a renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher, an American who makes her home here in Canada as resident teacher of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton. Her on line-classes, audio teachings and books are many and well known. Although I practice in a different Buddhist tradition, I've been drawn to Pema Chodron's teachings since the first time I read a few passages of a borrowed book. Since then, I check in on what she's doing often.
Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change was published in 2013 although I've only gotten around to reading it of late. Obviously, given my current life situation, the title is a big draw. I began reading in pieces as caretaker for my husband during his final illness and completed it as I began the difficult process of learning to live without him.
You don't need to be facing a life situation of this magnitude to gain a great deal from her wisdom. She knows first hand both about uncertainty and difficult human emotions. She also has and shares wisdom that is relevant to working with these and moving toward a life that is “sane”.
The book is broken into discussions of three training commitments: The commitment to do no harm; the commitment to take care of one another; and the commitment to embrace the world just as it is. Chodron presents this as a graduated path, but also one where leaps forward and falls backward, and even reverting to the beginning are all fine. The rules are only to keep working on this, knowing the results will be imperfect.
She has a personal approach, including anecdotes and examples from her own life and practice. Her style is conversational, friendly and alluring.
A little book of only 140 pages, it is the kind of thing you might read and reread, finding new gems each time. I know I will.
The Religion of Tomorrow by Ken Wilber
While much of humanity cringes in fear of our future in the shadow of environmental and economic crises, as well as painful division and confrontations seemingly everywhere on the planet, Ken Wilber offers another possible future, also unfolding even now. He sets out careful descriptions and integration of the structures of consciousness, well studied and known in the West, and states of consciousness, central to Eastern world view. The analysis is brilliant as well as both eye-opening and heart opening. His quadrant scheme, along with detailed descriptions of developmental levels and lines, applies not just to individuals but to entire societies. It is a method for understanding the multiple realities we inhabit and also a tool for opening communication and growth. The theory gets complicated and at times this book is daunting. But Wilber waxes lyrical in describing the results of the enactment of such a vision: a “historical revolution” that will “remake the world”. More importantly, he insists that it is already unfolding now, an aspect of “evolution's unstoppable meanderings”, right alongside the bleaker “flatline reality” that fills the news. His arguments, research and proposals are astonishing and uplifting.
It took me about three months to read this 600+ page tome, bit by bit, making notes and vowing to reread sections and explore more deeply. If you too feel there is hope for our planet and that our species has not peaked, but is still “growing up” and “waking up” to glittering possibilities in the darkness we are presented with everyday, you might want to explore.
The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
Tao is the Chinese word for “Way”. In The Tao of Pooh, Hoff engages in conversations with the Bear of Little Brain and retells bits of stories from the well-known tales of Christopher Robin and his Forest friends. Along the way he explains Taoism and lets Pooh demonstrate “how to stay happy and calm under all circumstances”, for “A Brain can do all kinds of things, but things that it can do are not the most important things.” It's a light, instructive and fun read that leaves one pondering, and maybe a little lighter and with access to more fun in one's own approach to life.
At the fork in the road that eventually brought me to the Buddhist path, I did a great deal of reading in both Buddhism and Taoism. Although all they seem to have in common on the page is the “ism”, it didn't seem that way to me. Both of these Ways of being in the world require a letting go that at that time was new to my Western experience. I am grateful, lost soul that I felt myself to be then, for the breadcrumbs the Buddha's path set out for me. Seems I needed a map. Nevertheless I continue to find the simplicity of Taoism inspiring. With some practice in letting go established, the wisdom of the meandering Way is itself more clear to me. Pooh Bear meanders.
The book is often found in tandem with The Te of Piglet (Te meaning virtue stepping out). They are both books I'd highly recommend.