Saturday, March 25, 2006

Samsara mom

There I go again...those disappearing acts are becoming more common than not! Last week I started reading Cave in the Snow by Vicki Mackenzie. It was so engrossing that I managed to read it over the course of a weekend. This is Tenzin Palmo's spiritual autobiography, but it is as much about Vicki Mackenzie as it is about Tenzin Palmo.

Who is Tenzin Palmo you ask? She was born Diane Perry in Britain in the early 40's and developed a voracious interest in Tibetan Buddhism. By the time she was 25 she took full Bikkshuni ordination, and lived with a Tibetan community in Lahoul, India (near the Tibet/India boarder). Throughout her experience she was prevented from learning the more advanced Tantric practices by virture of her gender. (Many nuns at the time were relegated to kitchen duty and were not offered transmission of the tantric chants, practices and rituals). With the feminist movement barely off the ground in the west, let alone in Lahoul, she avows to achieve enlightenment as a female (and vows to return in female form until she does). This was but one of her bold and courageous acts. Frustrated by her inability to seriously embark on retreat in the Lahouli village (the noise and sociabilty factors being the primary stumbling blocks) she went in search of a mountain cave, where she could practice undisrupted. Upon the advice of a senior nun, she locates a ledge 13,200 feet in the Himalayas, with an outcropping of rock that formed a sort of roof. This was not the idyllic cave, which might offer shelter from the elements, but this seemed to be "the spot" Tenzin Palmo wished to inhabit to seek enlightenment. Three walls, with a window and a door were constructed of wattle and daub. Inside a small cookstove with a pressure cooker (her only luxury item to cook her daily meal of lentils and rice), a small table, bookcase to house the sutras she both read, and transcribed for the monastery, and a 4x4 meditation box furnished her humble dwelling. Outside she cultivated a small garden where she grew flowers, turnips and potatoes. A "dharma brother" brought her supplies every six months. And there she remained for 12 years. Three of those were in complete isolation, with a rigorous 12 hour meditation schedule. Each session would last for three hours, separated by mealtimes and work periods.
And I will leave my storytelling there - since Vicki Mackenzie does a lovely job telling it herself.

Toward the end of the book, there is a chapter called "Is a Cave Necessary?" I have been on meditation retreat, and I can attest to the enchantment that happens when you allow yourself to sit and be with your crazy thoughts for days on end. I remember during one of my retreats, I would collapse in bed at the end of the day, around 9pm, and fall in a long deep sleep. I found it curious how utterly exhausted one gets sitting in the mediation hall all day long! I have a daily sitting practice - 30 minutes a day, and I am seriously considering trying for 45. However, as my time at school quickly draws to and end, and Aidan's need to be in daycare, I can sense a looming end to time I can spend doing nothing.

Traditional Buddhist practice does not mix well with motherhood. One cannot simply unplug, retreat and sit when there are wandering toddlers. I have had a number of convesations with Meditation Instructors who have urged me to cultivate a twice daily sitting practice. It may be purely coincidental that these MI's happen to be male, and a number have never been fathers. Its sage advice. Its thoughtful and kind advice. I question nothing about the intentions of this suggestion. If I were to cultivate a twice daily sitting practice, I would need to rise at around 5 or 5:30, and retire no earlier than 11pm. This would entail on my part, tremedous discipline. And it would be worth cultivating. There is always a whiff of unfairness to this. I don't want to live with the impression that my kids are an obstacle to my practice, but I have. I have to admit some jealousy towards those who have no children and can schedule practice after dawn and prior to dusk. It's hard to think about, because I always come up with the conclusion that I must be creating excuses for myself and I must be lazy.

And in this Chapter, "Is a Cave Necessary", Mackenzie ruminates on just this dilemma! An interview with Yvonne Rand, an eminent Zen teacher, echoes my own diificulties:

"As a woman, I was expected to take on a lot of responsibility, but I felt like a second class citizen. There wasn't alot of understanding about the issues for a single mother and I was always being dismissed for not being serious about practice. For example, there was alot of pressure to get up early in the morning and sit in the meditation hall, but for me to do that would have meant leaving young children alone in an apartment".

She talks about a home-centred practice. "Liberation becomes possible when I begin to experience the possibility of being in the moment." And that means I can be mindful and change poopy diapers at the same time. Sounds ridiculous on the surface but I think there is great wisdom in this.

And thats why they call me samsara mom...


Zenmom, aspiring said...

Samsara Mom,

Yes, I read that book too and ruefully remembered the time, pre-child (I have only one) when I could sleep for 8 hours AND meditate twice a day in perfect silence. My daughter is almost 13 now and it's getting easier again. Last summer I left her sleeping in the dorm on retreat and felt comfortable joining the 6 am felt like a milestone, a real freedom. So what's that...about a decade away for you? (sorry, that was mean!)Still all the others won't be able to have the experience we have had of life with the tiny zenmasters. There can't be a better way to have your ego challenged, your heart stretched, your courage and compassion tested. So for now, we change diapers and drive the carpool and get out of bed when we are tired because someone is crying or wheezy...who says that this is not traing in loving-kindness of the highest order? Only those who haven't been here. I think we are the lucky ones!

hotboy said...

I've read the book as well! Interesting comments about your Shambala man in it, if I remember right! Before I could sit in a half lotus, I got interesting things around 40 minutes. Once I started sitting in a half lotus, I couldn't sit for forty minutes for years. My practice took off when I started doing three sessions a day. For me it was half hour sessions and the light came bright on the third, never on the first two, which were just hard work if I remember right. My best time for meditating was when the kid was in bed (male, primary carer here!)and before I got wasted, which I did every night. I think I was lucky to be into mantra from the word go. You can repeat a mantra anywhere anytime. Personally, I've always found working a complete waste of time. Can't you just spend Eric's money? If you're happier, surely he'll be happier. Three kids? My heart goes out to you. Do whatever it takes to get down to ra bliss!! Hotboy

robmcj said...

I've never been a parent, so I'd take my hat off to you.

What keeps you up till 11? The kids? That's tough. The dog gets me up at 530, but I can go to bed whenever I want. I'm lucky, but when I'm old there'll be no offspring to visit me in the old folks' home, or whatever the new term is for that. Everything balances out.

TrudyJ said...

Sounds like an interesting read ... I've been planning on doing an article on about women's spiritual autobiographies, but I want to expand beyond the Christian ones that are my obvious first choice to reflect more different spiritual paths. Second on the list to Christian memoirs seems to be Buddhist ones -- but always of Westerners who converted to Buddhism. "Not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-that" ... but I'm just wondering if you might know of any spiritual memoir-type-books written by women who actually grew up Buddhist, in a predominantly Buddhist society. I guess I'm interested in reflecting on both kinds of journeys ... the one where you discover a new religion, and the one where you discover new things about the religion you were born into. I thought you might be a good person to ask for suggestions.