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Living This Life Fully

Talking About Munindra

Munindra (Bodh Gaya, 1974). Photo: Roy Bonney.

This past Monday I had the pleasant experience of engaging in a conversation about Munindra with Paul Swanson for his podcast "Contemplify." I appreciate every opportunity to share what I can about Munindra's life and teachings. This occasion was especially welcome since Paul is the kind of interviewer authors are so fond of--easy to speak with because they're both interested and prepared. I've been quite fortunate over many years to meet with people who take their work as interviewer or reviewer seriously. But I also can recall a couple of interviews about an earlier book. Not only did I provide the answers, I also had to come up with the questions because the person had not bothered to read what I'd written.

It was clear from the beginning that Paul was moved by Munindra and what he still offers--even though he's no longer with us--to anyone of whatever religious background. It never mattered to Munindra what spiritual path people followed. They didn't have to be a practitioner of Dharma, for he taught anyone who was willing to listen. In a similar way, Paul, who is an educator at the Center for Action and Contemplation, supporting the ecumenical ministry of Richard Rohr, OFM, readily "got" Munindra's essential wisdom.

Part of what made Munindra's teaching so universal was his nonsectarianism. He never said that Buddhism had a monopoly on such qualities as loving kindness, compassion, patience, and so on. He made the ordinary extraordinary. A simple gesture of generosity took on a deeper meaning with a greater impact than one might imagine. By embodying those qualities, he taught others how they, too, could embody them in their daily life.

Every time I have a chance to talk with someone about Munindra or reread sections of Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra, I am reminded yet again of what I can do, what any of us can do, to transform how we live and how we interact with others. Yes, on a technological level, things have changed dramatically from the world that Munindra grew up and lived in. However, the simple truths he espoused have not changed. They're as relevant today as they were when the Buddha first shared them 2,600 years ago.

Click to listen to the interview with Paul.  Read More 

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From around the world

Entrance to Munindra's room at Gandhi ashram in Bodh Gaya
I've been absent from this blog for a long while. For those of you who have been interested in reading more about Munindra, I do apologize.

During this hiatus, since Living This Life Fully was published, other people who spent time with Munindra have come forward. As I mentioned in another post, I didn't know of them while working on the book or I would have interviewed them. I hope, at some point, to present their stories as well. It's a great pleasure for me to hear from them. I'm grateful that they take the time to contact me via email or at public talks. I find it immensely satisfying to hear about the impact Munindra had on them and how poignant, yet delightful, it is for them to reconnect with him and an earlier, meaningful time in their lives through the many stories in the book.

One of the things that stands out from the communications I've had is that, because of his humility and simple way of living, the depth of his dhamma experience was not always evident to everyone. I can include myself in that group. My own youthful ignorance and personal issues blinded me to how much more he had to offer to those willing to partake of his wisdom. I have learned a great deal from the stories others generously shared with me. I have grown to appreciate Munindra even more because those stories opened my eyes to what I couldn't see decades ago, when I first met him. In this way, what he taught gets passed on, even though he's no longer here to teach us in person.

So, if you have remembrances of Munindra, please let me know. They have the power to keep Munindra's gift of Dhamma alive. Read More 
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Intention is everything

Although I interviewed nearly 200 people around the world for Living This Life Fully, much to my delight, more individuals who knew Munindra keep popping up. I have the pleasure of learning new stories that reinforce what I have written about his qualities. It’s curious that I did not hear of these students when I was working on the book, but maybe that’s to my advantage. Otherwise, I would have had to interview hundreds, even thousands, more! How would I ever have completed the book?

Since Living This Life Fully came out last October, readers have been giving it as a gift for others to enjoy. That’s one of the ways I keep hearing about more students of Munindra. When I’m invited to give a talk, sometimes people come up afterward and introduce themselves, recalling their time with him. I’m also in the middle of facilitating a month-long discussion of the book at Tricycle’s online book club: [no longer available]. You’re welcome to join in. You might even reconnect with someone you once knew through Munindra.

Some of the participants’ comments reflect an understanding of what it means to embody wisdom rather than simply accumulate knowledge or memorize rules and regulations. When students posed questions to Munindra, he didn’t simply give them a yes-or-no/black-or-white response. He delved deeply in order to fathom the person’s true motivation. That’s where the answer lay.

For example, since the first precept is to do no harm, to not commit violence toward other beings, is it okay to kill aphids when they’re destroying your garden? The simplistic view would say it’s never okay. Munindra investigated the student’s intention and found out that it was not to kill aphids but to produce food that would sustain others. Similarly, when another yogi described her daily life in a garden and vineyard, he did not condemn her for producing a product that has the power to intoxicate and thus break the fifth precept. Rather, he was happy for her to live a life connected to the earth and the seasons.

Having fully absorbed the Dharma, Munindra did not have a one-size-fits-all mentality. Like the Buddha, he faced each individual and each situation in the moment to discern the wisest or most appropriate response. At the same time, that did not mean anything goes; that did not mean carelessness in holding to the precepts. It did mean not reacting with instantaneous judgment and condemnation; it did mean treating each person with kindness and compassion.

It’s so easy to fall into a knee-jerk reaction, but Munindra chose not to. We have the same option. Read More 

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thanks for everything

At the Thanksgiving dinner my husband and I attended last week, the hostess shared a story about one of the patients she had recently taken care of in the emergency room of a city hospital. Feeling unwell, an 80-year-old man had walked in all alone seeking medical attention. Once she looked after his needs and released him, our friend generously put him in a taxi to go back to the residents' hotel where he lives in a downtrodden part of town. Sadly, he tried to resist her kind gesture, practically pleading to stay at the hospital.

Another person at the gathering gave a similar account, this time of an 80-year-old woman who was sharing a room with his mother in a hospital in a Latin American country. Determined not to have any more blood taken from her, she refused the attending doctor, removed all the tubes that had been inserted during her stay, and walked out all alone at one in the morning. Where was her family at a time like this? No one knew.

Our friend looked at us sitting around the dining table--family and friends alike--and expressed gratitude for our being part of her life and for seeing her through a hugely challenging year. Unlike the two elderly patients, she has people who are there for her in good times and in bad.

As the Buddha said to his cousin Ananda, "This is the entire holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship."

Gratitude is essential to living this life fully, to living the holy life: gratitude for the caring presence of others, gratitude for the means not only to survive but to thrive and to share our resources with others. Yet, surprisingly, thankfulness is not listed as one of the qualities or factors that lead to awakening. But that doesn't mean it's not part of the Dharma path. Deep gratitude is the wholesome motivation that underlies the manifestation of those qualities.  Read More 
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generosity II

Because generosity is a big part of my daily experience, I’ve decided to keep writing about it. A week ago, I read the results of an experiment at an amusement park that make sense to me. Researchers at UC Berkeley’s Hass School of Business and at UC San Diego sold photos taken of passengers on a roller coaster after they completed their exciting ride. When given the choice that half of whatever they decided to pay would go to a particular charity, the passengers who chose that option generated the most profit for the photo company and the charity. My guess is that people paid more rather than less because they knew the money would be given to a worthy cause, not just fill the company’s coffers—and that felt good.

I think most people want to give. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to know that being generous leaves us with positive feelings, but another experiment confirms it. Social psychologist Liz Dunn found that when she gave people ten dollars and said they could keep it all for themselves or give it away, the more money people gave away, the happier they felt. Conversely, the more money people kept for themselves, the more shame they felt, which translated into higher cortisol levels. That’s a negative health indicator because cortisol has a wear-and-tear effect on the body. Isn’t instinct at play here?

I don’t think most people are aware of this link between generosity and health unless they pay close attention to how they feel and notice a cause-and-effect relationship. Sensing how wonderful I feel on both the giving and receiving ends prompts me to give whenever the opportunity arises. I like knowing that what I do, what I give, makes a difference in someone’s life. Read More 
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We often hear the ancient African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child." As a non-fiction author, I've come to believe that it can also take a worldwide community to write a book. Where would we all be, whether children or writers, without the generosity of others?

Generosity is a form of interconnectedness. Even a nod accompanied by "Good Morning" is a generous act. One could just as easily walk by without saying a word, without acknowledging the human being right in front of us.

Generosity is a quality of mind and heart and a physical behavior that ranks high in spiritual traditions around the world because it undermines and acts as an antidote to the "poison" of greed. The importance of this quality was reinforced when I worked on Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra, about a meditation master and scholar who helped introduce mindfulness practice to the West, because the project took more years than I ever anticipated, even longer than getting a Ph.D.

Part of what made it keep growing were the generous gestures I experienced from others. I was privileged to receive so much from so many from almost every continent: interviews, referrals, audiotapes, DVDs, correspondence, journal notes, photos, scholarly expertise, translations, hospitality, encouragement, and more. I can't help but think that this outpouring of generosity is an echo of what Munindra taught to those who came to know him.

It's one thing to read texts that encourage generosity. It's yet another to be in the presence of someone who embodies that teaching. Munindra was a man of great generosity--what Buddha called a danapati, a "kingly giver." He unfailingly shared whatever he had to give--food, time, knowledge, monetary and moral support, contacts, caring words, and spiritual friendship. Most of all, he loved to share Dharma, the teachings of Buddha, which he considered the noblest gift of all.

Unexpectedly, writing the book turned into a kind of study and practice retreat for me. In the effort to learn more about Munindra's legacy--the impact he had on the spiritual journey of countless individuals, Asians and Westerners alike--I unexpectedly wound up feeling that impact on myself. Gathering down-to-earth stories, whether poignant or humorous, enabled me to better understand the qualities that Munindra had lived and taught, the qualities that move us toward awakening, the qualities that can simply make us a great human being.

Through the laughter and the tears that the anecdotes evoked, I got to know Munindra more than I had during the brief time I spent with him on Maui, a time in my life when, regrettably, I wasn't as open to taking in all that he was willing to give. But during the process of putting the chapters together, I sensed Munindra by my side, still trying to teach me, and I found myself actually cultivating the qualities that I was writing about. Now, to help myself respond thoughtfully rather than react rashly, I reflect on how he would handle a situation or an issue that arises. Putting his advice into practice has taken me beyond the meditation hall and smack into the middle of living in the world, for Munindra never saw dharma practice or spiritual activity as different from being alive, from (in his own words) “living the life fully.”

Though Munindra is gone, I realized that it's never too late to learn from him because he lives on in the minds and hearts of the people he touched with his loving, wise, and generous nature. Following his example, Munindra's old students, family, and friends have generously shared their reminiscences and passed on his wisdom. Their stories have the power to reaffirm his teachings, reconnect old dharma friends to each other, and connect new ones to Munindra for the first time, providing a source of deep inspiration and encouragement on the journey toward peace, happiness, and freedom.

This is how the seed of a book gets generously watered by far more than a village. When it finally sprouts, there is the possibility of also nourishing those who originally cared for it. I am grateful to all of them, for cooperation is the giving that makes it possible to bring things to fruition.

If anyone else wants to recount memorable moments with Munindra, please get in touch: Read More 
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