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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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Munindra's teachings go to Korea

Copies of Korean translation at Kyobo Mungo in Seoul.
Now it's been a year since my last post, so at least the delay is shorter!

I'm writing because it’s amazing what happens when you simply let things unfold instead of planning, especially when it comes to sharing Munindra’s joy and wisdom. Recently, I wound up having an extraordinary experience in Korea because of him.

My friend Shirley couldn’t speak highly enough of her trip to Korea--the Koreans she met, and the art, architecture, and gardens she saw. So I decided I’d go too, especially because I admire traditional and contemporary Korean fiber art (textiles and paper). But all I had time for was purchasing an airline ticket and booking a room in Seoul. I was fully occupied with getting my studio ready for Art By The Sea/The Sea Ranch Art Tour. I decided that, as so often in the past, serendipity would be my travel agent.

In the midst of all my studio preparations, I received a totally unexpected email from Shiva Ryu, indicating that he’d translated my book, Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra, into Korean. I didn't have a clue who he was when he wrote to ask how to best translate my family name: Should the K be pronounced or not? I wrote back, “What an interesting coincidence, for I’m soon leaving to travel in South Korea.” That information put a whole chain of events in motion that left me stunned in the most positive way.

First, I was now considered a guest and would be picked up upon arrival. Thus, when I landed at Incheon International Airport, I was greeted by Jea-Sung Hwang, publisher of Alchemist Books. After that, it was dinners and lunches and interviews as well as signings at Kyobo Mungo, South Korea’s largest bookstore chain. So moved was I by all that was happening, that I often got teary-eyed. We also visited Ven. Dr. Misan Sunim at Sangdo Meditation Center. Completely unsolicited on my part, female companions and transportation appeared for wherever I wanted to go.

Although the Korean translation was not due to be published till the end of the year, the pub date was pushed for my arrival. I’ll bet a lot of intense scrambling took place as everyone went into gear to meet the new deadline. On top of that, the translator, who annually leaves for India around that time, postponed his trip because of me. Little did I know who Shiva Ryu is, beyond his role as translator. I soon discovered.

Shiva is one of Korea’s most celebrated and prolific writers. He is a poet who has also translated Japanese haiku. And he’s well known for inspiring Koreans with his travel writing about India. When he told me that he selects one book each year to translate. I felt honored that he chose mine about Munindra. I wondered how this came about. Had he ever met Munindra? Where did he come across the book in English?

Because of his long-time travels in India, he did, in fact, meet Munindra in Bodh Gaya many years ago. And he probably chanced upon my book in a NYC bookshop. There's no way I could have arranged any of this to happen!

All of the things that ensued following those first days in Seoul were like a fairy tale. I was treated royally, in a way that I'd never experienced in the U.S. on previous book tours that were planned. Like my friend Shirley, wherever I traveled, I met only with kindness, graciousness, and generosity in the Korean people. I was showered with gifts. And, unlike my highly regulated interactions with Theravada monks in Southeast Asia, I was able to sit and talk and walk comfortably with Korean monks, especially when one of them knew English. It was such a delight to visit temples and have these conversations to learn more about their modern lives as Buddhist monks in an industrialized nation. I was surprised but gratified to hear of the growing interest in the Pali Canon (two translations into Korean) and vipassana practice.

In future posts, I will go into more detail. For now, I'm still glowing from the warmth of my Korean experience. I know that Munindra used to have similar experiences when his students invited him to their countries. I never expected that it would be my good fortune too. I could never have anticipated that six years of working on the book in order to pass on his teachings would afford me such a happy time in South Korea. I felt as though Munindra were there with me, smiling in the background to see how much goodness people can express. It was what attracted so many individuals to him. Read More 
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Long Absence

Two years have flown by since I last posted here. As a writer-turned-textile artist who is still a writer, I started a new blog at the beginning of 2014. It's about art in general, though I touch on aspects of the Dharma whenever possible. I invite you to have a look: exploringtheheARTofit.weebly.com Although I don't write about Munindra in the art blog, I will be examining the relationship between Dharma and the Arts after I participate in some events focused on that theme.

I am also glad to report that the scholarship fund I set up at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Munindra's memory has attracted more donors. 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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Don't Panic, Just Practice

A peaceful Pacific at the end of the day
At 5 this morning, the phone rang. When I picked it up, I heard the concerned voice of a friend in Indiana. Since she's three hours later, she'd already heard about the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Asleep on the west coast, I knew nothing. She apologized for waking me so early, but wanted to be sure I would be prepared for a possible disaster, maybe at 7 am. I thanked her and put the phone down.

I noticed the lights of fishing boats out on the ocean. (I live on the coast of northern California.) "Hmm," I thought, "would they be out there if huge waves were on the way?" I couldn't go back to sleep, so I lay in bed watching my breath and thoughts that arose. I noticed no panic, only some planning: What should I take with me? I ran through possible necessities.

In less than a hour from the first call, a second one came. It was my husband, out of town, thinking he was the first to apprise me of the news since he checks it early on the internet and on TV. A while later, another friend, also concerned about me, called. I could have been annoyed that these kind folks had disturbed my sleep, but why? How fortunate I am that they care so much about me and my well-being.

The last call came at 7 am, from the emergency service that attends to our community. The message was that unusual waves could hit the coast at 7:30, so please do not go to any beaches or low-lying areas. There was no directive to evacuate. But I'd already packed my car and was ready to leave.

Having experienced a tsunami warning on Maui, where people still talked about the major wave that wreaked destruction on Hilo in 1946, I remembered that the main instruction is to get to higher ground. What I didn't know was whether the bluff on which our home is situated is considered high enough ground. That's why I'd packed.

Tonight, as I reflect on the morning's events, I realize how much my dharma practice kicked in. Packing became an illuminating exercise. I went straight for the things I'd thought about while still lying in bed: my laptop, several important file folders, some family papers, and a box of journals; a few items of clothing and footwear; toiletries; our dog's bowls and food; some food for me; and water.

Clearly, there were so many other things all around me, but I didn't stop for any of them. As I gathered pants and a few tops in the closet, I saw the two beautiful traditional silk jackets that Bhutanese women wear. I'd bought them on a visit to Bhutan. It never occurred to me to take them with me. Nor did I carry out any artwork, painted by others or quilted by me. And I felt no conflict about it; in fact, it didn't enter my mind at all.

Knowing that I could let go of everything (except for the few papers, journals, and laptop), left me with a sense of peacefulness. A house filled with stuff, but it didn't matter. That I didn't panic when the 5 am call came also induced a peaceful feeling. I know I wasn't that calm when the tsunami alert came on Maui more than twenty years ago. I was stuck in a slow stream of cars on the other side of the island from where all my stuff was, fretting how I'd get home in time. In the end, nothing happened, but what a job it had been to haul things to higher ground once I made it back.

When I returned home this morning after watching the ocean from higher ground--and seeing no tsunami--I unloaded the car and put things away. I thought, "Well, that was much ado about nothing. I've just wasted three and a half hours." But immediately the thinking shifted, for I realized how much I'd actually gained through the experience, and that brought a measure of joy.

I was also grateful. People in my area did not get hurt or have to flee. But when I plugged in my computer and located news about the disaster, tears welled in my eyes as I watched footage from Japan and heard about suffering on the coast as well, in Santa Cruz and Crescent City.

Sometimes we wonder whether all those retreats and daily sittings are having any effect. It's true that, sometimes, we revert to our default mode, the old patterns that got laid down when we were children. But, at other times, we have the opportunity to move beyond them, and we recognize and acknowledge that years of practice have made a difference after all. Hearing so many stories about how Munindra faced the ups and downs of his life with equanimity have inspired me to try to do the same. Today, I managed it. 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: http://www.tricycle.com/community/living-life-fully-stories-and-teachings-munindra [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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Choices in Communication

Munindra in close contact with friends
During a hike among the redwood trees along a river, one of my friends brought up an issue she’s been wrestling with. She often feels overwhelmed by the inundation of data on the Internet and in email. I can easily sympathize. Because there's far too much to take in about environmental degradation, poverty, war, abuse of women and children, and other negativity, she finds herself simply hitting DELETE. Then she realizes, “It's so easy to blame the world, but nobody shuts down my heart except me.” How to deal with the joy of letting one’s heart open versus the disappointment at its closing? How to deal with all that’s out there trying to get our attention?

My friend's dilemma raises a question about communication at this time in history. Just as we make choices about what we eat and where we live and whom we're friends with, we need to make choices about practicing in the chaos of modern life and speedy technology. Can we be less noisy and less busy? Does all that tweeting, texting, Internet surfing, and cell-phoning add to our well-being or detract from it? If we remain mindful before, during, and after the activity, we can notice several things that will help us decide whether the activity is a plus or minus in our life and what kinds of limits we need to set, if any. What is our intention in engaging in the activity? How do we feel in the body and mind? I know I've stayed at the computer too long when I start to feel tension in my head and neck and fatigue in my eyes. I try to stop before getting to that discomfort.

In the midst of this reflection, I think of Munindra. He made clear-cut choices about how to spend his time and energy. Because he was so keen on studying Dharma, he did not allow other distractions to consume him. For example, many decades ago, when the Mahabodhi Society wanted him to learn how to type, he declined. He knew that, once he was able to type, many people would besiege him to type letters for them. Concluding that this would take away from his time to study, he said “no.” Similarly, when asked to install a telephone, he again said “no” because it would have meant constant interruptions.

Munindra was not confused about what he wanted to dedicate his life to and did not let extraneous activities use up his precious time. Although he didn’t want to put his energy into a typewriter and a telephone, he did make personal contact a priority. He was available and accessible day and night when someone needed his help.

So I wonder why constant tweeting and texting has become a priority. Someone told me a story about her last Thanksgiving. One of the guests was actually texting during the dinner rather than relating to the other people seated around the table. I remember something similar in the recent movie “It's Complicated.” As Meryl Streep’s character is trying to say goodbye to her daughter leaving for college, she notices that her daughter is occupied with texting. How did electronic communication ever come to trump in-the-flesh contact and communication? Do we only want to relate now through cyberspace rather than directly?

My hiking friend thinks that it'll soon be a novel idea just to go outdoors and really talk with another person. If that becomes a fascinating new trend, then maybe the pendulum will swing back to physical reality and away from virtual reality. Read More 
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Living This Life Fully

Recently, Dean Crabb a.k.a. Jagaro generously hosted a double book give-away on his blog themindfulmoment.com/. He asked readers to express what “living this life fully” means. The variety of responses left me reflecting on how differently people understand the same words. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of those who sent in an answer. A few people even expressed themselves through poetry. Although there could be only two winners, I feel that everyone is a winner, simply because each person took time to consider this concept.

When someone asked Munindra, “What is the Dharma?” he would answer, “The Dharma is living the life fully.” If we turn the question around and ask, “What is living this life fully?” Then we could easily say, “Living this life fully is the Dharma.” But that still doesn’t describe the details. Munindra explained them best in the way that he lived: with generosity, compassion, patience, determination, discernment, loving-kindness, mindfulness, equanimity, conviction, integrity, virtuous conduct, one-pointedness of mind, effort, curiosity, vigor, joy, and letting go.

Some people who sent comments to Jagaro touched on these qualities. For example, "Anonymous” wrote:

To live life fully is to live in the now,
No matter its joys or woes.
To be in the moment, not future or past,
Before your eyes finally close.

To love being human, to laugh at this all,
We’re here one moment then gone....

Munindra certainly loved being alive. He was lighthearted and laughed easily while living each moment mindfully, no matter what he was engaged in doing.

Candle Summers offered the following: “Living life fully means receiving what life presents joyously and with compassion. Finding ways to live with equanimity so that the mind doesn’t fall into extremes, and touching peace by letting go completely.” Munindra did receive what life presented to him with joy and equipoise. He knew how to let go of unwholesome states and cultivate wholesome ones, even in the face of physical and emotional suffering. Once, when a student told him he had a bad headache, Munindra encouraged him to keep practicing: “I hope you’re enjoying it.” He wasn’t being flippant or uncaring about the man’s condition. Rather, he meant, I hope you’re curious about your experience, remaining present with and learning from it.

Ity Sofer summed this up: “To live life fully means to experience the ever changing nature of the body and mind, allowing past conditionings to arise and pass away, without clinging or aversion, realizing by it that there is no ‘I’. This freedom, being in each moment aware and equanimous, with loving-kindness to all, is to live life fully.”

I bet that Munindra would agree. Read More 
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New Year's Gifts

I’m always grateful to be gifted with a New Year. Although I don’t party on New Year’s Eve (I don’t like to be out and about when there’s a lot of guzzling going on), each New Year’s Day has been special in its own way. During some years, my husband and I have gone with friends to watch annual bird migrations at a variety of locations. We've marveled at the dance of sandhill cranes in agricultural fields or walked through wildlife refuges where I could feel the air vibrating as thousands of birds beat their wings and formed dark clouds in a sunny sky. On other occasions, on my own in foreign countries, I've experienced vibrations of a different nature.

I vividly remember the New Year’s Day on which I recognized my life would never be the same. Read More 
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shining the light of mindfulness

Now that the longest night of the year is behind us, I am looking forward to more and more light. Although I accept and even rejoice in the changing interplay of light and dark, I definitely prefer longer days and shorter nights. But my desire is not just for more sunlight. I also want greater mindfulness to brighten how I live those days and nights.

Munindra talked about mindfulness (he often used the Pali word sati) as “an illuminating factor” because it provides the brilliance of a lamp in shadowy places. “Where there is light, there cannot be any darkness,” he would say. “You are asked to develop mindfulness because sati illuminates the whole mental field. As soon as things come, you see them as they are.” Read More 
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