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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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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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Yesterday, I received an unexpected gift that evoked great joy: a calendar for 2011. Usually, calendars don't bring up that kind of joy, even though I revel in the gorgeous photos of nature or human-made works of art. But this is the most precious calendar I've ever gotten because it contains photos of a girl I’ve come to love.

Each month has a combination of photos of Jessicah. I get to see her Jessi-ness from before we first met, when she was seven years old. In January, she'll turn nine. She's the closest I'll probably ever come to having a granddaughter, though I'm not a relative. We call each other "my special friend."

I understand, even better now than through experiences earlier in my life, why Munindra loved to be with children and why they were so attracted to him. He had a sense of humor and laughed easily. He was friendly and cheerful. He had a childlike curiosity and was interested in the smallest detail, such as a tiny purple flower growing by the roadside. Most of all, he didn't take himself too seriously, though clearly he was completely dedicated to Dharma, practicing and sharing it with everyone he encountered.
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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: mirka@mcn.org Read More 
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