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Stepping through the gate of Wat Ram Poeng, also known as the Insight Meditation Center, always feels like coming home. The first time Lucy and I set foot in this beautiful temple on the outskirts of Chiangmai in 2002, we knew from that inner place of knowing that we had found our spiritual home.

It was one of those ‘coincidences’ that we were even there that first time. New to Chiangmai, and not knowing how to navigate the city, we had arranged for a driver to take us up to Wat Doi Suthep. When he realized that we were interested in Buddhism, he asked if we would like to see another temple lower down on the mountain. Sure, we said, not knowing that our lives were about to change.

Later, comparing notes, we both stepped out of the van, and felt a sense of peacefulness and stillness that had previously only been experienced in old growth forests in British Columbia. The whole setting, including an old chedi, Bodhi tree, temple, library, numerous Buddhist statues, monks, nuns and novice quarters all enveloped in ancient trees, was certainly breathtaking but there was more than the scenery. There was a sense of inner calmness that whispered welcome home; that the spiritual path we had both been seeking was right under our feet. How does one describe the absolute knowing that this is where we belong, even though we knew nothing of where we were.

Later we would learn that Wat Ram Poeng was 500 years old, but had been abandoned during the second world war. In 1973, when it became apparent that Phra Ajahn Tong could not accommodate all the students seeking his guidance at the small temple of Wat Muang Mang, right outside the south-east corner of the old city, he re-established Wat Ram Poeng as an active temple and Vipassanna meditation center. Over the next twenty years, not only did thousands of Thai people study under the auspices of the venerable master, but Wat Ram Poeng became an international center for all people to study and experience mindfulness as taught by the Buddha 2,500 years ago. Phra Ajahn Suphan was appointed the new abbot and meditation teacher of Wat Ram Poeng.

More immediately, we noticed foreign and Thai people, all dressed in white, the traditional clothing worn in a temple, sitting still or walking slowly, engulfed in quiet contemplation. Our driver pointed us towards the foreigner’s office, where a monk explained that we were welcome to come here to be instructed in Vipassana meditation in English. We were both ill that year and our visit to Chiangmai was coming to an end, but we promised that we would return the following year for a 10 day retreat.

Which we did. Again and again, we have returned to our spiritual home to learn more of the four foundations of mindfulness that can bring us to a place of inner acceptance, simply by paying attention to what the mind is focusing on in this moment. But as many have said, don’t confuse simple with easy. Days on end of sitting and slow walking; trying to focus our concentration on our breath or footsteps; learning to watch with detached interest the landscape of where the mind tries to escape to; dealing with physical pain and exhaustion; haunted by old memories; relishing moments of bliss; sitting each day with Phra Ajahn Suphan whose compassionate detachment, wisdom and humour helps us to take the next step forward.

In a few days I will return for my annual 10 day retreat. I have no doubt that my mind will greet me at the gate, offering the full gamut of vistas to explore. But this time I will try to follow the advice of my 7-year old grandson, Evan, who when he heard that I was going in for a meditation retreat said: ‘Have fun at the temple, Grandpa Ralph.’ What a grandiose idea; not having to always surround myself in my Buddhist and Jewish suffering. I might just try to add a wee bit of joy to my breath and footsteps.

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Lucy, Joy and I are sitting in a cafe in Chiangmai for a small dream circle, in the tradition of Zimbabwe medicine man and peacemaker, Mandaza Kandemwa, who blessed Nanaimo with his presence this past August. (More on that another time.)

Joy had just returned from 6 days of Vipassanna meditation at the Wat Doi Suthep Meditation Center. I am preparing to soon go into a 10 day meditation retreat at Wat Ram Poeng, the Northern Insight Meditation Center. Lucy has been to Wat Ram Poeng a number of times in the past, but this year has been involved in the meditative art experience of zen tangle with her two friends, Val and Donna. So in one way or another we were all in the ‘zone’ of being mindful of our dreams and how profound it becomes when we can share them with one another.

We all seemed familiar with the territory of dealing with self-judgment; that inner critic that always hasn’t something negative to say about how we navigate through our day. As such, we were feeling gratitude for the teachings of Phra Ajahn Tong.

Phra Ajahn Tong, who at 91 has spent 80 years living in the temple, is considered by many to be the pre-eminent meditation teacher of northern Thailand. As a young monk, he studied with many wise teachers including the famous Burmese monk, the Ven. Mahasai Sayadaw, who is credited with bringing Vipassanna mindful meditation, as taught by the Buddha, into the modern world. Phra Ajahn Tong, is the head of 50 Thai temples and meditation centers in Thailand and abroad, including Wat Doi Suthep and Wat Ram Poeng. Lucy and I were honoured to be able to study with this honourable master at Wat Chom Tong, south of Chiangmai, where he is the abbot.

Like many Thai monks, he is not adverse to using humour to teach an important lesson. Consider this quote: “If someone calls you a buffalo, just put your hand on your backside and see if you have a tail. If you don’t have a tail, you’re not a buffalo.” We all had a good laugh, but the point was well taken.

I for one, have spent the past few days putting my hand on my backside, and realizing that there is no tail, have chuckled at my critic, and paid more attention to my dreams.

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In one of the earliest teachings of the Buddha, the ‘Satipatthana Sutra’ – The Four Foundations of Mindfulness – we are taught that there are 5 common hindrances that distract our minds from being fully present in this moment. One of them is sloth and torpor; where the mind and/or the body energy is either sleepy, sluggish or non-responsive. In common vernacular, I call it being sluglike.

That was me this morning. It took a major battle to get myself out of bed at 5 am (my favourite time of day when all is quiet) this morning. But that was the least of it. After sipping on a cup of tea, I began my qi gong and tai chi with little enthusiasm. This was in sharp contrast to last week when my energy was high and my practice was crystal clear. I’ve learned from years of experience that the default setting for motivation has to be ‘just do it’ rather than ‘I feel like doing it today’. With the latter the mind is too clever in inventing excuses: ‘I’ll just take a break today, tomorrow is another day.’ With this attitude, I have learned the hard way, too many todays get skipped waiting for tomorrow.

As I went through my routine, my body just felt like a slug. My mind felt emotionally down. It’s possible to adjust the level of energetic intensity with which one does one’s practice; sort of like having a personal dimmer switch. Last week it was set pretty high; tapping into the deep well of energy that we all have. This morning I set it low; moving through my practice in a much more relaxed forgiving fashion. And yet, it was as if my body was almost pleading to return to bed.

After qi gong and tai chi, I usually sit for meditation. But when my inner slug is persistent, I settle into a reclining position, flat on my back, with arms outstretched and palms upward. In yoga, this is known as the savasana pose – often called the corpse position – which is considered to be a pose restoring the body’s energy and balance. It sure worked for me. What I thought was approximately half an hour, according to the clock was 75 minutes. Sure, I dosed at times, but in between as I followed my breath, I felt my energy settling and relaxing. Rather than doing battle with Mr. Slug, I accepted what was, in a mindful manner. Afterwards I did feel restored, and felt much more able to face the day. I may not be jumping for joy as I do sometimes, but neither am I feeling down. Not too hot, not too cold, it’s just right, as Baby Bear is known to have said.

If visitors to Chiangmai go to only one temple it is usually Wat That Doi Suthep, often just called Doi Suthep, which is really the mountain that this glorious temple sits upon.

Legend has it that the temple was founded in 1383 following a dream of a monk named Sumanathera who found a bone with magical powers that was believed to be a shoulder bone of the Buddha. King Nunaone, the king of the Lanna kingdom, a culture that still exists to this day in northern Thailand, placed the bone upon a white elephant (still considered sacred to Thai people) who was released into the jungle. He travelled up this mountain, trumpeted three times and died on this spot. It was considered to be so auspicious that the king ordered a temple to be built.

This temple has connections to the royal family that has it’s winter palace several kilometres up the road. In modern times, a local monk is revered for organizing the construction of a passable road up to this temple. While it is a well travelled tourist site, many Thai people worship and perform ceremonies here, and one level below the public area is an international meditation center where people can come for Vipassanna meditation retreats.

Our friend Chai invited our Nanaimo contingent for an outing to Doi Suthep. With four of us in the front of the pickup truck, and Kelli and Donna rolling ecstatically from side to side in the back, we drove 15 kilometres up a switchback road in the jungle from the city of Chiangmai. From the parking lot we walked up the 309 steps framed by two long ‘nagas’ – mythological serpents that guard all Thai temples.

There are always many visitors up at Doi Suthep, and yet it never takes away from the spiritual experience of being there. There are so many things besides the view, to experience; a shrine to the white elephant, rows of huge temples bells that one can ring to wish for good luck (but please don’t stop in the middle of the row, Chai advised, as this will cut your life short), a bodhi tree, flowering trees, a large gong and numerous beautiful Buddha statues.

ln one of the temples a monk was offering blessings and spraying people’s heads with water. In the past when I have experienced this blessing I was always very serious. This day a huge smile erupted upon my face with giggles bursting forth. In the middle of the courtyard is a golden ‘chedi’ (a stupa that is prominent in all Thai temples, and usually contains the ashes of an important monk or person in the community). It is tradition to silently walk around it clockwise, holding a flower, incense and candle, and offer prayers or simply meditate. As I walked around the first time I wished for the ability to accept my aging body with more composure. By the third time around, I had the insight that pain could be interpreted as a message that my body is still here (the alternative is less appealing), and that I could experience it with laughter and joy. Now all I have to do is learn to put that into practice. Something to focus my meditation on.

Joy, Kelli and Donna received a blessing from another monk who tied a white string around their wrists. One wears the ‘bracelet’ until it falls apart of its own volition; a symbol of the impermanence of all things. Its such a simple but powerful reminder of appreciating our lives at this moment in time.

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The first ‘wat’ (the walled enclosure of the compound of a Thai Buddhist temple) I ever walked into when I first came to Chiangmai in 2002 was Wat Buppharam. When it was first built in 1497 during the reign of King Muang Kaeo of the Lanna kingdom (the northern kingdom and distinct culture that was only incorporated into the country of Thailand in the modern era) , it was probably in the middle of rice paddies down a path from the old walled city. Now, walking into this temple is a refreshing respite from the busy and loud street of Tha Phae Road extending out from the famous Tha Phae gate, the centre of so many cultural events.
Upon returning to Chiangmai, it always seems fitting to first visit this temple. So, with Nanaimo friend Kelli, who is visiting Chiangmai for the first time and wanting to see some temples, we walked into Wat Buppharam. Until she saw it with her own eyes, I don’t think she believed me when I said that it was guarded by various mythological animal statues, some fierce like a 5 headed sepeant, but others humerous, including a giraffe, rooster (surrounded by live roosters) and yes, Donald Duck. I have never found an explanation for why our friend Donald perpetually stands in front of the unique library on the grounds, other than the abbot who designed this building had a good sense of humour. I met him years ago and he proudly discussed how he designed this building. Beyond his wizened look, was someone who glowed with joy. Who ever said that Buddhism has to suffer from seriousness?
Going upstairs in the library, is a beautiful room with Buddha images on three sides. One of my favourite ‘Buddhas’ and the first I ever met, is the largest white teak Buddha image in Thailand. It’s always a blessing to sit under his peaceful accepting face, reminding me that all I have to do is accept myself as a wise elder would.
On this day, I had trouble quieting my mind, jumping right into judgement: what is wrong with me that I can’t sit still in this peaceful setting; all these years of meditation are wasted on me; look at everyone else, they seem so peaceful; blah blah blah. So taking a breath I reminded myself that I can’t always still my mind on demand, that at best it usually takes a few moments. I looked up into Buddha’s face, knowing that I was capable of feeling gratitude for all my spiritual teachers, and that it doesn’t take much to transform this appreciation into joy and wishes of well being to all sentient beings, even if my mind is racing. Gratitude feeds on itself. Within a moment, I couldn’t help but notice a smile blooming on my face.
We left, with a sense of being somewhat lighter than when we entered a few moments before.

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Lucy and I are back in Chiangmai, Thailand; our winter retreat, our spiritual home. Weeks of preperation, closing down all the tentacles of our life in Nanaimo for 4 months, arranging for what we will need here, saying all our goodbyes once again…no matter how many times we have done it, it always leaves us exhausted. And then hurtling in a metal tube over an ocean, through time zones, and crossing cultures, we arrive in an exhilarated fatigue onto the streets that are so familiar, it is as if we were here yesterday. Within moments of arriving, back home is over there, and we are here in a culture we will never fully understand and yet feel so at home in. Our arrival was made so much more joyous by our dear friend Chai picking us, and our two travelling companions, Joy and Donna, up at the airport.

It has taken a week, but I am settled in now. For the past two morning I have allowed the roosters next door to coax me awake around 5am. Taking a few moments to engage in the age old early morning battle – “It’s time to arise” versus “No, no, a few more moments sleep, its too early, you’ll be tired all day, please, please” – I pull myself into an upright position. Once the battle with gravity, not to mention my sleepy mind is won, I make my morning cup of tea and head out to the deck.

Other than the roosters all is quiet. I love arising before the sun and before this neighbourhood comes to life and while it is still cool, just sitting on this deck, sipping my tea, letting my thoughts wander where they will. Eventually, as the first rays of the sun come over the rooftops, I begin my practice of qi gong and tai chi. I have learned from different masters that our chi, life energy, is like a river; sometimes if there has been a storm it rages to quickly causing untold damage, other times it stagnates in pools, festering. With these ancient arts, we learn to move the chi so that the river flows gently but powerfully throughout our mind-body.

By the time this practice is finished the sun is blaring, so I come inside, prepare my mat and sit in meditation. I set an intention to gently focus on concentrating my awareness on my breath. Today I noticed how the thoughts came and went of their own volition. They were my thoughts, and yet the driving force – that part of thinking that says we will not be silenced – seemed so impersonal. Like the roosters crowing next door, they were just background noise, declaring their own territory before fading away into silence before the next visitor entered my mind. Beneath it all, there was a river of stillness moving so peacefully along. It isn’t always this way, but when it is, oh what a joy.

As I have gone through my day, I’ve noticed that this undercurrent of stillness has remained. I give gratitude and blessings to all the wise masters who teach this peaceful art of living.

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View of our local neighbourhood in the Old City

A TIMELESS LEGACY

“…Fear of death was perhaps the root of all art, perhaps also of all we shudder at life’s instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something that lasts longer than we do. Perhaps…the master…is already wilted or dead…; others will live in his house and eat at his table – but his work will be standing a hundred years from now, and longer…It will go on shimmering…unchangingly beautiful, forever smiling with the same sad, flowering mouth.”
Herman Hesse
Narcissus and Goldmund

A legacy has no birth, it has no death. A legacy consists of lives flowing together, each that though impermanent, contributes to the great stream of living. Each may not knowing its origin nor its demise, and if not always content, at least familiar with its raging torrents and peaceful eddies. The legacy moves on, as does all life.

Consider that old oak tree that used to sit over yonder. This tale has been told before, but I can tell it again. Old stories deserve to be told and retold, with new twists and turns each time. A young boy would swing from its branches, measuring his bravado against its strength. In courtship, he brought his true love to a bench by its trunk, having personally constructed it from one of the tree’s fallen limbs; telling tall tales matching the dance of the leaves on a stormy night. They were married by that tree, and their love developed roots so deep and branches so free. He would bring his babies to be sheltered under its protective foliage. When they grew bigger, he collected more fallen limbs building a tree house on its third branch. Oh how he thrilled to watch them play, and shuddered at every mishap they would make. They would have picnics by his old friend; sharing tales of what would be 100 years from now. The family moved away, as families will do. Returning decades later, he gasped with horror to find only a stump remaining. Oh how he grieved; oh how he raged; oh how he blamed himself for deserting his friend. In time his mourning mellowed, and he wondered about what beautiful oak furniture had been constructed from its straight trunk. He imagined a family sitting around its oak dining room table on special occasions, knowing nothing of its history, but being touched never-the-less by its strength and beauty. As an old man coming to peace with his life, he sat on the stump on a summer day reflecting. He knew nothing of his friend’s origins, from whence the seeds had come. He knew nothing of what remained, other than what his imagination would spin. But he knew of their friendship whose roots would never be severed, whose expressions would always blow freely. And look, already over there in the meadow, young oaks, were sticking their heads up proud, just like he had done, just like his children had done. And look, over there a young boy is already approaching the tallest of these trees; already gaging how he will climb its limbs. The old man closed his eyes, drifting into dreams of swaying branches; of young tender leaves covering his aching eyes; content to rest with a dear friend.

My parents left us a legacy. They didn’t invent love nor wisdom. They are as old as humankind. We can speculate about how they came to love so deeply. I am familiar with my grandparents, have heard stories of great-grandparents; beyond that it’s all a mystery. But we felt the strength of our parent’s proud relationship, and can feel it flowering everyday in our own lives. In children and grandchildren, in nieces and nephews and their children, I see versions of my parents springing up; love and wisdom weaving new paths from old roots, limbs and seeds. Theirs is a timeless legacy that lives on. I feel so full of gratitude to have been sheltered under this foliage.