This week my students and I had a ceremony to consecrate the beautiful wooden altar at the end of the garden crafted by my husband Will. When we gathered in front of the altar I told them about its inception and construction, how it didn’t suddenly appear in its seemingly perfect state, but was a process full of unexpected problems. The altar is the result of skillful effort, patience and a willingness to try again when things don’t go right. It’s useful for us to remember, especially when it seems everyone else’s life is easy and ours is uniquely problematic, to live whatever process we are in with self-compassion and clarity. The end result may be different from what we envisioned, but it, like this altar, will be perfect. Or, as we say in our family, ‘perfect enough.’
The intention for this altar is to be a place where anyone walking in the garden can go to have a private moment of refuge, reflection, contemplation, inspiration and insight into the way of things, and perhaps the way forward in their lives. After a brief dedication ceremony, each student in turn took their private time with the altar. Their later shared experiences made me know that it is indeed a special place for healing and revealing.
Usually during class, Will goes on hikes or bike rides, but just before he was leaving, we couldn’t find his phone anywhere, and we both agreed it would be better if he just stayed home for the 90 minutes of class. So he retired to our room to read, but then after everyone had spent time at the altar, I realized how synchronistic it was that he ‘lost’ his phone that morning. Because he was home, after our consecration ceremony, I brought him out so that everyone could thank him in person. It was so good for him to see how something he had made had such a powerful effect. Everyone was full of tears and hugs, glad to be able to thank the artist. Aw. And immediately after that he found his phone!
In fact, there was a palpable sense of synchronicity to the whole morning. Though the Buddhist tradition I practice and teach is the most secular, creating and consecrating an altar seemed to have sparked something much more than we could have imagined. May it continue to be a place of solace and inspiration to all who visit it.
In the photos you can see various Buddhist bells, gifts from students, friends and a teacher over the years. But the two Buddhas inside, one mounted on the back wall and one seated on a rock I found in the garden, were purchases from Routes Gallery in San Anselmo, CA. I had no idea what a special place it is! Much more than a store, it’s a whole contemplative experience. What a treat! I plan to arrange a field trip there. Join us! Or at least visit on your own if you’re in the area.
The ceremony for the altar was a simple recitation of taking refuge. Last week I talked about the hand-sewing done in American Zen communities, but I didn’t mention that while they make their stitches, they chant the Japanese Zen words of taking refuge.
All Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
The Buddha is not just the historical Buddha whose teachings we explore and apply to our own lives. Buddha means awakened one. So we take refuge in our own Buddha nature, our own potential for awakening. That seed of awakening is within each of us, waiting to be acknowledged, nurtured and cultivated.
The Dharma is the body of Buddhist teachings. Students are not to accept these teachings blindly, but are encouraged to investigate for ourselves what is true. So the dharma is not stale rigid dogma, but a living experience of awakening in this moment whenever we are fully present to access insight.
Nature is the greatest dharma teacher, always sharing lessons on impermanence and the interconnectedness of all life. We suffer when we rail against the truth of nature’s lessons. And we find joy in being alive when we stop making an enemy of whatever is arising in our experience.
The Sangha is the community of practitioners who support each other in meditation practice and explore the dharma together. A member of our sangha might also be someone who doesn’t themselves practice, but supports us fully in our practice, who doesn’t sabotage our wise intentions and effort.
When beginning to take on a meditation and mindfulness practice, it is wise to be very discerning when choosing who to spend time with, as it is easy to become dispirited and distracted by old habits when those around us are engaged in them.
But as we strengthen and deepen in our practice and our understanding, we begin to recognize the sangha of all beings. When our practice is strong and our insights guide our lives, we can see that even those who would discourage us only strengthen our resolve, and their unskillfulness is a reminder to live more skillfully in our own lives.