Attadiipaa Sutta: An Island to Oneself (SN 22.43)

Attadiipaa Sutta: An Island to Oneself

Here is a translation of the sutta, and a nice little photo that I made for it...

"Monks, be islands unto yourselves,[1] be your own refuge, having no other; let the Dhamma be an island and a refuge to you, having no other. Those who are islands unto themselves... should investigate to the very heart of things:[2] 'What is the source of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair? How do they arise?' [What is their origin?]

"Here, monks, the uninstructed worldling [continued as in SN 22.7.] Change occurs in this man's body, and it becomes different. On account of this change and difference, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair arise. [Similarly with 'feelings,' 'perceptions,' 'mental formations,' 'consciousness'].

Attadiipaa Sutta: An Island to Oneself

"But seeing[3] the body's impermanence, its change-ability, its waning,[4] its ceasing, he says 'formerly as now, all bodies were impermanent and unsatisfactory, and subject to change.' Thus, seeing this as it really is, with perfect insight, he abandons all sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. He is not worried at their abandonment, but unworried lives at ease, and thus living at ease he is said to be 'assuredly delivered.'"[5] [Similarly with 'feelings,' 'perceptions,' 'mental formations,' 'consciousness'].

Self Love (S.i, 75; Ud. 47)

I visited all quarters with my mind
Nor found I any dearer than myself;
Self is likewise to every other dear;
Who loves himself will never harm another.

- Buddha (S.i, 75; Ud. 47)

Buddha (S.i, 75; Ud. 47)

Five Factors of Speech (Anguttara Nikaya 5.198)

"Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless and unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?

It is spoken at the right time.
It is spoken in truth.
It is spoken affectionately.
It is spoken beneficially.
It is spoken with a mind of good-will."

- Anguttara Nikaya 5.198

(Translated from the Pali discourses of the Buddha)

Anguttara Nikaya A.N. 5.198

Quebec Vipassana Center - Dhamma Suttama

Last winter there was a cold streak in February. It was cold. It was very cold. So, of course, I spent my time off work traveling north into Canada for a meditation retreat. The center is located between Ottawa and Montreal. The temperature hit 40 degrees below zero, Farenheit (though they used Celsius up there). I fulfilled my lifelong dream of having icicles grow from my beard.

The retreat was profound, as always, and I had so much delight in resting into that cold, snowy, pillowy paradise of the mind. Around day 8 or 9, I developed a high fever and strong cold. It was definitely the sickest I've ever been on retreat. It was a bit frustrating as my concentration diminished, and yet it was also very cool to observe the sensations of illness arising and passing within the framework of this body.

Illness is, of course, is one of the Buddhist foundations of human suffering (along with old age and death). These bodies that we have are so exposed to our environment that other creatures can come inside and live within our bodies. Sometimes such a "bug" makes us sick as the cellular defenses kick in. All of this arises and passes, arises and passes. What a joy to bare witness! What liberation comes from the equanimous mind.

I played in the snow, and sat plopped down in the fresh powdery dumps. Each day I took walks in the woods, allowing the stinging chill of the air to touch my lungs and wake me up to life.

The accommodations were quite enjoyable (and warm on the inside). The center has a unique quality in that the men and women are completely segregated throughout the entire meditation retreat. There are even two separate meditation halls. I found this to be a diminishment of the meditation experience. I understand that mixed gender meditations can be a distraction for many, but I think the added presence of having more meditators sharing a common space is far greater than whatever distractions they meant to avoid. It was a strange the way I knew the women were on retreat also, yet I could barely feel their presence.

I had so much fun meeting all of the french speakers as well. Dhamma knows no boundaries when it comes to language. They had delightful accents, and everyone looked so adorable wearing huge parkas and thick boots.

It was a wonderful retreat. Thank you Dhamma Suttama!

"Through the sky blow many different winds,
from east and west, from north and south,
dust-laden and dustless, cold as well as hot,
fierce gales and gentle breezes -- many winds blow.
In the same way, in this body, sensations arise,
pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral."

- Pathama-akasa sutta, SN 1.260

Vipassana with Buddy Wakefield on TEDx

I had the pleasure of sitting a course last April with Buddy Wakefield. Of course, I had no idea that he was there, or even who he was. Sitting a course isn't really a time for being social.

It wasn't until the car ride to the airport that we ended up both hitching a ride with a local Texas meditator. I could tell that he was deeply steeped in dhamma as we talked. There is an incredible post-retreat glow that some meditators really eminate, and he had it big time. I could tell that everything he said was coming from deep place inside himself where he looked as though he was checking to see if it was his honest truth.

He is a writer, so as we talked, he would scribble notes down on a paper for possible inclusion in his spoken word performances.

Late, when I returned home, I saw this TEDx talk. I love it. He has a beautiful way of putting it into his own words and bringing a fresh and lively expression of what Vipassana is about for him.

Retreat at Kaufman, Texas Dhamma Center

I went on retreat last April (2015) at the Kaufman center in Texas. It's been so long now since the retreat that I have forgotten a lot of the details, but I still wanted to share the photos. It is a beautiful center, and I had my own private room with a bathroom (many of the rooms at the center are singles like this).

I took nice walks along the trails, but I remember the grass had my allergies going the whole time. The wild bunny rabbits were so cute as they bounced around in the grass. The neighbor's cows also came by for a visit now and then.

The center has a pagoda as well, and I made use of it mostly in the mornings. I love getting up in the stillness of a quiet morning and walking to the pagoda. So much stillness, both inside and out.

The community at this center seemed unique. There were many younger people involved there, and so much metta. At the end of the retreat, they made sure that everybody had a ride to where they needed to go, and if people couldn't find a ride, local people would just shuttle people out of the kindness in their hearts.

Oh, and I also made a lot of friends on the retreat. One of them was a spectacular poet named Buddy Wakefield. He and I went to the airport together after the retreat and got to spend a few hours basking in dhamma and sharing wonderful insights while we waited for our flights. He was clearly so in touch with his inner world and so wonderful at articulating it too.

I remember that I said a phrase which he liked, and then he wrote it down on a piece of paper. I guess that's what a writer does, constantly scribble notes here and there as inspiration comes. Perhaps I could do more of that too.

The phrase he scribbled was this:

"The happiness beyond the conditions of the world."

May you all taste such happiness.


Death is a Christmas Miracle

Perhaps I have a strange appreciation for the beauty which exists in darkness. I see miracles where others don't, and if that makes me a little bit weird, oh well. This is my story of Christmas miracles.

(The story is based on real experiences, but all details have been fictionalized to protect patient privacy.)

It was Christmas day, exactly one year ago. I was working as a nurse, and it was my very first day on my own in the Intensive Care Unit. I just finished three months of training in critical care, so I had been preparing for this day. I was nervous, excited, and happy to be finally taking on full responsibility for these critically ill patients.

The day began as this story begins: with birth. I stepped on to the elevator, as I do every morning. Following me on to the elevator was an attractive young couple who must have been in their early twenties. The woman was quite visibly pregnant.

“How wonderful,” I thought to myself. “It looks like they are having a Christmas baby! What an amazing gift for the holiday.”

As I looked closer, however, it seemed strange that the woman was standing comfortably and not revealing any signs of labor. “She doesn't look like she's about to have a baby,” I thought as I began to imagine this couple's story in my head. (An elevator ride is an excellent time to think up stories about my fellow passengers.)

They didn't press the button for the labor and delivery floor, so now I knew something was out of the ordinary. Instead, they got off the elevator early and we parted ways. “Well, they must be visiting someone who is sick,” I concluded.

I continued the elevator ride to my floor and soon clocked in for work. Upon arrival to the unit, I got the news that I would be admitting a young man who had arrived to the Emergency Department with a severe cardiac arrhythmia. “He will be coming to the unit in about 30 minutes,” I was told.

The second part of the story begins here: with sickness. The man arrived on my floor. His youthful adventures had finally caught up to him, leaving him now vulnerable and naked under a thin hospital gown in a lumpy old hospital bed. He had come to town on a holiday vacation. He had never had any obvious health problems before, and these frightening symptoms had caught him and his family all by surprise. Perhaps you might imagine waking up early on Christmas morning to chest palpitations, and profuse sweating.

It wasn't long before his family started trickling in to visit. This moderate sized crowd had been patiently sitting in the waiting room. As I looked, I was startled to see before me the young couple from the elevator. Their radiant youth, an image of fertility, stood in contrast to the sterile and quiet halls of the ICU. They entered my patient's room and shared their love with him, confirming the stories I had made up in the elevator. They were indeed there to visit someone who was sick.

As that patient was settled, the next part of the story begins: with aging. I walked across the hall to return to the other patient in my assignment. This was an older woman who had been found at home unresponsive. The quick response of paramedics had kept this woman from dying, but she was old and her brain function was simply not going to recover. After many days of following the top protocol, she was still not showing any signs of improvement. An MRI showed diffuse damage to the tissue of her brain, and it was time for the family to make a decision.

Her husband would be making the final decisions regarding any plan of care. They had been married for 52 years, and he had spent every day at the hospital since his wife had arrived.  He sat with her and prayed, and sometimes begged her to wake up. After he arrived on this particular morning, the doctors sat him down and gave him the very real and very unfortunate prognosis. Her chance of recovering to any meaningful level of health was almost zero. We had tried weaning her off of the mechanical ventilator, but she did not tolerate it. The machine would be necessary to keep her alive.

We sat in silence, as he absorbed the news. He was calm as he gave it thought. Then he began to explain, “You see, today is a sort of anniversary for us. It's Christmas. I just think... well, if we could just keep her comfortable for two more days, then I'd be ready to say goodbye. I just don't want her to die today. Not today.”

“Unfortunately,” the doctor compassionately explained, “we can't keep her alive and also keep her comfortable. The tube in her throat is uncomfortable, the machine is forcing air into her lungs. If you want her to be comfortable, or if you want her to stay alive, those are two different goals. It is your decision what to do, and we will support you with whatever you decide. It's ok if you want to take some time to think about it.” He took his time, he talked with the rest of the family, and within a few hours he had made a decision.

The final part of this Christmas story now begins here: with death. The decision was made to withdraw care and provide only what treatment was necessary to make this patient comfortable as she passed. As the afternoon grew late, I began the morphine drip, giving time for it to circulate through her system and ease any possible pain that her brain could still register. Soon after that, we pulled the breathing tube from her throat and removed the last devices of life support. She was on her own, to breath or not breath as her body could tolerate. She gasped for air, and her gasps were eerily similar to the first gasps of a newborn still drenched in the fluids of it's birth. These dying gasps continued, and just as a baby grows stronger with each gasp, this woman grew only weaker.

The family prayed, and spoke gently to her. The husband grabbed her hand and reminded her: “remember this day? This is the day I proposed to you.” The memory seemed as though it was still crisp in his mind, as though he was talking to the young woman he once loved while looking into the eyes of his aged and dying wife.

She passed peacefully soon after that. The family said their goodbyes and it was over. His final Christmas gift to her was to comfort her as she died. Their gift to me was to allow me into such a vulnerable and touching moment in their lives.

I was new to the ICU, and although I had seen patients die before, this was the first time in which the family officially made the decision to withdraw care. It was a first which I will remember for the rest of my life.

Working in the ICU, I am often confronted with the cost of dying. There are the monetary costs: more than $50 Billion dollars each year paid by Medicare on doctor and hospital bills for the last two months of patients' lives. A stay in the ICU alone can cost over $10,000 a day.

But, there are other costs as well. Had the family continued with full treatment for this patient, she would have eventually started to decline. Perhaps an infection would start, or her breathing would worsen. Her skin would begin to break down. The delicate balance of life would become harder to maintain. More medicines would be needed, more forms of life support. It would have only prolonged the inevitable.

Being human, we are inescapably bound to these four stages of life: birth, sickness, aging, and death. People recognize birth as a miracle. It is easy to imagine the maternity ward on Christmas day, so full of smiles and so full of love. Birth is the beginning of life, but life also ends with death. Birth and death do not exist without each other. This is the miracle which I will honor this Christmas, not just birth, but the entire cycle from birth to death. Life is what gives us this brief and momentary glimpse into the great mystery of being human. We awaken into the world to explore, to discover, to participate and to stand in awe. Then, our eyes close shut one final time. This brief glimpse ends.

For me, it was a miracle to be a part of these people's lives on Christmas. For me, it was a gift, and a blessing. Amid the awareness of death, the experience itself was so fully alive.

I feel grateful, and in gratitude I share this Christmas tale with you. This is for you who are also basking in the mystery of it all and embracing the inevitable. This is for you who do not run from our nature, but love it even when it hurts. This is for you who value truth, and honesty, and realness in a world which often encourages denial.

Even if you don't celebrate Christmas, well, Merry Christmas nonetheless. May you appreciate this miracle of life, death, and the whole human experience.

From me to you this Christmas.

“Just as mountains of solid rock,
Massive, reaching to the sky,
Might draw together from all sides,
Crushing all in the four quarters—
So aging and death come
Rolling over living beings“

- The Buddha