The Path To Bodhichitta

You start where you are, the practice will meet you there.

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Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Take A Deep Breath

Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with scoliosis. My chiropractor sternly told me to stay away from yoga for at least two weeks while he started straightening my spine. My back rejoiced at the prospect of being pain-free for a fortnight, but the rest of me fell apart. That same evening, I went to see my teacher, Parveen, and glumly broke the news to him. His reaction knocked my socks off.

"Of course you can still practice yoga," he said. "Do pranayama."

Pranayama? But that was just breathing. That wasn't doing yoga. That had nothing to do with lengthening my muscles, opening my chest, strengthening my arms and balancing on my head. That had nothing to do with evoking emotions of peace, strength and relaxation. I didn't want to do pranayama. In fact, that was my least favourite part of class. My mind would merrily skip off to distant lands during the first round of abdominal breathing and return during the final round of alternate nostril breathing. At that time, yoga for me, was about testing my body's limits and pushing it beyond them. Not sitting in stillness and silence, paying special attention to something I've been doing since the day I was born. I wanted to compete with myself and the other students. There was no competition in pranayama unless it was about who could retain their breath until their face exploded.

Then I went to the ashram for my teachers' training course. To my dismay, the pranayama sessions were even longer! Every part of my body screamed to move and I had to stifle many impatient sighs, as the swami led us through yet another round. As luck would have it, my competitiveness in the asana class finally came back to bite me. I threw out my back while practicing Vrschikasana (Scorpion) and was forbidden to practice that pose for the rest of the course. When I had somewhat healed, I returned to class and this time was instructed to use my breath instead of my muscles to get deeper into the backbends. Then, I was to use my breath to consciously relax in the pose. I agreed without the slightest clue of how I was meant to do this. I suppose my ignorance came through loud and clear, because one of the teachers kindly offered to give me a personal coaching session.

During that session, he instructed me to go into Bhujangasana (Cobra). Then he placed his hands on my calves and told me to consciously relax them with my exhalation. To my amazement, my calve muscles felt as though they were sinking into the floor. And I thought they were already relaxed! As the session progressed, I discovered that I was tensed even in Savasana (Corpes). I was floored!

And so I began my journey into the strange world of pranayama. It was frustrating in the beginning. The progression was slow and I had no idea if I was even doing it right. I didn't feel the calmness or peace that my teacher spoke about. For the first few weeks, all I used it for was to guide myself into the asanas. Then I took my seat in front of a beginners' class and I knew I had to get my act together. How could I wax lyrical about pranayama to my students when I hadn't felt the benefits myself? How could I tell my students to practice pranayama everyday if I only practiced it once a week? In yoga, walking the talk is non-negotiable and so I committed myself to a daily practice. I wish I could say that I've progressed in leaps and bounds, but it's more like limps and shuffles. I still catch myself doing shallow breathing while facing the computer and I still sigh inwardly when Parveen stretches the pranayama time a bit too long in class. But some things have changed.

I can sit longer without fidgeting.
I can breathe deeper without feeling like my lungs are about to burst.
My exhalations are longer and smoother.
I'm intergrating pranayama into daily life by using alternate nostril breathing to put myself to sleep and kapalabhati to keep me awake.
I've realised that I was wrong to say that stretching, lengthening and arching has nothing to do with pranayama. The correct thing to say is that pranayama has nothing to do with them.
I understand why pranayama is the backbone of asanas and I believe in it.

Progression in pranayama is slow, but for once, I'm not on a deadline. Pranayama, much more than asana, is a practice you engage in not just for its immediate, direct benefits, but for the steadiness, depth, and patience that are the eventual fruits of practice. I still have many more techniques to learn and that could take years to perfect.

Today, two girls came to sign up for this week's beginners' class. The class starts at 6.15pm and they were worried that they would be late due to rush hour traffic. How much of class would we miss, they asked. I told them they might miss the whole breathing session. Relief washed over their faces. Oh, it's just breathing, they said, that's ok then.

That's what they think.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Change Of View

My blog has been acting up over the past few days. Probably sulking over the neglect. My patience ran out this morning and I had a look at the rest of Blogger's template selection. The verdict: I like this template SO much better than the previous one!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Song Of Freedom

I did it.

I finally did it.

I took a long hard look at all the signs around me, delved deeper into my heart, inhaled a deep breath of courage and said the three little words that would change my life - I am leaving. The instant those words rolled off my tongue, the albatross around my neck suddenly spread its wings and took flight. And as it rose, it released from its claws, a golden silk pouch. The pouch opened and out spilled a ray of silver light which hung like an exquisite gauze veil before me. Then, out of the golden pouch flowed my dreams. Different shapes and sizes, the colours of precious stones. They floated towards the silvery sheet and as they gently settled on it, a different melody swelled up in each of them. They began moving in a circle. Slow at first, and then faster and faster.

Soon they were moving so swiftly that their colours and shapes merged into an glorious swirl of hues. Like an invisible paint brush flying in circles on a canvas. Suddenly I realised that their invidual tunes had also melded into a song. A song that touched me deeply with its promise of beauty, peace, freedom and joy.

A song to which my heart could finally sing.

Because it was in my heart that that song was first born.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A World Without Barriers

I came across this article, posted on Janet Lee's blog. We all need to either hear or experience stories like this every once in a while.

As a news reporter with The Malay Mail between 1994 and 2005, I met Rev. Dhammananda several times – usually during Wesak Day celebrations he led at the Buddhist Maha Vihara (temple) in Brickfields and a few other occasions.

Every time I bumped into him, I only asked a few questions just to get some quotes for my news report. Never did I have a proper conversation with him. I regret that now.

I'd like to share what to me was a very special experience during one of my meetings with him.

It was on Christmas Day in 1998 when my Assistant News Editor assigned me to cover a Christmas party for some 200 underprivileged children. It was quite a news-worthy item to cover as it was held at the vihara (Buddhist temple) in Brickfields, organised by a group of Christians, the Santa Claus was a Hindu and the contributor for all the balloons adorning the party area was a Muslim!

But what I will remember of that day forever was what the Reverend said and did.

You see, Dec '98 was also the month of Ramadhan, where (many) Muslims like me were fasting. By the time I arrived at the vihara, it was 6.30pm and many children were already playing around, taking photos with Santa and being entertained by a clown, among others.

At about 15 minutes before 7-something pm (buka puasa time), I was busy thinking of where to go for my dinner - either the nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken or a roadside teh tarik stall, both within walking distances from the vihara.

The Reverend, the vihara's religious advisor back then, must have been observing me. He walked up to me and, as if he had read my mind, calmly said: "Young man, don't think too much. You can buka puasa here. I will accompany you."

I agreed in a split second. He solved my problem!

"Please forgive us. We only have vegetarian dishes here," he humbly and smilingly added, while leading me to a dining table somewhere in the vihara's premises.

I was speechless. He brought me right down to earth with those few simple words. Even if there were only cookies served with lots of plain water at the vihara, I'll be happy enough.

So, there we were, sitting at the dining table, together with a few other priests in their saffron robes and a spread of vegetarian dishes was laid out in front of us.

As I was making sure my wristwatch was accurate, the Reverend took out a small pocket radio transistor from somewhere, turned it on and tuned in to a Bahasa Malaysia radio station.

As scheduled, the muezzin recited the call for the evening prayer through the little speaker, which also marked the moment to break fast.

"Go ahead, Azlan," he told me to start first. Only after I had my first gulp of water for the day, did he and the other priests start eating. I was honoured and humbled at the same time.

The fact that I didn't go to KFC or the the tarik stall wasn't because I didn't know how to turn down the Chief High Priest of Malaysian and Singaporean Theravada Buddhists' dinner invitation. It was buka puasa in a Buddhist temple for me, during a Christmas party! How cool was that, eh?

Seriously, the Reverend's humble gestures greatly raised my respect and admiration for him. During that brief encounter with him, my personal tolerance and understanding towards other people's faiths, beliefs and cultures was greatly altered, for the better.

In less than an hour of dining together, his simple acts of humility made me a better person, more open-minded and drastically changed, for the better, my ways of looking at the world I live in.

It was a small but very refreshing respite for this one tired reporter near the end of that very colourful and turbulent year – street 'Reformasi' protests, KL Commonwealth Games, the horrible smog and the Asian economic crisis, among many others.

To me, the Rev. Dhammananda was a great Buddhist and more importantly, a great human being.

Malaysia and its Buddhist community have lost a very special person.

With much sadness, I bid farewell to him.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Weird & Wonderful

Interesting things have been happening to me in the past two weeks. Strange things. Wonderful things. Things that cannot be explained through logic but which will seem perfectly logical to those who have faith in the power of the Universe. To make a long story short, I sent out a request last week and it was answered almost immediately and with startling clarity. New people, places and opportunities have come my way and I'm still reeling from the sheer speed of it all.

Going to the Spa Asia Wellness Summit in Thailand last week was probably one of the smartest things I've done for myself. The minute I stepped onto the airplane, I was unwittingly opening a new door for myself. One that I had long dreamt to walk through but somehow never found. When I realised that I had actually entered it, I almost ran the rest of the way but a run-in with my first yoga teacher persuaded me to hit the brakes.

"When you put too much heart in what you do, the heartache is also greater," she said.

"Meaning?" I asked.

"You're making decisions based on emotions right now. With your heart."

"But aren't you supposed to follow your heart to lead an authentic life?"

"True but you first have to connect with your essence, your inner self, to understand what an authentic life for you really is."

"And how do I do that?"

"Do you meditate?"

"Um...not really."

"Start meditating. The answers will come to you in your inner stillness. Only then will you be able to step back from the situation and look at it with neutral eyes. And once you connect with your essence, your core, you'll know what you really need, not just what you really want. If you take that step now, you'll always be swayed by other people and end up doubting yourself terribly. But if you wait just a while longer and find that essence, you will be unshakable. Be patient. You will take that step. Just later than sooner."

And so I listened. Packed up my dreams in a golden silk pouch and placed it tenderly back on the shelf, blowing it a soft kiss that held the promise "Not too long more".