Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

November 19, 2022
by jenniferpuryear

There is No Cure for Hot and Cold

Gordon Peerman’s Blessed Relief: What Christians Can Learn from Buddhists About Suffering has been a life-changing read for me. It is helping me learn how to get some distance from my emotions and approach discomfort and even suffering from a position of acceptance rather than resistance. I’d love to share some passages with you over the coming few weeks.

From there, I’ll turn to the other books I read in Bhutan… Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, The Art of Living, and Happiness, all by Thich Nhat Hanh; and Married to Bhutan and A Field Guide to Happiness, by Linda Leaming. 

Snow leopard on wall at temple in Thimphu

Gordon Peerman, a Nashvillian, is an Episcopal priest and psychotherapist in private practice. He has taught Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at Vanderbilt’s Center for Integrative Health as well as mindfulness practices at Vanderbilt’s Law and Medical Schools. A graduate of Yale Divinity School (M.Div.) and Vanderbilt Divinity School (D.Min.), he has been an adjunct faculty member at Vanderbilt Divinity School, where he taught a class in Buddhist Christian Dialogue. He teaches Centering Prayer and leads retreats at St. Mary’s Sewanee.

Peerman begins Blessed Relief by explaining the basics of mindfulness. You might think he wouldn’t need to. At this point in American popular culture, “mindfulness” seems almost like mac and cheese: it’s everywhere. We all think we know what it means – or at least I did.

By a student at Choki Traditional Art School, Thimphu

I needed some further understanding. 

By a student at Choki Traditional Art School

Here are some passages I found especially helpful and hope you will as well as we approach the holidays…

On “The Heart of Mindfulness”…

This was my first time in Alaska, and it seemed to me as though we were paddling through a Tang Dynasty scroll. Cloud-hung mountains came right down to the water. The occasional human being boating across the water was tiny in the vastness of the landscape. We floated past the trunk of a tree where someone had nailed an enormous whale skull.

Enormous, too, was the silence of the place. There were no mechanized sounds, just water sounds, wind sounds, eagle sounds, all coming from and disappearing into the great silence… “This is wonderful. I could stay here forever.” Breathing in, “Happiness is like this.” Breathing out, “Smile.” Just breathing, floating, smiling, happy. Nothing else was necessary.

But since, as Buddhism teaches, everything changes, so does the mind with happiness. After a while, I found myself wanting just a little bit more happiness. Buddhists call this the ‘grasping mind,’ and it is this grasping that leads to suffering and stepping on the wheel of samsara, the endless cycle of birth and death. The grasping mind was wanting just a little bit more. The thought came to me, “I wish Alex [my son] and Kathy [my wife] could see this.” How quickly on the heels of happiness comes an improving thought: “This could be even better.” Mind with happiness becomes mind with improving – a slight bit of resisting what is.

When we are able to watch our minds, we can notice that different thoughts come and go. Who knows where these thoughts come from or where they go? Usually this coming and going of thoughts happens out of our awareness, but with mindfulness practice, we can take notice and watch. Watching thoughts is like watching boats moving past our view on the water: “Here comes the ‘improving’ boat; there goes the ‘it’s-not-quite-right’ boat.” By knowing that the mind has moved to improving, we can choose whether to follow this improving thought or to simply watch the urge to improve arise and let it be, without having to take action or fix anything. 

…Paddling that afternoon, when I stopped to pay attention to the improving thought in my mind, I was able to let it be, and in time, it let go of me. Could Alex and Kathy be here with me now? No. More to the point, could I be here now? With this question, something shifted inside me. Being here now happened, and letting go of improving happened, and a little movement of energy flowed through my torso with this release. I came back to the feeling of the paddle in my hands, the sound of the paddle in and out of the water, the rhythm of my breathing. I thought of what one of my Buddhist teachers often says: “Be here now. Be someplace else later.” Smile.

Yeshey under the Bodhi tree

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On “Small Mind, Big Mind”…

…Small mind is the narrow, grasping mind reaching out whenever it can for pleasure, praise, recognition, or gain. Small mind reflexively grasps for what it believes will bring happiness and pushes away what it believes will bring pain. The little crabs in the tidal pools of Tebenkof Bay, their claws reaching skyward seemed the perfect representation of small mind. Watching my own small mind’s pincers open and close on what it wanted at the moment – whether it was a more comfortable sleeping bag spot or less snoring from the tent next door, or more of a particular kind of food or a warmer or cooler temperature – I saw all the big and little ways I was in contention with reality. Small mind, resisting what is, wants just a little bit more or just a little bit less…

Big mind, on the other hand, is open to what is. Because it knows the truth of impermanence, that everything changes, big mind knows that pleasure does not come without pain, that praise does not come without blame, that gain does not come without loss, that recognition does not come without disgrace. These Eight Vicissitudes, as the Buddha called them, inevitably come conjoined as “terrible twins”… Big mind is open to the full play of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral events, but small mind wants only the pleasant and inevitably suffers when reality brings pain, blame, loss, or disgrace instead. Buddhist teachers compare small mind to a little container, a cup, into which a handful of salt has been dropped. Big mind, by contrast, receives the same salt of experience, but the salt can diffuse into great spaciousness, like the wide waters of Tebenkof Bay.

Again and again on the Alaska retreat, I got to see how mindfulness could convert the narrow grasping of small mind to the spacious openness of big mind. The Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa used to say, “There is no cure for hot and cold.”

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November 13, 2022
by jenniferpuryear

The Last Himalayan Kingdom

 I went to Bhutan to visit my friend, Linda Leaming (Married To Bhutan, A Field Guide to Happiness). I went by myself to know that I could. I went to learn more about Buddhism. 

With Linda at the Choki Traditional Art School in Thimphu

About halfway through the trip, I shared some impressions with a friend… “Life in these stunning mountains and valleys produces a rugged and meditative people and culture… I have a few crazy thoughts about moving here! I’m definitely not doing that but loving it so much.”

“No harm in imagining moving there,” he replied. “Why not? I don’t blame you. Just soak it all in and take a little home with you.” 

Here’s some of what I’m bringing home (plus some book recommendations)….

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Note: there are some beautiful sights you can’t photograph when you travel in Bhutan – in particular, the inner, sacred spaces of temples. Where I have drawn images from Google, I will let you know. 

Photos not allowed after you pass through the door. That’s my guide Yeshey wearing a traditional men’s “gho”.

Temple pup joined us on our hike after we left

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In Bhutan you are always on a mountain or in a valley. Your eyes are invited beyond yourself. 

You are never far from Guru Rinpoche, who flew from Tibet on the back of a tigress many centuries ago, bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. The spiritual founder of Bhutan, he is honored in temples and festivals (and pretty much everywhere, as far as I can tell).

Photo by Richard Wardell, image from wall painting in Tiger’s Nest hotel

Guru Rinpoche, according to lore, built temples to pin down a demoness afflicting the land. Here is the temple that holds down her left ankle. 


Guru Rinpoche and the Buddha taught values of loving-kindness and compassion. They taught how to end human suffering through awakening and enlightenment. Before enlightenment, all of us are trapped on the wheel of life (we humans, and also animals, demi-gods, and gods). We are trapped by our cravings, our anger, and our ignorance. 

On the wheel of life – always grasping for more

The only way to break the wheel is to achieve enlightenment. Enlightenment involves self-control, a deep understanding of the interconnectedness and sacred nature of all beings, right speech, right action, and meditation. Those who break the wheel can go to a Pure Land (heaven), but those who are most revered are bodhissatvas who choose to stay in the earthly realm instead and help others to achieve enlightenment.

Linda’s husband Namgay, a well regarded Bhutanese artist, and his depiction of Chenrizig, the bodhisattva of compassion

You are never far from prayer flags in Bhutan, the wind carrying their prayers not to Buddha exactly because Buddha was only a man… carrying them (I think) to a source of help around, between, within and above. 


Wherever you are, you are never far from a Dzong with its high walls and fierce weaponry reminding you that freedom is not free.

Dzong in Paro

Dzong in Punakha

Children learn traditional stories and cautionary tales at local festivals… 



All photos from Jakar Festival in November in Bumthang

Local deities must sometimes be appeased at these festivals and in daily life. The local deities were here before Guru Rinpoche brought Buddha’s teachings and they have never left. Why would they? It’s a beautiful country. 

In Bhutan you share the roads with cows, mules, horses, and dogs.



There’s not one traffic light in the entire country, even in the capital Thimphu, and people, cows, cars, and dogs do just fine (for the most part). The roads are not ugly or aggressive rage-fests. Everyone seems to figure things out in a relatively calm manner. 

Cows are shepherded to the valleys for the winter, sometimes using the main east to west road across the country…


while Yaks are shepherded from the highlands to the middle heights.


In Paro the dogs bark all night long, for there are many strays, and they have their own stories to tell.

In the hot valley of Punakha the poinsettias grow as tall as trees, bougainvillea blooms in November, and the river flows gently over the stones. 

In cooler climes, the roses and chrysanthemums love the autumn sun.

Wherever you are, stupas remind you to pause and pray.

Old school stupa, in the middle of dirt road

Wherever you are, water wheels spin prayers to heaven.

Little boys are sent to monasteries, but not all of them stay. 

Young people are trained in traditional arts that are prevalent in Bhutanese homes and buildings… 

At the Choki Traditional Art School in Thimphu

They are not trained in the style of the divine madman Drukpa Kunley, which still finds its way onto Bhutanese homes…

It was a surprise to me too.

A new generation of artists experiments with traditional styles. I was lucky enough to to meet Pema Tschering, “Tintin in Bhutan,” at the Ogyen Choling Manor, at festival time… 

“Title: Rainy days. Description: This piece is inspired by the Buddha Of Animal Realm who carries a book which is the antidote for ignorance. Rainy days always remind me of animals soaked in the grey weather of the rain, in a way like all beings soaked in the emotions of ignorance in the sea of suffering. We are all soaked in the emotion of ignorance which can never really dry out.“

 

“Title: No Entry. The victory banner represents the body of the Buddha, representing Buddha’s victory over pride, desire, emotion and the fear of death. As the monk holds a no entry sign to the victory banner, one tends to question why? Is it just impossible or is it that one cannot think of becoming victorious. Or why does it seem like someone doesn’t want you to be victorious? Or who can seek to be victorious?”

 

Pema Tschering (“Tintin in Bhutan”) and his family at the Ogyen Choling Manor

In this Buddhist, rural country, there is a sense of calm uncommon in the urban settings I’m used to. Yet many young people in Bhutan are leaving for better economic opportunities in Australia. There is a dark underbelly of drugs and the drug trade in the capital city. The hungry ghosts of domestic violence and alcoholism feed on all they can find.

Image from Lionsroar.com

His Majesty the 5th King of Bhutan seeks to inspire and lead. He is widely revered, with photos of his family present everywhere. Politicians are criticized (Bhutan is a Parliamentary monarchy, like England), but the King is above reproach. I met his wife the Queen by chance when she and her retinue were visiting a temple in Bumthang. She introduced herself to each of the Western visitors there, about 15 of us, asking us where we were from and how we were enjoying our visit.

At grocery store in Thimphu – notice photos

Following Yeshey, I learned many things about Bhutan. Laughing with Phunesho, I learned many things about Bhutan. Yeshey was my guide and Phuensho was our driver. 

Yeshey, me, and “Pinto”, hiking to the Taksang Monastery (“Tiger’s Nest”), one of the most sacred spots in Bhutan

That’s the Tiger’s Nest

 

I was reminded, in Bhutan, to follow those who know the way,

Yeshey and Pinto

Yeshey

to accept the lovingkindness of strangers, 

Schoolgirls offered me warm milk tea from their thermos on a cold day at the Jakar Festival in Bumthang

and to believe that all things are possible, even (inside my heart) peace. 

 

 

“If we want peace, we have to be peace. Peace is a practice and not a hope.” – Thich Nhat Hanh


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Sincerest thanks to Linda Leaming and her husband Namgay for their warm hospitality and very kind care during my visit.

Linda introduced me to the team at the Choki Traditional Art School, where we spent the better part of a day seeing students at their work, having lunch with them, and learning about the education they offer, all of it to students without means to seek education elsewhere. This is education that leads directly to a job.

I enjoyed meeting Linda’s friend, Brent Olson, a long-time Bhutan enthusiast and frequent traveler to Bhutan (who helped me navigate the Bangkok airport on the way home.)

Before my trip, my friend Amy Norton connected me to her dear friend and colleague at GiAnt, Mike Oppendahl, who had moved with his family to Bhutan about nine months earlier. Mike and I corresponded as I planned my trip, and I was so happy and grateful to meet him and his wife Ashley, my new friends.

I am forever indebted to Yeshey and Phuensho, my guide and driver, who shared their country with me. Sincerest thanks to Tashi at Boonserm Travel for making all the arrangements.

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I’ve run out of steam to describe the books I read on the trip. More on that next Sunday. I’ve just traveled approximately 36 hours, over 5 flights, to get home. Xoxo