Monthly Archives: October 2014

From the Hearth



This weekend I had the great joy and honor to speak with a mothers group. We all sat in a circle, mothers, babies and myself, talking about the challenges and pleasures of our mothering experiences. It was lovely to have babies crawling all around us as we talked. Being with these moms and babies reminded me of why I started the Hearth Foundation and why I committed to serve mothers. There are two main threads that led to this calling. The first is, I come from a family that adores children. When my father or mother saw a child, anywhere, they’d immediately get down on their hands and knees and start playing with them. They were never more joyful than when encountering little ones. My daughter and I have the same impulse of delight in babies and children. The second is born out of a stark awareness of how, in cultures throughout the world, and in Buddhism in particular, even in women’s Buddhist teachings, mothers are seldom taken seriously as candidates for awakening.

My Buddhist practice and studies began in earnest three years before getting pregnant. When considering whether I might become a Buddhist nun, my teacher, Annagarika Dhamma Dinna, said to me, “If you were meant to be a nun you would know it. No, you should become a shining example.” I wasn’t sure what sort of shinning example she was referring to. I certainly had my fair share of issues and couldn’t even fathom wanting to be a model of anything. But, after applying Annagarika’s thorough teachings, which were grounded in the Sri Lankan Theravadin tradition and included the abhidhamma, the suttas and some vinaya, to pregnancy, birthing and being a mother and homemaker, my perspective changed. I was astonished at how useful this wisdom and these practices were in my daily mothering and homemaking. I was also surprised at how little was written on this important subject. It wasn’t “I” who was to become a shining example. It was the Buddha’s teachings that were the shining examples, waiting to be translated for 21st century mothers. Mother’s are natural vessels for spiritual growth. I noticed how the women around me, even those who didn’t have a dedicated practice, were growing spiritually in leaps and bounds when becoming mothers. Selfless service, check. Unconditional love, check. Letting go, check. If this much growth was taking place without teachings, how much further could these women go given some real support? I kept wondering, why is no one talking and writing about this?

I was to discover that the main reason mothers have been so underrepresented in Buddhist language, stories and practices is because Buddhism has developed largely through a monastic lens. Even though most Buddhist centers in the US today cater to lay people they still retain the monastic model, which includes long periods of retreat and the need for a controlled environment. If you want to test this out, try bringing a baby to a meditation hall or Zendo! Life in the home holds different challenges, and offers different opportunities, than monastic life. In monastic life there is quiet and prescribed routines. Home life can be noisy, messy and unpredictable. In the monastic lifestyle large periods of dedicated meditation are possible. For a mother to leave her home and family, even just to attend a one- week retreat, can be a hardship on her and her young family. Even everyday sitting meditation can easily become one more thing on the to do list rather than a joy. But mothers have advantages over monastics in other areas. Mothers have a PICC line into the heart of unconditional love so they need very little practice to realize the Bodhisattva vow of love for all beings. Their lives are seeped in selfless service and they are challenged to let go of attachments amidst the heat of the strongest possible attachment- mother to child.

One of the brilliant aspects of the Buddha’s teachings lies in how permeable they are to each new culture they enter. In order to make this tremendously useful wisdom relevant to new populations it must be translated into the real time, everyday lives of the people they are serving. Each culture makes it’s own adaptations but the basic tenets remain constant. The interest is in awakening. The four noble truths, the suffering caused by liking and disliking, the 8 fold path, ethics, and other foundational teachings. All these teachings have the agility and universality to apply to any culture and living situation, not just an Asian style monastic setting. Since a significant portion of the population consists of women who are mothers in homes, it behooves us to make the teachings accessible to them.

When the Buddha taught an ox herder he used ox metaphors, when he taught a thief he used stealing metaphors. Hearth Foundation works with today’s mothers so we work with metaphors around things like traffic jams, washing the floor, letting go of cherished plans, and cooking stew. Before sharing how we go about this, there is something I’d like to mention. Once, when I was giving a talk to a large audience, a man came up to me afterwards, angry as a hornet. He said, “What about fathers, don’t they count?” Throughout the many years I have been giving talks on mothering as a spiritual practice, this issue inevitably arises. My answer is always some form of, “Father’s do count, but I’ve never been a father so I can’t speak with authority about their experiences.” Fathers are very important and they have their own set of challenges. Sometimes a father’s challenge may be the same as those faced by mothers and sometimes they are different. Yet, we can’t ignore the fact that a mother’s body holds the baby in an intimate embrace for nine months, that her body is designed to nourish the baby and that her hormones offer a different experience of early parenting than a father’s experience. Mother’s are different from fathers and, never having been a father, I cannot speak intimately about their challenges. This is why I focus on teachings for mothers, although many of the Hearth lessons are applicable to both men and women and we have had a couple of father’s come to Hearth.

Hearth Foundation was formed as a response to requests for teachings after my book, Buddha Mom, was released. Since the book had excellent distribution, requests for further teachings came in from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, New York and other locations. It was clearly not possible for me to go to each place to teach so I developed online teachings designed to form loosely woven groups of women for the purpose of support, friendship and to develop Buddhist home practices. Lessons, which were sent out via email each week, were created around major Buddhist tenets as they related to a mother’s experience. The lessons include; setting up a home meditation practice, the 4 noble truths, the 8 fold path, the 5 precepts, the 3 refuges, Buddhist perspectives on relationships using the Sigolavada sutta, everyday practices for busy parents, death and dying for the family, as well as some other topics relevant to moms. The intention in each of these lessons is to do my best to make this immensely valuable wisdom relevant and available to busy moms.

Hearth is a work in process. We have found that teaching online is not as intimate as face-to-face contact. People feel less engaged when there is no actual location where they need to physically show up. Unless the online teacher exerts tremendous effort, the group members tend to disappear. For that reason, Hearth is now exploring the option of helping moms create small groups in their homes. This project involves writing up formats and offering tools and training manuals to support group leaders. We are also offering Hearth lessons and guidance in using the lessons to sanghas that are looking for materials to support families in their congregations. In addition to the lessons, Hearth offers a monthly newsletter featuring a dharma talk, which is available to anyone who would like to be on our mailing list. We are also working on references for families as well as suggestions of children’s books and activities that reinforce Buddhist values for families.

We are a young organization and, although our goal of creating mother-friendly Buddhist teachings and resources has remained consistent, we continue to experiment with different modalities. There is a need for the creativity and application of many hands in this field, a field that has been non-existent for centuries. People who feel called to this work are invited to join us. We are looking for people who are web savvy, teachers interested in helping create workbooks for home sanghas, midwives, doulas, book reviewers, and others who are interested in working as a group in order to create tools and inspiration for home practice.

Our world is changing. It’s hard to believe that most women were illiterate until recently! Women are now being educated in great numbers, and many of them are becoming mothers. A body of literature and resources for mothers is only beginning to be created. Although Buddhism’s respect for laywomen has been obscured by cultural norms, the core Buddhist teachings have much to offer the mothers who are bringing up the next generation of Buddhist practitioners. Mothers are as capable of awakening as anyone else and deserve our sincere efforts and support on their path. Buddhism cannot become firmly established in a culture until it is firmly established in the home lives of our families.


Getting to Heaven through Hell


I went out to lunch with a friend this weekend to celebrate her birthday. It was one of those rare lazy autumn days. My friend and I had no plans so we sat together and let our conversation run free for hours. As friends often do, we shared our stories with one another. While sitting beside a pool in a peaceful state of mind, I recalled past joys, but also past illnesses, betrayals, and unfulfilled dreams with a sense of wonder. Here I was with my friend, the loneliness vanished and the day untainted by past heartbreaks -was that darkness really part of my story? My friend’s story also had it’s fair share of abuse-drunken parents, men running out on her after she gave birth, cancer and loss of loved ones- yet she too abided peacefully. I don’t imagine my friend and I are much different than other people. We all have our stories, some more harrowing than others, yet most with a healthy dollop of unexplainable pain.

We wonder at Nelson Mandela’s ability, after 27 years of imprisonment, to become a shining example of stability and kindness. I’ve heard other, similar stories about people who emerged open and loving after horrendous ordeals. One such story is of a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned, beaten and abused for years. When he finally escaped the Chinese prison and made his way to Dharmasala, an aid worker noticed an unmistakable glow of joy on his face and was impressed with his kindness. The aid worker asked him how he came by his state of well-being. The monk replied that his practice during incarceration was, and still is, seeing the humanity and pain in the people who were his abusers. He practiced loving kindness in the midst of cruelty.

In Man’s Search for Meaning Victor Frankel, a Jewish doctor who was imprisoned in a concentration camp, noticed how some people in the camp were able to maintain their humanity while others became fearful and grasping. There were those who gave their last bite of bread to another hungry prisoner and those who stole what they could. How was Nelson Mandela, the Tibetan monk, and these generous concentration camp prisoners able to, not only maintain their humanity, but deepen their ability to love, forgive and appreciate life within the gates of hell?

For all caring people, this question inevitably arises: why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? Out of a strong compassion for the suffering he saw all around him, the Buddha left his comfortable palace in order to understand, and hopefully find a solution to, the problem of human suffering. The result was his insight into, what he called, the 4 noble truths. The 4 noble truths, core to all Buddhist denominations, are; there is suffering, we suffer because we don’t perceive things clearly, there’s a way out of this mess and the way out is by practicing the 8 fold path.

This core Buddhist insight offers a simple explanation of, even a solution to, an impossibly complex set of circumstances. The implications are huge. If the 4 noble truths are true, the problem of suffering in the world is not due to economic or political systems, not even due to a direct quid pro quo karmic situation. Suffering is much more subtle and nuanced, much more personal and intimate, than that. We suffer due to our core human predicament and our response to that predicament. Even if we build the most brilliant political and economic systems in the world and act impeccably, given our human tendency to always want more than we have, to react out of anger and to delude ourselves, we will continue to experience suffering. When asked, how do we become peacemakers? Nelson Mandela responded, “First is to become honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself.” This core premise of self- responsibility points to a lifetime of practice.

There’s a human tendency to think that normal life is meant to flow along pain free. Then, some pesky event shatters our equanimity-someone gets sick, money is lost, there’s traffic. All these unfortunate events disturb a world we are trying to keep at a positive homeostasis. When something comes along and shatters that homeostasis, we wonder-why do bad things happen to good people? The 4 noble truths turn that perspective on its head. As long as we do not see things clearly, suffering is to be expected. Life is always in a state of breaking up, dissolving and unsteadiness, even down to the atomic level. We enjoy the nectar of our life within the context of this constant dissolution.

The sincere practitioner takes that realization one step further. Those irksome, painful things that happen to us are not only to be expected, but embraced as opportunities for deeper practice. A woman, who admitted to flitting from thing to thing all her life, while dying of cancer wrote, “I haven’t had the luxury of being bored of having cancer.” Hell has the unique ability to grab our attention and keep us focused. This is what both Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned Tibetan monk, and many others have discovered. By keeping their hearts and eyes open when faced with unimaginable challenges, increasing their focus to meet the situation, the challenges became their practice. Their practice became a raft carrying them to richer, more expansive landscapes.

The 4 noble truths helped me frame my life’s struggles as, not breaks in an otherwise functional life, but the life itself. While raising a daughter as a single mother struggling with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome I watched the life force drain out of my body. All I could do was look out the window, even reading or talking or TV was too much stimulation. I made friends with a tree outside my window and watched its leaves turn gold and fall. As leaf after leaf fell to the ground all that was left was a silhouetted tree against an azure sky. It was immeasurably beautiful. I didn’t have much, but the practice of noticing, the practice of gratitude for the details of life and the practice of not knowing, brought me through my own personal gates of hell in one piece. It was the challenges, along with the practice, which made it possible for me to sit by the pool with a friend 30 years later without being haunted by darker times. My practice and hell conspired to make me a deeper, happier person. Life would not have the richness it has now if either were taken out of the equation.

Nelson Mandela said, “It is a great tragedy to spend 27 years in prison. But, although it is ironical, there are great advantages in that. If I had not been to prison I would not have been able to achieve the most difficult task in life, that is changing yourself.” Many of us will never experience a concentration camp or a gulag, but we each face our own personal prisons. Some of us may experience progressive illness or abusive relationships or deep loneliness. We can’t always choose our fate, but we can choose to use whatever is in our lives right now to add one more drop of joy in the vast ocean of humanity.