Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Back from retreat at Aryaloka, a Trirtana Buddhist Retreat Centre in Newmarket, New Hampshire.
On retreat, it came to me that I’ve seen two versions of Buddhist community, as “containers”: the canning jar and the salad bowl. The canning jar is the two Tibetan communities I’ve been in: single lineage, single guru, you only associate with those in your own group, often in competition with other groups. You’re stuffed into a canning jar and cooked under high pressure, pickled, preserved and sealed tight. Nothing else gets in. The other model is Triratna: the salad bowl. It has lots of different ingredients and you can take what you like, and it’s always fresh—new ingredients are being added all the time. Everyone is on their own individual path, and adds or takes what they need. I prefer the salad bowl. I also feel there’s enough in Triratna to support what I do, my particular path.
More below the fold. . . .
Retreat Journal: Aryaloka, Newmarket NH
As I prepared for this trip in the last couple of weeks, strange sensations kept coming over me. I felt wildly free, in my mind and body. My spirit was soaring. Every time I t thought about Triratna and Sangarakshita, my imagination was filled with images and visions of buddhas and spirit-beings, in all kinds of colours and intricate patterns. I didn’t know who they were, but I was flying with them.
The journey to Aryaloka was gruelling for me. Leaving at 6 AM, I flew from Halifax to Boston, then took the train to Worcester, arriving at noon, where I stayed for a week with my ex-partner and her adult son. There was lots of good times, affection, sharing from the heart, floating in the backyard pool. We went back to all the places I had been in New England: Providence, RI, where I was born, Northampton MA, where we lived together for ten years; to my friend Vance’s farm in Ware MA, where we caught up with old friends, to Copley Square in Boston for dinner and jazz.
The following week i set about exploring Worcester by bus. The bus system was difficult to learn, and slow. It took two buses and two hours to get anywhere by bus. It was exhausting and rarely rewarding. Worcester is a very dead place, a cultural desert, where nothing happens, no one connects, no one does anything to make the place lively or even habitable. Except for the downtown core, which was recently revitalized, consisting mostly of banks and government buildings, the rest of the place was an abandoned ghetto.
I decided to buy candles and incense for the three-fold puja that was scheduled for Sunday afternoon. I walked down Main Street to the Bones and Flowers gift shop. It was a rickety old Victorian house with the front room set up as a crystal and herbs shop. Out on the porch, caribou skulls were drying in the sun. Inside was the smell incense and too many cats. A thick layer of dust covered most of the wares in the shop. A woman sat behind the counter, dressed in hippie-witch clothes, with long greying strawberry blonde hair. She was obviously a witch, and she knew right away that I was a transgendered man, as she called me “dude.” We chatted briefly, she sold me incense and candles for the puja, and I said that I was on my way to New Hampshire and hoped I would see her again soon.
The buildings on Main Street were empty and lifeless. There was nothing but chain retail stores and fast-food restaurants everywhere, as if no one had the gumption to start their own business. It was a poverty of culture, as well as a poverty of poverty. After struggling with the city for a week, and on-going family conflict, I was glad to get out of there for a few days.
That morning, on the train platform in Worcester, I ran into the witch from the crystal shop. “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon,” I said. She explained that she was on her way to Boston to help her friend, a transwoman, go through a medical exam. I knew that when I saw the witch a second time it was a sign that something very special was about to happen.
But the trek to Aryaloka was arduous. Back on the commuter rail, from Worcester to South Station in Boston; then onto the Concord Coach to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was an entire day of racing through one stressful task after another, barely having enough time and money to read schedules, buy tickets, find track locations, navigate bus depots, talk to conductors, get a cup of coffee, get on the wifi over and over again, check bank accounts, send emails, and occasionally, look out the window of the train at the scenery going backwards in my reverse-facing seat. By the time I got to the bus terminal in Portsmouth, I was relieved to just sit and wait an hour for my ride to come pick me up.
On the way to Portsmouth, I was angry that I had to make this gruelling trip just to make a physical connection with Triratna. I was told that I should do so, to demonstrate my commitment to becoming a member of the order; so I complied. I hoped that I would be admitted through a Mitra Ceremony, but I was told it couldn’t happen during the weekend. I would have to stay another day in order to go through the ceremony. There was no way I could stay another day; I couldn’t afford even the extra day’s food money on the road. I was very disappointed that I had come all this way and couldn’t even get through stage one of becoming a member.
I grumbled and fussed and asked myself why did I ever commit to making this insane trip just to go on a silent retreat. I don’t like silent retreats, and besides, I could sit in silence all by myself at home, as I usually did every day. There was no need to make this crazy journey. Crazy. It brought to mind that crazy Italian Buddhist, Lokanatha, who walked from Italy to India—not by planes, buses and trains—on foot. Ok, I thought, if Lokanatha can walk from Italy to India, I can certainly make this rather pampered and entertaining jaunt from Halifax to New Hampshire. Every time I thought of Lokanatha’s insane globe-trotting missions to spread Buddhism, I got some energy and resolved to keep going.
In the bus depot in Portsmouth, I read an article in the New York Times Magazine on the history of the Short Mountain Faeries in Tennessee. I had been loosely associated with the Radical Faeries in Brooklyn and western Massachusetts, and I still practice that kind of counter-cultural queerness. The story confirmed what I had been feeling for weeks: that the way to change the world was to defy conformity to it’s demands of straight-white bourgeoisie society, success and wealth, and to live in total queer anarchist freedom. The difficulty was how to combine practice as a Queer Faerie and a Buddhist. I sensed that Triratna, with its imaginative and deliberately eclectic approach to Buddhist practice, might be a place where I could bring those two worlds together. I felt that the goddess was very close to me, directing my destiny. At this time, I called the goddess the Faerie God Mother, she who is present at the birth of something new.
When we pulled into the driveway at Aryaloka, the sight of it took my breath away. Aryaloka was nestled in an old, dense New England forest, with giant trees, the kind that I used to spend countless hours walking through as a kid back in Rhode Island. On the circular driveway at the front of the property is a large octagonal house that has a dome-shaped roof.
Down the path a short distance was Aryaloka itself, the retreat centre. It was two identical round structures with domed roofs, with a rectangular hall built between to join the two buildings. The buildings have domed geodesic roofs, with straight walled-sides, which make them look like a cross between yurts and Islamic mosques. The first floor of the buildings appeared to have eight exterior sides; the interior of the geodesic dome showed sixteen sides. At the top of each roof was a smaller five-sided cupola that opened to the sky. Stepping back from the building, the image was unmistakable. It looked like two giant breasts that swelled up into the sky, deliberately designed to nurture the inhabitants. The interiors were built of hand-crafted wooden doors, floors, stairs, windows, joists, and partitions. The whole place had the feel of an old German fairy tale, like a magical cottage in an enchanted forest. When I stepped into the main hall, I felt a surge of electric energy. Again, I was flying with the buddhas and the spirits.
We met for the first session of the evening on the second floor. It was laid out in an irregular pattern. Because of the geodesic walls, few of the structures inside the building are shaped like a box. Structures and seating areas were shaped like circles, triangles and rhombuses. But it was all very natural feeling and comfortable.
As we went around the circle and introduced ourselves, it was clear that many of the people there had years of experience with meditation and spiritual practice. Many were into yoga, some had tried a range of different meditation techniques. Many of the group were not Buddhists, some combined Buddhism and yoga or Buddhism and Hinduism. The only members of the Triratna order were the two women who led the retreat. Some members had been meditating for 30 or 40 years; one had never meditated before in her life, but none of that mattered. I got no sense of competition or one-ups-manship from anyone. There was no sense of judgement, disdain or hierarchy, or being a ‘long-time student of so-and-so’. There was no guru trip, no groupie trip, no pressure to belong or to join. It was understood that everyone was on their own individual path; whatever works for you is fine. Since no one is on exactly the same path, there is no competition for achievement on any path. There was none of that kind of heaviness that I so often felt with the Tibetan communities I had tried to belong to. No one talked down to me, or brow-beat me, or tried to make me feel like I was a clueless beginner. Instead, there was this spine-tingling sense of lightness, that incredible lightness of being that took me by surprise and was quite energizing and delicious.
For the start of meditation, we went up to the third level in the building—the shrine room. This was nothing like any shrine room that I have ever been in. The floor of the shrine room was built on stilts, so that the shrine room appears to float above the second floor. Once up the wooden stairs and inside the shrine room, I was totally caught up and breathless. The shrine room was built to sit right under the peak of the geodesic dome. The dome was surrounded by a canopy of immensely tall trees. Looking through the skylights, I felt like I was sitting up in the tree canopy. The atmosphere was magnetic; there was a powerful electric energy in the air that surged through my spirit. I don’t know if the structure of the geodesic dome has some particular quality, some capacity to intensify energy, as some claim that it does, or its just the fact that it’s round; but there is an incredible power and energy that permeates you under that dome. I can’t compare it to any other shrine room that I’ve ever been in—and not because it’s better than any other place, but because it’s totally different than any other place. I’ve never been to the Taj Mahal, or St. Peter’s Basilica, or an Islamic mosque, but I imagine it’s something like that. I felt like I was flying in an air ballon, in a great meditation zeppelin.
We began the session with a half-hour of metta bhavana, mostly directed toward ourselves and others on the retreat. I didn’t try to control my thoughts at all. I just let my imagination fly and my spirit soar. I imagined that the great goddess, the Faerie God Mother, had drawn me to this place to launch me into the spirit-world where there was total bliss and freedom. The Faerie God Mother appeared everywhere on the grounds in buddhist form as Kwan Yin: elegant, peaceful and compassionate. I knew that after that arduous journey, I had indeed come to the right place, a magical place that existed no where else.