Lamp in the Mountains

An Interview with Eileen Kiera

By Tracey Pickup

I first met Dharmacarya Eileen Kiera (True Lamp) at Deer Park Monastery when she was giving a Dharma talk. I found myself drawn in by her simple and illuminating presence and the intimate way that she spoke about the natural environment of the rural practice center, Mountain Lamp, where she lives in northern Washington. Since that time I have returned to Mountain Lamp regularly to practice with her, the Sangha, the trees, and the forest creatures. On a late February day with the snow falling on firs and cedars, we sat down to talk about her life of practice.

Tracey Pickup: How and why did you start your spiritual journey?

Eileen Kiera: I believe I always had a spiritual draw toward stillness and the beauty of nature. That led to my eventual career as an ecologist specializing in arctic/alpine ecology. I began my meditation practice while working in the Arctic, where there was the vast spaciousness and deep stillness of the place. Only the periodic call of a bird or whistle of the wind broke the silence. I spent hours sitting behind a spotting scope watching the nesting sites of the Black Brant, and other activity in the salt marshes I was studying. In the summer the sun never sets, and I would sit through the days of bright, white sunlight and the golden nights when the sun ran along the northern horizon.

TP: What inspired you to follow Thay in those early years?

EK: Thay feels like a being of love. And peace. He emanates that, even in the face of all that he and Sister Chan Khong went through in Vietnam. When he talked about what he had gone through in the war, I always asked myself, “What would I have done in that situation?” I was challenged by his example as well as moved by his love.

TP: Was there any memorable moment or interaction that illuminated that?

EK: There were many. When we were at KokoAn, Thay noticed a beautiful calligraphy by Zen master Hannya Gempo. We walked up to look at it, so Thay could read the characters. I stood one step behind him out of respect, but he stepped back to stand equal with me. He wouldn’t let me stand behind him. Through the years, he has consistently shown me great kindness. At the same time, he cut me no slack when I’ve done something wrong. He told me when I was being foolish. He helped me see and transform so many habit energies and for that, I am eternally grateful.

TP: What are the general principles that he would consider foolish?

EK: Excluding other people, jealousy, competition, arguing, and picking and choosing who you did and did not want to associate with.

TP: What did you learn from being with him?

EK: I’ve learned to let go and to look with the eyes of love.

TP: You sought and found instruction in meditation. Why was it important to have teachers in your life? Couldn’t you have found this by seeking on your own?

EK: I couldn’t have. I continually get too caught in myself and my ideas and my constructs. I need a form and a teacher to challenge me to let those ideas, constructs, viewpoints, and attachments go.

TP: And by letting go of those attachments, what happened?

EK: Many layers of personality have fallen away, bit by bit, over the years. I feel more free, and in that freedom, there is a sense of peace and the connection that love gives.

TP: For most of your life you have been struggling with chronic celiac disease. How did you practice with the pain and the impact it had on you?

EK: I was sick without knowing why for many years. Before I was diagnosed, my practice allowed me to rest, and to transform personal pain and losses, kind of on a moment-by-moment basis—I didn’t know why life was so difficult, but practice allowed me to be there with whatever came. After I was diagnosed, and I under stood my difficulties better, my practice helped me to grieve and accept the losses. Mostly, however, celiac disease strengthened my determination and intention in practice.

TP: How did you touch that intention when you were so sick?

EK: When I was most sick, shortly before diagnosis, I couldn’t sustain a sitting meditation practice. I didn’t have the energy to sit upright for any amount of time, but I could practice when I took a step from the bed. I could be completely there in that step. That’s what became my practice—just this breath, just this step. I couldn’t do what I thought of as practice, ideas like “now I do twenty-five minutes of sitting meditation,” or “now I need to go on a retreat.” I couldn’t do any of that. I could just take this step. It was really very helpful. My intention to practice became really strong. When I got diagnosed and began the journey back to health, that deep aspiration and strength of intention carried me through other ob­stacles. I knew I could practice with any circumstances: healthy or not healthy, living or dying, with suffering or with joy. Fewer things got in the way of being mindful.

TP: Do you find you still carry that same intention?

EK: Of course it has changed now, but yes. It kept my practice alive and constant through working in the world, raising a daughter, being with my father over the years of his illness and death. It was also the wellspring that gave rise to the vision of Mountain Lamp.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Khong, Eileen Kiera, Jack Duggy, and Sangha at a retreat held by Aitken Roshi (seated beside That), KokoAn Zendo, Honolulu, Hawaii, November 1985

TP: In addition to supporting local Sanghas, working with stu­dents to deepen their practice, and leading retreats both here and in other countries, you are also developing a rural practice center in Washington for laypeople called Mountain Lamp. What gave you the inspiration to do this and why do you think it is important?

EK: A lot of it came from Jack and I wanting a lifestyle we came to know at KokoAn and Plum Village. We wanted to live in com­munity, to have people to sit with and walk with, and to have the support of others in practice. We knew there were some things that were essential for practice—having a spiritual home, having a teacher, having a Sangha that shares an ethical basis of precepts and mindfulness trainings. So the aspiration is to create a life of practice that has the potential to support other laypeople and create community—a spiritual home for many people.

Photo by Dzung Vo

TP: What is happening with the community of Mountain Lamp right now?

EK: We have a daily schedule of sitting meditation in the morn­ing, followed by breakfast in community and a period of work meditation. There are regular Days of Mindfulness and an annual one-month retreat. People come for personal retreats, and some people stay longer as residents.

In addition, my husband is a teacher in the lineage of Aitken Roshi. We hold Zen sesshin at Mountain Lamp as well as mind­fulness retreats. In some things, Jack and I co-teach, but mostly we keep the forms of the traditions pure in their own right. Ad­ditionally there are Sangha-led events, like Days of Mindfulness, Buddha’s birthday, and the annual harvest festival.

Over the years, we’ve welcomed Sister Jina, Sister Annabel, Thay Phap Dung, and Thay Phap Tri to teach and lead the com­munity in practice. We were grateful to have two brothers from Deer Park, Brother Phap Ho and Brother Phap De, lead a Day of Mindfulness at Mountain Lamp in May. In the years to come, we look forward to many more visits from our monastic brothers and sisters.

We are moving toward a more structured schedule with the awareness that as laypeople we need to work, and we have commitments outside of Mountain Lamp. We live together in an atmosphere of trust that we are together for the same purpose—to support each other and offer joy in practice.

More information about Mountain Lamp can be found at www.mountainlamp.org.

Tracey Pickup, True Fragrant Field, started the Wild Rose Sangha (www.wildrosesangha.ca) in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and is currently residing at Mountain Lamp as the Temple Keeper.

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To Continue Beautifully

Sangha, Loss, and the Creative Process: An Interview with Susanne Olbrich

By Philip Toy 

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Into the nebulous, ongoing mystery of life I welcome, as if through an open door, the continuing spirit of the one I have loved.
– Martha Whitmore Hickman

During our summer 2010 pilgrimage to Ireland and Scotland, while visiting the Findhorn Community, we were invited by Northern Lights Sangha to conduct two Days of Mindfulness. One of the Sangha leaders, Susanne Olbrich, True Ever-present Stability—pianist, composer, and teacher—graciously consented to this interview.

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Philip Toy: Susanne, you have just returned from a concert tour in Germany, where your Marama Jazz Trio was warmly received. You composed some of the music after the sudden loss of your dear friend and former partner. One piece, “Beyond Gone,” was a meditation you played soon after hearing the news of H.’s passing. How do your practice and your music relate to such a loss?

Susanne Olbrich: It was in Plum Village during the ‘05-‘06 Winter Retreat, just after H.’s suicide, where I took refuge in the Three Jewels. Thay’s teaching on continuation supported me then, especially in light of his conviction that those who take their own lives may not have a good chance of continuing beautifully. Then and there I made a deep commitment to help my friend continue beautifully. Thus the piece “Beyond Gone”—a phrase from Stephen Levine’s book, Who Dies?

PT: Keeping such a commitment in the wake of deep loss requires extraordinary support. Where and how did you find support and encouragement?

SO: It started the first few moments after hearing the news when the shock set in and my legs began to go numb. It seemed as if what kicked in and began to operate was an emergency program designed to hold me. I heard the instruction, “Breathe, just breathe!” This inner voice lingered, and later became like a reliable old friend suggesting when I should rest, when I could let go of an excess obligation, when to focus on one breath, one step, and when to ask for help. Very unlike me! Yet, I would sit on my cushion much longer than usual, however long it took for the pain to subside.

PT: I can see how your decade of practice before this loss paid off. Yet, even with this fortunate help, how did you sustain yourself?

SO: I could not do it without my loving and steady Sangha. They gathered at my place, cooked soup, and filled the house with warm food aromas and their even warmer understanding presences. Whether I had the energy to fully participate or not, soon my isolation began to melt in the warmth of their companionship and compassion—their Sangha eyes, hearts, and hands.

PT: I know from my own experience of the death of my son, Jesse, by drug overdose, and my very close association with Sangha—the complexity of the loss of a child, likely by suicide, calls out for a rich and special brand of caring. How does Sangha embrace and minister to these complexities?

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SO: Making space and holding it, deep listening, sharing from the heart—all central components of effective Dharma discussion— together with the gift of benevolently witnessing one another in the circle. These all allow for the kind of conscious grieving and reflecting that can help dissolve searing issues and questions, such as not having time for bidding goodbye to the lost loved one, or the anger and guilt of “What did I do, or not do,” or “What could I have done,” or “If only….” We can allow all this to unfold within the stable and protective space of the Sangha without fear of getting lost or overcome.

PT: You and I share the experience of surrendering and taking refuge in Sangha following a tragic loss. For me it was key to surviving those earliest days, weeks, and months after my son’s death. As Thay teaches, the Buddha is there, too, in the midst of Sangha. Were you able to take refuge in the Buddha?

SO: The Buddha I took refuge in was the Buddha I had discovered in myself through practice, especially practice with my Sangha. It was the energy capable of witnessing tears and distress with utmost tenderness and letting me know it was okay. There arises an open space for us to recognize harsh feelings and thoughts. Within the fold of Sangha, these feelings may be held gently in the light of awareness, and we may finally watch them evaporate! This was the single most powerful act of self-care I could have given to myself—not just once or twice, but again and again with patience and perseverance. This is the love that heals.

PT: You say you made a commitment to help your lost partner continue beautifully. Tell us more about that commitment.

SO: Thay says that Dharma, too, can be found in Sangha. In Plum Village Sangha those five years ago, I read Thay’s book, No Death, No Fear. Through the teachings on no-birth, no-death, transformation, and continuation, my sense of deep loss was mitigated some and it sparked a new awareness. I was able to see the ways in which my lost friend continues: his adult children, the song I wrote for him, the tree planted at his memorial, the sturdy wooden tables he built for our Findhorn Community Centre, the grove in the Scottish Highlands planted in his honor as part of a national reforestation project, and of course, the many memories I and others hold dear. Also at that winter retreat, I birthed the idea for a new album, a CD in H.’s honor. The cover art would be one of H.’s beautiful nature photographs and the album’s name would be Continuations, in order to celebrate that: “Nothing exists on its own…. Everything is a continuation of something else, and everything will continue in manifold forms…. Nothing is ever lost.” Manifestation of the CD took nearly four years. Every step of the project was a teaching for me, from cover design to legal questions about royalties, from finding a manufacturer to creating a record label, and it was a labor of love. When I finally held the finished product in my hands, with H.’s photo of the Scottish West Coast, it was beautiful. I knew part of my grief had transformed into something else; an artistic offering, a rose from the compost.

PT: You seem to have a heightened awareness of transformation and continuation, leading to the birthing of your Continuations CD; there’s an interaction between mindfulness and the creative process.

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SO: Yes. The energy generated in mindfulness and the practice of deep listening, together with a present-moment focus—allowing what is to be—are working elements for me during the composition or playing of a musical piece. Composing music in its essence has much to do with listening deeply. What takes shape in my inner ear—from apparently mysterious sources—often amazes me. I simply could not have thought it out. In the case of “Beyond Gone,” that’s exactly what happened. About six weeks or so after H.’s suicide when many of my friends had gone back to normal, I was still feeling anything but normal. There was this not-so-subtle pressure that I should be over and done with this grief—ready to move on. In this emotionally stuck place, I had a strong impulse to play for H. It was a meditation.

PT: Your band members’ masterful back-up and solos on Continuations could be seen as an extended Sangha support for you in your grief journey.

SO: Yes, I am extremely fortunate to have found Anja Herold (soprano and tenor saxophone) and Jens Piezunka (acoustic bass and cello). Both bring an extraordinary quality of listening, musical sensibility, and creative imagination to the project. Both of these seasoned improvisers have significantly broadened my musical horizons. Musically, creatively, as well as personally, my work with Marama Trio has been harmonious and joyful.

PT: It seems that as your grief unfolded, your creative process ran parallel to your practice, or in concert with it. I’ve discovered that grief is different for everyone, that it’s at best a bumpy road, and that there is no fast forward button.

SO: Exactly my experience. During the final stage of the creative journey that led to the Continuations CD, I was blessed with two extra-large helpings of Plum Village energy. I was able to spend a whole month with Thay and the Sangha for Summer Opening, 2008, and again for Path of the Buddha Retreat, 2009. Feelings of inadequacy, ignorance of the technicalities of CD production, plans gone awry, bouncing between Scotland where I live and Germany where my band members live—all of these left little time for rehearsals and other preparations. So the energy of the practice was strong in me when I needed it most.

At Findhorn we have woven into the fabric of the community workday the practice of “attunement,” a kind of practical, organizational deep listening. Shifts in every department—management, kitchen, garden—begin with a joint attunement, sometimes holding hands, sometimes sitting around a candle, always breathing together for a moment in silence with a wish to benefit others, uniting heart and mind for the task at hand. While producing Continuations, for the first time in my life I adopted regular attunement sessions for my own often solitary musical work and have continued the practice ever since. We’ve discovered that our attuned work frequently yields a better result than work driven simply by efficiency-oriented thinking mind.

PT: You are very fortunate to have the dual communities of Northern Lights Sangha and the Findhorn Community to engage with, especially in times of great loss and creative struggle.

SO: Yes, I feel gratitude for these two amazing groups every day. I’ve been living in the spiritual community of Findhorn for over ten years now, and our inherent humanistic and ecological missions inform all that I do, here in my Sangha and everywhere I travel. While in the distant past my life has felt at times like pushing the proverbial boulder up the mountain, guided by Buddha mind within these two communities, the CD manifestation unfolded remarkably gracefully. I wish I could claim success practicing equanimity in every corner of my life. In fact, work and relationships are two areas where I do get caught in habit energies more often than I like. Yet, mindfulness practice over the years—be it through dark paths of grieving or inspiring musical projects—has informed and enriched my life. Music, like mindfulness, has the capacity to bring us home to ourselves and in touch with the wordless, refreshing, and healing aspects everywhere surrounding us. With it we can water seeds of beauty, understanding, and love. The piano has been my passion since age six and, long before I knew the term “meditation,” it became a refuge, a place to learn about concentration and dwelling happily in the present moment.

PT: I noted that some of the most common audience responses to your music during the Germany concerts were meditative: “soulful,” “spacious,” “it slowed me down in a pleasant sort of way.”

SO: Yes, though the project may not explicitly be about Dharma, it makes me so very happy to have touched listeners in this way.

PT: Thank you very much, Susanne. May you and your work in this world ever remain soulful and spacious.

Author’s note: On our return from Isle of Skye to Findhorn for our second Day of Mindfulness, I received news that my sole surviving elder brother had died. As I reflect on our stay at Findhorn, although we were across the ocean and far from home, we could not have been in a more accepting, loving, and understanding environment. From my sundown bedroom window at the Shambala Retreat House, I watched the tide wash out over Findhorn Bay, and I knew, despite everything—maybe because of everything—all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.

For more information about Susanne Olbrich and her music, visit www.myspace.com/susanneolbrich or www.susanneolbrich.webs.com.

mb58-ToContinue6Philip Toy, True Mountain of Insight, and his wife Judith have founded three Sanghas in Thay’s tradition. Since 1993, they have hosted mindfulness practice centers—first at Old Path Zendo in Pennsylvania, and for the last twelve years at Cloud Cottage Sangha, Black Mountain, North Carolina. Philip is a poet and jazz pianist. Cloud Cottage Editions is the Toys’ Dharma publishing imprint.

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Dharma Talk: Community as a Resource

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

We can make people happy. One person has the capacity to be an infinite resource of happiness for others. The more we practice the art of mindful living, the more we become a source of happiness and joy. This is possible.

Thich Nhat Hanh

But we need a place, such as a retreat center or a monastery, where we can go to renew ourselves. The features of the landscape, the buildings, and the sound of the bell should be designed to remind us to return to awareness. Even when we cannot actually go to the retreat center, we can think of it, smile, and feel ourselves becoming peaceful.

The community does not need to be big. It is enough to have ten or fifteen permanent residents who emanate freshness and peace, the fruits of living in awareness. When we go there, they care for us, console and support us, and help us heal our wounds.

From time to time, the residents can organize large retreats so that we can learn the arts of enjoying our lives more and taking good care of each other. Mindful living is an art, and this community can be a place where joy and happiness are real. They can also offer Days of Mindfulness, so that people can come and live one happy day together in community. And they can organize courses that teach The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, and other courses on Buddhist psychology and healing in a Buddhist way. Most retreats will be for preventive practice, practicing mindful­ness before things get too bad. But some retreats should be for people who are undergoing a lot of suffering, although even then two-thirds of the retreatants should be healthy, happy people. Otherwise it may be difficult to succeed.

Practice has a lot to do with the happiness of the people in a family or a community. We practice not only in the meditation room, but in the kitchen, the backyard, the office, and in school as well. How can we incorporate practice into our daily lives, so that our daily lives can be joyful and happy?

The sangha is a community that lives in harmony and awareness. When you are with your family and you practice smiling, breathing, recognizing the Buddha in yourself and your children, then your family becomes a sangha. If you have a bell in your home, the bell becomes part of your sangha, because the bell helps you to practice. If you have a cushion, then the cushion also becomes part of the sangha. Many things help us practice. The air, for breathing. If you have a park or a river bank near your home, you can enjoy practicing walking meditation. You have to discover your sangha. Invite a friend to come and practice with you, have tea meditation, sit with you, join you for walking medita­tion. All these efforts can help you establish your sangha at home. Practice is easier if you have a sangha.

The foundation of a community is a daily life that is joyful and happy. In Plum Village, children are the center of attention. Each adult is responsible for helping the children be happy, because we know that if the children are happy, it is easy for the adults to be happy. In old times, families were bigger. Not only nuclear families, but uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins all lived together. Houses were surrounded by trees where they could hang hammocks and organize picnics. In those times, people did not have many of the problems we do now. Today, our families are very small. Besides Mom and Dad, there are just one or two children. When the parents have a problem, the whole family feels the effects. The atmosphere in the house is heavy, and there is nowhere to escape. Sometimes a child may go to the bathroom and lock the door just to be alone, but still there is no escape. The heavy atmosphere permeates the bathroom too. So the child grows up with many seeds of suffering and can never feel truly happy and then transmits these seeds to his or her children.

Formerly, when Mom and Dad had some problems, the children could always escape by going to an aunt or an uncle. They still had someone to look up to, and the atmosphere was not so threatening. I think that communities of mindful living can replace our former big families, be­cause when we go to these communities, we see many aunts, uncles, and cousins, and that can help us a lot.

You know that aged people are very sad when they have to live separately from their children and grandchildren. This is one of the things in the West that I do not like very much. In my country, aged people have the right to live with the younger people. It is the grandparents who tell fairy tales to the children. When they get old, their skin is cold and wrinkled, and it is a great joy to hold their grandchild, so warm, so tender. When a person grows old, his or her deepest hope is to have a grandchild to hold in his or her arms. They hope for it day and night, and when they hear that their daughter is pregnant, they are so happy. Nowadays the elderly have to go to a home where they live only among other aged people. Just once a week they receive a short visit, and afterwards they feel even sadder. We have to find ways for old and young people to live together again. It will make all of us very happy.

A community of mindful living should be in a beautiful location in the countryside. In many cities today, you do not see a lot of trees, because so many trees have been cut down. I imagine—and I believe it is very close to reality—a city which has only one tree left. (I don’t know what kind of miracle helped preserve that one tree.) Many people in that city have become mentally ill because they are so alienated from nature, our mother. In the old time, we lived among trees and we sat in hammocks. Now we live in small boxes made of concrete. The air we breathe is not clean, and we get sick, not only in our bodies but in our souls.

I imagine that there is a doctor in the city who under­stands why everyone is getting sick, and every time some­one comes to him, he tells them, “You are sick because you are cut off from Mother Nature.” And he gives them this prescription: “Each morning, take the bus and go to the tree in the center of the city and practice tree-hugging medita­tion. Hold the tree and breathe in, ‘I am with my mother.’ Then breathe out, ‘I am happy.’ And look at the leaves so green and smell the bark of the tree that is so fragrant.” The prescription is for fifteen minutes of breathing and hugging the tree. After doing it for three months, the patient feels much better. But the doctor has many patients, and he gives each of them the same prescription.

So I imagine a bus in the city going in the direction of the tree, while people are standing in line, waiting their turn to embrace the tree and breathe. But the line is several miles long, and the crowd is becoming impatient because they have to wait for such a long time. They demand new laws which will limit each person to just one minute of tree-hugging. But one minute is not long enough to be effective, and then there is no remedy for society’s sickness. I am afraid we will be close to that situation very soon, if we are not mindful of what is going on in the present moment.

When we practice mindful living, we know what is going on in every moment of our daily lives. When we throw a banana peel into the garbage, we know it is a banana peel, and that banana peels decompose quickly and become flowers. But when we throw a plastic bag into the garbage, we have to know that it is a plastic bag. This is a practice of meditation: “I am throwing a plastic bag into the garbage can.” If we practice mindfulness, we will refrain from using things made of plastic, because we know that they take much more time to degrade into soil and become flowers. And we know that disposable diapers take four or five hundred years, so we refrain from using them. Nuclear waste, the most difficult kind of garbage, takes 250,000 years to become a flower. We are making the Earth an impossible place for our children to grow up.

Practicing mindfulness with friends allows us to get in touch with the healing aspects of life, Breathing mindfully the clean air, we plant seeds of healing within ourselves, our friends, and society. Smiling, we realize peace and joy. Communities of mindful living are very important for us to cultivate these practices.

Excerpted from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Lecture at the “Cultivat­ing Mindfulness” Retreat, Mt. Madonna Center, Watson­ville, California, April 1989.

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