RETREATING WITH TILOPA*

JON GREGG

A SELECTION OF SHORT POEMS, WRITTEN ON ANNUAL 4 WEEK SOLITARY
RETREATS, IN A CABIN AT KARME CHOLING, TIBETAN BUDDHIST 
MEDITATION CENTER, IN WEST BARNET, VERMONT
FEBRUARY – 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021



“ why are Buddhists in retreat all the time; 
………don’t we ever get to advance ? “ 
Larry Rosenberg


 * TILOPA 10thCentury Buddhist Meditation Master


Tilopa* and the Bluebird                                                                                         

On Retreat, for four weeks every morning
I spread sunflower seeds on the cabin porch.
For the birds; yesterday a Bluebird, or was it a Jay?
Today they’re two, what relationship do I presume?

Buddha said our presumptions are mostly wrong, as is
our view of how the world is, or how we want it to be.
The world is the world, whether we show up or not;
and trees falling in forests, don’t care who hears them. 

Certainly not the self-important I, thinking that
my presence determines what was, is, or may be.
Ears hear, eyes see, brains think, and none need me.
They proceed from and recede back into Emptiness; 

Emptiness, the limitless potential which is their forever home.
The Bluebirds perch; but, I’m not ready for Instagram.
So now I sit, camera cocked and waiting, but why?.
the Bluebirds are present, in a photo they’ll be past; 

Tilopa says, “don’t try to figure anything out.’
Tilopa says, “don’t try to make anything happen.”
Tilopa says, “let go of what has passed.”
Tilopa says, “let go of what may come. “

One can’t will the birds to pose for a photo,
Just rest, relax, be grateful they are there; 
Just feed the birds, hear their chirps, see their colors,
Just watch them flying back and forth …..and smile.

* Tilopa  – 10th Century Indian Meditation Master

Bluebird, Photo

I photographed a Bluebird
yesterday, when it was cloudy. 
Just now I “shot “him in the sun ,
“much better” …… really, why?


And why the photo ? and for whom ?
If it’s for me,…. I just saw the bird, 
in the present moment, which we shared.
In the photo the bird is in the past. 

A conceptual bird, not in the Now, drawing me
away from where my real life is, and can only be.
I wait because the bird may come again 
and I wonder as I wait……why I do?

Ornithology

I grew up in Manhattan, where Ornithology
was nothing we knew ( except Coltrane’s ).
There were pigeons and there were pigeons; mostly grey,
sometimes a white one, occasionally brown-flecked. 

There were shiny blue-black birds, with an iridescent sheen, 
and then the small gray-brown sparrows, starlings, and wrens.
They pecked the smaller crumbs the pigeons left, when seniors
in the park, sitting in the sun, fed them their stale bread.

70 years later, on Retreat in Vermont, a February day,  
the bird outside eating the seeds, is a Bluebird or a Jay.
If I’d studied Ornithology, many years ago, I could tell which is which;
But don’t regret not doing so…. and really don’t need to know.

Birds’ Return

Each year on Retreat I feed the birds; 
spread seeds on the cabin’s porch rail.
It always starts slow, for the first few days,
no feeders flying in, to sample the feast.

Then, the first one alights, to view the fare;
next day it brings a pair, for the easy eats
Gray white feathered balls, fluffed out round,
fill the morning with their excited chatter.

Fluffed against the February morning chill
I smile, so glad they’re still coming .
Does he or maybe she, smile back at me,
it’s hard to see, they move so fast. 

What kind of bird is it?  what genus, species et al
what’s its name, is it he or she, a father, mother?
a sibling, cousin, niece, nephew and how old?
Where does it live, how does it survive winter cold?

I see the birds as my friends who visit, eat and leave ,
friends whose names, genders, and ages, I don’t know.  
Then the flood gates open, there’s a constant parade,
do they have Air Traffic Control in their avian world ?

They’re stacked up over the cabin, like planes at JFK,
circling, arriving, departing, from sunrise through noon .
Why don’t they fly south? perhaps because they know;
every month a solitary Buddhist, will provide “seeds to go .“

The Cost of Joy

Day 23, the 1st day of this Retreat,
it’s warm enough to eat sitting outside in the sun.
Sitting on the porch, where each morning I spread seeds,
for the winter hungry birds, who breakfast with me.

They come without fear, trusting a swift wing 
to fly away, if some thing doesn’t look right.
Their breakfast is seeds; but as I’m running low,
I add granola….. it doesn’t appear to matter.

The average Hollywood film costs $18,000,000;
with my phone I make a video of the birds for free,
a “documentary” of their feeding, no ticket needed.
Has any Hollywood movie ever given me greater joy?

The Problem With Solitary Retreat 

The problem with Solitary Retreat, is the people you meet.
You see no one, but that doesn’t mean you’re alone.
No one visits, no need; because they’re already here;
in the books you brought, and the problem starts there.

You spend a month with Buddha, Thay, and Trungpa,                                  
Tenzin Gyatso, Dilgo Khyenste, Larry, Joseph and Pema;
seeing the world through their eyes, how life “really” IS;
until it seems theirs is the “normal” view everyone must see

In the presence of their wisdom, kindness and compassion,
the world’s a workable place and often possibly pleasant.
Re-entering “the world” when Retreat is done, makes you unsure,
seeing suffering, old age, sickness, death, poverty, hunger, war.

Should you continue the Retreat? stay in the cabin, close the door ?
Those who’ve guided your month…. your teachers, expect more.
So you open the door, emerge from the cabin and go forward
Vowing with compassion, to try to help others reach “the Other Shore”.

Anachronism

Linguistic anthropologists tell of tongues,
with no words for future or past.

Cultures in which such concepts are unknown, 
Cultures in which, their time is always now. 

Perhaps like Gulliver, Buddha shipwrecked on
a beach, in such a land, and waking on the sand;

without a watch or cellphone, he sat right there,  
until, in time, he knew, that there, was all there is.

4 AM Smile

On Retreat, waking at 4 AM,  
seeing the full moon, I smile. 

Pondering rise or sleep, 
deciding on rise, I smile. 

Seeing coals, adding wood,
stoking the woodstove. l smile.

Opening the damper,
hearing flames roar, I smile.

Feeling the rising heat,  
drinking some water, I smile.

Returning to bed, I smile
and sleep.

Continuation

On Retreat I read “No Death, No Fear” by Thich Nhat Hanh,
read that each cell of mine, carries my ancestors forward;
read we do not come from “ nothing”, we’re their continuation,
like gentle Pogo, now continues in my heart beyond his death

Losing my mother at birth, losing her care, warmth, light
left me, alone, plagued, thereafter, life-long, by darkness;
but, 50 years of refuge in the Dharma and Louise’s love,
has breached the tomb-like gloom, so that I may see.

The Dharma shines, grows stronger, day by day,
inspiring continued practice, year by year 
inspiring Gratitude like Shin Buddhists chanting
Namu Amida Butsu Thank You! is what they say.

Comprehension, Compassion 

Told to choose Comprehension or Compassion, 
as a necessary quality for being …. human;
and that the unselected one will cease to be, 

I choose Compassion, the one that sets us free.
Comprehension leads to technology triumphant,
Compassion leads eventually to Erewhon or Eden.

A small canal side restaurant filled with Gondoliers,
and as our friend Beppe taught them all in school;
we’re invited to join their joy and laughter and pasta.

Affection, goodwill and compassion are palpably present.
They’re having a good time, and we are too, although
we cannot comprehend  a word of their Veneziano.

Compassion can enliven the heart, without speech,
Comprehension may seek to know, but will it reach?
Qualitative and  Quantitative, are often compared,

The plusses of the former, more difficult to declare.
Gains and losses through Comprehension may be fine;
but, were those plus and minuses a contract, would you sign?

Think About It

We cannot control what happens 
in our lives, only our response.

We cannot control change,
only our thoughts about it.

We cannot control old age, illness and death,
only our acceptance of these givens.

But knowing we control our thoughts, 
responses and acceptance, is enough.

How we think, accept, and respond,
determines our lives, our joy, and beyond…..

Think about it

Source and Shadow

On Retreat, at 3 a.m. approaching the woodstove,
in the night, shadows loom larger than their source,
depending on the intensity and direction of the light.

The flashlight, makes my shadow twice as tall;
as it spreads across the wall. So, too shadows of fear 
can grow, fear of the future, over shadowing the Now.

We know thoughts are impermanent, if we let them be;
seeing thoughts of self, me, mine and the I, I knew;
arise and pass, as if you let them just slide through.

ATM’s 

We all have our favorite ATMs; mine are
the Paschi di Siena Bank, on Strada Nova in Venice
Banco de Mexico on Hidalgo in Oaxaca;
the 20 ATMs in the Chase Bank Lobby on 51st and Lex.

All dispensing allowances, as fathers did, in years past;
money coming freely, like Mana from the Heavens.
Hard work / “Right to Livelihood” over time put money in;
but, it only takes a moment with a piece of plastic to get it out.

Would that wisdom accompanied the cash, so perhaps it might,
teach us how, with kindness and compassion, to spend it “right;”
Teach us to spend it with an open heart, “putting others first.”
instead of trying in vain to quench, our unquenchable thirst.

RED SKY AT MORNING  

“Red sky at morning”,
we know the warning that brings;
but has climate change changed 
the sailor’s wisdom too ? 

Today the sky stayed blue all day, 
the sun laughed at our presumption;
shining in timeless reminder, 
of presence, far greater than ours.  

CLIMATE CHANGE

Sunshine brings a smile.
So do happy dogs, babies, children.

Clouds bring smiles in other climes,
a cloudburst joy, a rainstorm, jubilation.

Climate questions vex the West, today,
While in India, Asia and Africa,

4 billion don’t have power even now, but  
do have smartphones, to call up their desires.

They seek the cities light and noise,
in hopeful quest of pots of gold.

While in smiling paradox, I choose a cabin,
in the woods, and meditate, 

to free myself from my desires
in the simplicity and silence they shun.

WAITING FOR THE RAIN

Northern Vermont Spring comes late,
signs of last week’s snow still here.

Less ice on the path to the outhouse,
but Yaktrax are still a good idea.

At 6:00 a.m.  out among bare young trees,
( leaves won’t bud for another month or more ).

On this cloudy warm March morning,
I find I’m waiting for the rain.

Waiting the first rain since November,
the sound of water in pattering drops.

Instead of only silent flakes of snow
We’ve had for half the year .

Then suddenly, I’m not waiting for sounding drops of Spring,
But for the first rain that ever fell, as if earth and I are new.    

6 AND 70

Sun rose in a blue sky, I rose and smiled to see it.
An hour gone, blue turned grey, graying my mood as well.

Sun and clouds releasing rain, allow for life on earth;
of no import, my self-important preference for the sun.

“Rain, rain, go away, come again some other day.”
 we sang, as children; thinking to command the clouds.

Our first 6 years we thought that this was true, then 70 more
to try to learn it’s not….., and not feel somehow cheated.

FOR THE BIRDS

Last year on retreat, same time of year, same cabin,
meditating on the same cushion, facing the same woods
(shorter by a year), through the same window;

in the same small tree, there were 6 – 8 small birds,
( moving branch to branch too fast, to count )
who aren’t there this year.

10th century Tilopa wrote “don’t try to figure anything out”
the birds aren’t here, accept that that is so;
perhaps they’ll return, before Friday when I go.

DAY 8 OF A 28 DAY RETREAT

Go ahead, even when you don’t know why,
and each day’s questions are too big.

“Known can never know unknown”,
and knowing, if possible, isn’t all important.

Today is day 8, tomorrow is day 9, Monday day 10,
just show up and sit.

“don’t try to figure anything out”
“don’t try to make anything happen” 

And don’t forget to breathe.

LIMITED CHOICES

Meditate, chant, sleep, cook,
eat, shit, walk, draw, write,
meditate, think of Louise,
meditate.

No tasks, no plans, no meetings
no dinner and a movie,
no music, TV, phone, no Trump,
no travel, no bike, no painting.

No conversation…
save with saints and demons in my head.
Could I live like this as “normal life” ?
with Louise I could …

And please….. may I have painting too ?

SQUIRREL, BIRD AND SMILE

On retreat, my squirrel brain runs its’ frenzied wheel;
lots of energy expended, for the tiniest of gains.

Like my meditation, over 50 years, repeating questions; as if
salvation was in answers, not here and now – if only I would see.

Then a small bird, puffed against February chill;
grey white feathers, black head and beak alights on the porch.

I smile, am here again, breathe again,
Let go and accept what is.

CROWDED CABIN

Thanks to all who made this privileged isolation possible.

Road builders, cabin builders, walls, roofs, floors, windows and doors,
fashioners of nails, screws and staples; creators of cupboards, cups, 
dishes, pots, pans, propane stoves, lights, sinks, sponges, and shrines,

All made elsewhere, by others, earning their daily dollar;
raised, fed, clothed, taught and trained, and doing the same
for their children, who’ll  grow up, go off, and start it all again.

And all the while, I sit in solitary splendor,
meditating on the illusion of self- sufficiency
save for fortunate glimpses, of the crowd in the cabin.

GRANOLA

Retreats open the heart and concentrate the mind,
with each breath, in, out, long, short, hours and days on end.

Awareness expands of what was, what is, what is yet to be,
And of all the sentient beings therein.

At breakfast with granola, once again the crowd arrives:
farmer, with sires and sons (seeds of other sorts),

tractor driver, harvester, trucker, millhand, wholesaler, merchant,
“butcher, baker, candlestick maker” they strain the cabin walls….

but maybe today…. I’ll have an egg ?

CONTAINED AND CATASTROPHIC

It’s cold at 3:00 a.m. … last night’s bet:
4 blankets against an unlit stove… lost.

Time changes on retreat, unconcerned for losing sleep,
I rise at 3:00 a.m. flashlight in hand to light the stove.

Open the damper, and the door, stir the ashes,
looking for an orange – red glow…

to catch the kindling, without paper,
add firewood, left in readiness before.

And marvel at the pleasure sudden warmth,
of fire, contained in cast iron brings.

Oh Californians! with hills and homes blazing ,
compassion fills the heart, contemplating your conflagration.

PATIENCE AND TRUST

Teachings of patience and trust shine
through tempered glass in the woodstove door.

The lesson starts with the New York Times
(perhaps the Boston Globe),  kindling and matches.

Adjust 2 dampers, one for stovepipe, one for door;
strike a match, and sacred transmission begins.

Advanced students then do nothing, just let go.
Stalwart in Right Patience, confident with Right Trust,

in natural laws of combustion and thermal draft,
they rest secure, serene, knowing heat will come.

Seeing the same lessons, through the same glass door,
the less advanced, not yet firm in Patience and Trust;

fret and cannot let it be; they open the door “to make sure”
draft diminishes, the new fire hides and quells.

They’ve yet to learn door dampers direct the air
where needed, to feed the fire, open doors do not.

They close the door and while they worry,
flame returns, the damper working as it should. 

Lacking Trust they open the door again, “just to check”
by thermal law and stove design, results repeat, flames disappear. 

Disappointed, they take a break for tea,
amazed on their return, to see a blazing fire, hear it roar.

TIPS FROM TILOPA*

“Let go of what has passed”
“Let go of what may come”
“Let go of what is happening right now”
“Don’t try to figure anything out”
“Don’t try to make anything happen
“Rest, Relax, Right Now, and rest ”*

On retreat, watching late February
sun melt snow … does it really matter?

On nearby 91, cars move past… fast
to appointments in Samara or just St. J.

Either way it’s still a drive towards death…
so why the hurry ? “Rest, Relax, Right Now, and rest.”

MILAREPA AND TILOPA OFFER ADVICE

In the 7th Century Milarepa said:
“if demons enter your cave, don’t fight,
 offer them a cup of tea”

In the 10th Century Tilopa said:
“ Don’t try to figure anything out ”
“ Rest, Relax, right now, and rest ”

In 1945 when I was born, my mother killed herself.
War had raged for 6 preceding years,
children by tens of thousands lost their parents.

Since birth I’ve sorrowed for myself,
but still have yet to win the prize
for “ Saddest Childhood Ever ”

… a cup of tea, perhaps?

INTER-BEING WITH MY FATHER’S FEET

One day, you look and see you have your father’s feet.
You’ve passed the secret balance point
between how old you were,
when you noticed your father had “old man’s feet”
and how old you are, when you notice
you’re wearing them.

So now, on retreat, with my fathers feet,
I practice walking meditation, mindfully,
Slowly, I go on the path, to which
the guru’s teaching points the way…
and as I start to walk, I hear my heart
ask my father to come and walk with me.

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