I was first introduced to Buddhism during a course in college on world religions. I was raised Lutheran but was so confused and questioning of it my entire childhood. I then found Unitarian Universalism and it again exposed me to world religions but the one that resonated with me the most was Buddhism, mindfulness and dharma. I then met a friend in college and later married, his parents were journey beginning from the introduction, to the west, by Jon Cabot Zinn. His book, “Wherever You Go There You Are” was an easy guide.
But my practice really deepened after experiencing post pardon depression. It was the Buddhist path that helped me the most come back to the light in life. We taught our 2 daughters the wisdom of Buddhism, which shaped all of our worldviews, especially for compassion. Many years later I was lost in depression again during personal sufferings, I lost my way and entered hot mess territory. After contemplating who am I, remembering meditation, sitting zazen, being-here, right-now, it took me awhile to find the light again.
You have growing up, I had never heard of Buddhism and I was raised Lutheran in the Midwest, and it was when I was in college that I took a world religion course and learned about Buddhism and was fascinated by the practice of it and the precepts seemed so simple. And then in actually practicing meditation, it was so powerful and moving for me personally that I thought, here is a path that I can do. And so later I met a man in college who we later got married and turns out his parents were from China. And so all of a sudden I was really reintroduced to Buddhism in the home, and it was just lived an everyday life at the dinner table and talking with our children. We were gifted many books on Buddhism for children that really helped open their world up to be a more compassionate person, especially. And they carry that to this day into their adulthood. And and I’m old enough that I think the earliest introduction in the west of Buddhism was Jon Kabat-Zinn, and he was very easy to find the guidance from in his first book Wherever You Go, There You Are, which I loved the title. And and then I started to find other teachers and larger teachers around the world to not Han and Premiere children and Tabarrok. In addition to where some of the ones I found that just really resonated with me. Who? Really taught me some valuable lessons and drama, and so I never followed a very strict one path, one teacher rule. I’ve been very open and I’ve always been very open and I incorporate ceremony from Native American lineages from Judaism. I I just think there’s a lot of gems and a lot of it for Buddhism has been my anchor and will continue to be through the work that I do.
Well, I picked up a book of Thich Nhat Hanh and changed my life and just delved more and more and more into the lineage from Vietnam that he brought and introduced to the West. And I find his teachings have been the most resonant with me, and I find that his teachings are in all of the other teachers that are coming into my life. And so I don’t see myself ever becoming a nun or becoming so devout that I can’t live the life that I’ve carved out, that I can work within our Western society. And and with my family and with my husband. And so the teachings that come through the great masters that from their teachers, the lineage from their teachers all come down and then I can learn from some of those traditions.
Right sitting, yeah, and I learned that because sitting meditation is not always comfortable. But sometimes if I can be doing things, I can be very focused. Sometimes when I’m sitting, my mind wanders. But if I’m actually doing something, I can stay very focused, especially something like walking, walking, meditation. I can stay very focused and really go deep. My husband, David, his meditation is windsurfing. He goes every day and he just becomes one with the water, and he’s alone and he comes back a much calmer human being. So I encourage him. And then I’m in the garden and I it’s always silent for me. I never look for distractions like podcasts or anything like that. And I am in the soil and all the microbes of the soil and all the worms and the seeds that I put in. I think all of them and. I may hold a seed and breathe for a while and contemplate that seed and then put it in the soil. And months later, months later, the biggest joy is seeing this fruit or vegetable and bringing it in and cooking it and putting it on the table to nourish my children, my husband , myself. It is so satisfactory and to be grateful for that meal and take some deep breaths together communally to just ground us in gratitude. As one of the best. Most sacred Buddhist practices. That I have and. And but I use it, you know, whenever there is distress, that’s a happy example that’s easy for me to do. But when there’s a lot of distress, like coming from a home funeral and helping a family through tremendous grief and helping take care of of a dead person, it’s hard to get in the car to drive away. And so I’ll just stop and go into a meditation and just clear everything away and be grateful for my breath . And that I’m here now and I’m OK, and then I can drive away without causing an accident. And so there’s a lot of joy that the that I can incorporate the practice in, and the practice brings me out of a lot of pain and suffering. So it’s always there. It’s always there for me and and it’s accessible and it’s easy. And I don’t need anything except myself, and I love that. I don’t have to be any specific place. It’s just with me. You know, wherever you go, there you are.
When I really spiral down into a very deep depression after postpartum depression, it was hard to just even move, and I, a friend, gave me a book from Tick not on the blooming of a Lotus. And I would practice it every day and a guided meditation and just breathing with the words, Beautiful moment, wonderful moment. I am OK. I am OK. I am safe in this moment. And it just brought me out because I, you know, in depression, you’re not thinking straight. And I thought, I’m not safe. I’m not safe. Something bad is going to happen. You know, life is bad and just waiting to die. We’re really thoughts on my mind. And to think that, you know, someday these won’t be problems, so they won’t be depressed because I’ll be dead. And I thought, Hey, that’s that’s a really helpful, comforting thought. So since I’m not dad, I’m not suicidal. Let’s feel safe and let’s feel really grateful and feel like.
And I’m not, yeah, David, and I have been together for 44 years. And yes, it’s been a roller coaster, but I must say that one or the other of us can always come back to hearing the other person being supportive of the other person and being compassionate of the other person. And one of us or the other usually has the nugget of wisdom to say this disagreement is not about that. You know, it’s really what is going on. And we usually end up coming to what the real bigger issue is. And then really talking it out, like what kind of control do we really have over those bigger issues and what can serve us? To just be a more compassionate person and role model in life, to share love as opposed to screaming hate. And the lessons very early on with our children and teaching them about loving kindness was everywhere, especially when they went to school and there were children who were bullies and they would tell me about it. And I would remind them that usually people who are really angry are really hurting and they’re really suffering. And so to understand that and have compassion for them. And it really carried them. And it really made them much more compassionate people, much more open people. And I don’t like using the word tolerant of other people. They just love more people. And it’s just been beautiful to see them growing into young women. And they’re such good people. They’re such good souls. David, such a good soul in a lot of ways. He’s much calmer and then I can get worked up, and he’s the one who will usually bring me down with some laughter before we can start to talk about, you know, what is the problem and how can we learn from it? And then how can we heal ourselves with through this suffering? And so. We haven’t sat down with our children and taken them into a specific lineage of Buddhism, but we’ve incorporated whatever we could find here in the West and our small communities and bring it to them. And now, of course, with the internet, that’s so much easier to gather information that at a moment’s notice. And and that’s been really helpful for the girls and for us too. But but I like practicing it in Sangha with others and and even in our small community, there’s a lot of bright, shining, beautiful people . And and, you know, sending out loving kindness to strangers and my daughters to that now is such a powerful feeling of getting back love and the humanity and the hope in humanity that’s there. So all those little nuggets stem from our practice in Buddhism.
In a recent Stanford study, they found out that 80% of people say they want to die at home surrounded by loved ones. And in reality, almost 80% of people end up dying in institutions. Hospitals is ears, ICU in facilities and the family is just clinging to hope or the patient doesn’t want to give up the fight and and accept impermanence. And that is where Buddhism has taught me to accept the dialog and start using the language as death and dying and not losing the fight or passing away or passing on its. It’s living and dying are one of the lessons the Buddha taught as one of our greatest teachers. And you can’t have one without the other. And so what I try to bring to people is that to let the loved one die at home, they will not be in pain with modern hospice and medical care. And I can come in with non-medical care and be a presence for the consciousness of the patient. And sometimes they can say things to a stranger that they cannot say to their family. And I can sit and I can hear it and I can appreciate it. Sometimes a deathbed confessor, my Buddhist teacher is a deathbed confessor in this area and where people can’t tell their families some of the deep darkness maybe regrets they’ve had in life and then working with families who there could be a rift in the family. And, you know, maybe they don’t agree or will not accept that mom is dying and. And that’s where very, very gently I can go in and bring Dharma teachings with me and asking them, What is your understanding of what is going on ? And and in the impermanence of life that we all have to die, that everybody we know and love is of the will to die. And how can we slowly lean into accepting that you don’t have to make friends with it, but maybe just accepting it a little bit? And then slowly by slowly, they can release the grip on keeping mom alive on artificial means because we do have the medical technology to keep people alive on respirators, on feeding tubes. And often the people die alone in the hospitals and the facilities and the institutions, and it’s profoundly sad. And so I’m trying to help people. Feel safe and comfortable with the dialog of death and dying as imminent and that we can do this together. You don’t have to walk alone and I can bring in some of my teachings that will help guide me and not necessarily give it. But they’re certainly my guide in understanding impermanence and and just letting them have what they need during this very difficult time. A time in which none of us is getting out of, and I can’t fix death, but I can help people embrace it a little bit easier. And those I’ve learned through the teachings of impermanence of Buddhism again, frank us to this day writes very beautifully on this. The Zen approach to working with hospice patients, and he goes in with knowing nothing and sitting quietly and maybe start breathing with a person and just noticing their breath, and he’ll pick up with their breath and then they’ll start to calm down. And then he can just ever so gently guide into a conversation of what they think is going on with their body, with their life. Is there anything they haven’t explored? And I love his example. He does not bring the definition of Buddhism into his work as much as just being an open vessel and just coming to serve and just leading out of heart, not out of mind, knowing nothing. And I am just there and open heart and a light, and I think that’s the best guidance we have. I don’t have a pre-made script and because there are so many non Buddhists in our community, I’ll meet them where they’re at. And if they need any traditions, let’s incorporate that. And if that’s what brings you comfort, there’s enough suffering around. By all means, let’s bring you some more relief. There are a lot of atheists, but yet know about Buddhism, and so I can bring some rituals in if they’re open to it too. Just singing bowls and maybe some various essential oils that are very meaningful to anoint a person and and then just very ritualistically washing a body and and then just stopping all of us breathing together, just some deep breathing together. And I don’t necessarily identify it and label it. If someone will ask or if I feel that they’re open to it, I will offer this is based on the teachings of and please let me offer this vigil, this this reading from the Buddha , and they’ll be open to it. But it’s their choice to really bring in and choose what they feel or what their the one who has died would like. And so it’s a very gentle and. A very sacred approach to meeting people where they’re at. Yeah. So I don’t use that venue to advertise Buddhism.
The women in Dharma Retreat is, first of all, such a safe place. Women often times get marginalized and there’s a lot of fear accompanying women in society. And so no one is safety that we’re together and safety and number two, just to be open and honest and to share some of the teachings without being insecure around other, with other with men. And it’s very expressive, very can be very primal, very intimate and and really based on the feminine of Mama Bear mothering, oftentimes as a theme and and our bodies and our bodies, and giving birth and cycling through the seasons of life. And so it is very unique for women and it’s a very powerful and very healing. And you don’t get that opportunity very often. So whenever I see it, I just jump on it because I just come away feeling so much more empowered and also so much more internally lit up from the experience. And I think those are probably the greatest takeaways that women and dharma specifically has to offer.
Yeah. Engaging in Sanga with local groups, there’s three different ones that I go to. And they’re the ones and being together, you just cut through a lot of things with commonality and safety. And then we come with the same terminology and the same understanding, which is so refreshing and and then leaving a sangha. I just get that jolt of this is so powerful and so fulfilling that it forces me then to continue my own personal practice at home. And so if I could go to seven sagas a week, I probably would. But there are three. So I go to that. They’re all different, different teachers and they’re all wonderful and we all share. There’s different people. I learn different things every week and I come back thinking, you know, I never saw that that way. And so we’re constantly growing. We’re always growing. And but the Sangha is what really keeps the motivation for me to continue because they’re so supportive. And now it’s become a ritual. And now everyone in my family knows my schedule is going to be gone at this time. And and so it’s it’s just been a really easy transition to help me stay in practice on my own. And that just makes life that much more rewarding and enriching to take the dharma that I collect from all the song guys and incorporate it in my everyday life and my everyday thought and viewing and not thought and just not thinking. So song is everything to me. That’s community and the beauty of it being an introvert, there’s not always a lot of talking. So it’s beautiful and the energy is palpable. I mean, the energy, when you are in a group meditating, there’s something so powerful and and everyone says they can feel that as opposed to being on your own. And so I draw from that and I draw from the lessons that come up that day and then bring it back and we have my week together.
In my daily experience it is death that brings me the most, surprising, comfort and joy. Death has become the most important teacher for me. I embrace the Buddha’s Five Remembrances on impermanence and it provides me with great illumination. We are all of the nature to grow old, we are all of the nature to die, and our actions are the ground on which we stand. This is what cultivates my gratitude and appreciation for being alive here and now.
My practice is attending sangha three or more times a week. Sitting meditation about 4 times a week for 30 minutes. Lately more and more I practice walking meditation, wilderness sauntering and open my awareness to all of life. I do a lot of gardening and that is always mindful meditation for me. When retreats are available that I may attend I go and they are of great benefit.
Mt. Adams Zen Buddhist Temple at Trout Lake Abbey. The teachers from the Abbey have deepened my understanding of the teachings of Buddha and are they are supportive in meeting me where you I am at.
I am a Death Doula and Certified Home Funeral Guide. It is through what death can teach us, where I discovered how to embrace my path fully. My community service is going strong through public education about death positivity, advocating for death choices, assisting people share their death wishes, giving guidance for sacred home vigils with a dead beloved present, offering grief support, and finally advocating about giving your ultimate gift back to the earth with green or natural burials. The aging western baby-boomers are ready for this shift into conscious dying and the spectrum of death positivity. Death phobia and death denial has not been the most healthy presence in our society.
In Zen, the term shoji translates as “birth-death”. We cannot be truly alive without maintaining an awareness of death. Death is the secret teacher that helps us to discover what matters most in our lives. Being a Death Doula is to meet people at the end of life exactly where they are, without judgment.
I am by nature an introvert and the deep introspection of Buddhism has allowed me to embrace my personality. I believe since people can only meet themselves as deeply as you have meet yourself, this is where you can find the light in the dark times so you can be the light. This is where my Buddhist path makes me to be the best I can be. Light attracts light, and if I sit with someone who isn’t in the light yet, I can sit with them where they are without having to fix anything. We cannot ‘fix’ death after all. This is my social justice work and I could only continue by nourishing self-care through my Buddhist practice and mindfulness.
© 2021 Jack Huynh | Orange Photography
Annual update on progress of project.