Many people only follow their thinking, their desire, anger and ignorance. So they get suffering in situation after situation.
But if you wake up—right now—you get happiness.
Which one do you like?
Zen Master Seung Sahn
Geri Larkin is one of America’s most popular Buddhist writers, releasing her 11th book and ranking now with such prolific American Buddhist authors as Jack Kornfield and Robert Thurman. Are you questioning this claim? Consider: The best-selling Dalai Lama, of course, has written much more, but he is Tibetan, and Thich Nhat Hanh is Vietnamese. There are only a few American-born-and-grown Buddhist writers of this stature. And, as you may already have noted: Geri is the only female in this list. She is distinctive in other ways, as well.
The real-life stories in her books sometimes are heart-breaking, but more often than not, they’re full of inspiring twists and sometimes downright funny. On that scale, only the quirky American Buddhist writer Brad Warner is more likely to amuse readers with the surprising turns in his true tales. However, for most of us, Geri is the perfectly brewed and carefully steeped cup of tea. While Brad Warner tends to surprise with chapters such as his interview with a porn star in one of his memoirs—Geri makes us smile unexpectedly in her new book with stories like the day her young grandson encountered a ladybug that landed on his hand in a park. That’s a pretty stark contrast: Discovering enlightenment with a porn star vs. a ladybug. As Seung Sahn asks: Which one do you like?
Plus, to our knowledge, Geri is unique among these writers in sprinkling recipes into her books. To be fair, there are many Buddhist-themed cookbooks on the market, and Geri has published only a precious few of her recipes over the years. Still, Geri’s notion that cooking can be a gateway to mindfulness is a lesson we don’t hear so much from the Buddhist guys.
WANT TO TRY ONE OF GERI’S RECIPES? That’s the subject of this week’s Feed the Spirit column by Bobbie Lewis.
WANT HER BOOK? Geri’s newest book is called Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. Click on this link or the book cover, above.
This week, Read The Spirit Editor David Crumm talked with Geri via telephone from her modest home in Oregon.
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BUDDHIST WRITER
GERI LARKIN ON ‘CLOSE TO THE GROUND’
DAVID CRUMM: Let’s start with food. Among the many Buddhist books I’ve got in my home library, I don’t see other leading Buddhist writers paying this much attention to recipes. You clearly enjoy food! Your one children’s book—Drink Juice, Stay Loose—is all about the place of food and meal times in the course of a happy day for children and their parents. Then, in this new book, Close to the Ground, you share a couple of wonderful recipes.
Why do you write about food?
GERI LARKIN: Yes, I have put in one or two recipes per book. In The Chocolate Cake Sutra: Ingredients for a Sweet Life, of course, I give my chocolate cake recipe. And in Plant Seed, Pull Weed: Nurturing the Garden of Your Life, I give a recipe for stir-fried dandelions, which I like to serve over buckwheat noodles. So, yes, I’ve given out a number of my recipes over the years.
In this new book, I write about the mindfulness in cooking a meal. If you give yourself permission to really focus on the process of cooking a meal for others, as I describe it in the book, then cooking can become a great introduction to mindfulness. Cooking for others also is related to generosity. Really, cooking a meal for guests can wind up touching on all the seven factors I describe in the book: Mindfulness, Investigation of Phenomena, Energetic Effort, Ease, Joy, Concentration and Equanimity.
DAVID: In a moment, we’ll talk about that list of seven factors, which come from early Buddhist writings, but first: Explain more about why you chose to write about something as apparently simple as making a home-cooked meal in a book about these ancient principles.
GERI: In this book, I was determined not to get too Buddhist-y. Many Buddhist teachings and practices take years to appreciate and develop. It takes a long time in life to approach what might be called mature spirituality, but we have to start somewhere. And we all can start, every day, with small things we experience and choose to do. One way to begin to come close to mindfulness is through really focusing on the preparation of a meal. Mindfulness often involves a focused activity and cooking is a great activity to choose.
You know, over the years, I’ve eaten food at so many retreats and I’ve been served so many meals as a guest. And I can always tell when things were prepared mindfully, when the cooking itself was a spiritual practice.
DAVID: So, how is a recipe like a ladybug? Readers of this interview are probably wondering about the substance of this book, since they’ll first see the ladybug and now we’re talking about food.
GERI: These seven factors can be difficult to understand and to practice. I’m trying to give readers a lot of different triggers that can help us to begin feeling what I’m writing about. So, in the first part of the book, I write about my grandson discovering that ladybug in the park.
MINDFULNESS & ‘FIRE OF ATTENTION’
DAVID: That’s the first of the seven sections in this book: Mindfulness. And, I suspect, that’s such a well-known part of Buddhism that a lot of readers will be tempted to skip over the first chapter. What do we “all know” about Buddhism? Mindfulness. You write, “every dharma teacher I have ever known has emphasized mindfulness over just about anything else.”
GERI: You’re right. The problem is that people don’t really understand what we’re saying, at first. I think most people when they think about mindfulness, they hear us saying: Pay attention. And that’s not a bad first cut at the meaning—but it’s only the first cut. What most people miss is the “fire of attention.” There’s a huge difference between just paying attention and being truly mindful. So, in the story of my grandson finding the ladybug on his hand—we both became completely involved with that ladybug. An asteroid could have struck behind us and we wouldn’t have noticed! Mindfulness is the portal into all the rest of these seven factors.
DAVID: You just mentioned a phrase I was going to ask about—”fire of attention.” Partway through the chapter on mindfulness, you describe the achievement of deeper mindfulness with that phrase.
GERI: The Buddha used that: “fire of attention.” When you do your meditation and you sit, you should be putting so much energy into your mindfulness that it’s like your head is on fire. Think about how different that idea is than just trying to pay attention. But you can’t get to the fire of attention without starting at paying attention. The next step up from that is: What’s your body feeling like? What’s your mind feeling like? So many things go into this practice. You move along this whole process until you can reach a point where there is nothing else left out of your attention. When you get there, so much else drops away. You don’t have energy left for anxiety. You don’t have energy left for all this other stuff that keeps us from truly living our lives.
And, this fire of attention is available to everybody. Oh my God, I can’t give you enough fabulous words to describe this! But, you really don’t have to believe anything to do this. You don’t have to trust Buddha or anything—you can just practice putting this kind of energy into what you’re doing. You start to feel how this stuff really works. For me, it’s almost like—well, it’s almost like burning up all the negative gunk that accumulates in your heart and mind. There’s a cleansing that happens. I’ve heard Catholic monks who go deep into contemplative prayer describe this. When I talk to them about these experiences, it sounds very much like we are talking about the same kind of energy.
DAVID: A lot of our readers know something about monastic practices of prayer. Most people recall the name Thomas Merton, who was making connections between contemplative prayer and Buddhist practice toward the end of his life. ReadTheSpirit has featured an interview with Father Thomas Keating and, last year, we published an interview with Keating’s friend and disciple David Frenette.
In writing this book, you didn’t simply draw on interfaith insights, or your walks with your grandson, or your recipe box. You’re reaching way, way back to the Pali Canon. So, explain that context.
GERI: Right. The Buddha lived more than 2,000 years ago, and the Pali Canon surfaced some hundreds of years of years after he lived.
DAVID: For Christian readers, we can say: These teachings were handed down through an oral tradition in Buddhism that eventually was written down before the time of Jesus. It’s ancient and it’s considered authentic, right?
GERI: Yes, you’ve got it. Another way to say it—this is from the horse’s mouth. This is real teaching—fundamental Buddhist teaching—that many people have no idea exists. Specifically, this comes out of the Digha Nikaya within the Pali Canon. Most Americans probably have never hard of it, but it’s a portion of the Buddha’s teachings that are really practical advice. It doesn’t occur to many people to think of Buddha as giving out practical advice. But he did! All kinds of people came to him with questions about how to be good people and he gave them advice. I wish people knew more about this.
DAVID: Well, in this book, they’ll learn a lot about these seven factors from that body of teaching.
POVERTY, JOY AND EASE
DAVID: We’ve talked about mindfulness. I want to conclude this interview by asking you to try to summarize—in just a few words—a couple of the other sections in your book. But first, let me ask a practical question. It’s possible that readers will misunderstand your list of seven factors: Mindfulness, Investigation of Phenomena, Energetic Effort, Ease, Joy, Concentration and Equanimity. Readers might think this list sounds like “prosperity preaching.” But, I’ve known you for years, Geri, and I know how you live your life. You live on next to nothing, right?
GERI: Well, you know, David, that most authors can’t support themselves by writing books. Most authors don’t make much at all. I decided to write this new book, first, to help support Rodmell Press and, second, if I ever see any royalties from book sales, I plan to give the money away. You know how we describe some people as having eyes too big for their stomachs? You know what my problem is? I keep thinking I can give away more than I can! (she laughs) Seriously, I’m always giving away as much as I can. I am living, right now, at what we call the poverty level. I call it living truly close to the ground.
DAVID: And we’re back to the title of the book.
GERI: What I’m trying to tell people is: If we follow these practices, it’s about letting things go in our lives. In the end, how happy we are doesn’t have anything to do with how much stuff we have or how much money we’re earning—period. You might think of this book as lots of baby steps we can take to help us let go of things that are gunking up our lives.
DAVID: And, that’s a great set up to let me ask about a couple of your individual sections in the book. Let’s start with: Joy. Christian readers hear a lot about joy as a spiritual virtue. I recommend that our readers buy your book and read the whole thing to understand your message on joy. But, give us a few words, here, about joy.
GERI: Oh, what can I say in a few words? First, the word joy is so overused that it almost loses its meaning. I’m talking about the kind of joy that we can discover in the great wonderfulness of simple daily life. I’m talking about the joy you can discover in picking your own vegetables from your own little garden. You know, just the other day, I got home and I found these two little neighbor kids standing in the driveway. One of them had pulled a carrot. Another one had an onion from the garden. And they were just standing there, so pleased with these vegetables they had pulled! I had time—so I talked to them. I said, “Well, you’re all ready for supper tonight!” The kids and their wonderment at the vegetables—it was a beautiful little moment so full of joy! It’s the kind of thing you’d miss entirely if you were rushing around all day trying to make a lot of money and didn’t have the time to enjoy such tings right there in your neighborhood.
DAVID: Those are a few words about joy. Then, please, talk about another section in your book: Ease.
GERI: The bottom line in Buddhist teaching on ease is that it’s about being OK with what is. Now, “what is” includes the fact that we’re all going to die. And learning how to have ease in our lives includes being OK with whatever is. This can be a difficult teaching, but if we begin to experience the kind of ease I’m describing in the book, then something happens. Some readers may describe that “something” as realizing God—or, in my world, we would say that we are realizing Buddha nature. We realize we’re held up by this great loving energy that is generous and joyful and always there, no matter what. But we must have the courage to fall into that pillow.
DAVID: And, there’s much more in the book! Before we end, though, I want to share the book’s final line: “Take good care of yourself.” If you’ve read the whole thing, those words really resonate. That’s what you hope people will do as they close your back cover, right?
GERI: I hope that people will close the cover and walk away trusting themselves more as possibilities—trusting that they really deserve to live a life that’s full of joy and ease. That’s what I wish for. I really do wish that people would take good care of themselves.
If people only knew how precious they are!
TAKE THE NEXT STEP …
WANT GERI LARKIN’S NEW BOOK? You can order Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment by clicking here or on the book cover, at top.
WANT TO TRY ONE OF GERI’S RECIPES? That’s the subject of this week’s Feed the Spirit column by Bobbie Lewis.
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