REST IN PEACE
by Thich Nhat Hanh
I am a World Trade Center tower, standing tall in the clear blue sky, feeling a violent blow in my side, and I am a towering inferno of pain and suffering imploding upon myself and collapsing to the ground. May I rest in peace.
I am a terrified passenger on a hijacked airplane not knowing where we are going or that I am riding on fuel tanks that will be instruments of death, and I am a worker arriving at my office not knowing that in just a moment my future will be obliterated. May I rest in peace.
I am a pigeon in the plaza between the two towers eating crumbs from someone's breakfast when fire rains down on me from the skies, and I am a bed of flowers admired daily by thousands of tourists now buried under five stories of rubble. May I rest in peace.
I am a firefighter sent into dark corridors of smoke and debris on a mission of mercy only to have it collapse around me, and I am a rescue worker risking my life to save lives who is very aware that I may not make it out alive. May I rest in peace.
I am a survivor who has fled down the stairs and out of the building to safety who knows that nothing will ever be the same in my soul again, and I am a doctor in a hospital treating patients burned from head to toe who knows that these horrible images will remain in my mind forever. May I know peace.
I am a tourist in Times Square looking up at the giant TV screens thinking I'm seeing a disaster movie as I watch the Twin Towers crash to the ground, and I am a New York woman sending e-mails to friends and family letting them know that I am safe. May I know peace.
I am a piece of paper that was on someone's desk this morning and now I'm debris scattered by the wind across lower Manhattan, and I am a stone in the graveyard at Trinity Church covered with soot from the buildings that once stood proudly above me, death meeting death. May I rest in peace.
I am a dog sniffing in the rubble for signs of life, doing my best to be of service, and I am a blood donor waiting in line to make a simple but very needed contribution for the victims. May I know peace.
I am a resident in an apartment in downtown New York who has been forced to evacuate my home, and I am a resident in an apartment uptown who has walked 100 blocks home in a stream of other refugees. May I know peace.
I am a family member who has just learned that someone I love has died, and I am a rabbi who must comfort someone who has suffered a heart-breaking loss. May I know peace.
I am a loyal American who feels violated and vows to stand behind any military action it takes to wipe terrorists off the face of the earth, and I am a loyal American who feels violated and worries that people who look and sound like me are all going to be blamed for this tragedy. May I know peace.
I am a frightened city dweller who wonders whether I'll ever feel safe in a skyscraper again, and I am a pilot who wonders whether there will ever be a way to make the skies truly safe. May I know peace.
I am the owner of a small store with five employees that has been put out of business by this tragedy, and I am an executive in a multinational corporation who is concerned about the cost of doing business in a terrorized world. May I know peace.
I am a visitor to New York City who purchases postcards of the World Trade Center Twin Towers that are no more, and I am a television reporter trying to put into words the terrible things I have seen. May I know peace.
I am a boy in New Jersey waiting for a father who will never come home, and I am a boy in a faraway country rejoicing in the streets of my village because someone has hurt the hated Americans. May I know peace.
I am a general talking into the microphones about how we must stop the terrorist cowards who have perpetrated this heinous crime, and I am an intelligence officer trying to discern how such a thing could have happened on American soil, and I am a city official trying to find ways to alleviate the suffering of my people. May I know peace.
I am a terrorist whose hatred for America knows no limit and I am willing to die to prove it, and I am a terrorist sympathizer standing with all the enemies of American capitalism and imperialism, and I am a master strategist for a terrorist group who planned this abomination. My heart is not yet capable of openness, tolerance, and loving. May I know peace.
I am a citizen of the world glued to my television set, fighting back my rage and despair at these horrible events, and I am a person of faith struggling to forgive the unforgivable, praying for the consolation of those who have lost loved ones, calling upon the merciful beneficence of god/ Yahweh/ Allah/ Spirit/ Higher Power. May I know peace.
I am a child of God who believes that we are all children of God and we are all part of each other. May we all know peace.
on Receiving Consecration
By Peter Meyer
In recent years, a number of Tibetan lamas have visited foreign countries and have given numerous
consecration (also known as empowerments, or in the Tibetan language as "Wang"), but many people
who are interested in Vajrayana Buddhism are still unsure of what a Wang is, and of what they are
receiving in a Wang. Also there has been widespread ignorance of the proper procedures to be performed
at Wang and when meeting lamas. Thus these notes of advice were written in order to disseminate
understanding, at least in some small way, of what a Wang is, what happens during a Wang and what
should be done when attending a Wang.
Explanations of Terms
The Tibetan term "lama" refers to any person who, after many years of study and practice of the
Tibetan Buddhist teachings, has acquired philosophical understanding and spiritual realization
and who is respected as a teacher. Thus a Tibetan monk who does not have any special attainments
is not considered to be a lama. Also, a lama need not be a monk. The Vajrayana path is open to all,
and married persons are not barred from receiving or giving (if they are fully qualified to do so)
any of the Tantric teachings. Among the heads lamas of the Sakyapa Order, some (such as the
founder, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo) have married, but some (such as the illustrious Sakya Pandita)
have lived the lives of fully ordained celibate monks.
The Sanskrit term "guru" refers to a person of great spiritual attainment and authority; it was
translated into Tibetan as "lama". Among foreigners, the term "guru" is commonly used to refer
to a personal teacher, either one's own or someone else's. In this case, the term may be translated
as "preceptors", the person who gives you the precepts for correct study and practice. In Vajrayana
Buddhism devotion to the lama who is your guru is most important, and it is necessary for spiritual
attainment. It is taught in Vajrayana Buddhism that the minds of sentient beings are, in their pure
nature, not different from the mind of the Buddha. It is the purpose of Tantric practice to realize
this, and you should seek as your guru a lama who has himself realized this. Having found such a
lama, you should cultivate devotion to him so that you can recognize more clearly the Buddha natures
as it is manifest in him. In this way, you are led to realize the pure nature of your own mind as the
mind of the Buddha also.
About the "Wang" itself
The Tibetan term "Wang" literally means "empowerment". It may also be translated as "consecration"
(in Sanskrit, the word is "abhishekha"). It refers to a ceremony in which a lama, on the basis of his own
spiritual attainments and his understanding of the rituals (this means not only having knowledge of the
rituals themselves but also understanding and following the rules and vows which accompany those rituals),
places a disciple in touch with a particular Tantric Deity and empowers him to recite the mantra and seek
to realize the non-duality between his own mind and the mind of the Deity. Much happens during a "Wang"
and everything that happens has its special meaning and is not just for ceremonial decoration.
A "Wang" always involves several different consecrations. The number and nature of these depends
on the kinds of "Wang". A major "Wang" may have four consecrations some of which themselves are
sub-divided into several consecrations. A minor "Wang" generally has three consecrations, one each
for body, voice and mind. These are the "three doors" through which we act (and thus create karma).
To purify our actions, we must purify each of these three doors. The goal of Tantra is to purify all our
actions of body, voice and mind by removing our afflictions of desire, hatred, ignorance, etc.) and
obstructions (to liberation and omniscience) so that our actions become not different from those of a
Receiving a "Wang" is like the planting of a seed; later, with the right conditions, this seed will sprout
and grow into Buddhahood. During the "Wang", each of these three doors is blessed individually,
and thus there is a Body Consecration, a Voice Consecration and a Mind Consecration. In this way, the
defilements of each of the three doors are separately purified, and you are empowered to meditate, during
subsequent meditative practice, on them as being those of the Deity (ie. to visualize oneself in the form of
the Deity, to recite the Deity's mantra and to meditate on the non-duality of your own mind and the mind
of the Deity).
What to do in the "Wang"
You should prepare yourself for a "Wang" as if you were going to receive consecration from the
Buddha Himself - as, in a sense, you are. During the preparation ritual performed by the lama before
the "Wang", he has created himself as the Deity, throughout the "Wang", you should think of the
lama as not different from the Deity, and visualize him in the form of the Deity. For example, if you
are receiving a Manjushri Wang, then you should constantly imagine the lama in the form of Manjushri,
and believe that it is Manjushri Himself who is conferring the empowerment is most effective if you
cultivate a firm belief that you are receiving the "Wang" from the Deity Himself.
Before entering the area where the "Wang" is to be given, you should remove your shoes and wash
your mouth with water. Upon entering the presence of the lama, you should make three prostrations
towards him, and then take your seat on the floor. If, when sitting crossed-legged, your legs or back
begin to ache, then change position unobstrustively. You should not lie on the floor or sit with your
legs stretched out towards the lama or shrine. All this holds not just for "Wang", but for any occasion
when you enter the presence of a lama and remain there for a teaching, a private audience or a "Wang".
While waiting for the "Wang" to begin, instead of looing around at everyone else or talking with them,
you should quietly reflect on your reason for being there. At the beginning of all Wang and meditation
sessions, it is important to cultivate the right attitude, which is as follows:
Sentient beings suffer under the conditions of dissatisfaction and sorrow caused by the afflictions of
desire, hatred and ignorance. Although you may recognize this condition of universal suffering, you
cannot do much about it because you are also bound by the afflictions. Only by attaining the wisdom,
compassion and power of the Buddhas can you rescue yourself and others from this condition. So, in
order to gain the state of Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings (who are no different from
yourself), you are entering the path to full enlightenment by receiving this consecration.
A "Wang" always has three parts: the preparation, the main part and the conclusion. In the preparation,
you first perform the mandala offering to the guru, whom you visualize in the form of the deity surrounded
by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The mandala offering beings when the monk who is assisting the lama
makes three prostrations towards him and begins to heap rice upon a silver mandala plate. (He is making
the offering on behalf of all those present). You should imagine that, in offering this rice, you are really
offering the whole universe with millions of worlds containing all good things. You are offering this to the
lama to request him to bestow the empowerment upon you. This empowerment is worth more that anything
material which you could offer, so even if you gave the whole universe (as you are doing symbolically), this
would still not be enough in return for what the lama is giving you. When the monk assisting the lama
concludes the chanting of the mandala offering verses, he will throw some rice in the air. At this point,
you should also throw some rice in the air (forward) with a movement of the hand beginning at the heart
- these offerings are from your heart.
During the preparation, you have to recite certain prayers, such as the seven-fold prayer. The lama will
recite these in Tibetan and you should repeat them after him as best as you can. This has two forms: the
Tantric Seven-fold Prayer and the Mahayana Seven-fold Prayer. In its Tantric form, the Seven-fold Prayer
has the following parts: firstly, you confess all the sinful and deluded actions which you have performed
during your countless past lives. Secondly, you rejoice in all the virtuous deeds performed by the Buddhas
and Bodhisattvas and by all sentient beings. Thirdly, you promise to hold the Absolute Bodhicitta which
is the realization of the Ultimate Truth. Fourthly, you take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
from this time forth until you attain Enlightenment. Fifthly, and sixthly, you promise to hold the relative
Bodhicitta which is:
a. the desire to attain Enlightenment for the sake of rescuing all sentient beings from their sufferings
(the Wishing Bodhicitta) and;
b. the resolve to take all steps necessary for attaining Enlightenment for this purpose (the Entering
Bodhicitta). Finally, you dedicate the merit produced by all these good actions for the welfare of all
Throughout the "Wang", there are various visualizations you must perform. These are normally
explained by the lama at the appropriate time. The visualizations during the main part of the "Wang"
are more complicated than those of the preparation. The main part of the "Wang" consists of the
Body, Voice and Mind Consecrations as described before. Usually, at the beginning of each of these,
you visualize light issuing from the lama's heart and shining upon yourself and all other sentient
beings, purifying them all of defilements. During the Body Consecration, you visualize yourself
in the form of the Deity, according to the instructions of the lama. This Body Consecration is made
firm in you when incense is wafted about by the monk assisting the lama. During the Voice Consecration,
you usually have to visualize the mantra of the Deity (in Tibetan letters) emerging from the heart of
the lama and entering your own heart. The lama then recites the mantra which you repeat after him
a certain number of times. During the Mind Consecration, you visualize the seed-syllable of the Deity
in your heart (this is a radiant Tibetan letter standing on a sun-disc or a moon-disc) and by concentrating
on this seed-syllable, (which is the essence of the Deity's mind) you try to realize the non-duality of
your own mind and that of the lama and the Deity. In Tantric meditation, visualization is important.
It is one of the main tools employed in the transformation of one's ordinary deluded self into Buddha.
The main import of this is to transform our usual modes of conceptual thinking into those of an
The "Wang" is concluded by various prayers and a final mandala offering of thanks to the lama for
bestowing the empowerment. It may then be necessary to file past the lama to receive any special
blessing, such as the placing of the vajra, flask, etc., on top of the head. At this point, it is appropriate
to make offerings to the lama. If the mandala of the Deity has been constructed, then you should look
into it and offer homage to the Deity at its center.
Traditionally, in Tibetan, a lama would give a "Wang" only when requested to; the person requesting
the "Wang" would certainly offer a substantial gift (gold, horses, new copies of the Tibetan canon, etc.)
and everyone attending the "Wang" would also make offerings to the lama. If you understand what
you have received during the "Wang", then you will feel a natural inclination to make vast offerings
to the lama out of a recognition of this great kindness. Each person should offer what he can and what
he feels appropriate. After the "Wang", you should retire from the area to allow the lama to perform
the concluding rituals without distraction.
The meditation practice (sadhana) should be done regularly (preferably everyone) in a quiet place before
an altar or an image of the Buddha. In your daily life, cultivate an awareness of the sufferings of others,
search out your own delusion, and place your trust in the Buddhas.
This work, entitled "Advice on Receiving Consecration" is an adaption from the short text, "On Receiving
Wang" which was written in December, 1977 at the Jetsun Sakya Center, New York, by His Holiness
Sakya Trizin's disciple, Peter Meyer. By the merit of this work, may all sentient beings leave the sufferings
of worldly existence through the path leading to Buddhahood.
Many Westerners have difficulties accepting prophecies - including Tibetan ones since they can often be interpreted in different ways. Westerners experience the predictions called "Mos" as being quite accurate and relevant. However, in the last year the field of prophecy has attained another tangible dimension.
The reappearance of a 350 year old historical thanka may be the strongest validating confirmation which helps prove that Thaye Dorje in Delhi is the true Karmapa. Hannah and I have known about this thanka since May 1996 when we talked with Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche. Recently, more details along with pictures of the thanka have come into our hands. Without these, I would never have talked about this subject. Openness and truth have until now always been our best friends, and the Karmapa perfectly proves himself without miracles.
Here are the facts as I know them. In May last year Kunzig Shamarpa and Khenpo Chodrak visited the monastery of the Chinese Lopon Rinpoche in Taiwan. The monks there showed them a thanka which had been rescued from Tibet and taken to Nepal six months earlier. The thanka depicts a Karmapa in the center and below him a Shamarpa wearing unusual robes, clearly recognizable by his red crown. The visiting Rinpoches were enthusiastic about the beauty of the work. After Shamarpa had finished viewing the piece, Khenpo stayed behind and suddenly recognized the thanka as being one of the prophetic thankas of the 10th Karmapa. These thankas were painted by the 10th Karmapa while he was in exile during the period when the Mongolian soldiers supporting the 5th Dalai Lama were busy destroying the monasteries of the older non-Gelugpa lineages. It was during this time that Gyaltsab obtained his title "Goshir" by joining the Mongolians.
As Khenpo Chodrak looked more closely he noticed that Karmapa Thaye Dorje's name was written beside the throne (as seen on the enlargement). He quickly called Shamarpa who was extremely surprised and happy. A scientific examination of the thanka by a team of experts has been requested in Taiwan in order that the same type of scandal brought about from Situpa's forged letter does not happen again with the thanka.
As soon as the results of the examination have been released we will inform all of Karmapa's centers. When I asked Kunzig Shamarpa about the thanka, it was his opinion that the 10th Karmapa foresaw the present controversy and because of this, deliberately wrote the name of the 17th Karmapa on the thanka in big golden letters.
Now, you all know what I know. It will be exiting if this story is confirmed through the scientific laboratory tests.
All the best,
Lama Ole Nydahl
By Beatrice Newbery
Tibetan Buddhism has cultivated a liturgy of extraordinary power and originality.
It encompasses both vocal and instrumental music and is distinguished from Tibetan
popular music in terms of its conception, style and function. Solo singing does not exist
in this realm, in fact a multitude of voices, chanting in unison, is the distinguishing
characteristic of Tibetan sacred music. The music is an extremely complex, multi-
dimensional phenomenon, whose repertoire contains hundreds of protean musical
forms which frequently merge. The foundational concepts of this musical type
are so radical that Western terminology is often ill-equipped to convey them.
The origins of Tibetan ritual music are obscure but there is a strong belief that the
religious music originated from teachings of the Dakinis. During the third Dalai Lama's
time (1543-1588), a lama called Takpo Dorjechang had a clear vision of the Dakinis in
wgucg they taught him the most complex and beautiful music; the Yang (dbyangs). He
taught others and the tradition began to develop. Others have traced Tibetan sacred
music back to the Buddha's lifetime. On the Buddha's death, 500 Arhats gathered to
chant the Buddha's teachings, following which choral chanting became a medium for
transmitting and protecting the Buddhist teachings. From this developed a chant style
called Sarasvati, 'auspicious intonation', of which Yang is said to be the Tibetan
The words 'ritual music' pin point with most accuracy the music of Tibetan Buddhism,
since sacred music only exists withtin the ritual context. It is ritualised both in the sense
that it conforms to a regular calendrical performance schedule and that it invariably
accompanies a rite. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpochey explains, 'The music of these rituals
is not meant by itself to have great effects. It is merely an accompaniment to the general
psychological process of the rite'.
Withtin this ritual context, the main function of music is an offering to the deities. As
Terry Ellingson points out, 'music is particularly effective as an offering because it is
by definition aurally beauitful'. This idea was clarified by the words of Thupten Jigme
from Nechung Monastery in Dharamsala who said 'music has the power to attract. If
you say the words of a song your audience won't come, if you sing the words loudly and
clearly then your audience will be bigger and come rushing'. This reminds us that it is not
the music alone which pleases or invities, the words of the text are crucial. Music makes
the words palatable to a celestial audience and to its earthly performers. The use of the
word 'Ta' (rta), meaning horse, in connection with sacred music, (for example, the name
of recitation chants is don-ta,) shows how the music is conceived as 'carrying' the words
to its audience.
For the monks, melodies are an aid to the memorization of the texts. Upon entering a
monastery, the first task for a novie is to memorize, by listening and repetition, the entire
central repertoire of chants. Every monk is required to attain a level of competence in
performing vocal music, (in fact if a monk at the upper Tantric college fails to achieve
a level of proficiency in their special 'dzo' voice, he is expelled from the monastery). All
monks must take part in chanting since both their education and ritual knowledge depend
upon their attendance. Chanting is, in many ways, a basic prerequisite educational system.
The music also slows the words down so that the monk has time to contemplate their
meaning. Recitation does not always take a melodic form, music is only employed in
passages of textual gravity, that is when the mind must be applied with extra force. Its
function is to aid meditation. 'Ritual, as known to the lamas, has assumed multiple
meanings. As a preliminary to meditative practice by an initiate, it serves to heighten
his consciousness. Musical sounds, canonically ordered, affect a man's psychic condition
in such a way as much to render him more receptive to the truth' (Lhalungpa, 1969).
The practice of 'Sadhana', the Sanskrit word for 'self-generation', is closely connected
with ritual, in fact 'every ritual involves self-generation because every ritual involves
deities' (Thupten Jigme). Each monk must meditate on and visualize his personal deity
and practise the emulation of the deity, since in Tibetan Buddhism, deities represent
only specific states of being withtun each individual practitioner. Ngawang Tashi, the
ex-Master of Chants at Namgyal Monastery explained that 'Meditation does not
necessarily mean keep quiet. Whenever you sing well and the wisdom beings are happy,
that brings you closer to them; it will prevent bad health and misfortune and encourage
success. It also helps you to achieve understanding and accumulate merit'.
For Mahayana practice, the essence of which lies in compassion for the suffering
beings, the performance of sacred music is for the benefit of both celestial and human
perception. Music is thought to produce happiness and so it is not merely an offering
to the 'Three Jewels', but is thought to nourish the wellbeing of this world's inhabitants
as well. This means that a chanting monk can gain merit due to the enjoyment of his
lay listeners, and sacred music is not simply communication restricted to monks and
Whatever the human reponse to Tibetan sacred music, the fabric of the music in its
entirety is not for our evaluation. Atisha (958-1054) separated sacred music into 'actually
present' and 'mentally produced' music. While the monks are chanting or playing their
instruments, they are expected to simultaneously produce music in their minds for the
embellishment of the sacred piece. There is a story which is said to show that the deities
can hear music whether it is audible or not. As the seventh Dalai Lama (1708-1757) once
walked around the roof of the Potala, he saw Choedewala, a deity who is chief of the
retinue of Mahakala, dancing in the sky in a state of rapture. The Dalai Lama sent one
of his servants to find out what was happening down below. The servant discovered a
solitary, former monk of one of the Tantric colleges, who explained that in his monastery,
this was the time of day for playing sacred music and today he was banging two stones
together and nostalgically imagining the music. Choedewala appeared to be dancing to
the music in his mind. As Terry Ellingson explains, 'The inclusion in the concept of ritual
of music that is mentally produced but not physically present, implies that from a
performers perspective, the whole of the music offered in a given performance is always
more than the sum of its audible parts'. This mental output completes the common triad
of body, speech and mind, the body being represented by the body or instruments, and
speech by the sounds they produce.
The most common type of ritual observance in Tibetan monasteries is the regular
assembly. These vary, but the emphasis is on the general practice of Buddhism
according to a specific religious tradition and the texts performed are called 'Practice
of Religion'. The musical accompaniment in these assemblies ranges from spoken
recitations to a mixture of musical types. Nevertheless, the comprehensive nature of
the ceremony does not lead itself to the more involved musical developments found in
Each sect, indeed each monastery, has its own specialised rituals and repertoire of
ritual music. The central repertoire will contain a cross-section of the main types of
deities represented in the tantric practice and will comprise a selection of regularly
performed rituals. Monasteries and colleges with an emphasis on 'ritual' activities and
the invocation of deities, make use of complex and difficult musical genres, such as
Yang, ritual dances, and instrumental and vocal accompaniment. In each monastery,
music is categorised in terms of the deity or type of deity it addresses. All offerings,
including music, must be suited to and express the nature of the deity who is the object.
These deities are often divided into 'spiritual masters' (bLa ma), personal meditational
deities, the focus of the teachings and practice of particular tantras (Yidam), Dakinis
(mkha' 'groskyong). Generally speaking the music offered to the latter is regarded as
wrathful (drag po) and that offered to the personal, meditational deities as peaceful
(zhi ba). At Namgyal Monastery in Dharamsala, rituals of the personal deities such as
Yamataka, Guhyasamaja, and Heruka contain music which is produced softly. It is not
that the tune itself is more or less powerful, it depends on the method of production. So
the style is slow and deliberate, the textual changes smooth amd the emphasis is on such
instruments as the big cymbals (sil snyan), drums and conch trumpets. The fierce Dharma
Protectors like Chogyal demand stronger voices, roughly delivered, and loudly played
instruments such as small cymbals (sbub'chal), human bone drums and trumpets. The
music reserved for their benefit is called 'great' yang (dbyangs che).
The function of the ritual may also dictate the music type. There are not only
the rituals of offering, but those inviting the deity to enter the temple, those of
propitiation and healing, and those of benediction, and the music must be appropriate
for the intended outcome of the ceremony. For example, at Nechung Monastery,
in Dharamsala, the monks occasionally perform a fierce ritual to dispel or destroy
spirits which involves the throwing of a ritual cake. 'In this the music has to be more
strong and continuous and whoever hears it should be terrified' declared the Chant
Master. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpochey also emphasises that 'music provides power,
particularly in sections where wrathful deities are invoked or evil spirits are exorcized'.
There is an alternative system of classification which involves the method of voicing
the words and that method of voicing the words and that is the division of sacred music
into Don ('don), Ta (rta) and Yang. Don, or 'recitative chants' refers to the chanting and
recitation of texts. It is a form of stylised recitation, following a simple pattern, which
in its most elemental form resembles a regulated strand of ordinary speech. Many
Tibetans would not include this type of chanting withtin the realms of music at all. Ta
refers to 'melodic chants', with distinct, consciously patterned 'melodies' which are,
unlike Don, independent of the text. Although relatively musical, the manner in which
Ta are vocalised is 'spoken'. Finally, Yang are 'tone-contour chants'. These are the most
highly rated, most involved and most beautiful chants and melodies used in Tibetan ritual
music. It is impossible to convey the subtle movement and delicacy of Yang, yet we can
say that, unlike Don and Ta, it is 'intoned' rather than spoken, and that it is made up of
smoothly effected rises and falls in intonation, which constantly alter with remarkable
fluidity. The volume of the sound swells and ebbs and the piece moves at an amazingly
slow pace and deep pitch. These extremely low tones are only relative to each other so
that a Yang melody may 'ascend' to a higher pitch, or 'descend' to a lower. Although to
Western ears the music may seem extremely lethargic, a hastily performed Yang would
lose the details of the subtly changing pitch and vocal quality. For Tibetans, a Yang is
the only 'pure' tone-contour melody. It is, both conceptually and aurally, the most
extraordinary and complex kind of music, and is considered to be the cream of the
Tibetan Buddhist musical repertoire.
The Yang is the only vocalisation that is preserved on paper; a unique form of notation
called a Yang-Yig (dhyangs-yig) serves as a mnemonic aid, a reminder to the Master of
Chants. Different notational systems belong to different traditions and monasteries.
Nonetheless, in each case it is a matter of suggesting by complex curved lines the
movements which must be curved lines the movements which must be effected by the
voice and the modifications which exist even withtin the utterance of one syllable. In
some Yang-yig, extended annotations characterise the melody by stating that it should
run like a flowing river, or that it should be light like bird song. More important is the
discovery withtin these notations of certain 'meaningless' syllables. It is said that these
extra sounds are for the deliberate obscuration of textual meaning to the uninitiated.
Some of them are tantric words which have a deep religious meaning that only the highly
realised can understand. These extra sounds also enable the text to fit the lingering
Yang melody, meanwhile giving the monks time to contemplate each important word as
There are several types of voice used in Tibetan ritual music and each is designated
according to its place of origin in the body. Thus, there is the 'body-cavity' voice (khog
pa i skad), the 'throat' voice (mgrin skad), the 'nose' voice (sna skad) and so on. There
is in addition 'male' (pho) voice, 'female' (mo) voice, and 'neuter' (ma ring) voice.
However, the most interesting divisions are in terms of the way the voice is produced.
'Own' voice (rang skad) is the normal method of voice production which is practised, for
example, in the Gelug and Nyingma sects. The chanting fluctuates around one bass-note
in continually recurring variations of a theme, a litany, comprising no more than three or
four notes. 'Tantric voice' (rgyud skad) is practised at the Tantric colleges. There are two
types of Tantric voice, 'the voice of the hybrid yak-bull' (mdzo skad) which is practised
at the Upper Tantric College, and 'the voice of the (slayer of the) Lord of Death' (gshin
rje'i ngar skad), practised at the Lower Tantric College. These ar the vocal styles most
peculiar to Tibet and they are often dubbed the Yang style.
The method of singing requires a completely relaxed body, free-breathing and a
meditative state of mind. The rumbling bass notes sound from the totally relaxed
vocal chords which have been allowed to resonate at the octave below the note as
normally sung. After many hours of practice the deep note suddenly 'interrupts'. It is
a roaring, throaty noise underneath the note being sung by the vocal chords, an
undernote or sub-resonance which shakes the entire body of the performer.
It is believed that a good voice is the result of one's karma as Ngawang Tashi
illustrated with the following story. Long ago, a labourer was employed in the
construction of Boudhnath stupa. His incredulity at the sheer size of the task he
faced led him to abuse his employers and ridicule the idea of building such a
monument. Yet when the stupa was completed, its magnificence made him repentant
and to display his regret, he placed a bell on the monument. In his next life he became
a monk. He had two striking characteristics: one was his hideous physical appearance
and the other his beautiful voice, each the result of his bad and good deeds. Monks
are not prohibited from adopting ways to improve the voice, however, and sometimes
these are quite extraordinary.
Vocal and instrumental music are distinguished in an unusual way in Tibetan
Buddhism. Vocal music is classed as music that is 'conjoined' with its motivating
thought in the performers body, while instrumental music is categorised as
'unconjoined', music produced by external conditions, for example, wind.
Although every ritual is accompanied by 'mentally produced' instrumental music,
whether it is joined by audible instrumental music depends on the exigencies of the
ritual text and tradition. Rol mo (the term designating instrumental music) however,
is treated as independent musical composition in its own right in the overall ritual
context, with its own unique characteristics. The most notable of these is the line of
development that the music takes. Western music and Tibetan folk music both follow
thematically circular patterns, that is, they always come back to the beginning. So, for
example, a classical piece may go from A to B to C and then back to A again, or at the
most basic level, we have a chorus followed by a verse and then the chorus repeated.
The development of Tibetan sacred music is, on the contrary, linear, that is, it goes
from A to Z through a variety of constantly altering themes and rhythms. In this sense,
sacred music can be contrasted to the most prominent manifestation of Buddhist
cyclic concepts, the wheel of life which depicts the cyclic nature of existence. Sacred
music deliberately adopts a linear form to remind us of our ability to achieve liberation
from this wheel of life. It represents both the Buddhist goal and the path that leads there.
As the Master of Chants at Namgyal monastery explained, 'Sincere Buddhist
practitioners are attempting to follow this path from A to Z. The musical connotations
help us to think about the line we must try to follow'. In this sense, the performance of
sacred music mirrors the greatest achievement in Buddhist spiritual endeavour.
Altogether there are as many as thirteen instruments (some in pairs) that can be
played at any one time and these are divided into four categories. The 'beaten'
instruments outline the basic compositional structure, the 'rung' instruemtns enrich
the ensemble sound texture, the 'blown' instruments play melodies and the 'stringed'
instruments inaudibly augment the piece. Their sounds are either 'mentally produced'
or the instruments themselves are offered but not played. The entire orchestra consists
of one damaru (a double headed hand drum), one drum and two sets of cymbals in the
first group, one hand bell in the second, and two reed instruments (rgya gling), two
short trumpets (rkang gling), two long trumpets (dung chen) and two conches in the
The basic meaning of the term 'Rol mo' is 'cymbals' and in ritual instrumental ensemble
music these are the basic requirement. Only cymbals and drums are used to accompany
chants, although bells are used to herald crucial moments in the development of the ritual,
sometimes providing a counter-rhythmic element as well. The cymbals are played in a
peculiar rotating movement which makes use of their natural energy or 'rebound' while
the drums are beaten with long curved sticks. Together they lead the ensemble and forge
the outline of the piece. The basic structure of instrumental music is this rhythmic
outline and the other instruments, however, prominent, remain withtin the framework
created by the beaten instruments. It is only after a section has been completed that the
wind instruments join the percussion and play the next section.
The rhythm that the percussion instruments effect does not fit the Western concept of
evenly measured units of time. Instead, it is contingent on events withtin the ritual, or is
dictated by the importance of dwelling on certain passages of the text and bringing out
every detail in the performance. Consequently there is no symbol for 'rest' in Tibetan
beat notation. Rhythmic units are constantly changing duration so that the slow and
seemingly regular pace of a gliding scale may accelerate to such a speed that rhythm is
no longer recognisable. The rejection of a rhythm which divides time into equal units
establishes Rol mo as a wholly unique musical type.
The long horns, sometimes up to fifteen feet long, are often regarded as the principal
melodic instruments. Once again, thisis not melody in the Western sense, but the
tone-contour Yang that they play, using a pitch range which covers three octaves. They
create, 'sounds that seem to come from the womb of the earth and from the depth of
space'. The vibrations are so heavy that they have been known to loosen the performer's
teeth and even cause them to fall out. It is also recorded that when the Tibetans first
heard their deep sound they ran away shouting 'War had come!' The reed instruments
and the short trumpets, which were formerly fashioned from human thigh bones, are
more recognizably tuneful than the horns but they are played less in rituals.
Each instrument is broadly associated with different states of mind. The reed
instruments, the horn and the large cynbals are dedicated to the peaceful deities,
the short trumpets and the shriller cymbals correspond to the fearful deities and
the long horns and the drums may be assigned to either kind. Some of the
instruments have more particular functions or association. The reed instruments,
for example, have the special function of summoning and bidding farewell to the
deities, often from the roof of the monastery. The sound of the conch represents
the voice of the Dharma and is therefore used at times of death, so that the deceased
can carry that voice to his or her next life. The handbell cannot even be touched by
the uninitiated, and is played only by the Abbot. It has such a complex network
of tantric associations that the Master of Chants at Namgyal declined to explained.
The Abbot also plays the similarly potent damaru which was originally made from the
halves of two human skulls, joined at the crown and covered with skin. It is twirled so
that the two pellets on strings strike the skins alternately. It is considered to give
special pleasure to the fierce deities and adds a strange beauty to music in that style.
These two bone instruments were made in this way as a reminder of the impermanence
of all things.
Both instrumental and vocal music reach a climax during the 'invitation' section
ritual, the moment when the deities are called upon to occupy the space in front of the
performers. This is when the music must be at its most compelling and beautiful so it is
likely that if a Yang exists withtin the ritual, it will take the form of an invitation. Likewise
if instrumental music is used, one of the longest and most intricate pieces is sure to be
an 'Instrumental invitation'.
Although in some monasteries all monks are required to play instruments, usually only
those with obvious musical talent will undertake advanced training. Before settling on any
one instrument, a monk must learn to play each one in the standard order, starting with
the drum, proceeding to the conch trumpet, and so on. The most specialised training is
required for the reed instruments and long horns since both require knowledge of the art
of circular breathing. Players of both instruments receive special training when may last
for a number of years before they perform. The cymbals however, require the most
advanced skills. Since they lead, a good acquaintance with the vocal parts and the ritual
structure is needed. The cymbals are thus the special responsibility of the Chant Master.
Training of all the instruments is conducted on an apprenticeship basis, although all
instrumentalists are ultimately answerable to the Chant Master. Despite the quite
extraordinary form of notation for the instruments, as with vocal music, familiarity is
gained through listening and repetition. During the performances the players are under
constant surveillance and examination is conducted in this manner.
At the hub of the monastic musical group is the Master of Chants (dbU mdzad). He is
the leader of performances and the musical director (sometimes in charge of the monastic
ritual as well). He achieves his position by rising thourhg the ranks of the monastery's
musical performancers due to his musical ability, knowledge of the ritual repertoire,
popularity and leadership qualities. In the hierarchical divisions of monastic leadership,
the Chant Master usually ranks second below the Head Lama and his post may combine
administrative and musical responsibilities. Even the most ordinary Chant Master must
have a sound knowledge of the rituals, their intended effects, structures and functions. In
the bigger monasteries there are extremely complex hierarchies of vocal and instrumental
musicians at the peak of which sits the Chant Master, unifying the two musical traditions.
In Namgyal Monastery alone, the central repertoire consists of 30 to 40 Yang. As the
Chant Master pointed out, there are again 30 to 40 different ways of playing these for
each deity. Before the Chinese occupation of Tibet, there were at least 6000 religious
institutions in the Land of Snow and since each monastery has its own unique collection
of Yang, the total number of these sacred musical pieces must have been vast. Unlike
religious texts, there are no wood blocks for the printing of musical notation and all of
the original Yang-yig were hand-written on paper. Most of these fragile texts have
been destroyed which was a blow for sacred music. Although some Yang-yig have been
rewritten from memory and monasteries urge people to retrieve even the shortest line
of notation if it is found, nearly half of Tibet's Yang-Yig have been burnt and are lost
Nevertheless, in the exiled community Tibetan sacred music can be heard resounding
through the halls of each monastery and the sepulchral vibrations of the long horns echo
across fields and foot hills. Ritual music remains an extremely active tradition, and every
monastery is a hive of musical activity. Monks travel abroad regularly, performing their
ritual music, and for the first time, outsiders are exposed to a world of considerably
altered musical dimensions.
Thanks to Ven.Ngawang Tashi and Ven.Thubten Choephel of Namgyal Monastery
and Ven.Thubten Jigme of Nechung Monastery.
(Original article taken from "Cho-Yang - The Voice of Tibetan Religion & Culture"
Issue No.5, an occasional publication of the Department of Religion & Culture,
Central Tibetan Administration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.)
By Pema Chödrön
It is only when we begin to relax with ourselves as we are that meditation becomes a transformative process. The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay.
As a species, we should never underestimate our low tolerance for discomfort. To be encouraged to stay with our vulnerability is news that we definitely can use. Sitting meditation is our support for learning how to do this. Sitting meditation, also known as mindfulness-awareness practice, is the foundation of bodhichitta training. It is the home ground of the warrior bodhisattva.
Sitting meditation cultivates loving-kindness and compassion, the relative qualities of bodhichitta, which could be defined as completely awakened heart and mind. It gives us a way to move closer to our thoughts and emotions and to get in touch with our bodies. It is a method of cultivating unconditional friendliness toward ourselves and for parting the curtain of indifference that distances us from the suffering of others. It is our vehicle for learning to be a truly loving person.
Gradually, through meditation, we begin to notice that there are gaps in our internal dialogue. In the midst of continually talking to ourselves, we experience a pause, as if awakening from a dream. We recognize our capacity to relax with the clarity, the space, the open-ended awareness that already exists in our minds. We experience moments of being right here that feel simple, direct, and uncluttered.
This coming back to the immediacy of our experience is training in unconditional bodhichitta. By simply staying here, we relax more and more into the open dimension of our being. It feels like stepping out of a fantasy and relaxing with the truth.
Yet there is no guarantee that sitting meditation will be of benefit. We can practice for years without it penetrating our hearts and minds. We can use meditation to reinforce our false beliefs: it will protect us from discomfort; it will fix us; it will fulfill our hopes and remove our fears. This happens because we don't properly understand why we are practicing.
Why do we meditate? This is a question we'd be wise to ask. Why would we even bother to spend time alone with ourselves?
First of all, it is helpful to understand that meditation is not just about feeling good. To think that this is why we meditate is to set ourselves up for failure. We'll assume we are doing it wrong almost every time we sit down: even the most settled meditator experiences psychological and physical pain. Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our sanity. This complete acceptance of ourselves as we are is called maitri, a simple, direct relationship with our being.
Trying to fix ourselves is not helpful. It implies struggle and self-denigration. Denigrating ourselves is probably the major way that we cover over bodhichitta.
Does not trying to change mean we have to remain angry and addicted until the day we die? This is a reasonable question. Trying to change ourselves doesn't work in the long run because we're resisting our own energy. Self-improvement can have temporary results, but lasting transformation occurs only when we honor ourselves as the source of wisdom and compassion. We are, as the eighth-century Buddhist master Shantideva pointed out, very much like a blind person who finds a jewel buried in a heap of garbage. It is right here in our smelliest of stuff that we discover the awakened heart of basic clarity and goodness, the completely open mind of bodhichitta.
It is only when we begin to relax with ourselves as we are that meditation becomes a transformative process. When we relate with ourselves without moralizing, without harshness, without deception, we finally let go of harmful patterns. Without maitri, renunciation of old habits becomes abusive. This is an important point.
There are four main qualities that are cultivated when we meditate: steadfastness, clear seeing, experiencing one's emotional distress, and attention to the present moment. These four factors apply not only to sitting meditation, but are essential to all the bodhichitta practices and for relating with difficult situations in our daily lives.
When we practice meditation we are strengthening our ability to be steadfast with ourselves. No matter what comes up-aching bones, boredom, falling asleep, or the wildest thoughts and emotions-we develop a loyalty to our experience. Although plenty of meditators consider it, we don't run screaming out of the room. Instead we acknowledge that impulse as thinking, without labeling it right or wrong. This no small task. Never underestimate our inclination to bolt when we hurt.
We're encouraged to meditate everyday, even for a short time, in order to cultivate this steadfastness with ourselves. We sit under all kinds of circumstances-whether we are feeling healthy or sick, whether we're in a good mood or depressed, whether we feel our meditation is going well or is completely falling apart. As we continue to sit we see that meditation isn't about getting it right or attaining some ideal state. It's about being able to stay present with ourselves. It becomes increasingly clear that we won't be free of self-destructive patterns unless we develop a compassionate understanding of what they are.
One aspect of steadfastness is simply being in your body. Because meditation emphasizes working with your mind, it's easy to forget that you even have a body.
When you sit down it's important to relax into your body and to get in touch with what is going on. Starting with the top of your head, you can spend a few minutes bringing awareness to every part of your body. When you come to places that are hurting or tense you can breath in and out three or four times, keeping your awareness on that area. When you get to the soles of your feet you can stop or, if you feel like it, you can repeat this body sweep by going from bottom to top. Then at any time during your meditation period, you can quickly tune back into the overall sense of being in your body. For a moment you can bring your awareness directly back to being right here. You are sitting. There are sounds, smells, sights, aches; you are breathing in and out. You can reconnect with your body like this when it occurs to you-maybe once or twice during a sitting session. Then return to the technique.
In meditation we discover our inherent restlessness. Sometimes we get up and leave. Sometimes we sit there but our bodies wiggle and squirm and our minds go far away. This can be so uncomfortable that we feel it's impossible to stay. Yet this feeling can teach us not just about ourselves but also about what it is to be human. All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don't want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. There are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.
The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay. Learning to stay with ourselves in meditation is like training a dog. If we train a dog by beating it, we'll end up with an obedient but very inflexible and rather terrified dog. The dog may obey when we say, "Stay!" "Come!" "Roll over!" and "Sit up!" but he will also be neurotic and confused. By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn't become upset when situations are unpredictable and insecure.
So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to "stay" and settle down. Are we experiencing restlessness? Stay! Discursive mind? Stay! Are fear and loathing out of control? Stay! Aching knees and throbbing back? Stay! What's for lunch? Stay! What am I doing here? Stay! I can't stand this another minute! Stay! That is how to cultivate steadfastness.
After we've been meditating for a while, it's common to feel that we are regressing rather then waking up. "Until I started meditating, I was quite settled; now it feels like I'm always restless." "I never used to feel anger; now it comes up all the time." We might complain that meditation is ruining our life, but in fact such experiences are a sign that we're starting to see more clearly. Through the process of practicing the technique day in and out, year after year, we begin to be very honest with ourselves. Clear seeing is another way of saying that we have less self-deception.
The Beat poet Jack Kerouac, feeling primed for a spiritual breakthrough, wrote to a friend before he retreated into the wilderness, "If I don't get a vision on Desolation Peak, then my name ain't William Blake." But later he wrote that he found it hard to face the naked truth. "I'd thought, in June when I get to the top-and everybody leaves-I will come face to face with God or Tathagata (Buddha) and find out once and for all what is the meaning of all this existence and suffering-but instead I'd come face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it, but face to face with ole Hateful . . . Me."
Meditation requires patience and maitri. If this process of clear seeing isn't based on self-compassion it will become a process of self-aggression. We need self-compassion to stabilize our minds. We need it to work with our emotions. We need it in order to stay.
When we learn to meditate, we are instructed to sit in a certain position on a cushion or chair. We're instructed to just be in the present moment, aware of our breath as it goes out. We're instructed that when our mind has wandered off, without any harshness or judgmental quality, we should acknowledge that as 'thinking" and return to the outbreath. We train in coming back to this moment of being here. In the process of doing this, our fogginess, our bewilderment, our ignorance begin to transform into clear seeing. "Thinking" becomes a code word for seeing "just what is"-both our clarity and our confusion. We are not trying to get rid of thoughts. Rather we are clearly seeing our defense mechanisms, our negative beliefs about ourselves, our desires and our expectations. We also see our kindness, our bravery, our wisdom.
Through the process of practicing the mindfulness-awareness technique on a regular basis, we can no longer hide from ourselves. We clearly see the barriers we set up to shield us from naked experience. Although we still associate the walls we've erected with safety and comfort, we also begin to feel them as a restriction. This claustrophobic situation is important for a warrior. It marks the beginning of longing for an alternative to our small, familiar world. We begin to look for ventilation. We want to dissolve the barriers between ourselves and others.
Experiencing our Emotional Distress
Many people, including long-time practitioners, use meditation as a means of escaping difficult emotions. It is possible to misuse the label "thinking" as a way of pushing negativity away. No matter how many times we've been instructed to stay open to whatever arises, we still can use meditation as repression. Transformation occurs only when we remember, breath by breath, year after year, to move toward our emotional distress without condemning or justifying our experience.
Trungpa Rinpoche describes emotion as a combination of self-existing energy and thoughts. Emotion can't proliferate without our internal conversations. If we're angry when we sit to meditate, we are instructed to label the thoughts "thinking" and let them go. Yet below the thoughts something remains-a vital, pulsating energy. There is nothing wrong, nothing harmful about that underlying energy. Our practice is to stay with it, to experience it, to leave it as it is, without proliferating.
There are certain advanced techniques in which you intentionally churn up emotions by thinking of people or situations that make you angry or lustful or afraid. The practice is to let the thoughts go and connect directly with the energy, asking yourself, "Who am I without these thoughts?" What we do with mindfulness-awareness practice is simpler than that, but I consider it equally daring. When emotional distress arises uninvited, we let the story line go and abide with the energy of that moment. This is a felt experience, not a verbal commentary on what is happening. We can feel the energy in our bodies. If we can stay with it, neither acting it out nor repressing it, it wakes us up. People often say, "I fall asleep all the time in meditation. What shall I do?" There are lots of antidotes to drowsiness but my favorite is, "Get angry!"
Not abiding with our energy is a predictable human habit. Acting out and repressing are tactics we use to get away from our emotional pain. For instance most of us when we're angry scream or act it out. We alternate expressions of rage with feeling ashamed of ourselves and wallowing in it. We become so stuck in repetitive behavior that we become experts at getting all worked up. In this way we continue to strengthen our conflicting emotions.
One night years ago I came upon my boyfriend passionately embracing another woman. We were in the house of a millionaire who had a priceless collection of pottery. I was furious and looking for something to throw. Everything I picked up I had to put back down because it was worth at least $10,000. I was completely enraged and I couldn't find an outlet! There were no exits from experiencing my own energy. The absurdity of the situation totally cut through my rage. I went outside and looked at the sky and laughed until I cried.
In vajrayana Buddhism it is said that wisdom is inherent in emotions. When we struggle against our own energy we are rejecting the source of wisdom. Anger without the fixation is none other than mirrorlike wisdom. Pride and envy without fixation is experienced as equanimity. The energy of passion when it's free of grasping is discriminating awareness wisdom.
In bodhichitta training we also welcome the living energy of emotions. When our emotions intensify what we usually feel is fear. This fear is always lurking in our lives. In sitting meditation we practice dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves and leaning into the emotions and the fear. Thus we train in opening the fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy. We learn to abide with the experience of our emotional distress.
Attention to the Present Moment
Another factor we cultivate in the transformative process of meditation is attention to this very moment. We make the choice, moment by moment, to be fully here. Attending to our present-moment mind and body is a way of being tender toward self, toward other, and toward the world. This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love.
Coming back to the present moment takes some effort but the effort is very light. The instruction is to "touch and go." We touch thoughts by acknowledging them as thinking and then we let them go. It's a way of relaxing our struggle, like touching a bubble with a feather. It's a nonaggressive approach to being here.
Sometimes we find that we like our thoughts so much that we don't want to let them go. Watching our personal video is a lot more entertaining than bringing our mind back home. There's no doubt that our fantasy world can be very juicy and seductive. So we train in using a "soft" effort, in interrupting our habitual patterns; we train in cultivating self-compassion.
We practice meditation to connect with maitri and unconditional openness. By not deliberately blocking anything, by directly touching our thoughts and then letting them go with an attitude of no big deal, we can discover that our fundamental energy is tender, wholesome and fresh. We can start to train as a warrior, discovering for ourselves that it is bodhichitta, not confusion, that is basic.
by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Every age is an age of change. This means also change in the social structure of the life of the people. There is never a still or static moment of time. As the time situations develop-there comes new ways of expressing wisdom - new ways of indulging or one might say corrupting people-and new ways of creating a structure for society. So therefore from a Buddhist point of view one sees that the world is not necessarily going to achieve either a Utopian Golden Age or for that matter going to enter a completely Dark Age.
Now some people may think that since we say that, what is the use of trying to do anything? The point is that the whole structure - everything - depends on us-individually. We may meditate. We may pray. We may work. But we have to do it ourselves.
We may think 'our strength and energy is given to us by some external power.' But nevertheless he who feels this energy or wisdom, whatever it may be, still has to have it simplified in human terms. And this is where the practice of meditation plays a very important part.
What was originally known as 'Westernization' no more belongs to the West-it is purely 'modernization.' The machines, inventions, and technological knowledge that have developed in the world do not belong to any of the continents but are just part of the modern age, the New Age. Equally, for that matter, the spiritual knowledge also does not belong to any particular place, and this does not mean that the wisdom has to be simplified or modified as if one were making it into a neat sort of packed lunch. We can't really POPULARIZE anything in fact. It has been the human element that has been the source of corruption in the spiritual society, both East and West. So therefore meditation is the greatest factor, force, strength and hope - this is everything.
I am sure that a lot of people have read and heard about the practice of meditation over and over again, but when I talk about meditation in this case it is not that of the mind pondering on different subjects, nor is it some means of achieving power, psychic power or the power of concentration, nor for that matter is it the business of trying to become a successful mentally controlled person. The meditation I am talking about is connected with life itself.
Suppose that everybody has a tremendous urge to practice meditation so they go off to retreats and become sanyasins or bikkus or hermits and so on - there would be no one left to run this world. However much we say we have independence, however much we think we ourselves are independent and self-sufficient, we still share and we still need what one might call the karmic link and the National karma of where we live.
Now with the structure of all countries being Americanized, with things developing as they are - vast machinery, vast organization which transcends the individual mind so that they can only be grasped in terms of computers, the whole thing has grown so big that to some people it is very frightening. Yet I would not say that this was particularly good, or for that matter particularly bad. The point is we cannot fight against it, and therefore our meditation has to be translated in terms of our pattern of life.
Living in such a world we really have to be practical for we cannot afford to divide society up into those who practice meditation and those who are workers, those who work in factories and those who are intellectuals and spend most of their lives in books. We can't afford to anymore - the world is too small. Once we have grasped this we see that we can only develop by understanding ourselves - that before we blame the world and before we try to save the world that first of all the whole question has to come back to us - OURSELVES - starting on the nearest one, that is - me, you, us. Now in order to start this change it is going to be necessary somehow to re-create the tribal structure that has been dissolved. The tribal structure that once existed.
For instance, if you are in a big city you may feel that there is no kind of link at all. Just one person or a couple of people walking in a street, or getting on a bus, can seem kind of desolate. There is nothing as a binding factor. The only binding factor may seem to be money, but even that is not a binding factor at all. This need to re-create the tribal structure can only be understood, of course, by those who live in the West and so have gone through the various stages of fascination for machine culture that the geographical East is going through at the moment, and of course we still are involved in it ourselves. Then comes the inevitable second stage. We feel we have no alternative, we are drawn into it and we have no control. I am sure that in the East when the technology is developed and this gigantic mechanism and material force has invaded completely that they too will understand.
So you see that the negative happenings of the new age also have a tremendous creative and positive element to them as well. One can't try to abandon life and try to create a new one, but rather let us try to work with it.
Let us make a beginning. Let us take a group of ten friends - in the sense that ten must have started with one. Without one there would be no two, no three, no four. Start with one of us. Now, how A will communicate to B, and how A will understand the A-ness of himself, say, before he has any idea of B - that is the real problem. This is the problem of communication. Now we have a tremendous problem of communication. In Buddhist terminology this is called duality. There is a tremendously thick wall built between us, between you and me, each of us like animals in a zoo. All of us in cages. There is a monkey from China here - and a gorilla from Africa next door - somehow we have to remove the bars. But if we are going to remove the bars then we have to develop some kind of strength within us. This is what is really lacking. And this strength comes from faith, real faith. And faith is quite different from pride or being self-centered. This faith comes from a willingness to open out. The whole trouble stems from here.
The structure of the future depends on us individually. We have arrived in an age where the study of the great wisdom of the world, religion and tradition however important they are, are not enough. There is one more urgent thing we have to do. We must create a structure which allows a real communication.
At the moment we merely have glimpses of communication that open and close. There is one person outside us and there is another busy monkey working inside us - this is known in Buddhist tradition as the monkey mind. The five senses are like five windows. The consciousness is like a monkey restlessly looking first in one window and then in another. But this is not enough
There has to be real communication. And someone has to start. If no one begins nothing will happen. And having started and developed and been able to contact one person then one is able to communicate to a third person, and then a fourth gradually develops and so on.
It's no use individuals trying to search for happiness in the beginning, only to find that there's no one to share their happiness with at the end. For, in the process of finding happiness we forget what we were looking for, and we find something else, and then we go on and on and on - and it is exactly that causes the confusion.
We have to see that the answer is not one of spirituality alone any more that it is one of politics alone. Some people may believe that if the whole world practiced meditation, suppose the whole world meditated for two hours every morning then went to their jobs and continued in business peacefully - some people think that would be enough. Other people think that we are fine as we are - some people live, some people die, in any case I have security, insurance, work, everything - as far as I'm concerned it doesn't affect me. Others among us think there should be some kind of revolution, perhaps communism, or let us say pure socialism is the only answer because the structure is wrong. And so you see there are many conflicting ideas coming in.
But altogether - there is violence. There is war in Vietnam. There is protest against the war in Vietnam, so one violence has started another violence. There is war in Europe and in America too. One violence creates another. And what Buddha teaches us is not just specifically to accept it, but to understand the causes of it and try to do something creative about it. We really must try to see through events to their source.
A window is smashed. Alright, we've done it. Next week the window is repaired again. We smash it again, and in a few days there's a big article in the newspaper. Then something else comes in the newspaper. People have forgotten about what happened because no positive contribution had been developed.
Before we start the protest, or if you like, the anarchy, we must first of all within ourselves try to overcome this need for an unnecessary kind of outlet of desire to do something. Turn this energy into opening up communication instead of just using it as aggressiveness.
The world is changing at tremendous speed and I would like to end by saying that I realize that we cannot recreate another kind of life by settling whole populations in the countryside with everybody doing manual work and handicrafts and so on, with all the wonderful thing that people have forgotten.
What we have to deal with is the kind of psychological materialism in our heads. We are allowing ourselves to be fed ideas and concepts from outside in a way that never lets us really be free anyway. It is inward materialism that we have to deal with first. It is the war that is going on inside our own heads to which we have to call the truce. Having done so doesn't mean that everyone has to become an enlightened person by any means. But at least if one person made an attempt at it and then began to work with someone else there would soon be a kind of communal working together.
Like in London it's not so much the colors, the chairs, the walls of the underground which depress us but the faces, the people moving like ants, people moving in and out, in and out, each with their own depression. Let us begin to create a body of people moving about and carrying their own light.
From " The New Age," by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Shambhala Sun, March 2004.
By Natalie Goldberg
I lived for a year and a half recently in St. Paul, Minnesota practicing Zen with one of Katagiri Roshi's dharma heirs. Roshi had been dead for a long time and still I missed him and did not know how to complete the relationship that had begun over twenty years before. I was frozen in the configuration we had together when he died-he was always the teacher and I forever would be the student. Now over a decade had passed. I wanted to move on, and in order to do that it seemed I had to move back to that northern state of long winter shadows, a place I left fifteen years earlier to plant my roots in Taos, New Mexico. It seemed I had to go back to that cold place in order to unfreeze.
A few months before the move, though, I pulled a muscle in my groin that would not let me cross my legs in the traditional zazen position. This did not please me. I'd been sitting cross-legged for twenty-five years, so my reflex even at a fancy dinner party was to have my legs intertwined on the upholstered oak chair under the pink linen tablecloth.
Structure in the zendo had been everything to me: straight back, butt on black round cushion, eyes unfocused, cast down at a forty-degree angle. Bells rung on time. Clip, clip. Everything had order. In a chaotic world it was comforting. Sitting in a chair in the zendo with feet flat on the floor seemed silly. If I was going to sit in a chair, I might as well have a cup of tea, a croissant-hell, why not be in a cafe or on a bench under an autumn tree.
So I did go every single day, like a good Zen student, except in the wrong direction-not to the Zen center in downtown St. Paul, but to Bread and Chocolate, a cafe on Grand Avenue. I walked there slowly, mindfully, and it was grand. I didn't bring a notebook. I just brought myself and I had strict regulations: I could only buy one chocolate chip cookie. And I ate that one attentively, respectfully, bite after bite at a table next to big windows. I felt the butter of it on my fingers, the chips still warm and melted. In the past, seven good bites would have finished it off. But the eating was practice now, the cafe a living zendo. Small bites. Several chews. Be honest-was this mindfulness or a lingering? This cookie would not last. Oh, crisp and soft, brown and buttery. How I clung. The nearer, the more appreciative was I, as it disappeared.
"Life is a cookie," Alan Arkin pronounced in "America's Sweethearts." I fell over the popcorn in my lap with laughter. One of the deep, wise lines in American movies. No one else in the theater was as elated. No one else had eaten the same single cookie for months running. I gleefully quoted Arkin, the guru, for weeks after. I could tell by people's faces: this, the result of all her sitting?
But nothing lasts forever. My tongue finally grew tired of the taste day after day. Was this straw in my mouth, this once great cookie? In the last weeks I asked only for a large hot water with lemon and wanted to pay the price for tea, but they wouldn't let me. I had become a familiar figure. So I left tips in a paper cup, and I sat. Not for a half hour or until the cookie was done-I sat for two, often three hours. Just sat there, nothing fancy, alongside an occasional man chopping away at a laptop, a mother, her son and his young friends, heads bent over brownies, eating their after-school snack, an elderly couple, sighing long over steaming cups, a tall, retired businessman reading the Pioneer Press. I sat through the whole Bush/Gore campaign and then the very long election, through a young teenage boy murdered on his bike by the Mississippi, the eventual capture of the three young men who did it for no reason but to come in from the suburbs for some kicks, and the sad agony of the boy's parents who owned a pizza parlor nearby.
St. Paul is a small city with a big heart. If I was still enough, I could feel it all-the empty lots, the great river driving itself under bridges, the Schmidt brewery emitting a smell that I thought meant the town was toasting a lot of bread, but found out later was the focal point of an irate neighborhood protest. In early fall when the weather was warm I sat on the wood and wrought-iron bench that was set out in front of the cafe under a black locust. I even sat out there in slow drizzles and fog when the streets were slick and deserted. After fifteen years in New Mexico, the gray and mist were a great balm.
Sometimes if I was across the river in Minneapolis I sat at Dunn Brothers cafe on Hennepin and then, too, at the one in Linden Hills. Hadn't this always been my writing life? To fill spiral notebooks, write whole manuscripts in local luncheonettes and restaurants? But now here was my Zen life, too, happening in a cafe at the same square tables only without a notebook. Hadn't I already declared that Zen and writing were one? In and out I'd breathe. My belly would fill, my belly would contract. I lifted the hot paper cup to my lips, my eyes now not down on the page but rather unfocused on the top of the chair pushed under the table across from me.
My world of meditation was getting large for me. By leaving the old structure, I was loosening my tight grip on my old Zen teacher. I was finally letting go of him. I was bringing my zazen out into the street. But who wants to let go of something you love? I did all this, but I did not recognize what was happening to me.
There is a recorded interview of me on a panel with an old dharma friend on December 21, 2001. It was a Saturday evening, the second winter of my return to Minneapolis, and the weather had tipped to thirty below. I'd just been driven across town by a kind young Zen student. No, not driven-the car slipped across black ice. I was so stunned by the time I was in front of the audience, most of my responses to the moderator's questions were, "You can find the answer to that in one of my books. Which book? I dunno." I only knew no matter how deluded you may be, the land told you you would not last forever. As a matter of fact, driving home that night might be the end of you.
By the last days of February, even the most fastidious homeowners (and believe me, St. Paul is full of them) had given up shoveling their walks. In early March I looked out my apartment window to the corner of Dale and Lincoln near posh Crocus Hill and watched the man across the street blaze out of his large many-floored old pale blue clapboard house, jacket flying open, with a long ax in his hand. While bellowing out months of confinement in piercing yelps, he hacked away at the ice built up by the curb. Behind him stood a massive crabapple, its branches frozen and curled in a death cry.
I had scheduled, for mid-April, a day-long public walking and writing retreat. I doubted now that it would take place. Where would we walk? In circles around the hallway of the zendo? My plan had been to meet at the zendo, write for two rounds, then venture out on a slow mindful stroll, feeling the clear placement of heel, the roll of toes, the lifting of foot, the bend of knee, the lowering of hip, as we made our way through the dank, dark streets of industrial St. Paul, across railroad tracks and under a bridge, to be surprised by a long spiral stone tunnel, opening into Swede Hollow along a winding creek and yellow grass (after all, when I planned it the year before, wasn't April supposed to be spring?), then climbing up to an old-fashioned, cast-iron high-ceilinged cafe with a good soup and delicious desserts where we could write again at small tables. I would not tell the students where we were going. I would just lead them out the zendo door into the warehouse district with cigarette butts in wet clusters, gathered in sidewalk cracks. We would walk past the Black Dog Cafe and the smokers hunched on the outside stoop and near the square for the Lowertown farmers' market where impossible summer and fresh-grown produce would arrive again.
In this city of large oaks, magnificent elms and maples, I managed to return to practice Zen at a zendo surrounded by concrete, where one spindly young line of a tree gallantly fought by a metal gate to survive. I'd renamed the practice center The Lone Tree Zendo. And, yes, in truth I did actually go there early mornings and Saturdays, Sundays, for weekend and week-long retreats. I was working on koans, ancient teaching stories, that tested the depth of your realization. I had to present my understanding and it never came from logic or the thinking brain. I had to step out of my normal existence and come face-to-face with images from eighth to tenth-century China: a rhinoceros fan, a buffalo passing through a window, an oak tree in the courtyard. The northern cold penetrated me as deeply as these koans. No fly, no bare finger could survive-even sound cracked. I was gouged by impermanence.
The first miserable weekend in April came. I looked at the roster of twenty-four faithful souls who had registered for the writing retreat. Two women from Lincoln, Nebraska were flying in. A woman from Milwaukee-a six-hour drive away-was leaving at 3:30 a.m. to make the 9:30 beginning. Such determination. Only in the Midwest, I thought. I noted with delight that Tall Suzy and her friend from Fargo were coming. She'd studied with me back in New Mexico. Mike, the Vietnam vet, from Austin, Minnesota was driving up too. I nervously fingered the page with the list of names.
The workshop date was the Saturday before Easter. The day came and miraculously it was in the low sixties. I hustled over early to Bread and Chocolate to grab a cookie and touch the recent center of my universe and then arrived a few minutes late for class. Everyone was silently meditating in a circle. I swirled into my place.
"We are going out for most of the day. You'll have to trust me. Remember: no good or bad. Just one step after another. We'll see different things. This is a walk of faith."
After two initial writing sessions we bounded outside, eager to be in the weak yet warming sun. But the weekend desolation of industrial St. Paul sobered us. One step after another. This was a silent walk so no one could complain-not that a Midwesterner would do such a thing. But I, an old New Yorker, had to shut up, too. I couldn't encourage, explain, apologize. We just walked bare-faced on this one early April day slow enough to feel this life. Over the still frozen ground to the tracks, crushing thin pools of ice with our boots. A left foot lifted and placed, then a right. The tunnel was ahead. Half of us were already walking through the yellow limestone spiral, built in 1856, a miracle of construction that seemed to turn your mind. Eventually we all made it through to the other side, to sudden country, the hollow, and the first sweetness of open land. Long pale grasses, just straightening up after the melting weight of snow, and thin unleafed trees gathered along the lively winding stream.
We had walked an hour and a half at the pace of a spider. I'd forgotten what this kind of walking does to you. You enter the raw edge of your mind, the naked line between you and your surroundings drops away. Whoever you are or think you are cracks off. We were soul-bare together in the hollow, the place poor Swedish immigrants inhabited a hundred years ago in cardboard shacks. Some people broke off and went down to the stream, put their hands in the cold water. I sat on a stone with my face in the sun. Then we continued on.
We didn't get to the cafe until almost two o'clock. The place was empty. We filled the tables and burst into writing. I remember looking up a moment into the stunned faces of two people behind the counter. Where did all these people suddenly come from? And none of them are talking?
I'd forgotten how strenuous it was to walk so slow for so long. I was tired.
When it was time to leave, I had planned to follow the same route back. Oh, no, the students shook their heads and took the lead almost at a trot. A short cut across a bypass over noisy 94 to the zendo. We arrived breathless in twenty minutes. Back in the circle, I inquired, "How was it?"-the first spoken words.
I looked around at them. My face fell. I'd been naive. They ran back here for safety. That walk had rubbed them raw. One woman began: "When we reached the tunnel, I was terrified to go through. It felt like the birth canal."
Another: "I didn't know where it would lead. I looked at all of us walking like zombies and began to cry. I thought of the Jews going to the chambers."
I remembered two kids in the hollow stopping their pedaling and straddling their bikes, mouths agape, staring at us. I had taken comfort in numbers and didn't worry about how we appeared to the outside. Of course, we must have looked strange.
What happened to us? they asked.
I checked in with my own body right then. Oh, yes, I felt the way I did after a five or seven day retreat, kind of shattered, new and tremulous. They were feeling the same.
One woman said, "I physically felt spring entering the hollow. It was right there when I slowed up enough to feel it. I opened my hand and spring filled it. I swear I also saw winter leaving. Not a metaphor. The real thing."
They were describing experiences I'd had in the zendo after long hours of sitting. But I'd thought that only within the confines of those walls and with that cross-legged position I loved, could certain kinds of openings occur. I'd wanted so badly to cling to the old structure I learned with my beloved teacher, the time-worn true way handed down from temples and monasteries in Japan, that he'd painstakingly brought to us in America. Yes, I loved everything he taught me, but didn't Buddha walk around a lot? What I saw now, with these students as witnesses, was that it was me who had confined my mind, grasped a practice I learned in my thirties, feeling nothing else was authentic.
Nat, what about writing? You'd said it was a true way, but even you didn't truly believe it. You only wanted to be with your old teacher again when you came back to Minnesota a year ago. You'd returned to St. Paul, it turns out, not to let go, but to find him. Like a child, you'd never really believed he'd died. Certainly you'd discover him again up here, but your body couldn't sit in the old way. You happened upon him but all new.
What was Zen anyway? There was you and me, living and dying, eating cake. There was the sky, there were mountains, rivers, prairies, horses, mosquitoes, justice, injustice, integrity, cucumbers. The structure was bigger than any structure I could conceive. I had fallen off the zafu, that old round cushion, into the vast unknown.
I looked again at these students in a circle. This day we were here and we experienced we were here. I could feel Roshi's presence. I thought he had died. No one had died. And in a blink of an eye none of us were here, only spring would move to summer, if we were very lucky, and no one blew up the world. But maybe there were other summers and winters out there in other universes. Nothing like a Minnesota winter, of course-that single solid thought I probably would die clinging to, like a life preserver, the one true thing I'd met after all my seeking.
After the last student left, I bent to put on my shoes. I was tired of being pigeonholed as a writer. Limited to one thing. Not Zen separate from hamburgers, not writing divided from breath. Only the foot placed down on this one earth.
If we can sit in a cafe breathing, we can breathe through hearing our father's last breath, the slow crack of pain as we realize he's crossing over forever. Good-bye, we say. Good-bye. Good-bye. Toenails and skin. Memory halted in our lungs: his foot, ankle, wrist. When a bomb is dropped it falls through history. No one act, no single life. No disconnected occurrence. I am sipping a root beer in another cafe and the world spins and you pick up a pen, speak and save another life: this time your own.
That night at three a.m. one of those mighty midwestern thunderstorms suddenly broke the dark early sky in an electric yellow. I gazed out the cold glass pane. Either in my head or outside of it-where do thoughts come from?-three words resounded: The Great Spring. The Great Spring. Together my students and I had witnessed the tip of the moment that green longed for itself again. I realized in all these years, Roshi had never been outside of me.
Natalie Goldberg is the author of Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, Long Quiet Highway, and Thunder and Lightning. Her most recent book is a collection of poems and paintings, Top Of My Lungs, published by Overlook Press. She has been a zen practitioner for the last 25 years.
From "The Great Spring"" by Natalie Goldberg. Shambhala Sun, January 2003.
Is Controlled By the Mind
The passage below comes from the Cloud of Jewels Sutra. It indicates that all phenomena are productions of mind and that everything is created by mind. Ordinary beings allow the mind to wander at will, thus enmeshing them in confused and harmful thoughts, but bodhisattvas are advised to train the mind in order to bring it under control.
All phenomena originate in the mind, and when the mind is fully known all phenomena are fully known. For by the mind the world is led...and through the mind karma is piled up, whether good or bad. The mind swings like a firebrand, the mind rears up like a wave, the mind burns like a forest fire, like a great flood the mind carries all things away. Bodhisattvas, thoroughly examining the nature of things, remain in ever-present mindfulness of the activity of the mind, and so do not fall into the mind's power, but the mind comes under their control. And with the mind under their control, all phenomena are under their control.
with Hannah Nydahl
Virginia, July 1995
In 1969, Lama Ole Nydahl and his wife Hannah became the first western students of His Holiness the XVI Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpai Dorje, one of the greatest yogis of this century, and the head of the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. His Holiness had a profound influence on their lives. He asked Hannah and Ole to bring Buddhism to the West. For the last 22 years they have been traveling non-stop, teaching and setting up meditation centers around the world.
Hannah Nydahl is a much sought after translator and interpretator of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. She divides her time between translating for the lamas at the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute in New Delhi, India, participating in various Buddhist text translation projects, organizing schedules and visits of high Rinpoches in the lineage, and traveling around the world with Lama Ole.
Kagyu Life International: How did it happen that you spent so much time in Asia?
Hannah Nydahl: Ole and I went to Asia the first time in the 60's. We connected with Buddhism and stayed there for a few years. There was no Tibetan Buddhism in the West then, so the connection with the East was still very important. My function became to translate for the Tibetan lamas, and help them organize their schedules. Also, for many years, Ole and I arranged pilgrimage tours to the East, taking approximately 100 people at a time, every year or two. This gave me a lot of contact with Asia. For the past five years I have also been involved as a translator for Tibetan teachers at KIBI (the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute) in New Delhi.
For people starting on the Buddhist path today, the situation is quite different. You can become a Buddhist in your own country, and learn and practice everything there. It may be good for your development to go on a pilgrimage, in order to visit places carrying a special blessing such as Bodhgaya, the place of Buddha's enlightenment. But it is not necessary to go and live in the East. I only go myself when I have work to do there.
How did you learn Tibetan?
In the late 60's when we met with Buddhism, very few texts were translated, and few teachers spoke English. We had to learn Tibetan ourselves, and I started by learning the alphabet from Tarab Tulku at the University in Denmark. Then, when we stayed in India in the Himalayas and did our practice, we had to translate all the meditation texts ourselves. When we did the Ngondro practices we started with the prostration text. I looked up almost every word in the dictionary and slowly translated the text. It was the same with the other parts of Ngondro. At that time we were in a retreat-like setting and did not talk much to people, so we did not get to practice any spoken Tibetan. To practice speaking it we had to stay in the Tibetan camps where nobody knew English.
Later, we invited the lamas to Europe and there was no one to translate, so I had to learn more Tibetan in order to translate for them. It was a natural process. Translating became part of my role, and Ole went into the teaching activity. He is a born teacher, and not a born translator (Hannah laughs). If he were to translate, he would give his own teaching (still laughing). So it fits like this.
Again, the situation today is very different. Now many teachings and texts are translated and many translators are available, so one can easily practice Tibetan Buddhism without knowing Tibetan.
How and when did you decide to give up the traditional family role? Did it happen early in your marriage?
When we went to Asia on our honeymoon and met with Buddhism, we stayed there several years to learn and practice the Buddhist teachings intensively. Later, we got the position of working full time for the Dharma. H.H. the 16th Karmapa was very precise in his instructions to us. He wanted us to go back to Europe and work for the Dharma. At that time it was not possible to combine this work with normal family life - it was a matter of making a choice. The choice was easy, there are enough children in this world, and what we were doing at that time was more important than having our own children. Today it is a different situation. Becoming a Buddhist does not mean changing one's lifestyle as we did.
You and Ole were the ones who actually brought Tibetan Buddhism to Europe.
It became our responsibility because there was no Tibetan Buddhism available in Europe at that time. Our development was not a typical one, it was a specific function at a specific time.
How do you maintain your balance when so many people make demands on your time, and your every move is watched as being significant?
Making demands on one's time is OK, and actually this is not a big problem. Concerning people watching one's every move, I would like to mention something of general interest. In the West we have a tendency to become a little artificial and fanatic around our teachers. We look at the teacher, watch every move he makes, and give special meaning to each word he utters. In Europe we have this tendency quite a lot; I don't know how it is in the States. We should try to be more natural towards teachers, towards Rinpoches. Our devotion can be kept internally - it does not have to show on the outside in an extreme way. It is not necessary to be physically close to the teacher, or look at him all the time. If one has trust or devotion, this does not have to be shown outside. It is important that, as Buddhists, we give more care to the kind of impression we make on the outside world, since people already have a hard enough time understanding what Buddhism is, and we don't want to be confused with the many cults coming up these days.
How do you maintain your balance living in the shadow of such powerful men as Ole and Shamar Rinpoche?
No problem! (she laughs) I do not have ambitions in that way. I don't see myself as being in anybody's shadow. I am just myself.
In your practice of Buddhism over the last 25 years, what are the stages of development you have seen in yourself?
From the moment I first met with pure Buddhist teachings, it was like a revelation. Since childhood I always had many questions in my mind - I wondered about the meaning of existence and such things. Denmark is a Christian country, but not very religious, and the Christianity I met there did not give me the answers I was looking for. I could not accept the concept of one creator God, the rhetoric that if you did not believe in God you were doomed forever, or that people who did not believe in God were lost. This never made sense to me. I was also very concerned about what happened to the mind when one died. I wondered a lot about these things when I was very young.
Later in puberty, I was involved in a lot of mundane activities (she laughs). I got distracted, and was not so occupied with these questions. Then, I met Ole and we started taking psychedelics. For me this was a continuation of looking for answers and especially trying to explore the mind. Apart from breaking some rough concepts about the world being solid and real, and thus getting a taste of the illusory nature of things, psychedelics did not give any answers either. The problem with them was that one clung to the experiences as being real instead, which was even worse and more difficult to purify.
The first direct Buddhist teachings I read were in a book called Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines in 1968. In the beginning of the book was a text by Gampopa The Garland of Precious Jewels, translated by Evans-Wenz. This is a collection of teachings presented in sets of advice that starts on an ordinary relative level and takes you through to the absolute teachings. It gave answers to all the things I had wondered about. It was a very strong experience for me, like coming home.
After that, we met our teacher the Karmapa, and started to practice. Ever since then, it has been a process of trying to integrate the teachings as much as possible. It is amazing how vast and profound the teachings are, there is no end to them. Every instruction and practice I was given always confirmed the truth of Buddha's teachings and took me deeper into understanding. Feeling how much the Dharma has helped me, and seeing how much benefit it has for other people too, I feel extremely grateful to be able to use my life the way I do.
Have you ever doubted or been discouraged about the Dharma?
No. If something unpleasant or disappointing happens, it only confirms what the teachings say about the impermanent and changing quality of everything conditioned. As a child, I had an easy life, which maybe is not always so useful for learning to deal with difficulties, but at the same time it helped me gain some inner stability which has been useful in my later work.
How can one maintain a pure view and not be naive?
This is where the Dharma helps you. If you do not know the Dharma, then you tend to live in some unrealistic illusion and think that things are what they are not; you give things a permanent existence which they do not have. You may think something is wonderful, then suddenly it is not wonderful anymore. Or you see defects, start judging and thinking everything is terrible, there is no solution and you want to commit suicide or whatever. I can understand how people can get desperate if they don't know the Dharma - those who look at the world without seeing the whole picture can be terrified by what they see. But once you know the Dharma, it is not so bad. You can see the potential in people, get the right perspective. Even when there are wars and catastrophes, you know, at least theoretically, that this is not how things really are, and it is only a question of everybody understanding the true nature of things for these sufferings to stop. If you meet people who behave strangely, you do not take it personally. You think more of how you can advise them. It is no longer a private thing. This is how the Dharma helps us. To have the pure view means to see how things are in their essence.
What about the situation when people who are close to you turn against you?
The teachings say that we can understand impermanence by seeing how friends turn into enemies and enemies turn into friends. This is very true. Of course it is sad when a good friend turns against you, something is destroyed, but this has not happened to me as much as to Ole. Because of his function and dominant appearance, he is in more situations where people either adore or hate him. Some people like to see him as their idol and try to imitate him. Sometimes it is these exact same people who turn against him out of pride and jealousy - they suddenly make Ole into the devil. Ole does not take this personally. It is a pity when it happens but we learn a lot through this. One learns about the mentality of people and about the different approaches people can have. You learn how to deal better with situations, how to relate to people, and how to prevent these things from happening again. You can see certain tendencies in people and then be more careful about the kinds of relationship you have with these people - for their own sake.
Do you have any plans to write a book?
I have had different suggestions from people about this. One suggestion is to write a book about Dharma experiences, and another is to write about being a woman in Buddhism. It might be useful, but it is a question of time, it takes time to write a book. Ole is better at utilizing every single second - he can produce books simultaneously with his other activity. I cannot do that, so we will see what becomes possible.
Could you speak about the special role of women in the Dharma?
When you practice Buddhism, it is a very individual thing and not so much a question of whether one is a man or a woman. Each individual has his or her capacity and conditions - both outer and inner. In the West I do not see a big difference between men and women. It is more in the Eastern cultures that there is a big difference in their roles. Concerning the Buddhist methods, there is not much difference, one just has to use them. Generally, attachment is more difficult for a woman to dissolve, and men have to perhaps work more with aggressions - but it is very individual. We are all human beings, and most have a combination of disturbing emotions. So there is not that big of a difference between man and woman when it comes to practicing the Dharma.
You hold so much knowledge and wisdom from being around teachers and translating for so many years. Why don't you teach more?
There is only so much time and I am involved in many different kinds of activities already. Once one starts something, one should do it properly. I do not mind teaching, but when I am together with Ole, it is more natural that he teaches. When I am not with him, I mainly translate and organize for the Tibetan lamas. Somehow, teaching has not been part of my activity yet. Also, His Holiness was very specific about the importance of Ole and I working together, and, if I was to have an independent teaching program on top of everything else, the already too little time we spend together would be reduced to zero.
Every teacher has a different style. This can be difficult since we tend to prefer one style and disapprove of others.
The confusion may have to do with us not distinguishing between the different kinds of teachers and thinking the teacher must be a Rinpoche or somebody very well known before we bother to listen to his teachings. One's main teacher will naturally be somebody one likes and in whom one has confidence. It is psychologically normal to learn better and be more attentive if the teacher has a style one feels at home with. But we don't always seem to understand that we need to study the basic teachings in order to understand and practice the path in a correct way. For this we can listen to teachers who are not necessarily enlightened or especially charismatic. In such cases the main thing is that he knows what he is talking about. If we focus more on the Dharma than on the person teaching it, we also protect ourselves against spiritual manipulation, which is good for everybody.
Kagyu Life International, No.4, 1995
Copyright ©1995 Kamtsang Choling USA
with Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche
for the CTF newsletter and The View Magazine March 19, 1998
(questions by Mikaela and Marcia, interpretation by Erik)
Question: What do you feel is most vital for your Dharma groups in the West, both in Denmark and in the United State that are establishing centers?
Rinpoche: First of all, the view of Dzogchen or Mahamudra and the practice, should not be in name only. It shouldn't be mere words, but the view actually applied. That is the way to uphold the tradition of the definitive meaning. Many masters give teachings on the nature of mind. It was the tradition of my father, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, who especially emphasized the nature of mind. Whenever he taught, that would be what he placed the highest importance on, the understanding of the nature of mind. If his followers could actually practice the view and really realize it, that would be the best offering to give to Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Moreover it would be what they could really take with them when they leave this life. It is what is of the highest benefit. It is the single most sufficient practice. If you have it, everything is perfect. If you don't, then so many doors are closed.
Question: What would you like to see your students to do in those places in Denmark and the United States?
Rinpoche: They need to turn the three wheels. Best is if one person can turn all three wheels. The first is called the wheel of beneficial action, which means the activity that provides the facilities for people to study and practice. In connection with that, it is wonderful to undertake the tasks of constructing temples and shrines, building or offering statues, tankas, stupas and printing books. These are representations of enlightened body, speech and mind. Once these things have been gathered and built, it is of utmost importance to take care of their preservation. All of that is beneficial endeavor.
The second wheel is the study wheel of learning which means to listen to, understand and reflect upon the words of the Buddha, the teachings. The third is the meditation wheel of simplicity where you go through the steps of training and meditation. This includes the different details of the preliminaries, the main part, and so forth, until you progress to more and more subtle practices. Finally you get to the point of meditation practice where you don't move at all. You don't speak; you don't need to form any concepts, either. That is the deepest practice. This is a very reasonable progression. When one has a lot of concepts, development stage with big visualizations are important as their remedy to these thoughts. If one feels like talking a lot, then the remedy for that is to say a lot of mantras. As these fade, later you can remain totally without saying a word, without thinking a thing. That is how to train.
These three wheels are mutually helpful. The Buddha said beings differ in their inclinations, so therefore, let whoever feels most inclined to a particular one of the three wheels do that.
Question: The Dharma is often criticized in the West as not being engaged in social service, not offering the kind of help that unfortunate people need. How would you address this criticism?
Rinpoche: In Buddhism, the six paramitas, the six transcendent actions are considered very important. The first of these is giving; being generous. There are different ways of being generous. The first one mentioned is the giving of material things. Second is called the giving of protection against fear. The third one is the giving of wisdom, the giving of truth.
The third, the giving of wisdom, is the highest act of generosity. Why is that? The giving of material things makes our physical life comfortable. The giving of protection against fear can alleviate the deepest anxiety, the deepest; the most unpleasant feelings' people have. Therefore, the giving of protection against of fear actually is of deeper benefit than simple material things. You could be deeply concerned with the welfare of others. You could go out and spend huge funds on making life comfortable for others. However, no matter how hard you try, even if you said "the whole world is yours, I give it to you"; the other person can only enjoy that until the end of his life; no longer. However if you can make true insight, perfect wisdom grow forth, in another person, that can make a permanent end to suffering forever. In your opinion which is the most beneficial?
Who can give the perfect knowledge? It should be someone whose being has already been liberated through realization. To liberate your own being through realization, you have to be realized. Therefore, someone who makes up their mind to spend the rest of their life in retreat is someone who aims at becoming able to benefit all sentient beings. If that is the situation, such a person is worthy of deep respect. Otherwise, if that person is merely sitting there for him or herself, and on top of that, not even working and we have to provide the food, it is a really selfish retreat.
Question: Most westerner students are going to be able to devote that much time to spending their whole life in retreat. Based on this assumption, what is the best combination of study and practice, in your vision for Western students?
Rinpoche: I feel that it is very important to devote every year a couple of months for retreat. Secluded practice is very important.
Question: In a Western job many of us only have three weeks of holidays in a whole year. If people did have the leisure to take a few months out of the year, how would you divide the time between study and practice?
Rinpoche: There are three things that are important in a spiritual person's life. One is to provide the means, in other words, to work. The purpose of taking a job is to get money so that one can use that money to do something meaningful; to study and practice.About study, the purpose of study is to know how to practice. Practice here means the meditation practice. At least one needs to study enough to know how to do the particular practice one is doing; even if one is not studying in a very detailed, long term way. One needs to know what kind of perspective, what kind of view, what kind of training, what kind of behavior, what kind of results should come out of their practice. Otherwise, since our habitual tendencies, the deeply ingrown habits of forming concepts are very subtle; we may pretend to ourselves that we can easily practice a very high form of meditation. Whether or not this is really genuine, we ourselves need to ascertain; we need to be totally free of doubt. The way to be free of doubt is through learning. It is important from that angle.
Question: Is there a way to combine Dharma, worldly life and work in the West? What should westerners do if we want to practice but still need to have a job?
Rinpoche: The main practice in Buddhism is, after recognizing the view, to compose your mind in equanimity and continue like that. That is the main practice and for that practice there are conducive conditions and unfavorable conditions. Conducive factors for the training of equanimity are compassion, devotion and renunciation in the sense of the wish to be free. It also includes being conscientious, mindful, alert as well as diligent and intelligent.
What are the unfavorable conditions? It is to allow one's attention to be distracted outwardly. It is to be complacent, lazy and careless. All of these make it more difficult to remain in composure. This is especially true when we are caught up in the five toxic emotions of desire, hatred, dullness, envy and conceit. It is very hard to be calm and clear at the same time.
Of course the main thing is your mind; what is it you really want? If you take it upon yourself, to really want to practice, and not I want anything else, then complacency, laziness, distractions, won't have that hold over you any longer. They cannot make obstacles in the same way as before. Therefore, someone who is really determined to sustain the view, even when involved in so-called ordinary activities, will have the attitude of being among children building castles of sand. You can't say the person is uninvolved, because he or she is doing a job, but on the other hand you can't say that he or she really is, because of not being attached.
Honestly isn't it true that if we feel something is of vital importance, whether it is the world, or our spiritual practice, if it is imprinted on our mind that this is the most important, that nothing else matters, we will always find the time. We will not be that distracted from it, and we will definitely have a chance to reach accomplishment, to reach the results.
Question: When would you say that the Dharma has truly been implanted in the West?
Rinpoche: When the minds of the students have been softened up and are gentle, peaceful and compassionate. Likewise when the view that is the direct remedy against ego-clinging, the root cause of samsara has been understood and applied, that is the establishing of the Dharma. Honestly speaking, this is genuine.
Question: Do you see that those qualities are already happening? Is the Dharma implanted in the West?
Rinpoche: When you see the great number of Dharma centers, retreat places and ordained sangha in the West, those are definitely the signs that show the presence of the Dharma.
Question: Finally what is the main difference between the analytical approach of training and simply resting in meditation?
Rinpoche: There are two main approaches, one is analytical and the other is the simply resting way of meditation.They each get their names from their main emphasis. It is not the case that one is only analytical and you never compose the mind; it isn't like that. One is primarily analytical and the other approach is primarily one of resting meditation, rather than examining. But when training in resting meditation there always has been some analytical questioning prior to that. There has to be some prelude. For example, there is the examining of the moving mind and the quiet mind and the arising, dwelling and ceasing of thoughts and so forth. However there is one thing that is totally without analytical attitude and that is what is called natural mind, untainted by thoughts of the three times. That itself is free from any judgments, any discrimination, it is totally non-analytical. The word analytical meditation doesn't mean that one analyzes forever; because then it wouldn't be meditation. It means one analyzes until the topic of analysis is exhausted and there is some resolution arrived at, at which point the meditation begins.
Could you tell us please something about your family?
I was the oldest of four children. One brother and sister passed away very young, while
my youngest brother became the Sakya Trizin. My father never became the head of the
Sakya lineage; he passed away in the year of the Tiger (1950), at the age of 49. My
mother had passed away three years earlier, when I was 10. At that time my brother
was only three years old. From then on, my aunt, our mother's older sister, looked after
us. She took us to Ngor Monastery, south of Shigatse. There we met our root lama,
Ngawang Lodro Shenpen Nyima or briefly Tampa Rinpochey, and we received teachings.
We received the Path and Fruit teachings from him, both in the 'public' and 'private'
presentations. We had almost reached the end of the personal transmission of Path and
Fruit, when our root lama passed away. He was 75 years old. Another of his students,
Ngor Khangsar Shabdrung Rinpochey, took over from him and finished the teachings.
Later, Khangsar Shabdrung Rinpochey, Ngawang Lodro Tenzin Nyingpo, came to Sakya
and gave us another teachings, called the Collections of Sadhanas.
While my brother was doing his Vajrakilaya retreat, monks from Kham came to
Sakya and requested Path and Fruit teachings from him. But as he was in retreat,
my aunt appointed me to give the three months transmission in the Lam-Dre Ngawang
Chodrak tradition. I was 18 years old.
When did you start to meditate?
When I was six, I did my first small meditations on Manjushri and Saraswati, accompanied
by a teacher, not alone. Then, when I was eight, I became a nun. When I was 10, I did a
one month Vajrapani retreat, also with a teacher. At the age of 17, I received the Path and
Fruit teachings, together with Sakya Trizin. After I completed a few retreats, including
that of Hevajra and other deities. Then I gave the Path and Fruit transmission for the
When did you come to exile?
In 1959, when I was 21, we escaped to India. I remained there from 1959 to 1971. First
we went to the American Missionary Refugee camp for Tibetans in Kalimpong. I tried
to learn English there, because we generally spoke Hindi. I was very shy, so I did not
speak a lot of English. Since I came to Canada, I have had a lot of practice - because I
In 1962, I went to Shimla and worked there with Tibetan children in Tibetan nursery.
I worked as a nurse, changing diapers, fixing beds and serving food. But after nine months
I got sick, so I had to quit.
Once we arrived in India, I decided to give up my robes. In 1964, my husband's
family, the Luding family, and my aunt arranged our marriage. After taking their
decision they asked us, and we both agreed. Although we knew each other quite well,
it was a prearranged marriage.
We had five children: four sons and a daugter. My first son was born in 1965. My
daugter passed away, while three of my sons live with me in Canada. One, Shabdrung
Rinpochey, was born in 1967 and now lives in India. When we came to Canada in 1971,
my youngest son was just 10 months old.
Why did you decide to live in Canada?
Sakya Trizin and I had a old friend, a woman who was half French, half German. She
actually decided for me. She felt that my situation, bringing up five children in India,
was not so good. I thought that I was doing well, that I was very rich - but I guess she
thought that I was very poor. She asked me if I wanted to go to Canada. She knew
the Canadian Ambassador very well. She then talked to him, and he added my name
to the list of those being considered for resettlement. We first arrived in Alberta and
only later we moved to Vancouver. While my husband worked on a farm, feeding the
cattle, I was working in the house, cooking the whole day and feeding the kids - a
terrible experience because it never finished the whole day long.
Are there any differences between living in India and here?
It is much the same. There's no big difference. A lot of people say to me: 'You lost your
country, you must feel lonely and homesick.' I never had the feeling of loneliness and
of being homesick. I don't know why, I never had it. I never feel lonely. If you are alone,
you find something to read, or you do a meditation. We Tibetans did not have television.
Here, if you're lonely, you watch television. People here watch television like zombies.
Could you tell us something about your lineage, in particular the Khon lineage?
The Khon lineage originates not in our worldly realm. It comes from a heavenly realm.
Three sons came to our workd from that realm. While the two older brothers returned
to the heavenly realm, the youngest one married the daughter of a raksa or harmful
spirit. Literally, the word Khon means 'against each other', or enemy. After the marriage
the raksa family and the Khon family fought against each other, which is why the Khons
became known as enemies of the harmful spirits.
Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, Sonam Tsenmo, Rinchen Dakpa Gyaltsen, Sakya Pandita,
Drogon Chogyal Phakpa were the first lineage holders of the Khon. Then the lineage
was passed down until Wangdu Nyingpo and his four sons: Pema Dhondup Wangchuk
(we call him Pitu), Kunga Rinchen, Ngodrup Pompa and Kunga Gyaltsen, youngest of
the sons. Pitu and Kunga Gyaltsen together had one son, Dorje Rinchen, because they
shared the same wife.
Dorje Rinchen became the Sakya Trizin, but did not have any children himself. He
was the Sakya government. This is when the two brothers who were both fathers of
Dorje Rinchen established the two houses of Sakya. The younger brother, Kunga
Rinchen, founded the Phuntsog Phodrang, while the older brother, Pitu, instituted the
From Pema Dhondup Wangchuk the Dolma Phodrang lineage passed to Tashi
Rinchen, Kunga Nyingpo, Tashi Trinley Rinchen, then to Kunga Rinchen who was
Sakya Trizin's and my father, and then to Sakya Trizin. On the Phuntsog Phodrang
side, the lineage was passed on from Kunga Rinchen to Kunga Sonam, then to
Samling Chiku Wangdu, Ngawang Thudob Wangchuk, to Jigdal Dagchen Sakya,
and he will pass it on to one of his five sons.
What does the bone and blood lineage mean?
We talk about these lineages only in relation to human beings. Religiously and spiritually
they have no meaning. The mothers' lineage is the blood lineage, while the bone lineage
refers to the father's side. In Tibet, when it came to marriage, it was important to observe
the bone lineage for seven generations, and the blood lineage for four generations. After
these generations you could marry. That is the only reason.
Compared to other traditions, what is different in the Sakyapa?
In Sakya, we talk about the two families, the Khon families. Inside these two families
and lineages, there are lamas of other lineages born into.
For example, my brother, Sakya Trizin, is a reincarnation of the Nyingmapa lama
Abong Terton, from east Tibet. This has been recognized by the Nyingmapas very
clearly - there is no doubt about it. Before Abong Terton died, he told his students: "I
will die this year. Next year you should go to Sakya and look for newborn babies. I will
be there, and you will recognize me. But you cannot bring me back here. My duty in
eastern Tibet is done, and my future task will be in central Tibet, with the people there.
I will have to stay with their family. You cannot bring me back, but you can visit me.'
Abong Terton had three sons. While the middle son visited Sakya, he recognized his
father in my brother. At that time my brother was six years old; he was reciting all kinds
of prayers that he had not been taught, very much like Abong Terton.
We Sakyas understood very well and do not doubt it. However our side thought he
was the reincarnation of my grandfather:
In Sakya there was a Mahakala temple, facing south. It was rebuilt by my grandfather.
During the restoration, he left a small skylight open in the upper southwest corner, so that
light could enter the temple. When my borther was maybe seven or eight years old, he
visited the temple for the first time. Right away he asked: 'What happened to the window?
Where is the window?' 'Somehow somebody closed the window,' replied the old man
beside him, with tears in his eyes. The old man had known my grandfather and he knew
that once there was a window. That is why our side believes that Sakya Trizin is the
reincarnation of my grandfather's.
Many people wonder: 'How is this possible? Two people reincarnated in one person?'
I think the great Nyingmapa lama, Abong Terton, was a Bodhisattva and my grandfather
was also a Bodhisattva. Their minds are equal. They have different forms, but basically
the Bodhisattva's essence is the same. So there are two Bodhisattvas and they can do
anything. This is what I believe. That is what happened in our family.
If somebody is born into our family lineage, the former lineage of the reincarnation
may be lost and these reincarnations don't get their monastery. This is because for us
the family lineage is more important, it has priority. Our Khon lineage does not need
reincarnations. It is always passed down from father to son.
The head of the Sakyapas alternates between the Dolma Phodrang and the Phuntsok
Phodrang. The responsibility moves back and forth, changing from generation to
generation. The previous Sakya Trizin was Jigdal Dagchen Rinpochey's father, and
before that it was our grandfather.
Leadership of the Ngor Monastery, on the other hand, rotates among the four lamas
who were heads of the four households or labrangs every three years.
Do you know who your former incarnations were?
I do not know. People say different things, in different ways. Anyhow, people say that
they want to say; myself I really don't know. Somehow everybody is incarnated anyway.
Some people say that you are an emanation of Vajrayogini.
Yes, I know. A long time ago, after the five great Sakya teachers, one of the great
Sakyapa lamas had a sister. She was a very good nun and a practitioner. She also
was lineage-holder of the Path and Fruit. Her name was Jigmey Tenpai Nyima.
People say she was an emanation of Vajrayogini. So, since that time, some people
say that some of the daughters of the Khon family are emanations of Vajrayogini.
That's what they say. So somebody heard this and said that therefore I am an
emanation of Vajrayogini, but I do not think so. People can believe it if they want,
that's fine, it does not matter. But, people who take Hevajra and Vajrayogini
teachings from me, they have to believe in Vajradhara. Root lamas are Vajradhara.
Generally, everybody has this essence of mind. The nature of the mind is presently
concealed. Our defilements and the three poisons have covered this nature, so we
cannot see our own mind. The Bodhisattva is present in everybody, but defilements
and poisons have covered it up. Clear away those defilements and you become a
Bodhisattva. Basically the Bodhisattva essence is present in everybody. Everybody
has it, but you cannot see it. The same goes for saying some person is the emanation
of a deity.
Why are there so few female lamas?
I don't know. I guess that this is a female problem (laughs). I really don't know. In earlier
days, the Nyingmapas had a lot of female lamas, particularly in Kham. Now, after the
revolution, it has changed. Otherwise, traditionally, I could not have married. Once you
were born a woman in the Khon family, you would automatically become a nun. It was
your choice whether you took the vows and become a nun or not, but you had to wear
the robes. Then you would receive empowerments like Hevajra and Chakrasamvara,
and on those occasions you would take Vajrayana vows. In the Vajrayana vows there is
a kind of nun's vow included. These are serious vows and therefore you could not marry.
So once you were born as a woman into Khon family, you could not lead a worldly life?
No, you would always be learning, reciting and meditating. Some nuns were doing
handicrafts like sewing, knitting and beadwork and so on. These rules were not set
by the Tibetan government, but by our family.
From your point of view, why did Shugseb Jetsunma decide to reincarnate as a man?
The reason is personal. I think every human being has a different mind, and accordingly
has different ideas. I think it was her idea to come back as a man. I have heard that she
had a difficult life as a young girl. When she was on pilgrimage with her mother, a man
robbed her and tried to rape her. Consequently, I guess she thought that being a female
is hopeless. Not hopeless in the mind, but in the physical body - it is more difficult to
fight back, to defend yourself. That's why, I think, she wanted to come back as a man,
into a more comfortable and easy life. Something like that. I don't think she thought
women are bad and so she became a man.
Are there similarities and/or differences between the various traditions of Kachoma
I think in the Gelugpa the Vajrayogini practice is very similar to ours, because it comes
from the Sakyas. Maybe there are different lamas with different sets of sadhanas,
different ways of teaching, some of them more detailed, but it come from Sakya, so it is
very much the same.
The Kagyupa's Vajrayogini is actually not Vajrayogini. They call it Vajrayogini
nowadays, especially among Westerners, but in fact it is Vajravarahi. In Tibetan it
is called Dorje Phagmo, and not Naro Kacho. Therefore, the Kagyu practice is not
Are they very different?
They are different, but both Vajravarahi and Vajrayogini, are Chakrasamvara tantric
practices and originally come from Naropa. Naro Kacho means that it comes from
His Holiness Sakya Trizin once said that he had to encourage you to teach.
Yes. In 1979, he was visiting the US, together with Dezhung Rinpochey, for the second
time. During his visit he was giving a talk in New York. After the talk, there was a
question/answer panel discussion. One woman asked: 'Why is it that in Tibetan Buddhism
all the teachers are men, and there were no women?' Then my brother said: 'No, we have
woman teachers too; one of them is my sister. She is hiding somewhere in Canada.'
That's what he said at the time. Then he came to visit me and his centre in Vancouver.
He did not press me, but he just said: 'If you teach in the West, it would be good.' That's
the only thing he said. At that time I was not teaching in the public, only privately. Some
people were interested in Tibetan language, others in meditation. One or two were
interested in empowerments; so I gave them small empowerments in my house. When my
brother came, he asked me to look after his centres. After my brother left, I went to
Sakya centres in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Boston, and New York. Since then I visit,
the Sakya centres that my brother had set up in the West, once in a while. Whenever
these centres ask me to come, I go, and most of the time I do not talk a lot, but give
empowerments and instructions.
When Sakya Trizin was back in India, I was invitied to Australia. He told me to go
there and teach. At that time, he gave me some reasons. First he said: 'In Tibet as an
ex-nun you would no longer teach.' This is because most of the teachings are given in
monasteries, by nuns and monks. 'So the lay people, would have no faith in you. Only
if you are a great, great, great lama, and you have a wife, would they have faith in you,
but mostly they don't. Traditionally it was like that in Tibet. But in the West,' my brother
said, 'almost all the practitioners are lay-people. You, a lay person, have a very similar
lifestyle to the people you teach. You have a household, a working position, and so when
you teach in the West, Western women can look at you and think: "If she can do it and
get enlightened, so of course we can do it and get enlightened too." It is beneficial for
you and it is beneficial for other beings.' That's what he said.
I could not say no, because he is my root lama. I took a Path and Fruit teaching from
him in Benares in India. And I also took a Vajrayogini initiation in Rajpur from him,
together with my husband. So you cannot say no.
Could you give us an idea of your daily schedule?
Before I married, I used to get up very early. I did my practice and finished before
everybody else got up. After marriage I tried to get up around five - five thirty, and
finished before I went to work. These days I try to get up around four.
After my practice I go to work between 7:30 and 8:30, and then I work for eight
hours. Then I come home and cook for the kids. My kids are very nice and helpful.
Do you see any differences between lifestyle in Tibet and in the West?
Of course there is a difference. Everything is different. For example, the kitchen is
different. To cook in Tibet, we needed a sheep or yak-skin bellows to make the fire.
Every morning we had to do that (pretends to pump the bellows). But here you turn
one knob and there is fire. Of course it is different.
Do you think therefore our values are different?
I don't know. I think it is the same; I think most people are of like nature. I think this
is generally true of people. But individually people have different values. Personally
I appreciate it more here, because it is an easier life and it is more comfortable (she
laughs). But it makes you more lazy too.
Is distraction here bigger?
Yes. Distraction is bigger here, of course.
Do you think it is more difficult to practice in the West?
That also varies according to the individual, because it is in each one's mind. Generally,
it is a little bit difficult here. But if your mind is stable, it does not matter. When I practice,
my mind is sometimes very stable, sometimes my mind goes all over the place. When I
have stable times, and my kids are playing music, I cannot see any difference. Whether
they play or don't, to me it is the same thing. I never have the feeling, 'It is too noisy,'
or something like that. So when there are noises (at that moment an airplane flies over)
you can turn them into a mantra like Om Mani Padme Hung. This is not difficult. But
people are not stable. That's why it is so disturbing here. To retreat from noise, they go
to quiet places, in the mountains, yet their minds are still very busy. You live in the
mountain, but your mind goes to the town again.
How would you suggest integrating Dharma into daily life, based on your own example?
Especially, how to overcome the excuse of having no time?
You have to make time. There is enough time. You work eight hours a day. Some people
then say: I have no time to practice. But instead they go to a bar, sit in front of television,
go to movies, or do other things. If you really want to practice, then you have to give up
those things. It is not necessary to cut yourself from life completely, but you must slowly
eliminate distraction. If you practice all the time, then your mind becomes tired. That is
not so good - you lose concentration. Then you can watch a little television, read some
books (not Dharma books), you can go for a walk in the forest or on the beach, or work
in the garden - you can do those sorts of things. Also, if you work in a job where you do
not need to talk, you can recite mantras while you are working. At work, or when I do my
house duties, I do a lot of prayers: sometimes I do mantras, sometimes I sing Tibetan
Do you think it is more difficult for women to maintain their practice routine because of
their traditional role in the house?
You cannot generalize. Some women, and men, live in traditional households. That does
not really matter. You have to make time. If you are not tired, then you have to take
your time. But I don't understand: here, in the West, everybody says when they are about
to get up, 'Oh, I'm so-o-o tired.' I don't know, it is really amazing. For example, my kids,
they hang around the whole weekend, and on Monday morning, when they have to get
up, they instantly say: 'I am so tired.' How come? They were asleep the whole night!
This is really amazing. I am never tired. Before we came here, we were living on a farm.
I worked in a mushroom plantation and had to pick mushrooms. We shipped 20 pound
boxes up and down. Then, when I came home, I had to cook, feed the kids - at that time
the children were very small, three to eight years old - and keep up with the household
duties. At that time I was in my thirties.
So you think 'to be tired' is a question of the mind?
I think so. I never had the thought of 'tiredness' in my mind at all. But in my late
forties I notice I do get tired. Sometimes at work I get tired: I do not want to lift my
feet onto the loom, but anyway I have to. Before my mid forties, I never felt tired.
And yet, although they are in their twenties, the kids say daily: 'I am so tired!' This
is truly amazing.
Why do you thnk it is like this?
I think it is because people say, 'I am tired.' Everybody says: 'I am tired.' Because they
are saying it all the time, they get used to saying it. Then, psychologically, the mind gets
used to it. That's why.
Traditionally a wife takes care of her husband's worldly responsibilities. How was it
For us it was the opposite. My husband was very supportive of my practice.
Why do Westerners respond so strongly to Tibetan Buddhism? Is it just confusion?
I don't know. This is something you should know. How can I know? Maybe it's out of
confusion, maybe not. Probably because it is so exciting. I notice Westerners like
exciting things. So when someting new comes along, then they are really excited.
Real practitioners do not get overexcited. It does not work that way. You need a long
time and you have to do it perfectly, not really excitingly. Something else in Western
minds is that they always want something different. For example, they think Hinduism
is better than Christianity, so they first become Hindus. Then, when they know
Hinduism a little bit, they think, 'That's enough, maybe it is not really what I am looking
for ... ', so then they think Buddhism is interesting. So they keep on looking.
What do you think of ordained Westerners living in the West?
A little bit difficult. If they are in a monastery, it is easier. But in case they have to live
among lay people, it is more difficult. Often people around here have no respect for
them. Some ordained people might get very upset if they are not respected, and then as
practitioners they would commit a mistake. Actually it does not really matter if you are
respected or not, because everything is only in your mind. You should not care because
finally you were the one who chose to get ordained. So I think it is a bit difficult here,
it might create obstacles, and the mind can get confused. It is not like in India, Nepal
or Tibet. These are different places.
Why do you think is sectarianism so widespread among Westerners?
Those people have no understanding, no knowledge. They should not do that. These are
people with a busy mind who do this. Busy and naughty. Sectarianism is not necessary,
because all traditions have the same foundation: they all come from the Buddha. Different
traditions were set up, but they all have the same meaning: to get enlightenment, to get
rid of the defilements and to purify the mind of poisons. The Buddha taught the three
vehicles, but the three of them talk about the same thing. Some are more detailed. Some
have more methods. Vajrayana has more methods to get enlightened on an easier,
quicker way. But the meaning and the focus is the same for all traditions and vehicles:
to get enlightenment and to get free from this cycle of suffering. So it really does not
matter. Some peoples' minds are too much attached to their own tradition, and therefore
say 'I am Gelugpa', or 'I am Sakyapa', 'I am Nyingmapa', or 'I am Kagyupa' very strongly.
Teachers are another case, because they have to keep up their tradition, maintain
the lineage and pass it on - otherwise the lineage would die. In contrast to this, ordinary
practitioners do not need to be sectarian. Especially not Westerners. Also, in Western
tradition there is no need for Tibetan traditional things. Mixing is inevitable, but Western
students do not need to take over Tibetan culture. Westerners have their own culture.
Keep focused on meditation, that's all.
We have found that many westerners are confused and are searching for some kind of
guidance. They become involved with Buddhism and they become even more confused.
Yes, I noticed this too. I have encountered very confused Westerners involved with
Buddhism. They do not have a stable basic meditation on the mind; first your mind
has to be stabilized. Then you can study Mahayana, and only then you study the
Vajrayana. Many people are confused because they have no basic teachings, no
understanding, and no experience of meditation. They right away get empowerments
and jump into Vajrayana.
In Vajrayana there are all kinds of different elements. Very simple things like the
five skulls on the head. So they think: 'What is that? First Buddhism talks about the
ten nonvirtuous deeds like killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, the four verbal misdeeds
and the three nonvirtues of the mind. If you should not kill, why is the deity wearing
the five skulls? Why is it earing the chain of fifty bleeding heads around his neck?'
These kinds of things may confuse unskilled practitioners. But the Vajrayana practitioner
knows, or reads in a book, that each symbol has a certain meaning. Bone ornaments
are symbols for impermanence.
Practitioners, who know some Hinduism and come into Buddhism, may ask: 'Why is
Shiva underneath their deities?' In Buddhism this has another meaning. It symbolizes
ignorance, desire. But people cannot see that. Those who do not know about it may
Often people, who have never had contact with Buddhism and to whom I never have
taught, come to my place. Rarely they want to learn about meditation; instead they talk
about spiritual practice. Actually I do not know spiritual practice - sometimes I myself
am confused about what spiritual practice is. I often have to think about it.
So, the first thing I tell them is to go to any spiritual teacher who gives talks and
to listen to them. 'Do not take any empowerments. Don't do anything serious, just
listen. Go to Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim teachers. In Buddhism there are
different traditions: Chinese, Japanese, Indian, different Tibetan traditions, whatever
tradition. Some time you will find your connection, your root guru, with whom you
have a teacher-student relationship.
Some then ask: 'How do we find our root-guru?' Each human being has feelings,
don't they? You feel something. You feel comfortable, sometimes you feel close to
him or her, you feel you like him or her, however you see it. If you feel like that,
then you go on receiving teachings from that person. When you feel that this teacher
is ok, then you have to check his or her background. Especially if you go into Vajrayana
Buddhism you first have to check if this is the right teacher or not. If after all this
checking, you still think that this is the right teacher, then, after having received
empowerment, you have to think of him or her as your root-guru and as Vajradhara.
When you have this connection, you have to do whatever he or she says to practice.
Then, I don't think you have to go around to different gurus and receive different
empowerments. You can go to many teachers and listen to their talks, but you do not
need to exercise and follow different practices. I think it is better to keep to one
teacher, and to one deity. For example, if we take one rock and start to make a hole
here and when we are almost through here, we change and try to make another hole
at one place. If we act like this, we will never finish. That is why you have to do
whatever your daily practice is, whatever deity and teacher you chose. Then there
will be no confusion and it will be very easy for your mind too.
This is what I tell everybody at the beginning. So they might come back and say:
'I really liked you.' Then I tell them: 'First you do sitting meditation. Your mind is
very busy. Sit down and try to do shamatha meditation or breathing-exercise
meditation for a few months.' If after that they still want to go on, they can take
refuge, refuge vows, and I tell them to do the ngondro preliminary practices. That's
how I do it, and I keep it that way, because sometimes I think that Vajrayana came
to the West too soon. That's why people become so confused.
Furthermore, a lot of Vajrayana materials have been published. Some people in the
West read those books, even though they do not know anything and have not had any
Some aspects of Vajrayana and of Hinduism, like chakras, are similar. Then, people
are very funny, they compare Buddhism with Hinduism (she laughs). That's also why
people are confused.
Do these people have too little patience?
Well, somehow everybody is impatient. Tibetan people have no patience, and some
lamas neither. They can become very angry, and some become easily very mad;
some do not have patience at all.
Some lamas say that for Westerners it is better not to do retreats and instead to focus
on a daily practice.
It is important to do the practice of the deities whose initiations you have received
every day. Say you received the initiations of five deities, then you must do the five
practices every day without cessation. Retreat means that on top of this practice
you accumulate the mantras of a particular deity, three or four times a day. I guess
it is easier for the mind to do retreat once in a while. Here in the West the shortest
retreat is one week, but in Tibet the shortest was one month. Two things are different
here: the work situation and financial conditions. Here everybody has to support
himself. Nobody supports you. If both a wife and a husband are practitioners, then
one does a retreat and the other supports. But otherwise, as a single person, you
first have to fix your financial situation. Then you do a retreat, and when the retreat
is over the money is finished, so then you have to work again, and so forth. The
situation here is really a bit difficult.
Thank you very much for sharing your precious time.
Jetsun Kushab was interviewed for Cho-Yang by Alphonso and Gabriella Freeman.
Rinpoche's Tough Love
She is demanding of her students and uncompromising about the dharma, and she is a rarity-a prominent Tibetan teacher who is a woman. Trish Deitch Rohrer experiences the provocative and challenging Khandro Rinpoche.
You took your twelve-year-old daughter to a children's blessing the Venerable Khandro Rinpoche was presiding over a few years ago while on a visit to New York from India. When it was your daughter's turn, the two of you went up and knelt at Rinpoche's feet. She offered you both hard candy from a white glass bowl and looked into your daughter's face.
"Do you meditate?" she said to your daughter, who was holding the candy, still wrapped, in her hand.
"Yes," the girl said. She was nervous. She didn't meditate much.
"Do you know what practice your mother is doing?" Rinpoche didn't take her eyes from your daughter's. She had a little, crooked smile on her face.
"Yes," your daughter said.
"What is it?" Khandro Rinpoche asked bluntly. She has a reputation for being tough.
Your daughter named the practice. Then at Rinpoche's prompting, she gave a brief and surprisingly knowledgeable description of what the practice was.
"Good," Khandro Rinpoche said, satisfied. "Do you practice with your mother?"
"No," your daughter said. She slipped the candy into the pocket of her jeans. Clearly this was not going to be a candy-sucking occasion.
"You should practice every day," Khandro Rinpoche said. "And practice with your mother."
"O.K.," your daughter said, and bowed, and left the children's blessing a bit irked. She was twelve-she didn't want to practice with or without her mother. But there it was, planted unequivocally in her mind by Khandro Rinpoche: Practice. Practice every day.
In most Buddhist cultures throughout history, women have been seen as lesser beings. The dominant view has been that they're not capable of achieving enlightenment, and that their births are lower ones. There are nunneries in Tibet and in exile in India, but the religious education offered to the nuns has generally been poor. With the help of the Dalai Lama and others, this is changing now. Still, with the exception of Jetsun Khusola, who lives in Vancouver and doesn't teach much anymore, Khandro Rinpoche is the only female Tibetan teacher to have come to the West. It's not that there aren't any excellent female practitioners and teachers in Tibet and India-there are-but they have chosen, for a variety of reasons, to remain under the radar, to have few students, or no students at all. They don't want to teach publicly to large groups, they don't want a name. Khandro Rinpoche, on the other hand, understands her responsibility: it is, in part, to encourage and inspire women, particularly Tibetan women, to take their seats as teachers of the dharma. This trailblazing is bold, for obvious reasons, and it's brave.
"Women in patriarchal systems are haunted by lack of confidence and fear of being leaders," says Judith Simmer-Brown, author of Dakini's Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. "But Khandro Rinpoche has unfailingly challenged women to take a risk in their practice and their lives, even while she has cautioned them about excessive emotionality or a merely political response. She is deeply committed to practice and realization as the key to empowerment for women."
This is what Khandro Rinpoche is working on in her own life: the simplicity of resting. That's what she says to you, though it's almost eleven o'clock at night, four years after the children's blessing, and she's at it again-seeing people, one by one, in a back office at that same New York City dharma center after a long evening teaching on the preciousness of our human birth. She is only here in New York for one night this time, before moving on to another teaching in another state. Tonight she is sitting up straight in the corner of a large couch that is draped in thick brocades. She is a very short woman in maroon and saffron robes. Her head is shaved, she has dark, round eyes like a bird's, and a small, slightly pursed mouth. The whole time you are with her she keeps her attention on you. Her gaze is not unfriendly-sometimes it is neutral, most times pleasant, waiting.
"The simplicity of resting. . ." she says. She speaks fast, and her delivery has an offhand quality, as if she has thought so much about what she's saying that it's now part of her, cruising through her veins with her blood, gliding out on the breath. She looks at you and tilts her head. "The simplicity of resting-there is so much profoundness in that." Then she says, "It is, I think, what really needs to be worked with at all times."
Many lamas came to India as refugees around the time Khandro Rinpoche was born in 1967, and settled in the areas close to the borders of Tibet. Her father, His Holiness the Eleventh Mindrolling Trichen, settled in Kalimpong after he escaped Tibet in 1959. He was, at the time of his eldest daughter's birth, beginning to understand the importance of establishing a monastery in India, because, as Khandro Rinpoche puts it, "the situation of going back to Tibet wasn't going to happen."
Imagine the lack of simplicity at that time, the lack of rest.
When Khandro Rinpoche was ten months old, her father, the head of the Nyingma lineage (the oldest of the four principal schools of Tibetan Buddhism), went to Sikkim to visit the (now deceased) Sixteenth Karmapa, then the head of the Kagyü lineage. It was during that visit that the Karmapa recognized Mindrolling Rinpoche's first child as the incarnation of the female Kagyü master Khandro Urgyen Tsomo, said to be the consort to the Fifteenth Karmapa, and, after his death, a great teacher and retreatant herself. Both Khandro Rinpoches were emanations of Yeshe Tsogyal, consort of Padmasambhava, the great guru who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century.
The Mindrolling lineage was no stranger to female tulkus (reincarnations of important teachers): Mindrolling is one of the few lineages that is continued through a bloodline, and many generations of Mindrolling women, including Khandro Rinpoche, have been dharma heirs. But the fact that a Nyingma child, female or male, was the incarnation of a Kagyu master was seen by both the Karmapa and Mindrolling Rinpoche to be "a delicate situation." The two men decided to wait to announce the news. It wasn't until three years later that the announcement was made and she was enthroned.
Not long after, the child became, she says now, "difficult to work with, difficult to tame-a wild child." So even though the Karmapa and Mindrolling Rinpoche-along with His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the revered Nyingma master-had agreed that Khandro Rinpoche was to have a spiritual education as well as a Western one, her parents sent her from her father's monastery to a British-style convent school in India, where she learned to be, she says, "far from everyone."
When you bring up her reputation for being tough, Khandro Rinpoche tells a story about living at the Mindrolling monastery in Dehra Dun, where she, her younger sister, Jetsun-la, and her mother were the only women among 400 monks. "I remember when we were young and in the monastery," she says, "as I was walking by, everyone would get up and bow." Being His Holiness Mindrolling Trichen's daughters, Khandro and Jetsun-la were both treated with a tremendous amount of respect. "But the moment I would pass, I'd look back quietly, and they would all be doing the pose of Hitler." Here Rinpoche puts the index finger of her left hand across her upper lip like a little mustache, and then raises her right arm in a Nazi salute. Suddenly you can imagine her at ten-wild, probably funny.
"It partly has to do with growing up with so many men," she says. "It required that you take a certain degree of responsibility as a woman. If you were a woman, you could do a hundred things that were good, and it would be appreciated. But if you made one mistake, that would not only affect your path, but it would affect the confidence people had in the capabilities of women altogether. I've always had a strong sense of this: I've always thought that what I say and do will probably have some influence on the women of Tibet."
"I think Rinpoche isn't really 'tough,'" says Judith Simmer-Brown, "as much as very direct and sharp in a precise and accurate way. There really isn't any aggression behind it. However, she never seems to miss anything, and has the ability to put you on the spot so quickly, so candidly. That's what is meant in the Tibetan tradition by 'the feminine principle.'"
One of Rinpoche's longtime students, Mark Beckstrom, says that he was surprised the first time he witnessed Rinpoche giving refuge vows, which is when the student formally acknowledges becoming a Buddhist. Instead of performing a ceremony where the refugees are somewhat anonymous, she went up to each person and, putting him or her in the spotlight, asked them to answer the question, "Why are you becoming a Buddhist?"
"On some level, she challenges people," says Beckstrom, "because she takes the dharma very seriously and she wants people to take it as seriously as she does. But there's a softness to it, too: if the person starts to flounder, she helps them. She's not ruthless, particularly."
Not always ruthless. One time she came to the annual retreat she's been leading in Baltimore since 1996, and asked Beckstrom what the 37 practices of a bodhisattva were (she'd taught the 37 practices the year before, and expected Beckstrom to know them). Beckstrom said to her, "Well, I can't actually name them all, but the gist of it is . . ." and Rinpoche said, "I don't want the gist-what are the 37 practices of a bodhisattva?" she paused and then moved on, "Next!"
Khandro Rinpoche's "directness" worked out in terms of the refuge ceremony, at least. "In terms of the example of the refuge vows," Beckstrom says, "it made the whole experience more moving for everyone: people do share, people do open their hearts."
Whenever you meet Khandro Rinpoche, she's with an entourage of women. The group includes her sister, Jetsun-la, and two or three young nuns. Having an entourage is not unusual for a Tibetan teacher, but Khandro Rinpoche's entourage is striking for an odd reason: the women who travel with her are all very beautiful to look at. Jetsun-la, unlike her older sister, is very tall and thin with shoulder-length, shiny hair, stylishly cut. You might find her, while Khandro Rinpoche is meeting with a student, sitting on a step laughing into a cellphone, wearing a pair of form-fitting cropped pants and flats with no socks. The nuns, too, are tall and very thin, like Calvin Klein models, only bald and in robes. The sight of these women together-one short, the rest tall-is as arresting as the bright orange of a shrineroom, the sweet, sudden smell of incense upon entering a place of practice, or the first, loud crash of a gong.
As a result of her sense of responsibility to women in particular, at a young age Khandro Rinpoche became what she describes as "distant and very strict." Other tulkus began to feel that she was arrogant and rigid-"fixed on doing things in the right way." One day when she was a girl, she went to Khyentse Rinpoche, upset, and said to him, "People are calling me arrogant. But I don't think I'm arrogant-I think I'm trying to keep myself away from problems."
She remembers Khyentse Rinpoche saying, "Of the hundred problems you could make, being arrogant is the better one-better because that problem is keeping you away from the other ninety-nine." He paused. "But being proud is not good."
Rinpoche laughs at this memory and then goes back to the subject at hand: "If 'discipline' and 'strict' and 'tough' mean that you have to practice what you're learning and studying," she says, "then that's good, isn't it?" She holds her tiny hands out, palms up. She doesn't need to ask this question, though: she obviously has confidence in her view of things. She says, "I always think that if I can do it, anyone can."
But, in fact, Rinpoche was born with a leg up in the karma department. "I think if you are born into a family like I was," she says, "you are always steeped in that-the sacredness and profoundness of the path of the practices. As they say, you may not be a sandalwood tree, but if you are an ordinary tree, some scent still carries on."
But she was not an ordinary tree. The fact is that she loved the dharma from the first, and though she studied journalism, business management, homeopathy and the sciences at the convent schools she attended while living at the monastery, that love for the dharma grew stronger as she got older. The example she uses to describe how her commitment to the dharma grew gradually but steadily is the story of how she ended up with no hair.
"I used to have long hair," she says, smiling. "Gradually it got shorter and shorter. In the Mindrolling family, you're not supposed to shave your head. The oldest child especially is not allowed to cut their hair." Apparently, there was an instance in the family generations before when someone shaved his head and died young. "My mother was always very worried," she says.
"So," she continues, "the hair went from waist level to neck level to high"-she holds her hand just under her chin to show how short her hair was-"and then higher"-she moves her hand a little higher-"until it was a bob cut and then even shorter. And then one day the barber who used to do the hair of the monks made a slip and used an electric razor instead of the scissors. He just forgot about me because, turn by turn, monks sat down." The barber shaved off all of Khandro Rinpoche's hair.
"How did your mother feel when she saw you?" you ask.
"There was some commotion in the household," she says. "But people got used to it."
"And then did Jetsun-la cut her hair?" you ask.
She smiles. "No, Jetsun-la has tried to keep my mother happy. We need one in the family."
Though on the one hand, Khandro Rinpoche says that the fact that she's a woman is a non-issue, on the other she says that sometimes people make it an issue. When she was a girl and living at her father's monastery, she was, as she puts it, "sheltered." But the first time, at 17, she went to a teaching and didn't identify herself as the daughter of His Holiness Mindrolling Trichen-or as Khandro Rinpoche-she was asked to leave.
Again, they were teaching on the 37 practices of a bodhisattva. She says, "It was a simple and universal teaching. The khenpo teaching it said, 'I don't think women can do this practice-why waste so much time and effort?'" Khandro Rinpoche looks taken aback, the way she must have twenty years before. "How can one talk about the 37 practices of the bodhisattva and still have that attitude in one's mind?" she asks.
But she knows how. "I have always felt great concern for people who have had to work around situations they have not been prepared for," she says. "And when you do a little bit to change a system-when you start to do things differently-it heightens the neurosis. I'm still watching that carefully."
"Rinpoche has always been careful," Judith Simmer-Brown says, "not to cast herself as a feminist in the Western sense. One could think that she has been careful in this way for political reasons, but I think it's more than that. I think she understands something very deep about her Western students: we need to go more deeply, egolessly, into our own gender issues so as not to be ensnared by gender. Then we could embrace our gender and act without the kind of confusion and resentment that usually haunts us. I really learned that from her."
Beckstrom says, "It has been interesting to hear her talk in audiences when 'feminist issues' come up. People ask, 'Why aren't there more female rinpoches?' and that kind of thing. But she's very traditional. She says it doesn't matter, the sex of your teacher: everyone's limitations are what they put on themselves-their concepts. That's what she stresses more than anything. If you're focusing on the issue of women, you're missing the point."
On the issue of practice, no one will deny that Khandro Rinpoche is not just direct, but tough: she makes it clear that you're wasting your time unless you practice and study a lot. "The requirement," Rinpoche says, her hands folded neatly in her lap, "is not changing from an imperfect state to a perfect state; it's about being willing to work and gradually progress. Gradually a transformation should be apparent in a person if this person has met with dharma. That is, I think, absolutely essential: each year there has to be a sign of the mind becoming simpler, kinder, more flexible. If you don't see much happening-if you don't see much of the old habits disintegrating-then there is something definitely wrong."
"She expects us to all believe that we can be enlightened in a lifetime," says Mary Pat Brynner, the administrator of Khandro Rinpoche's annual Baltimore retreat, and one of the founders of the new Lotus Gardens retreat center in Virginia, "and she works with people toward that goal. So I suppose some might call it 'tough.' But in a lot of ways it's really stronger encouragement and higher expectations of our abilities to stay on the path and be committed to it."
Beckstrom adds, "She'll ask, 'How many of you think you'll become enlightened in this lifetime?' And at first a couple of hands will go up, tentatively. And she works with that-she talks about confidence: you have to have confidence-real confidence-in this path."
"It's the whole of idea of 'Practice like your hair's on fire,'" says Jann Jackson, another longtime student of Khandro Rinpoche's. "She's continually setting our hair on fire with a sense of urgency. And so there are two things: tremendous demand, within a context of having absolute confidence that we can do this because of the power and the blessings and the profundity of the teachings."
The fact is, though, that most of the people Rinpoche is teaching in the West are householders-they have jobs and families and lives that don't, for the most part, allow them to devote themselves to the kind of practice and study that will necessarily show significant changes every year.
So what do people with families and jobs do? you ask her.
Her answer is so matter of fact that it feels crushing in its simplicity: when your children are grown and your marriage is over, you give it all up to practice. "You have to orient your life towards more intensive practices as you go through life," she says. "The mistake comes when we try to continue the same thing over and over-to spin circles around one's own habitual tendencies. Most people seem to think that what they did thirty years ago they can still do now. That's going around in circles."
But what about the Vajrayana notion of living in the world as practice? you ask, because the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet directs a student's attention to the ordinary world as the place where ultimate understanding occurs.
"The Vajrayana," she says somewhat sharply, "talks about skillful means and wisdom. At no point does it talk about increasing attachments. If you have no attachments, you can probably enjoy the splendor of everything and yet not be caught up in it. But I think if there are traces of attachment, then I would be worried."
You shift in your seat. You're not ready to give up your attachments, and you're getting older by the minute. Rinpoche notices your discomfort.
"At some point renunciation is going to be important," she says, kindly now. "Renunciation doesn't have to be physically distancing yourself from a certain place. Renunciation is decreasing the number of things you have to care for. The fewer the things-the fewer the diversions of attention-the better it is for a good foundation of practice."
Mark Beckstrom has a stepson he has to help put through college, and he's not in a position to stop working. "And I know Rinpoche knows this," he says. "But she does keep saying, 'Life retreat, life retreat.'"
Meaning? you say.
"Meaning that at some point you should be willing to go into retreat for a very long time."
Beckstrom says that he and a bunch of other students grumble and chafe sometimes when Khandro Rinpoche says, "Life retreat." Rinpoche, he says, will take a step back at that point and say to her students, "O.K., well-how about three weeks?'"
"I think she's holding up a high standard and seeing what we do," says Beckstrom, smiling.
Some Tibetan teachers will tell you that a moderate amount of practice is better than nothing if that's all you can do. Khandro Rinpoche, however, is not one of those teachers. As Jann Jackson says, "She is completely uncompromising about the dharma." But Khandro Rinpoche understands how hard it is to juggle responsibilities. She has two children herself-two adopted daughters-both under ten. She has students all over the world whom she travels to teach every year (about 500 in North America), and who come to see her on a regular basis. She takes care of her father's monastery in Dehra Dun, and she runs the Karma Chokhor Dechen nunnery in Rumtek and the Samten Tse retreat center for nuns in Mussoorie.
When you ask her what the most enjoyable part of her "job" is, she tilts her head and looks at you uncomprehendingly. "Do you enjoy teaching?" you ask, and she says, "I wouldn't say 'enjoy' or 'not enjoy.' It's what I seem to be doing lately."
"It's hard work," you offer.
"No," she says, "it's not. It's the easier part. Back home it is harder work: It's always harder work when you reach home base because there you have all the different responsibilities, right down to the plumbing, the flat tires, the bills, the electricity-everything. That's tiring."
And that brings you back full circle: What is it, you ask, that she is working on now in terms of her own practice and her own life? and she says, "the simplicity of resting."
But what is that? you ask her. What is "simplicity" in this crazy world? What is "resting"?
"I think it is not being so worried about things," she says, looking you in the eye. Then she points to a flower arrangement-a spare assortment of roses and tulips in a shallow dish-and says, "It is a beautiful ikebana." She leans forward and looks more closely at the flowers. Then she says, "If I were alone in this room with nothing to do, I would probably rearrange it a little bit." She sits back and looks at you again. "But it doesn't need rearranging." She folds her hands. Her nails are long and clean. "It's just that there's a certain quality of unnecessary restlessness, sitting here with that flower."
She stands up. "The restlessness is just something to keep you preoccupied, and then you lose simplicity." She holds out her hand. "O.K.?" she says. You give her your hand, and she shakes it. Then she adjusts her robe across her shoulder and heads out, maybe to rest, maybe not.
Trish Deitch Rohrer is executive editor of the Shambhala Sun. Her previous stories for the Sun have included profiles of Richard Gere and Sharon Salzberg.
The Great Perfection
Tibetan: rdzogs-pa chen-po sems-nyid rang-grvl
This section is a complete translation of naturally liberated mind (sr). It is one of the three cycles on natural liberation (rang-grol skor-gsum) in dzogpa chenpo by longehen rabjam. It consists of three chapters. The first chapter is on the views of the "basis," the second chapter is on the path of meditation, and the third chapter is on the perfection of result. In this section we tried to maintain the sequence of tibetan lines in the translation, but in some places it was impossible to avoid shuffling the words from one line to another.
Homage to the glorious kuntu zangpo.
From the utterly pure essence which transcends objective thought
Arisen as the glow of the essence of the spontaneously accomplished nature
Pure from various characteristics of the duality of apprehended and apprehender, the mind
Which is free from discriminations of dimensions and partiality:
To you I pay homage.
Phenomenal existences are unborn, of equal nature;
In which the originally liberated appearances and mind prevail evenly without apprehensions;
Concerning that marvelous sovereign, naturally liberated mind,
Listen while i tell you what i have realized.
"Liberation by realizing the basis"
The first chapter of
Naturally Liberated Mind, the Great Perfection
The utterly pure view has no extremes or center.
It cannot be indicated by saying "it is this," nor is there in it any distinctions of height or width.
It transcends eternalism and nihilism, and it is free from the stains of the four assertions of extremes.
Sought, it will not be found; watched, it is not seen.
It is detached from directions and partiality, and it transcends all the objects of conception.
It has no standpoint, neither voidness nor non-voidness.
There is no realized and unrealized, no counting, nor objective aim.
All phenomena are primordially pure and enlightened, so it is unborn and unceasing, inconceivable and inexpressible.
In the ultimate sphere purity and impurity are naturally pure and phenomena are the great equal perfection, free from conception.
Since there is no bondage and liberation, there is no going, coming or dwelling.
Appearance and emptiness are conventions, apprehended and apprehender are like maya (a magical apparition).
The happiness and suffering of samsara and nirvana are like good and bad dreams.
From the very moment of appearing, its nature is free from elaboration.
From it (the state of freedom from elaboration), the very interdependent causation of the great arising and cessation appears like a dream, maya, an optical illusion, a city of the gandharvas an echo, and a reflection, having no reality. All the events such as arising, etc., Are in their true nature unborn.
So they will never cease nor undergo any changes in the three periods of time.
They did not come from anywhere and they did not go anywhere.
They will not stay anywhere: they are like a dream and maya.
A foolish person is attached to phenomena as true, and apprehends them as gross material phenomena,
"i" and "self," whereas they are like a maya-girl who disappears when touched.
They are not true because they are deceiving and act only in appearance.
The spheres of the six realms of beings and the pure lands of the buddhas, also are not aggregations of atoms, but merely the self-appearances of beings' minds.
For example, in a dream buddhas and sentient beings appear as real, endowed with inconceivable properties.
However, when one awakens, they were just a momentary object of the mind.
In the same way should be understood all the phenomena of samsara and nirvana.
There is no separate emptiness apart from apparent phenomena.
It is like fire and heat, the qualities of fire.
The notion of their distinctness is a division made by mind.
Water and the moon's reflection in water are indivisibly one in the pool.
Likewise, appearances and emptiness are one in the great dharmata.
These appearances are unborn from the beginning, and they are the dharmakaya.
They are like reflections, naturally unstained and pure.
The mind's fabricating their existence or nonexistence is an illusion,
So do not conceptualize whatever appearances arise.
Those appearing objects are also reflections of mind.
They are like a face and its reflection in a mirror while there is no duality, the perception of duality is the natural characteristic of the experiences of beginningless habit.
The mind and dreams are not separate, rather it is like the appearance of dreams to a person who is drunk with sleep.
One should know that there is no essential distinction between (subject and object).
For example, like a baby seeing a mirror, ignorant people accept and reject external objects when a mother sees the mirror she cleans it; similarly the yana of cause and result alters external objects. A lady, seeing it, cleans her face; likewise one who knows suchness looks at the mind within this is the immaterial, essential yana.
In the mind which has no essence, various things arise because of the objective conditions, like reflections appearing in a mirror or in the ocean.
The emptiness essence, unceasing nature, and variously appearing characteristic, the magical display the dual projection of samsara and nirvana within a single mind.
It is like the color of a crystal altered by a black or white cloth.
The essence is without change, but because of conditional perceptions as the basis of arising, various perceptions seem to change at the time of their appearance;
But in reality it is unchanging like the purity of the crystal.
The primordially empty mind, which has no root, is not defiled by the phenomenal appearances of samsara and nirvana.
Throughout the three times and timeless time, the state of kuntu zangpo, the essence of the changeless perfection at the basis is undefiled by the appearances of the six objects, like the water- moon [the moon's reflection in water].
For the non-existent appearances of samsara and nirvana, like a magic display, do not make efforts of acceptance and rejection, negating and defending, or hope and doubt.
Attaining liberation by knowing the nature of the (world's) magical display:
It is as if, seeing the army of maya one is taken in, but by knowing the reality there is no fear. Likewise, it is not necessary to renounce objective appearances in particular. The nature of samsara is the essence of the mind, which is primordially unborn and enlightened, so by seeing the mind, realization of the nature of existence is attained.
Then there is no other peace to be accomplished. (it is as if) being frightened of one's own forces (mistaking them for) others', later, by recognizing them, one is relieved. Today by the blessing of the glorious master, worldly thoughts are realized as dhamakaya. So the natural great bliss arises within.
There is no need of acceptance and rejection since all existent phenomena arise as the lama.
All the inexhaustible instructions are the support of enlightenment.
There is no end of satisfaction in happiness and peace.
All is happiness, prevailing in dharmata, from which the play of unceasing varieties of phenomena is the spontaneously accomplished rupakaya and dharmakaya, appearances and emptiness, the twofold accumulation, skillful means and wisdom, meditation and withdrawal from meditation the unconstructed and natural five bodies and five primeordial wisdoms are perfected in the state of intrinsic awareness, free from grasping after perception and mind. The stages, paths, recollection, and contemplation-the qualities-are spontaneously perfected and are of the essence, the dharmata.
The great self-arisen impartial intrinsic awareness is unadulterated by an apprehended [object] and unbound by a subject.
It is like the nature of maya, non-dual and pure. So what is the use of pondering, discoursing, or contemplating?
There are no developing and perfecting stages, no duality, no union, no standpoint or division of yanas.
These are all conventions and drawings of the mind.
(all are of) the state of self-arising, just designated as self-liberation.
The awareness has no objective and cannot be defined as "this is it,"
So do not make efforts to apprehend it, thinking "it is," for it transcends the mind.
The mind is effortless and spontaneously perfected;
Do not adulterate it with antidotes of modification and trans-formation: let it go in ease.
If the dharmata, in which realization and non-realization are equal, is not adulterated by binding it with nets of contemplation, then in the ultimate meaning there is neither "is" nor "is not," neither phenomena nor emptiness.
It cannot be defined as "unity and multiplicity" and the rest.
It transcends view and meditation, free from assertion and negation, no coming and going, free from extremes, non-dual, like maya and a dream.
The purpose of [the teaching on the] two truths is the prevention of attachment to (phenomena) as real.
In the actual meaning there is no absolute and relative.
Things are not present as they are (mentally and conventionally) construed, (but) one is bound in the net of apprehending them as "this is.
Whatever one asserts, he will fall into the extremes of attachment; and through efforts and achievements, samsara will not cease.
Good and bad karma cause wandering in this world, and the experiences of happiness and suffering, high and low, are
Like the revolving of an irrigation wheel.
In the samsara of the three times, beings of the three spheres wander in delusion;
They are tormented by the disease of ignorance, fabrications and efforts- no beginning or end to it-oh, pity the living beings! Kye ho! All are just like dreams and maya.
In the ultimate meaning there is no samsara and no wanderers in it.
All are originally liberated in the state of kuntu zangpo.
There is no basis, root, or substance. How satisfying it is!
The unmodified, primordially pure mind.
Is unstained by the phenomena of existence: it is like a reflection.
In the appearing object nothing is conceptualized to be apprehended; in the self-arisen mind, nothing is conceived for an apprehender.
That non-dual primeordial wisdom arises from the dualistic perceptions.
Therefore, the ceaseless mind and its object are the great attributes.
The elephant of non-apprehending roves freely on the plain at the pace of self-liberation, ornamented by the trappings of non-duality.
He destroys the swamp of acceptance and rejection, hope and doubt,and he possesses the strength of realization and enters into the ocean of non-duality.
He wanders freely without different phases between arising and liberation, and unbound by the ropes of the objects of abandonment and antidotes.
He freely maintains the standpoint of powerful accomplishment.
By fully perfecting the great power, phenomenal existence arises as dharmakaya.
When perceptions of the six objects are unceasing and the perceiver is essentially empty, and mind free from extremes attains aimless liberation, then intrinsic awareness of the non-duality of samsara and nirvana reaches the (primordial) ground.
It is called the achievement of the supreme attainment.
Because of perfect accomplishment of the purpose of self and others, it is the attainment of enlightenment in the unexcelled pure land .
Alas! The animal-like contemplators stop the perceptions and remain without any thoughts.
They call this the absolute nature and become proud. By gaining experience in that state (of concentration) they will be born in the animal realm.
Even if they do not gain experience [in it], it is certain [that they will be reborn in the realms of absorption [form] and the formless.
There will be no opportunity to get liberation from samsara.
So, extremely proud ones, who are possessed by the harmful spirit of their own standpoint, follow mentally fabricated and deluded doctrines.
Because of their defiled fabrications, they will not see the dharmata.
Even if they analyze the two truths, they will fall into the extreme of eternalism or nihilism.
Even if they analyze the freedom from extremes, they will discover the view of [only] the summit of samsara. Whatever they do, because of bondage to their standpoint, they will never actually see the natural primordial wisdom.
The actual meaning is obscured by pondering expression, and concepts.
By not understanding the proper (ways of) pondering, experiencing, and conceptualizing, the error occurs by (turning) the meaning [object] of the search (into) the searcher [efforts].
Mind and primordial wisdom are like water and its moisture:
At all times there is no separation between them, but they are adulterated by the discriminations of mental acceptance and rejection. Mind and its object, whatever appears, is the essential nature but by apprehending partiality, its openness is restricted. Now, if you wish for the meaning of the dharmakaya free from conceptualization, do not make efforts to search for the nature. The "sovereign of whatever arises" suspends attachments and concepts, undiscriminated, and unrecognizable in terms of "this is it; (in it phenomena) do not exist in the way that they arise.
In their nature they do not exist as they appear. Ordinary perception, unobstructed and liberated from the beginning, is the view of the natural great perfection. The nature of phenomena is exemplified by space, but phenomena are not conceivable as the nature of space. "the mind is unborn and phenomena are like space."
We speak thus, but it is only indication and imputation.
Is free from (the aspects of) "is" and "is not," and it is beyond thought.
It cannot be indicated by saying "this is," and it is totally perfected from the beginning.
Kye ho! In the pure nature of phenomenal existence.
Arises the sudden purity, non-apprehending intrinsic awareness.
From the very point of arising it does not exist anywhere.
The self-liberated great perfection-when will i be able to see that?
In the rootless mind, pure from the beginning, there is nothing to do and no one to do it-how satisfying!
The intrinsic awareness of aimless phenomena, in which deliberate apprehension such as "this is it" has dissolved-what happiness!
In the view and meditation which have no discrimination, there is no breadth or narrowness, height or depth-how pleasant!
In the action and result which have no acceptance and rejection, hope and doubt, there is nothing to gain and nothing to lose-how warm!
In the equally perfected maya-like nature, there is no good to accept and no bad to reject-i feel like laughing!
In the perceptions which are blurred, evanescent, undefined, fragmentary, discontinuous, unobstructed and natural, whatever appears, there is no apprehension of "this is this" or "this is these appearances."
"is" and "is not" are apprehending mind; and being detached from that mind is dharmakaya.
When in the aimless object the uncertain appearances arise, the unapprehending cognition attains liberation without duality;
Then all the phenomena of perception are the great play of the mind.
In the mind which is free from ground, root, and substance, the spontaneous uncreated qualities are fully perfected.
By liberating denial and assertion into dharmakaya, happiness will be achieved.
All deliberate concepts are fabrications.
If whatever arises arises free from conceptualization, it is the it is the primeordial wisdom.
By liberating acceptance and rejection in its own state, happiness will be achieved.
By liberating acceptance and rejection in its own state, the object of thought is transcended.
For the buddhahood which is totally and naturally pure, do not search anywhere but in your own mind.
Other than [in] the searcher (itself) there is no separate place to search for.
It is like the caste of maya-(people) and water in a mirage.
There is no duality of samsara and nirvana as apprehension of duality has ceased in the unadulterated self-arisen intrinsic awareness.
He who sees the meaning of the equality of all phenomena and realizes the mind as unborn like the sky is perfecting [realizing] the phenomena of the world and beings as the naturally pure buddha-field, the state of equanimity of unborn spontaneous accomplishment.
The essence of appearances and mind is emptiness, and that meaning of dharmakaya;
Their nature is unceasing, and that is the appearance of sambogakaya;
Their characteristics are various and that is the nirmanakaya.
By knowing this, everything is the three bodies, primordial wisdom, and pure land.
There is no [need of] modification, transformation, renunciation, and antidote, so it is completely satisfying.
E ma! Living beings, by holding on to duality, when they dwell in this dream-like delusory samsara, whatever efforts they make are causes and effects of samsara.
By experiencing the non-conceptual universal ground, they stray into the formless realm;
Experiencing the clear-empty consciousness of the universal ground, they stray into the form realm;
Experiencing the six consciousness they stray into the desire realm.
The changes of the mind are the steps [to different realms] of samsara.
For people who want enlightenment, the meaning of the unmodified absolute is to let the mind be at ease without effort.
The ordinary mind, unmodified and natural, unstained by apprehension of samsara and nirvana, attains liberation in its natural state.
By attaining liberation in that way, dwelling in the instantaneous nature without thought is the state of dharmakaya;
The unceasing ground of arising, clarity, and emptiness is the sambhogakaya, and the emanation, liberation upon arising, is the nirmanakaya.
With confidence (in the foregoing) it is certain that worldly thoughts will be enlightened.
Kye ho! Since the character (rang-bzhin) of appearances and mind is changing, watch the mirror of the aimless dharmanakaya. The arising of non-apprehender in the aimless phenomena is the secret of mind; there is nothing else to be signified.
It is the natural character of spontaneously accomplished intrinsic awareness, the essential meaning of whatever arises;
Do not make modifications and adulterations.
Phenomena are the nature of substancelessness.
The sky of unapprehending mind has no center or end.
Although they arise naturally without creation or cessation, absence of denial, assertion, and of attachment to characteristics is the true meaning;
And they are changeless throughout the three times-this one should know.
The innate primordial wisdom free from the duality of percept and mind can [only] be signified by realizing, but there is nothing to be shown and nothing to see.
The absolute mind is beautiful in its natural state.
By various [means]-unwavering contemplation, analytic wisdom, [and] precepts, intellectual knowledge and instructions-one will only gain theoretical understanding, but one [will] never achieve the naked primordial wisdom.
For example, even if one indicates by pointing, saying "this is space," it is not an object that can be seen, so it is merely a way of differentiating.
The arising of realization through the kindness of the lama is like the dispelling of darkness by the sun. The moment one sees all (existents) as dharmakaya by instantaneous intrinsic awareness, ignorance is turned into primordial wisdom and defilements into indications (of the five primordial wisdoms).
One should devote oneself (to practice) by all means without wavering.
Common and uncommon attainments will be achieved in this life.
Fools hate samsara and seek nirvana.
It is like throwing away a very rare wishing-jewel, taking another wishing-jewel that needs cleaning, and after cleaning it, looking around for a trinket. The self-liberated mind, the precious jewel, by realizing its own nature cleanses the deluded stains.
Understanding that is the precious treasure of virtues and the heart of the achievement of the benefit of self and others.
When the meaning realization of the mind arises like the water and waves, the projections and dwelling are in the state of dharmakaya.
(then) whatever takes place, there is no need of rejection and acceptance.
There is never any need of practicing rejection and acceptance.
At all times for the joyous yogi it is the great flowing-river yoga in the state of all-equally perfected great nature.
Just upon the arising of the realization, [the mind] becomes naturally clear and luminescent.
Even when there is again projection, it will be in [the state of dharmati as before.
As luminescent intrinsic awareness has no extremes and center, there is no duality of defilements and antidotes.
So, things to be rejected, antidotes, detachment, attainment, hope and doubt, are liberated in their natural state. People who do not know how to distinguish jewels from lamps think that the lamplight is the light of a jewel.
If one does not distinguish the absorption and experiences of self-liberation, then he will be bound by the attachment to liberation-upon-arising itself.
If one does not distinguish between experiences and realization, he will be deluded by holding on to the experiences as realization.
After realization there are at all times no changes of good and bad by gaining experience of that, the virtuous experiences arise. For example, space, by the changes within the four elements, will not undergo any alteration: the space will return as before.
Likewise, for the yogi who has realized the mind, there is no good and bad realization due to the increasing and decreasing of experiences.
If there is a good and bad, it is experience, not realization.
Definite realization should be sought from a holy person.
Thereafter, in accordance (with his teachings) one should remain in contemplation (without wavering).
To meditate this is the definitive absolute view.
By seeing it [mind], the person of superior intelligence will attain liberation.
It will not depend on experiences everything will arise as realization.
There is nothing to be rejected, so there is no antidote to meditate, just as for a healthy person there is no need of medicine.
Thus, you should learn the unapprehended view, free from partiality.
May the blessings of this teacher reach you somehow.
with the Soft Spot
Pema Chödrön on the practice of bodhichitta-awakened heart and mind-the essence of all Buddhist practices.
The Bodhicharyavatara, or The Bodhisattva's Way of Life, is a teaching from the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism-the tradition of the bodhisattva, the compassionate warrior. In the Mahayana, the emphasis is on awakening-on thinking bigger-so that you can benefit other people. The author is Shantideva, a monk who lived in the eighth century in India.
The first three chapters of The Bodhisattva's Way of Life introduce us to the principle of bodhichitta and how it may arise in us. Bodhichitta-awakened heart or awakened mind-is something everyone has access to. It arises in everyone, and everyone has experienced it. The text says that it often appears like "a flash of lightning in the dark." It's like there's an opening in the clouds. We sense that we're connected to something that wakes us up and makes our world feel bigger. It makes our heart and our whole being feel expansive; we feel confident and inspired. But, unfortunately, our habitual patterns are so strong that the opening usually closes again. We revert to our old ways of staying stuck in negative mind. We get hooked again in our old patterns.
But we do have these moments of awakening. And when we can begin to nurture them, and cherish them, they come out more and more. Then at some point the shift to being awake becomes irreversible: something shifts in our heart and our mind, and bodhicitta is no longer superficial. It becomes a part of our being.
Shantideva begins The Bodhisattva's Way of Life with the following verses:
To those who go in bliss, the dharma they have mastered, and to all their heirs,
To all who merit veneration, I bow down.
According to tradition, I shall now in brief describe
The entrance to the bodhisattva discipline.
What I have to say has all been said before
And I am destitute of learning and of skill with words.
I, therefore, have no though that this might be of benefit to others
I wrote it only to sustain my understanding.
My faith will thus be strengthened for a little while
That I might grow accustomed to this virtuous way.
But others who now chance upon my words
May profit also, equal to myself and fortune.
It isn't easy to say what bodhicitta is. If you looked it up in a Buddhist dictionary, it would say something like: "The heartfelt longing or wish or aspiration to awaken fully, so that you could benefit sentient beings." The aspiration is vast, because you wish to awaken not partially but fully. It's vast because you wish to awaken so that you could benefit not just a few, but all sentient beings. And you aspire to benefit all beings not just at the relative level of housing and food and fear and abuse, but also at the absolute level of helping them help themselves so that they too can wake up fully. Full-blown bodhicitta is the global perspective that wants all beings to fulfill their potential. It is based on a growing confidence that all beings have the potential to wake up fully.
Shantideva says, "Virtuous thoughts do rise, brief and transient, in the world." We've all had this experience: you're walking along, you're complaining and judging everyone, you feel like you're on a steady diet of poison, you're driving everyone crazy-especially yourself-and then, BAM! Like a flash of lightning in the dark, something gets through your self-absorption. Sometimes it's just a car backfiring, or maybe it's a dharma teaching, but it wakes you up out of your self-absorption and you see that the sun has come out, the sky is beautiful, and there are birds flying across it. Suddenly the world is very large. Everybody knows the experience of being completely self-absorbed and then something gets through. That's a flash of bodhichitta.
That flash, though, feels fragile and fleeting. Meditators describe it often: "I felt like every time I meditated I was waking up more, and then I seemed to lose it." That's the fragility Shantideva is referring to: there's a flash of lightning, you suddenly understand that the sun is always shining, but then the clouds cover over it. At some point, though, something shifts and you begin to have confidence that the underlying quality of your being is open and warm and radiant. You know that the sun is always shining.
So the more you practice and study, the more you begin to view your emotional upheavals like weather changes. They can be captivating and convincing-they can hook you and drag you under-but at the same time, you begin to know they're passing clouds. You've seen the sun and you have no doubt that it's there behind the clouds. That makes your motivation to practice stronger, because you feel there's nothing that could happen to you that wouldn't be a doorway through these clouds, these temporary weather conditions.
Take grief, for instance. Grief is completely pregnant with bodhichitta-it's full of heart, love and compassion. But we tend to freeze or harden against grief because it's so painful. We bring in the clouds. In fact, we're good at bringing in the clouds and keeping them in place. We're good at fixating on them.
But when you practice the teachings that say, "Stay with the grief, see it as your link to all humanity," you begin to understand that grief is a doorway to realizing that the sun is always shining. You begin to understand that the weather is transient like clouds in the sky. You begin to have more trust in the underlying goodness-the underlying "sun quality"-of your being.
In this way, any experiences you have, particularly very strong emotions, are doorways to bodhichitta. The trick is to stay with the soft spot-the bodhichitta-and not harden over it. That's the basic bodhichitta instruction: stay with the soft spot.
How does this work? You're going along, and your mind and heart are open. Then someone says something and you find yourself either frightened or starting to get angry. You feel the hair rising on the back of your neck, and something in you closes down. You're on your way to becoming all worked up. At this point, you become unreasonable, and all your wisdom goes out the window. You're hooked. This is what we work with as practitioners, as aspiring bodhisattvas: we have to be able to see where we get hooked like this. It's easy to see. To interrupt the flow of it, though, is another matter.
When you're doing sitting practice, and you label your thoughts as "thinking," and go back to your breath, you're interrupting the momentum of fixation. Sometimes when you're doing sitting practice, you can see that the thoughts themselves are like clouds in the sky-they just come and go and they're no threat to us. So in terms of bodhichitta, when you get hooked or fixated and you're off and running, it's actually possible to touch the soft spot of what it is you're trying to cover over-the anger, rage, frustration, grief, despair. Because inside what you're trying to cover over is bodhichitta: the soft spot, the tender spot, the vulnerable, open heart and loving mind.
The only thing that leads us to supreme joy is to interrupt the flow of fixation and to touch the soft spot of bodhichitta. None of us should turn our backs on bodhichitta, on learning how to contact this soft spot.
"Should bodhichitta come to birth in one who suffers in the dungeons of samsara" is a description of ego. It's like you're enclosed in a cocoon and there's no fresh air. But what if someone takes a penknife and slits the cocoon and suddenly light comes in through the darkness? What if you poke your head out and see the whole universe? The "slit" could be an explosion outside, or the sound of a bird, or someone teaching the dharma. Something gets through to your heart, and suddenly it seems like the whole universe is available to you. But then you go right back in.
Shantideva says that should bodhichitta come to birth for even an instant, in that instant you are called a bodhisattva, the Buddha's heir. You're worthy of being bowed to by gods and men and women-by everyone. In that instant, you're as full-blown a bodhisattva as those who spend their whole life cultivating bodhicitta-those who hardly ever get hooked. Maybe you'll go back to being a schmuck, but you did have a glimpse of what it's like to feel the heart and mind of a bodhisattva.
In the beginning the contrast between being awake and being asleep is great; it feels like the clouds have the upper hand. But once you begin to hear the teachings on fixation and bodhichitta, you have tools that help you to stick your head out of the crack in the cocoon, and you begin to get enthusiastic about your potential to stay out there.
But I'll tell you one thing: expect relapses.
That is why we need to seek support from people who will encourage us to open our hearts and minds. We need to stop seeking support from those who buy in to our complaining, the people who say, "You're right, those people you think are awful, are awful," and keep us caught in the small world. We need to find people and situations that encourage us to keep opening up, people who say, "You could look at it a different way." Instead of wanting to punch them, we might actually listen to them.
For like the supreme substance of the alchemists,
It takes the impure form of human flesh
And makes of it the priceless body of a buddha.
Such is the bodhichitta: we should grasp it firmly!
Shantideva is saying that bodhichitta is like an alchemic substance-it can turn anything into gold. For instance, rage. Rage starts as a tightening. You buy into it, you get hooked, and then you lose control. What you want to do is catch the fact that you've been hooked, and realize that it's got you in its grip. The sooner you realize you're hooked, the easier the rage is to work with.
But even if you've gone through the whole habitual rage cycle already-even if you've broken things, yelled at people, marched out of the house and left a trail of misery behind you-it's still possible to sit down and get in touch with how fixated, how hooked, you are. It may take a few days, or it may not. But the kindest thing you could do for yourself is develop your capacity to realize you're hooked before you start the whole catastrophe. You may not be able to meditate, or contact bodhichitta, but you can catch the fixation and interrupt its momentum.
At some point when you're more able to interrupt the momentum, you can begin to feel the quality underneath the tightening. That's when it's possible to touch the soft spot of the rage. There's a lot of soft spot in rage, and it's usually fear-based. Usually you feel hurt, and that's why you get so angry. But without working with it-without touching the soft spot of the rage-you cause yourself and others a lot of pain. So if you can touch into the soft spot underneath the hardness, underneath the hookedness, underneath the clutchiness, then you can touch into the power of bodhichitta.
There are many helpful practices you can do at that point. One is to think of all the other enraged people and feel a sense of kinship with their rage and the fact that they, like you, cause harm, and they, like you, could stop. At that point your world begins to get bigger. In that way even the most poisonous of things-things that cause the most harm to you and others-can become doorways to bodhichitta.
As a way of dedicating this teaching and getting accustomed to thinking bigger, I'd like to look at a few verses at the end of The Bodhisattva's Way of Life. Dedicating the teaching is a characteristic of the Mahayana: we think bigger than our usual self-absorption and realize our interconnectedness with other people. We take a global perspective and realize that just as what harms rivers in South America has an effect on the whole planet, in the same way, what harms us harms others, and what benefits us has a beneficial effect on other people.
So in that spirit, we could say to ourselves, "Anything virtuous I have ever done in my whole life, may it benefit other people."
By all the virtue I have now amassed
By composition of this book, which speaks
Of entry to the bodhisattva way,
May every being tread the path to buddhahood.
May beings everywhere who suffer
Torment in their minds and bodies
Have, by virtue of my merit,
Joy and happiness in boundless measure.
As long as they may linger in samsara,
May their present joy know no decline,
And may they taste of unsurpassed beatitude
In constant and unbroken continuity.
Throughout the spheres and reaches of the world,
In hellish states wherever they may be,
May beings fettered there, tormented,
Taste the bliss and peace of Sukhavati.
We know that there are many beings in the world today living in hellish states and suffering terribly every moment of their lives. Shantideva says, May those beings fettered there, tormented, taste the bliss and peace of freedom from fixation-the bliss of bodhichitta.
Pema Chödrön is a fully ordained Buddhist nun and the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of several books, including The Wisdom of No Escape, When Things Fall Apart and Comfortable With Uncertainty.
©2004 by Pema Chödrön. All Rights Reserved.
Awakened Heart: The Excellence of Bodhichitta
by Pema Chödrön
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
-Antoine de Saint Exupéry
When I was about six years old I received the essential bodhichitta teaching from an old woman sitting in the sun. I was walking by her house one day feeling lonely, unloved and mad, kicking anything I could find. Laughing, she said to me, "Little girl, don't you go letting life harden your heart."
Right there, I received this pith instruction: we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.
If we were to ask the Buddha, "What is bodhichitta?" he might tell us that this word is easier to understand than to translate. He might encourage us to seek out ways to find its meaning in our own lives. He might tantalize us by adding that it is only bodhichitta that heals, that bodhichitta is capable of transforming the hardest of hearts and the most prejudiced and fearful minds.
Chitta means "mind" and also "heart" or "attitude." Bodhi means "awake," "enlightened," or "completely open." Sometimes the completely open heart and mind of bodhichitta is called the soft spot, a place as vulnerable and tender as an open wound. It is equated, in part, with our ability to love. Even the cruelest people have this soft spot. Even the most vicious animals love their offspring. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche put it, "Everybody loves something, even if it's only tortillas."
Bodhichitta is also equated, in part, with compassion-our ability to feel the pain that we share with others. Without realizing it we continually shield ourselves from this pain because it scares us. We put up protective walls made of opinions, prejudices and strategies, barriers that are built on a deep fear of being hurt. These walls are further fortified by emotions of all kinds: anger, craving, indifference, jealousy and envy, arrogance and pride. But fortunately for us, the soft spot-our innate ability to love and to care about things-is like a crack in these walls we erect. It's a natural opening in the barriers we create when we're afraid. With practice we can learn to find this opening. We can learn to seize that vulnerable moment-love, gratitude, loneliness, embarrassment, inadequacy-to awaken bodhichitta.
An analogy for bodhichitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic; sometimes to anger, resentment and blame. But under the hardness of that armor there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we're arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.
The Buddha said that we are never separated from enlightenment. Even at the times we feel most stuck, we are never alienated from the awakened state. This is a revolutionary assertion. Even ordinary people like us with hang-ups and confusion have this mind of enlightenment called bodhichitta. The openness and warmth of bodhichitta is in fact our true nature and condition. Even when our neurosis feels far more basic than our wisdom, even when we're feeling most confused and hopeless, bodhichitta-like the open sky-is always here, undiminished by the clouds that temporarily cover it.
Given that we are so familiar with the clouds, of course, we may find the Buddha's teaching hard to believe. Yet the truth is that in the midst of our suffering, in the hardest of times, we can contact this noble heart of bodhichitta. It is always available, in pain as well as in joy.
A young woman wrote to me about finding herself in a small town in the Middle East surrounded by people jeering, yelling, and threatening to throw stones at her and her friends because they were Americans. Of course she was terrified, and what happened to her is interesting. Suddenly she identified with every person throughout history who had ever been scorned and hated. She understood what it was like to be despised for any reason: ethnic group, racial background, sexual preference, gender. Something cracked wide open and she stood in the shoes of millions of oppressed people and saw with a new perspective. She even understood her shared humanity with those who hated her. This sense of deep connection, of belonging to the same family, is bodhichitta.
Bodhichitta exists on two levels. First there is unconditional bodhichitta, an immediate experience that is refreshingly free of concept, opinion, and our usual all caught-up-ness. It's something hugely good that we are not able to pin down even slightly, like knowing at gut level that there's absolutely nothing to lose. Second there is relative bodhichitta, our ability to keep our hearts and minds open to suffering without shutting down.
Those who train wholeheartedly in awakening unconditional and relative bodhichitta are called bodhisattvas or warriors-not warriors who kill and harm but warriors of nonaggression who hear the cries of the world. These are men and women who are willing to train in the middle of the fire. Training in the middle of the fire can mean that warrior-bodhisattvas enter challenging situations in order to alleviate suffering. It also refers to their willingness to cut through personal reactivity and self-deception, to their dedication to uncovering the basic undistorted energy of bodhichitta. We have many examples of master warriors-people like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King-who recognized that the greatest harm comes from our own aggressive minds. They devoted their lives to helping others understand this truth. There are also many ordinary people who spend their lives training in opening their hearts and minds in order to help others do the same. Like them, we could learn to relate to ourselves and our world as warriors. We could train in awakening our courage and love.
There are both formal and informal methods for helping us to cultivate this bravery and kindness. There are practices for nurturing our capacity to rejoice, to let go, to love, and to shed a tear. There are those that teach us to stay open to uncertainty. There are others that help us to stay present at the times that we habitually shut down.
Wherever we are, we can train as a warrior. The practices of meditation, loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity are our tools. With the help of these practices, we can uncover the soft spot of bodhichitta. We will find that tenderness in sorrow and in gratitude. We will find it behind the hardness of rage and in the shakiness of fear. It is available in loneliness as well as in kindness.
Many of us prefer practices that will not cause discomfort, and at the same time we want to be healed. But bodhichitta training doesn't work that way. A warrior accepts that we can never know what will happen to us next. We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not knowing is part of the adventure, and it's also what makes us afraid.
Bodhichitta training offers no promise of happy endings. Rather, this "I" who wants to find security-who wants something to hold on to-can finally learn to grow up. The central question of a warrior's training is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear, but how we relate to discomfort. How do we practice with difficulty, with our emotions, with the unpredictable encounters of an ordinary day?
All too frequently, we relate like timid birds who don't dare to leave the nest. Here we sit in a nest that's getting pretty smelly and that hasn't served its function for a very long time. No one is arriving to feed us. No one is protecting us and keeping us warm. And yet we keep hoping mother bird will arrive.
We could do ourselves the ultimate favor and finally get out of that nest. That this takes courage is obvious. That we could use some helpful hints is also clear. We may doubt that we're up to being a warrior-in-training. But we can ask ourselves this question: "Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly or do I choose to live and die in fear?"
All beings have the capacity
to feel tenderness-to experience heartbreak, pain and uncertainty. Therefore the
enlightened heart of bodhichitta is available to us all. The insight meditation
teacher Jack Kornfield tells of witnessing this in Cambodia during the time of
the Khmer Rouge. Fifty thousand people had become communists at gunpoint, threatened
with death if they continued their Buddhist practices. In spite of the danger,
a temple was established in the refugee camp, and twenty thousand people attended
the opening ceremony. There were no lectures or prayers, but simply continuous
chanting of one of the central teachings of the Buddha:
Hatred never ceases by hatred
But by love alone is healed.
This is an ancient and eternal law.
Thousands of people chanted and wept, knowing that the truth in these words was even greater than their suffering.
Bodhichitta has this kind of power. It will
inspire and support us in good times and bad. It is like discovering a wisdom
and courage we do not even know we have. Just as alchemy changes any metal into
gold, bodhichitta can, if we let it, transform any activity, word or thought into
a vehicle for awakening our compassion.
At one time the Buddha gathered his students together at a spot called Vulture Peak Mountain. Here he presented some revolutionary teachings-teachings on the wide open, groundless dimension of our being-known traditionally as shunyata, as unconditional bodhichitta, as prajnaparamita.
The Buddha had already been teaching on groundlessness for some time. Many of the students there on Vulture Peak Mountain had a profound realization of impermanence and egolessness, the truth that nothing-including ourselves-is solid or predictable. They understood the suffering that results from grasping and fixation. They had learned this from Buddha himself; they had experienced its profundity in meditation. But the Buddha knew that our tendency to seek solid ground is deeply rooted. Ego can use anything to maintain the illusion of security, including the belief in insubstantiality and change.
So the Buddha did something shocking. With the prajnaparamita (perfection of unconditional wisdom) teachings, he pulled the rug out completely, taking his students further into groundlessness. He told the audience that whatever they believed had to be let go, that dwelling upon any description of reality was a trap. This was not comfortable news for the audience to hear.
It reminds me of the story of Krishnamurti, who was raised to be the avatar by the Theosophists. His elders continually told the other students that when the avatar manifested fully, his teachings would be electrifying and revolutionary, shaking up the very foundations of their beliefs. This turned out to be true, but not quite in the way they had imagined. When Krishnamurti finally became head of the Order of the Star, he called the whole society together and officially disbanded it, saying that it was harmful because it gave them too much ground.
The Vulture Peak experience was something like that for the Buddha's students. It wiped away all their existing conceptions about the nature of reality. The Buddha's principal message that day was that holding on to anything blocks wisdom. Any conclusions we might draw must be let go. The only way to fully understand the bodhichitta teachings, the only way to practice them fully, is to abide in the unconditional openness of the prajnaparamita, patiently cutting through all our tendencies to hang on.
During this teaching, known as The Heart Sutra, the Buddha actually didn't say a word. He went into a state of deep meditation and let the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, do the talking. This courageous warrior, known also as Kuan-yin, expressed his experience of the prajnaparamita on behalf of the Buddha. His insight was not based on intellect but came through his practice. He saw clearly that everything is empty. Then one of the principal disciples of the Buddha, a monk named Shariputra, began to question Avalokiteshvara. This is an important point. Even though a great bodhisattva was teaching and the Buddha was clearly in charge, the profound meaning emerged only through questioning. Nothing was taken complacently or on blind faith.
Shariputra is a role model for us as students. He wasn't willing just to accept what he heard; he wanted to know for himself what was true. So he asked Avalokiteshvara, "In all the words and actions and thoughts of my life, how do I apply the prajnaparamita? What is the key to training in this practice? What view do I take?"
Avalokiteshvara answered with the most famous of Buddhist paradoxes: "Form is emptiness, emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form, form is no other than emptiness." When I first heard this, I had no idea whatsoever what he was talking about. My mind went completely blank. His explanation, like the prajnaparamita itself, is inexpressible, indescribable, inconceivable. Form is that which simply is before we project our beliefs onto it. The prajnaparamita represents a completely fresh take, an unfettered mind where anything is possible.
Prajna is the unfiltered expression of the open ear, open eye, open mind that is found in every living being. Thich Nhat Hanh translates the word as "understanding." It's a fluid process, not something definite and concrete that can be summed up or measured.
This prajnaparamita, this inexpressibility, is our human experience. It is not particularly regarded as a peaceful state of mind, or as a disturbed one. It is a state of basic intelligence that is open, questioning and unbiased. Whether it comes in the form of curiosity, bewilderment, shock or relaxation isn't really the issue. We train when we're caught off guard and when our life is up in the air.
We train, as Trungpa Rinpoche said, in "not afraid to be a fool." We cultivate a simple direct relationship with our being-no philosophizing, no moralizing, no judgments. Whatever arises in our mind is workable.
So when Avalokiteshvara says, "Form is emptiness," he's referring to this simple direct relationship with the immediacy of experience-direct contact with blood and sweat and flowers; with love as well as hate. First we wipe away our preconceptions and then we even have to let go even of our belief that we should look at things without preconceptions. We keep pulling out our own rug. When we perceive form as empty, without any barriers or veils, we understand the perfection of things just as they are. One could become addicted to this experience. It could give us a sense of freedom from the dubiousness of our emotions and the illusion that we could dangle above the messiness of our lives.
But "emptiness also is form" turns the tables. Emptiness continually manifests as war and peace, as grief, as birth, old age, sickness, and death, as well as joy. We are challenged to stay in touch with the heart-throbbing quality of being alive. That's why we train in the relative bodhichitta practices of the four limitless ones and tonglen. They help us to fully engage in the vividness of life with an open, unclouded mind. Things are as bad and as good as they seem. There's no need to add anything extra.
Imagine a dialogue with the Buddha. He asks, "How do you perceive reality?" and we answer honestly and say, "I perceive it as separate from me, and solid." He says, "No, look deeper."
So we go away and meditate and sincerely contemplate this question. We return to the Buddha and say, "I know the answer now. The answer is that everything is not solid, everything is empty." And he says, "No. Look deeper." We say, "Well, that's impossible. It's either one way or the other: empty or not empty, right?" and he says, "No." If this were our boss, perhaps we wouldn't care, but this is the Buddha, so we think, "Maybe I have to hang in here a bit and go further with the irritation I'm feeling at not being given any satisfaction."
So we meditate and contemplate this question; we discuss it with our friends. Next time we see the Buddha we say, "I think I can answer your question. Everything is both empty and not empty simultaneously." And he says, "No." Believe me, we're feeling very groundless and that means rattled. It's uncomfortable not to be able to get ground under our feet. But the process here is of unmasking: even though we're irritated and anxious, we're moving closer to seeing the true unfixed nature of mind. Since "No" is all we can get out of the Buddha, we go home and spend the next year trying to answer this riddle. It's like a Zen koan.
Eventually, we return and say, "Okay. There's only one other possible answer. The nature of reality is that it neither exists nor doesn't exist. It is neither form nor emptiness." And we feel good! It's a beautiful groundless answer. But the Buddha says, "No, that's too limited an understanding." Maybe at this point his "No" is such a shock that we experience the wide-open mind of prajnaparamita, the mind that is satisfied with no resting place at all.
After Avalokiteshvara told Shariputra that "form is emptiness; emptiness also is form," he went even further, pointing out that there is nothing-not even the Buddha's teachings-to hold on to: no three marks of existence, no suffering, no end of suffering, no imprisonment, no liberation. The story goes that many of the students were so dumbfounded by these teachings that they had heart attacks. A Tibetan teacher suggested that more likely they just got up and walked out of the talk. Like the Theosophists with Krishnamurti, they didn't want to hear this. Just like us. We don't like to have our basic assumptions challenged. It's too threatening.
Now if this teaching had come only from Avalokiteshvara, the students might have been able to rationalize their fears. "This is just a warrior on the path, not so different from us. He's very wise and compassionate, of course, but he has been known to get things wrong." But the Buddha was sitting right there in deep meditation, clearly pleased with this presentation of how to abide in the prajnaparamita. There was no way out of this dilemma.
Then, inspired by Shariputra's questioning, Avalokiteshvara continued. He taught that when we understand that there is no final attainment, no ultimate answer or stopping place, when our mind is free of warring emotions and the belief in separateness, then we will have no fear. When I heard this many years ago, before I had any interest at all in a spiritual path, a little light bulb went off: I definitely wanted to know more about "No fear."
This instruction on prajnaparamita is a teaching on fearlessness. To the extent that we stop struggling against uncertainty and ambiguity, to that extent we dissolve our fear. The synonym for total fearlessness is full enlightenment-wholehearted, open-minded interaction with our world. Meanwhile we train in patiently moving in that direction. By learning to relax with groundlessness, we gradually connect with the mind that knows no fear.
Then Avalokiteshvara proclaimed the pith of the prajnaparamita, the essence of the rug-pulling-out experience, the essence of the fearless, open state of mind. It came in the form of a mantra: "OM GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA." Just as a seed contains the tree, this mantra contains the entire teachings on abiding in prajnaparamita, abiding in the fearless state.
Trungpa Rinpoche's translation is, "OM gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awake, so be it." This is a description of a process, a journey, of always stepping out further and further. We could also say, "OM groundlessness, groundlessness, more groundlessness, even beyond groundlessness, fully awake, so be it!"
No matter where we are on the bodhisattva path, whether we are just beginning or we've practiced for years, we're always stepping further into groundlessness. Enlightenment is not the end of anything. Enlightenment, being completely awake, is just the beginning of fully entering into we know not what.
the great bodhisattva finished teaching, the Buddha came out of his meditation
and said, "Good, good! You expressed it perfectly, Avalokiteshvara."
And those in the audience who hadn't walked out or died from heart attacks rejoiced.
They rejoiced at hearing this teaching on stepping beyond fear.
Pema Chödrön is a fully-ordained Buddhist nun and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are and When Things Fall Apart. This article is excerpted from her new book, The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, available in September from Shambhala Publications.
From The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. ©2001 by Pema Chödrön. Used by permission of Shambhala Publications.
Four Highest Emotions
By Ayya Khema
"True love exists when the heart is so broadly trained that it can embrace all human beings and all living creatures."
When we think of love, we have ideas that are purely personal and, on the whole, quite fanciful. They are based in general on our desire to be loved, from which we expect fulfillment.
In reality love fulfills only the one who loves. If we understand love as a quality of the heart, just as intelligence is a quality of the mind, then we won't deal with love as people customarily do. As a rule, we divide our hearts into different compartments, for lovable, neutral and unlovable people. With that sort of divided heart, there's no way we can feel good. We can be "whole" only with a heart united in love.
True love exists when the heart is so broadly trained that it can embrace all human beings and all living creatures. This requires a learning process that is sometimes hard, above all when someone turns out to be very unfriendly or unpleasant. But this condition can be reached by everyone, because we all have the capacity for love within us.
Every moment we spend on the training of our hearts is valuable and brings us a step further along the path of purification. The more often we remember that all our heart has to do is love, the easier it will be to distance ourselves from judgments and condemnations. But that doesn't mean we can no longer distinguish between good and evil. Naturally we know what is evil, but hatred of evil needn't forever be stirring in our heart. On the contrary, we have compassion for those who act in a way that does harm.
Most of our problems are concerned with interpersonal relations. To address these, we can direct our view to the teachings on the four highest emotions. These are called in Pali the brahmaviharas; or four divine abodes. They are loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.
If we had only these four emotions at our disposal, we would have paradise on earth. Unfortunately that's not how it is, and so we rarely experience any paradisiacal feelings. Most of the time we torment ourselves with difficulties in the family, in our circle of friends, and on the job. Our mind constantly tells us about all the things that don't suit it; and it usually fingers the guilty party, the person who's bothering us, who doesn't want things the way we want them. But let's remember: whenever somebody else says or does something, it's a matter of his or her karma alone. Only a negative reaction on our side creates our own karma.
This is what we absolutely have to understand: who is doing the loving-myself or the other? If I myself love, then I have a certain purity of heart. But if the love is dependent on this or that person or situation, then I'm passing judgment and dividing people into those I think lovable and those I don't. We're all looking for an ideal world, but it can exist only in our own heart, and for this we have to develop our heart's capacity so that we learn to love independently. This means that we increasingly purify our heart, free it from negativity, and fill it with more and more love. The more love a heart contains, the more love it can pour out. The one and only thing that holds us back is our thinking, judging mind.
So the only thing that matters is to incline one's own heart to love, because the person who loves is by nature lovable too. Yet if we love only because we want to be endearing, we succumb to the error of expecting results for our efforts. If an action is worth doing, then it doesn't lose this value, whether we get results or not. We don't love as a favor to another or to get something. We love for the sake of love, and so we succeed in filling our hearts with love. And the fuller it gets, the less room there is for negatives.
The Buddha recommended looking upon all people as one's own children. Loving all men and women as if one were their mother is a high ideal. But every little step toward this goal helps us to purify our hearts. The Buddha also explained that it was quite possible that we already were mothers to all the many men and women. If we keep this fact before our eyes, it'll be much easier to get along with people, even those who don't strike us as lovable.
If we observe ourselves very carefully-and that's the point of mindfulness-we will find that we ourselves are not one hundred percent lovable. We will also observe that we find more people unlovable than otherwise. That too can bring no happiness. So we should try to turn this around, and find more and more people lovable. We have to act like every mother: she loves her children even though they sometimes behave very badly. We can make this sort of approach our goal and recognize it as our way of practice.
The Buddha called this kind of love metta, which is not identical to what we call love. "Craving" in Pali is lobha, which sounds rather like the English word for love; and because the entire world revolves around wanting-to-have, we also interpret love this way. But that's not love, because love is the will to give. Wanting to have is absurd, when we think of love and yet degrade it to this level. Although a loving heart without wishes and limits opens up the world in its purity and beauty, we have made little or no use of this inherent capacity.
The far enemy of love is obviously hatred. The near enemy of love is clinging. Clinging means that we're not standing on our own two feet and giving love; we're holding on to someone. It often happens that the person we cling to doesn't find it especially pleasant and would be glad to get rid of this clinger, because he or she can be a burden. And then comes the great surprise that the love affair isn't working-but we clung so devotedly! Clinging is thus called the near enemy, because it looks like real love. The big difference between the two is the possessiveness that marks clinging.
Such possessiveness proves, time and time again, to be the end of love. True, pure love, so famed in song and story, means that we can pass it on and give it away from the heart without evaluation. Here we have to be on the lookout to recognize the negativity within us. We're always searching for its causes outside ourselves, but they're not there. They always lie in our gut and darken our heart. So the point is: Recognize, don't blame, change! We must keep replacing the negative with the positive. When no one is there to whom we can give love, that doesn't in the least mean that no love exists. The love that fills one's own heart is the foundation of self-confidence and security, which helps us not to be afraid of anyone. This fear can be traced back to our not being sure of our own reactions.
If we meet someone who has no good feelings to bring our way, then we already fear a corresponding reaction on our side, and so we prefer to avoid such situations in advance. But if the heart is full of love, then nothing will happen to us, because we know that our reaction will be completely loving. Anxiety becomes unnecessary when we've realized that everyone is the creator of his or her own karma. This feeling of love, which is aimed not at only one person, but forms a basis for our whole interior life, is an important aid in meditation, because only through it is real devotion possible.
The second of the four divine abodes-the highest emotions-is compassion, whose far enemy is cruelty and whose near enemy is pity. Pity can't give others any help. If someone pours out her heart to us and we pity her, then two people are suffering instead of one. If by contrast we give her our compassion, we help her through her trouble.
It's very important to develop compassion for oneself, because it's the precondition for being able to do so for others. If someone doesn't meet us lovingly, it will be easier for us to give this person compassion instead of love. It's easier because now we know that this person who comes to meet us unlovingly is angry or enraged, is most definitely unhappy. If she were happy, she wouldn't be angry or enraged. Knowing about the other's unhappiness makes it easier for us to summon up compassion, especially when we've already done so with respect to our own unhappiness.
Unfortunately we often deal with our own suffering in the wrong way. Instead of acknowledging it and meeting ourselves with compassion, we try to escape our trouble as quickly as possible by developing self-pity or getting distracted or making someone else responsible for it.
Here compassion is the only possibility for meeting our difficulties. We experience exactly what the Buddha teaches: in this world suffering exists. That's the first Noble Truth. Then we can try to acknowledge what we really want to have or get rid of, and thus make suffering our teacher. There is no better one, and the more we listen to it and find a way into what it's trying to make us understand, the easier the spiritual path will prove. This path aims to change us so emphatically that in the end we may not even recognize ourselves.
Suffering is a part of our existence, and only when we accept that and stop running away from it, when we've learned that suffering belongs to life, can we let go-and then the suffering stops. With this knowledge it's much easier to develop compassion for others, for suffering strikes everyone, without exception. Even the so-called badness of others can't bother us, because it only arises out of ignorance and suffering. All the evil in this world is based on these two things.
The third of the four highest emotions is sympathetic joy, whose far enemy is envy, consisting of greed and hatred. The near enemy is hypocrisy, pretending to oneself and others, which we believe is sometimes necessary. We think: these are just little white lies that can readily be forgiven.
Sympathetic joy is rightly understood when we see that there's no difference between people, that we're all a part of whatever is momentarily existing in the world. So if one of these parts experiences joy, then its joy has come into the world and we all have reason to share in it. The universal will replace the individual when we have experienced and tasted it in meditation. Our problems won't let up as long as we try to support and secure the "me." Only when we begin to put the universal over the individual and to see our purification as more important than the wish to have and get, will we find peace in our hearts.
The Buddha called the fourth and last of these emotions the greatest jewel of all: equanimity. It's the seventh factor of enlightenment, and its far enemy is excitement. The near enemy is indifference, which is based on intentional unconcern. By nature we take an interest in everything. We would like to see, hear, taste and experience everything. But since we have often been disappointed by our incapacity to love, we build an armor of indifference around us, to protect us from further disappointment.
But that only protects us from loving and opening ourselves to the world of love and compassion. What clearly distinguishes equanimity from indifference is love, for in equanimity love is brought to a higher development, while in indifference love is not felt at all or cannot be shown. Equanimity means that we already have enough insight so that nothing seems worth getting worked up over anymore.
How did we reach this understanding? We've learned that everything-above all ourselves-comes into being and then passes away. When we get too excited, instead of recognizing the fullness of life, we don't yet have a loving heart. Only a loving heart can realize the fullness of existence. The understanding we get through meditation clearly shows us that the end of this life is constantly before us. Teresa of Avila said: "Not so much thinking-more loving!" Where does thinking get us? To be sure, it landed us on the moon. But if we have developed love in our hearts, we can accept men and women with all their problems and peculiarities. Then we'll have built up a world where happiness, harmony, and peace are in control. This world can't be thought up; it must be felt. Only meditation can present us with this ideal world, in which it is absolutely necessary to give up thinking. This heals us and gives us the capacity to turn more to our heart.
Since equanimity is a factor of enlightenment, it is based on understanding, above all on the realization that everything that takes place also passes away again. So what do I lose? The worst that can happen is the loss of my life. But I'll lose that in any event-so what's all the excitement about? In general, the people who cause problems for us don't exactly want to kill us. They just want to confirm their ego. But that's not our business; it's wholly and entirely theirs. So long as we meditate and win new insights, it will always be simpler to recognize that all desire for self-affirmation, all aggression, all claims for power, all wanting to have and be are intertwined with conflict. So we have to keep trying to let go of willing and wishing, in order to return to equanimity. You can't meditate at all without equanimity. If we are excited or absolutely want to get or get rid of something, we can't come to rest. Equanimity makes both everyday life and meditation easier.
That doesn't mean that conscience should simply be set aside. We need only understand that this judge in our own heart creates nothing but conflict. If we really want to have peace, then we have to strive to develop love and compassion in our heart. Everyone can achieve this, because ultimately the heart is there to love, as the mind is there to think. If we renounce thinking in meditation, then we sense a feeling of purity. We develop purity on the spiritual path. If only one person develops it in himself or herself, the whole world will be the better for it. And the more people purify their hearts, the greater the gain for everyone. We can do this work every day from morning to night, because we are constantly confronted with ourselves-with all our reactions and with the mulishness that keeps us busy, because it has such a solid hold on our inner life. The more observant we are, the easier we'll find it to let go, until the stubbornness has disappeared, and we've become peaceful and happy.
This work compensates us with great profit and with a security that can be found nowhere else. At bottom we all know about the factors that make up the spiritual life, but acting in accordance with them is very hard. Loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity are the four highest emotions, the only ones worth having. They bring us to a level on which life gains breadth, greatness, and beauty and on which we stop trying to make it run the way we want it to-on which we even learn to love something that we may not have wanted at all.
The Buddha spoke about a love that knows no distinctions. It's simply the quality of the heart. If we have it, we'll find a completely new path in life.
Ayya Khema, born Ilse Ledermann in Berlin in 1923, was a pioneering Buddhist nun in the Thervada tradition from her ordination in 1979 to her death in 1997. The author of more than two dozen books, she established Buddhist centers in Australia, Sri Lanka and Germany, and was instrumental in the creation of Sakyadhita, a worldwide Buddhist women's organization.
From Visible Here and Now: The Buddha's Teachings on the Rewards of Spiritual Practice, by Ayya Khema. Published by Shambhala Publications. Translated by Peter Heinegg; edited by Leigh Brasington.
The Great Way is Not Difficult If You Just Don't Pick and Choose
Home to care for his dying mother, Zen teacher John Tarrant discovers what it means-for himself and those around him-to give up picking and choosing.
The goal of the Zen koan is enlightenment, which is a profound change of heart. This change of heart makes the world seem like a different place; with it comes a freedom of mind and an awareness of the joy and kindness underlying daily life.
Koans are not intended to prescribe a particular kind of happiness or right way to live. They don't teach you to assemble or make something that didn't exist before. Many psychological and spiritual approaches rely on an engineering metaphor and hope to make your mind more predictable and controllable. Koans go the other way. They encourage you to make an ally of the unpredictability of the mind and to approach your life more as a work of art. The surprise they offer is the one that art offers: inside unpredictability you will find not chaos, but beauty. Koans light up a life that may have been dormant in you; they hold out the possibility of transformation even if you are trying to address unclear or apparently insoluble problems.
A koan shows you two conditions for your mind: a with and a without condition. This is a natural way to understand things-life as a botox advertisement in which you are shown a haggard, careworn face, with wrinkles, and then the improved version, smooth as a baby's backside, without wrinkles. A koan uses this natural eagerness to compare things in an interesting way: when you work with the koan, what you are either with or without is your map, your cherished beliefs, your story about how your life should be at the moment in which you find yourself.
The with condition is what, in an unexamined way, you believe to be true. Beliefs have consequences; they build their own fictional world. When you believe something, you usually want the world to agree with you, to back up your story. Of course it rarely does, so your story will come with conflict built into its plotline. In the without condition, you see the world without wanting it to be different from the way it is. The without condition is an act of imagination. You ask yourself, "What might the world look like if I loved it as it is, just as it is?"
Here is a koan that shows the power of imagining life when you are not depending on the stories you usually tell yourself. It also can show you what life is like in the with condition, when your maps of the world vary from the actual territory of the world.
quoted this saying by Sengcan:
The great way is not difficult
if you just don't pick and choose.
Working with the Koan
Everyone knows that some events are just bad and make you sad or angry, and some are good and make you glad. Yet what everyone knows might not be true. For example, there might be a certain coercion to the attitude that weddings must be happy and funerals have to be sad. It could prevent you from meeting the moment you are in. What if events don't have to be anything other than what they are? Children laugh at funerals; some tears shed by brides are from disappointment rather than joy. Being fired or losing someone dearly beloved could open an unexpectedly beautiful new life. You might be armored against an unpleasant event that turns out not to be. Instead of wrestling toward what you are convinced ought to be going on, it might be refreshing to approach events without armor, meeting their nakedness with your own nakedness. That might also be a kind approach, since it sets up no conflict in your own heart.
There is a legend in which the Buddha comes upon the mind of not picking and choosing. On the edge of his own profound change of heart, the Buddha meditates all night under a fig tree, and an image comes to mind. He remembers that, as a child, while his father plowed a field in an annual ceremony, he was left in the shade of a rose apple tree. At this moment the boy has no minders around to distract him; he is under no one's gaze. His father is absorbed in plowing. The air is pleasant, the leaflight green, the shade cool. With nothing on his mind, the child does not want or fear anything. The sun seems to stand still. It is delicious to be alive. He feels a happiness not born of desire. The boy moves his eyes over the whole field. He can find no resistance, no tension, no inner conflict; everything is sufficient. There is nothing to add, nothing to subtract. And it occurred to him that exploring this approach, which he discovered in childhood, might be the direction in which enlightenment lies.
Here, not picking and choosing is something a boy wanders into; it is the natural state of an undisturbed mind. Then the boy notices that thoughts and feelings are always rising and that they are not themselves disturbing: thoughts and feelings are things in the world as much as flowers and parasols, and he doesn't have to either agree with them or quarrel with them. It's easy not to pick and choose about his own reactions, about his picking and choosing.
Everyone knows that
Buddhism is about nonattachment, and people might think that not picking and choosing
is about having no preferences. Yet nonattachment might lead to warfare with the
part of you that enjoys the world. In this case nonattachment would be just another
tyrannical belief and itself a source of unhappiness. Not picking and choosing
could be the opposite of nonattachment, something more unsettling and demanding.
If someone asks you, "Vanilla or chocolate?" and you notice that today
you would like vanilla, and say so, that might be not picking and choosing. If
you say, "I don't mind, what are you having?" then that could well be
picking and choosing. You might be trying to guess what your host wants. You might
want vanilla but be unwilling to reveal yourself by saying so.©
Excerpted from The Great Way is Not Difficult If You Just Don't Pick and Choose by John Tarrant, Shambhala Sun, November 2004.
the Importance of Relating to Unseen Beings
Reginald A. Ray
According to Tibetan Buddhism, the universe is populated by a vast array of enlightened and unenlightened beings. Some of them we can see; most we cannot. While Westerners, even practitioners, have tended to view them as superstition or mere symbolism, Reginald A. Ray argues that communication with unseen beings through ritual is at the very heart of tantric Buddhist practice.
Truth makes little sense and has no real impact if it is merely a collection of abstract ideas. Truth that is living experience, on the other hand, is challenging, threatening, and transforming.
Tibetan Buddhism is a way of experiencing the world. In many ways, it is quite different from the dominant trends not only in the West, but in the "modern, technological culture" that is now rapidly encircling the globe. There are many parts of the traditional, conservative, medieval culture of Tibet that we will never be able to appreciate or understand. But there are other parts, particularly its Buddhist heritage, that can help us see with new eyes the limitations and possibilities of our own contemporary situation.
Buddhism is a particularly interesting tradition because it has one foot in the past and one in the present. On the one hand, it arose at a time when India was undergoing transformation from a more primitive to a "high" civilization. Buddhism has the same literacy, scholasticism, professional elites, institutionalization, hierarchies, political involvements, and monetary concerns as do the other "high religions" that evolved after the invention of agriculture and that we now largely identify as our own ways of being religious.
At the same time, the Buddha claimed, "I follow the ancient path," and by this he meant to show a "way back" to a more fundamental experience of human life than the one evolving in his day. Tibetan Buddhism, perhaps more than any other form of Buddhism, has retained the raw and rugged experience of this "primordiality" as the basis of its spirituality. In this sense, it is concerned not with truth that is fixed and dead, but with truth that is alive and constantly emerging.
Traditional Tibetans lived in a world that is, in many respects, quite different from the one assumed in modern Western culture. It is not so much that the classical Tibetan worldview contradicts the findings of modern science, but rather that it emphasizes different things and has a different overall shape and configuration.
Most importantly, in the classical Buddhist view, the world is defined not only by what we can perceive with our physical senses and think about rationally. It is equally made up of what cannot be seen, but is available through intuition, dreams, visions, divination, and the like. The senses and rational mind provide access to the immediate physical world, but it is only through the other ways of knowing that can one gain access to the much larger context in which this physical realm is set. Can modern people have experience of this traditional Tibetan cosmology? Tibetans will tell you that their experience of the universe is accessible to anyone who cares to know it. If you know where to look and how to look, they say, you will see for yourself what we are talking about.
The Tibetan cosmos is a vast one, beginningless and endless in terms of time, and limitless in extent. Worlds, each inhabited by sentient beings, extend on and on throughout space, with no end. This context of infinite space and time, with innumerable worlds, provides the arena for samsara, cyclic existence. Samsara refers to the condition of beings who have not yet attained liberation, whose existence is still governed by belief in a "self" or "ego." Those still within samsara are thus blindly driven, through the root defilements of passion, aggression, and delusion, to defend and aggrandize the "selves" that they think they possess. This action produces results or karma, that become part of who they are. When samsaric beings die, they are subsequently reborn in the same or another realm, in accordance with their karma. Normally this process, and the cycles of pain and pleasure that it entails, goes on without end. The various samsaric worlds are known as "impure realms," that is, places where the condition of samsara prevails among the inhabitants.
The situation is not hopeless, however, for there are other realms of being that stand outside of samsara. These are the "pure realms," characterized by enlightenment, the abode of the "realized ones," those who have attained liberation from samsara and who dwell in various pure lands. These beings are: the celestial buddhas with their various manifestations; the yidams (personal deities), male and female, also called wisdom dakinis and herukas; the great bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara and Tara, who will come to the aid of beings; the dharmapalas (dharma protectors), who watch over and guard the dharma itself and those on the path; the enlightened men and women who have passed beyond this world, and others. These various enlightened ones represent a state of realization that is available to suffering sentient beings. In fact, according to the type of Buddhism followed in Tibet-mahayana Buddhism-the state that they embody is the ultimate and final destiny of all humans and other sentient beings. All sentient beings are on the path that will one day lead to the attainment of the complete and perfect enlightenment of a fully realized buddha.
Although the "home" of the buddhas and high-level bodhisattvas is outside of samsara, they appear in our world to help us enter the path of liberation and follow it to its conclusion. The human Buddha Shakyamuni thus appeared twenty-five hundred years ago, bringing the dharma to this world for the first time and founding a lineage of the study and practice of the teachings. Likewise, the celestial buddhas, bodhisattvas, protectors, dakinis and departed teachers appear in our world in various ways, bringing blessings, protection, and guidance on the path.
The Tibetan cosmology, then, is not meant to present a disembodied, abstract "scientific" picture. It rather shows us the realms of potential experience that make up this cosmos. It describes the various realms of being-only one of which is human-that are possible and exist within the totality of being. Some of these modes of being are defined by the suffering of samsara, while others represent liberation from samsara. Traditional Tibetan cosmology, then, contrasts with modern conceptions of the universe that are essentially rationalistic, gained by ignoring all experiential data except ones that conform to limited physical criteria such as matter, extension and motion, and that can be proven to any observer through logical demonstration. The Tibetan picture has been gained through different means and includes different "data."
There are now many Tibetan teachers who understand very well the kind of universe that is described by modern science. Their response to our ideas is, "Yes, but all of this is just the human world. There are other realms, and these are outside of and beyond this human realm. You cannot see them by using scientific instruments."
Moreover, even this realm has more dimensions and subtleties than modern people usually ascribe to their world. In the traditional Tibetan view, the animate and inanimate phenomena of this world are charged with being, life and spiritual vitality. These are conceived in terms of various spirits, ancestors, demigods, demons, and so on. Every river and mountain has its spirit embodiment or inhabitants. Each human habitation has a spiritual presence as part of its own being. As this variety suggests, spirits appear with various levels of development and motivation. Some are malevolent; some are neutral, and others are generally beneficent.
These traditional cosmological perspectives create a uniquely powerful environment for the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. The boundless temporal and spatial vistas reveal the fragility, brevity and ultimate futility of human life, taken on its own terms. The view of the phenomena of this world as spiritually charged allows intimacy, relationship and mutuality with the relative world. The understanding of samsara as the endless repetition of life followed by death followed by life, all governed by karma, suggests that lasting happiness in the ordinary sense is not attainable. The introduction of buddhahood as standing outside of samsara provides an alternative to this daunting and frightening prospect. The fact that buddhahood is not only available but is the ultimate and final destiny of all instills fundamental optimism and a sense of the value of life. And the limitless time frame in which this can be achieved enables people to relax and to take their spiritual journey at its own pace. In this way, Tibetan Buddhism has achieved the seemingly contradictory goals of revealing the radical inadequacy of samsara, leaving its adherents little option but to look to a spiritual path, while at the same time rousing them to a sense of confidence, joy and well-being at their human condition and its literally infinite possibilities.
To what extent can the contemporary Western Tibetan Buddhist practitioner dispense with some or all of these unseen, nonhuman beings? From the Tibetan point of view, relationships with the unseen world are essential to a full and successful human life. Ignoring one's relationships with the whole world of unseen spirits and spiritual beings is, in fact, as senseless and counterproductive as ignoring the people and conventions of one's own immediate human society. It is simply not possible to live in such a way.
Buddhism is normally thought of as a nontheistic tradition, and this raises the question of how such spirits, gods, and deities are to be understood within the Tibetan Buddhist framework. Certainly in Tibetan life, whether it is a question of the malevolent mamos, the potentially beneficent hearth god, the deities of the god realms, or the dharma protectors or tantric yidams, the nonhuman beings are understood at least on one level as more or less independent, objective entities. They are beings with whom one must be in constant relation, even though they are nonhuman and usually not visible.
At the same time, however, from the point of view of the philosophical and meditative tradition, all such nonhuman beings are ultimately seen as aspects of one's own mind and not separate from it. But what does this actually mean? Frequently, particularly in the West, this standard Buddhist assertion is taken to indicate that such spirits and deities, taken as external beings by ordinary Tibetans, are not really external at all; that in fact they are mistaken projections of psychological states. This, then, becomes a justification for treating them as nonexistent and provides a rationale for jettisoning them from Western adaptations of the tradition. The problem with this approach is that it reflects a misunderstanding of what is meant by the statement that such entities are aspects of mind and inseparable from mind.
The deities are more properly said to be aspects of one's own innate mind, or reflexes of one's awareness. For example, the buddhas, although apparently objectively existing beings, are fundamentally nothing other than our own enlightened nature. The protectors are representations of the wrathful and uncompromising energy of our own awareness. And the gurus are objectifications of the teaching and guiding principle as it exists within each of us. In a similar manner, the various samsaric spirits and demons may be seen as embodiments of peripheral states of one's own mind. These apparently externally existent beings, then, are false bifurcations of the primordial nondual awareness that lies at the basis of all experience.
So far, so good; but here is the really critical point: it is not only the beings of the unseen world that have this status, but all of the phenomena of duality. In the Tibetan view, ourselves, other people, trees, mountains and clouds-indeed all of the phenomena of the entire so-called internal and external universe-are nothing other than false objectifications and solidifications of nondual awareness.
To say this is not, however, to discount their external and "objective" existence within the relative world of apparent duality. The samsaric beings of the six realms, as well as the Buddhist deities existing in the state of nirvana, initially make themselves known to us ordinary, unenlightened people as external, objectively existing beings. In fact, on this level, they can appear as significantly more real, vivid and powerful than the ordinary physical universe that surrounds us. On one level, then, such beings certainly do exist and are important co-inhabitants of our cosmos. Thus to say that they are aspects of mind is not to deny their existence on the relative level. Nor does it obviate our responsibility to deal with them and relate to them on their own level and as they present themselves to us.
What, then, does it mean to say that these unseen beings are all aspects of mind? It means simply that the way we experience and conceive of them has to do with our own psychology and level of awareness. Ultimately, the apparent duality of subject and object is not given in reality. It is a structure that we, out of fear and ignorance, impose on the world. When we see the phenomenal world truly as it is, we realize a level of being that precedes the subject-object split. This is the true nature of "experience," "awareness," or "nondual mind," understood at this point as interchangeable categories. When Tibetans say that the spirits, gods and deities are aspects of mind and nothing other than mind, they mean it in this sense, that their fundamental nature-as indeed the nature of all phenomena-is nondual awareness.
We humans, then, are just one part of a vast, interconnected web of relationships with all other inhabitants of the cosmos, both those still living within delusion and those who are awakened. An awareness of these relationships is critical because, to a very large extent, who we are as humans is defined by this network of relations. From the Tibetan perspective, to live a genuinely human and fruitful life, we need to discover our relation with all these various beings of samsara and beyond, and to act in ways appropriate to our connection. The way we do this is through ritual.
Ritual is action that expresses a relationship. It is the vehicle of communication with another and is itself that communication. In Tibetan Buddhism, ritual is used in relation both to the seen and the unseen worlds, and the essence of Tibetan Buddhism is communication with the awakened ones-departed masters, bodhisattvas, buddhas, and so on. We call them to mind, open our hearts to them, and receive their blessings.
In revered teachers, a state of realization is embodied in human form. In the celestial buddhas and high-level bodhisattvas, however, the embodiment is more ethereal and not within the human realm. Nevertheless it is not only possible but essential that, as we go along the path, we also discover and deepen our sense of communication with these nonmaterial, awakened ones. According to Tibetan tradition, in fact, as we mature, the "sky draws closer to the earth," so to speak, and the celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas seem more and more our ever-present protectors, mentors, and guides.
One of the most common ritual means for communicating with the realized ones is the sevenfold offering of mahayana Buddhism: one visualizes the being or beings in question, then  offers salutation,  makes real and imagined good offerings,  confesses one's shortcomings and harm of others,  rejoices at the existence of the awakened being or beings who are the beloved object(s) of devotion,  requests them to teach, thus expressing one's openness and longing for instruction,  asks them to remain in connection with suffering samsaric beings and not disappear into nirvana, and  dedicates whatever merit or goodness one has accumulated to the welfare of all beings. In this simple, brief rite, one makes a link with the transcendent ones, affirming and actualizing a specific kind of relationship with them.
The reason that we can do this in the first place is that the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and departed masters already represent who we most essentially are and must in fact become. This is why, in Tibetan Buddhism, even the most devotional supplication to the most seemingly external being is not finally theistic. For, in truth, we are longing to meet our deepest selves face-to-face, and we are supplicating our own hidden being. The path to this goal is first, to discover our innermost being in the other, the awakened one, and then, through relationship with him or her, gradually to come to awareness of that transcendent nature within ourselves.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there are many ritual stages along this path to awakening. What they share is visualization. We create a mental picture of a departed teacher, a high-level bodhisattva, or a buddha. Then we carry out a ritual in which we open ourselves and communicate with this being in various ways, ritually participating in his or her awakening. In this way, we cultivate our own awakened state.
This process of visualization is a powerful one. For example, in our ordinary life, what we do not visualize as existing does not exist for us. If we do not see another person as human, then for us their humanity does not exist. The same is that much more true for beings who live in nonmaterial forms outside of samsara. We may be surrounded by buddhas and bodhisattvas all the time, but until they have a shape and a name, we do not see them or have access to a relationship with them. For us they might as well not exist. But the moment we give them a form in our mind and begin to communicate with them, they exist, and their wisdom, compassion, and power can enter into our own systems.
It is the many ritual forms of Tibetan Buddhism that enable us to do this, and within traditional Tibet, the reality of ritual is simply accepted as a matter of course. It is assumed that just as there are forms by which to relate to other human beings, so there are other forms that are used to communicate with the nonhuman and nonmaterial realms.
The status of ritual among Western followers of Tibetan Buddhism is, however, more in question. Many have felt unable to entertain the ideas of reincarnation or of the six realms. For them, many of the traditional Tibetan rituals dealing with other beings and other realms do not make sense. Sometimes this extends to thinking that even talk of nonmaterial buddhas, bodhisattvas and protectors is "symbolic," and that there is nothing that really corresponds to these designations. In that case, many of the Tibetan liturgies are seen as directed to no real object, but are rather understood as psychological ploys to bring about certain effects.
Even if we Westerners do pay lip service to the traditional Tibetan cosmological ideas, often, as Jeremy Hayward has argued, we remain at heart what he calls "scientific materialists." In other words, while we may accept the idea of other realms and other beings within and outside of samsara, we do not actually believe in them. Instead, we live as if the world were dead and this reality the only one that exists.
This attitude is reflected in many Westerners' difficulties with Tibetan ritual. Among Western practitioners, there is frequently a kind of dead feeling in ritual, and many of us fall back on the idea that rote repetition, without any particular engagement or feeling, is sufficient. We fall back, in other words, on attitudes to ritual learned in our upbringing, where simply to be physically present was all that was required. In order to survive the many meaningless rituals we may have been subjected to, we also learned to disengage ourselves psychologically and to occupy our time with thinking about other things. What is missing here is the understanding that ritual is a way of communicating with beings who, on the relative plane, really are there and really are important to us. This lively and compelling sense of ritual is, at present, sometimes hard to come by in Western adaptations of Tibetan Buddhism.
Through ritual, genuinely undertaken, one is led to take a larger view of one's life and one's world; one experiences a shift in perspective-sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic. This shift feels like a diminishing of one's sense of isolated individuality and an increase in one's sense of connectedness with other people, with the nonhuman presences of our realm, and with purposes that transcend one's usual self-serving motivations.
Ritual is a way of reconnecting with the larger and deeper purposes of life, ones that are oriented toward the general good conceived in the largest sense. Ironically, through coming to such a larger and more inclusive sense of connection and purpose, through rediscovering oneself as a member of a much bigger and more inclusive enterprise, one feels that much more oneself and grounded in one's own personhood. Through ritual, one's energy and motivation are roused and mobilized so that one can better fulfill the responsibilities, challenges and demands that life presents.
Adapted from Indestructible Truth by Reginald A. Ray. By permission of Shambhala Publications. © Reginald A. Ray.
Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., is Professor of Buddhist Studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado and teacher in residence at Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. He is the author of Buddhist Saints in India (Oxford University Press). This article is adapted from his new book, Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism, from Shambhala Publications.
Gere Knows What Counts
By Trish Deitch Rohrer
Two years ago, a four-year-old boy was left at the offices of an HIV care and prevention organization in New Delhi called Naz. Both of the boy's parents had died from AIDS, it turned out, and the boy was infected. Though his extended family had adopted his older brother, who wasn't infected, they didn't want the sick boy.
"The child was left on our office premises," says Anjeli Gopalan of Naz, "and I went completely nuts." Gopolan became the boy's legal guardian, and, inspired by that child, started the HIV/AIDS Care Home for Women and Children, the only residential home in all of India for the growing population of women dying of AIDS and their sick and/or orphaned children.
The Care Home is funded, for the most part, by Richard Gere's Initiatives Foundation, the new public affiliate of the ten-year-old, private Gere Foundation. On the day that I spoke to Gopalan, she had just, for the first time, sat down with Gere in person. What she learned from him was that she would now have the funds to expand the home from ten beds to sixteen. Furthermore, Naz (Urdu for "pride") would be able to rent a second home, where the children can live when they were feeling well.
"When they're sick, they can come back to the Care Home," Gopalan says, great excitement in her voice. "Otherwise they can live in their own home. You know?!" She laughs, delighted. "Now with this money coming in, I can do that. It's such a relief!"
It is estimated that millions of children orphaned by AIDS will be homeless in India by the year 2010. The hope is that Naz's HIV/AIDS Care Home will be a model, something that other foundations can replicate. This is the idea behind all of the projects that Gere is funding, and hoping to get others to help him fund: that they'll serve as models, as the blueprints that local communities can work from, not only in India but in all developing countries.
About Richard Gere, Gopalan says, laughing, "Today what really resonated for me was that he's so down to earth, so in touch with himself. That made me feel absolutely energized." Gopalan, her load lightened, laughs again. "I was like, 'Thank God there are people like this.' It keeps your faith in human beings. I just think someone like him shouldn't be like this-such a kind person. There's no reason for someone to be like this."
The first time I met Richard Gere I was sitting on a park bench outside a train station in a picturesque small town I'd never been to in upstate New York. It was nine months before my phone call with Anjeli Gopalan. I'd never met Gere and I didn't expect to, even though we are both Buddhists, and even though I'd made my living as a celebrity journalist. I was, in any case, waiting for ride to a dharma center, Karmê Chöling, five hours north, from a woman named Betty whom I hardly knew. Betty was 45 minutes late. It was a gorgeous fall morning, though-the day strikingly vivid and clear-so I didn't mind waiting much. Then, as should always happen on particularly splendid days like that one, Richard Gere walked up and introduced himself. It's true: he just walked up out of nowhere, in a baseball cap, smiling, very handsome, and said, "Are you Patricia?"
Well, I am Patricia, though nobody but my mother calls me that. In any case, I said yes, and he held out his hand and said, "I'm Richard."
O.K. Sometimes life goes this way: tides of magic suddenly roll in. His face matched the day: full of cheer.
I thought, how extraordinary that Betty would send Richard Gere to pick me up. The morning was perfect and getting more that way. He said, "You ready?" and I said, "Sure," and he took my duffel bag and we walked to his shiny red pickup parked down the street.
Why was Richard Gere picking me up? Certainly he had better things to do. I said, "Are you going to Karmê Chöling?"
We were already in the truck, both of us still smiling, happy, it seemed, to be there on that day, and he put the key in the ignition. He looked at me, started up the truck, said, "No," and put the thing in gear. I nodded. We started to roll backward, him looking in the rearview mirror to make sure there was no one behind him. Everything was easy, really nice. Still, I said, "But-you know Betty, don't you?"
He stopped this time, and looked at me. His eyes were friendly, kind. "No," he said.
We sat there then, two Buddhists, looking at each other, the day barely less perfect than before, just slightly stranger.
Then he said, "Are you a massage therapist?" I thought, oh shit. "No," I said. There was a moment of silence, the sun shone through the trees, a bird sang, a person or two walked by. He said, "I was coming to pick up a massage therapist named Patricia for my wife." There were so many possible replies, but I just said, "That's not me."
Thinking back on that day now, I don't know what we did then-whether we smiled, or shook our heads or didn't. I just know that it felt good to be sitting there with him, despite the grand faux pas. He said, "Here, I'll help you with your bag," and we stepped out of the truck, and he came around to my side and flipped my duffle out of the flatbed and onto the sidewalk. Together we walked back to the bench, where a woman was waiting. I said to her, "Is your name Patricia?" and she said, "Yes," and she turned to him and he to her and that was that. They walked away. Betty eventually showed up.
When we met again, eight months later, there was no way to let him know I was the one showing up; all he knew was that a journalist was coming to his Manhattan offices to interview him about his new Initiatives Foundation. So the first thing he said as he stepped up to greet me was, "We've met," and I could see him trying to remember where, figure it out. I reminded him: lovely town, fall day, park bench, massage therapist. He took three steps back fast and laughed. Though it was sweltering in New York, it was cool and pleasant in the anteroom of his production company and foundation offices, which had photographs of His Holiness the Dalai Lama all around, and dharma books. He was wearing a green, thin-wailed corduroy, jean-style jacket over a white T-shirt, and a pair of black pants. "That was you," he said. I said yeah, and shrugged, and he said, "You must be very trusting, to get in a truck with a stranger like that."
I didn't say, "You aren't a stranger," because that would have been too complicated at that moment to explain: It wasn't just that I've seen his films, and so he seemed, on that fall day, very familiar to me. It was also that the depth of his Buddhist study and practice, his devotion to his teachers, and his adherence to the Buddhist view, made him no stranger. A fellow practitioner had come to get me from the park bench by the station. That was obvious.
"I met Richard in Bodhgaya in 1986," says Rinchen Dharlo, president of the Tibet Fund, "during a teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And a year later I was transferred to New York to be the Dalai Lama's representative and to head the Office of Tibet here. The People's Republic of China, which is a strong member of the security council, with veto power, never allowed the question of Tibet to be raised in any forums of the United Nations. I remember that when you told people where you came from, they would say, 'Tibet? Where is it?' But that was the situation in those days.
"The situation has changed since then, mainly because of the visits of His Holiness the Dalai Lama around the world, the release of major motion pictures, resolutions adopted by the U.N., Congress and parliaments worldwide, and newly established and expanded Tibet support groups and dharma centers throughout the world. And part of the credit should go to Richard Gere, who remained so steady, who remained like an eloquent tree, in terms of campaigning and supporting the Tibetan culture."
In 1987 Gere co-founded Tibet House in New York, where the full spectrum of Tibetan culture could be displayed in one location. According to Rinchen Dharlo, it was Gere who proposed that 1991 be the "International Year of Tibet," and spearheaded a campaign of a thousand programs worldwide, including public talks, film festivals, conferences on Tibet, performances and cultural programs. Gere funded several important teachings during that time, including the Kalachakra initiation given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in New York. At the same time Gere was working hard to raise money for AIDS research, as well as doing what he could to raise public awareness about human-rights violations around the world.
Since then Gere, now the Chairman of the International Campaign for Tibet, has funded traveling surgical camps in Tibet to save the sight of Tibetans blinded by cataracts. He provided emergency relief in both India and Tibet after snowstorms killed much livestock. He has paid for the publication of important Buddhist books, including Dzogchen master Tulku Ugyen's two-volume masterpiece, As It Is, Tsoknyi Rinpoche's Carefree Dignity, and many volumes by his own teacher, the Dalai Lama. He also supported the publication of Sorrow Mountain, the heroic, heartbreaking story of the late Ani Pachen, known as Tibet's warrior-nun.
Gere's own office has to be the size of two or three standard New York living rooms. We are sitting in two of the old stuffed chairs that are set around a low table far from his desk. I am complaining about the heat in New York and the crowds, and he tells me about something the Buddhist scholar Jeffrey Hopkins' teacher once said. "You know how most of us," Gere says, "when we're doing our meditation, and we hear a sound, or a human voice, or someone's knocking on the door, we go, 'Fuck!'?" He laughs, and so do I. "Well, Hopkins' teacher's first impulse was " here Gere snaps his fingers once-" 'Ah, a sentient being! Ah! A sentient being!'"
When Gere talks to you, he looks straight into your eyes. He's gentle, but also clearly fierce-fierce about the dharma, about what it takes to maintain the view, about admitting when you are, as he says, "bullshitting" yourself when it comes to your practice.
This is what he keeps coming back to, over and over again: that he is lazy, that he's fooling himself if he thinks he's actually going to get somewhere on this path. He talks about the benefits of humility and humbleness, but this constant, unforgiving look at himself is not in the service of either humility or humbleness: it's just that Gere is very hard on himself. There is no doubt that he has studied his own mind and knows what a Herculean task it is to work with it.
Lodi Gyari, emissary of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Washington, who has known Gere for twenty years, says that Gere is extraordinarily happy to have come into the dharma, because his path is so exceptionally difficult.
"You see all these very famous people, and they are the most unhappy. They suffer so much because of their self-importance, because of their ego. And there's Richard, so very happy because he's Richard Gere-he's famous. But at the same time he can really lead a life that is free from what many of his peers in Hollywood suffer from on a daily basis." Gyari says that Gere is a very serious student-so serious that he has come to some "realization." Rinchen Dharlo concurs, saying that though Gere doesn't claim to be one, he is "a great Buddhist scholar, like any of the well-known Buddhist professors." Not only that, but Gere has an in-depth knowledge of Tibetan culture, understanding, Dharlo says, that it's in danger of being "lost forever."
"In this country," Dharlo says, "very often people adopt causes and then continue for one or two years, and then jump to another cause. Richard is not someone like that. He's doing this with his full heart. He is very compassionate. The Buddhist teaching has changed him a lot."
Sitting in his office, Gere talks about a teaching he loves-"Heart Spoon" by Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche-and he says, "Basically, it says, tell yourself the truth because you're totally full of shit on this. You're just playing with this. You want liberation? You're so cowardly, you're so full of shit." He leans in again, talking to me. "You think you're so smug, and you know a little dharma, you read a few books, you have a few teachers-you're full of shit. Totally ridiculous. Totally selfish. Totally self-cherishing. Totally uncommitted. There's no real wisdom. The wind blows and you're blown all over the place." I shrink in my seat and he laughs hard, and falls back in his. "I'm talking about me here," he says.
I tell him I find all that he's said somewhat discouraging, and he says, "It's the ultimate loving-kindness-the truth. And, wow, you can do it. If you can get the courage up. I mean, one of my most important meditations for myself is for courage and determination. Is for the guts to be able to do what's been done, what has to be done."
It's hard not to think of the time, just after September 11, 2001, when Gere got up at a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden for the families of New York City police and firemen killed on that day. He call for compassion for the perpetrators too, for they would have to suffer the karma of what they had done, and he was booed off the stage. That took guts.
You can imagine Gere as a suffering young man, living in a ratty apartment in New York, nearly suicidal (he doesn't talk about why), reading philosophy to try to figure out why life hurts so much, and stumbling upon Evans-Wentz's The Life of Milarepa. You can imagine him starting to mediate at 24, finding a Zen teacher, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, and stepping onto the path with as much ambition as it must have taken to become an American movie star-like his hair was on fire and there was a snake on his lap, both.
You can imagine him, in this state, going to India and meeting the man who would become his root guru, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, someone whom Gere says is "the most genuinely generous person I will ever meet.
"And not in an obvious way," he continues. "It is just there. In his presence. The only reason that he's there, is to help you " he laughs, amazed, " to help you reach happiness. And he's very skillful. You know, in the few moments that he can fit you in, in a day of a hundred other people he may be seeing, something happens. And you feel that commitment from him immediately-there's nothing in it for him." Gere moves closer as he says, "Phew." He laughs. Then he says, "That's hard. Always, always, his impulse is, 'How can I help you? Yes, how can I help you?!'"
For the past four years, the Gere Foundation has bought health insurance for a thousand destitute monks and nuns in Tibetan settlements in southern India, in the hopes that these men and women will be able to teach for another twenty or thirty years. But the Dalai Lama has made it clear to Gere that he wants all Tibetans in exile to be covered. "So we want to expand the model," Gere says, "that has been working in the monasteries and convents, to the lay population as well.
"I realize that no matter how many movies I make," he continues, "I'm not going to have enough money to pay for these things. So the Initiative Foundation really needs other help and other expertise, to have a larger vision-much larger than what I can do by myself."
Another ambitious project is an environmental clean-up in the northern Indian town of Dharmsala, home of the Dalai Lama and seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Thousands of Tibetan refugees and international pilgrims pass through the tiny hill station every year and the environment has become taxed: there is no real solid waste management, there's chemical and microbial water contamination, and the soil in the forests around Dharmsala is eroding.
So Gere and his people found a Swiss agency, SANDEC, that went to Dharmsala last year, gratis, studied the environmental conditions, and developed an environmental action plan for the Tibetan Department of Welfare. The first phase is solid-waste planning: the local community is being trained in how to separate solid from organic waste, schoolchildren have been recruited to help clean up the town, sanitation trucks have been purchased, and an agreement has been negotiated with the Indian municipal government to collect the area's waste.
The Initiatives Foundation has provided seed funding for the action plan and is trying to find partners so the model can be expanded to other Tibetan settlements. The Welfare Office is providing the operating infrastructure and the overall development of the project is being facilitated by the Dalai Lama's sister, Jetsun Pema, who's the head of the Tibetan Children's Village.
According to Robyn Brentano, director of the Initiatives Foundation, the environmental action plan is state-of-the-art as far as international aid is concerned. "It's not just about bringing technology in and imposing it on the local situation," Brentano says, "but about seeing how the resources that exist at the local level can be developed." If the Indian municipal government can make money collecting solid waste, then there is hope that the program will be able to sustain itself, rather than foundations like Initiatives having to support it indefinitely.
I wonder out loud, in my conversation with Gere: I thought suffering was alleviated by understanding emptiness, no-self. Isn't this work, I ask him, only alleviating the suffering of a few human beings temporarily?
He says, "On a practical level, if people are starving, if people are being politically abused and tortured, if there is no freedom, what space is there for them to even consider the nature of self, consider emptiness, consider a view?" He looks at me, smiling. "Look," he says, "ultimately, this is all for everyone. Because until everyone has been removed from suffering, none of us is. Right? We're that connected."
Talking dharma with a movie star is so rare that it's almost ridiculously exciting. I want to jump up and down in my seat and clap. I've talked to scores of celebrities for my work, and not one has ever mentioned interdependent origination.
"So even if we want our own security," he goes on, "we have to make everyone else happy. That's a very selfish way of looking at the dharma. But at least it's a smart way-smart selfish."
Of supreme importance to Gere is a project to collect, authenticate, digitally catalogue and archive all existing and future material-speeches, lectures, religious teachings, photographs and so on-pertaining to the life, teachings and activities of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
"When you consider," Gere says, "we have such a being in our presence now-and there exists an enormous amount of material in his lifetime-to have that protected becomes incredibly important work for future generations."
One of the first donations Gere made to this particular cause was the purchase of a new microphone, years ago, for the Dalai Lama's translator. "He had one little microphone," Gere says, "with kind of an FM cord, and it fit on this thing with tape around it. It had been soldered and resoldered a hundred times. And I said, 'When did you get that?' And he said, 'I don't know, some German gave it to me about five years ago, but it broke so many times.' So I said, 'Can I offer you one?' He said, 'Yes, please.' So we gave him some new equipment. The fact that he could now translate direct Tibetan teachings to foreigners-to the thousands and thousands of us who have gone through that path-is astonishing. And all it took was a couple-of-hundred-dollar FM mike."
The initial monies from the Initiatives Foundation for the Central Archive of His Holiness the Dalai Lama will go for temperature control of the temporary space where the archives will be kept, and toward a staff.
"Is there some kind of vault," I ask, and he laughs and says, "No. There's nothing. It's probably just in boxes out on the terrace-who knows? They don't have any way to care for it properly."
There's a long way to go with the Central Archive, but eventually Gere wants all of his teacher's work to be available for free on the Internet so that anyone-including "a nomad in Kham with a solar cell and a laptop"-can access it. In order to do this, Gere is gathering the help of Buddhists all over the world who've been working separately, often not even aware of each other's efforts. Helping people work together, helping avoid duplication: connection is what Gere feels he can best offer.
"We've had amazing meetings in this room," he says. "Extraordinary people. Connecting," Gere snaps his fingers again five times-snap, snap, snap, snap, snap. "Yeah, we can do something. Many personality types who want to be with other people who will "-he claps his hands together once, loud-"get it done."
One company Gere managed to connect with, maybe not one you'd expect to participate in the liberation of all sentient beings, was America Online. Last year, when Gere hosted the Dalai Lama in New York, AOL agreed to flash His Holiness' face on the computer screens of all AOL members as they signed on to their internet accounts. This went on for five days.
"We were promoting the event," he says, "but it worked on another level which was totally non-conceptual, just "-here Gere makes the sound of a rocket tearing through space-"phoosh!" he says, "enlightened being. Whether you know it or not. Plug in and 'phoosh!' Even if you wanted to turn it off, it's already happened. Zapped by an enlightened being."
That event, which Gere thought might attract 15,000 people, brought in 200,000.
There was a rumor going around a couple of years ago that Gere was going to leave his acting career and become a monk. It would, after all, make sense, considering how hard he is on himself about the time he spends or doesn't spend on his practice, and his concomitant impulse to practice more. When I ask him if he ever considered leaving acting and just practicing, he laughs hard, and then sits in silence. "Yeah, sure," he finally says. "I don't think anyone who's ever been touched by a teacher doesn't feel ." He looks at me, then, and says that when "the Tibetans" heard the rumor about him becoming a monk, they were very, very upset. "Many of them came to me and said, 'Please don't. We need you so much.'" He laughs again. "Not that I was going to become a monk. But it was clear that I was of value in the role that I'm playing now.
"And the truth is, the way to freedom is working through this." He opens his hands to the room he's sitting in. "It's so easy for us to have a retreat in whatever version of a cave there is-it's very easy to escape your mind somehow. So I find-especially for a lazy person like me-that continually interacting with people, where anger comes up "-he snaps his fingers-"impatience comes up "-snap, snap, snap-"all that is a really good way for me to learn, to see my mind. Which, if I were in retreat, most likely I wouldn't see. It'd be too pleasant.
"It's hard not to be responsible," Gere says finally. "And I do feel responsible. To squander this would be a horrible thing."
He is walking me to the elevator after our meeting. He is one step behind me in the hallway, walking so stealthily I hardly know he's there, when suddenly I feel him slapping me between the shoulder blades with his fingers, hard. I look back at him, and he's slightly crouched, like an old monk walking behind me, and he's laughing. "My name is Patricia," he says almost incredulously, thinking about our first meeting, his face creased with smiling. "My name is Patricia."
I put my hand back over my shoulder to stop him from doing it, but he slaps one last time, hard.
From "Richard Gere Knows What Counts" by Trish Deitch Rohrer.
Shambhala Sun, November 2002.
Searching for the Truth that Is Far Below the Search
Below the level of thoughts, concepts and even emotions are the subtle ways that life is felt directly in the body. David Rome explains how this "felt sense" is resolved through the practice of Focusing.
Many contemplative practices with Eastern roots, such as martial arts, yoga, flower arranging and tea ceremony, have become welcome adjuncts to Buddhist practice in the West. Now a practice called Focusing, with roots in Western philosophy and psychology, is being taken up by an increasing number of Buddhist practitioners. They are finding it a valuable means both for deepening their meditative practice and for creating a bridge from meditation to the challenges of living a contemporary Western life.
What is Focusing? It is a practice of bringing gentle, interested attention to one's bodily felt experience. "Bodily felt" here means the nonverbal texture or affect that lies before or below our conceptual formations. It can be experienced as a vague body sense that is more than just physical-it is the way that our body is holding our particular situation just now.
This body sense or "felt sense," as it is commonly called, is not the same thing as feeling one's emotions. The felt sense lies "beneath" emotions like anger, jealousy or desire; it is more subtle and less susceptible to naming. Felt senses are free of the story line that accompanies an emotion: "I am angry because such and such happened." They are more vague and physical; a person in touch with a felt sense might say something like, "There is this region just under my breastbone that is constricted like a jack-in-the-box."
When we first notice a felt sense, it does not have a specific "aboutness" yet. It is nonconceptual. But as we use the Focusing process to be with and listen to the felt sense, it may come into clearer focus (hence the name Focusing) and it may "open" in a way that gives us fresh understanding of our situation. At that point-which cannot be rushed-we can begin to try out concepts on it, begin to inquire what it might be "about." But the felt sense itself is always primary, not the conceptualization, and the practice of Focusing involves repeatedly letting go of conceptual activity and returning to the body sense.
Focusing has two key aspects in common with Buddhist meditation-suspension of the usual discursive momentum of mind, in order to pay close attention to what is present in one's experience at the moment, and a spacious awareness that invites deeper meaning to emerge. Focusing is, in Buddhist terms, both a taming-the-mind and an insight practice.
How Focusing Is Done
With practice, Focusing can be done almost anywhere and anytime-in the elevator before an important meeting, during the meeting itself, while walking or driving, etc. But to learn and then deepen a Focusing practice you will want to set aside quiet time, just as with meditation.
Typically, Focusers will find a comfortable sitting posture, then take a minute or two to come into the body. They may do a quick body-scan to help relax themselves and become sensitive to bodily sensations. Then they will "drop down," gently focusing their attention in the torso region, the whole area from throat to rump. This gets them "out of their heads" and in touch with the parts of the body-heart, lungs, spine, stomach, guts-where we respond at a visceral level. Then they pause there, waiting with a gentle, patient attention that is attuned to felt senses that may be present or may gradually form.
When a felt sense is present, they "keep it company," as you might do with a young child who is trying to express something that they don't yet know how to say. After a period of just attending to the bodily quality of the felt sense, the Focuser may try to find a word or short phrase or image that "fits" it. This is called a "handle." It is not an attempt to explain the felt sense in any way, but is just a textural, visual or metaphorical description of what it feels like just now: "jumpy," "sticky," "like a hard ball," "a squishy place with warm edges." Usually it has a specific location-in the chest or the belly, on the right or left side-and the Focuser may indicate this with a hand. Sometimes a gesture rather than words will constitute the handle.
The key is that the felt sense itself is always primary. Any verbal handle that comes is checked against the felt sense to see if it fits. The Focuser will move back and forth between the handle and the felt sense, a process called "resonating," adjusting or replacing the handle until the fit is optimal. You know you've got a right fit when the felt sense itself gives a little shift, a kind of easing or opening, a sense of being truly recognized-like being lost in a crowd of strangers and suddenly hearing a friendly voice calling you by name.
This process of resonating encourages the felt sense to emerge more clearly, to come into focus. Then there can be a further step called "asking," in which we invite the felt sense to tell us more. The hallmark of a felt sense, according to Eugene Gendlin, the originator of Focusing, is that it "talks back." Some questions it won't like and won't respond to, others it will. Focusing questions can be endlessly varied, but classic ones are: "What is the worst of this whole problem?" "What is this situation wanting now?" "What is in the way of everything being fine?"
The magic of Focusing comes when you pose the question and then don't answer it-not from the head. You wait, just as you would if you were talking to another person and that person was taking their time, groping about inside before responding. You wait, with patient, caring, interested attention, and notice if a response comes in the body. It may not-getting nothing in response is actually a sign that you are really Focusing rather than thinking discursively. Sometimes the felt sense won't respond to one question, but when it is reframed a little differently, suddenly it does respond. There is a playful, exploring, creative quality to this asking, not knowing in advance what you may get. The not-knowing allows for novelty to arise.
The key to success in this practice is something called "the Focusing attitude." It is a capacity for gentle and brave self-caring, and it can be cultivated. Also known in Focusing circles as "caring-feeling-presence" or "self-empathy," it is akin to the Buddhist virtue called maitri-loving kindness or friendliness directed toward oneself. It is a potent, poignant and at times quite magical way of making friends with oneself.
Right now, as I write this, if I pause and take a few minutes to Focus, I get something like this: Sensing inside, I notice a tightness in the center of my chest. I give it some friendly acknowledgment, just letting it be there as fully as it can. Then I ask inside: so what is this tightness about? I wait Oh! Now I see. I am anxious about how this article will be received and I'm feeling a pressure to convince my readers that Focusing is a good thing Yes, now I see how I've been pushing myself to counter all the objections people may have as they read this-that it's not spiritual, it perpetuates ego attachment, it's touchy-feely, it's therapy, it's self-help, it Actually, I don't even need to name the specific objections; I can just have it as this felt sense which I label all that about how people might react. I take a few seconds just to be with that, to let it crystallize-as a felt sense, not as a concept-sensing empathically the pressured place in my body that is holding all that about how people might react.
Now I can ask: what does this need to feel better? Again I wait and listen inside Yes, now I see. This writing isn't about proving anything to anyone, and it isn't about proving myself. It's about describing this practice which has been so helpful for me, and offering it to others. The readers will know-from their own felt sense-whether it is something for them to explore further. Many won't. Some will. And that is just as it should be Now as I check inside again, the tight place in the chest has softened, it has released into some fresh, warm energy to get on with the writing.
Although it's a wonderful solo practice that can be done virtually anywhere and anytime, Focusing is most effectively practiced as a regular exchange with another person. My Focusing partner Carolyn and I started our partnership four years ago when we were neighbors. Three years ago Carolyn moved from New York to North Carolina and we continue to Focus together an hour each week-by telephone. In fact, most Focusing partnerships are done over the telephone. It's a little different from Focusing together in person, but it works surprisingly well-there is a quality of being able to go deeply into oneself while feeling really held by the intimate, caring human presence on the other end of the line.
During Focusing sessions, partners take evenly divided turns as the Focuser and the Listener. During your Focusing turn, you go inside and when you are ready speak aloud what you are noticing. It is like an inner contemplation that is voiced, rather than an ordinary conversation. There is no need to make logical sense or be concerned with whether the other person understands what you mean; unfinished sentences and sudden shifts of direction are common. The Listener, meanwhile, gives friendly, open attention, simply trying to keep company with your process, wherever it leads.
Focusers (like meditators) often attend weekend or weeklong programs with presentations by senior trainers and lots of time spent working in pairs. Some Focusers have more than one regular partner, perhaps addressing different aspects of their lives-personal, work-related, creative, etc.
The Art of Listening
The Focusing training in how to listen is the deepest, most sensitive and most effective that I have encountered. Tracing its lineage to the pioneering American psychologist Carl Rogers, with whom Eugene Gendlin studied at the University of Chicago, and Rogers' therapeutic use of "Unconditional Positive Regard," it is nonjudgmental, noninterpretive and highly empathic. More than that, it trains us to really be present for others without losing track of ourselves in the process. While listening we may of course have reactions-feelings, judgments, memories, "helpful" ideas-but our job is always to bring our attention back to the Focuser. We try to notice when the Focuser is in touch with their felt sense-usually the point where the flow of narrative stops and there is silence or incomplete sentences, ums and uhs, an uncertain, groping quality.
Here the Listener has the opportunity to do something radical. Instead of trying to complete the other's unfinished sentences, offering ideas for solving their problem, or describing a similar experience of their own, the Listener can reflect back key words or phrases that the Focuser has used. The effect is like an echo or a mirror-when the Focuser hears their own words reflected back to them, they have the opportunity to check them against the actual nonverbal felt sense. If there's a good fit right away, then they experience a sense of recognition and are energized to move on. Often, when they hear the words back, they notice that they don't quite fit; they don't do justice to the felt sense. Now, instead of being compelled by habitual patterns of interaction just to keep going, they can use this gap to speak freshly from their experience. Sometimes what comes will be only a very slight adjustment; other times, something quite unexpected and even illogical will come.
Over time the listening skills cultivated in a Focusing partnership will start to appear spontaneously in everyday interactions, leading to a natural kind of deep listening. Stuck patterns of interaction are released and refreshing new energy and insight emerge in one's conversations.
Focusing and Meditation
Focusing can be a wonderful companion practice to Buddhist meditation. Robert Aitken Roshi, the dean of American Zen masters, recommends Focusing to his students as a way of preparing for meditation. In a recent communication to Eugene Gendlin, Aitken Roshi says, "I'm glad that you find many Buddhists interested in Focusing. I continue to recommend the practice from time to time in personal interviews, and students report worthwhile results. I treat it as a preliminary practice for the noetic work involved in zazen, where a quiet mind is important."
Focusing often begins with a step called "Clearing a Space," which can be used equally well as a precursor to meditation. It consists of taking time to notice anything that is being held in a bodily way-a worry or a need or some unresolved situation. By giving each such issue a moment of acknowledgment-without "going into it"-the issue can relax a bit, enough so as not to be in the way of what you choose to stay with, which might be a particular situation or challenge if you are Focusing or, in meditation, the technique itself. Clearing a Space is like noticing a needy child-just a brief moment of complete, caring attention is often enough for it to take comfort and relax its claim on your attention. Issues are not suppressed-they may reappear in one's Focusing session or one's meditation session-but their urgency has been relieved enough that we can settle down.
A second way in which Focusing complements meditation is by offering a contemplative bridge between formal practice and living in the world. Most of us are not renunciates; we have not abandoned home and family and friends and worldly involvements. And while meditation trains us to have more space around the demands of our lives, it doesn't always give us direct insight into how to work with them. Of course such insight may arise spontaneously, but meditation in and of itself does not aim to solve problems-its primary goal is to solve the haver of the problems.
Focusing shows us how, in a separate gesture from meditation, to deliberately invite a situation, problem, decision or creative challenge into the center of contemplative awareness and give it patient, caring, interested attention. Then the situation may begin to unfold, opening up in ways that bring fresh understanding and a shift in how we hold it. Often this will lead to pragmatic insights-"action steps"-which we can use to resolve aspects of our life that feel stuck, bringing welcome forward movement.
Focusing is very much about how we engage our lives, our relationships, surroundings, work challenges, hopes and fears, etc. It is also a powerful antidote against "spiritual bypassing," which John Welwood, in his excellent book Toward a Psychology of Awakening, describes as "using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional 'unfinished business,' to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings and developmental tasks, all in the name of enlightenment."
Thirdly, and perhaps of greatest interest,
Focusing can have a crucial impact on the quality of our meditative experience
itself. Although different schools of Buddhism present a wide variety of techniques
and approaches to meditation, most of them are rooted in the Buddha's original
teaching on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in the Anapanasmrti Sutra, which
prescribes "bare attention," or simple noticing of what arises in one's
consciousness from moment to moment. But in practice a problem can arise here.
Much of what occurs in our awareness is like the tip of an iceberg, showing only a fraction of the whole. If our practice of bare attention is too strict, or too casual, we may end up jumping from iceberg tip to iceberg tip, so to speak, without ever recognizing that there is a much larger "something" underlying the thought or emotion or physiological tweak that we consciously notice.
In the initial stages of taming the mind, this sort of mere noticing is desirable, since we are learning not to "go into" sensations or perceptions discursively. But there is also a quality of ignorance-like momentarily glancing at all the people we run into, but never feeling the full presence of any of them. Here Focusing shows us a middle path, a way of sensing the "whole" of what is arising without going along with the propensity to get discursive. It is like taking a full moment to really take in the person whom you are encountering-this person, right here, just now-yet not entering into conversation with them.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche talked about mindfulness meditation as a process of "touch and go." "Touch" means really acknowledging, really appreciating, the texture of a particular mental content, not just bouncing off of it. It is the difference between a gentle squeeze and a superficial tap. This touching, acknowledging, appreciating, is the seed for developing insight-a way of being present to phenomena that invites fresh meanings to emerge. Because Westerners tend to be more split off from the experiential body than people in more traditional cultures, the practice of Focusing can facilitate our ability to touch genuinely what arises in the mind-heart in a nondiscursive way. As Pema Chdrn recently advised a questioner with doubts about her meditation practice, "There is a secret ingredient-direct, nonverbal experience."
Focusing and Western Philosophy
A few words concerning the basic view from which Focusing proceeds may be useful. Philosophically, it traces its lineage to Phenomenology, a movement in twentieth-century Western philosophy that emphasizes the primacy of direct, first-person experience over abstract metaphysical claims. For instance, rather than Descartes's assertion, "I think, therefore I am," Phenomenology wants to know, "What is the actual experience of thinking, divested of any ideas we have about it? What do we notice if we simply attend to the phenomenon itself?" The parallel with Buddhist meditation is apparent.
The practice of Focusing was developed in the 1960's and 1970's by Eugene Gendlin, Ph.D., a University of Chicago professor, now emeritus, who is a practicing philosopher and psychologist. Gendlin has carried the Western intellectual tradition forward-beyond both Modernism and Post-Modernism-in his radically nondualistic, process-oriented "Philosophy of the Implicit."
Gendlin begins from a premise he calls "interaction first," meaning roughly that life process precedes all entities or objects. An animal, including a human animal, is an ongoing interaction with its environment. We do not appear from nowhere and only then start to interact with the environment; rather we always were, and still are, a process that forms together with its environment. This is true from an evolutionary perspective as well as for any individual life. Gendlin says that a person is not a thing or even an organism but a carrying forward.
This carrying forward, or "life forwarding," expresses itself in functional cycles such as eating-digesting-defecating-eating again. But a cycle can become blocked. We may be ready to eat but no food is available. Then the "blocked process" gives rise to a bodily sensation that we label hunger and implies an object that we call "food." But hunger and food, like all concepts, are abstractions from immediate experience. They cannot do justice to the fine texture of the actual lived instances they try to describe. Beneath the generalization called "hunger" lies an intricate bodily knowing of just this exact situation that I am now in, and only from this specific, living intricacy can I know what moves to make to satisfy my hunger in my present circumstances. Do I go to the kitchen cupboard? To a restaurant? Try some new food I've never had before? Or perhaps it's not food at all; maybe my hunger is better met by getting in touch with a friend or going for a long walk in the woods.
As human beings, our total life experience up to this moment always implies further growth, a further unfolding. Until it actually occurs, the form of this further growth can't be known; it is only implicit (hence Philosophy of the Implicit). When it comes, it will be an infinitely precise response to actual circumstances and it will be novel, because nothing exactly like this will have ever occurred before. So, for example, when I meet a person for the first time, my experience will be akin to many encounters I have had before, yet it will be completely fresh: I have never experienced another person just this way before.
Focusing makes no pretense of being a "complete path." On the contrary, it offers itself as one tool among many for growth and transformation. Although it can certainly be a person's primary contemplative practice, Focusing loves to join with other practices and methodologies and to enter into fields as disparate as education, healthcare, business, the arts, psychology-and of course spirituality. It seems to me that for all the discourse these days about uniting spirituality and action in the world-often at conferences specially convened around this topic-we are still in the very early stages of knowing how we might actually accomplish such a union in the context of contemporary life. The practice of Focusing can illuminate and energize our efforts to mix meditative discipline with skillful action in the world. ©
For more information on Focusing, Focusing partnerships,
and applications of Focusing, go to the Web site of the Focusing Institute at
www.focusing.org. David Rome can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Searching for the Truth that is Far Below the Search by David Rome, Shambhala Sun, September 2004.
Wisdom as the Essence of Phenomena
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on developing the Vajrayana motivation
Here in the West, we have the fortunate karma to be receiving the great teachings of the highest tantra, distilled from hundreds of years of experience. We are being offered some very potent principles in terms of Vajrayana Buddhism, as well as the Shambhala teachings of windhorse-confidence in our innate enlightenment. We are being invited to prepare for a journey that will take us to the top of the highest mountain. At the same time, we are like children taking advice from grown-ups. Much of it doesn't really make sense, and we have more seemingly interesting things to do with our time. It's as if we are being told about an incredible amount of wealth that is ours, but we are still engaging our mind in an immature and frivolous way.
In terms of our journey up the mountain, part of our responsibility is to learn the landscape of the dharma. We're doing this in part to see where we are and who we are, but also in order to create a new culture of practice in a time of incredible materialism, aggression and fixation. It has always been more or less like this, but I think there is more claustrophobia and busyness now. Within that landscape, what we are attempting is ultimately the most difficult thing to do-attain complete and perfect buddhahood. That's why we are practicing meditation. Holding this view by always remembering our aspiration and inspiration is a way of seeing our motivation clearly.
The Tibetan word for motivation is künlong, meaning to rise up, just like the lotus blooms out of the mud. With motivation, the mind rises up, just like the flower turning toward the sun, with a natural sense of knowing where to awaken. When the flower begins to rise out of the mud and open up, it reveals the moon disc of compassion-of enlightenment-on which Vajrasattva and other deities of visualization practice sit. That is the symbolism of the thangkas that we see: our mind is the lotus and it needs to rise up out of samsara-the circle of suffering. Through meditation we come out of samsara and move toward enlightenment.
I am encouraging my students to ask at the beginning of any practice session, "What is my motivation right now?" Perhaps we've had a hard day and just want to relax. That would be a very small motivation. We are just trying to cool off, like a cow standing under a tree. There is nothing wrong with it, but with that cow's motivation-"I don't want to suffer"-can we achieve perfect realization? It might take a really long time.
Through the course of our practice career-even in the course of the day-we move through different levels of motivation. Through the Hinayana to the Mahayana to the Vajrayana, our motivation expands. The Hinayana motivation is based on wanting our own suffering to cease. For example, the small motivation of the Hinayana-or worldly motivation-would be, "After taking a shower, I am going to do meditation. Both make me feel really good." The cause and result of such a motivation is immediate and short-term. If after I take the shower, though, I am meditating for the benefit of all sentient beings because I personally experience the reality of their suffering, then I am practicing the larger motivation of the Mahayana. Even thinking about wanting others to be happy on a relative level makes our motivation bigger than when we do spiritual practices to help ourselves feel better.
The Mahayana motivation is aspiring that our whole life and actions be that of a buddha. This motivation has a mature quality: we've meditated long enough to see that suffering is based on fixating on the illusion of a solid self. We begin to see how consciousness and our perceptions try to hold it all together. At some point, we see beyond holding on to the illusion of a self. From that selflessness springs forth an attitude that begins to see that the suffering of others is based on the same fixation. This naturally gives birth to bodhichitta-the enlightened mind that always regards the welfare of others-and the great motivation. Our mind naturally extends out with the motivation to help all sentient beings.
The Vajrayana Motivation
Rising up through the nine levels of realization is almost like knocking on a series of doors. Someone opens each door and asks the practitioner, "What is your motivation?" The shravaka says, "Individual liberation." The pratyekabuddha says, "Individual liberation-but I would also like to experience a little bit of emptiness." The bodhisattva says, "My motivation is for all sentient beings to attain perfect enlightenment." As we go through the Vajrayana we can say, "My motivation is to awaken the wisdom that sees everything as perfect in every possible way, with nothing excluded." As Vajrayanists, we are being asked to take this highest motivation, which incorporates all the preceding motivations.
This motivation is demanding, because it is no longer just about attaining individual liberation, although it includes that motivation; it is not just about helping other sentient beings, although it includes that motivation as well. In the Vajrayana we are taking a fruitional approach. We are saying that perfectly endowed, complete enlightenment begins with our motivation to regard everything we experience right now-and the whole world-as perfect and pristine. We call this the motivation of great purity and great equality. As Vajrayana practitioners, we are asked to develop the motivation to wake up and see ourselves and the world as we truly are.
The word "indestructible" is associated with this level of motivation. When we look at each other, we do not just see another person with all sorts of weaknesses and strengths. We see each person as having wisdom-the wisdom of individual realization and equanimity. This is the Vajrayana attitude. We could say that in taking this attitude, we are just pretending that the world is a sacred place in which phenomena appear as gods and goddesses. And we are pretending, in the sense that we are projecting our intention to see it this way. But the Vajrayana teachings are saying that, fundamentally, this great purity and great equality-in the Shambhala teachings, "basic goodness"-is the ground nature of everything. The teachings are telling us that if we see it this way, we will experience great wisdom and great bliss.
In order to experience this profound wisdom, our mind needs to be subtle. It can't be thick with negative emotions like anger, desire and pride. These emotions are like heavy clouds that keep us from seeing the sky. Our mind needs to be stable, free from distraction and discursiveness. It is not the approach of the Vajrayana to indulge in a wild mind, saying that it's all wisdom.
Vajrayana is said to be a quick, difficult and dangerous path to enlightenment. It can be a quick path if we rely on the appropriate teacher to introduce us to the proper attitude and to give us instruction so that we don't waste time wandering about. The difficulty is maintaining this view day and night. The danger lies in not believing or trusting the sacredness. We see it as silly at best. Then we lose respect, and engage in anger and self-indulgence.
Vajrayana Motivation and the Notion of Mandala
The Vajrayana motivation is represented by the mandala. The world is a perfect mandala. It is center and fringe. The principle deity is in the center, surrounded by the retinue, the protectors and the landscape. Everything within that display has equal value, but it is all radiating from a center. The guru is the same as the deity, the deity is the same as the retinue, and the mandala is the same as the environment, so it is all perfect in that way. There is no separation. This implies that it never strays from its original ground of understanding-innate wisdom. In Vajrayana practice, we are learning to see the world this way.
Right now, it may seem that we live on uneven terrain; we have to walk up and we have to walk down. It is very painful-hot and cold and so forth. You may ask, "Is that perfect?" Looking at it from our usual perspective-no, it's not perfect. In fact, it's samsara, where beings have the dualistic view of up and down, of self and other. To someone with the Vajrayana attitude, however, this is the perfect abode of the Buddha. The consciousness that is in this abode sees no separation from its environment.
The Vajrayana is called the imperial lineage, the crown jewel. This refers to the center of the mandala radiating out like the sun. In the mandala, we have the five completely, perfectly endowed qualities-the right teacher, the right teachings, the right retinue, the right time, the right place. As such, it is the body, speech, mind, noble qualities and activity of the Buddha. From beginningless time, we have never strayed from this basic ground, the complete union of purity and equality.
Two kinds of beings, you could say, look at this self-arising mandala. One sees the qualities of the ground nature, recognizing it as the body, speech, mind and action of the Buddha-and therefore ourselves. That person is seeing the absolute inseparable from the relative. The other being looks at this situation and says, "That's a chair, that's a table, that's my stuff and that's your stuff. Here is my mother and here is my father." Through that misunderstanding-that ignorance-the second being is not able to recognize the ground nature. That sets off the series of events that eventually leads us to have consciousnesses, to have the six senses, and to once again arise in samsara.
Great purity is being able to recognize ourselves, the basis of our consciousness, and our environment, as the completely pure mandala. This is how a buddha sees things. Great equality is the notion that we have overcome duality. We're no longer dividing the world up in terms of "mine" and "yours." There is no conceptualization taking place; there is an equality to everything, without fixation. It is beyond pure and impure, good and bad. It is hard to go directly to this understanding.
When we create a mandala in Vajrayana practice, we are practicing this view by using what we have-conceptual mind. We are imagining ourselves as the deity-the symbol of purity and equality. Since it is difficult to understand the absolute truth directly, we have to pretend. In visualizing ourselves as Manjushri or Vajrayogini, our mind is mimicking the truth. When we're seeing ourselves in that way, we are visualizing ourselves and the world in accordance with our true nature.
The Relationship between Motivation and Confidence
In connecting with bodhichitta, we discover that compassion and lovingkindness are always present in our mind and heart, and we cultivate confidence in that. In a similar way, Vajrayana practice is about recognizing, understanding and having confidence in wisdom. We are cultivating confidence that wisdom already exists in our mind and body. It is always intact and always perfect, no matter what state of mind we are in. When we meditate, there is a point where it actually shines out.
There is a direct relationship between motivation and confidence. Our motivation is to see that wisdom itself is in every single situation-that the causes and conditions for total enlightenment are already here. Whether it's physical appearances like the four elements, or mental events like thoughts and emotions, if we have confidence that the true nature of our mind is wisdom, that awareness will be reflected in all phenomena. That's the notion of great bliss.
The Vajrayana view is not a mental trick. It is self-knowing. We are talking about sacredness-how the world actually is. From the perspective of practice, this is the most direct way to enlightenment-the perfect way-because we are seeing things just as they are. There's no intermediate step.
Before we can see wisdom directly in whatever appearances arise, however, we must know what wisdom is. That's why we train in the Hinayana and the Mahayana. The more we have worked with our mind, the more motivated we are, the easier it is for us to recognize wisdom. That's how we gain confidence in this view. Otherwise, we are always thinking that wisdom has to be stuck on us like a sticker. We think we have to get it from somewhere else, or that it is short-lived-"Yes, I believe that I have wisdom, but it only comes in half-seconds."
The directness of the Vajrayana is also its danger. If we do not understand the meaning of wisdom, and we start thinking that it's fine to indulge kleshas-negative emotions-because it's all wisdom, then, out of ignorance, we are just digging ourselves more deeply into samsara. We've taken the dharma and turned it into poison. When we're sitting here with our own particular emotions coming up, what is the instruction of the Vajrayana teachings? It is not to abandon the true nature of our mind. It is to dwell in basic goodness, beyond concept. The instruction is to relax. Don't tamper. Don't manipulate. Don't create.
We hold this view by knowing what the essence of phenomena really is-the union of appearance and emptiness, great purity and great equality. If we can hold that view, we are free from the flow of the whole situation and we will not fall into the lower realms.
As we begin to work with our mind in the Vajrayana practices, we are learning a very important skill-how to mix the flour of our mind with the water of our attitude and create the dough of enlightenment. The recipe won't work with only the flour or only the water; the two of them have to work together. Our motivation has to permeate the whole situation. It's a simple point that we often overlook. Then, when we are a few steps down the path, we notice that our practice isn't working. That happens for one very simple reason-it didn't start out the right way. We did not take the right approach. In tantra it is said that the right motivation regarding who you are, what the practice is, and what the point of doing it is, guarantees that the practice will work. With this attitude, the practice has never not worked for anybody. If it doesn't work for us, it's because we haven't fulfilled one of these requirements.
When people tell me that their practice isn't working, I find what they are saying very strange, because-working or not working-there is no practice, really. It is all created. It is all in your mind. In fact, it is all your mind. Working with ourselves-engaging with our mind-is not about depending on a situation, it is about depending on our ability to wake up. We have to want to wake up. This point is key.
As Vajrayana practitioners, we enter a different way of thinking. We try to break up our conventional view of the world and see it as it is-sacred. When we go through a period of trying to understand this practice, it's good to ask for blessings. In supplicating Padmasambhava-who brought this tradition to Tibet in the eighth century-we aren't praying because of a conviction of original sin, but because of the knowledge that we have purity, and that we need help to understand our nature. We need blessing and support to give us confidence to recognize it-to sit here and rest in basic goodness. Blessings are somebody telling us that we can do it.
Vajrayana is celebrating life because it is worth celebrating. We are realizing that every moment, every day, is special. Regarding life as simply something to get through obstructs this view. If things become ordinary or dull, it's because we have forgotten who we are. We have been seduced into laziness. We've lost confidence in the sacredness.
Holding the Vajrayana attitude is not being manic-it is being awake. It is knowing the potential of every moment. We are buddhas with a mind of equality, which is understanding that one moment is no more sacred than the next. There are no good days or bad days in Vajrayana. It is beyond that; it is perfect. That's why it is called great perfection.
Padmasambhava gave us vital instructions as to how Vajrayana practitioners should conduct themselves. Our mind should be as vast and open as the sky, and our actions like sesame seeds. This means that we should respect karma-accomplishing virtue and abandoning nonvirtue. In short, we should be kind to ourselves and loving towards others. This comes from the motivation of appreciating the complete sacredness of the world.
Although Padmasambhava is no longer with us in flesh and blood, he is still very much in the presence of our mindstream, because he has never departed from the ground nature. He is available to give us the best kind of help-the help of direct wisdom. He can give us the insight to recognize and penetrate thought, to understand what's happening, to understand klesha and karma. The notion of this kind of transmission is that it helps us bridge the gap between relative and absolute, between appearances and the ground nature, which is wisdom. Wisdom comes down to knowing what's going on. When we can see ordinary appearances as the ground nature, just like the Buddha, we wake up.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Buddhist and Shambhala lineages of his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He is the author of Turning Your Mind into an Ally.
Has to Change":
Blacks in American Buddhism
by Lawrence Pintak
Jan Willis was feeling euphoric. Sitting in the basement of a church in London's impoverished East End last summer, she looked around and realized that of the 40-odd people in the room, 31 were black.
"Black Buddhists!" she exclaims at the memory. "In 25 years in Buddhism, I had never been in such a sangha. I felt so high. It was great!"
For Willis and the handful of African-American Buddhist teachers now beginning to speak out, Buddhism in America has been a homogeneous world inhabited largely by upper-middle-class whites.
"There are a lot of black Buddhists who are in the closet. They just don't feel comfortable being part of the great white sangha," says Insight Meditation teacher Ralph Steele. "One of the most common phrases I hear from young black Buddhists when they do step out into the white Buddhist sangha is that they feel uncomfortable."
Through the eyes of African-American teachers like Shu Shin priest Joseph Jarman, white Buddhist America is largely blind to the existence of a black sangha. That was driven home to him at last year's Buddhism in America conference. "People there had never known there were African-American Buddhist priests and educators in this country; they just never appear," he recalls. "That was like opening another door."
For Willis, Steele and Jarman, their journeys as Buddhists have been part of a larger journey of emerging from the shadows of racial prejudice. They continue to deal with it, subtly and not so subtly, both in the greater society and within the American Buddhist world.
The world that Jan Willis experienced as a barefoot little girl playing in the dusty alleys of an Alabama mining camp in the mid-1950's was carefully divided into black and white. The border lay just a few blocks from where she lived, where the white cottages began. Forbidden territory. Stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Klan's shadow lay heavy over the hamlet where Willis was born and raised, a tangible presence even to a little girl. She saw firsthand the beatings and other punishments meted out to blacks who stepped out of line-those who committed transgressions like accidentally stepping on white-owned property while walking to school or the grocery store, with its "white" and "colored" water fountains. If she had any doubts about her place in the world, they were consumed in the flames of the cross the Klan ignited on her front lawn one terrifying night, as Willis, her sister and her mother cowered in their home waiting to die.
The bomb they expected that night never came, but the Klan's constant threats and intimidation took their toll. "This unimaginable psychic terror crippled my self-esteem and the self-esteem of many black people," Willis would write years later in her book, Dreaming Me: An African-American Woman's Spiritual Journey. "I am witness to its scars."
In her search for healing, she would march with Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, take part in the armed takeover of the Cornell student union building by militant blacks, and ultimately find her way to the hut of a gentle Tibetan monk in the hills outside Kathmandu. From a Buddhist perspective, it would be said that a combination of karma and auspicious coincidence brought Willis to the doorstep of Lama Yeshe Thubten, the teacher who would become her root guru. However, for most African-Americans, she believes, lack of money keeps the door to the dharma firmly shut.
"There are far too few people of color in Buddhist centers and retreats, in part because of the nature of where the retreats are and the fact that they cost money," says Willis, now one of the nation's leading Buddhist academics. "It's about class. Working class people can't take a month off to go on retreat.
is a commodity like everything else in the States," the Wesleyan University
professor of religion adds. "Trungpa Rinpoche talked about 'spiritual materialism.'
You can choose among hundreds of different traditions and lineages in the spiritual
supermarket, and then you pay.
"That's part of why Soka Gakkai has had success," she says of the Japanese Pure Land organization, which counts many blacks among its members. "They're in the cities, they've tried so hard to bend over backwards to assimilate with American holidays and they have a simple ritual." The same, Willis continues, is true of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, the group she met with in Britain. But in the American sanghas of the more traditional Buddhist lineages, blacks are largely absent.
Ralph Steele has also begun to tackle prejudice and exclusion within the sangha.
"Diversity," he says, "is a magic word here in America, but no one has been tackling diversity on a cultural basis in Buddhism." The New Mexico-based teacher wrote a letter last year to 25 leading American Buddhists calling for a greater emphasis on inclusion. "Our sangha will end up being like the Christian Church-there will be a white Buddhist sangha, a black Buddhist sangha, an Hispanic Buddhist sangha-if we don't begin to do something about bringing Buddhism into the whole of an American sangha."
Spirituality runs in Ralph Steele's blood. The grandson of a minister, Steele's family has run a church for the past 150 years. A devout Christian upbringing is one of the things that Steele shares with Willis and Jarman-and the vast majority of African-Americans.
He also shares with them the experience of living as an outsider. Steele grew up on Pawleys Island, a then-isolated speck of land off the South Carolina coast populated by freed slaves from Sierra Leone. Steele grew up speaking Gullah, a Creole language formed from Elizabethan English and African dialects. He was 12 years old before he spoke English.
"It has always been a practicing Christian community," he said. "What that means is that when some Christians elsewhere started saying they were 'born again,' that never happened there because no one ever left Christ."
An Army brat, Steele's first exposure
to the dharma came during his high school years in Japan, when he began to study
martial arts. He remembers the day his instructor leaped up and kicked the rim
of a basketball hoop.
"That's when my life began to change," he says. "Right then I knew that life was different from how you see things."
Like so many Vietnam veterans, Steele was nearly destroyed by the war. Along with physical and psychic scars, Steele brought home an addiction to heroin and a five-pack-a-day cigarette habit. He credits devotion to his martial arts teacher and to the discipline of martial arts practice with getting him through.
"It wasn't the martial arts itself," he says. "It was the teacher, the trust in the teacher." Back in the States, Steele enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz and signed up for a course on Buddhism-taught by a young black professor named Jan Willis. "I was pretty tough on him," Willis reports without elaboration.
Among the things he learned from her were techniques of meditation from the Tibetan tradition. "That helped, because I was simultaneously going down to Palo Alto VA hospital to deal with flashbacks," he says. "Meditation allowed me to begin to get some balance."
His Christian connection still strong, Steele would go on frequent meditation retreats at a Catholic hermitage in Big Sur, and, for a time, even considered joining the order. But his link with Buddhism was cemented when Willis went on sabbatical and Lama Thubten Yeshe came to teach in her place at UC-Santa Cruz. Not long after, the 16th Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, came to town: "I went on a one-week retreat to prepare to meet him. When I went up to get his blessing, we had this exchange: I gave him a rosary and he gave me refuge."
psychotherapist, Steele runs the Life Transition Institute in Santa Fe, a center
built around the body-mind meditation practices pioneered by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn.
But Steele had several stops en route to New Mexico. He practiced briefly in Seattle,
using Buddhist psychotherapy techniques, but he began to receive death threats
and left for Portland, Oregon, where he spent many months with the renowned Tibetan
teacher Kalu Rinpoche. In those days, the idea of teaching Buddhism never crossed
Steele's mind. But then, nine years ago at a Metta retreat with Joseph Goldstein,
co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), Steele looked around and realized
that he and one Vietnamese practitioner were the only non-whites in the crowd.
Steele recalls that he said, "Joseph, something has to change," to which
Goldstein replied, "Yes, but for now just do the practice."
Steele did. But eventually, during a retreat in Santa Fe, he told Jack Kornfield, another IMS co-founder, that he was ready to teach. "I saw myself starting to become a closet practitioner, and I didn't want to do that," he says now. And how does his Christian family back on Pawleys Island take his new role? "They all accept what I do. People walk their practice there. They have a deep understanding of what practice is."
Not everyone involved in mainstream Buddhism is sitting with hands folded in their laps when it comes to diversifying the sangha. Spirit Rock in Woodacre, California, for example, is opening a new center in the heart of Oakland. Ralph Steele sees such steps as positive, but not enough. "More people are speaking it than actually doing anything," he says sadly. Where efforts are being made, the transition is not always easy. Steele recalls a diversity training day at Spirit Rock when discussion turned to the idea of proactively seeking out Buddhists of color. "They got the message that their sangha wouldn't be the same and they got scared," he remembers. "The reaction was: 'I don't know if I could handle that kind of shift.' They had to sit with that and assimilate it."
So where are the black Buddhists, if not in the sanghas of the mainstream schools? Robina Courtin, an Australian nun who heads a dharma prison project, has a ready answer: "They are all in prison."
Joseph Jarman, whose own son is behind bars, reluctantly agrees. "The vast majority of them are." The reason, he says, is that only in prison do many African-Americans encounter the dharma. "In our culture, many people commit crimes because of psychological perspectives of the Devil or some negative energy overtaking them," says Jarman, who runs a martial arts dojo and leads a multicultural sangha in Brooklyn. "Buddhism doesn't have those perspectives, but instead offers tools for dealing with non-positive energy."
Jarman has firsthand knowledge of those tools. In the late 1950's, he served in a secret U.S. Army Special Forces unit in Southeast Asia. The experience was so traumatic that for a year after his return he was literally mute. "I was in a negative space-a super-negative space-filled with depression and completely alienated from society," he recalls. "I was going to a library daily and not speaking, and one day, the librarian, this old man, gave me this book and said it was the teachings of the Buddha."
Shortly after, as he began to recover
at a Milwaukee hospital, Jarman met the Japanese priest who would become his teacher:
"I said, 'Hello,' and he said, 'I give you ten thousand years and then I
will kill you,' and I said, 'O.K.'"
A month after that enigmatic encounter, Jarman, a fifth-degree black belt Aikido master, was invited to a karate demonstration at a nearby Buddhist temple. "And who is there, but this guy. After that, I began to go there once a week." The teachings, Jarman says, helped him to transform his image of himself and move beyond the anger and suffering to which he had clung since Southeast Asia. He would go on to become a successful jazz musician, retiring in 1993 from the renowned Art Ensemble of Chicago.
In spite of the marginalization of blacks in the American sangha, Willis believes that Buddhism can offer the kinds of transformation that she-and Steele and Jarman-have experienced to other African-Americans.
"Buddhism offers a method for helping us improve our self-esteem, because the legacy of slavery and racism is so heavy," says Willis, who describes her autobiography as a narrative about self-esteem. "It's something people don't want to talk about but that all of us feel the weight of."
Willis came to the dharma at the height of the civil rights movement in the sixties, eventually choosing a fellowship to study Buddhism in Asia over an invitation to join the Black Panthers. Soon after she met Lama Yeshe, who offered the angry young activist an entirely new perspective on herself. "That's what Lama Yeshe took 15 years doing, transforming me. It took that long," she says with a laugh, then continues, imitating her teacher's broken English: "'You O.K. You mind pure. You quick intellect.' All the time, he'd tell people, 'Be strong like this woman.' I think we can all use that."
In particular, the black students who come to her angry, confused and uncomfortable in their own skins could benefit from this message of basic purity, she says. "I want them to know there are some methods out there for helping with self-confidence and self-esteem," says Willis. "I truly believe that Buddhism-especially tantric Buddhism, because visualization is so central to the method-is something that can help us re-envision ourselves, help us put down this heavy weight we carry around with us."
Willis calls herself a "Baptist Buddhist." Growing up in the revival meeting tents of the Old South, she watched in awe as friends and relatives were swept up in spiritual frenzy. "Quite simply," she wrote in Dreaming Me, "nothing scared me more than black women engaged, as good feeling Christians, in the activity known as 'shouting.'" But it was in just such a setting that the diminutive 14 year old "found Jesus" and was baptized in a water tank out behind the church. On that day, Willis first felt herself engulfed in spiritual love as friends and family reached out to welcome her into the bosom of the church.
"These hands were wondrous things. They were like the Holy opening its arms to me. This love, in a flash, dissolved all my fears. These hands took me completely beyond myself. They reached out with equanimity toward all," she writes in the book. "For the first time, I felt that I belonged to a family as big as humankind itself; and yet even bigger than that, taking in all creatures who breathed and cried and struggled and sang."
Years later, meditating on a Himalayan mountain, she would again touch that equanimity and recognize the common roots of love and compassion that link the Christianity into which she was born and the Buddhism she had embraced. Still, it was with some trepidation that she returned to Alabama with her new-found beliefs, only to find her conviction that Buddhist meditation had much to offer African-Americans confirmed by none other than the pastor of the church where her father served as deacon.
"We Baptists could use some of these methods," she recalls him declaring. "It's one thing to say, 'Love thy neighbor.' It's a whole 'nother thing to do it." That, she says, holds true even for Buddhists: "I can't even love myself! So we're talking about transforming prejudices about others and about ourselves." Willis and colleague Marlise Bosch, a women's counselor in the Netherlands, are currently at work on a booklet containing a series of visualizations and exercises designed to help American Buddhists confront-and go beyond-their innate prejudices.
fear is there, and for any human being in this country to say they don't have
any issues with regard to another culture is absurd," says Ralph Steele,
who looks forward to teaching the exercises. "But when you sit in a room
and face off with other human beings, stuff is going to come up."
The foundation of Willis' booklet was laid at a series of workshops she held at the Vajrapani Institute, in which participants used drawings, visualizations and movement exercises to begin to recognize how they viewed those around them. "We started with awareness of our own prejudices, writing lists of what we thought the first time we saw someone in a wheelchair, a child with Down's Syndrome, an old person driving," Willis recalls. "Not one minute had gone by before the words discomfort, frustration, mistrust, anger and hatred came up."
In her early days in India, several lamas told Willis that she had been Tibetan in a past life. The patch of white in her hair, she was told, was a mark Tibet's dharma king, Trisong Detsen, conferred on those who had helped construct the great monastery at Samten. If that were true, she wondered, why was she reborn in the body of an African-American woman? Willis now thinks she has the answer.
you think of two more oppressed groups: to be a black woman in the Jim Crow South?"
she asks with a laugh. "I figured I was supposed to do something with this
life, I had no idea it was going to be this: developing meditations on transforming
prejudice. But that upbringing made sure I was familiar with it."
Earlier this year, Joseph Jarman sat in meditation beneath the Bodhi Tree, the site of the Buddha's enlightenment. It had been more than 40 years since he had first been exposed to the basic ideas of Buddhism. Now he was deep in a spiritual experience that he would forever treasure.
"I felt like I was floating," he recalls. "Even though I have meditated for 30 years, I never had that feeling. The energy was just like a barrel of water being poured down on you. It's the most positive energy I have ever felt." But there was something else about his visit to Bodhgaya that deeply struck the 63-year-old Chicago native: it was the energy of equality.
"People from all over the world come there and the most amazing thing was that every level of the human condition was right there without criticism and without conflict," he says. In earlier travels abroad, the acceptance that Jarman experienced highlighted the pervasive nature of prejudice among Buddhists in his native land. He had braced himself to encounter the same prejudice when he traveled to Japan in 1990 to be ordained at the main temple of his lineage in Kyoto. "I was on edge in the beginning, looking to see if they were going to say, 'This black guy is here, we better not eat with him.' But they all accepted me as one of them."
Still, neither Jarman nor the other black teachers I spoke to have any illusions that Buddhists elsewhere are free of prejudice. They know it's something Buddhism has struggled with since its earliest days. "The Buddha did address that, but he addressed it on the level of class differences," observes Steele, who encountered prejudice among Buddhists in Thailand and Burma during his year of study there. "Here, it is culture-the whites forgetting the issue of privilege-and that delusion causes things to go spinning off into unhealthy thinking such as racism. It's one culture interfering with another and that brings up lots of fear."
are all prejudiced," agrees Jan Willis. "We are all forming these judgments.
In Buddhist psychology we know about this, so let's do what we do best at Buddhist
centers: let's do some of these meditations that are specifically geared toward
helping us recognize-become mindful of-prejudices and transform them. I want us
to feel comfortable in our own skin. I think that's a starting place. Then we
can see we're all human beings, and then maybe we can stand in each other's shoes,"
The irony that practitioners who are striving to see beyond dualism find themselves viewing their own sangha in terms of black and white is not lost on the trio.
"We gotta crawl before we can walk," says Ralph Steele. "The dualism has to be looked at. You can't say, 'It's not there.' It's like looking at the four noble truths. There's dissatisfaction and the cause of it, how to stop it and the skills of addressing it. The sangha in America is sitting under the Bodhi Tree to be awakened on this issue, and it's going to have to happen on all different levels."
There is also, the three teachers agree, the issue of what-and how-to teach would-be American Buddhists, particularly those from among the African-American and other minority communities. Steele says he chose to concentrate on Theravada Buddhism-even though he studied under many revered Tibetan lamas-in part because of its simplicity. "It's like the Apple computer," he says. "User friendly."
argues that communicating the practice in a digestible form is only part of making
it accessible to African-Americans and other people of color. "One part of
accessibility is making it comprehensible. One part is making it affordable. One
part is making the centers in places where people can get to them. One is developing
things that don't require a month-long retreat.
"There have to be accommodations made. Otherwise it's going to remain a homogeneous group of people with means and free time," Willis warns. "And I think there is more to the message of Buddhism than that."
Adds Steele: "I would love to sit
in a retreat that is actually diversified. Some people say it will happen. I agree,
but I want to push it a little quicker so it can happen in this lifetime."
Lawrence Pintak is a freelance writer living in Princeton, Massachusetts.
Yidams - the Source of Accomplishments
Vienna, October 1987
The special methods of the Vajrayana aim at bringing the appearances, which we generally experience as impure, to a pure level. The central point of this transformation is the understanding that only on the relative level do all phenomena appear as we experience them. On the absolute level, they don't have any real existence - they are nothing but a dream, an illusion. If one understands the true essence of all things, this in itself becomes the experience of their purity.
One cannot transform impure experiences into pure ones just by reciting a mantra in order to change phenomena. It is also not through some special substances possessing such powers, or through offerings to some gods who in return help us. All this has nothing to do with what is happening in the Vajrayana. What it is all about is developing the understanding that the world of appearances does not present itself as confusion; it is our clinging to things which brings up confusion. In order to experience the purity of all things, there is nothing more to do than to understand that on the relative level things appear due to various conditions and due to dependent occurrence, but on the absolute level they are not truly existent. These two aspects are not separate from each other.
What is meant by "impure appearances" or "pure appearances?" "Impure" refers to our belief that things are real and exist independently from each other. The belief that things are truly existent is an extreme view which is not correct because the true nature of all things is emptiness. If one wants to recognize the emptiness of all phenomena one cannot just accept what one is told. In fact, it would be very difficult to understand the true nature of things simply by talking or hearing about it.
It is not the mere appearance of things which brings about confusion, it is the way we relate to things and cling to them as being real. Because things in themselves are empty, they are beyond the categories of arising and ceasing. The fact that they appear is the aspect of unobstructed self-expression. The various methods of the Vajrayana are used in order to understand that.
For the practice of the Vajrayana, one needs the view that things only appear on the relative level but in their true nature they are not really existent. Nevertheless, one still believes things are real. These are the two different perspectives, and what it is all about is to connect both of them so that they are not constantly contradicting each other. The different Vajrayana methods, as for example the meditation on Buddha aspects (Tib.: yidam, lit.: mind-bond) and mantras are used to bring these apparent contradictions to an end.
Among the "three roots" of the Vajrayana - lama, yidam and protector - it is the lama who is the most important; yidam and protector are manifestations of the lama. The mind of the lama is the Dharmakaya, the emptiness of space. The yidams appear out of it as an expression of the mind's inherent compassion and clarity. Thus they do not have the kind of true existence as is attributed to worldly gods.
The reason that the yidams appear in manifold forms, for example peaceful and wrathful, is that the disciples have different attitudes, views and aspirations. In order to meet these different wishes, there are different appearances of the yidams as an expression of the compassion of the lama. The yidams also appear in so many different ways in order to symbolize that the whole spectrum of our clinging to impure appearances is purified.
Now, we have a dualistic perception and are always thinking in dualistic categories. Therefore, we are not able to relate to the ultimate yidam and we need something which represents him. The many forms of the yidams which we know from pictures are in that form symbols for the ultimate yidam. The meditation on the yidam deities is divided into two phases, the so called developing phase (Tib.: Kjerim) and the completion phase (Tib.: Dsogrim). The meaning of it is as follows.
All appearances arise in a mutual dependence. Something arises at a certain time, stays for a while and disappears again. The two phases of meditation are used in order to symbolize that the principle of arising and disappearing is carried on to a pure level. The arising of a deity symbolizes that the clinging to the arising of the commonly experienced world is purified. The developing phases have different elements: first one visualizes oneself as the deity, then one visualizes the deity in the space in front of oneself, one makes offerings and praises, etc. The reason that one visualizes oneself first as the yidam is the following: we all consider ourselves as being very important. If now somebody tells us, "You are not really existent," then this is difficult for us to understand and to accept. In the developing phase one deals with it in a way that one does not think about whether one exists or not, but one simply disregards this question and visualizes oneself in the form of the deity. If one visualizes oneself as the deity, while being aware that the yidam is an expression of complete purity, the clinging to an "I" disappears naturally.
The visualization of the yidam in space in front of oneself works in a similar way. Now we cling to all the outer objects we perceive. In the developing phase one imagines the whole outer world as the palace of the yidam. The yidam is in the middle of the palace, and all beings appear in the form of the yidam. By visualizing the impure appearances in their pure form one overcomes the clinging to them.
Therefore, it is important to understand that all the elements of the developing phase have a symbolic content. Without this understanding, for example believing the deity to be truly existent, one just confuses oneself in the meditation and even increases the illusion. If one uses the various developing and completion phases of the yidams, it is important to know the meaning of their different forms. Why, for example, does one visualize 16 arms, four legs, etc., if two are actually enough? To believe that we must visualize this because the yidams actually look like this would be a misconception. To believe in the true existence of the yidam is a little bit ridiculous and very confusing. Instead of that, one should understand that there is something which is purified and something which is a method of purification. The visualization of an yidam with four arms, for example, is a symbol of purifying our general way of experiencing things in so-called fourfold categories. For example the four elements and everything else we believe to appear in a fourfold manner. The three eyes of a yidam symbolize the overcoming of our way of thinking in threefold categories. For example the three times. The same applies to all the other details of the deity; all of them have the meaning to purify our common clinging to the world of our experiences.
Without this understanding, one ends up in the meditation full of misconceptions. One either holds things to be true or to be not existent at all. That is how one enters an entirely wrong path, which does not have anything to do with Vajrayana or Buddhism as such. To believe the yidams to be truly existent and not understand that they are symbols of the purification of our conceptual ideas about the experienced world only increases concepts further. It has the effect that the illusions, which one already has, become stronger, which can then lead to the experience of fear during the meditation or to the appearance of thoughts which one does not know how to deal with. Therefore, it is so important in the meditation practice, especially in the Vajrayana, to acquire the right view.
How does this right view look? It is the understanding that the relative appearance of things and their ultimate reality are a unity, that they are not separate from each other and not contradicting each other.
The developing phases of the yidam-deities correspond to the relative truth, the way things appear. The completion phases correspond to the principle that ultimately things are not truly existent. At the same time one needs the understanding that both form a unity.
The completion phases are used to avoid falling into the extreme view of believing things to be truly existent. The developing phases avert the extreme view of believing things to not exist at all, to only be empty. The understanding that both form a unity gives rise to the understanding that everything is the union of joy and emptiness. By meditating in this way, through the application of the yidam practice, the relative and the ultimate achievements can be obtained. In that sense, the yidam is called "the root of accomplishments."
The protectors, "the root of activity", can bee seen as the manifold expression of the yidams, which again are the expression of the Dharmadhatu mind of the lama. The meaning of the protectors, since the Vajrayana is a very profound path, is to protect one from the many conflicting circumstances and hindrances which may appear while being on that path. One relies on the protectors to pacify and eliminate these hindrances. Yidams and protectors are very important in the Vajrayana, however the lama, the root of blessing, is the most important element. The reason is that only through the lama can blessing and inspiration enter ones own mindstream.
All elements which are used on the Vajrayana path have a profound meaning. The body of the yidam is the unity of appearance and emptiness, the mantra is the unity of sound and emptiness, and the mind is the unity of awareness and emptiness. If one applies these elements to one's own practice, by abiding completely in this awareness, one can let the pride of the deity arise in oneself. But in order to do so one has to understand the real meaning of these things. It is not about simply visualizing oneself as the deity, because by the mere visualization one does not achieve this understanding.
Practitioners have to understand three things. The view is that both kinds of reality make up an inseparable unity. For the path, the understanding that method and wisdom are a unity is important. Concerning the fruit, one needs the understanding that the two kayas which are achieved are a unity. Especially when practicing Mahamudra or Maha Ati, the understanding of these three elements is very important. Otherwise, one cannot realize the fruit through this practice.
What about the so called "ultimate yidam"? Chenrezig (Loving Eyes) for example appears in a very specific form, with four arms, etc. Nevertheless, this is not the ultimate aspect of this yidam; it is just the way he appears. The ultimate yidam is the awareness that Chenrezig's expression is the compassion of all Buddhas.
The form Dorje Phagmo (Diamond Sow) has is a symbolic form. The ultimate Dorje Phagmo is that the space of phenomena is the highest transcendent wisdom, the mother of all Buddhas which gives rise to all Buddhas. She is the paramita of wisdom.
Kagyu Life International, No.4, 1995
Copyright ©1995 Kamtsang Choling USA