The First Rule About Fight Club…

“Until you perfect the power of inner realization’s noble qualities, it is inappropriate to tell whomever you meet the stories of your spiritual experiences. Keep your mouth shut.” Dudjom Rinpoche

The question any participant on the path faces is whether or not to explain, tell, or provide information about experiences on the path.  Each individual’s experience is their own and the Ngondro / Vajrayana path is the “secret” mantrayana and as a result needs to remain hidden, private, sacred.

For years I struggled with this concept.  As a teacher of History and Philosophy, it runs counter to accepted notions of teaching information to hide historical facts from students.  Hidden knowledge is often abused to keep those in power powerful.  Thus opening discussions of the past and exposing the destructive and unifying qualities of power in Historical context is not just important, it is vital for human societies.  Does a religious/spiritual system meet those same expectations?

When describing personal experience and knowledge, no longer are we basing our descriptions on vetted historical or cultural information.  Once one crosses the line between research-based information and personal experience, the information is blurred and the factual nature of the comments are untestable.  In effect, as truthful or accurate as I might be, we are talking about my impressions, ideas, and concepts in a way that no one can verify.

So, where is the line that Dudjom Rinpoche talked about?  What can I not share and still be someone who can comment on my experience in a way that might (might) offer some insight to a reader?

First and foremost, I am not an expert in this knowledge and as such cannot communicate information about practice as “the” practice.  While I have training, my training does not align with historical training of lamas for centuries.  As flawed as that system might or might not be, I cannot hold claim to knowledge that I can then communicate to folks about the practice, Buddhism, or whatever.

What I can do is explain experience in a way that offers some insight into how someone struggles through and finds direction in a practice.  Much like I can talk about and coach basketball or teach photography or history or how to read a document, I can offer insights into experience that can be guides.  Ultimately, those guides are as useful as someone perceives them to be.  Acknowledging that I am not expert, savant or realized being is the first step in making sure that folks who read my thoughts are not deluded into thinking I have stumbled on a path.

The reality is that I am writing down these thoughts for me, more than anything else.  Whether they are read for not is not a part of my experience.  These words really are just a place for me to work through my ideas and concepts.  As simple as that. (YEs, we could deconstruct the previous statements….please do, if you like)

When the Water Rushes In…

Yea, so entering the stream is such a pleasant way to describe starting on an intensive Buddhist practice.  The very notion of stepping, gently, delicately into a meandering stream is something that brings images of graceful movements and gentle breezes.  Like you exhale a collective sigh into the knowing bliss of existence.  Ahhhhhh.

By contrast, my entry into the stream was more like jumping into a raging torrent, immediately being swept along, grabbing desperately at a rock or tree limb extending into the water, hoping that I can grab the branch just before I am swept downstream into nothingness.  Yea, it’s like that. Beginning the Ngondro practice is not, as Dzongsar Jamyang Khentsye says, at all about happiness.  In fact, happiness as I imagine it, does not represent what Ngondro is all about.  The practice is tense, time-consuming, complicated, difficult to understand, and feels forced and frustrating most of the time.

I began the process of Ngondro by throwing myself into memorizing the Tibetan chants as quickly as I could.  That was 2004.  I’m still trying to memorize some of those chants and, being not part of a sangha in my town, have trouble just keeping the sounds in my head for any length of time.  My frustration grew and anger sprouted when I was trying to memorize Invoking the Lama, a basic mantra on the path.  To start, I quickly memorized the English translation and can recite that at a moment’s notice.  The Tibetan was so much harder to grasp.  I went over and over the lines, one at a time.  Could I ever get it, I asked myself?  I had the chant on CD and listened intently….the problem for me was that the sound was average at best and even though I was listening to a realized master, I could not make out some of the sounds.  I listened and listened….take this ONE line: Lama Khyen (Oh lama, care for me)…the “sound” of the words comes across as “lama jen-oh, lama jen-oh….” WHAT!

Of course, those of us who have studied languages other than our own understand that sounds vary depending on the language, AND I struggled to grasp the transliteration and the sounds associated with the language.  Honestly, I fought with the language, tried to find other sources for the mantra and kept trying to get it.

Then, I stopped fighting.  The struggle, I found, was preventing me from understanding the heart of Ngondro.  To put it nicely, I was looking at the trees and could not see the forest.  The Ngondro teachings offer a specific path to follow AND encourage you to see the big picture, at the same time.  The problem I had was simply this: I focused so narrowly on the goal of memorizing a chant that I was missing the ultimate goal: that my approach was to benefit all beings through compassion.  If I could create that compassion and recognize that we all suffer and struggle in our lives, then the way forward would, in a sense, fall into place.  However, that approach also meant compassion for my own practice!

I realized that to progress I had to see myself with the same compassion as those I professed to help with the practice.  So, I had to keep going without the internal struggle of fighting with myself….or, rather, fighting with my ego for NOT getting the chant as quickly as I wanted.

Again with the Ego!  Yea, so that was it.  The ego mind, as I had been told , resisted the whole process of Ngondro because, in essence, the Ngondro is all about dissolving ego!  And here’s the WEIRD: my ego mind was fighting the process of Ngondro and I didn’t even know it.  My mind or, rather, ego mind, resisted because I (whoever I was at that moment) was trying to destroy it.

I know, it’s hard to fathom that concept, right?  That something called “ego” in your mind is keeping you from removing it as a piece of your mind.  Whoa.   I encountered, in my experience, one of the strangest things I have ever experienced; that thoughts, emotions are constantly manipulating you….the problem is, what is “me” or “self”?  Am I something different from ego?  As it turns out, this revelation was profound. I began to see my mind in discreet parts….an ego mind that fought for control over thoughts and emotions….a rational construct that used thoughts and emotions as its own rational construct….even thought that “rational” thought was anything but rational!

I’m in pretty deep right now, so I think I’ll let that piece of the story sit for a while.  I’ll only say that the above realization blew open my mind, heart and practice.

Entering the Stream

I remember a Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode in which the Security Officer, Odo, a changeling, returned to his home planet to become one with his people.  Odo had the ability to blend into any situation by changing his looks.  On his home world, Odo merged with his people into a stream of these beings.

In a funny way, entering the stream of Buddhist teachings is much like the idea of merging one’s mind with the mind-stream of teachings.  Imagine that all Buddhist teachers share a common heritage traced back to the Buddha Shakyamuni.  Imagine, too, that the mind of the Buddha, an awakened mind, is a singular construct.  Once one achieves the awakened state one is literally in the same state or same mind as the Buddha.

What fascinates me about that idea is that Hindu thought supported the idea that all beings are one with atman which is an extension of the Brahman state of being.  In essence, we are, at our core, all connected and the same. (A gross simplification, here)

As I put more energy and time into practice, I started to connect to the idea that Buddhist teachings are very much like a stream; a stream of thought and ideas traced back to the Buddha and his enlightenment.  While Buddhism itself is not a singular idea or concept, the idea that teachers can trace their connection to teachings through a lineage that extends far into the past is fascinating in and of itself.

And, as I am sure you read, I was drawn to the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism more so that those of Zen or other groups.  I think it is because I liked the path as laid down by the so-called second Buddha, Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche.  This particular branch of Buddhism includes a rich history and a path that follows a proscribed set of teachings beginning with the preliminary practices known as Ngondro.

Kindly, the Rigpa organization lays out this path in a series of courses that lead to the accomplishment of Ngondro and then on to other more specialized paths.  It was this path, Ngondro, and the teacher Sogyal Rinpoche that drew me into Buddhist teachings.

The thing that is fascinating about Rinpoche is that he states, clear, consistently, that he is a messenger for the teachings.  He offers the teachings in such a way that the instructions are relevant and meaningful.  I dove into these teachings and signed up for courses.  Each course is roughly 3 months long and introduces specific ideas about Buddhism and the various aspects of the teachings of the Buddha.  It took me more than three years of courses just to reach the Ngondro basics.

The brief instructions about Ngondro also can be found in Patrul Rinpoche’s book The Words of my Perfect Teacher.  In this text, Patrul Rinpoche presents the Ngondro practices in an easy-ish to understand set of teachings that lead to some comprehension of the path.  However, as you might guess, the teachings are a bit more complex than just reading a book.  Truly understanding the instructions takes a bit more investigation and the guidance of an experienced teacher.  As far as written material goes, their is also a guide to the book called A Guide to The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang.  The Rigpa course follow the teachings of these two books along with more pith instructions from other sources.



The Wonder of it All

At some point in the life I lived, I became curious.  Well, truth be told, I have always been curious in so many ways.  I want to know.  I’ve always wanted to know.  Wanting know and curiosity, however, are different.  The curiosity I mean is not really about knowing; it’s about being open to what is happening and not placing blame or judgement on the experience, the thought, the emotion, the moment.  To be curious is one step to becoming aware.  I don’t mean just self-aware, but aware of people, events, situations and accepting them for what they are in that moment you are aware.

Maybe what I really mean here is to be awake to the wonder of it all.  Without attaching a label, imagine that we can wonder at the remarkable qualities of an event, a tree, a person.  Wonder and curiosity go hand in hand; being curious, asking questions about something and then wondering about the reality of the moment, idea, or thing.

It’s that question of attachment that grabbed me as I eased back into Buddhist study in the Fall of 2004.  I found a place that offered some answers to the challenging questions rolling around in my mind.  I joined Rigpa, the international community of people studying under the tutelage of Sogyal Rinpoche and other teachers in the organization.  That cassette tape I bought back in the 90s and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying helped me explore Tibetan Buddhism in some detail.  I started by taking an online/at home class called The Path to Enlightenment.  The course was a wide-ranging overview of Tibetan Buddhism with some specific information thrown in about the historical Buddha and the teachings he brought to the world.

That first course included a VHS tape of teachings along with some audio of Rinpoche talking about various topics.  The course taught the basics of meditation.  How to sit, where to sit, when to sit, how long to sit, and even what it meant to sit.  The course took about two months to cover all of the material and during that time, I sat in meditation in the garage.  On one evening, as I sat on a cushion, my 2 1/2 year old daughter danced around me.  The teaching I had just finished said something like this: we will always find distractions in our lives and reasons not to meditate or focus.  Flies buzzing around, cars screaming down a street, people talking to each other.  The goal, Rinpoche said, was to make the noise a part of the meditation.  That the noise can be an object that helps you focus your mind.  Rather than a distraction, the noise, movement, whatever can be the source of meditation.  So, get INTO the noise.  As Rumi said in his poem, The Community of the Spirit, “be the noise”.

So, as my daughter danced around me, I was the dance.  I watched her dance and laugh as I sat, smiling at her silliness, feeling, in that moment, the sense of awareness that I missed.  That awareness came to me while my silly kid was dancing and hopping around.

And Awareness Has an End

Maintaining awareness is the hardest thing you can do.  I am not joking.  Physical labor, study, yelling at a partner, feeling hurt or injured, even facing death all pale in comparison to maintaining, for five minutes, awareness.  How can I possibly know this is true or accurate in any way?  Because I have faced all of these experiences in life (no, I have not died….but faced the reality of dying)

The thing is, not maintaining awareness is the easiest thing any one can do.  We do it naturally (if that is a thing)….we are almost always completely unaware.  Or we have partial awareness of what’s happening around us.  The awareness I’m talking about, however, is not about seeing and understanding a particular situation, it is knowing the cause and effect of all situations at all times.  Wait, what?

See how casually I dropped in “cause and effect”.  Yea, I did and here’s what I mean: awareness of ourselves begins with understanding how cause and effect works on us.  For example, why did you make that statement, say that thing to a friend or colleague?  Why did you not walk the dog, feed the bird, say I love you to a partner?  While these examples are mundane, the cause and effect understanding is key.  Do you know why you choose what you choose?

I’m not suggesting that we begin a deep analysis of what we do; going back and figuring out why we got a divorce ten years ago does not always help us understand ourselves or cause and effect.  All I am asking of myself is that I understand that cause and effect operate on me as a result of thoughts and emotions that course through my mind.

OK, so where does it all begin?  Where is the chicken or the egg in this story?  For me it’s ego.  I wish I had another word for the term but I think it serves as a good example.  Ego is the construct of thoughts and emotions that we assume is who we are.  I am Tom and the experiences I’ve had and the thoughts/emotions of my experiences make up who I am….or do they?  I argue that ego is the collective experience/thought/emotion of who we think we are.

Who we really are is something else entirely.  We are not the entirety of our collective experiences.  We, our self, does not even exist at all.  Bare with me.  The person we were at 3 years old, 10 years old, 20 years old or whenever has changed….we are in a constant state of change.  Have you ever experienced the moment when you think more than one thing about a situation?  You decide on a burrito when you wanted Thai food.  In fact, maybe you change in the very act of choosing to something completely different.  Our thoughts and emotions can change just like that.

Dzongar Jamyang Khentsye wrote something about this idea when he said that when we are not moved by incredible praise or severe criticism then we are free from the bounds of ego.  If we do not change in reaction to someone yelling at us or someone praising us, we are beyond the control of our ego-mind.  So, when someone yells at you about some act you failed to accomplish or test you didn’t pass, did you thoughts, emotions, or mood change?  If so, then the static so-called “self” is not only not static, it is constantly in a state of flux!

For me, awareness had its end.  After the powerful course on meditation and a few months of consistent practice, it faded.  By summer, my connection to awareness was pretty much gone.  I tried, desperately, to get it back; to return to the awareness I experienced and I absolutely could not get there.  Gone, Daddy, Gone.

Being has a Beginning

Ya, so being.  That’s a funny word, one that does not make much sense if we hear the word out of context.  People have said to me, “just be”; hell, I’ve used the phrase “just be” to myself and others.  The thing is, that is such a ridiculous phrase.  We are always just be-ing.  Implied in the phrase, “just be” is “just be still” and even more than that, “just let your mind be still”.  The phrase is often connected to the term or idea “mindfulness.”

Do you ever want to just say UGH when you hear the term or phrase mindfulness?  I think that kind of reaction to just hearing the word, overused and spun by a 1000 different practitioners of meditation or mindfulness, is tantamount to retching.  Our minds are ALREADY full.  Full of thoughts, ideas, future, past, present, more future, more past, more, more, MORE.  Goodness gracious our minds are full of so much crap that, in the words of Sogyal Rinpoche, “we don’t even know who the hell we are.”

From my perspective, I am sick to death of hearing folks preach “mindfulness” or “mindfulness meditation.”  On the road to Buddhism and on the path to being, I found that mindfulness is not it at all.  At. All.  What we need, what we want is awareness.  Awareness of our thoughts and emotions, our actions and non-actions.  We want to understand ourselves in a deep, substantive way.  In a way that brings us to a state of being that is as close to happiness as we can possibly imagine.

The truth is, or at least my truth is, that thoughts and emotions all prevent us from awareness.  Every single one of those illusory ideas that emerge in our brains keep us away from awareness….because we chase the thoughts, feelings, emotions, ideas, past, present, future all of the time.  We cannot stop.  Our minds whirl into activity at the slightest provocation…or even NO provocation.  Daydreaming starts, unprompted, in our minds to fill the space that is silent for a moment.

On my path, the beginning of being started on a cushion in a small room off of Old Pecos Trail in Santa Fe, New Mexico in early 2000.  No I did not continue a consistent meditation practice from that moment forward.  The thing is, what came to me was awareness….or at least a glimpse of it.  I saw what awareness was and is in our mind.

Once thoughts and emotions cease to grab your attention, awareness dawns much like the sun rising in the sky or the moon hovering over the landscape.  To get a sense of what I mean, close your eyes.  No, really.  Sit with your eyes closed.  How long does it take for a thought or idea to pop up? Instantly? A second?  Can you even measure the passage of time?  Try it.  Look at the clock, close your eyes and just sit there.  When you feel like it has been five minutes, open your eyes.  In my experiment in Eastern Philosophy classes I have taught, students commented that when they opened their eyes they were surprised to learn that they had been closed for less than a minute.  Time sped up in their mind, but the clock moved much more slowly.

When awareness dawns, a vast space opens in your mind.  Imagine standing on the edge of the plains in western Nebraska.  Near Scottsbluff, on a hilltop near the town, look east from that point across the expanse of the low rolling hills right at sunset.  That, for me, is what an aware mind is.  Quiet, still, expansive.  Like you can see forever….or, maybe, that you can see the infinite and sense it all around you.

Have you been there?

From Being Spacious to Not Being

If you can imagine a path in your head: a narrow, dirt trail winding between trees and bushes, grass and weeds, this image can represent the path to spaciousness and to cluttered, crowded space.  Just for a moment imagine walking on this tree-lined path, filled with bushes and shrubs, birds singing or tweeting, a slight breeze blowing through the trees, leaves rustling, sounds everywhere.

You are walking on that path through this verdant forest, searching for the opening beyond the trees; the grassy meadow that opens to the entire world around you.  As you walk, you notice that the forest gets more dense, closer and closer the trees grow to each other, the path becoming tighter and tighter.  You have to physically move around each tree or bush.  The leaves and branches start touching your arms, legs, hands, face.  You have to move those branches out of your way to get through.  The way forward becomes harder and harder to find.  Now, you have to push against the branches to find a way through.  The path beneath your feet is faint, almost gone, and as you push branches out of the way you come face to face with a tree trunk in your path.  Now, the way through is completely lost.

That story of the tree-lined path is a metaphor for how our minds become enmeshed in thoughts, feelings, emotions, reactions and actions of daily life.  The clear path to spaciousness, through meditation or simply non-reaction, becomes lost.  At some point, we are so far off the path that you don’t even remember that you were on the path in the first place.  We are lost in thoughts and feelings that all that we have in front of us is struggle.

That is the place I found myself in the Fall 1999.  For so many reasons, too many to cite here, I struggled with my own mind.  Everything thing had collapsed around me.  Externally, the world still spun, the work still happened, the relationships still moved.  And, in my mind I was truly lost.  I restarted my search.  Another trip to Borders (this time in Santa Fe, New Mexico), and and intense set of reading.  This time, I chose The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche,.  I read and understood very little of what I perused.  I understood the words, but the ideas seemed so distant, foreign to my mind.

Coincidentally, I suffered from a pain in my rear end.  My sciatic nerve was, apparently, acting up.  I searched for remedies in physical therapy and acupuncture.  My meeting with a Santa Fe acupuncturist placed me back on the path.  He taught a course called Full-Catastrophe Living from author John Cabot-Zinn.  The book and the course teach ways to understand body and mind.  It leads you gently onto the path of meditation.

The course was a revelation and brought me to intense, powerful insight into the workings of my own mind.  Through the course, I learned I could meditate, watching the breath(!) and sit for hours.  On one retreat, I sat for four hour blocks of time over the course of a day.    Then, during the last class, I experienced, first hand, spaciousness. During a guided meditation, my thoughts slowly subsided, I could hear the beating of my heart, the sound of my breath.  My mind cleared and, suddenly, with eyes closed and mind freed from thoughts, I experienced spaciousness.  In my mind I saw forever and, immediately started to laugh…a deep, rich laughter.  The sound was spontaneous and probably disturbed my fellow meditators.  I was there, in the moment, completely still.

Getting to that place in my mind and having that experience was so remarkable and, what I didn’t realize in that moment, so hard to reach.  My mind was prepared for the spaciousness in the class and through consistent meditation.  Without that structure, my mind collapsed in on itself, and I could not, for years, reach that place of spaciousness.

But I understood what Sogyal Rinpoche meant, finally, and I had a method to reach that spaciousness again.