It’s About Samsara (and not about Trump)

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So, I hesitated to even mention the word, the name of the President of the United States.  Simply put, making such a statement brings to mind different thoughts to different people and the very mention of the President’s name can create tension or excitement, thrills of victory or agony of defeat.  In those very feelings about the President is the source of this post on Samsara.  I capitalize the term here because it has particular meaning for me, right now, and this lesson I hope I can keep as the days turn into years.

I keep a hand-written journal and write in it as I practice my meditation or reading or study or whatever.  I’ve been pretty consistently writing over the past few years and the practice of writing has helped me think and process ideas.

In my journal this week, I responded to Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s thoughts about Samara in Not for Happiness: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices.  Khyentse writes, “Sentient beings, like silkworms, create their own traps and die in them.”  In essence, we create our own pain and suffering, our personal Samsara, and live in it until we die.  The decisions we make, the stories we tell, the jobs we have, the struggles we face, much of it is of our own making.  Unraveling that concept or idea is a key to gaining clarity of our own existence and awareness of the suffering of those around us.

As you can predict, that idea brought me to Trump.  Based on my own experience in conversations with family and friends, those who voted for Trump found in him a way out. I heard over and over again how he represented real change in our world; that he would no longer be the politician but be above or beyond all politicians.  He would, according to one family member, bring back respect in our society…respect for each other.  He would establish real law and order, real solutions to real problems.  That approach, so said many folks I talked to, was why they voted for Trump and his policies.

Rather than have a debate or try to convince family and friends, I listened.  I offered my own thoughts and sometimes that led to debate.  For the most part, I recognized, in myself and in family, the same kinds of fear and uncertainty that we live with every single day.  As I really got into these feelings in my own mind, I came to my own conclusion: regardless of the political position, the source of all of this fear and etc was a representation of our attempts to shape our own lives….we have such little control or affect over our lives.  In a moment, we have lost a job, experienced pain, sickness, anger, resentment, and suffering on a small or large scale.  Some of us see in a new President the hope that things will be better.  That change, any change, will result in a better life for us all.

So we hang our hopes on a new set of policies or government programs (or removal of those programs).  We think it is all going to be better or worse based on some external conditions that will somehow reshape our world.

More importantly, Trump and whoever comes after him, will be an expression of what we think, feel, express in those moments of fear and panic.  That Trump is the current expression of the General Will (according to Jean Jacques Rousseau) in which what we feel and think is represented by the one we identify as our leader.

And. and. What we know about Samsara is that all of those external conditions and circumstances, all of them, are just like moving around the deck chairs on the Titanic.  I’m not saying that some government policy or change cannot make things slightly better…they can.  I am not saying that every person who holds political office is exactly the same.

What I am saying is that life is, ultimately, a situation in which we will face suffering regardless of the external circumstances.

One other thought I had about the current political situation is the idea that a savior, some person, can alleviate all of the difficulties we face.  So, the election of a new President will correct the ills of the last one.  That a single person can help change all of the things that we did not like about the last person….a new boss, manager, wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, ANY new person will make a change that will benefit us.

Of course a new President can make changes to our lives….we can be forced to wage war, lose wages, face horrible conditions, be arrested, detained, or worse.  Even so, we still have our minds, our precious human existence, and can realize and recognize our situation.  Can we change our external situation?  Maybe.  Maybe a little.

The thing we can change is our mind…and that, my friends is what I am focused on right now.  I can change how I view the world, myself, my friends, those who oppose me and those who do not.  I can see the world as it is…as a place where many suffer on a daily basis.  I can take on that suffering through prayer, meditation, awareness, or action.  I can send to all of those sentient beings, all of those people around me and across the globe the kind of love that helps free those folks from suffering….maybe not literally…maybe only as a means of just extending the thought of love to all.

That’s where I will start: with compassion for my family who sees Trump as their savior; for my friends who see Trump as the worst person ever.  For those who are not sure.  All of us, all of them, all people I extend with all of my heart love and compassion in the hopes that we all can find the source of our own happiness and well being.

 

 

 

It’s Not about Happiness

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For the past few weeks I have been in meditation on the 7 Points of Mind Training.  This course of study is focused on Lojong, a practice of training the mind.  One of the precepts of Lojong is the idea that we “give all profit and gain to others and take all loss and defeat on ourselves.”  Essentially, that by focusing on improving the lives of everyone we ultimately benefit by helping to make the world a better place to live for all of us.

These Lojong teachings raised a big question for me: is the path or the goal happiness?

I am here to argue that Happiness is not the goal, the path, or the focus.  At least, not for a while (a long, long while).

Stay with me for a moment.  I often teach to my classes a story by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”  In the story, LeGuin tells the tale of a great society of beauty and light.  The cities are opulent, clean, and wonderful in just about every way.  People have every thing they desire and have long since given up wars, greed, and just about everything we consider a drain on human society.

The society, however, is based entirely on the suffering of one small child locked in a small room in the basement of a building.  For the society to have all of this wonder and greatness, the rules state that this one child must sacrifice its happy life for the good of the entire society.  As Le Guin said, “In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect…The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes-the child has no understanding of time or interval – sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear.”

In this story and the world Le Guin created, the child’s suffering is the price of wealth, clean streets, full libraries, great festivals, and perfect art and music.

And that leads me back to happiness.  The lojong teachings reveal to us, in stark relief, that our personal happiness cannot exist without the happiness of those around us.  As such, our work in this life is to focus on the happiness, the care, the support of all of the people we can support….in fact, every single sentient being on the planet.

Until we accomplish this task, the task of extending happiness to every single individual we encounter, then we won’t ever really experience the kind of release and joy that comes from experiencing happiness.  As long as one person suffers our lives must be attuned to the needs of those who suffer.

OK sure, that’s some heady stuff.  My plan is to fill in some of the missing pieces of this story and lojong as the weeks progress…..

 

 

Can We Really Call It Mindfulness?

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After a couple of weeks off work for the holidays and a number of attempts at writing this blog, I finally organized my thoughts around the popular notion of mindfulness.  As a practitioner of meditation and Vajrayana, I am constantly dealing with some aspect of mind.  However, I did not start my journey in Buddhist practice specifically, I started with the whole idea of mindfulness and meditation as a way to reduce stress and come to terms with the world around me.

About 15 years ago, I read Full Catastrophe Living by John Kabat-Zinn and took the associated course.  The weekly sessions and nightly homework for the class gave me some insight into mindfulness and the role of meditation in maintaining a healthy perspective on stress and stress reduction.  I began the class as a tool for limiting or managing stress.

The course, and the associated readings, taught me a lot about how to look at my mind; how to recognize thoughts and feelings as they rose and to avoid grasping those thoughts and emotions to be aware of my experience in the moment.  Specifically, to understand that thoughts and emotions are fleeting mental experiences.

dsc_0257As I look back on the course and my work in the years after the class, I realize that mindfulness and the whole concept of mindfulness is its own distraction.  Since about 1979, mindfulness has become an industry filled with books on meditation and stress reduction, ways to deal with pain, anxiety, emotional issues, and all of those thoughts and feelings that rise and fall in our minds each and every second of the day. (For more information, check out this scholarly article on mindfulness.)

Mindfulness, however, only gets you to the place of observation and basic awareness.  The practice as taught does not “cut to the root of mind.”  Mindfulness meditation does help with stress reduction and pain management, certainly, and by definition keeps us in that state of being in which we have a dualistic mind; object and observer.  Specifically, the object is always thought and emotion.  Always.  The observer, our rational, conceptual mind, can be tuned to reveal concepts as they arise and can observe their passing.  At the same time, as long as thoughts and emotions are at the center of experience then our minds are full of those same thoughts and emotions.  Meditation, then, becomes a practice to simply manage those concepts rather than getting to their source.

The challenge for mindfulness practice is to transition away from a dualistic mind.  As far as I know, the answers for practitioners are in the faith traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and other approaches to mind training.  Without a focus on enlightenment or unification between atman and brahman or unifying mind with path, mindfulness meditation remains in stasis.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with meditation as a practice, and meditation is not an end in itself.

As I understand it, to achieve a state of being that is beyond dualism requires the dissolution of the observer or the end of dualism.  That question, of dissolution, will be the focus of a future post….dissolving the observer.  Next up: It’s Not about Happiness.

How Visiting Bhutan Can Change Your Life

My experiences with Buddhism led me directly to Japan and Bhutan. Interested in uncovering, for myself, the source of my practice, I headed to places where the practice is common, engrained in the fabric of society.  Ok, sure, we can argue THAT point….you can see (again) my romanticism sneaking through the cracks in logic and reason.  You would, of course, be right AND you will find truth in the statement that Buddhism’s heart is being maintained in those places (and of course many other places in the world….I am not trying to be exclusive).

Yet, it’s in Bhutan that I found Buddhism’s heart and, to a great extent, a shift in my thinking and feeling about the world around us all.  You may wonder why I even raise this point here, now.  You see, I completed the preliminary practices of Vajrayana Buddhism, the Ngondro practice.  I started Ngondro with my first visit to Bhutan.  I cannot say that I deliberately planned to start Ngondro and head to Bhutan during the same year, but that is what happened.

For anyone who is in the midst of the practice, I offer my support.  The practice is challenging in every possible way; it can upend what you think, believe, understand about yourself and the world around you.  It will, quite literally, blow your heart and mind apart.  Combine the practice with a visit to Bhutan and your mind will truly and completely fall to pieces.

I started this essay off with how/why a visit to Bhutan can change your life; I do believe the combination of Ngondro and experiences in Bhutan combined to reorient my thinking in terms that I, to that point, did not understand.

In particular, you can see in Bhutan a kind of Buddhist faith integrated into the very nature of the Bhutanese state and culture.  As I have written before, along roadsides, on homes, in villages, on distant trails, the faith in Vajrayana is everywhere.  The visual representations of Buddhist iconography influences your thoughts and ideas about the place.

Further, in homes across the country, shrine rooms are dedicated to deities, usually Padmasambhava, and the spaces are sacred rooms integrated into households.  I watched an older woman in the late afternoon sit on a cushion and chant in her shrine room….I’ve seen children making torma, butter sculptures, for their own shrines or for sale to families.  These small acts are acts of faith in the practice.

All of these various aspects of society do have an effect on how you see the world, if you let them.  For me, the impact was more profound because of my study of loving-kindness at the time of my travel.  Simply put, loving-kindness is about having compassion for all sentient beings.  This practice opened my heart in a way I had not experienced.  Combined with seeing the daily practice of loving-kindness in Bhutan changed the way I saw the world. Quite literally, I saw a different way of being.

So the change I’m talking about is a change in being, influenced by Bhutanese culture.  I am not who I was before I traveled to Bhutan.  However, I did not put it all together and didn’t really GET it until this summer.

Here’s where it gets weird (yea, as if it wasn’t already)….this summer I faced a serious health scare.  The experience presented the very real possibility of death.  Sure, I know we all die and I had, up until that point, rationalized that it wasn’t a big deal.  Dude, I was practicing Ngondro; I’ve got this!  Yea, right. I reallllllyyy got it ; whacked upside the head more like.

When you are in a hospital in Bangkok wondering if you are going to die, well, things get very real.  Laying in a stark hospital intake room with about twenty patients in beds side by side, one receives a bit of perspective.  I believed this was IT.  The moment of redemption or perdition.  You remember the moment from Inception in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character spins the top at the end of the movie….does it drop?  If it does drop, is that the end of the road for the character?  The story?  That is exactly how I felt; a spinning top perched on its base ready to topple as the spin came to an end.

I felt fear like I have known only once before in life.  I climbed to the top of Cloud Peak, in the Cloud Peak Wilderness area in Wyoming in 1982.  On the top, a 3 foot by about 10 foot long summit, I looked to the southeast down a cliff face into a glacial cirque and turquoise colored water.  The drop was hundreds of feet.  I walked to the edge, and looked down.  A gust of wind hit me hard and I fell forward.  I can, to this day, see the scene exactly as I experienced it…..time slowed down and my arms extended in front of me as my head rushed toward the edge of the precipice.  I felt like half of my body was over the side of the cliff face and I was going to go down fast and hard.

I remember having a so-called “life review” as images of parents, sisters, friends, my grandmother flashed before me.  This moment was my moment of death.  As I fell I twisted my body to the right and my bottom landed hard on the rock; as my legs hit the ground I pushed off with my right foot toward the center of the summit…my hands went down hard and I grabbed onto small rocks (about fist size) and came to a halt.  My back now faced the open air of the cliff edge.  My friend, in the meantime, jumped to grab my left hand and pulled me toward him.

I stopped moving and lay on the rocks of Cloud Peak summit.  I didn’t move for what seemed like an hour.  John, my friend, was talking to me, but I couldn’t answer.  I could hear the sound of the wind whip past my ears and I slowly felt pain in various parts of my body.  Nothing debilitating….just diffuse pain.

The moment I realized I was not going to die was remarkable.  I heard EVERYTHING.  My mind was as clear as I had ever experienced and I just wanted to stay in that place.

In Bangkok in July, my situation was very different but shared a particular similarity with that mountaintop tumble.  I felt diffuse pain.  This time, however, the clarity did not come instantly.  In fact, it took a few weeks for it to arrive.  My hospital visit over, I took a taxi back to the hotel in a comedy that I will write about in a future post.

As the weeks went by and I returned to the U.S., the clarity slowly grew until, by August, my mind had changed.  I gained a different sort of understanding and awareness.

The awareness that came to me in August was the same awareness I had in Bhutan.  It was, for lack of a better term, a quiet mind.  The noise in my head melted away and I was left with silence.  Or, rather, calm.  There is a phrase called “calm-abiding” and it’s a term used to describe one’s mind at rest at the end of meditation.  That calm came to me and has stayed with me ever since.  Sure I have moments of my mind wild, but those moments are fleeting and not the norm.

OK, yea, sure, now you are thinking, “come on G-Funk, really?  You have this experience and you are linking THAT to Bhutan too?  Seriously, dude, you’ve got issues.”

I have issues.  One of them is the fact that what brought me back to realization and awareness was a feeling, an experience, a moment that I have only been able to capture in Bhutan.  So, fellow humans, I credit Bhutan for a part of the calm that sits quietly in my mind.

May you be happy, may you be well!

 

 

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.