Asian Studies at Sandia Preparatory School

Beginning with two travel opportunities next year, our History Department and school is developing an Asian Studies curriculum and travel based on History, Language, and Science.  Our small group of intrepid scholars are working on a plan for the future and, in particular, a plan for integrating curriculum with travel.

As I started back in 2010, the language department at Prep is also gearing up for a program in China that involves curricular components with international travel.  With the trips to Japan and Bhutan, my goal was to design a program that involved learning culture, history, and language.  The goal was to have experiences that involved a cultural understanding and perspective before arrival.  So, in the History department we integrated information in classes and in study outside of the traditional classroom, including parents and students in a rich learning environment.

Ying Ding, Mandarin teacher at Sandia Prep, is following the model I established and expanding on it by including a wide variety of experiences and interactions with students and business leaders in China.  Beginning next year, this program will be in place and include students in the Mandarin program.

All of these ideas have helped focus and guide my understanding of the international travel we are doing in the History department.  As a result, we are reframing international travel as a study program rather than as a trip to another country.  The difference is an important one.  Rather than touring in the traditional sense, we are trying to build a set of knowledge for students and parents about the places we visit and the people we encounter.  Our goal is more than seeing sites; it’s about engaging in dialogue and conversation.

So, in the upcoming travel to Japan and Bhutan, we will engage in the best of travel; meeting, talking, laughing, playing, all of the pieces of interaction that make an experience something worth being a part of.  That idea, in a nutshell, is the plan.

Planning: Bhutan 2018

I have a whole series of posts dedicated to my thread on the nature of mind.  Those posts will have to wait a while, as I work on my planning for international travel in 2018.  My original plan was to travel to Bhutan and Japan this summer with a small group of students.  Sadly, a couple of folks had to drop out making the travel almost impossible and prohibitively expensive.  As a result, we rearranged our plans for a summer 2018 trip.

Planning a trip to Asia takes a lot of time and a decent amount of pre-planning.  The time commitment includes finding places to stay, monitoring plane flights, and creating a daily plan for the trip.  Namgay at Illuminating Tours has been my go to trip expert in Bhutan and he and I work on a plan for travel that students will enjoy.  For Japan, all of the work comes from my own research and searches for the best possible experience for middle and high school students.

Planning a trip with students can be a daunting task.  Many of us use tours companies like EF or ACIS, or other groups to simplify the process.  While those companies offer great options, I am more interested in creating experiences that involve students getting to know a place.  That is one reason why when we travel to Japan, we stay in one location, getting to know a neighborhood, families who live there, and making daily decisions about what we want to do on that day.

This shift from packaged tours with large groups of people to small groups making adhoc decisions has been wonderful and stressful.  For example, being in a place and finding that the one place you planned to go to on that day is closed.   That approach is one of the risks of traveling with students internationally without a very specific itinerary in place.

My approach to planning, then, involves putting together an idea of what we can do and letting students and parents know that some of the things we planned may change.  For example, on a recent trip to Kyoto, the weather was so hot that we chose to avoid a long hike through the Arashiyama area and instead stayed closer to town.

When it comes down to it, I create international travel based on a couple of driving principles: can I offer students an experience that is unique and exceptional, and will that experience linger past the few days after we return home.  Simply put, I have made a lasting impact on the hearts and minds of the people who travel with me to Asia?

In 2018, we return to Kyoto and the home stay in the machiya district not far from Gion.  We will stay in the Juichi-an and Aotake-an residences.  In addition, I’ve scheduled a couple of bicycle tours of Kyoto which will allow us to see a bit more of the city.TGF_2673

Also, for this upcoming trip, the Bhutan piece will include a trip to Mongar and Lhuntse.  I want students to meet with weavers and connect with the folks who make their living from textiles.  This ancient practice transcends culture and time, extending back into the distant past.  Arguably, textile production was among the first types of production developed after intensive agriculture.  In many ways, intensive agriculture and textile production went hand in hand as communities developed.  In Bhutan, such production is spread across the country and some of the silk textiles made in Bhutan are produced in Lhuntse.  For some detailed information, check out: Lhuntse.

I will continue to update the plan for travel to Asia in the coming weeks.  The entire plan will be finalized by April.  More to come soon….




Visualizing Emptiness in a Chaotic World

I guess when it comes down to it, the world is always a chaotic mess of humanity.  Each of us struggling with work, family, friends, people we know or people we meet, the life we create in our own minds and the challenges of life as we encounter it.  The complexity of life is daunting.  Finding simplicity within this context is difficult in the best of circumstances….so, how is it even possible to visualize emptiness in all of this crazyness?

Recently, I’ve been learning about and working through the concept of emptiness as a means of becoming aware of my own predilections and habitual tendencies.   I notice that I have a train of thought on a wide variety of topics: whether it’s about relationships or friendships, politics, or an idea, thoughts rise because of other thoughts I have had about whatever and those thoughts are linked in a train…in fact, I really like the imagery of a “train of thought” that thoughts are connected, like cars on a train, one after another, never veering off of the track established by the engine.  In this case, the engine is the mind creating, forming thoughts and each of those thoughts linked to the next falling in line one after another.  I can imagine how one thought can spawn another thought and so on until the original thought, the one at the end of the train, is completely different from that most recent thought.  And yet, each of these ideas, thoughts are connected to the engine driving the whole train.

So, in that way, all of the cars on the train are connected to and dependent on the previous car and all are linked to the engine.  Just so are thoughts linked to the mind, dependent on the mind for their origin.

As I visualize this train of thought, I can also imagine that the thoughts are dependent on each other AND have no reality unto themselves.  That thoughts are not independent of each other; they have no existence of their own (unless I give them existence…by keeping them present in my mind).  Without mind, the thought is not even there, right?

Can we even say that a thought exists at all?  Mentally, as a formed idea, the thought exists but only because of some previous thought…and unless we cling to the thought, the thought is gone!  How many times have I been thinking about something and then the thought simply disappears?  Over and over again.

In my mind, then, I’m working with the idea that the thought is, inherently, empty.  I have heard this term used in Buddhist philosophy: empty or emptiness.  Sogyal Rinpoche has said that empty just doesn’t do the idea justice…the Heart Sutra grabs this idea by mentioning how there is a “form” to a thing, but that thing does not exist outside of dependent arising…that whatever exists, only exists because of some other cause or condition.  So, that thought is not empty as in nothingness.  It did form. It did appear in my mind, and the existence of the thought is only based on some previous thought.

That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness, form.

Sensations, perceptions, impressions, and consciousness are also like this.

Maybe I’ve spent way too much time explaining my idea….I guess I’m still working through the notion that a thought can both exist and not exist all based on my mind.

So, I began visualizing all things, thoughts, buildings, roads, people, as based on the idea of dependent arising, or that, in essence, that those things have no inherent existence.  They only exist in reference to something else.  AND if I visualize those things, people, thoughts, I can visualize the lack of real existence….a person was born and will die; a building will be built and then torn down; a thought will rise and then cease to be; I can visualize each of those things not existing.  Therefore, at their core, all things are “empty” in inherent existence.

Finally, what do I mean by inherent?  I mean that everything cannot exist without something that came before.  I also mean that everything will cease to exist at some point.

These ideas are only connected by mind.  I can think, conceptualize, grok, visualize all of this through mind.  The thing is even mind will not exist and my own mind is dependent on some previous rising…even my own thoughts, that I think are mine, rise from something else. Whoa.

So, what’s behind the mind?  Is there a thinker that initiates all these ideas?  I’ve been told that our true nature or the source of mind is true nature; as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, like Atman in Hinduism.  A non-born nature, non-ceasing nature that is are the core of all of this.  The only thing in eternity that does not change.  Another big whoa.

Hmmm…not sure I’m up to thinking about that non-born true nature right now.  At this moment, I’ll sit here on my Spring Break in the sun of the high desert, basking in the understanding that this too shall pass. (Thanks to George Harrison for that idea)

It’s About Samsara (and not about Trump)

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

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?

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!