Woke up to a blanket of white and wondered if the spector of promised snow had indeed arrived. No, it was only a thick coating of frost crystals, but dreamlike all the same and quick to dissipate in the mid-winter sun. On account of the study retreat, I don’t get out all too much, but when I do, I’m always grateful when the days look like this. Lustrous and living and sparkling.
This is where I spent my time these days. Somewhere in between the 18 elements, the 22 governing faculties, and the 4 fruits of realization of the listeners, I notice I am learning things. Things that can seem technical beyond reason or frustrating for their lack of daily applicability, but which feel to me like scaffolding. A steady support through which I can build higher knowledge. The philosophy we are learning now is not the view we seek. In fact, it’s already been proven wrong. And while spending hours nitpicking details that one doesn’t even believe could seem ulcer-inducing, I am fortunate not to have found it so.
I’ve studied the skeleton of this system of knowledge before. And the last time I looked at it in any great detail, I was half-tempted to throw the book against a wall, find myself a nice cave in the Himalayas, and call it a day. But it seems enlightenment doesn’t work like that. At least not for most of us these days. From what I’ve seen, enlightenment in the modern day is more about the process of gaining enough knowledge that our wealth of preconceived misconceptions about reality undo themselves when we take them to the cushion and into daily life. This inevitably means serious nose-to-book time.
So we show up and listen and type hundreds of pages of notes, and reread transcripts, and puzzle through study groups, and pose questions. And somehow it all trickles in. And will continue to for years to come, I think. And in between, when the lists of what is the fruit of karmic ripening and what is not, what is the cause of karmic ripening and what is not, and what must be abandoned on this path and that path and actually not abandoned after all gets to be a bit too much, we do what we can to unwind our minds and keep going. A brain-drain doodle here, a shared cup of tea there, and birthday cake decked out in buttercream when the moment presents itself. These are mostly good days.
And this is a fully good cake. Made for a friend who happened to be present for the last birthday cake that came around: a yogurt-apple cake that just happened to be gluten-free. And when he heard that there was no flour, no butter, and not even an absurd amount of sugar involved, he pursed his lips and said, “That’s not cake.” Well it was, but it wasn’t an extravaganza of dietary exceptions. Which often of the best cake is.
So I made him a sturdy vanilla butter cake slathered with brown-sugar buttercream, which is 100% decadence and also the last thing you could accuse of not being cake. Mission accomplished. A dense, buttery cake with a fine, fluffy frosting supported by warm hints of vanilla and molasses makes for a proper winter birthday cake. If you have a similar sugar tolerance to me, I recommend small slices, but if you’re not sugar-sensitive, you do as you please and enjoy!
So I had that chat with Jigme Rinpoche. And you know what he told me? He said it’s good for me to be an artist.
I was talking about other things, new plans, ideas, and understandings in relation to things I had let go of or was ready to. I started a sentence, “Before I came to Dhagpo, I wanted to be a professional artist–” And he cut me off right in the middle to say, “This is not bad. Not bad. This is quite good I think.”
I didn’t ask any further questions. Usually, I ask why and for what purpose and in what manner and other useful contextualizing questions. But context is for things that are growing and need to grow in the right direction. I spent all this past year working with how I identify with the idea of being an artist. I think it’s no coincidence that when I finally reached the point where I had enough space to consider giving it up, a message came down the pipeline telling me not to abandon ship completely.
But I also realize. Whatever title or career I may pursue or wind up with, in this life, I will always be a person who makes things. Making stuff helps me understand; it helps me find courage; it helps me show love. And this is different from being an artist. A professional one, anyway. Being an artist means creating a portfolio, applying to shows, networking with galleries, connecting in the industry, learning the history, following the news, and a lot of other time-consuming, goal-specific things. Things that I am not doing right now and not planning to being doing in the immediate future.
But it’s good to know not to let the door slide shut as times passes. For now, I just plan on staying a person who makes things, and if the time comes when it is particularly useful to make more things and do the accessory work that helps those things to reach people, well, that’s cool with me too, I guess.
In case, ahem, anybody might be wondering, Rinpoche said a few other things too. It was quite a nice chat, honestly. And perhaps it’s selfish, but I’m glad he’s back where I can make his tea and get to see his round form bobbing across the esplanade in front of the Institute.
He said to focus on study. He said, in my case anyway, that Tibetan can be better learned through studying the traditional teachings than by going away for a long time to study the language itself. Though maybe going away for a bit here and there could be useful. He said to train to teach. He even gave me some pointers as to where and how I could do that within the context of my life at Dhagpo. He affirmed what I have believed from the beginning: that this place is perfect. Okay, so he didn’t say it like that. He said that it is the combination of study, formal practice, and activity in the center that helps us to understand both the meaning of the teachings and how to take care of people. This is, after all, the goal: understand the teachings and, in so doing, take care of people.
In the end, I am left with the feeling that instead of some grand adventure, I find myself, as ever, on the long slow road. But it is a good road and it is the road to where I want to go. The company is first-class and the guys giving directions are top-notch.
I think of that fable from when I was a kid. Slow and steady wins the race. And then comes back for the speedy and distracted, though they left that part out.
Please, let me be a good tortoise.
Scones because sometimes you just need a baked good to bring it all home and pretend you have nothing else to do than sit in a cozy room and drink tea. Scones because sometimes a lot of things happen in one week that point to the same question and it’s a hard question. Scones because I usually keep my mouth shut about politics because what could I say in light of the vastness of it all? But especially scones because I’m about to go out on a limb and actually talk about politics so first a food offering to show that I come in peace.
How do we talk about politics without pointing fingers?
I think this is my question for the week. Underneath it is a bigger question. How do we relate to our individual identities–to diversity–and to the inequalities, and yes violence, that we can experience based on these without pointing fingers?
The media does not report the news objectively. It does so based on categorization of gender, race, class, religion, sexuality, and more…you name it. The media is written, read, and created by ordinary human beings. We do not regard each other objectively. We regard each other based on the aforementioned distinctions and so many others.
Both daily inequality and largescale violence arise from these distinctions. Examples in my mind this week (it’s been a hell of a week for violence and inequality): the shooting at Charlie Hebdo, the bombing of the NAACP in Colorado, Scarlett Johanssen’s latest casting, and one’s woman’s experiment on walking down the street. There’s religious and ideological aggression, there’s race aggression, there’s the silencing of race and religious aggression, there’s gender aggression. And in all cases the aggression tends to go both in the direction of aggressors towards victims and victims towards aggressors. Which makes us all aggressors in the end.
If we generalise, we can maybe sum it up like this: extreme religious groups versus liberal cultural groups; racial majorities versus racial minorities; men versus women. This week’s prime aggressions range from the grave taking of lives and the attempt to do so, to the silencing of a certain group’s experience by erasing them from the media, to the daily antagonisms created by generations-long habits (because apparently men are used to having space made for them and do not get out the way when walking in the street).
At the end of the day, it’s a lot of violence. What I wonder is this: does outrage at violence do something other than create more violence? And if it doesn’t, then how do we react differently to create something other than violence?
I see all this stuff and it makes me heartbroken. It also makes me exhausted and angry. Looking at my own experience, I would postulate that positive change happens when we work from the heartbreak, because this is our love for others. When we fall into frustration and anger, we only sow the seeds for further violence and aggression. Can we rally for each other without rallying against some one else?
Still waiting to find out. And trying to start by keeping my finger pointed firmly at myself; change begins here. Because until I clarify my own aggression, I don’t think I can do much for the rest of the world.
Other than make scones. Recipe…
Five weeks of study retreat, and actually, a decent dose of practice in this year’s retreat as well. We’ll be jumping into the Abhidharmakosha, what I like to think of as Buddhist physics. It’s the explanation of how stuff works, everything from mind to emotions to phenomena to time. I don’t know the text at all and I don’t know how far we’ll get, so I have no idea what we’ll be covering, but I’m stoked.
I’m also kind of preparing to have my brain explode from the density of ideas plus the business of working through it all in French (which I will probably translate into English in my notes to keep from losing pieces or losing my marbles trying to type really fast in French on an English keyboard). I’m hoping I have more stamina and focus than last year; I guess we’ll find out shortly.
An extra, very joyful piece of the retreat puzzle this year is morning practice all together in the temple. On New Year’s Day we began an accumulation of the homage to Tara, the bodhisattva of universal compassion and probably the most well-known female meditation deity. Aside from the ceremonies done on full moon days, it’s not super common that we practice together formally in large number. But Karmapa asked that we undertake this accumulation together at the center and Jigme Rinpoche shows up every morning to practice with us, which both confirms its importance and motivates the rest of us to show up too.
The energy of reciting words of aspiration and offering all together makes for an awesome start to the day. So tomorrow and this retreat and maybe even a new step for us all as a community begins like this. Happy New Year!