Heritage

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Our study retreat finished this week. On the last day, Khalsang Puntsok told a story about the end of the Buddha’s life. The Buddha, with his attendant Ananda, went into to the forest to find the right place to pass into his final meditation and leave this life. As he lay between two trees, the gods sent a rain of flowers and the trees bowed down. The Buddha asked Ananda if Ananda thought that this pleased him.

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Ananda said yes and the Buddha, replied that, no, this was not what was important to him. Then he asked Ananda to summon all of his disciples. The Buddha’s disciples gathered from near and far, but there was one monk who did not come. Others set out to fetch him, but the Buddha said to let him be. He was practicing and it was good that he continue, and this, in fact, is what the Buddha wished for, that his disciples would be diligent and practice what he taught them.

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This is about the right conclusion for us now. We have eleven months to work through all we received in order to be ready for the follow-up next year. Pretty straightforward.

But I admit, all through the story, I was expecting, in part, a different emphasis. A famous aspect of the story of Ananda and the Buddha’s parinirvana is that the Buddha gave Ananda several opportunities to request for him to stay and not to die at this time, but Ananda did not realize until it was too late.

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I thought of Shamar Rinpoche and how many of us must have asked ourselves what chance we missed to make the right request. Listening to Khalsang Puntsok these last five weeks, I realize how close we are in many ways, all of Shamarpa’s students. In Nepal this summer, the monks and nuns from Asia were mostly a sea of burgundy to me. Hearing KP tell stories of playing soccer with Shamarpa, of a torrential downpour that stopped on a moment when Rinpoche addressed a gaze to the sky, of the stories that Shamarpa told them at Kalimpong Shedra that they are telling us now here in France…it’s strikes me how little separates us, how much we are indeed family.

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We didn’t grow up speaking the same language or eating the same food. I am sure many of us never imagined we would see or set foot in the other’s home country, but when we meet to talk about the Dharma, we share the same roots. And whatever chances we may have had or missed or that were never really there, the Shamar Rinpoche we knew is gone, and in his place he left us his teachings and also each other.

And so the Buddha had it right, as usual. What there is to do is to share them and to live them, together. Also to remember that our heritage is not just that of Shamar Rinpoche or the Kagyu lineage, but that of the Buddha himself. And the family is not only those of us who love and learn from the same masters, but all beings, whatever their creed or calling.

I guess that’s about where five weeks of philosophy gets me; now it’s back to the salt mines to put it all to work. The steam-infusing vacuum machine and pre-Lhosar deep clean await!

GF Chocolate Chip Cookies And Working With The Heart

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Week five of study retreat. Each week has been steadily less and less in retreat mode, as regular life needs creep steadily in. Around week three I started panicking about all the things that would need to be done if I left them till the end. Around week four I realized that a lot of things couldn’t be left till the end. And now I am just trying not to feel too feckless or lacking in diligence for the fact that, beyond attending the formal teachings and rereading the transcript or maybe my notes once, I’m not devoting my time to studying. Four hours a day is already a lot, but it’s not enough to memorize what’s being given, which is what I would like to do and what feels like doing justice to the teaching.

I know I’m not wise enough and I haven’t studied the prerequisite subjects enough to truly understand the Abhidharmakosha, but I’m convinced that if I could just solder all the lists of associated faculties and mental activities and types of sovereign mind into my memory now, I’d be able to make sense of it all properly in some future time. Only I can’t.

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Partly because the groceries and the new steam-infusing vacuum machine and the pre-Lhosar deep clean and next month’s schedule and departmental meetings and new tasks with the communications team (yours truly may be contributing to a Dhagpo blog in the near future!), not to mention life, like teaching English classes, paying doctor’s bills, and studying for my French driver’s license (speedbumps are called donkey backs here). So yeah, partly all that. But partly also my heart.

Every time I study seriously, intensively, I live this. And every time, I forget. I always tell myself it’s the schedule, the being with people all the time, the intellectual gymnastics. But no, actually, if I can say it this way, I think it’s my heart.

Last night at dinner, Micka said, “After a certain amount of time with the teachings, I start to only see the flaws in everything.”

The first of the Four Noble Truths is that the nature of conditioned existence is suffering. The teachings go far beyond this, to its cause, to its ending, to the means to achieve that. Becoming free from suffering is the whole goal after all–well, half, anyway, getting everybody else free too is the whole goal. But for my part, when I start really looking and listening, I can’t help it, I tend to get a bit mired in the first part.

I am SO far from anything resembling clarity, one-pointed focus, or non-self-referential love. My faith is emotional and my understanding is personal. My discipline is superficial and mostly neurotic when it does function. That long list of mental activities that accompany afflicted mind…yaaah, I know them well.

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Whenever I reach this point, I tend to think of three things. Well, no, actually what happens is that I tend to start slipping into motionlessness, into the grey static where no act is meaningful enough to combat the hugeness of it all, and I no longer know how to greet the day or my mind or other human beings. Trying to be fair, this overwhelmption is maybe part of me, and I will have to accept it perhaps at many turns in my life. But Shamar Rinpoche said that if a person practices calm-abiding meditation long enough, she will no longer experience depression. Until my efforts take effect, I’m building a toolkit for when reality becomes overwhelming.

Here are my three things:

1) Some enlightened being in some treatise or sutra (maybe Gampopa in The Jewel Ornament of Liberation?) once said, “Ordinary beings cannot perceive the true nature of reality, of emptiness. It is too vast for the ordinary mind.” Which helps because it means that it’s normal that touching on this vastness through the teachings sends me spinning. I’m an ordinary being. I can only understand as much as my mind can take, and increasing my understanding means working the edge. Vertigo is part of the process, and I need to rest with that.

2) Dhongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche said in his book Not for Happiness that true compassion is like a dagger in the heart. So all this pain and this vision of anguish perhaps simply mean that I’m headed in the right direction. And practice is learning to see them and keep moving.

3) The Buddha gave us this one directly, and in the Heart Sutra no less: “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Form is no other than emptiness. Emptiness is no other than form.” Though I am far from understanding it truly–speaking of that emptiness too vast for the ordinary mind–I try to remind myself that for all of its sharp edges and smothering weight, suffering has no essence. That if I keep going, the illusion will fragment on its own and I will be able to see suffering and its formlessness at the same time. And from there, I will truly be able to act, and act for the benefit of all.

It’s not exactly a monkey wrench or a tape measure, but it’s what I have for now and it helps, even if it doesn’t silence the static completely. And like always, the little worldly things that make up my worldly life are still here for me. They are what I know and where I’m at and maybe I am learning to be kind about what gives me solace on the path. I made cookies almost completely without feeling frivolous, and much more with gratitude for something simple and solid that I understand and touch and share. It’s not ultimate anything, but it might be relative something, and I think it’s going in the right direction.

Recipe…

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Fire And Smoke And Hard Work

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Garsang day. It means smoke and fire and offering. Long trumpets and twin cymbals and the shaking of your veins when the music plays and sound waves melt into heat waves and it all rises in vaporous spirals and white ashes.

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They call it purification. I’m not sure I know what that means, but I’ll take it, though I heard recently that there is no purification without suffering. Maybe it’s like being strained though a sieve; you have to be pressed through a very fine mesh to leave the grit behind.

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Maybe it wasn’t suffering they said, but hardship. Because suffering, I believe, means resowing the same tendencies that run us through the wringer every time. But purification–purification means leaving bad habits behind, means choosing to look instead of to act when the old traitorous urges rise.

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Sometimes life lessons and growth and religion and ritual are not old books or wrinkled brows. Or anyway, sometimes they are those things mixed with poetry, and blessed baked goods, and butter sculptures, and wishes that it all transforms into something sacred enough, rendered carefully enough, willed with enough force and love and attention that it can nourish even those whose very nature defies receiving sustenance or aid.

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I don’t mean wishes where you wish some one else will take responsibility for you but wishes where you wish it so bad you will do anything to make it happen.

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What it takes to make a wish happen could seem complicated , but really it’s simple. Cause and effect, action and reaction. It’s a law. You can call it physics or you can call it karma; maybe it’s energy that oxidizes matter or maybe it’s intention that changes perception. But at the end of the day, there are two things that count:

You have to know how it works and you have to do the hard work to make it work for you.

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Peace and Graduation

Today I went to Sarojini market, bought flowing Indian pants, and drank a pineapple milkshake. I came home, had lunch at the yellow food stand across the street, put on my new pants, and walked to the temple. I stood on the steps just behind Karmapa while everyone posed for a photo, sweating in the sudden March heat, and then I sat in the crowd of three hundred people, listening to the history of KIBI and watching my friends who have been here for four years receive diplomas.

I cried. I didn’t expect to. I expected to sit through a bunch of formalities and squirm and yawn and zone in for Karmapa’s speech and zone out again after. Instead, I became aware of just how special this place is, just how precious our opportunity is to be here, and how much it changes us. Every individual who comes to KIBI comes with the intention to learn and grow, to embrace our faults, to face our doubts, to challenge our beliefs. We come because we see suffering in the world, and in ourselves, and we want to help. We come because we see joy and wisdom in the world, and in ourselves, and we want to develop it.

Buddhists are not perfect people. We’re like anybody. Some of us are short-tempered, some wildly opinionated, some painfully shy, others other things. We step on each other’s toes and ruffle each other’s feathers and some times we fight about it and some times we complain about it. But, along with all that, each and every person sitting around me today shares an aspiration to cultivate our very best nature, the part of us that helps instead of harms, for our own happiness and so that others can be happy also.

Most Buddhists know how to admit they made a mistake. Most know how to apologize. Many know how to ask questions and how to take a joke about their imperfections. I’m not saying that Buddhists are so special in this regard. There are other spiritual and ideological communities that espouse these qualities, and I rejoice in all of them. I talk and hear others talk a lot about the state of the world, the degeneration of society, the selfishness of people. But we also live in a world where great kindness and vast wisdom exist, and where we can seek and follow them if we choose.

In a Q and A last week, some one asked Karmapa whether he believes that peace is possible. He replied that opportunities for peace are all around us; it is a question of whether or not we choose to take them. I realized then that peace is not a choice you make once and have done with. I always say that I’m a pacifist, yet how many times have I rolled my eyes when frustrated with some one or spoken condescendingly when my patience runs thin? These are not acts of peace. And peace is not created on the scale of governments or economic systems, though we see the effects of its absence in those places. Peace is every moment within us, and every act we make can be one of antagonism or one of tranquility. Today reminded me how lucky I am to live and study in a community that says point blank: peace begins with you. Make peace with yourself; make peace with others; be among friends as you learn; share as you grow.

During the graduation ceremony, my friend Daiden gave a speech. At one point, he spoke to the visitors about “the deadly combo.” He asked those who came as guests who among them, having experienced one week of KIBI life, would like to be students here. The deadly combo, he then said, is this: if you make a wish for something, and Karmapa makes the same wish, it’s as good as done.

I never knew about KIBI until I chose to come. But I made many wishes for a place to live and breathe and study Dharma, and for a community to share and create home with. I guess I didn’t wish specifically enough, considering I never meant to wind up in India. And yet, despite the pollution, the damning ubiquity of stray dogs, the bobble-head expression that means yes and no together, the unabashed staring, the lack of proper cheese, and so many other things, I got what I wanted. I got to delve deep into the history and teachings of this tradition and into myself, through them, with proper guidance and abundant support.

I learned the stories and logic behind the mysteries of Madhyamaka and Abhidharma, and I planted the seeds to develop true understanding of their meaning as my studies continue. I learned how I fight impermanence in my own heart, and hurt for it. I learned how I buy into my unhappiness and create more of it. I have seen how blame is the easiest response, both of myself and others, and that it is a trick, a way to avoid scarier truths and to continue holding on to beliefs that are only causing me pain. I learned that wisdom is not only bigger than me, it is also bigger than I ever imagined, and yet I can attain it. I learned that devotion is not slavish but a potent form of inspiration. I learned that I will continue to make the same mistakes, probably all this life long, but doing so doesn’t mean that I’m not learning.

I learned more than I can say in any sudden paragraphs or bursts of inspiration. I learned things that are nestled within me, waiting to grow and reveal themselves when the time is right. One thing I learned that bears saying is that Dharma is not separate from life. Whether or not we choose to look for the nature of reality, what’s so in this world will always be so, until we eventually realize it. We can, however, choose seeking understanding as path. In this way, Dharma can be a way to live and a way to see that guides us no matter what the landscape of our road may be. As one who has a terrible sense of direction, I prefer to travel with a map.

I don’t know if taking the Buddha’s teachings as my compass will bring me back to India, but I do know that what I have found here will stay with me and continue to grow wherever I go.

Emptiness and Interdependence

This is home now. Not like any home I have known before, and yet only a week has passed, and I find myself at ease here.

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Welcome to KIBI. This is the gompa, or the temple building. It’s also where we have class, and it houses the library, student lounge, dining hall and living space for important people. The rest of us live in dorms that ring the gompa and surrounding courtyard. The compound and structures are built in the style of a Tibetan monastery, which is what they are. In addition to the forty ragtag Westerners here for the course, there are about twenty monks living at KIBI. I’ve met a few of them, and am becoming friends with a couple, but I must admit, I am a little shy of them, and they, I think, a little shy of us. Our lives and histories are vastly different, and our language too, which is perhaps the defining barrier. But slowly, slowly, we exchange smiles and good mornings, and there is the comfortable comradeship that comes from knowing you are in pursuit of the same good.

And as for that good, what a pursuit it is. Classes started on Monday. There are three classes a day, which focus on different topics depending on the day. Essentially we are studying two main teachings plus the foundations of meditation. The teachings are called Madhyamika and Abhidharma, and I don’t recommend trying to figure them out on your own. Here is a teeny bit of explanation based on my own understanding, which is a student’s view and not necessarily correct, but all these things are muddling about in my mind and it helps to write them out. If you find this stuff interesting, I recommend finding a Buddhist teacher who comes from a traditional lineage and can explain it properly to you. They are around, surprisingly enough, and not hard to find via the great internetz.

Anyway, here goes:

Madhyamika focuses on the emptiness of phenomena, that what we perceive is based on concepts we apply rather than any intrinsic nature to objects and experiences. Simple right? But think about emptiness long enough and your head will start to spin and the floor will drop out from beneath you, which is the point, I think. All of your ideas about the world become ungrounded in the face of emptiness, which, in the long run, makes us flexible, and in the really long run, makes us enlightened, but which, in the short run, mostly makes us dizzy. Makes me dizzy, anyway, and that was the general consensus over dinner last night, hehe.

Abhidharma focuses on what is translated into English as “dependent origination,” which is immensely complicated but which I often think of as the way that our sense of self arises in conjunction with our perception of external phenomena. The thing about dependent origination is that it applies not just to self but to everything. It is the idea that causes and effects exist entirely interdependently; there is no cause without an effect and no effect without a cause, but they don’t appear one and then the other. They come about simultaneously. The moment the correct conditions come together, they are the cause, which in that same moment manifests the effect, without any time lapse. Fine, makes sense. But there are so many causes and conditions in the world, and they are all intertwined, so it’s very hard to know what leads to what. The study and practice of how this all works gives us some ability to distinguish causes and effects, which is important because then we can engage in positive actions that will have positive effects, i.e. benefit ourselves and others and help us to experience less unnecessary suffering. Sounds good to me.

That’s the word these days. Love to all. Also, words are getting emphasis over pictures because pictures take bandwidth, which is scarce in India. But there was plenty of great travel-writing before photoblogging, so hopefully I can live up to that tradition a bit. I’ll try to supply imagery when I can.