At Ten-Thirty

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This is my human heart. It is essenceless, and me too, but that doesn’t keep it from beating inside me. This is me, at ten-thirty at night–bedtime if I were smarter and less attached to my attachments–listening to Shakey Graves and thinking about desire.

My friend Claire told me Tuesday, “It’s crazy, desire. I don’t even know what for.” And me neither. I get that. I mean, I could name a thousand things and the list would be unfinished to the nth degree.

A good night’s sleep-to be held close and tight-warm ocean water enveloping me-candle light in an empty room-dancing by myself for hours without having to wonder about whatever comes next… I want eternity, actually. I want the opposite of impermanence. I want the game of life and death and ignorance to stop for a minute here. I want to press pause and boogie in my underwear without there being any consequences.

But life ain’t like that. It’s all a big in-between. Or uncountable, indivisible little in-betweens. Every moment leads to another damn moment and whatever comes, I get to live, however I’m predisposed to live it. Most of the time, it ain’t like boogying in my underoos, that’s for sure. It’s not bad, either. Rich you know. Teaches me stuff, too. Which is the point of course. But it smacks of impermanence. That comes too fast for the good things and comes at a pace that only questionably qualifies as movement for the hard things.

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I had a conversation tonight that literally sent me reeling to the ground. It was surprising to see how much the body takes in. Facing some one talking at me loudly, not permitting me to respond, totally caught up in a fixed vision. The anger wasn’t directed at me, fortunately, but it still felt painful to absorb it all. I didn’t want to push back, but I didn’t know how to disengage the anger in front me, and probably I couldn’t have if I tried, and I didn’t know to finish the conversation and just walk away either (hard when some one won’t let you talk). I almost fainted, could feel my heartbeat slowing, and my vision getting dark.

What do you do, when you just don’t know how to be with reality? I can’t help but wonder if most of my activity is devoted to avoiding this knowledge. And yet, the whole purpose of a life in the dharma is to face that and learn to master it. I really hope it’s working. Otherwise, this life is major bogus. So that’s me, offering–and supplicating–the best I can, despite all my distraction and desire.

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And this is hibiscus fennel buns and a bowl of hummus, for girl’s brunch tomorrow. Which signifies, if you’re wondering, trying to keep connected with what is, in all its impermanent glory. Good things, hard things, mundane things, things I dunno how to handle. We gotst to keep on keepin’ on. Ain’t got no choice; might as well make this run count for something.

Oh, and hey, apologies for last week’s absence. Still adjusting to the new schedule of life with communications biz plus Bodhi Path study group, and occasional peeps who come to visit, and whatever else life can throw at me (let’s not talk about trying to pass my French driver’s license exam…these people are nuts for regulating minutiae. Effin’ socialists…). Anyhow, I’m trying to figure out this thing called discipline, but it’s um, a work in progress, if you know what I mean.

Why Do We Meditate?

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Here’s the text from the drawing, revised (sliced down) into something that makes sense on its own:

These are the things I have not managed to get out or get through otherwise.

I am feeling a lot and there’s space for that, but also,

I want to go beyond the limits of what I feel to what I understand.

What do I feel?

I feel desire.

I want confirmation that the way I am is okay.

Myself “my self” là ou j’en suis…/where I’m at

But most of all, what I want is this actually—to trust myself. For my trust in the refuge to be strong enough that all of this pain and fear and attachment would leave me.

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Is it comprehensible to say I feel like this? Blurrily staring down at my feet. Trying to figure out where I am, how I am, what I need. What we all need, actually. I want to know how to love. I want the desire to take somebody into my arms and hold them tight until we both lose our sense of self-and-other to be the will to care for every little last being until they are free from their beginningless suffering.

What’s the road between here and there? Can I get there in my socks?

Probably not. Probably I need some gnargnar boots with serious tread. And that my friends is a cracked analogy for why we meditate. Because the gnargnar boots and serious tread that get us the hell out of conditioned existence (i.e. everything that makes us go ouch) is meditation, and meditation works something like this: stability>clarity>discernment. From what I understand, discernment refined to its utmost is wisdom and ultimate wisdom is what we call liberation (i.e. no more ouch). Please don’t ask me to define these terms. I’m so not there yet. But I’m working on it.

That’s where all this nonsense comes from, actually.  Studies of a transcript by Jigme Rinpoche on why we meditate. The goal is understand it correctly, but right now we’re working through it as a group until we reach a consensus and what you’re reading is my tired-person-commentary. So please note that the above is strictly my interpretation, but if if any of that piques your interest maybe try somebody who actually knows.

If I sound a little bonkers, it’s just because it’s a lot to go looking at the path in its entirety. And also because right now I feel more like I’m wandering through this life in stocking feet than with a particularly solid pair of boots. But we can only go from where we are, and I don’t want to whine when I have the great fortune to have good guides, who are willing to help me find the right road, stocking feet and all.

Rainy Day Reflections And The Three Pillars

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I don’t think I can come close to describing this week. In French, there is a term for when life is so dense that you just are just filled up to the tip-top and no more experiences fit in. Being saturated, like when a sponge is soak-sopped full with water or when you ram the colors up to an extreme in Photoshop. Whatever the analogy, it’s all just a bit too much.

I think I hit that point around Wednesday, and I’ve spent the last three days slowly squeezing out the excess, all the while trying to stay productive. This is life right now, a new exercise in productivity. Every time I think I have a full and busy life, new important things appear: a training program connected to the Bodhi Path centers that could one day help me fulfill Shamar Rinpoche’s instructions, the conception of a Dhagpo blog to celebrate our forty year anniversary (how happy I am to be included in this “we”), a renewed vigor to actually try and run the Lama House in an organized, efficient way rather than just running around trying not to let it all get the better of me, burgeoning usefulness as a native English speaker and translator, and deepening relationships that are nurturing and thus need to be nurtured.

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And all this falls into the the category of “action,” not even yet speaking of meditation or study. These are the three pillars of the Buddhist path, or one way of laying out the path anyway. The volunteers got called together for a special chat with Rinpoche on Wednesday, which is maybe not a small part of why my head reached near-exploding point that day. For three hours we exchanged with him about what the program of life at Dhagpo is about and what that means to us and for us. He said, “I think everybody here wants to be useful. Wants to be a good person. For this, we need these three together.”

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So now I am looking at my days, color-coding them in my Google calendar, and figuring out how I can tetris my life and schedule into making me useful, making me a good person. Into making all of my time count. And also into understanding that time is an extendable concept; in a way there is always more, just as there is never enough. What matters is being both present and relaxed such that the activity of this moment is part of the path, whatever form it may take.

Also, well…happy Valentine’s Day. I go back and forth between hating this holiday because it perpetuates an idea of love and romance that I don’t understand or ascribe to–one that is commercial, exclusive, and imagined to last forever–and kind of secretly getting into it because it’s a great excuse to make everything pink and red and heart-shaped and tell everyone I know that I love them. Making heart-shaped cookies and red cake didn’t fit into this year’s V-Day Google cal, but that doesn’t change how much love you all and wish you hugs and sweets and whatever it is you need on this day of celebration. Buy yourself a damn rose and a box of chocolate. I’m thinking of you.

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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Study Days And Vanilla Cake With Brown Sugar Buttercream

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Recipe…

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Change Comes

IMG_1618This is me learning Tibetan. Slowly, but learning. They say that Tibetan grammar developed to carry the teachings. This phrase, it’s poetry and philosophy together. That second character, the horizontal one with the squiggle underneath…it does this: “shows that an object and action are of the same nature.” Water, of the same nature, being whirled.

Movement and matter are no different. There is no subject in this phrase, but if there were, it would be transformed by this unimposing little preposition. They call it a ladeun, and it’s grammar for impermanence.

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Butter, fire, of the same nature, being burned. There is no difference between the action of burning and the nature of fire. The nature of this fire is that it is burning. Combusting, incinerating, transforming, changing. Butter is not burning into some other object that is static and fixed. Butter is burning into fire and fire itself is burning–again: combusting, incinerating, transforming, changing. There’s no god damn thing to hold on to.

I think of the Buddha of Infinite Light. The qualities of discriminating awareness and understanding of phenomena. The Shamarpas are the physical manifestation of all this. And though all physical things are ladeuned into other things, the qualities of mind remain. Change comes and forms go and wisdom abides. It’s a kind of wisdom that you can’t hold on to, but it’s there all the same.

**This post is part of a larger project culminating in a week of creative journalism in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal chronicling the cremation of the Tibetan spiritual master Shamar Rinpoche. To find out more or make a donation to this project, go here.

 

Chocolate Olive Oil Cake With Cranberry Preserves And A Quote

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This is possibly my favorite quote of all time. It comes from Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. The characters and story gripped me and lit my mind on fire when I first read them as an adolescent, and I come back to them now as I am studying the principles of developing enlightened mind. I sometimes think of the books as my introduction to Buddhist philosophy, though I couldn’t have named it that at the time and who can say where Pullman’s own inspiration came from. Nevertheless, the seamless mingling in that universe of science and religion, desire and altruism, cause and effect, formed a literary introduction to the philosophical tenets of interdependence and karma.

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Pullman’s words remind me of the necessity to work with ourselves, our lives, and our situation here and now. Enlightened mind develops beginning with our mind as it is in this moment, each moment. We build our own heaven around us as we improve our understanding and our habits. The angels, the citizens of our divine republic, are those around us, who become seraphic as we see them clearly. Pullman’s heaven is without a god, as is the heaven of wisdom in this world, for we are still subject to one another.

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As the last week of retreat brings this intense period of study to a close, I anticipate applying philosophy to active life, and wondering how I’ll integrate these new ideas over the months and years to come. Having a philosophic basis creates a context in which to frame situations, but living out the day-to-day business of being a person in the world is what fills in the picture and allows us to understand the truth or error of philosophy.

In short, back to business and we’ll see what comes up. In the meantime, cake as ever to keep us chipper as we toil our days away. This time it’s a moist chocolate olive cake with a tangy swirl of cranberry preserves. Easy, classy, quick to please. It’s that kind of Sunday.

Recipe…

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