In The New Year

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I dedicated the first day of the new year to…building a Lego ferris wheel. Like, nearly all of the first day, if we include meals and hot chocolate pauses for weary minds and weary eyes. I’m tempted to say that being a kid was simpler in my day. Toys did not involve six hours of minuscule toil with three sets of hands just to get them running. Then again, in my day, Legos were just a fancy way of making your own mismatched, multicolored castles and did not involve spinning parts, the possibility of becoming motorized, or ice cream stands (Lego ice cream!)

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And despite the complaints from my neck and back for being hunched over looking at teeny, tiny bits of colored plastic for most of a day, it was a pretty awesome family activity. The little one was quite pleased with her Christmas haul, and I, for my part, was pleased to start the New Year constructing something joyful all together.

Later on in the New Year, we moved from one manual activity to another. After I gave Ema a crocheted scarf (complete with bobbles) for the holidays, she got inspired to try the craft herself, so we spent an evening working out chain stitches and discovering together how a right-handed person can teach a left-handed person to crochet. I have a lot more sympathy now for the travails of the lefty community. Everything is backwards to them.

It’s wild to me to see both how children can be molded by what we bring into their field of vision and also the ways in which they come into this world with their own ways of being questions to work out and all we can do is try to field useful answers at the right moment.

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This morning at Dhagpo, we began the third annual winter study retreat, a month-long intensive teaching on a foundational Buddhist text. This year we are in phase two of the Abhidharmakosha, a text written in the 4th century by the Indian scholar Vasubandhu, which discusses all knowable phenomena, and particularly those which guide us toward liberation and those with keep us anchored in cyclic existence.

Technically speaking, all things connected with the emotions of aversion, attachment, and ignorance keep us firmly planted with our feet in the muck of Samsara. And yet somehow, in the messy world that is the modern day, I often come back to a story of a practitioner who, each evening, made a pile of white stones and black stones to count his positive and negative actions for the day, slowly working his way toward just one pile…white stones of course.

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Despite all my attachment for those I care about and all I wish to accomplish in this life, plus the frustration that arises when things don’t go my way, they’re source of more white stones than black at the day’s end. Jigme Rinpoche often says that emotions are not negative in nature; it depends what direction we take them in. If our desire and attachment lead us to practice, then they are useful.

Who knows what the side-effects of my attachments may be, but since I’m far from calling it quits on ordinary life and high-tailing it out to a cave with a handful of nettles and barley grains, this is where I am. And it’s fitting I think, to put the nature of reality as described by the Buddha and his disciples on one side, and ya know, real life, on the other. Because in this day and age, this is what we have to fit together on the path.

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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.

Falling into Words

Parks are for reading. I'm pretty sure that's what the sign says.

Parks are for reading. I’m pretty sure that’s what the sign says.

I fell off the radar for a minute here. I couldn’t help myself. I could say I fell headfirst into life, and was so busy being busy that I couldn’t spare a thought for this fine corner of the world. But that would be quite untrue. I didn’t fall into the activities of the wide world. No. I fell into books.

First, it was The Razor’s Edge, by Somerset Maugham. Then I found Wuthering Heights, the sole narrative opus of Emily Brontë. Lately, I’ve just begun A Tale of Two Cities, of the Dickensian canon. What am I doing reading books by dead British people while I am in India, you may ask. Being subconsciously colonial? Perish the thought. I certainly hope not.

It’s just. It’s just…there’s a kind of inspiration that only the well-wrought word can offer. The world of literature is a better lens for life than life itself often is. In the nature of a character and the drama of a story, we can see the riches and foibles we fail to notice in ourselves. A meditation treatise is not the same thing as a novel. These just happen to be the novels I can download for free on iTunes and read on my phone.

Class is still a source of great richness, but sometimes a person needs new inspiration, from unexpected corners. Today we were going over the remedies to distraction during meditation. One of the primary antidotes to a wandering mind is to focus on the cost of being distracted. The unaware mind engages in unaware action. When we are distracted, we can be thoughtless, short-tempered, and unkind. When we lose our grasp on what’s happening here and now, we can become neurotic or morose or hyperactive. Ouch all around. But even as I list this, it’s a tally in my head. Remember to stay focused, otherwise you will do unfortunate things that will lead to suffering and it will be a bummer. Makes sense. It’s not terribly potent though.

But then. Then you read Wuthering Heights. And you meet Heathcliff. Ah, Heathcliff! A demon of a man. Driven almost mad and definitely robbed of his humanity by what he would have us believe is love. But you could only call the source of such cruelty love if you had forgotten entirely what love is meant to be. Clearly, Heathcliff had never met the dharma.

Our hearts as red as poppies, as rife with life.

Our hearts as red as poppies, as rife with life.

Ah, so what is needed does come around. In the roiling, raging hearts of three generations of imaginary English people, I rediscover the reason why I meditate. And in the meantime, the mind is lush with prose and sadness. And though I am reading by myself in the park, I am reminded that I am not alone, that every human has a heart that rages. For all our aspirations of equanimity, we are karmic beings yet, imprinted with the untamed ramblings of our countless, forgotten lifetimes. What can we but do than hold court together in our given world and seek to see instead of judge what is?

Cabin+Woods

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It has been all kinds of foggy here and there is a lovely, branchy tree in front of the center. It got me picture making. Funny thing though, I think the picture I wound up with qualifies as a good example of karma, inasmuch as karma is the habitual tendency of our minds. Because for some reason, even though I am in India, my mind put together winter and trees in an image that is New England-ish or Boreal, a thing it always seems to do. Strange in itself, considering that I grew up in California, but I have always lusted after northern winter. I guess I have Robert Frost, Henry Thoreau, and Jan Brett to thank for that. Maybe this time round, a good dose of credit goes to the lovely Nadia, who has been romancing winter and broken down cabins with her camera lately.

Cabin+Woods, Ink, Acrylic, and Colored Pencil on Paper, 12" x 9"

Cabin+Woods, Ink, Acrylic, and Colored Pencil on Paper, 12″ x 9″

Though this is more-or-less an involved doodle, I’m devoting some musing to it. My work right now exists entirely in the format of involved doodle, so I need to develop a legitimate relationship with small-scale works on paper, which I’m used to thinking of as catharsis or an afterthought. Mainly, I wish the trees were crisper and the ground matte. I’ve been told by a few different people that some of my work would really benefit from a transfer to printmaking. Here, I see their point and totally agree.

The pre-color version, potentially adaptable to printmaking.

The pre-color version, potentially adaptable to printmaking.

Wherever I am, I often feel like this: solitary, watching the world with breath held in, waiting for the next move, sea change, change of season.

I hope you have a lovely day in whatever season you are living in, in life and in your mind.