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.

Mahakala: Anything But A Spectator Sport

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I am worked and wiped. Thoughts in my brain feel like sliding a wet rag over glass. My head is a jumble of dragon faces and lotus banners and the low rumble of mantras issuing from the throats of red-robed monks. My hips ring from hours of sitting cross-legged and the cells in my body still resonate with the beating drum.

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This has been three days of Mahakala puja – ceremony and offering. This is no droning, foreign prayer, no benevolent bless-fest, no ritual hoopla. This is practice. There’s no other way to put it. Yes, there are voices rising together in Tibetan verse. Yes, there is much benefit to be gained from one’s presence here. Yes, there are festive hangings, smoke lamps, and a table full of traditional, edible sculptures accompanied by much timely pouring of tea. And yet, though the monks are reading the prayers and singing the mantras and we, who lack the necessary training, are not, this is no spectator sport.

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Mahakala puja is six to eight hours a day of working with your mind. Invoking the protection – for yourself, your study, your practice, your lineage, and all beings – of a dude that is no rainbow-light-placid-smile type deal. Mahakala is a guardian of the teachings. He has three eyes and six arms, and he wears a crown of skulls and carries a big-ass knife. When you study wisdom passed down from two-thousand years ago in a culture rife with gods and demons, you get the requisite imagery. Mahakala takes no shit from negative emotion, from ignorance, or from beings that don’t do the work to get ourselves less confused.

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The three eyes show his omniscient vision of past, present, and future. The six arms represent his perfect mastery of the qualities of generosity, patience, discipline, joyful perseverance, meditative focus, and wisdom. Each skull in his crown signifies a negative emotion he has transformed into great understanding, and the knife is for the wrathful compassion with which he cuts through our ignorance and self-clinging. Also, he’s shadow black. Because he’s a badass. And for some deeply symbolic reason that my research has yet to uncover.

I just spent three days with this guy. In my head, yes, but also in a room filled with fifty people engaging collectively in supplication and challenge. When we do this practice, we come together to ask for the guidance of those wiser than us who have gone before and for the merit to uncover our own wisdom. Like I said, not a spectator sport. And though I’m fairly beat, I am also incredibly grateful. Having the opportunity to take part in this genuine practice, with lamas who studied its intricate execution and deep significance in three years of retreat, in a traditional temple setting…whoa.

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Though Buddhist practice unfolds most profoundly over years, I can feel the effects of these three days already working on me. I see where I am wavering. I see where I seek comfort that it’s not to be found. I give my doubts less space now, than I habitually have, to run me over and stress me out. They’re here; I’m here; we coexist; it’s cool. Thanks Mahakala. Let’s talk soon.

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A few logistical notes for those who are interested: The Mahakala deity is known as a Wisdom Dharma Protector, a fierce form of Buddha that looks after the teachings and its practitioners, and, generally, all beings. Meditation on Mahakala develops our commitment to our practice and to realizing wisdom for ourselves and all beings; it helps us become unwavering in the face of obstacles. Those who receive in-depth instruction in the practice do a short version every day, while the longer, multi-day ceremony is done on special occasions, such as the year’s end. Tibetan New Year, or Losar, is on Monday; thus we practice the preceding days.

Mahakala is a series of invocation prayers and mantras carried out with a standing drum, a hand drum, and a pair of symbols. Parts of the practice are melodious; others are atonally chanted. Two altars are added to those always present in the temple room. One is an offering table directly to Mahakala; it contains incense, flame, water, grains, money, and many sculptures made from torma, a mix of butter and barley flour that winds up looking like fondant cake. There is also a Tsok table, which is an additional offering of more familiar foodstuffs, like fruit, cookies, and even snack food. At various points in the practice, the torma and tsok items are eaten by the participants, along with traditional Tibetan salt butter tea.

There are many different forms of Mahakala within Tibetan and other schools of Buddhism. His attributes vary depending on the focus of the school and practice applying the symbolism. You can read more about Mahakala here and here (these are the sources I referenced, in addition to the many knowledgeable people at the center). There are also pictures of this week practice in progress on KIBI’s Facebook page, here.

Also, apologies that the photos are ridiculously grainy and awkwardly lit…this remains true about photos and my current camera situation.