What We Receive

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This is a doodle I did in the translation cabin today. It was my first time doing an official simultaneous translation, for the Interreligious Meeting between Jigme Rinpoche and Archbishop Le Gall of Toulouse. Since Rinpoche speaks in English, I had downtime in between translating the archbishop, for which I was grateful because, on account of all the Bible quotes and references to concepts I have mostly not encountered (consecrated virgins anyone…?), the translation required a good deal of focus and some ingenuity to go along with it.

Though I’ve been translating written material pretty much since I arrived at Dhagpo, up till now there hasn’t been a particular need for a native English speaker to do oral translation. But as the center welcomes more anglophones, and particularly native or germanic anglophones, it seems there’s a growing demand. I don’t know how it will all sync up with the rest of my responsibilities, but generally speaking…I’m pretty tickled by the idea of doing more of this. Having an activity for the center that also brings me in contact with the teachings is a wish I’ve had for a long time, since my current main activity often involves being elsewhere during teachings (making lunch and going to morning teachings don’t fit so well together).

And I’m grateful to have begun this new adventure on this particular weekend. The exchange between Rinpoche and Archbishop Le Gall took place as part of Dhagpo’s 40th anniversary and also in connection with Jigme Rinpoche’s summer course, with a special focus on gratitude for the master teachers and the transmission they have ensured. We collectively received instructions and permission to practice the Guru Yoga of the 16th Karmapa and the empowerment of the 15th Karmapa, which go together. Rinpoche reminded us yet again of how blessing is a connection with the qualities of the bodhisattvas. We receive blessing when we commit, with confidence, to practice and the path, and thus open ourselves to its effect.

It’s methodical and, in this way, reassuring, to me at least. Being able to open a new door in supporting the transmission of these teachings during these days so pregnant with gratitude and so entwined with history is as good a symbolic as a girl could ask for.

Emaho! (…a term which comes from certain Tibetan prayers and is generally translated as “Oh wonder!” It’s a kind of exaltation of joy and compassion that rolls off the tongue easily such that it becomes a frequent exclamation in times like these…times of gratitude, times of change.)

Another Kind Of Vacation

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This week Dhagpo is closed for one of our twice-yearly vacation times. People head off to various corners of France and sometimes elsewhere to visit family or the ocean or spend some time in meditation retreat. I technically took my vacation time in April to visit my family in the States and it often happens that I take off at unusual times of year, so generally during vacation periods I stay at Dhagpo and keep doing what I normally do, while enjoying the general calm of the center.

But back in January, I made a choice that changes the landscape of these previously mellow weeks. I got involved in a study group connected with the Bodhi Path Centers, and we make a point meeting during Dhagpo’s off moments, in order to benefit from that same calm I usually experience on my own.

Eleven of us are camped out in the living room of the Lama House, poring over a transcript of one of Jigme Rinpoche’s teachings on meditation and working out what is its essential meaning and the subtle connections he makes between practice, daily life, and the traditional teachings that explain how to go about these two.

It’s masterful, really, how precise his teachings are while using simple language and often seeming to wander through a stream of stories and philosophical notions at random. When we sit down to pull out the main ideas and reference points, it reveals a very intentionally structured, detailed guide for progressing on the path.

Through the process, I am learning both the teaching itself, bit by tiny bit, but also, how to study and understand the teaching. It is a double lesson, and a precious one. It also underlines for me the importance of study on all levels, and particularly a solid background in the traditional texts, in order to be able to receive and apply instructions on how to practice.

My favorite nugget of wisdom for today is a clarification between two terms I have struggled to distinguish for aaages. The first is the Tibetan word sheshin, most frequently called awareness, and the second is drenpa, which is typically translated as mindfulness. Both have to do with being present, but in English any distinction we could make is very subjective and contextual. There is no agreed upon precise difference between these two.

But in Tibetan there is, and this shows the limits of translating the teachings. In any case, we have to learn the meaning, for the words as we understand them conventionally are practically useless in regards to Buddhist philosophy, other than as a reminder of the subject at hand. So, the aha moment for today:

Sheshin, what we call awareness, refers to the ability to be present to what arises in the mind. Drenpa, mindfulness, means being able to recall the teachings in this space of awareness. It’s the difference between just sitting around like a vegetable, watching the thoughts zip through our mind, and remembering how we are meant to observe and examine our mind in this state.

Anyway, this is my new understanding. But as always, let me remind you to check with your certified local lama, since I’m just a bum on a cushion with a transcript, trying to make sense of all this.

The other that comes to mind is just gratitude that my days can be useful. I’m still human and I still need vacation, but it’s cool to imagine a time when all my activities will be directly productive, as though someday, instead of just taking vacation at another time, maybe I won’t need time off at all. Haha, good thing I have my family to “force” vacation time on me because I kind of doubt that development is coming soon…

The Week, The Weekend, And Honey Ginger Cake With Sour Cherry Jam

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Today I am just happy.

When I look back at this week, it has been so full. Weekdays can barely be distinguished from weekends but somehow there is a balance amidst all the activity. Meetings beyond count. 20 hours and 800 lines of event budgeting. Driving lessons. Dinner out with friends. Time spent working with the construction team on the new kitchen; time spent constructing the plan for Karmapa’s visit with the kitchen team. The community mini-retreat that is our monthly morning of group practice. A talk with my sister; e-mails with my parents. The first of a series of community discussions about our Future, capital F and what we’d like to share about it with Karmapa when he comes.

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No moment has lacked richness. I did so incredibly many productive things and somehow still had time to make this cake and have a cup of tea with friends this afternoon. I know my two a.m. budget finish line from last night will make me tired tomorrow, but mostly I’m stunned that I’m not already flat on my ass.

This same amount of busy-ness and activity in the past would have knocked me over. I’d have been sick and tired and grumpy as hell. I think partly I have learned how to do more, but also I have learned how to fret less. When I see a whole crap ton of things to do coming, I’m not immediately petrified that it is totally impossible for me to do them and thus not immediately incapacitated and totaly stressed throughout it all. From all of the doing that I’ve been doing at Dhagpo these last two years, I’ve developed some confidence that…I can accomplish things.
And that if I can’t, I can say so and find a way to work with that.

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There’s also another aspect. Which is this place and its people. There’s something in the water, or the trees, or the history, or maybe something much less abstract than that. I think it’s what we call blessing. That often sounds so mystical, but Jigme Rinpoche is quick to remind us that blessing is anything but mystical. It’s practical.

As I grasp it, blessing works like this: understanding leads to change, and both understanding and change develop exponentially more with a group, and multi-exponentially more with a qualified guide who can point you in the right direction to help you refine your understanding.

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At Dhagpo, we have all the pieces. We are blessed. Hard work becomes less hard because it is meaningful and shared, and what we normally think of as not-directly productive (ahem, lieeesure) becomes productive because it supports the bonds that help us work well together. Even cake is a practice when it is an offering.

And so, I’m both grateful to be able to and quite happy to offer you this springtime version of French spice cake. Like typical French pain d’épices, this cake is honey-rich and has a good dose of ginger. But unlike typical French pain d’épices this cake does not have the I-suppose-nostalgic-but-always-disappointing texture of cardboard. And it does have a touch of allspice for additional depth and a generous spread of sour cherry jam for that springtime boost. Moist, surprisingly light, and delightfully simple to make (No creaming butter! Yay for French baking techniques!), it’s perfect for a Sunday afternoon on the deck, or however you like.

Recipe…

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Somewhere In The Low Light: The Opposite of Ambiguity

DSC_0007 I have decided that I need a tripod. The world captured in low light feels like my heart; it trembles but yearns to be seen clearly. Capturing those moments still that should be blurry but for the grace of a stable support: this is the use of a tripod in photography and of meditation in life. Such moments are the precipice where one yearns to feel, but the risk of being seen naked if we truly lay ourselves open still seems far too great. And so we stay in the shadows, where it’s safe, where the beauty of ambiguity cradles us with its ungraspable-ness. We hide amidst the blur. There is comfort in confusion. DSC_0001 Sometimes I realize how much of me really doesn’t want to become enlightened. To see the illusion of all things. I like my things real. I like my cake decadent; I like my sorrow sharp; I like my joy effervescent. DSC_0018 Well, I used to. Now, I still like my cake, but I resent that it makes my intestines sad. I still like my sorrow because it reminds me there are things I don’t understand, but I am mystified by how I can’t seem to turn its sharpness into an understanding that will change the way I act. I still like my joy, but it frightens me because I cling to it. After all, the only transition possible from temporary bliss is to something less than bliss, and it hurts every time. And yet this hurt hasn’t yet changed my vision so that I truly see the beautiful things in life as being as unreliable as they are. As just an essenceless apparition that will dissipate either now or later, unexpectedly or unwontedly. DSC_0020 I asked Jigme Rinpoche about art again today. We were talking about the renovation of the Lama House kitchen, working out details of countertops and credenzas, and which direction the stove should face. It was all very concrete and pleasantly comprehensible. Since January I’ve had this bug in the back of my mind, from our last conversation about life, my life, when he told me, enthusiastically, that it was quite a good idea to be an artist. So I asked why, just there, amidst the sawdust and reflection over water filters.

“Rinpoche, when we talked in January, I had mentioned about wanting to be a professional artist.”

“You want be a professional artist?” He perked up, with what seemed like the same enthusiasm in January.

“Well, I used to. Since I’ve been here, I’ve more been focusing on other things. It’s more on the side now. But when we talked about it, you had said that this was not a bad idea, quite a good thing actually.”

“Yes, good.”

“But why.”

“Because then you can bring to everything.” And he made a gathering motion. DSC_0026 And I sort of framed my ideas around this sentence, trying to see how they fit, and what it all meant. And some notions came up, like how art is a way to turn all of life into a reflection, and one that can be shared. And how viewing the world through an artist’s eye means that one is always looking with some kind of perspective, rather than just being caught up in the experience. I wandered over the idea that maybe in Rinpoche’s view being an artist doesn’t actually mean one has to make things, but is much more about the way one looks at things and approaches things. DSC_0015 I think I kind of short-circuited on this idea, and we pretty much had the above conversation verbatim a second time. I walked away nearly as unclear as before, but with the recognition that until I’m ready to make a commitment to artistry, the view or the act, I’m never going to be able to make very much sense of what Rinpoche says to me on the subject. DSC_0032 I keep trying to give up on art. I keep trying to “let it go” and see if the urge abandons me. So far it hasn’t, but so far I’m also not willing to shoulder the responsibility of whatever Rinpoche was making reference to (what is that motion a gathering of?) and what I apparently refuse to see or clarify for myself. An artist who wants so badly to be an artist but is so unwilling to claim the role. A bit like a bodhisattva who wants to badly to be free and free others but is unwilling to renounce her shackles. When the day comes. You’ll be the first to know.

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.

I Am Still A Person Who Makes Things

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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.

anofferingIn 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.

Study Days and Celery Root Snack Cake

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We’re two weeks into the second of two study retreats. It makes for busy days with much to reflect on. I’m using the time to ruminate on both the philosophical groundings of the life I’ve chosen, as well as the practical approach to facing situations where my vision or my style of communication feel at odds with the people around me. This is how we expand our sense of self until it is so vast that it evaporates. That’s the plan anyway.

I give you two quotes and one cake that colored the days of my last week.

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Before he left this world, the Buddha said this to his followers,

“Be attentive; take care to this: all phenomena are impermanent.

All that appears based on cause and condition is by nature impermanent. Whatever the phenomena, all that we acquire, all that appears, everything, finishes by coming apart, exhausting itself. All things eventually run out; sooner or later they fall to dust. All that is united finishes by coming apart. Even the greatest love, the closest relationship, sooner or later separates. All that is living finishes in death.”

Though this reflection is painful, its truth can carry us through both the deepest and most minor losses, for they could never be otherwise. All will one day be lost; we must then let it go.

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Yesterday we had a meeting with Jigme Rinpoche, the spiritual guide of the center, about the future direction of Dhagpo. He told us this,

“When we see what we want to obtain, this allows us to choose a path and make a commitment.”

I want to obtain the deepest understanding, the greatest love, and the capacity to aid beings. For that, I choose the path of practice, be it on the cushion or in the kitchen, developing confidence in enlightenment or in everyday life.

I have been taught that even the smallest act may yield the greatest result if the intention is pure. Mine’s not yet, but I’m working on it. Here’s to baking with loving-kindness.

As for the recipe, this was an experiment born from my deep love of carrot cake mixed with interminable curiosity regarding ingredient substitutions. The result was rather polarizing. Three-quarters a room full of people found this cake subtle and complex, an unexpected wonder. The other quarter thought it tasted like the ocean and this was weird and unpleasant. As far as tasting notes go, the flavor of this cake is the magical fifth taste discovered in Japan and called umami. The other four are sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, if you were wondering. Umami is a kind of richness that’s vaguely earthly with herbal tones. If you’re a traditionalist and you like dessert that tastes like dessert, better to wait for next time. If your tastebuds appreciate novelty and you’re a fan of sweet-savory combos, then this is for you.

Recipe…

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