A friend of mine, a regular visitor to the center, has geese. Like ya do; it’s pretty common in the Dordogne. Sometimes I arrive at the Lama House to be greeted by a basket full of super jumbo-sized eggs with dark, giant yolks and silky smooth whites. They make the creamiest scrambled eggs and the omelette-iest omelettes. They also make good cake. I don’t think I could pick out a goose egg cake from a table full of regular ones, but I do think if you made the same cake with goose eggs or chicken eggs, there would be a subtle taste and texture difference, as goose eggs have slightly more fat than chicken eggs. That said, eggs are eggs and when you give me eggs, you pretty much always get cake.
I have made a concerted effort to dial back my cake production recently in support of other activities. After spending the better part of September and October working through the fact that it’s okay with me to never become a master baker or a successful professional artist, now I’m in the interesting position of seeing what rises to the top when I create space for other priorities.
A teacher in whom I have a lot of confidence recently told me that if I am serious about aspiring to teach Dharma one day myself, competence in Tibetan language is an essential foundation. Which I will gain in approximately two hundred years if I keep going at the rate I’m going. Not so useful for results in this lifetime.
But what is my goal in learning Tibetan anyway? But what is the goal with teaching, really?
At the end of the day, I just want to get better at being a person until I’m so good at it that I no longer have to come back and be a person again in order to keep working on being a person. And I want to help others do that too.
Almost since I first discovered Buddhism, teaching has been in my mind. I’ve never been so grateful to people in my life (other than to my parents, who gave me this life) as to the people who have helped me start making sense of this life, who gave me the tools to observe my own mind. Early on, one of my teachers said that we must ask ourselves what our responsibility is for the teachings we have been given—to put them into practice and also to conserve them and help make them available to others. If those who came before us had not made the effort to safeguard the teachings and transmit them authentically, we would not be able to receive them now.
And a light went off in my head, and I thought, “Holy shit. That’s a serious debt.” I am fortunate to have come into contact with this wisdom, fortunate beyond measure as far as I can tell. It’s not easy to find a truth that corresponds with both who you are and the way the world is, i.e. the nature of reality. When you find it, you owe it to others to get the word out. That’s how I see it anyway.
It’s more than a little daunting though. I am little and dreamy and untamed. I like colors and cake and playing around in the woods. And it’s not nothing to say you want to teach Dharma. When you take that on, you put yourself up as a bridge between people and the masters who can truly guide them; you represent your own teachers and the tradition you have been trusted with. You can’t be on an ego trip and you seriously have to know your shit (you should probably give up cursing, too). But somebody has to try. And even if I don’t make it in this lifetime, I get the sense I’ll learn more trying than I would doing anything else.
And so, what to do? Do I need to do anything particular? Spending more than an hour a week studying Tibetan is probably a good start. After that, the possible wheres and whens and hows are other questions and other choices that will be answered by time and copious research and hopefully a bit of feedback from people with longer vision than mine. In the meantime, cake to supplicate the Buddhas such that the path becomes clear.
This cake is special. I made a trial one that didn’t so much work. But it had so much potential I came back a day later to give it another go. FYI, I never do this. Generally, I make random experiments while taking careful notes and the good stuff shows up here. But this time, I took the time to alter the technique and up the chocolate quantity, and I’m so glad I did. What makes this cake special, besides its evolution, is its crumb. This is a dense cake, but it is also super tender. Rare combo. I’m proud. Please try it. You’ll be proud too.
“Si tu demandes une question aux maîtres, ils vont te donner la réponse qui va le plus te faire galèrer.”
I could translate this like this:
“If you ask a question of the masters, they’re going to give you the answer that will make you work the most.” Reasonable enough. However, this misses the more particular sense of the word “galèrer.” It comes from the word “galère,” as in a galley, one of those enormous wooden ships built by nations in days of old that were out to take over the world. The verb “galèrer” refers to the dolorous business of rowing said craft when the winds were down. So now you see.
My friend Loïc said this to me last week in relation to the nature of planning one’s life around the study and practice of Dharma–what the Buddha taught. At the time I thought, “Pfft, everything about my journey has been super natural thus far. One week I was in Santa Barbara, the next in India, and now I live in France. I hardly had to anything but show up. It all just happened. Clearly this whole rowing-a-giant-boat business is a matter of perspective. He must be overthinking things.”
Yesterday I had a meeting with Jigme Rinpoche, a master teacher in the Kagyu Lineage and the spiritual guide of the center. I had a simple question: “Do you think it’s appropriate for me to prepare for a long-term retreat?” He had a simple answer: “Yes, I think it’s good.”
I promptly floundered. I had been mentally anticipating this meeting for weeks, debating about asking this question for months, considering this possible path for years. I crafted an extremely precise and thoroughly reflected e-mail just to request the meeting. Seventy-two seconds after showing up…that was it. I queried for more specific directives; books to read, things to do. Rinpoche nodded and said, “Yes, I think it’s good you came back. You live here in the community; keep studying, meditate, prepare for some years.”
And just like that, my whole life is different. By being the same. Somehow I thought that the decision to prepare for retreat, to someday do a long retreat, would instantaneously catapult my days and thoughts into a more enlightened form. I thought that something important and tangible would change. I think I thought life would get easier. That making a big choice would somehow get me out of making all the little hard choices that fill up a day.
Read or draw? Meditate in a rush before dinner or sleepily after dinner? Write a blog post or answer e-mails? Start learning Tibetan or start a new art series? Shredded carrots or beets with lunch?
These questions don’t go away. They seem small and silly written out, but they tend to be enormous and weighty in the course of day. I was so hoping that settling on a big important goal would get me out of these kinds of questions, of the business of everyday life. But the thing about Dharma, the thing about masters, is that all they ever do is throw you back into the business of life. Because life is where transformation happens. Even though retreat often seems like a method of stepping out of life for a while, it’s actually the opposite. In retreat, you spend nearly all day meditating, which to me means watching my brain argue with itself until the futility becomes apparent. Then, calm starts to arise on its own.
The business of life is no different. Watching myself fight out these questions until I learn to ask them more peacefully. When I stop and think about it, nothing seems more sensible than that preparation for retreat comprises the same activity as the rest of life. Make art; make food; study Dharma; meditate; be a person in the world with other people. Try to be patient. Try to be kind.
The brownies I made for a friend whose ship is taking him away from France and back to the US, and eventually to India. Transition times, even when transition means coming to terms with life staying the same, necessitate a bit of comfort food to offer the finest thread of stability when all else becomes fluid. If you have any childhood brownie memories, these are likely to be the perfect fit. They are chewy and dense and rich, almost veering toward underbaked even when fully done, but without hitting that mouth-glued-together effect that causes some brownie recipes to flounder. Also, they have the crackliest of crackly tops. And finally, they are ridiculously simple to make, practically the most basic recipe I’ve ever used and definitely the best so far.