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.

Emptiness and Interdependence

This is home now. Not like any home I have known before, and yet only a week has passed, and I find myself at ease here.

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Welcome to KIBI. This is the gompa, or the temple building. It’s also where we have class, and it houses the library, student lounge, dining hall and living space for important people. The rest of us live in dorms that ring the gompa and surrounding courtyard. The compound and structures are built in the style of a Tibetan monastery, which is what they are. In addition to the forty ragtag Westerners here for the course, there are about twenty monks living at KIBI. I’ve met a few of them, and am becoming friends with a couple, but I must admit, I am a little shy of them, and they, I think, a little shy of us. Our lives and histories are vastly different, and our language too, which is perhaps the defining barrier. But slowly, slowly, we exchange smiles and good mornings, and there is the comfortable comradeship that comes from knowing you are in pursuit of the same good.

And as for that good, what a pursuit it is. Classes started on Monday. There are three classes a day, which focus on different topics depending on the day. Essentially we are studying two main teachings plus the foundations of meditation. The teachings are called Madhyamika and Abhidharma, and I don’t recommend trying to figure them out on your own. Here is a teeny bit of explanation based on my own understanding, which is a student’s view and not necessarily correct, but all these things are muddling about in my mind and it helps to write them out. If you find this stuff interesting, I recommend finding a Buddhist teacher who comes from a traditional lineage and can explain it properly to you. They are around, surprisingly enough, and not hard to find via the great internetz.

Anyway, here goes:

Madhyamika focuses on the emptiness of phenomena, that what we perceive is based on concepts we apply rather than any intrinsic nature to objects and experiences. Simple right? But think about emptiness long enough and your head will start to spin and the floor will drop out from beneath you, which is the point, I think. All of your ideas about the world become ungrounded in the face of emptiness, which, in the long run, makes us flexible, and in the really long run, makes us enlightened, but which, in the short run, mostly makes us dizzy. Makes me dizzy, anyway, and that was the general consensus over dinner last night, hehe.

Abhidharma focuses on what is translated into English as “dependent origination,” which is immensely complicated but which I often think of as the way that our sense of self arises in conjunction with our perception of external phenomena. The thing about dependent origination is that it applies not just to self but to everything. It is the idea that causes and effects exist entirely interdependently; there is no cause without an effect and no effect without a cause, but they don’t appear one and then the other. They come about simultaneously. The moment the correct conditions come together, they are the cause, which in that same moment manifests the effect, without any time lapse. Fine, makes sense. But there are so many causes and conditions in the world, and they are all intertwined, so it’s very hard to know what leads to what. The study and practice of how this all works gives us some ability to distinguish causes and effects, which is important because then we can engage in positive actions that will have positive effects, i.e. benefit ourselves and others and help us to experience less unnecessary suffering. Sounds good to me.

That’s the word these days. Love to all. Also, words are getting emphasis over pictures because pictures take bandwidth, which is scarce in India. But there was plenty of great travel-writing before photoblogging, so hopefully I can live up to that tradition a bit. I’ll try to supply imagery when I can.