cultivating the sacred

(from Embracing Each Moment: A Guide to the Awakened Life, by Anam Thubten)

There are many theories on how to achieve happiness. As you know, people are constantly developing techniques and theories about how to achieve it. The truth is the only way you can achieve unconditional happiness is by knowing how to tune in to this truth, this subtle and pervasive truth, the sacredness of everything. Then your relationship with people becomes alive and filled with reverence and love, and you no longer objectify people. Finally you know how to feel unconditional love. Then you may feel that this world is your home, even though it sometimes has a lot of imperfections. It is still your home. You may feel that this world is heaven. Not heaven as you thought, but heaven with lots of imperfections. Then you may feel this spirit everywhere in the world of nature, in the trees and animals. You may feel a deep reverence and heart connection with everything that exists. You’ll find that you are a modern mystic. You’ll be a mystic whose heart is drunk with love. In the end, the emptiness you felt as a terrifying condition and tried to get rid of by all kinds of creative means turned out to be sacred, a doorway to your aloneness that was always perfect and lacked nothing.

 

generating compassion

Everybody knows, or should know, that music is one of the most powerful ways of generating compassion, of remembering it. I’ve been singing to myself the song embedded below a lot lately, as I think of this unspeakably precious suffering world, as I think of the Buddhist community I used to be a part of — now imploding (deservedly) in scandal — and as I work with (or try to) my own pain.

Ordinary compassion in Tibetan (vajrayana) Buddhist circles seems to be too easily forgotten in the climbing of ladders, the hope of being seen as an “advanced” practitioner. It’s an endlessly sobering thought to me that virtually all of the most heartless people I have known have been Buddhists. Something so deeply wrong there.

Well, I’m still a Buddhist, at least at the core. But it’s clear that some major work needs to be done in reforming systems which were transplanted more or less wholesale from one culture to another, extremely different one. The extent and depth of the scandals we are witnessing are going to require a lot of wisdom and diligence to properly understand, and heal.

One thing always needed: the experience of ordinary old compassion. Nothing tricky there, no cleverness or “advanced” practices required. Just that automatic human ache in the face of suffering. That almost unbearable longing to remove something so intolerable. This is where we start, and it’s our middle, and it’s our end.

Sade’s “Pearls” is such a beautiful and pure expression of compassion. On a deeper level, it is about the truth that any of us could have been, could be, anyone else. “She lives a life she didn’t choose…”

there is a woman in Somalia
the sun gives her no mercy
the same sky we lay under
burns her to the bone

long as afternoon shadows
it’s gonna take her to get home
each grain carefully wrapped up
pearls for her little girl

elephant in the meditation hall

For the past year or so I’ve been absorbing the scandals which have been rocking the worlds of Tibetan Buddhism and yoga. A great many people have had to rethink their allegiances to one organization or another. Many feel deeply betrayed. Too many have been harmed.

I’ve been thinking about our relationship to spiritual communities for a long time, but more recently I’ve been pondering the question: what, specifically, do we tend to bring to them of our own? If the teacher is mature, genuine, they will not encourage students to treat them as a spiritual dictator. Their purpose is to uplift the student, after all, not to dwell above them. But at the same time why should we expect — in the spiritual supermarket which extraordinary economic prosperity and the free flow of all the world’s information inevitably has brought us — that spiritual communities would not inhabit the same full spectrum of integrity as everything else? In other words, banally, power corrupts. Safeguards are always needed.

I think two areas of work must be engaged with. The first is to call out genuine abusiveness where it has been shown to exist, and help all who have been afflicted by it. The further educational need here is this: Asian religious traditions retain an aura of exoticism and unfathomable depth in the West, while at the same time very few people actually know anything about them. This means: a very human situation, in which insufficiently critical seekers long for meaningful spiritual community, and certain others come along to exploit them. The latter group seems to fall into two different categories: those who know what they’re doing all along, and those who become corrupted by power. But the point is that it’s an interdependent situation: without naivety/uncritical thinking, the exploitative teacher doesn’t succeed. So I think we need to focus on both sides.

The larger point is a truism which is nonetheless true: we’re all just human beings in the big human soup together. Our mistake lies in thinking that anyone teaching something “spiritual” dwells above or outside of that soup. Of course, some might profess some kind of enlightenment (personally, my own reaction whenever I hear this is the opposite of what might be intended), and straightforwardly build a power structure from the beginning. But more usually abusive communities hold together as a result of a number of other people silencing in good faith some nagging doubt in their minds — again out of the very human fear of losing their world, their friends, the warmth, the certainty.

Serendipitously, I just thought of a late poem of Allen Ginsberg’s called “Elephant in the Meditation Hall.” It begins by referencing all the religious scandals of his time, then continues:

… And New Left carried psychedelic pictures of Mao, Che Guevara &
++++Castro up and down Empire State’s stairways
A scandal of the sixties! …
What US president hasn’t sponsored war, Lumumba’s assassination, an
++++H-bomb, …
Scandal hundreds homeless under Brooklyn Bridge freezing Xmas &
++++New Year’s Eve! Millions homeless in America!
Who’ll gotta pay for 500,000 U.S. boys & girls visiting Arabian Deserts!
Who’ll cough up billions for Iraq War to save a President’s face?
Twelve Billion dollars mickeymouse the year’s drug wars?
El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala we paid death squads for decades
Nobody does anything right! Gods, Popes, Mullahs, Communists,
++++Poets, Financiers!
My own life, scandal! lazy bum! secondhand royal scarlet ties & Yves St.
++++Laurent Salvation Army blazers …

on inspiration

The Chronicle Project site, a tribute to the life and teachings of the extraordinary Tibetan Buddhist lama Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, has a “quote at random” feature, and the other day when I visited this one came up (from “One Stroke” in Dharma Art, page 100):

Genuine inspiration is not particularly dramatic. It’s very ordinary. It comes from settling down in your environment and accepting situations as natural. Out of that you begin to realize that you can dance with them. So inspiration comes from acceptance rather than from having a sudden flash of a good gimmick coming up in your mind….Inspiration has two parts: openness and clear vision, or in Sanskrit, shunyata and prajna. Both are based on the notion of original mind, traditionally known as buddha mind, which is blank, nonterritorial, noncompetitive, and open.

“gooey prickles and prickly goo”: Alan Watts on our two models of reality and the nature of consciousness

The books of Alan Watts – to whom several websites have been dedicated (here, here, and here) – were an early inspiration to me. It was nice to rediscover him recently through some of the large number of audio recordings of his talks that can be found at the linked websites and on YouTube.

Earlier in life an Anglican priest, he evolved into a teacher of a highly original mix of Zen, Hindu, and Taoist thought. And unlike so many freestyle teachers out there, he had no interest in becoming a guru and didn’t enrich himself at the expense of those who came to hear him. He was an especially powerful communicator and catalyst of a bigger way of seeing.

In a three-part talk called “The Nature of Consciousness,” of which Part 1 is embedded below, he describes our predicament as caught between two untenable models of reality, which he calls the “ceramic” model and the “fully automatic” model. The “ceramic” model posits that the universe and world and all living beings were and are literally made by a Potter/Artificer who somehow stands utterly apart and outside of His/Her/Its creation. The “fully automatic” model arose out of Science throwing out the “lawmaker” (as superfluous to the process of making and testing predictions), but keeping the “law.”

This has been the dominant paradigm of our culture for several decades, its foundational assumption being materialism:

1) only what we can perceive with our human physical senses and measure with our technologies really exists;

2) beings and things are autonomous, separable from one another and their world;

3) there is no such thing as mind or consciousness;

4) we are machines, directed by chemistry;

5) various combinations of genes produce not only everything physical about us but our unimaginably complex emotional and behavioral lives too;

6) they do this via neurochemistry.

The common use of the concept “scientism” is more recent than the 1960s, when this talk was given, but Watts well and characteristically insightfully describes this View – again, the default View of our culture – at the deeper psychological level. I’ve transcribed portions of the talk.

[31:01]

…because what we really believe is the fully automatic model. And that is our basic, plausible common sense: “You are a fluke, you are a separate event, and you run from the maternity ward to the crematorium and that’s it baby. That’s it.”

[34:10]

…the people who coined the fully automatic theory of the universe were playing a very funny game. What they wanted to say was this: “All you people who believe in religion are old ladies and wishful thinkers. You’ve got a big Daddy up there and you want comfort and things, but life is rough. Life is tough, and success goes to the most hard-headed people.” That was a very convenient theory when the European-American world was colonizing the natives everywhere else. They said: “We’re the end product of evolution, and we’re tough, see? I’m a big strong guy because I face facts, and life is just a bunch of junk, and I’m going to impose my will on it and turn it into something else, you see. And I’m real hard.” See that’s a way of flattering yourself.

And so, it has become academically plausible and fashionable that this is the way the world works. In academic circles, no other theory of the world than the fully automatic model is respectable. Because if you’re an academic person you’ve got to be an intellectually tough person. You’ve got to be prickly.

There are basically two kinds of philosophy. One’s called Prickles, the other’s called Goo. And prickly people are precise, rigorous, logical. They like everything chopped up and clear. Goo people like it vague. For example, in physics, prickly people believe that the ultimate constituents of matter are particles. Goo people believe it’s waves. And in philosophy, prickly people are logical positivists and goo people are idealists. And they’re always arguing with each other, but what they don’t realize is that neither one can take his position without the other person. Because you wouldn’t know you advocated prickles unless there was somebody else advocating goo. You wouldn’t know what a prickle was unless you knew what goo was. Because life is not either prickles or goo, it’s gooey prickles and prickly goo.

[37:00]

But however, you see, this whole idea that the universe is just nothing at all but unintelligent force playing around and not even enjoying it is a put-down theory of the world. People who had an advantage to make, a game to play by putting it down, and making out that because they put the world down they were a superior kind of people. So that just won’t do. We’ve had it. Because if you seriously go along with this idea of the world you’re what is technically called alienated. You feel hostile to the world. You feel that the world is a trap. It is a mechanism, it’s electronic and neurological mechanisms into which you somehow got caught.

[39:05]

So you see, all I’m trying to say is that the basic common sense about the nature of the world that is influencing most people in the United States today, the fully automatic model, is simply a myth. If you want to say that the idea of God the Father with his white beard on the golden throne is a myth, in the bad sense of the word “myth,” so is this other one. It’s just as phony and has just as little to support it as being the true state of affairs.

Why? Let’s get this clear. If there is any such thing at all as intelligence, and love, and beauty, well, you’ve found it in other people. In other words it exists in us as human beings. And as I said, if it is there, in us, it is symptomatic of the scheme of things.

We are as symptomatic of the scheme of things as the apples are symptomatic of the apple tree or the rose of the rose bush. The Earth is not a big rock infested with living organisms any more than your skeleton is bones infested with cells. The Earth is geological, yes, but this geological entity grows people, and our existence on the Earth is a symptom of the solar system, and its balances, as much as the solar system in turn is a symptom of our galaxy, and our galaxy in its turn is a symptom of the whole company of galaxies. Goodness only knows what that’s in.

But you see, when as a scientist you describe the behavior of a living organism, you try to say what a person does. It’s the only way in which you can describe what a person is: describe what they do. Then you find out that in making this description you cannot confine yourself to what happens inside the skin. In other words you can’t talk about a person walking unless you start describing the floor, because when I walk I don’t just dangle my legs in empty space. I move in relationship to a room. And so in order to describe what I’m doing when I’m walking I have to describe the room. I have to describe the territory. So in describing my talking at the moment, I can’t describe this just as a thing in itself, because I’m talking to you.

And so what I’m doing at the moment is not completely described unless your being here is described also. So if that is necessary, if in other words in order to describe my behavior I have to describe your behavior and the behavior of the environment, it means that we’ve really got one system of behavior. That what I am involves what you are. I don’t know who I am unless I know who you are. And you don’t know who you are unless you know who I am.

There was a wise Rabbi once said “If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.” In other words we are not separate. We define each other; we’re all backs and fronts to each other. You know, you can’t for example have two sticks. You lean two sticks against each other and they stand up, because they support each other. Take one away and the other falls. They interdepend. And so in exactly that way we and our environment and all of us and each other are interdependent systems. We know who we are in terms of other people; we all lock together. And this is, again and again, the serious scientific description of how things happen, and any good scientist knows, therefore, that what you call the external world is as much you as your own body. Your skin doesn’t separate you from the world. It’s a bridge through which the external world flows into you, and you flow into it.

Just for example as a whirlpool in water, you could say because you have a skin you have a definite shape, you have a definite form. Right? Here is a flow of water, and suddenly it does a whirlpool, and then it goes on. The whirlpool is a definite form, but no water stays put in it. The whirlpool is something the stream is doing, and exactly the same way, the whole universe is doing each one of us, and I see you today and I recognize you tomorrow, just as I would recognize a whirlpool in a stream. I’d say “Oh yes, I’ve seen that whirlpool before, it’s just near so-and-so’s house on the edge of the river, and it’s always there.” So in the same way when I meet you tomorrow, I recognize you. You’re the same whirlpool you were yesterday. But you’re moving. The whole world is moving through you: all the cosmic rays, all the food you’re eating, the stream of steaks and milk and eggs and everything is just flowing right through you. When you’re wiggling the same way, the world is wiggling, the stream is wiggling you.

But the problem is, you see, we haven’t been taught to feel that way. The myths underlying our culture and underlying our common sense have not taught us to feel identical with the universe, but only parts of it, only in it, only confronting it: aliens. And we are, I think, quite urgently in need of coming to feel that we are the eternal universe, each one of us. Otherwise we’re going to go out of our heads. We’re going to commit suicide, collectively, courtesy of H-bombs. And all right, supposing we do, well that will be that, and there will be life-making experiments on other galaxies. Maybe they’ll find a better game.

[Edit (1/22/15): embedded video removed as it is no longer online, alas. Hopefully it can be reuploaded at some future point. I will check periodically.]

“My Reincarnation” (documentary)

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This one took me by surprise. It’s a film documenting the relationship between the Dzogchen teacher Namkhai Norbu and his son, now known as Khyentse Yeshe (Dzogchen is a term indicating the pinnacle and most direct path within the ancient Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.) Filmed over the course of 20 years by Jennifer Fox, it surely must represent the most intimate visual portrait of a Tibetan lama to date. At times watching it, in fact, it’s hard to fathom how a family would put up with that degree of intrusion for so long: we see them at the dinner table, preparing for teaching events, and discussing all kinds of personal matters. It caused me to remember a comment in one of Trungpa Rinpoche’s books, to the effect that a bodhisattva has no room for privacy in their life at all, is completely open to the demands of the world.

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Namkhai Norbu, like a number of eminent teachers but unlike so terribly many more, managed to escape over the mountains from Tibet in 1959, during the Chinese invasion. He ended up in Italy, where he still lives, and married an Italian woman. At the beginning of the film his son Yeshi – as he was then called – is about 17, deeply respectful of his father but not all that connected to the practice of buddhism. We hear him lament the relationship he has with his father, which lacks the kind of ordinary, Italian familial warmth he wishes for.

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But that relationship contains an added wrinkle, because Yeshi, when still in his mother’s womb, was “recognized” as a tulku, the rebirth of a lama – in this case Namkhai Norbu’s own uncle, Khyentse Rinpoche (not the most famous such with this name, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, but a lama who died in Tibet at the hands of the Chinese). Without pressuring his son either to take up his vocation or even to practice, he nonetheless has made it clear how important a responsibility he feels is on Yeshi’s shoulders. And many others around him, too, have high expectations and await the time when he will begin to manifest as a teacher. Yeshi himself remembers many dreams he had at a young age of particular places in Tibet he had of course never seen. However, he chooses a job in the business world, marries, and begins raising a family.

The film moves leisurely through the years, giving us glimpses of Namkhai Norbu teaching and relating to his students.

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We see him, very ill, in a hospital bed, and then well again and out in the world (having decided, he says, that he needed to stay alive and continue teaching). And we also see – a highlight of the film – wonderful and equally up-close footage of the Dalai Lama during a visit to Italy (in the stills below Yeshi at about 17 is in the foreground).

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At a certain point I realized the film had crept up on me in a remarkable way. Yeshi begins involving himself more and more in Dzogchen practice and helping his father during teachings and empowerments. And then one day, without particular fanfare, he decides finally to visit Tibet, where he has been awaited by students of the previous Khyentse Rinpoche for over 40 years…

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Those for whom the entire tulku system is alien and maybe even suspect might not know what to make of this portion of the film. I place myself somewhat in the middle between such a group and those who have strong faith in that system – though probably a little closer to the former – yet I found these scenes very moving.

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The film ends with Yeshi beginning to teach as a lama himself – in a casual, 21st-century-style. He comes across as very genuine and open throughout the film, and in a scene between him and his father at the end there is a greater ease between them that is lovely to see. Here, Namkhai Norbu is playing the flute and joking that it would have been “much easier” if he’d chosen to be a musician instead of a teacher…

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In fact, I liked this so much I ended up watching it again a couple of days later… All in all, quite a beautiful look into the life of a beloved Tibetan lama, the pressures and difficulties of being a son of whom very much is expected, and the journey which the latter takes to come fully into his own.

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