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.

America’s culture of fear – in a photo (1)

sign

I took this photo last summer. The sign appears in the window of a service station/convenience store in upstate New York and provides, I think, an especially compact illustration of an entire story that can be told about our collective psyche these days.

Before telling it in my next post, a few words as introduction:

It’s not hard to see that fears have a kind of self-propagating or self-aggrandizing power. They are ravenous, ever-expanding, until we can begin to examine them. This is so because fear designates precisely that which is beyond the pale, unencounterable, for what cannot be faced becomes to that extent inescapable. Ordinarily we see this most clearly in nightmares, when we are at the mercy of our mind’s projections. Within the nightmare we are bodiless and so running away doesn’t – can’t – succeed: we are attempting, impossibly, to flee ourselves.

The Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa taught that becoming a “warrior” (in the sense of a spiritual warrior) does not mean being free of fear or cultivating a tough exterior. Rather, it arises out of a very different quality, which is the capacity to open fully to the world, to allow the world with all its phenomena in, so that we can actually be touched by it. He suggested that when we do so its effect is to soften us, and that out of this “tender heart of sadness,” as he called it, our long-cultivated dualities of Self and Other can begin to soften too. The Berlin Walls in our minds become more permeable.

A glimpse of genuine fearlessness can arise out of this experience because in that moment we are not trying to protect ourselves and our territory in quite the same way. Ultimately, we fear anything which threatens our belief in a separate, independent, unchanging Self. It naturally follows that allowing our habitual defences to soften, “letting the world tickle our raw and beautiful heart,” as Trungpa so wonderfully put it, fosters the birth of true warriorship.

(From this standpoint an American president once said something truly profound – who’d have thought?!: “the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself.”)

Returning to nightmares in this context, I’ve been told by more than one person that if, when confronted by a monster in a dream, we can stay with it, face it, ideally even take a step in its direction, it will lose its power over us, even dissolve or turn into a harmless- or sad-looking cartoon character. Best of all is when the dreamer is able to feel a sense of compassion towards it.

So then, what happens when we do the opposite, when instead of trying to take a step forward, even a tiny one, or at least not running away, we … slowly back up, in rising panic. Or just turn round and run for the hills. Does the fear go away?

Well, how can it? We’ve only shored it up, made it even more solid. From this standpoint “fear itself” is nothing other than the duality we continuously strengthen. It resides in and arises from precisely that ultimately non-existent gap between self and projection. But the more powerful we allow it to become, the more layers of protection we will find ourselves creating. The whole thing becomes tighter and tighter. And more and more demons have to be invented too – scapegoats we sacrifice to keep the nature of reality at bay.

A metaphor that comes to me often in thinking about this is that of an onion. If the core of the onion represents a fear we cannot even look at, we create a layer around it as opaque as possible. But if for various reasons the fear is so strong that one layer isn’t enough, we add a second – we put something in place which protects us from our initial barrier that we realize is not 100% strong enough. And then sometimes we need a third layer if we sense the second itself may be a bit fragile. So that when something becomes so taboo that we are incapable of looking at it at all, incapable of any kind of reasoned response, the end result is hysteria – and loss of humanity.

In the next two posts I try and deconstruct, fairly thoroughly, the quite numerous layers of that onion of fear which are embedded in the photo above. And suggest that in America today this approach has become our routine, automatic, indeed pathological response to insecurity and uncertainty of all kinds.

the most radical word

My candidate is interdependence.

The Beatles, in tune with the later 1960s as a whole, sang that all we need is love, but what “love” are we talking about? Clearly not that espoused by, say, the Westboro Baptist Church, or other fundamentalist groups. The trouble is that it’s been a highly amorphous word for a long, long time. We could say we mean something like “selfless, unconditional, universal compassion,” but most of the time in our culture the word is tied to the realm of romantic relationship, which itself tends to manifest in a definitely un-radical, however desirable, direction (cf. D.H. Lawrence calling the cult of the Couple “égoïsme à deux”). In any case, it’s simply not going to wash calling the subject of one of the silliest major holidays of the year – ie Valentine’s Day – the “most radical word!” We must try again.

Others might opt for justice, but I think we’re moving even further away here. For one thing, the concept is still so steeped in a retributive mindset, and the notion of punishment seems precisely one of the most literally reactionary impulses we have. Even were we able to move more fully in the direction of a restorative approach, I believe by that stage the word “justice” itself would probably have dropped off. In fact, this is already occurring within the field, which has been evolving into the more expansive notion of “restorative practices” – see here, here, and here for further information on one of the most enlightened developments going on today. (And take a look at this wonderful interview with the founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg, which fully complements these approaches.)

Still others might say freedom is the most radical word. I have a little more sympathy with this choice, because it is said of the fully realized state that it’s one of complete freedom: no sense of compulsion, no anxiety, no personal concerns, no agonizing over decisions, no regret or fear. But again, in our culture the dominant meanings of “freedom” are nowhere near so radical, tending to be confined to the political realm. And here we see the same lack of clarity and degree of contestation too: both “left” and “right” employ the word often and centrally, but in some exceptionally divergent ways.

Shifting gears, I can imagine that some of those who are religiously identified might claim God for the most radical word. Or perhaps a buddhist might nominate the dharma, meaning roughly “the way it all is/the nature of reality itself.” A taoist might prefer the tao, meaning the same thing although emphasizing the notion and practice of “nature’s way” specifically. But it doesn’t take more than a moment of gazing at our world to realize that the word “God” in its various translations has also helped bring about an awful lot of disharmony and violence. The God of Pat Robertson or of his counterparts in the Jewish and Muslim worlds bears almost no resemblance to the God of Rumi or Hafiz, say, or Thomas Merton, or Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

shapeimage_2Photo credit: “Reb Zalman greeting the Dalai Lama at the Naropa Institute” (Foto di Vita, 1997) – from The Yesod Foundation’s Reb Zalman Legacy Project

Interdependence has a number of things in its favor as a nominee for “most radical word.” For one, it is both a “wisdom” word (pointing to the nature of reality) and a “practice” word (directly indicating how we might actually see and live our lives). It’s also an inherently non-sectarian word, one which anyone can use. Most especially – as would befit a truly radical word – as we delve more and more deeply into it, it affects our relationship with everything. With:

our bodies and understanding of health
our minds, each other, animals, and the natural world
business and the economy
technology
all the institutions we create
the building of community
the communal/political process
situations of conflict and harm
other cultures
climate change and other urgent global challenges

“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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