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Adorable pic of Dharmage

I had the great pleasure of being interviewed on the Dharmage podcast that was released today. The website and podcast Dharmage is done by the same woman you may recall from the Full Contact Enlightenment blog that had a good long run. I’m not saying her name because she wrote that one of the reasons she gave up her former blog was online harassment. Cryin’ shame, because this woman is one of those very special people who easily finds the sweet spot between cool and humble. Her interview style resembles Terry Gross from the Fresh Air radio show—somehow she managed to get this introvert chirping, and even talking over her at times, because I found her questions so intriguing. Listen Now.




Integrating Dharma into Daily Life

How would you suggest integrating Dharma into daily life, based on your own example? Especially, how to overcome the excuse of having no time?

Venerated lineage holder of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism

“You have to make time. There is enough time. You work eight hours a day. Some people then say: I have no time to practice. But instead they go to a bar, sit front of the television, go to the movies, or do other things. If you really want to practice, then you have to give up those things. It is not necessary to cut yourself off from life completely, but you must slowly eliminate distraction. If you practice all the time, then your mind becomes tired. That is not so good—you lose concentration. Then you can watch a little television, read some books (not Dharma books), you can go for a walk in the forest or on the beach, or work in the garden—you can do those sorts of things. Also, if you work in a job where you do not need to talk, you can recite mantras while you are working. At work, or when I do my house duties, I recite a lot of prayers; sometimes I do mantras, sometimes I sing Tibetan songs.”

–Jetsün Kushok Chimey Luding

from Cho Yang, Norbulinka Institute, 1996, page 99


Advice about Retreat

“We need the advice of teachers who have actually done long retreat, not those who have simply read about the process from texts. We can read the texts ourselves, but we can’t read between the lines: what it is like to do the practice; how we should feel or not feel; how to know when we are pushing too hard or not enough; when to move on to the next step. This information is not in the text. It has always been passed directly from teacher to student. The texts are generalized instructions; our teacher personalizes the instructions for us. We really do need a teacher.”


Christine Skarda, a Buddhist nun who has spent much of the past twenty-five years on retreat.

Buddhadharma Magazine, Winter 2016, p. 50


Turn toward, then take a good look.


“As much as possible, I attempt to step toward my distress rather than turn away at the first whiff of discomfort. A better way to put it might be to turn toward, rather than immediately turn away from, distress—turn toward, then take a good look. It’s clear that responses are often governed by habits that have carved a path over time, and we can develop a habit of turning away from—or rushing toward—distress.”


Setsuan Gaelyn Godwin, the abbot of the Houston Zen Center

From Buddhadharma, the practitioner’s quarterly, Winter 2016, p. 22

A Visit to the Buddhist Church of Oakland

I had a wonderful experience today. I attended the weekly family service the Buddhist Church of Oakland. The people were very warm and welcoming. A jolly fellow named Jon Takagaki—from the Board of Directors—showed me around, and sat next to me in the service… kindly showing me through their hymnal-style liturgies. The service is less than an hour long and geared to families with children.

Although the temple primarily caters to the Japanese-American community, the services were mainly in English. The organization is a branch of the Buddhist Churches of America, the American form of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Japanese Buddhism. I believe this is the second oldest Jodo Shinshu temple in America. The roots of the organization begin in 1901, and by the 20’s they had built this large and beautiful temple. In the fifties, the temple was physically divided in two and moved to its present location, due to interstate highway construction.


Amida Buddha and Shinran

Amida Buddha, known as Amitabha in Sanskrit, is an important figure in the broader Mahayana tradition of which all the northern traditions of Buddhism are a part, such as Tibetan, Japanese, and Chinese forms. The Jodo Shinshu tradition was founded by Shinran— a twelfth-century monk who disrobed. He taught that since Amitabha vowed to save all beings from suffering in samsara, the most appropriate practice for later times was to have faith and devotion to Amitabha, and recite his name as an expression of gratitude. Since it was not necessary to be a monk, this simple, joyful, practice thrived among lay people.  Here is a statue of Shinran from the church lobby>>>



<<<This is a representation of Amida Buddha in his pure land. One of the senseis, priests, was cleaning before the service.

A bunch of things inspired me as a lay person who hosts Buddhist practices in my home:

  • The value of having a super-friendly person to greet newcomers and accompany them throughout their first visit.
  • It was great to have a designated time in the service when old-timers introduced new-comers and were welcomed by the sangha.
  • Extremely simple, happy English sing-alongs with organ music were uplifting.
  • This day a teen girl officiated at the service, and that was really cool.
  • Like a church, there was coffee and pastries both before and after. You can’t go wrong with that.
  • A sensei gave a short dharma teaching that focused on inclusion. As someone with different (empty) identities than the majority (white, lesbian), I felt I would not be rejected.
  • The liturgies were upbeat, focusing on joy and gratitude. Who wouldn’t like that?

The Vow of Princess Moon of Wisdom

Once upon a time, after having been told by a monk that she could not attain complete awakening as a woman, Princess Wisdom Moon made the following vow:

There are many who wish to gain enlightenment in a man’s form, and there are but few who wish to work for the welfare of living beings in a female form. Therefore may I, in a female body, work for the welfare of beings right until samsara has been emptied.

Thus was the intention that gave birth to the Bodhisattva Arya Tara.

There is Only One Complete Nature

“This is wonderful, my dear. In Buddhism, there are no distinctions between people. There is only this—each person must hold fast to the desire to awaken and cultivate a heart of great compassion. People are complete as they are. If you don’t call into delusive thoughts; there is no Buddha and no sentient being; there is only one complete nature.”—Elderly Nun, 13th century Japan

The Fog of Grief

It rolls in like the fog creeping under the Golden Gate. It is the leaden, motherless, mantle of sorrow. The fundamental discernment of how short of expectations this life will fall.

My life hip joint pains me when I flex it outward. All the yoga and bodywork in the world may not make it be otherwise. For, part-by-part, my human body will fail.

I miss the optimistic glistening of a woman’s skin held close in the sunlight of some heroic locale; the tippy-top of a boulder or the City Hall steps of some Republican stronghold. Now: there are only my own soft folds of fat. My facial skin no longer snaps back flat, but falls naturally into pouty, sour, shape. Women reject me. I reject them.

The fog grabs me by the chicken neck. Cold and damp.At these times there is only one way forward: to take the hand of the loving mother as big as the world.

She balances me on her knee and brushes my hair. She stands me up and straightens my clothes. I must merely set down my many platters of good works and let her. The task of the grieving is to let her love

A Practice that Shifts You

If you feel stuck in your practice, as though your meditation is not creating a permanent shift away from your tired old patterns, consider introducing some deity practice from the Tibetan tradition. 

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard from a couple of folks in Buddhist traditions famous for plain sitting practice that they’ve found some deity practice to their routine after many years in quietude. One man mentioned that he’d adopted a rarely done Korean Zen practice of self-visualization as Buddha with all symbolic the marks and signs of Buddhahood. Isn’t that interesting?

In deity practice (called by various names in the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism) you move away from viewing yourself as an ordinary human being and make your practice finding your natural Buddhaness. To to this, you re-envision yourself, born as fully awakened. Instead of a human mother’s womb, you can see that you are born from a perfect lotus flower that supports you. Your stainless mind does not split into two, taking a position based on conceptual judgements—that kind of wisdom—is represented as a flat sun on top of your lotus. Because of your vast realization, you’re always helping others in the most effective ways. The moon disk that you sit or stand upon represents this ability. The world around you is a perfect palace and the people you meet are Buddhas: you may look around and see them arrayed in all directions. Think like that.

Deity as Accelerant

There are many, many Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism and all are ways of depicting the qualities of enlightenment. The teachings of the Buddha as told in the Mahayana sutras, say that gathering the necessary merit and wisdom to reach enlightenment takes aeons. Whole worlds can end and new ones form before you reach enlightenment from doing good deeds and peacefully meditating. If we believe that, then it is an understatement to say the pace of spiritual development from practicing Mahayana is glacial. Deity practices, and the practices that follow them, are for those who don’t want to wait that long. 

Remembering the Deity means Forgetting Your Engrained Habits

There are many traditional deity practices in Tibetan Buddhism. What I have seen be a very powerful approach is for people to practice the deity/Buddha who represents the karmic habit that is most prominent in their mindstreams. We believe in karma, don’t we? Karma means our tendencies, disposition.—the ones that guide our trajectory in this life, propel us into the particular style of dumb-ass situations that we find ourselves in, over and over again. For example, when I was a kid, I tried unsuccessfully to fight off a certain kind of physical abuse.  The feeling of being embattled comes up repeatedly for me, and can drag me down. Practicing the deity Vajrakilaya, a great big blue Buddha who radiates flames and wields a mighty dagger, leads the recurrent storyline in a new direction. As Vajrakilaya, I am leading an army—but it is a force raised against my own delusion. The mandala of the deity becomes a theater in which I can slay my own seemingly perpetual drama. I can wage a heroic struggle to wake up in this very life.

Someone who feels they must always strive for more and more knowledge might be drawn to the peaceful deity Manjushri, who uses a book and a great sword that cuts through stupidity with incisive clarity as tools. Ironically, he or she will develop a mind less cluttered by a multitude of thoughts become accustomed to resting in a state of pristine clarity beyond thought. 

Someone who holds kind protective motherhood as the highest ideal might find him or herself working with Tara practice. In the process she may find she becomes a mother to herself and expands her love from being narrowly focused, caring for the people closest to her, and a state of uniform adoption. Everyone—human and non-human—are her children. Even within this motherhood paradigm, there are twenty-one different styles to suit every kind of divine mother; the activist Green Tara, the sensual Kurukulla, the immortal White Tara, the creative and musical Saraswati, and so on.

Guru Rinpoche is the embodiment of the ultimate guiding principle, the spiritual teacher. And within that archetype, Guru Rinpoche practices many professions, from wizard, to religious scholar, to peaceful monk, to a fierce and powerful  Superhero subduing negative forces. 

How to Enter into the Practice

You don’t enter into this practice on your own. A lama who has done the practice in-depth themselves initiates you. If you’ve ever seen an announcement for  something called an “empowerment,” that’s it. It is usually a group event.

Before you decide to attend an empowerment, it’s critical that you investigate the lama. He or she must be someone you will be able to view purely for your entire lifetime. I suggest Googling them (“_lama’s name_____ controversy”, “_lama’s name_____ fake,” etc) and ask around before you go. Check to see that they are truly recognized and respected within their lineage of Tibetan Buddhism—Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya, Gelug, Jonang, or Bon.

The order of things goes like this, ideally: 1. Empowerment/initiation ceremony 2. Reading transmission. 3. Instructions how to do the practice. 4. You ‘re given a practice text to take home with you. 

Make a practice of viewing the lama, and circle of student were also present for the empowerment, in the best light. Leave with the contact info of someone, be it a senior student or the lama, to follow-up with if you have questions.

How to Wrestle with the Practice

Until recently, these practices were initially done in a three to six-month secluded retreat. Afterwards, you would practice it in daily life, often with a quite abbreviated text. Nowadays, most of the lamas have developed guidelines for doing these practices in working life. They are delighted when folks show up saying they want to seriously wrestle with the practice they have been given, on a daily basis. If you have already developed a disciplined daily practice routine, such as mindfulness, zen, shambhala, or vipassana, it’s appropriate to tell the lama that. You can say “I already do x minutes of silent sitting practice a day.” You can ask “How can I work this into my routine?” How you integrate the practice with your life should be in harmony with the lama’s instructions. Because the great lamas of today often travel the world and have many students, you may or may not see them again in the near term. But, still, you should think that tyou are practicing in concert with the lama and the specific lineage of enlightened masters that preceded him or her.

You will recite mantras and count them with a mala or counter, apply yourself to visualizations, cultivate an enlightened perspective. At its most basic level, the practice is like any mindfulness meditation of the various Buddhist traditions. You bring your attention the object of focus. Your attention wonders. You gently bring it back. Sound familiar?

This is one way you can take the fruit as the path. By that I mean you can focus on deities, representations of enlightenment itself, as a practice. Your need to chatter is given something to do; recite mantra. Your busy thinking mind is given something to do; visualize. Your restless body is given something to do; count mantra.

While maintaining a trusting and respectful attitude toward the lama, you can have some curiosity and an open mind. Notice what your experience is after a day or a week of doing a deity practice daily. Has anything shifted? What? After another week or month, you can ask someone close to you how you have seemed to them lately. While it’s a long shot that you will break through to the Bodhisattva levels in that time (maybe everyone has but me, I have no way of knowing) changes are possible in a short period. These can be built upon over months or years.

Beyond Our Little Minds

Practicing as Deity/Buddha

Practicing deity gets us out of our narrow little minds and forever changes us. Viewing ourselves as a fully enlightened being from the start of our day to the very finish helps us skip steps on the path of awakening. It’s called “taking the result as the path.”  We envision ourselves, not as a flesh and blood mortal with limitations, but as a transcendent being of made of light, in a web of connection with all the Buddhas of the past present and future.

It sounds trippy, and akin to New Age talk. But really it is a very grounded way to practice. You may actually find yourself as being characterized as less “spiritual” than many people around you. You’re not dependent on fantasizing about things like aliens and “the other side.” Your path has nothing to do with reifying supernatural experiences.


As a Buddhist practitioner of deity, engaging in the recitation of the sound of deity (mantra), the self-characterization of your body as light, your mind as vast and awakened, you become a big picture person. You naturally are more patient, and your vocabulary starts to reflect that as words like “aeons,” “universe,” “expanse,” “limitless” creep in, unbidden.  As Lama Tharchin Rinpoche one said, “the deity never goes to the emergency room.” Your body goes to the emergency room, but your mind regards the doctors and nurses as the retinue of your deity, and the hospital as the deity’s palace.

The Role of the Wisdom Lama

It is the wisdom lama’s job to give you the empowerment, oral transmission, and instruction on the practice… and to convince you that this deity practice is the most important and special one in the whole world. (I mean the boundless universe.)

Then, you take the sacred text you are given home and merge with it. Let it help you recognize that you were born from stainless purity, envisioned as a lotus seat after having been conceived as a non-conceptual core sound such as TAM, HRIH, or HUNG. You are powered by the turning wheel of a mantra, not material food and cellular mitochondria.

A practical, stable, way of practice that is not dependent on your material body being perfect or the circumstances of life being calm, quiet or pleasant. Perfect for these times, where external appearances are speedy, constantly changing, frightening.

Engage with the wisdom lamas, don’t be a passive lout who just goes to ceremonies for the blessings. Take up a deity practice you are given with curiosity and fortitude and the payoff will be immense.