Almost Impossible

 

One time, many years ago, I was looking for something to read in an airport bookstore. I picked up a book on leadership to quell the boredom on the long flight ahead of me. At the time, I was the director of a nursing home, a very stressful role.

One of the main points of leadership according to the leadership guru, was that a goal so high that it seems almost impossible will inspire people much more than aiming low.

I’m thinking about that now, as. I do notice as a Buddhist teacher that the axiom of high goals being more powerful is holding true. For example, this year I experimented with offering Buddhist group practices four or five times a month at my house. Once a month I offered an opportunity for people who had been practicing Nyingma Buddhism with our amazing lamas to come learn how to the shrine attendant for a three-hour ceremonial feast. I learned how to do this in a three-year group retreat. It is incredibly complicated and involves learning Tibetan vocabulary, memorizing the order and meaning of an opera-length text, moving gracefully in specific ways, great time pressure, and so on.

On the other days of the month, I offered an easy and beautiful one hour practice with no ritual, where people just needed to come.

You guessed it. The complicated program which adds stress and pressure to people’s participation is the one that is growing and thriving, and almost no one comes to the easy stuff.

Then, of course, we think about the vast motivation of the Bodhisattva, who vows to attain enlightenment and then return to a life of suffering in cyclic existence to guide all sentient beings (all!) to enlightenment–“emptying the pit of samsara”—as they say.  You seemingly can’t get more pie-in-the-sky than that.

am poised to launch Mayum Mountain, an organization dedicated to bringing the practice and insights of Tibetan Buddhism into Western life, as a non-profit in the coming months. Should I keep it small, just at a level to make it possible to take checks when people come to the house for programs? Or, should I create a legacy program that involves a lot of people doing big things?

I have a feeling I know which one would thrive.

What do we do with these people?

How to Transmit Genuine Dharma in the West

When a Himalayan lama moves to the West, and begins to gain followers, he or she is faced with many decisions about how to do things in a different society from which they were raised and trained.

Today, I’ve been contemplating the various ways I’ve seen Tibetan and Bhutanese lamas who live in Western countries structure things at their centers.  I’m not posting this to make a political statement. Quite the opposite, I am posting this out of respect for the burden that lamas in positions of authority carry in ensuring Dharma in the West does not lose its authenticity or it’s power to transform the minds of disciples, now and in future generations.

Decisions needed

Practice in general:

  • Unelaborate, essentialized, practices are best for western students vs.
  • Long sadhanas and elaborate ceremonies and drupchens at a center are best for western students.

Recitations:

  • Practice sadhana in Western languages vs.
  • Practice in Tibetan only

Ritual and Art:

  • Teach ritual art to Western students vs.
  • Abandon or minimize ritual

Leadership:

  • Empower westerners as leaders and teachers vs.
  • Import leadership from Asia

The Practice Foundation:

  • Require the ngondro (foundational) of the tradition of new students vs.
  • Focus on other practices for new students

Regard for Great Masters:

  • A great master’s conduct should not be criticized or subject to local laws and customs.  vs.
  • Great masters should adapt their conduct to match the society in which they are teaching.

Technical Dharma Language:

  • Using Sanskrit terms is better vs.
  • Using Tibetan equivalent terms is better

Monasticism:

  • Encourage monasticism for western disciples vs.
  • Discourage monasticism

Scholasticism:

  • Encourage and teach the main scholastic doctrinal texts of the tradition vs.
  • Focus on encouraging practice

Translation:

  • Pay oral translators vs.
  • Rely on volunteer translators

Three-year Retreat:

  • Encourage three-year retreat for western disciples vs.
  • Encourage integrating practice and working life. vs.
  • Adapt three-year retreat program to be accomplished over a longer period of time in working life.

Vajrayana:

  • Require students have a thorough grounding in Mahayana Buddhism before receiving empowerment vs.
  • Open empowerments for all. Start with Vajrayana practice or ngondro.

Ceremonies:

  • Delegate enactment of ceremonies to competent Westerners vs.
  • Always have Himalayan lamas leading ceremonies.

Spiritual leadership:

  • Carry on patrilineal Himalayan family transmission of Dharma lineage authority vs.
  • Empower the daughters of Himalayan Rinpoche’s equally with the sons; as future lamas. vs.
  • Meritocracy; regarding all students as potential leaders based on ability, dedication, etc. vs.
  • Continue the tulku system and train future spiritual leaders in monasteries in Asia.

Closed Versus Open Contact with the Vajra Master

  • Surround the lama with a small circle of close disciples who serve as gatekeepers, vs.
  • Open-door policy.

Language and Culture training for Himalayan Lamas living abroad:

  • Himalayan lamas should work hard to learn the language in the country in which they teach and make attempts to understand the local culture, vs.
  • Himalayan lamas shouldn’t waste their time this.

What would you do if you had trained for your entire life in a traditional form of Tibetan Buddhism with great devotion, and found yourself dropped into a completely different society?

 

 

 

 

 

Entering the Vajrayana

Dudjom Rinpoche was perhaps the foremost teacher of teachers in the Nyingma lineage in the Twentieth century. Respected by all.

Over twenty years ago I developed an abiding love for the Indo-Tibetan spiritual tradition known as Vajrayana Buddhism. I launched myself onto this intense path of training after first establishing myself as a Buddhist and an aspiring Bodhisattva second, de-prioritizing my worldly happiness and emotional comfort and putting my spiritual path first.

Specifically, I contemplated the Buddha’s most fundamental teachings and started to meditate. Finding them flawless, I committed to the Buddhist path and went for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This was the first revolution inside me: seeing that I was being swept along thoughts that arose ceaselessly in my mind based on my prior karmic conditioning. I decided to change that.

This was a profound shift, and dramatic changes happened in my life as a result. I then studied the precious Bodhicitta, practiced tonglen (sending and taking.) Eventually I took the vow of the Bodhisattva, earnestly promising to return again and again to benefit all sentient beings without partiality. I shifted away from being someone who only cares about me and my people to someone who is equally concerned with the fate of scorpions, criminals, and people who are politically opposed to me. I was already a little different, but taking the Bodhisattva vow turned my priorities upside down from what they were before. It wasn’t something I did lightly.

After having studied the lives of some of the great enlightened masters of Tibet, I decided I wanted to become a disciple of a Vajrayana guru. I carefully researched the lamas now teaching, and the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism. I talked to practitioners older than I about their reputations. I knew from my readings that guru-disciple relationships were sometimes, perhaps usually, not easy. But I was one of those people who really wanted to explore my potential for spiritual awakening in-depth. I’m not someone who does things half-way.

I’m being real with you here. I am, indeed, this methodical.

After careful consideration, I requested that a lama teach me the Vajrayana. He accepted me as his disciple. Soon afterward, I received Abhisheka from him (Wang in Tibetan) a ceremony that was my gateway into Vajrayana Buddhism. Implicit in the ceremony was a commitment: I would view him as a fully awakened Buddha and never “go negative” and start judging him the way I judge other people all the time. For me, this commitment is like training wheels for the process of viewing everything as pure, and my conceptual mind as what needs changing. I’m not going to go more into that, because you can easily see that this is not a path that is appropriate for very many people. The best path for most people is to meditate and try to be a good person.

I have been very careful about my spiritual life, because it is most important to me. Some people have become swept up in Vajrayana Buddhism willy-nilly. They never learned about Buddhism, they never seriously committed to the aspiration to become a Bodhisattva. They have never even Googled the person to whom they entrusted their spiritual welfare – the guru they connected with could be Charles Manson or Shoko Asahara (Google!) for all they know. In the Himalayas, people know who the scoundrels and the good lamas are. They grew up with them.

Some people bring children to these initiations into these high-level practices intended for Bodhisattvas. I know I’m in the minority here, but I don’t think that is appropriate for our culture.

Why We Need to Be Careful Choosing Gurus

Current psychiatric thinking is that between 0.5-1% of the general population have Narcissistic Personality Disorder and most narcissists are male. About 3 percent of men and 1 percent of women are said to have Anti-Social Personality Disorder. Either type of person needs to be the center of attention. Taking on the role of a Guru would appeal to a narcissist or sociopath because it would provide that attention, as well as set up a situation in which it would be easy to gain wealth and sexual gratification without regard for the welfare of others. We want to avoid people like that like the plague. Right? Don’t be naïve.

Fortunately, the classical training for lamas was highly disciplined and boring. Narcissists and sociopaths are unlikely to have had the patience for the decades of training and meditation retreats necessary for the role. The young men viewed as destined for Buddhist teaching roles [long story] were closely supervised in their monastery or under a great lama’s direct oversight. In addition, if you read deeply into the literature, the role of Vajra Master—the guru who confers empowerment—requires actual realization. That means attainment of the first Bodhisattva level, a feat that regular rank-and-file Buddhist practitioners like me have not attained. In other words: they need to really have blessings. After that, well-educated and sopping wet with blessings, he or she can serve as a Vajrayana guru. Like the Buddha, who was perfectly content not to teach, someone needs to ask them for teachings. Out of great compassion, they relent.

Definitely look into the background and training, the years in retreat, and the endorsement of the teacher’s purported lineage before you take empowerment from anyone. Even though there are these safeguards in the Tibetan Buddhist system, it is pretty easy to do an end-run around them in this mobile era, particularly if the unqualified lama gains wealthy backers and a PR machine.

The Reward

In my opinion, there many humble, qualified and realized Vajra Masters in the world today. After all, there have been two thousand years of sincere people taking the Bodhisattva vow to return and help us. It isn’t rocket science to find them. Nor is it particularly difficult do basic vetting before entering into Vajrayana under a teacher’s guidance. Enter into the guru-disciple consciously: as a person who has already stabilized your mind with study, meditation, and contemplation.

For me, it has been fantastic training to work closely with three Tibetan lamas over the years.  Yes, there were palpable blessings and introductions to aspects of my mind that I didn’t know I had. I’ve also received immense support, inspiration, and kindness from my lamas. They corrected me when I lost my spiritual bearings. Like someone living a forest of scented trees, a bit of their kindness and patience has rubbed off on me… and all their other students.

Since my gurus are from another culture that is very different from America, there have been cultural misunderstandings and challenging times as well. Actually, if you can handle it, I suggest having a guru who is superficially very different from you. Maybe a Bernie liberal should have a conservative Republican guru and vice-versa. The bigger the gap, the more we have to stretch our idea of what “pure” and “Buddha” mean. The deal is: I see my gurus as Buddhas no matter what, and they see my Buddha nature and love me no matter what. Even if they say or do something that freaks me out, and my mind turns negative, I work it through, aiming towards viewing everything as a teaching, everything they do as altruistically motivated.

It’s a training process. That’s okay. The system of practices we do have built-in systems for purifying and re-orienting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like a Dancer on a Stage: The Reality of Impermanence

Back when I was a nurse, I witnessed a seventy-year-old woman wailing angrily over the unfairness of the natural passing of her ninety-year-old mother in a nursing home. I sat with a woman who’s lungs were shutting down and would not make it through the night as she demanded that I call the doctor one more time for better news. We come from a society where the endings of things, especially a human life, are hidden away—as though not thinking about them would make them go away.

The reality of the temporariness and changeability of everything, material and living, is a core Buddhist contemplation practice, which can be as simple as sitting down for five minutes and contemplating the seemingly obvious fact that most of the people who have populated the earth are now dead, that you, yourself, could suddenly be in a car accident or stricken by an incurable fatal disease and be gone. Every relationship you have will end when one or the other of you dies (at the very longest.) All the buildings around you will crumble to the ground or be torn down. The earth as we know it will cease to exist. Living with the deep understanding that this is so wipes out unrealistic expectations that can turn temporary into long lasting depression or anxiety.

Similar to the Stoics of Western Philosophy, Buddha advised getting a backbone and facing up to the fact that everything changes all the time. The ancient Buddhist texts say to think of yourself as a dancer fleetingly on a stage with others whirling on and off the stage around you. It can be a tremendous relief to truly take this teaching to heart.

To Be of Benefit

Gratitude to My Wisdom Lamas

It is said that the ability to meet with great spiritual beings is based on the combination of good karma and aspiration prayers made in previous lives. We who have not only encountered the great lamas of Tibet, but been personally guided by them for decades, should remember this.  And we should continue to pray from the bottom of our hearts.

In my case, several amazing Tibetan lamas turned my life around over the course of the past twenty-four years. The great master of the Great Perfection, the late Tsedrup Tharchin Rinpoche, has been my guiding light in the Vajrayana tradition since 1997. Wherever I go, I merely need to recall his beaming smile and I am restored.

Second, a mahasiddha from Tibet (who I will call Terton Dorje Ngak Rabsel to avoid the intrusive gaze of communist monitors of the internet) guided me for ten years in the practices of The Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse (Longchen Nyingthig) tradition.

I have also studied the practice of the inner tantras of the Nyingma tradition for fifteen years with the amazing master Lama Pema Dorje Rinpoche of California, Taiwan and Nepal. Rinpoche has intentionally maintained a low profile throughout his life, living as a role model for those who practice intensively at home and in intermittent longer retreats while maintaining relationships and family responsibilities. He has avoided creating big Dharma centers or making himself wealthy or famous. Because his qualities shine forth like the sun, he is now sought after by lamas and centers to teach their students the innermost heart practices of the Dudjom Tersar tradition in particular, and the Nyingma tradition in general.

I am deeply grateful for the endless patience my spiritual guides have shown in teaching me. They have taught when they are tired or hungry or sick. They have taught when the Twin Towers fell and when they were experiencing tragedy and loss in their own lives. In short, their sky-like minds have remained unsullied no matter what kind of situation they have encountered, yet they are present and compassionate to confused people like me. Talk about inspiring!

The Next Phase

Recently, Lama Pema Dorje Rinpoche has bestowed upon me the teaching title Lopon (Acharya in Sanskrit) in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. This occasion marks my transition from being casually approved as a meditation coach, to being an official Dharma teacher; non-monastic Buddhist clergy.

Let me be clear here: I am neither a scholar nor the kind of teacher who gives empowerments or serves as a guru. So, what can this fifty-eight-year-old American woman do to be of benefit?

I don’t know yet. But, I have observed that the Tibetan Buddhist shrine rooms in the U.S. are mostly full of lovable gray-haired white people. It’s wonderful that the spiritual explorations of the youth of the 1970’s and 80’s in North America and Europe enabled thousands of people to connect with the various schools of Buddhism. Yet, there are certainly many other kinds of people who have accumulated the good karma and intention to encounter the Dharma. My hope is that, together, can help remove the roadblocks to those people finding authentic Tibetan Buddhist teachers and practices that they aspired to. Let’s pool our prayers, skills, and connections to help make that happen. I’ve given the name Mayum Mountain Resources (Mayum means venerable mother) to these endeavors. This refers to the feminine principle, which symbolizes both the wisdom of the space free of concepts and the qualities of beneficial communication and helpful activity. We need all of that, right?

Whether you are Black, Latino, Asian, white, rich, poor, healthy, ill, young, old, straight, LGBTQI, male or female, you are warmly invited to come to classes or practices with us. The only requirement is the intention to be kind to others, and interest in Buddhist meditation.

Welcome! Come as you are.

My focus will be on communicating practice-oriented Buddhism in easy-to-understand English. My challenge is to bring the life-altering power of the meditation practices of the Nyingma tradition alive for everyday people. To encourage folks to connect with genuine wisdom lamas. To spark the desire to practice—not only in the meditation centers—but at home. To nudge people to bring the sacred outlook presented by the great lamas of the past and present into their experience.

Together, let us unfurl the field of our loving-kindness and compassion ever more widely, to encompass all beings—human and non-human, seen and unseen—throughout the universe.

Like Podcasts? Give this one a listen

 

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>>>

 

Inspirations

<<<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?