On practice

A recent new friend made a comment to me earlier today which sparked the motivation for this post- thank you L! She said something that reminded me why I left the safe confines of a life in Northern India as a monk and decided to go back into the world to face my demons. Basically, because I knew that the demons were there, and regardless whether I was sitting in some Himalayan retreat, I needed to deal with those very same demons before a life of retreat was going to do me any good.

I had taken temporary monastic vows under the direction of my root guru, who had as usual given me excellent council. “Being a monk for the rest of your life isn’t for you, but definitely go and experience what it is like in India, and learn from it.” In the Tibetan tradition, the taking of vows is a life long decision, and the breaking or handing back of those vows an extreme karmic no-no, so as usual my teacher showed the flexibility of thought for which he is famous, and sent me to an old Theravadin monk in Wat Bawan, right smack dab in the heart of Bangkok, where I took temporary vows which I could renew each month for as long as I liked.

Anyway, back to the story. I had undergone a year and a half of living in West Bengal, and to be honest, it had mostly been a roller coaster ride of me eating to know just how fickle my mind really is. In retrospect it was a fantastic experience, but at the time I was honestly an absolute mess, creating more chaos around me than clarity. I practiced a lot, and in doing so, stirred up so much karmic mud that I got lost inside it all.

Then suddenly, one beautiful Darjeeling day as the morning mists roared up the valley below my window and swept over my room”s window, I was struck by this realization; it is one thing to sit and contemplate compassion, buddha nature, emptiness etc, and another thing to get up off my butt, go back into the real world, and try to mix the dharma with my daily life. I was struck with just how much unresolved “stuff” I had left behind, and that if I really wanted to lead the life of a monastic or recluse, I first needed to go back and learn how to balance dharma with my daily life.

I got up, contacted my teacher and told him of my decision, that I would go back to Australia, get a degree and study a new language- Japanese. His guidance as usual, was pithy and precise; make study and work your practice.

Well, for the last thirteen years, I have attempted to do just that. And here I sit, on this fine Sunday afternoon in Tokyo, on a break in the middle of my practice dedicated day, doing that very same task. I can now feel the parallel existence quality as those two selves, the recluse in Darjeeling, and the dharma practitioner in Tokyo, look at each other from across the expanse of time and distance. They are one and the same. They are both me.

Now I start the gradual curve back to that life of practice. I long for it in a way and with a depth of appreciation that I did not feel before, and I look at my journey so far with a sense of humility at how little I have learned, and just how much all of these things in daily life challenge me. Now, I do not see these things as demons any more, I see them as important aspects of my path. As such, I am liberated from them and they adorn my practice.

Practice is integral to be a buddhist. If you don’t practice, then you are not a Buddhist its a simple as that. The more you practice, the more the philosophy and teachings will resonate within you. You will strengthen the bonds you have with your teachers, and your sense of appreciation will grow inside. Confidence in the practice and in yourself will grow. And the final jewel in the crown of all this, is that it will profoundly affect everything you do, everyone you meet, everything you touch, see, smell and hear.

Practice is the foundation of your commitment to the dharma.

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The pilgrim

It was midnight, and the only sounds around me in the Burmese Temple as I awoke were the rhythmic sounds of breath and snoring of various backpackers, tourists and typical collection of characters that the path of dharma generates. Being December and Winter in Bihar, the midnight air had a coolish tinge to it that required you to bundle up temporarily until your body became accustomed to the ambient temperature, but such garments would be totally unnecessary once the golden sun arose six hours later. I dressed quickly, putting on my monk robes as quietly as I could (I had taken monk vows with the Hinayana tradition, now long since given back), and made my way out of the Burmese temple and into the walled garden, where due to the locked gates for security I made a quick hitch over the fence and into the silent, dimly lit street, starting the hour-long walk from the Burmese temple into Bodghaya.
The year was 1997 and Monlam prayer festival, and the days around the great stupa were active and  full of throngs of people participating in the buddhist prayers for world peace, with all hoping to catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama. Many Tibetans were there on pilgrimage, their prayer beads and prayer wheels whirring continuously as they circumnambulated the wondrous site. I was there to do prostrations, 30,000 of them in fact, over a month-long period, and as any experienced prostrator would tell you, that is not something one wants to do in the heat of the Indian sun. So what I did was to come firstly in Winter, get up in the middle of the night, and make my way down to the deserted stupa and do my 1000 prostrations per day when the sun’s effect was stymied.
As I walked along the deserted streets, I kept myself in the best lit part of the road, where I could spot any potential obstacle, be it human, car, dog or snake, giving myself enough time to hopefully remove myself as a target. Dogs pretty much kept to themselves, too busy with sleep or the realities of a very harsh lifestyle and the hunt for food. Of cars, there were few, and I kept up a steady beat of mantra as I walked silently along the road, beads clacking between my fingers, eating up the several miles in what seemed as nothing more than pregnant moments. Every human I chanced to see was busily engaged in sleep, sprawled in various positions over road side shop counters, chairs, and hard wooden platforms that doubled as beds. The world, brightly lit in parts by an overhead light, faded back into darkness around me as I walked along.
Getting closer into town each early morning, more and more signs of life would begin to appear. A rickshaw driver, if chanced upon the city’s outskirts. was usually sprawled across the back seat of his vehicle and easily woken for a few rupees and a drive back into town. As incredibly busy and noisy as India is, in the still of the night not a sound can be heard, barring the howl of some distant dog or hoot from some  far off bird. Most nights I just walked the entire distance, surrounded by profound and absolute silence, the steady beat of flip-flops and the mala racing between my fingers my only companions as I chanted my mantras.
India at night is magical when it finally stops; and is merely a snapshot of where it left off, with many participants immediately resuming pre- sleep tasks on waking. As I walked along I was reminded so many times of the story of the Buddha and the night prince Siddhartha left his own palace confines for good, the dancers and attendees sprawled akimbo as he silently made his escape. The chaos, the beautiful chaos that is India is one of its chief attractions (at least to me), and I often found myself mesmerized by where the life clock had suddenly stopped for a few brief hours before recommencing later at its usual hurdy gurdy speed.
By the time I reached the MahaBodhi Temple grounds and the site of the great stupa each night, the surroundings were as yet silent and unmoving, with only the occasional cough of a guard to be heard as he stared out into the night sky. The holy grounds had suffered much from pilfering over the years, and now lay locked up during the early morning hours to ward off looters, a sad testament in itself. I stood at the gate for  a few minutes, hoping to attract the attention of a guard inside who might graciously let me in, with me mime-ing the prostration movement, and then ending with my hands in supplication. Sometimes succeeded, sometimes I was ignored, sometimes no guard would appear from the darkened grounds within the gates, probably fast asleep somewhere out of sight. In those cases, I would walk around the perimeter fence to a suitably quiet and low spot, then after a quick glance around, would hurl myself over the wall and into the silent darkness of the hallowed stupa grounds within. For the sake of dharma practice, I admit to committing such an offense.
Quietly, and mindful of my feet and movements, I would make my way to one of the hundreds of prostration boards that littered the temple grounds that I had picked out to perform my prostrations on, under the sweeping and generous limbs of another not so famous bodhi tree on the grounds, about 50 metres away from the great stupa which towered above. There, after making my opening supplications to gurus current and long since gone, I would soon be steadily slapping the board with my full length body, as small insects whispered quietly nearby.
The stupa in front of me, like some alien monolith towering into the darkness above, and the absolute, profound silence surrounding me the only witness, the minutes turned to hours each night as I waged a constant battle with myself. Sweat would soon start to flow, running in rivers down my body, and my mind (of course) to wander, each time drawn back (at times belatedly) by me, as I remembered my vows and motivation. I was soon soaked, and the chill air surrounding me no longer an obstacle but a welcome relief.
I brought no food, only water, which I would drink in copious amounts, at times aware of the bats that whirred around above me in the night sky in impossible balletic display.
Occasionally a once sleeping guard would discover me on his rounds, but each was utterly respectful and would leave me to my practice, perhaps inspired by my doggedness of pursuit.  Another crazy foreigner..
As the sky above started to lighten towards dawn, the gates would be drawn open for another day, and slowly, in ones and twos others would appear, to take up a prayer position or join me in the steady slap slap of prostrations offered on behalf of all sentient beings. Many Tibetans would arrive to light lamps around the stupa, and their endless circumnambulations would begin, The number would swell over time, until it was in the thousands and was as if a constant roar engulfed the divine structure, brightly lit by thousands of lamps and churning with life at its base.
As the day grew stronger, more and more pilgrims joined me in devotional activities, some joining me on vacant boards and soon ofering their bodies in supplication, others sitting and chanting out prayers and mantras. By 900 am the grounds would be failry packed and the days prayer activities well underway.
It was a social occasion. People swapped stories, old friends reunited after years of being apart, monks and nuns and priests and believers of all races and kinds, joining together as equals in the prayers for peace.
By the time the morning prayer sessions were scheduled to be underway and the sun was again high in the sky, I would be wrapping up my daily session and  ravenous for food, sated each morning with banana pancakes at a nearby hippy cafe, a welcome oasis and respite from the soon thronging crowds outside as the day began.
Sometimes I would sit under my tree, for an hour or two before I headed back to the temple and sleep, and await a falling leaf from the sacred bodhi tree, cherished by all and exceedingly rare.
Each day I repeated the same, inspired by the sheer devotion of thousands who braved the still strong sun each day and joined the prayers for world peace.
It was an experience I shall never forget.

Sacred outlook- or, how not to be a seflish ass.

I have decided to recount some of my adventures here for your enjoyment(and comments if you like). Way way back in 1992 when I was a young dharma warrior, I had the amazing fortune to spend the best part of a year studying and spending time with Dzongsar Khyentse Rimpoche. I was in Asia with Gesar, my dear long lost partner in chaos, attempting to study the dharma from the boss (and smoke a few joints with G along the way- but thats another issue not for today).
Anyway, the daily activity for most of that time was a lesson from rimpoche through the schools of buddhist dialectics, starting with the most basic, then working our way through the entire body of buddhist schools. At night, G and I had to summarize the point of the morning lecture, then debate in front of rimpoche or with him. If we got it wrong, it meant the same lesson the next day.
What an amazing experience, and one I will not easily forget. Nevertheless, my momentary bliss was interrupted by another new student of Rimpoches, whom I shall call Mr x. Mr x had some interesting ideas about the dharma, and the origins of his birth, but was as keen as I was. Due to his interesting ideas, Rimpoche asked G and I ‘to look after him’. This meant he tagged along to everything we did, and was around all them time, and for me and G became a source of annoyance, so I at least spent most of my time making his life difficult.
One fine day, Rimpoche says that G and I are going with him to the monestary in Bir, and Mr x begged us to come along. The poor guy had to endure being shoved in the luggage area of a Suzuki maruti jeep, where he sat for about 10 hours. He begged me to swap places with him several times, but I just ignored him. I was pissed that my little world had an ‘invader’ so to speak. This time was for G and me!
Eventually, I relented ( after being asked by rimpoche) and crammed myself in the back, where I proceeded to get ill rather quickly. I only had to survive about two hours of this torture before we finally reached the monastery, only to find more dharma groupies there waiting for the boss.
I was in a rather antisocial mood, so proceeded to sulk in my room.
I didnt know what I was feeling. I was in the middle of my ngondro( prelimenary practices for vajrayana buddhism) at the time, and as some of us know, this can really stir things up. Suffice to say that my compassion levels were running on empty… and I was furious. At what, I didnt clearly know.
Later that evening, Rimpoche sent a monk to come and get me to go over to his house. I refused to go, but eventually made my way over there. Rimpoche was in the middle of holding court, entertaining his guests, which, as far as I could see at that time, involved his students kissing his ass, turn by turn, telling him how great he was, and agreeing with everything he said, and laughing at all his jokes. Rimpoche was also being so kind and loving to Mr x. Well, that was the straw that broke this camel’s back. Needless to say, Rimpoche knew exactly what I was feeling at the time, and had been watching me all day. I was definitely not in the mood for such frivolous activities, and stormed back to my room. This made it apparent to everyone that I was in one hell of a mood. Rimpoche sent another person to come and get me again, and my reply was a curt ‘…. you.’
That night I lay in bed, totally out of control. What was going on? I couldnt figure out why I was so angry. I felt hurt, emotional, totally egotistic. It was a sleepless night. Somewhere in the middle of it, I had a revelation. I had been making this guy (Mr x) miserable for weeks. Why?

I suddenly remembered one of the lessons I had had with Rimpoche where he had talked about sacred outlook. It is one of the fundamental concepts for leading the boddhisattva way of life, and in non buddhist terms, is just a thought to remember when leading a human life. For me, it was still just a concept, and not a reality. Suddenly, I had a glimpse of what it might be about.

To explain it simply, I had made a religion of judging this poor guy and making his life miserable. The very things that pissed me off about him were qualities that I myself had. His thirst for knowledge. His desire to be with my guru. His desire to fit in. His desire to be loved. His desire to know. What was making me angry was that I was looking at myself in a mirror and I didnt like it at all.Who was I to judge anyone?
Reality was, and still is to this day, a reflection of my current state of mind.
Suddenly, humility was reborn again, and I realised what an utter ass I was and had made of myself in front of everybody. And how cruel I had been. Me the super buddhist.

Next morning came, and I could barely show my face as you can imagine. The inevitable call came to take my lazy butt over to see the boss. When I arrived, guests were being shown some amazing objects- Yeshe Tsogyals bell, Jyamyang Choki Lodro’s mandala plate. Yep, I felt like shit again. Rimpoche looked at me and said rather perceptively- ‘you look like shit.’
He dismissed the others and suggested we go for a walk. He said to me ‘ you have no idea how to be angry with me, no idea how to be angry’. And he was right. He asked me if I had anything to say, and I replied ‘ if you expect me to kiss your ass like that bunch did last nite, you can forget it.’ His response was a smile and ‘good.’
It was the look in his eye that said it all to me. He knew that I had changed, without saying a word. He knew I had started to learn the lesson of sacred outlook myself. I saw a look of enormous trust and love in his eye that I can still remember. He had watched me go through this journey myself, and had given me the space to figure it out on my own, then turn around and continue on like nothing had happened.
Nothing really had happened- except to me.

Even today, when I walk down the street and catch myself making a judgement about something or somebody, I stop and ask myself- who am I to judge? Who is making the judgement? For me, sacred outlook means- life is a mirror. The very things i choose to judge are mere reflections of myself or my own state of mind. The wisdom and constant lesson in life for me is to just learn to let them be as they are- perfect.