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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Sangha

Love it or hate it, I can tell you that from 13 years of being apart from it here in Japan (except for the internets), the concept and participation in Sangha is vital to the path. All who are Buddhists have witnessed the fights, the hugs, the pouts, the gossip, the sharing, the sadness, the care, the pride, the completely getting under your skin and exposing all your faults and ugly, beauty-ness of it. Who is in, who is out, who wasnt invited, who didnt come, who is missing, the pride and poverty of it all in an instant. As both participant and spectator, it in an important lesson in itself. No wonder one of the three jewels!

Love it or hate it, reject it or embrace it, it is the path. Your path. Sangha is all a lesson. Your teacher or Rimpoche sits there with twinkling eyes and watches it all, like some cheap form of free entertainment, which it must be! There is no greater mirror than the interactions we share. I have missed it, my friends, the people that I once struggled to connect with, the ones that made it all so easy, those I competed with, those I rejected.

For those of you who are part of an active sangha and able to meet each other regularly, and to go to teachings often, you have immense merit and good fortune. But it took me being apart from it, to realize it and appreciate.

May we all meet some day.

Guru devotion

Guru Devotion is an often misunderstood aspect of Tibetan Buddhism, and one that has been contentious ever since Buddhism started to hit our western shores in the late 1960’s. With various accounts of sexism, abuse, gender inequality and other obvious examples of a very human and imperfect system which must be taken into account, if we look further into its history with an inquisitive mind, we can also find enough inspiring examples of very fruitful relationships in maintaining a system which has worked now for more than 2500 years.

 
I can only speak from my own experience, and cannot comment on or judge other people’s views or issues. For me, over the last twenty years or so the issue of guru devotion has been more of a journey about myself and my own projections than the person that I chose to be my Guru. Intrigued? Read on…
 
As the Buddha taught many years ago (and a teaching which is one of the cornerstones of following the Buddhist path), one should never lose the sense of investigative mind upon commencing the dharma path and just follow the dharma blindly; indeed we are to explore the ramifications of making a bond with another human being, especially those in the teacher /disciple role, very carefully and astutely, before making a decision of commitment to them as teacher. Ultimately though, once that decision is made, embracing your Guru in a trust relationship is paramount to any kind of progress occurring on one’s personal journey. 
 
It is an interesting dichotomy: committing yourself fully to a student teacher relationship, with trust: an element often lacking or abused in our modern-day society.
 
When I first decided to take to the Buddhist path, I was lucky enough to meet a string of buddhist teachers in my first year of practice. That gave me the opportunity to investigate each of them quite carefully to confirm whether a connection existed between the teacher in question and myself. I had also recently been under the sway of a teacher who had used his position to exert unreasonable willpower on what he expected me to do to assist him in his own quest for spiritual aggrandizement, and I had luckily removed myself from his grasp, wider and much more cautious. That, plus doing the dog eat dog entertainment business world of LA for five years had wizened me considerably. Remarkably, all of the people I met that summer were exceptional of character and honest about who they were, what they were capable of teaching and what they represented.

 
Once I had made the decision, I was struck with the duality of the situation; the guru is a person outside of me, yet the teachings talk of an ultimate inner guru that must be discovered by the practitioner. As in me myself as my own guru. My teacher, through all these years, has acted more as a mirror than any other quality, guiding me skillfully through layers of self discovery, and helping me to discover my own true path in this world.
 
There are many times when I have lost my way, for sure, and wandered aimlessly. Yet my teacher was always there, patient, encouraging and supportive, helping me to find my own inner wisdom and trust in my own path more. Like peeling an onion, ony to discover another layer underneath, I have walked this path and allowed the teachings of emptiness and compassion for all beings soak into my very core.
 
Of progress, I can only report little, but I can say that gradually over time my life reflects the essential teachings more and more. As my teacher and I grow old together, our relationship deepens, and the boundless love which is the core of our connection shows itself more and more.
 
So my advice is- choose your guru very carefully, but once that decision is made, embrace the opportunity for learning with an open heart and mind.
 
 

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.

Tibet twenty years on

Given the current serious state of affairs in Tibet, and the somber Losar celebrations this year throughout the Tibetan refugee community world-wide,  brings back memories of my own trip to Tibet some 21 years ago. At that time, the country was also under lock down mode by the Chinese government with no passage in or out, yet I and a half tibetan reincarnate tulku snuck in from the mainland so that he could be enthroned at his previous incarnation’s monastery. A long story not touched upon here 🙂

1991 China was still in  the era of Deng Xiaoping, struggling with conflicting political and social forces, both liberalizing and conservative, yet still very much closed to western influence. Using the earliest form of stealth technology ( ie being inconspicuous) we had managed to sneak in to Tibet thanks to the help of a wily old tibetan monk and the financial proclivity of a police inspector and his vehicle that made regular trips in and out of the region.

Our trip in from Chengdu was appropriately dark, rainy and cloudy, bumping down logging roads carved into the steep banks of the Yellow river. Just like in a Sung dynasty painting, we rolled in and out of thick fog covered valleys, heavily forested mountain sides and blissfully beautiful vistas that opened up along the way. Hiding each night and catching only a few hours of sleep, constantly praying for both protection and success to our journey, we endured weeks of privation so that we could eventually reach this isolated Khampa community living at some 4000 metres height. Passing over a 4000 meter pass and starting the journey into Tibet proper, we were suddenly struck with a thunderously blue sky and sweeping green steppe countryside.

On our journey into that wondrous land, we were confronted with a very stark but beautiful environment, one that would not forgive any fool for too long. Weather could change drastically in an instant from sunny to freezing and back again in rapid succession. Incredible valleys covered in high grasses, a blue sky that was a deep azure and seemed to continue on until infinity, freezing Himalayan streams of clear pale blue waters, and scenes of massive cultural destruction everywhere. Thousands of Tibetan monastic cities had been obliterated and their once thriving communities scattered to the four winds. The remnants of many a temple or monastic center were everywhere to be seen.

Yet, despite the obvious signs of attempted cultural obliteration that greeted near every vista, we met with a tough, resilient and happy people, that remained as unconquered by the harsh environment as with their new red overlords from the east. The landscape seemed to have a proclivity to carve out strong personalities, and made our pampered western lifestyles and personalities pale in comparison. Jagged rocks, jagged faces, rough-hewn houses and facial characteristics, each contrasting and yet complimenting the other. 
To label these people that we met as simple would be a great misnomer and injustice. They seemed accustomed to the vast space that surrounded them, almost resting in it, as me and my companion sucked in each breath at the 4000 meter altitude. At times greeted with suspicion, (as one would be with invaders that always took and never gave) on seeing our malas and other religious items faces quickly broke into wide smiles and we were quickly plied with salt tea, momos and air-dried meat.
Watching the tv reports of late, imagining the continuing harshness of the land and their new overlords, you cannot help but remark on the Tibetan people’s indomitable spirit. I pray sincerely that their struggles for the freedom to live their lives as they choose are close.