All emotions are suffering: excerpts from a talk by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

taken from  http://justdzongsar.wordpress.com/

Now I like to point out, the word suffering again is overused. And it is kind misleading to lot of people. You know when I was teaching about four seals of buddhadharma, that all compounded things are impermanent, by large everybody can accept. Then, and with a good reason, they accept. They are very convinced.  also if I say, when I was talking about all phenomena as emptiness, well, and also nirvana is beyond extreme, those two, they don’t even bother not accepting because most of the time, it is like, it pass this from the top, they don’t want. But you know, I have noticed, the second line, all emotions are suffering, oh my god, everyone, passionately disagrees with me. Passionately. Emotions, all emotions are …. Actually many people even try to correct me, maybe Rinpoche, maybe emotion is not the right word. And actually I think to the certain extend they are right. Emotion,, maybe the Tibetan word … is much bigger than the word emotion. But to up keeping my stubbornness and also actually now deliberately I use the word emotion, deliberately. Emotions are suffering….. Because people think: Oh yah okay negative emotions are properly of course suffering. But how about love? How about devotion? How about inspiration? How about creativity? How about ecstasy, how about all of that. Those are not suffering. This is where I think the definition of the suffering is something that we have to ponder.

Because the Buddhist definition of the suffering is quite a,(pause). One of the biggest element or character that really makes the suffering the suffering is time factor. The fact that it is impermanent. Anything that is impermanent, anything that is put together, they are subject to time. Anything that is subject to the time is basically synonymous to uncertainty. And if it is uncertain, does that recall something. Pain. Uncertainty is the biggest pain.

Because of uncertainty, things like insurance company works. It is the uncertainty that is really, the economy is working because of the uncertainty. You can sell things that might come, might not come. For the sake of protecting yourself and stuff like that. Uncertainty is a very very big problem. And if you look at emotions, love, compassion, even the religious, even the dharma, related to dharma love, things that we try to meditate upon, love, compassion, suffering. Of course the sticky love, of course it is a suffering. Of course. No need to mention that one. You all know that. But even the love and compassion that we are try to cultivate, yes it is suffering. If it is shocking you, it is nothing. In fact when we talk about…., the third suffering, the third type of suffering, in the mahayana sutras and shastras, it is clearly stated that even the tenth bhumi bodhisattvas meditative state is also a suffering. So of course, emotions are suffering.

Escape to Tibet, Part 9: Descent from Heaven

Early one morning a few days later, the Chinese policeman with the young Khenpo in tow approached Gesar and I, and by a quick appraisal of his facial expression, I immediately grasped what his request was going to be. Our time in the forbidden kingdom was coming to an end, he needed to reappear back at his regular work within a few days, and that meant that we would be leaving as well. The local chinese police had already heard reports of a couple of foreigners in the area, and it was only a matter of time before they sent someone to investigate. If we were still here at that time, it would start a chain of investigations, leading backwards through our connections that had gotten us here. Feeble attempts by us at suggesting that the two of us stay on were quickly rejected; the officer was responsible for us, and it was obviously his neck on the line if the details of our non-permit holding religious activities were found out.

Alas, the world would not wait for us.

Sadly, the rest of that day was spent packing up all the accumulated gifts that had been given to Gesar, and which was indeed no small sum: he had received full sized religious tomes, statues, clothes, broad swatches of silk, other fabric, animal pelts of snow lion and fox, and our luggage had swelled to well over triple our incoming amount. Much was given back immediately to the monastery, and considerable effort was given to cramming as much as we could into Gesar’s sturdy aluminium travel box. By the end, it would take two of us to carry…

The air was thick with thoughts and emotions; ours, of not really wanting to leave just yet, having overcome substantial obstacles to get here, and those of the Tibetans around us, who didn’t want us to leave either, or at least, not quite yet. By the time we had finally blown out our lamps at the end of the day, sadness hung like a heavy cloud over the monastery and invaded everyone’s thoughts.

As I lay still awake, letting my consciousness gradually fade to nothingness, still in this dark void of a half-built temple, punctuated only by the steady breath of Gesar sleeping nearby. I was struck by the echoing bark of a dog some distance away, disturbed by some distant shadow or noise, whose excited cries seemed to amplify the emptiness I felt around me. I realized that this part of the adventure was drawing to a rapid close, and now the hard work would begin once again.

The next morning was busy with last minute packing and a constant stream of guests seeking last minute blessings or bearing gifts. We were given so many supplies that in the end that it made the packing attempts of the day before seem totally meaningless. Huge packets of tea, bolts of cloth, texts, things that we just couldn’t possibly move without an army of attendants helping us. And here we were wanting to travel incognito…. Most of it was left behind. Gravity would have its say.

Leaving
I cannot describe clearly what happened when we finally got up to leave. It was a moment of emotional chaos that forever left a mark on my heart. I do remember that it was absolutely, overwhelmingly emotional, with people weeping openly and many who tried to physically block the path of our leaving, be it doorway or path. The two khenpos would smile and chide people in quiet but firm voices, explaining that we had to leave and that Gesar would come back to them, some other year and time. I could barely look at anyone’s faces or eyes as the air was heavy with love and sadness. It was another tidal wave of emotion after this constant dramatic storm.

We finally managed to get down the stairs and into the waiting embrace of a large and unruly crowd. Old people lay prostrate in the earth, coming forwards to grab Gesar by the ankles and pleading with him not to leave. It was utterly heart wrenching for all. Everyone was crying, khenpos, monks, the young, the old, G and I. Gesar just let the tears roll down his cheeks with this big gentle smile, and we inched towards the car. Our driver was totally embarrassed, knowing that in the eyes of many he was the one forcing departure.

I looked around at this beautiful, impossibly high valley that had been our home for the last few days and tried to capture it indelibly in my heart. All reference of emotion was lost, it was just too overwhelming. I remember the sky, vast, blue all encompassing; sharp mountain peaks and lone stands of pines and firs, the endless circling of a bird of prey, yaks looking on nonchalantly, the gapped out expressions of all who eventually found the emotions way too much.

We got into the Jeep and managed to get the doors closed. As the engine started, the wails grew more and more intense, the pleading coming to crescendo. Gently, the car pulled away from the monastery, surrounded by wailing, crying hordes of devotees and sometimes snotty faces bawling openly that didnt want to let me and Gesar leave, blocking our path. Hands tore at Gesar as we left, through the open window they struggled to get one last chance to touch him, or feel his cloth beneath their fingertips. Our driver had made it clear; there was just no way that we could stay on, no way that we could just disappear into the landscape without him getting into a shitload of trouble and everyone else around us. The reality hung heavily in my mind like the sword of damocles. I just wanted to stay, grab my passport and rip it asunder, climb a nearby mountain peak, find a cave and just exist, leave everything that I had once known far behind. Yet, it was pulling me back like a vortex.
The crowd walked with the car as we drove, some running, some riding horseback shouting out, some stopping, bawling, only to be embraced by some other human closeby.
As we started to lose the crowd behind us, G could keep control no longer, and the days of pressure finally caught up with him. Suddenly the dam broke, and he bawled his eyes out, huge sobbing cries that shook us other travellers with him to the core. Dumbstruck, we just sat there and listened as the car gently coasted down the grassy valley and back out to the road. Tears rolled down my cheeks ceaselessly.

There was nothing that could be said to fix things. I was utterly spent. Getting here had taken everything I had , and I had had to shut out both my own fears and those of Gesar in our pursuit of our goal. We had done it, but there were signs on both of our faces that this had taken its toll on both of us.

We all sat quietly, lost in our own thoughts, as the jeep rolled across the grassy valley.

 


Escape to Tibet, Part Seven: Devotion.

Two mornings later, G and I awoke to the freezing chill of a Tibetan early spring morning with the sun having not yet risen in the sky, with the soft thrumming of voices that could be heard wafting through the unglazed window. I struggled to escape the layers of blankets that had kept me warm throughout the night, even though fully clothed, and peered with curiosity down to the courtyard below. My eyes were greeted with the sight of hundreds of Tibetans, some sporting huge chunks of turquoise bound tightly in their long hair, patiently waiting for their Rinpoche to appear. It was barely sunrise, yet there they were, quietly praying or nattering excitedly to a neighbor, some prostrating on the bare earth, caking their bodies in dust and sweat, pointed in devotion towards our place of rest.

Since it was still early, I got back into bed and put in about another hour or so of sleep while G did the same.

All is nectar..or not.
There is a concept of pure vision in Tibet whereby a devotee can show devotion to their teacher by drinking a small amount of their urine, since, it is believed, everything that these reincarnate lamas touch or emanate, is pure. Its a very old custom and one that at that time defied my understanding, yet it is probably still practiced today by some as a very direct link to the past.

I woke up the for the second time that day to the sound of liquid pouring from one container to another. At first thought, I imagined that tea was being prepared and breakfast well underway. On rolling over to the other side where I could see the inside of the room, I gazed upon, with half asleep disbelief, a monk draining off the contents of our night pot and portioning it out into smaller containers, some of which were being eagerly quaffed by smiling monks, one after another, who were filing quietly up the narrow stairs. At first, I thought to shout out warning that the contents were not as they expected- that the pee of another not quite as holy as their returned master ( ie , me) was mixed in with the contents. I turned to look at G, who also having just woke up, was watching with mouth wide open. It ended as abruptly as it had started, and the monks were gone…

Hot buckets of water were brought up to the room for Gesar and I to bathe with, and the monks besotted with interest wanting to stand and stare at everything that Gesar did. I kicked them all out, and G and I enjoyed a few brief moments of privacy in what was to be a very long day. We cleaned up as best we could, and stuffed down the bowls of rice and sweet milk that were sitting waiting for us. The pure, pure air of that early Spring morning danced with the dust that was caught in the sharp light streaming in from the window, and for a few brief moments I let my mind dance too as I watched the minute particles swirl in the gentle breeze.

The monks appeared again, this time led by the smiling young Khenpo, bearing ceremonial robes that were to be Gesar’s for this ceremonial occasion. These clothes consisted of yellow flowing shirts and under robes, and an elaborate brocade jacket that would be the finishing touch to the multi-layered outfit. The monks handled each piece of clothing reverently, covering their escaping breath with a piece of paper held in their mouths, gently easing each garment one layer at a time onto Gesar’s imposing frame. I dressed as best I could, the monks giving me a clean white undershirt for my black tibetan Chuba.
At one point before the official ceremony began I went alone down the steep stairs that led outside of our lodgings, only to be confronted with an absolute sea of faces and people, who, taking one look at me, bowed their heads in reverence, and parted in much the same way that the Red Sea must have parted for Moses did to let me through.
At that point, I felt more like Darth Vader than Moses- my long hair, greasy and tied at the back of my head samurai style, a week old Fu Manchu beard and moustache, and my long black tibetan dress. I must have looked terrifying to the little children who visibly shook at the sight of me. It was a stunning experience for all involved; I smiled and tried to be as inconspicuous and friendly as possible, but as I could see by the looks on some of the people and little children’s faces that this was, for many, their first contact with a foreigner. How strange and exotic I must have seemed to them, a stranger in their Himalayan land!

One of the monks showed me where we would walk into the temple and start the ceremony, and pointed to where Gesar would be seated and I would stand in attendance behind him. The temple, little more than just bare earth days before, had been tricked out in their fines brocades and cloths and tankhas (religious paintings), with monks already seated in long rows, chanting their opening prayers, some of them looking up at me and smiling broadly as their elders tried to keep them focused on the task at hand. Somehow, with my horrific tibetan, I was able to understand what the order of the day would be, and I left to go back up to the room with G.
We were excited to say the least- this was the reason why we had come, to see Gesar enthroned at his own monastery, and with His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rimpoche having died earlier in the year it left a huge vacuum in the organisation of the local Tibetan buddhist community. Having Gesar establish links with his own heritage and legacy would give solace and comfort to many of those missing the loss of their great Guru and dharmic grandfather.
The music below us in the main temple started to play, with the deep booming drone of the long horns signalling us.

The ceremony. With a surge of about eight overly willing monks, Gesar stood up from his bed and proceeded to make his way towards the overly steep stairs and down outside to waiting crowds. I got in front of him, and tried to fit in between the monk musicians, armed with long tibetan trumpets, giving that all familiar call of an event about to happen. You have to imagine this tiny little stairwell with suicide-like tibetan stairs gradient, about twelve monks, the young abbot, me, and Gesar wearing these voluminous religious garments, all trying to get down the stairs at the same time and be of assistance to their long lost son. It was hilarious, with Gesar and I visibly laughing at the danger and frantic scrabbling hands of monks trying not to tumble down the stairs on top of one another, yet often doing so. I did my best to keep those near me upright, suddenly I was at the bottom of the stairs and the crowd below started to surge forwards towards the doorway-so much for Moses!

It was absolute mayhem; masses of hands, many grubby with dirt, thrusting forwards with babies, silk welcoming scarves, tongues stuck out of mouths in signs of respect, constantly chanted prayers, scrabbling feet, falling bodies, some trying to prostate, laughing, jostling for position, and monks and priests trying to keep order. Somehow the crowd pushed us away from the door and literally crowd surfed us towards the temple door, where we escaped inside, the monks keeping the many tibetans outside for the time being and at bay. Everyone was laughing, and G and I made our way to the throne that had been set up for him as the monks inside kept up the steady rhythmic chant of their opening prayers. His throne was covered in holy objects- texts, bells, books, a damaru (ritual drum) and other symbols necessary for the enthronement.

Finally the ceremony began- the numbers of people outside being too many to fit into the still under construction main shrine hall, they peered in through the open doorway and waited for the general blessing that would follow the ceremony. The crowd chanted patiently, prayer wheels whirring, malas clacking between hands, young and old staring inward trying to follow the procedures inside. There was an overwhelming energy that pervaded the temple that day, with smiles everywhere as the obviously proud young monks, older nuns and priests sat and prayed their welcome and recognition of Gesar.G sat through it all, beaming at everybody, graciously accepting the lead from monks that showed him through the ceremony, instructing him when to make certain movements, and being the most patient I have ever seen him be.

A parade of faces -The crowd was eventually let inside, and the general blessing began- this entailed the entire crowd being led through the shrine room to the front of Gesar’s throne, where they would receive a blessing on the head by Gesar placing his hand or sacred objects on them, and the tibetan khatag scarves that they held reverently being placed back around their necks. Many of them bore gifts- statues, animal pelts, books, malas, bells and religious practice objects, some very old and obviously treasures. I cannot explain or attempt to describe the emotions that flowed in that half-constructed temple those next few hours- crying, weeping, wailing, laughing, the sheer awe in the face of many of the children, the whispered prayers, or the breakdown of some of the older folk who had seen one of their great aspirations come true- a high lama’s return.

Through it all Gesar just smiled and smiled, the love between the crowd and him palpable and cogent. For those of us near him, for me and the other monks that were attending him that day, it ultimately grew to become too much, and we all ended up weeping as well, laughing at times when we saw some overly devout person cut back into the line to try and get another blessing, only to be intercepted by one of the wily older monks who would shoo them away. We watched this comic dance time and time again, sometimes allowing it to happen, and then seeing and older monk lose his temper and try to keep the crowd constantly moving ahead.
I still marvel today at the clarity of devotion in those simple khampa folk- as we all know, the eyes do not lie, and theirs shone with a brightness that I will never forget. Like diamonds.

It took the best part of the morning to finish this seemingly endless processing as prayers and horns and rituals were performed until late in the day. By the end of it Gesar and I were exhausted in the thin air as the energy and emotions overwhelmed us. With another fanfare, we struggled back out the front of the temple and towards our refuge above, to be met with the same enormous crowd and the same mad scramble to get near their returned teacher. This time dozens of hands stretched forwards to help Gesar walk, the smiling faces and laughing eyes giddy with joy as we were pushed back up the stairs to our lodgings and quiet.


On being cured of a wandering mind, hands and eye.

19517606_rudolphvalentinoAs a twenty something year old new entry into the dharma, all those years ago, I considered myself somewhat of a playboy. The sangha had a different moral compass than my catholic guilt-ridden upbringing, and as an ex wanna-be rock star, I reveled in the new freedoms that this expansive community offered me. One of those freedoms was women, which came in all types and personalities.

Although I later married, I was in an open relationship, which I exploited to the hilt. Speaking of agendas, I had a big one- women. Connecting with my vajra master and teacher, Rinpoche, I am sure that he watched me with more than detached interested and waited till the moment was right to make his opinion felt.

That day came soon enough.

I was asked to attend the parinirvana of His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in Bhutan in 1991, a great honor indeed that would probably not have been conferred upon me, had it not been for my ability to take care of a certain tulku, the dharmic linebacker, Kongtrul Rinpoche.

My teacher invited all of his core students to come to Bhutan and witness the ceremonies as his guests, the collection of which spanned the known world. People came from all over to attend this remarkable opportunity, for alone many had not been to the hidden kingdom before, and that chance in itself was an incredible treasure.

We stayed with him in his house in Bhutan, guests within his compound and crammed into every nook and cranny that his property there held. Upon arrival, I surveyed the landscape carefully; it included a collection of the most beautiful women that ever graced this earth, and I, like a hungry ghost, salivated in earnest at the thought of many a possible tasty encounter.

That salivation did not last for long. Upon arrival at the house, and with people settling in on the first day, I heard a loud voice booming across the precincts calling my name. Rinpoche.

As I walked hurriedly through the garden towards the house, I couldn’t not help but think to myself (again)what a collection of gorgeous women my Buddhist teacher had around him. Some were daughters of wealthy Chinese sponsors, others students of his from across Asia and Europe. As for me, although bound in a green card American marriage, I felt no restrictions morally not to be able to hunt on Rinpoche’s turf. I have always been attracted to Asian women, and in general the feeling was reciprocal.
As I was busily assessing the field, lost in lascivious thought, I entered his house and made my way towards the sound of Rinpoche’s voice. Upon entering his room, I could see him ensconced leisurely on a chair, surrounded by a bevy of students sitting on the floor around him, arrayed as if in a human mandala. My, I thought to myself, more gorgeous women in here as well…

Rinpoche spotted me as I entered the room, and without a moment’s hesitation, asks me with a smiling face, “ So….. cheated on your wife recently?”

Stunned, I am sure in retrospect that I turned various shades of red and that the only sound I made was that of my jaw hitting the ground and my ego shattering into a million pieces. Meekly I smiled, for once lost for words, wishing that I was absolutely invisible and proceeded to find the nearest dark corner and hide.

He had nailed me so brilliantly, caught me so perfectly, that from that day onward I started to pay attention more to my own agendas and grasping nature. It was in retrospect a long time coming, and I deserved it.

And that, my friends, is the sign of a genuine spiritual teacher….

Escape to Tibet- Part One.

 left, the big G man.
Marc and Gesar’s epic neurotic adventures in Kham.

Way back in 1991, when Gesar and I were in India with our Lord and master*, Rimpoche suddenly came up with the bright idea that we (ie G and I) should go to Tibet, and that Gesar should be recognized by his monastery as the incarnation of Shechen Kontrtul Rimpoche. Whaa? I hear you say. Ok, a little bit of backgrounding is in order- I apologize. There are a few concepts here that may need explaining. So, I will try to make this all as simple as possible.
Gesar is the son of Chogyam Trungpa(1939-1987), a great mahasiddha, crazy yogi and spiritual revolutionary who performed multiple miracles in North America and Europe, and was a pioneer in the spread of the buddhadharma in the west. His most famous miracle was turning a bunch of long-haired pot smoking drop-out Grateful Dead following hippies into a bunch of suit wearing, uptight starbucks coffee drinking middle-class Americans, heavily influenced by too many viewings of samurai era Akira Kurosawa movies (yes, this is said toungue in cheek). Trungpa Rimpoche set up the Shambala community that spreads now throughout the world, teaching an ecumenical form of Tibetan Buddhism (which is often referred to as the Rime school). It was the community that raised me in the Dharma, the place where I met my teacher, Dzongsar Rimpoche, and a true refuge for a failed international pop-star such as myself; for that I am eternally grateful.
To cut a long story short, Gesar was recognized when still a child as a reincarnation of a great tibetan yogi, Shechen Kongtrul Rimpoche, whose monastery lies in the high and wild hills of eastern Kham in Tibet. Having been raised almost completely in North America, and basically divorced from any kind of traditional buddhist training, he had the stigma of being one of the sons of a ‘Great man’, whose followers had dreams and expectations for him that way exceeded reality. When I first met Gesar, he was what could be considered as a modern rendition of Ghengis Khan. Approximately 16 years old, weighed approxmately 220 pounds, he was an American football linebacker, part time rapper and terror of the International Shambala community. He was considered by most of the Shambala community as totally uncontrollable and unpredictable.
The day of our meeting that first fateful day in 1990 witnessed several auspicious signs, the evening meal at Rocky Mountain Dharma Center was proclaimed to be delicious, and several rainbows had been seen over the Vajra campsite latrine. It was for me, love at first site, a meeting of two neurotic minds bent on the same goal: the destruction of the peaceful heartfelt world of the average touchy-feely buddhist sangha member. A big burly arm was flung over my shoulder, and I was ceremoniously led to his luxurious accomodations ( a beat up old streamliner trailer) in a quiet corner of the 400 acre retreat center, where we and a few of his close followers engaged in the traditional North American welcoming ceremony of smoking a very well packed Indian peace pipe.
Approximately two years and many adventures later, he and I learned of our command to go to the wild west of Tibet. Sounded like an adventure: I had wanted to go there since my interest in buddhism had began, having read all those Alexander David-Neel books of her journeys through there 100 years ago, and then also having heard about the place from Rimpoche. So, off we were to go.
A Gesar’s attendant, military advisor, and partner in crime, my instructions from Rimpoche were simple- make sure Gesar got to the monastery in Tibet, no matter what. We had a budget, about $5000 US, and we had a plan and a back-up plan. Remember we are talking 1991, Tibet at that time was in lock-down mode due to the New Year Riots in Lhasa, and Kham was definitely off limits to foreigners. Rimpoche had devised an elaborate plan to get around that small obstacle though.
The master plan to outwit the Peoples Republic. There were at that time, two ways to get into Tibet from China: one road in the North through Xining, and one road in the South near Chengdu in Xichuan Province. Plan one was we were to prodeed from Guangzhou(previously known as Canton) to the city of Xining in north western China, close to the northeastern border of what had once been the Tibetan frontier. Having hired a car, we were to attempt an entry into Tibet by the northern road. Rimpoche admitted to us that our chances to get in were, at best, sketchy: the police kept strict surveillance of the road by checkpoints every 20/30 miles, all travellers were required to have a special travel permit to get through the checkpoints. Any foreigners caught were placed in a Chinese police jeep and escorted far away from the area to a train bound for the chinese eastern coast. So, before going to the car company, we had to try and get a travel permit from the police. Sound sketchy? Read on….
If plan one failed, we were to make out way south, about 2000 km to Chengdu, where Rimpoche knew of an old Tibetan Lama who had ‘ways’ to get people into Tibet. Enough said. Gesar and I both hoped that the first option would be successful, and we gleefully prepared for our epic adventure.
Day one, and it all starts to go wrong… Well, off we go to our trusty Indian travel agent in Dehli (who shall remain nameless), pick up our Chinese Airline tickets, and get ready to leave. From Dehli G and I headed off to Bangkok, where we succumbed to a 24 hour binge of the cultural, culinary and night -life delights of that wonderful city. After our brief sojourn there, we caught our flight to Guangzhou, which, as can be expected in that year, was a rather dreary place on first examination, and sampled out first taste of chinese communist hospitality. Day two saw us heading for the airport in the late afternoon to catch out domestic flight; on first examination an ex-Russian Aeroflot ‘Concorde’ with bald tires, with a penchant for letting the clouds enter through the barely pressurized windows during takeoff. Gesar and I smiled at each other- nothing to worry about, all was going well….
We arrived at the airport after our 2000km plus journey late at night, in pitch black darkness and in the middle of nowhere- no town to be seen. The nearest town was a 30 km taxi ride, taking us past the local nuclear reactor/power station on the way, causing my eyes to water profusely and barely able to keep them open….
Arriving in town, I was struck by the appearance of a rather large city wall that seemed to surround the city center. Strange, I thought to myself, I had no idea that Xining was such a big town, but nevertheless was intrigued at this rather obvious link to Chinese history. Having selected a hotel that was, luckily for us, still open, we checked in and settled down for the night. Everything was going to plan, all I had to do was arrange our car/permit, and we would be on our way.
And then the shit hits the fan….Full of burning buddhist devotion, and eager to get my charge to his destination, I decided to go downstairs and talk to the receptionist about arranging a car for us. Through a combination of sign language, broken english, and several international dance steps, I explained that we were in need of a car to go to ‘this’ place, pointing to my well drawn Kanji characters of the town we wanted to go to in Tibet. The desk clerk scratched his head, and said in his best broken english, ‘It very far! You know that?’. I said yes, I was perfectly aware that it was a little way, but we were willing to pay premium money to get where we were going. He looked at me again, said something in mandarin, and went into his back room where he acquired a map. Spreading it out on top of the counter, he confirmed the details, ‘you want here yes?’, pointing to the city in Tibet where we were to meet Tibetans that would help us. Yes, I said, there. ‘You know where you now?’, he asked me, yes I said again, pointing to the city of Xining not too far from the place I wanted to go. ‘ No no no, you not here!’ , he said to me, and proceeded to point to the smack dead center of his map of China and way the hell away from Xining. ‘Where here?’ I asked as I started to lose my feeling of confidence. ‘ Here Xian, not Xining!’ he told me with a look of concern and frustration. A look at a map of China and the distance between Xian and Xining will give you an idea of how fucked up we were…way off target.
The it hit me- our trusty Indian travel agent, unable to read or find Xining on his travel itinerary, had decided that the next best thing was close enough, and had booked us a flight to a city 1500km east of our planned set off point, and dead in the middle of China.
And so the journey began…and I hadn’t even told Gesar yet………..to be continued.*- D&’%$# Rinpoche

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.

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.