Saturday, May 23, 2015

Where is the moon? (1)

I only remember two things of any significance from the year and a half I spent with Thich Thien-An, who was my first Zen teacher. One was the way he looked when he sat to meditate: deeply peaceful.  The second was a story he told. I don’t know its origin, but since he told it, that made it a Zen story. It is pretty simple, as are many Zen stories.  But it is profoundly deep, as are many Zen stories.

Two monks walk out of a temple.  One monk asks the other, “Where is the moon?” The second monk points to the sky and says “Over there.” The first monk looks at the pointing finger, and then at the moon. Wouldn’t it be foolish if the monk got so interested in the pointing finger that he never looked at the moon?

This is a simple story that illustrates the power and limitations of scriptures, which are what is represented by the pointing finger.  Buddhist teachings point at the truth but they are not the truth. The truth about the nature of our moon-like minds must be experienced directly.  Scriptures, dharma talks, and our thoughts about them can get us to pay attention to our moon-like minds, but if we want to experience our true nature, we need to pass beyond the particularities of scriptures, Dharma talks, and most importantly, our thoughts.

This Zen story probably derives from the archaic Buddhist teaching about the raft of Dharma which takes one across the stream to the other shore, the shore of liberation. Wouldn't it be foolish to try to haul the raft across the other shore?  Rafts, after all, are for crossing water, and are not only useless on the shore, but are a burden. And if you are liberated from the bondage of samsara, what is the need of the teachings?

So we might think that words are useless or an entanglement.  But then again, the Buddha had a lot to say. And if the second monk had not pointed at the moon, how would the first monk have found it?

I like to think about the pointing finger as more than just words.  I like to think of it as the imagination.  I don’t know if Thich Thien-An would have had such an interpretation, but it does not matter.  The Vajrayana practice so central to the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism makes exquisite use of the imagination.  A fundamental practice is to visualize oneself as a bodhisattva, perhaps such as Manjushri. Carl Jung taught us about archetypes.  I think of Manjushri as the archetype of wisdom, an aspect of our own mental nature that knows things for what they are. Manjushri is wisely alive in all of us, but we tend to be out of touch with that aspect of ourselves. I like to think that Manjushri is a finger pointing at the moon-like nature of our minds. This says a lot about Vajrayana practice and its power, as well as a sort of limitation.  While making the effort to cultivate the Manjushri within oneself, one can overlook what Manjushri knows.

What about that moon?  For many years I thought it was pretty foolish to be asking “where is the moon?” It is pretty easy to see.  But then again it is not always so easy to see.  When it is just barely a new sliver, or just about to disappear, it might be hard to locate. And if it is a new moon, cloaked by the earth's shadow, how would you be able to find it?

And then of course, there is the moon itself, whose silver white light is a reflection of the sun’s light.  Did the Zen masters know the source of the moon’s light? What might it mean that the luminance of our mind is a reflection of something?

And come to think of it, perhaps I really only remember one thing that Thich Thien-an taught me and not two things.  Perhaps when I looked at his meditating face I saw the peace of his moon-like mind. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

My Teachers: The Dalai Lama (3)


Kay and I had come to Dharamsala in the summer of 1992 to get advice on our meditation practice from the Dalai Lama, and he had advised a one month long retreat.  But the retreat expanded to a three month retreat, and then a follow-on retreat, and our plans for further travel around Asia receded and receded.  As we both agreed, what could be better than living on the grounds of the Dalai Lama's monastery? Why go anywhere else? So we didn't, and eventually all the time we had set aside for travel was used for meditation.  But I did have obligations to be fulfilled back home, so when the spring came it was time to leave.  

Five days before leaving Dharamsala we met with His Holiness for about half an hour. He asked if our practice had produced any benefit and we asked for guidance for our future practice. He told us, among other things, not to isolate ourselves when we returned to the U.S., but to engage with people, and that if we did so our practice would become stronger, it would grow.

At the beginning of our audience I had a strange sensation, something I'd not experienced in previous private audiences, a feeling or perception of a discrepancy between His Holiness' actions and his person or being. It was as if his laughter was a mask, that there was something else beneath the appearance. Kay spoke to him about her experiences of seeing him in public; she spoke about her feeling that so many times he had been smiling or looking at her, and mentioned my comment that I believed she was merely experiencing his vast bodhicitta which radiated on everyone so that they all felt his attention was just for them. Then, as in our previous interview, he showed us the human nature that coexisted with the bodhisattva nature. He told us that he acted as people expected him to act; whether he was feeling pain or sorrow, he gave people joy and smiles. What I had been experiencing as a disjunction between the mask and the underlying personality was just this: what might be falsity or a persona in another was, in fact, the power of his practice. Bodhisattva activity did not merely emerge from him, like light from a flame -- he practiced it. With this insight that even a bodhisattva, like the one I was talking to, had to continuously practice bodhisattva activity the romanticism of my metaphysical idealism shattered. In this, his work was no different than my own.

Yet, there was something else. All during our audience, and especially as he and Kay talked, I watched the cascades of energy that passed through and around him. Behind the conversation and the kindnesses, behind even the personality, was something else. His physical person seemed like the tiny tip of the proverbial iceberg, and the non-physical Dalai Lama, below the surface of the waters of physical appearance, was vast. This deep self was like an invisible master who pulled the strings of the material puppet of the body that sat in the room with us. Watching this aspect of him thrilled me. His movements were animated by this energy, they seemed controlled by it. At one point in his conversation with Kay his body shifted from leaning forward towards her to sitting bolt upright. At the same time, his eyes unfocused their piercing look and settled into a kind of full field awareness that seemed to be taking in some larger whole. At the same time, the energy in the room shifted and, later, I realized that in those moments our relation with him had also shifted. What had he seen? With that shift in posture the quality of our interview changed in some way which was difficult to discern until its very end.

As we stood up to leave Kay and I both joined our hands in a prayer mudra and bowed our heads to him. Suddenly we both found ourselves being embraced by His Holiness, our foreheads on his chest, his arms enfolding us. The embrace lasted for what seemed like minutes, and he whispered a few words to us.

When we returned to our room I realized that I was both stunned and shaken by his embrace. Kay and I spoke a little to each other, but mostly sat quietly with our feelings. I realized that His Holiness had implanted some sort of energy in me that would forever change my relationship to him. I wondered if between this and his Monlam initiation and teachings, I was now truly his disciple? He had not said so, but I reflected on his comment at our previous audience that with the death of Tara Rinpoche we should not be in a hurry to try to find another lama. Geshe Wangdrak, Denma Locho Rinpoche and Geshe Sonam Rinchen had been incredible teachers. In fact, I felt that Denma Locho Rinpoche could be my lama if circumstances would make it possible, for when I sat with him I felt like I was sitting with a Buddha, and my heart opened and softened as my mind simultaneously became clearer and sharper. These were the signs I required, but I remembered His Holiness' instructions and did not try to establish a lama-disciple relationship with Locho Rinpoche.

Now I wondered, had His Holiness meant that we should not look for a lama because he was our lama? That was too much to hope for, too preposterous; such thoughts indeed seemed arrogant. Yet I knew that establishing such a relationship was a mutual testing over time. In 1983, when I had first asked Tara Rinpoche for a Manjushri initiation, he had refused. For five years he watched and waited, and then in 1988 he gave me the initiation I requested. Was this what His Holiness was doing? Did he even take on western disciples? And if he did, what would that be like? My old friend and colleague Bob Thurman had said that His Holiness did not even take on Tibetan disciples directly, but would send them to other lamas for instruction. Might that happen for us? There was no way to know what, if anything, was happening; we could only wait and allow things to unfold in accordance with our karma and merit. We had followed his instructions from our first interview, and their fruit was an amazing seven months of practice at Namgyal Monastery. What would be the fruit of following the guidance given at this second interview?

He had told us that it would be good to come back to Dharamsala again to recharge ourselves after some time in the west. Perhaps our questions would be answered when we returned. If we returned.

During these last days in Dharamsala His Holiness' presence was always with me. He quietly sat in my heart and pervaded the space around me. At that time he was involved in a western meditation teachers' conference which was meeting both in town and at his palace. Word of some of the proceedings leaked out. Something His Holiness was reputed to have said stuck in my mind as his final teaching for me. A friend of a friend who was attending the conference had told her that His Holiness had said that the Buddhadharma could be boiled down to three things: refuge, bodhicitta and impermanence. Up until our last audience I had not thought much about refuge. Now its profundity was apparent. Without taking refuge in the lama who is the living manifestation of the lineage, how could one practice, how could one purify the mind stream, how could one develop the correct view? That this had not been patently obvious to me in this specific form called "refuge" could only be attributed to subtle and coarse forms of western arrogance, a refusal to accept dependent arising in the form of the relation of the lama and disciple. But unrequested, His Holiness had given us refuge in his arms, in his embrace.

Now I also began to understand why Geshe Sonam Rinchen had criticized me for coming to him for answers while going to other lamas for blessings. He had said that I needed to learn that these two were inseparable. His words had been a stinging rebuke, a wound that had pained for months. Yet on the day before we left Dharamsala, when we went to see him to say goodbye, he was warm and his eyes were full of affection. He gave us advice about our practice and reminded us that transforming the mind was to be practiced bit by bit, moment to moment from morning to night. This was real spiritual practice he said, thinking about these things, transforming the mind through this way of thinking and understanding. Spiritual practice was more than just doing meditation.

His Holiness had told us to engage with people when we returned home, not to isolate ourselves, and to return to Dharamsala to "recharge." But that was not so simple to do.  Apart from teaching, few jobs granted time for travel to India. And making a living as a professor was not my fate.  We would not return to Dharamsala and another audience with the Dalai Lama until 2001. By then Kay had started painting thankas and she requested the meeting with him to discuss her work and gain some guidance.  I thought I was coming along to the audience as company, and had no specific reason to meet with him. But as his brother Thubten Norbu had said to me back when I was a graduate student, you cannot be in the presence of beings such at the Dalai Lama without extraordinary things happening.

As Kay talked to him about thanka painting I enjoyed his company.  We had greeted him in the usual way, offering scarves, but instead of taking the scarves and returning them to us as a blessing he had set them by his side.  Throughout our time together my mind kept asking, would I get the scarf back as a blessed memento or not? Finally, as the conversation approached its conclusion, an attendant came in with a small tray in his hands. Two little bronze buddhas sat on the tray, and I thought, how wonderful, we had each received such statues from him at the conclusion of previous audiences, now I would receive a third one!

The conversation with Kay came to its conclusion and he stood up. The attendant put the tray to his side, he picked up a small buddha statue and began to hand it to me, and then stopped. He looked at me and said, "Often when I have visitors I like to give them a small statue. But I don't want to do that unless my visitors are Buddhists. Are you a Buddhist"? I was dumbfounded, almost speechless. How could I answer such a question? I had been meeting with him over a period of almost 20 years, and he knew quite well that I had translated Nagarjuna, had been Tara Tulku's disciple, was now Locho Rinpoche's disciple and had been on retreat in his own monastery. What did he mean, was I a Buddhist?

This was serious. Was I REALLY a Buddhist?  What made a person a Buddhist if the question was now in the air? I stammered, "Yes, I am.  At least I hope I am." He placed the small statue on his head to bless it and handed it to me. Without further conversation he blessed the second statue and handed it to Kay. Then, at my request, we stepped outside to have a group photo.

Dharamsala, 2001

We walked back to the Green Hotel, and I kept wondering, am I really a Buddhist? Clearly this had not been a question but a challenge. Could I be a Buddhist? Nine years earlier His Holiness had said that the Buddhadharma could be boiled down to three things: refuge, bodhicitta and impermanence. To be a Buddhist meant that one took refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, viewed existence as impermanent and expressed the bodhicitta attitude in their life. Had I really done these things? That was the challenge the Dalai Lama had posed to me. How serious was I? What was lacking?  How hard would I work at the Buddhadharma? He had shown me how hard he worked at it. The question was like a Zen koan. It would stick in me mind for years. Was I really a Buddhist or just pretending?

The question would return again and again. Over the years Kay and I would attend many of his teachings and initiations in large public gatherings and he would challenge the audience's seriousness in sometimes gentle and sometimes strict ways.

In 2013 I joined many of my students in a gathering with His Holiness on the subject of Buddhism and Ecology. 13,000 people sat in Portland Oregon's Moda Center to listen to His Holiness and a panel of experts talk about the ecological challenges facing our world. At the conclusion of the day's events the entire audience rose to offer scarves to him, and stepping to the lip of the stage he in turn offered visualized scarves to everyone in the audience. Then he waved goodby to the audience in the auditorium, turned and took several steps away form the edge of the stage, stopped and returned to face the audience. Complete silence filled the hall. In a totally impromptu manner he said that we all were the same human beings, we all had the same human potential. He had become what he was by working to cultivate and develop that potential and we could do the same. In fact, that was our responsibility.

He turned and left the stage, leaving 13,000 stunned people holding white offering scarves. Again I had to ask myself, was I really a Buddhist? And there again was his challenge: how much effort was I willing to make?

Sunday, May 10, 2015

My Teachers: The Dalai Lama (2)


Tara Rinpoche’s dying blessing for Kay and I altered the direction of our lives. Perhaps we should have expected it, but the mundane mind seems unable to grasp the profound currents running through profound events, such as a dying lama’s final blessing for his students.

Rinpoche’s final words to Kay were "You and David have my blessings. Go to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama to find out what to do next in your spiritual practice."

Rinpoche’s blessing was the cause of our meeting with the Dalai Lama just over a year later, but the condition for it was the end of my teaching contract with Kennedy University. That rather unpleasant experience was to reveal to me that what looks like a disaster from one perspective can be a profound opportunity, even a blessing, from another perspective.

Dharamsala is the second wettest spot in India, and we spent over a month enduring the monsoon rains of the late summer of 1992 while we waited and hoped for a personal meeting with the Dalai Lama. Then suddenly one morning the message came that a time had opened up that afternoon if we wanted to come. Of course we did, and in the early afternoon took a taxi to His Holiness' palace. It was called a "palace" as a matter of respect, for in actuality it was just a complex of simple, low buildings and bungalows. We were greeted at the wrought iron gates by Tibetan and Indian guards who escorted us into a small one room octagonal brick building set in the wall by the gates. There they recorded our passport numbers and searched us. We were told that a last minute interview had been scheduled with some Australian journalists, and this would delay our meeting. I passed the time alternately feeling nervous and excited. Sometimes I tried to read the Tibetan literature scattered on the tables in the room, or admired the blue Tibetan carpets set on the narrow benches built into the eight sides of the room. Then I would remember to try to compose my mind for the meeting. In a few minutes it would wander again or I would make some brief comment to Kay or just look around the room. Sixteen persons could sit comfortably on the benches, but there was no one there besides us.

Finally a secretary came for us and led us up a low hill to the bungalow where the Dalai Lama held various meetings and audiences. We walked through beautiful grounds, well maintained and planted in bamboo, thick grass and various flowering shrubs and trees. We waited another fifteen minutes in the anteroom next to the audience room where His Holiness was talking with the Australian journalists. I remembered the room from my previous audiences. There were a number of display niches with various fine bronze or silver sculptures and several lovely paintings hung on the walls along with some awards which had been presented to His Holiness. The Tibetan carpet on the floor was of course lovely, and had the sort of understated design with large open spaces which was typical for the palace. It was in marked contrast to both the design and quality of the rugs for sale in town. The chairs were large and upholstered, though a bit frayed at the edges. In one way it all seemed familiar. Yet something just beyond my awareness seemed different.

Finally I placed it: I could not hear any screeching birds. As the compound was on the top of a hill, hawks, eagles and vultures often cruised in the updrafts over the compound, and their cries created a sense of tangible, almost solid spaciousness over and around the compound. To me their cries had defined the borders of a space which had seemed filled with a special atmosphere generated by His Holiness. In this space time seemed to flow at a different rate, actions seemed to have an increased significance and the space itself seemed filled with a peaceful and slightly blissful quality. It was if the Dalai Lama’s mind filled the compound and the space above it, and at those moments when he and I both had heard the bird cries our minds had merged in that space. This time, as Kay and I waited, there were no bird cries. To me their absence now was as tangible as their presence had been.

Finally the secretary returned and escorted us out another door of the waiting room onto the covered porch which connected the anteroom with the audience room. On the open side of the porch flowering pink bougainvillea hung thickly below the roof line. Potted plants were scattered along the edge of the floor. His Holiness was on the far end saying goodbye to the journalists. The secretary held his arm out for us to wait as His Holiness finished his good-byes and made some comments to his appointments secretary. They reentered the audience room and a few minutes later our attendant escorted us in.

This small overlap of appointments gave us a last opportunity to compose ourselves by admiring the flowers.

His Holiness was standing and waiting for us as we walked in. We offered ceremonial scarves and bundles of incense to him, and he motioned us to sit on a couch beside his own chair. His translator sat across from us, ready should he be needed, although His Holiness' English was more than adequate to the needs of our conversation.

I had an impression that the room was lovely and well appointed with paintings and sculptures. But because all my attention was focused on His Holiness, and especially his eyes, I barely saw what was in the room. Only the white cloth slipcovers on the chairs and couches really registered in my attention.

As usual, His Holiness was deeply engaging and remarkably present with us. Yet, paradoxically, while his attention seemed completely with us, at the same time it seemed completely elsewhere. His eyes were deep and sparkling, inviting me to enter them and see him, yet at the same time I felt too shy to look too closely for too long.

Now, as we spoke of the reason for our visit, our grief over Tara Rinpoche's death came to the surface. His Holiness reminisced about Rinpoche with us and recalled "what a nice lama he had been," how the praise and love of those around him "had only made him more humble." He reminded us that our lama was with us whether in a physical body or not and that such a distinction was of no particular relevance.

As to what we should do next in our spiritual practice, His Holiness suggested a retreat on our meditational deity, the fierce form of Manjushri. I'd already told him we'd done four such retreats under the supervision of Tara Rinpoche, but now I expressed some concern about doing this fifth retreat, as we had never done one on our own. Could he suggest a "spiritual friend" who could give us guidance? He suggested two: Geshe Wangdrak, the current Abbot of Namgyal, His Holiness’s monastery, and Denma Locho Rinpoche, the former Abbot of Namgyal.

His Holiness recalled for us Tara Rinpoche's last visit to him before his death. Extremely sick with advanced stomach cancer, Rinpoche had traveled from Bombay to Delhi, and then from Delhi to Dharamsala. His Holiness said that during their meeting Tara Rinpoche "never thought of himself or his own suffering. He only thought of my welfare." Tears came to our eyes, oddly mixed with our smiles and joy as we reminisced about Tara Rinpoche with His Holiness. Then his posture shifted a bit and he said that it sometimes scared him that people put such faith in him. As we felt the weight he carried, I began to feel a deep concern for him, even a fear for his health and welfare. It was not hard to understand how it was that Tara Rinpoche had felt the same thing, though it was a measure of Rinpoche's practice that he felt it in spite of his own pain and imminent death. By the end of our meeting my devotion to His Holiness had been renewed. Simultaneously, my devotion had become another burden to be carried by the Ocean Lama and the foundation for my forthcoming retreat.

Giving us scarves and small statues of the Buddha, which he first blessed, he took our hands and escorted us to the door, telling us that we would be in Dharamsala a long time and to come back and see him if we had something important to discuss.

We walked down the path to the gate of the palace very carefully, as our legs seemed weak. Now there was no escort. I held Kay's arm. We shared private "knowing" smiles that spoke of our good fortune. As we stepped out the palace gate into the debate courtyard I felt that even if we were to leave India tomorrow, the trip would have been worth it.

But we would not leave that quickly, for in the half hour of our meeting the course of our entire trip was changed. We had been traveling on around-the-world tickets, beginning our journey with several months in England and Ireland. We had been anticipating a month's stay in Dharamsala, to be followed by seven months of travel throughout India and Southeast Asia before returning to San Francisco. But we followed his advice and in a natural flow first our travel was postponed for a one month retreat, and then our one month retreat became a three month retreat, and then our whole eight months in Asia ended up being spent in Dharamsala, most of it on the grounds of His Holiness’s monastery.

This was a manifestation of the Dalai Lama’s wisdom and blessings. But, having been in his extraordinary presence, it was not hard to have faith in his guidance, and act upon it by abandoning our plans. And unknown to us, the seed of yet a further blessing was wrapped in the Dalai Lama’s advice, for his guidance sent us to Denma Locho Rinpoche. And in time, Locho Rinpoche would become our second personal lama.