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Appearance and Reality in Glacier Park

It  seems that pretty much everyone who comes to Glacier Park has a camera at hand and drawn by the beauty of the space, attempts to capture that beauty. I am no different in that respect and brought my cameras here. I am still an amatur, and no matter how hard I try I seem unable to capture what I see. But I don't think that this is just a matter of my lack of technical skill. Rather, I have concluded, the elusive beauty of what I am seeing is a mixture of sight, sound, smell and presence -- and the camera can only capture the first.

Early one morning Kayla reminded me that this mountainous bowl surrounding Swiftcurrent Lake has a deep silence to it which underlies the bird cries, the distant rumble of the waterfall and the silent people sleeping in the lodge around us. I recognized the presence of the mountains in 
this silence, a presence which was a bit uncomfortable as I first began to open to these mountains. 

When I turn my camera in their direction I find that I separate myself from their presence in the very attempt to capture it. Perhaps the great photographers are great for the very reason that they know how to invite the presence of the mountains and trees into their cameras, and not just their appearances.

This all seems like a verson of the Buddhist Two Truths: the ultimate nature of things (presence, in this case) and their appearance. I think that as a photographer I must be caught in the realm of appearances, that I have not found how to allow the presence of the ultimate into the appearances.

Sometimes Buddhists seem so intent on departing from appearances, to get so caught up in the quest for the ultimate that they forget that in truth there is no difference between these two. As the Heart Sutra says, form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form is not different from emptiness, emptiness is not different from form. Perhaps great photography can be a way of honoring this truth.  Perhaps a great photograph can be a mirror which reflects both the beauty of appearance and the reality of presence. I think that is what the great Chinese landscape painters understood. When I look at their pines I see the history of wind and water in their shapes. Their dynamic essence is revealed in their static form. 
Many Glacier mandala
As we passed the days in Glacier we became more attuned to the presence of the silence in the mountains. From the point of view of our hotel, the Swiftcurrent Valley is a great mandala, with Grinnell Point as the central mountain deity, surrounded by peaks at the cardinal and ordinal directions. The valley opens from the east and our hotel sits on the eastern shore of Swiftcurrent lake, which is at the foot of Grinnell Point. To the northwest is Heavy Shield Mountain, as the Blackfeet call it.  
Heavy Shield Mountain
A great female shaman had a vision of the shield when she did retreat in the valley, and the Blackfeet honored her vision by so naming the mountain. Remembering that the valley is a mandala each day I entered the presence of the silence, and though I honored Grinnell Point, I was curiously drawn to Heavy Shield. Does this mountain have something to teach me?

Our last night in Glacier I sat on a darkening balcony, camera on tripod next to me, watching the crescent moon slide down and across the sky from Grinnell to Heavy Shield. This was the first time I had waited for a camera shot to show itself to me. In time Heavy Shield offered me a gift as it showed its dark presence crowned by moon and planets. The secret of presence is revealed in the waiting, in the receiving rather than the taking.

Being at Home

One day I was complaining to Tara Tulku about something. At the moment I cannot remember just what it was, and actually it does not matter.  What matters was his response when I said that if only things were different I would be happy, if only I was doing something else and doing it somewhere else, then I would be happy.  He looked at me and said "You know, samsara is known to be everywhere." He stopped me in my tracks. At that moment I understood clearly that I could not escape unhappiness by being somewhere else, that elsewhere does not equal happiness, that happiness was not to be found anywhere if it was not to be found here --- wherever here was and whatever here was.

But it will come as no surprise that most of the time I forget this simple truth.  I keep thinking that if I just change something everything will be ok.  Actually, if I am honest, it seems that when I change something because I want it to be better it seems to end up worse. But then I am one of those guys who sees a glass half empty rather than half full.

When I asked ZaChoeje Rinpoche if his constant travel was not a bit tiring he said no it was not because he felt at home everywhere he went. He takes his happiness with him wherever he goes.

This makes me think about what it means to be at home and the sort of happiness which comes from truly being at home. To be honest, no matter where I am I do not feel at home. Not even in my home. In fact I don't think I have ever felt at home since I left my childhood home. But if I think about that deeply, I must conclude that even there I was pretty much just an alien in disguise. I had to leave home for the disguise to fall away and for my deep alienation to express itself.  What does this mean? I've been on the spiritual quest pretty much ever since I left my childhood home. Are these two things related?

One way I think about the Two Truths of conventional reality (how things appear) and ultimate reality (how things really exist) is that if we are even a little bit self-aware we will realize that we live in those two worlds simultaneously. We live in the world of who we really are and the world of who we are constrained to be. They don't seem to line up. Earning a living, dealing with household finances, taking care of health problems, mowing the lawn -- this is the conventional world of constraints.  But in the very same moment I am paying the bills my Buddha nature is watching what is going on.  I think it must be smiling while my forehead is frowning. 

I suspect that the reason I don't feel at home is because I've not integrated these two worlds, have only intellectually accepted that the one is in the other, that they depend on each other. Sometimes when I meditate I can see how they line up and interpenetrate; I can experience it. Perhaps ZaChoeje has made this integration on a more consistent experiential level, realized their interpenetration more organically and sustains himself with one while he negotiates the other. I am reminded that of the five bodhisattva paths, the Path of Preparation is where one begins to transform the intellectual understanding of emptiness and the two truths into a more direct perception and experiential recognition of them. 

And I am reminded of the Zen teaching that our true nature is right here right now, whether I am mowing the lawn, sitting in meditation or writing this blog. If I think about my childhood, and about when I felt at home, I must admit that I was at home whenever it did not seem to me that I was not myself. In times past people used to say that some people who grew old became more child-like. In fact sometimes really old people were disparaged for actually being child-like. Now that I am retired from my university career, perhaps I can dispose of the constraints I placed on myself to be the person I thought I needed to be and return to myself.  

Perhaps I will find my home again.

The Path of Accumulation

 Geshe Sonam Rinchen once told me that the essential element in Dharma practice was converting negative minds into positive minds. The Dharma Master of Namgyal Monastery later told me the same thing. I think that this takes many forms and at a retreat I once lead I suggested that one could look at the Path of Accumulation as the transformation of negative minds into positive minds. 

 The Path of Accumulation is the first of five sequential paths leading to Buddhahood. It is followed by the Path of Preparation, the Path of Seeing (i.e., seeing emptiness directly), the Path of Meditation and finally the Path of No More Learning, which is Buddhahood. The mantra Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha in the Heart Sutra encompasses these five paths.

  Buddhism has adapted to every culture in which it has taken root. In the USA this adaptation has included a sort of "psychologization".  I think there are many reasons for this, but one certainly is the contemporary practice of psychotherapy as a means for mental transformation. So the potential connection with Buddhism seems fairly obvious.

 A retreatant showed me these notes she had taken about the process of mental transformation developed by an anthropologist by the name of Angeles Arrien:
  • Whenever my critic is usually present I have compassion work to do.
  • When I'm impatient I have loving kindness work to do.
  • When I'm competitive & jealous I have empathetic joy work to do.
  • When I'm over extended & out of balance I have equanimity work to do. 
 These practices seem like a good synthesis of traditional Buddhist and modern psychological approaches to mind transformation. I don't think that Buddhists wrote or taught about the "inner critic" which disturbs our own mental equilibrium and our relationships with others, but they would understand the process in their own language. Those of us who are doing the work of self awareness and change will recognize how we project our mental states onto those around us, that there is no fundamental difference between the critical attitudes we have toward others and toward ourselves, and that improving our relations with others depends on dealing with the critical attitudes we have toward ourselves.  The inner critic of me expresses itself as the critic of you. Looked at from another perspective, the Dalai Lama notes that actually we can't love others unless we first love ourselves. 

 So, again, it seems to me that modern psychological "work on oneself" is, for western Buddhists, practice of the Path of Accumulation, as what is really accumulated in this work are good mental habit patterns. 

 Sometimes "work on oneself" may seem self-centered. But if we understand our deep interconnections, work on oneself is seen to benefit everyone we encounter.