Letting Go of “Sides”

In this world, a lot of harm is caused by righteousness, including those of religious views.  Unitarian Universalist congregations are a very special community.  You have done what many people are unable to do, let go of the divisions between religions.  We may have not considered that letting go of  “sides” is an important part of our spiritual journey. To complete it, we are instructed to let go of everything, all views entirely. I expect just giving voice to this idea causes lots of views to arise in your minds. Great! Let’s be brave.

Exerpted from the Chinese teaching poem: Faith-Mind by Seng-ts’an, Third Chinese Patriarch

The Great Way is not difficult for those not attached to preferences. When not attached to love or hate, all is clear and undisguised. Separate by the smallest amount, however, and you are as far from it as heaven is from earth.

If you wish to know the truth, then hold to no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind…Indeed, it is due to our grasping and rejecting that we do not know the true nature of things.

Observing the intensity of the polarization in our nation and communities, we can certainly accept that for and against is as a disease of our contemporary society.

In the Buddhist philosophical tradition we have one description of the path towards enlightenment distilled into eight accomplishments and symbolized as an 8-spoked wheel. One spoke on that wheel is Right View. Even the translation Right View is misleading because the concept is multi-layered, more an evolving of understanding.  At the beginning of our journey, when our minds are childlike we need to be encouraged to observe the difference between healthy and unhealthy behaviors, or that which causes harm to ourselves and others. All traditions have a moral code, views of right and wrong. However there is complexity and breath of understanding of spirituality as we mature. Can we lie to save a life for instance?

When our behaviors are tamer, we investigate where we wish to go. Using concepts, we describe enlightenment and the path to the fruition of our journey. We develop views about which belief system has the most clear and helpful understanding of that fruition. In Tibetan Buddhism we have a philosophical debate system. It sounds like a football game when the monastics are debating views about which Buddhist tenet systems are the most complete.  Finally, we put our theories into practice and investigate our minds in meditation, using the views as a support for understanding. As we progress finally let go of all views because they are in fact concepts not realizations. Our religions and philosophies are conceptual, to finally free our minds we let go, even of this raft that has held us on our journey. Right View is ultimately letting go of all views.

Hold on you might be thinking about now. Of course there is clear right and wrong justice and injustice. How can I advocate something like this as a spiritual path?

We might identify truth or fruition in all traditions as the capacity for profound wisdom and compassion. When we examine what this really means in Buddhism, it is the vastness of peaceful mind not bound by conceptuality. It is the nature of limitless compassion, a clear, spacious, compassionate, wise mind. Like the sun shining and the rays reaching the whole earth, the enlightened mind it is not discriminating. It does not judge which beings to help, which are deserving and which are not. Unwavering from the state of wisdom and kindness, one sees the suffering of all beings and has the wisdom to know what is needed.

What about taking action? What does it look like when we don’t frame our thoughts and actions as for and against with righteousness as in justice and injustice?

Thicht Nhat Hanh taught his students in Vietnam to serve the people without taking sides in the war. Students  brought food and medicine to the North and South even as bombs dropped, and were vilified for not taking sides. Thicht Nhat Hanh himself worked untiringly for peace, at the Paris Peace talks, and in the US, the land of the bombers of his countries’ villages. After the war, because he had not created consepts of enemies, he was able to facilitate reconciliation between US army veterans and Vietnamese people. In the bigger picture, he did not stop one war but he did bring a lasting peace to many minds and through the clear peace, joy and dignity of his meditation practice, this peace is rippling internationally.

How do we start exploring letting go of sides? Begin by noticing how pervasive this kind of thinking is, how quickly concepts of like and dislike arise in our minds.  Can we feel the subtle contraction of our mind when we give rise to dislike in fairly simple situations? Rather than judging ourselves for having this very universally human disease, can we examine our minds like scientists. Like rooting for Super Bowl teams, what happens in my mind when I take a side. Can I simply look at the mental experience.  What about things I feel very strongly about. When I feel close to righteous about an opinion, what is happening in my mind? Is my experience of my mind vast and open? One of the trainings for meditators in the caves is to examine love and hate and question if there is a difference, what is the quality of openness in the heart of our experience of strong emotions.

Having any view involves judging and or defending. We can ask is my mind in this moment soft open flexible or closed. Am I creating habits of mind that are leading where we want to go or reinforcing habits in the opposite direction?

From the Buddhist perspective the most pervasive subtle and insidious “for and against” is the notion of I and thou. The belief that we are separate and independently existing rather than interconnected. This is the primal ignorance that is the root of suffering. It is also a constructed view of mind. Look at how we define me and mine. My family couple, plus children, plus aunts and uncles cousins great and grand nieces and nephews?  We construct boundaries and determine how far and wide we stretch our heart. I will honor the life transitions and joy markers of these people, the hopes and dreams of these people. They are my family, they are important to me so much so that I will rejoice and grieve with them, do everything in my power to help them to be happy. Look at how arbitrary these boundaries are. The day you got to he pound there are one hundred anonymous dogs and cats.  You choose one and in that moment, they are yours and you want the best for them, feed them care for them, provide medicines and toys.

What if every crying child was equally important to us, every child held in our hearts as our family. Shantideva teaches:

I should eliminate the suffering of others because it is suffering; just like my own suffering.  I should take care of others because they are sentient beings just as I am a sentient being.

If one thinks that the suffering that belongs to someone is to be warded off by that person himself, then why does the hand protect the foot when the foot does not belong to the hand?

Hands and other limbs are thought of as the members of a body. Shall we not consider others likewise- Limbs and members of a living whole?

Just as I defend myself  from all unpleasant happenings, however small. Likewise I shall act for others’ sake to guard and shield them with compassion.

May we truly understand this mind that has the capacity to love limitlessly like the sun shines, with no barriers or reservation.

Empowerment of Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhist Nuns

By Mrs Nyamgyal Taklha   

What was life for a nun in Tibet before 1959? I interviewed a few elderly nuns from Tibet. Life of nuns in Tibet was spent cleaning their simple rooms, preparing their meals, making prostrations, memorizing prayers and praying.

Nyung-ney, a fasting and prostration retreat introduced in the 11th century by Gelongma Palmo, an Indian nun from Oddiyana, was a popular activity and taken by many nuns in conjunction with Chenresig or Buddha of Compassion (Avaloketeshvara) practice. The retreat involves fasting and multiple daily sessions of prostration and recitation of the six-syllable mantra OM MANI PADME HUNG. This is an intensive spiritual practice to purify obscurities and negativities and accumulate merit. The practice involves taking only one

  Mrs Taklha                                        vegetarian meal and water the first day. The next day no food or water is taken and it goes on. There was no special Dharma classes or Tibetan language classes for the nuns. They were lucky if a literate nun would give them lessons in reading and writing.

Many nuns were admitted into a nunnery by their parents when they were very young, although a few older ones did join a nunnery on their own wishes. Parents of young nuns would sometimes offer their daughters or wards as disciples to an older nun. If there were many daughters in a family, one or two would be sent to join a nunnery. If one was physically or mentally challenged, her hair would be shaven, she would be made to wear maroon robes and yellow blouses and be identified as a nun and kept at home.

When girls or older women joined a nunnery, they had to build their
own living quarters, or live with another nun and get their own provisions for their daily meals. They did not receive support from the nunnery except for butter tea in the mornings, served during the prayer assembly. On special holy days, sponsors may offer tea and meals as well as some monetary offering. Poorer nuns did much of the work in the common kitchen, looked after the sheep, dri ( female yak)and dzo  (cross between a yak and a cow known for their excellent milk) and cows belonging to the nunnery. They took the animals to higher places for grazing, brought them back in the evening and milked them. The nuns fetched water for the common kitchen, which could be quite a distance in some cases. They collected firewood or dried animal dung for the kitchen and they would be given some tsampa, tea and maybe some butter. Many nuns coming from far places such as from Jangthang (nomad region) and from Kham faced difficulties feeding

themselves. They were lucky if they had relatives in Lhasa who would supply them with their needs.  If not, there were some nuns from aristocratic and well to do business families in the nunnery, who kept the poorer nuns to do the cleaning, washing and cooking for them while they fed them, gave them clothing and some pocket money too. They treated them like maidservants, but some were also kind to teach them to read and write.

Generally Lamas and monks managed the nunneries, and a senior nun would be chosen to                Khenmo, Namlha, Ani Tsekyi, Ani Yeshe and newest nuns   represent the monk. She would look after the day-to-day affairs of the nunnery. This nun would not take any decision without consulting the Lama or the monk-in-charge.  I learnt from a nun in Gari Gonpa near Lhasa, that when a nun wanted to take a long leave, she had to send an application to the Khenpo or Rinpoche in charge. After the application was approved with a seal, a local oracle the nuns considered very important was requested to go into trance to re-approve the leave.

The nuns did not have classes for language or dharma studies in the Nunnery. The younger nuns would be lucky if they were under the supervision of a senior nun who would teach them to read and write. The emphasis was on memorization of prayers, which they had to recite at the daily prayer assemblies. If there was a public Teaching in Lhasa or nearby, they could go and attend, but this was not often. Lack of education and financial support, low self esteem and trying to be humble, the nun’s hesitance to break out of their closed selves were major obstruction to advancement and their recognition in society.

In Tibet and other Himalayan Buddhist regions, it was the custom for girls to be quiet, obedient and submissive. Being humble was a message put in the mind of most women, especially nuns. These qualities were embedded in them.  I was very talkative and mischievous when I was young and my nanny used to say, “If you are so naughty and talkative, you will not find a husband.” The role model for girls was to find a good husband.

In Ladakh or maybe even in other Himalayan regions, one daughter was made a nun and she was kept at   Joanne,  Khenmo, Tashi Drolma with newest class                                                   home to do all the manual work in the house. An educated nun from Ladakh told me that nuns were actually family slaves till things changed about a decade back. Another nun, who was a pioneer in opening a modern nunnery in Leh, Ladakh, faced much opposition and non-cooperation from the community, but the nuns in this nunnery are receiving good education, a few are traditional physicians and they take care of the sick and the needy and they also assist with family problems.

On 19th September 2004 I became the Director of Drikung Kagyu Samtenling Nunnery at Dehra Dun.  I was requested to look after the nuns by my brother, His Holiness Drikung Chetsang Rinpoche. A few young monk staff members and some nuns at the nunnery also asked me to come and take charge of the nunnery administration. I took up the job without a salary and on voluntary basis. A senior monk was in-charge of the Nunnery and they thought a woman would be a better administrator. My first job there was to make a rule that no monk or man could visit a nun in her room. They could always visit them, but they must meet in the common room or out in the garden.  Education was a priority and modern education was very important for the nuns, so was getting some exercise and healthy nutrition. Most important was for the nuns to administer their own nunnery.

The nuns were studying Tibetan language and dharma, but they needed more general knowledge and to learn to read, write and speak English and Hindi. They also needed to know simple calculation. One day I took a couple of the older nuns from Tibet to the hospital, and on the way they wanted to buy some fruits.  They could not add up the cost and I had to help them.

The nuns were encouraged to have debating classes. At first a couple of senior monks thought this was not done by nuns and they were discouraging, but we continued and now the nuns are debating and doing well.

The nuns needed to express themselves and answer questions instead of keeping their heads down and not utter a word. When I asked a few nuns their names, they would look down, giggle and say their names so softly that one could hardly hear them. This was terrible. I told them, “ Why are you not looking up at my face and tell me your names with a louder voice? ” There was no response.              Nuns during the Great Mandala Offering   

After I settled down to work, I requested the nuns to vote a senior nun to become Asst. Director. Workshops were organized for the nuns on empowerment and public speaking. We also invited nuns from other nunneries of different Tibetan Buddhist                                                                                                               Schools, and the Chief Guests were all nuns. Our first guest was H.E. Khando Rinpoche from Mindoling Monastery. We had Jetsun Tenzin Palmo from Drukpa Kagyu Dongyu Gatsel Nunnery, Tsuenma Losang Dechen from Dolmaling Nunnery and a Chinese nun, a Professor from Taiwan. It was important for our nuns to see that nuns can become leaders.

During important functions it was the custom for the Heads of the Departments of Drikung Kagyu Institute to come and present the Mandala Offering to His Holiness. During one teaching, I told the Asst. Director, Tsunma Yeshi Drolma that now she should offer the Mandala on behalf of the nuns instead of me.

The big day came, the large hall was packed, the Heads of DKI branches slowly walked towards His Holiness’s throne and Yeshi la refused to get up. People were looking at me. I got up and went over to Yeshi la and told her to please go up to present the Mandala. She refused. I told her that in no way would I go up. Tears collected in her eyes and she would not budge. I asked the Disciplinarian, who was sitting next to her to go up and she too refused. Tsuenma Kunchok Palmo, a Msc. Graduate was nearby and she too refused to go. I went back to my seat, continued to sit there, and slowly Yeshi la got up, prostrated and went to join the small group for the Mandala Offering. When the ceremony was over, I went up to her and asked her, “Was it difficult?” She was beaming and she said, “No” and started giggling. Since then during all ceremonies the nun Director offers the Mandala.

Nuns also sat at the back of the hall during Teachings. I requested His Holiness Drikung Chetsang Rinpoche, Lineage Head to let the nuns sit on one side and the monks on the other side. We had senior nuns who were well versed in the Teachings and why should they sit behind some young monks, who had just joined the monastery? He gave instructions to let the nuns sit on one side of the Prayer Hall in the temple. Initially the nuns would not come to the front and kept sitting at the back. I had to tell them that they must now come forward. When the nuns did not come up front, the Director of the Monastery, Kusho Choenyi la came up to me and said, “ We have made the seats for the nuns so that they need not sit at the back, but they refuse to come up to the front!” Now they sit in front.

We also encouraged the nuns to join workshops and conferences organized elsewhere by other nunneries or the Tibetan Women’s Association. We also encouraged teachers and visitors from abroad to come to the nunnery.  Meeting and mixing with people outside one’s region is so important to open up and learn of the outside world. This also helps them to improve their English.

After two years I left the post of Director and a nun was elected for the Director’s post. I continued to assist the nuns as their Advisor. Yeshe Drolma la, the first Asst. Director missed one year of studies. Thereafter it was decided that the nuns elected to the post of Director take this duty for a year only, because they were still students.

As for my part, instead of visiting them once a week as done during the early stages of my work, I went to the nunnery, once in two or three weeks. There is a trained Accountant- cum-Secretary in the office and the nuns have done a very good     Acharya Nuns Receive Diplomas                                                 job of running their nunnery now. There is still some hesitancy about being the Director.

We now have 74 nuns. We have a computer, an art class and a class for ritual training every Sunday. On their own initiative    the nuns have also founded a Publication Department. They  have started a vegetable garden and they took part in cleaning campaigns in the nearby villages.

Ten nuns wished to take up computer and English courses in Dharamsala during this summer instead of going home or spending their summer holidays elsewhere. This is a good sign that they wish to grow.

It gives me much pleasure to see the nuns maturing, growing out of their shyness and gaining confidence and trust in themselves. Last year two nuns graduated from the Kagyu College for monks and nuns, and obtained their Acharya degree. They went for further studies on a program at Sera College in South India. Now they returned to Kham to teach in a Kagyu Nunnery there.

Five nuns graduated this year. One nun wishes to enter the 3 years, 3 months and 3 days retreat. It will be the first time a nun who has graduated with an Acharya degree is joining our Retreat Center. Another nun, Yeshi Dolma will go to assist Khenmo Drolma in the first Drikung Nunnery in USA. Of the three others, Tsunma Kunchok Tsekyi is selected to become the first Director for a period of two years, which will be extended to three when the next election for the post takes place.  The other two nuns will be teaching at the Nunnery.

My wish to see the nuns administer their own nunnery is now a reality. Thanks to our lineage Head, His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Ani Sonam, Ani Konchog, Khenmo and Ani Teskyi.   Rinpoche, our teachers, the staff at the Nunnery and all who have supported us, this big step is possible. Without the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, expressing his wish for gender equality and his special concern for the education of Buddhist nuns, I doubt we would have come this far. The nuns have also been very supportive of each other. I take leave as Advisor of the Drikung Kagyu Samtenling Nunnery this August. A few senior nuns will be elected  to       form a Board of Advisors of the Nunnery. I wish the nuns well and I am confident that they will do a good job.  21st August 2016

After this letter, I took Acharya Kunchok Tsekyi, the new Director of DK Samtenling Nunnery with me to show her how other nunneries are run in Dharamsala. We visited Dolmaling. The Asst. Director of the Nun’s Project, Tsuenma Lobsang Dechen was very kind to take us around. We then visited Shugseb Nunnery. Due to teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and my departure from Dharamsala, we could not visit more nunneries. Tsekyi had visited the Nunnery in Mcleod Ganj. I am very happy to see that Tsekyi is taking her responsibilities successfully.

She said, “During the Shravasti Teachings, I had to go along with the heads of other departments and Khenpos during some events and it was very difficult.  I did it as you said and not for myself, but for the future of our Drikung nuns. I joined in all the events and I

was the only female. It was not easy, but I did it.”

I think a nun getting the same education and position, as a monk is quite new in the Tibetan and Himalayan community. There is insecurity and disapproval from some monks. One senior monk from Tibet said, “Now the nuns are growing wings!” and it was said in a sarcastic way. But nothing is permanent and we have to change and change for the better. December 2016.          Ani Sonam, Ani Tsekyi, Ani Drolma, Ani Yeshe Metok, Khenmo Drolma, Ani Drolkar at the 2018 Shravasti Teachings

 

Bathing in Generosity

Every time I visit our home monastery in India, I am stunned by the level of generosity that is infused in the very way of life. During the recent celebration of 800 years it felt like we were literally immersed in generosity.  During this time together, our hearts were completely open and we were sharing the joy of life and the blessings of the Dharma with each offering.

We arrived, exhausted after two days of travel, at hot and dusty Kulhan. We were met joyfully, and offered sweet tea by

Ani Yeshe and Ani Tsekyi. Each guest received a lovely bag with the Drikung logo and a box of incense. In addition, I received a full set of robes including the yellow outer robe and the striking red meditation hat, as did all the monks and nuns. Lined up next to the classroom were about 100 monks and nuns with katas.  They began carrying to the main monastery, the bronze statues of Lord Jigten Sumgon that would become part of the stunning background for the ceremonies.  The statues had been filled by the nuns with relics and medicines over the last few weeks.

When we were shown our rooms, usually a very basic affair, we were struck by the level of thoughtfulness for our every comfort. Each bed (a mattress on plywood) had new sheets, a bedspread and blanket. A bowl of fruit and sweets awaited us as well as a hot water electric kettle to make our own tea along with a box of tea, mugs, sponges, soaps and tea towels. Every space in the nunnery, all their classrooms, had been turned into dorms for foreign guests and relatives.

The next day we registered and received prayer books and photos of HH Drikung Chetsang. The registration table was surrounded by booths with crowds of people at each one.  You could contribute to the event, to the extensive mandala offering, to various charities run by various Drikung organizations. Huge tents were set up for hundreds of Ladaki disciples to camp. Over twelve thousand people descended on this tiny monastery complex and all were fed three delicious meals a day. There were large signs instructing everyone to consider maintaining a vegetarian diet so that the gathering caused no harm to any being.  Even the immediately surrounding restaurants served only vegetarian fare and no alcohol.

And then we began the weeklong extravaganza. From the start generosity abounded.  Every major Lama or scholar who had authored books, gave either all the monastics or the entire assembly one of their most significant books. The Drikung Lineage gave six volumes of our founder”s and a major collection of Marpa’s writings to each and every center worldwide. Centers and Lamas wanted to make so many mandala offerings (12 daily) that we ran out of time for all to be included. Within the mandala offerings which are made to HH Drikung Chetsang, many donated in addition, to the Lamas and assembled monastics as well with funds, images, posters and medallions.  And that money is also given away…

We found this circle of generosity was made visible when the financial statement was read. Our top Lamas, were in fact our major donors. Younger lamas are starting medical clinics and schools in remote areas.  On one day, after everyone was gone, anther young Rinpoche gave a new warm blanket to every monk in the monastery (over 200).

HH Drikung Chetsang’s activities seem limitless and I am sure the donations from this gathering help fund the Saravasti stupa and monastery which open next year, or his Go Green projects, or the new ones he is dreaming into being.

Midway through the week, one day was devoted to service. HH Drikung Chetsang announced his newest Go Green project.  Rinpoche has joined with the Indian Government and H.H. Swami Chidananda Saraswati to plant a million trees and support Swami’s endeavors to clean up the Ganges River. Over five thousand attendees spent that afternoon cleaning up the environment and giving out food and medicines.

Finally there was the ultimate offering ceremony: the last day was devoted to making offerings, a prayer ceremony of gratitude to the lineage ancestors and a line of gifts a mile long to HH Drikung Chetsang Rinpoche who in one lifetime has saved and rejuvenated the Drikung lineage. Certificates of accomplishment were given to those training in carrying the lineage teachings; the new khenpos and drupons from the monastery and the new acharya nuns.

 

 

Those who excelled in their studies were honored and even the artists were included for the first time. Finally, all the centers worldwide were honored for their service with one of the bronze statues, a beautiful commemorative medallion and sets of texts. This all culminated with a rain of flowers; baskets of marigolds were disseminated to be thrown in the air with the concluding prayers for nearly an hour.

Photos by Joanne Swierz and Ani Tsekyi

A Cry From The Heart

Guest author Margie Joy Walden

Hurricane Irma is gone and perhaps Hurricane Maria will be knocking on our door real soon. I need to share my experience as I am a caretaker of my Mom who is 94 years young.

My Mom lives in an independent living facility in Delray Beach, less than 1 mile from my house. She is legally blind, bowel and bladder incontinent, and survived numerous bouts with cancer. Her kidneys function at around 30 percent. Her mind is still sharp. She is a tough Brooklyn girl from a poor family in Brighton Beach and worked until she was 74.

Her independent living facility did a wonderful job during the hurricane. Staff moved into the building with their families and kept the residents entertained. It was a very tough decision for me to say goodbye to my mom as the storm approached. I had to make the decision as to whether she would be safer in the facility with a generator or at my home 1 mile away without one. I chose the place with the generator not realizing how things would unfold.

It is important to add that I brought my Mom a case of water, lanterns with batteries, and a battery operated fan. The facility did not deliver any water to the apartments. At a meeting before the storm, each resident was told to pack a bag in case they had to evacuate. Imagine, over 200 people over 90 years of age being able to pack a bag and all their medications. I dutifully did this for my Mom but wondered how the others would be able to do this. I serviced my bicycle so I could get around any downed trees to make sure she was safe after the storm.

It is important to add that my mother is on Medicaid. She needs an aide to help her attend to the activities of daily living. Of course, the aide could not make it to care for her during or right after the storm. My mom was a trooper and with my help was able to get dressed, etc.

The aftermath of the hurricane is where we must improve. My Mom and all the other seniors at her facility quickly started to experience dehydration and breathing problems after 48 hours in the sweltering 95 degree heat. I spent all Tuesday night texting any and all elected officials I could find on social media about the problem. Thank goodness a few were up also and listening to these kind of concerns. They assured me that they were trying to help get the power restored. Thank you Commissioners Steven Abrams and Mary Lou Berger and State Representative Lori Berman.

On Wednesday morning, I knew my Mom would die if she had to remain in that heat another day. She was exhibiting signs of kidney failure and was having trouble breathing. I was fortunate to find a hotel room and came for her as soon as the curfew lifted on Wednesday morning at 6 a.m. In addition, I called the Palm Beach County EOC at 6 a.m. I spoke to a woman who told me that she could not do anything about my concern for the elders. She shared that all she could do was answer my call. I began to cry and to beg her to find a supervisor or anyone who could help. I gave her the address of the facility. We both were crying on the phone about the situation as I begged for her help.

Finally, power was restored at the facility at 11 a.m. I took my Mom to a hotel. Made sure she ate, drank a lot of fluids and had her cool down in the AC. When we arrived at the hotel, we turned on the TV. The story about the eight elders dying in Hollywood was breaking. I wondered if my Mom would have been one of them if I had not been up all night texting and calling everyone I could think of to make this facility a priority.

The state requirements of a generator for some lights, one elevator, and food service is not enough. There must be a generator solely required to air condition a major room big enough where the residents can have some respite. There needs to be more elevators to take the elders to the safe space. Staff needs to be informed that they must be present during any power outage. Water must be provided in each apartment and in a safe room with AC. Flashlights and/or lanterns need to be distributed to each apartment. This equipment needs to be checked on a regular basis. Battery powered fans should also be provided and checked to be in working order. Shutters or impact windows need to be installed. This will cost money but these facilities must be made safe now.

Furthermore, we need to improve Medicaid services after such a storm. I could not reach my Mom’s case worker as her voice mail was full for days after the storm. The parent company, Humana, did not set-up any way to speak to a representative. I left messages at the main office and at the corporate office in Lexington, Ky. Today — Monday — I finally reached a person in Tampa and was assured that I could be connected to the “Resolution Team” to help me with the aide situation. The “Resolution Team” was not there to answer the phone and another message was left for them to call me back. As I am writing this, I am still waiting for that call.

Our elected officials have a great deal of work to do to ensure that our elders do not suffer this kind of fate. Each one of us will soon be that 90 year old sitting in a facility. I implore Gov. Rick Scott and all elected officials to set the tone that appropriate regulations be passed quickly to protect an extremely vulnerable population. The economy of Florida depends upon it.

 

21st Century Practitioner

During the recent Drikung Monlam in Arizona, HH Drikung Chetsang Rinpoche Kyabgon outlined his advice for contemporary practitioners and new directions for how we introduce meditation as we embark upon the 801st year of the Drikung Lineage. He made many significant points and these are the ones that I took to heart.

Return to the Sutras, the original teachings of Buddha.  In the Tibetan system, we rely on treatises of enlightened Indian and Tibetan masters and commentaries on the works of extraordinary philosophers, yet often neglect the original instructions of Buddha. His Holiness is instituting training for young leaders, particularly lay people. He has designed an intensive short retreat with a rigorous schedule that introduces Calm Abiding or Shamatha meditation thoroughly from the perspective of the Three Yanas. Those trained are then encouraged to teach others. This makes meditation accessible with a clear practice path for busy lay life.

Monastics in the US have been in dialogue for many years,  improving our understanding of Buddhism.  Following His Holiness’s personal advice to me on mahamudra, for the past two years I have been training in the sutra tradition. In particular, I have been studying and practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as taught in the Satipatthana Sutra. We have in our Fivefold Mahamudra training, many references to post meditation mindfulness. However, we do not often teach the methods of walking, standing and lying down meditation postures in the same detail as the early buddhists for whom (along with sitting meditation) is their main practice. Nor do we focus on the original training using Buddha’s words to lay and monastic alike, on the mental states that hinder calm abiding.  It is refreshing and encouraging to return to Buddha’s original words.  Through the training and practice from the sutras, I have greatly expanded the depth of my own understanding of the subtle mental occurrences that distract from single pointed concentration.

Read Widely HH Chetsang Rinpoche has already written a book on Zen meditation and is having other works of significant teachers of other lineages translated into Tibetan, notably Thich Nhat Hanh.

Protect the Environment His Holiness gave a hopeful perspective, encouraged by there worldwide concern for the planet that has awakened and the resulting changes in our actions. Further , in Buddhism, we train in protecting life, often going to great lengths to rescue animals and insects. His Holiness pointed out that this is very good of course, but can result in both good and bad karma as the rescued animal can be re-caught and killed at another time.

With his Go Green program, His Holiness is introducing organic gardening techniques along with the spiritual teaching of non harm by eliminating the pesticides that kill countless insects and poison the waters. He finds a family that is willing to try in each village and then has the success of those crops encourage other families to go green. Appointed as a Mountain Partnership Ambassador representing the Himalayas by the UN, he is bringing his methods to mountain regions all over the world.

In Ladakh, his homeland, he introduced the concept of ice stupas to address problems of global warming. The glaciers are so reduced, that the waters in spring no longer reach the valley where farmers have counted on the runoff for farming for centuries. Building ice stupas, he incorporated the spiritual beliefs and customs to create ice stupas that slowly melt and and save the food sources for coming generations. He emphasized that when we understand that the planet and nature sustain all life, every act we do to protect the environment becomes of great virtue, sustaining countless beings.

 

Safe Harbor

 

Portland, Maine is a harbor setting. From my window, I look out on the boats coming in, guided by the many lighthouses. I have been contemplating the idea of a safe harbor lately. To me it means calm water, shelter from the storms, a place of refuge welcoming weary travelers. I imagine the light houses on stormy nights guiding boats to safety.

I meditate so that I can be the safe harbor for myself and others, the lighthouses guiding beings to safety.  To do so, I see two necessary qualities; that the harbor is reliably safe and that the light is steady. First, the quality of the harbor need to be investigated, no sharks below the surface, no mines, no volcanoes with the potential to erupt.  In terms of mind, that could be described as equanimity, serene, filled with compassion, radiating kindness, wise and fearless. This is a harbor safe to enter and receptive to all comers.

The purpose of retreat is to create this safe harbor within and expand the range of the lighthouse. I find solitude and silence the conditions that help me explore my mental ocean. Daily life has enough distractions to keep the sharks at bay, the mines tethered below the surface. Continuous solitude and attention brings them to the surface. It has taken years to be relaxed with the investigation.  Like all meditators, I would rather find the Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa when I look within. Fortunately, Buddhism warns us that every human mind has all the varieties of thought. It is hard to accept without judging or shaming. These judgments just add to our inner aggression. Finally convinced that judging has no productive results, I now enter retreat with more gentleness. I choose curiosity and relax. I can learn how mines work and defuse them.

These menacing sharks and mines are but ephemeral transient moments. I notice they arise as long as I hold on to views of “my” experience. How interesting it is to see the force of views, to be dragging me from peace over and over again. When I relax, and examine their nature, they dissolve like snowflakes in a pond. Stillness, the calm waters, unstirred by views remins. Spaciousness expands.

It is also important that the light be steady, not intermittent or dull or affected by outer conditions. When our minds are clear, the lighthouse simply shines. As our taming of emotions increases, we become unshakable. Whatever arises is seen to be adventitious and impermanent. Our focus is on the needs of the moment, assuaging the suffering of beings not our own reactivity. How can the Dharma help right now, how can we apply what we have learned and experienced in our journey to clarity to this moment? Can we use this moment to wake up? One of the gifts of Dharma maturity is to finally begin to understand the illusory quality of the human condition.  This warring time caused by minds overcome by enmity is no different than thousands of years ago. It feels imperative to us to act, just as it did to those living long ago. We must act but the actions can lead to liberation, or nothing changes and the cycles of suffering just continue. Using this moment to wake up is counterintuitive to many lifetime of habitual action but this step changes everything. Then it truly is wisdom shining as the guide to a fearless heart.

 

 

 

 

Exploring Death Without Fear

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness? –Mary Oliver

I have sat with many people as they were dying. I love getting to know people at this time of their life because all pretense is dropped. We deeply appreciate the shared moments because we know their impermanence and fleeting nature. Thinking about death also gives me perspective. What is important and what is not. My meditation practice emphasizes awareness of life’s impermanence.

As a nun I often recite:

Five Remembrances

I am of the nature to grow old.

There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health.

There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die.

There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love

are the nature to change.

There is no way to escape

being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.

I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.

My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Recently I was invited to lead a series of meditations on death and dying.  While preparing I was reminded of my sister, a nurse midwife, and the norm of thoroughly preparing parents to be, for what they are about to experience during birth. It occurred to me that we are still very far from normalizing death, even though death is a universal experience.

In birth classes prospective parents learn:

  • The basic medical procedures to expect
  • Physical sensations they will likely experience
  • What exercises can make birth easier
  • How caregivers can help
  • Choices they can make to have a more positive experience

I would love to see dying taught in this manner. We are taught that death is merely a change of state along a continuum, one of many we enter and exit throughout life.  Strikingly similar to death, is the process of going to sleep.  We are awake and engaged in the exterior world, then there is a momentary gap and we are in a dream state with another kind of mental experience.  We don’t fear sleep, we accept the changes.  Now I pay attention to the moment before falling asleep, to see if I can recognize it. I have become curious.

Hospice training and experience helps in observing the minute physical shifts that signal progression towards death. I think Tibetan Buddhism looks most acutely at the stages of the dying process  because it offers the potential of intentional rebirth as well as enlightenment during this period. We map the dissolution of the elements of the body inn this tradition. When our body feels too heavy to move it is the earth element dissolving. When our lips are dry and we are thirsty it is the water element dissolving. When we cannot get warm it is the fire element dissolving.  And when breathing slows and is hard to breathe, it is the air element dissolving.  Then the mind consciousness dissolving into space leads to a moment of naked primordial mind. All these stages are a natural process, like going to sleep and waking into the dream. If we can focus our minds on our spiritual ideal we might not miss this precious opportunity to see mind directly – our full wisdom and compassion naked and unadorned.  I have to be curious about that!

We ask our spiritual friends to sit with us reading the map, so we can remember our commitments and that there is nothing to fear along the way. I tell myself again that it is time to write my spiritual will, the texts to read to me, prayers to be said and who to say them. It is a gift for our loved ones to accompany us in this way, helping as a midwife would, to be with us in this spiritually intimate moment. I have treasured the times I have sat in the vast mystery of a life leaving this realm. I know that I meditate now to understand this vastness of heart mind.

Empty-handed I entered

the world

Barefoot I leave it.

My coming, my going —

Two simple happenings

That got entangled.

 

Like dew drops

on a lotus leaf

I vanish.

—Shinsui, 1769

See this article by Jackie Waters

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Friends in the Early Buddhist Traditions

One of the joys of the Western Monastic Gathering  is getting to know fellow monastics in the varied traditions. As buddhism spread over the centuries the Dharma was influenced by cultures of each new country. The vinaya, or code of rules img_1068for monastic life, unite all monks and nuns. In some countries minor rules were set aside as they might cause the Sangha to be less respected. We could say that Theravadin or Early Buddhists have the most conservative views and Tibetan the most liberal regarding what might be adjusted for modern life. Therefore it is a joy to be in the company of those living closest to how the Buddha lived.

I was very moved to be invited to participate in a katina ceremony at the Karuna Buddhist Vihara. The katina ceremony comes after the rains retreat.  Buddha asked the monastics to stay in one place during the rainy season in India and study together for three months.  This is when the hot dry weather
changes to wet and fertile, with all forms of life emerging- especially insects covering the ground by the thousands. The retreat prevented the monastics from stepping on the insects.  After the retreat monks and nuns are offered requisites for life by the lay followers; food, medicines and cloth for robes in a beautiful ceremony called katina.

The ceremony at the Karuna Vihara or monastery began with an alms round for the assembly of nuns who completed the retreat and guest nuns. In some countries this is practiced daily, with long columns of monastics going into villages to receive sustanance. In this case, we filed from a small apartment timg_1053o the back yard that had been converted into a community center with tents and chairs. The lay sangha made a circle around long tables laden with pot luck offerings. They each held plates of rice in their hands. We nuns carried large begging bowls and each member placed some rice in our bowls. Then we all partook of the potluck. Although living by donation, rarely have I had the opportunity to do an alms round. I felt a very special personal connection to the generous hearts of each person offering my meal. It was quite joyful all around.

img_1060The katina ceremony is unique as the lay followers have to request to offer katina.  Three followers this year wished to offer cloth to the nuns for robes. A beautiful tray was arranged with the cloth and flowers.  Each lay sangha member touched the tray to be included in the offering. There is beautiful chanting in Pali to make the offering to the nuns for the nun who’s robe is now worn and threadbare.  Then all the nuns gave short Dharma talks. I was struck by the diversity of the followers; Indian, Filipino,  Vietnamese and European families were equally represented.  After the public ceremony the nuns gathered to make a robe which needed to be sewn before dawn the next day.  The cloth was washed ironed and placed flat to be measured into a pattern that is reminiscent of rice fields.  Sometimes the material even needs to be dyed. The nuns sewed together all night like the old quilting bees of my grandmother. It is very moving to witness these old traditions practiced with such joy and appreciation. It is particularly significant to see nuns leading the ceremonies and their monasteries with such grace and dignity!

Training Your Mind Is A Lot Like Training a Dog

white-tara0001Learning to Meditate is like Training Your Dog.

Meditation simply means becoming familiar with your mind. Traditional descriptions often compare our minds to a wild monkey jumping from branch to branch or an elephant that creates destruction as it rampages. Unfortunately, I don’t really have direct experience of monkeys or elephants. I do have experience trying to train my dog as do many of us.

I have a rascally dog who failed to learn how to “come” despitedsc_1055 at least three dog training courses. Her house training took so long I began to think perhaps she simply wasn’t bright. But it was in both our interests to succeed at training so we kept going. I am often told by students that they are “not good at meditation”.  This is a similar rush to judgment.  We all want peace of mind so it is in our self interest to persevere.

Meditation begins with training your mind to focus, which is a lot like dog training. Getting my dog to come on command seemed to be hopeless.  After much failure, I started a routine, treats and a long leash. My dog and I had training sessions at 4pm every day. We would go out in the yard and practice. If a squirrel passed she would be off in a flash chasing it, or if a scent was intriguing she would get lost in it.  I would say come and she would get a treat if she actually did. She would be on a leash so that if she did not come I could give her a gentle tug on the leash.

We don’t offer ourselves treats in this scenario but setting a routine is definitely helpful. The first instructions in meditation are to concentrate on an object, a pebble, candle your breath.  This is actually quite difficult as thoughts rush through our minds like Niagara Falls.  Memories, hopes and fears draw our attention like multiple squirrels.  We drown in anger and desire like the scents. The commitment to pay attention for a short period of time however, is our long leash. However far we drift, when we become aware of losing the object of attention we return.

Most important however,  is attitude.  I had to make it fun for my dog.  If I got frustrated, irritated or impatient, any training was futile.   She would give me a pained confused look and get resistant.  The tone of voice was crucial, it had to be always loving. This is true for meditation. Often we are not aware how harsh and judgmental we are towards ourselves. As the end result of meditation is as open refreshed relaxed, mind; harshness is counter productive.

Everyday the training session had to be a fresh start with no expectations other than we would “play“ for 20 minutes. My dog still expects a play period around 4pm every day. Although my dog does not come at every call, she responds well to communication and we keep working at it. After many years of meditation, I could say the same thing about my mind. Never giving up, I just keep using our daily play time!