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

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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!