Tibetan Buddhist Class, Week Two

The class is growing more intense, or maybe my brain is filling up.  I am getting a glimmer of understanding, though.  It’s less necessary to suspend disbelief about the practice.  I just bring my teachers to mind.  It’s not even necessary to be in their presence.  Their experience of the world is different.  They’re kinder and happier.  I’m a little closer to understanding how they achieved that.  It’s hard work!

This afternoon, we go to Phakchok Rinpoche’s room.  He wants to see how we’re getting on and give us encouragement.  He asks each of us about something we should have learned.  First, the monk from New Zealand.  “What are the four nails?”  That’s one I could answer.  He says the first three but can’t remember the fourth.  Maybe I’m doing better than I imagined.  Next the monk from Colorado.  I can’t even understand his question.  I can at least partially answer the next few questions.

Now it’s my turn.  “What are the three samadhis?”  I’m utterly baffled.  I’ve asked about them and failed altogether to understand.  I don’t even understand what samadhi means.  First I do bad prostrations, now I can barely begin to answer Phakchok Rinpoche’s question.  “I have not yet been able to understand about samadhis, Rinpoche.  Maybe they are related to the three kayas?”  

Rinpoche is not fierce this time.  I think he realizes that while my sincerity is not as great as my ignorance, it is genuine.  He talks about something else while I pacify my agitation then patiently explains.  I still don’t understand.

Later, I remember binary arithmetic being explained in High School.  I couldn’t understand it at all.  Then I got a job as a computer programmer and it was immediately obvious.  Presumably, my mental block that makes samadhis invisible will also disappear.

We’re now starting a little before 9.  I have just enough time after the monastery gong wakes me at 4:30 to write up the previous day’s notes, meditate and have noodles and coffee.  We get a long lunch break then continue until around 7, ending the day by practicing the long version of the ritual.  By that time I have just enough energy to cook a few more noodles before conking out.

More detail is revealed each day.  Knowing when to do the hand gestures (mudras), remembering which one goes with what chant, even just remembering the sequence of movements for each one is hard.  I’ll do a simpler practice at home, a subset of what we’re learning, but I don’t yet understand enough to know which parts I will do.  I’m trying to learn them all, at least to some extent.

A most auspicious thing happens today.  We have a second session with Phakchok Rinpoche.  He blesses our prayer beads (malla) and mine break while he rolls them between his palms.  That in itself is auspicious.  Then he directs one of his lamas to restring my malla and add a “root bead” of the special kind.  Now I must use it only in private, so I will buy another one to use in class.

Rinpoche (it means Precious One) does not ask questions today.  He explains many things.  I listen with windows open, mind transparent, as clear as I can, anyway.   The Zen master said about his paradoxical teachings: “Just let it all in.  Don’t evaluate, don’t worry if you will forget, don’t think.  If you do, you will not hear. “

Pointing to his cup, Rinpoche says something about equality.  For just a nanosecond I glimpse what he is pointing out.  I’m so happy!

Tomorrow is the end of week two, our free day.  I’ll review my notes and try to clarify my questions.  Our translator will tell me the names of the mudras so I can annotate my texts with which one goes where.  She will also get us video of them all.  I may now have the visualizations that go with each chant clear enough so I can practice on my own but it’s very hard to remember what they mean while also remembering what to do.

Tibetan Buddhist Class, First Week

There is no class today, the third day, because it’s the 49th since the death of the head of the Nyingma, the oldest of the four major Tibetan Buddhist orders.  They wear the red hats.  The Dalai Lama’s Gelug wear yellow ones.  The 49th day after the heart stops beating is very important but I don’t know why because I don’t yet understand about reincarnation.

I prepare for tomorrow’s class then go to buy my bell, vajra and hand drum.  The vajra is held in the right hand, the bell in the left.  I don’t yet know about the drum.

Vajras have a central sphere representing the underlying unity or connectedness of everything.  From it come two eight petaled lotus flowers that represent the world as it appears and as it really is (I don’t yet understand how it really is).  At the center of each lotus are half-fish, half-crocodile creatures from whose mouths come tongues that meet in a point.  Those on one side represent mental states that obscure our mind, those on the other side aspects of enlightened mind.

As instructed, I tell the man in the recommended shop that my friend Lama Tenzin sent me.  That means I get a reasonably good price for my carefully chosen low-end but not bottom-end instruments.  When I arrive the man is carefully examining brocade altar mats that he’s buying from a Muslim man who brought them from Varanasi in India, a famous center of Buddhist studies.  I ask if my bell was made by Muslims.  Some are, he says, others are made by Tibetans.

All around this part of Kathmandu very young boys work in tiny shopfronts making Tibetan Buddhist ritual instruments, hammering designs into copper alloy with a nail punch.  They look like the extremely poor Indians who come here as transient laborers to do the lowest paid work.

Our full-time translator comes on the fourth day, but we continue on the abbreviated schedule with one theory session and one practical each day.  I don’t know if that will change or that I want it to.  It’s hard enough to absorb the material even at this pace.

In the theory sessions we learn what the practice elements mean, what to have in mind at each moment, how to do everything and in what order.  In the practical sessions we’re learning how to make barley dough tormas that represent what we should have in mind at particular stages of the practice.  We will learn hand gestures, bell-ringing and drum-beating to accompany the chants later.

The lama explains everything in detail (but there is an enormous amount more) and he is clear about what is most important.  This learning experience is new for me.  Always before I just wanted to be shown the material and left to dive in but that can’t work for Tibetan Buddhism because this is mind-training.   I could read every text ever written and still not know how to train my mind using them.  It would be like trying to master tennis just by reading books.

On the fifth day we practice the entire ritual.  It takes over an hour and a half.  We’re going to do it every night from now on and lama says we’ll be able to do it on our own by the end.  I’m glad I bought my own bell and drum instead of borrowing them.  I’m starting to feel why it’s considered so important to respect the texts and instruments.  It’s like a craftsman respecting his tools.  It keeps you aware of your sincerity about what you’re doing.

We chant in Tibetan.  Written and spoken Tibetan are very different.  Pronunciation continued to evolve after the written form was fixed with 30 consonants in the 11th century.  There are different transliteration standards using only the letters on an English language keyboard for how Tibetan words are written and how they sound.  The one for the written word has many silent consonants.  Our texts use the one for sound so I have some hope of getting the pronunciation reasonably right by the end of the class.

The overall ritual has many sections and the chants are assembled in three separate texts.  We have a page and a half cheat sheet that shows the sequence of sections and what page of which text to go to when we switch from one text to another.  It’s very confusing.

Last night I lost track altogether of what the sections mean but I did stay on track with the transitions.  The other students seem to be somewhat familiar with the overall flow of the practice.  I guess there must be a standard structure.  I ask why the chant isn’t published in one text.  Lama says in that case we might not realize we need a teacher to explain the practice.

We do the entire practice again on days five and six.  Lama has taught us some hand gestures and what to do when with bell and drum but I haven’t yet attempted to do any of that.  Maybe I’ll try tomorrow.  It’s hard enough just following the text.

Every so often I try to remember what I should have in mind but then I lose focus on the transitions between texts.  That’s a disaster because I can’t yet associate the sound of the chants with what I see on the pages, which means I can’t find where we are in which text.

Everyone is feeling a bit overwhelmed, even the monks who already know the hand gestures and so forth.  I’ve entirely lost interest in world and financial news and am even losing interest in Nepali news.   I’m beginning to feel that I can change myself for the better with this practice.  I’m pretty sure I’m not heading toward becoming a monk, however.

Tantric Buddhism developed for lay practitioners, not just monastics.  Like Protestant Christianity in Europe, Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism were born in India in opposition to long established forms of practice that were controlled by a too often corrupt priestly elite.

Tibetan Buddhist Class, First Two Days

Throat chanting in great dark rooms surrounded by Hieronymus Bosch-like murals of wondrous deities and terrifying devils, eight foot long trumpets, giant conch shell trumpets, human thigh bone trumpets, Arab-style clarinets, brass cymbals, yoyo-like hand drums and hand bells, Catholic-like rosaries and censors, it is beyond exotic.

It’s more than half a century since I was first fascinated by “Seven Years in Tibet”.  Now I’ve been among Tibetan lamas doing these practices in monasteries in Sikkim, Nepal and Tibet and met teachers whose extraordinary kindness results, inevitably they say, from doing these practices all their life.

It’s the meditation, they say, not so much the colorful rituals, that really makes the difference.  So I tried to meditate.  I read books about how to meditate.  But nothing happened, nothing changed.  Perhaps if I go somewhere where people meditate, I thought?  I went for two very long days of silent meditation at a Zen Buddhist monastery and did notice flickers of something positive.  I went back for a week of silent sitting.  Moss beside a path, pollen exploding from sun-drenched pines, a sudden breeze…  Toward the end of the week, just for a moment, I did see their beauty fresh.

Surprised by that sense of sacredness, I think maybe I really can learn how to live more alertly.  But  the Zen way feels too hard for me.  I’ve been so habituated to thinking for so many years.  Maybe I could unlearn I’m not sure what with a different training program, one with more structure and detail that would give my over-active brain something to chomp on?  Perhaps that’s the point of the Tibetan rituals?  They might be preparation for meditation that really works?

So now (October/November 2011) I’ve come for a month-long class at a Kathmandu monastery.  I’ll be taught the details of a ritual practice but beyond that, I have no idea what to expect.

The first two days remind me of mountain treks when the crew is getting organized.  Each day starts with a destination and a plan.  Nothing goes as planned but the destination is reached.

We are scheduled to get “empowerment” at 8:30 on the first morning.  Empowerment means being authorized to learn a practice.  We hear periodically about changes to the schedule as 8:30, 9:30, 10 and 11 come and go, then we’re told we will be empowered at noon by Phakchok Rinpoche.   I know nothing about him but the other 11 students are very happy.

At noon we file into a large inner chamber where Phakchok Rinpoche has for more than an hour been preparing.  I’m nervous.  I don’t know what I may have to do later but I do know to prostrate to Phakchok Rinpoche before I sit.  I would never have prostrated to a boss in the world of business and it felt odd the first time I prostrated to a teacher but it’s a very different situation.  I could not prostrate to someone just because they had been granted power over me.  Showing respect for the qualities teachers have worked so hard for, however, feels entirely natural and right.

Phakchok Rinpoche watches us closely.  As I sit he says: “Your prostrations are no good.  Have you learned nothing?”   I wonder what I did wrong?  He’s very fierce.  In a business context I would feel attacked but here I don’t.  He’s just telling me there’s something I must learn.  He is equally direct and very clear for two hours of explanation of what we are promising to do while we study and after.  I’m happy that I can understand most of what he says, to some extent.  What I understand completely is the approach he’s pointing out, total sincerity.

“People told me Western people are practicing Buddhism very well these days,” he says.  “I thought, that’s good news, I will go to see them.  But I found them saying: ‘Ritual is not important.  We do not need to do that.’  They are practicing one-legged Buddhism!  They think it is OK not to do ritual but who am I to say it is OK not to practice the way people practiced successfully for two thousand years?”

Our first teachings from 3:30 to 5 are not by the scheduled lama because he was suddenly given a different assignment.  We are told we are “so lucky” to get the one who teaches folks doing three year retreats.  He’s very methodical, proceeds in a structured way and is clear.  Indeed, we are lucky!

We can’t start at 8 on the second day because the nun who is scheduled to be our translator for the whole four weeks is sick.  We can only get teachings when one of the senior translation students is free.  We start at 10:30 and go to noon.  Again I understand, at some level, almost everything.  Our translator yesterday was outstanding.  Today’s is not quite so clear but is very good.

In today’s second session, from 3:30 to 5, we begin learning how to make tormas, statues of barley flour paste that are placed on the altar to represent offerings to deities or malign spirits.  They’re not deities or spirits as we normally think of them but representatives of particular virtues or vices like greed and hatred, habits so to say that we are aiming to strengthen or quell.

Our scheduled translator hopes to be back the day after tomorrow.  We can then follow the regular 8 – 5:30 schedule, learning the meaning of the ritual each morning and how to perform it in the afternoon.  It is all very odd but I can study with sincerity because this has been so effective for so many people for so long.  I don’t need to worry about which parts are “true” and which are not.

Ancient Mariner poet Coleridge called the approach we must adopt a “willing suspension of disbelief”.  We must give our intuitive faculty the opportunity to sense what’s being revealed.  We’d miss important aspects of what we’re shown if we let our rational faculty focus on details.

My fellow students include monks from Brazil, New Zealand and Colorado, a very serious German man and a French woman who live together in France, a beautiful young Mexican woman and an older Danish man with dreadlocks and white robes who live together in India, a fellow from Glasgow, a fellow from New Orleans and one from LA, all of whom spend a lot of time on the road.

What else?  The monastery guesthouse where I’m staying is fine.  My room faces the monastery so I’m woken at 4:30 by the clangor of bells, bray of trumpets, clash of cymbals and whatnot.  It’s surprisingly pleasant.  There’s also an evening practice but after that it’s very quiet, so much better than being blasted by rock bands in Thamel, the tourist part of Kathmandu.

Oh, the monk from Brazil explained about prostrations.  “Did you go to a Zen monastery?”  he asked with a kindly smile.  “Yes?”  “I thought so.  We do prostrations differently.”  It’s a subtle difference that makes all the difference.

If I Say I’m a Physicist

If I say I’m a physicist, you won’t think I want you to be one, too.  It just means that’s how I explore the way things work, physically.  You’ll probably have some idea how I go about it, that experiments are involved.  You might ask what kind of physics and I might say quantum mechanics.  At that point your mind might fog over.  You might smile politely and ask if I have children.  But maybe you would be curious and ask about quantum physics.

In fact, I’m not a physicist but it does interest me and I do think it would be good if everyone had some understanding of what physicists have discovered.  But that’s a topic for another time.

What I’m asking now is, when I say I’m a Buddhist, please don’t think I want you to be one, too.  It is a way of discovery for me, but just as there are many other sciences in addition to physics, there are many other disciplines in addition to Buddhism.  It’s just that I’ve found Buddhism an effective discipline for me.

I say it is a discipline not a religion because Buddhism has no equivalent of the Abrahamic god or anything that must be taken on faith, no dogma.  It is practical, an enormous set of time-tested training programs that help people become more kind.  One of those methods seems to help me.

If you ask what kind of Buddhism, I will say Tantric Buddhism.  Yes I do have children, but for those of you who want to know what is Tantric Buddhism, I will say it is the form that developed in Tibet.  And if you want to know more, I will begin posting a few notes from my learning experiences.

These notes will not be an introduction to Buddhist philosophy.  That’s partly because I still misunderstand far more than I understand.  More importantly, it’s because my aim is not to understand the philosophy, although that is necessary, but to attain what I can of the results of the practice.

It is said there are two paths toward better behavior, one for the scholar, the other for the simple meditator.  The scholar’s path is one I have always followed.  In this case I am drawn to the other.

Identity, Independence and Kindness

Although everything is in every instant changing, which means everything flawed can be perfected, that’s not what Mr. Ego sees.  He’s afraid if he relaxes even for an instant, bad things will come to pass.  He is a deluded Jeeves devoted to caring for a Bertie Wooster whose nature exists only in his imagination.  That he exists only in mine does not make his activities less real.

Mr. Ego and I have been together so long and he is so very diligent; he usually has me believing I am what he imagines.  On rare occasions I do wake up and tell him I’ll be OK, he can go on vacation, but he doesn’t because if he does, I will no longer have an identity.  He thinks that would be very scary.

Psychotherapists say Mr. Ego manifests soon after we are born and develops well into adulthood.  “Saying ‘NO’ is one of the earliest signs of individuation”, according to GoodTherapy“It is a statement that I am separate from you and want something different … individuation is … learning what we want to say NO or YES to [and] acting according to what we want and do not want.  It is a statement of who we are (ME) and who we are not (NOT ME).”

Mr. Ego starts by teaching us to say NO and unless we’re very lucky, it’s all downhill from there.  He teaches us to want and not want, to see everything as ME or NOT ME and to reject everything that is NOT ME.  He teaches us, in other words, to be selfish.  Therapists consider individuation normative, meaning something that should happen.

In fact, our belief that we have an identity, are part of a group and should have a home makes us unhappy and unkind.   Our imagined identity, “I am the kind of person who…”, says we are solid and we should make our situation more so, more dependable.  We should instead rejoice that nothing is solid because that means everything really can become more perfect.

A way to dispel the illusion is to recast our identifier from noun to verb.  That makes Martin Sidwell not an explorer destined always to be an explorer and implicitly never doing anything else, but an exploration taking place at this moment.  Thinking of ourselves as verbs eliminates a big part of the harm we cause by believing we have an identity.

Believing we are part of a group is also a problem.  If I think of myself as Buddhist it seems I am different from Christian but if I am practicing techniques that helped others grow more kind even to those who are abusive, I am practicing how to love and turn the other cheek.  The program that helps me is different but the goal is the same as Jesus taught.  I am not different from Christians, Muslims or others.

Keeping the goal clear is especially hard if our group’s identify is that of a people defined by its religion.  A dear friend who recently gave up her long standing role as spiritual leader at her synagogue said:  “What I realized is important is my values.  People I’m close to have the same values.  My rabbi’s are different and we’re not close.  Trying to lead those with his values to a different way can never be helpful.”  But being Jewish informs so much of what a Jewish person does, thinks and feels.  Recognizing what my friend did must have been very, very hard and acting on the recognition must take so much discipline and courage.

The recognition my friend came to may be even tougher for Tibetans whose identity is so deeply associated with not only religion but also their homeland.  Home is our idea of the ultimate refuge.  As Robert Frost wrote: “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”.   My Tibetan friend who only ever wanted to be a nun was expelled from the nunnery by the Chinese government after the Beijing Olympics.   A third of all Tibetan monks and nuns were forced out then after Western journalists reporting the Tibetan protests went home.

Jews whose ancestors were driven from their homeland milennia ago now have Israel.  The homeland Tibetans always had began to be destroyed just as Israel was established.  No wonder Tibetans yearn for that lost world  even though there can be no such place of safety.  It is so hard for any of us to recognize that and the idea of nation makes it so much harder.

China’s rulers always try to control the lands to their north and west because invaders from there have always swept in.  The dynasty that ruled from 1644-1911 was established by invaders from Manchuria.  As soon as the Communists won China’s civil war in 1949 they set out to control all China’s peripheral territories.  Tibetans lost not just their independence as a nation but increasingly also their culture.  The monasteries were destroyed, monks imprisoned, Chinese-language schools set up and masses of Han Chinese settlers imported.  The Tibetans were to become Chinese to make China safe.

We think nations help us to be safe because nations have armed forces for defense.  By identifying with a nation, however, we feel separate from people in other nations.  We think they are different and we become afraid or jealous of our fantasy of what they are.   Our struggle for independence in fact makes us fearful.  The Chinese rulers’ treatment of Tibetans is motivated by fear, as is exiled Tibetans’ yearning for a Tibet they may never have known and that no longer exists.

There are two Tibetan words for independence.  “Rang btsan” means not dependent on anything else and signifies the freedom we associate with independence.  “Rang mtshan” means an independent self and signifies what we associate with being an individual.  Both are pronounced rang tzen, are usually spelled rangzen in the West, and both suggest more than they mean.   Nations are not truly independent and neither are people truly individual.  Geography does not define a people nor is any man an island.  Borders are just ideas that create suffering and limit our compassion.

Opening our hearts to feel the terrible suffering of Tibetans and others can lead us to feel compassion both for them and their abusers whose delusions lead them to their terrible actions.  Then we can try to help both, for only in that way can suffering be ended.  We really can do this if, as in this beautifully rendered Imagine There’s No Rangzen, we think independently.

So many ideas.  We have this relentless urge to get things identified, situated and dependable.  We’re determined to define who we are and take action against what we are not.   But it can’t work.  How could such a program succeed when nothing can be fixed, when everything is arising in every instant from an ever-changing assembly of causes?

One of the first great Tibetan teachers in the West said it this way:  “The bad news is our airplane is crashing and we have no parachute.  The good news is there is nowhere to land.”  Mr. Ego got us into a vehicle he said would take us somewhere safe, if it didn’t crash.  His fear of crashing distracted us.

That’s why it’s so hard to recognize that in fact we are crashing right now precisely because we imagine we have a fixed identity, we belong to a group whose rules are sacrosanct and we will be protected from those who are not like us by the nation where we live.  We are creating our own fear.

We could instead accept the good news, train ourselves to dispel habitual reactions that grew from our misunderstanding, and grow more happy and, more importantly, more kind.

Teachings of Timothy Lamb

Timothy was the first lamb born on the sheep farm we started in 1980.  He grew fast, handsome, strong and intrepid.  His first weeks in the barn he thrived on his mom’s milk, then Spring came and the grass began to grow.  He wasn’t keen on the fibrous timothy-grass hay his mom enjoyed, but he was ecstatic about fresh grass.  That was what killed him.

Sheep produce carbon dioxide and methane as digestion by-products.  Rapid intake of green food before their digestive system has adapted can cause a build-up of gas that’s known as pasture bloat.  Bubbles form under a surface film on the liquid contents of their rumen.  There’s a build-up of gas pressure, the pH of the rumen drops, gas production further increases, the expanding rumen partially collapses the lungs and blood forced out of the body cavity to the extremities causes acidosis.  It’s a horrible way to die.

If you know, you can use a stomach tube to help release the gas, you can agitate the rumen contents, get the animal to take an anti-foaming agent or, in the last extremity, you can puncture the rumen from outside.  That results in an explosion of gas and liquid and requires the sheep to be cleaned and sutured.  I knew none of those things.

Something was terribly wrong when I took the sheep their hay and water that evening.  Timothy could hardly move.  All I could think of was bring him to the kitchen where it was less cold.  We put him on a blanket in a cardboard box on the floor and I sat with him.  Studying him was useless because in fact I knew nothing about sheep health.  There was no vet to call because vets in that town treated only cats and dogs or horses.  I just sat with him miserably feeling guilty.  At last, I had to go to bed.  In the morning he was dead.

Timothy did not think he was teaching me.  If you sit peacefully with sheep for a while and try to understand their experience you realize it’s probably not so very different from ours.  They’re easily panicked, as I was in I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There.  They don’t verbalize but they do stand nose to nose panting, exchanging pheromones.  The big difference is they do not have our gift for reflection.  Of course, they also cannot make and use tools but here I’m considering only activities of mind.

That Timothy was not trying to teach me does not mean I could not learn from him.  In fact, lessons from his life have continued to emerge even thirty years later.

The first thing I learned was, if you’re going to take responsibility for any other creatures, you should prepare so you can help them.  I could have prevented Timothy from pasture bloat if I’d known about it.  I could have saved him if I’d known how.  I studied, observed more closely and lost no more animals to bloat.  I eventually found a vet who only treated horses but who had grown up with sheep and was willing to teach me the basics.  I laid in a supply of medicines and grew adept with a syringe.

The most recent lesson, which only came clear to me in the last year, is the most important.  The compassion I felt for Timothy was good but it was mixed with suffering I was creating in myself.   The misery and guilt was all about me, not empathy but self-indulgence.   The compassion was what motivated me to recognize and work to overcome my ignorance.

The Beauty of Impermanence

Yesterday was the last of six days at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat.  Fifty years ago was the end of eight years at Richard Hale’s Free Grammar School for the Deserving Sons of Impecunious Gentlefolk founded in 1608.

Half a century ago my six hundred fellow students and I processed down the long school driveway, past the Hart rampant at the center of town, past the friendly pub where I sometimes soothed my spirit, through the cemetery and on into the great stone church.  Half an hour later I ascended the pulpit to read what was read at every school year’s dissolution, Ecclesiastes Chapter 12 Verses 1 to 12. 

I spoke the words with an actor’s conviction: “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them”.

It was fortunate I wasted so much of my school years acting because although I was feeling apprehensive, it was not about my performance in the pulpit.  That day felt like the end of my youth.  “In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble”, I continued.  That was not a day to look forward to.  Nor was the mysterious one when “the doors shall be shut in the streets”.  The voice in my head joking about ecstasy if I lay with them on the day when “all the daughters of music shall be brought low” failed to lighten my gloom.

I almost believed the summation: “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity”.  I paused, dramatically, to let that sink in.  Vanity when those words were written meant futility.  Now existentialist philosophers were saying the same thing – everything is futile.  Then I intoned the preacher’s message:  “The words of the wise are as goads … be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh”.

Why did they choose that Bible lesson?  Perhaps it had resonated in 1944 when the school was absorbed into the state system a decade before I came there.  Many of my teachers rejected the present, retaining traditions from a world of privilege very different from mine on the far side of the tracks.  They yearned for the past, I felt unprepared for the future, but we had more in common than I imagined.  We were both living not where we were but in worlds we imagined.

Buddhism is training to live in the present, the only time we actually are alive.  It offers folks of every temperament ways to practice being and doing with graceful acceptance and joy.  A wise man speaking not about Buddhism but business leadership offered the same insight about our all too common absorption in a stew of regret and hope: “Living with one foot in the past and one in the future will only hurt your crotch”.

That everything is impermanent and every act has results led the preacher to an entirely different conclusion from the Buddhist and the businessman.

The preacher tells us to fear a day in the future when an external deity will pass judgment on our every past act, “whether it be good, or whether it be evil”.   Buddhism teaches not fear but that we can overcome our habits and illusions, not repeat our mistakes, learn to become truly happy, cherishing and selfless in every instant.

That everything is impermanent with no intrinsic tendencies means we need not repeat what we did before.  We need no deity to know what is good and what is not.  We know which makes us happy and which causes suffering.  We can recognize that nothing compels us to do what is not good.

We can purify the working of our mind.  We need not worry about, for example, the theory of my biology teacher who escaped from Hungary after the 1956 invasion by Soviet Russia.  We are doomed by our biology, he thought:  “The huge growth of our frontal lobes is cancerous.  It allows us to create imaginary worlds where we can do terrible things, things that in the real world we could never do, things no other animal could imagine.”

We do too much thinking.  The breath I am taking right now probably is not my last but there definitely will be a last one and I probably will not recognize when it starts.  Those radiant daffodils outside my window, the translucent new leaves, the heron so still at water’s edge, the sun sparkling on the ocean, they probably will not be the last thing I see but there will be a last scene for me.

It makes sense to relish every instant.  If I continue to practice this simple truth, I will waste fewer moments seeking safety by treating life as improvisational theater.  If I really, really try and I live long enough, maybe I can shake off dreams for a whole day.  I shall do it the same way I quit cigarettes, just breathe fresh air for the next hour.  I will aim to awaken just for this moment.

We imagine false choices.  At the T-junction, we cannot turn both left and right but in this instant, we can both think and feel.  We can vibrantly feel the joy or pain this instant brings and also prepare for future moments when we may no longer be present and whose circumstances we cannot know.

Walking while chewing gum may be beyond me, I have not tried, but I can relish the fragrance and complex taste of this Wicked French Roast at the same time as I figure out a better tax system without worry if the one we have can be changed.  Everything changes, anyway.  That’s the beauty of impermanence.

Love and Birthdays

One of our kids’ favorite books many years ago, “A Birthday for Frances”, movingly captures the complexity of love.  “Happy birthday to me is how it should be”, Frances sings.  She announces she is not going to get her sister a birthday present, then dissolves into tears because she is the only one not getting her a present.  We love ourselves, we love others, how can we love both at the same time?

But do we even have a self?  “Writers aren’t exactly people,” according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “they’re a whole bunch of people trying to be one person.”   I remember that feeling.   Every reflective adolescent goes through the same existential scare.  For me, it was exacerbated by the then-recent publication of “Three Faces of Eve” about a woman with three separate personalities, by Colin Wilson’s more intellectually respectable “The Outsider” and by the fact that one of my closest friends whose father was a psychologist was deeply expert about schizophrenia and dissociative personality disorder and saw evidence of them everywhere.

A few years later, it seemed to me I did have a self even though it had an unusual combination of interests.  Most of us come to that conclusion.  We start work to support ourselves, maybe do some self-actualizing in the process, perhaps start a family, in any case become very busy – too busy to consider whether our self has any fixed properties.  We might notice our interests and behaviors changing, that we react the same way our parents did, that we’re looking increasingly like someone else in our family, but we don’t consider what those changes indicate.

Only recently I came to realize there’s actually nothing at all fixed about “me”.  Now, I see that more and more of the pieces of what I used to think of as “me” are the result of genetic and experiential memories.  I see they’re continuing to change, and I haven’t identified anything at all that is fixed.  I’m lucky to have lost that delusion of “self” because it helps me resolve Frances’ dilemma, the selfishness I’ve tried for so long to overcome.

That’s why I had Facebook show today as my birthday.   It’s not the anniversary of when my mother gave birth to me but the day I began life in the USA.  It might better be termed my rebirth but that whole way of thinking – birth, death, rebirth and so on – just leads to confusion.  There have been so many days, before and after my physical birth, that gave birth to what still feels like “me”.

Knowing deeply that “self” is an illusion will require a lot more work.  That’s work worth doing – a good birthday resolution.  How fine it would be if every one of us could wholeheartedly celebrate every instant as everyone’s birthday.

Where am I? Boudha Stupa

A deep question to which I offer a prosaic answer: I’m circumambulating Boudha stupa.  I wrote about circumambulation at here.  Where is Boudha and what’s a stupa?

Stupa is Sanskrit for “a knot or tuft of hair”.  In ancient Hindu texts it signifies “tree trunk” because mounds of dirt around a tree were tombs for kings and heroes.  Later, it came to mean a pyramidal or dome-like monument containing relics of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni  (563-478 BC) or other revered figures.  Buddha Shakyamuni is often depicted as having a topknot that symbolizes his attainment of enlightenment.

Boudha stupa is one of the world’s largest.  It is on the ancient trade route from Tibet and was probably built in the 14th century when Buddhists fled from Mughal invasions of northern India.  It is said to entomb the remains of Kāśyapa Buddha, the third of the five Buddhas of the present ‘Fortunate Aeon’ and the last of six Buddhas prior to the historical Buddha.  Kāśyapa was born in India to Brahmin parents (i.e., Hindu priestly caste) and is said to have been over 30 feet tall, perhaps accounting for Boudha stupa’s great size.  It is now a pilgrimage destination for both Buddhists and Hindus.

Here’s how it looked when it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site:

Boudha Stupa 1979

Just over a century earlier, Rana Prime Minister Jung Bahadur invited Taipo Shing, a Buddhist who had come on pilgrimage from Szechuan in China and settled in Boudha, to interpret in peace negotiations after war with China.  He was made head man of Boudha and granted the income from extensive farmland as a reward for his services, married the daughter of one of Jung Bahadur’s concubines and was entitled the First Chini Lama.  His successors grew wealthy and powerful (they were consuls of the Dalai Lamas to the Kingdom of Nepal) until the Ranas fell.  Land reform in 1961 following restitution of the monarchy stripped the stupa of much of its supporting lands.

The influx of refugees from Tibet starting in the 1950s brought new wealth to the area.  The stupa is now surrounded by more than fifty Tibetan monasteries, which are themselves surrounded by housing for the enormously increased Kathmandu population.

Boudha Stupa 1970s and 2010

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution started by Mao Tsetung in 1965 to destroy: “old thinking, old culture, old habits and old customs” led to the destruction of over 6,000 monasteries in Tibet and more than one in six Tibetans starved to death or was killed.  Some Tibetans say their protector deity was reborn as Chairman Mao to force them from a familiar world where they could no longer progress spiritually.  Those who died and what was destroyed were, they believe, necessary casualties of spiritual progress; they were dispersed to grow again and make their wisdom available to all.

Regret for the loss of Boudha’s peaceful surroundings is in any case a mistake.  Better to truly accept that everything is changing in every moment.  The thought may arise in our mind that increased availability and popularity of Tibetan Buddhism’s beneficial teachings is good but ideally we will just notice our thoughts and feel no need to make judgments about them.  As a wise man said: “If you have one foot in the past and one in the future, you’ll only hurt your crotch”.