Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Taking It On the Path

The next day following the Tushita retreat, a group of us jumped into taxis and drove two and a half hours to Bir, for two days of teachings with the venerable Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, at the Deer Park Institute (a modern day Nalanda). Bir is a small little Tibetan Colony town, located in the beautiful Kangra Valley, set against picturesque snow-peaked mountains and big blue skies. There are about five Tibetan Monasteries in town upholdin the Tibetan Buddhadharma.

The momentum flowing from Tushita was really high, and together with our traveling sangha, my weekend at Deer Park was deep, and truly special. Tenzin Palmo is a renowned Western Tibetan Buddhist Nun, who spent twelve years in secluded retreat in a Himalayan cave. Her remarkable story was recently published in the popular book titled, Cave in the Snow. Since her return from the mountain, Tenzin Palmo has been a major voice delivering the Dharma to Westerners, and also addressing the inequality of women in the old Buddhist tradition. Speaking and giving teachings around the world, she raised enough funds to build the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, where she currently living. Her life and teachings are an inspiration to millions, including myself.

The weekend's teachings at Deer Park were centered around the Eight Verses for Training the Mind by Langri Tangpa (1054-1123), a Tibetan text from the Mahayana Lojong (mind training) tradition. It is a short text, only eight verses long, however within it contains the entire Mahayana path to Enlightenment. Tenzin Palmo's teachings and commentaries on this text were so clear, so practical and concise, demonstrating her wisdom and experience with great humor and compassion. The essence the text focuses on how to change our basic attitude in life. Essentially, how can we overcome this limited sense of self, to open to something so much greater? And how can we take our obstacles and challenges and turn them into spiritual opportunities?

So much of our time is spent unconsciously self-cherishing ourselves. Walking around all day, we are trapped by the habituation of our minds, regretting or analyzing the past, fantasizing or planning the future, running over our same stories, desires, and delusions. We are the stars of the movie, the center of the universe. This experience tends to separate ourselves from the people and the world around us, and according to the Buddha, is the fundamental source of our problems. We tend to think it is always the other person who is the problem... the noisy neighbor, the slow waiter, or the angry landlord. We think, "If only I was in the perfect place, with the right people, then I could practice, then I could be happy." Through examination, we can see this popular belief is far from the truth. Noisy neighbors are the meditation. Sentient beings are the practice - not an obstacle, but an opportunity. It's so easy to meditate in a cave or in retreat - to imagine compassion for all "SB's" when they're not there. Until someone knocks at the door..."How dare you interrupt my meditation on loving-kindness?!!"

When we truly begin to look at ourselves, and at our own suffering, then when we look into the eyes of another, we see this suffering mirrored. We see that each one of us experiences ourselves as the most important person under the sun. While we often feel separate, we are not alone. And each one of has the same simple desire to be happy and free from suffering.

It's very easy to be kind, loving, and friendly to people who are kind, loving, and friendly. But those who are difficult...ahhh....we tend to run away from. A perceived obstruction to our peace. But if we are able to change our fundamental attitude towards ourselves, and towards others, we can see that every challenge is an opportunity, a precious jewel to cultivate. In this sense, it's not what happens to us that matters, or even what we do, but the intention and the attitude with which we engage in activity. When a difficult situation or person emerges, we can transform the bitter into sweet honey. When someone honks and flips you off on the highway, you can smile and say, "Thank you precious teacher." When anger, fear, or hatred arise in the mind, we can greet them as old friends, "Hello anger. I know you desire. What have you come to teach me today?" By not retreating, clinging to our small selves, or identifying with the affliction, we can develop the wisdom to transform them. With right mindfulness, the affliction becomes powerless.

The problem is not that we think, remember, or plan. The problem is that we identify with this thinking. This is avidya (ignorance). However, behind the coming and going of this ignorance, is our primordial mind, our true nature, beginningless and endless. Like the sky, the true nature of our mind has no center and no space, it is infinite and luminous. We tend to identify and say,
"Hey that's my cushion!" But you cannot say this about space. "Hey that's my air!" Space is something you can't capture, because it has no boundaries, it is all pervading. Our pure minds are like this. Our thoughts are like bubbles, or dew drops. They appear so shiny and solid from the surface. Then... pop! Where did it go? All thoughts are just thoughts, as clouds are clouds. Impermanent. Changing. But we tend to focus on the clouds or thoughts, and miss the luminous sky.

However, on the flip side, if there were no afflictions, no suffering, no difficult beings, there would be no life, and no practice. "Life is the gymnasium of the soul." The resistance we face are like the weights and machines in the gym, allowing our muscles to grow stronger. Through practice, we can take all of life's obstacles and resistance on the path. We can cultivate the attitude of gratitude, and greet others with openness and compassion, and with a willingness to learn. The happiness of others should be our main concern. For if we truly look at reality, we can see that our own life, our own happiness, is totally dependent on the happiness and well-being of others. And in fact we will be happiest, when thinking of the happiness of others (This is something actually being proved valid at the neurological level of the brain "in the lab" by modern scientists and advanced meditators! More on this later...)

Outside JFK International Airport in New York, there used to be a banner which read, "The best way to overcome your enemies, is to make them your friends. " - Benjamin Franklin. If we learn to take everything onto the path, we become fearless. Whatever happens to us will truly only make us stronger. We can become the alchemist of our own minds, transforming every situation into pure gold. When people are being "difficult," rather than getting angry, anxious, or upset, we can respond with patience, generosity, and kindness. For hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only love can do that. Whomever you are with, is the most important person under the sun in this moment. They are in fact, our precious teacher.

Now is the time to put these teachings at the center of our lives. Our biggest obstruction, keeping us in delusion, is our own laziness. But even if you met the most perfect Buddha guru, all he or she can tell you is to practice. As Tenzin Palmo says, "Isn't it?"

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Seeing Things As They Are

This last week has been nothing less than life changing. I have felt the immense flux and range of human emotions; pleasure and pain, loneliness and doubt, joy and excitement, frustration and confusion, followed by insight and clarity. I have laughed and cried many times - mostly in silence. More than anything though, after a month of travel, I feel like have settled into India, and into myself. The pilgrim's initiatory rites of chaotic confusion, vomit and diarrhea, lonesome blues and irritability have passed, and I am settling into an easeful peace and contentment. Allowing things to simple be as they are.

The six-day Heart Sutra retreat at Tushita was a deep breath of fresh air, proving to be immensely beneficial and inspiring. It had been over a year since I had really visited the teachings of the Buddha. Now, the Dharma has once again caught my mind-stream and swept my heart toward the path, of wisdom and compassion. The teachings are just so universal to the human condition - like subtle common sense. The tools and methodology for cultivation and developing one's mind are just so down to earth - filled with wholesome reason and logic, and most importantly, immediately affective in ridding oneself of afflictive or destructive emotions, and cultivating positive ones.

The retreat gave me the structure and discipline I needed to actually sit and examine, "What the hell is going on in here?" For most of our lives we are so busy, constantly moving from one activity or thought to the next, that we very rarely stop and pause to actually reflect or process what is taking place in our lives. We rarely allow ourselves the space to be mindful, to observe the patterns and thoughts, and their causes and conditions, which are governing our lives and often inflicting great harm and suffering upon ourselves and those around us. Only later, sometimes after many years, do we look back and see where we went wrong... which leads to regret. This is the beauty (and often the pain) of retreat. To give ourselves the gift of mindfulness. To explore and bring awareness to our own mind and body. To listen, to feel. And hopefully, with compassion and gentleness, befriend ourselves. To allow what is to simply be, in totally acceptance. What a precious gift. This does not mean that we are to condone our bad behavior or negative emotions, but rather we can accept them as they truly are, and learn to deal with them.

I will provide a very personal example. During one of our analytical meditations, we were asked to imagine someone or something that we strongly desired was sitting right in front of us. Poof! Immediately Charlotte appeared. Shining and smiling like an angel before my eyes. Then, we were to analyze. What is it about this person or thing that is so attractive? So appealing, that we grasp for it? After running through a laundry list of qualities and attributes that I thought she possessed, making her such a wonderful person, I realized that these qualities were thoughts and feeling within my own mind. They are subjective. There is no such thing as an inherently beautiful or compassion, objective Charlotte. Someone else may look at her, without the experience I have had, and perceive her in an entirely different manner. Is there experience any less real, less valid? In this sense, beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Therefore just as the beauty, the compassion, and the kindness of Charlotte exist as thoughts or feelings within my own mind, so does the happiness and joy I feel. They are not waiting for me in California, but rather exist right here within my own heart, waiting to be awakened in the present moment.

This may appear quite simple intellectually, however to directly experience this through realization of my own condition was liberating. For you see up until this point, I had been suffering a great deal in India without her. I did not even realize until meditation, but I had been feeling very lonely - suffering from self-pity, confusion, grasping, and attachment. I was even debating whether I had made the right decision, coming to India by myself. Sure I was having fun, meeting great people, doing wonderful things. However, unconsciously I was feeling that my real happiness was dependent on Charlotte being by my side. I was grasping on to what in Buddhism is known as "self-cherishing." And we all do this. We become so caught up in our stories, and recurring thoughts - we identify with our pain. Our common language expresses this: "I am lonely. I am sad. I miss Charlotte so much. Poor me. Blah blah blah...." We carry this suffering in our heart, and replay it over and over, like endlessly scratching a scab. Not letting it heal, I was suffering about my suffering.

The object of our desire becomes so real, and our pain becomes so self-important, that it engulfs our mind, and obstructs our view of reality. This is why the negative emotions are called afflictions. And this downward spiraled slippery slope of negativity derives from the subtle seed of ignorance - a misconception that we make all day, all the time. We mistake things as being solid and compounded, fixed and unchanging, independent in and of themselves. When in reality all things are constantly changing, are impermanent, and do not inherently exist independently (as modern Physics is now affirming). All things arise from their appropriate causes and conditions. A flower blossoms with a seed, the right soil and nutrients, water, and sun, etc. And all things are made of the parts of the parts of the parts.... Which we then label as a thing, "flower", "me" or "I", "Charlotte", etc. Isn't the flower just the composition of it's parts? The stem, leaves, thorns, petals, roots, etc... And what about the parts of the stem, the leaves, thorns.... and the parts of each of those parts... until infinity. Right? Even sub-atomic particles are made of even smaller sub-atomic particles. In this sense, we can say that all phenomena are empty. Empty of what? Empty of an independent, solid, and inherent existence. No-self.

This may appear straightforward to understand at the intellectual level. But because our patterns and habits are so strong, an intellectual understanding alone is not enough to actual change our actions and behavior. Because we fundamentally mistake ourselves as existing independently, we likewise mistake all things "outside" ourselves as independent and external, solid and fixed. In effect, we mistakenly believe that these things outside of ourselves will bring us happiness and joy in our lives. We mistake the pleasure of the cake as the cake itself. Just as we identify with our emotions, saying "I am angry."

During meditation, I realized that with Charlotte gone, unconsciously and quite automatically, I had been craving and grasping for her due to this fundamental delusion. As if the happiness, joy, and love I feel for her, could somehow exist outside of myself - I longed for it. It is this love that says, "I love you because you make me happy." This is so limited though, a conditional love diluted by attachment. True love knows no attachment. Genuine love says, "I want you to be happy." Like the light of the sun, it knows no boundaries. Only with this understanding, can we truly develop boundless compassion, unconditional love - like the love a mother naturally has for it's child. Totally selfless, the mother would die for it's young. We see this even with animals!

A soothing peace and calm penetrated my afflicted mind, unfolding a wave of joyful content. I feel like I am now ready to receive her in my life, fully, as she is. With no expectations or judgements, I can begin to truly love her, unconditionally. Likewise I can begin to love myself and others in this way. I am slowly beginning to see things as they are. I think.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Mcleod Ganj: A Week in Photos

Tomorrow I am heading into a 6-day retreat at the Tushita Meditation Centre, an intermediate class focusing on the Heart Sutra. I am greatly looking forward to the silence - sitting in stillness, opening to the space of mindfulness, and processing that which has come before. I give thanks for the opportunity to focus on sadhana and cultivate with sangha in the beautiful forested hills of Mcleod Ganj. I'll be out of touch til the 24th, then one more week until Charlotte arrives!! Stay happy and healthy ya'll... give thanks every day for toilets, hot running water, and clean organic veggies.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

An Encounter With His Holiness

Tashe Delek. Namaste.

Yesterday I had the very special opportunity to see HH the Dalai Lama at his main temple residence in Mcleod Ganj. The Indo-Tibetan Friendship Society was celebrating the 50th year of the arrival of His Holiness and the Tibetans to Mcleod Ganj. The whole thing was somewhat esoteric though, there was no official announcement or anything - it was one of those things you heard rumored from a friend of a friend, that maybe HH was going to be making an appearance Tuesday morning??

I got to the main temple around 9am and after a heavy Tibetan security shake-down, with every little item searched in my bag, down to the very ink of my pen, I was told I could not bring my camera inside (So no photos my friends). I turned around and rather than walk all the way back up to my room, I entrusted it to the Tibetan woman running the temple gift shop. All good. Walked back through and the same security guard did the same pat down and search, down to the ink of my pen, that he had done 2 minutes prior. It was a little much, but understandable given the circumstances.

For the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama is a god, the living example of the Buddha in human form, and literally the most recent incarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avolokiteshvara - not to mention the political leader of the Tibetan people. For many Tibetans still living in Tibet, it is their most wishful dream to one day meet HH. To be in his presence is a great spiritual blessing. And this I truly felt.

For a few hours I waited, sitting on the hard concrete in the hot sun - surrounded by old Tibetan women prostrating, surrendering their egos and their withered bodies, while countless men chanted prayers, fingering old rosary beads. I chanted Om Mani Padme Hum right along.

As people continued to file in, filling all empty space, a group of about ten Hindu Brahmacharyas, began offering a Puja ceremony to HH. All of a sudden the ground began shaking with movement and excitement, prayers and prostrations erupted, everything was bustling - HH the Dalai had arrived. Surrounded by security and armed Indian forces, he slowly began walking up to the stage. Taking his time, smiling and shaking hands with people along the way, doing what I have dubbed the "Lama Walk," this little bent over hobble-shuffle the older lamas do. He sat down on his yellow throne while the Hindus finished the fire Puja at his feet. Above them a large yellow banner read: LONG-LIVE INDO TIBETAN FRIENDSHIP. Up until this point I really had no clue what was going on.

As the Puja ended, the Brahmacharyas prostrated one by one at HH's feet. Then some Indian officials spoke for a little while in Indian-English and I began to get the picture. They were enthusiastically honoring and thanking HH for all that he has brought to the region. He said this small mountain town has benefited so much in the past 50 years, not only the people, but the trees, the birds, and the hills. They have benefited not only physically, but also spiritually by the teachings and wisdom HH has imparted over the years. It felt quite genuine. Through a small crevice between security guards and photographers, I was able to watch HH. He kept smiling and laughing, nodded his head yes. It was all very simple.

They blessed HH with a red shawl, then he got up to speak - in Tibetan... with a Hindi translator... for a about fifteen minutes I watched. Every once in a while the audience would burst into laughter or applause, and I would join. It was really fun just to see him speak even though I had no clue what he was saying - it was just so joyful. At one point I heard the words America and Australia...

Then the Indians brought out a big feast, served on banana leaf plates. For a while we just sat and watched the Brahmacharyas and HH eat their food, not really quite sure if we were also being fed, was the ceremony over?... But eventually HH the Dalai Lama finished his meal and waved goodbye, and Lama Walked away... And we were served lunch. Big buckets of rice and six different kinds of dahl were efficiently served to the few thousand in attendance.

I have learned a few things about these big Indian meals served on the floors - they give you SOO much food. They just keep coming with more rice, more chapatis, more dahl, more curry. And the food is prasad, it's holy, consecrated, so you have to finish EVERYTHING, which can often be painfully challenging on the belly. Eventually you have to swoon over your plate with your arms and say, "Bas, Bas!" "Enough, Enough!" I have been getting pretty good at eating with my right hand, however, yesterday I learned a new trick that I must share with you. Some of you may already know this one, but it totally elevated my Indian hand-eating to a whole new level. The trick is to gather the food in a nice round snowball, pick it up, and then, the trick - you flick the food with your thumb, across the other fingers into your mouth. It totally works. Try it.

For photos of the event, check out HH the Dalai Lama's Facebook page.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mountains and Trains Whisper the Dharma

Blessings everyone! After a hot stinky no-sleep 20 hr journey from Rishikesh to Dharamshala, I have arrived at 7,000 ft to the cool mountain town of Mcleod Ganj, home to his HH the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile. It is literally a breath of fresh air from the hot sticky banks of Rishikesh and Haridwar.

I will attempt to paint a picture for you of my experience with Indian transportation, but seriously these words are nothing my friends. Took a rickshaw to the Rishikesh train station where we waited to board a 10hr train to Chakki Bank. Now it is "off season" for tourists, however, it is "high season" for Indian vacations - everything was sold out, could not even get a cheap sleeper ticket, so we we forced to sit at the back of the never-ending long train, in "General" seating. Traveling with a friend named Ruth from Spain, we squeezed onto the train with our bags and managed to find a small crevice of a seat with a Hindu family. We sat down at the perfect moment, because right after hundreds more Indians boarded the train, with no where to go but stand, sit, squat, lay, climb, sway, squeeze, sweat, push, shove, shout, or somehow find contentment amidst the festival attendance on board this train. After a few hours, Ruth and I managed to jump up to the second deck and squeeze in with the luggage, as we looked down upon sea of Indian people. At every stop, somehow more people were boarding, and no one seemed to be leaving. Indian trains defeat the laws of geometry and mathematics. I discovered the true meaning and purpose of Indian Hatha Yoga and asana practice: to be strong and flexible enough, both physically and mentally, to find an easeful position which allows for sleep. Forget moksha or samadhi. Sleep is the ultimate peace - and finding it on an Indian train the ultimate attainment! We wore sunglasses to look as cool as Bob Dylan - and to shield our eyes through the night from the fluorescent light blasting at our heads.

What is so wonderful, I am discovering, about travel in India, are the little moments of joy and peace found within the storm of chaos. At every train stop, vendors selling food, chai, soda, and snacks hand mystery meals through the railings to on board passengers. For 20rps (about 50 cents) I had one of my best meals in India: Rice and Daal with Cucumbers, Potato Samosas with yummy sauce, and hot Chai - it was absolutely delicious and left me smiling from ear to ear.

Finally arrived in Chakki Bank at 2:30am, took another Rickshaw through the ghetto to bus station, where we waited painfully sleepy til 5am for the bus to Mcleod Ganj. The bus would not have been so bad if not for the brutal train ride the night before, but it was so rickety and bouncy, driving up hill around windy roads, falling asleep for 10 minutes at a time, kept banging my head against the window frame, waking up delirious and smiley, stinky and excited. All of a sudden, giant snow capped mountains appeared through the dirty bus window.

I am really diggin Mcleod Ganj. It's touristy, but not as "in your face" as Rishikesh. Everything is so much cleaner, the air so much fresher, and the natural beauty is astonishing. Green green lush trees and shrubs, paint the landscape, amongst Himalayan mountain giants. And the food!! ahh soo yummy. My first taste of Tibetan food - vegetable momos and thukpa noodle soups - delish! Bald headed red-robed monks add color to the busy streets, filled with amazing Tibetan handicrafts, restaurants, and book stores. Every 50 ft there is a sign for a Yoga Teacher Training or Tattoo Studio, Rebirthing and Hypnosis, Reiki, Tibetan Cooking Class, and all the cool New Agey practices.

I am staying at the simple but so beautiful Shiv Shakti Cottage, about a 15 min walk up hill from town, tucked away in the trees, with stunning views of the mountains and valley below. A Tibetan tattoo artist named Deep is letting me stay in an extra room with he and his mother for very cheap, in exchange I am teaching him yoga. I am so blessed to cross paths with him and to receive this wonderful stay. I am learning much about the area from him and his friends - soon his motorcycle will be fixed and he's gonna take me to all the hot spots. The room is perfect, and it feels so good to unpack my things and settle here for the month, as I await my beloved Charlotte at the end of the month. The constant traveling and moving takes much energy, and it is good to plant some mountain roots and focus on my sadhana. Starting tomorrow I will begin a 5 day course at the Himalayan Iyengar Center with Sharat Arora, senior teacher and student of BKS Iyengar.

The weather has been great, and quite Humboldtesque. Beautiful and sunny during the day, and rainy in the evening. Actually last night it poured monsoon style harder than I've ever seen, for like 20 minutes... then passed like a thought cloud. Thunder and lightning rumbles throughout the valley in the evening. And, after much stipulation, I have severed the bonds yet again - yesterday I chopped off my Humboldt-hair. Once again, reborn, fresh anew like the mornings dew - treading a little bit lighter on the path. Ahh anitya "impermanence."

Sunday, June 6, 2010


The land of the Rishis, the great "seers" or sages of India, who for thousands of years have left this world behind for the infamous caves of the Himalayas. While the West has made great progress technologically and scientifically through an admirable pursuit and exploration of the material and external reality, the rishis have, since antiquity, been involved in a pursuit of the "inner" science - the exploration of spirit and human consciousness. They have discovered other ways of knowing and receiving knowledge than purely through the means of the intellect. The divine wisdom of the sages has been carried down from the mountains and penetrated the heart of Indian civilization; inspiring such disciplines as Yoga, Ayurveda, Astronomy, even Math and the Sciences.

As I bathe in the cool running waters of the Ganges, at the foothills of these great mountains, I stand at the precipice of these ancient wisdom traditions. Countless spiritual seekers have flocked from all over India - from all over the world - to this very point on the earth, in search of answers to life's deepest questions. I sit on the quiet sandy beach and take it all in stillness. Infinite hours of meditations have take place amongst these stones. What stories do they tell? The ever-flowing Ganges carries my prayers. I close my eyes and feel my breath. It's the same breath I breathe in California - only Rishikesh air. A calm peace washes over me, hushing my thoughts. A rare moment's escape from the noise and chaos on the streets behind me. I open my eyes to a group of Indians in orange life vests, splashing and screaming, river-rafting down stream. Constantly reminded of this dance between ancient and new, East and West - we meet here in this moment, always.

I found a temple right off the main bazaar where babas chant Hare Krishna 24 hours a day - you can hear em' from the streets. Been chanting with them daily. One on the harmonium, double-sided drum, and lots of Indian tambourines. All day they sing with full heart, different melodies of Sri Chaitanya's maha mantra:

Hare Rama Hare Rama,
Rama Rama Hare Hare

Hare Krisna Hare Krisna,
Krisna Krisna Hare Hare!

Felt so good to finally chant kirtan in India. Closed my eyes and was immediately brought back to Arcata, sitting around chanting with Daruka and friends. Hare Om.
As the music would linger, I'd look over at the orange powder-faced, dread-locked sadhu leading on harmonium, and a huge mirrored smile would erupt on both sides. We'd lift our arms and sing "Hare Rama!" and the drum would pick back up, sending spirits soaring.