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?"

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