Thursday, August 29, 2013

Nothing Better than Long Term Retreat


Today I would like to start talking about the benefits of a retreat centered lifestyle for serious Buddhist practitioners.  First, I will address the ways that people have attained realization in recent history.

Among the favorite reading materials of yogis and yoginis of the Nyingma tradition are the biographies of the great, realized, lamas of Tibet.   We read them in order to model ourselves after them.  I have a particular interest in the 20th century adepts, because they are closer in time to my life, and a few are still alive.  Many of their students are alive.

There is one catch.  These are often reincarnate masters who have a lot of past life accomplishment to draw on.  It is sometimes hard for me to know, as an ordinary person, how to model myself after someone who had tremendous accomplishment in childhood, or even infancy.  I believe the stories, because I have personally met lamas like that.  I don’t understand Buddhists who are super skeptical, but that is a whole ‘nother topic.

As I was starting to write this, I looked back through a bunch short bios on these 20th century people in the same tradition as me who had the experience of realization .  There were a few things I noticed.  Some reincarnate lamas gained realization while merely receiving teachings on the great Dzogchen texts, such as the Yeshe Lama, or during a one-on-one experience with their lama of being introduced to the nature of their mind via a variety of formal and informal means.  As an example of informal means, one 20th century lama gained realization exactly how Naropa did; he was beat up by his lama with a shoe!   This was one of the early Pema Norbus, the one who lived from 1887 to 1932.

I also noticed that most of these great lamas spent seven or more years studying, and also serving, their lamas.  Some gained realization in that kind of intensive work-study-practice environment.  Something must have rubbed off!  This is one way to gain realization.

I also noticed that those 20th century teachers who did not 'wake up' in this kind of lifestyle (and some who did) went on to do intensive retreat practice.  The biographies were sometimes short on specifics about how long and under what conditions they undertook retreat, but generally they spent between 3 and 22 years in secluded retreat.

These great figures did a lot of deity approach and accomplishment practices (nyen drups) “of the three roots.”  In our Nyingma tradition, that means they did practices of the Lama category (Guru Rinpoche, Vajrasattva, or Longchenpa usually), the yidam category  (such as Vajrakilaya, Manjushri, or Yamantaka), and the dakini category (Yeshe Tsogyal, Tara, etc.)   Some lamas really did a lot of these retreats, which take a specific period of time (such as one, three, or six months) or the repetition of a certain number of mantras.  Lamas like Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, and my own less-famous lama, Tharchin Rinpoche, did complete nyendrups on dozens of deities. 

For practitioners of that caliber, there are many wonderful things that happen in those retreats, such as phurbas levitating, beams of light emanating from ritual objects, or a tea offering catching fire.  For people of my caliber, we are lucky to have a good dream. Sometimes nothing positive seems to happen.

Quite a few of these lamas also did retreat on the core practices of the Great Perfection itself for several years.  Not too many of these Nyingma biographies mention a lot of tsalung practice, but there were certainly famous lamas, such as Shakya Shri, who were greatly accomplished in that arena.

It is assumed that every serious practitioner, had miserable experiences in retreat as well.  Jamgon Kongtrul, for example, very franly discusses his illnesses and difficult experiences in retreat in his autobiography.  The point of having supervision by an experienced lama when one is doing long term retreat is to avoid getting carried away by positive experiences, or freaked out by negative experiences.  Also, one needs instruction about how to potentially turn experiences into realization.

For me, while I am not a very good meditator (or perhaps because of it) there is delight at the thought of undertaking a new practice, or a new approach to practice in the next retreat.  Some people want to travel to new places, and they have their adventure that way.  I have always been enchanted by the cave dwelling yogini really applying herself sincerely to the practices, and just seeing what happens.  I have endless curiosity about that.  Where will this take me? 

It may sound cheesy, but I do take the Bodhisattva intention very seriously.  There is belief there inside me in the power of enlightened yogis and yoginis to benefit the world.  Something opens, and one’s wisdom and compassion completely blossom, and one becomes a beacon for the world, and one’s prayers have real power.  I’ve seen that this has happened others, and I am committed (as many, many, other simple people who have taken the Bodhisattva vow are) to follow my practice through to that point.  It may not happen for me in this life, but there is always an opportunity in the bardo, or beyond.

Shortly after Lama Tharchin Rinpoche’s passing, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche spoke to us twice.  He talked about the unlikelihood of having the opportunity to do long term retreat in the present era, and suggested we just simply generate aspirational Bodhichitta as our main practice.  Khyentse Rinpoche is so brilliant.  There, at Pema Osel Ling, in a sangha where 40 people have completed three year retreat over the years, a handful have finished two or more retreats (not me!), and others are in still retreat, he gives a long talk about how it is probably impossible to do so.  Interesting.

Then, he uttered just a few words, a sentence fragment; “If you can, of course, there is nothing better.” 

Well, there is the upshot.  If you can, of course, there is nothing better.  Honestly, a lot of us really can.  We have the mental stability, the faith, a trusting relationship with our lamas, a stable practice, and what?  A divorce?  There are certainly plenty of those.  Retirement?  Plenty of those.  There is even a charity or two that does fund people in a well run, traditional, three-year retreat.

If you can, there is nothing better.

edited for grammar and typos 8-10-13 10:30 PDT

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Old British Colonialist Within

At the 2013 Buddhist Geeks conference in Boulder, Colorado, Zen teacher David Loy said, and I hope I have the quote exactly right, “we must tear down the myth of traditional Buddhist cosmology.” 

My initial response was a defensive one, my mind responding to this—and other similar statements—with an immediate “Who you calling ‘we,’ white boy?” 

I applied the key points of my practice to my subsequent emotional upheaval, which was admittedly already brewing from two speakers who had already that day mis-characterized the core practice of my own tradition.  Up front, I have to admit that my attempt to transform my own reactions to this kind of approach to the Buddhadharma into non-dual open awareness were completely unsuccessful.   I made several tweets during the talk that were snarky, albeit nowhere near as snarky as I felt at the time… and I am going to continue on in that vein.

I have three objections to Mr. Loy’s statement:


The first is the “we.”  The Buddhist Geeks conference is noted for being frequented by practitioners in their 20’s and 30’s.  This is one of the most cool things about it.  I am a white woman in my 50’s who wants to see younger people benefit from genuine Dharma.  The conference attendees are largely white, and the speakers intentionally included some people of color and women (bravo!), but no Asians, as far as I could tell.

The conference speakers who made the most claims about being wise and knowledgeable enough to determine what was valuable and what was not valuable in all forms of traditional Buddhadharma the world over, and – overtly or implicitly – what should be discarded, were mostly white male baby boomers.  I feel this mindset has unconscious white colonialist underpinnings. Quoting Osterhammel on Colonialism, via Wiki, “the colonizers are convinced of their own superiority and their ordained mandate to rule.”

Must Tear Down

A call to arms for Westerners to tear down traditional Buddhist beliefs has in it the implicit assumptions that we Westerners have a mandate to rule Buddhism.  The overt rationale is that science trumps tradition.  In this vein, Loy labeled the parts of the Dharma that he did not believe in as myths, such as “the myth of the Bodhisattva.”

Buddhist Cosmology

Western science’s study of the nature of reality and the nature of consciousness is in its infancy.  The idea that anything in Buddhist cosmology can be ruled out based on science is absurd.  These kinds of thoughts, that the Dharma consists of only what can be measured, come out of our own discomfort with the inherently illusory nature of the phenomena that appear in our sense fields.  It is soothing to our western habit to materialize the Dharma and reject the idea that there is anything beyond what we can measure and see.  The idea that “others,” i.e. Asian yogis and scholars, have a greater realization or understanding of reality is unacceptable.  We must eliminate any such thought immediately!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Retreats Aren't for Everyone

The approach to long-term retreat in the last century or so, has emphasized a three year, three month supervised group retreat.  This is a format that the highly respected 19th century teacher Jamgon Kongtrul promoted, because it fits with ancient tantric teachings about time, human physiology, and the effect of practice on our energy and nervous system.   Retreats can, however, be of any length.

The danger of isolated long term personal retreats, are that one can make mistakes in practice that lead to mental and emotional health issues, or one can become puffed up by personal pride.  The group three year treat format protects one against this because one is supervised, hopefully, by an experienced yogi, and also one’s interactions with one’s peers in retreat may undermine the development of arrogance and wear off one’s rough edges.

I recently heard about someone who had done many years in retreat.  A friend met this person, and found this practitioner had developed an attitude of superiority towards other practitioners who were engaged in another path.  This is an example of pride and dualistic thinking not being eliminated by practice, but increased instead.  What a waste!  Or maybe that is just my pride talking, saying “what a waste!”

Personal retreat, for some, tends to cultivate more in-depth meditation.

Retreat is suitable for some people, and not for others.  Super extroverts may not be comfortable with the lack of social interaction.  People with schizophrenia are, unfortunately, not suitable for long term retreat, and folks with some other mental health issues may not be.  Really, the advice of a senior wisdom teacher should be sought before doing a three-month or longer retreat… and I have seen some people not do well even in one month of solitude.

So, it is not a panacea.  Obviously, there are economic issues for folks as well.  There is sponsorship available for participants in respected three-year retreat facilities in the west, but getting one is not guaranteed.  One may need to do personal fundraising.   There are visa, language, and health issues involved in doing retreat in Asia where it is cheaper.

So, I have expressed a lot of downsides in this post.  If you are thinking about retreat, I am not trying to discourage you.  Next, I’ll write about some upsides.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Picnic on a Hill

This is a small replica of a large oil painting that I grew up with in our family home.  Art really does have an impact on one.  This evocative painting raises a number of questions for a child observing it.  Why is this woman up on a hill alone?  Is that a picnic basket?  Is she sad?

Then, the questions turn on oneself. Could I enjoy a picnic alone in nature?  What would I do there with no books, phone, TV or internet?  Suppose all my basic needs were taken care of, and I had a little cabin, heat and plenty of food.  What then?

Just the word "hermit" does sound sad to me, as does "solitude."  Flipping those feelings upside down, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition (among others) has the idea that living and meditating in solitude for long periods of time can be a break-through experience. 

I think lots of people, who are--like me--introverts by nature, pass a mesa in Arizona or a mountain in the Sierras, and picture themselves there in a cabin.  In our mind's eye we open into the vast sky, uniting with the spacious loving heart of the universe.

I've done enough retreat at this point to know that we carry our own baggage, the need to create problems, to invent unmet needs, and so on, to the mountaintop.  Unfolding is a process of applying the teachings of our powerful lineage of realized adepts to ourselves.  Starting at the beginning, the hallmark of Buddhism, the penetrating acceptance of impermanence itself.  Then, slowly coming to a conclusion about each critical point.

One petal at a time, the flower opens.  That hill is a good place to practice.  Why?  Well, for one, the ability to blame others for our problems is undermined.  They aren't even there.  I am  forced to take responsibility for my own mind.  Then, I am forced to love and accept the thinker of those ridiculous thoughts.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Moat Radical Humans

Even before I became a Buddhist, I was intrigued by the stories of cave-dwelling hermits in the Tibetan tradition.  High mountain caves were used in Tibet for their isolation because they were relatively cheap, insulated, and easy to remodel into a long-term meditation place.  Also, I think the vastness of the sky had its appeal.  Saying someone was doing “mountain retreat” was synonymous with saying one was doing long-term serious retreat.

In long-term solo retreat, the distinguishing features of a monk or nun and a non-monastic yogi or yogini become largely irrelevant.  In the case of a non-monastic woman, the things she may do to make herself beautiful in ordinary life are set aside and she is just natural.  Internally, the thoughts of finding a sexual partner become just thoughts like any other, of no special importance.  A nun, on the other hand, stops shaving her head and lets her hair grows out long in retreat.  The relationships and hierarchy at her nunnery are set aside, and she, too, is just nakedly there.

Like the title of the famous book by Aya Khema (in the Theravadin tradition), one becomes “nobody, going nowhere.”  This is true for any retreatant, but especially in Western culture where long-term retreat is not valued, one gives up all ambition and looses whether status one had from one’s career or family role. 

While aiming for realization, there is no guarantee that such a thing will happen.  The only thing guaranteed to happen is that one’s body will continue to age.

Why on earth would one do such a thing?  The answer is renunciation… a not very sexy word.  On the Buddhist path, the speedy loud ways of humans running around seeking this and that on the worldly level eventually becomes completely unsatisfying.  Even while seeking pleasure, one can see the inevitable end of that pleasure.  Even while avoiding pain, one sees the end of that relief from pain. 

Instead, one yearns to connect with enlightenment, to dive in to realization, or simply to place oneself in a state of open heartedness, loving all living beings equally, limitlessly.

Eventually one may find the blue sky outside and inside, the completely awakened state.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Emergence of Wisdom 2.0

I just returned from spending 3 ½ days at the Wisdom 2.0 conference.  In case you haven’t heard about this astounding successful conference series, it is a get together to discuss wisdom and compassion in the Digital age.  Who would know how this idea would catch on?  This year’s attendance was about 1700 people, which I believe more that doubled from the previous year. 

The event took place in San Francisco’s large barn-like Concourse Exhibition Hall, appropriately located in the south of Market area, next door to the imposing Zynga building. 

I have been absorbed in my own world of dedicated traditional practice in my specific Buddhist tradition for years.  I have certainly been aware that mindfulness meditation practices, in various forms, and--of course--yoga, have become increasingly popular.   I was surprised to see, however, how many business leaders, such as Bill Ford from Ford Motors, and many (apparently famous) tech entrepreneurs such as Bill Evans—formerly of Twitter—and top executives from Facebook, Google, and Linked-in are willing to be “out” not only about their meditation practices, but the role that compassion and wisdom play in their world view.  This was complemented by many researchers and grass-roots activists who are working to bring these practices and compassionate values to their communities and the world. 

Two members of Congress spoke about the intersection between their political work and their personal practice… Tulsi Gabbard and Tim Ryan, and I was impressed with their humility and good heart.

Marianne Williamson, a prolific and popular writer and lecturer on spiritual topics, was perhaps the biggest surprise.  She speaks in a style that obviously draws from Christian preachers, even through she is not that, and initially I had the impulse to leave the room, because the studied style of professional speaker on the circuit usually sends a signal to me that I am about to be hustled.  But, what a pleasant surprise when the message she sent was to throw down the gauntlet to the all of there, especially the business leaders, to use all that brain and financial power to do real good in the world… and specifically to get together and do what needs to be done to eliminate extreme poverty in the world.

But more important than the big talks were discussions I had with individuals about their current work and projects that I am working in.  I have a project I am in the formative stages of, and it was very good for me to see the big picture of what will certainly be an eventual revolution in the U.S. – balancing inner life and outer work and new values that inevitably come out of that.  As San Francisco goes, so goes the nation.  Eventually.

These people were mostly coming from the doing side and trying to bring in the contemplative side, and I come from the contemplative side and am moving into doing.  I just listened and watched, like a beginner all over again, asking myself again and again “what can I take from this into my work?”  “What do I bring to the table as a strength.” 

Inside I watched my various reactions to the environment, from my snarky anti-authoritarian side, to my pride rearing its head, and also (not unrelated) what would push my buttons.  I found that my own capacity to actively engage with others – almost everyone there was a total stranger – needed to be balanced with unengaged times, some lunches alone, and a few chair naps.  There were a lot of sub-spaces, including a meditation room and a yoga room, which I admired from afar.

I recommend this gathering—if you or your organization can afford it—to folks who are engaged in wisdom and compassion work, in any setting, as a way to expand and connect in the larger world of people who will get the significance of what you are doing.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Focus on Teens and the Dharma

This blog is quiet because I’m putting my time into meditation and writing a book.  The book is a novel for young adults, intended to share my joy and endless curiosity about the lived through experience of a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism in modern American life.  I’m about a third of the way through my rough draft.  That is really near the beginning because there are many rewrites necessary in writing a good book.  Or so they say… I wouldn’t really know because this is my first work of fiction.

My personality is such that I approach everything from the big picture first.  Perhaps this is from the combination of being an Aquarian and the daughter of a lawyer—who wrote legislation for the U.S. congress no less.  So, I usually approach things – even human interaction – based on principle first, then narrow it down to the personal… much to the bafflement of the people in my life. 

So, I have a pretty complete outline of the book and the cast of characters, and I’m writing the book based on that.  This is not a fantasy work, it is a girl’s experience of meeting with the Dharma for the first time—enlivened by all the kind of natural magic and synchronicity that regularly enlivens the lives of Vajrayana practitioners.

Yesterday, I went to Facebook headquarters—the real place in Menlo Park, California where Facebook is based.  It was Compassion Research Day that they kindly hosted, presenting what they are learning about how to gently foster better communication between Facebook users based on their research with their billion user strong database.  They are specifically focusing on 13-14 year olds right now.  What causes them to report what they feel is an inappropriate post or picture to Facebook?  The most common thing that is reported by this age group is girl reporting being tagged by a friend in a photo.  Guess why?  Because they are embarrassed that they look bad in the picture!   Hundreds of thousands of instances like this are reported to Facebook by teens.  So they have a crew of psychologists working on refining how to redirect the kid back to communicating with their friend about it, rather than having Facebook intervene.  They have developed little template messages that kids can send to their friends that are customized to communicate what they are feeling about the post, and how strongly they feel about it.

Of course, there are instances of real bullying and other issues that come up between people on Facebook, and these vary a lot from country to country.  In India, one of the worse things you can do is to deface images of someone’s favorite sports figure or celebrity and post it on a friend’s wall!  It was fascinating, and I learned a lot from the adult presenters and a panel of teens they had come in at the end of the day.  Next week I am going to a training for writing tutors at my neighborhood (tough!) high school, something I hope to do, partially because I always have wanted to volunteer in the schools, and partially to improve my skills in working with youth.

When my book is done, hopefully by the summer/fall, and on the way to be published somehow, I am going to be starting a youth group here in the Bay Area based on the Dudjom Chö tradition.   I’m hoping the book will spark kids’ interest.  We are very rich with wonderful lamas in the Bay Area, and I’m lucky enough to have been acquainted with a bunch of them for a long time.  I’m starting to go around and invite the lama’s to come do short pithy teachings for the kids once we get going.   I will be the organizer and head coach, and will be assisted by other yogis and yoginis of our tradition.  More later, of course.