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Posts from the ‘Practice for Others’ Category

5
Jul

on practice for others, and taking our seats in our own practice…

It has been just a little over a year since I started ganachakra.com and changchub.com, the associated site through which one can sponsor prayer, puja, and recitation of texts for the benefit of oneself, for another, or for all beings.  Both sites have proved to meet a specific need that exists not just for Buddhists, but for anyone who is experiencing suffering and would like spiritual support.

Shortly after beginning ganachakra.com last summer, I returned to India to see His Eminence the 12th Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche (vajra regent of the Karma Kagyu lineage), as well as Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche (heart son of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, and abbot of Bokar Ngedhon Chokhorling), for periods of instruction, retreat and pilgrimage.  Upon returning I wrote two posts, one with instructions on how to place the mind at the point of death from H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche (which you can read here), the other on practicing for others by Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche (which you can read here).

I wish to return to the topic of practicing for the benefit of others; specifically the performance of ritual puja as this is a form of dharma activity that appears to be treated with less importance in non-buddhist countries.  I’m not really sure why this is the case, but I suspect it has to do with complicated feelings surrounding magic, ritual, and prayer.  It seems important to note that in most cases, western Buddhists have had the benefit of access to higher education and perhaps even a relatively high social class.  These factors may or may not be important, but I wonder if they make the outward acceptance of magic, the power of ritual, and the benefit of prayer appear superstitious and regressive.  Indeed, it should be noted that most of the public proponents of Buddhism seem to hold advanced degrees, and in the United States at least, on average, there is a rationalism and sense of grounded reality that goes hand in hand with such access to education and perhaps also the leisure time to devote towards practice.  Culturally, this imprint exists, as to how real it is, and to how much of an absolute it has become, is something that I cannot say much about.  Perhaps we only know for ourselves how loose and free we are of this and other cultural imprints.  How do these imprints color our notion of Buddhism?  These projected realities can only be indicated and fully understood individually.  If anything it seems that approaching the surety of the rational mind with mindful awareness is wise; for such a cherished dialectic is as much an habitual fabrication as anything else.

Mindful of the potential impossibility and eternal contradictions that words allow for, I acknowledge that I may make a variety of mistakes in trying to address this topic.  That said, I invite you to explore with me how practice for others is a vitally important dharma activity.

When we pray, what are we doing?

There are many different forms of prayer.  Aspiration prayers, dedication prayers, supplication to a particular lineage, direct prayers of praise to a given Buddha, and prayers of request for empowerment, to name a few.  Through personal prayer, in a very general sense, we make a connection with our distinct source of spirituality and the well-spring of spaciousness, interpenetrating connection, and personal empowerment that it offers.  The specific directionality and aim of our prayers can be focused and refined by what kind of prayer one does.

A great example of an aspiration prayer is the Dewachen Prayer; it focuses the mind upon making the aspiration for either oneself or another to be reborn in Dewachen or Sukhavati, the pure-land of the Buddha Amitabha.  This prayer plants the seeds of connection to the intention of experiencing the bliss of Amitabha’s face, the ability to connect with the dharma, to have the means to practice, and to experience the mind’s basic clarity.  It allows Amitabha’s commitment to benefit us to come to fruition.

Dedication prayers connect us to others; they engender compassion, and reinforce our commitment to bodhisattva activity.  The following is an example of a dedication prayer:

By this virtue may I quickly
Attain the state of a Guru-Buddha (Enlightenment),
And then may I lead every being,
without exception, into that state.
May the most precious and supreme bodhicitta
awakening mind
Which has not yet been generated now be generated.
And may the precious mind of bodhicitta which has
been generated
Never decline, but always increase.

Dedication prayers are a way in which we ground our intention.  They help us to keep the general view of interconnection and offer a form of bearing witness.  Any merit that we have created we dedicate to all beings, so that they may experience Buddhahood; this is a way of not forgetting and maintaining our heritage as both a potential buddha, but also as a participant in samsara.  These prayers are easily over-looked, but they open us up to a sense of loving-kindness and appreciation of others no matter what form they take.

Lineage prayers, much like family trees, connect us with those who have come before us.  In this case we have the Dorje Chang Thungma, or prayer to Dorje Chang (Vajradhara) the dharmakaya source of the Kagyu lineage.  This prayer begins with a supplication of the early forefathers of the kagyu lineage and then moves on to plant the seeds for renunciation, devotion, and attention, and reflection, all of which are very helpful, if not required to gain an essence oriented realization of the mind’s qualities.  This prayer serves to connect us with the Kagyu lineage, delivering the blessings of its founders, as well as the central blessing of the Kagyu approach to the practice of meditation.  Lineage prayers like this one are a way of directly connecting with the essence of a lineage, and through that, experiencing deep inspiration and faith, the energy that bolsters us in our practice.

Dorje Chang Thungma

OM

Great Vajradhara, Tilopa, Naropa

Marpa, Milarepa, and Lord of the Dharma, Gampopa

Knower of the three times, omniscient Karmapa

Lineage holders of the four great and eight lesser schools

Drikung, Taklung, Tsalpa, glorious Drukpa and others,

You who have thoroughly mastered the profound path of Mahamudra

Unrivaled protectors of beings, the Dakpo Kagyü

I pray to you, the Kagyü lamas

Grant your blessing that we may follow your tradition and example.

Detachment is the foot of meditation, it is taught.

Attachment to food and wealth disappears

To the meditator who gives up ties to this life,

Grant your blessing that attachment to ownership and honor cease.

Devotion is the head of meditation, it is taught.

The lama opens the door to the profound oral teachings

To the meditator who always turns to him,

Grant your blessing that uncontrived devotion be born within.

Unwavering attention is the body of meditation, it is taught.

Whatever arises, is the fresh nature of thought.

To the meditator who rests there in naturalness,

Grant your blessings that meditation is free from intellectualization.

The essence of thought is dharmakaya, it is taught.

They are nothing whatsoever, and yet they arise.

To the meditator who reflects upon the unobstructed play of the mind,

Grant your blessing that the inseparability of samsara and nirvana be realized.

Through all my births, may I not be separated

From the perfect Lama and so enjoy the glory of the dharma.

May I completely accomplish the qualities of the path and stages

And quickly attain the state of Vajradhara (awakened mind).

As far as prayers directed at a particular Buddha, I have included a prayer to the Buddha Prajnaparamita for the removal of obstacles.  It comes from a booklet of collected prayers that was handed out during His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s annual teachings in Bodh Gaya in December of 1998.  This prayer is a supplication to Parjnaparamita and the dakinis of the three places so that all obstacles and hindrances may be removed.  This invocation of Prajnaparamita’s power for protection and removal of problems, as well as the dakinis that emanate from her body, speech and mind is a way of receiving her natural blessing and connecting in a direct way. The two mantras, the second of which is the mantra of prajnaparamita herself,  clear away all and any perceived “reality” of obstacles, rendering them impossible, empty, and without gravity.

Prayer to remove obstacles based upon Prajnaparamita from the Gelug Lineage

I prostrate to the gathering of dakinis of the three places,

Coming from the supreme holy site of “Space-enjoying”,

Who have the powers of clairvoyance and magical emanation,

And regard practitioners as their offspring.

A KA SA MA RA TSA SHA DA RA SA MA RAY AH PHET

Tayatha gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi soha

Through the power of the great truth of the words of the Exalted Three Jewels

May all adverse conditions be overcome.

May they become non-existent.

May they be pacified.

May all the evils, such as enemies, obstacles, hindrances and adverse conditions be satisfied.

Shantim kuruye Soha

May the eighty thousand types of obstacles be pacified,

May we be separated from adverse harmful conditions,

May everything conducive be obtained and by the auspiciousness of everything good,

May there be excellent happiness here and now.

In these ways, we see that prayer can be focused and very specific.  Each modality is a little different from the others, but can be easily blended into one another if one desires.  I have come to find that as a chaplain, prayer is real.  It effects significant change within me when I deliver it within my own practice, and when I perform prayer for others it changes the feeling of the room as well as the orientation of the person for whom it was delivered.  I have even had the experience of a dying patient who held out until prayer could be delivered; as I finished the last word of the prayer the patient died.  Prayer can be a vehicle, and a ladder, it is a bridge and an oasis in the face of difficulty.

I realize that personal prayer and ritual, as part of a regular spiritual practice makes a lot of sense- the effects are palpable. But what of prayer and ritual for others?  This is something that I feel a greater number of people in the West may be more skittish about.

Lately I have been requested to perform pujas and prayers for a number of people who have recently passed away.  Within the mix of specific practices that I do, I tend to focus on Chöd, Mahakala and Shingkygong, as supplementary practices to help ensure that the passage through the bardo is smooth, without the affliction of fear and anger, and so that when rebirth comes, it is peaceful and rich.  The effect of Mahakala and Shingkyong, in my mind at least, is profound- there is little chance that as enlightened protectors they will forget to benefit beings; and so, when invoked and supplicated with heartfelt devotion and clarity, there is no reason as to why obstacles will arise.

Chöd allows me to experience intimacy with the consciousness of the person who has passed away.  I enjoy offering the feasts of my freshly butchered body, my eyes, flayed skin, and skull to all of the demons of self-clinging and self-cherishing so that the person for whom this practice is dedicated will pass through the bardo aware of the illusory nature of their body.  In inviting the recently deceased to the ganachakra of my body, an offering made so that all of their obstacles may be dissolved into the emptiness that characterizes their essential nature, we become connected.  We form a bond; a shared experience of seeing things as they really are.  The benefit of this kind of approach to being there for others who have recently passed away feels extraordinary- I take great joy in being able to have the chance to do this.

In a sense, practicing for others is more than bodhisattva activity, the indiscriminate non-referential care for the basic happiness of others, it is also strongly urged through many of the tantric commitments (samayas) associated with a variety of practices.  It is quite common amongst the samayas associated with the practice of a number of tantric deities that the practitioner engage in the activities of performing pujas, offering tormas, and removing obstacles in the manner of the mahasiddhas of old.  This is another application of skillful means; we can effect great change through our practice, the least of which is experience full realization.  In this way we connect with the mahasiddhas of India- we seamlessly continue their lineage.

Why not be a benefit to others?  Indeed, not being stingy with the dharma assets is one of the key precepts that is kept within the Zen tradition, and is commonly found in a variety of forms in all expressions of buddhadharma; one not look any further than the paramita of generosity.

Science even affirms the value of practice for others.  The British Medical Journal (BMJ) conducted a study of the effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer, which as an outcome outlined that this type of prayer should be considered within clinical treatment.  You read tha abstract here.  An abstract from a study done by the National Institute of Health (NIH) on the effects of remote intercessory prayer and it’s recorded benefits in recovery from low self-esteem, depression  and anxiety can be read here.    In terms of the recovery of cardiac patients another NIH study suggests that remote intercessory prayer may be considered “an adjunct to standard medical care”.  As a chaplain, my time assigned to a medical intensive care unit (MICU) offered a quick introduction to a variety of ways in which direct measurable benefit could be experienced from the performance of prayer and ritual.

Do all the studys support the efficacy of prayer?  No.  In fact many studies suggest that there is no correlative relationship between pray and recovery from illness.  One on the reasons why many studies don’t seem to support the effects of prayer, I believe, is that the nature of the studies don’t take into full account all of the areas of benefit that prayer and spiritual practice for others provide.  I have experienced that much of the initial benefit of my being there for others to do puja, deliver prayer, or even just be there to talk with patients in the hospital and private clients is internal; it helps to bolster or reinforce the individuals sense of ground, it clarifies their own spirituality.  From this point, the benefits can sometimes manifest as relief from pain, reduction of stress and trauma, and these in turn can lead towards hastened recovery, or even meaningful recovery.  It is important to note how varied the experience of illness is; it’s never the same experience.   Illness changes from moment to moment, affecting us in a unique way each minute spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, as well as physically.  Prayer is ellusive, and so is the experience of illness.

Through my experience of Buddhism I have come to experience first hand the importance of spiritual care in the face of illness and death.  Being there for others in the midst of illness and death is to fundamentally share our experience of the four noble truths- through this we are reminded of our essential impermanence.  I have spent time with two teachers of mine, the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche as well as Bhue Tulku, or Dekhung Gyalsey Rinpoche, while they performed many pujas in the homes of various families in Sikkim to provide tangible, very meaningful spiritual care.  What I have come away with from my experiences with these teachers is that practice for others is a wonderful, joyous part of the path.  It is an exemplary aspect of what it means to be there, openly and in direct relationship with another person; it is an expression of great natural spontaneous generosity, and it is something that is expected of us as we mature and come into deeper relationship with our practice of buddhadharma.

I pray that this form of dharma activity in the West takes root, multiplies and offers meaning and context for countless beings!

3
Jun

calling upon Mahakala….

Two weeks ago, I spent a sunny Saturday down on the Gowanus canal performing the general Kamstang Kagyu Mahakala sadhana.  I decided to also bring a vase full of water mixed with water blessed by the breath of his holiness the 17th Karmapa, water from the annual bumchan ritual at Tashiding Monastery in Sikkim, blessed nectar pills from the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche and H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche, and other substances that I’ve come to acquire over the years to bless the canal.
In my last post I wondered if the protector Shingkyong may be a powerful protector for those who wish to benefit others through the aid of Amitabha practice, specifically chaplains.  After further thought, I feel that it is true; Shingkyong is a protector of chaplains.
Or perhaps he and his retinue can be, if we let him.
What then of Mahakala?
Mahakala Bernakchen is the protector of the Karma Kagyu lineage.  Mahakala Chakdrupa,  a form of Mahakala with six-arms trampling Ganesha, is the main protector of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, and was also introduced as a protector within the Gelug lineage by Tsongkhapa.
Mahakala has even been approached as a geo-political weapon of international influence. Indeed, the Mongols during the 12th and 13th centuries were quick to adopt Mahakala as their patron deity.  Recognizing his power, Mahakala became a powerful symbol of spirituality amidst their larger militaristic expansion.  Mahakala both empowered and justified their growth. During the difficult struggle to maintain a favorable relationship with the Mongols by the Sakya and Kagyu lineages, there was a change of succession between Kubilai Khan and his Buddhist brother Munga who was a disciple of the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi.  Fearful of the powerful influence of Karma Pakshi, the new story goes, Kubilai Khan had Karma Pakshi confined to the Chinese Imperial Palace where he was tied by his beard and suffered other forms of mistreatment.

Several sources say that Karma Pakshi prayed to Mahakala Bernakchen, but Mahakala took so long putting on his boots, that by the time he got there, Karma Paskshi’s mistreatment had ended.  However, as he had been summoned, he was obliged to strike something with the hook-knife that he always holds ready to destroy obstacles. The Karmapa had him strike the palace.  Apparently, there is still a large gash in the Imperial Palace.

I think that the imputed meaning in this story is that Mahakala is extremely powerful, and that one should watch out when calling upon him.  Ronald M. Davidson in his wonderful book, Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture, describes in great detail some of the palpable terror that was known to have swept the Tibetan plateau as the political stage changed around this time period.  The fear of the roving Mongol armies and the seduction of the wealth and power of the Tangut empire attracted many towards the very destructive forces that acted like plagues, often destroying everything in sight.  This kind of political instability is something that many of us in the West have little experience with, but that Mahakala was relied upon when perhaps nothing else seemed to help speaks to the power of his commitment to benefit beings, not to mention his swift efficacious response.

Mahakala is the manifestation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.  Below is a description of the origin of Mahakala as presented by thrangumonastery.org, the website for Thrangu Rinpoche’s monastery in Canada:

Origin of Mahakala:

The compassion of the red Buddha Amitabha manifested as Avalokiteshvara who took a vow to forgo his own enlightenment until all the realms of samsara had been emptied.

This vow required a renewal of determination, and so with Amitabha’s blessing, Avalokiteshvara next assumed a form with eleven heads and a thousand arms. Still he had been unable to benefit even a few beings.

Therefore after reflecting for one whole week, he determined that by assuming a wrathful form he would be able “to subdue the degenerate beings of this Age of Darkness.” Also he saw that even beings who practiced Dharma were unable to escape from the Bardo realms (time between rebirths where beings may face great anxiety and terrifying experiences) and he thought that in wrathful form he could also protect them in that way.  And lastly, he thought that the beings in this Dark Age were poor and needy, experiencing only suffering after suffering, and that in wrathful form he could provide them an antidote to that suffering so that by simply making the wish (for protection) their needs could be met.

These three motives made his determination even greater than before and so from the heart of Noble Avalokiteshvara emerged a dark blue HUNG syllable that immediately became the Instantaneous Protector of Wisdom, Mahakala.

The foundations of all the Pure Lands shook with six kinds of earthquakes, and the Conquering and Transcending One of Immeasurable Light (Amitabha) and all the other Tathagatas of the ten directions proclaimed with one voice:

“Son of the family, it is well that you have made this resolution. You shall have the empowerment of all the wisdom dakinis. You shall have the strength of the wrathful Yama, Lord of Death. You shall have the mountain spirits, the yakshas, the devils and the demonesses as your messengers. You shall embody the great wrathful empowerments of the Body, Speech, Mind, Qualities and Activity of all the Buddhas throughout the three times.”

Ever since, bodhisattva Mahakala is the Dharma (Buddha’s Doctrine) Protector of all Buddha fields

Lakes of blood, wild stallions, human hearts, flayed elephant and human skins, and ravens; Mahakala, the compassionate protector, is intense.  I am reminded of the protector shrine at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim where the ceilings and walls are adorned with weapons and animal skins, the room is thick with an atmosphere of  near viscous intensity.  I have also spent time in the protector shrines of Ralung Monastery and Bokar Rinpoche’s monastery; each one has a similar feeling.  They are seats of great power: pithas.  When in a place like these special shrine rooms it seems that at any moment Trakshe, one of the protectors in Mahakala’s entourage, will swoop down riding his demonic horse.  While he is oath-bound to protect us, he and the rest of Mahakala’s retinue is nevertheless terrifying in many ways.

The importance of these protectors is paramount.  As we wander throughout our lives, often blinded by our own presuppositions and assumed projections about what things mean and who we are, Mahakala and other dharma protectors help us to clear away these missapprehensions.  They tear away our blockages, and they are completely comfortable to bring a gun to a knife-fight.  There is no amount of force that they are afraid to bring.  As they approach, bringing tempestuous clouds and waves of powerful shock, they are also gentle, their hands are experienced, like those of a surgeon or artist.  They act so that we suffer less; so that we become ever more clear.
Mahakala is magnetizing.   Perhaps this is so because we find him, and other protectors like him, very representative of emotions that we are not so comfortable with as they arise within ourselves.  Wrathfulness and anger.  Most of the time we don’t want to own these emotions when they burn through us.  When our pulse quickens, as you can feel your veins and arteries constrict; when we redden in the face, and actually become hot with rage…  …what is there? What is happening right then?  What is that anger?  That rage?  Or the need to destroy?
In reality, in an ultimate sense, that feeling- that impulse- is just an appearance.  The arousal of feeling and emotion- a fleeting adventitious stain (to use a wonderful term from the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje’s Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer),a cloud no different from any other cloud that arises in the sky.
What happens when we sit with that hot rage, and just let is arise?  No repression.  No alchemical transmutation; just letting it arise with nothing to feed on other than itself.  What happens to it?  Does it go anywhere?
Sometimes I wonder why so many people are attracted to wrathful Buddhas.  In the spirit of critical inquiry I wonder if perhaps there is an element of seduction in seeing something that appears similar to our worst qualities (misapprehended anger and rage) personified and celebrated.  It almost lets us off the hook, right?   “Hey, why can’t I just get angry?  I’m like Mahakala!”  I hope that whenever I think this way Mahakala smacks me with smokey smoldering rage.  Mahakala doesn’t empower us to be emotional libertines; but he does raise us up through our power of clear direct action.  Sometimes this can be motivated by anger and rage, and that’s okay when it is known, when it is conscious, and when we are mindful of what the process is.
I don’t think that Mahakala is necessarily enlightened anger; but perhaps he is the underlying force that anger touches upon.  Somehow enlightened anger sounds too simplistic, Mahakala is a strong force of compassion, a need to act;  the level to which his compassion is expressed, it’s very strength and ferocity is easily mistaken for anger.
I have been told many times to offer tormas to my yidam and also to the dharma protectors. Bokar Rinpoche often stressed the importance of the Short Torma Offering for Chakdrupa, and I still remember my fist experiences making these offerings.  I shuddered with electrical excitement at the power that Chakdrupa is embodies.   The power of the act of honoring, supplicating, and maintaining samaya (pure relationship) with Chakdrupa was very moving.  This is an aspect of practice that is very important- not because someone who practices tantric Buddhism should just do this kind of thing  (in a religious kind of way)- but because it feels vital to have a relationship with the forces of great inner change, great protection, and great expansive growth.  In having a relationship with these things our relationship with Mahakala becomes intimate; this type of intimacy and reliance helps to make use more whole and more engaged.  Engaged open freedom.
So, I offered tormas to Mahakala and his retinue to bless the Gowanus Canal, the navel of Brooklyn and a sacred pitha, and all sentient beings throughout space, so that all obstacles would be dispelled; so that auspicious conditions for dharma practice may arise.  I tried to bring my awareness to the clouds of Mahakala’s entourage as it filled the space around me.  His cloud of intense blessings mixed with my smoke offerings, and the rain of his flaming amrita blessed the contents of the bumpa vase which in turn blessed the canal and the entire area.  In this way Mahakala arose to aid in removing all illness, all famine, untold unexpressed suffering, all injustice, and all  inner and outer pollution leaving behind the cool breeze of mahamudra-just-sitting-there-by-the-canal.  Somehow I feel that some benefit occurred…
…I pray that we may all know, feel, and be included within the canopy of activity of Mahakala in all of his forms, and that Palden Lhamo, Trakshe and all of the others ride swiftly by our sides as we glide through this wonder world.
Gewo!
14
Apr

Mother Sentient beings

When my first teacher, and spiritual mother,  Ani Dechen Zangmo, taught the text for the prostrations and refuge part of the Karma Kagyu ngondro (Four Foundations practice) she spent a great deal of time talking about the different ways in which beings have been our mothers in the past.

In the most classical aspect of this practice, we make our prostrations to the wonderful field of refuge: our lineage forefathers and foremothers.  In this way we seek to enter and become part of a lineage. We join our lineage through repeatedly receiving the blessings of the lineage; in fact, we are instructed to help lead all sentient beings in the meritorious activity of supplicating and joining our specific lineage with us.  Why do we do this?  It is said that all beings have at one point in time been our mothers, having cared for us with selfless beauty and having made endless sacrifices, protected us, nurtured us, and also supported and enriched us.  Through time immemorial, through the various combinations and permutations of the manifestations of karma, all beings have been, at any given point in time, our mothers.  Indeed every person we meet has done this for us.  Every animal.  Every friend.  Every enemy.  Every being, seen and unseen, has done this for us- and in this way we are all inextricably linked.  What better way to repay these countless mother-beings than to act as a raft to lead them to the banks of spiritual realization?

And so, as is the case within the Kagyu lineage, when we visualize the field of refuge and as we make each prostration while reciting the refuge prayer, we doing so with each being who has been our mother.  We keep their desire for well-being and happiness in our heart.   In this way, in a manner similar to Indra’s Net, it becomes impossible to locate a source or an end with regard to our connection with others.

Where is the border between myself and another? Where are our points of overlap?

Indeed, in taking a moment to check in and notice this we can very naturally, perhaps effortlessly, find ourselves left with a deep feeling of connection and an awareness ornamented with the jewels of empathetic concern.

Suddenly the well-being and quality-of-experience of others becomes a natural concern.

That we are all interdependent is also driven home in the practice of Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.  There is a portion of this practice in which one imagines oneself moving throughout the six realms of existence (illustrated above).  In the practice we engage in helping to alleviate the suffering of beings in all six realms.

Within this practice, and in many others we make the vow to do this; to benefit all beings who have been our mothers as an expression of gratitude and gentle concern for all those who suffer and who have provided us with the selfless love and support that only parents could.  These beings who have loved us unconditionally, may be experiencing the anger and depression of the hot and cold hell realms, the dullness of the animal realms, the jealousy and infighting of demigod realms, or the perfect complacency of the gods’ realm.

How can we be there for them, how can we cool the anger, warm the depression, enlighten the dullness, sooth the jealousy and enliven and express the immediacy of the present moment to perfect eternalism?

In another sense, perhaps in a way that differs from the classical presentation of how all beings have been our mothers at one point in time, all beings are our mothers in another way: they give birth to our identities; the way we present and imagine ourselves to be.

It seems we cannot exist in a relative way without existing in relation to others.  The acceptance of our wonderful qualities and our faults, the very perception and even projection upon us of what we appear to be, is a birthing of an identity.  The quality of our being in a horizontal sense, as it pertains to our diverse qualities, is defined and experienced through others, through the way that they experience us. We are given context and we are given meaning. What we do with that and how we react to it is up to us.

While we like to think that we are the architects of our appearance, and in many ways we are the often unintentional archtect, it may be that we are only ever known through the experience of others. Perhaps this way of looking at the manner in which we have created our identities, the way that we are animated by, and get carried away with our experience of self, a fleeting momentary illusion, can be best seen reflected in the eyes of another.

I find that whether I am at the hospital acting the role of a chaplain, on the subway on my way to the hospital, or going about my daily activities as a parent or partner to another, I am always humbled when I have the chance to notice how I am engaged in an interpenetrating relationship with others. What an amazing thing to just meet and reflect the pure appearance of another, the fleeting transience, and the deep connection that we all share; and what a difficult thing to do.  I find it especially humbling when I catch myself caught in the midst of reacting and judging, of comparing and compartmentalizing the spontaneity of occurence.  But when I can rest in naturally meeting others, the sheer simplicity and profundity of that experience remindeds me of how extraneous our elaborations of dharma can become.

13
Mar

Chod, internal wastelands and the Gowanus Canal

At the end of my post on performing Chod at Greenwood Cemetery (which you can read here), I wondered about doing Chod at the Gowanus Canal; the recently designated superfund site that divides Carrol Gardens from Park Slope in Brooklyn.  This toxic body of water is an artery of death and decay that is both close to my home as well as my heart.  As a legendary repository of dead bodies (the detritus of organized crime), flood waste from higher elevations in Brooklyn, and just about every kind of heavy manufacture imaginable, the Gowanus canal seems a ghost-like symbol of where we put things that we want to forget.

Before I packed my bags with the things needed for the practice, I spent some time contemplating the Gowanus as a symbol.  It is a body of water, a canal specifically, connected to the larger harbor by Buttermilk channel.  The water in the canal stagnates as a result of a broken ventilating pump system at the far end of the canal.  It is a remnant of the larger heavy industry that once existed in this part of Brooklyn and received all of the shipments of brownstone from up the Hudson that made most of Park Slope’s beautiful brownstones.  The canal also became a dumping-ground; it is not uncommon to find all manner of  things floating in the water that at times resembles muddy anti-freeze.  It is a miraculous canal as well, several summers ago I came to notice that dozens of red jelly fish made the canal their home.

As I began the sadhana (ritual text) I felt that I wanted to offer myself to the inner-demon who most represents the Gowanus Canal.  In fact, I specifically tried to make this session an offering to the local gods associated with this area.  I imagine that the god-demon of this particular place is one of the lords of places that are ignored; places where we leave, or even dump things that we no longer want, places of stagnation, where oxygen is literally consumed by the waste that we store; of things unwanted yet unable to be fully let go of, a ghostly world of secrets.  For me, the god-demon of the Gowanus Canal is the lord of inner-wastelands.


The wonderful thing about Chod is the way in which we can access, face, and pacify all of our internal demons.  It is very powerful, if that is, you choose to try to really look for these painful and frightening demons.  It is also possible to do the practice while not particularly looking that hard; and then while you may make nice sounds with your bell and damaru, not much else happens.

The term “demon” is mostly taken to represent an internal neurosis or emotional focal point that distracts and provides an ability to obsess in a way that makes direct experience of the mind very difficult.  These demons, while self-creations, can feel so real that they tend to paralyze and create huge amounts of suffering, indeed they can be considered the agents of samsara.  They exert great power upon us in the form of fear, jealousy, hatred, pride, and in this case, secret internal toxicity.

Machik Lobdron, the female 12th century Tibetan founder of the Chod lineage, created a practice based in prajnaparamita literature as well as within tantric Buddhism.  Part of this practice involves offering a mandala offering of one’s body:

The trunk and head serve as Mt. Meru in the center, the four limbs serve as the four continents, the sun and moon are the right and left eyes, the ground is our freshly flayed skin, and the fingers and toes are arranged as a great mighty chain of iron mountains that encircle the whole mandala.

The more realistic the visualization the better- we are after all butchering this prized body of ours, ornamented with the pearls of ego fixation, self-nature, and pride.  But after the reluctance, and after the discomfort, what is there?  What remains?  In offering freely to the assembly of god-demons who terrify us most so that they may benefit, so that they may turn their minds to the dharma and become buddhas in their own right there is a chance to experience our original nature.  This is a way of experiencing prajnaparamita.

So how do we touch the inner demon of stagnation?  Where is the place within ourselves where we dump things that we don’t want, the place that holds our secrets, our inner wasteland?  This place exists. It is in all of us.  Like a black pearl made from an initial irritant that has  grown many protective layers meant to distract and soothe the oyster that is it’s container.  How can we bring this to light?  These fears are in reality great strengths- they are pearls…

So here I found myself, in a modern charnel ground surrounded by  condom wrappers, dead rats, crushed beer cans, and other things left behind.  While at first glance it may appear different from the charnel grounds of old, where bodies were burnt or left to decay, places frequented by wild animals, a place that elicits fear, but upon looking a little closer, this place is no different.  It is a place where illicit things are done, where illicit things have been done- it is a dangerous place.  It is a place of fear.  The canal is off the radar.  Once a place of great beauty it is now easily overlooked, as if we don’t want to have any personal relationship with it.

Perhaps the Gowanas Canal is one of the eight great charnel grounds of India reflected in our daily lives here.  In the New York area I am certain that it is.  In my post on sacred geography (here is a link), I mentioned the historical importance of internal and external geography as it relates to the practice of Buddhist tantra.  It seems that the Gowanus Canal occupies a place internally that can offer real growth and healing.  What does it feel like to make an offering to, and thereby appreciate the parts of us that we have very willingly forgotten, the parts of us that are stagnant?

As I performed the chod sadhana, made sang offerings (smoke offerings) to the beings that live in the canal and all the beings that the canal represents, and while I hung prayer flags, I found myself recalling all that I have tried to hide, the parts of me that lay stagnant internal dumping grounds; my own inner pollution.  I also recalled patients who I have met as a chaplain for whom these dynamics were in play, and prayed that we could all, every sentient being, bring honor and offerings to the inner demon that presides over this type of activity.  May they be satisfied.  May this offering pacify these demons.  There is a line at the end of the sadhana which speaks to chaplaining these demons:

The roots of virtue from this practice of freely offering my body, the roots from caring for god-demons with my bodhicitta, and further however many roots of virtue that have been accumulated throughout the three times-all of this I dedicate for the benefit of living beings in the three realms, malevolent god-demons, and others.

With this kind of caring in mind, our own inner chaplaincy, may we know our inner demons and plant the seeds of buddhahood in our own inner wastelands so that they become purelands!

May any merit from this blog post be dedicated to all beings, especially those who are suffering in Japan after the recent earthquake and tsunami.

Gewo.

3
Feb

ordinary everyday teachers


The other day I posted about the importance of the spiritual teacher in a general kind of way.  The three texts that I drew from, by the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, Milarepa, and Gampopa respectively, all highlight different approaches to how we benefit from out teachers.  These are our ‘ecstatic’ or extraordinary teachers.  What I would like to focus on today are the ordinary teachers, our everyday teachers.

Recently I met a patient in the hospital where I’m doing my clinical chaplaincy training.   He had undergone extensive surgery several months ago to remove cancerous tissue that was spreading throughout his abdomen.  He had also received radiation to help destroy any last bit of the cancer.  He was young, only forty years old, and had only recently had the chance to experience life outside of the hospital.  His cancer had gone into remission, he went home for the holidays and spent them with friends and family.  All of the sudden, quite recently, he had begun to feel pain in his abdomen and went to his doctor to have it checked out.  His doctor suggested that he come into the hospital for some tests.  This is where I met him.  He was laying in bed, his mother sitting by his side expectantly.  As we started talking he described all of the tests that had just been done on a variety of his organs all of which presented the possibility of cancer.  He was thin and animated despite being hooked up to a morphine drip to control his pain.  As our conversation continued he started to cry and describe how angry he was with god about his present situation.   As we spoke I asked him how not knowing, how the uncertainty of his present situation made him feel, and this lead to his anger with god or whatever force put him in his present situation.  I asked him if he could share with me all the ways in which he was pissed off, to which he offered a lengthy, articulate and powerful list of feelings that lead to his anger.  One of the feelings that he described involved his relative youth and what the reason for his being on earth actually was.  He was afraid that he would never truly help others, that his desire to be a positive force for change in the world would be cut short by his illness.  I was struck by his openness and the kindness with which he shared his fears, his pains, and also his joys, his hopes as well as his dreams.  I felt so included by him in his life and in his story that I told him that I found him to be a graceful, compassionate and caring teacher- someone who I will never forget, who has touched me with gentle simplicity.  I also mentioned that his mother may feel similarly, at which she started to cry as she said, “Yes, yes, he is wonderful.”

This patient has become a profound teacher for me.  Part of his impact may have come from his circumstances, his illness and vulnerability, as well as his clarity and honesty with which he could share his feelings with me; but I tend to feel that we connected.  His heart was open towards me, and mine towards him: we entered into relationship.  It was meaningful for both of us.  Towards the end of our meeting we seemed connected and full, we gave to, and supported one another.

There are an estimated 6,897,395,150 people on Earth, and the person who I just described above is just one of them.  How amazing it is that we feel transformed in connecting with just one person, and yet there are so many others that we don’t or can’t open up to.  I find this very humbling.  Perhaps this is what an open heart truly is.

I am reminded of a portion of a text on mahamudra that was composed by Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche; it was his distillation of a much larger text by the ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje,  entitled the Ocean of Certainty.  In his text (Opening the Door to Certainty) Bokar Rinpoche describes the different types of lamas, or teachers.  These are, the lama as a human being belonging to a lineage, the lama as awakened word, the lama as appearance, and the lama as ultimate nature.  The lama of appearance is described as appearance as teacher; that all that we see, hear, touch taste, and smell, all of our thoughts are all our teachers.  How do we react to them?  What do they cause to arise in us?  There is a beautiful simplicity in appearance as teacher; it is loose and freeing; it allows us to go out and interact with the world around us; it allows us to enter into relationship with everything around us.  This is wonderfully special.  We are constantly surrounded by countless ordinary, everyday teachers, all of whom offer us the possibility of connection and growth.

29
Jan

on the importance of the teacher

I recently spent time considering the importance of my teachers and how fortunate I feel to have received just a portion of the stream of their experience through instruction.  The importance of the teacher, whether we call him or her lama or guru, is central- for where would we be without their guidance, their compassion, and their wisdom?  Through the openness that we allow ourselves to have with our teachers, a connection of transmission occurs through which we can experience our own fullness and Buddha potential, just as they themselves have done.

I’ve found three passages that help illustrate this point:

This first one is entitled Hail to Manjushri, it was written by the third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339).

Hail to Manjushri!

All phenomena are like illusions,

though absent they appear to exist;

wise indeed are those who cognize them

within the ever-present unborn.

 

If you perceive the glorious guru

as a supremely enlightened being,

indivisible from your own mind,

you will receive blessings and strength.

 

If you, without ceasing, propel the flow

of channels, wind energies, and vital drops-

the nexus of interdependent factors-

the stains of self-love will be swiftly cleansed.

 

The manifold states of nonconception-

clarity and bliss- I place on the path

of nonapprehension, like patterns in water,

then the true mode of being will be definitely seen.[i]

 


This next song is from the larger section of the collected songs of Milarepa (1052-1135).  Milarepa, one of the greatest yogins tha Tibet saw was the heart student of Marpa Lotsawa.  Milarepa’s endurance in his practice, and the joy with which he taught is truly remarkable.  This song is a portion of the larger song-story called The Song of a Yogi’s Joy:

 

The Guru, the disciple, and the secret teachings;

Endurance, perseverance, and the faith;

Wisdom, compassion, and the human form;

All these are ever guides upon the Path.

 

Solitude with no commotion and disturbance

Is the guide protecting meditation.

The accomplished Guru, the Jetsun,

Is the guide dispelling ignorance and darkness.

Faith without sorrow and weariness

Is the guide which leads you safely to happiness.

 

The sensations of the five organs

Are the guides which lead you to freedom from “contact.”

The verbal teachings of the Lineage Gurus

Are the guides which illustrate the Three Bodies of the Buddha.

The protectors, the Three Precious Ones,

Are the guides with no faults or mistakes.

Led by these six guides,

One will reach the happy plane of Yoga-

Abiding in the realm of Non-differentiation

In which all views and sophisms are no more.

 

Remaining in the realm of self-knowledge and self-liberation

Is indeed happy and joyful;

Abiding in the valley where no men dwell,

With confidence and knowledge, one lives in his own way.

With a thundering voice,

He sings the happy song of Yoga.

Falling in the Ten Directions is the rain of fame;

Brought to blooming are the flowers and leaves of Compassion.

The enterprise of Bodhi encompasses the Universe;

The pure fruit of the Bodhi-Heart thus attains perfection.[ii]

 

 

The third passage is from Gampopa (1070-1153), one of the two main students of Milarepa, and the first to combine the ear-whispered teachings of Milarepa with the Kadampa monastic tradition, thus institutionalizing the Kagyu lineage as a generally monastic lineage.  This passage comes from Gampopa’s Precious Garland of the Supreme Path, a wonderful instruction manual of practical advice from this special master.  What follows is his description of the first thing that one should rely on as we tread the path, from the third portion of the text entitled, Ten Things Upon Which To Rely:

The first thing on which we must rely is a holy guru who possesses both realization and compassion.  The lama must possess realization because a teacher who has no realization or actual experience is like a painting of water, which cannot quench our thirst, or a painting of fire, which cannot warm us.  As well, a lama must possess compassion.  If the lama merely has realization but has no compassion, he or she cannot teach and will not help sentient beings develop virtuous qualities and relinquish defects.  Thus the first thing ton which we must rely is a lama who possesses both realization and compassion.[iii]

I hope that these passages contribute to a sense of connection and warmth with our teachers, and I hope that this connection helps foster inspiration.  May this inspiration translate into diligent practice, and through this practice may we fully realize the essence of our teachers’ instructions.  May we develop the same stainless conduct as our teachers!  May we too raise the victory banner in the citadel of enlightenment!

May the activities of his Holiness the 17th Karmapa flourish and may all obstacles naturally dissolve into emptiness.  May his life be long, and may the compassionate wisdom of his example be known to all beings!

 


[i] Jinpa, Thubten and Elsner, Jas, trans. Songs of Spiritual Experience. Shambala Publications, 2000. Pg. 157.

[ii] Chang, Garma CC.trans. The HUndered Thousand Songs of Milarepa. Shambala Publications,1999. Pg. 80-81.

[iii] Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche. The Instructions of Gampopa. Snow Lion, 1996. Pg. 22.

25
Nov

Kalu Rinpoche and Bokar Rinpoche, Father and Son, protectors of the Kagyu Monlam.

It has always felt  to me that if Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche was the essence of Milarepa, then Kaybje Bokar Rinpoche was the essence of Gampopa.  While I never had the chance to meet Kalu Rinpoche, I have met many Tibetan, American, British and French students of Rinpoche who often spoke of his direct orientation towards practice, his passion for transmitting instruction, and his easy going trust in the dharma- these seem to be qualities that I associate with Milarepa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Similarly, Bokar Rinpoche with his purity of heart, emphasis upon transmission of the lineage teachings and stainless vinaya, truly does remind me of qualities that were emblematic of Je Gampopa.  In expressing the direct simplicity of mind, Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche was known as a great master of Mahamudra.

That they both maintained, preserved and expanded the Kagyu Monlam in Bodh Gaya is important.  Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche can be credited with establishing the Kagyu monlam in Bodh Gaya.  When he began the monlam it was a small informal gathering.  After his passing, Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche continued the practice of maintaining and further developing the Kagyu monlam; it slowly grew and grew.  I attended several of these earlier monlams where Bokar Rinpoche and Yangsi Kalu Rinpoche presided over a much smaller number of monks, nuns and lamas than those that attend present monlam celebrations.  They were a combination of grand and intimate, which seemed just right for reciting aspiration prayers and receiving inspiration.

After His Holiness the 17th Karmapa escaped from Tibet in January of 2000 and was allowed to travel inside of India, he presided over the monlam.  Its as if Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche and Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche were keeping his Holiness’ seat warm under the bodhi tree.  Since the sudden death of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, the monlam has been run by Lama Chodrak (the lama he appointed to organize the monlam) and the monlam committee.  His Holiness the 17th Karmapa has also taken a strong role in monlam planing, and feels strongly about its mission and goals.

With their activities in mind I offer this song of supplication written by Kaybje Bokar Rinpoche.  May it be of benefit!!

Wide Wings That Lift Us to Devotion: A supplication

A Vajra song by Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche

Spiritual master, think of me!  Think of me!

Source of all blessings, root spiritual master, think of me!

 

Spiritual Master, think of me!  Think of me!

Epitome of all accomplishment, root spiritual master, think of me!

 

Spiritual master, think of me!  Think of me!

Agent of all enlightened activity, root spiritual master, think of me!

 

Spiritual master, think of me!  Think of me!

All refuges in one, root spiritual master, think of me!

 

Turn all beings’ minds, with mine, towards the Teachings.

Bless me that all stages of the faultless path-

Renunciation, the mind of awakening, and the correct view-

Genuinely arise in my being.

 

May I dwell untouched by the faults of pride and wrong views

Toward the Teachings and the teacher of freedom’s sublime path.

May  steadfast faith, devotion and pure vision

Lead me to fully achieve the two goals for others and myself.

 

The Human tantric master introduces my intrinsic essence.

The master in the Joyful Buddha’s Canon instills certainty.

The symbolic master in appearances enriches experience.

The ultimate master, the nature of reality, sparks realization of the abiding nature.

 

Finally, within the state of the master inseparable from my own mind,

All phenomena of existence and transcendence dissolve into the nature of reality’s expanse;

The one who affirmed, denied and clung to things as real vanishes into the absolute expanse-

May I then fully realize the effortless body of ultimate enlightenment!

 

In all my lifetimes, may I never be separate from the true spiritual master.

May I enjoy the Teachings’ glorious wealth,

Completely achieve the paths and stages’ noble qualities,

And swiftly reach the state of Buddha Vajra Bearer.

 

 

In 1995, in response to requests from two translators, Lama Tcheucky and Lama Namgyal, on behalf of my foreign disciples, I, Karma Ngedon Chokyi Lodro, who holds the title of Bokar Tulku, wrote this at my home in Mirik Monastery.  May it prove meaningful.[i]


[i] Zangpo, Ngawang. trans. Timeless Rapture: Inspired Verse of the Shangpa Masters.  Snow Lion Publications. 2003.  Ithaca, NY., Pg. 215-217.


30
Sep

On the importance of Prayer

A friend and classmate in my chaplaincy training program recently alerted our class to a newly conducted study led by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University on the efficacy of prayer for people who are ill.  Dr. Benson is no stranger to the world of prayer and meditation, in fact he has built an entire career around studying the physiological effects of meditation and prayer.  His findings have generally supported the belief that beyond the spiritual benefits of meditation, the meditator experiences a whole host of benefits ranging from a decrease in stress levels, lower blood pressure, and a general slowing of the body’s metabolism.

In the past Dr. Benson studied a variety of Tibetan monks, including the meditation master Bokar Rinpoche, while they meditated.  Dr. Benson focused upon meditators who were practicing Tummo, a vajrayana completion stage yogic meditation that fuses a form of pranayama (breathing exercises) with visualizations of the body’s internal energy matrix. He relates in a documentary based upon his findings, that he could not believe what he discovered: breath and heart rates decreased dramatically, and measured brain activity appeared completely unlike that of a person in waking state.  Recent interest in exploring the relationship between meditation and neuroscience by the scientific community, especially in collaboration with H.H. the Dalai Lama and H. H. the 17th Karmapa will undoubtedly clarify the benefits of meditation, and thereby help many people who may become interested in including meditation within their daily lives.

Here is a link to a Harvard Gazette article on the subject:

www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2002/04.18/09-tummo.html.

Additionally, I would like to share a link to a short video clip of Dr. Herbert Benson’s research: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WajTafbG7II.

The efficacy of prayer seems much harder to measure than that of meditation.  The results of the study of meditation upon the physiology an individual meditator seem clear; they are easy to quantify, and allow for useful comparison of data recorded in studying a variety of meditators.  The study of prayer in this way seems immensely difficult by comparison.  Here is the link to the article that my friend emailed us last week:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html?scp=1&sq=long%20awaited%20medical%20study%20prayer%20is%20no%20good&st=cse.

Many salient points are raised by this study, and perhaps the most important one revolves around how such studies are structured.  Prayer is a mysterious subject and it seems that it will take a number of attempts to be able to skillfully measure it’s effects.  I do tend to agree with Dr. Richard Sloan’s warning in the New York Times article linked above that we must be careful not to destroy what prayer is about by deconstructing religion to “basic elements that can be easily quantified”.  It would be ideal if future studies could honor the place and importance of science as well that of religion and sensitively examine where and how they overlap.


The vajrayana perspective on prayer is fairly clear: prayer is vital.  Generally, ritual is included within prayer- often they are interwoven.  The performance of  prayer in this multi-dimensional way helps to form an active identification with the historical transmission lineage (from the Buddha directly to you), and allows you to rest in your basic-state as a particular buddha in body, speech, mind, as well as in essence.  All of these coalesce around acting to benefit others (based upon our pledge to liberate all sentient beings).  So important is this type of activity that most recensions of the Hevajra Tantra and Chakrsamvara Tantra, as well as most other root tantras, have chapters dedicated to engaging in the actions of Pacifying, Enriching, and Subduing.  These kinds of actions can be best described as psycho-spritual activities to alleviate suffering, promote peace, and plant the seeds of liberation for others; prayer in this context, I would suggest, is quite important.  Within the framework of Tantric Buddhism there is an active application of visualization, prayer, ritual and mantra recitation that help the individual to loosen up their conception of the ordinary identification of oneself as an independent being living in opposition to the external world with which they interact, so that one can glimpse the rich wealth of their buddha-nature which is deeply interconnected with the world around oneself.  The tools: meditation, prayer and ritual help to clarify the recognition of our basic-state.  In this context, prayer is a means to center oneself, to remain intimate with one’s teacher, a particular buddha or protector, or as a means to rest in the mind’s essential nature.  It  is also an offering; an act of generosity and kindness.  Prayer also focuses the mind, making it a support of meditation, it can function as a means of clarifying doubt, as well as a means to receive inspiration.  I am sure that this is not unique to vajrayana, or even Buddhism, but lies at the core of prayer regardless of one’s faith.

From the perspective of chaplaincy, specifically around the application of pastoral care in which prayer is requested, the exact physical result of prayer may not be the central goal as much as what the prayer does for the individual requesting it.  The relationship between the person conducting the prayer and the person receiving it is a sacred and intimate relationship.  Prayer may be directed towards aspects of the self that have little to do with the individual’s physical condition.  Prayer can help relieve fear, a sense of separation from others, or help reinforce the inner ground that provides greater support for dealing with one’s particular situation.  These factors, and a great many others may indeed lead towards an ability to heal more effectively, but it might have less to do with the actual prayer and more to do with the inner process that prayer energizes, relaxes, empowers, or clarifies.  Perhaps it is this inner process that contributes to recovery from illness.  Prayer and the use of ritual for a person who is actively dying may also help promote a greater sense of connection and meaning to a life that is transitioning into the experience of death- this can be profoundly important.  Ultimately, prayer may not be best approached from the perspective of what it can do with regards to only physical responses, for surely prayer is mysterious, and some of the beauty involved in prayer is how it can return deeper meaning to various moments in an individual’s journey through life, creating a point of orientation that is more imaginal, timeless, and transcendent.

15
Aug

His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche on Placing the Mind at the time of Death

Greetings!  In keeping with the last post, I would like to continue along in a manner that accords with the way my recent trip to the Darjeeling and Sikkim areas unfolded.  From the seat of the excellent Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche in Mirik, I journeyed to Palchen Choeling Monastic Institute, the seat of His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche, in Ralang, Sikkim.

Nestled between the wonderful mountains of Tibet to the north, Nepal to the west, and Bhutan to the east, the site of the monastery is magnificent, inspiring and embued with peaceful beauty.  To the south of the monastery is the retreat center, the largest in Sikkim, home to seventy-five retreatants engaged in the Karma Kagyu three-year retreat focusing on the Six yogas of Naropa.  Behind the retreat center is a mountain upon which was the hermitage of a lama named Drubthob Karpo, known for his ability to fly.  Nearby are the monasteries of Tashiding (built in the 16th century) and Pemayangtse, and many sites visted by Guru Rinpoche.

I had come to Ralang for an annual period of retreat and to continue to receive a little bit of instruction from His Eminence.  He had just returned from Gyuto where he had spent the previous month or so with His Holiness the 17th Karmapa. Fortunately, a few days after my arrival Rinpoche told me that he would be bestowing the complete series of empowerments for the traditional three-year retreat to a group of monks from Mirik and Phodong; he said that I could sit in with the monks and recieve the empowerments as well.  This seemed particularly auspicious to me as I would be with monks from Bokar Rinpoche’s monastery (my extended dharma family) and Phodong (a small rural gompa founded during the lifetime of the ninth Karmapa by the Chogyal of Sikkim who then offered it to the ninth Karmapa). Phodong gompa was a favorite of Ani Zangmo, Pathing Rinpoche and Bhue Rinpoche, and through them Phodong came to occupy a special place in my heart.  I couldn’t think of any better company to have for such an endeavor.

Towards the end of my month-long stay at Palchen Choeling Monastic Institute I had the good fortune to ask Rinpoche about placing the mind at the point of death, as well as issues surrounding lay people offering prayer and ritual for others. I’ve included Rinpoche’s teaching regarding the placement of the mind at the point of death towards the end of this post following two descriptions of the Gyaltsab Rinpoche incarnation lineage.

As for the issue of lay people conducting prayers and for rituals for others, Rinpoche reiterated the position held by Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche, specifically that it is fine for lay people to engage in such activities, and that one should do whatever practices they know and or are qualified to practice.  To be frank, this question was generally met with incredulous glances- it seems a little strange to ask “is it okay if I do something with the intention of benefitting another being?”.  In any case, Rinpoche was both supportive and interested, as well as quite curious as to what the response was like to changchub.com.

So, here’s some history of His Eminence the 12th Goshri Gyaltsab Rinpoche…

The reincarnation lineage of the Goshri Gyaltsab Tulkus:

The website for Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, the North American seat of His Holiness the 17th Karmapa (http://www.kagyu.org/) describes the reincarnation lineage of the Gyaltsab Rinpoches as follows:

The twelfth Gyaltsab Rinpoche was born in Central Tibet in Nyimo, near Lhasa. From generation to generation his family was well-known for giving rise to highly developed yogis who achieved their attainments through the recitation of mantras and through Tantric practices. Gyaltsab Rinpoche was one such offspring who was actually recognized by His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa before he was born.

In 1959, Gyaltsab Rinpoche made the journey to Sikkim with His Holiness. He remained for a while with His Holiness’ settlement group in the old Karma Kagyu monastery, which had been built at Rumtek during the time of the ninth Karmapa. In the early 1960’s, Rinpoche received several very important initiations from His Holiness.

After these initiations, his father felt that his child should receive a modern education in English, so he took him to the town of Gangtok to study. However, with his extraordinary vision of what would be truly beneficial, the young Rinpoche chose to study Dharma in His Holiness’ monastery instead of remaining at the school. Just after midnight one night he left his residence in Gangtok and walked the ten miles to Rumtek alone. At sunrise he arrived at the new Rumtek monastery. When he first appeared, all the monks who saw him were surprised at his courage, and most respectfully received him in the main temple, where His Holiness welcomed him. Despite the conflict of ideas between his father and the monks about his education, he began to study the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings of the lineage with three other high Rinpoches.

In Rumtek these four Rinpoches studied basic ritual rites and texts with private tutors. They also studied Mahayana philosophy through investigating numerous commentaries by early well-known Tibetan teachers and scholars, and teachings by masters of Indian Buddhism whose texts had been translated into the language of Tibet many centuries ago.

In previous lifetimes all four of these Rinpoches have been great teachers and lineage holders. In each of their lifetimes, one complete and unique example had been set up, beginning from a childhood learning reading and writing and going through the whole process of study, with a youth spent in discipline leading to a fully ripened human being.

Since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, we are taught that we each must become a truly complete human being. For us as human beings the truth is that we develop the fruit of both good and evil by virtue of our own view, practice, and habitual reactions. This fruit of our own actions on both the physical and mental levels can be either positive or negative. As long as we are ordinary human beings we must deal with the truth of that experience.

Great teachers like Gyaltsab Rinpoche show a perfect example to human beings and especially to those who can relate to the idea that one is responsible for oneself and for others as well, and that no one else is responsible for how we spend our lives, whether we build for ourselves experiences of happiness or suffering. They show us that the difference between an enlightened and an ordinary human being is not one of wealth, title or position, but only one of seeing the present reality of mind experienced at this moment.

The history of the lineage of Gyaltsab Rinpoches:

The Gyaltsab Rinpoches have always been the Vajra Regents of the Karmapas and caretakers of the Karmapa’s monasteries.

Gyaltsab Rinpoche, through his long line of incarnations, has been known for being an expert in meditation.

Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche is the emanation of the Bodhisattva Vajrapani. In the past, Rinpoche incarnated as Ananda, the disciple of the Buddha Shakyamuni who had perfect memory and was responsible for reciting all of the sutras (teachings) of the Buddha before the assembly. Therefore Ananda was responsible for keeping all the words of the Buddha perfectly intact.

Gyaltsab Rinpoche also incarnated as one of the main ministers of the Dharma King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet. He was also Palju Wangchuk, one of the twenty-five principle disciples of Guru Padmasambhava. During Milarepa’s lifetime, Rinpoche appeared as Repa-zhiwa U.

The 1st Gyaltsab Rinpoche Paljor Dondrub (1427-1489) received the glorious title Goshir from the Emperor of China. He took birth in Nyemo Yakteng. His Eminence, who was cared since childhood by the Karmapa, was appointed as the Karmapa’s secretary and regent at fourteen years old. He received the complete transmission of the lineage from the Karmapa, Jampal Zangpo, and the 3rd Shamar Rinpoche. He became the main teacher to the next Karmapa.

The 2nd Gyaltsab Rinpoche Tashi Namgyal (1490 – 1518) received the Red Crown which liberates on sight from the Karmapa. This Red Crown indicates the inseparability of the Karmapa and Gyaltsab Rinpoche, and also indicates that their enlightened minds are equal in nature. Rinpoche recognized the 8th Karmapa and was responsible for his education.

The 3rd Gyaltsab Rinpoche Drakpo Paljor (1519-1549) took birth south of Lhasa and was appointed as the Karmapa’s main regent.

The 4th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Dragpa Dundrub (1550-1617) was also born near Lhasa and received the transmission of the lineage from the Karmapa and the 5th Shamarpa. He was renown for his commentaries and attracted hundreds of disciples.

The 5th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Dragpa Choyang (1618-1658) was enthroned by the 6th Shamar Rinpoche. He spent the majority of his life in meditation. He was also very close to His Holiness the 5th Dalai Lama, as they were strongly connected spiritual friends. Before the 10th Gyalwa Karmapa fled Tibet due to the Mongol invasion, the Karmapa handed over the mantel of the lineage to Gyaltsab Rinpoche.

The 6th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Norbu Zangpo (1660-1698) was enthroned by the 10th Karmapa, after taking birth in Eastern Tibet. He meditated very deeply and wrote numerous commentaries.

The 7th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Konchog Ozer (1699-1765) took birth near Lhasa and was enthroned by the 12th Karmapa. He became one of the main root gurus of the 13th Karmapa, and transmitted to the Gyalwa Karmapa the lineage.

The 8th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Chophal Zangpo (1766-1817) had the 13th Gyalwa Karmapa and the 8th Situ Rinpoche as his main teachers. He became a renown master of meditation and accomplish high states of realization.

The 9th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Yeshe Zangpo (1821-1876) and the 10th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Tenpe Nyima (1877 – 1901) closely guarded the precious transmissions of the Kagyu lineage: receiving them and passing them onto the other lineage masters. Both spent their lives in deep meditation.

The 11th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Dragpa Gyatso (1902-1949) was recognized by the 15th Gyalwa Karmapa and transmitted the lineage.

The 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje recognized the present and 12th Gyaltsab Rinpoche while He was still in his mother’s womb. His parents were from Nyimo, near Lhasa. Soon after his recognition in 1959, His Eminence fled into exile with the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa.

The Gyalwa Karmapa carried Rinpoche on his back while traveling across the Himalayas into exile. He soon settled at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim and received the necessary transmissions.

His Eminence learned the dharma with the other heart sons of the Karmapa such as Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Tai Situ Rinpoche. Like most of his incarnations, he spends his life in meditation and taking care of the seat of the Karmapa. He currently in Sikkim and is the Regent there representing the lineage. He oversees the activities and functions of Rumtek and at his own monasteries, such as Ralang, in Sikkim.

In 1992, Gyaltsabpa and Tai Situpa enthroned the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa in Tibet. The Karmapa has since fled to India and Gyaltsab Rinpoche will help prepare for His Holiness the Karmapa’s return to Rumtek.

Like Situ Rinpoche, Gyaltsab Rinpoche is one of the main teachers of HH the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa and already has bestowed transmissions (from the Rinchen Terdzo, among others) to His Holiness.

As mentioned earlier, I had the opportunity to ask His Eminence about how we should place our minds at the time of death.  It seemed to me that this would be a good topic to be able to transmit on Ganachakra as it is both personally relevant (we will all eventually die, and we generally do not know when that will occur), and a very worthy teaching to transmit to others.  From the standpoint of chaplaincy, I feel that this instruction is very useful.  As is true with most profound meditation instructions, this instruction is beautifully simple, and quite short, but upon reflection on the meaning implied in Rinpoche’s instruction, it captures the natural ease with which resolution at the point of death has the ability to transform the tonality of one’s entire life.

With that said, it is with great pleasure and enthusiasm that I share with you Rinpoche’s thoughts on what one can do as they are dying, or faced with their impending death; how can one place the mind in the face of such an experience?

His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche on Placing the Mind at the time of Death

When one is dying, or about to die, and, they are Buddhist, it is best to practice whatever practices they know. It is important in this manner to reinforce a dharmic outlook- to experience dharma as best as one can.

If one is not Buddhist, then it is of immense benefit to contemplate loving kindness or compassion. In doing this, one opens themselves up to the direct experience of others. In developing a compassionate outlook at the point of death it is possible to transform the habitual tendencies of self-centered outlook that creates the causes of suffering, into the potential for great spiritual gain. In fact one can eliminate great amounts of negative karma through such meditation or contemplation.

There is a story from the life of the Buddha, in which the Buddha was standing by the side of a river. In this river was a great alligator- this alligator when he looked up towards the Buddha, was transfixed by the radiant appearance of the Buddha’s face and kept staring at it. For a very long time, the alligator kept looking at the Buddha’s face, amazed at how peaceful he appeared. After some time the alligator died- but as a result of the peaceful calm feelings it experienced as a result of staring at the Buddha’s face for such a long time, the alligator was born in one of the heaven realms as a god, with all of the faculties and conditions to practice the dharma.

In this way, the moment of death is quite a powerful and meaningful period where one can make quite a difference in the quality of their habitual perceptions up to that time.

12
Aug

Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche on Practice for Others

I recently arrived home from a wonderful and highly recharging six-week period in India.  While there, I split my time between Mirik, near Darjeeling, where Bokar Ngedhon Chokhorling (Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche’s seat in India) is located, Ralang, Sikkim, where His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche’s seat-in-exile is located, and in Varanasi/Sarnath.

As I posted before I left, I had intended in requesting the ven. Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche, the dharma brother and direct heart-son of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, for some thoughts regarding the way we may be of benefit for people through the practice of ritual and the recitation of prayers and mantras for those who are sick, dying or who have passed away.  While I was in Mirik, an old friend and former professor emailed me regarding the launch of changchub.com.  He was quick to offer compliments regarding the structure of the site, and also expressed: “offering prayers on the behalf of others is something deeply established in the monastic tradition of the Himalayas; however, it is quite new to our culture.”  Then he posed an excellent question: is it time for this in the west, and may such prayers be offered by lay people as well as monks?

This question is a good one.  Thank you for bringing it up Robert!

For me, it raises questions in terms of what the true difference between the lay practitioner and the ordained practitioner may actually be- it reminds me of both the Vimalakirti Sutra and also the spirit of enquiry expressed in Vipassana (Tib. Lhaktong) meditation.

So, what is the difference between lay and ordained?  Additionally, the question can be extended to what is the difference between “eastern” and “western” cultures?

Clearly, the goal of reflecting on these questions in an open way is not to carelessly toss the relative differences aside, as wonderful beauty exists in both lay practice with its endless possibilities for practice, as well as that of the cloistered support of the ordained sangha member.  Then there is the natural beauty of the difference between being from Brooklyn and Darjeeling, for example.

However, perhaps it is possible to see that despite the apparent differences the same dharma is shared; the nun and the householder share the same essence- the root of the essential sameness is the point.  At least that’s the way I came to formulate my answer to the question posed.  We bring the tone and flavor to our own actions- a monk or nun with a busy distracted mind is the same as a layperson with a similarly distracted mind.  Likewise, a layperson with clear penetrating recognition of the suchness of their mind is no different from a nun or monk with a similar view.  That said, the ordained sangha performs the vital role of preserving the actual lineage- but it should not be forgotten that as lay-people, when we receive instructions and practice them, we too are preserving a practice lineage.

As for offering prayers or performing ritual practice for others; making such offerings and dedicating the merit of practice for others is of immense benefit to the recipient.  It helps to create the conditions of peace and the alleviation of suffering; it is an act of kindness, a reminder of our interconnectedness, and an act of skillful-means.  It seems to me to be the fresh-faced other-side-of-the-coin that is meditation practice; something that is often seen as solitary, often aimed at individual personal spiritual development, and perhaps in the West presented in an all too myopic fashion. Maybe we could benefit from being shaken up a bit and made to exercise more of the compassion side of the wisdom/compassion relationship…

I would like to return to this subject in the near future, as I feel that it’s an important one, but for now, I’d like to share Khenpo Rinpoche’s wonderful instructions.

As I had previously intended on asking Khenpo Rinpoche what should be done to benefit those who are sick, dying, or have passed away, on July 5th, I happily took this extra question to him as well.  There’s a great bio of Khenpo Rinpoche at the gompa’s website: http://www.bokarmonastery.org, if you’d like more information about him, the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, and Bokar Ngedhon Chokhorling.

Ven. Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche on Practice for Others

When one is going to die, you should try your best to pacify the dying person’s mind.  Try to bring peace.  If the person is Buddhist then you can recite the lineage masters’ names, or for example “Karmapa Chenno” (Karmapa think of me), as well as one’s own root master’s name.  If the person has died, you can whisper these in the person’s ear in a pleasing voice.  You can also recite the names of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, for example, Amitabha (mantra: Om Ami Dhewa Hri), or Chenrezig (mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum), or some other mantra; whatever you know.

These are very important.  You see, when one is dying as well as for the person who has passed away, after their death, while in the Bardo state hearing the names of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and lineage masters makes one recall the Dharma; it is like a positive habit where one remembers the dharma and then can easily be liberated.  This is very important.

If the person is non-Buddhist you can see if the person likes hearing the names and mantras of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas or not.  If one likes to hear the names and mantras of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and they are not Buddhist that’s fine.

If one dislikes hearing such names or mantras then you shouldn’t say them, but mentally you can visualize or recite the names and mantras of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to help the person who is either sick, dying, or has died.  You should also visualize yourself as Chenrezig or Amitabha while your mind and the mind of the deceased person are merged, and then meditate.  Also, you should do tonglen.  You see, you should send your happiness, your virtuousness, your peace, to the person who has passed away- expelling their sorrows, fear, and unhappiness.  This is an excellent time to do tonglen practice.

Without saying anything, you can also mix your mind with the mind of the person who has died and rest in the Mahamudra state.

These things, along with meditation on love and compassion are the best things that you can do.

When one is sick you can do Sangye Menla (Medicine Buddha), Lojong, and others, Guru Yoga, Dorje Sempa (Vajrasattva)- anything that purifies.  You should try your best to examine what is best for the particular person- check the situation.

Basically, any practice can be done for the person who has died.  Often though, it is good to do Amitabha so that the person may be reborn in Amitabha’s pure land.  You can do the Dewachen Monlam many times, for forty-nine days, or three weeks, or one week even- or alternatively you should do the longer Amitabha practice if you know it and have the time.

All of these things will help.

[Note: While Rinpoche and I were talking, I specifically brought up to him the fact that for some in the West the dedication of prayer or ritual offerings for the benefit of those who are sick, dying or have died, may seem new as it tends to be less emphasized when one normally thinks of Dharma practice, and I asked if it is okay to perform such activities.  Khenpo Rinpoche was very enthusiastic in his response, saying that indeed anyone can do practice for others.  One can do whatever practices that they know.  The most important thing is that one is trained in the practices that they are doing for others- this means that if the practice requires an empowerment and reading transmission, then these must be obtained, as well as whatever subsequent instructions are necessary to perform the practice.  Practicing for others should not be seen as limited to ordained sangha members.  He was very definitive in expressing this.]

May this be of benefit!

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