on time machines, weaving words and loosening our belt so that our minds can expand…
My last blog post touched a lot of nerves- in a good way, from what I can tell, and it also seemed to have displeased others who came away from it thinking that it was written to complain about laziness, ‘spiritual materialism’ and the existence of a spiritual marketplace which often become more of a self-help, soft-core spiritual path. While I understand the reaction, I don’t agree with such facile readings of the post- not that its difficile in the first place.
Whatever the case may be, whether these posts, and this blog, are worth the ether that allow them a fragile existence of any kind or not, leads me to a few deeper problems that have been something of a point of concern as well as curiosity for me lately, that is: language and time.
I would first like to avoid the immediate association with these terms any cosmic relationship with philosophy and loosey-goosey bedroom-eyed mysticism, while simultaneously acknowledging that language and time are obviously thematically treated in great depth in both the study of philosophy and mysticism. It may be that we are best served (for the purposes of this post) in allowing our analytical minds, the mind of blended comparisons and of discernment, to step aside as we examine for ourselves within the context of the personal meditation experience, how and what language and time mean, and how they appear. Let’s put aside the study philosophy and try to approach this from what unfolds naturally on the meditation cushion, or, as we walk, or dream, as we paint and dance through this life of ours- for meditation experiences are always different from philosophical investigations.
We define ourselves through the use of language. Outwardly we describe who we are physically, our characteristics and so forth, and then we fill in all of the details, our personalities, likes and dislikes, and all the rest. We further dabble in collaborative fiction through supporting the personal narratives of our friends and loved ones, and in offering counter-narrative of those we dislike. Soon, what may have begun as a relatively blank page (a debatable point indeed) has become filled with a testimony of who we would like be, who we envision ourselves as, and the way that we interpret the world around us. This language is a tapestry of meaning, one in which we both consciously and unconsciously weave together a living history, along with the plotted trajectories of the future events that have yet to be lived. In and of themselves these products of our individual relationship with language are amazing works of art that capture how we conceive, what we can allow to be, and what we must keep at bay. They are our hells and our anchors; perhaps they prevent us from flying off into a manic subconscious world; or perhaps they confine us to knowable modalities of being that provide us with the tools for the experience of life. Whichever the case may be, and I suspect that it is most likely a combination of the two (and many others) at differing points in time, language -in this context- acts, more often than not, like a prison; it is like a thief, and even more, language is like an unreliable friend whom we continue to trust even though she will continue to disappoint. For somehow we cannot describe away the pain of loss, the experience of death, the terrible bouts with illness, and the fact that one day we will be forced to say goodbye to all that we hold dear- no matter how much we may try.
The images we create with our internal literary drives have a hieroglyphic quality in the true sense of the word hieroglyphic, that is: a highly symbolic form of writing which is difficult to interpret/assign meaning. In the beginning was the word. From that word, an entire world was created, a veritable cosmos- our interwoven personal narratives develop with increasing complexity and nuance creating a web, a net, or systemic literary story-line in which we capture every detail. As I sit here, writing both this blog post as well as my experience of today, the soft beautiful light coming through the windows between the treas and fluttering prayer flags is captured as is the sweet smell of a yet uneaten pineapple offered in a recent Mahakala tsok that simultaneously soothes and excites.
Everything we do, all we experience, tends to be added to this net of meaning that is cast upon the phenomenal world.
There are times when we are able to put down our pens, or turn off whatever device we use to compose these narratives of distinctive being- one of the most common device in such work is our discursive mind. The mind of spacial relationships, of color schemes, the mind of philosophy and dualistic comparisons. Perhaps this is also the sociology mind, the mind of architecture, the mind of economics, and the mind of urban planning. That part of us which organizes, the desire to play with the economics of mind; the way we become hypnotized by the production, consumption, and transfer of phenomena.
When we can put this down- although we’re not really putting anything down- then what we were formerly engaging with becomes less of an object and more of an experience. There is almost a sense of relief in this, a wonderful supporting ease and perhaps the experience of a type of contentment.
In his very condensed version of the Ninth Karmapa’s The Ocean of Meaning, entitled Opening the Door to Certainty, the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche touched upon the enhancement practices of Mahamudra meditation. These are described as ‘enhancement through eliminating five false ideas’. The first of the five false ideas is that of objects. Of eliminating the false ideas about objects Bokar Rinpoche writes:
Without grasping something real in the notion of samsara that must be abandoned and nirvana that must be actualized, but placing ourselves in the infinite one-taste of primordial awareness [of knowing] the non-duality of all phenomena gathered by pairs such as virtue and non-virtue, we eliminate false ideas about objects.
This is a wonderfully powerful instruction, that while presented as an enhancement practice in the context of the Mahamudra system, is worthy of examining, especially in light of how easily we craft global narratives of everything within and without. I wonder how we can ‘place ourselves in the infinite one-taste of primordial awareness’ or settle ourselves in a position of quiet knowing in which we can allow ourselves to dissolve the need for narrative, comparisons, and allow the direct of experience of the world around us (and within us) to arise; a dancing array of inherently perfect appearance. Easier said than done? I’m not so sure about that- if we can playfully try to fold this into our everyday activities, I suspect that bit by bit we can massage the habits of stale knowing. If we can play around with the view we’re really practicing something profound.
The second of the five false ideas is that of time. Of eliminating the false ideas about time, Bokar Rinpoche continues:
Although there is no fundamental truth about the reality of the three times, we think within a mode obscured by the division into three times. Consequently, realizing equanimity which does not establish a distinction of the three times, we eliminate the false ideas about time.
This instruction is especially relevant in helping to loosen the grasping of the compelling reality of our narration as we constantly pin things down (including ourselves) to various points in time. Our past informs us in the present and helps determine the future; or so we tend to think. Ideas of time having particular characteristics is a lovely subtle subject- Buddhism is rife with them: the number of aeons, life times, or years that it will take before we fully awaken is just one example. Assuming that the past was a particular way, the notion of the golden days of long ago in relation to these degenerate times, is another poignant example. The very notion of systematic evolution (individual spiritual evolution) is a wonderful blended assumption rooted in the false ideas of objects and time. How many others do we hold on to?
What other unexamined aspects of our faith tradition do we just assume out of the habits of appearance and time? What would it be like if we crafted our own notions based upon our experiences?
Wangchuk Dorje reminds us: “The division of the three times (past, present, and future) are simply the imputations of ignorant fools.” More specifically, he warns us that included within this is the relationship that we may feel that we have with the past and future. He further continues, “yogins and yoginis who have manifested this [realization] are able to bless a great aeon into an instant and an instant into a great aeon… …if they were separate entities this would not be possible.” Yet it is possible, and, it is up to us to ease into allowing this possibility. This gets back to having set ideas about who we are, what we are capable of, and all of the other stories we have woven.
What happens when we wrestle with the solidity of time? Or loosen our belts so that time can slip away…
When will your liberation occur? Forget the texts, and all of the things you have heard, when will it be possible to truly ease into the mind’s essential nature? After ngondro? After you have mastered your yidam practice? After a three year retreat? After ordination? After you die, in the bardo? After you die seven times? One hundred thousand times? In the future? What about right now? Did you already do it in the past, but got all distracted?
When we can see words as playful birds, and time reflected in the way that clouds appear and disappear in the sky, and the the solidity of our identities as the smoke of incense floating through the the rays of a setting sun, then maybe we can experience mind a little more clearly. Not just the mind’s stillness, but by feeling out, as if expanding awareness to meet the bounds of space, without saying, doing, thinking, making notations, and without being Buddhist. In trying to do this over and over, the artifice of relative reality can be seen, a necessary strange place that allows us to communicate, to help others, to support ourselves in the process of familiarizing ourselves with the mind- but not ourselves, not our identities. Yet when we tighten our belts, we become men and women, Buddhists, with mass, height, characteristics, distinct identities that feel, want and need. We have a cannon to follow and refer to, we experiment less and assume that it will all work out in the future, a bunch of now moments later, but the very now we live in is never seen as the free open experience of whatever arises without characteristics.
Wangchuk Dorje reminds us that we cannot realize this through “merely listening and reflecting, examining and analyzing, being very knowledgeable, having a sharp intellect, being skilled in exposition, being an excellent teacher or logician, and the like.” He goes on to quote the Gandavyuhasutra:
The teachings of the perfect Buddha are not realized by simply hearing them. For example, someone may be helplessly carried away by a river but still die of thirst. Not to meditate on the dharma is like that.
Someone may stand at the cross roads and wish everyone prosperity, but they won’t receive any of it themselves. Not to meditate on the dharma is like that.
We can go around with ideas of this and that, with loads of empowerments, secret instructions and a plethora of practices to choose from but the real wisdom comes from practice, from trial and error. In fact, just one simple practice is more than enough- by sticking to it and blending it with our waking and sleeping moments great wonders are possible. We are very well served by examining how and why we hold these truths about ourselves, our paths, and time to be self-evident. In attempting to let the constancy of our personal narrative fall away like an unneeded belt, lets take these words and use them to unzip themselves so that our view is that of the experience of mind, fresh, free, naked and not of the three times.
Chöd, inner trolls, brigdes and inner stagnation…
Recently, I decided to spend the early portion of a Saturday doing Chöd under the Pulaski Bridge that connects Brooklyn and Queens (connecting Kings county and Queens county), and crosses the infamous Newtown Creek. Newtown Creek, for those who are unaware, has the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted waterways in the United States, and is home to the second worst oil spill in America; an estimated 30 million gallons of oil flowed into the creek in the 1950’s, none of which has been removed. As a result of the oil spill, a century of raw sewage being dumped into the waterway, as well as the dumping of various wanted byproducts of heavy industry such as sulfuric acid, fertilizer and other chemical admixtures there is a layer of highly toxic sludge fifteen feet thick that blankets the floor of Newtown Creek.
In making the decision to head to the Pulaski Bridge and Newtown Creek three distinct criteria had to be addressed: there had to be a bridge, the place had to have some equivalence to a charnel ground, and it had to invoke fear/discomfort.
The latter two criteria speak to the nature of where chöd has historically been practiced: places that invoke fear and terror; places where there could be a direct mirroring of one’s own internal demons with the projected demons of haunted locales. Such sites have often included charnel grounds, and also places where terrible events have happened. A reader once commented on another post that I wrote about chöd that civil war battle sites seem to hold some relevance as chöd sites. This is a brilliant observation! Upon second glance, it is easy to notice a wide variety of places that invoke strong feelings of fear and terror. They surround us and yet we tend to drive or walk by them interacting with them in a way that lacks the direct depth of honest observation. Often we fail to interact with them at all. As I caught myself feeling slight dread in practicing under the Pulaski Bridge amongst the oil depots and industrial traffic that pulsates along the dead creek I realized that this was a great place to go practice. What better way to be curious about why I should feel discomfort in practicing there? What is the difference between practicing there and at home, or in a park, or even a cemetery?
That the site should have a bridge reflects a larger curiosity that I developed a few days before about bridges and trolls. In June I finished 2 units of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) with the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, which in addition to being oriented around Zen Buddhism, is heavily informed by Jungian psychology. Reflection upon the symbolic meanings presented by patients, or a given patient’s particular affect, as well as our own perceptual reactions to what arises at any given moment is encouraged. While walking in Prospect Park, and with this training still fresh in my mind, I found myself under a bridge and for the first time in many years I reflected that trolls are often associated with the space under bridges. They live under bridges, and hide under the cross-roads-like environment that we commonly find under bridges. Somehow this space elicits discomfort, such spaces seem secret, hidden, perhaps the place where illicit things happen. I wanted to explore this in chöd practice.
I packed my kyangling and damaru, my pecha and bell and dorje, and brought along a bumpa vase with water blessed with many sacred substances including special pills made by the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche for the express purpose of dispelling demons and “inner” hindrances. In addition to performing chöd, I wanted to offer these substances to Newtown Creek. With my bag packed, I headed to this industrial charnel ground, the site of an alchemical bridge that joins Kings County with Queens County (Male and Female, Salt and Sulfur) that crosses a body of water that deep under fifteen feet of unknown matter (unconscious mind) and may house inner trolls and local gods. Kye Ho!
Upon finding a suitable place for my practice, I considered how the place made me feel. What were its trolls going to be like? When I touched my “inner” trolls what would I find? I remember from childhood the story of the Three billy Goats Gruff; the story of three goats of ascending size who wish to cross a bridge so that they may feast on greener pastures, the only problem is that they must cross a bridge that is protected/owned, or the home of a nasty troll.
Bridges are places of vulnerability. Their structure is meant to carry us from one stable ground to another, in-between (a bardo), we are not standing on solid ground. Perhaps when we are experiencing the bardos of change; the invariable transition from one moment to another; one experience or feeling to another, we are vulnerable to being unseated in a more direct and profound manner. These bardos are bridges, and where there are bridges there are trolls.
In Norse mythology trolls are generally held to be large, slow, human-like beings. Trolls are not known for their intellects. They are impulsive, brutish, stubborn, earthy, and grounded. In a way, trolls seem to be a personification of the weight and anchoring qualities of the earth element, but in a self-defensive, perhaps self-protective manner or function. Indeed, the slow conservatism, the heavy reactive stubbornness that trolls are known for seem to be the prime emotions in opposition to the easy experience of transitioning across bardos; across our bridges from one moment to the next. They want to hold on. They try to exert the magnetism of discursiveness; the force of myopic focus that prevents us from seeing the larger picture. They want us off the bridge, they try to prevent us from making the transition; they will even try to kill us to this end.
It seems that trolls show their heads very frequently in my experience of everyday life; this stubborn stupidity, a dullness, and desire to not embrace change. I easily lose count in trying to reflect how often these trolls try to unseat me.
That Newtown Creek has a fifteen foot layer of toxic sludge separating it from the “real” earthy bottom seems particularly significant, if not essentially symbolic. What stagnation! It is as if the earth herself is being suffocated. Perhaps just as we suffocate ourselves when our inner-demononic-troll-like stubbornness, our hard-headed personification of gravity, our dull stupidity, and brutish reactivity arise, this poor creek-cum-canal is being suppressed and held down. Toxicity has many shades, and it’s easy to focus upon its generic staples: fear, anger, jealousy, greed, laziness. But what of toxicity in its more subtle and elusive forms?
How do we allow ourselves to stagnate? How do we dissempower ourselves? How do we allow ourselves to fail, to be imperfect? How do we let our trolls steal the vitality of our transitions (bardos)?
This is what I set upon to discover; these demons of Newtown Creek, the demons of stagnation and sedate subconsciousness as well as the army of trolls that seek refuge and feast underneath the Pulaski Bridge. They are not far, they arise from within ourselves…
In making an offering of myself to these beings, I feel that I was able to shed light upon them as they arise. It is a process of honoring and respecting the natural occurence of emotions as they arise. It lends itself to both a process of developing a greater awareness of the play of mind, as well as a means of offering deep witness to our unique inner constellations. Such constellations, wonderous displays, are already perfect- they arise with the same natural clarity and depth as the constellations that we see in clear night skies. There is nothing to add or to take away. The brilliance of their simple appearance is suggestive of immense wonderous beauty. Nothing to subjugate. Perhaps this is chöd-of-mahamudra: the offering of the suchness of our own minds as witness to it as it arises…
I visualized that the offering deities and the demons themselves came with great ferocity, like a howling wind, stealing portions of my torn flesh and warm organs. Those with more time and resources carefully selected prime sections, the liver and heart perhaps. Others still set up camps and carefully roasted various portions of the offering taking time to set up their own feasts. That these demons may be honored, and receive my offering helps to liberate them- my emotional habits, self-clinging and the like are allowed to loosen into non-referential emptiness.
As I was performing the chöd sadhana, on that day and at that location, the portion of the text that focuses upon offering the remains of the central ganachakra felt very salient and meaningful. I have come to try to allow myself to rest in sadhana practice while I am doing it, and in so doing, realizing that at different moments and for a whole host of possible reasons the pecha speaks with powerful clarity at different moments in different ways. There are so many secondary practices within each pecha that as our inner weather changes, there are many differing modalities of our practice that may be tailored to best suit ourselves at any given moment in time. If we can view the practice text as alive, full of endless vitality and imbued with the potential for constant unfolding compassion, then every time we sit down to recite a prayer or a particular sadhana we are really engaging directly with the text as a vehicle through time and space. Every time we read a pecha it can be as if we are reading it for the first time.
This is also another great place where trolls arise. They arise in our practice. Our mind can easily become the slow dense troll-mind where pechas feel boring and long, always the same and perhaps even a little dusty. The pecha becomes a thing, a book, a physical text, the warm humid breath of the dakinis, in this case of Machig Labdron herself dissipates. It is lost when we become dull. The full dynamic interpenetration of individuated hermenutic bliss fades; the electricity of the rich moment dies. The possibility for realizing “the lama-as-appearance” to use the wonderful term that the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche often used to describe the mind as lama (that appearance in all of its myriad display is the lama-as-appearance) becomes compromised.
In recognizing this, the offering of the remainder of the ganachakra felt timely, both within myself as well as within my immediate environment. So, as I sat under the bridge while trucks rumbled down Box Street I imagined that the slippery flesh of my ignorance, raw and painful, was mixing with a seemingly endless ocean of my own warm sticky blood, rich in iron: my desire; and my rattling bones, still moist and full of rich marrow: my hatred. I mixed these together and offered it in a vast torma vessel- my own skull. I offered this to the local gods, the local protectors, to the particular trolls that inhabit the Pulaski Bridge, as well as my own trolls. This ambrosial nectar, the very last remnants of my body, I offered to this particular place- this polluted earth, forgotten and ignored by many who speed by, is the same earth that supported the Buddha. Somewhere underneath that thick toxic sludge is the same earth that the Buddha touched, similarly, within ourselves is the same Buddha. The ability to recognize “the lama-as-appearance” is always part of us.
After the practice session I brought my bumpa vase filled with water blessed by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, blessing pills associated with Chenrezig, Amitabha, and Dorje Phagmo, as well as sacred medicinal substances, and pills specially made by the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche for averting the disturbances caused by ghosts, demons and the previously mentioned “inner” hindrances up onto the Pulaski Bridge. While reciting a variety of mantras I poured the amrita into Newtown Creek that there may be benefit. May the magic of this place be known! May the power of its local gods be appreciated, and may they, the local gods, the trolls and the great teachers of stagnation, of dullness and of forgetfulness never be forgotten!
Perhaps every place is imbued with wonderful symbolic representations- dynamic reminders- of our own strengths and our weaknesses. Whether it be Newtown Creek, the Gowanus Canal, or a former slave burial ground, if we look a little more loosely the lama-as-appearance is always present. It offers a constancy of potential liberating circumstances. The charnel ground of the chödpa is everywhere. I am reminded of something that I once read by the previous Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche in which he said that the mind is the essential charnel ground as it is here where thoughts come to die.
Perhaps then, we carry all of the eight great charnel grounds of India within our very experience of mind.
This being a possibility, I offer prayers that we all may realize the chöd-field of our own minds. May we be free of clinging to this body as real, may we recognize it as illusory. May the sound of Machig Labdron’s kyangling and damaru permeate the entire universe liberating all upon hearing!
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.