So, I spent another morning on Facebook. I think it’s probably a distraction for me – a distraction from being with myself. I won’t say that I don’t like me; that’s just not the deal. What it is, is that I am afraid, maybe. Existence comes with so many reminders of imperfection and decay. My left hip is tingling right now, just to remind me that someday my walking will be even worse than it is now. Hey, maybe I will even be in a wheelchair someday! Nothing I can do about it now except move in spite of it. The doctors can’t find anything going on there besides a touch of arthritis. So, ya know, just take the pills every day. And the pills cause damage too, while still allowing me to work and live a bit longer. But who knows when it all falls apart?
I am afraid.
I was sitting at practice this morning, and I had this glimpse of vision that the sadhana is like a house of cards – tenuous, illusory, fragile. But maybe the wisdom in that is the realization that existence itself has that same quality. It all falls apart. That it was ever in one piece is the miracle, and maybe the sadhana is an attempt to see the deity that exists in the worn-down, falling-apart existence that we so often wish to denigrate – the decay that we avoid seeing.
Reality appears to me in the form of a deity – shining with white light and with a compassionate face. He says, look: it’s all falling apart. This is the way things are. The sun rises and sets, mountains rise and fall, planets spin in their decaying orbits, and humans are born to die. The only ones upset by this are those who try to avoid this fact or take refuge in some form of salvation. Feel your heart and open your eyes. There is something you will never possess nor understand; take refuge in that. It’s ok to be afraid; find me in the fear.
Find reality within the fear.
When I find myself spinning my wheels, it seems like a good time to stop for a moment and touch my heart. Bringing my awareness into my body, into my heart center, gives me the stability to be present with this decaying body, this messy apartment, this messy fucked-up life. It lets me be present with my emotions without repressing them or acting them out. In short, being present allows me to see the sacredness of this existence and give all beings the respect they deserve.
As a practical application, being present with myself gives me the ability to stop spinning my wheels avoiding the present reality and apply myself to a path of study and practice. It allows me to see my own sacredness within the decay and imperfection of existence.
“I look at you all; see the love there that’s sleeping…”
I watched the debate tonight. Along with many of my friends, I reacted with the expected horror at the continued inability of our would-be leaders to understand the implications of their behavior. And yes, as a socially liberal New Yorker, I think you know who I was rooting for, and also at whom I spent that two-hour span throwing my derision. Yes, I had fun exorcising my horror at the current state of political affairs. My friends and I bolstered one another’s sense of humor in the face of circumstances that seem incredibly horrible.
But today is John Lennon’s birthday, so if only in honor of him, I feel ready to calm down and look at the situation. What I see is suffering beings. On all sides of the Hillary (and/or Bernie) v. Trump situation, I see fear. I don’t understand all the causes and conditions for this, but I do know that those who would cause suffering are themselves suffering. It’s sort of like the physical property of equal and opposite force: the pressure inside a structure must be equal and opposite to the pressure applied from the outside or a structure will not maintain coherence.
Think about it for a moment: the suffering we feel inflicted on us is equal in force to the suffering we would cause in turn upon beings around us. That some of that suffering actually comes from within doesn’t matter; we still react to it, and those reactions cause suffering.
All I know for sure is this: I am afraid. And the people on the “other” side are afraid. And the people who seem to be egging on the people of whom I am afraid are themselves afraid. And if we are afraid, then there must be something we think we must protect. We love our children, our way of life, our connection to the divine. We all have a sense of something good; something worthy of our care.
As we enter the last few weeks of the election cycle, I feel that it is important to contemplate the suffering of those who seem frightening to me, and to realize that this suffering joins us together in basic goodness.
Please get out there and vote. But please also try to be gentle in spirit towards those who frighten you.
I cannot help but grieve the death of brilliance.
Something is tethered to my heart
and won’t let go, you pull
that string with you into the unknown never.
I cannot follow it.
Teacher, will you hold me in your heart?
To be held is not to live forever, but to follow,
fearless, the ones who go before.
My comfort is this: to breathe through the tears.
Although I see the unknown stretch before me,
still the empty blackness of your eyes,
the unknown always,
is wrapped around this frightened rabbit like a shawl,
heart beating fast.
still, my darling, sweetheart, shhh…”
What is devotion? It seems to be central to the Vajrayana path, but what is it? Devotion is stressed in Shambhala. When we come close to a shrine, we bow. We offer incense, light, water, sometimes food, tea, and other stuff to pictures, with the understanding that what we are offering to is not mere pictures, but a representation of something deeper, more real than the pictures on the shrine. As beginning practitioners, we are told that we are offering “to the universe” perhaps, or to all beings. But the pictures are of our teachers or even of deities that we know are not actually real. What is the point of this?
Who are we offering to; what are we bowing to?
I came into the path with a sense of intense devotion to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche: a great teacher who died more than twenty years before I had a chance to know he existed. I had read about him, and about how crazy he was, and I felt a sense of kinship. Upon entering Shambhala, the school he founded, I felt a sense of coming home. I looked up and saw the pictures of Rinpoche on the walls, and I interacted with the people there, and I felt that I was in Rinpoche’s mind. Even if he was not physically here, I felt that his mind continued on, and was broader than his body or his existence in time. And there is evidence that Rinpoche has had a huge effect on the popular culture, as well as founding a school that is international in scope. So, at least in that way, his mind continues on. Perhaps our minds intersect with his mind.
Early in my path at Shambhala, I took refuge in the three jewels: a vow that recognizes that all of existence has a kind of ephemeral quality that leaves me stranded with nothing to cling to. The three jewels: the Buddha as the example of how to undertake the path of enlightenment, the Dharma as the actual way the path works, and the Sangha as the community of other people on the path, are acknowledged as the only source of refuge in an existence that is fundamentally groundless. As a refugee, I work with the contemplation that former objects of devotion are not really useful – gods, lovers, organizations, are not solid, not able to be grasped or depended upon.
Lately I have been thinking about Padmasambhava a lot. He is considered the Buddha of Tibet. A teacher suggested I contemplate Padmasambhava as a way to work with difficulties I have with pain when I am traveling – I get aggressive around taking public transportation because my body is in pain. Rather than trying to grit my teeth and get through the situation on my own, he suggested, I could place my desperation onto someone else: specifically a Buddha who is thought of as being able to offer skillful means in any situation. “We practice following your example.” There is a kind of understanding that in leaning on Padmasambhava, I am actually leaning on the person I would be if I were not obstructed by my neurotic need to get a seat on the train. In tantric terms: I already am that person, I already am completely capable of dealing skillfully with the situation. I just don’t see that. There’s actually a sort of understanding that devotion to Padmasambhava is the same as devotion to my enlightened self (which already exists), as well as devotion to my teacher. It’s all the same.
I have also been working with my heart, developing a sense of fidelity to myself, a sense of positive self-regard. In short, I have been falling in love with myself. More on that practice here. The basic idea is that before I can give myself to others, I have to love myself, and that love has to be embodied. I have to actually feel that love. I can’t just say “I love you, Jinpa.” I have to work on that.
Devotion is work. Like meditation, in which we continually have to come back to our attention, devotion is a conscious decision to focus our love somewhere, and the discipline to continue bringing our love back whenever we stray.
And, with all these different focal points of devotion, there seems to be a question of fidelity. To whom am I actually devoted? Where has my love and regard been focussed all this time? Between Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Padmasambhava, all beings, and my own heart, not to mention my actual Teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, there seems to be a lot of devotion going around. I think the key to all of this is realizing, through practice and contemplation, that all of these objects of devotion are connected. In this interdependent existence, all loves are the guru. If I can love wholeheartedly I think I will find that love reflected back to the source.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a seminal figure in twentieth-century Buddhism and founder of this magazine, died on April 4, 1987. In this 2011 Shambhala Sun feature, Barry Boyce surveys his vast body of teachings and their lasting impact on how Buddhism is understood and practiced.
I am a demon from Tibet.
I am the bull in the china shop.
I am black and raging
with big paws and long unkempt claws.
My fangs cut my own lips
so that I am always bleeding.
My eyes are red-rimmed and moist,
my face covered in brine.
My chest cavity is open;
everyone can see my heart,
so I always roar to keep people away.
Inside my chest, my heart is a blackened bloody mess,
charred with the constant conflagration of passion and aggression.
Poison drips from my pores.
I am your monster,
I gaze into your eyes,
and I am at peace.
My hand rests over my heart,
and I feel the warmth.
I know who you are:
Crazier than I could ever be,
manifesting the poisons in their transcendent state.