Friday, December 28, 2007

Moment-by-Moment on the Dharma Path

December 28, 2007

Bodhgaya, Bihar, India

Sometimes one can be surrounded by dharma on all sides and have very non-dharmic "urges" bubbling at the center. Rather than simply rejecting these urges we examine them, because within them are the signposts to where our inner work lies.

That’s a reason people come to India, such an intense country, where one’s inspirations and motivations and inner knowledge smack up against the realities of personal fears and aversions and weaknesses and discomfort and inner horrors. (And may the best, purest wisest thoughts win!)

In Tibetan Buddhism, a mind-science of the highest order, our teachers explain it’s the clear, wise, compassionate thoughts that are always resident in our mind, while thoughts of anger, greed, fear, jealousy, etc., resulting from our ignorance of the nature of reality, run rampant in our “here and now.”

So we learn what is so logical: the clear wise thoughts are the ones that lead to actions that produce happiness, the ones that stem from ignorance lead to actions that are harmful and cause suffering.

Learning how to recognize and not “follow” the harmful ones, while generating, discerning and empowering the wise ones is, mechanically speaking, what dharma practice is all about.

Motivation stems from the understanding that the potential for manifesting wise thoughts is always present, an indestructible part of our mind’s clear fabric. The harmful thoughts -- described by Lama Zopa Rinpoche as “disturbing obscuring” -- while numerous and influential (in the same way poison can be influential), are just interlopers that, with practice, may be overcome and ultimately eliminated.

Mindfulness practice teaches us to be aware of what is occurring in our mind, and we soon learn there’s plenty of both “Wise Ones” and “Sufferers” and they come very very quickly, and in those moments when we’re aware that the “Wise Ones” have taken residence we take note and feel pretty good about it.

But look out, trouble ahead. We can’t take too much note or feel too good, because next up on the mindstream is a deep and familiar hole with a very slippery slope containing the ultimate Sufferer disguised as a Wise One. This one’s called “self-cherishing” and before you’re even aware you’re caught in it, you’re usually in pretty deep. In fact, it’s the state of mind in which we spend most of our time.

And the self-cherishing mind is a sneaky, seductive Sufferer indeed:

[Sufferer speaks:] "Ahhh, it feels good here, feels like “Me” tucked into my own Me bed, head on my soft Me pillow underneath my secure Me comforter. The thoughts and feelings that abide here are comfortable and safe and warm. Self-cherishing is where we feel special. Unique. At the center of our universe. And it feels wonderfully real. Out there it’s Me vs. Everyone Else, and when I’m here, in my self-cherishing state of mind, I AM the most important . . . I AM THE WINNER!"

The trouble is that self-cherishing, regardless of how good or comfortable or REAL it feels, is a hole nonetheless, and in its depths breed and grow all the sufferings we experience.

(And hey, psst . . . there’s nothing real about it, you’re smack in the middle of Delusion-land. But don’t sweat it, it happens to most everyone, and besides, none of that feel-good self-cherishing stuff could possibly be real in the way you’d like it to be, anyway.)


Dust and mosquitos. If you’ve ever wanted to know what’s in the Bodhgaya air, that’s it. Thick dust by day, thicker mosquitoes by evening.

The dust alone can make you ill, and can turn toxic if you have the flu-type chest congestion so many Westerners here seem to get. Many walk around with mouth masks, and the amount of dirt one sees in his/her mask after wearing it for just a few minutes in town is frightening.

But the mosquitoes, they’re a different type of problem

First of all, they are numerous and large . . . these are the kind with the thick bodies and long legs that just hang down as they float/fly around. But even though they’re large, you don’t feel them when they land on you . . . until you feel their blood-seeking pinch, even through your clothes.

Secondly, they swarm. Rest assured if you see one on your arm, there’s two on your neck and one on your forehead.

Thirdly, mosquitoes in India are dangerous. Malaria. Dengue fever. Diseases that kill. Enough said.

Here in the Indian state of Bihar the mosquitoes breed in the well-irrigated rice fields that circle the town. Hungry and thirsty, they begin swarming in the late afternoon.

Everyone hates mosquitoes, some people obsessively. The problem is, they’re sentient beings. Mind possessors. Just looking to have happiness and avoid suffering, exactly like all other sentient beings, including us humans.

And at the core of Tibetan Buddhism is the belief and practice is that we don’t kill sentient beings. In fact, we are taught to cherish them even more than ourselves.

So at this point the dharma path gets a little gnarled.

Because when one of these little mind possessors lands on us, we instinctively have that self-cherishing notion of squashing it, but as mindful little dharma students we KNOW that is a harmful thought . . . what do we do?

Is it alright to kill just in this instance? Is extreme self-cherishing really alright in this instance. How about if I do it casually, so no one else sees me do it?

Isn’t my own relief at being momentarily mosquito-free more worth more than the suffering of splattering-to-death for the mosquito and the imprinting of a deservedly negative karmic seed for us?

Or, do we go to the other extreme and graciously offer our flesh as a sign of respect, a recognition of the interconnectedness of all beings, an action of cherishing other more than self? After all, how much blood can a mosquito really take?

But if I do that, what about his buddies -- all the other mosquitoes who are watching this little drama take place, just waiting for the “safe to eat” sign.

A lot to think about and not much time in which to do it. I remember the old pre-dharma days when there would have been no thought, just a sharp slap and the satisfaction of seeing the dark dead blotch.

So, indecisive, I look at the mosquito and see it as scary and ugly – all wings and legs and a head that comes to a long sharp point. It likely came from a puddle of stagnant water that acts as “loo” to water buffalo, cows, goats and pigs. Maybe people too. It probably speaks only Hindi and hasn’t been on a body with blood as nutritious as mine in its entire life. And there’s a chance it’s carrying some miserable-to-humans disease. Maybe even two of them.

It's so easy to see the judgments that arise from the self-cherishing state of mind? Is wanting to squash the mosquito really a product of what Rinpoche calls a disturbing obstructing moment of mind?

And so the dialog goes, all in the space of a second or two . . .

[Sufferer speaks:] Don’t I have a right to squash it? After all, it’s only just a filthy mosquito, an insect, a bug, a sneaky, potentially lethal bug who is about to bite ME?

[Wise speaks:] Ok, but, what about my vow to not kill when I took refuge?

[Wise speaks:] Didn’t Atisha say “In every situation there is always something beneficial I can do”?

[Wise remembers:] And just today Rinpoche spoke about how our attitude must be that we are single-handedly going to lead all beings to bodhicitta.

[Suffer:] But it’s only a mosquito and I hate it, I don’t want it to bite me and I want to kill it before it does.

[Wise:] But isn’t my precious human rebirth, such an incredible opportunity, going to be cheapened if I squash it? And what about the bad karma I’ll create? All that mind-corruption.

[Sufferer:] Yeah, but, malaria . . .


Self-cherishing . . . Dharma . . . Mind possessors . . . Distrubances and obscurations . . . Wisdom occurring . . . Fear whispering . . . Me, myself and I . . . Equanimity and compassion . . .

It all leads up to this moment. And then the next . . .

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas in Bodhgaya

December 25, 2007

With no visible notice marking the day as being any different from yesterday and the ones before, Christmas morning 2007 broke cool and gray in Bodhgaya, the Indian town known affectionately as “Buddhism’s Belly Button.”

It was here 2,500 years ago that Siddhartha Gautama determined he was going to “enlighten or die trying” while meditating under a tree. So sit he did. And enlighten he did.

Upon his decision to teach to others what he discovered, Buddhism, the great ethical mind science was born. And people have been coming here to touch and be touched by the place ever since. (Hindus come here as well as they worship Gautama the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu.)

This is my first visit, I’ve been here less than a week, and it is intense. Located in the very poor Indian state of Bihar, there are robbers on the roads and many sick and broken people. There are children everywhere. Monks and nuns from all the world’s Buddhist traditions crowd the streets. Chickens and cows and goats and pigs poke through the garbage. Scurryers include chipmunks, squirrels, mice and rats. One sees dogs in disease that defy description, their skin covered with lumps and bleeding sores and growths that look as though they can’t be real. Bright green parrots and amazing blue birds sing and chatter in the canopy above, which they have all to themselves, because unlike other places in India I’ve been, there’s not a monkey to be seen here.

And looking down on the whole thing, visible from all around, looms a colossal (80 foot-high) stone Buddha, an expression of peace and calm on his face, a reminder that regardless of how real or unreal Bodhgaya or anything else seems, none of it is permanent.

Bodhgaya is not particularly large, and many of those who come here are pilgrims, journeying from around the world to enhance their “practice” – be it meditation, prayer, chanting, taking teachings, reflection, etc. Because it’s not an easy place to get to, those who are here are at their destination.

Bodhgaya is one of those places that easily takes-on and reflects the characteristics of its inhabitants. Suffice to say there is “energy” here and lots of it.


I’ve been away from home less than a week, and already I‘ve developed a nasty chest infection (giving the words "breath meditation" a whole new challenging meaning). Have also lost track of the days, but do know today is Christmas Tuesday.

Tuesday. In the business world, said to be the day of the week that is most “productive.”

Here it’s a day just like any other.

I woke at 5:30 and walked about 30 minutes into town, through fields that were just beginning to lighten, down streets of small doorways that would later be filled with kids but were now empty, the only movement coming from early risers sweeping the nighttime dust from the door-fronts. This reminds me of something I once heard, that “every filthy alleyway can be a mandir (hindu temple) if your mind is right.”

During travel, habits develop and fall away quickly. The Indian lady from whom I (each day so far) buy a glass of “while you watch” squeezed pomegranate seed juice (this is a GOOD habit) didn’t have her cart set-up yet, it would’ve been a fantastic morning treat but I was too early. The fresh vitamins would have been good, the town’s dust is not.

I made my way to the park containing the famous stupa marking the spot where Siddhartha’s Buddha-becoming occurred, it was packed with monks and nuns and laypeople, all being led in Medicine Buddha puja by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa lama. (If you don’t know what any of that means, it’s fine – if you have an idea, you know how special a Christmas morning dharma treat this is.)

Hundreds of monks and followers were assembled outside in the rear of the stupa, facing the Karmapa, who was seated beneath the leafy well-spread branches of the world’s most famous tree. As he chanted prayers, his strong voice boomed with youthful self-confidence.

He is a Tibetan, an escapee from the Chinese now living in sanctuary in India, like so many of his countrymen.

He is a Buddha, and is only 22 years-old, just growing into his role. To see the Karmapa up-close, or be in his presence is astounding. He is physically magnificent. To make eye-contact with him can be breath-taking, it’s as if you’re gazing deeply into the strength and wisdom of the Tibetan people. And if your eyes lock with his for more than a split-second you’ll never forget the moment. (I know this sounds over-the-top, but it’s true.)

When the time comes for him to step onto the world’s stage, he will generate lots of interest and do just fine. (Imagine the Dalai Lama as a teen idol.)

After the puja ended I found a sunny spot next to the lake that borders the stupa, and sat on the grass facing the Bodhi tree, knowing I was sitting in perhaps the world’s best meditation spot. It was peaceful and quite nice. And then later it was back to the retreat where we all shared in a fantastic vegetarian “Christmas feast” before listening to Rinpoche’s teachings on bodhicitta.

As I write this it’s now 5:00 in the afternoon, which means back home its 7:00am on Christmas morning. Wow, so many memories; all the past Christmas days seem to blend together, I imagine I’m feeling a bit how old Ebenezer must have felt as the night’s first tour-guide took him on his own same kind of journey.

Christmases Past. The kids so young and wonderful, life laced with love and so pregnant with possibilities of the days ahead.

It raises strong emotions, both happy and sad, and it feels so far away.

But it’s alright, and even nice in a bittersweet sort of way.

What shines through is how it was once so deeply felt, all the planning and preparation and excitement parents feel being able to share Christmas morning with each other and the children. So light. So sweet. So special. So precious.

And now it blends with the really-not-wanted-but-inescapable knowledge that it was by its nature just like everything else in our life. So impermanent.

And once the bitter and sweet are blended, you can no longer stir them apart.

As the Buddha said, “it’s all as a bubble on a stream.”