Saturday, January 23, 2010

The seminal source and driving force that is India

YALAHA, FL -- There is a consistent thread of conversation, at times fully discussed, at others merely hinted at, among those of us Western dharma students in India, and it concerns "going back home."

It’s odd. India, the way I and so many dharma students experience it, can be unceasingly challenging and difficult. Budget traveling in India means hard and too-short beds, shared toilet-less bathrooms, no heat on cold nights, frustrating language struggles, exhaust fumes, respiratory infections and diarrhea, cold showers, plans and schedules gone awry. It is physically punishing. The smell of shit is everywhere, the poverty is overwhelming, the suffering in the streets immense. Dodging people, buffalo, cows, rickshaws and the nerve-jarring horns of tuk-tuks (motor-rickshaws) and motorbikes gets exhausting. The dust is everywhere, making eyes water and throats burn. Westerners are stand-out targets of touts, merchants and beggars. Being a half-day ahead of everyone back home, on the other side of the planet, there is frequent loneliness.

And yet . . . and yet, the idea of the time there coming to an end . . . climbing on a plane to fly back home, and being back in the familiar . . . is, for many Western dharma students, horrifying. You don’t even have to verbalize it, just mention to whomever you’re speaking with that "next Tuesday I’m going back home" and for a few moments the conversation stops and eyes lock in empathic understanding.


I remember a few years ago in Nepal. A five-week retreat at a hilltop monastery overlooking the city of Kathmandu was coming to an end, it had been a month of retreat, never once leaving the monastery, a month of teachings and meditations, a month of refuge, simply wonderful, and I was talking with a couple of Australian women who had been in the retreat. We were gazing down at the city, and one of the women expressed a regretful fear that in a few days it would be time to go back "down into that."

I’ve had this conversation with many people, different angles, different time-frames, but always the same . . . dharma practice takes root in India, but in the West it gets lost in the rush, and the idea of the loss is frightening. Too hard to maintain practice. Mind pollution. Old habits. Cultural crap. No support. The potent and endearing mind treasures of Himalayan Buddhism, so rich in India, vanish . . . like crashing out of a deep, wondrous dream of the high holy Himalayas in downtown Cleveland.

Even with all the difficulties of being/living in India, while there, dharma practice is easier, seems more real. And when one is immersed in it, its preciousness and beauty are part of everything one is, but the idea of leaving this place, and losing touch with this part of the self . . .

The plane ticket home has a date that is fast approaching . . .


I've been back back in Yalaha for nine full days now. The "re-entry" has been painless, it appears that I am long past the effects of jet-lag, and truth is, India has become for me another one of my neighborhoods, joining New York City and northern California as places I feel at home in, and have no great sadness at leaving.

Perhaps once a place becomes home, one never really leaves it, there’s always influences and aspects of these places that are indelibly part of the mind, part of who and what and why we are. India and noCal and NYC are with me -- ARE me -- everywhere I go.

An equanimity settles in. Regardless of where we are -- India or Florida or Timbuktu -- there is always work to do, manifestations of our dharma practices constantly being put to use. I remember a quote from Ani Tenzin Palmo, a very articulate and wise nun, who was once asked what her main practice is. Her reply: "whatever and whoever is coming toward me is my practice."

So, one week back in Florida, I try to keep this in mind.

I did not count the days in India dreading the trip home, rather I welcomed it; opportunities to use what I have learned await.

Things have been busy, time with friends and kids, getting back into the swing of work with conference calls, business negotiations, etc. Dharma-wise: two nights of teachings, a lecture combining the nature of mind and an appreciation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama before a large group of para-psychology buffs, and leading the first of seven Saturday morning meditation classes.

It's no secret how much I love being in India, how through the sickness (not this past time!) and hardships I have discovered such exquisite richness and freedom to grow. How I gain clarity and strength of mind through what I am so very fortunate to experience.

But I enjoy, vastly, being home too. The Buddhist teachings tell us that the perfection of generosity is a key component for a mind that is happy, and it is my honor and privilege to bring back what I have learned and share it with so many wonderful people.

The Buddha taught there are three major "types" of generosity. Each of them stems from the mind of interconnected altruism, that understands the more we are able to help others, the more we help ourselves be able to help others . . . this is the seed of bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment.

The three types of generosity are (1) the giving of things, (2) the giving of teachings, and (3) the giving of fearlessness. A short description of each:

Giving of Things
The first is the three types of generosity is the giving of wealth, be it material resources or our time and energy.

Giving of Teaching
Second is the giving of teaching. By teaching others, we are helping them to learn how to rely more on themselves. We give material resources to try to solve immediate needs. But, if we want to solve needs that are more far-reaching, we teach. It is not necessary to have exceptional skills. Simply teach whatever we are good at and what others are not.

Giving of Fearlessness
Third is the giving of fearlessness. It is to remove the insecurities, worries, and fears of others, whether the "other" is human or non-human. This giving can be the sharing of a kind word, the giving of our strength and stability, or our understanding. When we relieve the worries and fears of others, and help them to feel more secure, they will be able to find peace and self-respect.


I have a long way to go before generosity is "perfected" in my mind, but one of the seminal sources and driving forces of whatever generosity does abide in my mind is India. So beautiful, so difficult, so intense, so enlightening . . . uniquely precious in so many different ways, but at the end of the day, for me, it is primarily a source of experience, a place of learning, the deep well whose precious water I bring back to share with others.

In this way, India -- and the Tibetan people and their practices I was introduced to there, whose philosophies and understandings and methods I’ve welcomed and allowed to resonate in my mind -- has provided me with the greatest gift I believe one can ever receive -- the awakening of generosity.

Like a gramatically complete sentence, generosity needs an object, so, if you’re reading this and are a Chenrezig Projecteer, or a participant in any of the events we sponsor, thank you for allowing me the opportunity to share India’s fantastic insights and wisdoms with you. I will do the very best I can to communicate and (karma willing), help touch your mind with this same core component of true confidence and happiness -- generosity.

Next week we'll examine the Buddha's Four Immeasurables, with a focus on equanimity, the fertile ground from which dharma blossoms. We are all so fortunate.

Stopping the finger now, thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mohandas K. Gandhi

The Birla House in Delhi, January 30, 1948. He was a few minutes late for regular evening devotions, a crowd of about 500 had assembled. As he approached the people he touched his palms together in the traditional Hindu greeting.

Just then, a man elbowed his way out of the congregation into the lane in front of him, looking as though he wished to prostrate himself, the customary obeisance of the devout. But planting himself two feet in front of his target, he fired three shots from a small automatic pistol.

As the first bullet struck, Gandhi’s foot, which was in motion, descended to the ground, but he remained standing. The second bullet struck; blood began to stain Gandhi’s white clothes. His face turned ashen pale. His hands, which had been in the touch-palm position, descended slowly.

Gandhi murmured, "Hey Rama (Oh, God)." A third shot rang out. The limp body settled to the ground. His spectacles dropped to the earth. The leather sandals slipped from his feet.


On the day he died, Mahatma Gandhi was what he had always been: a private citizen without wealth, property, official title, official post, academic distinction, scientific achievement, or artistic gift. Yet men with powerful governments and armies behind them paid homage to the little brown man of 78 in a loincloth.

General George Marshall, the United States Secretary of State, said, "Mahatma Gandhi was the spokesman for the conscience of all mankind."

Pope Pius, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi of London, the King of England, President Truman, Chiang-Kai-shek, the President of France and many other heads of important countries (but not Soviet Russia) expressed their grief at Gandhi’s passing.

Leon Blum, the French socialist, put on paper what millions felt, “I never saw Gandhi, I do not know his language, I never set foot in his country and yet I feel the same sorrow as if I had lost someone near and dear.”

Professor Albert Einstein said, “In our time of utter moral decadence, he was the only statesman to stand for a higher human relationship in the political sphere.”

Pearl S. Buck described Gandhi’s assassination as “another crucifixion.” Justice Felix Frankfurter called it “a cruel blow against the forces of good in the world.”

General Douglas MacArthur, supreme Allied military commander in Japan, said: “In the evolution of civilization, if it is to survive, all men cannot fail eventually to adopt Gandhi’s belief that the mass application of force to resolve contentious issues is not only wrong but contains within itself the germs of self-destruction.”


Few of us in the West know much about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi beyond the icons: the spinning wheel, the walking stick, the spectacles, the fasts, Satyagraha, non-violence, the spindly little brown man leading crowds of Indians toward independence through civil disobediance, the familiar images captured in fuzzy black-and-white photos and news reels.

He belonged to the Vaisya caste. In the old Hindu social scale, the Vaisyas stood third, far below the Brahmins who were the number one caste and the Kshatriyas, or rulers and soldiers who ranked second. The Vaisyas, in fact, were only a notch above the Sudras, the working class (‘Gandhi’ means grocer).

From my travels in India I have come to learn how deeply venerated Gandhi-ji is. His image appears on every piece of Indian paper money, regardless of the amount. Three generations after his death, his photo hangs in stores; statues, busts, likenesses are common. Mention him in conversations with Indians and their eyes light-up.

The Raj Ghat, the site of his cremation, is in a beautiful park in the center of Delhi. An eternal flame burns on the site, where to the cries and moans and wails of more than two million onlookers, Ramdas Gandhi set fire to his father’s funeral pyre. The fire burned for more than 14 hours, all the while prayers were sung; the entire text of the Bhagavad Gita was read. To this day there is always a crowd there, silent, respectful, in love with the memory of this precious man.

I’ve been to the Raj Ghat a couple of times, but never to the National Gandhi Museum which sits across the street. This morning, the last of this time in India, I visited.

As museums go, it is not visually spectacular, it actually has the feel more of a comfortable library, as it has been well-used (how lovely for a museum!) and there is much to read. Admission is free, donations encouraged. Halls and rooms display quotes and photos, amazing ones, following Gandhi from his days as a law student in London to a lawyer and Indian rights organizer in South Africa to his remarkable life as the man who led the fight for Indian independence from British rule.

There are signs throughout the museum requesting silence, they are unnecessary. If ever there were corridors of human brilliance so intense that there could be nothing but silence in response, it is these.

On prominent display is the walking stick with which he led the famous Salt march, where in civil disobedience he broke the British law making it a punishable crime to possess salt not obtained from the British salt monopoly.

His spectacles are there to be seen, his bed, his trusty pocketwatch, his dentures, his bowls, as are many of his diverse notes, letters and diaries of commentary so important to the morals and independence of this magnificent country. Clothes that he wore, books that he owned and wrote notes in, personal items all there to be shared.

At the end of one room, the heart aches, legs grow weak. Many photos of his body lying in state, on the funeral pyre, burning. His children, his friends, his followers, the people of India -- so many terribly sad faces. There is the urn in which his ashes were carried, a bullet that was removed from his body, the blood-stained cloths he was wearing when he was shot.

Museum turns to temple with these holy relics. People approach softly, with eyes frozen in sadness they look, then slowly leave quickly, heads down.


He had no personal hatred of Mahatma Gandhi, Nathuram Godse said at his trial, at which he was sentenced to be hanged: “Before I fired the shots I actually wished him well and bowed to him in reverence.”

In response to Godse’s obeisance and the reverential bows of other members of the congregation, Gandhiji touched his palms together, smiled and blessed them. Then, the shots.


He was a great human being, Mohandas K. Gandhi, perhaps the finest of the 20th century. If you have the inclination, you’ll benefit greatly by learning more about him, his life, his ideas, his actions.

Stopping the finger now, thanks for reading.

(Some of the above Jan. 30, 1948 description and quotes from Louis Fischer's "The Life of Mahatma Gandhi."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Final day thoughts . . .

It’s Tuesday morning, January 12, and tonight at 11pm my Delhi-Newark flight is scheduled to depart.

In an e-mail I received yesterday I was asked if I’m going to blog a “wrap-up” piece, and I really don’t think I can . . . so much has occurred in this past month, I believe the paint has to dry a bit before a final picture (if such a thing exists) emerges.

But I do have some thoughts floating around, and will jot them down here, as always, I hope they inspire some thought on your side; thank you for reading.

Outties and Innies

I don’t know if this is still the case, but years ago, some delivering doctors at childbirth would tie off the cord in a fashion that provided an “outtie” belly-button and others an “innie” -– an outtie being one with a little kind-of-knot. I remember as a kid this was at times a topic of conversation, an early version of “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine.”

Neither (outtie or innie) was better, just different.

Well, I think the “outtie” and “innie” idea, in a subtle yet deep way, applies to much more than belly-buttons. It applies to how we go about living our lives.

Outties is the style in which we primarily take that which is available to us, depend on it, live for it, and bring it inside for our own use. Some common refrains of outties are “I need” and “I’m bored.”

Innies primarily work with what is available to them inside; depending on what comes from the outside for survival and nourishment for that which exists in their minds and hearts.

In life, each person can take one of two attidudes: to build (outties) or to plant (innies). The builders might take years over their tasks, but one day they finish what they’re doing. Then they find that they’re hemmed-in by their own walls. Life loses much of its meaning when the building stops.

Then there are those who plant. They endure storms and all the many hardships of the seasons, and they rarely rest. But, unlike a building, a garden never stops growing. And while it requires the gardener’s constant attention, it also allows life for the gardener to be a great adventure.

Gardeners always recognize each other, because they know that in the history of each plant lies the growth of the whole world.

I have been quite fortunate to have spent the past month in the presence of many gardeners. I hope to be able to bring what I have learned back to my loved ones, friends and acquaintances.

The Two Indias

On the train from Gaya to Delhi I shared a sleeper-compartment with two Indian men, one a chemical engineer for Shell Oil, who was traveling to Delhi to return to his assignment in Stavenger, Norway. The other was an IT professional who was on the way to Bangalore, from where he managed his company’s “cloud computing” facilities in Singapore and Malaysia.

For my benefit, each of them spoke flawless fluent English, were personable, friendly and very well-informed about world affairs; in the four hours or so we spent together talking, our topics ranged from Obama to China to the caste system to international banking to the differences in cultural attitude between the Hong Kong and Singporean workforces.

These men, each in their forties, are citizens of the planet; they are pragmatic, ambitious, scholarly, analytical and seem to be very happy in their lives.

With a population four times that of the U.S., there are many, many more people like these in India, eager and able to take their place in the global community.

They are India in the 21st century.


Bodhgaya, were I spent the past few weeks is in the Indian state of Bihar, an Indian basketcase.

Bihar is the poorest of Indian states, and crime is rampant. Each year, the seasons bring floods and droughts, keeping development down and life very difficult.i

Biharians have always been a object of scorn and ridicule in India. Biharians were the indentured laborers who did the heavy and dirty work, that dynamic still exists. Biharians still pedal the rickshaws of Delhi, their daughters continue to be sold into service in the brothels of Mumbai.

Gun-toting men are a common sights on the streets of the cities (Patna and Gaya). Recently, a local corrupt power-broker went live on TV, daring the state chief of police to arrest him. Kidnappings for ransom are commonplace.

When I was at the Gaya train station at midnight, waiting for my train to Delhi, I knew I was in the darkest, dirtiest, most sinister place I had ever been in my life.

55% of the Bihari population is below the national poverty line, the national average is 33%.

Only 20% of the children (those who are known, many are born in the villages, completely off the grid) are fully immunized from disease (all India: 42%). Almost 60% of these children are underweight (38%); 45% of the women are underweight, the highest percentage in the country.

There is a stunningly heart-breaking display of human illness and misery on the streets.

70% percent of the inhabited areas in Bihar are not connected by motorable roads, industry comprises only 2% of its economy.

82 million people live in Bihar, and the population continues to grow at more than 3% each year. More than 90% live in the “rural” areas.
Terrorist attacks in Bihar are a regular occurrence, both on a tribal basis and a socio-political one (there are, as one might expect in such a poverty-stricken area, Maoist influences taking root from Nepal, which borders Bihar to the north. There are murders, massacres and train bombings.

This said, I have seen few things more beautiful than sunrise over the Biharian rice fields, and met several Biharians I am proud to call friends.

Bihar too, is India in the 21st century.

Odds and Ends

Well, today is my final day of my time here, this morning I am going to visit the National Gandhi Museum and learn more about the great Mahatma. I have been reading a biography of him, and have come to learn how much more there was behind the world famous iconic image.

In the afternoon it's a business meeting, and then off to IGI (Indira Gandhi International) for the long trip back.

I look forward to seeing everyone back home, it has been just a month but seems so much longer. Many stories to relate. I seem to have found my elusive “writing voice” -- whether this is an India-only occurrence we’ll see, I enjoy it and hope to continue once back home.

And oh yeah, for those of you who are curious, from my friend Cynthia, an Australian woman in Bodhgaya for HHDL's teachings, Richard Gere has just an “ordinary” butt.

Stopping the finger now, thanks for reading.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Tibetan wisdom we all can practice . . .

Sometimes the seed of an idea makes itself known and then slips away. A little bit later, perhaps a day or two, it pops up again, feeling a little familiar now, a sensibility or a thought, not yet quite strong enough to be a real idea. And then it happens again, and at some point you realize that abiding is an idea that stands on its own, and deserves some attention . . .


As many know, the methods of Tibetan Buddhist practice have roots that extend deeply into the astrophysics and medical systems that developed and have emerged from Tibet. These systems are among the greatest legacies of Tibetan Buddhist civilization. Many travelers to the Tibetan settlements of India have, upon falling ill, been treated by Tibetan doctors and treated their illness with Tibetan medicines. This includes me.

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend regular time teaching conversational English to a student/scientist at the Men-Tsee-Khang, the Tibetan Medical and Astrophysical College in Dharamsala (the first Men-Tsee-Khang, or Lhasa Tibetan Medical Institute, was established by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1916).

I provide this background not to go into a discussion of Tibetan medicine or science, for which I am sorely under-qualified, but to speak about a quality called “delight.”

I’d like to quote the writing of Thubten Gyatso, a once Australian doctor now Buddhist monk:

“In the mid-1970’s, before I became a Buddhist, my interest in Tibetan medicine took me to Northern India, where I met Dr. Drolma, a Tibetan woman practicing traditional medicine in Dharamsala. . . . Dr. Drolma accepted my request to accompany her as an observer, and as she was seeing patients I could not help but compare her office with the outpatients department at the hospital in Australia where I recently worked.

“There was no comparison. Her diagnostic method of simply reading the pulse and observing the bubbles in urine was one thing, but the great difference was in her relationship with her patients. She loved them, and they loved her.

“The clinic was filled with the warmth of loving-kindness, so different than the impersonal atmosphere in Australia. Whatever the merits of her diagnostic method and her fascinating herbal remedies, I became convinced that the renowned therapeutic efficiency of Dr. Drolma was due to the power of her loving-kindness.”


We’ll now hear from Dr. Tsewang Tamding, the pharmaceutical director at the Men-Tse-Khang, from a journal article I was reading while eating breakfast:

“Tibetan doctors are respected because of their unique system of diagnosis and their gentle way of speaking. The way one speaks to a patient is very important. During conversation, your speech should touch a patient’s heart, which will definitely make them feel happy and hearty.”


And the last of the “dots” in this picture comes from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in a quote I mentioned a few days ago: “If we wish to help people we should delight them, so they become receptive to what we have to offer.”

This is the one that I’ve been thinking about, that keeps popping to the surface. Please read it again, and allow it to take root: “If we wish to help people we should delight them, so they become receptive to what we have to offer.”

This is exactly what the Tibetan doctors are doing with their patients, creating “delight” in their minds, so they are best able to be helped. This is what the Dalai Lama does, in the ways he talks and interacts with people.

“Delighting others” is such a wonderful way of summarizing what the Buddhist path is all about. It doesn’t imply fooling or tricking or being false, but having present and using those qualities that truly are delightful: joy, honesty, patience, kindness, wisdom, skillful means, etc.

And why should it only be Tibetan doctors who “delight” others in the fulfilling of their duties? Why not all of us?

Why not office workers, and bank tellers, and Western doctors and dentists and nurses, why not real estate people, or teachers, or librarians, or consultants, or accountants, or landscapers?

Why not husbands and wives and neighbors and congregants, bowling buddies and fellow PTA members, acquaintances and lovers and once-lovers? Why not “delight” the man who bags your groceries at Publix or the clerk at the drivers’ license bureau?

The benefits of doing this are enormous. You'll see straight-out that in delighting them, you'll also be delighting yourself, this is guaranteed. And what you do, and how you do it, and with whom you do it, when done with an intention of “delighting other” will, in His Holiness’ words, enable them to be “more receptive to what we have to offer.”

And Mahayana Buddhism teaches and shows us that we have so much to offer.

So think about this, mull it over, and then, if the inclination rises, act. Don’t leave it to others to change the world, do it yourself, as you can. "Delighting others" would be a fantastic way to start.

Stopping the finger now, thanks for reading.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

A cornucopia of Dharma

Day three of HHDL teachings, much warmer than the past two, began with prayers and recitations of the Heart Sutra, once in Tibetan (as usual) and then once in Japanese by a small group of monks.

His Holiness then continued his “fireside” talks to the assembled, discussing the Tibetan language, Himalayan environmental issues, brain plasticity, the meditating mind at the time of and after death, the teachings of the Vinaya, the Copenhagen summit, non-Tibetan Himalayans, the remembering (with anecdotes) of past lives, anger, bodhicitta, overcoming fear in the face of certain impending death at the hands of the Chinese, and many other topics.

At one point I wrote in my notebook, “He is on fire!” He was.

Here’s a series of His Holiness’ statements and messages:

“As Tibet declines, the Himalayan people (Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, etc.) need to take responsibility for preserving the teachings – this is my hope.” (He spoke of how the enrollment of Tibetan children in the Tibetan schools of India is declining, and he has spoken to Indian school officials to begin including Himalayan children of immediate non-Tibetan descent to enroll.)

“It is not science and technology that cause problems, but how people use them.”

“The teachings of the Buddha are like a nectar for the ears of sentient beings.”

“The educational system needs to teach about the mind, but not as an aspect of religion.”

“Happiness is not contingent on external circumstances.”

“The Chinese leaders are not able to see the long-term consequences of what they do, only the short-term.”

“We all have the mental thoughts and feelings that make us unhappy: delusions and afflictions. These afflictions are diseases within ourselves which must be dealt with, we can’t just leave them alone . . . ultimately, it is wisdom that is the antidote.”

“I know many rich people who have all the amenities in life but are very unhappy.”

“We are talking about cultivating happiness in human beings, and to do so it is necessary to understand the states of mind.”

“Western science deals primarily with the brain, not so much the mind, which has been our tradition.”

“Afflictions are only temporary . . . we must know this.”

“Why do we neglect sentient beings and revere the Buddhas?”

“Buddhism’s ultimate goals are obstructed by selfishness.”

“Scientists speak in terms of neurons . . . but in the subtler levels of the mind, scientists can not explain how consciousness arises.”

“Consciousness cannot be produced by something other than consciousness.”

“Live a good life here, the next one will be taken care of.”

“Even when we were in the womb, our mother’s peace of mind was essential for our well-being.”

“Bodhicitta is the greatest good heart, put your best efforts toward generating this.”

“Have the courage to steer your mind toward the perfection of bodhicitta.”

“Without an aspiration for bodhicitta, you are outside of the Mahayana path.”

“In order to tame others, you must first tame yourself.”

“Bodhicitta does not mean disregarding or not loving yourself . . . this is wrong. We use the seed of self-love to develop love for others.”

“Intention and motivation are not enough; to overcome ignorance you have to develop the view that cuts at the root.”

“Yesterday I was cold, today I am hot.”


OK, kids, that’s your “Ocean of Wisdom” blast for today. Thank you for letting me share it with you. Tomorrow is the final day of teachings, how quickly the time goes.

I've been reading about the sub-freezing temps in central Florida, please keep warm. I look forward to my return next week!

Stopping the finger now, thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

"Even your dreams will be happy"

Perhaps the coldest morning yet turned into a beautiful sunny day as His Holiness continued his teachings. The crowds were larger today than yesterday, perhaps with many late arrivals.

Getting to Bodhgaya is apparently very difficult as the thick overnight fog is causing extensive delays on the train lines into Gaya, the nearest station. There is a small airport in Gaya, really just a strip, that flies one flight a day to Bangkok and one every couple of days to Chenai.

After His Holiness’ teachings, Lama Zopa Rinpoche led a candlelight march around the Mahabodhi Stupa in support of creating a vegetarian-only zone in Bodhgaya, it was attended by what seemed to be a couple of thousand people and co-led by Richard Gere, who created quite a stir in town when he emerged from the car with Lama Zopa at the march’s starting point.

Hollywood star power, even here in Dharma-land.

After tonight I have just two more nights in Bodhgaya before I travel to Delhi on the overnight train, which departs Gaya close to midnight on Jan. 9th after His Holiness concludes his teachings that morning with a Long Life Empowerment for all in attendance. I have accomplished what I came for and will be ready to go.

During today’s teachings, His Holiness again addressed the Tibetans, and especially the monastics. It remains so precious to be able to listen to his words and tone as he speaks not to the citizens of the world, or non-Buddhists, as is so often the case when we hear his soundbites, but to his people.

Today’s teachings covered many different topics, His Holiness was quite expository, and he included an extensive discussion of the Noble Eightfold Path, the “leisures” of precious human rebirth, the minds of the Sept. 11 terrorists, and some Lam-rim teachings.

Some of today’s messages, again, many of them practical and for the benefit of his beloved monastic students:

“In Mongolia, the Dharma is being destroyed by those who do not take it seriously.”

“In the past, many people took Tibetan Buddhism to be our custom, but now there is much necessary study taking place.”

“For us Tibetans, our identity is linked to Buddhism.”

“For someone who is a Buddhist, there is no way you can be unsure about taking refuge in the Three Jewels.”

“On the ultimate level, there is, of course, no such thing as attainment or cessation.”

“It is best to wake up early in the morning, and when reciting prayers, think about the meaning, not just the words.”

“Right speech includes not being a hypocrite, but tough love, speaking harshly, is OK . . . in the long run it will help the person although it may be a little difficult at first.”

“A true Muslim cannot harm sentient beings, cannot cause bloodshed.”

“I’m just a simple monk, following the Buddha. I always check myself, it is important for you to do likewise.”

“We live in exile, we must be very careful, it is as if we are in a blizzard, we must be very careful.”

“If you live honestly, even in your dreams you will be happy.”

“It is much easier to practice religion with eyes and ears, and much harder to practice religion that has to do with the development of the mind.”

“Contemplate this (the beauty of Dharma) again and again with the highest joy.”

“If you disregard Dharma and say that everything is empty, this is a harmful, nihilistic view.”

“Lama Tsong Khapa really took great pains to deal with the difficult points of the classical texts, showing his scholarly knowledge and detailed reasoning.”

“Our life of leisure (to practice Dharma) is more precious than a wish-granting jewel.”

“If we wish to help people we should delight them, so they become receptive to what we have to offer.”

“When it comes to your Dharma practice, do not put your rope in the hands of others.”

During the afternoon teaching His Holiness had the place in a laughing uproar as he called upon the lay people in the crowd to relieve the monks in serving tea. Many did and he poked fun at them as they did so. He just sat and cackled in that familiar way, and the monks followed his lead. It was a riot and really served to make all feel even more together.

Personally, today’s teachings had an ease about them, a relaxation . . . every now and then a slight transformation of consciousness, a certain feel . . . to be sitting in a field in India -- in this place -- taking direct teachings from the Buddha . . . is this all a dream we dreamed so many lifetimes long ago?

Stopping the finger now, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

HHDL: Day 1

It has been a memorable day, His Holiness was magnificent in his teachings, I really don’t think I can communicate how fortunate I am to be here, in the middle of this.

One of the things that is so special about His Holiness’ teachings in India is that he is not teaching to Americans or Australians or Europeans, he is teaching to Tibetans – his people. The Kalachakra Field was jammed with people, I’d say there are about 25,000 people there, truth is it is impossible to say, and I’d estimate 90% of them are Tibetans, with the remaining being a mix of Westerners and Indians. Of the Tibetans, three quarters are lamas, monks and nuns.

Unlike in the West, where he is publicly speaking primarily to non-Buddhists except for some special teachings, here he is speaking to Buddhists, i.e., Tibetan Tibetan Buddhists. And for these people he is spiritual leader, political leader, God-figure, and Dad. They love him, and he they.

So, after some prayers and recitation of the Heart Sutra, he spent this morning speaking not about the texts he’s going to teach, but about what he’s been up to, a report to his people. He spoke about conferences he’s attended in Spain and Poland, and a recent trip to Mongolia. He told them about advances in science and medicine, and how scientists and researchers are learning more and more about the mind. He mentioned Obama and China, and (with pride) about the pure “Nalanda” tradition the Gelugs follow, and how scholars around the world are in increasing agreement with its philosophies and practices.

He repeatedly “scolded” his people, telling them very early on that these teachings will be a waste of their time and his if they don’t use them to help turn their mind to dharma, and how they must study in order to become “21st Century Buddhists.”

During the morning teaching, monks came through the crowd, serving tea and Tibetan bread to everyone, in the afternoon it was again tea.

His Holiness’ afternoon teaching, on Nagarjuna, was brilliant, covering topics such as the nature of mind, the three major questions regarding self, a comparison of Buddhism and Jainism with the world’s monotheistic religions, a discussion of the Mahayana path, monastics and the monks of Mongolia, Buddha’s turning of the wheel of Dharma, a deep explanation of dependent origination, etc.

Do you see how wide-ranging incredible this is?

His voice is strong, with tone sometimes forceful, others gentle. He sits on a high seat, surrounded by glorious thangkas, monastics gathered on either side. He is animated, and thoughtful.

His two-hour teachings are in Tibetan, there is clear, almost simultaneous translation being FM broadcast, with frequencies for English, French, Russian, Spanish and Chinese students; a true world event. (There are very few Americans here, most of the Westerners here are Australian.)

Here’s some quotes I jotted down, perhaps you’ll find some meaning in them:

“Buddhism provides the most profound and relevant explanations of the workings of mind.”

“You can’t buy love and compassion with money, these must be cultivated within yourself.”

“The mind that asserts that there is a self that is independent of the aggregates . . . Buddha said this is evil, a devilish mind.”

“If you don’t want to be a monk, don’t wear the robes.”

“Altruism is a medicine that can overcome 100 diseases.”

(Speaking to the Tibetan people who came to this teaching from Tibet): So, have you heard something new? There are so many restrictions placed on you by the Chinese. When you get back, tell people about dependent origination. And if they ask you a question you don’t know the answer to, tell them, ‘I don’t know, but there is something . . .’”

“In the Himalayan region people are faithful without much understanding – we must be 21st Century Buddhists; we must cultivate faith based on reason and understanding.”

“Understanding dependent origination is having the path to liberation.”

“There is no self that is separate from the aggregates; there is no self-sufficient autonomous self.”

“All objects of knowledge exist in name only, not from their own side.”

“If words and their meaning were not different, the word ‘fire’ would burn the mouth.”

”Things arise due to causes and conditions and thus are unborn.”

“Be critical and check over and over again.”

“An existent thing does not arise.”

“There is no thing that is not dependent, therefore there is no thing that is not empty.”

“There is no present moment, therefore we cannot posit ‘past’ or ‘future’ in relation to this.”


Tomorrow it’s two more teachings. We’ll go deeper into Buddhist scholarship with Atisha’s practice-oriented Lam-rim writings. Very fantastic and, at times, surreally wonderful.

It’s the Dalai Lama in Bodhgaya. He is at the exact center of this huge and exquisite mandala that's been created on the plains of Northern India, a mandala of pure Dharma preciousness that we've been invited to enter, open our minds to, and benefit from.

Stopping my finger now, thanks for reading.

Monday, January 04, 2010

A "Pure Land"

I saw the Dalai Lama today. Twice.


Today has been a pretty good day so far, is about 4:30pm, I had my first hot shower in three weeks (the hot water geyser is finally working) and went to town to meet some friends for lunch at the new little restaurant at the Shechen (Nyingma) Monastery. Quite delicious!

Before meeting I walked over to the Mahabodhi Stupa, ground zero in this incredible place, and as I arrived his Holiness, who arrived here this morning, was coming out. The path leading in to the Stupa and the walkways around it were of course closed for security, and there were thousands of people watching and chanting and prostrating as he climbed the steps, got into his waiting white Ambassador, and was driven off accompanied by what seemed to be 50% of the Indian Army.

A friend mentioned that he seems to be walking a little stooped-over; it seems so.

Later, after lunch, His Holiness was in the Ambassador, going from the Mahabodhi Museum to the Tibetan Gelug Monastery where he is staying. Again, a crowd. Again, that uniquely unmistakable feeling of lifting a few inches off the ground upon seeing him.

So things are coming closer, the teachings begin tomorrow with a transmission of Nagarjuna’s In Praise of the Transcendental. During the days following will be Atisha's Lamp of the Path to Enlightenment, Longchen Rinpoche's Mind In Comfort and Ease and Lama Tsong-Kha-Pa’s Short Version of the Stages of the Path To Enlightenment. On the last morning he will confer a long-life empowerment on those in attendance.

Speaking of Lama Atisha, his relics are on display at the Shechen Monastery where I ate lunch (no, not in the restaurant).

Tonight it’s over to the Kagyu Monastery for a traditional Tibetan music and dance exhibition, which will be attended by both the Karmapa and Dalai Lamas. Like everything here, all the teachings, free admission; just bring your passport to register for a pass.

The town is full, people from all around the world have arrived. Snake charmers, sadhus, Asians, Westerners, movie stars (Richard Gere is here, just another student, staying where I am.) The fog has lifted, it has been sunny and quite beautiful, tonight will be cool.

A “pure land” is a place where the conditions are such that the practice of Dharma is completely encouraged, supported and effortless. Bodhgaya, right now, is a pure land.


When one sees or hears His Holiness the Dalai Lama in person, one is, I believe, in the presence of a man in possession of the very best qualities humans can aspire to.

“A simple Buddhist monk” just a simple Buddhist monk” – His Holiness often says this phrase and people usually smile and think that he is being too modest, striking a pose of studied humility, trying to contradict his obvious presence of enormous charisma, radiant good humor, flashing intelligence. But read some of the many books he has written, learn more about him, talk to people who know him, and you’ll find out that he lives his life, as best he can, according to the lifestyle of just what he says he is, a simple Buddhist monk.

Of course, he does have multiple identities.

He is a human being, of course, a male, the descendent of farmers, herdsmen and strong working women of the province of Amdo in far northeastern Tibet, close to where Tibet meets Mongolia, China and Turkestan. He is a Tibetan.

After a human being, his next identity is that of a Buddhist monk, a person who has taken and maintains the vows of personal non-violence, poverty, celibacy, and spiritual honesty, and who spends most of his waking energy in the pursuit of a personal enlightenment believed to last for all time, to satisfy the self with unimaginable fullness and to benefit countless other beings.

As a monk he minimizes his distractions and maximizes his simplicity.

As a monk he works on dissolving habitual egotism, including the rigidity of his human, sexual and national identities.

As a monk he lives close to the bone, and also strives to be a universal being.

He also constantly creates – he calls it “shaping his motivation” – his working identity as a Bodhisattva, a driven being who has dedicated all his lives to the attainment of perfect enlightenment, complete wisdom and inexhaustible compassion, in order to be able to help all other beings find freedom from suffering.

He says that his religion is the common human religion of kindness, of love, of compassion, of universal responsibility. And he sees not just the pope, or grand rebbes, or other religious leaders as his spiritual peers, but everyone.

Every day he labors to lead his people and fulfill his responsibility to preserve and rule his nation, the Tibetan nation that has been under genocidal pressure for over half a century, in such mortal danger that Tibetans should be on the endangered humans list.

For his Tibetan people he is a statesman, a politician, a diplomat, a personnel manager, a chief executive officer. He maintains these duties in exile as a refugee.

He is a committed scholar and a prolific writer, researching deeply the philosophical, psychological, and religious literature of his sophisticated civilization as well as exploring the modern sciences and literatures. He studies incessantly with a variety of tutors and teaches extensively, both advanced students in the Tibetan Buddhist monastic community and the entire Tibetan populace, as well as an ever-growing public of spiritual seekers around the world. He speaks to all with clarity and sincerity, with a good sense of humor and an unfailing optimism.

He is also an accomplished meditation master, a teacher of esoteric ritual and contemplative traditions. His precise knowledge of the sacred tantric worlds, of the elaborate arts and procedures, his graceful gestures, magnificent chanting and both eloquent and profound explanations of the advanced contemplative practices leave even his veteran disciples in amazement.

And he is a peacemaker for the world, a Nobel Peace Laureate, an inspirer of world leaders both political and religious who have been fortunate enough to encounter him. His message to them never wavers: do not settle for the harmful by-products of blind institutional momentum, but take responsibility for the poor and the oppressed, use good sense and good will to solve the problems that beset our world, and do not give in to despair and cynicism while hiding behind power and privilege.

He patiently offers the alternative of constructive dialog as balm for violence and prejudice.

He is a magnificent person who can make us feel how utterly worthwhile it is to be a human being.

I saw the Dalai Lama today. Twice. His teachings begin tomorrow.

Stopping my finger now, thanks for reading.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Sniffles and fog

Sunday morning in Bodhgaya, not much new to report.

It has become foggy and bone-chilling cold, am hoping the sun breaks through and warms things up a bit but it is already 10:30 and all is dark grey. I am wearing every long-sleeved garment I brought, and have a wool scarf snuggly wrapped around my neck.

Yesterday saw my first bout with sickness, stomach stuff and chills and very tired; took a three-hour nap, woke up for some dinner and then went back to sleep for the night nestled under three blankets, feel much better today although the stomach is a little unsettled. As always there is much sickness here, people sneezing and coughing and sniffling, and this cold weather is not helping.

So it's a lazy morning, just hanging around, drinking tea, in conversations, lunch will be at 11:30 and then I’ll go into town, to the Stupa, drink some hot chai, do some practice, etc. Kind of feels like a day off, and am treating it as such.

His Holiness’ teachings begin the day after tomorrow, with them begins the last “stage” of my Bodhgaya stay.

The teachings end on Jan. 9th, on the evening of the 10th I am booked on the Radhjani Express train to Delhi (Radhjani means “capital” and there is a series of express trains, the cream of the Indian Railways system – the largest in the world -- that go into and out of Delhi with this name). My train is scheduled to leave Gaya (a sinister town about 10km north of here) at 11pm, arriving in Delhi at 10:30 on Jan. 11th, the morning following.

But for the past three days there has been thick fog, and apparently January is the month for fog in the Ganges plains. And fog causes great delays in the trains here where there are no electronic systems in place, it’s all red lights and green lights and manual stop-and-go, even on the main lines -- two trains on the main Kolkata-Delhi line apparently collided last night.

So, in the fog, especially for the overnight trains, delays of 24 hours are not uncommon. My flight to the US departs Delhi at 11pm on the evening of the 12th, and there shouldn’t be any real problem with getting to Delhi in time to make my flight, but if there’s one thing I have come to learn about India, and especially travel here, it is that the Gods heap rolls of laughter upon those who expect to keep to their schedules.

And so it goes. I’ve seen that it is quite cold in central Florida – hoping all are keeping warm and happy.

Stopping my finger now, thanks for reading.

Ritual as starting-point

As I’ve been writing these pieces I realize I am referring quite a bit to rituals: pujas, sadhanas, prayers, mantra recitations, prostrations, offerings, practices to nurture the dharma protectors, etc. There are also many moral rules one follows, especially staying where I am, which strives to maintain a semi-monastic environment.

I know many Westerners, including at one time myself, get the creeps when it comes to what they perceive to be religious rituals, in fact, many people say it is or was the rituals that drove them away from religious practice in the first place.

So like to talk a little bit about these rules and rituals.

In my mind, moral rules and rituals are meaningful when they are practiced in the right spirit, that is to say, after complete understanding and with clear awareness. If we celebrate a ritual merely as a matter of routine, or because it is prescribed by tradition or convention, then it is not only useless, but a hindrance. If a ritual is carried out consciously, conscientiously, and with a complete understanding of its meaning, then it becomes an act of meditation – a meditation that is born within, transferred without and turned into action.

So, when we offer incense or flowers to the Buddha, a normal ritual of offering, we should not imagine that we are doing the Buddha a service, but rather that we are doing something good for ourselves and our fellow sentient beings. It is an expression of striving for enlightenment for ourselves and for the whole world. It expresses our gratitude and readiness to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha to awaken the still sleeping qualities of enlightenment within ourselves.

Buddhas are everywhere, from the ancient temples of India to the garden ornament department in every Walmart in central Florida. Get past the iconic commercialism, let your judgments pass on, and realize the incredible opportunity this presents.

For some, the representations of Buddha may be crass commercialism at work, but those who really understand what they’re seeing look upon a Buddha image as something that reminds them of the Buddha within themselves, as an expression of that great ideal that the historical Buddha realized in his life, and that they, too, can realize in theirs. (In this regard, how wonderful that there representations of Buddhas everywhere!)

So, we’re not doing the Buddha or Bodhisattvas favors by honoring them -- I don't believe they need our favors :-) -- but we are strengthening our own determination to bring the Dharma to realization.

When we look at a statue or thangka of Buddha, even if we know nothing about Buddhism, we see a representation of a perfectly spiritual human being, a human being who never lost the firm ground of reality, because he accepted and ennobled his bodily existence without clinging to it, without depending on it, and thus lived in peace with himself and the world.

What inner bliss and happiness are mirrored in his face, what equanimity and calm appears in every limb of his body, what profound silence and harmony!

Here there are no more wishes, there us no desire, no restlessness, no insecurity, no chasing after material things, no dependence on anything at all. Here is the highest bliss: in a word – completeness, perfection.


Prostrations are commonly used to express our veneration to these aspects of ourselves that the Buddha represents. We can raise our joined hands to our foreheads, to honor the highest realization, to call to mind that we too can realize it by stimulating and activating these higher, more subtle centers of consciousness to a higher awakening.

In prostration, we touch our foreheads to the ground, an exercise in humility, something that comes with great difficulty to Westerners. It feels uncomfortable and hurts our pride, our vanity, our ego and our false sense of dignity. But in reality, this touching of the ground with our foreheads is not only an act of (healthy) humility, but also a symbol that the highest consciousness has to descent into the depth of material existence and that the earth is the basis, the womb of all development and spiritual realization.

This representative descending into material existence is meaningful.

As long as we consider matter and spirit as irreconcilable opposites, we split the world into two halves and lose the ground under out feet. If mind cannot find expression in material form, or in some action or achievement in life, it remains a mere thought or a vague emotion that remains hidden, never finding expression in words, deeds or works or art.

If Michelangelo, or Falkner, or Frost, or Mozart had never given expression to their feelings in sculptures, music, paintings, writings or poems, the world would never have received the gift of their creations.

This is true of us “ordinary” humans as well; those who do not give form to their feelings and thoughts by expressing them in some shape or other have lived, I believe, in vain, whereas those who have expressed their feelings and thoughts in works and deeds have both enriched their own experiences and contributed to the well-being and development of all.

So, to bring this back to where it started (thanks for staying with it), ritual is one form -- a starting point, if you will -- in which, regardless of our religious beliefs or practices we can learn and then perfect the expression of our deepest and feelings.

But the rituals and rules we engage in must be the expression of clear thought, or genuine feeling. Otherwise they become just the empty repetition of conventional forms, a significant obstacle on the path.

Stopping the finger now, thanks for reading.

Friday, January 01, 2010

On the bus

Trouble ahead, trouble behind
And you know that notion just crossed my mind.

The above words, as applied to the natural laws of cause and effect, portray an understanding of karma that any Buddhist would recognize and accept. But they originate not with a teacher or lama or sutra or scripture, or from the Himalayas or the Ganges plains.

They are from a popular song, lyrics written and performed by the Grateful Dead. I will sprinkle lyrics in bold italic type throughout this piece that I see as being quite interpretive to the Dharma path.


There is something about the dharma path, especially as it relates to the India-Nepal circuit, that is similar in some very significant ways to that of the path of those who listened to and belonged to what was referred to the extended Grateful Dead “family” – especially in the America in the late 60’s and 70’s before it became an industry.

These days many people roll their eyes at the mention of the Grateful Dead, that anachronism from days bygone. But for those who were a part of it (Garcia called it the next best thing to running away with the circus), it was so very rich.

The Grateful Dead thing was was called being on "the bus" . . . practicing dharma i s being on the "path to enlightenment/"

(I’m going to poke around and have some fun with this idea for awhile. I believe there are many parallel and complimentary aspects -- and of course, many differences as well -- if you’re reading this I suppose I came up with enough to publish it.)

Inspiration, move me brightly . . .

Initially small but growing is the number of people I’m running into here in Bodhgaya that I know from previous times I’ve been in India/Nepal, familiar people I haven't seen in years.

But this isn’t like a school reunion, where one meets up with people they have had no connection with for years, and are off doing disparate things. There is a warmth and familiarity as old faces see one another and connect, a delight that is akin to running into an old friend that you always knew you’d see again, just not sure when or where.

This is all a dream we dreamed some afternoon, long ago . . .

So, who just got here from Dharamsala, or Kathmandu, or Mongolia, or Kolkata, or who flew in from the USA or London or Australia or Mexico City. Who has just come out of an extended retreat, or is about to go into one. People looking just a little bit older, but with the same clarity and serenity shining through their eyes.

The traditional word for all these folks is “sangha” and it works. And all the travelling back and forth and the freedom that accompanies it makes it seem very “tribal.” There’s shared experiences that need not be communicated, a knowledge of certain “things” that accepts and bonds people regardless of what country they come from, what language they speak, how old they are, etc.

And it so reminds me of the Grateful Dead thing. That was a tribe too. People following the tour, from concert to concert, city to city, all sharing the same “hit.” Great friendships made, obstacles overcome, rides and rooms and sometimes beds shared, rich experiences had, always more on the horizon. Back then it was three nights at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley or the Manhattan Center; now it’s Mingyur Rinpoche’s teachings or a Lam-rim retreat at Tushita. The similarity of connected experience is, to me, inescapable.

Never could reach it, just slips away . . . but I try.

There are, of course many differences -- the Dharma path does not include mind-expanding drugs (but certainly does bring along real long-lasting and beneficial mind-expansion), and while the Grateful Dead experience was a shared one, there was no concept of bodhicitta or quieting the mind or any number of the practices that accompany the Mahayana methods of Buddhism. The concerts were loud and sometimes discordant, and come to think of it, not so unlike a Tibetan gompa during certain recitations at puja.

The clothes accompanying Dead tour are similar to Westerners' “gompa” style, especially for the women, where there is really very little difference. Beautiful soft flowing colors, loosely fitting. Sandals and barefoot. Back then, some sported images of Garcia and Grateful Dead iconic graphics, here for some it’s Dalai Lama quotes and Tibetan Om symbols.

Back then, men grew their hair long, here they shave it off; hair or no-hair as personal preference and perhaps statement.

Back then, filling the mind with perceived pleasurable sounds, sensations and thoughts and trying to suck each drop out of them; here it’s about not attaching to anything like that. That was concerned with "gross mind" . . . dharma practice centers around the subtle states of consciousness that exist under the gross.

Back then, it was Garcia’s guitar solos, whether the sweet and soft melodies that slithered like snakes darting in and out of woodpiles, or the ones that made you jump out of your skin. Here it is mantra, soft, beautiful mind-protecting mantra, the vibrations of sacred Sanskrit.

Both paths clearly appeal to a bit of a vagabond nature in its participants.


I think you get the point . . . within such different times, remarkable similarities . . . fun to think about, even more fun -- and fortunate -- to have travelled and tasted the unique enrichment of each.

Stopping the finger now, thanks for reading.