Mystic Mountain

Tsering Dhondup, born in Lhasa, Tibet, was 10 when he and his father walked over Himalayan passes to exile in India. Recalling the experience, he says, “In order to take my mind off the dangers that lurked beneath each step of the formidable Himalayan passes, my father told me a story so terrifying and riveting that it haunts me to this day!  Mystic Mountain is the story, it is also the rope that held me to life and helped me cross the Himalayas as a child.”

Dhondup now lives in San Jose, CA, where he translates Tibetan Buddhist teachings into English. He wrote and directed Mystic Mountain, a film version of the story his father told him, both because it’s a compelling psychological thriller, and “to help preserve the Tibetan language and enrich Tibetan oral storytelling.” Mystic Mountain was filmed in Nepal, close to the Tibetan border, where the often brooding landscape itself is a powerful presence.

After Kunga, the chief of a remote village is killed by sorcery and his body is stolen, his son, Tsewang, sets out to find the corpse. Everyone suspects Migmar, a sorcerer, who has gained black magic powers through worshipping Yama, the Lord of Death.

Everyone fears Migmar except a young girl, who understands how lonely he is, for she has the same feelings. The nature of the bond between the girl and the sorcerer is one of the core issues that unfolds as the movie progresses. You can watch the trailer here:

Mystic Mountain, produced by Snow Lion Films can be rented on Vimeo.

Additional information on the film and the filmmaker is available also. An 11 minute interview with Tsering Dhondup was broadcast in San Jose in 2015.

Anyone fascinated by the lore, the legends, and landscape of Tibet, as I am will enjoy this intimate glimpse into a land of mystery, legend, stark beauty, and people who live from the  heart.


Hungry Ghosts

Section of Hungry Ghosts Scroll, Kyoto, late 12th c., Public Domain

Section of Hungry Ghosts Scroll, Kyoto, late 12th c., Public Domain

In traditional Buddhist cosmology, there are six major realms of existence. Only two of these, the human and animal realms, are visible. The other four, which include both heavens and hells, are not manifest to our physical senses. Unlike Christian heaven and hell, none of these are forever – the length of one’s sojourn depends on karma.

Many contemporary teachers, while not denying the metaphysical reality of these regions, focus on our inner “location” in the here and now. One who is filled with love and compassion dwells in heaven. The one seething with anger, red in the face, like a devil, at that moment experiences one of the hells.

Hungry ghosts have a region all to themselves; their dominant trait is insatiable craving. Hungry ghosts are depicted with huge bellies but tiny throats and mouths – desperate hunger and thirst that can never find relief.

Never enough, there is never, ever enough,” is the mindset of hungry ghosts, both in the imagined subtle realm and in this world. Addictions and insatiable cravings of all sorts make us hungry ghosts. The pre-repentant Ebenezer Scrooge, the archetypal miser, is the best known western hungry ghost. Now, the Panama Papers reveal how widespread is this disease, and how it drives the leaders and elites in nations throughout the world. Nor do we, at least in “the free world,” get to sit back and righteously condemn “those bad people.” Not in Buddhist thought, at least, where everything is interconnected.

The people of Iceland forced their Prime Minister out of office within 48 hours of the time the story broke. They did the same with the bankers in 2008. We, who have elected officials of both parties who tolerate bailouts and corporate shell games, are are not separate from the hungry ghosts who are fucking this world.

In his public discourse, Buddha never commented one way or another on metaphysical truths. There’s plenty to worry about here and now, he said. If greed locks us into the hell of the hungry ghosts, generosity, the mindset of Scrooge on Christmas morning, opens the gates of heaven.

Ratnasambhava, the primordial Buddha of "the wisdom of equality," manifests the virtue of generosity.

Ratnasambhava, the primordial Buddha of “the wisdom of equality,” manifests the virtue of generosity.

Perhaps there are no big or small acts of generosity. Our world, the people in it, and we ourselves, need nothing more urgently at this time.

The passing of a master

His Eminence, Choden Rinpoche

His Eminence, Choden Rinpoche

It is with mixed feelings that I write of the passing of Choden Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist master, born in 1933, who spent 19 years under house arrest in a windowless basement after the Chinese takeover. He has taught the dharma to thousands of students around the world since his release in 1985.

I was fortunate enough to encounter Rinpoche in 2012, and posted This summer I met a hero after attending a series of initiations and teachings in June and July of that year. I was able to study with him during subsequent summers, through June of this year, but ominously, he ended his U.S. sojourn, normally several months each year, after less than two weeks, to return to Taiwan.  Several of us wondered then if his health was involved.

In August, reports confirmed this, and a large long life ceremony was planned for him at Sera Je monastery in India, on September 11. It seemed evident to me that it was Rinpoche’s time when his friend and superior, the Dalai Lama said, at the end of August:

“This life has reached a successful completion. Death is the inevitable end of birth; in that we are all the same…Rinpoche should have no regret for his activities he has done while alive. He has made his life deeply meaningful. So relax with a happy mind. I pray and make similar inner aspirations at all times.”

Choden Rinpoche passed on September 11, at 1:30 am, India time, after completing nearly a week of end-of-life ceremonies, and reportedly telling his closest disciple of plans to carry forward his work, and details of his next rebirth.  “Rinpoche” is a Tibetan honorific meaning “Precious One,” and is given to those who are confirmed to be past masters, male or female, who consciously took rebirth to continue teaching the dharma for the benefit of all living beings.

Before leaving the U.S. for the final time this June, Rinpoche promised his students he would return. That’s the good news. The bad news of course, is that it won’t be in this life.

May we all benefit from such an example, and aspire to live and die meaningfully, with sanity and compassion, in a world that desperately needs both.

About Rejoicing

Rejoicing is an abrupt theme change from the last two posts I’ve worked on, both of which have ground to a halt.  They seemed important at the time, but they were full of bad news, and there’s plenty of that to go around.

Recently I attended two teachings by a Tibetan lama visiting from the east coast, the Venerable Khensur Lobsang Jampa.  I’d heard him on a previous visit and on both occasions his teachings were all I expected and more.  I purchased a book he published this year and started to read it when I got home.

Ven. Khensur Lobsang Jampa Rinpoche.

Ven. Khensur Lobsang Jampa Rinpoche.

In the early pages, he gave an account of a king called Prasenajit who sought the Buddha’s advice.  King Prasenajit wanted to study the Dharma, and asked how he could do so when so much of his time was devoted to running his kingdom.  Like us, he was insanely busy, and didn’t have much time for spiritual practice.

Buddha gave him just three things to do, which he could practice in the midst of other activities:  generate bodhicitta, rejoice, and dedicate.

Bodhicitta is the core of Mahayana Buddhist practice.  It’s the desire and determination to seek spiritual awakening for the benefit of all living beings.  It parallels St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where he says no amount of spiritual prowess is worth anything without love.

Dedication means mentally giving the positive energy of spiritual practice, the good karma, for the benefit of all sentient beings.  The secret is that by giving it away, we do not lose anything, for like Jesus’ loaves and fishes, there’s always enough to go around.

Buddha’s final instruction, rejoicing, took on a special meaning this week.  Lama Khensur wrote:  “Rejoicing is simply cultivating happiness in the positive actions of others and in the good things that happen to others, thinking ‘How wonderful for them!'” He explained that rejoicing means celebrating the lives of spiritual masters, prophets and saints, as well as the positive actions of “ordinary” people.

Consider the world-wide rejoicing we saw this week for the life of Nelson Mandela.  How uplifting it was to reflect on the positive transformation he brought to his own nation and  to the lives and dreams of people everywhere.  The Buddha said that such uplift is ours anytime we deeply reflect on the good that people have done and can do.

Yesterday I attended the wedding of a long time friend.  I’m not ordinarily a fan of occasions like weddings, where I have to be on my best behavior for several hours at a time, but this was different.  Some 30 friends and family members gathered to witness the union of a couple who are such a good match that it was pure celebration and I didn’t look at my watch until after the cake.  It was easy to think, “How wonderful for them!”

The smallest event can spark this kind of rejoicing when we watch for such occasions.  Last week, when I stepped out of the rain and cold and into a local bagel shop, the young man who brought me a bagel and coffee with a genuine smile passed on something very valuable.  Many such moments are ours when we pay attention.

The clouds above us join and separate,
The breeze in the courtyard leaves and returns
Live is like that so why not relax?
Who can stop us from celebrating?
– Lu Yu

Creative Commons

Creative Commons

Happy Losar

losar 2013

Monday, February 11, marks Losar, the Tibetan New Year, and the start of 2140, the Year of the Water Snake.  The new year festivities begin with prayers and good wishes for family, friends, and all sentient beings.  Tibetans believe that Shakyamuni Buddha performed miracles during the first 15 days of  Losar, so this is a time of ritual and celebration.

His Holiness Sakya Trizin, leader of one of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, offered these words in his 2013 Losar greeting:

“Now we start a new year, the Year of the Water Snake.  In Buddhism, whilst the snake represents anger, one of the three poisons that keeps us trapped in samsara (delusion), water symbolizes purification.  And so we are invited to look upon this year as one of transformation, where our negative emotions can be purified and transmuted into enlightened qualities, and where we can apply this transformation to our everyday life, bringing light and kindness to everyone around us.”

Losar altar at Gyuto Vajrayana Center, San Jose, CA

Tibetan astrological signs are more complicated than ours.  The astrological year does not begin at Losar, a lunar holiday, but on the preceding winter solstice.  Babies born between Dec. 22, 2012, and Dec. 21, 2013 have the water snake as their sign.  So do people turning 60 this year:  with 12 animal signs and five associated elements (wood, fire, earth, iron, and water), there are 60 possible combinations.  A quick trip to google brought up a list of celebrity water snakes, including Hulk Hogan, Pat Benatar, Tim Allen, Pierce Brosnan, Cindi Lauper, Kim Basinger, Kathy Lee Gifford, Tony Shalhoub, John Malkovich, and Tony Blair.

On a deeper level, nothing in us or the world is fixed and immutable.  Nothing is predestined.  We are all “self-made” men and women, and that making is always going on.  Because of this, the energy of new beginnings is prized at this time of year.

I offer everyone the traditional Tibetan greeting, Tashi Delek, which means “Blessings and good luck.”

A life lived for others

This has been a season of losses.  A friend recently died of something that should not have been fatal, and after the special treatments stopped working, we had to let go of our dog, Holly, who I wrote about in June.  That’s partly what motivated my recent reflections on what matters most in our lives.  The question comes up as well in the experience of a great friend and teacher who recovered from a serious illness this year.

Lama Kunga Thartse Rinpoche was born in Tibet in 1935.  At the age of eight, he entered Ngor monastery where he was ordained as a monk at 16.  In 1972, Rinpoche emigrated to the United States and later founded Ewam Choden Tibetan Buddhist Center in Kensington, CA (see the link on my blogroll).

Early this year, he was diagnosed with lymphoma.  He underwent chemotherapy while his nearby friends and students saw to his diet and daily needs.  Friends the world over offered prayers and traditional healing ceremonies.  His cancer is now in remission and he just returned to a full teaching schedule seeming more vigorus than ever.

Lama Kunga Thartse Rinpoche

A week ago Sunday, I joined some of Lama Kunga’s students and friends in the bay area to celebrate his birthday and his return to health.  This is a man who had lots of help in his time of need because he lives his life as everyone’s friend.  In Buddhism, compassion for all sentient beings is the most important attribute we can cultivate.  The Dalai Lama has said, “We can live without religion and meditation, but we cannot survive without human affection.”

Buddha gave different teachings for different kinds of practitioners.  The first was Hinayana, the “lesser vehicle,” which aims at enlightenment to end suffering for the individual.  Of far greater importance today is Mahayana, the “greater vehicle,” where the goal is to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.  People are naturally drawn to those who fully embody such an ideal.

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama

Though not nearly as well known as the Dalai Lama, Lama Kunga also has the magnetic personality of one who sincerely tries to benefit all other beings.  I hadn’t seen him in almost a year, but at his birthday party, we fell into conversation as if it had been just a week.  We talked about things like Tibetan ways of cooking  potatoes, but I found myself as uplifted as I have been after hearing him speak about subtle points of philosophy.

Some instructors teach with their whole being and not just their words, yet remain very human too.  Lama Kunga is an avid golfer.  In a 2002 interview in Golf Digest he said, “I would like to be reincarnated as a better golfer someday.”  One of his golfing buddies reports that he sometimes uses “colorful sounding phrases in Tibetan” on the course.

When I was a junior in high school, one of my teachers said, “I really think life is only satisfying when we live for something greater than ourselves.”  In the decades since then, the people I’ve most admired lived that ideal.  “Rinpoche” is an honorific that means “precious one,” a title that friends of Lama Kunga know he richly deserves.

Up to each one of us

Last weekend, I attend a teaching by Lama Pema Wangdak, a Tibetan Buddhist who was sent by the head of his order to teach in this country in 1982.  I invite you to read about his many humanitarian activities, which include founding schools in three countries and inventing a Tibetan brail alphabet.

Lama Pema

Lama Pema represents the next generation of the Tibetan diaspora, educated by traditional Tibetan masters, but fully acclimated to western culture.  He illustrates points of philosophy with current movies or ancient stories with equal ease.  He has a great sense of humor too.

Many traditional teachings are presented in simple phrases, called “pith instructions,” that are easy grasp with the intellect, but not so easy to grasp in depth.  For instance, we all understand the truth that “everything changes,” but it takes reflection to real-ize in the gut what that means in personal terms.

Because of this election season, some of Lama Pema’s comments ventured into the realm of politics.  He threw out some of his own deceptively simple concepts, which I’m still pondering and want to pass on.

One of his constant themes is individual responsibility, moment by moment, in trying to create the kind of world we want to live in.  “The peace of the world hinges on you and me,” he said.  I jotted down some of his other comments.

“We expect the world to be ‘right’ and to make us feel good.  In fact, we are in the midst of chaos and it’s up to us to make it right.”

“There are some people who can improve situations by their very presence, by their inner nature.  There are others for whom it’s not quite right, and when they are done, it’s much worse.  Both capacities live within each of us.” 

“We have to stand up for what we believe in, be decisive about what we are aiming for…To belittle oneself, undermine oneself is a real sin…To take risks, even at the risk of being wrong, is far better than not taking risks.”

“A great part of our humanity is sustained by legends, imagination, and hope.  It’s all imagination.  To take life as a dream helps lower our blood pressure.”

Deceptively simple ideas.  The kind it’s easy to jot down in a notebook and forget about a day or two later.

One classic exercise with this kind of teaching is to take one of these points and focus on it for a day or a week or longer.  Mull it over, bring it to mind when we wake, while walking in from the parking lot, while waiting at red lights.  “What do I believe in, what do I need to stand up for?” for instance.

As if to underscore the idea, Lama Pema gave the example of Gandhi.  Even though we know it happened, it’s hard to believe one skinny little man could push the British out of India.  The core of all his action was knowing what he believed in, what he stood for, with unswerving certainty.

There was no suggestion that we are called to change the world in such a dramatic manner.  The suggestion was that at every moment, our thoughts and actions always change the world, either for good or ill.  The suggestion was to bring mindfulness to bear on our “simple” actions and see what kind of difference they can make.