2020 Notes 5 – Freedom and Fear, the General and the Zen Master

Zen master Hakuin, 1686-1769, self-portrait

Over the last week, most of us have seen pictures of protests against the coronavirus shutdowns. A lot of the protestors carried signs saying their “Freedom” was threatened by shelter-in-place orders. Some of the viral images of rage are more than a little disturbing.

Another image, from Illinois shows a woman wearing an American flag face mask, holding a sign that reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” German for “Work Makes You Free,” the words inscribed at the entrance to Auschwitz. These pictures bring a lot of things to mind – for me, three things in particular;

(1) The nation has experienced this before. I urge everyone to read this brief summary on History.com of the “Spanish Flu,” which actually first appeared in Kansas in 1918, and over the next two years, killed more Americans than all the wars of the 20th century. Among other things, we learn that:

  • “Mask slacker” was the name given to those who refused to wear face masks in public. In San Francisco, they could be fined $5 or jailed.
  • Philadelphia refused the urgings of doctors to cancel a parade to promote the sale of War Bonds in October, 1918. Two-hundred thousand attended. Eleven thousand died that month. “Drivers of open carts kept a near-constant vigil circling streets while hollering, ‘Bring out your dead.'”
  • The article ends with this summary of the effects of the flu on the nation: “The combination of the flu and the war made Americans afraid of what was out there in the wider world, so there was a growing notion of becoming an isolationist country and keeping out foreign elements…It combines for a period of great fear—fear of communism, bolshevism and socialism. There’s a tremendous growth of the Ku Klux Klan because people were afraid of what was foreign. The whole nativist impulse was fed by people’s fear.” 

(2) It’s a psychological truism that anger is a “secondary emotion” – there is something underneath it, such as grief or fear. Grief and fear is a natural reaction to something invisible that has killed more Americans in two months than we lost in 20 years of war in Vietnam. I’m told that if a person were 500′ tall, the virus wold be the size of a tennis ball. Right now we cannot do much more than try to hide from the virus. For many, it’s easier to displace that fear and rage onto a visible target, like a governor, if they believe their “Freedom” is at stake.

(3) What kind of freedom are we talking about? Especially in light of the images we’ve seen in the news this week, I think of “freedom” in the Buddhist sense of “freedom from afflictive emotions.” That brings to mind a classic Zen story:

“During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived – everyone except the Zen master. Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn’t treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger.

“You fool,” he shouted as he reached for his sword, “don’t you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!” But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved. “And do you realize,” the master replied calmly, “that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?”

“You can’t always get what you want,” as the Stones told us more than 50 years ago, but if we try sometimes, we don’t have to lose our peace every time the world refuses to meet our demands.

Online Dharma Teachings in April

Two Tibetan meditation masters whose teachings I follow have scheduled extensive online learning and practice sessions in April. They are free and appropriate for both beginners and those more experienced in meditation.

Anam Thubten: Immersion in Awareness.

Anam has a gift for making complex concepts and practices accessible to all. In addition, no particular belief system is required, nor does the study of Awareness contradict the tenets of any spiritual tradition. He will host four online presentations on the four Sundays in April. Click here for more details and login information.

Schedule: (California time)
10:00 am -10:45 am: Guided meditation
11:00 am – 11:45 am: Dharma Talk

April 5:           Taming the Mind
April 12:         Responding from a Higher Intelligence
April 19:         Inviting the Shadow
April 25:         Celebrating Existence

 

Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche also focuses on Awareness practice and will host three teaching sessions on the first three Saturdays in April, from 1:00 pm – 2:15 pm Pacific time. In addition, he will lead guided meditations on Wednesday evenings  throughout the month.

How to Have a Pristine Mind in Challenging Times. April 4.  Register here.

The Time for Dzogchen is Now. April 11. Register here.

Padmasambhava’s Teachings on Turning Obstacles Into Allies. April 18. Register here.

Weekly Guided Meditations, Wednesdays, 7:00 pm – 7:45 pm, beginning April 8.  Register here.

If you’ve been wanting to begin or continue a meditation practice during this time when we’re all sequestered, I cannot think of a better way to proceed!

Updated Online Meditation and Teaching Opportunities

“Flags of Triund,” by Rama-gu, CC-BY-2.0

“Time for Bodhisattvas. In Buddhist teachings, the Bodhisattva is someone who vows to alleviate suffering and brings blessings in every circumstance.
A Bodhisattva chooses to live with dignity and courage and radiates compassion for all, no matter where they find themselves

This is not a metaphor. As Bodhisattvas we are now asked to hold a certain measure of the tragedy of the world and respond with love.”

– Jack KornfieldThe Bodhisattva Response to Corona Virus.

Here are some practice opportunities presented by three lamas for whom I have the greatest respect, and whose teachings form the core of my own spiritual practice:

Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche: This is a recording of Chowang Rinpoche’s talk of March 21 on two profound protection mantras for times of epidemic disease. This includes details and authorization to practice the “Vajra Armor Mantra,” given by Guru Padmasambhava, for times of epidemic. It also has a link to register for his upcoming talk, scheduled for Saturday, March 28 at 1:00 pm, PDT, on the subject of, “How to Find Happiness and Meaning at Home,” as in our current state of practicing social distance.

Anam Thubten: Here are recordings of the guided meditations and dharma talks that Anam presented on March 15 and March 22. There will be no talk this Sunday, but will resume on April 5.

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: This is the latest edition of his quarterly newsletter, The Voice of Clear Light, covering a number topics, including a three day online retreat, “Discovering the Melody of Silence,” scheduled for Friday through Sunday, April 3-5. His retreats are superb, and accessible for people of all levels of experience. His cyber-sangha has members from around the world.

Online Teaching and Meditation Practice Opportunities

All of the Buddhist sanghas I normally connect with have suspended physical practice sessions and retreats while shifting to an even richer menu of online teachings. Here are some of special interest:

Healing & Protection Mantra Meditation for When Disease Spreads in the World. Saturday, March 21, from 1:00 – 2:15 pm Pacific Time, via Livestream.

“Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche will be teaching on ancient mantras from the treasure teachings of the Vajrayana tradition. In this tradition, there is a long history of practitioners using these powerful mantras, meditations, and visualizations to help when people are sick and when diseases are spreading.”

These are practices given by Padmasambhava, “the second buddha,” who brought the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha to Tibet in the 8th century. I met Chowang Rinpoche during a retreat last September and have tuned into his online teachings since then. Details and free registration here.

Guided meditations and dharma talks by Anam Thubten, Sundays from 10:00am – 12:00 pm, via Livestream.  Go to https://www.dharmata.org/memberstream/ Login using guest as both Username and Password. We are advised to login around 9:45. Last week, due (I assume) to a large number of logins, it took a while to connect, so patience and an early start are suggested.

Weekly guided meditations and dharma talks by Anam Thubten, Sundays from 10:00am – 12:00 pm, via Livestream. Those who have followed this blog for a while will recall other posts on Anam Thubten, the first Tibetan lama I met during a retreat about 15 years ago, and who was the single greatest influence in turning my spiritual practice in this direction.

Now that his center in Richmond, CA is closed and retreats cancelled for an indefinite future, these practices and talks will be available to everyone, not just members of the Dharmata Sangha. Details here.

Guidance for using social distancing time for an at-home retreat. Thanks to Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach for these suggestions. This is a practice I have found valuable in the past, and it’s certainly timely now!

Online resources from Tricycle, the Buddhist Review. In an email they say:

“One doesn’t have to be Buddhist to know that ignoring difficult problems or thoughts doesn’t make them go away. Or that when panic sets in, people tend not to make the best decisions. Or that the things we treasure won’t be around forever. Or that no matter how alone we may feel, we are always part of something bigger. Or that we are at our best when we take care of each other. But Buddhist teachings place these ideas at the fore, and ask us to keep them in mind when we are otherwise prone to get swept up in our day-to-day tasks.
…………
We have been speaking to Buddhist teachers and writers who have been thinking about the coronavirus outbreak. They’ve shared their reflections, advice, and practices for dealing with the uncertainty and fear that have arisen around this disease. We have the privilege of being able to share those with you here. We are offering free access to these and other select articles to support your practice during this uncertain time.”

Stay safe and stay tuned as I share more of these links as they come in.

An End of the Year Post

Saturday Evening Post New Years cover for 1911

I’ve never been fond of traditional old-fart-and-baby News Years iconography, but this one, from a 109 year old magazine cover, will serve as a decent illustration of the major theme of 2019 for me – Impermanence.

All the spiritual traditions I know anything about warn us not to store up treasures on earth, as Jesus put it. Krishna told Arjuna that this world is full of delusion. Buddha placed impermanence at the center of his teaching. All of us long for permanent happiness he said, but we simply cannot find it in world where everything changes.

Students of Buddha’s teachings learn from the start to reflect on impermanence, but it can be a long way from reflection in the head to really getting it at gut level.

This year, much of my  energy, focus, and gut level concern was centered on heart health issues both for Mary, and for Kit, our oldest dog. With great joy I can say that both are doing well at year’s end, but it will never be as easy for me to forget those proverbial “sands in the hour glass” as it was a year ago.

Unlike what you hear in superficial comments, Buddha never said that permanent happiness was impossible – he simply said we won’t find it where we usually look. We have to search within, he said, and that means meditation. Unfortunately, too many people believe that meditation is either not relevant or not possible for them, or both. One of the best events for me in 2019 was encountering a teacher who presents one of Buddhism’s most profound practices in a straightforward and accessible manner. He is committed to making these teachings widely available.

I’ve posted here before about Anam Thubten, a Tibetan lama for whom I have the highest regard. I encountered Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche at a daylong retreat in September, where Anam introduced him as a colleague and “meditation master.”

Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche is offering, through his organization, a free 100 Day New Year’s Meditation Challenge, with online teaching and support. It is designed for everyone, with or without meditation experience.

And that brings me to the final point of this post, for I put the details of this meditation challenge on the “new” blog I’ve been threatening to start for a while. I launched on December 21, the day of the Winter Solstice.

The blog is called Soul Notes. Please stop by to check it out, and especially this description of Chowang Rinpoche’s meditation challenge.

Happy New Year!

Cycles, Gyres, and Yugas, Part 1

Turning and turning in widening gyres

Over the last year, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of cyclical time, time without beginning or end, as opposed to the view time as linear, which implies a start and an ending.

Time as a never ending series of cycles is a core feature of eastern cosmology, but has also shown up in the west.  The Greek deity, Aion, representing “unbounded” time, was associated with the Hellenistic mystery religions.

Time without beginning or end is also feature of more recent western esoteric groups, such as The Golden Dawn, a secret society founded in the 19th century, that sought to restore the knowledge and practice of western mystery traditions. W.B. Yeats was an initiate, and his visionary poem, The Second Coming, (1919) gives a vivid picture of time as a rising and falling series of spirals, or “gyres:”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The tone of The Second Coming is consistent with all sources, eastern and western, that deal with time cycles. They are unanimous in saying this is the dark time, the Iron Age, the Kali Yuga, and in Buddhist terms, the time of “Five Degenerations.” Continue reading

Compass and Lamp

I started this blog in June, 2010, after a daylong blogging seminar hosted by the local branch of the California Writer’s Club. I was trying to write a fantasy novel, and popular wisdom at the time was that in this 21st century, aspiring writers needed to learn self promotion, which requires an online platform. I dutifully created Facebook and Twitter accounts, and TheFirstGates. Fortunately, blogging quickly took on a life of its own.

Almost from the start, I broke every rule the teacher of that blogging class presented, chief among them, the “one topic per blog” rule. He had eight blogs. The mere thought of that makes me tired! Though clearly an A-type, I am blessed with a strong laziness instinct, which often saves me from creating extra hassle for myself. A firm believer in Hillman’s model of the “polytheistic psyche,” I give most of the personalities time to roam around here. Continue reading

An End of Year Blessing from Anam Thubten

I wrote a number of posts about Anam Thubten in the early years of this blog. Not so many lately, though that may change in the future.

I’ve followed his teachings for the last dozen years – via his books, his daylong retreats in Sacramento (which happen about once a year), and his recorded talks on the Dharmata Foundation website.

His profound gift is his ability to present some of the oldest and most revered teachings in Tibetan Buddhism in clear and accessible terms to audiences around the world.

In this interview, posted on Buddistdoor.net on December 20, he shared some of his suggestions and hopes for the coming year:

As we bid farewell to 2018 and move into the New Year of 2019, Rinpoche deeply wishes that we all meditate, regardless of spiritual belief or affiliation, and to commit to looking inward. “There are lots of wonderful teachers. And they can be regular people…as long as they have a good heart.” 

The world is in a new period of uncertainty, and the energy of the globe is shifting unpredictably. In this context Rinpoche believes that the words “optimism” and “pessimism” are not helpful. “I wouldn’t say that we should be optimistic in the sense we try to shut off our minds and tell ourselves everything is hunky-dory. Yet too much pessimism leads to paralysis, and is an excuse for inaction. What we need is hope, an attitude of transformation and dealing with the urgent issues facing us. I’d like to have hope and faith in humanity rather than optimism.”