When real men speak

On Thursday morning, a Facebook post from India  announced the passing of Kyabje Gyalwa Trizin Rinpoche, 33d leader of the Tibetan Bon Buddhist tradition. I never met His Holiness, but the spiritual teachings of one of his senior students, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, have been of supreme importance to me. For decades I’ve been a serious student of contemplative traditions, and have found no teachings of greater benefit.

The Dalai Lama with the 33d Menri Trizin, head of the Tibetan Bon Buddhist tradition

Later that Thursday, I saw a provocative post that quoted welterweight boxing champion, Floyd Mayweather, as saying that when Donald Trump spoke of grabbing pussy, “that’s the way real men speak.” 

The juxtaposition of these two posts – one about a man I greatly admire, and one from a man who claims to know about “real” men, highlights our collective confusion about almost everything.

What Joseph Campbell referred to as “the social function of myth” – the stories that teach us appropriate behavior, and our place in the larger culture, have completely broken down. Collectively, we agree on nothing, including, but not limited to, what a real man, a real woman, a real government, or a real president is like.

Few men and women in recorded history have had so much choice about their station in life, or greater anxiety about it.

Much of our our nation’s appeal, from colonial days on, was the hope that here you could reinvent yourself. From those who indentured themselves for passage across the ocean, to the westward expansion, to the “Do your own thing” rallying cry of my adolescence, this promise has been a sword that cuts both ways. Psychologists tell us that too many choices can be as stressful as too few.

In the late 80’s, Joseph Campbell suggested that the mandala of a future religion might be our world seen from space. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush revived a phrase used by Woodrow Willson and Winston Churchill, to speak of a “New World Order.” At the start of the tech boom and the end of the cold war, such dreams seemed feasible.

Now the world is contracted in fear. Nationalism, fundamentalist religion, and right wing conspiracy theories about “new world orders,” have replaced any near-term hopes of a greater good. With a reality TV star in the White House, the nature of “reality” itself has been twisted in ways unimaginable even a year ago.

The crumbling of outmoded concepts to make way for the is new isn’t always bad, but it’s usually painful. Going back is never an option. At this point, it’s good to remember that ideas of “real men” and “real women” are constructs with no essential connection to lived “reality.” If you want to know what a real man or real woman looks like, go look in a mirror. Only adolescents, or adults stuck in adolescence, have time to worry about such things.

The more important question is what do I want my life to be like? What attributes do I admire, and who embodies them?

I knew a ex-prizefighter at the gym. In his 60’s, he walked with a limp and was usually in pain from a lifetime of beatings he’d taken in the ring. “You have to be an idiot to make a living like I did,” he said. Though he was a nice guy, his was never a life I aspired to! Nor would I want to be a thin-skinned rageaholic, rising in the wee hours to fire off angry tweets.

On the other hand, after a lifetime of service to all living beings, when his time had come, Gyalwa Trizin, sat in meditation and left. Left his body, left this world. Over millennia, Tibetan masters have learned how to live and die in ways that lead to ideal or even enlightened rebirths.

I have been in the presence of a few such masters –  men and women, who live and act from the calm assurance that our difficulties are more like dreams than we know, and that there are paths that lead to life of service to beings, and when the time comes, a death that is free of fear. To my mind, this is something worth living for…

The Hungry Ghosts of Washington

Hungry Ghost Scroll, Kyoto, late 12th c.

There are six realms of being in traditional Buddhist cosmology. Two of these, the human and the animal realms, are visible to our senses. The other four are not. Because all these regions are part of samsara, the world of “original ignorance,” (rather than original sin), even the apparently pleasant places are characterized by suffering, because, to quote the song by Iris Dement, “nothing good ever lasts.” We suffer until we learn to see through our illusions and delusions.

Traditional Buddhists regard the four non-physical regions as subtle astral planes where, just like the physical regions, beings sojourn for longer or shorter periods of time, depending on karma. It is possible to read them inwardly, as archetypal situations as well. Among the “lower realms,” where you don’t want to go, are the hell realms, where the dominant emotion is anger. Violent actions driven by anger can project beings into these regions after this life, yet when we see a person, or ourselves, seething with anger – red in the face, trembling, on the edge of violence, we see what a hell-being looks like, right then, without going anywhere else.

“Hungry ghosts” live in a world of insatiable craving, appetites that can never be satisfied. In eastern iconography, they are pictured with huge, distended bellies and tiny mouths that can never eat or drink enough. This is the realm of addiction, to anything or everything. In western art, Hieronymus Bosch shows us what hungry ghosts look like:

From “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500

We all have a sense of the ravages of addiction to food, drugs, or alchohol. In When Society Becomes an Addict, Anne Wilson Schaef says that life in the U.S. is so stressful that it is impossible not to become addicted to something. Some addictions will land you in jail. Some will win you applause. Some, like addiction to money and power can win you a seat in congress.

Beyond all the rationale, couched in economic terms and political rhetoric, there’s a greed that drives our current political strife that is an insatiable craving for wealth that can never be satisfied. When we read of American oligarchs trying to strip healthcare from millions for tax cuts for people who don’t even need it, remember this image of their inner nature:

Hungry Ghost, Japanese.

What are the odds that such beings can do anything good for their fellows or for the planet?

Notes from 2017: A Winter Feast for the Soul

Lotus flowers. Public domain.

Lotus flowers. Public domain.

The aphorisms in my previous post, on causes of happiness and unhappiness, are simple to say and understand, but not very easy to put into practice in the “thick of things.” I think that’s why the Dalia Lama speaks of practicing compassion – what we need to do to become skilled at anything.

At the same time, Buddhists believe compassion is part of our innermost nature, but it’s buried under the detritus of day to day living. That’s one reason why a core image is the lotus flower, which eventually blooms in original purity, but only after rising from the mud in which it germinates.

To aid in such practice, an international and multi-denominational contemplative practice begins tomorrow, Sunday January 15, A Winter Feast for the Soul. The event began about 10 years ago, and the intro page outlines the mission as:

  1. To support individuals in experiencing the benefits of establishing a daily spiritual practice.
  2. To create a global community of individuals committed to sustaining a daily spiritual practice for 40 days from January 15 to February 23 each year.
  3. To honor all forms of spiritual practice and to make them welcome to our Winter Feast for the Soul. These include meditation, yoga, tai chi, chi gong, journaling, reading spiritual texts from all traditions and philosophies.

One of the teachers participating is Anam Thubten, a Tibetan master I’ve mentioned numerous times on this blog. Here is his statement on why this is so important, especially at this critical time. Please have a look, and follow the link to the site, given above, to learn more and to register..

Notes from 2017: Six ways to be miserable (and one way to be happy).

Public Doman

Public Doman

The following aphorisms on traits to avoid were written by Patrul Rinpoche, a 19th c. Tibetan master. A contemporary Tibetan lama, Phakchok Rinpoche, gave a teaching on the text that was printed in Tricycle in January, 2016. Here are the aphorisms:

The proud will never be pleased.

The jealous will never be happy.

The greedy will never be satisfied.

The hateful will never be reconciled.

The stingy will never have enough.

The ignorant will never accomplish.

By contrast, here is what the Dalai Lama advised to cultivate happiness and wellbeing:

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Notes from 2017 – A New Year

believe-everything-you-think-small

At midnight tonight, something changes – in our minds, and nowhere else. It’s like a graffiti artist once wrote on a step of the local library: “Time does not exist, only clocks exist.”

That could be a Buddhist aphorism, like the image of my all time favorite bumper sticker pictured above. Through Buddhist contemplative practice, we come to experience that the contents of our consciousness – the thoughts, emotions, concepts that shape our reality – are fluid and insubstantial. Like rainbows. Like state lines.

State lines exist because legislators, surveyors, and highway departments put signs saying things like “Welcome to Oregon,” at certain points in the landscape. The mountains and rivers and deserts know nothing of state lines, but I need to. The speed limit drops in Oregon, and I’ll get a ticket if I ignore that gap between consensual and ultimate reality.

Today I am thinking of Joseph Campbell who called out one of the core abstractions that separate people. In the last episode of The Power of Myth series, Campbell said the view of our beautiful planet, photographed from space, might well serve as an emblem of the religion of the future.

Image converted using ifftoany

Not anytime soon, I’m afraid. The Power of Myth was released in 1988, a time of optimism and economic expansion. In our current era of fear and economic decline, nationalism, fascism, xenophobia, and class warfare are becoming the new normal. No national or state boundaries are visible from space, but we, collectively, are killing each other over such abstractions, both with weapons and legislation.

I’d love to have started this post with, “Happy New Year,” but I don’t think that’s very likely. Nobody really believes it. There isn’t much “Happy days are here again” in the air. There’s too much bullshit online these days so I won’t add to it. Not for the first time will I say that I think the road ahead was accurately painted by Matthew Arnold in his 1867 poem, Dover Beach. In the last stanza he said:

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

More than 100 years ago, Arnold saw our world as struggling through the death throes of a dying age and the birth pangs of a new one. That labor continues.

I hope you and your loved ones survive and thrive in 2017.

Notes from 2017 – Stille Nacht

“Stille Nacht” is Silent Night in German. On this night, 102 years ago, millions of young men in Europe lay shivering in trenches in northern France. The finest summer anyone could remember had erupted into the most violent war the world had seen. Longing for home, the German troops began singing Stille Nacht. British soldiers joined in with Silent Night. Before long, soldiers on both sides rose from their trenches to shake hands with “the enemy” and share cigarettes, cookies from home, bottles of wine, and song.

British and German soldiers together, Dec. 25, 1914

British and German soldiers together, Dec. 25, 1914

This is the most moving modern story of Christmas Eve I know. But my subject this evening is not the song but Silence itself. At Solstice time, the earth itself pauses. Religious people of many faiths celebrate different holidays.The external busy-ness of the season stops, at least for a day, but I’ve learned from wise meditation teachers that the inner noise will continue unless we turn toward inner silence with intention.

Awareness of inner stillness and silence is the source of renewal and healing says Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Bon Buddhist master. “Silence has it’s own language.”

Anam Thubten Rinpoche, of the Tibetan Nyingma tradition tells students who come to him for advice to “Go back home and be quiet. Silence is wiser than our discursive minds.” Tibetan Buddhist practice can be extremely complex, but Anam Thubten gives this simple instruction:

“Meditation is the art of simply sitting in silence. Sitting means just sit, just rest, just let be. Let everything be as it is. When we know how to let everything be as it is, we then we don’t have to try and be some kind of divine terminator attempting to destroy the world of delusion and sorrow. The world of delusion and sorrow is already falling apart and disappearing on its own. It sounds simple but it is also subtle. We just let everything be just as it is. Once we know that, we know everything. We have unlocked the secret to enlightenment. To sit actually means just let everything be as it is, and let the world of ideas, concepts, and sorrow dissolve on its own, which always happens. This is the highest technique.”The Magic of Awareness.

Naturally the hardest part of that instruction is letting myself be as I am – abandoning all the self-improvement projecst, the “Oh, maybe I can blog about this” mentality, and all of that. “Rest,” says Tenzin Wangyal, is nothing less than “the doorway to our true nature.”

More of that in coming episodes. Meanwhile, as a Christmas Eve gift, here is a wonderful rendition of a beautiful Shaker song, by Yo yo Ma and Allison Kraus, a song the places our true nature at the center of this holiday, and all our days…

Within

Enso (public domain)

Enso (public domain)

There is Buddha in each of us right now who can never be defeated by the force of inner darkness, the force of greed, hate, attachment, and delusion, and that Buddha has no form, no image.  That Buddha, indeed, is residing in all of us as our pure, quintessential being.

We must always turn our attention inward whenever we have the desire to seek divinity, the divine, or Buddha, God, or Brahma.  This desire to seek something divine happens quite a lot, especially when we are spiritual.  From now on, whenever that desire arises, we might want to remember to immediately turn the attention inward, knowing…that whatever we are seeking is already inside.

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.