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.”

Winter Feast for the Soul, 2018

The Winter Feast for the Soul, now in it’s 11th year, is a 40 day, worldwide online meditation intensive that encourages people to begin or deepen a spiritual practice. Instructors from all spiritual traditions suggest simple practices that fit into the schedules of busy people.

I am delighted to see that Anam Thubten, the Tibetan master who inspired me to explore this tradition a dozen years ago, continues to be an active participant. On his page, you can listen to simple but profound guided meditations he recorded for the Feast in 2016 and 2017.

Anam Thubten

I encourage everyone who is interested to explore this rich practice opportunity!

Silence, Stillness

Wawona, Ca, Nov., 2017

If we have a bit of quiet time and pay attention at the turning of the year, we can feel a pause in the world and rest there.

It’s easier to experience this in the natural world, but what we truly long is a place of rest that is always available, unconditionally, a place we can visit any time, that won’t let us down. We only find this kind of refuge within.

Wawona, CA, Nov. 2017

Anam Thubten, a Tibetan Buddhist master insists that the simplest ways of meditation, though not easy, are are among the most profound:

“Try this. Pay attention to your breath in silence. Look at your mind. Immediately we see that thoughts are popping up. Don’t react to them. Just keep watching your mind. Notice that there is a gap between each thought. Notice that there is a space between the place where the last thought came to an end and the next one hasn’t yet arrived. In this space there is no ‘I’ or ‘me.’ That’s it.” (No Self, No Problem, 2009).

The “it” he refers to is the true nature of awareness – what we really are. The image given is the clear sky, unaffected by anything passing through it, just as clear, open awareness is not affected by any of the passing contents of consciousness.

Wawona, CA, Nov, 2017

Elsewhere, Anam Thubten gives this instruction: “Rest and let everything be as it is.”

Few of us can follow guidance like that without prior practice and the guidance of an experienced teacher. So what are we to do?

Wawona, CA, Nov., 2017

Chögyam Trungpa (1939 – 1987) was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist teacher to settle and teach in this country. A master in the same lineage as Anam Thubten, he left us a practice for working with the breath as a focus for meditation that is both simple and profound.

We place our attention on the outgoing breath, letting any tension flow out with it. At the end of the out breath, we let go and rest. We rest without effort in the gap between out breaths, knowing that the in breath takes care of itself. This cycle of focus and rest, effort and letting go, will lead our thoughts and distractions to settle sufficiently to be able to follow Anam Thubten’s instruction and simply “rest and let everything be as it is.”

Wawona, CA, Nov, 2017

There are other ways to find the place of clarity and stillness within – this is one that works for me.

Wawona, CA, Nov. 2017

I wish you all a Happy New Year!

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 – 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…

The power of solitude

Beside the Dalai Lama, Pema Chödrön is probably the most widely known practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. Born in New York City, she was ordained as a nun in 1974 and has written several popular books on Buddhist practice, including When Things Fall Apart (1996), The Places That Scare You (2001), and Start Where You Are (2004).

In 2006, Bill Moyers talked with Pema Chödrön as part of his Faith and Reason series. Here is the full interview, and below is segment, lasting just under five minutes. Chödrön, who spent a year in silent retreat, says everyone needs periods of solitude in life, even if just a brief time every day. Distraction, she says, is not just our phones and gadgets, but the distracted state of our ordinary minds. Just a little time out from this allows us to re-engage our lives with a “more spacious” awareness, and this makes it profoundly valuable.

I think, therefore

The Thinker, Rodin. Public Domain

The Thinker, Rodin. Public Domain

When I first started to write, in my teens and early 20’s, I was hugely influenced by an eclectic group of American writers that included vocal social critics from the earliest years of the 20th century. People like Theodore Dreiser, who wrote famously clunky prose, but whose An American Tragedy (1925) was a stinging indictment of greed in our culture. Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis depicted the soul-crushing conformity of a milieu we often imagine as small town innocence. But greater than any other influence was Henry Miller, who demonstrated the power of personal essays. His books, like The Air Conditioned Nightmare (1945) shaped my view of our dominant culture.

It was natural that this kind of critique, along with that of more recent writers and essayists like Michael Ventura, should influence  my blogging. But this spring something strange happened. At the start of Lent, though I do not celebrate the season in any formal way, I announced that I would “give up” negative posts for the duration. As expected, the experiment was more interesting than I expected.

"Rodin's thinker?" by Patricia van Casteren, 2006, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Rodin’s thinker?” by Patricia van Casteren, 2006, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve already blogged about some of my findings, especially the obvious ones, like the preponderance of bad news in all varieties of media. And I knew in advance there would be less to say if I excluded negative themes. What I didn’t expect was to find myself wondering whether it mattered – it’s virtuous to write about things like climate change and income inequality – isn’t it? A very interesting question since I don’t really believe many writers and artists change social ills directly. Maybe Charles Dickens did, or Jacob Riis, with his photos of child labor, but Dreiser didn’t eliminate greed and Miller didn’t break the ruts of conformity. Writers and artists sometimes change individual hearts and minds, but how does that work? That is not a rhetorical question, but something I often wonder about. How does it work?

Perhaps it was this kind of question that moved Phil Ochs, one of the best of the 60’s protests singers, to write, “You must protest, you must protest they say, it is your diamond duty / Ah, but in such an ugly world, the only true protest is beauty.” Maybe it’s what led Henry Miller, in his last years, to write books like, My Bike and Other Friends, and to focus on his watercolors.

Henry Miller paintings

My biggest discovery, while turning away from negative stories during Lent, concerned inner dialog rather than outer events. I’ve attended to this in a focused way in the past at various times, but not for a while. Mindfulness practice appeared on the cover of Time, so it must be gaining fad status, but that does not diminish its worth. It’s an ancient contemplative discipline that involves simply watching the contents of consciousness. Not fixing, fighting, or merging with, but simply observing what flits through awareness (here’s a good introduction to the practice).

I don’t know about anyone else, but I often find a subtle but persistent stream of critical inner narrative on self, others, and events. The narratives tend grow in the darkness yet dissolve when observed, the way shadows disappear when you turn on the light in a room. Observation eventually leads one to suspect that thoughts have no more substance than shadows, and no more inherent reality, and yet they can have profound effects. I suspect we have all had interesting synchronicities, met things in the world corresponding to our inner states. And if one subscribes at all to notions of the effect of collective thoughts, an idea given names like, “tipping point” or “hundredth monkey,” then the contents of consciousness take on a meaning beyond their effect on oneself alone.

I follow the Dalai Lama on Facebook and often note that when he is asked about topical issues like climate change, he always gives a thoughtful answer, the tone of which is invariably, “I am hopeful.” If I learned anything with this Lenten experiment, it is how hard it can be to cultivate a hopeful attitude. I also cannot imagine anything more important. Can there be a more important seed to plant than this one – “I am hopeful?”

Permission to be ourselves

Not long ago, I came upon a post by Zen practitioner, Tomas Qubeck, called “Zen: How to Recalibrate Myself Back to Zero.”  Tomas discusses his love of solitary retreats.  I’m with him on that score, but then he adds an unusual twist – “Just recently I have realized that this ‘zero’ refers to ‘zero purpose’.”

Enso circle.  CC-by-SA-3.0

Enso circle. CC-by-SA-3.0

I know from experience that letting go of purposeful action for any length of time is a very difficult practice.  Why would one even bother?  Tomas observes that an urge to be purposeful often “shows up in my mind, [as] an image or…a sense of how I want to feel or be. All of this necessarily involves a moving away from how and what I am just at this very moment.”  Sometimes busy-ness can be an addiction, he says.

I’ll leave you to read his reflections, which have nothing to do with quitting our jobs, living in caves, or any other oddball decisions his title might suggest if you take it literally.  My own thoughts veered in a different direction.  Thinking of “purposeful action,” reminded me of something I heard Zen teacher, Edward Espe Brown say at a day long retreat:

“No matter what you do, your inner authorities will not be pleased.”

I’ve written several posts about Edward Brown.  I enjoy his humor, the deceptively “simple” depth of his insights, as well as the wisdom he gained as a chef and the recipes he shares in his Tassajara Cookbook.  I’ve attended three retreats with him in as many years and jotted down some of his pithy statements.  In Zen, one carries such sayings in the mind, turning them over until fresh meaning emerges.  Here are four others I’ve found valuable.  I often remember them at interesting moments.

What is precious in us doesn’t come and it doesn’t go.  It is not dependent on performance.

Are you going to be a rule follower, or are you just going to be you?

No one else can give us permission to be who we are.

There is no by-the-book way for you to be you.

As you might guess, Edward Brown, who was trained in traditional Zen by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, is charting his own course these days.  If you want to learn more about his style of cooking and Zen, you can visit his home page and and listen to some of his teachings at The Peaceful Sea Sangha website.