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.

 

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.”

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.

A spring break medley

medley (med-lē) n., 1 a mixture of things not usually placed together; heterogeneous collection; hodgepodge.

A quiet week, with many ideas wandering through my mind without quite attaining blog post velocity. Sitting here, with a cup of coffee and the windows open to a fine spring morning, I decided to scoop up some of these notions, not necessarily in order of importance, and present them to you as a medley, or hodgepodge as the case may be.

On Mickey Rooney: I wish I had known that last Sunday, all day, Turner Classic Movies was  hosting a day of Mickey Rooney movies. I tuned in late, but did get to see Boy’s Town (1938) and The Human Comedy (1943), both notable for their idealistic and almost too sentimental presentation of American life. Boys Town tells the story of Father Edward Flanagan (Spencer Tracy), who founded a home for abused and delinquent boys in Nebraska. Rooney plays Henry Hull, the tough kid who tests Flanagan’s belief that there is “no such thing as a bad boy.”

Tracy and Rooney in "Boys Town," 1938

Tracy and Rooney in “Boys Town,” 1938

In addition to the real life humanity of Flanagan, whose Boys Town still exists in the Midwest, the film reflects 1930s progressive ideals, as well as an older, deeper, American romanticism, the belief that by nature, we are noble beings, corrupted only by cultural dysfunction. Watching Boys Town, I thought of the next great eruption of that ideal in the ’60s and remembered a line from Crosby, Stills & Nash that almost stands as an epitaph for that era: “It’s been a long time coming / it’s gonna be a long time gone.” The album came out in 1969, the year Charles Manson called optimism like Father Flanagan’s into serious question.   

Mother Nature on the run: Now that I’m thinking of Crosby, Stills & Nash, that phrase popped to mind as title for this subsection, though it’s really about animals on the run. An editorial in yesterday morning’s paper, The case for banning wildlife-killing contests by Camillia H. Fox, outlines the common practice of for profit, recreational predator hunting contests.

Exercising Vixen the fox while a volunteer at the Folsom City Zoo, ca. 1996. She was a sweetheart, though a bit of a drama queen. Is this the enemy?

Exercising Vixen the fox while a volunteer at the Folsom City Zoo, ca. 1996. She was a sweetheart, though a bit of a drama queen. Is this the enemy?

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” said Mahatma Gandhi. It is heartening to learn that pushback is growing, both from citizens and state Fish and Game Commissions. In California, commission president, Michael Sutton said:

“I’ve been concerned about these killing contests for some time. They seem inconsistent both with ethical standards of hunting and our current understanding of the important role predators play in ecosystems.”

The way we treat the animals seems increasingly to be like the way we treat each other. Witness the case cited in the article, of the organizer of one of these killing contests, who (allegedly) pushed a 73 year old man to the ground for trying to photograph the event. We have to say, “allegedly” because, although the older man’s spine was fractured, the perpetrator has yet to be charged. This is not what our founding fathers meant when they spoke of a “well ordered militia.”

Of Jungians and Tibetans: I’ve recently started, with keen interest, The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra (2012) by Rob Preece, an in depth practitioner of both Jungian psychology and Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan iconography is striking and vivid, almost begging for Jungian analysis, but most western commentators, including Jung himself, have written about it as outsiders looking in.

Not Preece, who studied with Lama Thubten Yeshe, one of the greatest 20th century Tibetan teachers to come to America. Lama Yeshe understood Jung and understood that Buddhist practice has always undergone change when crossing geographic and cultural boundaries.

Preece writes of Col. Francis Younghusband, who visited Tibet in 1904. Seeing pictures of wrathful deities, Younghusband concluded that this was a culture that worshiped demons. Jungians may pounce on the concept of shadow, but that too, will often be wide of the mark. Although Tibetans and Jungians both understand such imagery as depicting internal qualities, in this case, it is wrathful energy in the service of compassion. It’s the energy of, “This shit’s gotta stop!” The energy that led Camilla Fox to start a foundation to stop the slaughter of animals.

Two large gatherings: Over the last two weekends, I took part in two separate events which drew hundreds of people. Both were immensely satisfying days of harmonious groups, drawn together by shared interest, working cooperatively and having a lot of fun doing so. It’s almost enough to make you believe in no such thing as a bad boy or girl, in Mickey Rooney’s America.

That fundamental goodness is precisely what the Tibetans and Buddhists in general believe, even with their finely honed awareness of both relative truth, here in the trenches, and ultimate truth. Our ultimate nature, they say, the ground of our being is pure, unstained by any event, the way the sky is unstained by pollution. The bad news is, it can take eons for us to figure this out; a weekend at Woodstock is clearly not enough.

Still, I always feel energized after such gatherings, even as that wrathful energy rises at the thought of all the artificial barriers that divide us in our day to day lives. That’s something everyone has to work out for themselves. Meanwhile, I felt like listening again to Crosby, Stills & Nash. I hope they’re right in this song: that it’s always darkest before the dawn.

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, by John Snape, CC-BY-SA-3.0

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, by John Snape, CC-BY-SA-3.0

This morning I showed my wife a newspaper photo depicting a politician who closely resembles a recent movie villain.  “No one will vote for him,” I said.

She laughed and agreed, but a little while later said, “Wow, that made it hard.  I’m trying to give up criticism for Lent.”

I apologized, for I know how hard real spiritual discipline can be.  Then I reflected that her resolution echoes a thought I’ve had on and off for some time – cutting, or at least reducing, the negative topics and posts in this blog.  The period of Lent, about seven more weeks, seems like a good trial period, so I’m going to try this experiment and figure it out as I go along.

When considering this move in the past, I’ve had fears along the lines of becoming Pollyanna or having nothing to write about if I close my eyes to the world’s crap.  I am confident, however, that tens of thousands of writers can take up the slack if I take a break.

There are many reasons to do so.  First and foremost for me is this simple truth from Zen teacher, Cheri Huber, so simple and yet so easy to forget:  “The quality of your life is determined by the focus of your attention.”  

The same truth is expressed in completely different terms in Scott Adams’s new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.  This cartoon genius who gave us Dilbert says:  “Reality is overrated and impossible to understand with any degree of certainty. What you do know for sure is that some ways of looking at the world work better than others.”  (I plan to review this book here soon).

A final, obvious example, given his recent visit to this country, is the Dalai Lama.  Beyond doubt, he’s the most joyous person who lives in the public spotlight.  I’ve never been in his physical presence, but I have met a few spiritual masters, men and women of several traditions, and for me, they all had one thing in common: when you get near them, you pick up their joy.  And I mean a profound joy, the kind that sometimes has left my jaw aching from smiling so much more than I am used to.  I’m sure the Dalai Lama is like that.

Dalai Lama with Christ University Choir, Bangalore, India

Dalai Lama with Christ University Choir, Bangalore, India

One of the many things he has said that always struck me concerns a difficulty he had when he first came to the west: he could not at first believe the degree of shame and self-hatred that are native to our culture.  It was completely new and shocking to him to hear such a thing, for there was nothing like it at all in Tibet.  I believe it’s no coincidence that you never hear the Dalai Lama say critical things about anyone else.  He doesn’t even criticize the Chinese, saying only, “They helped me cultivate patience.”

As I end this post, I realize some readers outside the U.S. might not be familiar with its title, which comes from an old western song, “Home on the Range:”

Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

“Home on the Range” is the state song of Kansas, and like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” that other great song that reminds us of Kansas, it seems to ask the question, “Why not I?” Or, “Why not us?”

Asking “why not” is itself a classic spiritual discipline.  What factors hold me back from the kind of life I want to live.  In my own case, criticism of self and others is part of that mix.  Let’s see what happens here over the next seven weeks…

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.