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.

Pondering, mulling, musing, and ruminating on the year so far

I was looking for just the right word for “think over” and pulled out Webster’s Dictionary to check  precise meanings.  Here are some of the definitions I found:

  • ponder, from the Latin pondare – to weigh, mentally; think deeply about; consider carefully; deliberate; meditate.
  • The definition of mull points back to ponder:  “to cogitate, to ponder.”
  • ruminate, from Latin ruminatus, means  1 to chew (the cud) as a cow does and 2 to turn something over in the mind; meditate.
  • The word I wanted was  muse.  It’s usage as a verb comes from the old French, muser, and carries these definitions:   “to ponder, to loiter, (originally) to stand with muzzle in the air, to think deeply and at length; meditate.

So here I stand, with muzzle in the air, loitering and pondering 2012 as it turns into the home stretch.

Even without a calendar, the signs are everywhere. It’s almost dark at 8:00pm, and the mornings are chilly. Halloween decorations are on display at the supermarket, and the volume of Christmas catalogs has notched up from a drip to a steady trickle.  Before you know it, they’ll be playing “Little Saint Nick” in the stores (kill me now!).

Things have been good in 2012 on the personal front – much to be grateful for.  Good health, food, shelter, and the resources to do our thing(s).  No catastrophic events like fires or floods in this area.  Even our little dog, Holly, who seemed to be at the end of her life in June http://wp.me/pYql4-1TW is stable, hanging on for while, thanks to a good vet and our daily medical interventions on our behalf of her failing kidney.

Holly, about eight years ago

It’s a blessing to have this extra time with her, to give her special attention even as we learn to let go.

I also posted about my good fortune this summer to be able to attend teachings by a senior Tibetan lama http://wp.me/pYql4-2jk, about his knee surgery and its successful outcome in August.

Long life puja for His Eminence Choden Rinpoche, July 28, 2012

We also have an exciting trip planned for the fall, which will be the subject of more than one post later on.


If things are positive in the personal sphere, I know I’m not the only one who finds the public arena disturbing this election year.  There’s something schizophrenic about the media messages we receive on one hand, and our day to day experience on the other.

As the election nears, we constantly hear how polarized we are as a nation, yet in my experience, in parks and public places, restaurants, and stores, people mostly treat each other with courtesy and respect.  I haven’t seen kamikaze parking lot behavior since last year’s Christmas season.

Last week, as I glanced around our local waffle place, it struck me that at places like this across the country, you see “ordinary” people who, if given a chance, could do a better job of getting things done for the good of the nation than our elected representatives.  Did anyone in that breakfast place, or ones like it across the nation, decide to vote for the candidates most likely to freeze up government like an engine without any oil?

And yet it happened, which means (a) it benefits some group of influential people or (b) our politicians are morons or (c) somehow our dysfunction has become systemic.

I lean toward the third choice. In it’s Labor Day editorial, The Sacramento Bee underscored a point I made several days ago http://wp.me/pYql4-2lV – that the fortunes of the middle class mirror the fortunes of labor unions:

“Draw one line on a graph charting the decline in union membership, then superimpose a second line charting the decline in middle-class income share and you will find that the two lines are nearly identical.” The middle class has shrunk significantly, from 61 percent of the adult population in 1971 to 51 percent in 2011, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve. http://www.sacbee.com/2012/09/03/4781267/editorial-to-rebound-labor-needs.html

A forty year decline indicates that the trend is truly systemic.  It’s not the exclusive fault of Bush and/or Obama – rather it’s something built into our current political/economic system.

I know I’m thinking that way now because of Bill Moyer’s guest on Sunday, Mike Lofgren, author of The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.

In his interview with Moyers, Lofgren is not sanguine about our chances to reform the status quo.  He advocates something like folding our hand and asking for a new deck:

BILL MOYERS: But what do we do about it? Nothing seems to tame the power of money in politics.

MIKE LOFGREN: The only thing that will achieve it is fundamental political reform. And the only way you’re going to get that is mass defection from the parties. Because the parties simply do not serve our interests anymore…there is a point where if there is mass public outrage at this, just as there was in the prairies in the 1880’s and 1890’s, eventually they’ll get the message.


When Moyers asks him to state greatest fear and hope, Lofgren says:

“My greatest fear is that this whole impasse simply carries on. And this country becomes more and more polarized and ungovernable. And we could be faced with a very bad situation, internationally and domestically….My greatest hope is that we can govern ourselves again in a spirit of bipartisanship.”

When Moyers asks if he thinks that’s realistic, Lofgren replies, “We must let our hopes be greater than our fears.”

If his answer doesn’t ring with confidence, it’s still good to remember that more than anything else, it is fear that drives us to act in mean spirited ways.  Generosity follows finding the threads of faith and confidence within, and generosity of spirit is what we desperately need.  Sometimes I imagine this through one of William Stafford’s last poems.  It’s a simple but powerful answer to give to our fears.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow.  It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

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. http://www.ewamchoden.org/?p=2093

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.

This summer I met a hero

It’s so easy to get caught up in negativity.  Sometimes all it takes is a quick scan of the paper or a click on a topical websites to make the world seem full of scallawags and scoundrels.  This summer, however, I was privileged to meet a towering figure of moral courage.

His Eminence Choden Rinpoche was born in eastern Tibet in 1933.  At the age of three, he was recognized as the reincarnation of a previous master, and he took novice ordination vows at seven.  He chose not to flee Tibet after the Chinese takeover, and beginning in 1965, during the cultural revolution, Rinpoche spent 19 years in seclusion, living in a windowless basement room at a cousin’s house in Lhasa.

During the cultural revolution, thousands of monasteries were destroyed and more than a million people, especially lamas, monks, and nuns were imprisoned.  When the Chinese burst into his room unannounced at various times of the day or night, they never found any incriminating evidence of religious activity – no texts or even prayer beads.  He was able to hide in plain sight because they thought him an invalid.

Like other spiritual giants – Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King – Choden Rinpoche used his time in what amounted to a cell to deepen his practice.  From memory and imagination, he recited texts and performed rituals he had learned, internalizing Buddhist philosophy.

“From the point of view of spiritual practice, there was great accomplishment in living as I did…If I had gone with the Chinese, I would have received a house, a car and high rank, but I would have had to harm people and cause much suffering…I didn’t have to experience any of this.  These were the advantages of living as I did.”  – from a pamphlet published by Ananda Dharma Center, San Jose, CA, 2012. 

In 1985, Rinpoche was able to leave for India, and he has been teaching around the world since then.  I was a beneficiary this summer and attended a very special series of teachings he gave at his US home, the Ananda Dharma Center in San Jose.  http://anandadharma.org

On July 28, I went to the final event of the summer, a long-life puja for Rinpoche.  It’s a beautiful ceremony in which students, friends, and other lamas essentially ask him to stick around in his present incarnation as long as possible.  Choden Rinpoche is a Tulku, a word for those believed to be able to chose the time and place of their next birth.  For the rest of us, the puja is a way of saying, “Hang on – don’t leave yet!”

Rinpoche has had trouble with his knee.  On Thursday, he flew to Taiwan where some of his students are doctors.  Today he undergoes knee replacement surgery.  Friends and students around the world are sending prayers and good wishes in his direction.  With that in mind, I decided to write that post, knowing even as I did so, that I am really the one it benefits.

Like his friend, the Dalai Lama, Choden Rinpoche’s mind is always fixed on what’s beneficial.  Some of the rest of us (meaning me) have to rely on the inspiration of people like this to bring unruly thoughts back to what really matters.

Chants in the Desert

Yesterday NPR interviewed two monks of the Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico, concerning the Gregorian Chants that are part of the fabric of their lives.

Monastery of Christ in the Desert

The occasion was the release of a CD of their music, “Blessings, Peace, and Harmony.”  Brother Christian Leisy explained that an email from Sony arrived proposing the recording.  “We thought at first it was spam,” he said, “but apparently someone at Sony felt the world wasn’t getting any better, and they wanted to work with a community that might focus on some of the peace elements.”

Chanting does exactly this.  Abbot Phillip Lawrence explained that scientific studies of the effects of contemplative chanting match those of meditative practice:  relaxation, stress reduction, lowered blood pressure and a general sense of wellbeing.

I bought my first album of Gregorian Chants in high school.  Even though I was usually given to rock n roll, there were times when I was drawn to this seemingly strange music with the power to draw me outside of ordinary concerns.  I’ve collected other music like it since then.  Abbot Lawrence understands the power of different types of contemplative music.  He stayed for a time in a Tibetan monastery and found that the deep chanting that is part of that spiritual discipline has the same power as the music he is familiar with.

I highly recommend the interview and the song samples to anyone interested in contemplative music:  http://www.npr.org/2012/05/27/153707577/deep-in-the-desert-monks-make-transcendent-music

Happy Losar

Today, February, 22, is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent on the Christian calendar.  It is also Losar, the beginning of 2139, the Year of the Water Dragon on the Tibetan calendar.  The dates of Lent and Losar both involve lunar calculations, so it’s just coincidence that they align this year.

Water Dragon

Tibetan astrology predates Buddhism but was adapted by that tradition.  There are 12 signs and five elements, for a total of 60 combinations. The astrological year begins not at Losar, but around the time of the Winter Solstice, so children born since December 22 are Water Dragons.  So are those celebrating their 60th birthday.

Here is a good introduction to Tibetan astrology. http://www.tactus.dk/tacom/.  It’s a complicated system, so this is a newspaper horoscope version.  One website predicts 2012 will be “an eventful, mixed blessing year” – what year isn’t?   Another says, “The year of the Dragon is full of energy and surprises.  The element of water symbolizes calm and receptivity.”

The Chinese government has closed the borders of Tibet to foreigners during the traditional 15 days of Losar celebration.  In recognition of recent unrest, some Tibetan leaders in exile are asking that traditional celebrations not go forward.  Prayers and ceremonies will still mark the event worldwide.  Tibetans believe that the power of both positive and negative actions during the first month of the new year are greatly multiplied in their effect on the year to come.

In any event, Losar is a time when the traditional greeting, Tashi Delek, is given, a phrase that is sometimes translated as, “Blessings and good luck.”

A Day With Anam Thubten

Last summer I wrote about a retreat I attended with Anam Thubten. http://wp.me/pYql4-Wp .  Another time I posted about his first book, No Self, No Problem. http://wp.me/pYql4-gg.  Just over a week ago, I join a large group to attend another retreat with this Tibetan master.  The event coincided with the publication of his new book, The Magic of Awareness.

The magic of awareness cover

At first I was not going to write about the day because, in Anam Thubten’s own words, “I don’t have so much to say today.”  After a pause, he added, “I think you already know these things.”  A lot “happened,” that day, but not the sort of things you  can write about.

I thought of the Buddha’s flower sermon.  One day when a group of monks assembled to hear Sakyamuni Buddha, he simply held up a white flower someone had given him as he climbed onto the teaching dais.  One monk, Mahākāśyapa, smiled in understanding, and we date the practice of Zen from that moment.  A lot happened that day too – we remember it 2600 years later – but there is also not much to write about.  What are you going to “say” about holding up a flower?

That’s sort of the point.  And the point of this post.

For some reason, I was wide awake at 5:00am this morning.  I got up, made coffee, and dug into the Sunday paper – for some other unfathomable reason, I was really looking forward to catching up on all the news (what are they putting in the water these days?).  It only took one article on the presidential campaign to cure that delusion and cause me to trash a political post I almost had ready for Monday.  No way I wanted to add my $0.02 to the chatter.  There in the pre-dawn quiet, I thought again of Anam Thubten, the wisdom of silence, and the Buddha’s flower.

At the retreat, Anam Thubten gave few instructions on meditation beyond this: “The essence of meditation is doing nothing.” He elaborates in his first book:

“to rest means to pause, to pause from working very hard, to pause from continuously constructing this world of illusions, the dualistic world, the world that is based on the separation between self and other, you and me, good and bad.  When you completely take away the egoic mind, the creator of this illusory world, then realization is already there and truth is automatically realized.  Therefore, the heart of Buddhist meditation practice is to relax and to rest.”

When you think about it, those are really quite enough words for a lifetime…

The Story of Shambhala

"Song of Shambhala" by Nicholas Roerich, 1943

The fictional earthly paradise of Shangri-La, discussed in my previous post, derives from early Buddhist teachings about Shambhala, a remote realm of advanced spiritual practitioners.  Shambhala is discussed in the Kalachakra Tantra, which Shakyamuni Buddha is said to have taught the Shambhala King, Dawa Sangpo, and 96 lesser rulers, over 2500 years ago.  The King taught all the citizens, since this practice leads to rapid enlightenment, which he hoped would enable them to withstand a threatened invasion.

This is the same “Kalachakra for World Peace,” that the Dalai Lama conferred last July in Washington, DC.  “World Peace,” does not mean it makes one a blessed-out pacifist.  Kalachakra means, “Wheel of Time,” and explores the cycles that affect individuals and the world at large.  It teaches that barbarian hordes periodically invade the civilized world and attempt to eliminate spiritual practice.  Such an invasion, leading to world war, is predicted for the year 2424, at which time, the Kingdom of Shambhala will again manifest in this world to turn the tide.

Kalachraka Mandala

Proponents say that those who take the Kalachakra initiation will be reborn on the victorious side, and the end of this conflict will usher in a new golden age.  (from, Alexander Berzin, Introduction to the Kalachakra Initiation, Snow Lion Publictions, 2010).

In common with the older Hindu epic, The Mahabharata, the warfare described in this teaching has inner and outer dimensions.  To the authors of Kalachakra, “barbarians” were non-Sanskrit speaking people who ate beef, and like Alexander the Great, periodically launched literal invasions.  The authors also understood “barbarians” to mean our own treacherous impulses like greed, hatred, and jealousy, which keep us bound to the wheel of suffering.  This inner war is part of every individual’s spiritual path.

Scholars have located Shambhala near Mount Kailash in the Himalayas, a place sacred to Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains.  They caution that only part of the journey is physical; arrival depends on knowing certain mantras and other spiritual techniques.

Shambhala is said to be near the 22,000' Mt. Kailash

A Western analogy that comes to mind is the Avalon of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s, Mists of Avalon.  When the priestess, Morgaine, falls out of inner harmony, she cannot reach the sanctuary.  In a similar way, some legends say King Arthur is not really dead.  The story says he will rise again at the time of Britain’s greatest need, and numbers of people reported visions of mounted knights during the second world war.

Paramahansa Yogananda (1883 – 1952), born in India, came to this country in 1920.  He was probably the most influential teacher of meditation and Eastern philosophy in America in the first half of the 20th century.  Yogananda predicted a similar time of turmoil, followed by a higher age of spiritual and creative growth.

Eastern concepts of time are cyclical rather than linear.  Yogananda outlined a 24,000 year cycle of four ascending and descending ages, analogous to what the Greeks called, gold, silver, bronze, and iron.  Yogananda’s predictions are eerily similar to what the world is experiencing now:  economic, climactic, and social disruptions.  The good news is that in this view, like that of Kalachakra, we are on the cusp of a higher age.  The bad news is, it’s not going to happen right away – as in, not in our grandchildren’s lifetime.

Still, a well known Tibetan teacher, speaking of our “degenerate” times, reminded his audience of how fortunate we are to live when profound spiritual teachings are available.  If we don’t get to chose all our external circumstances, according to Kalachakra and the teachings of Yogananda, we do get chose how to shape our response and our inner condition.

As Gandalf told Frodo, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”