Monday, August 16, 2010
Come to think of it, my Asian travels started early. At least a certain westerliness began to manifest. It was a near midnight in Hermosa Beach, California in the summer of 1952 when I got my first yen to travel. I packed a pillow slip with bear and cookies and set out, first bidding a polite good-bye to my parents - who had the unusual presence of mind to wave back. They didn't seem to take it personally that I was leaving, and they said nothing about the lateness of the hour or the impracticability of my plan. Instead they followed at a distance, curious, no doubt, to find out what I would do next. I struck out west, to the edge of the wide beach that fronts LA, and then wandered a good three blocks along the strand of sidewalk that parallels the beach, farther than I had ever been alone at age four. At last I settled myself on a bench, stubby legs swinging, and stared out at the broad star-spangled back of the quiet Pacific. I was yearning, though I had no notion yet of geography, in the direction of Asia. Even now, 52 years later, I remember the faint tug of that view, the sense of something out there, pulling. But childish weariness overcame the urge, When I had begun to keel sideways onto my cookies and bear, my parents carried me home.
I remembered that midnight journey when I first heard the Tibetan Lam Rim - "path to Enlightenment" teachings on the rarity of a perfect human rebirth. Imagining oneself special, of course, is a common seduction of the star-spangled Tibetan Buddhist path, with the appearance of Western "tulkus" - both those formally chosen or those self-appointed - now a common feature of meditation courses in both east and west. Fortunately for me, from my first days of practice, it was plain as concrete that my cautious, ever prone to doubt mind was anything but a manifestation of tulkuhood.
The teachings on the specialness of a perfect human rebirth, however, were a little harder to resist. They provided at least a possible explanation for those first yearnings, and as they are designed to, gave me and many of those sitting around me seriously enlarged self-esteem, at least for a time. It was a state of rare good fortune the lamas described, a PERFECT rebirth the ego could pounce on like pastry. To paraphrase their favorite metaphor, "A blind turtle coming to the surface of the world's oceans at random every hundred years has a better chance of accidentally popping his head directly through the center of a single storm-tossed floating ring than your average sentient being has of being born into a perfect human rebirth." This novel thought can produce a certain psychic fatness that has to be whittled down to humility again in long sessions of meditation on endless time and death and hell and other less sanguine topics. Yet even if one has been able to leave self-patting behind, Dharma remains the sweetest and rarest of gifts, for to receive it and make use of it one must be born healthy, in a life with leisure, at a time in which the teachings of a fully awakened Buddha are still remembered, in a place where they are still respected. One must be fortunate enough to encounter a teacher who has the full range of qualifications to teach them, and have the good sense to listen when the Dharma is presented. I guess that is what still intrigues me about my own life and the lives of other Asian "Dharma bums." What distinguishes us, if anything does, from those who do not find Buddhism of special interest, is that unlikely eagerness to listen when the first real teachings are encountered. For many, there a sense of recognition, a coming home. The heart resonates. Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek nailed the feeling precisely when she wrote about her own first spiritual experience, "I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck."
For me that moment came in Bangkok in 1973. I was alone one afternoon in the palm-fringed patio of a low-end hotel, recovering from a fever that had landed me a week in a hospital. In those years I had become one of those modern gypsies who cross Asia overland, traveling rough. We called ourselves "travelers" and did our youthful snobbish best to break free from the banal parade of ordinary tourism for more adventurous, not to say impoverished and perilous modes of travel. More frequent illness was a price we were willing to pay for experiences of otherworldly intensity. And like me, many of us traveled alone, seeking comradeship or help as needed from those we met along the way. When I had become ill on the island of Ko Samui halfway up the Thai peninsula, an Australian nurse I had met on the deck of a freighter from Djakarta made sure I made it to a hospital and loyally stayed through my crisis. Once it was clear I would be okay, she and other friends of the road moved on, leaving me alone to recover in the hotel.
Two days later, I spotted a small card propped against the hotel cash register. "Lectures in Buddhism in English" it read. "7pm Tuesday." Since it was Tuesday, and I had nowhere else to go, I memorized the address on the card. The words remain carved in my brain to this day. When the sun had set, I left the hotel to find "Wat Baworn, Banglamphoo."
What is it about one short lecture that could have so altered my life's course? Phra Khantipalo, was the name of the lecturer, an angular bald-pated 30-something Englishman in the saffron robes of a Thai Buddhist, supported by an amen chorus of robed American ex-soldiers who beamed through his talk and confided when it was over that they had seen Buddhist mantras stop bullets in Vietnam and that meditation was "better than acid." But it was not their colorful company that moved me so deeply that night. It was the Dharma itself, a simple classic teaching on Sila, morality, followed by a few minutes silent contemplation on loving-kindness toward all beings. The hour left me vibrating with joy. I walked home through the tropical dark, looking frequently back at the white bulk of monastery's pagoda beside the river, laughing out loud as a soft warm rain began to fall and soaked me through. It felt like an essential beginning. I did not yet know of what.
Over the next 15 years, I would complete three world-spanning trips all together, each lasting from one to two years, each more intensely focused on Buddhism and eventually on Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet in general than the last. Yet oddly for all this, it was the teachings I was to receive in America that helped me move forward most after that first essential, riveting contact.
Now that I seem as rooted to one spot as a barnacle, I can see that life as a "traveler" is a rich and even dangerous state of life, for your moorings have been cut. You can end anywhere. Wandering the back streets of the big cities of Asia, idling in villages that had rarely seen a western face, I flowed down my life like a small craft on a powerful river. No day was predictable, and a myriad of other lives could have been lived if a choice here or there had been different.
Not that I made any more helpful choices that first trip. From Thailand, I kept my nose deep in a book lent to me by the kindly Khantipalo, I managed to miss entirely the two men would become my most important teachers. I ignored Lama Thubten Yeshe's 1974 second course for westerners, which was in session as I passed through Kathmandu, Nepal. I remember hearing, and ignoring, advice to visit the Dalai Lama's hill station in Dharamsala. Home again, the year that followed was a lost year, life as a shadow, without direction. But karma had a second chance for me. One day an article in the LA Times caught my eye, an interview with Chuck Thomas, a "traveler" who had just returned from Kathmandu. He had become a Buddhist there he said. The lamas he studied with were in LA to give a complete introductory course in Buddhism at Lake Arrowhead.
The seed planted in Bangkok took hold, and finally I did not hesitate. I went to listen to Lama Thubten Yeshe speak, and the impact of two weeks with a fully empowered teacher on my beginner's mind was a hundred times as "resonant" as that first glimmering in Asia. More courses followed. I joined with other students of Lama Yeshe to help found centers in LA and Santa Cruz and Boulder Creek CA. We invited teachers by the dozen and the years passed in a state of dreamlike intensity as we practiced, created courses for others, and built Vajrapani Institute. It was a revolution in my normally cautious and skeptical approach to life, and I could never have thrown myself so fully into the exploration of any religion if it had not been for one key idea Lama Yeshe gave us early on that first course. "Just for awhile, pretend it is all true," Lama Yeshe advised. "and pay attention to what happens." It was permission to put aside skepticism, to live in the "now" wide open and trusting. And what a time "now" was.
Looking back with a better knowledge of history, I see there was some desperation about those first Tibetan teachings to eager westerners. Fresh from the horrors of invasion and exile, expecting cultural extinction before the end of their lifetimes, the Tibetan lamas held back almost nothing. They handed us Dharma whole, like a mother in a burning village tosses her baby into the arms of a stranger in a passing train, trusting fate that someone will love and care for it when she cannot. I compare this with the hard won opportunities of 19th and early 20th century westerners to obtain even a taste of "forbidden Tibet," and it's clear this avalanche of teachings and initiations in the 1970's and 80's was a priceless opportunity. Yet sheer bounty created its own unique aftershocks. "Hasten slowly" in learning Dharma, Milarepa warned. In those first frantic years it was impossible to go slowly.
"The motivation for practice must not become entertainment," the lamas tried to warn us over and over. Yet Tibetans can hardly avoid their own dramatic and over-awing effect on western disciples. Who can resist consorting with kings or having tea with monks who still celebrate their conversion of Kublai Khan? The Tibetans came to us out of a medieval world still echoing the legends of Shambala, trailing tales of 16th generation tulkus and flying lamas, goddess consorts and rainbow bodies, and yogic hands that burn pure love into stone. In the summer corn fields of Wisconsin in 1981, Tibetan monks raised their 10-foot long horns before dawn and lifted sleeping farmers straight out of their beds as the Dalai Lama himself came to perform the Kalachakra tantra for four days - something until then done traditionally only once in his lifetime - and awed a Midwestern community unused to the scent of incense or the sight of fellow Americans wearing the black wigs of ancient Indian goddesses, or summer storms changing their course to create a perfect circle of rainbows and thunder around the God-King of Tibet as he administered tantric vows to his awed disciples.
And yet Dharma as entertainment will not hold, and the Tibetans know it. "What you will keep in the end," Lama Yeshe warned us, "is what you have actually experienced for yourself." He was right.
I returned two times more to live in Asia after I had become a Buddhist. Researching a novel, I lived among Tibetans in both Nepal and Dharamsala, I even made my way across Tibet itself and saw the steady devotion and fearful lives of the monks and nuns left behind. The effect was to gradually release me from the spell of the exotic - though I have not lost my admiration.
I found Tibetans at any level of society, no surprise, can be as cantankerous or ordinary as the rest of us. Yet among them, Like pearls out of the abrading sand, they still produce true saints who have realized bodhicitta, and more. Travel just taught me I must wait and listen to know which they are. The Dalai Lama loves to tell the story of Atisa who waited 12 years to be sure of the caliber of a man he thought to ask to be his teacher.
I think that was what has held me. I stayed not only for my own transient glimpses of understanding, but because of the bodhicitta shining in my teachers' eyes, and the Olympic caliber humility of those who have genuine religious insight to share. Tibetans, bless them, firmly believe anyone who puts up a shingle announcing sainthood is likely to be anything but. After 13 centuries of seeing it all, they should know. "I am a simple monk," the Dalai Lama tells reporters, and despite all his clearly evident attainments, means it.
The presentation of Dharma in the West is calmer these days, more deliberate and deeper. Those who come to it now are not given quite such a magic carpet ride, but perhaps their practice will be closer to the sane pace the Buddha intended. The journey, after all, is not about the thrill of novelty, or finding oneself a bit player in the drama of history, or entertaining former royalty, still less about a fancy new way to feel above others or develop an interesting wardrobe.
These days, when I walk beside the great Pacific and look out toward Asia, the urge to go there has nearly gone, though the urge to keep following the path of Dharma has not. My manner of progress, however, is very different now. Years ago, the stretching rubber band of "pretend it's true" finally needed to relax. There came a day I knew I had to stop receiving more initiations and advanced teachings for a time. I had built too high on concepts I didn't understand well enough to remain intellectually honest. I needed to absorb and practice what had been given before accepting more. "Check everything you have heard," Lama Yeshe also told us, "as if you were buying gold. Challenge this old monk as long as he lives." When new students wonder aloud why an "old student" still asks basic questions, I wonder why they do not ask more.
My life today is so prosaic it would have terrified my old gypsy self to hear of it. Not even a Buddhist bureaucrat anymore, I only rarely visit centers. I am a teacher, writer, and photographer. A daughter to an aging mother. A friend to my friends. A frustrated Democrat and environmentalist. Yet because of what the lamas finally were able to give me, as I live the hours of each day, I try to apply the teachings on emptiness, to be aware of the processes of mind that solidify my world out of infinite possibility. I read the news and try to notice if I begin to demonize another human being. I too rarely take time for sitting practice, but when I do, I apply ton len, giving and taking on the breath to those in pain - and there are SO many, in SO much pain. Surely it does nothing for them yet, but little by little I know it will make compassion easier, more familiar. Mine is the simple imperfect practice of an ordinary laywoman right now, trying to live with morality and patience, trying not to be too selfish, trying not to harm. And trying above all trying to keep alive some semblance of dharma practice in this great Monopoly game of midlife. "Nothing will happen," the famous western nun Patricia Zen advises her students, "if you don't practice every day." And now I can see in my Dharma community that those who have lived this path daily for many years with real energy and integrity are developing truly wonderful inner qualities. And that is my goal now. Before this jewel-like opportunity of Perfect Rebirth is lost, before the next life with all its confusion comes, I want to learn to love and help others more selflessly. I want to see deeply into the way mind creates reality in every moment. I want to wake up.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Trees provide humans with wood to burn to keep us warm and cook our food, wood to fashion cups and toys and weapons and sculpture and boats and tools and pencils, and the daily comfort of furniture. Paper is the gift of trees. Paper to tidy our tender bottoms, paper to preserve our stories, our memories our collected wisdom and the vital instructions on what we have learned about how things work to all the generations to come. And of course wood provides shelter, and not only to us - trees provide protected nooks or sheltered boughs to house a myriad of small birds, insects, and animals. More anciently, trees offered hiding places, climbing places, protection from enemies and from weather. Trees provide fruit to eat, medicines to heal, shade from the hot sun. They cool the air, and bring rain where deserts would be without them. Indeed it is trees who give the energy of motion and life to every species on this earth - directly or indirectly - where there would be none without them, for it is they and other plants who weave sunlight into digestible sugar and pass it down to those on the ground. Their buried remnants coalesce into carbon and oil, still holding the energy of two billion years of sunshine behind us, and now power our cars and electric lights and planes in the sky.
Staggering isn't it? Without them our planet would not have even a livable atmosphere. This Garden of Eden we have inherited would be a rocky cold desert with a nitrogen atmosphere without trees. Without them there would be no ozone layer to protect us from solar radiation; there would be no greenhouse effect to keep us warm.
Even now, in this disintegrating, over-crowded, and over-synthetic civilization we have so unwisely made, trees provide balm for the troubled spirit, filling forest space with endlessly varied beauty and an intensity of healing quiet not found in other spaces. Our species was birthed in trees. And now trees make possible our civilized life. They have guarded and protected and fed and soothed us. Trees in a profound and real way are the mother of life on earth, and now they even do their best to filter out our massive overload of carbon from the atmosphere to keep us from killing ourselves.
Saturday, February 13, 2010
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Sunday, January 3, 2010
I was a little afraid of this game. If I lost too often would my destiny be captured somehow? Would I become this dread thing, this “old maid”? Did that grim little grey woman on the card, left in one’s hands when all the others were paired and gone, have the power to make that same future come to pass for the little girl that held it?
The future in those days, for little girls trying earnestly to imagine it, was offered to our view in lavish photographs in Life Magazine. Grown women with swirling belted skirts, red lipped, blonde hair shorn modernly, or pulled back tight. There were gay beatnik women, (happy, not homosexual) who threw back their heads at parties where everyone flirted amidst a haze of smoke. There were housewives perking Folgers coffee, mopping with a queenly air, for the home was meant to be a woman’s little empire, where she belonged, but also where she covertly ruled and showed her manifold skills and mysterious womanly talents. Everyone was meant to fall in love, perfectly, with the perfect person who had already been born somewhere, just for each of us to find and marry. And it was almost certain that we would be able to do so. No problem. It was fated. Unless, ever so oddly and sadly, something went wrong and we became Old Maids.
So now I am 61. Never married and thus, clearly, one of these lost ones. Yet having arrived, I look about and find I am often as happy again now as I was at 6. Many things have happened in those years of course. Many stories lived and many more stories – of others – glimpsed and pondered. Years of depression as it became clear there would be no perfect mate for me. Yet being an Old Maid no longer seems the catastrophe it was from the vista of childhood. This is I think is more than the “sour grapes” perspective of one who has witnessed more than a few promising marriages turn into living hells for the participants, for I observed many other relationships as well, in which love modulated into a lifetime of deep friendship. Not a bad life at all for those lucky couples. And yet now, comparing the geography of my life to the roads I could have taken, the quiet rich freedom of my days fills me. In subtle ways I chose this. I chose not to be bound by the lives and confusions and emotions of others close by. I had enough of my own. And now with retirement coming, there is the financial leisure at long long last, to start moving forward again. With writing, with meditation, with that journey I came to make.
For there is another role for a solitary woman, the nun. The spiritual seeker. The cloistered, vow-bound version of this, whether Buddhist or Christian, does not yet appeal, though I see many of my contemporaries in Buddhist circles moving toward that door, and many the better for it. But for now, for me, it is Annie Dillards version of “nun” that appeals most. A woman amidst a life simplified, looking out on the world with no clutter between. Seeing time and lives manifold and holding them all in the cup of her heart.
Thus does what we fear most turn out to be what we most wanted – so often.
Friday, January 1, 2010
Time at last to write again. And more time coming, if my plans for semi-retirement, so promising at the moment, materialize next June.
There have been so many thoughts that crossed my mind over the years, declaimed themselves amidst the daily trivia as I drove on the freeway, or took a lunch break, and then retreated in the face of the common sense imperatives of the next class to plan or the next appointment or the next chore.
Now I am faced with a whole day of leisure and all the functioning technology one could wish for, (eat your heart out Dickens). Yet my mind retreats timidly. Nary a thought to find. What were they?
There is one that does come to me consistently, with every newscast in these years since 9-1-1.There is a muddle-headedness to term of “terrorist”, a lack of clarity to the concept that has had extraordinary consequences. That word has taken on such power in our current chapter of history. When the word is used - a hundred times a day it seems - it conjures rat-like humans who conspire in cramped apartments and plant bombs as some kind of past time, or twisted religious act. But truly, how can one wage a war against “terrorists” or “terrorism’? Is there any war that does not bring horrific levels of terror and pain to its participants and corollary victims?
Terrorism is defined as “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.” I guess it is the “political purposes” that connects it so strongly in people’s minds as an act of war. And, given enough scale, it surely is – as in the Algerian uprising in the 50’s, or the Shiite militias in Iraq with their methodical mass tortures.
Yet it is one thing to say one’s enemies are “terrorists,” as we do with fundamentalist Muslims who bomb our soldiers and nearby civilians, and quite another to define “terrorists” are one’s enemies. This makes no sense because terrorism is a military or personal tactic of war, a way to fight or force one’s point of view when other ways are not easily available. It is an especially cruel and ugly way, given its terrible toll of civilians and children, yet it remains a military tactic, not a movement in and of itself, and not an inherent quality of any group.
Would we not have thought it strange if our leaders in WWII had declared war not on Germans but on heavy bombists? What about tankists? Whole cities were incinerated by their (and our) bombers. Villages were leveled as tank columns rolled through supported by infantry. Enough terror for a thousand 9-11’s. Yet it would never occur to give the specialist soldiers who perpetrated such acts their own unique titles as enemies. The enemies were the nations at war.
Turn the idea around. Would we cease calling Al Queda “enemy” if they started fighting with heavy bombers and tanks and infantry? Of course not. We would find relief only in having the acts of war out in the open. The enemy would remain the same.
There is also an astonishing level of myopia and denial about the tactics used by ourselves and our friends in relation to this term “terrorism”. Imagine for a moment the impact on American citizens if any nation, for ANY motive, sent a drone over our cities loaded with bombs, under the command of a foreign youth of 20, with little or no knowledge of our culture or motives, instructed to pull the trigger whenever he saw something he interpreted as suspicious. Imagine that several public gatherings – weddings, parades, festivals, beach fires for large families – became scenes of carnage with the bloody burnt bodies of adults and children cast about like a scene from hell and dozens more sent in agony to hospitals. To be followed a few days later by a tepid apology: “We regret the recent bombing. We received erroneous information that a terrorist leader might have been in the group.”
Imagine the nightly dreams of those under such a flight path.
Imagine a part of California or Texas walled off, as Palestinians in Gaza are walled off, allowed inadequate food and water and medical supplies, humiliated when they tried to come out for work. Imagine a group of men in the affected area deciding to take action by sending rockets over the barriers, harming some tens of people on the other side. Then imagine the other side bombing the enclosed area for days using jets and tanks and bombers, targeting hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings, destroying the whole functioning infrastructure of an economy already struggling to survive, inflicting casualties on the civilian population at ratio of 100 to 1 to the casualties they themselves suffered. How can politicians and pundits keep repeating their mantra of “this is the only way to defeat terrorists” in the face of such on the ground contradictions? What clarity can such words possibly bring in such a situation? And if they do actually mean something, why is it so forbidden to apply them according to their meaning, without partisanship? How can it not be obvious that both sides are trying to terrorize the other into submitting to their own interests?
But then what happens when the enemy is a small group bent on revenge or moved toward mayhem by some other motive that has come to seem more important to them than their own lives? Was the group that attached the Trade Center buildings really the opening front of a “war” in any sense that was not rhetorical? Perhaps many Taliban members of wahabi sects in Pakistan and Afghansitan and Saudi Arabia rejoiced to see Americans damaged. Does that mean they were suddenly soldiers in a united army against us? They were not members of Al Queda. They fought back in an organized way only when we invaded their countries with large armies.
The people who attacked the trade center were criminals, worthy of receiving whatever punishment for such a horrific terrorist act the law provides for. However, by instead defining our reaction as a “war on terror”, our government began an endless war against a nearly undefinable enemy. And it is a war that creates its own endless causes and can end only when we are too exhausted to fight further. This way of thinking – or not thinking – on the part of the Bush administratrion, this lack of clarity in defining its own vocabulary, started a cascade of misery and endless retributions that will affect the whole world for generations.