Monday, June 15, 2015

Carrying Rainbows



Once upon a time there was a young man of the East, who carried rainbows with him wherever he went.

Sometimes the people with him would see the rainbows; sometimes they wouldn’t. But when they didn’t see the rainbows, they saw other things that were just as spectacular.

Sometimes they saw kindness. Sometimes they saw gentleness. Sometimes they saw compassion. Sometimes they saw penetrating wisdom. Sometimes they saw humor, and smiles, and laughter. Sometimes they even saw things that they couldn’t explain!

But always, they saw beauty—like a rainbow.

People whispered that this young man could do miracles. They murmured that he could leave hand- and footprints in solid rock. They whispered that his eyes could look into realms that other people couldn’t see. They thought he knew things that were impossible for anyone to know. They claimed he knew what would help them, and what wouldn’t.

They said he knew the secrets of the mind.

Most of all, they marveled at his activity. How he drew people to him, as a lamp beckons travelers on a dark and dusty road. How he touched people’s hearts and minds with the rainbows of his own heart and mind. How he sparked others to change, even as he, himself, remained steady and glowing.

As the young man grew, so too did his rainbows.

He wrote music that was beyond beautiful, music that made people begin to hum, and sing, and dance. He painted pictures that moved people to take up their own brushes and paints. He wrote poetry that inspired the best parts of people’s natures.

He made people think, I want to be like he is.

As the young man grew, so too did his reputation. Some of us outside his own land began to hear about him, began to want to meet him, began to write him letters to ask him to come to us.

And after some time, he did travel. He packed his rainbows, and mounted a dragon with a thunderous, profound roar, and flew for a very great distance to a place that he had named as his home in the West.

Where hundreds of us came from thousands of miles away just to see him. Just to hear him speak. Just to be in his presence. Just to witness his activity. Just as in his homeland, where thousands of people would come from hundreds of miles away for the same reason.

To witness his rainbows.

And so we gathered, the young man who carried rainbows and those of us who were drawn to him. We gathered in a warm shrine room. We gathered in a bitter cold tent. We sang, and then we listened.

It is like a fairy tale to be here, he said. For the first time, he said, I begin to feel that I am free. You must not think that you are ever separate from me, he said. You have been in my heart before I even came here; you will be in my heart when I am gone; I will hold you in my heart for always.

And he said more. He said that both samsara and nirvana are experienced by the mind, so that is what we mean by the equality of samsara and nirvana. He said that the mind has two aspects, stillness and movement. The stillness of mind is like a light; the movement of mind is like thoughts. And so he pointed the way to a secret, the secret of how the mind works.

And he smiled. He smiled a lot! And he laughed. And so did we.

And day after day, rainbows followed the young man. Rainbows on the highway. Double rainbows. Bright rainbows. Rainbows around the sun.

And when the young man left, the hundreds of us who had come to see him left, too. But something was different for us all, now. Something magical. Something like a fairy tale.

We began to feel that we were not separate from the young man. We began to feel that we carried the young man in our hearts, even though he was gone. We began to feel that we would hold him in our hearts for always.

We began, for the first time, to feel free.

We began to carry rainbows.


Inspired by His Holiness Karmapa's first visit to the United States
Written at the Summer Solstice/June 19, 2008
Originally published in KTD's newsletter, "Zampa," Fall 2008

Sunday, June 7, 2015

An Open Letter to Florida’s Water Advocates



Hello everyone. Like all of you, I have been watching with dismay the direction that Florida’s elected “leaders” are choosing to take with regard to our waters and our environment. I have some thoughts to share that might spark discussion.
We are still placing a lot of emphasis in our discussions on working within the system and “throwing the bums out” via elections. I believe this energy is misplaced. Here’s why:  The political system that many of us grew up with is broken; it doesn’t work any more.
Two of the primary reasons why the old system is not working are gerrymandered legislative districts and the huge amounts of money being poured into political campaigns as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens_United_v._FEC). As long as our elected representatives serve in “safe” legislative districts, we won’t be able to throw them out of office. As long as huge amounts of private money can legally be poured into political campaigns, water advocates and environmental groups can’t compete.
Some Princeton University research that backs up these assessments was sent to me recently by Lesley Gamble; see:


From the Abstract of that study: “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
The conclusion I draw is disheartening:  As long as we keep doing what we’ve always done, nothing is going to change. That’s doesn’t mean, however, that we need to stop doing what we’ve always done; it simply means we need to admit to ourselves that it’s not enough.
The flip side of that conclusion is this:  We need to be much more creative. We need to reach out to organizations such as Move To Amend, which is working to overturn the Citizens United decision via an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to find out how we might work or at least “message” together. We need to identify allies who are working to require more fairly apportioned legislative districts. We need to let our members and the public know why we are doing these things. We need to get much savvier in our messaging so that we can communicate to our leaders who DO care about our waters, as well as the public, where the real problems lie. And even though it’s part of the old system, we might want to consider starting a Political Action Committee (PAC) for Florida’s waters.
One thing I think we need to do in our messaging is to begin to ask this question of our elected representatives and in our op-eds:  Has North Florida’s springs heartland been declared a sacrifice area for big business and big agriculture? It would be interesting to watch the reactions, if any, to this question.
We need to consider our springs problem not only as a springs problem, but also as an aquifer problem. We need to forge alliances in aquifer restoration efforts with as many farmers as we can via a concerted, person-to-person effort to mend fences with those groups. Why? Because if our aquifer is damaged, they stand to lose as much as we springs lovers do, and because there are no solutions to our aquifer problems without their cooperation and support. We also want them to stay in business so their land doesn’t get sold to developers! Industrial farmers/ranchers will, of course, not be interested in this argument. I believe, however, that many Florida family farmers and organic farmers will be interested and would be willing to add their voices to ours if we play our cards right and focus a substantial effort on building these bridges.
We need to find ways to create greater emotional connections between people and springs.
We need to identify what I call “helicopter projects” that enable us to get out in front of the big truck that’s throwing out trash (or worse!) for us to shovel. We need to move from being reactive to being proactive. (Thanks to Annie Pais for the helicopter idea.)
We need to change our laws to level the playing field between the environment and business/commerce.
Finally, we need to make ethics the centerpiece of our messaging. I say that because I have long seen that invoking the ethical argument against destroying our springs is how we will win. As the ethicist Kathleen Dean Moore has said, “It’s wrong to wreck the world.” The “ethics” I’m talking about are not the ethics of one religion or one culture, but rather what His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama refers to as “secular ethics,” “…the diverse set ofvalues that people of various beliefs hold in common.”
I know that many of our groups are already doing some of these things. I am writing this piece not as criticism of what people are already doing, but in the hope that these ideas will spark discussion and perhaps lead to better, stronger efforts to save our waters. It’s always fascinating to watch what comes out of brainstorming sessions and my sense is that from here on out, those sessions need to start with an honest admission that the old ways simply aren’t working any longer.
When you drink water, remember the spring. -Chinese Proverb

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bodhisattva Activity: Waffle House and the Bodhisattva Vow (Karmapa Pilgrimage 2015, Conclusion)



Tibetan Buddhist teachers say that when you are planning to visit an important teacher, obstacles can arise and that working through these obstacles enables you to purify past karma. I usually have no trouble getting to such teachings; for me, however, the obstacles tend to rear their ugly heads on the trip home.

I remember driving through Tropical Storm Barry after attending a teaching with Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche in Miami, doing Tara mantras all the way up I-95 from South Florida to Gainesville because I was afraid I was going to die in the rain and wind. I remember driving home from a teaching with Bardor Tulku Rinpoche in Tampa when the friend I was with had to go to the ER with what we thought might be a heart attack but turned out to be a bad gallbladder.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that I had an experience roughly equivalent to the Tropical Storm Barry event the day I left Poughkeepsie for Florida. I had a wonderful dinner with my friend Stirling on Friday night and marvelous conversations with her about subjects of mutual interest that resumed and continued through Saturday morning. I left Poughkeepsie a little after noon on Saturday, determined to make it through Washington, D.C., before I stopped for the night.

That plan would have worked, and worked well—traffic was mercifully light all the way to and through D.C.—if it hadn’t been for the rain that started just as I was leaving the D.C. area and if a big race of some sort hadn’t been cancelled in Richmond, Virginia, because of the rainy weather. The upshot of the widespread rain event and the cancelled race was that I-95 was filled with travelers and there were no motel rooms to be had!

There was no letup in the rain after the sun went down. There were dark areas on the bypass around Richmond where it was hard for me to see the road, where I thought I might drive off the highway because of bad visibility. Luckily, however, there was usually at least one set of car taillights in front of me that I could follow.

Finally, with the rain still falling and feeling sleepy and a bit desperate, I stopped at a Waffle House somewhere in Virginia for a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee. I called home to let Forrest know that I was still on the road and might be for quite a while. One of the waitresses overheard my call and very generously called around to try to find me a motel room. She had actually located one that I would have had to backtrack to get, but I decided to go for it and was on the phone trying to secure a reservation when my cell phone dropped the call! I thanked her profusely and left a good tip, determined to keep going until I could locate a room.

I drove on through the rain and darkness and stopped a couple more times, but the motels were either already full or had long lines of people waiting to see if they could get rooms, so I kept driving. 9 p.m., 10 p.m., 11 p.m. and midnight all rolled by. I was getting really sleepy by that point and thought about stopping at a rest area, but didn’t think that was a safe idea. I wondered if I should just drive to a local police station to ask if I could sleep in my car in their parking lot, but somehow I thought that would just turn out to be more of a hassle than a real solution to the problem. I kept reminding myself that I had just seen Karmapa, was infused with blessings, and that I might not be asleep at that hour even if I were at home.

Finally, about 1 a.m., I drove into the parking lot of a Travelers Inn that was literally the first motel I saw after pulling off I-95 somewhere near Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I was in luck! A nice Indian gentleman and his wife said yes, they had a room, and I took it sight unseen. It took all the energy I had to get my little overnight case and laptop up to the room, call Forrest to leave a message that I was safe, and then collapse into a welcoming bed.

And yes, it was still raining the next morning, but right down the street was another Waffle House where I had a good breakfast and some energizing coffee.

Driving through North Carolina, still in the rain, I passed that same field of yellow flowers that had opened my heart on the way to New York. My heart broke open again, thinking about how Karmapa described apathy and the lack of love as our greatest danger…thinking about my spiritual friend whose information had inspired my trip…thinking about the kindness of everyone I’d encountered up north (yes, even the two women in the tent who had inadvertently connected me with another friend)…thinking about Forrest and our cats waiting for me at home…thinking about Florida’s precious freshwater springs and the environment that sustains us…thinking most of all about Karmapa and my other Buddhist teachers.

My heart opened, and love and tears came pouring out.

And I realized that my job, now, is to keep that love flowing. For everyone.

Bodhisattva Vow

driving south through North Carolina
on Interstate 95
a field of yellow flowers is
blooming in the median

and
I get these words:

nothing you could ever say
or do
would make me
stop
loving you

and get that this

this

is one true meaning
of the
Bodhisattva vow

lfm
4/26/15


Recognizing the Three Poisons as Illness: HH Karmapa Teaches about Medicine Buddha at Kunzang Palchen Ling (Karmapa Pilgrimage 2015, Part 6)



Friday morning at 6 a.m. found me scarfing a quick breakfast of coffee and an oatcake before hurriedly packing my car for the return trip to Florida. After attending the morning’s teaching by His Holiness Karmapa at Kunzang Palchen Ling, my plan was to deliver Nancy to the Amtrak station in Poughkeepsie so she could return to New York City while I would spend the night with my friend Stirling before heading home to Florida on Saturday.

It is always extremely difficult for me to leave Woodstock. Luckily Nancy was riding with me so I avoided tears and thoughts of, “If only I could spend more time here!” Instead, as we drove out of town I said a silent goodbye to Woodstock, the staff and place energy at the Inn, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, and my helpful spiritual friend at KTD.

Nancy and I had driven to Kunzang Palchen Ling on Thursday to deliver a gift that her husband had carved for Karmapa, but today the center was transformed. The bustle of pre-event planning had given way to orderly directions from lamas and event volunteers, the staccato hammering sounds of construction were replaced by the deep, resonant notes of Tibetan trumpets, and I was delighted when Bardor Tulku Rinpoche himself, looking happy and healthy, peeped into the shrine room from the walkway outside. The spacious upstairs shrine room and the large downstairs multi-purpose room (complete with TV for video feed from the shrine room) were filled with people who had connections to Rinpoche, to Karmapa, or to both teachers. It was great to see old friends and to make new acquaintances, and I was especially grateful that I had been able to secure a seat in the shrine room.

Karmapa was still feeling unwell, so instead of conferring the scheduled Medicine Buddha empowerment he gave transmission of the most commonly used mantra for Sangye Menla (Medicine Buddha) and a short talk about the significance of this particular form of Buddha.

Karmapa explained that the reason Buddha is likened to a physician, the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) is likened to medicine, and the Sangha (community of Buddhist practitioners) is likened to nurses is because they all treat the three poisons of attachment, aversion and ignorance—the poisons that are the root causes of all illness.

In addition to viewing the three poisons as the source of all illness, Karmapa said we might also view them as demons that may have control over others. Personifying attachment, aversion and ignorance as demons helps us to become more loving and compassionate toward the people over whom these demons exercise control.

Saying the mantra and/or doing the practice of Sangye Menla then serves two purposes:  It helps us to recognize the three poisons in ourselves—to recognize our own sickness—and it helps us to recognize those things in others and to have more love and empathy toward them.

I was happy to hear that in his closing remarks, Karmapa said that he was pleased that Bardor Tulku Rinpoche’s health has improved and that his family is doing well. Rinpoche had a stroke several years ago, which has left him with limited use of one of his hands, and he has had other health problems recently that prevented him from traveling. Those problems appear to have been resolved and Rinpoche is planning to visit us in Florida this coming October.

What an auspicious occasion for the last time I would see Karmapa on this trip! I am often amazed at the good fortune that has brought me into contact with him and with my other magnificent teachers.



Under the Tent in Woodstock and Back Up the Mountain to KTD (Karmapa Pilgrimage 2015, Part 5)



Wednesday Afternoon

Karmapa was scheduled to give a talk to the people of Woodstock at Andy Lee Field, a short walking distance from the center of town near the village cemetery, at 2 p.m. on Earth Day. While the talk had not been publicized, I decided to get there early, a little after 1 p.m., and was glad I did because a steady stream of people followed me through the security gate, across the muddy ground and into a large tent that had been set up to protect us in case of rain.

I took a spot where I had a clear sightline of the stage and rooted myself there, wishing I had thought to bring a folding chair but committed to stand for as long as His Holiness would speak. I stood a little bit to the left of a woman who was sitting in one of those seats that is attached to a walker; I assumed she had a mobility problem but she seemed content and I took care not to block her view.

More and more people arrived and all of a sudden, I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard someone behind me saying, “You can’t stand there.”

I turned around and said, “I beg your pardon?” Two women who had recently arrived were standing behind me and one of them repeated, “You can’t stand there, you’re in her way,” (nodding at the woman in the chair next to me), “and we just had to move so she could see.”

Now, these women had arrived after I did. Neither the woman in the chair nor I had moved an inch. If I had been thinking, I would have asked the woman in the chair, “Am I blocking your view?” because I clearly wasn’t. But I was so taken aback by the cheekiness of the woman who had told me, “You can’t stand there” (because obviously I was blocking her view), that I simply bailed. “I’ll move back here,” I said, and hastily moved to the back of the crowd. I have never figured out how to handle rudeness; what I should have said or done always occurs to me much later, after the fact.

Yes, I was angry; in fact, I was seething. But when I got to the back of the crowd, I ran into Debbie, a sangha member from Florida who now lives in Woodstock and works for my other primary dharma teacher, Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, at Kunzang Palchen Ling, his center across the Hudson River in Red Hook. I had seen Debbie briefly at the Karma Pakshi empowerment in Kingston but this time we had a chance to chat and get caught up on what we had been doing, so my anger evaporated as I realized that had that rude woman not tapped me on the shoulder and told me to move, I wouldn’t have had a chance to visit with someone I like. And I still had a clear sightline to Karmapa, even though I was a bit farther away from the stage. It’s funny/odd how seemingly adverse circumstances can often take a 180-degree turn. I certainly had a better time talking to Debbie than I would have had if I’d joined in an argument with two cheeky women.

Karmapa’s remarks to the crowd were surprising, informative and inspiring (see previous blog entry). I had no idea he had heard about Woodstock as a child in Tibet! I had no idea he would compare the people of Woodstock to the Tibetans of old! (Which makes me wonder if some of the folks in Woodstock today have past-life connections to Tibet—but I don’t wonder that for very long.) But I wasn’t surprised to hear him refer to climate change as an environmental emergency, or that he urged us to continue working to preserve our world; those are consistent, often-repeated messages of his and one big reason why I adore him.

One of the coolest things that happened was that after he finished speaking, he took a bottle of water that was wrapped in a gold cloth and poured water onto the trees that the children of Woodstock were planning to plant later that day. The children had asked that the trees be placed on stage while he was speaking, so Karmapa generously blessed them with a large drink of water from his own hands.

As we left the tent, the rain—which had held off just long enough for Karmapa to give his talk—started again. I pulled up the hood of my raincoat and headed briskly back to town for a warm snack at my favorite Woodstock eatery, the Garden CafĂ©.

Thursday

Finally! I got a phone call confirming that Namse Bangdzo, the bookstore at KTD, was open, so I headed back up the mountain, back up the prayer flag-festooned dharma path, and satisfied my shopping urge with the purchase of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s three-volume set of The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma and a labradorite mala. I couldn’t linger, though (which probably saved me quite a bit of money), because my friend Nancy was arriving that day by bus for the Friday event with Karmapa at Kunzang Palchen Ling. I had promised to meet her shortly after noon.

After being on my own all week, it was good to have a friend to talk to and share meals with, and a bonus was that we were able to meet Colleen, another friend, at the Bread Alone coffee shop for a nice visit before Colleen headed over to Kingston in preparation for the Friday teachings, which would be the only time other than the empowerment in Kingston when I would see Karmapa at a formal event.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Karmapa Meets With the People of Woodstock (Karmapa Pilgrimage 2015, Part 4)

It only takes 16 minutes to watch and I could never do it justice with a description; it's better if you see it for yourself. Note mention of hippies, climate change as environmental emergency, and the responsibility we all have to protect our environment.



The Radical Act of Planting a Tree and a Heart-to-Heart Blessing (Karmapa Pilgrimage 2015, Part 3)




Earth Day (April 22, 2015) dawned grey and cold in Woodstock but thankfully, the rain had stopped and the road up to KTD was dry although the parking lot at the pond was extremely muddy. I drove into the lot slowly and circled around, careful to choose a parking place where I didn’t think my car was likely to get stuck.

Every time I visit the pond I am reminded of my friend Sandra, who was a housekeeper at KTD for quite a few years. I met her and we forged a friendship when she was one of my roommates in the dorm in the old Meads Mountain House the first time I attended a 10-day teaching by my refuge lama, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche.



Sandra was a smoker and after supper at the end of the day, we liked to walk down to the pond where she would smoke, I would enjoy the scenery, and we would have long conversations about the dharma, our Buddhist teachers, and our lives. I loved the dharma path festooned with prayer flags, the calm water where people have reported seeing nagas, and the looming hills of the Catskill Mountains. Once, Sandra and I even saw a bear foraging for food on the far side of the pond! Sandra has since died of cancer, but I miss her still and remember her as one of the most spiritual people I’ve ever met—pure in her devotion to her teachers, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and His Holiness Karmapa, and eager to live a life completely devoted to high-level dharma practice. I hope that is possible for her now.

Back to present time. I was going to KTD on Earth Day morning because I had learned about a scheduled tree-planting ceremony with Karmapa the day before, in a chance conversation with one of the security guards at KTD’s gate. As I hiked up the hill from the parking lot, I was thinking about that serendipitous conversation when I noticed something unusual—little tiny blobs of white falling from the sky. I looked closer and yes, it was snow! I was hiking up to KTD through a softly falling flurry of snow. In April!

The tree-planting ceremony was an unofficial event that had not been publicized at all, as far as I could tell, because the crowd was extremely small. Even standing outside the roped-off area within which Karmapa and his party would be seated, I thought that this was probably the closest I would ever be to him. And because it was not an official event, we were permitted to take photographs. Several press and official KTD photographers were working within the roped-off area in front of the small group of us who had come for the ceremony, but those people took care not to interfere with our sightlines. I was able to get some good photos, including some of the photographers themselves.



“The usual suspects”—some of the KTD lamas and staff members—were there, as well as representatives of different faiths (Zen, Christian, Jewish) from the area in and around Woodstock. Some of the Woodstock Town Council members were there too, including the councilman I’d met at the Inn on the Millstream earlier in the week.





His Holiness Karmapa, attired in red robes and sporting the sunglasses that I always think make him look wickedly handsome (“wickedly” as in “extremely,” not as in “evil”), had unfortunately caught a cold and didn’t speak, but Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche addressed the small crowd briefly.

As Khenpo’s remarks were being interpreted, I was standing directly opposite Karmapa. While I couldn’t ever tell exactly what he was looking at because of his shades, there was one instant at which his face was turned toward me and I felt what I can only describe as a completely unexpected bolt of powerful energy shoot straight from his heart into mine. Was this Karmapa’s blessing? I don’t doubt it. For the Tibetans, “mind” resides in the heart, not the brain, and it is from the heart chakra that we generate bodhicitta—the wish for all beings to become enlightened. Talk about my heart being opened!



When the time came to plant his tree, Karmapa was not shy about getting his hands dirty. The tree, which looked like a small Japanese maple, had graced the stage at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Karmapa’s earlier appearances, and he carefully tended the placement of soil around its roots and then applied a generous amount of water.



Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s tree, which looked like a small fir or other evergreen, was being carefully tended by Rinpoche’s own helpers when Rinpoche—who is over 90 years old and now walks with a cane—approached and used the cane to shovel dirt onto the tree’s roots.



The ceremony—on the surface so short and simple—was, for me, a deeply moving experience, and not only because I palpably sensed Karmapa’s blessing.

I think that when great forces are arrayed against the health of the environment—and, by extension, against the human beings who are supported by that environment—sometimes the most radical thing we can do is something simple like planting a tree. Such a seemingly simple act is actually a radical affirmation that lovingkindness and compassion can triumph over the poisons of greed and ignorance.


During one of the 10-day teachings I attended about Machik Labdron and her practice of chod (severance of ego) several years ago, I gained an unshakeable faith in her and in my Buddhist teachers—the faith that, while I must continue to make my own efforts to keep to the dharma path, we are each surrounded by blessings at all times, on all sides, blessings that can make the impossible possible and change hearts, minds and even external circumstances if we do our dharma work and remain open to them. I was certain that it was because of such blessings that I had been led to the tree-planting ceremony.

I pondered those thoughts about dharmic blessings as I took the path back to my car and drove slowly and carefully down the long and winding road into Woodstock. Through the winter-bare trees, I glimpsed the Ashokan Reservoir—one of the water sources for the people of New York City—glinting in the distance. I thought about my own work on behalf of the springs and waters in my home state of Florida.


And I realized that thanks to one true spiritual friend at KTD and a chance conversation with a security guard, I will carry the images, inspirations and blessings of that tree-planting ceremony in my heart for a long, long time.