Wednesday, March 31, 2010

An Offering to a Naga

In Machik's Complete Explanation, the Tibetan saint Machik Labdron explains to her followers that there are many unseen beings and spirits that co-inhabit our world.

Even though I've never been one to see such beings, I have absolutely no trouble in believing they exist. I can't see ultraviolet or infrared light either, or electricity, or atoms, yet scientists assure me that these things exist—so why not nagas?

Nagas–spirits who live in or near water or powerful trees–are said to be of three types. Some are "bad guys," mischievous and hurtful. Some are "good guys," and even protect the dharma teachings. Some are mutable, and can be good guys at one time and bad guys at another.

One of my teachers, Khenpo Ugyen Tenzin, has said he thinks a naga may live at our neighborhood spring.

One of my other teachers, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, recently gave me instructions on how to make offerings to our neighborhood naga.

So yesterday afternoon found me rushing to the grocery after work to buy milk and sugar—because nagas like dairy products and sweets—and then rushing home to change into shorts and drive the five minutes to the spring, just as the sun was setting.

I was in luck. The last two spring visitors were leaving on bicycles when I drove up. The only other people there were fishing at some distance from the spring. So I had some privacy, which was good.

I waded into the water and made the offering, following Khenpo's instructions as well as I was able, then stood there for a few minutes to take in the scene. It was lovely, as always. I wondered if I would ever be able to see a naga.

Today, I received two pieces of very welcome news. I am not saying this good fortune is connected with the offering, but given that everything is connected, ultimately, I would not be a bit surprised.

The most surprising thing, though, was how happy I felt that by making the offering, I had done something helpful for an unseen being, and for the Earth that sustains us.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche recently stressed to me, when I told him how inspired I am by HH Karmapa's commitment to helping the environment, that there are two reasons why it is important to take care of our surroundings.

First, of course, is because our environment sustains us, so by helping it we are actually helping ourselves.

Second is because of the unseen beings, like nagas, who can be sickened by pollution–and since it's human beings who cause pollution, guess who becomes the target for revenge by the bad guy nagas? We do.

So I am wondering if a lot of us started making appropriate offerings to the unseen beings and spirits in our local areas, could we help turn back the tide of pollution and destruction that seems to lurk everywhere we look?

And could we, for our children and grandchildren, preserve even a bit of the best that Florida has to offer?

Note: Naga offerings, and other such offerings, always come with specific instructions that I am not qualified to give. Ask your teacher what you can do, though, and you might be as surprised as I was.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Plum Blossom Spring

Every spring it's a contest between the redbuds and the plums to see which will bloom first. This year it was the plums, but not by much because we are having a very late spring.

Plum blossoms always remind me of a wonderful art exhibition that was held back in the 1980s at the museum where I used to work, the University Art Museum at UC Berkeley (now the Berkeley Art Museum). I still have the catalog: Bones of Jade - Soul of Ice: The Flowering Plum in Chinese Art.

The title was taken from a poem by Su Shi:

In Flowering-Plum Village at the foot of LuoFu Mountain,
The flowering plums' bones are of jade and snow, and their souls of ice.
In their multitude the blossoms seem moonlight hanging from the trees,
In their brightness they are alone with Orion on the horizon at dusk.

In solitude I live on rivers and seas,
Melancholy like a sick crane perching in a deserted garden.
Heavenly scent and the land's foremost beauty: a comforting sight!
They know I am heavy with wine and ready to bring forth pure, warm verse.

Here's another good one, by Zhu Dunru:

At the old creek, a single flowering plum;
It escaped being locked in a garden or park.
The road is far, the mountain deep; it does not mind the cold.
It seems to play hide-and-seek with spring.

Hidden thoughts—who knows them?
Contracting friendships it's always hard to hit it right.
Lone romance, lone fragrance—
The bright moon comes to look for me.

And finally, Wang Wei:

You have come from my home town
You must know about things at home.
On the day you left, had the winter plum
In front of my open-work window blossomed yet?

What blooms first where you live?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Mourning Doves and Mahakala

It is my last trip to KTD for the foreseeable future, unless I win the Lotto or identify some kind of funding source other than my paying job—which doesn’t really pay enough to support the lifestyle to which I would like to become accustomed, summer and fall in Woodstock, winter and spring in Florida.

I am sitting on the patio outside the old Meads Mountain House, eating lunch with friends, and I notice a tiny chickadee at the newly-installed bird feeder. Such a cute, sweet little black-capped bird!

We have had a break in the winter weather. Days are sunny, and warm enough to sit outside. After the winter we have had in Florida—and the snow that fell here in the Catskills a couple of weeks ago—I feel blessed with this springlike gift from the gods.

I have come to hear my refuge lama, the incomparable Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, give the final teaching in a two-year series about Machik Labdron and her practice of severance of fixation on the self.

Yes, I am blessed indeed.

One of my favorite things to do when I am at KTD is to sit in on the evening practice of Mahakala, the great protector of the Karma Kagyu lineage.

I love the practice when it has the full complement of instruments, especially when there are enough people so that two drums can be used. The sound of those two drums always reminds me of two hearts, beating together.

But tonight there are only three people in the shrine room for Mahakala—Tenzin Chonyi or Tenzin-la, who is the president of KTD; a lovely young woman whom I do not know who is spinning a prayer wheel with very little effort; and me.

Tenzin-la, who was sent here years ago by His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, is the only one of us who is actually doing the Mahakala practice, so there are no drums tonight.

We are about a half-hour into the hour-long practice when I notice that I am sitting across from one of the loveliest Guru Rinpoche thangkas I have ever seen, and it looks OLD. I usually sit on the other side of the room, right underneath and next to the thangka, so this feels like the first time I have ever actually seen it—and it takes my breath away.

We are about 45 minutes into the practice when I realize that Tenzin-la is chanting without a text. He must know this practice by heart!

I am stunned. I cannot imagine how many times someone would have to do Mahakala in order to be able to do the whole practice without a text.

At the end of the hour, I thank Tenzin-la and approach the young woman with the prayer wheel. I can’t think of anything intelligent to say in praise of her efforts, so I try something lame: “Doesn’t your hand get tired?” I ask, “Or, have you done this so much that you are used to it?”

“Oh, no, it’s very easy,” she says, “look,” and very generously shows me how she has attached an amber-colored glass crystal ball to the wheel as a weight, so that it practically spins by itself! I must remember this, I think, when I get a prayer wheel.

As I leave the shrine building, I am struck once again by the beauty of the mountains to the north, still dappled with snow in the evening light. On the hill above the shrine, above the line of prayer flags, I hear a rustling in the leaves—probably a squirrel, but I stop to look just in case we might be having another visit from the black bear who came down the hill for a torma feast last summer.

Tenzin-la comes along behind me and we say hello. He stops.

“Do you know what bird that is, that makes that sound?” he asks.

I don’t hear it, so I ask him to describe the sound. “Oooo-oooo,” he says.

“Well, it could be an owl,” I offer.

“No, it’s not an owl,” he says, sure of himself.

Then I hear it, clearly. “Wooo-ooo, hooo, hooo, hooo.”

“It’s a dove!” I cry, pleased that I can identify the bird by its voice. “A mourning dove.” I describe the bird to Tenzin-la, who listens again and says, “Mourning dove,” and heads across the parking lot to his home.

The dove cries again.

In an instant, I am transported from the Catskills in 2010 to 1956 and a wonderful old two-story, rambling Florida house with a great front screened porch at 521 Revere Street, near Lake Dot, near downtown Orlando, Florida—my great-aunt Grace’s house and realty office, where she lives with her husband and where my maternal grandmother and great-grandmother have a small apartment.

I am nine years old, and my parents and I have moved to Florida from Decatur, Georgia, and are living at my aunt’s house until our new home on the west side of town is finished.

The sun is hot, but there are fans in the house and lots of shade trees and cool breezes in the evening, and from dawn to dusk and sometimes even after dark we hear the soft “Wooo-ooo, hooo, hooo, hooo” cries of the mourning doves.

My grandmother and I grow closer and closer as she indulges me with scary stories and encourages my love for the mysterious, the psychic, the supernatural.

My great-grandmother insults me by calling my favorite Disney cartoon character, Peter Pan (I love him because he can fly!), “an insect.” I am not sure why I take such offense at this, but I do.

My great-aunt’s husband entertains me by occasionally speaking in a deep voice through the old house’s heating vent system. “This is the voice from the hole,” he announces with great solemnity, and his deep echoing voice elicits shrieks of delight from me and sparks laughter even from the adults.

And of course there are my parents, who take great care to do everything parents must do to make this childish nine-year-old feel safe and loved in a new home.

Amazing. Here I am on a mountain, at Karmapa’s monastery in the Catskills—yet in my mind, I have instantly been transported 1100 miles south and 54 years back in time! How is this possible?

Because of a bird call?

Of course they are all dead now—Grace and Buz, my great-aunt and her husband; my mom and dad; Momie, my great-grandmother; and my beloved grandmother, Mama Kitty, the person in my family to whom I always felt closest.

These memories are a lesson in impermanence, yes—yet so much more.

I wonder how it is possible, now that they are gone, to still feel such love for all of them.

When I was small, they kept me safe. When I was stubborn, they loved me. When I fell down off my bike and skinned my knees, they kissed the hurts. When I was naughty, they showed me what it meant to be kind and considerate of others. When I was selfish, they taught me how to give.

And it seems I only repaid them, in the end, with more bad behavior.

Standing here in the parking lot, listening to the call of the mourning dove, I feel, very viscerally, the truth of the words of the Four Vows, which I have taped above my writing area at home:

However immeasurable sentient beings, I vow to save them.

However inexhaustible the passions, I vow to extinguish them.

However immeasurable the dharmas, I vow to master them.

However incomparable the Buddha’s truth, I vow to attain it.

I could mourn those who are gone, or I could take a lesson from my teachers and wonder how is it possible that in my 62nd year, I finally have come to realize the depth of compassion that wakes that sleeping giant, bodhicitta?

It is only through the blessings of my dear teachers, I think, that this waking is even possible.

Something inside me feels cracked open, like a winged seed bursting forth from its pod, about to take flight—or like a small bird emerging from the egg.

I’m home now, and spring is coming after a long, cold winter.

The beautyberry is leafing out. Cardinals and sparrows and bluebirds and, yes, even a mourning dove are showing interest in the bird feeder in the crape myrtle in the back yard.

I’m sitting in the dining room, my favorite room in my house, eating a couple of slices of pizza. Outside in the garden spot, in the beautyberry that’s just beginning to leaf out, two chickadees alight on the same branch. They are so small! And so utterly beautiful.

I watch them, fascinated. This is why I love this room—for its view of the yard, especially at sunset.

As I watch, the chickadee on the higher part of the branch reaches down to give the lower bird what looks exactly like a tiny bird kiss!

Yes, it’s spring.

The minute I heard my first love story

I started looking for you, not knowing

How blind that was.

Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.

They’re in each other all along.


Friday, March 5, 2010

KTD in Winter

The teachings about Machik Labdron that I began attending two years ago are rapidly coming to a close. At the last session in February, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche finished his transmission of Machik's Complete Explanation and announced that at the final session this month, he will give a "general instruction" about Machik's practice, chod or severance, which is designed to sever our fixation on the self as the center of our universe.

Because I have wanted to receive these teachings for so long, I am still a bit gobsmacked that I have been able to attend all but one session—and thanks to Rinpoche's kindness and the cooperation of the good folks at Namse Bangdzo, I got caught up on the teaching I missed via a set of 4 CDs.

I expected flack from my director when I put in for vacation time for the last teaching later this month—but not only did my supervisor approve my request with a "Go for it!", but our director simply said, "Sure, have a good time."

With 100% confidence, I can say that my attendance at these teachings has been made possible not by anything I have done, but by the blessings of my teachers—His Holiness Karmapa, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Khenpo Ugyen Tenzin, and now, I feel strongly, by Mother Machik herself.

The February trip was quite remarkable for its timing; it came just after one big snowfall and just before another one. There was snow all around, but the roads were clear and the accommodations were warm. I also got a great reiki treatment on a problematic leg, courtesy of a good friend. Maybe the next time I see Rinpoche, I can actually do a prostration instead of a little lame bow! And when I tripped and fell flat on my face in the street in downtown Woodstock, there were two protectors there in the form of helpful young women who stopped cars from running over me and helped me up and away from harm.

I cannot, after all this, ever doubt the profound blessings of the Karma Kagyu lineage.

All homage to the sages of the snowy ranges
Whose wisdom and compassion
Our ignorance assuages

Here's a picture of KTD in the snow. That's Meads Mountain House to the left, the main KTD shrine building to the right. If you are thinking about visiting but dragging your heels, I highly recommend a visit.