Tuesday, June 30, 2009

KTD 10-Day Teachings/Animal Food

Right behind the shrine building is a steep hill with a large outcrop of rock where people have hung prayer flags. This is the place where the tormas and other food items are put outside after sacred ceremonies, so the neighborhood animals can benefit from the blessings.

The first day I was here, I saw the butt end of a large, brownish raccoon, headed up the hill. Squirrels prowl this area constantly; today, they were attracted to a small birthday cake left over from Saturday’s celebration. The squirrels here are pretty fat.

I saw a large hawk land near the birthday cake, but he flew away when I tried to take his picture. It’s hard to get pictures of birds.

There are quite a few stories about the neighborhood bears. Several people have seen them over the past few days. I haven’t seen them, but I did spot one of them last year, down by the pond.

One day near dusk, I plan to hang out on the back porch, be very quiet, and see what creatures might reveal themselves.

KTD 10-Day Teachings/People Food

Several years ago, His Holiness Karmapa ordered that all his affiliated centers serve only vegetarian food. So we’re eating meatless at this event, thereby relieving the suffering of quite a few cows, chickens, turkeys, and fish (there are quite a lot of us here).

Mealtime is announced with the blowing of a conch shell. Usually folks form two long lines that snake through the bookstore and merge right before the food serving area; this is, of course, a great opportunity to do some browsing and maybe even decide what to purchase!

The main dining room is where the Rinpoches and lamas eat, as well as those other folks who can find room. This time of year, though, my favorite place to eat is on the patio, where you can often feed the local birds and watch chipmunks scurry about, looking for crumbs.

We’ve been lucky this year because we have been spared (so far) any really hot weather. Nights are definitely cool, and days are—for a person from Florida—dang near perfect, with temperatures in the 70s.

So far this week, we’ve had Ethiopian food, Mexican food, spaghetti with some delicious walnut meatballs, and an odd-sounding but yummy lentil apricot soup, among other things.

Like at any other place that has to serve food to lots of people, the kitchen is usually humming with activity. I’m glad my assignment is shrine building maintenance. For the past couple of days, I’ve been reassembling texts that got disorganized last Saturday, on Karmapa’s birthday. Working on documents—right up my alley. I’d be a nervous wreck in the kitchen, but I certainly do enjoy the results of all that kitchen activity.

KTD 10-Day Teachings/Bodhisattva Practice

Amrita, who is KTD’s primary fundraiser, has started a new practice for this year’s 10-day teachings. She is reading and posting a “Bodhisattva Practice for the Day” that gives us all something to think about—and a behavioral standard to aspire to—from the text about the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva.

The first day’s verse was:

“If outer foes are destroyed while not conquering the enemy of one’s own anger, enemies will only increase.

Therefore, conquering one’s own mind with the army of love and compassion is the practice of a bodhisattva.”

Living in a kind of communal group, such as we have here in the 10-day teachings, is the perfect opportunity for us to take our practice off the cushion and out into our daily lives.

Monday, June 29, 2009

KTD 10-Day Teachings/Karmapa’s Birthday

Saturday was filled with joyful celebration and powerful ceremony. It was also the day the memory card died in my digital camera. (What’s that old saying about the best-laid plans of mice and men often going astray?)

In the morning, we had a long-life ceremony for His Holiness Karmapa. The shrine room was filled to capacity, the shrine itself looked gorgeous, and our Rinpoches were in fine voice. From my vantage point in a chair at the back of the room (an old leg injury that hasn’t really healed prevents me from sitting on cushions for any length of time), I had a direct view of Karmapa’s throne that sits right under the big golden Buddha statue that is the focal point of the shrine room. Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Khenpo Ugyen Tenzin, Lama Karma Drodul, and other monks and male lamas sat to the left; nuns and female lamas, as well as other dignitaries and representatives of the local Tibetan community, sat to the right (from my point of view).

There is a dedicated volunteer who has been doing the flower arrangements for KTD for years; you can see some of her work, above—a spectacular offering of the heart.

The most moving moment of the day for me was watching Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, who is in his 80s, doing three full prostrations in front of the shrine and then stretching to place the long–life offerings in front of Karmapa’s picture, atop his throne. Thinking about the many people whose lives Khenpo has touched in a positive way had me blinking back tears.

The shrine building maintenance crew, of which I am a part for the duration of the 10-day teachings, was very busy on Saturday, so I was late to lunch and got the tail end of what was some very tasty rice, dal, and raita, all of which I love! I skipped the musical offerings to Karmapa to come back to the shrine building to do a little bit more work and get a bit of rest before the afternoon’s event, an empowerment for long life and health from Guru Rinpoche’s Embodiment of All Jewels cycle.

In a stunning feat of word power, I can describe that ceremony in one word: WOW. J

Here are some other impressions of the day, quickly jotted down so I wouldn’t forget them:

-Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche mugging for the camera in wrathful pose when I asked to take his picture in the shrine room, early Saturday morning

-Tiny children, handsome young men, and lithe young women approaching His Holiness Karmapa’s throne, some doing prostrations, some parents teaching their children how to do prostrations

-People having full-blown personal conversations with each other in the middle of the sacred long-life ceremony for Karmapa

-After lunch, as the crowd begins to gather back in the shrine room for the Guru Rinpoche empowerment, a hard rain begins to fall

-Hearing a silly joke that made me laugh out loud: “What does a fish say when it hits a wall? Dam.”

-Being struck by a phrase that Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche used during the refuge ceremony that preceded the empowerment, describing how refuge has always been given: “From mind to mind, down through time.”

-Standing up eating a late lunch in the kitchen in the new building, looking down into the woods below, I get a kind of a poem:

Your throne a mountain of white scarves

crowned by White Tara

your seat aflurry with activity

joyful music and tasty food

eating the last of luncheon’s fixin’s

standing by the window

looking down into deep woods

I offer you what I can

the lone beauty

of this single falling leaf

just past midsummer

Friday, June 26, 2009

KTD/Buddha and Friends

Someone made this delightful arrangement of Buddha surrounded by all sorts of animals. The arrangement greets visitors in the north lobby of the shrine building. Charming!

KTD 10-Day Teachings/Dorm Life

After a looonnnggg trip by car to the Orlando airport and then by plane to the Newburgh airport and then by car again to KTD, my friend Jacqueline and I arrived yesterday for this year’s 10-day teachings, a continuation of Machik’s Complete Explanation taught by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and translated by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso.

Last night, Jacqueline and I were the only two people in the dorm, pictured above; tonight, the dorm is filling up and we have been working hard.

Everyone who stays at KTD is required to do a certain amount of karma yoga—work—each day, in return for the reasonable rates for room and board.

So today we have been working in the main shrine building, and the shrine room in particular—laying out cushions, setting up chairs, cleaning practice tables for the visiting monks, nuns, and dignitaries who will be here for the special day tomorrow.

Today was gray and rainy, but it gets warm moving things around and cleaning in the shrine room, so I asked if we could open the windows and front doors to get some air circulating. Yes. At one point, we looked up to see curling clouds of fog swooping up the steps and coming inside the building! I ran for my digital camera, hoping for a picture and remembering that enlightened beings are said sometimes to manifest as weather-related phenomena such as fog, but by the time I got back the doors had been closed against the incoming moisture.

Late in the afternoon, I asked to be relieved of our duties long enough for the two of us to sit in on Mahakala practice. Mahakala, the great dark protector of the Karma Kagyu lineage, is a powerful practice that uses two drums and two different kinds of horns. Practice was led by Khenpo Ugyen Tenzin, assisted by Lama Karma Drodul, with Lama David Bole from Florida and two of KTD’s resident nuns. What an amazing sound all those instruments made when played together! The two drums sound like two hearts beating. A highlight of the day.

I will say more about tonight’s teaching tomorrow, when I have my notes handy; I’m still getting the blogging organized from here.

And tomorrow is a big day—a birthday White Tara long life practice for His Holiness Karmapa in the morning, and a Guru Rinpoche empowerment in the afternoon. Teachings about Machik will resume on Sunday.

I also learned that this year’s 10-day teachings sold out relatively early, compared to past years. I think we are in for a wonderful 10 days.

Ooooo, one of my dorm mates just came in and said there is a big, beautiful thunderhead, filled with lightning, coming over the mountain now, and that people have been standing outside watching it while I have been sitting here blogging.

What was that about enlightened beings manifesting as weather? Hmmmm….

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Who Is Machik Labdron, and Why Do I Care About Her? (Part Three)

Fast forward about another 20 years to the publication of Machik’s Complete Explanation, translated by Sarah Harding—the most complete account of Machik’s life and teachings that is available, at least that I’m aware of—and to the summer of 2008, when my own refuge lama, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, began a series of teachings on that text.

I had wanted to get teachings about Machik’s life and practice for many years, so to be able to attend these seminars with my very own dharma teacher is a precious opportunity indeed. Like many Machik fans, I yearn to do chod—the practice she developed and taught—but even more important, at least to me, is the opportunity to learn about her life and to hear her words of wisdom voiced by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche.

The spiritual autobiography of a Tibetan Buddhist teacher is called a namthar. Reading or listening to namthars has always been one of my favorite things, because a namthar is really a teaching in itself as well as a source of tremendous inspiration, both creatively and with regard to putting the dharma into practice. And according to Rinpoche, Machik’s Complete Explanation is not only her authoritative biography, but also the earliest source of her own teachings.

Last summer’s 10-day teachings at KTD featured Rinpoche concluding a teaching about Gampopa’s instructions to the assembly (his disciples and students), and beginning the teaching on Machik’s Complete Explanation. To signify the end of one set of teachings and the beginning of another, Rinpoche wore a large butterfly pin on his robes the day he started teaching about Machik Labdron.

Attending the 10-day teachings is a unique experience that offers students the opportunity to immerse themselves completely in the dharma, from listening to the teachings to spending time in dharma practice, meeting other students from throughout the country, volunteering to do some of the many tasks required to keep the center running, enjoying a vegetarian diet, and browsing and shopping in what may well be the best Buddhist bookstore in North America, Namse Bangdzo. (Yes, I was born to shop—primarily for books—and Namse Bangdzo is a kind of heaven for me.)

Some highlights from my notes from last year’s teachings: Machik Labdron had to be born as a woman in order to tame Tibet; “A man couldn’t have done it,” Rinpoche said.

Machik was an expert in triple voice modulation; she could read several lines of text at once. “Maybe only one person today can do this.”

Machik and Milarepa were contemporaries. There are no stories about the two of them meeting, but Rinpoche said it would have been possible.

There is not just one form of chod, in which the practitioner imagines feeding his or her own body to surrounding demons; there are many. The essence of chod practice is the cutting through of selfishness.

Thanks to the American teacher and writer Pema Chodron, many people here in the West have learned about the practice of tonglen, sometimes called “sending and taking,” during which we work with our breath to transform negativity into positive energy.

“Tonglen is imaginary,” Rinpoche said at one point. “Chod is real.” In response to a question, Rinpoche said that for accomplished practitioners, this is actually true—the more harm that demons cause, the happier the chod practitioner becomes, because the ground for practice becomes more fertile.

The greatest demon or mara (obstruction to enlightenment) is fixation on the self. To cut through fixation—“That is the dharma system of this beggar woman,” Machik Labdron.

The longer I am around the dharma, the more it becomes obvious to me that in order to really practice for the benefit of sentient beings, the more one has to give up attachments to hopes, fears, and personal rewards—even to the point of giving up ideas about “I, Me, Mine,” as my favorite Beatle, George Harrison, sang all those years ago.

Giving up attachment to self, giving up hope and fear, giving up everything we have been taught to hold dear—giving it all up in a supreme act of generosity for the benefit of other sentient beings—that is what Machik Labdron and her teachings are all about; that is who she is, and why I care about her.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Who Is Machik Labdron, and Why Do I Care About Her? (Part Two)

Fast forward a good 20 years from the time I first read about chod until I stumbled upon another book that mentioned that practice, Women of Wisdom by Tsultrim Allione.

Women of Wisdom is a remarkable book that opened my eyes to the fact that Tibet was home to many great female practitioners of Buddhism—practitioners who lived and practiced, in large part, outside the monasteries that were the most well known centers of Buddhist practice.

These women weren’t necessarily solitary practitioners—many had families and disciples—but their practice places were the charnel grounds, the haunted places, the spots under lone trees, the caves and springs and hills and mountains of wild Tibet, not the well-kept shrine rooms of the monastic centers. This idea of doing practice outdoors, in natural settings, drew me like a magnet.

The story of Machik Labdron features prominently in Women of Wisdom (in which her first name is spelled “Machig”). Like Alexandra David-Neel’s and Janis Nelson’s, Machik’s life story is the stuff of Hollywood epics.

With a previous incarnation as a male yogi in India, Machik manifests in Tibet—through the intercession of dakinis—as a young girl with three eyes, the third of which is located at the “third eye” spot in the middle of her forehead. One of her early given names was Sherab Dronme, “Burning Torch of Wisdom,” which reminds me so much of Alexandra David-Neel’s Tibetan name, “Lamp of Wisdom.”

Because she had unique talents in reading Buddhist scripture aloud, Machik spent several years as a reader at a nearby monastery. From one of her teachers, she received the following instruction:

“…if you do not grasp with your mind, you will find a fresh state of being. If you let go of clinging, a state beyond all conceptions will be born. Then the fire of great Prajna [wisdom] will grow. Dark, self-clinging ignorance will be conquered. The root teaching is to examine the movement of your own mind very carefully. Do this!”

Later, doing practice at another place, Machik levitated through a wall and landed in a tree over a spring where an angry naga lived. The naga was frightened of her and called up an army of demons, but instead of being afraid of them, Machik offered them her body, but they could not devour her because she was egoless.

They could not devour her because she was egoless. Such is the heart of the chod teachings: Those who are egoless cannot fall prey to demons, including the three demons of attachment, aversion, and ignorance, and, it is said, the demons of contagious diseases.

Machik goes on to meet her primary teacher, Phadampa Sangye (who may or may not be the same person as the Bodhidharma who took Buddhist teachings into China); marry her consort, Topabhadra, with whom she had children; receive teachings directly from the Bodhisattva Arya Tara in a vision; and blend the teachings of mahamudra with the shamanistic elements of chod to create her own unique practice that comes down to us today in an unbroken lineage.

I was mesmerized by all the stories in Women of Wisdom, but especially by the story of Machik Labdron. It is worth noting Tsultrim Allione, the Western woman who wrote the book, has a fascinating story herself; she was recently recognized as an emanation of Machik by the lama at Machik’s center in Tibet, and she has started her own center, Tara Mandala, here in the United States.

Who Is Machik Labdron, and Why Do I Care About Her? (Part One)

The first time I can remember learning about Machik Labdron’s unique practice, chod or “cutting”—as in cutting attachment to the ego, the idea of “me” as an individual who is separate from others, and therefore special—was in Alexandra David-Neel’s book Magic and Mystery in Tibet.

In that book, David-Neel describes a conversation about a chod practitioner that she has with one of Tibet’s rinpoches, or precious teachers, in which the rinpoche tells her:

“It is hard to free oneself from delusion…to blot out the mirage of the imaginary world and to liberate one’s mind from fanciful beliefs. Enlightenment is a precious gem and must be bought at a high price. Methods to reach supreme liberation are many. You may follow another one, less coarse than that suited to the man whom you pity, but I am certain that your way must be as hard as that of my disciple. If it is easy it is a wrong one.”

If your path is easy, it is a wrong path. These words ring true for me, based on my own experience since taking refuge as a Buddhist just a few months before my father died in 1991. While I am not a great meditator, I do try to put the teachings of Buddhism into practice in my daily life; I can truthfully say that this is the hardest work I have ever done.

Like that of Janis Nelson, mentioned earlier in this blog, the story of Alexandra David-Neel’s life would make a great movie: from opera star to intrepid traveler to Buddhist practitioner who became, in all likelihood, the first Western woman to enter Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, during the time when Tibet was almost completely isolated from the Western world.

I can really see Lucy Lawless, of Xena: Warrior Princess fame, in the title role as Alexandra—but I digress.

David-Neel’s Tibetan name, bestowed upon her by one of her Buddhist teachers, was “Lamp of Wisdom.”

Several centuries before David-Neel’s visits to Tibet, the practice of chod had been established in Tibet by another female “lamp,” Machik Lapkyi Dronma or Machik Labdron—“One Mother, Light of Lap” (Lap being the region into which Machik was born).

Maybe one reason I resonate so strongly with these women is because my own given name comes from a Latin root meaning “light"—or maybe because, when I was learning to talk, “light” was my first word.

Hmmm, mentioning my own stuff—I guess I’m still attached to the idea of “me” as a separate, special individual. I guess the awareness of that attachment is one of the reasons I am drawn to the teachings of Machik Labdron.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

bSerene/Portable Meditation Instruction to Benefit a Great Cause

Lama David Bole, who is the resident teacher at Gainesville Karma Thegsum Choling, has created a great new iPhone/iPod Touch app called bSerene.

The app is a short introduction to meditation in three parts: sitting meditation, walking meditation, and overcoming obstacles to meditation in the form of overly excited mind or lethargic mind.

A really neat feature of the app is built-in timer that you can set for anywhere from 5 minutes to up to an hour.

I've been involved with Buddhist meditation for a number of years (although I would never claim to be an experienced meditator, primarily because I'm lazy), so I thought the app would simply provide a refresher course for me—but I learned new things from it, primarily in the sections about walking meditation and overcoming obstacles.

In addition to serving as Gainesville KTC's resident teacher, Lama David is an acupuncture physician who has a doctorate in educational psychology. He completed the traditional three-year Karma Kagyu retreat under the direction of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, abbot of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra.

bSerene was created by Apricle Technologies. Sale proceeds will support the creation of the Florida Tibetan Buddhist Center on Osprey Cove at Lake Santa Fe, between Gainesville and Jacksonville.

I think that in addition to providing pointers for experienced meditators, bSerene would be a good introduction to meditation for people who are overworked and overstressed, or people who are curious about just what meditation is and how it can benefit us.

bSerene is available in the Lifestyle section of the iPhone/iPod Touch App Store.

The word from Lama David is that there will soon be a version of bSerene for the Mac and, later, for the Blackberry.

Karmapa Plants Trees for World Environment Day

Karma Triyana Dharmachakra has a link on their web page to photographs of His Holiness Karmapa and other monks planting trees and shrubs in honor of World Environment Day.

I wasn't even aware that there was an World Environment Day, so I'm happy to learn about this United Nations-sponsored event that occurs every year on June 5.

All of KTD's images are copyrighted, so you'll have to visit their web page to see the pictures.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Ocean/A Newsletter for Florida's Buddhists

My friend Anita in South Florida has been doing us all a real favor by producing an excellent newsletter called The Ocean that carries news of various Buddhist activities throughout our fair state.

The summer issue will soon be posted, and it's a dilly that features book reviews by practitioners from a variety of backgrounds, primarily from the Tibetan tradition and Zen. I'm pleased that Anita chose to publish my review of Lady of the Lotus-Born, from which I quoted extensively in my Mother's Day blog post of May 10.

Read and enjoy! Thanks, Anita.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

An Auspicious Day

Today must be an auspicious day. After the rain of flowers, we had this lovely view of a rainbow over the moon! (Though I must have a problem with my eyes; looking at the moon and the rainbow, I saw hundreds of little sparkly lights in the sky, like dancing fireflies or the fireworks we see on the Fourth of July.)

On top of everything else, today brought excellent news involving Karmapa's home in the West—nothing official, but hopefully an announcement will be forthcoming.

A Rain of Flowers/A Day in the World

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Chinese independence uprising in Tiananmen Square; I remember that event vividly because I was dreaming about it when Forrest woke me up saying, "It's started." All these years later, I still carry a vivid image of the Goddess of Democracy in my heart and in my mind.

Today U.S. President Barack Obama gave what was, by all accounts that I have seen, a brave, intelligent, honest, and (hopefully) world-changing speech to Muslims from Cairo, Egypt. I also watched footage of him as he gazed upon a lookalike, carved probably thousands of years ago, at the pyramids. The image even had big ears!

Today is a sad milestone of sorts for those of us who came of age in the 1960s and '70s. David Carradine, the actor who so skillfully portrayed the Shaolin priest Kwai-Chang Caine in the television series "Kung Fu" (and I'm talking about the original series, not the sequel), has died in Bangkok. I am probably not the only person who became more curious about Buddhism after spending many happy hours watching that show, while I was studying for my B.A. in anthropology at the University of South Florida.

As if to highlight the day, we had a rain of flowers—rain falling while the sun was shining—just before sunset. Click on the picture above, and maybe you can see the drops coming down.

May the Chinese longing for freedom grow ever stronger; may those who died in Tiananmen Square never be forgotten. May the character of Kwai-Chang Caine continue to educate and inspire. May Obama's words usher in a new era of peace and understanding.

Today, these are my hopes for the world—marked by this rain of flowers.