Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Bear

If I get behind one more logging truck or big pickup and can’t see far enough ahead to pass, I think I’ll scream. The speed limit through Georgia is only 55, and I’m on a two-lane highway through pecan groves and cotton fields, rows of peanuts and planted pines, crossing bridges over rivers and creeks, headed to the writing workshop. I gun the red Prius up to 80 mph to pass the big white Ford F350 in front of me with the large black tarp slung across the bed.

As I get closer, my focus shifts and I notice what looks like a mammoth, black, hairy human foot dangling off the passenger’s side of the truck. “What the heck!” I mutter, doing a double take as my car’s speed increases and I draw even with the truck bed.

It’s not a tarp I’m seeing. It’s a huge, hairy, black body, the head—with red mouth agape—hanging off the driver’s side. A bear. Dead. With a large bullet hole open and angry, a jagged ruby wound in the creature’s huge chest.

“Oh, shit!” I exclaim to myself. “Damn!” I grip the steering wheel harder and feel the muscles in my shoulders freeze up. I suck in my breath and work to keep my focus on the road as I pass the truck and its inert cargo while a great silent wail, a tsunami of hot energy, moves up from below my belly and out the top of my head.

I remember the mantra of Chenrezig, the great pearlescent bodhisattva who, unblinking, views the sufferings of sentient beings throughout the worlds—and I begin to chant his mantra that relieves those sufferings, OM MANI PADME HUNG, OM MANI PADME HUNG.

I wonder how the bear died. Was he roaming alone through what he thought was safe forage, looking for berries or honey? Did he feel the wind through the pines, the wind ruffling his thick fur? What were his bear thoughts in the final moments of his life, before the rifle blasted that hole through his heart? Was he aware, in those last seconds, that something had gone awry in his world? Did he feel a giant stabbing pain when the bullet tore away his flesh and scattered his life force, or he did drop all of a sudden to the ground there in the middle of the forest, with the berries ripening and the bees humming and the wind making its wild music in the pines with autumn coming in? What was the last thing he saw? What strange bear image counted as his last thought?

I’m in Georgia, I remembered. Bear hunting is probably legal here.

I feel like I’ve been shot through the heart.

I wrote this piece at a workshop where we were asked to convey an emotion by describing our sense impressions. Do you know which emotion I'm describing here?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

An Open Letter to Florida Governor Rick Scott

October 11, 2011


Sorry, I just can’t bring myself to address you as “dear.” I hope you’ll understand. J

I just read an article that’s attributed to The Miami Herald in which you are quoted as saying, “How many more jobs you think there is for anthropology in this state? You want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can't get jobs in anthropology?"

I sure hope you were misquoted, for a couple of reasons. To begin: Every school child learns that subjects and verbs need to agree, and your first sentence reads like an elementary school dropout is speaking. What you should have said was, “How many more jobs DO you think there ARE for anthropology in this state?” But with journalism not being what it once was, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that maybe the reporter goofed here. Stranger things have happened. You’ve probably been involved in stranger things yourself, like that time when you were running HCA Inc. and they settled the largest Medicare fraud case in history for $1.7 billion.

But yeah, I know your mama thinks you’re a good boy. She said so in all those ads you paid for when you bought…oh, sorry…when you got elected governor of Florida.

Now about anthropology. I know a little bit about anthropology because it was my undergraduate major at the University of South Florida; that’s the big school just north of Tampa off I-275, in case you don’t know, because I know you haven’t lived in Florida all that long. I’ll put a picture of something from the school at the top of this article so you can see what it looks like.

This will probably shock you, but I didn’t pick my major to qualify me for a job. I picked it because I loved the subject matter and because it expanded my knowledge about the world and other cultures, and because knowing those things made me a better person and a better citizen of the United States.

By the way, I have to tell you that I love the U.S.A. I was born here—in Texas! where that Rick Perry lives, the one you like so much. My dad served on a destroyer in WWII and my mom was a stay-at-home mom who did the cooking and the housework and baked great pies. While I was growing up, my dad worked in the defense industry and, for a while, in the Federal Aviation Administration. I registered to vote as soon as I was old enough, and I think I’ve voted in every election since then.

Anyway, back to anthropology. Anthropology has a special characteristic that sets it apart from other academic disciplines—the “holistic viewpoint.” What this means is that anthropologists don’t try to understand just one aspect of a culture. Let’s use politics as an example. If I were trying to understand the politics of Florida, I’d examine not just politics but religion, economic systems, social customs, history, languages, health care systems, maybe even the environment, to see if and how each of those things influenced politics. I guess this means I’d investigate whether our politicians were actually representing the people of Florida, or whether they were being paid off by corporate lobbyists to do the bidding of big business. But I digress. J

I loved my studies in anthropology and I graduated with honors. I went on to get a master’s degree in another subject out in California, and I spent most of my adult life working full-time in higher education institutions. No, I never had what you could call a job “in anthropology,” but I sure used what I learned in anthropology in every single job I ever had.

I never made a lot of money, though. I guess this means you will automatically think of me as a failure. But see, that was a choice I made. I wasn’t happy working at institutions where money was the be-all and end-all of existence. I was happier helping people, learning new things, and trying to be of service to the arts, literature, and the environment, because those things are really my passions.

So when you ask “You want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can't get jobs in anthropology?" I have to answer yes. I didn’t get “jobs in anthropology” but I don’t think Florida’s tax dollars were wasted on me. I don’t think those tax dollars would be wasted on students today, either.

I’ve been a productive citizen ever since I got my bachelor’s degree. I’ve always worked. My education in anthropology helped me to think critically—even creatively—to look at the “big picture,” to appreciate the value of a liberal arts education, to respect people who disagreed with me or held different opinions, to shun labels and sound bites, to think independently, to analyze things, to ask questions and not settle for easy or simplistic answers, and to take seriously my responsibilities as a citizen of my country—including voting.

Oh, wait…something is coming to me. An insight. Could it be…? No. I sure hope not. Well, I have to ask anyway.

Is the reason you don’t want people to study anthropology because you don’t want people like me out here asking questions about you when you run for re-election? And then going to the polls to vote? Now that I think about it, I’m really curious about your answers to these questions.

Looking forward to the courtesy of your reply,

A Word Witch

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Old September

School didn’t start, then, until after Labor Day—probably because it was so hot before then that our brains refused to work in un-air conditioned classrooms, and no teacher in his or her right mind wanted to deal with sweaty, unfocused teenagers with greasy faces who stank of sticky 6-12 gnat repellent and raging hormones.

Shopping for school was fun, though. I remember the cedary smell of new pencils, with shavings that curled happily into gray hand-cranked sharpeners that clung to the walls of our classrooms; the snappy click-click of new ballpoint pens and the careful slurping up of thick black ink from glass bottles into old-fashioned fountain pens; the hard bright snaps of shiny three-ring binders; the rustle of new lined notebook paper with holes already punched; the time spent carefully lettering plastic index tabs in bold red, green, blue, and yellow for English, math, science, civics. If I was lucky, I got to pick out a couple of new skirts and blouses, a new snuggly sweater, a pair of soft leather Capezio flats in the year’s latest color, and a fresh lipstick and bottle of nail polish chosen after careful perusal of the latest sultry Revlon ads in Glamour and Mademoiselle magazines.

Orlando in the late 1950s and early 1960s was a sleepy little cow town. The only real shopping districts were on Orange Avenue—where Ivey’s and Dickson-Ives department stores faced off on one corner—and the specialty shops in upscale Winter Park. Drive farther out of town in any direction, and what you found were used car lots, cow pastures, or orange groves as far as the eye could see. No Disney.

September meant weekdays filled with classes and evenings filled with homework, Thursday afternoon pep rallies, Friday night football games with friends, giant floodlights, Coke, and popcorn. September was languid Saturday mornings with the weekend stretching out ahead like a river and, often, Saturday night movies. Sundays were church in the morning, after-church lunch at Morrison’s cafeteria, and late afternoon drives with my parents.

“Let’s go for a drive!” my dad would cry, and clap his hands, and we’d pile into the car just for the fun of driving around, seeing what we could discover on back roads outside of town when the light took on a golden glow and began to slant in shimmery rays through oaks and Spanish moss, through tall pines and spreading orange groves, with the smell of wood smoke from bonfires and cooking fires wisping through the countryside.

Sometime in September, usually right around my birthday near the equinox, we could tell that the quality of light was changing and the weather was shifting, too. Out there on the dirt back roads between Gotha and Windermere, Clermont and Ocoee, DeLand and Cassadaga, early twilight brought a cooldown or even a chill, and we’d reach for the sweaters we’d brought in the car and start murmuring happily about the hot cocoa, marshmallows, and chocolate chip cookies that waited for us at home. On the best of these late afternoon drives, we’d watch the harvest moon come up over the groves, big and orange and brilliant in the smoky blue-dark dusk.

Back then, September was truly the beginning of fall—the month of welcome relief after the long, oppressive summer heat. I’ve never been able to decide what caused my spirits to lift more—my birthday, the new school year, or that first beautiful fall chill. I suspect the answer was “all of the above.”

The memories of those long-past autumns haunt me now, not so much because my parents are dead and buried—although that’s certainly a factor—but mainly because lately we are well into October or even November before we get the fall cooldown that was once September’s hallmark. I live two hours north of Orlando now, so I reckon from past experience we should be feeling fall sooner, not later, but that’s not the case.

Climate change, they say. Global warming, they say. And while there are naysayers, it does seem as if a great majority of the world’s climate scientists agree that something is going on that’s given the earth a fever, and we human beings may be the germs that are causing that disease.

So lately, fall has been a disappointment. My birthdays come and go, and harvest moons rise and set, with no perceptible change in the weather. My Halloween socks lie unused in their dresser drawer until almost Thanksgiving. Instead of sharpening pencils or filling fountain pens and squeezing into a rickety wooden desk chair, I take my seat on a Steelcase ergonomic marvel at my big-screen iMac. It’s not school that occupies my thoughts now, but writing, drought, and the sorry state of our rivers and freshwater springs.

I do still get a rush, though, when the back-to-school shopping flyers start to appear. I think I’ll take a Facebook friend’s advice and do some school shopping next fall and donate what I buy to Stuff the Bus, a local organization that accepts donations for needy students.

Maybe it’s because I’d given up hope, or maybe it’s just a total quirk, or maybe it’s some other reason that I can’t know, but we’ve been blessed this year with what’s felt, at least for a couple of weeks, like an old September. The first break in the heat came just before Labor Day, with another, longer, cooler break—nights down in the 50s and highs in the 80s—a couple of weeks after that. I’ve been tempted to clap my hands and holler, “Let’s go for a drive!” but with gas at $3.50 a gallon, I’ve hesitated.

But tomorrow is the last day of the month, and like a gift, we’re getting a cold front, with forecast lows in the 50s for September 30 and 40s for October 1. Maybe I should throw a party.

Or maybe I should just take a long drive out an old country road. I’ll take a sweater, and I can look forward to a big steaming mug of hot chocolate and marshmallows once I get home. Maybe the fragrant smoke from wood fires will waft like ghosts through the late afternoon sun that glows in golden shafts through big live oak branches and Spanish moss. Maybe I can spot the fingernail-thin crescent moon, just past new and beginning to wax, near the Western horizon. In a perfect world, the moon would ride there accompanied by bright Venus or shiny Jupiter, sparkling like heavenly messengers.

Yup, I think I’ll take that drive, because this might be the last old September I’ll ever have.

Thanks to Forrest Stowe for the use of his photograph, above.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Crying River

fourth largest spring in the world

cave wide as a

four-lane highway

deep as a

five-story building

primeval river

home to Creatures

great and small

real and unreal

alligators in the grass

gill men in their lairs

skinny-necked anhingas dry wings

on baldcypress

yellow-legged moorhens tend babies

on the banks

heron, ibis, cormorant

egrets in young plumage


cardinal flowers among

wax myrtle, islands of

clear water amid murk

algae-coated eelgrass

“Once so clear it was transparent 120 feet down”

says the ranger


cloudy bluegreen water

covers head spring

the ranger says


the ranger says


it will be clear again someday

he says

“nature will take care of it”

we won’t see it

I hear echoes of

my geology teacher:

“If these springs ever get polluted,

it will take thousands of years for them

to get clean”

Would Tallahassee move its spray field

for this wonder?

Couldn’t we all use

less water?

How do we dissolve nitrates, phosphorus?

How do we reverse the damage?

Above the spring

I search for my reflection

See only cloudy murk

And ask myself

Why didn’t I come 20 years ago?

What took me so long?

And I cry, Wakulla

I cry


Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bad Romance: Ponce de Leon, Bathing Beauty, and Florida’s Fountains of Youth (Part 2)

Confronted with the wilderness of 16th-century Florida, it’s understandable why the early Spanish explorers were concerned with taming the land. That taming was necessary, they thought, so that civilization—businesses, governments, towns and cities, agriculture, trade routes and roads, reliable forms of communication—could be established. For civilization to thrive, wilderness—at least a certain amount of it—had to be destroyed.

So from that spring day in 1513 when Ponce first named it and claimed it, wild Florida has been swallowed, first by the Spaniards and then by the French, English, and Americans—up to and including Bathing Beauty and her friends who, because there were more of them, did greater environmental damage than Ponce and the early Spanish explorers could ever have dreamed of.

At DeLeon Springs State Park—where I first encountered Ponce and Bathing Beauty standing arm-in-arm on a large sign outside the park entrance—I came across an old newspaper article titled “Developer Burt Pushed DeLeon Springs Growth.” There’s one sentence in this article that provides the briefest Florida history lesson ever written: “Where Ponce de Leon saw a wilderness, Fred N. Burt saw a great opportunity.” This same history, of course, is also a history of the places we have lost.

So now, in the very early part of the 21st century, our wetlands have been drained, rivers straightened, canals cut. Golf courses, amusement parks, swimming pools, lawns, and utility companies are sucking up more and more water every day, while water-bottling companies seize opportunities to make a private profit from a public resource. Unregulated fertilizers and septic tanks are leaching nitrates that cause unbridled algae growth in our rivers and streams and, yes springs. Poor Florida has been cleared, dredged, mined, developed, fertilized, and irrigated nearly to death. Paradise has been paved over for parking lots and strip malls. This insanity continues unabated, in part because the State of Florida won’t lift a finger to help; instead, our government seems hell-bent on wrecking all that remains that is wild and beautiful.

And Florida’s world-famous fountains of youth—natural treasures worthy of being a National Park or a World Heritage Site—have begun to sicken and die.

White Springs on the Suwannee River in North Florida and Kissengen Springs in Central Florida were two of the first springs to go dry. Springs that used to be clear, sparkling gems have turned green and cloudy with algae that are choking off the eelgrass and other underwater plants. Swimmers have complained of allergic reactions, probably to toxins in the algae. Ichetucknee Springs has lost about 20 percent of its flow over the last 25 years.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that if we’re going to save our springs, we will have to do it ourselves. We’re going to have to end this bad romance of Ponce de Leon and Bathing Beauty.


I’d like to think that if she knew what was really going on—if she didn’t have eyes only for that darkly handsome Spaniard—Bathing Beauty would be shocked at what’s happened to Florida and how our springs have been hurt. I’d like to think she’d feel that shock in a visceral way, as a nauseated knot in her stomach, the same way I feel it. I’d like to think her shock would be enough for her to give up the idea that we can keep on doing what we’ve been doing for 500 years and not lose our fountains of youth forever.

And after she takes her first gasp at what’s happened, I want Bathing Beauty to drop Ponce’s arm. I want her to grab his hand instead, and lead him as fast as she can to the bank of that spring he’s got his eyes on. I want Ponce to take off his helmet and strip off his armor and his boots and his gloves and those silly striped things he’s wearing—yes, even his skivvies. I want Bathing Beauty to lose the bathing suit.

I want them to jump into the turquoise spring stark naked, to feel the cold water take their breath away, to open their eyes to the underwater world around them, to dive and dive again toward the cave where pure water gushes out from porous limestone, to marvel at whatever clarity still remains. I want them, then, to surface, to revel in the sunlight and the water on their skin, the breeze across their faces as they float, finally still, beneath the overhanging trees. And then I want them to swim, to dive, and swim and float again.

I want them to climb from the spring bone tired, but feeling like they’re teenagers who have just discovered this miraculous fountain for the very first time. I want them to make mad, passionate love on the bank of the spring and then go back into the water.

I want them to love the springs as I have loved them—madly, passionately, in the height of summer and the dead of winter and the seasons in between, in the morning and at noon, in the twilight and the darkness, under the sun and under the moon. I want them to feel how sometimes the shock of cold water is the only pure thing in the world. I want them to vow to do everything they possibly can, beginning right now, to make sure that our fountains of youth never fade.

I want them to know this love that never dies.

Bad Romance: Ponce de Leon, Bathing Beauty, and Florida’s Fountains of Youth (Part 1)

They’re an unlikely couple—a hero of the Old World walking arm-in-arm with a maiden of the New—and in their bad romance we can read a story about the waters of La Florida, land of flowers, our beautiful sunshine state.

That’s Ponce de Leon stepping forward out of the 1500s—1513, to be exact—with the pursed-lipped, rigid determination worthy of a manly explorer who is eager to claim new territories for Spain. He is almost totally shielded from the elements: long sleeves and pants to ward off mosquitoes and all manner of biting and stinging insects; boots to protect him from palmettos, ants, sandspurs, and snake bites; armor to deflect native arrows; and gloves to help him hold on to tree limbs as he makes his way downslope through the thick, prickly underbrush that lines our rivers and encircles our springs—those cool turquoise fountains that sparkle like hundreds of diamonds in the sun.

Ponce is on a forward track because he is searching for a singular spring—the fountain of youth—the legendary waters of which, the natives say, revitalize the mind and body and slay the passage of time. He is so focused on his quest that he seems to be ignoring Bathing Beauty.

Clothed in her own skin and the color of the springs themselves, Bathing Beauty in her one-piece suit is a 1940s youthful foil to Ponce’s elder figure. With free-flowing hair and bare arms, legs, and feet, she has consciously surrendered to the elements and to whatever biting, stinging, prickling thing might come her way. She is exposed and vulnerable, but she is not at all worried. She has eyes only for Ponce, her protector, and her small smile hints at her deep regard and affection for him.

Ponce, the darkly handsome Spanish conqueror, could easily be the villain in this story. Certainly he represents the oppression and decimation of the native population as well as the environment. He is alienated by his attitude and attire from the surrounding elements. Perhaps he’s even a cold-hearted lout whose lust for discovery and fame means more to him than the love of this good woman.

And Bathing Beauty—young, beautiful, blonde—could easily be our heroine. She stands united with the elements, her feet firmly planted on the earth, her skin exposed to sunlight and breezes, her bathing suit proof that she will soon immerse herself in water. Her expression radiates a benevolence that makes it doubtful whether she’s ever decimated or oppressed anyone in her short life.

But Ponce and Bathing Beauty have more in common than you might think. He has, after all, given her his arm, and she has taken it. The bad romance has begun.


If you had told me when I was growing up in Orlando in the late 1950s and early 1960s that Florida would ever have water problems, I would have laughed at you. But when Bathing Beauty took Ponce de Leon’s arm, she also took on that Old World mindset that the New World and Nature were ripe for vanquishing—a mindset that has continued throughout the five centuries since Ponce first set boot on Florida sand, with heartbreaking consequences for Florida’s springs.

I know about the springs because I’ve grown up with them since I was in the fifth grade, when my family settled in Orlando. It was after that, on a school trip to a park near Apopka—a place called Rock Springs—that I had my first immersion experience. I was entranced by the transparency of this aquamarine world where fish, eelgrass, even sand and limestone at the bottom of the spring were indelibly clear. I was transported to a transparent world unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Even more enchanting, though, was the feel of this water—cool, clear, pure, clean—as it washed over my scalp, my face, my whole body. This was water like no other, water that could refresh not only the body but also the mind and the senses—surely the holy grail of water experiences. It was easy for me, on that day and on many days since, to imagine why people would think that a spring like this one might be the fountain of youth.

That day, I began my own romance with Florida’s springs—a good romance that continued through my high school and college years and even when I moved, for a while, across the country.

I can still name the springs where I was swimming as I marked the different milestones in my life. Sanlando Springs and Wekiva Springs were junior high and high school celebrations. Poe and Ginnie, where I swam in my early 20s, were where I fell completely in love with the springs, doing laps on languid late afternoons with the sun slanting down in gentle beams through the trees, my soul in welcome retreat from the pressures of college and my first real job.

The little hill above Ichetucknee Springs was where a veil once lifted for me, ever so slightly—where I heard the whispers of an ancient, forgotten language carried on the breeze one autumn afternoon, as the shafting sun lit vivid red and gold leaves all around me. Were these the whispers of the Timucuans who would have come here before the arrival of Ponce and his countrymen? I still don’t know.

Even when I lived 2700 miles away, I’d dream about the springs. In my dreams, I’d be swimming like a fish, able to breathe underwater, with clear views of the water around me, the sky above, the eelgrass and limestone below. And I’d wake from those dreams with tears in my eyes.


The legend that Ponce de Leon discovered Florida while searching for the fountain of youth has been around for so long that we accept it as true, even though it’s a myth. But myths—especially founding myths that relate to the origins of peoples, cultures, and nations—have a way of seeping into the collective consciousness and pooling there until eventually they begin to flow, unquestioned, into the storylines of history and out of the collective imagination of our artists, writers, and musicians. And the fact that Florida has the largest number of freshwater springs in the world, as well as the largest number of first-magnitude springs, has reinforced the fountain of youth myth for the last 500 years.

For close to 450 of those years, our springs remained primordial, pristine, and pure; they were some of Florida’s first tourist attractions. And if our springs aren’t literal fountains of youth, they are metaphorical ones; the depth and clarity of their cool waters are wellsprings for creativity and for the renewal of body, mind, and spirit.

People still describe their experiences in the springs as “rejuvenating,” “invigorating,” “refreshing,” “fun”—all connotations of youthful vibrancy. But the springs now are not the springs I first encountered some 50 years ago, and the people who are taking their first plunges into springs today do not even know what we have lost.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Outside the Splendid Dharma Tent and Down the Hill: Karmapa, America, Environment, and Politics

One thing I forgot to say in my previous blog entries was that Karmapa mentioned what he said might be a special relationship that he has with America—how this was the first country he had been able to visit since fleeing Tibet for India, and how it is again the destination of his second foreign trip (a planned trip to Europe fell through in between his visits to the United States). He mentioned that with the uncertainties that surround his ability to travel, he couldn’t say for sure if America would also be the destination of his third trip, and suggested that maybe he should chant a new mantra: OM AMERICA HUM.

I have not been able to shake a kind of eerie feeling I got, along with a thrill, of seeing a photo of His Holiness Karmapa and His Holiness the Dalai Lama in front of the United States Capitol Building during the week-long Kalachakra events just prior to Karmapa’s arrival at KTD. While I rejoiced that these two representatives of Tibetan Buddhism were conferring blessings on many people there in Washington, D.C., I also wondered if they weren’t there to spread those blessings to avert…something (I know not what).

Just today, I heard one of the news analysts on CNN refer to the current debt ceiling/budget crisis not as that, but as “a political crisis.” Two nights ago in his speech to the nation, President Obama stated that although Americans elected a divided government, he didn’t believe we wanted a dysfunctional government. I think about my parents’ generation—my dad served on a destroyer in the Pacific in World War II—and wonder what they would think about a Congress that was so divided that it couldn’t put the best interests of the American people above politics. I think my folks would be horrified, and I am, too. This current divisive climate honors no one—especially not the many, many people who have died so that we could have freedom—and benefits only a very, very few people. Is this really what we want for America? Is this what being a force for goodness and peace looks like?

And it seems that every time I sit down at my computer, I learn about more assaults on our environment—on the elements that Karmapa has made clear support human life—in the forms of attempted rollbacks of environmental protection, increasing pollution, severe consequences of global warming such as the melting of the Himalayan ice caps, and dangerous old and new resource extraction methods such as deep ocean oil drilling, mountaintop removal, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for oil and natural gas, and exploitation of the Canadian tar sands.

By virtue of his refugee status and his need to travel in order to fulfill his role as leader of the Karma Kagyu Buddhist lineage, Karmapa has to be very careful with the phrasing of his messages; he can’t be overtly political, because that would probably get him banned in some places and severely restrict his ability to travel. But it does seem to me—and I want to make it clear that this is my interpretation only—that when Karmapa said to us at KTD that America has a responsibility to be a powerful force for peace, that he is placing his hopes in us, and that he has the great hope to help us and support us in everything, he was sending us a message: Don’t let the forces of ignorance, aggression, and greed become the dominant forces in the United States of America.

From what I hear from friends who have attended other events with Karmapa since his appearance at KTD, he is continuing to reinforce this message, but in different ways. Friends who were at Kunzang Palchen Ling (KPL), Bardor Tulku Rinpoche’s center across the Hudson River from KTD, reported that Karmapa said that compassion is not just intention—it’s also action.

A friend who was at KPL and at Kagyu Thubten Choling, Lama Norlha’s center in Wappingers Falls, sent me text messages that read, in part: “At KPL…he talked about how interconnected we all are, as everything that reaches our hands is the product of many people. His Holiness (HH) then explained that we should show gratitude to Mother Earth and all beings for their kindness. And he emphasized how Mother Earth provides for us all. At Lama Norlha’s center…he emphasized how so many disasters these days are man made and preventable. In explaining that an empowerment is meant to transform our minds, he said we need to change the way we use our technology and our advancements because of the damage to the environment which, he warned, is almost irreversible. In transforming our mind, HH emphasized that we need to ask ourselves what we can do for the environment. At the conclusion, there was a downpour and a rainbow.” (Italics are mine.)

Compassion is not just intention—it’s also action. We need to ask ourselves what we can do for the environment. These are powerful subjects to consider.

I am left with memories that will last a lifetime, with the knowledge that Karmapa lives in my heart as surely as all of us live in his, and with a renewed vow to do everything I can here in my little corner of the world to make sure that what is sacred and special about Florida’s environment is not destroyed forever.

Video recordings of His Holiness Karmapa’s talks are now available via the KTD web site.

May these blog entries bring benefit to the sentient beings who encounter them and to the environment that supports us all. I take full responsibility for any mistakes in the transcription and reporting of Karmapa’s remarks. If you find errors while reading this, please let me know so that I can correct them! Thank you.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

In the Splendid Dharma Tent: His Holiness Karmapa’s Second Visit to KTD (Part 6)

Note from A Word Witch: I paraphrase Karmapa’s speech, except in sections marked with quotes. Any errors in meaning or transcription are, of course, mine and mine alone.

Karmapa took his seat on the morning of Day 2 with a large paper fan in hand, and continued to make very expressive faces. We had been told to expect an empowerment of the 1000 Buddhas, but once again, Karmapa changed course.

Empowerments are given too frequently these days, Karmapa said, and this has caused empowerments to lose some of their value or to depreciate. He announced that today, he would give an empowerment into the blessings of the Buddha Shakyamuni—a meditation transmission, not a full empowerment. And first, he would explain the vow of refuge.

From what do we seek refuge? Who protects us? Who gives us refuge?

While The Buddha protects us by showing the path away from suffering, and the Buddha and Sangha are sources of refuge because they facilitate the path to liberation, in terms of direct protection, “One must become one’s own protector.” Responsibility rests with each of us. The Holy Dharma is the method or means of protection.

We have the ability to make moral choices; this is the basis of spiritual practice. “It is because we have this ability that we hope for liberation.”

We are fortunate to be able to learn dharma from an experienced teacher: Buddha Shakyamuni, who actually appeared in this world “and is our good teacher.” We have the intelligence we need to learn dharma, or what was taught by the Buddha. And this dharma has a provenance; it’s not “like a sound heard from the sky.” Buddhahood is experiential wisdom, a “great understanding of the nature of human experience…understanding the origin of dharma is really important.”

From the Buddha comes the dharma. From the dharma comes the sangha. We need friends and partners to bear the burden of our lives; providing this friendship is the role of the sangha.

In the Sutra tradition, we view our teacher as a friend or advisor who is totally trustworthy and reliable. In the Vajrayana tradition, we’re taught to view our teacher as Buddha; however, we might not be able to do this at first.

Why imagine our guru as Buddha? Karmapa suggested one reason I’d never thought of: Because of how much we fantasize about the Buddha, “to close the gap” between fantasy and our human experience because Shakyamuni Buddha was a person, after all, much like us—not a superhuman.

Karmapa mentioned that it’s easy to assume buddhahood is something unattainable when we learn, for example, about the special marks a buddha carries, such as the webbing between fingers and toes. Karmapa said he had thought about this, and how strange it might be for a person to have webbed fingers and toes, but then he said, “I think these were webs of light”…otherwise Buddha couldn’t have worn flip-flops, as everyone did in India! I gasped when he said “webs of light” because I realized, Of course! Why wouldn’t these be webs of light? I can’t explain why or how, but there was a most definite ring of truth to this statement, something I had never considered before.

And while the remark about flip-flops was amusing, I wrote in my notebook for a friend to read: “He is helping everyone here see him as a buddha” without the fantastic overlay we usually put on such beings.

The method of our protection is to properly practice the genuine dharma. We protect ourselves through practice, but we need a spiritual teacher as “a matter of practical necessity.” This is our “outer spiritual friend,” the individual who teaches us. We also have an “inner spiritual friend” (I’ve heard another teacher, Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche, refer to this as our “inner lama”) who is the one within us who practices correctly.

“In the end,” Karmapa said, “all fingers are pointing at us…It sounds heavy, but no pressure.”

Karmapa then answered some of the questions that had been submitted in writing. In response to a question about whether our thoughts could affect the behavior of others or harm others, he explained that acts of body and speech harm others, while unvirtuous mental states harm ourselves. He said that he had recently learned of studies that seemed to indicate that changes in body chemistry due to anger can cause changes in the chemical composition of saliva, so that otherwise “healthy” saliva can be chemically transformed to the point that it will “kill small beings.”

Someone asked if emptiness and compassion were contradictory. Karmapa explained that emptiness is the relativity of all things, possibility or opportunity. Other than relative comparison, there are no inherent attributes. In this way, everything is interdependent. “I arise dependent on others,” he explained. Understanding of this interdependence leads to a recollection of the kindness of our mothers and all beings, and a good recognition of emptiness leads to an understanding of our ignorance—we realize beings are ignorant of the causes of happiness and suffering, which leads to more compassion.

The afternoon of Day 2 began with the empowerment and ended with the answers to some additional questions. In response to a question about whether the new, shortened ngondro carries the same benefits as the longer form, Karmapa said he developed the short form for the benefit of busy people who don’t have a lot of time to practice; however, you can’t assess the benefit of a practice based on the liturgy alone. Much depends on how people practice.

In terms of balancing family life with compassion, Karmapa made reference to the Six Perfections. He also said, “Don’t leave dharma in the shrine room.” Formal practice needs to spread into our daily life. “Dharma practice is not supposed to be fun.” It’s exertive, like physical exercise. (Note from A Word Witch: Even the pitiful amount of practice that I do, which is mainly involved with bringing dharma into daily life, is the hardest work I’ve ever done.)

“Dharma is mental exercise,” Karmapa said. We need formal practice to “recharge our batteries.” We can tell how well trained we are by how well we get along with others.

Karmapa’s closing remarks were, for me, very powerful and very, very moving. In addition to developing technology and understanding the brain, we need to pay attention to the heart, mind, and spirit. America is a country that has a responsibility and can be a powerful force for peace. Karmapa said he is placing his hopes in us, as a force for good in the world.

He then thanked Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, and everyone who has worked to build the structure and organization that is Karma Triyana Dharmachakra.

“I see everything you do,” Karmapa said. “I have the great hope to help you and support you in every way.”

And, finally: “Thank you, Yeshe Gyamtso.”

In the Splendid Dharma Tent: His Holiness Karmapa’s Second Visit to KTD (Part 5)

Note from A Word Witch: I paraphrase Karmapa’s speech, except in sections marked with quotes. Any errors in meaning or transcription are, of course, mine and mine alone.

One thing Karmapa did that was interesting and different from other teachings I’ve attended was jump from subject to subject; this happened frequently throughout his talk, and was sometimes preceded with a statement such as, “Now I am going to jump,” and sometimes not.

So we jumped from meeting the challenges of body, speech, and mind to Karmapa’s next point: “So, what do we need?”

Karmapa explained that we identify strongly with the material circumstances of existence and construct our lives based largely on this identification. “We identify too much with these externals”—things like our professions—so that when we lose our jobs, we lose our identities. If our identities involve love and compassion, however, this is “conducive to healthy self-esteem” and we will be okay.

Here I wrote in my notes, “! mentions: ‘social construction of reality’!!!” I was shocked (in a good way) to hear this phrase coming from Karmapa, since I had a two-semester course in graduate school that dealt with “The Social Reality of Human Organizations.” This was my favorite course and the reason I stuck with the program, which I was negotiating on top of a full-time job, because it was all about how we human beings are largely the creators—not helpless victims—of the kinds of social structures in which we live during the eight or 10 hours we’re at work.

The course looked at all the models that have been used to explain how organizations function, from ecosystems to families to machines and just about everything in between, leading to a point that is very similar to the Buddhist idea of interdependence: We are each responsible for creating both the positive and the negative atmospheres we experience at work. My instructor had a vivid grasp of the kinds of things that can and do go wrong in organizations, and when he said—at the first class meeting—that “Issues of power and authority in organizations are never issues of power and authority, they are issues of fear and insecurity,” I wanted to stand up and cheer because this was a situation I had witnessed many times, yet I had never had the words for it, or a context in which to place it.

So I wanted to stand up and cheer again—this time for Karmapa, when he mentioned the social construction of reality—because here was a strong connection between the dharma teachings, which can sometimes seem ethereal and otherworldly, and what my mother always referred to as “the real world.”

Our technological resources are increasing our pressures and stress, Karmapa said, and we are being seduced by this increasing self-fixation that is pushed on us by technological messages; we need to talk about this learned self-fixation that is making our lives so heavy and filled with pressure. While we have access to almost limitless information, we are moving farther and farther from the truth. We are like people who are “dying from thirst on the shore of the ocean” (Karmapa explained that whoever coined this phrase evidently didn’t know that you can’t drink ocean water).

We need to think about our relationship with everything and everyone else. We are part of a net or web that connects everyone.

Karmapa then explained that when his personal hopes are not fulfilled, this does not mean life is meaningless because “perhaps I am fulfilling the hopes of others.” We need to “assess our own lives through the lives of others.” I surmised that doing this might well be an antidote to the increasing technological pressures and self-fixation that Karmapa had mentioned earlier.

Referring to the Karma Kagyu lineage prayer, Karmapa explained that “revulsion” with this life does not mean “life has no meaning” and that nonattachment/revulsion is not the same as detachment, which can lead to dull neutrality or dullness. Rather, nonattachment/revulsion means we must separate ourselves from our conventional view of life as primarily concerned with material prosperity, affluence, and possessions. As long as we identify happiness with possessions, we will never be happy; Karmapa specifically mentioned “iPhone, iPad, iAnything.”

“I know this,” Karmapa said. “People give me these things all the time. They don’t make me happy; they cause a storage problem.”

Rather than constantly acquiring new things, it is contentment that makes us happy. If we do not transcend the idea that we must constantly be acquiring “stuff” in order to be happy, then we risk applying that same fixation on acquisition to our dharma practice. We become “someone who has given up barley but is attached to rice.” To illustrate his point, Karmapa told of reading a news story about someone who sold a kidney for an iPad! In order to deepen our lives beyond the search for material acquisitions, we need to let go of this craving for “stuff.”

The innate aspect of our fixation is the idea of “I” or “me.” When I use this word, I think I am speaking about an independent entity, but this is a mistaken notion because “I” exist only in relationship with others. Yet I continue to think “I” and “my” out of habit: “my iPad, my iPhone, my documents, my computer.” (I wonder if Karmapa uses a Mac or a PC? Anybody know?)

This “I” thought process is like being in prison—solitary confinement. We get only a few visitors, such as “my parents.” But since our happiness really depends on others—not “stuff”—we should be concerned with others. This concern is the starting point for love, compassion, benevolence—the idea of being helpful to others and to ourselves. “The most efficient selfishness is concern for others.”

New jump: “This brings us to emptiness, which is very, very practical…emptiness is possibility.” The idea of emptiness widens our view and outlook; it’s interdependence, interconnectedness, vast openness, mutual love, compassion, affection, with “great practical implications for our lives.”

Here, at the end of the first day’s teaching, Karmapa said he would take written questions, so people hurried to write them down and turn them in.

Karmapa also said that KTD is “not a second home, but my home, and you are my family—except Yeshe Gyamtso.”

I love a teacher with a sense of humor!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

In the Splendid Dharma Tent: His Holiness Karmapa's Second Visit to KTD (Part 4)

Note from A Word Witch: I paraphrase Karmapa’s speech, except in sections marked with quotes. Any errors in meaning or transcription are, of course, mine and mine alone.

Karmapa then asked, “What do we mean by ‘peace’?” Is it a state of ease or relaxation? If so, these are difficult states to maintain and so, they are not our goal. What we are aiming for is something a little more than “eating ice cream on a hot day.” (He could not have picked a better metaphor for this Floridian!)

True peace requires effort to actively and intentionally renounce violence in all its forms. To achieve true peace, we must eradicate the mental unvirtuous actions—covetousness, malice, and wrong views—because these are the “seeds” of further unvirtue committed by body and speech.

“We cannot create peace through force or violence.”

In terms of renouncing the three unvirtuous mental seeds mentioned above, Karmapa made a distinction between eradication and suppression. Suppression, he said, can create mental illness, is unhealthy, and is different from the correct application of remedies that leads to eradication of unhealthy mental states. In addition, you need to understand the reasons for the remedies, or the remedies will not work. “Using my own experience,” Karmapa said, the more we are aware of the harm our kleshas do, the easier it is to apply the remedies.

“We may notice love is not constantly present, but anger happens by itself.” Yet because our minds have the capacity for the alternating emotions of anger and love, we need to realize that experiencing either of these emotions is a choice or decision we can make.

Do no wrong whatsoever.

Engage in abundant virtue.

Utterly tame your own mind.

This is the Buddhist teaching.

This saying describes “a gradual process of learning and development.”

“Do no wrong whatsoever” is the guiding principle for the Shravakas and Pratyekabuddhas. “Engage in abundant virtue” guides those on the Mahayana path, while “Utterly tame your own mind” guides the Vajrayana practitioner. All these guidelines are stages of taming the mind and represent different “levels of responsibility,” or what individuals of different capacities are able to bear—like different grades of school. “The way we practice here,” Karmapa said—meaning at KTD—“is an integration of all three vehicles.”

To “utterly tame your own mind” is the correct understanding of Vajrayana or Secret Mantra. “Mantra” means “the protection of mind,” and when we practice Vajrayana correctly, we protect our minds from ordinary craving and perception, transforming our perception into the pure appearances of the mandala deities—a transformation that is unique to Vajrayana. This is a mental transformation that is not achieved through the accumulation of ritual implements; progressive practice is not “the accumulation of stuff.”

Here, we broke for lunch, with the rain shower still falling. I don’t know who the people were who served the delicious vegetarian lunch, but they had their act totally together, moving large numbers of us through a lunch line reminiscent of a school cafeteria so that everyone was well fed and even had extra time before the afternoon session began.

Karmapa began the afternoon session with more spontaneity. I wrote in my journal, “~frequent faces and exhibits of a wicked sense of humor~.” At one point Karmapa looked at his translator and said, “Understand?” Yeshe’s response: “Things are warming up.”

Karmapa explained that it is the ability or strength of the individual that lends the vehicle that person practices its power. If a person at the Shravaka or Pratyekabuddha grade level tries to practice Mahayana, they will still end up practicing on the Shravaka/Pratyekabuddha grade level; if a person in the Mahayana grade tries to practice Vajrayana, they will still end up practicing Mahayana.

Karmapa then addressed how we practice with body, speech, and mind. Whether or not we actually enter into the Buddha’s teachings depends on whether our body, speech, and mind “enter that space.” Mind is of foremost importance; it must be purified. “We cannot fake it or be hypocritical.”

The challenges we experience must be met with the corresponding faculty. If we are confronted with physical danger, our response will need to be a physical, bodily response, as in running away or otherwise removing ourselves from the situation. If we are confronted with harsh speech, “Can you feel compassion on the spot? It’s possible, but quite difficult.” Most of the harm that comes to us through body and speech is external harm.

Ill will that comes toward us from the minds of others does not hurt us—I was reminded, though of course Karmapa did not say it, of the old children’s teaching tool, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Harm that comes to us through our own minds, however, is internal harm. What hurts us is our own malice and ill will that we develop, often in response to the malice or ill will that we sense is directed toward us from others. “Our anger only harms ourselves,” and this is the worst suffering we can experience because we cannot run away from it.

Karmapa explained one way to deal with what is frequently our knee-jerk reaction of developing malicious thoughts in response to criticism leveled at us from other people. He explained that when someone criticizes him (and I really have to wonder who has done this), instead of immediately jumping to his own defense, he thinks of himself as a friend of the critic, and this enables him to assess whether the criticism is valid or not.

Friday, July 22, 2011

In the Splendid Dharma Tent: His Holiness Karmapa’s Second Visit to KTD (Part 3)

Note from A Word Witch: I paraphrase Karmapa’s speech, except in sections marked with quotes. Any errors in meaning or transcription are, of course, mine and mine alone.

His Holiness Karmapa began his speech by saying that there are many different spiritual traditions in America—he used “America” frequently to refer to the United States—and that we have the freedom to choose which of these we will follow; we may also choose to follow no tradition at all. From one point of view, this makes things easy; from another point of view, choosing a tradition becomes difficult when confronted with so many different choices.

Sprinkling English words and phrases throughout his Tibetan, Karmapa explained that “religion” is different from “spirituality.” Spirituality is the cultivation “of the fundamental goodness or virtue of which we are all capable,” and does not need to follow any specific tradition.

Adherence to a spiritual tradition or religion is a choice that we have. The evolution of the spirit includes benevolence, an understanding of interdependence, and a sincere wish to help others along with the development of the means and insight to do so. “The basic idea is to be a good person.” These remarks reminded me of things that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said over and over again, many many times.

I wrote “-RAIN!-” in my journal here, and was thankful for the breeze and the lower temperatures that followed the shower.

Although religious practice is a personal choice, what must underlie this is recognition of the self, meaning: We have all been born as humans, so we have unique, innate abilities. Something that is very special about humans is that we have the capacity for ethical choice (italics mine). We know the difference between right and wrong, and between what is helpful and what is not—not only for ourselves, but also for others. “This is the first step,” Karmapa explained.

At this point I wrote again in my journal, “~He seems more animated now that rain has cooled things down considerably.~”

When someone has faith in the dharma and becomes a practitioner, they are supposed to become a better person—but sometimes they become worse! This is a problem. Karmapa cautioned us about falling into “too much fantasy” because we are so inspired by the dharma. “We must never allow the practice of dharma to ignore our innate human abilities.” Instead, faith in the dharma must be based on practicalities—as in the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind and “contemplation of what it means to be a human being.”

With regard to the foundation of Vajrayana practice, “We can’t start by imagining ourselves as gods…we must become good, decent people before we can realize Mahamudra” or the Great Perfection.

“We must not allow ourselves as human beings to become isolated from the dharma we practice.” (Again, italics are mine.)

We need a stable foundation for dharma practice: “This is important.” Karmapa suggested that maybe it is more important for beginners to become a good person than to cultivate faith in the sources of refuge.

Every time Karmapa spoke about “being a good person,” I was reminded of my mother and how, growing up in the American South, I was taught from the time I was very young to consider the wishes and needs of others before my own, and to cultivate good manners. It was the traditional Southern woman’s blessing or curse (take your pick) to learn to put others first, to anticipate the wants and needs of guests especially, and—at all costs!—to avoid being rude.

Like most children, I chafed under this code of conduct when I was very young, but later I began to notice how practical and helpful the code proved to be in different social situations. Over time, I developed what I think is a fairly good ability to assess the states of mind and needs of other people around me—an ability that has proved useful in any number of work-related situations. I’m not always a shining example of politeness—I’m too impatient and I tend to interrupt conversations, which I know is a bad habit, for one thing (and there are more)—but I do think my traditional Southern upbringing had a lot to do with why, when I first started studying Buddhism with a teacher, the dharma resonated with me so strongly. Of course it didn’t hurt that my first dharma teacher was a Southern woman who had been raised with the same code of manners!

Karmapa went on to explain that the term for “spirituality” in Buddhism is “dharma” (Sanskrit) or “cho” (Tibetan). While there are 10 different definitions of dharma, what is important is how we understand the term: Dharma refers to “fixing” or “transforming” our minds. The essence of dharma is ahimsa or nonviolence, which refers to a state of mental nonaggression or peace.

The principal result of dharma practice is to develop peace of mind.

Here, Karmapa held up a large teacup with a lid and said, “This is American size,” eliciting laughter from the audience. I thought his remark was simply an aside, but as I look back on my notes now, I realize it was actually a part of his teaching—what in literature we would call a foreshadowing of points yet to be made.

In the Splendid Dharma Tent: His Holiness Karmapa’s Second Visit to KTD (Part 2)

One of the things I bought on this trip is an absolutely beautiful book, Karmapa: 900 Years, published this year by the 2010 Karmapa 900 Organizing Committee. The book has a two-page spread (pp. 78-79) about “Life in the Great Encampment of the Karmapas” which explains that:

For 300 years, the Gyalwang Karmapas moved freely across the wide open spaces of Tibet, accompanied by a vast mobile practice community known as the ‘Great Encampment of the Karmapas’ or Karme Garchen. While they did visit major Karma Kagyu monastic seats along the way, the Fourth through the Ninth Karmapas spent the majority of their adult lives on the move, traveling to wherever they saw opportunities to be of benefit.

This unique institution of the Great Encampment allowed the Karmapas to move or stay put at will, setting up camp when conditions were right and continuing on when they were not. Yet unlike an ordinary camp, the determining factor was not what the location offered to those camping. Rather, it was what the camp could offer to the location, for the Great Encampment was effectively a vast means of reaching out to offer the Dharma in whatever place was then most receptive to it.

I was struck by this last sentence, especially when I remembered the photo I had seen earlier in the week of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) and His Holiness Karmapa (HHK) in front of the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Hopefully at least a few of our elected officials were receptive to the blessings that I am fairly certain HHDL and HHK were beaming in their direction.

It felt like an encampment at KTD, with close to 1000 people from all over the United States and, most likely, all over the world—all crowded under one huge tent that was set up in the courtyard.

I was thrilled to be able to meet and chat for just a couple of minutes with Lama Tsultrim Allione, whose book Women of Wisdom helped fan my early interest in Machik Labdron; within just the past few years, Lama Tsultrim has been recognized as an emanation of Machik. Since Lama Tsultrim’s refuge lama was the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, I sensed that she was delighted to be reunited with Karmapa’s stream of blessings. She indicated she may be collaborating with Karmapa on projects involving Machik’s severance practice, and on women’s issues. Wonderful!

This particular encampment did not take place in an ornate, embellished Tibetan tent, however, but in a stark white temporary structure supported by huge metal poles that stretched to the sky and was buttressed by many canvas supports. Large-screen television monitors placed at intervals throughout the tent gave those of us who were sitting toward the back a clear view of Karmapa’s very expressive face and gestures.

We all stood, as is customary, to watch Karmapa leave the brightly embellished main shrine building, descend the red stairs into the courtyard, and enter the tent. His entrance was marked with the fragrance of incense, a procession that included dark-suited security people and high-ranking lamas clad in robes of maroon and gold, and the distinctive sound of Tibetan gyaling trumpets.

As high as the tent was, when Karmapa ascended the short flight of steps to his throne, it looked like his head almost bumped the top of the tent! And while his stature is imposing, it wasn’t only his height that made it seem as though his presence filled the tent.

Returning to KTD after three years “seems like a dream,” Karmapa said, but “despite difficulties, we are now reunited and I am really delighted”—at which point the whole tent full of people, all of whom shared his delight, erupted into thunderous applause.

During the first few minutes of his remarks on this first day of the teachings, I was struck by what seemed to me to be the unusual quality of Karmapa’s voice. Whether he is speaking sternly or gently—or even, as he did fairly frequently, engaging in animated debates with his translator, the brilliant Lama Yeshe Gyamtso—Karmapa’s voice has a magnificent musical quality; “~melodious voice~” was what I wrote in my notebook.

And at some point during these early remarks, the phrase “sitting in the splendid tent of dharma” flashed through my mind.

Karmapa thanked everyone for building KTD—the new building is now complete after decades of work toward that goal—and said that those who have helped with this effort should now “rejoice in what you have done.”

Early in his talk, Karmapa remarked about the heat; the day had started out being very warm. A little while later, we heard the first raindrops hit the top of the tent, and Karmapa looked up and looked around. As the rain shower went on, the temperature dropped noticeably and became much more comfortable for all of us. I filed this occurrence away mentally as “one of those things that makes you go ‘hmmmm…'."

After he greeted us, Karmapa took some time to gather his thoughts, looking out at the audience or down at the table in front of him, sometimes rubbing the top of his head. This thought gathering was repeated several more times over the course of his two days at KTD.

Karmapa prefaced his talk by saying that he does not think of what he does as “lecturing or teaching,” but rather prefers the idea of “giving a speech…a forum for me to voice my thoughts, which I do without preparation.” And while I am certain that he knew we were all expecting a teaching about The 1000 Buddhas—because that was what had been publicized before the event—Karmapa showed no qualms about completely shattering our expectations. Instead, he expressed his wish to speak spontaneously, to express his thoughts of the moment, and to speak from personal experience, because it would be “more beneficial for me to speak to you directly and personally.”

So we were forewarned, right from the get-go, to expect the unexpected.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

In the Splendid Dharma Tent: His Holiness Karmapa’s Second Visit to KTD (Part 1)

Orgyen Trinley Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, visited America for only the second time this month. While those of us who had heard rumors that he might be coming waited eagerly for news, the staff at Karmapa’s North American seat—Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD) in Woodstock, New York—were faced with the challenge of preparing for the visit on terrifically short notice and without officially being able to tell people that Karmapa was coming, given that India (where His Holiness is living now after having escaped from Tibet over New Year’s 1999-2000) issued his visa at the very last minute.

Karmapa’s first stop was Washington, D.C., where His Holiness the Dalai Lama was giving teachings and the Kalachakra empowerment. There were a lot of Tibetan Buddhist dignitaries on hand for that event, but Karmapa’s arrival caused something of a stir—“collective gasps” was one description that I read—when he walked on stage for his first day at the teachings. Word had not yet spread widely that he was even in the United States.

Karmapa’s second stop was at KTD and I was fortunate enough to be able to attend. I’ve always heard that when one plans to attend a major teaching or empowerment, any obstacles that arise beforehand are the result of previous bad karma that is somehow being cleared; if this is true (and I have no reason to doubt it), I cleared some serious karma through a series of miscommunications about registration for the event that cropped up just before I left home and continued through the first morning of the event itself.

Was my payment due before the event or at the event? If before, was there a deadline I had to meet for payment and could I meet it on very short notice? Who at KTD had the authority to give me the correct answer to my questions? (Many thanks to Lama Kathy Wesley for routing my frequent pesky questions to the right people.) Would my luggage and I make it onto our scheduled plane at the very busy, crowded Orlando airport? Would I have to arrange for a taxi up to KTD, or would there be shuttle buses? Could I make it through Security and over to the registration tent at the KTD gate without having the requisite badge? With a long history of motion sickness when I’m not driving, would I throw up on the bus ride along the twisting road up and down the hill to KTD? (The answer to this last question was “Almost.”)

Throughout all of these obstacles, the mantra “practice patience” kept repeating in my thoughts—a vivid reminder that the Buddhist teachings on the Six Perfections are real challenges to old, ingrained mental habits. So easy to get petulant; so hard to be patient!

But with obstacles finally overcome and patience thankfully preserved, I found myself once again entering the Gate of Dharma.

There have been many changes at KTD since the last time I was there. The new building is complete, and occupied. The old Meads Mountain House, the stagecoach inn that has housed KTD’s offices and staff for several decades, is deserted and barricaded, slated to be demolished later this summer. (Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche presided over a closing ceremony for the house just recently.) The funky old bookstore space with its nooks and crannies and unexpected traffic patterns…my favorite patio table where I admired the surrounding mountains and enjoyed many meals outside…the steep stairs with the narrow steps…the slanting bathroom floors…the cracked walls…the cramped showers…the ancient windows and rickety furniture…never again will KTD’s guests have the opportunity to experience these things!

The new bookstore spaces—with books and gifts on one floor and statues and thangkas on another—are a vast improvement and a great delight; Namse Bangdzo may well be the best Buddhist bookstore in North America.

Since I’m not staying at KTD this trip, I’ll have to wait to report on what it’s like to spend time in the new building—though I did have a chance to eat in the new dining hall on one of my last trips, and it is a big, beautiful space with spectacular views of the surrounding trees—a place worthy of Karmapa.

And so I journeyed up the hill past “Welcome Home” banners and prayer flags, through the Dharma Gate to the registration tent, past a long row of purple porta-potties, around the shell of Meads Mountain House, and through the bright new Gampopa Gateway—now dedicated to my refuge lama, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche—and into the splendid dharma tent, erected over the central courtyard of the monastery to protect the hundreds of us in attendance from rain and sun.

And once again, I was reminded of the great gatherings that assembled around notable teachers in old Tibet, where people traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles to hear the dharma from masters in an unbroken lineage and to receive heart-to-heart blessings that are, so often, life changing.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Nagas and the Elements (Part 2)

When I went swimming at the spring near my house one day last week, I met a beautiful young woman of Indian (Indian/Asian, not Native American) descent as I was bringing some small pieces of trash out of the spring. We fell into conversation about the health of the springs, and practically the first thing she said was, “These places are sacred.”

Even—or perhaps, especially—my neighbors, who are part of a large extended family that has lived in this area for generations, are upset about the pollution and water withdrawals that are harming the health of our springs. I don’t know if my neighbors would agree that the springs are sacred; most Western cultures have moved far away from attributing any kind of sanctity to the natural world, even at places that most everyone recognizes as having intrinsic power. My neighbors might, however, agree that “The springs shouldn’t be messed with.”

So if we humans are concerned, I wonder what the nagas must be feeling, since the big algae blooms and reduced spring flows must be hurting them even more?

Here is how Machik Labdron describes the appearance of nagas, the watery inhabitants of the underworld.

“Black spiders and scorpions, or ants, beetles, otters or fishlike female dogs fall like rain and cover the ground and stick to your body. They are as big as puppies that have just opened their eyes, and extremely cold and wet. Just seeing them is unpleasant and frightening. Also frogs, scorpions, fish, tadpoles, large pir fish, makaras (crocodiles), or lizards the size of young bulls with their mouths open as if ready to eat. Whether on dry or wet land, they all gather together, yelping or quarrelling. They are single or in pairs, their bodies sheathed in fog with slightly formed water droplets. Just looking at them upsets and confuses you and makes your flesh crawl. Or else snakes: black, red, yellow, green, multi-colored, white, variegated red, variegated yellow, or variegated blue, like great trees in full foliage. They are as long as fifty bow lengths…The toxic vapors of some of them boil over onto your body as it lies in bed. They have great manes (hoods) that blaze with fire. Various diseases exude from their mouths and eyes in the form of various colors, like oozing fog spreading out as far as a hundred bow lengths… Just seeing them terrifies you. Your hairs stand on end, your senses become paralyzed, and your body goes out of control from their contamination.

Alternatively, [you experience] small children just eight years old with serpentine bodies below the breast and many blazing snake-hoods on their heads exuding bluish-red disease. Toxic vapors and fog boil up from their tails. Their torsos are generally covered in mist. They are seen in various colors in wetlands larger than the eye can see. Sometimes their torsos are exposed and sometimes their tails show above the water.” (From Machik’s Complete Explanation, pp. 239-240; the italics in the first paragraph of the quote are mine.)

Now, whether you believe in the existence of nagas or not—and I cannot either prove or disprove their existence—the idea of disease-causing nagas is a powerful metaphor for the dangers of pollution.

Just this week, I learned of a 2004 study on “Cyanobacteria: Lyngbya Toxin Monitoring and Evaluation” that was conducted in Florida’s springs under the auspices of the Centers for Disease Control. Lyngbya is just one of the species of algae that is blooming now in our rivers and springs, and is suspected as a cause of allergic reactions that some swimmers have experienced. According to the study, “Elevated groundwater nitrate and other nutrients may be responsible for the proliferation and expansion of toxic Lyngbya species (spp.)…Limited reports of acute dermatitis, blisters, desquamation, and respiratory distress may be related to Lyngbya exposure.”

Our nagas, it seems, are not pleased.

And my Buddhist teachers are sounding warnings.

His Holiness Orgyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, has some very interesting passages on the web site that describes his design of the Monlam pin:

“…Ever since the human race first appeared on this earth, we have used this earth heavily. It is said that ninety-nine percent of the resources and so on in this world come from the natural environment. We are using the earth until she is used up. The earth has given us immeasurable benefit, but what have we done for the earth in return? We always ask for something from the earth, but never give her anything back. We never have loving or protective thoughts for the earth. Whenever trees or anything else emerge from the ground, we cut them down. If there is a bit of level earth, we fight over it. To this day we perpetuate a continuous cycle of war and conflict over it. In fact, we have not done much of anything for the earth.

Now the time has come when the earth is scowling at us; the time has come when the earth is giving up on us. The earth is about to treat us badly and give up on us. If she gives up on us, where can we live? There is talk of going to other planets that could support life, but only a few rich people could go. What would happen to all of us sentient beings who could not go? What should we do now that the situation has become so critical? The sentient beings living on the earth and the elements of the natural world need to join their hands together—the earth must not give up on sentient beings, and sentient beings must not give up on the earth. Each needs to grasp the other’s hand.”

Thrangu Rinpoche, who is Karmapa’s tutor, has also spoken about our environment and the elements:

“If the external world we live in does not thrive, how can that be good for the ‘internal’ beings who live in that world, its inhabitants? In the external world there are clearly problems…Those of us who are humankind have the responsibility to take care of this world we are in. We might say that it is the responsibility of governments. But whether governments will do anything or not is another question. It is something we all individually need to do something about…When we call this the degenerate age or the age of dregs, we mean this is a time when sentient beings are not easily satiated. They are not modest in their wishes. So they do a lot of business in order to benefit themselves. They make a lot of pollution to do business and gather wealth. They do not gather that wealth for the benefit of the whole of society, but for their own individual benefit. In doing so, they pollute the ground, the water and the air. It creates a problem for the whole world. It is all really due to our greed…We need to know what is happening to our world, what scientists have elucidated. When we know this, we can infer what we need to do, and what we actually can do….

What is happening today is that there is chaos in the elements. There are the four different elements of earth, water, fire and air, and these have now become unbalanced. Due to this imbalance, sometimes there is destruction because of floods and water, sometimes due to wind. Sometimes there is destruction through earthquakes and now there is also destruction happening through global warming. The temperatures are unbalanced—sometimes too hot, sometimes too cold. Because of this, what is happening now is that grand, resplendent snow mountains are melting. Hard, firm, beautiful glaciers are melting. When they melt and disappear, the rivers and lakes will become scarce, parched and dried out. We can actually see this happening. Disturbance in the four elements, snow mountains and glaciers all melting, the water all drying up – what harm do these lead to? Then all the forests of the ancients and trees of beauty will near their deaths. Forests are drying out, trees are dying. Beautiful, wonderful forests that you could explore are drying out, and coming to their deaths. There is now the danger that the whole world’s reaches will become a great wasteland without water supplies. In the entire world, we will not have anything beautiful or good, nor any way of supporting ourselves. There is a frightful, terrifying danger that this will happen. It is a basic truth that if something bad happens to the environment we live in, the inhabitants that live within it will also suffer great harm.” (Again, the italics are mine.)

Karmapa has also said, in a recent message to young people:

“…it is not impossible that in the future, we might face great and unbearable mental burdens and a sense of chaos…”.

Yes, we are being warned—and at the same time, encouraged to take action.

I went back to the spring near my house very early yesterday morning to make an offering to the naga. On the short drive to the spring, I saw a skunk scuttle across the road into an overgrown field. As I waded into the spring, the great heron that had been standing silently in the shallows flapped her large wings and flew off upriver. Something—a raccoon? an otter? a squirrel?—chattered away at me from the bank. As I drove away, I saw a doe move silently away from the road and into the woods.

For those moments, the environment and the elements seemed in balance. And while I’d love to bask in that feeling, I know that to do so—to turn away from what I know is happening around me—would simply be giving in to illusion, making believe all is right with the world when clearly, it is not.

There are many good articles about living in a world in which the elements are out of whack, and encouragement about what we can do, at the Ecobuddhism web site. Karmapa, who is in the United States visiting as I write this, has his own environmental web site as well.