Sunday, October 20, 2019

Heart of My Heart

Heart of my heart
Going up in flames
You are a lamp
Even in death

May your lovingkindness
and compassion—
like the
you taught—
throughout the
10 directions
and 3 times

as this profound
gives way to

of gratitude and

-Karma Norjin Lhamo, on the occasion of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s (her refuge lama's) cremation
in the season of Halloween
October 20, 2019

Sunday, September 29, 2019

A Gathering of Ghosts and Demons: Generosity and Realization in Tibetan Buddhism


Show me a culture without ghosts and spirits, and I’ll show you an alien culture—something not of this Earth—because stories of things spooky and strange, seen and unseen, are found everywhere, in all belief systems. And the explanations of such haunting phenomena are as varied as the cultures that give birth to these magical stories.

The banshees of Ireland and the Scottish highlands, who warn families of impending death with otherworldly cries and laments, are thought to be the ghosts of women who died in childbirth. The Japanese yurei, also female ghosts, are trapped by powerfully gripping emotions in an intermediate state between life and death. In the Voudon tradition of Haiti, zombies are acknowledged to be reanimated corpses brought back to a kind of life by skilled magicians. And of course, there are the countless stories of vampires who suck the life force from their victims—perhaps a reflection of the universal experience of being around people who drain us of our energy?

So it comes as no surprise that the world of Tibetan Buddhism is populated with its share—if not more than its share!—of ghosts, demons, ghouls, and otherworldly beings. What is different in the Buddhist tradition, however, is the explanation of these phenomena.

One of the best windows into the sometimes-spooky world of Tibetan Buddhism was opened to us by the Tibetan woman, Machik Labdron (or Machig Lapdron), who lived in the 11th century.  Machik, whose name means “One Mother,” fused the Indian Buddhist tradition of chod with her own visionary experiences to create a special practice, the Chod of Mahamudra.

Machik Labdron

The most spectacular part of the practice, lu jin or “charity of the body,” is an eerie visualization that involves offering one’s own body as food for worldly and otherworldly beings—an extreme, supreme act of generosity. The aims of the practice, however, are eminently practical:  to benefit other beings and to overcome the self-fixation that Buddhists hold to be the source of so many of our problems.

Machik herself is a magical being, a wisdom dakini—a human embodiment of the essence of enlightened mind. And her popularity in modern times begins with a ghostly story. Here is how Tsultrim Allione, the author of Women of Wisdom who has recently been recognized as an emanation of Machik Labdron, describes one of her first experiences with this dakini.

…I was in California at a group retreat given by Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. One night we were doing the Chod practice, and at a certain point, when we were invoking the presence of Machig, visualizing her as a youthful white dakini, a wild-looking old woman suddenly appeared very close to me. She had grey hair streaming up from her head, and she was naked, with dark golden-brown skin. Her breasts hung pendulously and she was dancing. She was coming out of a dark cemetery. The most impressive thing about her was the look in her eyes. They were very bright, and the expression was one of challenging invitation mixed with mischievous joy, uncompromising strength and compassion. She was inviting me to join her dance.  Afterwards I realized that this was a form of Machig Labdron.1

Machik advises us that the best places to practice chod—also known as severance, as in severance of self-fixation—are the wild and haunted places that create an atmosphere of isolation and fear. Among the guests we invite to the practice are more than a few terrifying apparitions.

Who among us would not be frightened by the antagonizing enemies, those “unembodied gods and demons who manifest sights and various weird apparitions to the eyes and cause fear and terror and then alarm and horror, with trembling and hairs standing on end”?2

Who wouldn’t feel intimidated by the body demon, an entity that connects with us in the womb and remains with us until our skin and bones separate after death? “It is the lord or owner of this outcaste body made of flesh and blood, a vicious inhuman spirit that says, ‘This is I,” Machik explains. “That bad spirit leads us around by the nose and makes us engage in bad karma.”3

Which of us would not be chilled by contact with nagas, snake-like animals who inhabit waterways and springs, or the eight classes of gyalsen, male king spirits and female demonesses who together symbolize attraction and aversion, two of the Buddhist poisons?

Who wouldn’t be scared silly by the sight of various male and female devils, planetary spirits, death lords, harm-bringers, belly-crawlers, personifications of types of disease, lords of epidemics, and black magic spirits?

And perhaps many of us have felt the unease that comes from bad spirits of haunted places, those spirits who dwell in unsettled places where we may visit or live.

But if we could help them, who among us would fail to offer sustenance to all sentient beings, from beings in hell where they experience unimaginable torture, through the realm of the hungry ghosts—with their huge bodies and tiny throats that deny them the sustenance they crave—up through the animal and human realms to the realms of the gods?

All these frightful and awe-ful beings, and more, are the guests Machik Labdron urges us to invite to the feast of severance.

This emphasis on demons and ghouls in Machik’s practice is no accident—it’s quite deliberate, because directly facing what terrifies us is one way we can awaken from our ignorance, one way we can realize the unbounded wisdom and compassion that are our birthrights as beings who possess, hidden deep in our hearts, the very same nature as the buddhas.

There is a famous story about Milarepa, another Tibetan Buddhist saint who was, coincidentally (or not!), a contemporary of Machik Labdron’s.

Tseringma and her four sisters were female deities. When they first met Milarepa they tried to scare him and they did all kinds of magic tricks to try to frighten Milarepa, but Milarepa was never frightened. He knew that these demons were like demons in a dream when you know you are dreaming. He did not take them to be truly existent and so then they were so impressed with Milarepa that they developed faith in him. They became his students; they became his Dharma Protectors, the protectors of his teachings and they also offered Milarepa siddhis, special powers…

But that is the difference between demons when you don’t know their true nature and demons when you do know their true nature. They go from being malicious to being protectors.

In the end, in fact, there is no such thing as a demon. That is what you recognize in a dream when you dream of a demon and you know you are dreaming. You recognize that there really is no demon there. That is the ultimate nature. There is neither any deity that helps you nor any demon that harms you. Sometimes these supernatural beings are called god demons because if they like you they are like a god and if they do not like you they are like a demon. They can decide. But when you recognize you are dreaming it does not matter what they appear to be. You know their true nature.4

So in the Vajrayana—the form of Buddhism taught in Tibet—we learn that the appearance of demons and ghouls, when not seen through, is a mara or obstacle to enlightenment. Seen through—when we experience our minds directly—these same demons and ghouls become protectors (dharmapalas) and sources of spiritual powers (siddhis) and realization.

Apparitions of male and female demons and ghouls
For as long as your guise has not been seen through are maras.
Obstacle-makers who nothing but trouble spell
If their guise is seen through obstructors are dharmapalas
A hot bed of siddhis of such a variety
In the end, in fact, there are neither gods nor goblins.
Let concepts go as far as they go and no more.
This is as far as they go and no more, he said.5

The appearance of demons and ghouls is, finally, revealed as nothing other than the self-projection of our own minds.

How precious now the idea of seeing a ghost.
It reveals the unborn source, how strange and amazing!6

So this Halloween—when numerous ghouls and devils and demons and ghosts appear at your door—recognize these frightful sights as reminders of your own mind’s clarity and spaciousness. And then—in the generous spirit of Machik Labdron and Milarepa—offer them some candy.

1Women of Wisdom, Tsultrim Allione, Snow Lion Publications, 2000, pp. 28-29.
2Machik’s Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chod, translated by Sarah Harding, Snow Lion Publications, 2003, p. 141.
3Ibid., p. 141.
4Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Tampa, Florida, Halloween 2005 (private transcript).
5“Distinguishing the Provisional from the Definitive in the Context of Mahamudra,” a realization song that was taught by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche in Tampa, Florida, Halloween 2005 (private transcript).

Karma Norjin Lhamo is a student of teachers affiliated with the Tibetan Karma Kagyu lineage. She has recently had the good fortune to attend a series of teachings about Machik Labdron given by her refuge lama, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, New York. Halloween has always been her favorite holiday. She urges people who are interested in learning about Buddhism to seek out a qualified teacher.


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Florida’s Springs and Rivers Need Their Own Legal Rights (Part Two of Two)

The source of laws that currently constrain our ability to save Mother Earth is the U.S. Constitution. But our country has another primary founding document, the Declaration of Independence, from which CELDF has drawn inspiration and ideas to build a new democratic movement that empowers citizens to fight for granting rights to living natural systems such as springs and rivers.
This Rights of Nature movement is now gaining traction not only here in the USA, where over 220 communities have embraced it, but also throughout the world in places such as New Zealand, India, Ecuador and Bolivia. Click here to find a timeline of this movement on CELDF’s website.

CELDF’s strategy is modeled on the rights-based struggles to abolish slavery and grant full citizenship rights to people of color, to grant voting rights to women, to grant marriage equality rights to gays and lesbians and, more recently, to grant legal rights to animals.
All of these social movements, including even the American Revolution, began with courageous people who were willing to challenge or even break existing laws in order to change those laws. All these movements started small, grew over time as more people became aware of them, and eventually resulted in widespread social change and changes to our laws.
CELDF believes that same strategy can work to grant legal rights to natural systems. Their staff is actively working to help citizens push their local governments to enact bills of rights for iconic natural features. The strategy recognizes that once the word is out about this movement—which has now accelerated to the point that citizens of Toledo, Ohio, have voted to grant legal rights to Lake Erie, following an incident of severe and widespread drinking water contamination—citizens of more and more communities will decide to get involved. And the more people who get involved, the more people will learn about how our current legal system is failing to protect the living systems that we need to sustain us and many other forms of life.
Is this approach a “magic bullet”? No. CELDF acknowledges that there will be pushback at the beginning of such an effort not only from city and county commissions and their lawyers (because new ideas always meet resistance!) but also from corporations and business organizations in the form of threats of lawsuits and actual lawsuits.
Even when local municipalities are courageous enough to enact Rights of Nature laws, the final legal outcomes of the sure-to-follow lawsuits are far from certain. That’s because this movement is so new and so few cases have made it to court yet. It will be up to the courts to make decisions about how Rights of Nature laws affect current laws, and this will be a long process. The alternative, however, is to keep doing what we’re already doing, and to keep getting the same ineffective results.
I’m thrilled to report that the Rights of Nature movement now seems to be taking off here in Florida. Following the weekend in Apopka with Thomas Linzey, activists in Central Florida have created a project they’re calling WEBOR. That acronym is stands for Wekiva Econlockhatchee Bill of Rights for those two rivers that straddle the Orange and Seminole county line. Early plans call for this to be a citizens’ initiative that will gather petitions to put the Wekiva-Econ Bill of Rights onto the ballot in an upcoming election, so the citizens of Orange and Seminole counties can vote on it.
Other citizens are considering attempts to have the county commissions in home-rule counties (with charters) act directly to put Rights of Nature laws into county charters when those documents are revised.
Is the Rights of Nature movement an effort whose time has finally come in Florida? I’ve been spreading the word about this approach for the last six years, so I certainly hope so!
“We’ll know more later,” as my mom always said.

Florida’s Springs and Rivers Need Their Own Legal Rights (Part One of Two)

Over the weekend of April 13-14, 2019, I attended a gathering of about 20 people in Apopka to hear Thomas Linzey, the executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), talk about the work of his organization and explain why so many of us who work so hard on behalf of our springs and rivers have so little to show for that work in regard to actual restoration, preservation and protection of these living systems.
Linzey’s talk was a refresher for me since I had attended one of CELDF’s Democracy School sessions in 2013, when Linzey and Mari Margil were hosted by the Center for Earth Jurisprudence at Barry University’s Law School in Orlando. That event was an “Aha!” moment for me, as Linzey and Margil explained how the USA’s laws were structured for the benefit of business and corporations at the expense of Mother Earth.
The primary culprit that stands behind these laws is the fact that in the USA, “the environment” = “property.” If you own a piece of land, you have the legal right to destroy it, in part or in total. The land/environment itself has no legal rights apart from your ownership of it.
CELDF uses a couple of effective graphics to explain how this legal system works. The first graphic is what they call the “Regulatory Triangle.” Say a group of community citizens identifies a problem:  Some landowners want to start a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) in land along a pristine river somewhere in Florida. Citizens in the surrounding communities hear about this idea and are aghast because they know the “big picture” problems that accompany CAFOs: water pollution, noxious odors, increased heavy truck traffic, decreased land values in surrounding areas, private profits for a few people or a corporation taking precedence over the well-being of the community as a whole.
As citizens mobilize to fight the CAFO, they learn that different units of government and agencies within Florida need to issue “permits” in order for the CAFO to operate. So citizens decide to make calls to get people to respond to their concerns.
The county commission staff replies, “We’re so glad you called! Here is what you are allowed to comment about and here is how you can make comments to the commission.”
The state’s environmental protection agency staff replies, “We’re so glad you called! Here is what you are allowed to comment about and how you can make comments to our agency.”
When citizens learn what they are and are not allowed to comment about—which is always just one or two small parts of the “big picture” they’ve identified—they decide to ask for help from one of the larger environmental organizations in their area.
The organization’s staff replies, “We’re so glad you called! Here is what we are allowed to comment about and here is how we can make those comments.”
The Regulatory Triangle operates to funnel citizen concerns down a chute that leads to citizens’ being able to contest only one or two small parts of the “big picture” problems that they have identified.
Source:  Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF)

But what happens if, for example, the county commission decides to do the right thing and deny the necessary permit(s) for the CAFO? The landowners will get their permits anyway, thanks to what CELDF describes as the “Box of Allowable Remedies” (they called this the “Box of Allowable Activism” back when I attended Democracy School and I actually like that title better).
The commission is constrained by four legal principles:  (1) state pre-emption, which means state law trumps local law; (2) Dillon’s Rule, which specifies that the state is the parent and municipalities the children, so municipalities can only do what the state gives them permission to do; (3) corporate commerce rights, embedded in the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution; and (4) corporate personhood constitutional rights, which allow corporations to sue municipalities for damages caused by laws and decisions that affect corporate profits (including estimated future profits), coupled with the idea that “nature” is “property” and interference with the use of that property may constitute a 5th Amendment “taking” of the “property.”

Source:  Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF)
 Note that these four constraints are now firmly embedded in our legal system and trace their origins back to one of our two primary founding documents, the U.S. Constitution.
And keep in mind that when municipalities and state agencies issue “permits” for things like CAFOs, natural gas pipelines, phosphate mines, and huge withdrawals of water from the Floridan aquifer, what is actually being “permitted” is damage to those natural systems that sustain us and other sentient beings. A permit grants permission to cause damage. And under current law, we are not “permitted” to stop that damage.
But we keep plodding along, attending meetings, making comments, being good, polite stakeholders. There's a popular saying that "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results."
Are we crazy? Isn't there something else we could be doing?
Why, yes. Yes, there is. See Part Two of this essay, coming soon.