How to Heal the Mind and Body: Vajrasattva

Coming out of the hospital, my life takes on what many folks call “the new normal”.  I’ve never been on medications for any length of time and now I face at least one medication that doctors tell me will require a lifetime commitment.  The New Normal.  They tell me, in no uncertain terms, “there is nothing you can do to change the trajectory of your life unless you consume this medication twice a day for the next X number of years,” X being the amount of time I have left to live.

We all know, in some way, that our lives are limited in scope; that the time we have on this earth is marked by birth and death and some number of years in between.  If you are anything like me, I KNEW it but I didn’t know it.  Now I know the truth; the reality of an end is very clear to me.

So, what’s left to do in my life?  How can I make a difference in a way that is meaningful?  My first step toward meaning comes from practicing Vajrasattva.  In the hospital I heard the suffering of fellow patients and I sincerely wanted to ease their pain.  What could I do, really?  During my deep, dark night of the soul, I came to one realization: I can practice healing for all sentient beings and I can take on the suffering of others through tonglen and lojong practices.

DONE.  I have a plan.  Here’s where it starts: Patrul Rinpoche and the Vajrasattva practices.  In the book The Words of My Perfect Teacher, Patrul Rinpoche lays out the Ngondro practices including Bodhicitta and Vajrasattva (pages 263 – 280).  Vajrasattva was a bodhisattva.  His personal history and story is shrouded in mystery in that very little detailed information exists about his life and practice.  At the same time, his impact on Buddhism, and particularly Tibetan Buddhism, was profound.  Some sutras talk about how he transmitted his teachings to Nagarjuna and from there to the rest of the Buddhist world.

What the Vajrasattva practice is at its core is purification.  The goal of the practice is to purify any and all defilements: disease, negative thoughts and karma, as well as retiring the relationship between the student and the teacher as well as restoring the very practice of enlightenment by, basically, renewing vows of practice for those who have strayed from the path.

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Vajrasattva from http://www.rigpa.org

Patrul Rinpohce said that this practice starts with confession.  From his text, he commented that the main obstacles to realization are negative thoughts, actions, obscurations (not seeing the truth) and habitual tendencies.  The practice is about clearing your mind as if you were cleaning a mirror so that your true reflection appears within the surface without blemish, tarnish, or other distortions of the truth.  You are connecting to your true nature, buddha nature, as a means of purifying your body, speech, mind and the BSM of all beings.  Confessing your previous transgressions and really owning those negative actions, thoughts, and emotions is the key to realizing the practice AND purification.

The core of the practice involves a wide variety of meditations and mantras much too elaborate to talk about here.  One core principle is to recite the 100 Syllable Mantra, a poetic verse recorded in the Mahavaironcana Tantra from the 7th century C.E., as a means of working with your mind.

While much of tantric buddhism has as a practice visualizations, this one in particular has visualizations of you being purified of disease or negative thoughts, actions, etc.  Truthfully, that is where I started: purification of my own body as an extension of purification of all bodies.  Through this meditation, I will help heal my physical and mental obscurations and hinderances.  Through the practice, my goal is to extend the healing out to all sentient beings.

As I step gingerly through this process of healing, I will offer my thoughts, ideas, and perspectives.  Clearly, I know very little compared to most folks who have come before me, and, more importantly, have little to add to the conversation.  At the same time, if I can just offer one person support in their time of need, I have accomplished something worthwhile.  For those reasons, I practice.

 

 

The Face of Death

As I have said in previous posts, illness presents so many opportunities for practice and reflection.  Since last year I have faced a series of minor illness that built to this very moment.  Each of those illnesses were unconnected to the present problem I face, according to doctors I have spoken with; and yet, I am hesitant to give up on the notion that certain conditions do not have a precursor, a single connection that links symptoms to disease.  I believe in causation.  Buddhism has taught me that lesson.

On Tuesday night, walking my dog on a brisk walk and slow jog, my breathing became labored, my throat tightened.  I called my partner and asked her to pick me up.  My first thought was that I was having a reaction to a recent medication I took, an antacid.  As an aside, I generally take no medications when faced with some pain.  I use medicine as a specific remedy.  So, when I arrived at the house, sat in a chair on the front porch, I tried to catch my breath, and felt lightheaded and sweaty.  I took a benedryl and drank water…I felt better….in the very next moment I had some clarity of my symptoms and realized I was going to pass out; I said to my partner, “call 911.”

In midst of the ambulances and paramedics, I was connected to blood pressure cuffs and the like, completely lucid and aware.  To that point I used my meditation practice to gain some control over my wild mind…staying in the here and now, being completely present for what was happening.  They took me to the hospital and I was poked and prodded.  Initial results showed nothing, absolutely nothing.   Blood work came back good, and my heart rhythm was normal.  The staff stuck me in a room and I waited for the next morning for more tests.

In those hours in the hospital I watched and listened as patient after patient was wheeled into the ER. My room was the first in the ER, next to the outer door.  The swish of the automatic door opening and closing each time a patient was ushered into the triage.  Feet away from my bed was a radio alerting staff to the next patient and their condition.  Every word of their initial report spilled into the air.  No names, just basic information:  a 51 year old woman, blood pressure 157/94, a 77 year old man, unresponsive, and on and on.  In front of my room, a glass doorway partially covered by a pale green curtain, I heard the last gasp of life from an elderly man as the staff worked to save him. As the night wore on, I heard the nurses and doctors call out medications, treatments, and a series of “codes”.

As I lay in my bed, I brought my legs together and began meditation.  Distracted as I was, I could only use the “Benza Guru” mantra over and over.  I grabbed my phone, turned on the mantra on repeat, and for about two hours just stayed in that place.  Stillness spread across my mind and I was spacious.  At that point in the early AM, I started a tonglen meditation in its most simple form; giving and taking.  Giving happiness, taking on suffering.

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Prayer Wheel, Bumthang, Bhutan

 

The words of Dzongar Jamyang Khentsye and Sogyal Rinpoche were right there, present in my mind.  I did what I could to remember the process and I didn’t feel like I made any difference in anyones life in those hours in the hospital bed.  I let go of the whole idea of accomplishment.  In the back of mind, I thought that I COULD make a difference; that somehow my giving and taking would help relieve some pain or suffering from someone.  So, I let go of accomplishments and just stayed with the practice for a time.

As I am sure you know, time in a hospital is measured in visits from nurses, doctors, and staff.  I did not and would not turn on the TV during my entire time.  I just sat and allowed my mind to be empty; truly empty…I did not attach to any thought.  I credit not being distracted with my practice and the teachings I have heard.  A calm mind woke and I was present when staff came by and food was offered.  Ultimately, a sense of being grateful rose for all of these staff, all of these people caring for me, and being cared for.

My stay in the Hospital was brief; 36 hours.  In that time I was treated and released.  My plan of action was put into place and I have a way forward.

During and after the visit I felt and feel so lucky.  I faced the prospect of death and came out with a sense of wonder and awe at the world, and my place in it.  More importantly, I learned a valuable lesson in compassion.  Sitting in the ER for 24 hours, laying on a bed will do that for you.  Listening to folks come and go, hearing the challenges and difficulties of all the patients, sitting in the midst of all this confusion, pain, and suffering, what was real was that we all face the same basic situation: suffering in many forms.

I wish I could say I have some deep insight or perspective on any of this stuff.  What I took away and what I am keeping with me is the simple truth: that the way to peace is through compassion for all sentient beings.

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A Butterfly in Trongsa, Bhutan

 

 

 

Fighting for Clarity: Finding Awareness

I’ve tried for a while to reconcile the notion that once buddha nature dawns and awareness is revealed that stillness pervades and one’s mind, finally, is at peace.  While that idea is so pleasant and wonderful that how can it NOT be true?  Isn’t the goal of meditation and practice to achieve that state of mind, completely void of causes and conditions, awake and aware in such a way that thoughts are not chased, ideas don’t provoke anger or resentment, and that emotion is in check.

I am now of the opinion that none of that is true about awareness and enlightenment.  OK, yes I do think enlightenment and awareness does dawn and that one’s mind open…it’s clear from all of the information that such an awakening happens.  While I am not adept practitioner, moments of awareness have dawned and I have felt the bliss that comes with the experience.  What I also know is that maintaining that moment is a constant vigilant struggle.  One cannot just stop and say, “Whew, I’m enlightened!  It’s over!.”  There is a maintenance plan that comes with the process.  Without maintenance enlightenment can be lost.  At least that’s what appears to be the case.

According to Terry Reis Kennedy on Jun 21 2017 in the Deccan Herald, the Dalai Lama commented that “in essence, enlightenment is the awakening of the mind’s true nature by the process of purifying thoughts, removing obscurations, and dispelling dissonant emotions.”  Once purified, we are in that state of being.  No longer attached or chasing thoughts…we are freed from attachment and aversion.

In my practice, the attachment and aversion piece is still operating like a well-oiled machine.  I am attached and averse.  In moments, however, those attachments dissolve and awareness dawns for a moment.  A moment….then it all collapses.  Why?  Because I haven’t completed the work; I’m only gaining these small glimpses and my mind is still consumed with samsaric thoughts.

So how do I and all of us clear those thoughts and establish a permanent place for the awakened mind to reside and stabilize?  That is the question.  My ngondro practice is one place I have begun and I believe many practices can lead to the same location.  I am reminded of the readings I did years ago on Thomas Merton.  Merton’s book, The Seven Storey Mountain, describes a process for understanding that many Buddhist practitioners would understand.  Very briefly, the book is autobiographical describing his conversion to the Catholic faith.  The struggles Merton experiences come very close to the whole idea of how attachment leads us to excess and a permanent place in samsara.  Once we apply the antidote, in Merton’s case Christian philosophy, we can clear the  mind and find the source for our practice and life.

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Thomas Merton

What is that source that Thomas Merton wrote about and the source that I seek in my own practice?  For Merton the source is G-d; a spiritual connection between human and the divine.  In my case, I’m looking for the source in my mind; the buddha nature that is constant, clear, and luminous.

But I haven’t answered the question, have I?  How to get there?  First, there is no there; the clarity I seek and we seek is always present.  That’s the real irony of the whole thing.  We go looking for the elephant by following the tracks when the elephant was always present, right here.  We try to search and search around the world, talking to teachers, friends, relatives, whomever only to recognize that the answers are in us, always.  It does’t mean, however, that we can rely only on our own mind to seek for buddha nature.  As I have found out the hard way, the path to understanding requires a teacher.  Someone who can help us reveal the path to enlightenment.  In Vajrayana, that path goes through love and compassion for all beings.  We (I) have to be willing to give completely of myself with no thought of gain.

Until I can truly put all sentient beings before me AND accept their suffering as my own, I won’t make a whole lot of progress.  Too, without a stable, informed practice, I’m like anyone else wandering in the dark trying to find my way by using my senses to orient my body onto the path.  As we all know, our senses can be fooled.  We face the kinds of delusions and illusions that distract us. My leg hurts, I can’t practice.  I have a headache, I’ll practice tomorrow.  On and on.

I leave today’s thoughts with just this notion: that my course of action has to be based in bodhicitta.  Thomas Merton found this concept in December 1968, days before his eventual death.  He said,”The rock, all matter, all life is charged with dharmakaya … everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.”  His insights on this truth he came to him after years of meditation and reflection.  I choose this same path in the hopes that I too can gain some measure of understanding and realization for the benefit of all sentient beings.

May you be happy, may you be well.