Nostalgia and Its Confidants

As I cleaned off my Nikon FE, a stiff wind of nostalgia blew over me and I was emotionally transported back to the summer of 1979. I was working at our family business, a dry cleaning and laundry started in 1926 and still humming. Summers in Georgia are HOT and this summer at the New Way Cleaners was scorching.

Nikon FE ready to shoot some HP5

In a laundry business, at least in this one, everything runs on steam power. The shirt and pants presses, the hot water that washed the clothes, the steam used to remove creases from clothing, all of it used a powerful furnace that produced steam in this warehouse-sized building.

The heat indoors was incredible and thinking back on it, it was almost unbearable. I checked the thermometer hung on the wall in the rear of the building and it stood at 107 F on this mid-June afternoon.

On this June day, my uncle, Henry, let me use his credit card to call B&H Photo in New York and order a new film camera. I already purchased a Nikon FM the summer before, and imagined that the new iteration of the camera, a partially automatic one would change the way I took pictures. I gave him the $220.00 for the camera and grabbed his card and the phone. I placed the order, gave out the credit card number, and the shipment was placed that day, said the representative on the phone, and I almost squealed for joy at this new found luck! The incredible ability to order something over the phone and have it delivered to my door was a completely new phenomenon to me.

All of the feelings of that experience rushed into my head as I dusted off the camera for a run at some 35mm film photography.

After a few years of neglect, the camera was no worse for wear, having been stored in a cool, dry place. The battery was still functioning and I loaded the camera with some ILFORD HP5 to begin wandering the area around my house to find shots to take. I’m starting small, here, working back up to the street photography that I loved. I attached my 105mm lens and began the process of composition.

As I used the camera, all of that nostalgia again swept through me and I was a 14 year old kid in Georgia, finding places to take pictures. I don’t have any of those B&W negatives from those years, but I do have hundreds of slides. I look back at my work and some of it is remarkable…my vision was spot on and the images are so interesting. Much of it is nature photography, and my various street shots captured a moment or two.

What I want and what I need right now is to recapture some imagination and the feeling of seeing things new, for the first time. To experience the wonder and joy of a moment through the lens of a camera and to express that moment in the way I see it. That deep desire for self expression has driven me for years and getting back to the 35mm film camera after all of this time is the right thing at the right moment. It’s my attempt to see the world again after hiding from it for so long (more on THIS topic in another post).

If you haven’t used a film camera or wonder at the process of taking pictures that requires manual focus and exposure, capturing the image to film is an involved and beautiful process of negotiation. As a film photographer, you’re always negotiating with yourself, the camera, the light around you, the film you’ve chosen, and the placement of the camera in the world. This process is short-circuited in the age of digital capture in which seeing and shooting is a matter of point and press. (Yes, I am simplifying here)

With film, a lot of the work comes before you even raise the camera to your eye and focus on the object. Setting exposure and focus comes first before you’ve even created the shot. The fun is when you learn that you can play around with exposure, focus, and placement. You can blur the background, changing the depth of field and isolating your subject. On lenses with a wide aperture (opening for the light to come through the lens), you can isolate objects in such a way that they almost jump off of the image into life.

As I take these photos, I will post them here to reveal some of the world I see. It doesn’t really matter if anyone sees these ramblings…it’s the act of taking pictures that makes it so wonderful.

May you be happy, may you be well.

TGF

Into the Deep End of the Lake: Retracing my Path to the Dharmakaya (and diving in)…

On this path I’ve trod in the past few months to dig a it more deeply into my practice and understanding, I’ve returned to where I started: emptiness and spaciousness. As I opened the pages of the Uttaratantra Shastra, the words spilled off the page and into my mind as I read about the Fifth Vajra Point: Enlightenment. I have covered this well-trodden ground before and struggled with understanding and meaning. In some ways, I reached the end of my journey as I hit a kind of brick wall in my knowledge and struggled to ascertain what exactly I was reading.

When I first came across these words in this Mahayana text, I struggled to grasp the ways in which the instructions complied with my understanding. Honestly, it was like reading a foreign language written in the words of my tongue. I was taken back to my days reading Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and her understanding of Marxist thought and feminism. Her essays were sometimes impenetrable and I had a hard time understanding the basic concepts. In fact, it looks YEARS for me to grasp the basics of her analysis. Those days in graduate school came back to me as I grappled with this new text, the Uttaratantra Shastra.

However, this time, something in me woke up. I’m not sure why or how, but as I read, and did more reading and research on each point in the commentary, I started to grasp the ideas. It was like origami unfolding and I slowly gained some knowledge and what it all meant. In particular, I focused my study on two terms and two ideas in the reading: vimulktikaya and dharmakaya.

I’ve read and heard extensively about dharmakaya and knew, basically, what it meant. I didn’t understand it or, frankly, didn’t attach to its meaning. I had read the words, but, clearly, did not understand. What changed? Personal experience.

Years ago I took a course called Full Catastrophe Living and practiced meditation each class of this eight-week course. At the end, during a long silent retreat weekend, I sat in the meditation room and experienced emptiness in my awareness/mind. I can only describe the sensation/feeling/view as being able to see forever….to have a sense of infinity or forever in my mind. The emptiness was not, as the texts tell us, fearful and nihilistic; it was glorious and I remember so clearly having taht moment and laughing out loud in the silent retreat. Joy filled my body and I truly felt at home in this fleeting moment. As the meditation came to an end, the awareness ended and my mind was back to the thoughts and emotions I had felt for so long…the awareness, that brief glimpse of complete stillness, was gone.

In my meditative fits and starts, I’ve worked to go to a place that allowed for the rise of that spaciousness. For a long while, it eluded me and I’ve recently realized my fault: you cannot desire and seek out that experience. It comes to you when your mind is prepared.

Now, I’m better prepared for meditative awareness. As I sit in a quiet space, that sense or awareness can now emerge and reveal itself. The question I have is simply this: is THIS the dharmakaya that I’ve read about? Is that emptiness and clarity what the texts refer to?

Here’s what I do know; I cannot maintain that spaciousness without meditation. It simply ends. It’s my understanding, in the Uttaratantra Shastra, that awareness can only be maintained by one who is enlightened. Now, I can see a glimpse of what enlightenment could be; I also know that enlightenment as defined by the Buddhist texts and teachings I’ve read or heard, is difficult to grasp for someone in my position: a householder deep in the complexities of samsara.

The cool thing is that these personal changes have set me on the path, again, to awareness. It has taken a damn long time to get back to this moment and now I understand that what it takes is not effort, exactly, it’s discipline. In fact, I’ve come to believe that effort is the one thing that prevents me from progressing on the path. With effort comes desire and with desire comes all the negative crap that hangs on to that idea. I cannot operate within a place of desire and reach awareness. Strangely, I don’t think you can desire enlightenment, nor do I think you can work toward enlightenment. It emerges on its own when the ground is properly prepared. At this point, I wonder if that dawning of true awareness will come at the moment of death? So interesting and kind of wonderful as well.

Where does that leave me now? I’m pushing forward with some study of vimuktikaya or “the kaya of complete liberation.” While it’s mentioned in the Uttaratanra Shastra, the text is vague. What I keep reading is basically this: that as the clouds (representing thoughts and emotions) in your mind part, the two kayas will be revealed. The key, it seems, is that the vision of the dharamkaya has to remain stable…once a stable awareness forms, then the kayas are revealed. Based on my current state of meditation, I do not have a lot of what can be called “stability”….the sensation comes and goes.

Finally, I feel…different, somehow. I’m not really sure why; maybe it’s another ego clinging thought telling me to stay here in the feeling! “Don’t abandon me! “(says the ego mind) I wonder? I do know this, I have a real sense that I need to meditate….that sense has become powerful, formidable, in fact. I guess we’ll see where this all leads!

May you be happy, May you be well.

Into the Uttaratantra Shastra: On Buddha Nature

I’ve read, a few times, the Uttaratantra Shastra and go back to this root text as a means of understanding and analyzing my own behavior and life. The text provides me with some insight into my own actions and helps me be aware of the things I am not always aware of like the bad choices I make in the heat of a moment that sends my life spiraling in a crazy direction. The reding, although sometimes dense and hard to comprehend, is helped along by the commentary provided by Jargon Kongtrul Lord Thaye and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyantso Rinpoche. The insights on the text provided by these scholars help illuminate the writing and provide a keen perspective on the practical nature of these words.

Today, I return to this text after reading the three Upanishad texts and incorporating their ideas into what I understand from Buddhist texts. It really feels like these texts offer a kind of dialogue between ideas and without being in a community that carries on such conversations, I guess it’s up to me to organize my own thoughts and debate myself in ways that challenge my perceptions and silly notions.

For this post, I’m focusing on something very specific: the nature of mind and the relationship between the five skandas, eighteen elements, and six senses. What I’m interested in is how it all works; for example, why do I make dumb choices that reverberate over years of my life? What’s going on? Why does it seem that I cannot break free from my ridiculous decisions?

The Uttaratantra Shastra provides some help or guidance on what’s going on in our minds. I’ll try to explain, from my perspective, what I think is going on and relate that to the text. Feel free, in comments, to destroy my analysis or understanding. The section I’m reading is the Fourth Vajra Point: The Element. On page 27, the text delves into how skandhas, elements, and senses are based on karma and mental poisons.

For the record, the five skandhas are briefly defined as form (your physical body), feeling (the sensations from your body, perception (that comes from your body’s organs like eyes, ears, etc), mental formations (thoughts, ideas and the like), consciousness (your awareness of your body perceptions, etc). Recognizing that these skandhas rise and fall, and even cease to exist is one step to awareness of our buddha nature.

The elements the text refers to are also referred to as the eighteen dhatus. They are comprised of six sense objects (sounds, smells tastes etc), six sense faculties (the act of smelling, tasting etc), and the six sense consciousnesses (your awareness of smell, taste, etc).

Finally, the six senses are defined as the base of consciousness and all awareness that comes from those senses form our understanding of the world around us. The senses are as you understand them now: seeing, hearing,tasting, and smelling. Touch is included in the body sense and the sixth sense is the mind or awareness of the other senses.

Our awareness from the skandhas, elements, and senses are formed, in some ways, by our previous karma. Those actions we took in previous lives make an impression on us and carry on, lifetime after lifetime, as a kind of cause and effect; we make a choice and take an action that impacts what we do and how we act; think of it like hiking a trail. We make tiny impressions in the dirt as we walk. Overtime, as we walk the same trail, those steps form into deeper and deeper ruts in the dirt, eventually forming well-worn paths. Those well-worn paths are representative of the karma we have; previous choices limit future choices and we follow the same path, over and over again. We are, in a sense, trapped by our own choices or karma.

That karma shapes our understanding of the world, and we begin to see things and hear things based on what we think is real based on those karmic footprints. It becomes so hard to step out of the karmic trail we’ve made over lifetimes and so we get stuck, in a sense, in patterns of previous choices. The Uttaratantra Shastra says that once we become aware of those choices, that karma, those negative thoughts and actions, we can begin to step OUT of that karmic trail and find a new way of being that does not keep us stuck on that one path.

In fact, what this section of the text tells us is that we have a spaciousness, an awareness, a nature that is not at all attached to those previous actions. It exists beyond that trail we have trod; imagine it as the sky, pure, cloudless sky that is not even a part of the karmic trail we have traveled for eons. The limits we have placed on ourselves do not apply to this spacious nature, and is completely free from the cares of this experience and this world. Once we recognize that true nature, we can be released from the well-worn path we’ve carved.

Trongsa Dzong, Bhutan 2016

As the commentary called the Unassailable Lion’s Roar states, this true nature of mind “does not depend upon productive causes and it does not depend on active conditions. It therefore does not depend on the gathering of these causes and conditions.” (133) Simply put, our true nature is not bound by the previous choices we’ve made, regardless of how terrible those choices were. We are not, in fact, the sum of our bad choices; we can be completely free from those decisions. Wow.

Practically, then, how do we find this kind of freedom? Where is the possibility of finding such a true nature? As it turns out, it requires us to seek beyond the choices we’ve made and the life we are leading. It means that we have to become aware; that awareness is based on a very fundamental concept – that what we know as the Self is just a construct of those choices we made. Once we realize that we are NOT that construct and that we are not bound to those negative thoughts and emotions, we can seek understanding by becoming aware of our true nature in the stillness of our minds; the calmer mind let’s that awareness arise…it’s pretty much always there anyway; all we really need to do it help remove the clouds or part the curtains for that awareness to rise.

OK, so how do I practice this method? For me it works very simply like this: find the gap between thoughts and focus on that gap. Every single thought rises and falls; between them there is a gap just before the next thought rises. At first, I used breathing as my support; finding the place where my breath switched from in to out or out to in. Now, I sit, walk, ride, or wash dishes or whatever and rest in taht place where I can be aware of my thoughts and the spaces in-between them. That is, in fact, the place I start.

May you be happy, May you be well.

Reflection on the Upanishads: Katha, Brihadaranyaka, and Chandogya

I started this process as a means of deepening my understanding of the fundamental concepts on which Buddhism is based. Going to source documents and ideas, I hoped, would help enrich and expand my understanding of the tenets of Buddhist thought, and, in particular, my understanding of Vajrayana Buddhism. What I found is this: that the foundations of Buddhist thought are deeply connected to the ideas in these Hindu texts and that they do, in fact, open my understanding of Buddhism and my Buddhist practice.

The feeling I had, going into reading the Upanishads, was one of loss and sadness. I dug deep into commentary on the Heart Sutra, an essential Buddhist text, and came away with a sense of emptiness (NOT the emptiness that leads to wisdom, but one that leads to nothingness). My practice wasn’t going anywhere, and I found my mind trapped in a dark place, formed by my own thinking mind. I needed some way through this place and that led me to reread the Upanishads and, in particular, to focus on the Katha Upanishad. That text, I hoped, would bring me out of the fog that surrounded and infused my mind.

The Katha Upanishad is an absolutely wonderful document for someone who enjoys the back and forth, give and take of academic conversation. The student Nachiketa and his teacher Yama, the King of Death, go back and forth in a conversation about the nature of death. Nachiketa is offered a variety of temptations to distract him from the path to knowledge and understanding. Take 1000 cows, gold, or music, Yama says, instead of learning about Death. Staying true to the path, Nachiketa denies the pleasures of life that he knows are fleeting, and demands and answer to his questions about Death.

Yama relents and finally explains to Nachiketa that self-realization is the key. Understanding that the Self is the non-dual understanding of all things. We are, Yama says, one with all things. Awakening to the Self is awakening to the understanding that there is no “us” and “them”; we are all timeless and one in this universe. Yama says,

“The all-knowing Self was never born

Nor will it die. Beyond cause and effect

This Self, eternal and immutable.” (78)

As I finished the text and the teaching, my mind’s fog began to relent, and I started to see through this strange mist I created for myself. Through various thoughts and emotions, I had taken myself into a place of depression and sadness. My reading of the Upanishads helped me slowly come out of this feeling and sensation, finding a place in which I can breathe again. With this renewed sense of spirit and interest, I moved into the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad to broaden my perspective.

Reading the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (B.U.) has been a revelation for me. The text repeats, over and over, the process of renunciation. To not seek for external attainment and, instead, for focus on the “Self.” As I’ve written before, I’m thinking that this eternal Self is more akin to the Buddhist concept of Rigpa or “true nature” than with an identifiable Self. The Self is part and parcel of a unified, non-dualistic concept. The Self we have in us is the same as the Self in every one else. I was particularly struck by this statement,

“He who is dying merges in consciousness,

and thus consciousness accompanies him when he departs,

along with the impressions of all that he has done,

experienced, and known.” (113 – 114)

Now, in Buddhist thought the consciousness does not tag along into the next life as a kind of eternal, individual self. However, in later passages in the Upanishads, I get the sense that this “Self” is merely and expression of the Brahman, the unified whole that the Upanishads speak of. Buddhist thought, it seems, is an expression of that idea: the idea of a non-dualistic whole. Interestingly, most of the Buddhist thought I’ve read doesn’t dig too deeply into the source of that Rigpa or true nature. In future writing, I’ll explore that idea, Rigpa, as it relates to the whole idea of Brahman.

As I finished the B.U., I decided to follow this path into the Changdogya Upanishad (C.U.) and the origins of Self, the Universe, and the essence of all things. This text really helped illuminate the ideas I’d read in the previous Upanishad and drew me in with this wonderful story,

“Place salt in water and bring it here Tomorrow morning.” The boy did.

“Where is that salt?” his father asked.

“I do not see it.”

“Sip here. How does it taste?”

“Salty, Father.”

“And here? And there?”

“I taste salt everywhere.”

It is everywhere, though we see it not.

Just so, dear one, the Self is everywhere.

Within all things.

This story (136 – 137) from the passages entitled The Story of Shvetaketu is a glimpse into the idea of the non-dual Self. Here, the Self is a much broader concept than the one we often imagine in our lives. Here, it is beyond the boundaries of the body and mind, expanding beyond the nature of our daily existence.

This story in the C.U. reminds me of a similar story/phrase from my own practice. In Tibetan and English it goes like this,

“chu ma nyok na dang,

sem ma chö na de”

“Water, if you don’t stir it, will become clear;

the mind, left unaltered, will find its own natural peace”

The unaltered mind is representative of the Self, in some ways, as the C.U. says. The connection, while a rough one, helps me understand the origins of these ideas from Hindu thought into Buddhist texts. The differences are present and reading them both has helped me get through my own complex mind, the one that spins ideas out if control until I’m in a difficult place. These readings in the Upanishads have really helped open my mind, centering my practice and allowing for a welcome shift in the ways I see the world.

May you be happy, may you be well.

Ending the Cycle: A Quest to Stop Fear-Thinking

Sometimes, my mind rolls, following waves of emotion and thought into dark places of self-loathing. Analyzing and reanalyzing choices I’ve made and paths I’ve taken has been a source of pain and anguish in my life. At times, I can sit with these feelings and allow them to settle. At other times, I am pushed around by these waves of struggle, wondering if I will ever be free from my guilt over choices I’ve made. As these moments come and go, I’m careful to note these personal dramas as I record what I’m thinking and feeling in a journal. These testimonies to myself do, in some small way, help me recognize the patterns of my mind’s cloth; the warp and weft of this strange tapestry, made from cloth I wove into the complexity of my experience.

As I mentioned in a previous post, these cycles or ebbs and flows are part of my non-linear existence. The recurrence of ideas, thoughts, and feelings shape my decisions as I desperately imagine a place and time in which I won’t struggle. At the same time, I understand that the spiraling nature of this existence, this samsara, is part and parcel of what it means to be human. It’s a fascinating and terrifying experience.

Ending the cycle of this mind stream or unweaving the tapestry I’ve made, at the core, is about challenging the fear-thinking that has become a part of me. I have noticed, over the past year especially, that my reactions are a result of fear. It usually starts with this idea: what happens if I?….what will happen to my children if I?….what if she…what if they? While many folks have described these thoughts as “worry” or “concern” from my perspective these thoughts are rooted in fear and attachment.

Attachment, as teachers I’ve studied have said, is based on the premise that I hold on to actions, thoughts, and emotions, prolonging my own suffering. Whether happy or sad, angry or joyful, I often attach to an idea and follow it down a tortured trail to some fantastical imagining. Have you ever followed a thought, a daydream, to some absurd conclusion? I remember reading an article about someone who left their job and started making wine. They built a winery and appeared to have an amazing life. The article included scenes of a vineyard with a house in the distance, a bucolic existence captured in this one image. I imagined doing the same thing, following this path, making wine, becoming known for the varieties I cast, being interviewed for the bold choices I made. I created this entire story in a matter of seconds as images and stories immediately came to mind. I WAS that person. I felt so good!

In a moment that story was replaced by some other thought that pulled me back from this imagined life and I moved on with my day.

Some stories I tell myself, day after day, moment after moment, can bring some limited joy. More often, however, they prolong pain and anguish. I remember being questioned by a supervisor at work as she demanded to know my plans for a final exam. She had heard that I was planning to cancel the final. Nothing could have been further from the truth and I invited her to the final, that Thursday morning, to witness students taking the test. As it turned out, another faculty member had reported that I was cancelling my finals. I do not know her motives and to this day wonder at why someone would create that kind of a problem for me. However, when the incident happened I was filled with rage, angry that I had been questioned by this person. My mind raced to terrible places, even going so far as to think that this confrontation was the first step to my dismissal from the school. I was lost in an ocean of fear, anger, and resentment. It lasted for a couple of days. Even now I think about that moment, a conversation of no more than five minutes.

These various mental formations or thoughts happen over and over again in my daily existence. Sometimes, I get caught up in those stories. However, things are changing in my mind. I can feel it and recognize a shift in the way I think and the way I react. My reactions are less and less volatile. I attach to the stories, thoughts, emotions for shorter and shorter periods of time. So what happened? What changed to encourage that shift in thinking, feeling, grasping?

I came to recognize fear-thinking for what it is: a construction of my mind. It seems to me I built a kind of odd house that was framed from fear. Fear of failure, death, lack of acceptance, or a powerful driver for me, a lack of care and affection. Much of what I have thought as fear was formed when I was quite young, and those experiences were the structure of the fear I made. What happens if I lose my job? What happens if I don’t feel love from another person? What happens when I fail? What happens on the last day of my life? Will I be present for the transition or lost in some drug-induced fog? All of these questions and even more kept me trapped. Trapped in thoughts that were (are) recursive and reinforced my fears.

Yet fear is not real. It is an illusion just like most everything else we experience. Dzongar Khyentse Rinpoche said,

When you begin to notice the damage that emotions can do, awareness develops. When you have awareness — for example, if you know that you are on the edge of a cliff — you understand the dangers before you. You can still go ahead and do as you were doing; walking on a cliff with awareness is not so frightening anymore, in fact it is thrilling. The real source of fear is not knowing. Awareness doesn’t prevent you from living, it makes living that much fuller.

The awareness Rinpoche refers to is the process of ending fear-thinking. That awareness is, simply put, the recognition that the fear we hold onto is empty. It has no tangible hold on us. We can feel it, think it, know it, but when it comes down to it, fear does not really exist in any material way. It’s like a mist or fog that clouds our awareness and understanding.

Albert Brooks’s movie, Defending Your Life, has an hilarious take on fear and fear-thinking. In this scene the character Daniel is told that he has to confront his many fears. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1FhrhoudSE Fear, as the movie maintains, is the thing that prevents us from living the kind of life we desperately want.

Changing the cycle of fear-thinking is one aspect of the path we are on. I wonder if we can, at some point, find a way past these thoughts and emotions to find something much more lovely and wonderful?

May you be happy, may you be well.

The Non-Linear Aspects of Life

As I break through this year of COVID isolation, and fractured teaching and learning, I’ve come to understand a basic truth in my life. I always kind of assumed that life followed a roughly narrow linear path between two points: birth and death. That as we age, mature, think, and experience, our lives would slowly build into a final denouement, an end that one could look back into the past, and see the choices and decisions that led to those final moments.

Now, it’s pretty clear that life does not follow a straight line at all. It has twists and turns, and more often than not loops back on itself, reliving and experiencing challenges previously faced at some earlier point in the process. These thoughts remind me of a professor at the University of Georgia who taught medieval philosophy. He believed that we do not, in any way, learn from our mistakes and that we simply relive or revisit moments in our lives over and over again. His parents were Holocaust survivors and he had come to embrace the idea that those kinds of human horrors are repeated, over and over again. At the time, in the mid-80s, I didn’t want to believe that he was right: that human suffering was repeated. As I know understand it, suffering is the norm in our world and we face suffering repeatedly in Historical patterns that unfold in a myriad of terrible ways.

While I have never experienced a pandemic like this one, as a historian I’m very familiar with pandemics in History and have read about both ancient and modern diseases that ravaged societies. While my own silly experience with this event is laughable in comparison to others who have suffered greatly, I’m seeing more clearly the repetition of events in both human history and in my own life.

On some days, I think about ways to recapture some of the feelings I had years ago, wondering if I can find that place in my mind in which joy was a natural expression of my experiences. Those moments of joy feel far from my daily experiences and it’s clear that something has limited my understanding and ability to sit in an experience and find the kind of joy that used to come easily.

Sitting in this moment

I’ve read a few philosophers talk about this idea, the idea that we cannot reclaim those moments in life. Thomas Wolfe, in his short life, wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, which addresses the proposed truth that we cannot find those moments we enjoyed in our past. In a nutshell, the past stays in the past and we cannot revisit it. Simply put, I’ve come to realize that Wolfe and the writer Ella Winter did not capture a basic fallacy in that idea. It’s that we always go home again, over and over, repeatedly reshaping our understanding of those moments in our past. If we’re being honest, those moments at home shape us over and over again.

There is not better example of this spiraling nature of experience than in meditation. I’ve been completely in the moment, in meditation, as my mind opens to the kind of clarity and vision of the infinite. The very next day, my mind is dull, warped and wrapped in obsession and pain. A year later, I’m back to that awakened moment. We relive, day in and day out, our previous experiences and lives. It could be that we imagine we are making some kind of progress toward a better self or identity or enlightenment or whatever. Instead, I wonder if we’re not just reliving previous experiences in new settings?

It’s been a year since the start of COVID and the various masks and quarantines we have experienced. I’ve seen us open businesses and close them, open schools and close them, repeating patterns of behavior on a societal level. Yes, we are slowly emerging from the worst of the COVID spread and we inevitably we face such challenges again. Will we learn something, this time, or simply repeat the patterns? I’m wondering if, in fact, it doesn’t really matter. Maybe what we are experiencing is this kind of circular or spiraling effect in our lives on a grand scale. We need ourselves, again and again. Our experiences simply recreated in those fumbling moments of choices and actions. We wonder if there is a way out or through of this common, repetitive existence. Can we break the cycle in our lives? Can we find freedom from samsara?

May you be happy, may you be well, fellow humans.

The Self: Thinking about the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, The “Great Forest of Wisdom”

Pretty quickly after starting my hike to Taktsang, the Tiger’s Nest, I headed off on the “short cut” a steep climb up to the tea house that overlooks the Temple complex. The trail climbs up and in places the dirt is slippery, my shoes not biting into the soil. I slip, a little, and continue my ascent. Around me are fellow pilgrims, pushing up the trail. I met a man from Darjeeling, a couple from Singapore, two Indian soldiers off for the weekend, and a grandmother from Taiwan. Here we were, all together, taking this challenging path to the Temple, grateful for the cloudy skies and slight chill in the air.

The heavily forested slopes of the mountain on which Taktsang perches is a great place to get lost. Trails wind all over the side of the mountain, and it’s hard to even get a glimpse of the Temple. The only thing you can see, literally, are the pines in front of you as you make your way up the hill. You cannot see the Temple for the trees. It could be that the Temple is, in fact, not even there!

Taktsang Monastery, Summer 2018

This forest was the perfect metaphor for the moment. I was seeking wisdom through these trees, imaging that some moment of awareness might strike me as I made my way toward this illusory goal. This trek was my fifth trip up the mountain and my first on the short cut trail. At some point on the climb, I wondered if I was even headed in the right direction!

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the texts that suggests that we are in a great forest of wisdom and we don’t have the skill or wisdom to recognize the very thing that will set up free. The teaching, like many in Eastern philosophy, is a dialogue between two people, in this case Yajnavalka and Janaka, Yajnavalka is the teacher, Janaka is the student. In a series of questions and responses, the two edge toward the lesson, that the “Self” is pure awareness. Once that awareness is recognized, freedom from the cycle of birth and death is attained.

While the forest of the hillside below Taktsang includes a maze of trails headed to some distant point, our lives are similarly covered in “trees” each of which might obscure the path to understanding and awareness. While I’m pretty sure that this metaphor is NOT the one that was constructed for this teaching, it does fit my current state of existence nicely. As the Brihadaranyaka text states, we cannot see the Self as it is; it is surrounded by various aspects of our daily existence from senses, thoughts, emotions, and etc. In Buddhism this forest is the five skandhas. The things that keep us from seeing what we really need to see.

The obscured “Self” in the Brihadaranyaka text is always present, never sleeping, never changing. It is, as Eknath Easwaran translates, “…the light within the heart…” the constant pure awareness that exists within us all. (109) For me, walking up that forested hill, the truth is obscured as I breath heavily in the thick, monsoonal air, filled with rain, just about ready to burst. I make my way to Taktsang, almost mindless in my quest to achieve some level of understanding.

However, on this trek to Taktsang my body and mind lead me astray. I wonder at my physical health, just a few months from a terrible health scare. My mind is racing, wondering which trail to take next. My injured right knee is explaining to me, in a kind of tortured voice, that it’s in some pain. My mind is disheveled, wondering about the students and adults being led by Namgay, our tour guide. Is everyone ok as they take on the well-worm path to the tea house? I think about my family, my parents, money, food, EVERYTHING that can possibly come to mind on this hike, does.

My experience of the hike is exactly what the Brihadaranyaka is all about. We are consciously trapped in a world of our own making. We built the forest we now travel through and the forest keeps us from seeing the truth of it all. Masking the very nature of our being, we are struggling through life in various forms.

And. And. There is a way out. The answer is one of the reasons I was drawn to Hindu and Buddhism philosophy in the first place. There is always a way out and through. The Brihadaranyaka says it like this:

“When all desires that surge in the heart

Are renounced, the mortal becomes immortal.

When all the knots that strangle the heart

Are loosened, the mortal becomes immortal,

Here in this very life.”

Eknath Easwaran, translator. The Upanishads. Nilgiri Press: Tomales, CA. 2007. 115

Once I reach the Temple and drop off my backpack in the security area, I walk up the steps to the various shrine rooms, listening to Namgay explain the place, hearing the chatter of other pilgrims, watching two women ask for a blessing from a resident monk, others placing money and food as offerings. Slowly, my mind comes to rest after the climb, the steps to the temple, and unencumbered by a backpack filled with gear. Shoeless and plodding, I feel lighter, aware of my surroundings. I prostrate to Padmasambhava in one of the secluded rooms, and sit, for a few moments, meditating on the moment. I wonder, what did I hope to attain? Is that desire to make it to the temple the one thing that was blocking me from recognizing awareness?

I hike back down the mountain. It takes me about forty-five minutes to get down, less than half of the time it took for me to climb. I ponder all that I had experienced and try to release all of the tension I felt. The return trek is, in fact, much more mindful than anything I had done going up to the Temple grounds. I started to see beyond the trees. I also learned, on that day, that being able to see past the trees, the skandhas, the senses, emotions, thoughts, and body is the stuff of meditation. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to lay it all down and experience that thing that the Brihadaranyaka is all about.

May you be happy, May you be well.

From the Upanishads to the Heart Sutra: A Side Trip into Nihilism

As I’ve delved into the various teachings that are informing my world right now, I finished going through the Katha Upanishad and am deep into the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Both works are taking me into the origins of Buddhist philosophy and as such as giving me so much to think about and work with.

As part of this study, I reread the Heart Sutra. At first it was just a way to refresh my thoughts about the ways in which the Katha Upanishad and the Heart Sutra are connected. What my study became, however, was a much deeper struggle and very challenging meditations on the meaning of the Heart Sutra. Beware, fellow human, meditation can lead one into very dark places. As I have heard Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse say many times, meditation and mindfulness are not for the faint of heart and, more importantly, that it often can upend one’s life in a moment. His words are so accurate when it comes to my own struggles.

I started my reading of the Heart Sutra with Mindrolling Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. Her words and laughter made the Sutra less intimidating and allowed me a commentary to latch onto much as I had done with Eknath Easwaran’s words at the beginning of the Katha Upanishad. Her commentary is complex and effusive, offering not just insights into the Heart Sutra but also into our own nature. She constantly reminds the reader that we can get in our own way while medidating and studying these Buddhist texts. The texts can become, she says, the trappings of a superficial dharma. We use the dharma to suit our needs rather than aspiring to the principles of serving all sentient beings.

As those words rattled in my brain, I wondered at my own choice of dharma study. What was I really trying to do here? Why look into these various religious texts and seek to uncover some new found truth for myself. Was this practice just another in my own self-centered way to soothe my ego mind and try to understand my world and its problems? Was this just a shallow, self-referential treatment of these deep philosophical notions?

At first, of course, I thought not. My approach is for all sentient beings and that my aim was true, to quote Elvis Costello. I soon found, however, that this altruistic approach was just another way for my ego to reframe my study to make me feel better about what I was doing. I did not discover this problem until I was deep into the meditation on the Heart Sutra.

Sitting down and beginning a practice is always a challenge, and being present for the moments to come is one of those ways in which our mind surveils our practice. We think “be in the present moment.” Of course we can be, AND at the same time, our ego mind is lurking in our mind, just waiting to strike. At least that’s what I think I experienced. Let me explain: as I sat to meditate on these lines, I opened a path into a deep, dark place. The lines were,

“So, in emptiness, there is no body, no feeling, no thought, no will, no consciousness. There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.”

I logically, rationally understand that emptiness is shunyata/sunyata and that it means no substantiality, no permanence, the interdependence of all things, and the constant flux of our existence. At the same time, emotionally, these ideas struck at the heart of who I was. As I went into stillness, I felt a sensation of falling into darkness. Fear rose and I felt a sense of dread and foreboding. This sensation caught me off guard and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had dug into the wrong hole at the wrong time. Nihilism emerged, and I felt meaningless and literally empty; a kind of void, blank.

The phrase “lean in” has been used and overused recently and in this moment my attempt at leaning in took me deeper into that oblivion. Rather than emerging into a sense of wholeness and connectedness that I had experienced before, now I was stuck in the worst kind of place. Darkness overtook me and here I was, floating in this void. It was awful.

I ended my meditation, dedicated the merit, and sat there. I found myself crying, big tears flowing down my face. I shook, helpless in the moment, overcome with this terrible feeling. I immediately thought about Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse and his words on meditation practice, “It is such a mistake to assume that practicing dharma will help us calm down and lead an untroubled life; nothing could be further from the truth. Dharma is not a therapy.

Dharma is not therapy. There it is. As clear as can be. I had entered the practice on the Heart Sutra as a kind of therapy during COVID. In fact, I started down this intellectual path reading the Upanishads and the Heart Sutra as a way to open my mind, change my perspective, understand something in the context of COVID. What I ended up doing is making every possible mistake on the path of releasing my own grief and frustration at my life and the life of my family during this pandemic. I pursued the Heart Sutra as a strange kind of balm, not realizing that what it really did was shatter my ego mind, thus leading to that sense of nothingness. The nothingness, it seems, was my terrified ego screaming into the darkness. “You’re destroying me!”

Destroying ego, in fact, is one goal of meditation. Crushing the self-clinging ego mind and the ambitious path we set ourselves on is one aspect of who we claim to be. Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche had told me this story. I read her words over again, after the meditation, and I think I finally started to get it. I was using the Dharma as that balm, a salve for the pain I was feeling. It’s not therapy and not for the faint of heart. It’s rough, it’s challenging in every way, and it’s the path I have chosen.

May you be happy, may you be well.

Into the Depths of the Katha Upanishad

At the end of each year, I often dive into a kind of self reflection and assessment of what the past year was like and what I hope to accomplish or uncover in the coming year. This process of reflection has taken me down some very interesting roads and sometimes revealed the complexity of my ego mind in rationalizing my life and choices.

This December, I began the process again using a tool supplied by the folks at Monk Manual. This approach to planning has been helpful and I’ve taken it step by step, gradually answering a series of questions and plumbing the depths of my mind.

In this process of self-reflection, I turned to the Katha Upanishad and the Upanishad translations by Eknath Easwaran. I really have enjoyed his writing style and his translation/interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita is remarkable. The Katha Upanishad is one of the great works of spirituality and religion, and taking on Easwaran’s translation has been eye opening and valuable in examining the whole notion of the “self”.

In my effort to unpack my deluded mind I live with everyday, I found my way into the Katha Upanishad, taking it slowly this time, walking through the concepts and information that is the heart of this spiritual teaching. Written centuries before most Buddhist works, this text offers a fascinating insight into the nature of the “self.” The self, according to the teaching, is immutable, unchanging, and eternal. The very notion of the Self or Atman is a powerful force in spirituality as so many of us hope and wish for some kind of continuation after our physical deaths. The Katha Upanishad offers a way forward, a way into knowing what the Self is and how it can be known.

With pen in hand and journal opened, I forced open the pages of my journal and began the effort of putting into words the ideas I learned about MY self and the Hindu concept of Self. This path has taken me, so far, into the depths of philosophical questions about Self and finding the synergy between this Hindu Self and the Buddhist notion of true nature or Rigpa. Funny. That’s A LOT of work for someone just reflecting on their past and immediate future! Ha!

As I understand it, the Katha Upanishad tells us an ancient truth: that something within us continues after our physical bodies die. (Easwaran 78) This so-called “truth” is, of course, disputed by science. We have no analytical evidence of a continuation of some form of life after death, unless you consider the life our bodies give to bacteria and microorganisms as we decompose. Still, the “truth” of a eternal Self is considered established by many cultures and societies. A recent series of articles on the topic, including this National Geographic essay, offer insights into what happens after death. While these kinds of ancedotal experiences are interesting, the Katha Upanishad offers a relatively clear message as to what happens to our being. It is THIS Self that I am exploring as I wonder about my recent past and future.

The concept of a Self existing beyond the realm of death is fascinating in and of itself, but what really intrigues me and the things that drove me to reopen the Katha Upanishad and examine the concept of the Self is the whole idea of a Self. Is there, in fact, an eternal Self? What do I mean by a Self? Something that is akin to who I am right now in this existence? Or is Self something other than a collection of thoughts and emotions floating for lifetimes in an ocean of samsara? Am I “me” for eternity?

The Katha Upanishad reveals that the Self, as referenced here, is “immutable” and exists without the limits of the physical contact of the body. The text states, “The supreme self is beyond name and form, beyond the senses, inexhaustible…” (Easwaran 82) Even more fascinating here is that the Upanishad says that Brahma, Aditi, and Agni are “the self indeed” making the connection between Self and gods. That one connection, that one idea bridges the distance between what gets called the Self with what Buddhism refers to as true nature or Rigpa.

Here’s my thought; in Buddhism, I’ve read repeatedly how Buddhist philosophy denies the existence of an eternal “self” as mentioned in the Upanishads and elsewhere in the world. That our understanding of the self is not based on what really is eternal. What is eternal, in essence, is a true nature that is ONE with Buddha or buddha nature. This immutable Rigpa is the thing that continues from lifetime to lifetime. What hit me hard when I was rereading the Katha Upanishad was that the Self, an independent existing entity, is, in fact, not what the story is about. The Self is, in fact, comprised of these various god qualities. The Self, then, is not this unique, untethered being. The Self is the connection to gods or god. It is unity with the ultimate nature of the universe.

OK, yea, that stuff I said above has all been said before, but reading it, in this way, this time, opened my mind in such a way that it redefines my understanding of Self. Too, the Katha Upanishad offers that the way to understanding this Self is through meditation and those who “abandon unrighteous ways” and who “still the mind.” The connection to Buddhism and Buddhist thought and practice, then, becomes clear and self evident. Establishing a meditation practice and allowing for the non-dual understanding of everything becomes the key to unlocking the path to Nirvana, Enlightenment and etc. Again, yea, I knew that and after reading these passages, I know it.

In the next couple of posts, my plan is to dig a bit deeper into the Katha Upanishad and consider some of the other paths offered in the reading. If YOU haven’t read the Katha Upanishad and want to have a go at it, it is so worth it and helps to reveal some of those ideas that linger in our waking minds.

May you be happy, may you be well!

Tonglen for a Tortured Soul

The swinging doors bang open and the gurney is shoved into the Emergency Room. An elderly man is on the gurney gasping for air, his life ebbing away. I sit within six feet behind an opened glass doorway, watching as the paramedics work their magic on his frail body. Chest compressions, IVs, a tube snaked down his airway to provide oxygen to his rapidly declining oxygen saturation levels. The movement around this human is frantic in stark contrast to his body, unmoving, responding only to the reaction of the hands on his chest, the tube down his throat. Chemicals are injected into his body. No obvious physical response. He moans as they push down on his chest.

In the midst of these heroic measures to revive this dying patient, I wonder at his life, his family, his current situation. Are family members waiting for word of his condition just outside the room? Will he survive another day?

In those last moments of this man’s life, I turn to Tonglen, giving all compassion and love that I have and taking on any suffering this man has experienced. These first tentative steps in this practice in this “real life” are awkward. I reach into my mind for the structure of the practice and slowly, as if learning how to think for the first time, begin the offering. As the patient wheezes on the gurney, I imagine taking on his suffering as my own. I visualize the suffering as a kind of dark smoke lifting from his body and into my own. As it enters, I dispel the ichor into the bright, clear, luminous nature of my mind, imagining the cloud dissipating into nothing. In exchange, I breath out love and compassion as I hear the paramedics use technical jargon to refer to the passing of this man’s life from his body. I stay with the practice until they take his body away, wheeling the portable bed to another room in the hospital. After about thirty minutes, I rest.

Breathe in all of the pain and suffering; breathe out all of the love and compassion.”

Tonglen, taking on suffering and giving compassion, is one of the main practices in my meditation routine. I’ve followed this practice after hearing a teaching from Alek Zenkar Rinpoche. Rinpoche gave a concise talk on the nature of Lojong and Tonglen, and the need for such a practice in our lives. At it’s core, it is about ending the false sense of dualism in our lives; the idea that we are somehow separate from everyone around us. Tonglen helps us recognize that, at our core, we are all the same. We will all face the tragic end of our lives on a gurney, in a hospital bed, or in some other setting we rarely get to choose.

As I reflect on my own experience with Tonglen, I’m drawn into the strange and sad tale of our current state of existence in the United States. The stark and sharp divisions between political parties and, more importantly, families and individuals, it harrowing. In my own situation, distant family members have decried the “fraud” in the election and the spread of “fake news.” Their anger, unwieldy and disconnected from reality, is obvious.

It has taken me a while, and, now I begin the process of Tonglen related to my family. To genuinely and passionately take on that fear and anger only to release back love and compassion. I imagine going to a Trump rally and simply being in the place, doing this same practice for those around me. To ask nothing in return and to give without acceptance or recognition.