While blogger Jesse Kornbluth ("Swami Uptown") is on book leave, Beliefnet is featuring a series of guest bloggers in his place. Earlier this month, Lama Surya Das, or "Downtown Lama," as he was known in this blog, contributed his prolific and timeless musings.
The founder and spiritual director of the Dzogchen Foundation in Massachusetts and California, Surya Das is a leading spokesman for Buddhism and contemporary spirituality, as well as a poet, translator, spiritual teacher, and a lama in the Tibetan Buddhist order. He is the author of several books, including the national best-seller "Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Modern World."
Heart to Heart Politics
This century's politics leave me cold, failing to touch my heart. I was mad and saddened about the outcome of the Florida election four years ago, but I got over it. Like so many, I have been alarmed by our current regime's weapons of mass distraction and its unconscious, uncompassionate conservatism; however, I am trying to take a more long term view. The truth is I feel I can't trust these people, can't seem find much truth-telling amidst all the spin and media, and that our leaders fail to touch my heart.
Decades ago, RFK said that politics is a noble profession, and no one snickered. I doubt we could say the same today. I long for some serious and sincere statesman to step up and lead us, but fear our country is not ready to either recognize or produce such people. It hurt when Wellstone of Minnesota and Tsongas of Massachusetts both met untimely deaths; I truly liked them both. Where will the future leaders of our country come from? Who in their right mind would enter and persevere, surviving in the bitter swamp of our cynical partisan political system long enough to emerge as a real candidate for high office in this country? What if anything are we doing to inculcate wisdom, enlightened leadership and selfless service as a core value in the younger generations today?
Is America a real democracy, an oligarchy or a plutocracy?
On Inauguration Day in January, I know several people--intelligent friends of mine--who were in a state of what they called "active mourning". Getting together to bemoan the state of things, they wondered about what's next, what can be done, how to proceed in a positive way during the next four years, and so forth. I myself have been in a state of reflection during the last period, particularly since I find that introspective quality extraordinarily lacking in politics and world affairs--at least as we have to come to know it.
The State of the Union did nothing to assuage my Inner Depressive. I felt our president to be a genuine zealot in effort to convert the world to our American way of life and consumer democracy, hidden just beneath the oft repeated mantric buzz word freedom. I feel that I can love him as a soul but not as the rough-riding person he pretends to be.
During last year's presidential campaign I was initially interested in Dennis Kucinich and what he had to say. However, after seeing him close up, it was obvious that he was both extraordinary and unelectable. Governor Dean caught my attention--I particularly appreciated the way his team utilized the Internet to mobilize people and raise funds, but I was ultimately willing later to go along with the party and think that Kerry would do a good enough job of it. I still remained skeptical of his chances against the incumbent and all the fierce forces of true believers marshalled again him.
Now I sense a certain despair and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness among those who were disappointed with the election's eventual outcome. But I don't think this setback is a good excuse to give up or give in to the powers that (seem to) be. Thoreau said: "If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment."
These days I am calling for a Heartful Revolution, where we can meet people heart to heart and come together at a local grassroots level to face the challenges we have in our country and our world. I want to start the Heart to Heart Party, and speak heart to heart about what is bothering us, what ails us, and what we together as well as individually might be able to do about it. And not just here in this country, but in the greater world of which we are so much a part. I want to face the despair, hopelessness, and fear that is endemic to our society today. Let us grieve for what we have lost, and move on.
This must be far more than a call for social activism and political action, although that could and eventually should be part of it. Activism is fine, as far as it goes; but I think we need to raise our consciousness and be more aware of what we do and why, and how we do things, and their longtime outcomes and implications, before we haphazardly rush into actions we may deem helpful and even necessary. Many do-gooders throughout history have stirred up more trouble through unconscious actions and mixed motivation.
This is I think the challenge of the authentic activist today; to have the vision to know what to do and how and when to accomplish it, guided by wisdom and inner clarity, and to avoid stirring up more chaos and confusion thru shortsighted quick fix solutions to problems with long historical roots and complex multidimensional origins. Only then, with such wisdom at work, can we accomplish effective spiritual activism--working selflessly for the greatest good and highest purpose, in service of the highest power--however we may understand it.
Ram Dass and Aging
The other day I was talking about aging and sage-ing with my old friend and mentor Ram Dass--formerly Richard Alkpert, spiritual pioneer, Harvard professor and consciousness explorer. Since his stroke, he's given up the mainland and wants to pursue what Hindus call "the fourth phase of life" here on the island of Maui. Hindu tradition teaches that after studentship, young adulthood, mature parenthood, and community member cum careership, there comes leaving this world and this life behind and giving oneself to God, to the afterlife or lives, eternity--the fourth stage--the age to cap and complete this life and prepare for what comes next.
It seems to us that the AARP model of retirement--cheerful and helpful as it is--errs too much on the side of fighting and resisting aging forever, and pursuing an active leisure retirement career of skiing, travel, and incessant activity. Isn't there anywhere in modern life, even after retirement and on into old age, where we can respectfully and meaningfully consider life's greatest questions and give ourselves to a higher purpose and to the eternal?
Rest is sacred--or so the ancient Indian saying goes. "Lounge and invite the soul", said Whitman.
Although he has been an international peace activist since the Sixties, the community symbol of the Venerable Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village in France is the hammock. This paradox is hard for activists and western intellectuals to comprehend.
We are the elders now; must gather what wisdom we can muster and pass it on to the next generations. We can do that in innumerable ways, great and small, through teaching, parenting, mentoring, volunteering, and being of service wherever and whenever we can--being a benefactor to the young'uns, a beacon in this benighted world, and exemplifying a wiser and kinder way of life.
As for higher education, I say: Treat each child as a prodigy, and they will be.
I am often asked to make decisions for people, or to advise them. It is much too easy to tell people what to do, but too dumb and useless for me to fall into doing it much. There's no shortage of those around who seem glad to do so, though, thus disempowering others and going out on a limb oneself.
Of course if one is a professional being paid for expert advise, such as a lawyer or accountant, that could be another matter. It is far trickier in the humanistic realm-- spiritual direction, therapy, life skills management counselor, etc. Each of us has to own our own experience, make and live with our choices, and try to do the best we can. The rest is mere commentary.
I prefer to ask people questions, and see if together we can't get to the bottom of things, consider root causes and their consequences--and future implications of different possible decisions and directions--and develop the discernment that can bring wiser, more informed choices, action and understanding. All this is part of the development of wisdom (prajna), one of the most important of the transformative virtues of the Bodhisattva, the awakening spiritual warrior.
One definition of prajna--transcendental wisdom--is "the best knowledge" or "highest wisdom". This is something that we can learn to cultivate & develop--through learning, reflection, meditation and experience-integration. It includes keen discrimination and clarity of purpose. We have to know what we want and where we are trying to go if we have any real hope of achieving anything. Knowing who we are is also most helpful.
Otherwise we are constantly, as the song goes, "Looking for love in all the wrong places." This helps no one and leads nowhere.
Looking into what we want, wish for, and desire is an important part of any decision-making process. We must consider our motivation; "everything depends on motivation" the Dalai Lama often says, echoing ancient Mahayana Buddhist texts on the Bodhisattva's way of life and way of benefitting the world. What we need is also relevant--to be able to honestly know, acknowledge and consider. Then we have some chance of living creatively and proactively, rather than simply reacting semi-consciously (if not entirely unconsciously) to circumstances and conditions. Through cultivating conscious awareness we can choose how and if to respond to what life brings us, not just living in the animal realm of blind instinct and knee-jerk reactions.
One thing we most need to know, when making significant choices and distinguishing between different paths, is what to undertake and adopt and what to abandon. This is often the essential question around choice-making. Being mindful, attentive, and reflective before leaping into action is helpful at most critical junctures. Being decisive has its own power and magnetism, even when we are off the mark. The Buddhist scriptures and some of my own lamas' magnificence and skillful means have taught me that a genuine Bodhisattva should have great plans, elevated vision and vast aspirations. Boldness has its own power and magic, as Goethe famously said.
Enlightened leadership manuals always recommend considering what is the best for the greatest good, and to consider what will be of temporal and ultimate benefit to others and secondarily to oneself. This means being compassionate in one's dealing and decision-making in order to be a virtuous leader or even just a good parent or citizen. It means changing from an orientation of ME to one of WE, as in Mohammed Ali's great short poem, extemporaneously declaimed on request a a Harvard commencement: "You / me/ we." Few have said it better, tauter, or shorter than that.
When the Dalai Lama met privately with President Clinton in Wash. DC in the early Nineties, the lama told the leader:" You are the most powerful man in the world. Every decision you make should be motivated by compassion."
"One cannot exist today as a person--one cannot exist in full consciousness--without having to have a showdown with one's self, without having to define what it is that one lives by, without being clear in one's own mind what matters and what does not matter."
Taking Ourselves Too Seriously
One day The Dalai Lama was invited to Yale University. That evening, the formal hosts- all -came to get him. After knocking on the Nobel Laureate's door, they were greeted by a man in maroon lama robes wearing a Groucho Marx mask: eyeglasses, nose and moustache. It was His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet himself, having a bit of fun. A jolly lama, indeed.
This is a true story.
I think we often take religion, and ourselves, far too seriously. Life ain't much fun if we take ourselves too seriously, is it? The sacred realm is not meant to be a grim affair full of restriction and brimstone, guilt and penance. Spirit is actually light, lively, luminous, yet uplifting, and joyous-for the most part. Love is the happiest, most ever-youthful, immortal thing there is. The profound incandescence and inner harmony of genuine spirituality is uncorruptibly intact, radiant, subtle, yet vividly present-- ecstatic rather than static. Everything flows, all evolves; nothing remains long.
My mother Joyce Miller in Long Island, who claims to have had once long ago not only Eleanor Roosevelt but also Sam Levinson---the Catskills comic---for schoolteachers, has a great sense of humor, which she must have foisted upon me along with Hebrew School as part of the family religion. For years, Mom has been calling me "my son, the lama", "the Deli Lama", not to mention other kinds of epithets. Of late she has taken to calling herself the Mama Lama. "Where do you think he gets his stuff?" she has been overheard asking her friends. "He was only with those Tibetan gurus for twenty five years, he's been my disciple for fifty." I rest my case.
Get a Transfer
If you are on the Gloomy Line,
Get a transfer.
If you're inclined to fret and pine,
Get a transfer.
Get off the track of doubt and gloom,
Get on the Sunshine Train, -there's room-
Get a transfer.
If you're on the Worry Train,
Get a transfer.
The Cheerful Cars are passing through,
And there's lots of room for you-
Get a transfer.
--Best Loved Poems of the American People
Nelson Mandela, Bodhisattva?
In these days of bitter partisan politics and a war on terror, which is itself a bit terrifying; I feel greatly inspired by spiritual activists such as Aung San Su Kyii of Burma, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya, whom I had the privilege of joining on a September 11 panel at a church in Harvard Square a few years back. These are individuals we could do well to learn more about and hear more from.
Like Nelson Mandela said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, I think it is incumbent upon all of us today to grapple with and find just solutions for the great issues of our day, which Mandela had to face and fight in his own country of South Africa: the challenge of the dichotomies of war and peace, violence and non-violence, racism and human dignity, oppression and depression and liberty and human rights, poverty and freedom from want.
Moreover, he affirmed: "We undertake that we too will do what we can to contribute to the renewal of our world so that none should, in future, be described as the wretched of the earth. Let it never be said by future generations that indifference, cynicism or selfishness made us fail to live up to the ideals of humanism which the Nobel Peace Prize encapsulates. Let the strivings of us all, prove Martin Luther King Jr to have been correct, when he said that humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war. Let the efforts of us all, prove that he was not a mere dreamer when he spoke of the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace being more precious than diamonds or silver or gold. Let a new age dawn!" (Oslo, December 10, 1993)
More recently, Mandela gave a speech in London's Trafalgar Square:
"I am privileged to be here today at the invitation of The Campaign to Make Poverty History. As you know, I recently formally announced my retirement from public life and should really not be here. However, as long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest."
I think we all must look and see that as long as one quarter of the world goes to bed hungry at night and millions of children die each year from hunger, diarrhea and so on, that we have an obligation not just to kick back and retire to our own peace and comfort here in the Gold Mountain while the world tears itself to pieces in order to survive. (Gold Mountain is what Chinese immigrants of one hundred years ago used to call America, when they came over to build the railroad and find a better life.) Even in our rich country today, poverty-- like illiteracy--continues to plague us, and is the source of a great deal of the violence and crime in our society.
Mandela's ongoing mission to serve the greater welfare and the higher good reminds me of the Bodhisattva ideal of Buddhism, the highest spiritual ideal I know. A Bodhisattva--or awakening spiritual warrior--vows never to give up striving for the betterment of all, on every level--material and spiritual, visible and invisible, in this life and in all future lives. And the inclusive word "all" includes all beings, human, animal and otherwise.
As the Dalai Lama of Tibet, an exemplary selfless Bodhisattva, always prays:
"Only when the limits of space are reached;
Only when the limits oif all sentient beings is reached;
Only when all are free from conflict and negativity
Will my vow have been fulfilled."
That is called the Bodhisattva Vow: to dedicate this life and all possible livs to the betterment and ultimate liberation and enlightenment of all--without leaving even one single being behind.
From the Japanese:
"Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to liberate them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; we vow to transcend them.
Dharma teachings are boundless; vow to master them.
The Wisdom Way of Enlightenment is supreme; we vow to embody it."
In my youth, I circled the globe thrice in search of all that is good, true and holy. I attended many of the saints of the time, and visited many if not most of the sacred sites, temples and pilgrimage places of man. I had visions of the holy ones, I swear it. Some days later, when I told my first lama, Thubten Yeshe--whom I was teaching English at the time--he exclaimed, laughing: "You too much, American boy! Just like a good dream. Let's have tea."
On my 21st birthday in December of 1971, I was alone in Nepal at my thatched hut under the stars, two miles from my lama's monastery in the refugee camp outside Kathmandu. I could have felt lonely, but I wasn't; big turning point for me. Alone but not lonely, by the blessings of spirit. I felt as charmed and invulernable as Zorba the Buddha. What an illusion! Fortunately, I had good karma and a healthy upbringing, and managed--through grace and luck, coupled with a little pluck and attention--to avoid the obstacles, pitfalls and accidents some fell into. I always had a little bit of good karma, being blessed and protected. Other people I know fell off Himalayan cliffs and died, or went down in bus accidents, plane hijacking and crashes, passport problems, mugged, raped on the road in those poor developing countries--but nothing like that ever happened to me. I was always protected, as it were.
I lived in Asia for two decades--or was it two lifetimes? But caves and ancient shrines, a few spiritual sayings on the lips, strange hairdo's, saffron or white clothes and robes don't make the mensch. A Buddha is as a Buddha does. There are no enlightened beings, only enlightened activity.
Transforming ourselves transforms the world. Healing ourselves heals the world. Knowing ourselves, we know the entire world, as Lao Tsu says. (He wrote my favorite book, the Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Virtue).
If this wandering Jew found anything, it is only that it is all within. What we seek, we ARE. There is simply no way around that.
IT is too close, so we overlook it. Too simple, so we complicate it. Too near, so we can't reach it by reaching out for it. Not outside, so we can't grasp and obtain it. It seems too good to be true, too evident, so we can't believe it. It is transparent, luminous, transrealescent--so we can't see it or easily perceive it--although always right at hand. But--what is it? Ah, that is truly the question. What is it.
Zen Master Dogen sang, long ago: "Here is the place, and here leads the Way.... Like water and ice, apart from beings, there are no Buddhas." So look deeply, and rejoice. The true Buddha is not bronze, stone, or wood, but is shining in everyone and everything.
Eternity Isn't Everything
I was flying to Maui recently, to do a three week juice fast and healing retreat. On the nerd-bird from Boston to San Francisco, I met a hard-drinking overweight business exec type who'd gone to MIT and now works for Dell Computor Company in Austin. He asked what I was doing, and I told him, much to his shock and surprise. "Why would you do that?" he exclaimed. "I am a Christian, and we put our stock in the next world, after we die. Our body is dust. It doesn't matter how long we live here, but how we live."
I was glad to hear of his beliefs. In a way, I couldn't agree more. How we live here and now makes all the difference. But as a Buddhist, I'm not necessarily other-world and heaven-oriented, as if our mortal coil is nothing and immaterial spirit is all--as if temporal existence is nothing and eternity is all.
Tibetan Buddhists consider this body a temple, and each energy and chakra in the body like a Buddhafield full of archangels and deities. How we care for, maintain and develop it helps determine how many beings can benefit by the light that temple provides and radiates.
Human life is precious, rare, hard to achieve and maintain with all the faculties intact; and should be cherished rather than squandered or destroyed. Conscious human life is rare and not to be taken lightly, and spiritually awakened life is rarer still.
When I was younger, I never thought much about longevity, although Eastern tradition abounds with tales of immortal saints and sages. Tantric Buddhism has its own plethora of healing and longevity empowerments and practices, yogic fasts, mineral pills, herbal tonics and vitality enhancers, energy exercises and so on.
Now I see that, as a Bodhisattva with significant training and a lot of work to do, it is important to me to maintain this vehicle and continue ferrying beings to the other shore of nirvana, and not to give in to whatever bad habits my family and societal conditioning have helped me and many of my mates to fall prey to. This my blessed life is simply far too rare and precious an opportunity to make a difference, make a contribution, and be of service and helpful to others.
Above all things I want to be useful and to make the world a better, more beautiful place--to be a light in this world. Fortunately for me, I have found a way of life and a vocation, and beliefs and understandings and spiritual practices and guides, that have come together in bringing me what I have always been looking for. I am content. I cannot ask for or imagine wanting or needing more.
I wish that for you, too.
Plans for the Next Life
Here on Maui, I visited one of my late guru Kalu Rinpoche's Dharma Ctrs., Kagyu Rimay Osel Ling. I'd taught there six or seven years ago, but haven't been back since.
My old friend from Darjeeling days, Lama Karma Rinchen from Eastern Tibet, was there--resdent lama in Honolulu--and we sat outside in the garden and had a nice chat as the sun went down and the crickets started to sing. Eventually I asked him if he was prepared to die--he is in his seventies now--and he said: "Anytime." I asked him what, if any, his plans were for the next life, and if he was intending to be reborn in any of the radiant stainless Buddhafields or planning to return to Tibet to help his people there. He replied in a quiet voice, very simply: "I will be reborn wherever I can be helpful. That is what a Bodhisattva does. You're in a special position; you should take good care of yourself and stick around. I will pray for that."
My Spiritual Birthright
I have been transported, even if only temporarily; and seen that another world, another way of life is possible. There is another, better world and another life, and it is here---we are living in it. We may feel far from it, but rest assured: it is never far from us. You may sometimes feel out of the flow, but the flow goes right through you: thus spake Surya.
Around the time of that experience, I wrote:
"This is the pure land. Why wait?
Everything is already perfectly one and at peace,
Just as it is.
I have had transformational experiences, growth experiences, terrifying and exhilarating experiences, breakthroughs and breakups and even breakdowns, in the loosest use of that word; deep samadhis, ecstatic revelations, colorful dream-like visions and clear light dreams, cosmic orgasms, glimpses of god and heaven and hell. But most of these are just special effects, not the main story line of a poor pilgrim's authentic progress from darkness towards the light, from ignorance to knowledge, from death to deathlessness. I have been brahmacharya, a monk and in cloistered retreats for years and years, and lived in caves, ashrams, cowsheds, tents, undergone austerities, and wandered without visible means of support. I have experienced ego-death and spiritual rebirth. I have changed a lot since my childhood, no doubt... And yet, I am probably more myself than ever, now. But transformation? That comes hard, even to a professional spiritual practitioner and questioner, truth seeker and transformationalist like myself. Patience furthers. "Haste slowly, and you shall soon arrive." Every step of the way is the Way. And the greatest miracle is love.
Many claim enlightenment experiences, satoris, insights and realizations, which is fine. These days, it seems, it is far easier to get enlightened than to stay enlightened; and that is the crux of the problem. For better or for worse, there is no enlightenment pill or enlightenment-guaranteed-or-your-money-back weekend. (If it was that easy to see God, what would it be worth, ultimately? It probably would not be the ultimate reality of that grand notion, and in any case we'd immediately be seeking something else.) After all, we want and need a spiritual life, not just a spiritual event, weekend, or experience. Epiphanous experiences can provide us a glimpse of the Promised Land, and help us to ascertain beyond any shadow of a doubt that there is really a there there, as all the mystics and sages throughout the ages say. But just one or two visits ain't enough. Don't we want to live there, to be there, -even here and now, -and not just to visit? For what is there, is here. If it ain't, it ain't IT. To use the vernacular.
Myself, through the blessings and inspiration of Buddhist wisdom, self-inquiry, training and practice, coupled with the kindness and generosity of my own enlightened teachers, good parents and friends, plus a little luck and pluck; I have begun to find out who I am, and ain't.
No self-transformation, yet everything is transforming right before our eyes. What a mystery, what a spectacle! Emaho! Marvelous, wonderful.
Buddhism is not a self-help project; there is no separate, eternal self--and in any case, it can't be helped. And yet the dance of being and becoming, of doing and being goes on. Wise, sane and caring people continue to work towards a better world by being better people even while learning to love and accept themselves, others, and things just as they are. Striving for enlightenment on one hand while, on the other, coming into deepening acceptance and appreciation/gratitude: seems like a contradiction, a paradox, a conundrum, don't it? Try just for a moment to hold in mind both extremes without fixating on one or another? This is the koan for today.
"The more things change, the more they stay the same," as the French say. An example: the older I get, the more I am like the father I rebelled against in my youth. A bird doesn't fall far from the tree. Or something. (A phoenix is another matter. But who is ready to be totally consumed, and transubstantiated?)
I am what I am, as--mysteriously enough-- God has also purportedly said. Tibetan lamas say that our true nature is immutable, deathless, unborn and undying-Dharmakaya, in Buddhist lingo. Untrammeled pure spirit, inherently free, unconditioned and luminous: truth itself. Reality. We are all Buddhas by nature; we only have to awaken to that fact. It is only adventitious obscurations which veil it.
Nonetheless, change is law. Everything is constantly in evolution and transformation. I trust in that, having found it to be true. I have found out what my life is, and what it can be. This is what spiritual teachings promise, a birthright which has become real to me through Buddhist meditation and living an intentional mindful life. This journey of awakening can take some effort and attention.
The More Things Change...
People often ask me what difference spiritual practice, especially meditation, has made in my life. The answer is that it has changed everything for me. And, in a funny way, it's changed nothing. Because in the ultimate sense nothing changes, while in relative reality, change is the law and everything is always evolving, impermanent, fleeting as today's weather. Finding out who I am hasn't changed anything, although it has totally transformed my world in that it my experience of things is no longer the same. Nothing happens--but it sure is somethin', ain't it?
I like some wise guy's quip that before he was different, but now he's the same. I used to have to be different, but now I'm the same as everyone else. Perhaps one difference is that I know it, and some don't seem to.
I learned to meditate at college and at a zen center in the late Sixties, but I couldn't really follow through with it as a daily practice until I started a series of Vipassana retreats with U Goenka in India in 1971. I vowed to practice every day. That has totally changed my life. That's the good news.
I had many great enlightened teachers and gurus during my decades in India and the Himalayas. Their inspiration, teachings, blessings, grace and personal guidance gave me a huge boost on my spiritual path, for which I am forever grateful. My guru is always with me, although they may have passed from this world. The person dies, but the authentic spiritual connection---the guru principle, the heart connection--is beyond coming and going. That is an example of the adage that love is greater than death. I have seen miracles, but the miracle of love reigns supreme.
Spiritual practice has changed my life, and revealed to me that there is no other way of life--for me, at least. I have found meaning and purpose through discovering my timeless source and deathless, groundless ground of being.
In one of my little red travelling poetry journals, from my India days, I found some prayer-fragments from the 70s, including:
May your heart and mine
for the limitless benefit
Of one and all.
Lord and master,
let me be--
May I be a pure vessel
Of your compassionate enlightened activity
In this benighted world.
(Darjeeling, West Bengal 1974)
Let Me Tell You the Truth
I would love to tell you a glorious story of personal and universal transformation. But here I would rather tell you the truth. That's the bad news.
We all want to change. Most of all we want our mates to change, our parents or children, colleagues, boss, employees to change. We want the economy and education and government to change, and our leaders too, of course.... And while we're at it, let's not forget to make these things change for the better--now that we are in charge, or think we are. Too many revolutions just turn things around and revolve back to somewhere similar to where they were. In reality, rather than our fantasies, the illusion of being in control is like have locked car brakes at high speed while driving on a winding, downhill, windy road. Kindly reflect on this.
The good news is: We all want something greater, grander, larger than just this world and this life. In one way or another, at some point in our lives I believe we all pursue it, or at least wish we could. It will not serve us to look for truth, reality, God, love, enlightenment, meaning and purpose, -or even the simple truth about ourselves--in all the wrong places. This perennial pursuit, common to humankind throughout the ages, is the work and play of a lifetime. Myself, I found that connecting to my source, what Buddhists call the groundless ground of being, makes clear my purpose and place in the world and gives meaning and direction to my life. Then it doesn't matter so much what I'm feeling or doing, what is happening; for everything is a lawful unfolding, grace-full, blessed, a cause for gratitude, reverence and and rejoicing--even life's gritty and hard parts. And we can't avoid those.
Freedom is a choice. Freedom means to be able to make choices and not just be run ragged by our internal conditioning. It is hard to step out of our ruts, and to truly change and transform ourselves. Probably it's better let others do the same, and just accept them as they are---which brings its own transformational magic---and trust that they, too, will step out and make the larger, riskier leap, if and when they feel compelled or simply desperate enough. Unconditional acceptance and appreciation is a vital part of wise and compassionate living; it is one of the most generous and loving gifts one can bring to the world, and the source of great peace.
Buddha said there is nirvanic peace in things left just as they are. Leave it as it is, and rest your weary heart and mind. This would be wise and compassionate, to yourself and to all beings. This is the heart of what Gandhi called ahisma--nonviolence/nonharming--and living an impeccable life. Thomas Merton pointed out the one of the most basic forms of violence is our inability to be still and quiet, and our busy-ness and drive destroys the fabric of much of our lives.
We each must work on ourselves; a life's work that no one can do for us, but no one can impede either. As the young Dalai Lama says to a Chinese general who reports the liberation of the Tibetan people is under way by the Chairman Mao's Communist Army, in the fine Scorcese movie "Kundun": "General, only I can liberate myself." This is speaking truth to power.
Often it takes crisis or loss to precipitate a spiritual opening, a renewed interest in looking inwards and seeking deeper rather than just going along in our normal way through life. I call this gaining through loss, the virtue of adversity, like the labor pains of a spiritual rebirth. The Pearl Principle: With no inner irritation, no pearl of wisdom gets produced within our hardened habitual carapace.
The George Bush Buddhist Center
It's a great year to live in New England. First the long-awaited triumph of the Red Sox, and now the Pats. Who could ask for more? At last New Yorkers have realized that Boston is best, and will stop trying to compete.
Oh yes, there was John Kerry's defeat--but what can you say? My wife canvassed in New Hampshire for Kerry, but that kind of Massachusetts trifecta would have been once in a century, if ever, and was probably too way much to ask for and expect. Perhaps we partisan Pilgrims didn't have our priorities exactly straight? (It's been known to happen.) But we learn to do the best we can and let go, and whatever happens, happens. We keep on.
I know you might think that a Downtown Lama, a veritable Pajama Lama, probably doesn't get out much, go to games and such, nor follow the polls; but a man cannot live by spirituality alone.... And let me tell you, I've tried! Anyway, there is really no inside nor out.
To quote one of my best Tibetan friends, an enlightened lama from Nepal named the Dragon Master (Gyalwang Drukpa) who visited my meditation retreat center outside Austin in November--yes, amidst the sea of red: "I like and am interested in everything, all that is good and not harmful."
Perhaps we'll rename our Austin center the George Bush Buddhist Center, just to make our contribution to peace and reconciliation. Whaddya think? For I have met the so-called enemy, and They 'R Us.
Like a diary, with daily blogging one stands naked, exposed. One's mind--the internal dialogue, at least--is revealed, as it is. How mundane! It is embarrassing to let others in on how I talk to myself, in this way. Fortunately I have learned the art of meditative awareness, including the concentration and mindfulness which allows me to modulate my thoughts and moods when I want and need to. Through cultivating mindful awareness in the present moment, attending to what is--outside and inside, body, mind and spirit--one can actually change the mind. I myself have seen the unfathomable power of a trained practitioner transform it and purify thoughts and conditioning, which is karma; and through ancient yet timeless, tried and true, intentional attitude transformation techniques, recondition and decondition our negative, or merely unfulfilling, habits and actions. One can also control the mind and even stop it, temporarily, although I want to step very lightly in this particular terrain. Buddhist mind training and refining the spirit--"lojong", in Tibetan--helps us to change and transform our attitudes, and for the better.
By becoming more honestly aware of what is genuinely going on inside of myself, in my own heart and mind--including the body, of course, through somatic awareness and emotional wisdom--I have come to see how natural it is to be able to relate consciously to all that I think, feel, desire and know--supressing nothing, yet simultaneously not being carried away by tidal waves of thought and feeling. This kind of incandescent awareness has also helped me to become a better listener, and to know others better as well as mySelf.
Clearing the mind and trying not to think, as some new meditator may, may, is not at all the point. That would be chasing a stick, like a dog, instead of jumping on the thrower, like a lion.
Consciousness, which is a big part of the mind, can be purified, altered, changed, transformed, transmuted even: transmuting the lead of conditioned thoughts and illusion into the gold of clear vision and the wisdom that sees things just as they are. This self knowledge, and ultimately profound self-realization, is the goal of meditation. Thus brings enlightenment, inner peace, harmony and bliss.
Good and helpful as they undoubtedly are, I think too much time is spent worrying about techniques--such as yoga postures, counting prayers, mantras, or simply observing the breath--and not enough in spiritual investigation, self inquiry, and active spiritual intelligence looking into the nature of things, both as they are and as they appear. One need not become a breath watcher or guru worshipper or dogmatic believer in order to free the mind, wisen up and enlighten up.
Numbers don't lie, people do.
Pictures don't lie, those using them do.
The problem is that our perceptions and interpretations
Who knows the truth?
It is the mind that lies
Due to its internal distortions;
Being bent out of shape
Is the main problem.
Knowledge as we know it
Gets in the way.
Of clear vision.
Who can see things just
As they are,
Rather than as we'd like
Them to be?
The masters say that not seeing
Is true seeing, not knowing
Is authentic knowledge;
Is finding. I
There are no families without conflict.
Everything follows its own nature;
All return to themselves.
Like waves in the sea
Although many seek the mountain
From which the tides of birth and death have receded,
We're born we die,
Returning again and again to the ground
Which bears us.
We don't need to pacify ourselves or find peace;
everything is already perfectly
Mirrors are revolutionaries.
One look and you're no longer a mask.
Death is necessary for evolution.
Nothing is necessary.
According to string theory, the universe is
Two nine-sided slabs of crystal clear space
Facing each other.
Everything happens, nothing is
For long. Nothing
My First BuddhaVision
On my first Asian trip, to India in July 1971, I met the ancient great Buddhas in Bamiyan, treasures of the ancient world destroyed in the 90s by the Taliban. With my ex-Green Beret traveling buddy Ken Humphrey, I ascended their insides and peered out over the sandyAfghani Valley through their eyes. Was thas my first glimpse of BuddhaVision?
A few days later we continued our overland trip on to Pakistan, through the Khyber Pass, and into India. A few years later I returned to New York, and had a similar feeling from the top of the newly built World Trade Center. It was like divine sight, gazing down upon teeming multitudes, including all the possible realms of existence, heaven and hell, samsara and nirvana. Remembering these two twin pillars, East and West--so gargantuan for their respective times, seemingly invincible, yet so transient--I remember Shelley's great poem: "My name is Ozymandias, King of kings; look on my works, ye mighty, and despair."
A Little Song of Self-Inquiry
What is the most important question for our time? (Einstein said it was, in his: Is this a friendly universe or not?)
My childhood Jeff Lowe, whom we called Coconut due to the feeling of hollowness inside his skull, in fifth grade transmitted to me my first Zen koan (existential conundrum), which I have never really satisfactorily answered: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
What is authenticity, really, and what is true and real?
What do I really want and need?
Am I lacking anything?
Why am I dissatisfied?
Why is my satisfaction so fleeting
And dissatisfaction arise so quickly
And last so long?
Where does my true happiness truly lie?
Is this the most direct way to it?
How to love and be love(d)?
Who am I, really,
And why am I here?
What is my purpose?
Is there meaning?
Why do we die?
What is all this, in essence?
Who am I really,
Why am I here?
How to truly know
What am I doing,
Am I just a word,
and the word is with,
and the word is
The search for God, peace, love or enlightenment may be a serious business, but we have to lighten up as well as enlighten up along this great way of awakening. Joy is an important part of life and necessary component of spirit. If we take ourselves too seriously, life ain't much fun. My old girlfriend used to call me Serious Das, but I was older then. That was in the Seventies. A laugh closes the distance between a speaker and an audience. A smile is the shortest distance between two strangers. I have found that humor is one of the best teaching tools, and I never leave home for a lecture or teaching tour without it.
Wit is worth little unless grounded in insightful wisdom. "Humor is not a trick. Humor is a presence in the world- like grace -and shines on everybody," says Garrison Keillor. If Buddha was alive today, I believe he'd add Right Humor to his eight-fold prescription for enlightened living known as the Noble Eight Fold Path. Right Exercise might be the tenth, like a necessary extra inning.
The Tibetan tradition of crazy wisdom--defined as a higher form of lucidity that sees through everything--tells us that what the world calls sane, those with clear vision most often consider insane. Is it any wonder then that what the world calls insane, the tricksters and jesters, the holy fools and eccentric yogis and siddhas consider normal? Irreverent saints have said the world is mad, but we are all mad; but let us be mad for the Divine rather than for that which so swiftly passes away.
Since time immemorial, iconoclastic crazy wise masters and enlightened pranksters such as the Middle East's Mullah Nasruddin and Drukpa Kunley of Bhutan have poked fun at hypocrisy and pretence, deflating pomposity and breaking through complacence, and reflecting knowledge to us our own foibles and flaws, with the mask of comedy sweetening the pill of self-knowledge. Through their rambunctious and inspired foolishness, I personally have been freed from inhibitions and other mind-forged manacles deleterious to living spirit and free flowing energy.
I adore Benjamin Franklin, Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and their progeny for carrying on that indispensable tradition. My friend Wes Nisker has written a fine book on this subject, called "Crazy Wisdom."
"Clown and guru are a single entity: the satiric and the sublime sides of the same higher vision of life," wrote social critic Theodor Roszak.
Contemporary Zen master Bernard Glassman Roshi today carries on the tradition of master as clown, has been to clown college, and is training others.
"Who is wise?"
He that learns from everyone.
Who is powerful?
He that governs his passions.
Who is rich?
He that is content.
Who is that?
-- Benjamin Franklin
I've Found What I'm Looking For
What is the meaning of life? At this point this seems to me to be a fallacious question. The meaning of life is found through living. Each of us must find our own meaning. Of course we can subscribe to the meaning ascribed to life by someone else---St. Paul, Mao Tse Tung, Billy Graham---yet we still must live it out for ourselves, and reap the genuine satisfactions and fulfillment for ourselves, or lack for it, depending on our own authenticity. For there is no fooling ourselves, in the end; nor deceiving our maker, if you look at it like that.
Perhaps we'd do well to notice that there are various meanings for various people. For some, the meaning of life is found in work, through a career and accomplishments; for others, in love, family and children. Some find it most deeply through -service to God, or service to humankind. Some simply come to it, as if by surprise; but I believe there are no accidents.
Life is about love, meaning and work, which are all interwoven. For some, many even, it seems elusive and many never seem to find it, although meaning is always following them.
To find the meaning and purpose of life ourselves, I think we must ask certain questions. What is most meaningful to me? What do I care about the most? Who or what do I devote myself to? Who do I love? Who helps make me feel most alive, real, joyful?
Some say life has no real purpose or meaning, but that is slightly nonsensical. I think what they really mean is that it does not seem to them to have any one single purpose, for all. Or they feel that life has become meaninglessness to them personally. I understand that feeling; but that does not necessarily imply reality is congruent with it.
The Dalai Lama of Tibet says that the meaning of life is to find happiness and fulfillment.
Things may not be exactly what they seem to us to be; but they are exactly what they are, if you can believe Yogi Berra. By the grace of God and Buddha, I have found what I came here for.
Movies That Raise Consciousness
I was very moved by the new film "Hotel Rwanda", about the genocide of the Tutsi people ten years ago while the world stood aside. I recommend this new film to you. It follows along with other Downtown Lama pics including "Dead Man Walking" and "Schindler's List", fine examples of art that raises social conscience and consciousness and can move us to beneficial action.
However, I am tired of seeing these things a decade after the fact. When can we see something like this while it is happening, given our modern media? Then the world could react in a more timely fashion, with more information, with more effectiveness.
Bewailing the horrors of genocide much later is good: tears pour forth, one wonders what can be done to prevent it from happening again. But how to effectively and skillfully help now, in Dafur, Sudan and in other hot spots of the world where similar atrocities are being committed? Perhaps things are getting slightly better in this regard, as I have noticed the alacrity and vivid immediacy with which new technology has brought the recent tsunami's tragedy and devastation into our homes and consciousness, and almost immediately produced huge aid efforts.
The spiritual activist has to wake up and catch up to pain of the world and hear its cries, right now, and be moved to compassionate action and selfless service. That is the true meaning of compassion. Service to the highest through serving the lowest, the neediest.
I vote for Oscars to be given for categories of caring and compassion, consciousness raising, and most dedicated unselfish celebrity of the year-- a Hollywood Peace Award.
When his daughter drowned, Victor Hugo wrote a poem, saying: "Mankind can only see one side of reality. The other side is plunged in the darkness of a frightening mystery. Mankind bears the yoke without knowing why. Everything he sees is short-lived, futile and fleeting.... I come to you, God, the Father in whom we must believe. Calmly I bring you the pieces of my heart filled with your glory, which you have broken. I accept that only you know what you do, and that mankind is only a reed that trembles in the wind."
Walking With God
I love walking outside. It almost feels as if God awaits me the minute I look up and around. I barely believe in God, and yet there is this felt sense; it must by my Jewish genes speaking. Many wait for the messiah to come. I sense Him awaiting me, awaiting us. Yet the God that I love is within. Let's look deeper, and see for ourSelves.
Just connecting with nature is enough to open my heart and mind to all that is, and feel grateful, touched, inspired. Thrilled to be alive, to be breathing. The treetops speak to me like steeples and spires. An overarching forest is like a cathedral. The sky makes me happy. I feel slightly insane. The God that I love is within.
If I don't walk outside at least once or twice a day, I get rusty. Spider webs seem to clog my chakras and internal energy channels. My erstwhile neighbor in Concord, Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau, said he had to walk outside at least four hours a day; he walked the entire length of Cape Cod and back one year, and wrote about it.
Walking along the water on a beach for me is akin to Eden. There is nowhere to go and no hurry to get there. But any walk outside will do, for a constant companion is always accompanying. And you never know in whose face you will meet Him.
They say that joy rises in the morning.
Walking with my dog each dawn, I sally forth to meet my maker.
We are never alone.