Climbing the Mountain

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Marrying a Spiritual Life with Western Culture”

As many of you know, I like to climb the same mountain that you like to climb—the mountain of wisdom or understanding—so that we can get to the top and really have the full vista of understanding.  I find it’s best to climb the mountain, not in a linear way, but in a way that opens up to us true meaning on a conceptual level. It’s a good thing to climb that mountain from every possible angle you can think of because on each side there will be a different experience of going up the mountain. One can truly understand the mountain by moving in those various ways as opposed to having only one narrow means of approach.

In order to broaden and to deepen, then, one has to have the intention to really know and understand more deeply, so that Dharma will be real and focused and meaningful and will carry weight in one’s life. That’s what I’d like to talk about today. In order to do so, I’d like to talk about where we’re coming from and how our culture is different from a culture in which the Buddha naturally appeared and naturally emanated and naturally gave rise to certain teachings. The Buddha did not appear in Missouri—not in the way we understand.  Although in truth the Buddha is everywhere in Missouri, the historical Buddha did not appear in Missouri or Indiana or Brooklyn, not in the same way.  The original teachings, the path of Dharma that we practice, were brought to us by Lord Buddha himself.

The Dharma began in India in a culture that is very different from ours. It’s where Lord Buddha appeared. Even if it is not the most potent religion in India now, it still has had some effect on shaping and forming that culture. Here in America there are religious factors that have shaped our culture, but they are different.

So I would like to examine some of the ways in which the cultures are different, just briefly enough to have a certain idea that we can examine for ourselves. The best thing to do is to look at these cultures today, with just an idea of where they came from and how they progressed. Culture in America today is materialistically oriented. We are a culture of attainers. We accumulate things. We are given a definition of success that is handed down from generation to generation and, oddly enough, it has more to do with substance than it has to do with spirit, more to do with material gain or loss than it ever has to do with joy. Joy—what a concept!

When we are coming up, we are prepared and schooled to accomplish things that have to do with getting stuff—even if we study to become something that seems to be non-materialistically oriented, such as, for instance, a social worker. You would think that a social worker would be looking at our culture with different eyes.  You would think that a social worker would be asking, “Well, what are these social factors?  How can we organize them into something that is meaningful and deep for us? How can we express within our culture the gamut of human expressions? How can we integrate it? How can we make it work for us? How can we discard those things that do not work for society?” Yes, that is some of the training of a social worker. But why does somebody become a social worker?  And how do we approach that kind of thing? Well, we always think about how the job market is doing: “When I get out of school after I learn all of this, will I really be able to get a job?” We think of ourselves as having an office, and we think of ourselves as having that little square on the office door that says you are somebody. Then we think about whether that would be a really profitable occupation. So even if we were to approach something that could, by its nature, be fundamentally non-materialistic, we approach it from a materialistic point of view.

That’s one thing that is interesting and unique about our culture. It is so all-pervasive that it’s invisible, and you don’t really notice it until you go to other places. If you really want to learn something about your culture, leave it and come back. If mainstream America does not have that kind of experience, they cannot really see very well what the factors are. It’s more difficult. So to leave one’s culture and have another taste or another experience gives one a sense of comparison.

We approach everything in a collecting or accumulating way, in a materialistic way. We measure success by material substance.  Nobody’s parents tried to raise a great mystic because you wouldn’t do that to your kid in our society. You see what I’m saying?  You want to prevent your kid from the dark night of the soul.  You want to prevent your kid from the ambiguous, vague, cloudy, uncharted waters of mysticism.  You want your kid to be on the straight and narrow.  They know where to get a loaf of bread.  They know how to put some butter on it.  They know how to eat it.  They know how to feed it to their kids.  They know how to buy a car—that kind of thing.  You want your kid to be prepared for that.  You do not raise a mystic.  A mystic is something you have to contend with in our society.  It is an avocation that is fraught with suffering.

Now why is that?  Well, partially because a mystic goes into a very deep sense of connection.  In order to do that, the mystic has to plow through issues or plow through whatever it is that one plows through.  The other reason why being a mystic is so darn painful is because no one has any respect for that kind of thing.  A mystic in our society probably is a dreamer or a ne’er-do-well who can’t dress, who has no sense of self whatsoever, is socially inappropriate, can’t figure out how to catch a cab. Or maybe a mystic is someone who is depressed, possibly should be on Prozac. These are the kind of things that we associate with a mystic’s life and that is why nobody has ever been encouraged to be like that. The idea of really profound, deep mysticism scares the patooties out of us.

But in another culture where that kind of ideal is held up as being something pure, something wonderful, something significant, one’s experience regarding mysticism is entirely different. There is a dignity and nobility about it. There is a sense that this is a worthwhile occupation. There is definitely less fear of having the freedom to utilize one’s life as a vehicle for true deep mysticism and spirituality. One of the reasons why it’s more comfortable and easier to get connected to it is because one isn’t socially ostracized.

Now the great thing about being a mystic in America is that, once you get to the point where you’re really good at it and somebody finds you and you can market it—maybe write a book or two, maybe sell something that you’ve given rise to—then you can be a success.  Mystics in our society can also be successful after they’re dead. I really don’t know why. If any of you know why, tell me. But while we’re alive, we don’t have too much hope.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.  All rights reserved

 

How to Handle the “Dead Zone”

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Marrying Spiritual Life with Western Culture”

So ask yourself, where are you? If you find that deadness inside of you, don’t blame your path, don’t blame your teacher, don’t blame your society, don’t blame the Buddha. Instead, go within and find what is true and meaningful to you. Work the sums. Reason it out. Lord Buddha himself said, “Forget blind faith.” He said, “Reason it out.”  The path should make sense. It should be logical and meaningful to you, not to me. What’s it going to mean to you if it’s meaningful to me? It has to be logical and meaningful to you. This is what the Buddha said.  It would really help you to try that out for yourself.

We live in a society where we are separate from some fundamental life rhythms and where we are trained to think that things are happening outside of us. We’re in a world filled with terrorism and racial abuse, religious abuse, all kinds of conflict, and yet we think racial intolerance, for instance, is happening out there. We read about it in the paper. No, racial intolerance is happening in here. That’s where it’s happening.

It’s like that with everything on this path. You cannot let it happen out there. It’s your responsibility, your empowerment, your life.  Waiting for someone to tell you how to live it is not going to fly. When you walk on a spiritual path that you know, that you have examined, that you have given rise to understanding, you draw forth your natural innate wisdom. That fills your heart with a sense of truth because you understand it—not because someone else does. That’s the way to do it, and that’s what the Buddha recommended. In fact, he said, “I’ve given you the path. Now work out your own salvation.”

That wasn’t just a flip thing. When people hear that they go, “It’s such a cool thing that he said that! He must have had a great sense of humor.” He meant it! The path is there, but you’ve got to work it out.  That’s how you walk on the path. Otherwise you’re walking alongside the path. Then you’re a friend of Dharma, an admirer of Dharma, but not a practitioner—even if you wear the robes.

So handle the dead zone. Empower yourself. There is no reason why you can’t. Don’t live your life by “bash-to-fit, paint-to-match.”  Don’t do that. You are alive. In every sense, your nature is the most vibrant force in the universe, the only force in the universe. It is all there is. To play this game of duality where you stand outside your own most intimate experience and like a sheep get led through your life, that is not the way to go.

Many of you came to this path from another path because you felt dead there. But remember this: Wherever you go, there you are.  You brought the deadness with you. So handle it.

I hope that you really, really take this teaching to heart because it’s really an important thing. If I had one gift that I could give you all,  it would be to stay alive in your path, to have your spiritual life be like a precious jewel inside of you, living, something to warm you by. If life took everything else away from you, which it will eventually, this is the thing that cannot be taken.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.  All rights reserved

Cultivating Authentic Experience

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Marrying Spiritual Life with Western Culture”

I remember I went through a process quite naturally even before I found Buddhism. I was sitting in front of a stream meditating, and I meditated very deeply on my essential nature—this nature that is without discrimination, beginningless and yet completely fulfilled, both empty and full, beyond any kind of discrimination whatsoever.  I meditated very deeply on that. Then I found that I couldn’t tell where I ended and where the water began.  It was almost a psychological “Ah ha!” but so much deeper, like “I am that also.”  Well, you can’t even call it “I.” It’s suchness, and it’s everywhere. Then I started expanding that to other living things—people and bugs and any phenomenal reality that appears external. I knew the nature that I am is just as easily that.  I knew blacks and whites are the same, that my culture and your culture are the same, that this and that are the same.

Memorizing that kind of understanding is a deadening experience, because something inside of you is hidden and unchanged and unmoved, and something outside of you has been laid on top of it—bash-to-fit, paint-to-match religion. That’s what that is.

We do a lot of that with religion.  I don’t believe it’s the fault of religion. I think if you listen to the original teachers of almost any religion, it’s good stuff. We are the ones who do not know how to practice religion. If we understand the Buddha’s teaching, which is such a living, dynamic, eternal, present thing, it is as alive in this world today as it was when it was first brought into this world. But if we practice it today, not with the energy of recognition of intimate association, not happening in this present moment, but happening 2,500 years ago, it’s not going to work. It has to be living for you today. It has to be alive for you today. Otherwise you’ll say, “That religion was brought into the world 2,500 years ago. Things are different now.” Well, yes, so?  Liberation is not different now.  The faults of cyclic existence are not different now.  Nothing that matters is different now.  All the rules still apply. It’s just that we don’t understand them on a deep level, because we haven’t invested in feeling and knowing in intimate association with these truths. We are simply playing church.

How to understand that your faith is alive? Try being alive in your faith. The ball’s in your court, and you’re not going to get away from that. You cannot change the religion and think that it’s going to suit your needs, because then you’re doing something else entirely. You’ve already decided what it’s going to look like and how you’re going to act. You’re on a track that is unbendable, unmovable, unadaptable, and you’re going to bend things around you to fit. You cannot do that to the world any more than you can do that to yourself.  Bash-to-fit and paint-to-match doesn’t work.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.  All rights reserved

 

Living the Path

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Marrying Spiritual Life with Western Culture”

It’s interesting to realize that when we come to the temple, we’re already interested in Dharma. Why are we interested in Dharma?  There are lots of different reasons. We like the look of it: It’s interesting and exotic. The statues are really cool. The colors are nice. We have a feeling, a concept of what Buddhism looks like. It looks like people who are sitting very straight in those wonderful positions that I wish I could get myself into. And the Buddha’s eyes look out into space. We see ourselves doing this, and we think, “Wow that is so cool!”  We have no idea what’s going on inside, but from the outside we’re looking at this going, “Oh man, that is so cool.”

So when we come to this path, we already have an idea of what it’s supposed to look like, and we play into that. Then we hear the foundational thoughts about Buddhism and the thoughts that turn the mind. Here’s the important part, “Oh, yeah, those are good reasons to do what I wanted to do already, which is to sit there like this, or to be involved in this really exotic thing, or just to be the coolest kid on the block because I read all those Buddhist books.” We all have reasons. We feel a certain affinity to it, whatever it is. I’m making it goofy so that it’s fun, but you can see and adapt what I’m saying to your own personal situation.

This is not the way it is in other cultures. The thoughts that turn the mind have to do with understanding impermanence, understanding cause and effect relationships, understanding that virtuous conduct brings excellent results of happiness and prosperity, non-virtuous conduct brings bad results of either unhappiness or being reborn in lower realms and so forth. Once we come here we think, “These are things to learn, and they are good reasons to stay on this path. So I am going to memorize them.”

But in a society where people grow up seeing children born and their elders die before they are even able to understand the words of these teachings that turn the mind toward Dharma, where their movement through time occurs very naturally—(Nobody has a facelift in Tibet. The wrinkles just pile on, unbelievable amounts of them, because there’s no Estee Lauder. This is why I don’t live there!)—a person approaches Dharma because it does not seem reasonable to walk from birth to death with nothing in your heart, with nothing to work with. It doesn’t seem reasonable that this [movement through time] should be the main weight of your experience; that this is what you should take refuge in.  Why would you do that?  It’s like taking refuge in a car wreck. It’s going to hurt and it’s going to get worse.

But in our society, because we are technologically and intellectually advanced, we are not connected to the rhythms of life.  So when this person who is connected to the rhythms of life, and has seen it even as a child, is told everything is impermanent in their life, this is not a big piece of information. This is not a missing piece of the puzzle.  It simply organizes the thoughts for a person who has been exposed to a more natural environment, and puts words to a conceptual understanding that they already have about life. They can see there is some fun in life, some good in it, but they can also see its faults much more easily than we can in our society.

On the other hand, when we hear those thoughts that turn the mind, we have so much time invested in staying young, keeping it easy, keeping it light, making it pretty, collecting everything we’re supposed to collect, that we really have to keep that information outside of us.  We can’t really let it come into us. For instance, in our society identifying with and understanding the teachings on old age, sickness and death is terrifying, because in our society the loss of youth is the loss of love. We don’t even value the wisdom that is gained in maturity enough to have it even bear mentioning.

But in other cultures, people have gone through these incredible experiences in a very natural way. They have a maturity of wisdom at the end of their life because they have seen themselves age. They have seen the beginning—the promise, the beauty, the joy. They have seen how it matures, and they have seen that you can’t take anything with you.  In our society, that isn’t valued.  In fact, it’s recommended that we think forever young.

Now that I’m maturing I feel, “Why would you want to do that!  Young people don’t think. So to ‘think forever young,’ that’s like ‘military intelligence’!” In my experience of teaching students, I find that this is the single most dominating factor in their own dissatisfaction with their path. Why is that? Again, in our society, we learn a bunch of rules. These rules are connected to our fundamental material attitude, that collector’s attitude. In our society, we feel separated, alienated, isolated. There is a feeling of inner deadness. If you don’t know that inner deadness in yourself, then it’s deader than you think, because you can look in the eyes of anyone you know and you can see there is an inner deadness.

Now if we approach our spiritual life in the same way— by following these rules that are external because the Buddha said they’re out there, without ever viewing them in an intuitive and intimate way—we are going to go dead on our path. The path which is so precious and so unique—that amazing reality that does not arise in samsara but in fact arises from the mind of enlightenment and therefore results in the mind of enlightenment—this precious inimitable thing becomes only one more set of external rules, like a girdle that you have to wear in order to be successful, to be part of our environment.

When the path becomes bigger, which it has to do, it has to be part of your life. It isn’t something you do only twice a week. There are practices that you do every day. There are ethical situations, moral situations that you have to evaluate and look at for yourself. There is a coming to grips, a connecting with, that has to occur every minute of every day. It’s a way of life. It’s not really a church thing. Once the path becomes big like that, you find that it must influence everything about you—from offering your food before you eat it, to closing your altar before you go to bed at night, to doing your daily practice, to thinking about everything that you do and re-evaluating it. Should I kill bugs? Should I actively work towards benefitting others? Where is prejudice in my life? These are some of the issues that you have to re-evaluate.

At some point, if the path is external and you have not come into intimate touch with it, when these things start coming up, they are going to be “stuff” you have to do. They are not going to be the love of your life. They are not going to excite you. Let’s say as part of your path you have to examine one of the Buddha’s teachings, “All sentient beings are equal.” That means you have to get rid of cultural, racial, religious, gender, even species bias.  All sentient beings are equal. What could be a more exciting and dynamic process than that? Wow!! Think about it!  What if you really did it right, if you went inside yourself and found that place where all sentient beings are equal? What if you made it your job to really know that? What if it was something that became so moving and overwhelming that it changed every aspect of your life?  What an exciting and dynamic process! How changed you would be!  How much more luminous, beautiful, noble your life would be from just that one little thought.

But that’s not what we do with the Buddha’s teachings.  We say, “All sentient beings are equal.  Okay, I’ll memorize that.  I guess that means I can’t kill anything. I guess that means that I really have to try to consider all things as equal. I guess it means I’m supposed to think that cockroaches and human beings are fundamentally equal in their nature.  I really don’t think that way, but it means that I have to remember that as being one of the rules.” Rules that are outside, that you don’t take responsibility for, that you don’t connect with, are deadening. They will kill you. They are bad. Rules that you take in as pieces of information, explore deeply and know for yourself, are empowering. They give you a sense of living for the first time.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.  All rights reserved

The Missing Link

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Marrying a Spiritual Life with Western Culture”

What is the missing link?  What causes us to shunt ourselves off in that direction and create a scenario whereby we either don’t relate deeply to our path or it cannot nourish us, or we find ourselves feeling dead inside? How does that happen? One of the things that you have to remember—and it’s really important to think about—is that it is more and more prevalent in modern society to not see some of the natural currents of life. This is particularly true in our country with our level of technology and all the civilizing factors that have come together to make us what we are.

For instance, here we are so technologically advanced and removed from certain natural occurrences that we rarely have the opportunity to see the beginning of life carried all the way through to the end of life. Unless we ourselves have had a baby and daddy went into the birth-giving room and mommy had a mirror—unless we do that—birth to us is a mystery. We do not see what birth looks like. We have pictures of it. We may have seen a movie, but the direct sensual experience of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling, we have not experienced. Even those of us who are parents are somehow absent from this experience because many people do not have a real direct experience of their own birth-giving. They go to sleep during it or they’re drugged or something like that.

Neither do we have an experience of dying. When we die, we will have that experience; but until then, it’s hidden from us. We have no way to prepare ourselves for the reality of death in our society. We have no way to understand what is gained and what is lost during a life.  Watching someone die is an interesting experience because you can see that everything material is left behind. You have a sense, once that consciousness has left the body, has moved on, that there is a really distinct difference between what the body is like at the door of death—even if it was unconscious—and what it’s like after consciousness has actually left. It’s quite different. Any of us who have seen loved ones immediately after their death will know this. You know that there is nothing in there, unless you’re completely out to lunch, which I also have seen! But you can see that something essential has left and that everything material has been left behind. It’s such an eye-opener, particularly if the person who has died is not very old.  Perhaps they were still at the point in their life where they took a great deal of pride in their body or thought of themselves as being very vital. You might remember different things about the person. You might remember that the person didn’t like their figure, felt that they were too fat. Maybe you know that during the person’s life they obsessed about this. They felt really bad about being fat and they tried to do things about it without success. Then you see that person die. When the consciousness leaves, you realize that everything they struggled with doesn’t matter. Whether that body was fat or skinny, it didn’t go with them.

An understanding of how superficial such a struggle is occurs when you naturally see the rhythms of life and death. Do you see what I’m saying? There is a natural understanding that no one else can teach you. You have to see it yourself.

To understand what we are, it’s also good to see a number of babies being born. Babies are different when they are born. Hospital nurses who care for babies right after they’re born can tell you this for sure.  Babies are not blank slates.  Some babies are very aggressive and very active, and you can tell that they have tiny, little, confrontational personalities already. They’re just that way.  And then other babies are just wide-eyed and open. They’re like little jelly fish. My two sons have always been polar opposites—from the first moment they were born.  A mother who has had more than one child can tell you that’s how it is.

Many of us are completely separated from these natural events, yet they teach us very profound things about how to approach spirituality. Even the story about the Buddha indicates this. At first the Buddha was prevented by his father from seeing the suffering of old age, sickness and death. After having witnessed these sufferings, he found the strength to go on in his path because of compassion, because of the deeply felt recognition that occurred to him on some subtle level.  That’s a metaphor for the problem of our society. What a display Lord Buddha gave us when he showed us that, because on several different levels we are prevented from seeing suffering by our society.

We take dead bodies away and put make-up on them. (Can you believe  that? I want all my make-up on my body before I die. I do not want someone to put it on after I’m dead.  All of you can remember this? That is not the time for a face lift.) On an internal level, because of these subtle messages that we get, we do not come in contact easily with any real internal processes. We avoid them in the same way we are taught to avoid them externally. We’re told, “Don’t go there, it’s not safe. Just don’t go there!”

We are told not to approach things in a really intimate way.  Now in the story about Lord Buddha’s life, when he saw the suffering, it bothered him, hurt him, upset him, scared him and shocked him, and he had to—oh my—go through transformation, that “T” word that scares us so much.  Transformation is related to change, the other word that really scares us.  So, yes, he had to go through all of that, but what was the result?  The result was he became deeply empowered and was able to make some very difficult choices.

He decided not to live an ordinary life in which he was extremely happy. He was a prince with all the blessings. He loved his family. He had a beautiful and devoted wife, and they were very close, very intimate.  He had a beautiful newborn child and was not a distant or absent or unconnected parent. He loved his greater family as well, his father and mother—the king and queen. But for the first time he saw the suffering of old age, sickness and death, and it moved him to his core and enabled him to make choices that are very difficult. He came to the point of deep knowing within himself, that if he wanted to really love his wife and his baby, he had to find the way to liberation for their sake. The phrase “for their sake” became real to him.  It’s not real to us.

 

Spirituality in the West

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Marrying a Spiritual Life with Western Culture”

How does our culture affect our sense of personal practice, our sense of taking refuge?  How does it connect with all of that?  We find ourselves in a difficult situation. We are really limited, and we can’t see where the limitation is coming from. We don’t know how deep we can quest or search, and how profoundly we can make the connection between the external environment, between the ordinary view, and our deepest, most intimate spiritual nature. We feel somewhat limited in knowing how we can make that connection.

Let’s look again at some very important factors.  Think of how we follow religion in our country. For the most part, here in the West, we believe religion is one of the many things that you should have in order to live a moral life.  It’s part of the palette of a moral life, but it may not be the basis of a moral life. This is kind of interesting, isn’t it?  Many of the people who are deeply religious, according to our society’s capacity, have adapted their religion from their upbringing. Somehow they got the message that in order to be part of that big, successful, materialistic picture you have to maintain a certain status quo concerning moral, ethical and spiritual issues. It isn’t your heart.  No, you wouldn’t want that, because that’s that flaky stuff. It’s really hard to have all that you’re supposed to have if this religious thing is so in your heart that it is your heart, that it speaks to you every minute, that all of your decisions are based on what you know to be true spiritually. There’s not much chance that you’re going to be the big accumulator your parents hoped you would be if you go like that. So religion is tamed.  It becomes insipid.  It becomes a thing that we do as part of the whole picture of who we are, but it does not really nourish us in the way that we want it to.  And we end up blaming the religion or the minister or the teacher or the prayers or something. In America, our religious spiritual picture is not empowered. It is not deepened, not in the way that would set us on fire. I don’t mean this in a fanatical way. I mean this in a way where we are never very far from what feels like spiritual truth, from what we know to be good, from what we know to be deep and meaningful. It is very difficult for us to maintain that kind of spirituality in this culture.

We are told, for instance, that in order to be a good person you have to do a certain amount of church-going. That church-going idea is deadly.  It’s really the antithesis of a spiritual path. And I find that here as well. Our Sangha also plays church. Whenever I see one of us do church-going, I don’t know what to do. That church-going thing drives me nuts!  When we come here, on the proper days—Sunday, during retreats and maybe for a midweek class—we think, “Well I’m here.  It’s Sunday and I’m fulfilling my spiritual obligation.”  We have that church expression: We look all spiritual and fulfilled and we say the nice things. Going to church in that way is deadening and disempowering.  It’s a very destructive way to approach our spiritual life. Our spiritual life is something that requires no church. It requires no temple. It is an ongoing, internal, profound experience to which we have to marry. We shouldn’t marry simply because we’ve come of age, which many of us do, but because we are truly wed in our hearts and our minds with a deeper kind of friendship and understanding regarding our spiritual path than we’ve ever known before.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.  All rights reserved

 

Where Are You on the Path?

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Marrying a Spiritual Life and Western Culture”

I don’t know how many times I can present this same teaching. It’s about understanding that the ball is in our court. It’s about having a direct hands-on experience, not about being a good boy or girl. Aren’t you sick of that?  This moralizing stuff has got to go! Instead, have a direct understanding, a natural wisdom—your wisdom—that dry times cannot take away from you, that broken hearts cannot take away from you, that no one else can take away from you. Your wisdom. You don’t look to anyone else to get your wisdom. You’ve got it inside. You understand the path in a deep way. You are empowered.

I’m not talking about ritual empowerment. I’m talking about a deeper, truer kind of empowerment.  How wonderful if we can know that spiritual empowerment deeply within ourselves, to then go through the process of ritual empowerment according to the teaching and know what it’s about.  It’s not just a vase (or a bhumpa) being knocked on your head.  You could do that from now until your head and the bhumpa are both flat, and there would be no direct relationship. If it’s all academic and intellectual, then it’s the same as getting a Ph.D. anywhere in technical sciences or whatever. It’s not really a path. A path is a way you go. A path is not an object that you consume or collect or put in your crock pot and boil all day until it makes gravy at night.  A path is where you are. Where are you then?

What I’m talking about is carefully considering how to overcome the limitations of confinement of our kind of society, of our kind of culture;  how to go more deeply to have a more direct relationship with our own spiritual nature—a real mystical relationship with that nature. And I don’t mean just meditating on some sort of internal cartoon circus where you think you’re getting messages from the Pleiades or some baloney like that. If you had a real, direct relationship with your own nature and you really understood the wisdom and the beauty of the Buddha’s teaching and didn’t see it as his teaching, but as a wisdom that appeared in the world here, you could see it as your teaching, as a wisdom that you could connect with.

Actually, we Westerners have a similar problem to what Black Americans have approaching Christianity. Black Americans pray to white Jesus. It’s not to say that their faith is small. I don’t know whether they have a problem with it or not, but it must be odd.  What does it look like seeing a white face on an altar when you’re a black person? Go home and look at all those Asian faces on your altar. They don’t look like us. What to do about it? How do you take refuge? How do you connect? It’s not about those pictures. It’s not about those faces.  It’s about you!  And it connects inside.

It isn’t about the shape of those eyes. It’s about what those eyes see. So you have to have that completely personal relationship where you look beyond that which is slanted or colored or this way or that way. It’s got to be a deeply personal relationship. To do that you must connect deeper than you’ve ever been before. We love to just skate over the surface of our experience of life. We’re even addicted to the highs and lows.

You can’t really understand why and how to take refuge by learning a set of equations or laws or rules. These can only function as guidelines. It’s really up to us to be powerful and strong and noble and knowing and awake on our path. Virtue cannot be collected. It has to be experienced, tasted, understood. Its nature must be understood.

This is not the news we want to hear. We want an easy religion.  We think, “Just tell us the ten things we have to do so that we’re not uncomfortable about dying.” I’m not saying those ten things are bad; they’re good, they’re wonderful. But where does it lead you? Aren’t you still the same scared little kid who was so neurotic because you are compressed with rules and society and with being told you can’t feel things. And now we’re going to do this with our religion too. Ten more times.

What if, instead of being a girdle that makes us out of touch just trying so hard to be good, we experienced our path—our method—in a wisdom way, in a connected way, in an in-touch way?   From that fertilization that happens when you really understand an idea and it causes you to go, “Ah-hah, therefore…”, from that point of view it’s like a plant or a tree coming up inside of you and growing. It bears fruit. It is a joyful thing, and you can see the fruit of your life. Most of us are so unhappy and so neurotic because we cannot see the fruit of our life and we do not understand its value. We haven’t tasted it. This direct relationship one can taste. It needs to be like that in order for us to really take refuge and not be lost little kids scared of dying, just trying to do the right thing—be good boys and good girls with a new set of rules—because maybe if we just had a new set of rules, maybe then we’d be good.

Instead of that, what if we were dynamically in love, inspired, breathing in and out on our path? The path can, in that way, be a companion, a joyfulness, a child of yours, a creation, a painting, something beautiful you’ve done with your life. You can’t make a beautiful painting by number. You have to make a beautiful painting from your heart.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.  All rights reserved

Living the Practice: Learning to Change

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Marrying a Spiritual Life with Western Culture”

Our job then is to get in, to make this faith more than a formalized external thing just like an exoskeleton. The only way to get in is by really understanding it, by really going through the process that empowers you, to see what the truth actually is. For instance, we’re told that cause and effect is for real. Cause and effect should be blatantly obvious to us by this time because most of us here are above five years old. But we don’t get it. Lord Buddha tells us that cause and effect really matter. If you engage in virtuous, loving, generous, kind acts, the results will be love, happiness, fulfillment, higher rebirth, all of these kinds of things. That seems pretty reasonable to me.

But if we don’t go through what it takes to truly understand this on a deep level, we end up approaching even this very visible piece of truth by saying, “Oh this is another thing I have to learn.”  I’ve seen my students do this—from my very oldest to the brand new ones. “From now on I’m going to do good things, because good things will get good results and I’m going to be happy.  Okay. Let’s see now. It’s 7 o’clock in the morning.  I will be out of bed by 7:15. Can I get a good thing done by 7:20?”  This is the way that we think. It’s by rote. A chicken can do this!  A parrot that can be taught to talk can learn these rules. But where is the heart of the parrot?

What if we could hear the Buddha’s teaching and say, “This is an amazing wisdom that has come into the world. The Buddha organizes this wisdom and says to us, ‘Virtuous actions produce excellent results.’”  What if we went through the process of really looking at this? What if we really tried to connect the dots? What if we looked at our own life experience? Yes, it’s hard to do. We know that. The reason it’s hard to do is that in order for you to examine what virtuous conduct looks like and how it relates to result, you have to determine what is virtuous conduct and what is non-virtuous conduct. In order to do that you have to face some terrible truths about yourself—for example, that you don’t always engage in virtuous conduct. The minute we get near that sucker we back off fast. Because isn’t religion supposed to make us feel better?  Well, yes, if it’s an opiate.  Well, yes, if it’s a drug—one of your many drugs.

Religion can be compared more to exercise. When we first start to exercise, especially nowadays, we join a club and  get an outfit. (I have some killer workout outfits, I want you to know.) We get an outfit and everything matches, the socks, the headband. Or else we jock out about it. Maybe everything doesn’t match, but it’s all cool.  And then we get in there, and we don’t work out or exercise because it feels good to lift vast amounts of weight over and over again. Not at first. In fact, at first there’s a lot of pain. You get on those machines, and the next thing you know you can’t move. So starting never feels good, but, afterwards—when you’re in shape and your body is tuned up and you’re strong—you feel great! It’s an organic thing. It benefits all your systems.  It comes up from inside of you. It changes everything about your life. It feels great. But initially, no. Most people stop with that initial stuff, don’t they? The minute it doesn’t feel good, that’s when they stop.

 

We do the same thing with religion. Can you see that?  We go into it with an outfit, and we do it until it’s a little uncomfortable, such as changing something about our lives or seeing something. Then we’re out of there, because we have the “don’t wannas.”  We don’t wanna; it doesn’t feel good.  We think, “I thought this was going to make me happy, and it really doesn’t.  It’s kind of depressing to think about reality.  I don’t want to.”

Now let’s look at a person who moves into making exercise part of their lives. You do it in a more directly related way. You learn something about it. You learn about the physiology of exercise. You learn that there are certain problems your body has that it doesn’t have when you exercise. Well, that’s one thing that will empower you to keep on going: You go for that goal of producing a certain result. Have you ever thought of that in your practice? Producing a certain result, instead of just putting in your time? There is a difference. With exercise we get to a certain point where we just begin to see—because we’re looking inside of ourselves and we’re looking in the mirror—that there is some result. The first time you see a result it can be a life-changing experience, if you work to integrate it into your life.

It’s just exactly like that with religion. Initially, you have to change. Change is not comfortable. We already know this. So initially you change and then after that you begin to connect the dots. You begin to see some cause and effect relationships. You begin to see that virtuous behavior actually does make you feel pretty good, and you explore that. You don’t take it for granted like a big dope. You work it out in your mind—work the numbers, work the equations. What feels good? Does it feel good to be in charge of your own internal progress?  I think so.  It doesn’t feel good to walk through life and just let life hit you like a truck. It feels good to walk through life in my practice, knowing in my heart that I am deeply empowered by this direct intimate relationship to spirituality. I know what kindness tastes like. I can see direct results from certain kinds of behavior patterns, behavior changes. I can see them directly in my mind. I feel comfortable with that. How is it that Tibetan monks have the same restrictions as our ordained and they are so much more comfortable with them? How is it that Tibetan lay people feel so much more comfortable with their lives? It’s because they have some kind of direct experience that makes it sensible and realistic and reasonable to conduct themselves in a certain way.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.  All rights reserved

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