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

Deepening on the Path: The Importance of “Caring”

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called, “Bringing Virtue into Life”

If your eyes are open at all, you have seen that you have often boxed your own ears, that you have often hurt yourself by engaging in non-virtuous activity that has brought you suffering.  Maybe you’ve had time to see a little bit of that.  But I’ll tell you that according to the Buddha’s teaching, and this is the truth, every bit of non-virtuous behavior that you have engaged in will bring about unhappiness. So it’s not logical to engage in non-virtuous behavior and that includes the lesser non-virtuous behaviors.  The big ones like killing, we can get that.  Killing, stealing, that sort of thing, but what about simple selfishness?  What about judgment of others?  What about just not giving a big flip?  Not caring?  What about reading the newspaper and thinking “Wow millions of people are starving over there.  Too bad.”  You don’t think that’s a non-virtue?  That’s how we read the paper, every day.  Of course that’s a non-virtue. We’re not caring.  We’re not praying for them.  We’re not sending them anything.  We’re not doing anything to help.

The Buddha also taught us that virtuous behavior brings about happiness, but we have exactly the opposite idea.  Most of us don’t like to practice, for instance.  We don’t like to sit down and practice.  Who likes to sit down for two hours at a stretch?  I don’t know about you, but I get fanny fatigue big time.  Two hours at a stretch.  That is not how I want to spend the day.  So we think like that.  We think “Oh, you know, if I sit down today and practice for two hours, I’m really going to suffer!”  So we have this weird idea that virtuous activity like practice is going to bring about unhappiness, and it’s because of our lack of understanding.  What we don’t realize is that yes, while we have maybe the antsy-ness or the fanny fatigue or whatever it is that we get, ultimately that two hours of practice will ripen. And when it ripens it will be like a precious jewel within your life.  At some point there will be an event or a change or a lift or a gift or something that you very much need in your life. It will appear as though out of nowhere. and it can be directly traced to previous virtuous behavior.

The Buddha also teaches us that if we offer even something, if we’re very poor and all we have is something simple like a candle or a butter lamp. If we offer only that, placing it on an altar and with a full and generous heart visualize it as being everything that we have, everything that we could ever have and offer it to the Buddha and the Dharma and the Sangha and particularly to the Lama as the representative of all three, then let that merit be used to benefit sentient beings.  What we don’t realize is that while that took some time out of our busy day, yes, and we did have to prepare a butter lamp or light the candle or whatever hardship we had to engage, still we have created unbelievable happiness for ourselves. Actually, the Buddha has taught that if we could manage to make that offering with complete and total absorption in the expanse of that generosity, then we would be reborn eventually in unmovable samadhi, complete happiness, because we are engaging in the kind of activity that creates the habitual tendency of supreme generosity.

We are taught also to make offerings of our body, speech and mind.  For instance, we visualize that our body becomes like food and we offer our bodies.  Of course, we don’t cut off pieces of ourselves.  Nobody would want to eat that anyway, I don’t think. But we do visualize our body as being transformed into this nectar that nourishes all sentient beings, and without holding on to ourselves, we offer ourselves in that way. So we offer our bodies to benefit sentient beings.  We offer our speech to benefit sentient beings.  We practice so that what comes out of our mouth will be of benefit to others, such as mantra or teaching about Dharma or some spiritual advice.  We try very hard to give our speech to benefit sentient beings. And we offer our minds as well to benefit sentient beings.  We make that offering. The way that we practice that offering is by no longer using our mind as a vehicle by which to accomplish nonvirtue. Instead we use our mind as a vehicle by which to accomplish virtue for the sake of sentient beings. That is the true meaning of offering our body, our speech and our mind.

Many practitioners unfortunately say that.  They say “I offer my body, speech and mind” and they make all kinds of grand gestures but, boy, when it comes down to the clinch, they ain’t offering nothing, and that’s the truth.  Not a thing.  It isn’t happening.  So we, as Dharma practitioners, have to learn how to practice more deeply than that in order to assimilate the causes for true happiness.  It is that kind of virtuous activity that we have to engage in.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo.  All rights reserved

Examining the Waterfall

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Bringing Virtue Into Life”

My experience has been that here in the west, when students come to Dharma, when they embrace Dharma and even when they’ve been practicing Dharma for a long time, they have the attitude that we, as people, are going to that church or that temple which is out there somewhere. It’s an incorrect attitude that bears examining.   We go there and we act in a certain way according to the beliefs of that church or that temple, and then we go home and we continue on with our lives as though our lives have not been changed, as though nothing has been heard at this church or temple that is relevant to our lives.  We don’t even realize that we’ve done that, but it’s such a deep prejudice that each of us has—this idea that one’s spiritual life or one’s religious life is somehow separate from the rest of one’s life.  For westerners it is a deep prejudice to the point where it is almost invisible.  It is so much a part of us that it has become, in a sense, part of our background, part of the landscape within our minds.  It’s hard for us, at least, to pick this out and say “Look at that.  I act this way when I’m around the temple and I’m thinking about Dharma and I’m thinking about the Buddha’s teachings. Specifically when I’m doing particular Dharma practice, I act this way.  Then I go home and I proceed as though I had never heard of it.”

We don’t even realize to what extent we do that.  Oh, it’s not to say that we don’t hear anything and we don’t try to do anything with our practice.  For instance, if a teacher were to say to us “All right, now I’ve given you this empowerment.”  And often when a teacher gives empowerment,  the teacher will say “Now I’ve given you this empowerment, I need something from you in exchange. And what I need from you in exchange is the commitment to good moral conduct,” let’s say.  Or “What I need from you in exchange is the commitment to never kill or harm another living being.”  So when we have a directive like that we can fixate on that.  We can put that in our pocket.  That’s a direct order.  We can hear that.  That’s something we can carry around and it’s easy.

Maybe we go home and maybe we don’t kill anything anymore.  Maybe we do things like, instead of getting out the old fly swatter, we capture the flies and we take them outside. So that’s our big effort as a Buddhist.  The flies are thrilled.  But the rest of what the teacher taught—those thoughts that should gentle the mind and turn the mind toward Dharma, that should make us see more clearly, that should make us live better and in a higher way, a more responsible way—these things we often miss.  These things we don’t carry home with us.

A good “for instance” is the idea that samsara, or the cycle of death and rebirth, is tricky, seductive, that it is a narcotic, that samsaric living deludes us into a feeling of safety.  In fact, our lives are samsaric lives. Since we have been born, they are involved in the cycle of birth and death. Our lives, in fact, according to the Dharma teaching, pass as quickly as a waterfall rushing down a mountain.  This is an excellent example.  This is something that every teacher will teach you the first time they see you; and they will teach you every time they see you until the last time they see you.  In one form or another, you will hear this same teaching and these are some of the thoughts that we are taught that turn our mind toward Dharma.  That’s an interesting thought, and actually that’s a very interesting image.  It’s a perfect image, in fact, by which this teaching can be taught. The reason why is that when you look at a waterfall rushing down a mountain, you might see a waterfall that has been rushing down a mountain for hundreds of years, thousands of years.  You could go to someplace where there is a very high mountain.  Perhaps there’s been a waterfall there for a thousand years and you might think to yourself “My life is going to be as fast as a waterfall rushing down a mountain.  Good deal.” Except that’s not how it’s meant, you see, because what the Buddha is talking about is that, if you took one cup of water and dropped it from the top of the waterfall, it would be down at the bottom of the waterfall in a flash.  You couldn’t even follow it with your eyes, it would happen so fast, and that is how fast our lives pass.

Now when we are looking at our lives, we look at them the way we look at a waterfall going down a mountain.  We don’t see the cup of water.  We don’t think like that.  We don’t want to think like that!  Who wants to think like that?!  We see the waterfall as being something stable, so this analogy becomes perfect.  When we look at our lives, the evidence is clear. I don’t know about you, but I don’t look the same way as I did ten years ago.  Do you?  Even if you are 20, ten years ago you were ten.  You still don’t look the same way as you did ten years ago.  When you are 45, you know you don’t look the same way as you did when you were 35.  So the evidence is clear and you see it every morning.  You see it every morning when you brush your teeth or you do your hair or shave, or whatever it is that you do.  You know about it.  In fact, you’re playing this little game with yourself.  I know because we all play this little game.  Trust me on this.  Especially the women can really identify this.  We play this little game with ourselves.  We’re not graying because we can go to the hairdresser and he will fix it.  Every now and then we get really brave when the guy is up there fooling with our hair and putting the glop on.  We say, “O.K., how bad is it?  How gray am I?”  And I don’t know about your hairdresser, but my hairdresser takes my hand and lovingly speaks to me and says “You will never be gray.  I will help.”  So the delusion goes on.  See?  It simply goes on, and we’re not facing it.  We’re not facing the fact that this thing that we are most afraid of is actually happening.

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

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