My Three Rules

An excerpt from a teaching called Dharma and the Western Mind by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

As Westerners practicing the Dharma, we have a hard job ahead of us.  If we want to accomplish Dharma, and make Dharma stable, if we want to be fully instated in our practice, and if we want to be successful, we are doing so in a culture that is not really sympathetic to it. It is hard.  It is really hard.  We are doing so under circumstances in which we have to work, we have to eat and where nobody is going to pay us to pray. It is not going to be easy.  We have to stabilize ourselves with that pure intention to love and to do that we have to do three things.

These are my three rules of etiquette for newly starting practitioners and also for old ones.  First of all, give yourself a break, there are things on this path that you will not understand and you should not fall into the trap of saying, “This can’t be right, or this isn’t right.”  Give yourself a break, take time to let it fall into the slot that your Western mind is, just give it time to settle in. These concepts are very logical, they all make sense, they all work, and they are given to us by a fully enlightened mind which makes me think that they are worth more than a lot of other things that I have heard.  And they work.  It is a workable path.  If there is something that confuses you just say, “Okay I will just give myself some time about this. If I am not comfortable with the idea about being empty of self-nature let me first find out what that means before I decide that this is not good and once I find out I can make a better decision.”  So give yourself a break.

The next thing is to do the best that you can.  Don’t try to slide into Dharma, and don’t think that you can slide by.  Do the best that you can.  Cultivate that loving every day.  Don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking that you are too old, or too experienced, or too educated to learn the simple lessons that Buddha gives us that are associated with loving.  Do not think that you are too far advanced that you can no longer be taught compassion.  Don’t ever think that and please don’t think that you have come too far to learn and re-learn renunciation of ordinary things, because no one ever comes that far until we have reached supreme enlightenment. So do the best that you can.

The third thing is to take it slow and take it easy.  Try not to burn like paper – hot and fast.  Try not to burn like pinewood.  Try to burn like good aged oak or maybe even coal – slow and hot and stable.  The way that you build the stability on this path, as a Westerner, is by cultivating that slow, hot fire of loving.  Keep it going.  You don’t have to do anything crazy but you have to do something steady and stable.

Remember you have to practice this path till the end of your life so that you can fully accomplish it and so that you can truly be of benefit to sentient beings.  It is going to take some juice so please try to burn like good oak or coal, slow and hot.  Just think of yourself as a vehicle.  Think of yourself as a bowl, turned up, clean, pure, with no cracks, not turned over, and no poison of judgment or delusion at the bottom of it. Your mind is like a bowl.  Let yourself receive teachings in a very pure and uncontrived way.  In this way you will understand Dharma better.

Look for a good teacher and when you find that teacher you should take time to examine that teacher.  What is the teacher’s motivation? Can this teacher really offer me the path? Is this teacher really teaching the path that leads me to supreme enlightenment? You should examine these things and in a stable way, slow and easy, begin to accomplish Dharma.

In this way there is no doubt that you will achieve supreme realization.  There is no doubt that you will in this life and in all future lives be of some benefit to sentient beings.  Ultimately you will be of ultimate benefit to sentient beings, there is no doubt.

Keeping these things in your heart I hope that you will be cultivating that stability.  Do that and remember what a glorious and wonderful opportunity you have.  Please don’t waste this life.  It is so precious.

©  Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

The Bardo of the Moment of Death

process of dying

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo offered during a Phowa retreat:

Now, let’s look at the bardo of the moment of death. Our body is made up of four elements: They are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element. At the moment of death, and what death actually is from a metaphysical point of view, these elements begin to disengage. Here they are knit, you see, into a fabric. They are knit into what you think of as yourself.

I will explain. Flesh, the bones, and the solid constituents belong to the earth element. They are considered the manifestations of the earth element, and you can see that these are part of your body system. Blood, phlegm—which we have more of in the wintertime, isn’t that true—blood, phlegm and bodily fluids belong to the water element, and you know you have those, especially in the morning. Body temperature, metabolism, the raising of your body temperature to be warm, belongs to the fire element,. And you know that that is within your body, you can tell that you are warm. And respiration belongs to the air element.

What happens at the time of the death is that these elements begin to dissolve in their interconnectedness. They dissolve into their natural state, and their natural state, of course, separate and apart from our deluded perceptions, is the same as one’s own nature. It is the Buddha. In their natural state they are none other than the Buddha. Yet we experience them as fire, earth, air, water. We are taught in our practice to recognize them, because they will appear, even in the bardo state, disguised as the goddesses of fire, earth, air and water. And we still won’t recognize them. We still won’t recognize them. We won’t recognize anything in the bardo state unless we prepare for it and think ahead. But in fact, in their very nature, although we are afraid of them and afraid of the very feelings that we are feeling, when these elements begin to dissolve, still in all, these are also the Buddha. And even recognizing these elements in their nature is one step toward the path of liberation. So do not be afraid.

At the moment of death, the elements are absorbed into each other giving rise to a twin series of phenomena, both internal and external. I love the way this lama [Bokar Rinpoche] has put this, and so I’m going to utilize this and then I will elaborate. These are the conditions that indicate the actual moment of death, the passing into the bardo of death. First, the earth element is absorbed into the water element. How that is experienced externally is that the limbs can no longer be moved. And how that is experienced internally is that the mind begins to see things like mirages. That is the earth element absorbing into the water element. Then, the next stage is that the water element is absorbed into the fire element. Externally, that experience will be of the mouth and the tongue becoming quite dry. (I must be dying because I’m dry all year; it’s one of the signs. My limbs are moving, though! I’m really glad about that!) So externally, the mouth and tongue become dry, and internally we perceive smoke that passes us or rises up before us. You should take note of this. These are the experiences that you must rehearse seeing, because you will see them. Know them, rehearse them, prepare for them, expect them, and recognize them in their nature when you do. Do not be afraid, there’s nothing to fear. So we perceive smoke that passes us or rises up.

Next, the fire element is absorbed into the air element. Externally, heat leaves the limbs, moving from the extremities toward the center of the body. This is seen in a hospital environment when people die. They do actually have that progressive coolness that comes from the extremities into the center of the body. Internally, we will be seeing an array of sparks. An array of sparks. And then finally, the air element is absorbed into the individual consciousness. There’s a footnote here, and I’ll sum it up. Here, when he says ‘consciousness,’ he wants us to know that he’s referring to the consciousness that operated in a dual mode—grasping an object that is separated from a subject. That kind of mind of duality. So he’s talking about consciousness in the familiar way that we use it now. So finally the air element is absorbed into the individual consciousness. The external breath actually ceases. Internally, what we will see is something like the flames of flickering butter lamps. Flickers. Flickers. That will be the air element actually absorbing into our own consciousness.

Now here are some additional bits of information that I would like to add as a way of recognition. Here are some other signs that actually occur. This sign is associated with the earth element. The first dissolution is the earth element absorbing into the water element. a During this wave of dissolution of the elements, one of the experiences that we will feel— and we will all feel this—is the feeling of falling. A lack of safety. There is a feeling of falling. It depends on how the person is. If a person is semiconscious or unconscious they may actually feel themselves falling down a tube, or even falling across a tube. But there is a feeling of falling. For many people, and I would say the majority of people would feel this way, there is actually a feeling of the body falling and not being safe. You can help a person who is dying by placing pillows around them to make them feel as safe as possible and creating a nest, womb-like nest, even under the knees, even under the armpits, even under the arms, around the body, so that until the very last moment of their perceptual capacity they will still be able to feel nested, as though they are safe. Then when the other feelings are obviously beginning to occur you can begin to explain to the person. You can say things soothingly like, “Pay no attention to the feeling of falling. You are safe. You are not falling. You are with me.” That kind of thing. You can talk and it will help them.

The person who has had time to prepare will recognize the feel of falling and will be able to interpret it differently as perhaps a feeling of going, which does not have to have the fear of falling associated with it. You wonder if that feeling is actually going to come to you. Okay, have you ever fallen asleep and jumped? It’s the very same thing. There is the subtle dissolution of the elements as one enters into the dream bardo. That is similar to the death, but not as gross and heavy and final. So there’s the feeling of falling, and sometimes the person who is dying will do that a little bit. That is how you can tell that that is actually occurring.

When they talk about the mouth and tongue becoming dry, I’ve also heard that sometimes the person, right before death, will actually void what is in their body, or right at the time of death will actually void what’s in their body.  That is also an indication that this has begun to take place—that the water element is now absorbing into the fire element. And so you will see signs like that. Here, even in enlightened death—we’re talking about Kalu Rinpoche’s death—he needed to, he wished, he had the intention, the feeling, to get up and void himself, and prepare himself in that way. But that is an indication that the elements are already beginning to dissolve.

And of course, the feeling of cold, the feeling of the heat leaving the limbs. It is absolutely beneficial to the person as they are dying that you keep them as warm as possible, because their comfort during that transition time is very important. It will influence the way their mind accepts the experience. So keep them warm to the best of your ability. If before the death cycle actually occurs you could do something like what they would do in the old days, put a warm brick at their feet, put something warm at their hands, comforting, this is the time when you want to help the person keep their mind as comforted and relaxed as possible. So you do everything you can to help those feelings not to be so scary. And these are things that you can tell the ones around you to help you prepare for death, should you be the one experiencing this transition.

Finally, the air element is absorbed into the individual consciousness, as we spoke of, and that’s when the breathing stops. Now when the external breathing stops that does not mean that death has actually occurred, even though medically that’s what they look for. They look for the cessation of the breath. There’s actually a period of time during which, again, depending on the practice or the understanding or the inclination or the habitual tendency of each individual person, experience continues. When the outer breath stops, already visions have begun to arise, already images have begun to happen.  There are lights, there are colors. There are things occurring that are unusual.  There are visual things coming up. But the time in which we are actually considered dead, really dead, is after the external breath has stopped. And the other period of time, that is a very essential and crucial period of time, also passes. And that is the time between the stopping of the outer breath and the stopping of the inner winds. We have within us the air element. Its most gross display is our breath. Yet there’s more to it than that, because within us are psychic winds and channels that are not see-able by fleshy eyes.  Yet they still exist.

These psychic winds and channels have much to do with the condition of our minds. That is to say, if our minds are disturbed and neurotic and needy and always upset, that kind of mind, the winds that move within the psychic channels of that mind will be erratic. Like ‘puh, puh, puh, puh, puh,’ rather than ‘whoooooooooooo,’ kind of like that. They will be erratic.  The wind channels, the channels within, will be soiled and dirty, and sometimes misshapen and kinked. And so the inner experience then will be different for that kind of person than it is for a person who, say, has practiced and has kept their mind very kind and happy. The calmer and happy mind will have the inner winds moving through the psychic channels more calmly and serenely. Then when they stop, it will be a more calm and serene kind of experience. Also, that small moment of experience when only the inner winds are still operational and the outer breath has already ceased will be much different as well. That inner experience will be much different. So by all means, do not think that it’s goofy to try to keep yourself up and happy and peaceful and in a good mood. That’s not goofy, that’s great. That’s what you should do. It really is beneficial to you.  It really produces health, and you will live longer. You will definitely live longer if you can keep yourself up and happy and in good humor, peaceful in your mind. You will live longer.

At the end, there is a period of time between when the outer breath stops and the inner winds also cease. That, for the practitioner, is the most important period of time. The practitioner who has practiced Phowa will be very busy right then. The person who is helping the dying one through that particular period must know this: Once the outer breath has ceased, do not touch the body except at the very top of the head, right here  [the crown]. This is so important. Please, try to understand how important this is. I cannot emphasize it enough. Make arrangements for yourself; make arrangements for your loved ones. Write it down so that nobody screws it up. This is important, and here’s the reason why: Just as it is possible for each of us to go to any of those six realms of cyclic existence during the bardo of becoming, there is also an apparent method or exit point by which we go into those six realms. For the lowest hell realms, it is through the anus. That is literally how we go into those lowest realms. For  the secondary low realms, it is through the genital channels. The consciousness will actually leave the body through those channels, and that will absolutely write in stone and dictate the next experience. One can leave through the nostrils; one can leave through the mouth; one can leave through the ears. One can leave in many different ways. But the way to leave in order to achieve rebirth in the pureland is to leave correctly through the central channel out the top of the head. And we will get into how to do that. We will teach you how to do that. And we will prepare you for that, so that the channel is nice and clean and it’s easy to get out.

If you’re with somebody who’s dying, and if you touch them… A lot of times loved ones will make the mistake of holding a hand or patting a person on the thigh. What happens is that—the outer breath is already stopped, you see—inside, their cognition is very loose and fluid, very loose and fluid, and influenced by everything. That’s why you want to have their pillows nice. If you are a practitioner, if it’s possible, it’s best to be sitting up in the meditative posture, propped up with pillows if you can’t quite manage it. It’s best to be in that position because it is the best position for a peaceful mind. It is absolutely the best position for a peaceful mind. If a person around you makes the mistake of touching the wrong part of your body when you’re in that highly suggestive and fluid state, the person dying may leave through the wrong exit, literally. Just that little condition can be very troublesome. And so, do not draw the person’s attention to any place else other than the very top of their head right there. In fact, if you can, as the person’s outer breath ceases and their inner breath is still going, you may take a little bit of the hair right there [top of head] and tug. Internally, the person’s attention will go up that way and their consciousness will follow. Even if they’ve done no practice, it will help. Or you can rub, or you can tap. Again, set it up so that someone will help you with this when the time comes. Or so that you can help others when the time comes. That point is a very important point.

The things that are happening to us we’ll have to learn a little bit later. I’m sorry about that. I really need to get all of this out. We have too much to do this week, but this is fascinating stuff. You’ll be interested in this.

After the outer breath has ceased and the inner winds are beginning to die down and are now in the process of cessation, these are the inner images that will be experienced by all of us. How we experience them may vary, but if you learn to recognize them in this form you will recognize them in any form that is particular to your characteristic form of perception. So there will be variations in your own individual experience, but again, practicing and hearing this teaching, you will understand. You will get the lay of the land, and you will be ready.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

 

 

Removing the Blinders

Turn-the-lights-on

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Why P’howa?”

One thing that happens as we are turning the mind toward Dharma is we literally begin to examine the condition of cyclic existence,  We come to understand that we are not the only ones that are wandering in cyclic existence. All sentient beings that we see of all types, not only counting those that are human but also animal sentient beings and sentient beings that live in other realms, these too are wandering aimlessly and are suffering.  So we begin to develop a sense of empathy through examination.

Now some people might think “Gee, what a downer!  Why would you want to examine the suffering of others?  Better to close one’s eyes and think happy thoughts.”  There is a time and place for closing one’s eyes and thinking happy thoughts.  There is a time for joy and a time for happiness. And the kind of joy and happiness that is healthful and that increases our ability to attain liberation and to have happiness is the kind of joy that is not the same as suppression of information.  It is the kind of joy that is not the same as closing one’s eyes and being blind to cause and effect relationships.  It is an all-pervasive natural kind of joy that is in harmony with our true nature, and is the very display of our nature.  That joy promotes health and well-being, promotes longevity; and it is born of moral and ethical and compassionate conduct.

The kind of joy that we are giving ourselves when we try to fake it, literally fake it through our lives, ignoring all the bad news and just playing the way children play in the sandbox, picking and choosing what we want to think about and what we want to see, that is a joy that is an artificial recipe.  It is a joy that exists in the same world with suppression, ignorance and lack of information. That joy is not healthy for us because it does not promote longevity, it does not promote happiness.  It is literally like this: Let’s say we were to take all the chairs that are in this room and distribute them throughout the room in a haphazard way and then pile in a few more pieces of furniture, and  wait til it’s pitch-black midnight. Turn off all the lights, close all the curtains until it’s absolutely pitch dark in this room.  Then try to negotiate going through this room.  Would you like to negotiate going through this room, just trying to feel your way through with all of its furniture upturned and barricaded and brought up in your way and that sort of thing?  Would you like to go through the room, getting from this door to that door? And let’s imagine that door is the ultimate door, the one we need to get out of.  We must get out of that door for whatever reason.  Would you like to go from this door to that door with the lights off or with the lights on?

I don’t know about you, but I’m a sensible, practical kind of girl and if I have to make a journey, I want to know the facts.  I want to go with the lights on.  I want to turn the lights on so that I can walk around the furniture, go under it, step over it, do whatever it takes to negotiate this scary passage through samsara. It makes no sense to close the eyes and not take in information and pretend, suppress the facts in order to go from one place to another, because you will surely fail.  You will surely hurt yourself and have a very painful journey in the process.

So for this reason we must examine cyclic existence. We must examine the condition of sentient beings, and we must examine our own condition in order to truly turn our minds toward Dharma.  Once we have seen the faults of cyclic existence and seen the good results of understanding, of growing in understanding, and the joyfulness of virtuous and moral and ethical conduct and compassion, we will develop the habit of wanting to know, of opening the mind, of having the mind be very much like a bowl, a very pure thing in which nectar can be poured.  We will crave information.  We will crave practice.  We will literally crave turning on the light so that we can understand.  If we do not crave now, if we wish to remain in ignorance and darkness because it is easier or because we like being drunk, it is simply because it is our habit to do so and that does not excuse us from the need to change.

Develop a new habit.  You can see that that young person who partied down and worshipped the porcelain god every weekend morning, literally is watching their well-being go down. We on the outside can see that that needs to change, but that person, in the flux of their own ignorance, cannot see that that needs to change.  So I am pointing these things out to you so that you can make new and acceptable decisions in your lifetime so that you can actually turn your mind toward Dharma.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

 

Love For All Beings

[Adapted from an oral commentary given by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche in conjunction with a ceremony wherein he bestowed the bodhisattva vow upon a gathering of disciples at Namdroling in Bozeman, Montana, November 1999. —Ed.]

Think about all living beings that at some time or another, throughout the course of innumerable past lifetimes, have been your own kind father or mother. Consider how a mother will do anything for her child—even give her own life, without hesitation. Consider how all living beings have been that kind to you at some time in the past—not just once, but countless times, in countless different circumstances and situations over the course of countless lifetimes since beginningless time. Consider also that to not think carefully about repaying kindness, and thereby to go through your life without the intention to truly benefit parent sentient beings, and so to actually ignore them, is truly shameless.

Many people in the West may think, “Wait a minute! My parents were not very kind to me. In fact, we are not even close, and I don’t even like them, so why should I feel that I need to repay their kindness now?” If that is what you think, then take a moment to think about how you acquired your body. Is it not due to the kindness of your parents that you have your precious human body? From the time your consciousness entered the union of your father’s seed and your mother’s egg, your mother carried you in her own body. Her body nurtured you as you grew within it. Then with pain and difficulty she gave birth to you. Her kindness did not just stop there: for many years she cared for you and lovingly fed, cleaned, clothed, and wiped you; she provided shelter and cared for you when you were sick, and then she protected you and looked out for you constantly. If you think you don’t need to repay the kindness of your parents, just remind yourself of those events, which you were the recipient of time and time again.

If that still does not change your attitude, so that you still do not understand the kindness your parents showed you, then think about your body, the gift of your body, which is who you are; your parents gave you that. Because your parents showed you the great kindness of giving you your body, your precious life, here you are. Sure you had the causes for your precious human rebirth, but without parents you wouldn’t have your body. And you didn’t have your body, you wouldn’t be able to receive these vows.

In our present state of ignorance, we have an inability to recognize that all beings have been our parents in the past, and we certainly don’t know what the particular situations and circumstances of those lifetimes were. Nonetheless, it is certain that we have had countless sentient beings as our parents over and over again in countless past lives. The truth is, at the present time we just do not recognize that.

Imagine you are on the bank of a river with your mother and suddenly she falls in and is being carried away by the rushing water. There you stand on the bank, watching that happened. What would you do? Would you do something to try to save her, such as throw out a rope? Or would you turn your back and walk away rather than risk your own life? Would you be concerned for her, or would your concern be only for yourself? The intention of the hearers and solitary realizers can be likened to this latter case, while the intention of the Mahayana practitioners can be likened to the former. While it is important to develop attraction toward peace, you should never for any reason, be attracted to the quiescence of the hearers and solitary realizers.

From “THE PATH of the Bodhisattva: A Collection of the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva and Related Prayers” with a commentary by Kyabje Pema Norbu Rinpoche on the Prayer for Excellent Conduct

Compiled under the direction of Venerable Gyatrul Rinpoche Vimala Publishing 2008

What Are Your Hopes?

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Mindfulness of Cyclic Existence”

Buddhist philosophy speaks of the emptiness, or the illusory quality, of all phenomena.  If self does not exist in the way that we think it does and the only true reality is the primordial wisdom state, then phenomena cannot exist in the way we think it does either because all phenomena seem to us to be something external. That perception is born of the belief of self-nature as being separate. All phenomena are perceived as external, as inherently real. The only way that phenomena can be understood is by understanding that they are separate from self. Self ends here; other begins there. And really, that is how perception comes about if you look at the perception of your own mind. That is what your perception consists of. This is universally true. It doesn’t indicate that you are a good person or a bad person; it’s simply universally true.

Buddhist philosophy speaks of a natural awakened state, a state in which perception does not depend on division, but instead is a pure experience that is free of conceptualization, free of focus in the way that we have focus. It is a pristine and luminous state. And in that state, which, of course, is the goal in this philosophy, hope and fear have no place. Again, hope and fear are dependent upon the perception of phenomena as being separate. They are dependent on the belief of self-nature as being inherently real. In this system at least, the idea of hope and fear revolves by necessity around the idea that separation exists in such a form that self – you, I – can either have something or not have something, that happiness can be controlled by having or not having, that all the experiences that are uniquely human actually revolve around having or not having. If you think about all of the goals that we’ve had in our lives, all the things that we were taught by our parents and by our schools, they are all based on that dualistic perception. They are all wrapped around hope and fear.

This is a tremendous difficulty when one sets out to understand Buddhist philosophy. If you say to a Westerner, hope and fear are not so great, they only serve to make the mind unstable, the first thing that any red-blooded American will do is completely freak out. We do that because we were brought up with hope being a noble thing. I was born in 1949, and I remember some of the leftover consciousness that my parents had from the war—something inbred into the society or the culture at that time. Even though they were no longer directly involved in war, it was very noble to be very patriotic, to have a great deal of hope in the American way, to have a great deal of fear that the American way would be taken away. There was something from that time that I think has since been more firmly planted in our society than ever it was before, even though we were founded on revolution. Of course, there is hope and fear involved in that concept as well. At any rate, it becomes so important to us that even now in this New Age, this Aquarian Age, or whatever it is that we are in the middle of, even now a person is considered to be right-minded or to have the right attitude if no matter what life deals us, no matter what happens to us, no matter how we suffer or how sick we are or how miserable we are or how awful we feel, we rise anew every day refreshed and face the day, like a good American person. This kind of attitude is considered really, really admirable, really the way to go.  In fact, it is considered that if one has this attitude that things will somehow work out.  It’s not for me to judge whether that’s good or bad; I am only trying to isolate the idea so that we can look at it.

We also have the idea that we should have almost a priority list of things that we are hopeful about.  Actually, in our society, if you were to walk up to an ordinary, mainstream moral majority person – now, perhaps meditators are a little bit different – but, if you walk up to any one of them and say, “What are your hopes? Come on, what are your hopes? This is America. What are your hopes?” they would give you a list of what their hopes are. If there is a person that you walk up to and say, “What are your hopes?” and they say, “Well, I’m okay. I am living from day to day. I try to remain in the moment, I try to experience each moment in its fullness, and I find that that’s enough for me. I find that if I remain mindful of the fullness of each moment and live right there and don’t really think too much about hope and fear, don’t really plan too much, but remain spontaneous…” In our culture, that person is a failure. That person is considered to be inappropriate. That person’s parents would probably not be too proud of them, and I find that in myself. When my children say I am doing just fine today and that’s all I want to think about, my American motherhood just goes “sssss.” Everything inside of me tenses up and wonders what is going to happen to my poor child.  It’s so much a part of us. I am saying that we don’t even realize that.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.  All rights reserved

Pulling the Threads: Hope, Fear and Stabilizing the Mind

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Mindfulness of Cyclic Existence”

The subject of this teaching is the difficulty that Westerners have in coming to grips with some of the concepts that are foundational to Buddhism. They are so foundational as to be almost invisible at times. Yet the concepts are difficult for us because we have our own concepts and philosophies that argue against these that are also so foundational that they are practically invisible. They are so much a part of the fabric of our perception and our thinking that we often don’t realize these thoughts are affecting us deeply.

What happens is that when we try to get a grip on Buddhist philosophy, or when we try to become mindful in a constant way, we find that there is difficulty. We may not understand what that difficulty is, or we may find that even without our knowing we have a very superficial understanding of Buddhist concepts, or we may find that we feel there is some superficiality about our approach to the path. Yet we can’t seem to get a grip on it.  We can’t seem to understand what it is that is bothering us.

I think that this particular subject is not only of importance to Buddhists, or to those that are even thinking about becoming Buddhists, or even to those that are peripherally Buddhists, but I also think it’s a subject that bears recognition by anyone who does any meditation of any kind.

In Buddhist philosophy, a tremendous amount of thought and energy goes into making one understand how to stabilize the mind. In fact, if you could boil down Buddhist philosophy, and even Buddhist practice, the underlying goal would be how to stabilize the mind. It’s a difficult concept to understand because we as Westerners and Americans have our particular idea of what stabilizing the mind must be like. In one way, we could understand stabilizing the mind by understanding the opposite. We think of a person who is unstable as being mentally deranged or something like that. We don’t realize that most ordinary people, according to Buddhist thought, have unstable minds. We don’t realize that this is actually one of the symptoms or conditions that is prevalent in what Buddhists call samsara, or cyclic existence. But in fact this is true, and we must learn to recognize the lack of stability in our own minds.

One of the first ways in which that lack of stability is addressed is by addressing the attachment or the attraction that we have, or even the grasping that we have, toward hope and fear. This is something that you hear about again and again and again in the Buddha’s teaching: how attached we are to hope and fear, how difficult hope and fear are, and how these things lead to an unstable mind. It’s very hard for Westerners to understand. I would like to describe some of the Buddhist thought on the attachment to hope and fear, but more I would like to concentrate on why it is that Westerners have such a difficult time with this concept. If we can understand why we have such a difficult time with it, we may understand that in one way we have never really isolated the ideas of hope and fear, put them out in front of us so that we can really examine how much a part of the fabric of our minds these concepts are.

As a Westerner, there is actually an underlying – and even, I think, overt attitude – that is considered to be admirable or noble. We certainly have our particular norms, our own particular standards, our own particular attitudes that are unique to the Western world and specifically unique to Americans. Without going to the trouble of isolating all of them, I’d like to say that we have a certain picture or image that we’ve grown up with. Of course, it changes from generation to generation, but until very recently not that much. Still, there are some threads that continue generation to generation. We have our own particular image, our own particular ideal. What usually happens is if we grow up with an image or an ideal, it becomes so much a part of us, so ingrained, so woven into our particular emotional and mental and philosophical tapestry, that we don’t notice it, in the same way that you might look at a woven blanket and see a certain array of colors within the blanket. You really wouldn’t pick out the pink in there or the blue, or really isolate them in that way. In the same way, we have attitudes that are woven in. They are part of our structure. Therefore, they are never pulled out. The thread is never pulled out, never really isolated. Hope and fear certainly are in there, and our particular attitude toward hope and fear, as a Westerner, should be examined. When looked at next to the Buddhist ideas about hope and fear, we might come to some shocking awareness.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.  All rights reserved

How We See Enlightenment

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Guru Yoga”

If Guru Rinpoche is the Nirmanakaya form of the Buddha, we should also think that he is Enlightenment itself, that what we are seeing is merely the tip of the iceberg.  It’s the way in which that function of enlightenment appears in the world.  Is it always so?  Does enlightenment appear in the world?  Why does it?  What is it when it appears in the world and what is it when it doesn’t appear in the world?  What is it, actually?

Very hard to describe what enlightenment actually is.  Because when we describe enlightenment, it’s like looking at the sky through a tiny peephole.  You can’t really get what it is.  You might be able to see the spaciousness of it. You might even be able to hook into a star. You might even be able to describe color and the way the star glimmers.  But from looking through a peephole, you simply cannot understand what the sky is.  It’s impossible.  And from our point of view, it is impossible to understand what enlightenment is by looking as we do through our little peephole.

We can only understand enlightenment really in terms of what it is not.  We can understand, for instance, that enlightenment is the state free of conceptualization.  We can understand that it is a state free of contrivance.  We can understand that it is a state unlimited by ordinary view, ordinary perception.  But we can’t really understand what else there is.  In fact if you described “some thing else,” you’ve lost the pristine nature of enlightenment, because if you do that, you are conceptualizing.  You are limiting, and you are contriving, an image or an experience.  That’s the way our minds work.  That’s the only way that we have.

When the Buddha described himself, he described himself as being “awake”.  Simply that.  We can’t even understand what that means because we immediately want to say, “Awake to what?  And what were you asleep in before?”  We try to understand in those ways. It’s either/or, black or white. Our minds hook on to something.  And for that reason, we cannot fully and completely understand enlightenment.

In short, enlightenment has been described as the primordial wisdom state, that state which is like luminosity.  But it isn’t luminosity because when we think of luminosity, we think of light and light is “some thing.”  This state called enlightenment is not a thing at all.  It is beyond “thing-ness” and “no thing-ness.”  It is beyond form and formless.  It is beyond self and other.  It is beyond up and down.  It is beyond hot and cold.  It is beyond dark and light.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.  All rights reserved

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