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

Let’s Get Practical

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The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo offered during a “Good Heart Retreat”

How can we possibly move in the direction of encouraging spiritual centers, churches, whatever, to take responsibility for the community around them without prejudice and without distinction? Let’s say, as Buddhists, we would be interested in the welfare of the Baptists in Poolesville, or the Catholics or the Jews, or anybody, or the people that don’t have religion. What kind of plan would it take? What would we have to implement to encourage that? What kind of power could you wield to get the attention of other spiritual organizations to ask them to join you in participating? Relatively speaking, we’re the new kids on the block. I mean who’s going to listen to us? If they were going to listen to anybody, they’d probably listen to the big religious names in this country, whatever they are. So why would they listen to us? Well, actually, I think about the worst thing that we could do is preach about it. I think that if we do that we’ll never be able to accomplish our goal. It seems to me that the best way to try something like that is quietly and humbly, and maybe even invisibly. Slowly, slowly, slowly. Simply finding ways to take care of your community.

I found out a couple of years ago that there was a family in Poolesville, just two people that one of my sons told me about, a mother and a son; and they had nothing to share with each other for Christmas. They were the kind of family where they have money for the electric bill and a certain amount for groceries, a certain amount for rent; and beyond that there is no discretionary income. So there was no way to save up for Christmas, which here is so abundant. You know, we’re not even Christians and we’re so abundant with Christmas. We love it. We think it’s a beautiful holiday, and we love the spirit of it, and we give each other gifts, and that sort of thing. But here were people who couldn’t even celebrate their own religious holiday, except in a spiritual way, I guess, for they had literally nothing to give one another. And so, actually, I’m not saying this to pin any medals on myself, but the reason why I’m telling you this is because it was easy for me to do. It was like no big deal. I had a bunch of stuff. One thing I’ve got a lot of is stuff. Stuff comes to me. I don’t know how stuff comes to me, but it comes to me a lot. Particularly, the little crystal candy dishes. For some reason, for years and years and years, my Sangha would give me crystal candy dishes. I have enough crystal candy dishes to supply an entire crystal store. So I have stuff, and I’m deeply appreciative of all the gifts that I get and I say thank you very much, put it away for somebody else, because someday I’m able to share some of that with others. It doesn’t mean you don’t get the merit. You all still get the merit, don’t worry. In fact, you get more merit.

So I put together a package of stuff for this family, and I was able to share some of the gifts that we had that we didn’t really need. And it just also so happens that this woman was the same size as I am, so I gave her a lot of clothes. So that was really great, and what happened was these people came and they spent some time with us. The karma’s not there for them to become Buddhist, but I was never expecting that. I don’t care. What I do care about was for them to be touched by a little bit of love and to look at our community and say, ‘Wow!’ Now that’s something, isn’t it? That’s something—to take care of a family in your community because they don’t have something and you do. That’s a powerful statement. You don’t have to talk about it. You certainly don’t have to preach about it. You simply have to do it.

Not all of us have a lot of stuff like me. You may not have that glorious karma that invites all those candy dishes or ducks into your house. I used to get ducks a lot, too. One of my teachers used to call me Duckie. So I got ducks you wouldn’t believe. All kinds of ducks. You may not be fortunate enough to have stuff like that, but supposing you knew how to get it. Supposing you had friends that had stuff. Or supposing you had connections with stuff. Or supposing you had an abundance of courage to where you could walk around to people that have more and say, ‘Would you share with the people that have less? Would you help us with this? We’d like you to know that your neighbor a few doors away is not having such an easy time. Would you help us with this?’ Just a simple request, yes or no. All they have to say is no if they don’t want to do it. What if we thought that way as a community? And what if we made no secret of the fact that we intend to take care of this piece of the world? You know, we could start a trend. It’s interesting to me that if you look at the media now and you look at films, you look at books, you look at what’s in the news, what’s noteworthy, Buddhism actually has become quite a fad. Who’d a thunk it! It’s become quite popular. The movie stars and the musicians are liking it now. You know what that means! We’re in.

What if this idea became a trend? It’s not so unthinkable that this could happen. Being not at all practical, being a little dumb about how things work in the world, I don’t see any reason why not. Don’t bust my bubble. I don’t want to hear that ‘no way to get there from here’ crap. What if our community could be a visible presence, like a visible good heart, that all could partake of? We’re talking about overcoming the poisons in our own mind-stream. We’re talking about demonstrating the Buddha’s teachings, the Buddha’s statement of the equality of all that lives, of the need for all beings to be happy, of their difficulty in attaining happiness. What would be so tragic about walking our talk? Why couldn’t we do this?

It seems to me that people of another faith might not be interested in giving to a Buddhist temple. Why should they? They’re doing their thing, and we’re doing our thing. Everybody’s so separate. Wouldn’t it be something if a number of community churches and temples could gather together and make some kind of non-profit organization through which funds could be funneled to mutually benefit and blanket the entire community without regard to race or religion? I don’t think it’s so impossible. The thing is there have already been studies that have shown us that in this country alone, there’s enough money to feed the world. Poverty doesn’t have to exist. We have the power now, immediately. What if the Buddhists in this country became available, really available to their community? And what if it started a trend? And what if it continued and grew?

I’d like to see that happen. And what I would like to do is to have some of you who are inclined to perhaps think of some different plans, ways to work stuff like this out. Let’s start toying with the idea. Let’s start playing with it a little bit, just to see what we can come up with. Let’s find ways that we can be available to our community without discrimination, and without ever requiring of anyone that they change their religion or anything like that. Let’s just think that as a spiritual people, as a spiritual community, the buck stops here. To me that is one of the most outrageous and gorgeous dreams that we could aspire to together. I think it’s really cool. If there’s any reason why it can’t be done, please don’t tell me, because I want to fly just like the bumblebee. I don’t want to hear it.

So let’s start tossing that idea around as a spiritual community. We have smart people here. How many of you are professional smart people in this group? Come on, don’t be shy. Okay, so you professional smart people, I’m kind of dumb. I don’t know anything very much. I don’t know too much about this world, so you’re going to have to find a way for dumb little old me to express this dream. You people who know about organizing stuff, which if any of you looked at my closets, you know I don’t know anything about it. You know about organizing stuff and you know about making foundations and you know about talking to other people, and you know about what kinds of formats we could use to spread this idea. So as part of your good heart effort on a communal level, why don’t we start thinking like this? Start pushing this idea around; start playing with it a little bit. Let’s build a big fantasy about this, and let’s do it. What could happen except we go broke? We’ve been broke for so long we wouldn’t even notice. Hey, I’ll sell my candy dishes. But I’m just dumb enough to not know why we can’t do this. And so I think that, as usual, I have the dumb, impractical, unrealistic idea and you get to make it happen.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

 

Listen to Your Life

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

One of the great difficulties we have as practitioners and people involved in a materialistic culture is that we have very little understanding of the longing we feel for the Guru.  In a culture that has a spiritual foundation, in a culture that recognizes the role of the Guru, that recognizes the role of the Teacher or that recognizes and approves of a tendency to long for spiritual fulfillment, it is much easier to put a name and a label on that longing.

But in our culture, in order for us to survive that kind of longing, we have to make believe that it’s something else.  We have to pretend that it has to do with human relationships.  We have to pretend that it has to do with prosperity.  We have to pretend that it has to do with a certain lifestyle.  We have to pretend that it has to do with intelligence or that it has to do with mental health.  We have to pretend all sorts of different things in order to put the longing into some slot that our society recognizes, because if not, as we grow up in the formative years, it’s crushing to know in your heart of hearts that you are very different from others.  No one seems to have quite the same feeling that you do.

And so, because it is so crushing, because it is such a lonely thing, often, the very people that longed the most are the ones that diverted that longing into, perhaps, promiscuity, or perhaps becoming almost fanatical about this thought or that thought or this idea or that idea.  They could have diverted that longing into drugs or alcohol.  They could have diverted that longing into making themselves into a way that they are not, such as a superficial way or a hard way or a tough way or a dull way or a dead way.  They might have pretended that they had no feelings in order to deal with the ones that they did have.

Now, it’s true that lots of people have these same feelings and lots of people have these same ways of dealing with feelings.  For instance, it’s very possible that someone whose mother or father didn’t love them could become promiscuous simply for that reason.  Yet, that does not preclude what I’m saying.  You should listen to your life.  You should listen to what you did and what was underneath it and you should come to understand that perhaps there was something a little different in your heart and in your mind. It was there and it was with you always.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.  All rights reserved

The Nature of the Path

The following is an excerpt form a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Commitment to the Path”

I like to see students start off kind of smallish and grow bigger in their practice, because I think that is more realistic.  The best way to start out our practice is to understand what Dharma is trying to accomplish—what are the faults of cyclic existence and what are the results of practicing Dharma—to get a clear idea of that so that we can see for ourselves that this is a beneficial thing, so that we don’t have to argue with ourselves further down the path when it’s not appropriate any more.

So these teachings that I would like to give you are designed to get you to progress.  They are made to get you somewhere.  You are not meant to stay where you are on the path.   One progresses and that means change.  You know, that scary word.  So we have to ask ourselves then: What is Dharma engineered to do?  How does that change take place?  What does it look like?  What does it mean?

Well, first of all, look at something that is not Dharma.  Look at whatever sense of spirituality or religion you have that is not Dharma.  If we look at the ideas that we have generally as a culture about spirituality, spirituality is like salt.  It’s a condiment, a little ketchup on the hot dog of life.  It’s a flavor, but it’s not nourishment.  It doesn’t give you what you need every moment of every day necessarily, unless you yourself find a way to relate to that faith so strongly.

With Dharma, it’s a different story.  You don’t ever have to feel your way around.  You are never walking around in gray zone.  You can do practice.  You were taught how to increase your knowledge and your wisdom. You go from one practice to another to another to another through the different levels.  You can move through them according to your habitual tendency and your karmic propensity.  So there is something exacting, something like a method.

The reason why is that Dharma is not meant to act as a barbiturate, to calm you.  It’s not Valium.  It’s not meant to soothe you and make you feel more comfortable.  It’s more like if you could imagine your life as being a dark room, like any other room—filled with furniture. And it’s very dark.  You can’t see a thing.  This is kind of your life as a sentient being, because we really don’t come into this world understanding anything about cause and effect or how to make ourselves happy.  We come into this world unknowing, with only habitual tendencies.  That’s all we come in with, deep habitual tendencies from previous experiences.

So in a way, our lives are like this dark room, filled with obstacles. By now, now that we’re getting a little long in the tooth, we know there are obstacles. We’ve had them.  Some of them, anyway.  Doubtless there are more to come.  So we think of our life like this room with furniture in it and you’re supposed to get from the birth door to the death door successfully and make some progress in the meantime.  Well, if it’s pitch black and there are all these things in the room, the chances that you are going to walk through without knocking yourself into oblivion are pretty slim.  So the way that Dharma works is it forces you to turn on the lights.  You have to look at obstacles.  You have to look at what is in that room.  With another kind of faith you might think that the best thing to do is think positive and be positive and plaster good thoughts on your head. You know, just try to be kind of upbeat and make the best of everything.  All good ideas. But when you are stumbling through a pitch black room and there is a lot of furniture in there, you are going to trip.  And no amount of positive thinking is going to get you through that room successfully.  No amount of positive thinking is going to keep you from entering that last door.  Nobody has done it yet through positive thinking.

So Dharma’s tendency, rather than act like a soother or a barbiturate or something that is calming, Dharma turns on the light.  Dharma says, “Look folks, here is what’s happening.”  You are born, but you don’t remember how you got here.  There are uncountable cause and effect relationships since time out of mind that have formed into habitual tendencies and karmic propensities. And here you are born as a child.  How did you get those parents?  How did you get in this world?  How did this happen?  That’s what I said when I woke up as a kid.  What’s wrong with this picture?

So we find ourselves here and we’re kind of helpless.  That’s one of the teachings that the Buddha gives us. That in truth, we are all the same and in our nature we are exactly the same; but in our ordinary appearance as sentient beings, we are in a state of confusion.  We do not understand cause and effect relationships, because we can only see this present lifespan. We have had so many lifespans to give rise to causes in an amazing amount of time, since time out of mind.  So we have no understanding of this.

Dharma teaches us that all sentient beings, while we are the same, and while we are wandering in confusion, have one thing in common and all of our activity is geared towards that.  And if you think about it, you know that it is true.  Even when we are doing for others, until we really have given rise to compassion, we’re always trying to be happy.  It’s natural.  The organism wishes to be balanced and at peace, happy.  But we don’t understand what balanced and at peace is.  So we keep grabbing for stuff.  Yet Lord Buddha teaches us all that we are suffering due to desire.  It’s not that you don’t have something that makes you suffer, but your reaction to the not having it…that is most of the suffering.

© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo All Rights Reserved

 

Developing Spiritual Discrimination

An excerpt from the Mindfulness workshop given by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo in 1999

One of the things that is very unique about the Buddhadharma is that it is not a “Sunday-go-to-meeting” religion.  It’s not the kind of religion where you go on Sunday and Christmas and Easter, or whatever your particular holiday happens to be, and the rest of the year you’re just where you are.  Buddhism is different in that it is a path.  In a way, it is a nonreligious religion.  You have to think of it as a path that one walks consistently, faithfully, and deeply.  There is relatively little benefit from practicing Dharma in a superficial way.  Learning one or two mantras and walking around saying some prayers but not really training the mind in a deep and profound sense of the View will be a lot less effective. Also, our tendency is to become dry, and not remain moist on the path.  The heart dries up.  If there is no profound investment in establishing the View and establishing mindfulness, the result will be greatly weakened, greatly crippled.

Mindfulness is one of those subjects that one can take to the depths of one’s practice and its many aspects display themselves in different kinds of practice.  Before I talk about the first aspect of mindfulness, let me address some difficulties we have as Westerners, particularly. Because of the very nature of our culture, there are so many different things to do, and we are inundated with philosophies and religions, both old and new.  We are inundated with different kinds of experiences that people call “spiritual.”  The reason I’m so mindful of this is because I lived in Sedona, Arizona, and Sedona is known for that.  People mistake any kind of experience that feels deep as a “spiritual” experience, not able to discriminate between something that feels spiritual and something that is an actual commitment and movement on one’s path.  There really is a difference between a mantra and a backrub!  There really is a difference between the various experiences that people have that they call spiritual and an actual path that one practices consistently with the intention of benefiting beings.  This lack of spiritual discrimination is the greatest problem that we have in the West.  You can see how it is symbolically, even to go the grocery store.  If you send your child to the grocery store to buy bread, you’ll have to specify what kind of bread, what brand of bread, because on the shelf are a million different kinds of bread.  Other cultures might be a little bit different than that, especially third world cultures.  There, when you go to buy bread, you buy the bread they have, and that’s pretty much it.  Bread is bread.  In the same way, their faith is their faith.  It’s not something that one tastes and tries and then tries something else.  That discrimination is sort of built into the culture.  We don’t have that, so our need to practice discrimination is much stronger.  We have a tremendous need for that.

Discrimination is best practiced through changing one’s habitual tendency.  On the path of Buddhadharma, if you really step back from it and look at the different categories of practice, you’ll notice that, basically, the Buddhadharma is about applying the actual, exact antidote to the subtle and gross forms of suffering that we endure.  The Buddha has taught us that we suffer mostly from desire and that suffering is ongoing and that it is all-pervasive.  But we also notice that that desire takes many forms, so there are practices in the Buddhadharma that are meant to specifically pacify pride and ego and that ego-clinging self-cherishing.  There are practices in the Dharma that are meant to apply the exact antidote to a lack of generosity, to selfishness and greediness and just wanting, wanting, wanting — that kind of suffering.  There are practices in the Buddhadharma that are meant to help us shake ourselves out of the kind of slothful mental attitude that so many of us have which is a kind of sleepwalking that we do through the days and years of our lives.  This is actually a quality of mind and in Buddhism it’s labeled ignorance.  Ignorance is not lack of education in Buddhism; it’s lack of wisdom.   For that reactive or  slothful mind, where the mind doesn’t stop and evaluate and use its energy to determine whatever direction it’s going in, in the Buddhadharma there are antidotes to that as well.

In fact, when you study the Buddhadharma, you really have to think about the Buddha as being like a doctor and samsara as being like the sickness and the Dharma as the nurse that feeds the medicine to you all the time.  So in this spiritual discrimination, it isn’t a theoretical, vague idea.  This ideal of mindfulness, of discrimination, actually needs to be practiced in a very exacting way, for the very reason that we are in a culture that goes in exactly the opposite direction.  We are in a culture that does not teach discrimination, really, in any form, particularly about spiritual issues.

How can we practice spiritual discrimination?  How can we formulate that by which we can begin to grow the ability to distinguish?  How can we learn to discriminate between what is truly of the mind of the Buddhas and what is ordinary and simply arising from the phenomena of samsara? What is the method by which we can actually establish the View?  In the Buddhadharma, we are always looking to apply an exact antidote.  You have to think about samsara as being like a poison and that there is an exact formula that is the antidote to that poison.  In trying to develop discrimination and mindfulness, it is best to hold ourselves to a kind of ritual or task that is evident and visible.  One of the strongest antidotes to being stuck on the idea of self-nature as being inherently real, (which is really quite different from enlightenment) and for lack of spiritual discrimination – not being able to tell, in a spiritual sense, the difference between a diamond and a piece of cut glass — is called Guru Yoga.

Guru Yoga on the Vajrayana path is extraordinarily important.  It is not important because the Guru needs it nor because it’s even pleasant or fun for the Guru.  It is not for any ridiculous or stupid reason like that.  The reason that we practice Guru Yoga is because our minds, when they are samsaric and therefore fully engaged in the cycle of birth and death, are a little bit deadened, sort of flat-line.  Just the energy or pulse of engaging in a relationship between oneself, which appears separate, and other, constantly creates a feedback loop that makes for a kind of dullness and stupor.  This non-recognition of phenomena as actually being a display of our own mindstreams keeps the mind deadened to the View.  In that state, it is so like us to take a spiritual minister or presenter of some kind and, because they have tremendous charisma and slick words, because they have a real routine going, we would put them in high regard and think, “Oh, this must be the Word of God,” or  “This must be the Word of Spirit.”  There is the inability to discriminate between that and a very deep practitioner, a silent bodhisattva (one who has not been publicly recognized).  If a silent bodhisattva were to walk into the room, we wouldn’t sense that.  We wouldn’t know what that was because there’s no display, no show.  One of the methods that we use is this throne on which I sit, and it is not because I like it.  Actually, it’s kind of uncomfortable.  This throne is not here because it’s pretty, and it’s not here for any superficial reason.  The Lama sits higher in order to indicate to the student the difference between this speech and the speech we hear every day.  So in your mind, in the student’s mind, the throne is high, and it’s a reminder for you.  This is a clear indication that in our lives we need some kind of ritual or some kind of visible habitual pattern that we engage in, in order to develop true spiritual discrimination.

© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

The Purpose of This Life: His Holiness Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok

The following is an excerpt from a public talk given by His Holiness Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok:

The Buddha taught that true happiness and peace can never be found through material gain, and the only way that one can truly be satisfied is to realize this point. Therefore it is very important for all of you to consider decreasing your attachment to the objects of this world, to all apparent phenomena, and to understand that more important than spending most of one’s time pursuing the material world and thinking that happiness can be found in this way, we should try to practice pure Dharma.  Not only that. To be too attached to friends, family members, even our children and our spouses, those whom we cherish, thinking that it is only through our relationships with them that we can have happiness, is only going to bring us more suffering.  This is also a source of suffering, since we will be distracted having to figure out how we can bring food to the table and get clothing for our offspring and all of the other necessities that one has to completely fill one’s mind with.  The details of survival for family and friends will completely distract one from the benefits of purely practicing Dharma.

Regarding the wish for fame and glory: Those who don’t have it suffer because they don’t. Those who are poor and those who have no position at all are always having some expectation that somehow and in some way they may be able to rise above this circumstance and achieve a position of fame and glory.  Those who are already in positions of fame, glory and leadership are always suffering from the fear that they are going to lose their positions.  So in both cases the suffering is more or less equal.  On this point I would like to say that probably here in this place there are those who are very, very poor and there are those who are very, very wealthy and in high positions, and there is quite a big space between them.  I was thinking that those who are in the high positions are probably suffering even more than those who are poor.  The reason for that is because those who are poor—except for the fact that they are always having some kind of an expectation that someday they may become wealthy or in a better position—probably have enough to survive, are getting along sort of all right. And the mental suffering that they endure is not too extreme, except for that expectation or wish. But those who are in high positions are probably suffering much more because they are always fearful that they are going to lose their positions, that they will fall down to a lower place. So their minds are filled with doubt and paranoia and anxiety.  In this way they suffer more than the poor people.

The nature of suffering is twofold: Suffering is caused by delusion and by karmic propensities.  When we speak of delusion, it refers to three root conflicting emotions: desire-attachment, anger or aggression, and delusion itself, stupidity.  Let’s look at desire-attachment first.  Now this conflicting emotion fixates itself upon objects, objective appearances, such as material things, fame, status or other human beings or individuals.  Wherever it fixates, then if one allows oneself to become controlled by that emotion, then the only result will be unceasing suffering or discontent.

Anger or aggression is a conflicting emotion which causes one to feel that one actually wishes that others will suffer.  That which brings up this conflicting emotion of aggression is due to the desire-attachment that we have for ourself and those that we are already attached to because if anyone else tries to harm them, then those other people who are trying to harm our loved ones or friends are termed enemies, and we feel aggression towards them and wish that harm would come to them.  As soon as we enter into this type of emotional battle, the only result is unceasing suffering.

That which is termed delusion or stupidity is the inability to understand or recognize what should be accepted, what should be rejected, what should be accomplished and what should be abandoned.  Inner divisions of delusion include misunderstanding and incorrect understanding.  The first of these inner divisions of delusion, misunderstanding, could also be interpreted as misunderstanding, or misusing, the ultimate purpose of this life. The way that that would qualify is that one would have to be born as a human being anywhere in this world who never really understands the difference between that which is wholesome and that which is unwholesome, never having any real kind of ability to discern what should be accepted in order to produce true, positive results and what should be rejected—basically just spending one’s life aimlessly living like a cow or a horse which can graze and eat grass and just kind of survive.  The difference between a cow or a horse and a person who is just kind of aimlessly surviving is maybe the person is able to put on clothes and other kinds of comfort. But really the point that is being made is that this person who misunderstands the purpose of life is wasting his or her opportunity because they dwell in this state of delusion, the delusion of misunderstanding what should be done with life.

 

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

Compassion in Real Life

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “Your Treasure is Heart”

When we begin to practice the Bodhichitta, we become more in tune with the idea that the great Bodhisattvas are willing to do whatever it takes regarding the suffering of sentient beings,. We, in our practice, should follow accordingly, and use them as our example.  When we look at the world today, and when we study in the texts, we see that sentient beings, as numberless as grains of sand on the earth, are revolving in the six realms of cyclic existence. And we are suffering horribly— horribly and needlessly.  Needlessly because, other than our own habitual tendency, our desire and our own distorted perception, there are no chains that bind us here.  And so the Bodhisattva is moved to tears watching the suffering of sentient beings and seeing that even here in the human realm where things are pretty terrific and we have the capacity to practice, we are still suffering from old age, sickness and death. And there is nothing we can do about it.

When the Bodhisattvas see that, they consider that enough is enough and they feel a heartfelt courage or concern come up within them. Therefore, their determination to be of benefit to sentient beings and to do, literally, whatever it takes is born.  So now we are on the path of the Bodhisattva. How should we engage on that path?  We really don’t know how the mechanical appearance of it should look in our lives,.  This is a big dilemma for westerners.  I’ve noticed this myself.  Once we vibe with the idea of compassion, we seem to understand it.  When so many of the ideas of Dharma seem foreign, why is it that the idea of compassion is somehow more palatable and more understandable?  Well, probably because we’ve seen the idea before, in other religious systems in our culture with which we are better acquainted.  So we have the idea in our minds already.  I think also, for those of us who are American, we have this national identity of being a great country, or a prosperous country, and therefore we feel that we are in a position to minister to others.  It’s almost like a subtle national identity that we all seem to have.  We know we’ve got more food , more clothes , and better conditions than a lot of the other guys. So, in a national or group way, we are aware of our capacity to be an elder brother or sister in the world. I really think that that’s part of us.  Our national identity is definitely a factor here..

Where the terrible confusion comes in is that we don’t know what Bodhichitta should look like.  When we actually get down to the nuts and bolts of our practice, something is missing.  Something just flies the coop.  It really doesn’t quite connect in our mind.  So we try to draw on these archetypal pictures that we have in our culture. One of the pictures that we have is a saintly archetype.  Does it come from medieval time?  Probably, I would think so.  I would say that we are very slow to change some of our ideas.  We’re pretty quick to change our fashion sense, our idea of how to get educated and how to remain current in certain things in the world, but subtle archetypal ideas take a long time to change.  We have the idea that that we would look saintly practicing compassion, the idea that a Bodhisattva has to be something that… Well I don’t know. What did medieval saints look like?  Maybe a little anemic, you know? Like if you were too robust, or maybe had a pint too much blood, you wouldn’t look very saintly. I don’t think I’d pass for a saint either.  You know I think I look like a make-up expert or something else, a beautician.

So we have these pictures and our saintly image is somewhat anemic.  We have this idea that saintly people should never really let out a good guffaw, and have absolutely zero capacity to find anything truly amusing, most especially not themselves.  Lord knows that saintly types have no capacity to laugh at themselves.  In fact, all they are able to do for the most part is to roll those eyes ever skyward and look pure.  So we have some kind of ridiculous idea of what sainthood or compassion actually ought to look like.

Well, I don’t think compassion looks like that at all.  I think compassion can look like a banana, if that’s what sentient beings need.  I think compassion can look like a puppy if it brings comfort to sentient beings.  I think compassion can look exactly like whatever it takes.  Actually all the teachings about the great Bodhisattvas say that they literally appear in any form in order to bring benefit to sentient beings.  In The Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, which I hope each and every one of you will buy a copy of at some point, there are many beautiful and heart-wrenching prayers, like, “Let me return as a bridge so that sentient beings may cross over.  Let me return as food so that sentient beings will be nourished.  Let me return as shelter so that sentient beings will be protected,”  this heartfelt cry to return in whatever form necessary in order to be of benefit to sentient beings.

I don’t think that a bridge or a banana or whatever it takes will necessarily look like some anemic saintly thing.  Instead, I think compassion can be pretty exotic and meaty stuff.  I think it can look like meat and potatoes.  I think it can look like whatever it damn well pleases, so long as it gets the job done.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.  All rights reserved

Embracing Change for a Better World

From a series of tweets by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo:

I wonder if it is the aspect between Jupiter opposite Saturn that is giving me the brain drain. I suspect it may be. It is a generational aspect, every 20 years. And it also seems there is a tug between old, crystallized ways and new, more radical ways.

I hope so. Maybe government and corporate people will show transparency for a change! I feel strongly that is the way to go. Old institutions and “old thinking” people definitely hold us in a zone, and feel entitled to do so. When I see something or someone who refuses to listen or change it boggles my mind and angers me too (sadly.) When new ideas and ways of thinking develop they should never be smashed down. And the new thinking folks should never be bullied or called names. We are free to speak and share ideas as new ideas are needed! The world has so many problems.

Bullies, tend to try to keep those around them unchanging, sheep-like and safely mum. So it turns out bullies are the weaker as their emotional lives are maintained by putting others down. That is weak. And cruel. Especially to those trying to learn, and formulate their own ideas. We must be encouraging, not suffocating new ideas by blowing them down. No one has the right to do that, corporations or governments as well. We have the right to evolve as thoughtful people. The world requires it. The times require it. The nuclear crisis in Japan is a prime example. To save face Japan will not tell us the truth, and we have the right to know. Similarly our own government, here in the USA, does the same. To what extent we may never know.

No, I am not a rabid conspiracy nut. But I see something is very wrong with this picture. We should have full disclosure, especially about those things which affect our health and our thinking. I hope this Jupiter (expanding) and Saturn (crystalizing, unchanging) duke it out (it is us of course) and we come up with new ways. Respect, tolerance, compassion, spiritual depth, open mindedness, these ways that lead us forward and do not support secretiveness and bullying, harmful domination of others, etc; may these things, having had their day, allow the rest of us to have ours!

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.  All rights reserved

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