Spiritually Alive

An excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called Coming Alive

In your practice and in your mind and in your heart, keep yourself innocent and keep yourself alive.  If you think that spiritually you know everything, enough to tell others, then believe me, you know nothing.  Refresh yourself and practice as though you were a living practitioner.  Live in your heart.  Live in your mind.  Live in your purpose.  It’s not too late.  It can be done.  For those of you who have gone brain dead on your path, it can be done.  For those of you who are just starting, if you hear these words and you are inspired, please practice them just the way I’ve given them to you, always.  While you have breath in your body, make your spiritual practice, your spiritual contact, and a true one. Every prayer is the potential for the miraculous, because it is according to your intention. Intention is everything.

If you can pray by ripping your heart open, if tears come to your eyes, if you are moved to the depth of your being, if you can beg for the cause of sentient beings, then please do so, and do it without ceasing.  Never let yourself get so sophisticated that you come to the point that you are satisfied with your practice. Never let yourself become so immune that you can say a prayer in passing, without having something catch in your throat.  I’m asking you to be there with your purpose.  Go into your cave.  Meet with the core or root mindstream that is your being, your nature.  Whatever that is that you’re looking for when you look into the eyes of your root guru and you’re hungry for something, whatever it is that you want, that made you come here to the path, keep it open.  Approach the core of your being with that prayer. The only way that you can do that is by ripping it open and letting it be.  Be alive spiritually.

I’ve had those experiences.  I know the difference, and I want to convey to you that you are both in trouble and free.  You’re in danger of losing that every single minute!  And yet you are free to go that deep and that pure and that innocent every single minute.

I have had the sickening experience of watching myself pray because one of my children was in danger. There was a time when my older son had Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and they were not able to diagnose it.  He was dying.  His brain was swelling.  His eyes were going out of focus.  He was gritting his teeth so much that his teeth were starting to crack.  His organs were swelling inside his body.  You could palpitate his liver. Yet they didn’t know why he was dying.  You never heard prayer like mine before!  It was before I met Buddhism so I didn’t know about prostrations, but I was on the floor–up and down begging and pleading, exchanging my life over and over again. I vowed that I would do nothing but benefit sentient beings. I asked that I be transformed into whatever it was that was necessary for my son to live.  Oh, I prayed unbelievably. When the medicine came, it was a simple medicine.  It was tetracycline I think.  When the healing started and his eyes could focus and I could put a spoon into his mouth without him breaking his teeth on it, I remember giving thanks.  It was like a new day.  I’d been born all over again.  Unbelievable.

How was it then, that a month later, when my son was eating hot dogs and running around and had gained some of the weight back and was looking normal, that when I prayed I didn’t feel that same magic?  I didn’t cry.  I didn’t beg. How was it that I could watch myself pray from that point of rawness and then a month later pray like a politician?  How is that possible? It’s possible for all of us, don’t you see?  I’m sharing this with you so that you’ll understand.  It is your natural tendency, and there is a way out of it.  And only you can do this.  I can’t do it for you.  No one can do it for you.  Don’t wait until life’s misfortunes force you.  You can be taught it in a passive and beautiful and beneficial way, or you can be taught it by life, which is a lot harder.

Please learn how to pray.  Learn how to practice.  Take yourself off the path of familiarity and complacency and put yourself on the path of Dharma as it is really practiced and has always been practiced by the great Vajra masters of our tradition and the great Bodhisattvas who are responsible for our salvation today.

This is my message for you.  I hope that you can hear it with your whole heart and give birth to yourself again. Now it is up to you.  I wish I could do it for you!  I wish I had that power, but I don’t have that power and neither does anyone else besides you.  You’re in charge here and the ball is in your court that you can be alive spiritually.

© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

Approach Your Path With a Noble Heart

An excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called Coming Alive

To those of you who are new on the path, this is your opportunity to remain a child.  That might not sound like a good idea, because we’re all told that it’s really cool to grow up and be sophisticated and make sense of every opportunity.  I’m not sure that I agree.   I’m not sure making sense is the best idea.  I think what is really precious and really important is to remain innocent, with a pure and noble heart.  And if you go before the stupa or go before any of these altars and offer one rose, one flower from your heart and say, “For the sake of all sentient beings, make of me whatever is necessary so that all suffering might end,” this is an empowerment.

I have seen students who have been shaken in their lives, perhaps by realizing the immediacy of their death or by being afflicted with AIDS or by having to go through some remarkable, horrible trauma or life-changing situations that have left them panting and not knowing how to go on.  You have to understand that these are times of empowerment. You have to look at them as an opportunity and a gift.  When that one stands before the altar and prays, “I now understand suffering.  I now know fear, and knowing that, I realize that all sentient beings are afflicted with the same condition now or later. Therefore, transform my life and help me to live long enough to be of benefit to others so that I might serve as an example or as a benefactor in some way.  Please erase this suffering from the world.”  That kind of heartfelt prayer makes results.

If you pray like that in front of an object of refuge, whether it is your teacher or a stupa or a statue or a crystal that you can consider to be symbolic of the absolute nature, or whether you face the four directions and pray–whatever it is that you do–if you pray with that kind of heart, you are heard.  I know that this is true because I have received the most extraordinary teachings and empowerments from my root teacher.  I have had my teacher open his heart to me and give me blessings that no one has ever received.  I have had my teacher hold me up in front of the Western world in a way that he doesn’t even hold his other tulkus up, because he had that much confidence in me.  Although I have had that kind of empowerment and every blessing, what has made me a practitioner, given me confidence, made me honor myself and made me qualified to teach you, are the times that I have gone naked and alone to my own personal mountaintop–whether it’s that cave or a sweat lodge or my room, or my altar. It was those moments of begging and pleading for the cause of sentient beings, of ripping my heart open and not caring whether it was comfortable or safe, not caring whether I could own something or not own it, or whether any happiness was going to come to me as a result of those prayers.

I also knew that I would have to deliver, that if I prayed for the blessing to be able to benefit sentient beings, I would be required to live it.  Trust me, once you’re in the water, you will swim. And I’ve lived and experienced it long enough to know that this is true. If you make the offering, you’re going to have to live with it, but it will be your joy. On the other hand, if you pray like a fat cat, you’re also going to live with that, and, believe me, it will be your suffering.

© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

Prayer – Potential for the Miraculous

An excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called Coming Alive

Whether you are a beginner or an advanced student–if you are a good student, you are innocent and you are pure, and when you practice, you taste and feel and open your heart. You meditate on purpose.  You give rise to new and fresh longing, almost like re-opening an old wound.  How marvelous if you realize, really, the finiteness of life. How marvelous because then you are empowered to pray as you have not prayed before.

There have been times when my temple was in danger. There have been times when I had the experience of teaching a class in which I realized hardly any of the people in the class had the capacity at that moment to really hear my teaching on compassion. At these times I went to my altar, threw myself down and did repeated prostrations saying, “Please, I gather together all of my virtue in the three times–past, present and future–and I offer it to these students, that their capacity to hear Dharma may be ripened.” Afterwards, I would go back into the same group and give the same teachings, and they were changed.  Their faces were changed.  They were alive.  They were hearing it.  I know the power of praying like that.

I also know there have been times when my children have been in danger. Do you want me to really pray?  Scare me with my children being in danger.  I’m not only talking about my physical children, but also my spiritual children. I have seen amazing life-changing experiences happen through that.  And I have also felt the suffering of praying by rote, I’m sorry to say.  But I will never have that feeling again if I can help it.  If a prayer comes out of my mouth, I’m going to be there with it.  And I would suggest that you do the same.  However you pray, whatever you do, pray as though it were the last time you had that opportunity.  Pray as though you were in front of the miraculous.  You know, that old joke about climbing to the top of the Himalayas to see that guy sitting on the rug so that you can ask him what is the meaning of life?  Pray like that.  Pray as though you had just climbed the mountain and you were looking at the old guy on the rug and he could tell you the meaning of life.  Pray as though it were your last moment to pray, as though you were going to lose your tongue after that.  Pray as though everything depended on it, because it does.

© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

Pilgrimage to the Root of One’s Power

An excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called Coming Alive

I want to share about the experience I had going to Tso Pema in India and meditating in Mandarava’s Cave.  I just knew by being there that it was where Mandarava prayed and offered herself for the liberation and salvation of all sentient beings again and again and again.  That is where she cried and tore out her hair and meditated on the suffering of sentient beings and could hardly bear it.  She went through it in that cave.  That cave was her spiritual incubator.  Oh man, the way she prayed!  I wish today I could pray the way Mandarava prayed then, and I will continue to try for that.

When I planned my trip to India I had specific goals to connect with the root of my power. Now periodically I’m supposed to go back to my mother monastery, connect with my root guru and get additional training and refreshment, but I decided not to do it in the traditional way. I felt like I had to birth something new.  I felt like I had to connect with this power that I know is there, at the root.  In this lifetime, because the Dharma is being taught in a foreign land where things are completely different, I sometimes feel like a stranger in a strange land. The conditions of ordinary samsaric modern reality are just a little confusing sometimes, and one can lose sight of the root of one’s power.

I went to India thinking I was going to connect with this power, give rise to myself in some way, and I was not going to give up until it happened!  I swear I had this idea I was going to sit on a rock somewhere and just freeze to death.  I knew that something needed to happen.  I felt that I was starving, and that I needed nourishment.  So I spent only two weeks at the mother monastery–even though my precious root teacher was there and even though his kindness and the nourishment that he lavished upon me was inconceivable.  I felt that I needed to go someplace where I was in charge, where I was responsible, where I knew what was going on, and where I had only myself to answer. I knew what I needed to reach for.

I wanted to go to the holy places of Mandarava and Guru Rinpoche.  I wanted to reach for what had happened at that time.  When Mandarava and Guru Rinpoche practiced, they literally changed the world.  Of course, that isn’t reported now.  We only hear Western white man’s history and story.  But, in truth, Mandarava and Guru Rinpoche changed the spiritual world, as we know it, because in their practice they gave rise to the empowerment of immortal spiritual life, and they accomplished the deathless wisdom state.  They never died.  When they left the world in that lifetime, they rose up to the sky and disappeared. Hundreds of people saw it.

It was preordained that Guru Rinpoche would accomplish the siddhi of immortal life, and it was with Mandarava that he did it. At the time of their accomplishment, Amitayus Buddha, the Buddha of Long Life, came to them and recognized Guru Rinpoche as Amitayus Buddha and Mandarava as his consort.  So their empowerment was complete because they became the deities in union.  This revolutionized spiritual practice, as we know it, because now there are options for one’s spiritual practice.  If one practices deeply enough and heroically enough- not just casually–one can prolong one’s life and even realize immortal spiritual life or the deathless state.  One can accomplish that.

I was going to go to Tso Pema, recognized as an incarnation of Mandarava. I trusted and believed it because it came from my root guru, who is my heart and my mind; yet I needed to feel it myself.  I needed to touch it.  I wanted to smell it.  I wanted to own it. My intention, when I went into that cave, was to feel that “this is happening now.” I had that sense of wonder and strong determination that you get when you are faced with the option of a miracle.  When you know that, you are a different person.

I went into that cave with determination like I’ve never had before, and I sat down and I got everything that I asked for. The consciousness of Mandarava came to me.  I realized it was indistinguishable from my own.  I realized many facts and qualities about Mandarava.  I realized much about her practice with Guru Rinpoche.  My current mindstream and the mindstream of Mandarava began to blend, and I had such a powerful life-changing and potent experience at that time that my astrological horoscope changed.  It was a spiritual rebirth.

We are talking about, not only a life-changing experience, but also a change in one’s method, one’s purpose, one’s sense of accomplishment, one’s sense of self, one’s orientation. Little by little, in the same way that a child grows, this new empowerment is growing.  It is realized.  It is present.  It is alive in the world.  It is reincarnated.  To me, that empowerment was stronger, more profound and more fruitful than any of the traditional empowerments that I’ve had.

Is that because traditional teachings and the way they are conferred are inferior to what happened in the cave?  Of course not!  That would be like saying that one side of the Sweat Lodge is more powerful than the other.  That would be ridiculous. Here’s the bottom line.  Once you get to the fat cat stage, you’re dead.  No matter what you’re doing spiritually–if you’re keeping your samaya, if you’re practicing eight hours a day, if you’re dusting the temple, if you’re cleaning out the bowls and making offerings–if you’ve gotten to the fat cat stage where you think you’re in charge or you own the business or you’ve seen it all, you’ve lost your practice. It’s gone.  You’re practicing by rote.  I have a cockatoo that can be trained to do the same thing.

Practicing by rote is so superficial that we hardly realize that we have gone spiritually dead inside. We are afraid to ask ourselves the question, “What is my practice? When I put on my robes or when I pick up my mala and I open my books, do I do so in the same way that I sit down to a bowl of cornflakes in the morning?” I use this example because you have to eat something before you leave the house, and cornflakes are soggy.  Do you feel soggy when you do your practice?  Soggy is a pretty good word for it, wouldn’t you say?  When you sit down, is it like sitting down to an exquisitely prepared meal for the first time and you’re really hungry.  What is your experience when you practice?  Do you practice with childlike delight, with fervent regard, with an awareness that’s on the front burner–that all sentient beings are suffering, that they do not understand the causes of this suffering nor how to stop them, but that there is an end to suffering and there is a method.

When you hear this beautiful news and marvel, that delight and the hunger provided by that delight is what makes your path work. The period of turning your mind towards Dharma should never end.  In fact, the older and more fat cat you get, the more you must give rise to it continuously, reminding yourself of these fundamental truths and delighting in this information. Take nothing for granted while you are on the spiritual path, because the moment you do—whether it is your practice, the result, your community, your environment, your teacher, or even the fact that you have leisure to practice–you are no longer practicing. The academic who hears all this information, memorizes it and learns how to practice very well with all the bells and whistles and ritual implements may not be even close to the practitioner who goes around the stupa, knowing his or her life is in danger, and prays Om Mani Padme Hung in a heartfelt way.  In that expectation and hope a miracle might happen. Another practitioner who is superior to the fat cat is the one who has really studied and come to the path seeing that all sentient beings are suffering and has decided that enough is enough. To this one, the suffering is unbearable. And with that heart ripped open, this practitioner circumambulates the stupa and says Om Mani Padme Hung.

© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

Open Your Heart & Call Out

An excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called Coming Alive

Here’s a wonderful way for each of us as older practitioners to evaluate ourselves.  Do we feel fresh and new any more?  Not much, right? We keep thinking that maybe soon some kind of refreshing experience will come to us. Oh when oh when will that be?  Will it be this teacher?  Will it be that teacher?  Will she finally teach the way I think she ought to teach?  Will she finally teach as much as I think she ought to?  Will she ever give me what I want?  All these kinds of thoughts come up.

Once in a while we have some kind of experience that gets our attention, and it really reaches into us somehow.  How does that happen?  Is it a mystery?  Is it magic?  Is the moon in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars?   No. Somewhere there was an intention.  Somewhere you called out.  Somewhere you asked.  Somewhere you opened the door.  You forgot that you did that, but somehow you were ripe for it.

These causes are interconnecting.  If your heart is not open, no matter how many hooks are sent at you, they’ll never connect.  Somewhere inside you had this precious moment of intention that you probably forgot about.  It wasn’t magic, believe me.

© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

Spiritual Refreshment

An excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called Coming Alive

Back in the 1970s a number of famous healers were brought together to participate in a test. It was done in a very scientific way, and the rules were very strict. These famous people were known for their capacity to “lay on hands,” and many had a lot of clients. They had really gained a name for themselves. The researchers also got together an equal number of ordinary folks.

Then the scientists said to the famous healers, “Here’s what I want you to do.  I want you to do your healing thing, whatever it is, on this glass of water and transform it into medicine.  Okay?”  The healers said, “Well, all right.  That’s do-able.”  The message is that with love all things are possible.  Unfortunately, when you’re really impressed with yourself, often it’s “with me” all things are possible.  But, anyway, they were told to do that.

Then the ordinary people, who had never heard about this before, who were not even that spiritual, were given some interesting common and scientific data that showed that if we have a good intention towards something, then often things get better. The researchers also explained that if you put your hands on either side of a glass of water, you can run energy through it that harmonizes it. This turns the water into medicine because it is in harmony with the body.  They explained this in a very pseudo-scientific way.

So the scientists had the two groups do their stuff. The people who were not accustomed to this were asked to do the very best spiritual praying they could do. “If you have any mystical bone in your body, please apply it here,” they were told. They said, “Well, okay, if you say so,” or “Well, I’ll do my best.”

Everyone spent the appropriate amount of time. The healers did their healing thing, with all the bells and whistles; and each one of them had their particular way of doing it.  One was a shaman.  One was simply ‘’hands on” and so forth. The ordinary people simply put their hands together and prayed.  It was reported that “you could see a lot of knit brows.”  They were praying really hard. They were really trying to make this thing happen if it were possible.

I don’t remember all of the details, but some of the people, both among the healers and in the ordinary-people group, had some on-going physical or mental problems.  They were divided into a subgroup where they were asked to drink their own medicine–their own water–and then report the results over a period of two days.

People who didn’t have any problems gave their medicine to other people who had problems but didn’t produce the medicine, and no one knew which group it came from.  The group knew that it was water that had been prayed over, holy water, but they didn’t know any other details. So this group drank the medicine over a few days.

The results were phenomenal.  A larger percent of healing, comfort, relief and benefit was reported by those who drank the water prayed over by the ordinary people. Those who drank the water prepared by the healers reported a 20 percent recognition of benefit. Those who drank the water that was prepared by ordinary people, reported a 90 percent recognition of benefit. There was a remarkable difference.

There was also another test that was done as part of this study.  Although this is not mainstream science, the results are interesting. The medicine water was subjected to different kinds of energy photography.  Again, the water that was purified by the nonprofessionals was filled with energy that could be photographed, whereas the water that was prepared by healers had some energy but it wasn’t anything like the remarkable level of energy in the water prayed over by the ordinary folks.  Even the study participants–both the healers and the ordinary people–had to admit that when they drank some of each water, they felt more energy from the water prayed over by ordinary people.

It was a remarkable study.  I think that scientists could find all kinds of ways to throw the study out of court, but I, for one, find things like that fairly convincing.  The results sounded real to me.

In my experience as a teacher I have seen many students travel around, hearing more and more teachings from all the best sources sometimes obsessively, who get into what I call the ‘fat cat’ stage. The fat cat stage is where you sit back on your laurels and you say, “I know enough now about Dharma to be impressive.  So I’m going to impress you.” They’ve gotten to the point where the magic is lost.  The romance is over.  They’re not really taking in the teachings anymore.

Often these students have a funny inner posture. When they hear the teacher, they think, “Oh I know that,” or “Yeah, I’ve heard that one before,” or “Oh yeah, that’s the teaching on such and such” or “Well, interesting that she’s teaching that teaching today.  I wish she would also include X, Y, and Z fact.”  If this kind of non-surprise, non-delight, non-taste, non-involvement is going on when you hear the teachings, you can be assured that not much is going on inside, not much is happening at all.

On the other hand, if you are one of the newer practitioners or at least somehow have magically managed to keep yourself in this pure posture of childlike innocence; when you hear the teachings, they’re like delicious morsels.  They roll around in your mouth and in your mind and in your heart and you think, “How amazing, how delightful is this logic.  How delightful is this information.  How different from what I know and from what I’ve heard.” It’s like a child tasting something for the first time, such as orange juice or mashed banana.  The infant rolls it around on the tongue to a point where it almost becomes foreign, incapable of being taken in. That kind of delight provides a way for the teaching to become part of oneself, part of one’s attitude, one’s mind, one’s reality, even one’s habitual tendency. It can even begin to change our habitual tendencies, because we are impacted by it. It can be used as an antidote to something that is troubling us.

The mistake we make is in thinking that the teacher is responsible for keeping our love alive, that the teacher is supposed to come up with a new and interesting way of presenting the same old data every week so that once in a while we can hear it.  That really isn’t true.  That’s not the teacher’s responsibility. It’s one’s own responsibility to maintain a sense of innocence.

Let’s talk about what that might look like. I would like to use some of my own personal experiences.  When I was in Sedona, I went into a Sweat Lodge.

The Sweat Lodge was very traditionally run, and I was really interested in seeing what it would feel like to participate in a Sweat Lodge in a place where almost no one knew me. I knew I wouldn’t be recognized. The only one who knew who I was was the leader of the Sweat Lodge.  I wanted to experience the Sweat Lodge without my Dharma community around, so that my experience would be more uncontrived, more natural, more relaxed.  There is something to be said for being in a place where you’re completely anonymous and completely free to do exactly what you would do naturally as opposed to being around people who have expectations of you.

I went into the experience wondering what it was going to be like.  I had two ideas.  First I thought, “Well this could be really hokey! It could be chanting Indian chants I don’t know or understand, and so I would just be making meaningless noises.  Or it could be that everyone has an act going on, and I don’t know what the act is.  I’m just a little Buddhist girl.  I don’t know anything about Indian stuff.  So it could be really strange.”

On the other hand, I thought to myself, “This could be really magical.  Just think about what it would be like to go into this Sweat Lodge, which traditionally is like going into a womb-like environment, almost like the womb of Mother Earth, and re-inventing yourself.”  Sweat Lodges were traditionally used either to solidify one’s purpose or to completely re-invent oneself and put oneself on a new track. The idea of sweating was to let go of old toxicity–of old stuff inside of you—and then letting yourself drink new fresh water.  In a sense that’s like letting go of old habitual tendencies and drinking in new purpose, aligning yourself with the four directions.  This is something that is in common with Buddhist philosophy. So I thought, “This could be amazing.  This could be pretty terrific.”

I went into the experience with both ideas. I placed myself in a position of neutrality and left myself really open in a very innocent way.  I went there thinking, “Ultimately it doesn’t really matter if this experience is like this or like that.  What matters is that I’m going into this experience with a pure intention.  I really intend to cleanse myself in every way.  I really intend to let go of anything old and afford myself new opportunity.  I really intend to have this be in alignment with my own personal quest, which is to never fall into old habitual tendency or mindless method, but rather to constantly keep my spiritual practice new and fresh and on point.  That’s my intention.  That’s what I really want to do.”

The experience was really interesting in many different ways.  Yes, there was chanting.  Yes, it was very, very hot–hot to the point where it seemed unbearable.  Because it’s so hot, people wear very little clothing.  This is very different from a Dharma experience.  There were many things that were different and many things that were predictable, but I found that I had exactly the kind of experience that I went in there to have.  I was able to let go of something.  I was thinking that this was an opportunity to reinvent myself, that is to say, to enter back into the symbolic womb of my experience and then to come forth again.  And so I was determined to use that experience with a great deal of strong and purposeful intention.

In the Sweat Lodge each person has the opportunity to speak his or her prayers, hopes and dreams out loud.  If you do that by rote, that could be a really tacky, cheesy experience; but if you really do that from the heart–reaching in and asking yourself sincerely what’s in there, what needs to be reinvented, what has to be done, and really rip yourself open–it could be a very profound experience.  In fact, it could be a life-changing experience.  You don’t need a Sweat Lodge to make such a life-changing experience, if you have the intention and purpose of truly ripping yourself open as though you were newborn.

I realized that both of these experiences were possible, and I made myself remain in this posture of innocence and really get as much from the Sweat Lodge as possible. I was really going to go for it. When it was my opportunity to say my prayers, I was a little surprised at what came out. I was surprised that I could hear myself pray like that in public again. When I pray in public, it’s in front of my students who have expectations. I’m supposed to be the leader.

There I was able to pray in public the way I really pray in my heart of hearts.  I found myself crying when I was praying. I found myself begging for beings. That’s what I do when I pray.  In my prayers I really reject and renounce any comfort or safety for myself, any request that might make my life better or easier.  But I always go into great depth about the suffering of other sentient beings.  I really think about it.  I really regard it.  I really beg for beings.  I had the chance to do that in this wonderful environment where other people came to be supportive.  When you really make an extraordinary heartfelt prayer, the Sweat Lodge leader and the other participants support you through some sort of verbal encouragement. Those who are used to the Indian tradition, say something Indian, like “Ho.” People who are not really accustomed to that kind of Indian experience will say something like “Yes, that’s right.  Go on.” or “We’re with you.” The participants in the Sweat Lodge support you.

I can’t remember when I last had an experience like that in a very innocent and non-teacher way.  That was really wonderful for me. I went through all of the cycles and all of the different elements. They built on themselves, and I came out of the experience really happy because I was able to approach my path that I love so much with my whole heart once again. This extraordinary, almost-newborn experience, which I and some others who were also new to Sweat Lodges had, contrasted with the experience of the older participants in Sweat Lodges.  There were even a couple of times where these older participants would lean over and say, “You can lean down and escape some of the steam if you want to” or “Sometimes the fire is hotter than this.” Here I am praying my guts out with my eyeballs wrinkled and nothing left in my body to sweat out, reaching for everything I’ve got, and these other people are telling me, “Don’t worry kid, sometimes the fire’s hotter than this.” I’m thinking to myself, “Wow this is really something!”

I came out of that experience really moved, really refreshed. When I spoke to the leader of the Sweat Lodge, he said, “Well, that’s the best use of the Sweat Lodge.  The Sweat Lodge is what you make it. What you’re looking for is actually within you, not within the Lodge.  For you to be refreshed is to have something new, something that gives you the courage and the power to move on.”

© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

Innocent Intention

An excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called Coming Alive

I would like to talk about innocence in one’s practice–not in a traditional way but from direct experience. This is not a new theme. Other religions have spoken of it each in their own way.  For example, in Christianity there are statements about “entering the kingdom of heaven like a child.” There are many different interpretations about what that phrase means.  I would imagine that, depending on the branch of Christianity one practiced, the church one attended and the minister or preacher one went to hear, one would probably get a slightly different interpretation.  I would like to talk about the topic from a Dharma point of view, because the need to remain innocent and childlike in one’s approach to the spiritual path is fairly universal.

Think back to the first moment you met with Dharma and what impressed you about it.  Was it the unique look of a Dharma center, compared to other American institutions?  Our altars are different. Our colors are different.  Our books are different.  Our uniforms are different.  Dharma practitioners are different; and according to mainstream American culture, we are unusual.  So when you first met with Dharma, you probably had some awareness of the difference, of the exotic feeling.  If you had been exposed to this kind of thing before or if you have some particularly strong karmic relationship with the path, you might have had an immediate feeling of connection.  You might have felt, “Oh this is more like what I understand than the stuff you usually see in America.” Although some people have felt like that, there was still some reaction to the exoticism or uniqueness of Dharma.

Then you might have heard some of the ideas of Dharma, and you might have become excited.  Often people feel uplifted when they first hear that by practicing Dharma one can achieve realization within one lifetime or immediately upon death.  Vajrayana Buddhism has the capacity to offer this great result, and this is unique and tremendous, particularly considering that we live in the time of Kaliyuga or degeneration–the time when it is very difficult to practice Dharma purely and when karma ripens very quickly.  The result of one’s actions, perhaps even from the very distant past, are often ripening now; and there is a great deal of confusion, as you know.  If you don’t know that, all you have to do is read the newspaper once in a while. Confusion is rampant in every way, shape, manner and form.

What happens when one is really impressed with a new idea and a new opportunity?  An assumption that one might make upon meeting something that is sweeping, dramatic and profound and has been shown to offer this tremendous unmatched result is to think, “Oh this is something very precious. This is something that I must take note of!  This is something that I have to regard very highly.  I’ve got to pay attention here.”

Most people recognize–I’m sure you’ve had this thought–that many things in life seem cyclical. They come up again and again, habitually.  Many issues in life seem unsolvable.  It seems as though there are many ways in which we simply go round and round and round.  So when we hear about something that can make a dent in that cycle or end that strong habitual tendency or re-occurring compulsive phenomenon, we become excited.  If we were to go to psychotherapy at a very difficult time in our life, we might  think, “Oh, this is an opportunity.”

When we first come to Dharma, we label our Dharma experience as being an extraordinary opportunity. This is the time of great innocence.  When we receive teachings, we look at what’s being offered, and we really hear it.  We follow the logic of it, and the logic is new and fresh. If the teacher is a good teacher, that new, fresh logic will be presented over and over again in many different ways and forms until there is some confidence that the logic has been heard and followed.

When we first come to Dharma, we can really follow the Buddha’s teachings.  At that time we’re really up for them.  We hear that all sentient beings are suffering and other foundational thoughts. These are the thoughts that turn the mind towards Dharma, and these are the original teachings of Lord Buddha. So we think, “Oh this is really something!  All sentient beings are suffering.  We are all suffering from desire.”  Well, that’s new information.  We didn’t really understand that before.  We just knew that we were suffering. It almost seemed as if we were afflicted with a disease that was eating us up, and we didn’t know where it was coming from.  So we hear the news that it’s all really based on ego-clinging or desire.

Then we hear the good news that there is an end to suffering.  Now who would have thought of that?  We are so accustomed to suffering.  It’s like being born on a merry-go-round.  Because we’ve always been going round and round all our lives, we wouldn’t know what else to do.  How we have suffered is characteristic of our personalities, it’s the way we determine who we are.  So a sense of wonder comes up.  At first we can’t take in the idea that there is an end to suffering. We wonder what it means.

Then the Buddha goes on to say, “And that cessation of suffering is called enlightenment.”  He then outlines the method of the eightfold path.  In Vajrayana that path is condensed into two accumulations, that of wisdom and compassion or Bodhicitta.  Wisdom is the realization or awakening to the primordial empty state, and Bodhicitta or compassion is the understanding of our nature as being fundamentally compassion. This is a new thought.

When we first meet with this series of new thoughts, the sense of wonder is enormous.  Unfortunately, what happens later on is that we never really hear it again, and that’s a problem.  It’s the biggest problem that we have.  I don’t know how many times I have marveled at the difference between old-time Dharma practitioners, who are no longer hearing these fundamental teachings that are so precious and essential in order to build anything further, and new practitioners, who are shocked to hear about suffering and that there is something they can do to end it. The new practitioners may only know one mantra like Om Mani Padme Hung or the Seven Line Prayer, but they have understood that the mantra or prayer is very powerful, potent and remarkable, and their level of practice is unbelievable.

© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo