The Comfort Zone – Is It Real?

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

Let’s say we were living in a terribly traumatic situation where there was all kinds of danger and all kinds of suffering, but something came on TV, a sitcom, the one that starts with an event and ends up with happily ever after in 30 minutes.  Don’t you love that about sitcoms?  I wish life were like that.  In the midst of all your travail and suffering you watch this sitcom, and for that short period of time, you’re comfortable, sort of happy.  You can laugh at things, but like the sitcom playing, does it change anything?  When the sitcom is finished, what happens?  You’ve still got your life, right?  So it’s like that with the kind of escaping that we try to do.  We try to put ourselves in a comfort zone.  We are so addicted to the narcotic quality of samsara that we try to bring that narcotic state onto ourselves again and again.   We want to watch TV.  We want to do different kinds of activities that make us feel safe.  We like to do activities that we can control.  We like to experience little adventures that are completely within our control, where there are no surprises, and we call that amusement.  We like to experience psychological, emotional events that are totally safe and totally controlled, and we call that relationships.  We don’t want to leave that comfort zone.

What is that comfort zone?  That comfort zone is the blind, dumb acceptance of the appearance of phenomena as being real without any discrimination, without any recognition.  We prefer to bring this narcotic cloak onto ourselves.  When we feel that things are getting too naked, too real, pull up the covers!  That’s what we do.  And we all have different ways of doing that, don’t we?  You know some people like to do the domestic goddess routine; some people like to be workaholics; some people like to do the fertility mambo.

No matter what area you’re practicing, you have to require of yourself a mental exercise – to rethink things, to reassess.  You have to practice recognition.  Do not wait for recognition to come.  The mistake that most practitioners make is magical thinking.  They say, “If I do this practice for two hours a day for the rest of my life, and maybe I’ll take a three year retreat, then I will be enlightened.”  It’s like a magical charm.  It doesn’t matter how you do those things or what you do after those things or before those things, but so long as you do those things, you will be enlightened.  This is the kind of thinking we have about our practice.  What I’m suggesting is that it’s not true.  We achieve enlightenment when we awaken.  There’s a difference.  You can’t really say you achieve your enlightenment after you finish your practice.  You achieve your enlightenment when you awaken.  The state of recognition is the key here.  How you hone your mind, how you choose to use your senses, how you redefine, how you study Samsara in order to recognize, how you study and learn to discriminate is necessary in order to achieve realization.  It is part of the process of awakening.

© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

Reactiveness Is The Enemy

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

How does one practice the recognition of the empty nature of all phenomena?  One of the ways that we can do that is by pacifying reactiveness through a deeper understanding and discrimination.  Reactiveness is an inner enemy.  In a very profound way, it’s probably your worst enemy.  It is the seat, the throne, the source of all suffering.  It is really our reaction to samsara and the resulting activity that that brings our suffering; that is our suffering.  Like the Buddha said, our suffering is all based on our clinging to self-nature as being inherently real and the desire that arises from that.  This reactiveness is truly the enemy.  I can’t say that often enough.

Since time out of mind we have believed in self-nature as being inherently real.  Since that first idea of self-nature as being inherently real, we have spent every moment from that point on securing ourselves, establishing ourselves, making ourselves safe and defining – most of all defining – ourselves.  In order to define myself, I have to see you as separate.  All of the ideas we have that come from that are truly samsaric in nature, even, as a practitioner, the idea that I should walk around looking very noble and very holy and very renounced.  Even that idea, although it may seem to be about practicing on the path, is actually about the samsaric clinging to self-nature as inherently real.

So this discrimination that we practice has to antidote that very thing.  How are we going to antidote that very thing?  That’s not so easy.  Reactiveness, if you think about it, is a perception about self-nature being real, the perception of other, and the reaction is based on hope, fear or neutrality.  As a human being, if I see you, I hope that you will make me happy.  I hope that you will make me safe.  Or, if I see you, maybe I fear that you’re going to be prettier than me or richer than me, or I fear that you’re going to be unkind to me or that you’re a danger to me.  Neutrality comes after you go through both hope and fear and you’ve decided it’s pretty well balanced, so you’re neutral about this.  Neutrality is not wisdom.  When we have that kind of a reactive mentality, it is such a knee-jerk reaction that it is automatic.  There is never a thought that says, “Oh boy, now I’m going to react to this.”  When somebody walks in the room, you don’t think, “Now, watch me react.”  When something happens to you, you don’t think, “Watch this.”  I have the image of these old-time paddleballs with an elastic string and a ball on the end, you know?  The only thing that you can do with it is bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, you know, like that?  Our minds are like that.  We are like that, bam-bam-bam-bam-bam.  The thing that’s happening is that we perceive ourselves as being real and solid; we perceive stuff as being “out there,” and the only thing it can do is hit us, and the only thing we can do is bounce at it, and it’s bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, reaction, reaction, reaction, reaction, reaction, because we cannot have a second where we don’t reinforce the idea that self-nature is inherently real.  Maybe we would disappear.  So bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam!  That’s what we have to do, and it has to be constant or maybe time won’t pass or things won’t be solid.

To apply the antidote to that, we are told to sit and practice and do the visualization.  That is an antidote.  The reason why it’s an antidote is because you’re not reacting to something that affects self-nature, but you are engaging in a visualization, giving rise to a deeper awareness of what your nature actually is.  So it’s a great antidote for that.  But if you really look at the phenomenon of bam-bam-bam and what it’s based on, you can see that there is no spaciousness between the idea of self-nature as being inherently real and BAM, the reaction.  There’s no space.  The mind can’t NOT snap back.  Do you understand why I’m saying that?

To apply the antidote, you can’t just decide consciously not to react.  That would only make you neurotic.  That is the nature of the beast as we are now.  You cannot pretend that you’re not reacting.  You’d look holy, I guess, but it would make you a little weird.  The way to practice is to try to get a little bit of space somewhere in the equation; to try to take a breath, give it a moment.  How can you do that?  I just said you can’t control that, so how are you supposed to do that?  The way to do that is to begin to recognize the nature of the phenomena that you’re experiencing.  When you go through this mental stuff and your mind is so tight and you’re bam-bam-bamming and you’re in that deeply reactive mode, you have the power to do this.  Animals can’t do this, other kinds of beings can’t do this, but humans can do this.  This is what’s unique about us.  We can stand back, and we can say, “Oh yeah, that’s just like me.  I do that.”  Just that stepping back to observe phenomena without going crashing into it headlong in total ignorance and drunkenness and denial is an incredible practice.  To be an observer just for a moment, to watch the equation – self-nature is inherently real, therefore…to watch the reactiveness, to watch the play that goes on there, begins to create some space in the mind. This is an incredible practice, and it should be done at times when you’re not deeply reactive.

To practice like that, you have to start very simply, when the mind is relatively quiet.  Watch yourself looking at a tree.  Watch how, when you look at the tree, the tree is only relevant if it makes you feel good.  Otherwise, what do you care about trees?  You couldn’t care less. But the tree is beautiful.  It affects us.  It’s very healing, pretty in the spring, shady in the summer, fruitful in the fall.  Instead of being king or queen baby on your own little stage, perhaps you can observe yourself looking at a tree and watching how the tree is relevant as to how it affects you.  Watch what happens when you watch the tree.  When you look at the tree, just kind of watch that whole equation right then.  At first, maybe it’ll happen too fast and you won’t be able to see it, but if you persist, you will get a wedge in there.  Watch your mind.

© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

Mindfulness Brings Awakening

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

For all students, when they see the sacred, whether it’s a text or a holy image, it is an opportunity to practice and it’s an opportunity for recognition.  It’s an opportunity to practice the View – to get that coarseness and dullness out of our minds.

As practitioners, we should never, even for a moment, point our feet at a sacred image.  You might think, “Ah, that’s for another culture,” but no, it’s not.  There is a thing that happens in your mind when you’re kicking back and you’ve got your feet up and you’re pointing it at something holy.  The mind goes to sleep.  Inwardly, subtly, you simply go to sleep.  Believe me when I tell you, you leave yourself wide open for real negativity to come out at that very time, because there was an opportunity for recognition, and there was a choice of non-recognition.  That puts more weight in the shit pile, not the Dharma pile.  See, we have two piles – shit and Dharma.  Those are the choices.  Just trying to be real clear about this.

When we practice this non-recognition, we are going deeper and deeper into suffering.  The mind becomes more inflamed, thicker, looser as in sloppy.  In actuality, in some ways it’s much tighter.  The mind is very reactive.  When we practice viewing the sacred and taking that little moment to practice the humility of lifting up that sacred image in our minds and really recognizing that, at that moment the mind is not concentrating on ego-clinging; it is not concentrating on desire; it is not concentrating on how you feel or what you want or what you don’t have; it is not concentrating on what you have to do next to make yourself happy.  It is practicing something different, and every opportunity to recognize the sacred in one’s life is a good one, particularly when you’re walking around not visibly practicing.  So, we never point our feet at a sacred object or at the Lama.

I remember for a long time I had a problem with my leg.  It was very swollen, and I had a hard time.  I had to keep it elevated, for a couple of years actually. Now it’s a lot better, but it used to be that I had to, even in puja, taking empowerment from my teachers, put my foot up, and it was the worst time in my life.  There were times I wished that I could cut my damn leg off.  I felt that strongly about it.  I’d just look down at that leg and think, “What the hell use are you, sitting there like that?”  So I really felt very bad about that.  What I would do is cover my leg with a blanket so no one could see it, and I was prayed that somehow that made it go away.  That was something I had to deal with, and I didn’t like that at all.  It felt wrong to me.  However, for the most part we are healthy, and we are able to practice in such a way that we do not point our feet at any sacred object.  This teaches us not to be slovenly in our minds, not to be forgetful, not to be mindless, but rather to be more mindful, and that is an antidote to suffering of all kinds.

Furthermore, Dharma texts should never be treated like regular texts.  They should always be lifted up.  They should never be on the floor.  They should never be under you.  Dharma is always held up because it is the path that the Buddha has given us.  Not doing so brings a lot of obstacles because of the state of non-recognition, which is the root of the suffering.  It’s the root of the problem.  You don’t think that you’re disrespecting the Dharma.  Let’s say  I have a Dharma book over here and I’m in a really tight seat and somehow I just kind of lean over like that with my elbows on top of the Dharma book – not good.  The Dharma book doesn’t care.  And it’s not about what a good girl you are, or what a good boy you are.  Nobody cares about that either.  It is that non-recognition, that dullness, that sleeping state that is the problem.  Every opportunity that we have that is taken to establish recognition is fruitful and very beneficial to us.  Try to remember that you’re not doing anyone a favor if you practice this way.  This is for you.  This is about you.  The book doesn’t need it, the teacher doesn’t need it, the bodhisattvas and the Buddhas, don’t need it; but you need it.  It is your opportunity to practice recognition.

We are very careful about how we treat the books.  When you finish reading a regular book, you just close it without thinking.  That thickness of mind, that non-recognition should never happen with a Dharma book.  When you close a Dharma book, do it mindfully.  Even if you don’t do it physically, such as touching it to the top of your head, at least in some way internally, you should be doing something like that.   Put it above the top of the head in some symbolic way in your own mind so that you’re gentle with it and mindful.  Think, “These precious pages, what would we do if we didn’t have the Prayer to the Three Bodies of the Lama?  What would we do if we didn’t have the Orgyen prayer?  What would we do if we didn’t have the Seven-line Prayer?”  We wouldn’t do anything because we wouldn’t have any practices.  So this is so precious to us, and this mindfulness really is important.  It really makes a difference.

Likewise, when you have an altar, whether it’s at the temple or at home, it should always be clean and free of dust.  The bowls should always be clean, with no nasty ring around them because you didn’t wipe them.  The offerings should be made every day.  Of course, in opening one’s altar, automatically one is making offerings.  That has to be done mindfully, and if you don’t have a regulation type altar yet, if you just have an image of the Buddha and offer one flower, a few grains of rice, a cup of water, something like that every day, that mindfulness brings an awakening to the sacred.  Once again, it’s not for the picture; it’s for us.  Conversely, not doing that, not having a sacred image, not having a way to establish the sacredness of any given day, hour, moment, life,  produces obstacles.  It can produce tremendous obstacles because, once again, we are floundering around, and maybe even willingly so, in a state of non-recognition.  These things are very important.

© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

Samsara – Living in a Material World

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

In practicing bodhicitta in a mindful and discriminating way, one has to understand first of all the faults of samsaric existence.  One has to understand the basic logic if it. If we are giving rise to the aspiration to be of benefit to beings, it only makes sense if we understand why and what the connecting factors are.  Otherwise it is just acting.

One of the greatest obstacles I’ve seen, is the current pop religion culture that says, “Everything is perfect; the world is perfect.” So many people are into the idea of seeking happiness that on some level they must realize that there is suffering, because they’re trying to cover up that suffering.  They’re trying to affirm it away by saying that suffering doesn’t exist.  They tell themselves everything is light and love and suffering doesn’t exist and that’s wonderful, and so the world is a great place.  We don’t have to practice compassion, because everything is already blessed and very holy.  The world is perfect. Can you hear the superficiality in that?  What you need to hear next is what’s really going on in the world because if you’re in that mind state, you haven’t been watching, you haven’t seen.

There is such an extraordinary amount of suffering in all the realms of cyclic existence.  In this world alone, just look at the human condition: the extraordinary, unconscionable suffering.  How can you look at these people marching out of Kosovo and think that’s perfect?  How can you watch children and innocent civilians being torn up, with no understanding as to how this could have happened to them?  They are modern people like us.  How can you look at that and say everything is love and light; that everything is perfect?

If you’ve had the good fortune of knowing one person throughout the course of your life, think of all the different ages and stages they’ve gone through.  Watch what it’s like to be a child and to go through all the struggles that children go through?  It’s tough being a child.  They don’t really understand what’s happening to them.  They don’t really understand why it is when certain things happen, other things happen.  It’s tough being a child.  That little brain is forming.  It doesn’t work in its entirety yet.  And then watch that person grow up to be a teenager.  It’s tough being a teenager.  It’s awful being a teenager.  I remember being a teenager.  I don’t think there are words for that!  You have all these feelings and your body is all grown up and your head is still childish and nothing works.  And then you grow up, and suddenly you’re supposed to be an adult.  You don’t feel any different, though, than you did when you were a teenager or a child.  You still feel like you don’t understand diddly-squat, and yet suddenly, because you have a child maybe, you’re supposed to be an adult.  You think, “Wow, I’ve waited all my life to be an adult.  This is great.  Now I can vote. I can drink.”  Yeah, you can also get up early every morning and go to work.  You can also work every single day.  You can also have very little fun.

Do you remember what it was like when you were just trying to build your life?  There’s an obsession with that.  You think, “Ooh, I’ve just got to do this.  If I don’t do this, I’ll never be happy.”  All that reactive delusion kind of beats you up.  Then, when you get to the point of maturity and you realize that not all the things you thought really mattered actually matter, there’s a little spaciousness.  Maybe you have a pause that lets you know that maybe now it’s time to relax a little bit about getting all these material things lined up; maybe now it’s time to stop and smell the roses and then even beyond that, plan for your maturity.  Maybe you think, “I should think about my death. I should think about how to take care of my children.”  So you get this glorious moment of thinking, “Yeah, okay. I’m pretty stable now.  I’ve got a car, got a house, got some kids, so things are okay.”  You have about five minutes of that before everything you have goes south, and I mean the body.  This thing that we put so much energy into shining up and growing up and waiting until it is matured, and then everything you have from the waist up is now from the waist down.

As Buddhists we are required to study these images of a young woman or a young man, middle-aged or mature and then older, and then see that this is the same person.  Understanding what that’s all about is the key.  For us to not wander through life with everything happening to us unexpectedly.  That’s the most amazing thing about us. Everyone around us gets old; everyone we see gets old; we’ve got old people everywhere, but it’s always a surprise when it happens to us. How can we possibly go through life in any meaningful way when it constantly surprises us?  Instead, what we need to do is to really study the conditions that we are involved with and do so truthfully and honestly.

In the practice of bodhicitta, the first things that we can understand are the faults of cyclic existence.  Cyclic existence is impossible. It’s ridiculous.  It’s not only flawed and faulted, it’s a real pain in the neck.  The amazing thing about cyclic existence is that no matter what you do in the material realm, in the realm of experiences, if it arises from samsara and is within the realm of samsara, it’s all going to come to nothing because anything that you accumulate, build, or create, you lose when you die.  You won’t be able to take that with you.

The saddest thing and the thing that we have compassion about and try to become mindful about, is watching someone who is no different from us, wanting to be happy just like we do; spend all of their time pulling stuff together, accumulating or not accumulating, setting up their little gigs, their little power things, all their little personality dramas.  We watch people that are so entrenched and lost in that, and generally, before we’ve had any training, we’d think that was normal.  But having had training, we think, “Oh, maybe that’s not so good.  Maybe that’s not the way to go.”  We might judge that person as being superficial.   We might have a lot of judgment about that person.  But in order to be truly discriminating and mindful and to actually benefit our practice, we should be saying, “Yes, that’s what it’s like here.  That is the fault of cyclic existence,” and feel compassion for them.

Creating mindfulness in the arena of practicing bodhicitta is like that.  We have to constantly caution ourselves not to simply go down the road in the way that we ordinarily do, but instead, to be in a state of recognition and awareness.  When we see ourselves act in a superficial manner, just going through the motions of life thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to have this money or this power or this fame or this fortune or this car or this family or this whatever” — instead of judging these terrible faults in ourselves or in each other, simply say, “This is the fault of cyclic existence.”  Rather than saying that person is superficial or that person is lost or that person is damned, we ought to say, “What a fabulous opportunity to study the faults of cyclic existence.”  You should look at that person, and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, because that’s how it is here.  What can I do to help?  How can I benefit sentient beings so that it is no longer the case?”  It increases your bodhicitta practice rather than taking it down by judging others.   To say, “They’re so material; they’re just about money” or, “I’m just about money, I’m just about material things.” is not beneficial because you are not contributing to mindfulness; you are contributing to judgment.  Can you see the difference?  You are not contributing to a state of recognition.  You’re only recognizing appearances.  Big deal!  Dogs can do that!  Do something dogs can’t do.

© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

Take Yourself to Task

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

Most of us were trained from early childhood that you’re wrong when you get caught.  A lot of times when our parents schooled us and disciplined us, they didn’t really relate to any profound level regarding the development of our consciousness.  Very few parents walked up to their children and said, “You know, you’re not developing good inner qualities.”  Mostly we were told, “You didn’t wash the dishes!”  So we learned that it is the visible things that really count, and it’s when we get caught that life really takes a downward turn.  That’s what we’re told, and that’s what we really understand to this day.  It’s very hard for us to make that leap from thinking with this get-away-with-it mentality, with this as-long-as-you-hide-it-it’s-OK mentality, into a deeper level of practice where you require of yourself that you do more than look ‘as if.’  That’s a step that only you can take.

My personal experience has been that when we take that kind of step and become inwardly responsible for giving rise to a state of recognition, then at that point our path becomes potent, empowered, and deeper than we thought possible.  But then you could say that about any avenue of life.  So as long as we’re faking it in any avenue of life, so long as we’re simply trying to hold the image that we think is appropriate, we are missing a lot.  So why wouldn’t it apply to Dharma activity also?  It is particularly important where the state of awakening, as opposed to being in this narcotic, samsaric mind state is at stake.  How much more so, then, in Dharma practice is it to be aware of one’s own mind state and to take oneself to task?  If you find that you’re just fulfilling the form of the practice and you’re just acting as if you have reverence, or acting as if you can have some kind of spiritual discrimination or recognition, only you can say to yourself, “W-w-w-wait a minute, go back and do that again.”  Only you can sit there doing Seven-line Prayer, and realize you don’t even remember what you’re doing.  Things are coming out of your mouth you don’t even know and the mind is all askew and you don’t know where you are and if you didn’t have the beads, you really couldn’t count, you’re so far gone.  So when that happens, do you stop, pull yourself together again, and focus?  Maybe you even lose a few of the Seven-line Prayers on your little bead thing, and go back and say, “Wait a minute, I think I’ve been gone for about 10 minutes.  Only you can do that.  I know it sounds silly; it sounds like much ado about nothing, but that is the power that you have.  Don’t take it lightly.  The potency that we have on our path comes from that kind of mindfulness, that kind of discrimination.

© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

Developing the Heart of Practice

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

In practicing mindfulness within the context of guru devotion, one elevates the object of devotion.  One elevates that appearance which is in accordance with the Buddha’s miraculous and compassionate intention, as being different than ordinary phenomena.  What we are trying to do is overcome the condition of non-recognition. In this condition of non-recognition or dullness, where our mind becomes very flat-line, the mind is actually filled with so many defilements of non-recognition that the mind becomes disabled.  The consciousness becomes unable to discriminate what is extraordinary from what is ordinary.  We literally are not able to see that which arises from the Buddha nature and are not able to discriminate between that and what is ordinary appearance.  So we practice Guru Yoga for the purpose of being able to make that kind of discrimination.

When we hold an object of refuge in reverence, we should not bring it into the realm of the ordinary.  In order to bring it into the realm of the ordinary, you have to think the way you ordinarily do.  You would basically be saying, “Okay, now, this is me, the student, acting like that in front of the object of reverence, of refuge.  This is me acting like that.  I put myself in that posture because that’s what I’m supposed to do as a good Buddhist.” Having the opportunity to discriminate, to give rise to a state of recognition or awakeness, yet remaining in the realm of the ordinary is simply throwing away the opportunity.  We’re bringing it into the realm of ordinary context.  We’re saying, “This is here and that’s there.” and we’re practicing the sense of division, the sense of duality, while not truly making any kind of distinction.  In that particular kind of thinking, you, the ego, you, the self, are still the star on that stage.  You are bowing.  You are in a posture of being reverent.  Don’t you look good!  That kind of attitude is different from what I’m talking about.  What I’m talking about is a true, honest, delusion-free recognition of that which is extraordinary.  So the practice has to go accordingly, and only you can know.  Only you really can measure the subtleties of your own mind and your own perception to see honestly and truly how this is going.

To go through one’s career as a Buddhist and practice in such a way that we only look as if we are holding up what is precious, practicing only the posture and the demeanor of reverence without really having the inner discrimination and mindfulness, has very little result.  In fact, you can have a negative result, because still and all, this solid self-nature, this ego that we cling to, is the star on the stage.  When you are practicing refuge and doing all the right movements without the inner discrimination, what you’re really doing is performing.  We’re onstage, and that means that the ego, or the idea of a solid self-nature, is held in much higher regard and we are much more deeply aware of that than the object of refuge.

Therefore, we have to be careful and mindful.  Here is where we have to practice true discrimination.  If I were to treat a Dharma book in a certain way, for instance, saying, “Oh, now everybody’s watching me because I’m up high on the throne, so, when I put my Dharma book over there, I’d better do it very gracefully.”  Well, it might look like I was being mindful, but it wasn’t true mindfulness because, in thinking like that, the ego is the star.  In thinking, “Oh, I’d better do this just right. I’d better follow the rules, better be a good girl,” without any inner recognition that these are the Buddha’s teachings, without any inner recognition that what comes from this Dharma book is not the same as what comes from a dime store novel, there is no discrimination.  Only you can be responsible for that kind of inner recognition.  In a way, that is the great strength, as well as the great difficulty, of practice.

The great strength of practice is that you have the jewel in your hand.  Use it or not, you have the jewel in your hand.  You can determine the depth of your practice.  You can practice as deeply as you wish.  We should be aware that only we could practice in such a way as to actually deepen in our level of understanding, or our level of wisdom.  Only we can practice in such a way as to give rise to recognition, but we have to stop just going through the motions.  It is so important to really develop the heart of practice.  But your inner posture can really only be sensed by yourself, and perhaps maybe the intuition of your teacher.  Only you know what’s going on.  That’s the pitfall also.

© Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

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