Friday, October 25, 2013

How to study Buddhism like a Geshe

Yesterday I went to a talk by Geshe Kelsang Wangmo, the first woman to receive the advanced geshe designation in Tibetan Buddhism. Given only to monastics, it is the equivalent of a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy.

While I've never been a fan of dharma combat, which seems too tied to ego, I'd love to see her debate. She is razor sharp and lightning quick, confident and challenging but with a huge smile on her face. Her hands and arms move fluidly in expansive gestures, and her face, below her buzz-cut hair, is constantly changing expression.

Which, perhaps, demonstrates her point (in this talk at Smith College) that there is no one, singular, definite, unchanging "I" to be found. If anything, she says, there is a collection of I's -- "I should call itself we," she playfully suggests.

To get a geshe degree requires 16 years of study. She freely shares her method:

-- Listen. Buddhism was an oral tradition, and many of the suttras start out: Thus have I heard ... Be a student of Buddhism.


-- Listen with a skeptical mind. Don't believe things just because "thus you have heard..." Question question question. Break things down. Is this true? Is it true under all conditions? If you look at it another way? From another angle? Analyze. Come to a conclusion.

-- Then, most importantly, feel it. Does it feel right? If not, then it is not true for you, so don't incorporate it into your world view. But be sure you have investigated it rigorously so that the feeling is about that conclusion and not something related to it or the person who explained it.

"The only way to change is to bring it onto an emotional level," she said.

Quite a statement from someone with so much intellectual firepower.

The key to a happy marriage? Accepting impermanence

A student in the meditation class I lead once asked how I could reconcile the truth of impermanence with being married. Since nothing is permanent, how can you take a vow to stay with someone for better or worse, all the days of your life?

My answer was that impermanence doesn't mean that nothing lasts -- it means that nothing stays the same. There is no solid, permanent, singular self, and no solid, permanent, unchanging marriage.

My spouse and I have been married for 33 years, as of Oct. 25. Neither of us is the person we were then, back in our early 20s. I can't speak for him on this, but I would not have wanted to be forever 23, even young and in love and pooling our pocket change to buy dinner on Friday nights, romantic as that was. We've changed, the world has changed, the conditions of our lives have changed.

And so it goes.

Autumn is an absolute reminder of the truth of impermanence -- here in New England, the leaves are on fire, sharp tongues of gold and red reaching into an azure sky, until they let go and drift to the ground. We rake them, grudgingly, and drag them to the compost pile to decompose, creating food for future vegetable plants.

And so it goes for us humans, like it or not. We grow, we bloom, we endure dark days, cold days, and we wait for the sun. We change with conditions. We persevere. And someday, we'll drop. All earthly relationships end some day.

So why get married? You might as well as ask, why live? Why get out of bed? The day will end too, but we usually start it, often in the morning. Life will end, and we yet we continue to live it. Everything is impermanent, and yet things come into existence.

I am not the woman I was back then, and he's not that man. Our relationship's not the bright, shiny, untested, brand-spanking-new marriage it was in 1980. It's something different. It's been myriad relationships -- spouses, parents, adult children, caregivers, cared for, empty-nesters, full-lifers -- and that's how it lasts.

Accepting impermanence is key to staying married, actually. It's only by knowing that your relationship will change, your partner will change, your life conditions will change that you can stay. All of that will happen, of course, and if you fight it, if you cling to where it is at one stage or to an ideal of how it should be, it will fail.

People ask me what the secret to a long marriage is. I don't know, but I would say it's being willing to let it be new, not keeping track of how long it's been. It's seeing the person who's in front of you now, not the one who was waiting at the altar. Being willing to let them grow. And being willing to grow yourself. It may be that you grow apart; it may not.

It's impossible to live in that space all the time, especially when you're living in a household as well as a relationship. It's easier to see the other person as a role than a human -- isn't it the husband's job to mow the lawn? Change the lightbulbs? Wasn't it your turn to buy groceries? Fold laundry? That's especially true when there are other beings involved -- parents, children, pets, bosses, neighbors, friends -- and you can't find the energy to just be. Or that's how it feels.

The marriage part, the vow, is about sticking it out through those times and coming back, finding your new breath, finding your new partner. Trusting in the form so that you can rest in the emptiness, the space of possibility and acceptance.

The wedding ring that drew my meditation student's attention? It's not a wedding ring. That ring hasn't fit on my finger for years. I wear a claddagh ring; I wish I could say I'd gotten it in Ireland, but I lost that one, and this is a replacement from a jewelry store in town. My husband lost his original wedding ring and quit wearing the replacement one years ago.

The rings aren't important. Seeing the human who is or isn't wearing one is what matters.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The impermanence of leaves

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins
"Spring and Fall: To a young child" 


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Enlightenment in a cup

Enlightenment cannot be obtained
at Starbucks,
no matter what the sign says.
You can't order up
a Grande Mind
with a double shot
of equanimity
to sip
while you sit
and scroll through
the Dalai Lama's Twitter feed
and expect
to attain nirvana.

You could, perhaps,
become enlightened
by drinking tea,
any old tea,
with perfect presence,
feeling the temperature of the cup,
noting the sensation --
pleasantly warm. scorching. or neither.
Smell the aroma
and observe your mind.
Is there a memory?

A plan? A leap ahead to what comes after tea?
Lift the cup, and feel the muscles
in your hand, arm, and shoulder --
the interdependence of bone, ligament, muscle --
adjust to the weight,
move the cup toward your lips,
and taste.

And let the next sip
be new,
free from expectation,

You can eat Enlightened ice cream
without becoming enlightened.

Or you can you can touch
your enlightened nature
while eating ice cream.
Fresh. Clear. Open to the experience.
Even the headache.
If you're enlightened
you wouldn't suffer from it,
just note the sensation
and let it pass.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

This could be the last time

Tikker is a digital watch that counts down the minutes to your predicted death, based on your answers to a personal health history questionnaire.  Each Tikker watch comes with a booklet called "About Time," which guides users in calculating their lifespan, Mashable reports.

I'm curious to know how they account for the proverbial bus that hits you after you walk out of the doctor's office with a clean bill of health. Or any other accident. Life -- and death -- simply is not that predictable.

Noah Levine talks about saying good-bye to one of his teachers after having lunch. "I'd like to say, 'See you soon,'" he says the teacher told him, "but it might be never again."

This wasn't a subtle way of saying he'd contracted a fatal disease. It was a teachable moment, a recognition of impermanence. We never know, when we say good-bye to someone, what will happen before -- or if -- we see them again. Children grow up, kittens become cats, hair gets grey. Things change.

Everything is impermanent. This ephemeral existence is not to be wasted. Everyone who is born will die. My death is certain, the exact time is unknown. Knowing this, what is most important?
What's important is not to leave things undone. Don't hold onto resentments, don't hold off on a smile or a hug.

 In recent years, there's been some point in every visit with my mother where she sighs and says, "This could be the last time ..." And I reply, "Yes, it could. I might walk out of here and get run over by a bus. You might live for another 20 or 30 years. You don't know."

Would you want to? Would you feel more or less anxious if you knew exactly how many more nights you had to get some sleep? Would it enhance or detract from your ability to sleep? Would it help you to enjoy the present or project your anxiety into the future?

Tikker's creators say their goal is to help people get more out of life by telling them how much more life they have to live.

"I think we can have a better life, and make better choices, if we are more aware of our upcoming expiration. It gives us perspective — the little stuff suddenly doesn't seem so important anymore. That's why I see Tikker as a happiness watch," Fredrik Colting, Tikker's creator, told Mashable in an email.
The Buddha told his followers that 2,500 years ago -- but he didn't say he could tell them when the end would be. My death is certain. The exact time is unknown.

Knowing that, knowing that you're not guaranteed another chance to sit down with someone, can you see how precious they are to you now and treat them as the rare and wonderful being that they are so that you never have to wish that they knew how you felt? What would you say if you knew it was your last meeting -- would you pick at the details or let the small stuff slide?

You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, as Bob Dylan famously said, and you don't need a watch to tell you that your time will come.

The poet Mary Oliver asks:

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Do it now.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Applying kindness

You can get smartphone apps to share photos with friends, tell your friends where you are, find out where they are, let them know when you're about to meditate so they can sit down too.

Now you can get an app to send them random compliments.

Kindr is an iPhone app that "users can send pre-crafted or original compliments to their friends and earn points along the way. Ready-to-use compliments include things like: 'Who always sees the glass half full?' 'Who do you admire for their dedication to their fitness?' and our favorite, 'Who's so smart that if they were turned into a zombie, they'd just seem like a normal person?" the Huffington Post reports.

The story doesn't explain why the compliments are worded as questions, which seems oddly impersonal. Or say what good the points are. Is it a competition -- the nicest person is the one with the most points? Can you redeem them for a whining binge? (It does say HuffPo will be providing content. It also provides the image at right)

The Kindr website includes a link to studies the document the benefits of kindness.

Of course, the Buddha listed them 2,500 years ago.The most ancient extant Buddhist collection of texts, the Pali Canon, identifies a number of benefits from the practicing of metta meditation, including:

One sleeps easily, wakes easily, dreams no evil dreams. One is dear to human beings, dear to non-human beings. The devas protect one. Neither fire, poison, nor weapons can touch one. One's mind gains concentration quickly. One's complexion is bright. One dies unconfused and – if penetrating no higher – is headed for the Brahma worlds.

If you're interested in practicing kindness, you could do metta, or lovingkindness, meditation. It's described here.

And if you want to get digital with it, you could just set an intention to text one compliment every day -- maybe after your metta meditation session. Make it one that you write yourself, from your heart. You'll feel good. The recipient will feel good. (Although I once, in a metta haze, texted my son, who wrote back, "Is this a generic text?") And if enough people feel good ... it'll be a movement.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Meditating with (the mind of) a kitten

Traditional meditation texts sometimes describe the unmeditated state as "monkey mind." But for the last week I've been sitting with my new kitten, and I feel like I'm seeing my mind manifested. The kitten is all over the place -- chasing a piece of paper, disappearing under the shrine, jumping sideways, kneading the mat, settling into one posture and resting.

My mind does all those things -- follows after an intriguing thought, gets lost in thought, skips from topic to topic, and finds ease and space.

All purrs are mantra.

And a piece of advice -- don't wear drawstring pants. It's like that itch you can't get out of your mind.