Thursday, July 24, 2014

Celebrating 50 years -- please continue for many more

I had the immense good fortune of receiving teachings from her in June on the 37 practices of a bodhisattva. You might think (I did) that someone who's been a nun for so long would be removed from daily life and, while admirable, be difficult to relate to. In this case, you would be so so wrong. She is delightful -- truly filled with delight -- and animated. She shares her deep knowledge with great humor and frequent laughs. Her smile stretches her face, and her blue eyes spark. She is fervent, intelligent, and experienced.

Fifty years ago today, Jetsun Tenzin Palmo was ordained as a novice Buddhist nun by Khamtrul Rinpoche, one of the first Western women to take the vows. Forty years ago on the same date, she became the first Western woman to be fully ordained. It was an auspicious occasion -- Jetsunma is still teaching, re-established a lineage of Tibetan nuns, and is fighting for women to get the teachings they've been denied for centuries.

 She discovered Buddhism as a teenager in England (and walked around town in what she thought approximated Buddhist robes until she met some actual Buddhists and saw they dressed like other people). She learned about an Englishwoman who ran a place in India where Tibetans who'd escaped from the Chinese takeover of their country, and moved there, meeting many newly arrived high lamas. She became a nun and spent seven years meditating in a cave in Tibet. (Her story is told in the book Cave in the Snow, or you can read the abridged version here.)

She was made for the solitary meditative life, but her plans to go back to deep retreat were repeatedly thwarted by events. Now she runs a nunnery, Dongyu Gatsal Ling, re-establishing the nuns lineage in her tradition. She hopes to get the nuns the teachings she was denied because she is a woman.

During a Q&A, Jestunma was asked if she had any disappointments about her experience. She replied that she feels like a failure -- causing audible gasps from the devoted attendees. Her goal was to become enlightened in this life, she explained, and she was unable to get the traditional teachings that would lead her there because she is a woman.

As heart-breaking as it was to hear this extraordinary woman, who has such deep understanding of things I can only glimpse, confess to feeling like a failure, it was also reassuring, in some ways. If she's not enlightened, that means she has to stay and teach us and return in future lives to lead us beings toward nirvana. And it was proof that feelings -- sadness, happiness, anger -- continue to happen even after years of study and practice and that it's possible to feel them, genuinely, and let them pass, like the clouds in the sky.

After all, as Jetsunma said, it's all rainbows.

You can see tributes to her on her Facebook page.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Seeds of hatred, seeds of love

Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield trained as a monk in Burma 40 years ago; recently, he went back and observed first-hand the seemingly contradictory Buddhist campaign against Muslims there.
An ethnic Rakhine man holds homemade weapons as he walks in front of houses that were burnt during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya.

In a week where violence and aggression dominated the news, it's worth reading his entire article, which delves into the interdependent causes of the violence: poverty, political insecurity, and fear of The Other.
Traveling across Burma recently, I encountered some of these monks who are drumming up hate and jingoistic fervor. They don’t want to talk about peace and have succeeded in sowing mistrust across much of the country. Under their influence, taxi drivers and shopkeepers from Rangoon to remote towns talk about their fear of a Muslim takeover and “the Buddha’s teaching” that sometimes violence is needed to protect the nation.
The most obvious cause is economic: the already poor and disempowered residents of the area fear an influx of immigrants who will take what little they have, even though some of the "immigrants" have lived there for many years and are their neighbors.

I witnessed firsthand the results of the spreading violence in the town of Lashio in northern Shan state, where this past year a mosque, businesses, and a Muslim orphanage were burned not far from the town’s most revered pagoda. While the local Buddhists I spoke to were friendly, they were also worried, and from their ranks came mobs who torched their Muslim neighbors.

How does this happen in a primarily Buddhist nation? Kornfield points to several factors:

-- The radical monks have linked Buddhadharma with nationalism, overriding the Buddha's message that hatred will never overcome hatred and replacing it with the idea that it's OK to kill some people.

-- "With the lifting of military dictatorship, simmering ethnic and religious tensions are being exploited by misguided monks, political groups, and the remnants of the dictatorship to gain power ... Radical monks play on the historical memory of Muslim expansion across Asia in formerly Buddhist cultures. Scare stories about Muslims raping Buddhist women and having huge families and overpopulating the land are widely disseminated."

--  Widespread ignorance of core Buddhist teachings -- like the precepts, which include the injunction against killing, speaking harshly, and lying. Buddhism in Burma is primarily devotional, Kornfield says, and Buddhists are taught to revere teachers, not question the teachings, their interpretation or application. Those who do are harassed.

Kornfield organized a group of "concerned Buddhist elders" to sign a letter published in Burmese newspapers urging the Burmese to reaffirm the Buddhist principles of non-harming, respect, and compassion.
We are with you for courageously standing up for these Buddhist principles even when others would demonize or harm Muslims or other ethnic groups. It is only through mutual respect, harmony, and tolerance that Myanmar can become a modern great nation benefiting all her people and a shining example to the world.
You can take the phrase about Myanmar out, and take that sentence as instruction on personal conduct from a teacher: It is only through mutual respect, harmony, and tolerance that we can be of benefit to others and a shining example to the world.

In a time when aggression and fear is rampant in the world, it's important to look at whether we cultivate our karmic seeds of aggression and fear or fertilize seeds of kindness and compassion. What is our experience of the world, and how do we transmit that to others?

May bodhicitta, precious and divine, arise where it has not yet come to be.
And where it has arisen, may it not decline but grow and flourish evermore.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Space is all around

"We'd thought you'd float in in lotus position," a friend greeted me on my return to work after a month of retreat.

"You must be so relaxed," another co-worker said to me later.

"So, have you moved up a level in Buddhism?" my mother asked.

How do you explain what happens on retreat? The outer stuff is easy, I suppose. I sat a lot. I walked a fair amount, a lot of it up or downhill, between the various venues at the retreat center: temple, bedroom, community building, Prayer Flag Ridge, Ekajati Peak. I learned a lot of  facts and took tests. I passed.

But what happens on retreat is none of that. It's internal -- indescribable and ineffable. You see what you hold onto -- and in a longer retreat, you can work with that. Maybe you can let it go, relax into that space of neither holding on nor pushing away, and rest.

And then come back to your worldly life and find that space is there too. Things are the same and different, and that's fine.

Noticing the space around people and things provides a different way of looking at them, and developing this spacious view is a way of opening oneself. When one has a spacious mind, there is room for everything. —Ajahn Sumedho 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Empathy breeds equanimity

Award-winning Irish author Colum McCann was in New Haven, Conn., last week as part of his work with Narrative4, an organization of authors that seeks to promote empathy through story-telling. Leaving Yale University, the Ivy League institution in the heart of New Haven's downtown,  McCann was attacked when he attempted to intervene in a dispute on a street.

McCann reportedly suffered a concussion, a broken cheekbone, some broken teeth -- and "a temporarily bruised spirit."

Very temporarily. In a statement showing remarkable equanimity, McCann said:
“I suffered a few injuries but nothing that can’t be quickly healed. If anything, I was shaken out of the ruts of my ordinary perception, and I have been struck the genuine caring nature of people asking about how they can help out."
McCann said what he thought was “most important about this is that there are others who suffer far worse violence, and I think it’s important that we try to understand that the deep roots of silence are not helpful. We need to speak out against this sort of thing."

Narrative4 encourages people "to walk in each other's shoes and prove that not only does every story matter, every life matters."

Buddhist teacher David Loy, in his book, "The World is Made of Stories," says those very stories --  often disparaged as bolstering ego -- can lead instead to egolessness, the state where boundaries between self and other dissolve.