Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Projectile defilements

While Pope Francis dominated the religious scene last week with his display of charm and compassion during visits to Washington, D.C., New York, and Philadelphia, His Holiness the Dalai Lama managed to cause a stir with his response to an interviewer's question about his possible successor.

Yes, HHDL said, of course the next Dalai Lama could be female. And, he added, pointing to his face, she should be attractive. The male interviewer was aghast. The Dalai Lama giggled. The video cuts to another question.

This is nothing new. HHDL has said for years that his mindstream might choose a female form next time around, maybe even a western woman. He's also said he won't come back. And the Chinese have said they'll find him.

And he's also said before that if his successor is a woman, she should be attractive. He points to his face. And giggles.

The interviewers' reactions seem to have more to do with their perceptions than his words -- ie, "You can't say that." Well, no, white male western interviewer, you can't say that because we have a pretty good idea of what you mean by it -- that looks matter more than wisdom. We don't know what HHDL means by it because interviewers stop there. I wish they wouldn't.

Maybe it's a joke -- she should be attractive like me, says the wizened monk. Maybe it's a reference to the padma, or magnetizing, energy a spiritual leader needs. Maybe it's a great big cosmic joke because enlightened beings see beyond the dualities the rest of us use to measure our progress -- hope/fear, good/bad, attractive/repulsive.

The lesson for me -- which I'm always learning -- is that when someone says something I find  offensive, before I jump on my high horse and ride off, I need to try to understand what they're saying. I don't need to agree with it, but I need to know more about what they mean.  You think vaccines cause autism? Why? Because someone told you about their experience?  Have you looked at the science?  Are you open to considering it? No? Got it.

There's an often-repeated story about HHDL meeting with a group of western Buddhist teachers a few decades ago. Sharon Salzberg asked him about working with self-hatred. The Dalai Lama was puzzled -- he had no context for understanding that since it wasn't part of the Tibetan experience. Maybe he's not familiar with the pressure westerners feel to be attractive.

When I feel self-righteous, I've learned, I need to look at the self. What part of me is reacting? What is her story? Does it apply to the situation in this moment, or can I let that go and see the situation differently, with more clarity?

We have a tendency to project our strongest defilements onto others. I listened to a talk today in which Matthew Brensilver, a teacher with Against the Stream, describes how our habitual reactions come out in stark clarity in retreat. We can become intensely angry, he says, that the kitchen has used the wrong beans, garbanzo beans!, when clearly the salsa-like dressing on the salad called for kidney beans. It's funny, but so true. We can be triggers looking for a target.

Surprisingly, to me, I'm not feeling righteous about HHDL's comment. Before he said he wants to be attractive in his next life, he expressed surprise that anyone would be surprised that a woman could be the leader of a Tibetan Buddhist lineage. It's happened before, he says, centuries ago. Why not again? There are many wise women teaching Tibetan Buddhism -- if that's what you need to feel like you belong here, find one of them. Or do you have issues with a woman teacher?

On a side note, the Dalai Lama has been advised by his doctors in the US to rest, to cancel a planned tour. He's 80, and his human body is aging, as all of our bodies do. I imagine that no one is better prepared for death than he is, but his death will create complications for Tibet and Tibetan Buddhists and the world. May he rest and recover and remain to teach for a long time. May we spend more energy following his example and teachings and less bickering over his words.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Off the cushion, on the dance floor

"It's a meditation," the dance instructor says, coaxing me to relax and follow him in the tango.

I immediately realize he's right -- or at least that tango requires me to bring my meditation training to the dance. Just before his comment, I'd been looking over his shoulder at the pairs of students moving around the studio, shifting my attention off my partner and his guidance. Wrong move. Like bringing my awareness back to my breath in shamata meditation, I bring my attention back to Jack, the instructor, back to this moment, this step, this gentle pressure that his palm exerts against mine, telling my body to pivot left.

Tango lessons are nowhere on my bucket list, but I'm visiting a dear friend who's just started and asks if I want to go with her. I can take the intro class and stay for the beginner class, if I'm inclined. After that we can go practice at nearby sushi restaurant that lets the tango-ers take over a back room that's under-used in the late afternoon.

I'm neutral on the tango, personally, but I'm delighted by her delight and willing to explore its spark. I've no personal investment in this -- if I somehow am unable to perform the duties of tango, I can sit on the side and watch. I love to watch dance, to observe bodies in space.

Why the tango? the instructor asks the three couples and me who are there for the rank beginner intro class (my friend opts for the more advanced technique side of the room). I'm just here with a friend, I say. I'm open to whatever the experience is. (That's meditation practice right there -- going in without hope or fear, free from attachment and aversion.)

And if it is a meditation, the tango is tantric meditation -- at least as I hear it explained by this instructor. It's less about following a set pattern of steps and more about sensing and playing with energy, he says. The leader doesn't push his partner into steps but feels her energy and uses that to guide her. It's a movement of active and receptive energy, subtle and silent, sensed rather than announced. It requires concentration and relaxation, stillness and movement. There's a leader and follower -- male and female, for this class -- but those roles are fluid; the leader actually follows the follower's energy; the follower guides the leader, taking languid pauses for a flip of the heel or a circle on the floor.

Most of all, it requires presence, the willingness to be there with the energy and let it flow. Try to anticipate, and you block the movement. Look around and compare yourself to others and stumble. It's only fun if you're doing only it.

And it is fun -- to take those attention-gathering skills off the cushion and bring them to the dance, to use them with bodies in motion -- and in relationship, not just in stillness. (I confess: I love the prostration part of my ngondro practice because of the physicality, a rare time when the body in the body-speech-mind triad gets to move.)

And if meditation training applies to tango lessons, maybe there are other, less exotic places 
where it also can bring vibrancy and delight and an awareness of energies interacting, giving and receiving, guiding and following.  Maybe we can be like the Padma deities in the Dechen Barwa, "magical dancers ... in the boundless net of illusion."

Maybe enlightenment is being able to tango with reality. Backwards, sometimes. And in glittery high heels.