Saturday, July 9, 2016

Preliminaries are practice

Two years and 11 months ago, I started ngondro, the preliminary practices in vajrayana Buddhism. A week ago, I reached the required number of accumulations of prostrations, offerings, and mantras.

I didn't know I could do this. In fact, two days into the weeklong retreat where I and others learned the ngondro practices, I went up my lama during a break in teachings and told her tearfully that I didn't think I could. She laughed gently and said, "you don't have to do this," pointing out another path of study that I could follow.

I went through the next few days taking notes and doing practices, all the while thinking that I would not be doing them again, thinking I was good with that. Then I met with my mentor, my kalyanamitra, and immediately burst into tears, telling her that I didn't think I could do this.

She also laughed gently. "You can't do it perfectly," she said. "No one can. ... But you can do it."

And so I did it, imperfectly. One hundred thousand prostrations, 100,000 times to stand, slide, lay my body on the ground, and rise back up. One hundred thousand mandala offerings, more than 1 million mantras, sliding mala beads between my thumb and forefinger.

Along the way, I had to give up the idea that I could not do this. I had to give up a lot of ideas about myself: that I was incapable, that I couldn't take this time for myself, that I was not someone to mumble in a foreign language and perform ancient ritual practices I couldn't always parse out.

Over almost three years, I learned to hold my selves much more loosely, to not expect them to perfectly match my own or others' projections. I learned to let go of the things that I thought defined me, to see them washed away without giving myself time or space to explain or justify why they were there, to just let them go. And that meant forgiving the other players in those stories for their parts -- letting go of their storylines freed them to be new people in our relationships.

I learned to sit, to stay when I wanted to get up, to come back to the focus, to offer the mistakes and the errors as gifts of sincere effort, imperfect but genuine. To see the beauty of the imperfect but genuine, which is deeper than the merely lovely. To trust in the process, the map laid out hundreds of years ago, and to keep moving step by step through the fog of confusion until I found clear views again.

I had to prioritize in order to finish in three years; that was the deadline for the program I'm in to move on to the next practices. I don't know that much about what they involve. I'll find out. I'm more comfortable with uncertainty now.

You can learn more about the program here

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