Thursday, May 22, 2003

Just posting a line here to see if it bumps the cache. A half-loaded page is all I keep getting.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Moving into a new phase of the practice -- it seems normal now to get up and clean the shrine and do the recitations and prostrations -- and so of course my attention wanders now, sometimes. Like shamatha when it stopped hurting and being difficult just to sit still -- it was great in one way, because it no longer hurt and I could sit longer; but it also meant that I could completely space out for a longer time. My body was no longer constantly reminding me that I was doing something special. Likewise with the Ngondro. Lost my place in the refuge prayers a couple times; got confused once about where I was with my home-grown "abacus" (six pennies, six nickels, six dimes -- scoot down a penny each time till they're all down, then push the pennies back up and scoot a nickel down, etc.; basically a base-7 counting system.) But also I sometimes got a synoptic, panoramic picture of the refuge tree -- I could see all the buddhas and lamas and bodhisattvas and yidams and texts and guardians at once, whereas up till now I've usually seen them piecemeal, or even just seen bits of them, especially their hands -- Vajradhara's hand holding a dorje, Chenrezig's holding a lotus, the Buddha Shakyamuni's open hand. I trusted that eventually a cumulative picture would arise, and it seems to be doing so.

A question I'll have for Bill is -- should I interact with these enlightened beings? The question is a little silly but I think quite important. Jamgon Kongtrul says nothing about it -- you see Vajradhara blissfully meditating, is all he says -- but my enlightened beings, especially Chenrezig, look right at me and smile sometimes, both encouraging me and, it seems, regarding me as a bit amusing. I find myself grinning back at them sometimes.

Seeing Sarah as Vajradhara -- or Vajradhara as Sarah -- which I thought might be confusing, turns out to be almost eerily easy.

My shoulder started giving me some trouble when I got up to 84, so I scaled back down to 49 per time last week, and having been upping the numbers gradually. At 63 now.

Friday, May 16, 2003

I had conscientiously prepared for problems. That the practice might be dry and unsatisfying. That the visualization might remain vague and feeble. That I would grow impatient and rebellious, become more and more dissatisfied with the superstitious, fundamentalist side of the Dharma. That my knees would not be able to take the stress (I have had knee trouble from time to time.) That I'd panic when I realized how much of my meager free time would be eaten up.

I had prepared, in fact, for every eventuality except one: that the practice might actually work. That the invocation of the cho kyong sung mai tsok ("the guardian protectors of the Dharma") might actually shelter my practice. That lust (or whatever you want to call obsessive sexuality) might loosen its grip on me. That my mind might become -- in Alan Wallace's wonderful phrase -- "more serviceable."

And the world -- human, natural, and artificial -- has never been so consistently, so painfully beautiful.

Today Vajradhara's hands, his slender sky-blue fingers, held the golden vajra and the silver bell so precisely yet so carelessly -- resting as a skilled guitarist's fingers rest on the strings the moment before he plays.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

[ Note, six months later: I seem to have mixed up "padma" and "ratna" in this post. The padma "Buddha family" is the family associated with greed and passion and hungry ghosts. ]

Someone asked why I was doing all this, so I thought I'd take a shot at answering that. Not that it's such a good thing, usually, to have a firm idea of what you wnat to get out of any Dharma practice. but it's the obvious question to someone on the outside looking in. It's a lot of trouble, even at my mild pace: an hour or an hour and a half per day -- so why do it?

The answer's a long one, though.

Nancy Mairs wrote, in Ordinary Time, "Each life must hold one, I think: one pain that overarches and obscures all others, one haunting irreversible fault for which one can never atone."

For me, that pain is treachery to, and with, Marina. Why do I choose that particular wrongdoing to be my favorite pain? I've done lots of other things wrong, some of them possibly -- probably -- more destructive. The answer rises at once, clear and emphatic: because this is a wrong that I'm not sure I wouldn't commit again, in exactly the same way. I haven't released it. No wrong that I wouldn't do again could hold that kind of power, retain that capacity for inflicting pain over and over.

Marina was my best friend in graduate school. Our best friend. The three of us, Martha and Marina and I, ate ice cream and went to movies and read books together, laughed and delighted each other. We all had come from the West Coast, from radical colleges where we were queer fish who read Shakespeare and Milton and Tolstoy, loving the dead white hegemony of letters even while we dissented from it. And now we were at Yale, the heart of literary Authority in America, and we had found each other -- queer fish again -- scornful of the purely theoretical trendy radicalism of academics who had never held a shit-job in their lives -- wary of the prep-school-princeton-old-money-born-to-privilege types, a kind of person we had heard of all our lives but never met (people who had never doubted in all their lives that confusing "its" with "it's" was a grave moral failure) -- but mostly, here we were in a place where knowing Latin, or being able to recite all of "To a Skylark", or having read all of Jane Austen more times than one could count, were unequivocal virtues; where people might be pleasant or unpleasant, but were never stupid or incapable of nuance. Coming from the solidly anti-intellectual West, and the ambivalently anti-intellectual New Left, this was paradise. We blossomed. And we loved each other. We should have been friends for life.

So why weren't we? Why have we not seen each other for fourteen years, and why has Marina never answered the occasional emails I've sent after her, into the silence?

You already know why, of course. Because it wasn't enough for me. With skill and persistence, I contrived to maneuver Marina into admitting that were I unattached, she would have had me. I continually pushed, in my low-key, affable way: just a little more physical affection than she was comfortable with. Just a little more emotional intimacy. She was single, in a new place, doing a demanding course of study that inevitably called her worth, sensitivity, and understanding into question, and I was right there to assure her of my deep (and wholly unfeigned) admiration of all those things.

If I had not known what I was doing, there would have been no wrong in this. If I had just fallen in love with her inadvertently, there would have been no wrong in that, either. Such things happen. But I knew what I was doing as I did it.

More -- and maybe worse -- I misrepresented what was going on to Martha. Subtly but pervasively rewrote the scenario. Oh yes, Marina and I were attracted to each other. Yes, this was maybe a problem for Marina sometimes. But oh no, this was no problem for me. And entirely suppressed was the underlying truth, that I was deliberately, systematically exacerbating the situation in every way I could.

We didn't have an affair, though we had sort of a near miss. But that isn't really very relevant, and anyway, that was because of Marina's constancy, sense, and loyalty to Martha -- not because of mine.

Finally, after a couple years, Marina had enough. She began to distance herself from us. I remember one scene, I trembling, saying vehemently, "I'm not willing to be your *acquaintance!* Marina stony-faced. And a conversation between Martha and Marina, retold to me, in which Martha sought for an explanation of the distance, and Marina told her they had never really been such close friends. A heavy, inexplicable blow to Martha.

Marina was lying, of course. She loved Martha. But she couldn't tell her the whole story without compromising us, or misrepresenting something. By that time I think she felt trammeled by the thin web of distortion I'd laid over everything, and just wanted out. If she had to lie baldly to do so, then so be it.

This isn't a tragic story. Marina in fact probably suffered least, in the end, of the three of us: pretty soon afterward, she was happily in love with a wonderful appreciative man. She's a successful academic, still out on the East Coast. Martha and I came back to Portland to deal with death in the family and to fight a long fight against depression. But we got through that, too. No tragedy here either.

I no longer feel much inclined to blame myself. I was confused and unhappy, training for a career for which I knew myself unsuited, anxious and depressed, and spiritually rudderless -- unsteerable, adrift. I did love Marina, as well as Martha. None of that was made up. And anyway, blame is pointless, when it's not something worse -- to wit, a substitute for action. I don't care to measure or rate my guilt. I just want to be able to answer the question "in the same circumstances, would I now act differently?" with a confident, unhesitating "yes."

And that is why I'm practicing Ngondro. I want to work my way to that "yes." Ngondro is supposed to "purify defilements," or, perhaps a better translation, to "clear obscurations." To Buddhists all problems eventually come down to clouded perception. I have some dim sense now of the particular veil of confusion that led me to ruin two friendships and injure a third. Chogyam Trungpa writes somewhere of "ratna," the kind of character associated with generosity and the appreciation of beauty, in its pure form -- in its confused form, associated with greed and seduction. According to him, "ratna" in a confused mind is ovewhelmed and disoriented by its intense perception of beauty, and tries to contain and tame that intensity by somehow possessing it. That rings true to me. Not that I'm too open to beauty, but that I'm not open enough.

The question of how to deal with the intensity of my attraction to women has been -- just glance at my journals at any time in the last thirty years -- the ruling question of my life. Traditional morality, and common sense, would both advise me to just shut it down. Look away. Cultivate indifference. Accept that I can't always get what I want, and move on.

There's always been something in my heart that's rebelled against that advice. I used to think it was simply the pushback of compulsive, obsessive habit. But it's more than that. It's also the conviction that in shutting this down, I'd be shutting down the best part of me, shutting down all I really have to offer the world.

One Spring afternoon, after the grimy, frigid slush of the New England winter was behind us, Marina and I were walking under a pure blue sky. We turned a gothic stone corner and there was a newly blossoming cherry tree, every petal glowing, etched sharply against the sky, breathtakingly beautiful. I turned and hugged Marina, for sheer joy and astonishment and delight. I don't remember that either of us said a word; we just hugged and walked on. Marina sort of laughed at me and shook her head.

That, maybe, is what "ratna" can look like, when it's unconfused. That's the clarity I want to uncover by practice. That's why I'm getting up at five in the morning, murmuring words in Tibetan and dropping down on my belly over and over. To be able to say "yes" to that cherry tree, and that hug. And to be able to let them go. Which comes, maybe, to the same thing, in the end.

Friday, May 09, 2003

I guess a lot of Westerners have trouble with the very idea of prostrations, with the idea of humiliating oneself before an image. That's not a problem for me at all. For one thing, what the image really represents is not an Indian prince from some 2500 years ago. What it represents is my own awakening. Humbling my narrow little-mind ego in front of my (hoped-for) awakened mind makes all the sense in the world to me. And I seem to have been born without the Protestant conviction that body and gesture are unseemly, unspiritual things, to be excluded from religious practice. Humbling my body humbles my mind. That seems elementary, obvious to me.

Oddly enough, where my mind kicks is at the simple shrine duties. Filling the offering-bowls with water. Pouring the water out in the flower beds rather than down the sink. Extinguishing the butter-candle with a snuffer rather than blowing it out. Dusting the shrine and the Buddha figurine. That's where my Protestant instincts kick in with a vengeance. Some website recommended using distilled water in the offering-bowls, and oh, did my mind kick at that! "It's a SYMBOL, you idiots," I wanted to cry, "not a celestial drinking fountain!" Which betrays a really simpleminded notion of what symbols are and how they work. Like the students in literature classes who want to make reading literature a matter of simply making X stand for Y. Moby-Dick is the inscrutability of the universe, Ahab is man's questing intellect, and so on -- well, yes, sort of. But the only reason that's important is because they're also an all-too-physical whale and a cracked nantucket whaling-captain. The water is a symbolic purity I'm offering to my own awakened mind, sure. But if I don't really care about the purity of the water, if I don't even picture that I'm offering it to the Buddha -- why use the symbols at all? Protestant iconoclasm really has no place it can stop. Take the body of Christ off the cross: after all, it's only a symbol. Take down the cross. Take down the *word* for the cross. Take down the church. There's no endpoint: it eats away at its own meaning until nothing's left.
too big. lets try again.
Lets see if I can make this font a little larger...
So I wrote to B--- and D---, and they said it was fine for me to go ahead and start Ngondro, just relying on Jamgon Kongtrul. Last weekend I went shopping for stuff to set up a shrine -- overcoming huge reluctance to do so -- went to a shop calling itself "Tibet Spirit," a place I had always assiduously avoided: I detest the Dharma Tourist element of Western Buddhism, the New-Age-y doting on thangkas and dorjes and so on, with no understanding of their significance or place in ritual, and certainly no commitment to any of it that would ever entail actually inconveniencing oneself. And the idea of going out and buying sacred objects has always struck me as unwholesome, somehow.

But what is practice for, but to pry ourselves out of our habitual responses and challenge our prejudices? So I took a deep breath and went in. A small place, tended by the owner (I took it), a young Tibetan man with long hair and a wispy beard and moustache. Again stepping outside my usual habit, I simply told him what I was doing, how I was going to be starting Ngondro. It pleased me to be able to rattle off the name of my sangha in, as I fondly believe, a passible Tibetan accent: "Kagyu Changchub Choling." He knew of it. He evinced no surprise, and no approval or disaproval: plainly shopping for articles for a shrine seemed to him the most normal of activities. He showed me the stuff for a shrine, pausing below shelves topped with pictures of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. "I guess this is my shrine," he murmured, with a self-deprecatory smile. I walked out with a butter-lamp and seven silver offering bowls. All of cheap alloys, of course. Spending real money on such things would be still further out of my habitual orbit.

Then I had to shop for a Buddha statue. This was more the sort of experience I had dreaded. Trotting through Chinese import shops and various New Age "Goddess Galleries" and groovy trinket shops, ill from the pervasive stink of incense. I find that the Buddha is passe, nowadays: it's all Kwan Lin and Ganesh. The few Buddhas I saw left me cold, to say the least. The whole enterprise, begun in a flush of enthusiasm, sputtered to dogged determination and then to plodding disgust. The strain of trying to lay aside my habitual contempt for tourists exhausted me. I went home without a Buddha.

So there's M---'s little wooden Buddha on my shrine, a crude figure with almost no distinguishable features. He'll do. In fact I'm fond of him.

So I'm practicing now, as best I can. I'm just doing one session a day. Began with 21 prostrations per session (my legs were extremely sore after the first day. Can you imagine? Sore from just getting down on the floor and back up 21 times?), and now I'm up to 42. At which rate I'll be done with the prostrations, the first part of Ngondro, in about 7 years and 3 months.

I know the Tibetan of the six-line refuge prayer, now. The rest of the liturgy I'm doing in English. I'll replace it with Tibetan, I suppose, as I learn it. So far the visualization is laughable feeble. There's a figure or two in each group I can sort of picture, floating in a vague haze that is what I picture to go with the words, "surrounded by a vast retinue of their own kind." There's S---, in the form of Vajradhara, "blue as the autumn sky." Kalu Rinpoche floating above her shoulder. Occasionally the 17th Karmapa above her, and then a vague column of the lineage, all shadowy except for the keen-eyed, fierce Milarepa near the top. Over in the Buddha crowd, only Buddha Shakyamuni swims occasionally into focus. On the other side the Sangha is represented by Chenrezig, who is always smiling benevolently at me. (Question: why does Chenrezig count as a Bodhisattva? I had always thought of him as a yidam.) Below -- actually they're "on the eastward branch," i.e. the branch coming towards the onlooker, but in the only picture I've seen, that means (for purposes of practical representation) that they're below Vajradara in the picture -- below are the yidams, who, deprived of Chenrezig's presence, are shadowy indeed, a vague glimpse of Mahakala standing on one leg copulating with a consort. And below the throne -- where I can't see them anyway, because the yidams get in the way -- are the crowd I have virtually no image at all for: the dakas, dakinis, and dharma protectors. To my right on the lawn, my father; to my left, my mother. Lake. Tree. Birds. Oh yes, and don't forget the Dharma Texts, murmuring from behind them all, on the westward branch!

Patience. I'll fill in the vague areas. One nice thing about Ngondro is that I need have no fear of running out of time to work on the practice, since at present it looks like seven-some years till I'm done with the first quarter of it.

Friday, May 02, 2003

That basically brings us up to the present. I'm reading Jamgon Kongtrul's *Torch of Certainty* and counting the days before I can get the Ngondro instructions. Starting to work my way through the Tibetan of the six-line refuge prayer (my Tibetan is very rusty, but less rusty than I'd feared, and the Chinese I've been studying is surprisingly helpful -- some of the syntax is quite similar, e.g. the way that you construct a modifying clause by ending it with a vaguely genitive particle and then sticking it in front of the noun-phrase it modifies).

I'm on the point of emailing B---- (who'd give the ngondro instructions) and asking him if I can go ahead and start practicing -- I am anxious to begin the refuge practice, and I have odd groundless fears that I'll die before I can start it, or before I can finish it. Maybe I'll see someone I can ask at the sangha this weekend.

Miscellaneous things to find out: do I need a shrine to do ngondro in front of? And where can I find a Kagyu Karma lineage tree, so as to have a better idea of what to visualize? And can I do prostrations at odd times of the day, if I have fifteen free minutes, say, without doing the full introductory recitation again first? And how the devil do I keep track of how many I've done?
WELL, that began an excruciating five-day wait. I wrote to a friend:

I'm biting my nails and anxiously clicking the [check mail] button about twenty times an hour, because I sent mail off monday asking someone to be my root lama -- out of the blue, she barely knows me -- and I'm silly as a lovestricken teenager about it, projecting like mad, imagining the responses I dread and hope for in elaborate detail. Yikes. I hope my devotion impresses her, because my equanimity certainly won't :-)

IN forlorn hope that I might be able to present some evidence to put into the "not a flake" column, The day after I mailed the request I mailed S----- an addendum:

I should add maybe some items about myself to go in the "not a monumental flake" column: I've been very happily married for twenty years; I've raised two kids; I've practiced shamatha seriously for about fifteen years, & I have steady professional work. I've never had or sought a guru or mentor before. I think M----- would vouch for me being a sensible, steady, sane practitioner. He's known me for many years now.

Also I should make clear that what I asking for at present is really just permission to use you as my root lama in the visualizations -- not for any time-consuming coaching or instruction. (But I understand that the links created by that, though they may be imperceptible ordinarily, are not to be created casually.)

TO my great joy and astonishment, S----- wrote back with a lovely warm letter that Friday, giving me (somewhat reluctant) permission. I didn't even have to start building and tearing down houses. She just asked me to bear in mind that any blessing coming through her really came from her own root lama (a celebrated person, the founder of my sangha) and from the whole lineage. (I don't feel like I should post S----'s letters -- I don't even know if I should post my own. I can ask about that. My main motive here is to make a space that S---- can come to if she likes and see what I'm doing with my practice without me dropping maybe unwelcome email into her inbox all the time.

I wrote back:

S-----, thank you, thank you, thank you.

I have never felt so fortunate in all my absurdly fortunate life.

I will hold Kalu Rinpoche in special reverence, and be mindful that any blessing comes to me from the whole lineage.

My good fortune extended to my officemate being out of town today, so I didn't have to explain bursting into tears when I read your mail :-)

SO then, of course, the worries set in, the doubts, doubts about my worthiness, doubts about my motives. From another letter to the abovementioned friend:

Lots of issues about purity of motive and "fooling myself" come up for me about having a root lama -- I'm supposed to see her always as the Buddha, and that's remarkably easy for me to do, but I don't really *think* she's enlightened. (As if I'd know!!!) So am I telling myself lies to motivate myself? In a way. In another way, of course, she *is* the Buddha -- everybody is -- she just happens to be the person in whom, for whatever reasons, I can see it.

I guess basically I think there's a good time and a bad time for me to question practice-motivation. The good time is when I'm actually settling down on the cushion. That's the time to take a minute or two and try to identify my expectations, and gently lay them aside, because the more I carry them on into the practice the more they'll interfere.

But when it's just idle stream of consciousness monkey-mind, driving home from work or doing the dishes, it's a bad time. It's neither real thinking nor real practice. Better, at those times, to sink into some silly revery about how everyone will think I'm really cool when I'm enlightened, than to start fretting about
whether "really" I just have a crush on my teacher.

Well, first of all they say you have to get a root lama. So I sent this mail, more or less (I'm editing things as I go along. I live in P-----, my greatly admired lama there is M-----, and person I'm asking to be my root is S-----. Yes, I do feel like I'm writing a 19th-Century epistolary novel.)

Dear S-----,

I am looking at starting Vajrayana practice, after many years of practicing only Shamatha. And so the topic of choosing a root lama comes up. And so I'm writing to ask, under what circumstances might you consider being someone's root lama?

I was only in a class you taught in P----- a couple years ago, so I don't know you well enough to ask that. More importantly, I guess, you don't know me well enough for me to ask that. When I asked M----- about choosing a root lama, he cited someone who said, "your root lama is someone who showed you the nature of your own mind." And I thought, well, that's S-----, of course. But that's a silly idea. She won't even remember who I am. And what could I look like but a monumental flake, making a request like that out of the blue?

So I tried to sensibly put the idea aside, but it doesn't seem to go away. When I imagine visualizing the Buddha or Chenrezig or whoever as my root lama, you're the only person, besides the Dalai Lama, I can make sense of in that role. Now I realize this is just idle ideation -- not even ideation arising from practice: just ideation arising from thinking about the practice.

I'm confident that you are in fact my root lama, and always have, been, whether you or I like it or not. That confidence is just what it is, of course -- a recurrent, insistent thought. I don't mistake it for evidence, let alone proof, of anything. But I am not at all given to thoughts like that. I've never considered identifying karmic links from past lives as anything but a childish parlor-game, and I've always been a little impatient with what usually seems to me to be exagerated reverence for the Great Teacher du jour. So I'm kind of blindsided by this, now. But it's plain to me that wherever this comes from, it's a practice opportunity I'd be foolish to ignore. As I'd be foolish to ignore the fact that your visit to Portland was the most important turning point in my practice after -- maybe -- taking refuge.

So forgive me S----- for taking up your time this way. I'm painfully aware of the effrontery of this email. I tried to think of some way to disguise or soften it but I couldn't. So here it is. In any case, whether you feel moved to answer this or not, please accept my thanks again: my gratitude to you has only increased over the years, and I could never ask so much if I didn't already feel hopelessly in debt.

Much love