Clear Motivation

"Be kind whenever possible. It's always possible" – The Dalai Lama


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The Dalai Lama and 150,000 Sparks of Peace

Bus Me to the Moon

Sorry I didn’t post more pictures of where I stayed, etc. The internet isn’t so lightning quick here… anyway, this should give you some idea, and perhaps I’ll post more photos next time. Enjoy!

Ladakh’s landscape hit my eye with a gentle welcome each morning as I sauntered out of my homestay and made my way to the Kalachakra teaching ground. I came to feel so cozy with the fortress-like walls of mountain encircling the entire Leh region. But on first encounter, I was not impressed. It seemed that this is how it must be on the moon. Just giant rocks jutting up all over. Ladakh is barren earth.

Like moon rocks, no? But still, somehow I couldn't resist staring out the window the whole time...

Like moon rocks, no? But still, somehow I couldn’t resist staring out the window the whole time…

The occasional river reminds me that we're still on earth!

The occasional river reminds me that we’re still on earth!

I started out cold, tired, and grumpy on the 2-day voyage into Ladakh. I don’t use the word voyage lightly – of course, it wasn’t by nature something grand and exciting. The word here is just being used relative to the amount of effort I had to exert to keep my mind calm when it was on the brink of going bonkers.
There weren’t actually any major obstacles or discomforts. A few little road obstructions came up.

Who's to say who's obstructing whom?

Who’s to say who’s obstructing whom?

But how easy is it to overreact to little things? So I spent much of my travel time baby-talking myself into remembering to be grateful for the incredible skill of the drivers who traverse these paths and whoever mustered the courage to even come here in the first place, and then build roads for everyone else to be able to visit. Luckily, the other people around me were so easy-going and unphased by whatever was going on that it acted as an immediate reminder for me the moment I started to steam. “Wait a minute – why is everyone around just hanging out, laughing and enjoying themselves, while I’m turning this into a hellish dream? I’m not making any sense!”

Yes, I actually had genuine fear at a few points on the trip... rocks were being shot down from the waterfall above as I fear we would sink to our doom in the four-foot hole in this road-river. But, no need for a tow truck or police intervention - another bus towed ours out and we were on the way, whence all the bystanders who were waiting from other vehicles began hurling rocks to fill in this hole. That's teamwork!

Yes, I actually had genuine fear at a few points on the trip… rocks were being shot down from the waterfall above as I fear we would sink to our doom in the four-foot hole in this road-river. But, no need for a tow truck or police intervention – another bus towed ours out and we were on the way, whence all the bystanders who were waiting from other vehicles began hurling rocks to fill in this hole. That’s teamwork!

The reactions of my companions were representative of a cultural attitude for which my fondness grows the longer I stay here. It’s acutely summarized by a seemingly meaningless interaction I witnessed in a cybercafe in Leh (the capital city of Ladakh). The internet wasn’t working well and a young man walked up to the shop’s propietor – “Oh, internet still not working? Oh well… what’s there to do?” she said. Then, though normally that rhetorical question is the capstone of a expression of empathy, here there was just a moment’s pause after which she said with bizarre enthusiasm, “Nothing!”

I’m wondering how to merge this lack of expectations and frustrations with a wisdom-based energy that seeks to overcome actual problems and bring more ease and joy to people’s lives. This latter attitude appears to be weak in India! What kind of statement might follow “What’s there to do?” if both of these attitudes were combined?

In a way, it’s quite excellent to have some obstacles – whether real or imagined – when bringing oneself towards an activity of great spiritual merit. It helps to call up some determination and recollect the greater purpose for which we engage in a spiritual pursuit. And I certainly had not decided to come to this no longer so remote Himalayan land in order to go trekking or sightseeing.

This was a neat temple, with both Hindu and Buddhist images. The sign on the right reads "Taglanga: Altitude 17582 FT - You Are Passing Through Second Highest Pass of the World. Unbelievable Is Not It?" That's not my typo ;)

This was a neat temple, with both Hindu and Buddhist images. The sign on the right reads “Taglanga: Altitude 17582 FT – You Are Passing Through Second Highest Pass of the World. Unbelievable Is Not It?” That’s not my typo ūüėČ

Training to See Reality

So then, why had we come all this way to sit under the hot sun with headphones on? There were 150,000 people, pilgrims really, including about 7,000 foreigners, 9000+ monks and nuns, and purportedly 100 Tibetans who came from Tibet itself – I shared a cab with two of them, who said it took fifteen days to get there. We came to learn how to fuel the spark of peace that lies in the mind of each one of us. What better way than to hang around and listen to a so-called Champion of Peace – His Holiness the Dalai Lama?

He’s already won peace. For the rest of us, it’s a small itch, easily ignored or overlooked. But, I believe, the more we hear about how wonderful the grand prize is – the bliss of awakening – the more it becomes a yearning, and then a burning, blazing insatiable need to make genuine inner transformation. We’re tugged along from within our hearts like magnets to learn, contemplate, and meditate on the meaning of compassion and interdependence.

And it really works. I was treated to the results of other people’s aspirations to compassion everywhere I turned. I stayed with a local family only a few kilometers from the teaching ground. I discovered them through the Kalachakra website, where they, and several hundred other families, listed their homes as a free homestay for visitors. But it wasn’t just a room they offered – they constantly served me, as if I were some honored guest, giving me food and drink and even heating water for me to have a hot bath (since there was not on-demand hot water at their home).

The girl is Dedrol, the older boy is Odga, and I forget the baby's name. These kids are so sweet, and it was beautiful to hear this four-year-old girl perfectly chant Tibetan prayers

The girl is Dedrol, the older boy is Odga, and I forget the baby’s name. These kids are so sweet, and it was beautiful to hear this four-year-old girl perfectly chant Tibetan prayers

They also hosted five college students from Delhi who are studying religion and came to Kalachakra to learn about this Buddhist practice. Clearly space is a little different here than in Mcleod, much as it is in the States when we compare a dense city to the open country. This house had four totally unoccupied, very spacious rooms.

Momo party! The Indian guests making momos (Tibetan style dumplings) with two of our Ladakhi hosts (Tashi with the red scarf is the mother of the kids)

Momo party! The Indian guests making momos (Tibetan style dumplings) with two of our Ladakhi hosts (Tashi with the red scarf is the mother of the kids)

The Indian students kept calling the Kalachakra a festival – an indication that there may have been something lost in translation, and no doubt lost in the cultural fair that indeed most Himalayan people in attendance did appear to treat it as. I found it a little sad how much they lacked in their Buddhist education limited how much they could benefit.

At one point fairly early on, His Holiness actually asked for a show of hands among the Ladakhis of how many of them understood the Ladakhi translation. With all of the technical Buddhist vocabulary (most of which remained in the Tibetan anyway, as Ladakhi is quite similar) very few raised their hands. For the rest of the teachings, His Holiness didn’t even have his words rendered into Ladakhi. Us listening to the English via FM transmission were incredibly lucky, especially given the skill and expertise of the translator Tenzin Tsepak. I heard from several non-native English speakers that it was much easier to listen to the English because of the skill of the translator.

If you’re actually wondering what Kalachakra is, I still don’t know about it well enough to explain it myself – it’s a complete Buddhist system of philosophy and practice, unique yet firmly situated within the more general teachings of Buddha. It can lead individuals to utterly remove whatever inwardly obstructs the mind from blissful and heart-embracing connection with all living beings.

Luckily, two different Kalachakra masters were giving extra explanatory teachings each day during this event. Both commented on the essence of Kalachakra – 1) the happiness of all living beings and 2) harmony. It is also connected with benefiting society and purifying the environment, so it seems especially suitable for us today. (For more explanation, you can read His Holiness’ own comments here: )

One of the the pieces of advice that His Holiness gave us from the very first day was to be kind towards one another. It was obvious that people put sincere effort into carrying this out this instruction. It created a communal atmosphere unlike that which one can expect to find in this crazy world. I befriended a Russian woman who had a near-constant stock of bananas and nuts, and was truly happy to always share. I had little problem getting around – I stuck my hand out and within minutes would get picked up, sometimes by shared taxis, but often just by locals who wanted to help.

Though an air of love hung just below the reach of tactile awareness, I can’t pretend that it was a Utopian paradise. One day I was walking to meet a friend through the outdoor seating area, strewn with mats and cushions, when suddenly I looked up to a scowl so perversely out of place I had to work to try to put on a demeanor of seriousness: “You do not walk on my mat with your shoes on! Take your shoes off – it’s common courtesy!” my new friend remarked. Alas, this is exactly why we were there. Were we already perfect, there’d be no for anyone to come.

Spirits Come to Say Hi

I was also quite intrigued to witness several visitors come from “unseen realms.” During His Holiness’ birthday celebration and again on the very last day during a long-life prayer for him, several “possessions” occurred. I think I counted eight in total.

One happened just two rows behind where I sat. It appeared to be incredibly uncomfortable for the possessed person. I first heard some muffled screams separated by several seconds of silence. Then, “Stop, stop! No, no!” Then, well, it basically looked like the scene out of the “Exorcist,” minus the split-pea. A few quick-thinking and brave souls restrained her and carried her to the stage, whereupon she was brought right in front of His Holiness. Like something out of Harry Potter – wearing a majestic yellow hat that curves back into a point like an elve’s, His Holiness waved his hands towards her with a gentle, deliberate force and a flick of the wrist a couple of times. No need for a wand. She fell limp. She was brought back to her seat, where she seemed to quickly recover.

Granted, there are some big differences between Harry Potter and Buddhism – even though many of the magical powers run parallel, in Buddhism the only enemies are on the inside. There are no external enemies, only people who do harmful actions because of being so overwhelmed by their own inner enemies. If we really check, who actually was the enemy in Harry Potter anyway? Was it Voldemort or the jealousy, pride, and hatred within his mind? That’s only a story, but isn’t it also true in real life? Which part of Bin Laden was genuinely responsible for so much harm – his body, his voice, his grimacing eyes… Or the distorted thinking that overwhelmed his every intention?

The explanation of what was happening with these possessed people was that there were many other beings with us this whole time whom we cannot see. When we’re praising and praying for His Holiness, some of them get excited and want to come give praises, too! Who can blame them?

So there was excitement, there was inner growth, friendships were deepened and new ones formed, and it all occurred within the stream of moments of mind that give an appearance of seamless permanence. In reality, this mind is but a cascade of awarenesses blipping in and out of existence. And reflecting on impermanence in this way can fuel a true sense of inner freedom and strengthened capacity to contribute to others, since we stop worrying so much about every little problem that comes up, thinking it’s the end of the world. In a way, every moment is the end of the world. So too is it the beginning. We can stay always fresh to respond with a positive energy, no matter what comes.

Two very dear Russian friends spinning prayer wheels at Shey Palace

Two very dear Russian friends spinning prayer wheels at Shey Palace

The Main Point – Wisdom

Since the real point of being at the Kalachakra for world peace was to understand more deeply the nature of reality and use that wisdom to help others, I’ll share some of the practical spiritual advice given by His Holiness. He taught us two texts by the great 2nd century master Nagarjuna, both originally written as advice to a king. These – the “Precious Garland” and the “Letter to a Friend” – are treasure troves of gems of simple wisdom (these verses aren’t in order, they’re just some of my favorites):

“There may be pleasure in scratching an itch —
Yet more pleasurable is its absence. Just so
The world of desire gives pleasure, yet absence
Of desire is a greater pleasure still.”

“The teacher of gods and men declared that being satisfied
Was the greatest of all riches. Remain
Satisfied always. One knowing satisfaction is
Truly wealthy, even without material possessions.”

A 450-year-old, 11.5-meters-tall Buddha statue at Shey Palace. Really blessed place, and so nice to see these old monasteries, which you can't find in most parts of India.

A 450-year-old, 11.5-meters-tall Buddha statue at Shey Palace. Really blessed place, and so nice to see these old monasteries, which you can’t find in most parts of India.

“Even more stupid than one who fills
a jewel-embellished gold vessel with
Excrement is one who, having been born
A human, performs evil deeds.”

“Understand thoughts as being like figures
Drawn in water, earth, and stone.
For an afflicted state of mind the first is best;
With an aspiration for the Dharma, the last.”

“Recognizing wealth to be ephemeral and insubstantial,
Exert yourself properly in liberal acts
Towards bhikshus, Brahmans, the poor, and friends.
For the future there’s no better friend than generosity.”

I leave you with these words and the wish that we may all shun harmful deeds, let water-drawings of ghouls dissolve as they appear, always enjoy true wealth and pleasure, and make reliable friends.

Now, I am back in school – it’s been a while! I’m quite relieved, since I made it here safely and I feel very happy with my situation here. Learning ho!!!

 

Your Friend,

Jon

 

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Lessons from the Compassion Buddha

NOTE: Please “Follow” this blog if you’d like to be informed¬†when I make a new post so that I do not have to send an email out each time I write something. To do that, look on the right sidebar – below “About this site” and “Recent Posts” there is a button that you can click that says “Follow.” Thanks!

Nyung Ne Background

I recently participated in a series of eight Nyung Ne retreats at Tushita Meditation Centre, about a twenty minute walk uphill from Mcleod Ganj. Although this post is entirely a reflection on a Buddhist practice, I hope everyone can find something relevant and interesting in it. I’ll first give an overview of what Nyung Ne means and what its origins are. The term literally means “abiding in retreat” or “abiding in the fast.” Retreat here primarily means taking a break¬†from deluded mental states, such as anger and desirous attachment.

Nyung Ne began some time ago in India with a transformation of adversity. At a young age an extremely well-disciplined and committed nun named Bhikshuni Lakshmi developed leprosy, losing the ability to use her hands (or according to another version of the story, losing her hands altogether). She was outcast and forced to beg.

Becoming totally distraught, she prayed with single-pointed faith for freedom from her torment. Through a series of dreams and meetings with people, she was led to a certain statue of Avalokiteshvara*, the Compassion Buddha. Through her unwavering determination and incessant practice, she quickly began to develop immense compassion and realizations. As a side-effect to her spiritual growth, within one year her hands were completely healed (or, as the other version would have it, redeveloped).

It’s taught that she attained the supreme accomplishment of full awakening through her practice focusing on Avalokiteshvara. One of the main methods she relied upon was a practice that we now call Nyung Ne.

The Nyung Ne Practice

Each Nyung Ne lasts for two days. The first day is called the preparation day – on this day we take the Eight Mahayana Vows. These vows last for 24 hours and consist of such things as refraining from naturally harmful activity like killing, stealing, and lying as well as other activities like viewing entertainment, sexual activity, and eating more than one meal. Holding these contributes to a deepening of one’s spiritual practice by serving as a counter-force to our usual tendencies to want to keep ourselves distracted and try to eek every possible drop of pleasure from the objects of the senses.

The next day is called the fasting day. On this day we take the Eight Mahayana Vows, but additionally make the commitment to refrain from eating, drinking, and speaking.

Each day consists of three practice sessions, lasting about three hours each. The first session begins at 4:00 in the morning and the last ends at about 6:30 in the evening.

The whole practice is centered around Avalokiteshvara. Practitioners familiarize themselves with the attributes of Avalokiteshvara through visualization and prayer as well as contemplation, where we take to mind the qualities of his holy mind – limitless compassion that reaches towards all living beings; the unimpeded power to benefit beings and remove obstacles; and perfected wisdom. We also recite the mantra – the most popular version of which is OM MANI PEME HUNG.

The practice is very popular in Tibetan Buddhism because of its renown for its power of purifying imprints of harmful actions done in the past and removing obstacles caused by those imprints.

An image of Thousand-Armed Chenrezig

An image of Thousand-Armed Chenrezig

Now that you have some idea of what Nyung Ne is, here are eight things I learned from eight Nyung Nes (wow,¬†I’m learning to do the gimicky blog thing).

1. Eating and talking take a lot of time.

It may not sound profound, but when there’s several extra hours in the day for study, practice, and just resting in contentment, it really begins to dawn that perhaps I could be using my fleeting time a little more meaningfully.

2. I am so dependent on my body.
This again is not a jaw-dropping truth out of some mystical realm of deep inner experience. Still, it was interesting to observe what happens with just a little break from food and water (and let’s not forget our good friend caffeine):¬†that which I think of as “I” – the personality, the states of mind and emotional slurry with which I most strongly identify – becomes like a faint cloud of memory that I strain to conjure up but can’t get fully clear. After only half a day of fasting, I begin turning into a narcoleptic boob.

3. The body is tough to please.
Likewise, it became obvious how difficult (nay, impossible) it is to satisfy this body. All day long – “I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I’m hot, I’m tired.” And then comes a magnificent feast! We were fed like royalty on the preparation days. Even with such excellent food, I finish eating and then the bubble pops – “That’s it? I spent a whole meditation session dreaming about this meal and now it’s all gone. And what’s more, I have a tummy ache!”

4. “Compassion Buddha” is not just a name.
When meditating on Avalokiteshvara, actively thinking about compassion and the suffering endured by living beings is definitely more effective for generating compassion than just visualizing and reciting mantra. But it’s still very effective to just visualize and recite mantra.**

5. The kindness of others is overwhelming.
There’s a verse that we¬†recite each day as part of the food offering: “I contemplate all the causes and conditions and the kindness of others by which I have received this food.” A group of about a dozen like-minded, dedicated practitioners holding the space and the discipline of this retreat – which wasn’t particularly easy – bringing great joy and encouragement to the practice… A retreat leader who cared for all of us and guided us¬†with few words that carried great power… A team of cooks that provided us with a constant stream of hot water and drinks and a heavenly array of delicacies¬†on each of the preparation days… A center of spiritual practice imbued with the blessings of many truly holy beings having done intensive retreat, plus the results of efforts of countless builders, workers, launderers, and a committed staff. That’s not even scratching the surface.

6. Food is like medicine.
There’s another verse that’s part of the food offering: “By seeing this food as medicine, I will consume it without attachment or hatred, not to increase my arrogance, strength or good looks, but solely to sustain my life.” Though I recite it everyday, I’ve never actually practiced it! This retreat helped me change my relationship to food. When only eating one full meal every other day, I naturally began to think of my food in terms of dosage and not just shoveling it down for the sake of indulgence. I also recognized my habit of overeating out of fear of the sensations of hunger. But in these couple weeks I got used to feeling hunger and understood that it really isn’t so bad. Anyway, it passes.

7. Anger takes up a ton of energy.
Richard, our very sweet retreat leader, warned us from the very beginning: “Don’t expect to experience great compassion. A lot of people feel strong anger during this retreat. It’s very good – you’re purifying, so things will come up.” He wasn’t kidding. For a solid day and a half, I was imploding. I could hardly focus or enjoy anything at all. Every time I tried to put my mind back in the practice, thoughts of a person with whom I was angry and memories of what he said intruded into my mind, along with all of the witty and cutting retorts that I was dying to make to him. This chaos sapped the life from me. No wonder we say anger is the most destructive force in the universe. Have you seen something more devastating?

8. My suffering is minuscule.
One aspect of this practice is that it helps us to empathize with the suffering of others. But let’s face it – each day of fasting came with the reassurance that I’d have a nice cool glass of water with rehydration salts and a warm cup of cocoa in just a few hours. Many people have no such reassurance. The suffering in our world is great. Taking time to think about what real people – who are no different from me and you – endure, and opening our hearts to it has a powerful effect. The initial effort it takes to simply get ourselves to recollect the suffering of others brings returns exponentially more valuable in terms of the openness and sincerity that it creates within.

The group of my fellow Nyung Ne retreatants, with Avalokiteshvara in the back row.

The group of my fellow Nyung Ne retreatants, with Avalokiteshvara in the back row.

So of course, these words cannot really describe what it’s like to engage in this practice – for a real understanding, you must do it yourself! Honestly, I lost the sense of the retreat atmosphere – internal and external – the day after it ended. But throughout the practice there were a few things that struck me and the words came to mind at that time, and even though it’s tough for me to mentally “go back” there now, the words remain in my memory. Above all, it was fun and gave me a chance to deepen my faith and determination.

As for me now, the Nyung Nes ended on Saka Dawa (the holiest day in the Buddhist year which commemorates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and final passing into the state beyond sorrow). A couple days later I began a two-week course on the Buddhist systems of philosophical tenets with Geshe Kelsang Wangmo. Then I moved into my dorm at Sarah College, where I’ll be studying Tibetan.

And then I took a bus ride to Manali (this time I got the comfortable one!) where I now sit in a guest house, waiting for a 2am departure to Leh, Ladakh, where I will spend the next couple weeks with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and an expected 150,000 other people for teachings and the Kalachakra for World Peace. Monsoon season has begun. It’s no joke – like Jumanji and all. It’s the kind of rain where if you get caught without cover for twenty seconds you’re drenched head to toe.

Another little note regarding¬†something I’ve been thinking – I’m quite pleased to have a revitalized connection to my “roots,” (my Jewish ethnicity). There are so many Israelis on India! In fact I can hear people just meters away speaking Hebrew, and in this town there’s Hebrew writing all over the shops and restaurants. There’s even a Chabad, and the young mother working there mentioned with¬†extremely broken English as she coddled her baby that about 100 people come for Shabbat. I was disappointed when I was denied admission into the Taglit Birthright program because of being Buddhist, but now I come to India and find I can learn about Israel and Judaism here, at least a little. A common reaction when an Israeli hears I’m Jewish is, “Another Jewbu!” It’s quite funny. ¬†Oddly, that’s not the only group that I fit in with – some Asians have been convinced that I’m Asian. A couple¬†of my Tibetan tutors insisted that I was half Asian and half American, and a Japanese woman who was in the course I just completed told me she thought I was Chinese-American. More proof that there is no objective reality out there just waiting for us to go and meet¬†– instead, each object appears uniquely to the mind of each person perceiving it.

More updates to come.

* In Tibetan, Chenrezig
** The idea here is that “going through the motions” brings inspiration and transformative blessings that then lead one to bring the mind to focus more directly on thinking about the meaning of compassion.


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Settling Into Dharamsala

Dear Friends and Family,

I hope you enjoy this update from me. It’s kind of long, but I likely won’t be writing again for a while.

Motivation for Coming to India

I’ve had a wish to come to India, take monastic ordination, and study Buddha’s Teachings in depth for about ten years. I finally made it! But why did I want to do this in the first place? Why not finish my degree, go to grad school, get a good job, settle down with a nice girl, and so on? Or, as some may wonder, go to India and study Buddhism, but why not at least settle down with a nice girl?!

So, for those wondering, I’ll try to make it clear. I also accept that it won’t make sense to some people. That’s OK; there’s a lot of diversity in the world. This is beautiful.

Essentially, the worldview I’ve come to cherish sees all living beings, none excepted, as abiding in a state of utter equality. What is the nature of this equality? A natural quality of all those who possess a mind is the capacity to feel pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering. With that capacity necessarily comes an innate wish for happiness and an aversion for suffering; it is built into the very definitions of the words. Sentient beings like happiness; we dislike misery. There is no difference in this regard among all beings.

This first great equalizer does not need to be proven with logic. Indeed, in order to really take it into one’s heart, it needs to be reflected upon, but it’s really quite obvious; it doesn’t take much work to understand.

There is another way in which all sentient beings are nearly equal: even though we all equally wish for happiness, we are all confused about how to create its causes. Why would someone think this? Again, it is very simple. We all wish for happiness, yet we all experience suffering. We never attempt to experience suffering; we never set out to run into problems. All day long we’re working to get some pleasure, trying with all our might to make things work out so as to feel whatever happiness we can eek out of the world and avoid whatever suffering we can. Still, we experience problems.

So what is the conclusion of this pervasive, upside-down, thorn in the palm of our existence? It must be that we’re confused about what the causes of happiness are and what the causes of suffering are. It’s certain that pleasure and pain are each results that arise from their own distinct causes. If happiness was not caused, then it would never arise – it would have no cause to arise. Or else it would always exist – it wouldn’t need a cause to bring it into being. It’s absurd to think it doesn’t have specific causes.

It’s also clear that there are different types of pleasure and pain – someone may have some physical pleasure while eating a good meal, but at the same time be very suspicious of the intentions of their dining partner and thus their mind is ablaze with anxiety and stress. Someone else may be enduring a painful illness, yet be very contented and joyful in their mind.

No matter how beautiful one’s environment is and high-quality one’s resources are, with a grumpy, depressed, or bitter mind, they’re all crap. No matter how oppressing one’s environment is and how little resources one has, with a grateful, bright, or loving mind, they’re all most excellent treasures. Thus, our mental state seems to be more powerful than our physical conditions.

A stupa (sculpture that represents the Buddha’s awakened mind of wisdom and compassion) that sits above Mcleod Ganj has a plaque with a quote from the late Geshe Rabten. To paraphrase, it reads:

‘Buddhism is neither a strange religion from some foreign lands, nor a means of fleeing one’s responsibilities, nor a bunch of dry words sitting in books in libraries. Buddhism is to be understood solely as a means of eliminating mental suffering and bringing about one’s own and other’s welfare.’

I am inspired to learn about how to do this. The essential cause of all problems is the harmful actions that we do out of an uncontrolled mind. The essential cause of well-being, then, is a tamed mind imbued with compassion and wisdom. A primary component of taming the mind is refraining from harming others – hence, the monastic precepts, which form an excellent support for that. The teachings that explain how to do this encompass thousands of texts, many of which are in Tibetan and most of which are not yet in English. Thus learning the Tibetan language can give one access to them and enable one to help translate them into English.

So the basic aim is to free our minds. From what? From mistaken understanding of how things exist; from the unskillful physical, verbal, and mental actions that naturally flow from that misunderstanding; and from the myriad forms of pain, grief, and anxiety that we cycle through as a result.

Getting to Dharamsala

Before lifting off from American soil I was generously outfitted with new luggage, shoes, etc. by my aunt in NYC. This gave me an extra boost of confidence – odd how some material things can have such influence on our feelings. Perhaps a larger component was the care and kindness that was coming. Either way, I felt ready.

And ready I needed to be, for obstacles began in no time. After the four-hour delay for the flight from JFK to Amsterdam, I missed the connecting flight to Delhi and was faced with a decision – either accept an all-expense paid daylong adventure in Amsterdam or fly to London and transfer to Delhi from there, arriving only seven hours after my initial itinerary would have it. Remembering my teacher’s words before I parted Sravasti Abbey – “Stay focused and don’t wander about here and there” – I opted to get on with it and hustle to India. I wasn’t there for adventure. That advice marks an important shift that I’m working to make in my general mentality. Flightiness has hindered me a great deal throughout my life. Luckily, I have no choice but to focus now; languages aren’t learned with a distracted mind.

On the plane I watched 12 Years a Slave. This was the first non-documentary film I’d seen in full since my last flight from India back to the States in 2010. I’m quite struck by how hard it is to really connect with suffering. Empathy comes naturally, but is so easily forgotten. Why?

On exiting the airport in New Delhi, I was welcomed by the ever-present embrace of Indian heat and immediately had a very strong feeling of homecoming. Riding in the taxi to the Tibetan colony of Delhi, I had some nice relaxed time to adjust to India’s quirkiness as I saw lane markings so faded they were actually invisible. Yet the weave of traffic took us smoothly to our destination, even as a bus spun through a roundabout at about 30 mph into our “lane” – “Very danger, sir,” my driver remarked, slamming on the brakes.

I was met with much kindness in Majnuka Tilla, a small settlement of Tibetans on the outskirts of Delhi, which from the outside just looks like a small fortress. On the inside it’s a maze-like, crowded mini city unto itself. So I sat around for a while, trying to speak Tibetan with the concierges at the guesthouse where I stopped to drop my bags. They ordered me a bus ticket and that evening I was off to Mcleod Ganj. I won’t say much about the bus ride, other than this – if you yourself are ever in India and have a choice between the non-AC and the AC bus, please take the AC. It’s 500 rupees (roughly $10) that are really worth it. Damn, that was a bumpy bus ride.

Impressions of Dharamsala

I had been fairly anxious about moving to a bustling hotspot with lots of activity and tourists from across the globe hanging out it cafes. I was in Mcleod Ganj for three weeks back in ’09, and I never envisioned myself living there. But being here, I see my mind is different now and if I simply stay focused, the distractions are really not so tempting. After all, Mcleod Ganj isn’t really a city but, as a new-found friend aptly put it, “an over-packed hamlet,” which only has slight variations on the same cafe, corner store, bookstore, and Dharma goods shop. Then what’s more, though it may sound callous, only slight variations on the same tourist, monk, nun, western Dharma student learning Tibetan (that’s me), and poor mother with infant pleading “Milk sir – no money, just milk. Baby hungry, sir.” I don’t mean it to be callous – the intention is to humble… we’re not all so different.

 

the roads look big enough to fit a car-and-a-half, but somehow manage 2-way traffic and pedestrians

Mcleod was at one time an outpost for British military stationed in India. It’s a hill station, quite high up, which makes it much cooler than almost anywhere else in the country. When 100,000 Tibetans followed His Holiness the Dalai Lama into exile in ’59, the Indian government tried to figure out how they would host their new guests. After a few years of very difficult circumstances, during which many Tibetans died from heat and exposure to diseases that were unknown in Tibet, His Holiness was moved to Mcleod. Many Tibetans followed suit and created a community here. Its gorgeous mountain views help the Tibetans to feel at home, but the major motivator for many to be here is to be near His Holiness. Of course, freedom is a nice boon, too.

a view of some mountains around Mcleod Ganj – on clear days it’s breathtaking

One impression I have being here again after nearly five years is, as I mentioned above, what a change in tone material things can bring. India’s burgeoning middle class is palpable. People’s clothes are nicer, nearly everyone has a smart phone, the selection of imported chocolate has grown, and even the stray dogs seem healthier. I’m also hearing a lot more American music than before – an excellent reminder of renunciation. This prosperity is by no means universally distributed and there’s still serious infrastructure problems, but Westernization and development continue to transform us.

Of course, it’s nice to have clothes that aren’t poorly made knock-offs – you know, genuine Nikes really are more comfortable and last longer – but where is the meaning in all of it? I myself was quite tempted to buy a smart phone, until I serendipitously ran into an Australian scholar-translator who quipped, “Smart phones aren’t so much an aide as they are a condition for the generation of attachment.” Stopped in my tracks, I decided that a little less convenience is a fair trade for a heck of a lot less attachment. A compassionate mind is what I came here for, not the Inner Peace App.

All that said, this is still distinctively India, and it’s still a developing country. While I do see a garbage truck occasionally, I don’t quite understand what it’s transporting… a hundred yards from my doorstep is a stream that functions as the neighborhood landfill.

the sign in the corner reads: “CLEAN UPPER DHARAMSALA PROJECT. DO NOT DUMP YOUR GARBAGE ON STREETS, DRAINS, & HILLSIDES. DO NOT BURN WASTE. apparently, streams are excepted.

Smoke billows out nearly incessantly from the only dumpster I’ve seen in McLeod. I do wonder if the trash-burning is somehow organized, or if good samaritans just take it upon themselves to start incinerating when the pile climbs too high. That is, indeed, how people manage the flow of traffic through these incredibly tight streets. However it happens, I just hope they give the monkey scavengers fair warning!

success! the mother on the right looks awfully protective…

Another aspect of life here, which will seem totally natural to anyone who’s visited a developing country, yet perhaps surprising to those who haven’t, is that even though most people in Mcleod live comfortably, the meaning of comfort is different here. For instance, most Tibetans rent their homes, which consist of a single room (often shared) with a fridge, propane tank and burner, a couple of beds, and an altar. The bathroom is shared between the whole building. There is no indoor tap and water is only available for a few hours each day.

a friend named Jamyang’s home, where she lives with her mother during school breaks

Very few people have a car – the only parking lots I’ve seen are filled with taxis and buses, so for those who do have cars I really have no clue where they keep them. Maybe there don’t live in Mcleod. The many mysteries of Indian life…

Anyway, many more people have bikes. This is a more popular form of transportation here in general than in the states, which makes good sense – they’re cheaper, more fuel efficient, and smaller. As you can see in the photos of the streets, this makes getting around much simpler than with a car, and the weather makes it possible to ride them year-round (though I myself wouldn’t want to try it during the monsoons).

I’m living, temporarily, with a Tibetan couple that came here in ’59 with the initial exodus of Tibetans when it became clear that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army was there to stay and was not looking to compromise. Even here, which with its full kitchen and two bed/living rooms is comparatively luxurious, we share a bathroom with the neighboring family. I quite enjoy it there. They are quiet; the TV is not on much and the only music I’ve heard them play is a recording of someone chanting the Praise to the 21 Taras (a Buddhist prayer). They’re older, mid-50’s, so their children are grown and on their own. They have a beautiful altar that they make offerings on each day, and allow me to as well.

an excellent place under which to rest my head each night

The woman speaks no English. The man speaks very good English – I sometimes wish he’d give me more of a chance to practice Tibetan! I did have chance to rejoice when I found I could understand about fifty percent of the sentences of the 3-year-old neighbor, Wangchuk. It’s a start.

the 3-year-old neighbor – you probably know what 3-year-olds are like, so no need to elaborate

There are also some cultural differences that have struck me. The niece of my homestay hosts, who initially came to get me from the bus stop, stopped going to school because “her mind is not very good.” She’s about twenty now and is applying for hairdressing school in a settlement far away. In a way, it’s not so different from American students going to tech schools, but I’m pretty sure she won’t be getting any academic education again. Bizarrely, she speaks English quite well. I wonder who made the judgment that she wasn’t good at her studies.

It has been refreshing for me to see the diversity in views among people. One of my tutors said she has no faith in Dharma. “Where is Buddha? My whole family practiced Buddhism their whole lives and never saw Buddha. Buddha is just a dream, just imaginary!” I’m glad to see people who really thinking and questioning. This is actually the Buddha’s instruction, so it’s an act of respect to question his statements. That said, this tutor is something of a joker, and being that I’m just learning the language I couldn’t really tell whether she was joking or being serious.

Then, when I asked another friend why she has faith in the Buddhadharma (Buddha’s teachings), she said, “I don’t know. I learned about Buddhism from the time I was little. All of my family are Buddhists.”

Another tutor relayed how she was at Tsuglakang (the main temple here, next to H.H. The Dalai Lama’s residence) when a group of Indian tourists began asking her, “Why do people come here? Why are the monks wearing those clothes? Why are you doing kora (circumambulations) and making offerings? What’s the use in all of it?” She said that those were very difficult questions and she told me that if she hadn’t been asked them, she never would have thought about it. How lucky for her to have such debating partners!

As for what I’m actually doing here, I wasted no time in finding a place to study Tibetan and language partners to exchange English-Tibetan conversion. Within this conversation practice, I’ve been getting a new perspective on the situation of Tibetans and how they feel about it. Maybe I will write a little more about that some time, as I will likely continue to learn.

conversation partner, Jamyang – we exchange English and Tibetan

learning Tibetan! Esukhia school offers only 1-on-1 tutoring – it’s pretty effective – they even offer classes internationally via Skype. I’m only here temporarily; in July, I’ll be relocating to Sarah College, about 40 minutes away

For sure, this is a community of refugees. People where t-shirts with phrases like “Tibet is burning!” and “Tibet Will Be Free.” On the path leading to the Tsuglakhang hangs a giant poster with images of all of the Tibetans who have self-immolated in recent years. A new statue sits beside the “Tibetan Martyrs Monument” – it’s a bronze-cast image of a monk engulfed in flames. An interesting divergence from the Tibetan sculptures I’m used to seeing, with the serene and infinitely wise gaze of the Buddha. Most of the young people (under 30) I’ve met came into exile within the last fifteen years. They really miss their homeland. Above all else, the nature.
This is also a community of Buddhists. Even though not every Tibetan has faith in Buddhism, most do. Even most of those who are not really into practicing know the basic teachings and prayers, and love His Holiness. Especially among the older generation (over 50), many people have their malas (prayer beads) in hand and mantras (mind-protecting syllables) on their lips as they go about their daily business. Images of His Holiness the Dalai Lama adorn almost every establishment (honestly, the only place I can recall without one is the post office, which does have a small, slightly hidden statue of Buddha).
People of all ages flock to the Tsuglakhang from sunrise to sunset, reciting mantras, making prayers, spinning prayer wheels, circumambulating the holy objects, and doing prostrations. It’s quite a lively, inspiring scene. Even if not everyone is laser-clear about why they’re there, the fact is that the majority of an entire culture is devoting a significant portion of their lives to honor the part of themselves that cherishes peace, compassion, and the bliss of a calm, awakened mind.

Then, there’s the Indian tourists who come¬†here by the thousands. Whole families come and look at the statues – some with hands folded in prayer, others with children impatiently tugging at their arms. Perhaps it’s something like tourists going to Vatican City or Jerusalem – just to see it, or to be in a holy place, even if they have little connection to the religion. Again, it’s very nice to see. Even in this age of skepticism and materialism, there’s something about the spiritual side of humanity that still magnetizes our attention in a powerful way. What could it be?

For myself, I’ve taken a great liking to doing kora since one friend told me a way to think while doing it that a monk once told her. We first think about all the different living beings, all the different kinds of animals and so forth. Then we think about how we’re connected to them – how in previous lives, each one has been my parent, has given me life, and shown me great kindness. So we imagine all of these beings surrounding us and we’re all walking together around the holy objects in the temple. We have compassion for them, praying that they are free of all suffering. We think that inside the temple are the body, speech, and mind of the Buddha. In this way, we can develop compassion thinking about the living beings, and faith and wisdom thinking about the excellent qualities of the Buddha’s omniscient mind.

I also simply love being in a place where you can see monks and nuns day and night. Standing in line at the post office has traditionally been a very difficult situation for me to practice patience – somehow I’m overwhelmingly impelled to get irritated and feel grumpy. But having a monk and a nun in line with me somehow changed the atmosphere. Seeing the robes is a powerful reminder of the potential that is universally shared for us to remain composed in body and mind, and to be joyful and kind in any situation. What makes their presence so effective is that the vast majority are really practicing well.

India in general is a place where religion is very integrated with daily life. Though a democracy, the separation of church and state seems totally unnecessary. Instead, they manage a diversity of church with respect from the state. Most buses and taxis have mini altars in them, with statues or images of the driver’s preferred deity. Even in McLeod, a Tibetan Buddhist exile community, Hindu shrines are not uncommon.

This is also a community of foreigners, and I’ve had the fortune to befriend several excellent scholars and students of the Dharma, including a an Israeli with the sharpest wit of anyone I’ve known (and he manages to be quite hilarious, without being offensive – a real skill! Though maybe it’s just not offensive to me because I share his views).¬†He’s studying to be a translator and I’m very grateful for his assistance in translating when I went to visit a local Dharma teacher. I also had the opportunity to attend some very wonderful Dharma teachings. I’m quite busy with my studies and I’m really loving it. Apologies for the long post, but if you know me you already know I’m long-winded. I hope you are all well and happy!
Much Love,
Jon


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This Blog Is for Staying in Touch with You

Dear Friends and Family,

 

Please¬†enjoy¬†this¬†synopsis¬†of¬†my¬†activities¬†in¬†India.¬†I¬†was¬†asked¬†by¬†some¬†people¬†to¬†stay¬†in¬†touch,¬†and¬†–¬†though¬†I‚Äôm¬†not¬†as¬†wildly¬†popular¬†as¬†I¬†imagine¬†myself¬†to¬†be¬†–¬†it¬†would¬†be¬†a¬†little¬†overbearing¬†to¬†actually¬†try¬†and¬†write¬†to¬†each¬†of¬†you¬†individually.¬†This¬†blog¬†format¬†is¬†helpful. This is a re-purposed¬†blog which I started¬†in the past, so you can ignore the older posts.

Please email me at ajonowen@gmail.com if you wish to tell me anything Рof course I would love to hear from you! (or also if you need things from India, especially for Dharma friends who may want thangkas, statues, etc.)

 


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Afraid of the Truth, Angry at Lies

In my job, I’ve heard conflicting claims between coworkers and management. Aside from the irritation and uncertainty about how to proceed in future communications, I’ve become quite curious – Why in the world do we tremble at the thought of telling the truth?

Clearly, nobody likes to hear a lie. I get so upset when I think people are lying to me! Nobody likes feeling suspicious of others, especially of those on whom our livelihoods depend. That’s both the employers and the employees. In the case of society, that includes the politicians, the business people, and the public. We all depend upon each other.

Yet, it seems that we’re so afraid of losing something for ourselves that we hide the truth, often without even thinking. We try to protect our money, our prestige, our power, whatever it is.

Like when I was requesting a raise yesterday, I tried to hear the needs of my employer while stating my own feelings and needs. Still, at one point, a little lie crept in… I could almost see it, as though it were a hollow phantom memory veiling the silhouette of truth behind it.

I was convinced it were the truth. Why was I afraid that if I didn’t make this one comment, my case for meriting a raise wouldn’t be strong enough and I would be left despairing?

In reality, we don’t lose anything useful when we speak truthfully. We only lose the tight chains of the self-centered attitude and our very fear itself.

In my experience, there is a vulnerability that comes with transparency. But it isn’t something to be afraid of – in fact, it’s quite liberating. It’s a space of open possibilities and a commitment to kindness towards others above all else.¬† Instead of getting the raw end of the deal – as we think we will if we’re totally forthright – we gain self-respect and appreciation from others.

Because which is more painful – occasionally not getting the very best for ourselves or having constant anxiety throughout every interaction, worrying that we might get taken advantage of or not get out ahead? Is it more stressful to once in a while say something our friends dislike or to always worry that someone might think we’re uncool?

Deceitfulness is an attribute of “spiritual numbness,” aka self-centeredness. It is blind to the reality of our equality with all living beings. Therefore, the only reliable method to actively transform that attitude is by thinking about the experiences of others. Seeing that they, too, cherish truthfulness and despise dishonesty, we can really begin to adopt honesty as the best policy and make our lives more wholesome.

Where does that leave me? With a lot of nice words and a nasty habit to subdue. Today, I will call my employer again. And I will scrutinize every thought that arises, rooting out selfish intentions and staying mindful that the person on the other end is, just like me, simply wishing for happiness.


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Don’t Worry, He’s Nice

Jogging around the block the other day, I approached a dog sitting on someone’s lawn. The dog stood up and started to come towards me, and a man standing nearby quickly called out, “Don’t worry – he’s nice!”

Isn’t that often all we need to hear? All of my anxieties, suspicions, and soreness that come between me and others – when I really trust those words, they immediately fade away. I can see the other person, or dog, as simply another being. I can stop worrying about what harm may come to me if I let my guard down.

Holding up a guard itself creates the tension that leads to so many unsatisfying encounters. Clinging to my self and the safety of my ego is what leads me to turn others into enemies. First comes a negative image – a judgment – of them. Then, thinking I’m standing before someone who could do me harm, I act like a jerk. Acting like a jerk, the recipient of my unfriendliness is now inclined to reciprocate that behavior. As the pattern repeats, enemies are born as easily as fears.

I think to get over this habit, we need to realize that we ourselves are nice. Once, the Buddha was in a village with 500 of his disciples. A mad elephant was let loose and began rampaging through the village, running straight for the Buddha. All of the villagers ran away, as did the monks. Yet, the Buddha remained still, totally unafraid. Only Ananda stayed with him. As the elephant came closer, the Buddha radiated metta (loving-kindness) towards the wild beast. By the time the elephant reached the Buddha, he stopped in his tracks and bowed down before the Buddha.

The Buddha’s heartfelt love for this elephant aroused him from his nightmare anger. This love told the elephant, “Don’t worry – You’re nice!” It allowed her to see her basic goodness, the inner purity of her mind. It’s like how many people, from all walks of life, report feeling something quite unique and enjoyable when in the presence of H.H. the Dalai Lama. His profound love reminds us that we’re far more than we’re ordinarily aware of. It’s very hard to stay angry around someone like that!

Realizing that my own basic nature is related with this kindness enables me to give up my hostility. I can replace the usual anxiety and suspicion of others with warmth and affection for them. When everyone I meet is a friend, no matter what they do, everything is a favor.

Since everyone appreciates kindness, this attitude spreads. If I can hold on to the awareness of my own capacity for love, I’ll share it with those around me. I’ll see the kindness of others.

Today, I’ll practice being mindful of the power of love and train myself to dwell there. Thus, all beings around me, my friends, my mothers, will be encouraged to awaken their own potential for limitless love.


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Tyranny Over the Mind of Man

When I biked to the Jefferson Memorial yesterday, I was struck by the words etched on the upper rim of the structure, encircling Jefferson like a halo: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against all forms of tyranny over the mind of man.”

There are many forms of tyranny. There’s the tyranny so pervasive and subtle that Jefferson likely didn’t have the slightest thought that he was enacting it when he wrote “the mind of man” – the tyranny of patriarchy. There’s tyranny in the form of slavery, of social structures that maintain an unequal distribution of resources and access to education, and of course the tyranny of those despots who wave their wands of destruction over the homes and hearts of their brethren.

But are these examples of tyranny over our minds? To me it seems like these are forms of external tyranny. Of course, when one’s body is oppressed and one’s environment perverted, it is very difficult to have freedom and peace of mind. Even so, I recall a story told by H.H. the Dalai Lama of a monk who had escaped Tibet after being imprisoned there for decades. He reflected, “The thing that I was most afraid of was that I would lose compassion for my captors.”

This is a clear example of a person whose mind is liberated from the most deeply-rooted form of tyranny over the mind of people. This is the tyranny of self-centeredness.

Panchen Lama I referred to this tyrant as “the monstrous demon of selfishness.” With repeated introspective observation, those words are, if anything, revealed to be an understatement.

This is the demon who oppressed me under the sun’s terrible rays with anger as I sat for hours in traffic – ignoring the hundreds of others surrounding me, all in the exact same position as myself, many of whom likely had more important engagements to make.

This is the demon who distracts me every time I get involved in a constructive project, spinning me away from my object of focus towards any whim whose sweet scent it passes.

This is the demon who runs circles in my mind, ruminating about lost loves I never had and grudges that arose from simple mis-perceptions.

And when I look it straight on and examine its very nature, I can see with total clarity that this is the demon that motivates each and every form of external tyranny, none excepted. This demon told people that slavery was good and necessary This demon told Hitler of inferior races that must be eliminated. To this day, this demon tells the world that half the human race is less worthy the other.

To this day, this demon whispers to us that in war killing is justified and that, well anyway, there aren’t any other options.

This tyrant of self-centeredness is what all sages of the past have sworn hostility against. Thus, so will I, today and all days forward until it is utterly vanquished.