So on Sunday one of our teachers, Khenpo Tsering, continued his teaching on Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend. I’m not going to really go into the teaching he gave or anything, but I wanted to write a little bit about my own reaction to his teachings, to give a feel for what it is like for me to listen to him teach, if I can capture that at all.
Nagarjuna is a heavy-hitter in the Mahayana Buddhist world and Letter To A Friend is a classic, with many, many commentaries written for it. The short version is that the text was written by Nagarjuna for a king who wanted to be able to implement the teachings into his life but, because of his kingly duties, could not dedicate himself to monastic life. So there is a lot of interest in this text among lay practitioners who hope to gain some guidance about the same thing; namely, fitting meaningful, dedicated practice into a busy life full of worldly responsibilities.
One of the things about getting teachings from texts such as this one is that it takes a lot longer than you might think at first. At least in the teachings I’ve been exposed to, which isn’t a lot, there’s a very slow, deliberate, and in-depth examination of each word, phrase, sentence, and stanza. There’s discussion of each word’s meaning, connotation, and relationship with surrounding words- first in English, then usually in Tibetan, then Sanskrit, then back to English. With Khenpo, there’s also talk of other translations, related texts, possible other word choices in English, etc. There’s a discussion of the direct meaning, then the deeper meaning. The relative and absolute truths being discussed.
We typically cover one four line stanza in each hour-long session.
Some people, I know, find Khenpo to be very difficult to follow. I do, myself, to be honest. But I find the reward worth the difficulty. Because English isn’t his first language, he sometimes has to pause, think, back-track- that’s one aspect of the difficulty in listening to him. But also, there’s the very clear sense that each word in the text is like the tip of an iceberg that goes down for miles and miles, getting wider and more vast the deeper he follows it. He can frequently spend a lot of time just trying to touch very lightly on the major points of one term and yet still spend ten minutes or more going “down” as it were before he goes “forward” again- and this can be difficult to follow, too, it requires a single-pointed concentration to stay with him. What can look like confusion and distraction to some is really, at least, it seems to me, just a really brilliant mind with huge knowledge trying to give his listeners some sense of what is really being said in the text. Without his guidance, I’d really have no clue. It isn’t really available to us in the words alone. You could read the root text over and over and have no idea about what’s really in there.
So, all of this just to set up the conditions in my own mind when I’m listening to him. We begin with a half hour of meditation, so my mind is clear and focused and kind of prepared for the teachings. And he begins and I hang on, I know the stanza we’re covering in the root text and I have my own idea of what that means for the ground we’ll be covering- but very quickly I find myself in this state of rapt attention, trying to stay with Khenpo and fit what he’s saying in with what I think I know, into my existing model- of Buddhism, of meditation, of the nature of reality, of the workings of karma, of the nature of wisdom, confusion, spiritual progress, compassion- what’s happening is that Khenpo is holding a gigantic nesting Russian doll and he just keeps pulling another one out of the one he’s holding and it goes on forever and it seems to encompass all 84,000 of the Buddha’s teachings in one word.
And yesterday while he was teaching and I was listening to the words he was saying and watching him and at the same time watching what was happening to my own mental model of the whole path, I had these two feelings- one, that it was really as if Khenpo was physically manipulating my mind, prying it open, kind of purifying it and helping to remove errors of ignorance and mistakes of confusion- and then there was a corresponding sense of my own tiny light of awareness trying to perceive, directly, the nature of the reality he was describing. That’s not quite correct but it approximates. Maybe better to describe it as finding myself in a reality that was beginning to reveal itself to me, was beginning to coalesce as something, not new, but new to me- simple, natural mind.
Then it slipped away.
This path. It contains so many wonders, so much that can seem difficult or contradictory, arcane, esoteric- but it’s also utterly simple and direct- I guess that it, like everything else, contains everything. It’s challenging to try to apprehend everything at the same time.
Anyway, I love to hear him teach. I feel so lucky to be able to sit in front of him and receive the teachings directly. And he’s just one of our teachers- they are each of them quite remarkable. I find great value in all aspects of this path- it reminds me of what he said yesterday about wealth- that it has nothing, nothing at all, to do with money. “Wealth is an emotion,” he said. “When you say that you want to be wealthy, you’re after the emotional aspect of feeling wealthy, feeling that you are provided for, that you lack nothing, and that you’re able to meet the demands of life.”
This path has made me rich. I am a wealthy man.
May you be happy, may you be at peace, may you and everyone you love be free from suffering.