Normally I write to you sort of conversationally, wanting to share something I’ve been chewing on, and kind of using the space to figure out in my own mind what it is exactly, or approximately, that I’m experiencing. I guess this isn’t any different.
What’s happening to me? I think that’s my question.
What the hell is going on?
I got back from India and at first I thought I’d really come back, that I had managed to get back to where I’d come from. I no longer think that’s exactly correct. I think I stepped off the merry-go-round and when I stepped back on it was a different one. It looked enough like home to fool me at first, but little tells are beginning to accrue.
I shoulda knowed.
I mean, I knew that going on pilgrimage was dangerous. I sensed it. My body sensed it. My psyche got all jittery. I know, I know, it’s supposed to be a whole thing, go on pilgrimage, yadda yadda yadda, spiritual creaminess abounds, yadda yadda. Right?
But, you know, not really.
I thought I’d go and it would be a little bit fun and interesting, and a lot boring and irritating and not hard exactly, but, you know, all day on a tour bus, get off, see a temple, chant, meditate, pray, go to the hotel, get dinner, sleep, rinse, repeat. I thought that since I was a good Buddhist, a devoted student, a serious practitioner, and a little bit of a mystic, that I might get something more out of it. I might get a taste of the real deal, I might get some kind of vision of the Buddha or of Guru Rinpoche or the Sharmapa- something, you know, kind of cool and very deep and meaningful and it could be like a souvenir of my trip, something I could look back on and treasure and relive and feel special about- add to my spiritual collection.
Yeah, huh? I amaze myself constantly.
And, yeah, I did. I did get some of those experiences. Things happened to me, weird stuff, spooky stuff, powerful stuff. It was a big deal to me. And it was way more than I had bargained for. In Buddhist circles, there’s a differentiation between having experiences and having realization. Realization is the steady stuff, the unshakable and profound direct knowledge of how things really are. That’s what the big time masters have- that’s why they’re referred to as “realized beings.” I don’t have any of that. But I had some experiences. Over time, those experiences are supposed to lead to realization. So for me, they are wonderful, I’m so grateful to have had them, they’re kind of what you think the goal is when you’re first starting out- but ultimately they don’t equate to anything too profound. They blow you away at the time, and things shift for sure, but then the intensity fades and they sink back into the place from whence they came and the ordinary world reasserts itself.
So I went and it was great, it was all that and a bag of chips, and I came back and I was really wanting to keep it going, keep that whole vibe and mindset alive in me- not to cling in a way to what had already passed, but to maintain the awareness in my heart and mind and continue to meet what was with that same stance.
But when I got back, things blew up in a big way and I was immediately in a very dark and scary place- I felt under attack and completely unsteady and it was really hard. It was dark and difficult and I did badly with it, I really did. It was for me a little bit like finding myself in the bardos, the land of the dead, that in-between state after death and before rebirth when your consciousness is no longer confined to a physical body and the mind can make all kinds of weird and terrifying shit happen. I was hurt and confused, frightened, just overmastered.
But eventually, things calmed down. There was a new dawn after the storm, and things started to look and feel renewed, alive again- just like the world feels after a big rain. The sun comes out, the birds chirp, it smells sweet and bountiful and there’s new hope. That’s what it was like. My practice came through and helped me cope, but there was also grace, something bigger than my small practice at work.
Something bigger at work.
And then once I kind of got back on my feet, things really broke open. Like a frozen river when the first thaw of spring hits- the surface bucks and heaves, great cracks form, the ice groans and shudders, and pretty soon it’s all shattered and rolling away downstream. The kids moved out and took the grandbabies with them to the frozen North (Truckee, CA). We’re engaged in a great clean out, clean up, fix up, paint up and repair of the big tiny house and we’re gonna put it on the market, get it to someone who will love it as much as we have. I’ve crunched the numbers, and I’m going to retire at the end of the year. We’ve got our eye on a pretty little Airstream and we’re going to down-size, simplify, sell-off, divest ourselves of all mortal encumbrances, and hit the road.
Over the weekend I attended Lama Jampa Thaye’s two day course on an introduction to Shentong Madhyamaka that our center hosted. Lama Jampa is a westerner with serious, serious qualifications, experience, and, I believe, a high degree of realization. Shentong Madhyamaka is a Tibetan Buddhist philosophy that is concerned with the nature of emptiness- specifically kind of whether there is anything at all that truly exists, or if absolutely everything is of the nature of emptiness.
In Madhyamaka, there are basically two streams, two schools of thought. The Rangtong school promulgates what Lama Jampa calls a “Non-affirming negation emptiness” that basically says that absolutely everything is empty of anything one could call a true nature- that even Buddhanature is empty of anything that truly exists.
The Shentong view is what Lama Jampa calls an “Affirming negation emptiness” that basically holds that, yes, things are empty, phenomenon are empty, but that Buddhanature, which is what is left when all conditioned things are removed, does actually exist, and that, further, it actually contains qualities- such as awareness, compassion, love, basically, all the qualities of the Buddha. These are unconditioned- that is, they are unborn, uncreated, unending- and they are the foundation of the display of phenomenon.
It was heady stuff, and my first introduction to pure Buddhist philosophy. I loved it superbad.
What I really loved is that Lama Jampa made it clear that, unlike “normal” philosophy, this philosophy is designed to support your practice, specifically, to allow you to develop certainty of the view, and that without certainty of view one’s meditation practice cannot progress correctly. So it’s ultimately a very pragmatic, very grounded approach that maybe sounds quite esoteric but isn’t really quite that way.
A great blessing for me to attend. Thank you Lama Jampa!
And from my Dharma buddy Cesar over at Pasadena Bodhi Seeds, here’s a little clip of Lama Jampa talking about our beloved teacher, Shamar Rinpoche:
On Monday I went down to Santa Barbara for the Science and Buddhism seminar. I met a guy that Jack had been talking about since we first met, John Hoag. John is a serious, long-time practitioner who has spent most of his adult life in Nepal and India, studying with the heavy hitters. The three of us met for coffee before the seminar. What I loved about John was there was almost no chit-chat. He said hi and then he basically started teaching. He gave me some direct instruction on connecting to the guru as a support for correct motivation in engaging in Ngondro practice- and had me do the work right there, so I had experience that I could take with me. Which I have done.
So, thank you, John.
It is always deeply inspiring to me to meet with other practitioners who are fully living the Dharma. It may be confirmation bias at work, but I enjoy being in their company and I sense always a deep joyfulness, sweetness, and love in them, almost without exception. The Dharma seems to have this kind of stamp that it puts on those who commit fully to their practice. Whether it’s truly there or not, I experience it and that experience deepens my own resolve and longing, so I’m grateful for it.
At the seminar there were a couple of new faces. Robert had bumped into these guys and after talking to them, invited them to the seminar. Dr. Gino Yu was amazing. He’s based out of Hong Kong, and he’s this bizarre combination of engineer, psychologist, neuroscientist, video game designer, huckster, and mystic. He shared with us his theory of being able to drive people to an enlightened state by first grounding them in the present moment, then connecting to their somatic awareness, then decoupling from their habitual thought patterns and “framing” (their common world-view)- then driving their energy levels up while maintaining that state so their perceptual bandwidth expands to take in more and more of the present moment…somehow this leads to, or towards, enlightenment or connection with The One. He was brilliant, fast, jumpy, and engaging. It was great fun listening to him, very thought provoking and thrilling to experience the world through his eyes. I think he’s got a lot of good ideas, and I think he’s got some direct experience that is going to guide him in the right direction. And he’s brilliant and entrepreneurial and connected, so he may really bring a new science of enlightenment into the public in the next few years.
The other guy was Adrian Belic. He’s a documentary filmmaker whose most recent film is “Happy”, a documentary on the current science of happiness. It’s a great film, one I enjoyed a lot and highly recommend. He also directed one of my favorite films of all time, Ghengis Blues. Arian was funny and down to earth and a joy to be around. He and Gino had been out to Burning Man, working the mystical angles, and now they were just coming back from camping after a seminar of Gino’s on Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Self-Discovery.
Our topic for the seminar was the recent pilgrimage that I just got back from. Dawa was there and he talked about the pilgrimage while Jack showed some photos from the trip. Very quickly the whole table of various brilliant minds were going back and forth about the devotional aspect of pilgrimage, Gino’s ideas on enlightenment, the nature of emptiness, the role of thought in regulating energy, the dangers of trying to use spiritual awareness based exercises on unmedicated subjects who are experiencing a manic phase, duality, consciousness, blah blah blah. It was, like always, kind of analogous, for me anyway, to an ultra-high-speed knife fight in a phone booth. Nothing more fun than that!
Also during the weekend the Woman On The Verge and I got to meet a couple travelling with their four children in a beautiful Airstream just like the one we want. It looks like we may be able to buy their rig when they finish their trip at the end of the summer, which should perfectly align with when we sell the house.
Something bigger at work.
So, this is my experience since my return. Everything broken open, all bets off, all landscapes shifted. Deep truths revealed. New paths opening. A deep and abiding happiness, a joyful sense of engagement with this direct experience. And this sense of a kind of burning torch in my heart that guides me in the right direction- when I’m going the right way, it blazes with light and love. When I veer off, it dims and sputters.
I aim to keep it burning.