Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Grief and Grace

Bone dry, they say

the summer takes its toll

then summer turns the wheel across seasons

and 'climate' is a term used

Bone dry, they say

calculators come out

it's a crisis, 

bring your 'fixing' energy

My body spasms, as i let out a gasp

this is what heartbreak feels like

the tears fall out

drops from the sky

What is it that we have not allowed ourselves to feel?

what is not ok?

if we only knew, the piercing unlocks the clouds

let it rain

Given my orientation towards both ecology and inner life, the poem Clouds in Each Paper by Thich Nhat Hanh really speaks to me.  What it evoked in me was the connecting of the somatic life with ecocide.  In the way of animism, there is no schism.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Our friend Tashi

 'No pain, no pain!'

Tashi la has always had a jovial sense of humor in the time I've known him.  In this case, he was describing his teacher's disagreement with the modern cultural approach of 'no pain, no gain.'  After years as a devoted practicing Catholic, and decades as a monk, he came across his teacher, Kyabje Tashi Norbu, who was a lineage holder in the Jonang Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhist) tradition.  

Tashi la described the decades he spent meditating in his previous tradition as one of a wandering - he would go to his teacher after weeks of silent meditation, and ask 'what is the right way to practice?' and the enthusiastic response would come back - 'that's it!' meanwhile he is thinking 'WHAT'S IT?! 

The Jonang approach was quite different, in a variety of ways.  It was named about 1000 years ago as a rediscovery of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, a monastic following the lineage of  Maitreya, Nagarjuna, Asanga, and Vasubandhu, and originally, the Buddha.  The first monastery was in Jomonang, Central Tibet, and so 'Jonang.'  A couple of notable points about it below.  

First is the core of the teaching that stands out - the concept of 'shentong' - or 'other emptiness' - which interestingly aligns quite strongly with my experiences of the teachings of Master Hua's conception of Chan.  Shentong names that while 'ultimate reality' cannot be described or understood on 'this side of the mind,' that does not imply nothingness - and in fact nothingness can be quite a pitfall in understanding as it can lead to design patterns of nihilism.  That's part of why the lineage translates to the 'Great Middle Way' - great because of it's width, that all are included as Buddha(s); middle way, as in, beyond the story of essentialism or nihilism (or '1 and 0' or 'light and dark' etc).  Many other unique aspects (most specifically the full 6-branch Vajra Yoga teachings), but my understanding is still quite early :)

Second is the design characteristics of the tradition.  For a variety of reasons, it's a tradition that is run quite differently than most others.  It is decentralized - no titular leader, no central monastery.  It is run with minimal financial orientation.  It is not deeply concerned with preserving its teachings - instead more of a sense of 'leave no trace' and 'nature knows what to do.'  The monastics themselves are also not positioned as teachers, but rather as 'dharma friends,' as Tashi la refers to himself as well.  Not much on elaborate rites or ceremonies, more of a focus on what is essential in sharing.

These aspects are somewhat linked - about 500 years ago, this tradition was persecuted by the central Tibetan administration  (specifically the 5th Dalai Lama), naming it as heretical.  While that has now been recanted by the current Dalai Lama, for a long time the Jonang lived as persona-non-grata in Tibet - including things like shuttering monasteries, forced conversions, and book burning. In 1959, while other lineages fled the country, the (small) Jonang community did not.  So only recently was Jonang received as the 5th living tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

It was this tradition that Tashi la came in touch with over 20 years ago, and due to that (along with introduction by dear dharma friend Ari), my own connection to this lineage and teacher that has supported my path immensely.  

Around that time, Tashi Norbu asked Tashi la (whose monastic name is Tashi Nyima) to move to Dallas, TX - with no resources or contacts.  Incredulous, Tashi la went, with love in his heart.  It was unclear to him how it made sense to engage there, of all places.  And yet, once there, came one after the other unique circumstances that led to the growth of a community of practitioners.  Coming together online and in-person, this group looks to embody dharma through sandwich drives for the homeless, supporting prisoners against the death penalty, animal welfare efforts, and much more, along with the inner work.  As Tashi la described - 'the higher the view, the finer the conduct.'

Over the last many years, Tashi has supported animal welfare and plant-based communities with retreat after retreat, and his Puerto Rican background has him uniquely able to share dharma teachings in Spanish as well.  His sharing of Buddhist scripture (sutras) have been some of the most powerful and clear explanations, supporting personal application, that I've ever come across.  

One example - why 'no pain, no pain'?!  I was listening to a 'phowa retreat.'  Phowa is the Tibetan practice of engaging with the death process in an active manner such that the experience is another moment to practice an aspiration of liberation for the benefit of others.  The traditional way this is taught is a sort of extreme calculus - maintaining awareness through the death process as one's senses are bombarded, such that there is enough awareness and equanimity to act with wisdom and skillfulness for what seeds sprout next.  That is why the Dalai Lama has a daily 'death meditation' practice for multiple hours!

The Jonang teaching doesn't refute this.  But it does name some meaningful perspectives.  One of the core aspects of being a human is the innate belief in striving as a necessary prerequisite for 'attainment' of anything of value - it is easier to believe that good stuff comes to those who work HARD.  no pain, no gain!  but - that is just a view.  and under certain contexts (eg grounded in virtue/ethics, etc), other views may be skillful - such as the view that hard work is also an illusion, there is no ultimate self to work hard with, and entrusting one's path forward to a definitive aspiration of service for others is as meaningful as the more intensive work.  No pain, no pain :)

Like this, so many shifts in context.  Earlier this year, Tashi la had some emergent medical conditions arise, and for a while it did not look promising for survival.  Here's a fantastic interview he did on this subject - it's not often you get to hear a Buddhist teacher describe a personal experience of the early stages of the dying process.  Through it all, a willingness to engage for the benefit of others - thanks to this process, I have since included the Medicine Buddha prayer as part of my own ongoing practice.  In fact, a more broad death and dying practice overall, with a connection of the nervous system as a tool to be with life.

Over the years, I've tried to see how to share Tashi la's spirit with more folks, so here's another one of my humble attempts :)  He reminds me all the time, the value of leaving no trace, along with the practical import of not overly broadcasting teachings given uniqueness of every practitioner such that not all messages have meaning for all people.  I'll end as he does - may all be free from suffering and the causes of suffering; may all embrace happiness and the causes of happiness; may all abide in peace, free from self-grasping; may all attain the union of wisdom and compassion, Om Ah Hum So'Ha :)