From Seed to Bloom
From Seed to Bloom
Bodhichitta, the seed of enlightenment, grows where it’s cultivated. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche explains six traditional contemplations for developing awakened heart.
The Sanskrit term bodhichitta means “mind of enlightenment,” “seed of enlightenment,” or “awakened heart.” Fundamentally, bodhichitta is the aspiration for others to be happy, to be free from suffering. Absolute bodhichitta is the realization of emptiness, which happens fully at the first bhumi, the path of seeing. Relative or conventional bodhichitta is more immediate. Relative bodhichitta has two aspects: aspiration and entering. Aspiration is positioning ourselves to do something. Before we do something, there’s a thought process involved: we contemplate it. In aspiration, we contemplate all sentient beings having been our mothers, we vow to repay their kindness, and so on. Such thoughts are the heart of contemplative meditation.
We begin by doing sitting meditation until we experience some peace. Out of that we conjure up an intention: “Today I will try to be kind to others.” Then we actually enter, engage in the practice.
Traditionally, we are offered six quintessential instructions on how to generate bodhichitta, all rooted in the ground of equanimity. The point of first cultivating an attitude of equanimity is to open up our view. We tend to have fixed ideas of friends and enemies, and based on that view, we see the world through the lens of good and bad: sharks are bad and bunny rabbits are good; democracy is great and communism is bad.
Equanimity is a spacious, vast, and even state of mind; it does not take sides. It’s not about being untouched by the world, but letting go of fixed ideas. How else are we to develop compassion and loving-kindness for everyone and everything? Equanimity levels the playing field—we are not excluding anyone from our practice. It’s like dealing with two fighting children. Since we’re more experienced with all kinds of trials and tribulations, we know that what they’re arguing about is not really important. We enter with an unbiased view, which is equanimity.
Most of the time we’re trying to figure out a problem based on our attachment. We all believe that if it were not for that one particular person who really irritates us, we’d already be compassionate and understanding. If only that one person weren’t in our way! But she has our number and calls it a lot. Generating bodhichitta helps us deal with problems involving helping others. There are six ways in which we can cultivate this attitude.
The first way is to consider that all sentient beings have been our mothers. Basically, it is our mother who gives us unconditional love. She nurtures and supports us and takes care of us when we are weak. Traditionally, it is said that genuine courage is like that of a mother protecting her child from danger. Regarding all sentient beings as having been our mothers means that at some point, everyone has shown us love and care. The Buddha said that we have all experienced endless lifetimes. If we take this to be true, then every being we encounter has been our mother, father, brother, sister, enemy, friend—everything. If we don’t believe in life after death or rebirth, we can understand this in the context of our present life. From the moment we were born, we’ve had friends who have become our enemies. We’ve been in good situations that have turned bad. We’ve been in bad ones that have turned good. The point of this first instruction is to help support our equanimity by reducing our attachment to relative notions of good and bad.
The second way to generate bodhichitta is to think of the kindness of others. We can contemplate what others have done for us in great and small ways. If all sentient beings have been our mothers, they have, of course, all been kind to us at some point. Even that person who’s got our number has done something good for us—maybe just by passing the salt. Contemplating the kindness of others helps us see the positive aspects of any situation. These are often hard to see—sometimes we just want to stick with our negativity—but this instruction begins to loosen us up. With the budding view of bodhichitta, we begin to look at life and see what is good, even in a bad or chaotic situation. Trying to see things in a more positive light by thinking of the kindness of others churns up our mind and lets the bodhichitta come out.
The third instruction on generating bodhichitta is to repay the kindness of others. This is almost like taking a vow. If we have the view that those who have helped us includes everyone—that even animals have cared for us in some previous lifetime—every encounter becomes an opportunity for us to practice repaying their kindness. This contemplation is part of the aspect of the Mahayana school of Buddhism called the “great activity.” It’s called “great” because this attitude is so vast that it’s difficult to imagine. If we had this attitude even for a moment, we’d begin to see that everyone we meet has helped us, directly or indirectly, and we would want to repay his or her kindness. By taking this attitude in working with others, we could experience our lives in a completely different way.
The fourth way to generate bodhichitta is to develop loving-kindness by contemplating the delightful qualities of others. If we care for someone, we naturally find something delightful in him; that’s what draws us in. In the middle of a meadow, if we saw a mound of dirt with a single flower growing out of it, we would still be able to see the beauty of the flower. We wouldn’t think, “The flowers are beautiful except for that one, because it grew from that pile of dirt.”
So rather than contemplating the shortcomings of others, we see their good qualities and generate loving-kindness towards them. Loving-kindness is associated with wanting others to enjoy happiness. What generally hinders our wanting other people to be happy are heavy emotions such as anger, jealousy, and pride, which obscure our mind. Developing kindness towards others takes the energy out of this emotional confusion.
The next instruction is to generate bodhichitta by contemplating compassion, which is the desire that everyone be free from suffering. Compassion does not mean taking pity on others or having sympathy: “Oh, you poor thing!” Compassion is empathy based on understanding what suffering is. Not only do we see the suffering of others, but we also feel it directly. If we love and care for others, we do not want them to have a hard time. Seeing the suffering of someone who’s very close to us heightens our sense of compassion. We think, “This could happen to me.”
The final instruction on how to generate bodhichitta is to commit ourselves without question to following these instructions. Even though in postmeditation we may not be able to do the bodhichitta practice continuously, we keep our determination strong. We will be kind and compassionate and we will take delight in all beings, with the knowledge that they have helped us. Even if we are the only person in the entire world practicing in this way, we will not stop doing it. Such an adamantine commitment gives us the steadfastness and conviction of the Buddha sitting underneath the bodhi tree.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is spiritual director of Shambhala, an international network of meditation and retreat centers. He is the author of Turning Your Mind into an Ally and Ruling Your World.
Thanks for the Dance: Pico Iyer considers Leonard Cohen
Thanks for the Dance
PICO IYER considers Leonard Cohen—the ladies’ man, the balladeer, the Zen poet, and the essence of cool with a new love giving voice to his songs of parting and old age.
Through the long hot nights of summer and early autumn I have been listening to the ten newest songs from Leonard Cohen, almost unbearably sad in their themes and beautiful in their bareness, yet turned sultry and smoky and rich with a full-bodied looseness thanks to his collaborator in life and in art, Anjani. The songs on Anjani's album (as it is officially), Blue Alert, are all about goodbye and "closing time" and passing away from the scene. “Tired" is the word that recurs, and "old," and the picture that Cohen uses for himself on the back cover (as the album's "producer") makes him look out of focus and almost posthumous, fading from our view. Yet when such songs of parting and old age are delivered by a young, fresh, commanding woman singer, they take on a much more complicated resonance. Sweet as much as bitter, with the echo of spring in the dark of early winter.
The album has stayed with me, almost every evening, because the paradoxes with which Leonard Cohen has always played so mischievously, so meticulously, take on new flesh and blood here, and show us a man—with a woman beside, and inside, him—who has passed through his stress and is not going anywhere except toward a final nowhere. The ceremonies of farewell have been mounting in recent years on his recordings. On Ten New Songs, in 2001, Cohen featured his co-singer, Sharon Robinson, on the album cover with him, and her husky, aromatic back-up often drowned out his aging growl. On his last album, Dear Heather, in 2004, he offered a drawing he'd made of a sylph or Muse (who looks very much like Anjani) on the cover—no picture of himself—and on at least two songs let Anjani more or less take over. Now he releases a whole collection of new songs in camouflage, as it were, delivered by his companion, and as if to say that it doesn't really matter who or where they come from. It's almost as if the songs, looking at death with a voice that never cracks, taking leave of everything with a due sense that much has been enjoyed, issue from someone already absent, or were sent in by his ghost.
Cohen has always held us by writing songs of naked desire and songs of monastic longing, and playing the one off the other: the ladies' man who is impossible because, deep down, he's reaching out for surrender. On his first album, his goodbyes were addressed to the women he was leaving to continue his quest. On recent albums his songs had very much the feel of Mount Baldy Zen Center in L.A., where, living as a monk, he really had taken leave of everything. Now, fully back in the sensual world (sharing a small house in L.A. with his daughter Lorca, Anjani just around the corner), he is writing of physical love with the wholeheartedness of someone who doesn't have other things on his mind. He's got his monastic stirrings out of his system, one feels, enough to take another being into his life. "Co-production" has rarely had a warmer implication.
The songs are tinglingly sensual, of course, full of an erotic charge and suggestiveness made keener, more piquant, I'm sure, by years in a monastery (where every swaying of a skirt, every echo of some perfume, becomes potent). In the very first song, "Blue Alert," we have a woman touching herself in the long night, and soon there are lovers lying down under a mosquito net, "to give and get," a woman with "my braids and my blouse all undone." The very slowness of the songs allows one to dwell on every drawn-out syllable. But the shock and excitement of the new work comes, in part, from the fact that some parts are written—and delivered—in a female voice. The shiver is hers, not her aging admirer's. And when she describes her "yellow jacket with padded shoulders" or how her "shoulders are bare," one gets an immediacy of detail that in Cohen's traditional work would have given way to wider philosophizing (or at least to his favorite word, "naked"). Other songs, while sung by Anjani with an ache and a sweetness and a robust sense of elegy that are all her own, sound as if they come from a man—Cohen himself—and sometimes the voice seems to go back and forth within the same song between the woman and the man. Goodbye to dualism!
The process of making a final departure from this world has been on Cohen's mind for quite a while now. But when I listen to the songs on Blue Alert, I feel that I am seeing, sometimes for the first time, what all the monastic training is about. Even such immortal poets as Derek Walcott (in “The Bounty”) offer nostalgia, wistfulness, as they start to close up shop; even the masterful Philip Roth rages against the dying of the light, bewildered, on the run, taken aback, in his later work (The Dying Animal and Everyman). Cohen, by comparison, wastes no time at all on regret or feeling sorry for himself. This phase has ended, his tunes might be saying. But a new one is being born, Anjani's ringing voice announces.
No need to go deep, he says, true to his later positions, "the surface is fine." No need for extensive farewells or talk of "what might have been"; he got half the perfect world, and a love that went as far as the innermost door. On the previous album, Dear Heather, he offered a song, "Nightingale," (sung by Anjani) that was so bright and cheerfully colored, about building a house so he could hear this sweet bird of youth sing, that it sounded as if Leonard Cohen had been retired and reborn at once. Here Anjani gives the song a second try, and turns it into something slow, stately, almost a hymn. A ditty becomes a threnody when the delivery is changed. It's all in the phrasing.
In the last song of the album, the words "Thanks for the dance" are offered again and again, jauntily, courteously, with a tinkly melody; and they become increasingly sad, truly piercing, only when you realize that they might be coming from someone who's talking of the dance that is life. The summer of 2006 was a grand one for Leonard Cohen, with a documentary celebrating him (I'm Your Man) coming to theaters, and his first book of poems in at least twenty years, The Book of Longing, arriving in our shops. He was to be found, suddenly, on magazine covers, on radio interviews, in New York, L.A., Montreal. After the shock and drama of being defrauded of nearly all his money by someone he trusted, he showed up again in our midst as if nothing had changed, and he was just the person he'd always been (so careful to say he was not cut out for Buddhism and didn't get anything much out of his years at a Zen temple—other than the remarkable companionship and stimulation of his ageless Roshi—that you can be pretty sure he did).
Here we are back in the "tower" that first he mentioned in his very first song, "Suzanne"; there's talk of sins, and being "forgiven," as there's always been (though the phrase "mine against yours, yours against mine" gains an almost physical frisson when you think of two bodies lying against one another). Just as on his first album he took the cover photo in a 25-cent public photobooth, here all the photos are taken by daughter Lorca, around the house.
Yet the beauty of late Cohen is that, even more than before, it's all about the private world, the inner view. Leonard Cohen has had his time in the limelight, playing games with the media, with images of his self, never failing to provoke a response of some sort with his calculated gestures and dry, outrageous pronouncements. But that was always something separate from his work, which moved people—and captivates them to this day—because of a sense of privacy and honest that can't be faked. He made his nakedness our own.
Now he emerges in public again, and the songs are Anjani's, and there is a real sense that this is the record of their love and togetherness, her dazzling voice playing with and off and against his grave wisdom (as with such Zen poet-monks as Ryokan and Ikkyu, famous for the young female companions they aquired in their later days). One of the great early poems of Cohen, "The Mist," from forty-five years ago, appears here, but its three soon-disappearing verses about not leaving a trace on someone are haunting, almost parabolic, when associated with a writer who is seventy-one (from a twenty-five-year-old buck, they would just suggest a loss that he can cancel out with the next conquest). Another song turns San Francisco into almost a mystical vision of life here on Earth. The Golden Gate is still gold and still great, but then the fog comes in again, and it's gone, and there's a long drive home, and you lose sight of that lovely old symbol, even though we all remember the sea. Impermanence becomes a form of radiance.
Perhaps the best way of summing this all up is "Never Got to Love You," in which a man, by the sound of it, says goodbye to a love by noting that he never got to love her as he'd heard it can be done. If you dwell on that sentiment, delivered to someone you care for, it could break your heart with all the things we failed to do or say. James Salter's beautiful book of short stories, Last Night, published last year when he was eighty, reverts constantly to an old man, nearing his time, going over all the roads in love he failed to take. But here in Anjani's singing, which has so little sorrow in it, and in Leonard Cohen's phrasing, which sees the past as dead and gone, it doesn't just rend the heart, it restores it.
The songs on Blue Alert are moody, melancholy, low-key, as the words "blue" and "blues" suggest. But they're also "alert" as ever, wise to the games of the mind, attentive to the fact that moods and melancholy and low-key songs are themselves not to be trusted because they're passing, too. Through almost forty years of recording albums, Leonard Cohen has always given his productions naked, minimalist titles (from Songs to Recent Songs). Here he gives the melodies (and the perfectly minimalist musical arrangements) to Anjani and offers us a title that brings every sorrow and radiance together. Blue, but not black, warning and warming us with the same breath. Death's on its way, and yet life's all around.
For twenty-five years, Pico Iyer has covered His Holiness the Dalai Lama
and the Tibetan situation for Time, The New Yorker, The New York Review
of Books, and The New York Times Op-ed page.
Originally published in the January 2007 Shambhala Sun magazine.
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Through the practice of compassion meditation, Rosalind Harris transforms the grief of her son’s murder into solidarity and friendship with all young African-Americans, whose life of violence and oppression is a national tragedy.
The detectives who came to my office that cold rainy afternoon eight years ago told me they’d found the body of my eighteen-year-old son, Jamil, naked, riddled with bullets, wrapped in a blanket, and dumped near a pond on a farm in a county not far from where we live. Even through the fog of my pain and disbelief I could tell that these men were themselves shaken by the horrific details of the murder of such a young person.
Seven months later I was sitting in a courtroom behind the young man accused of murdering Jamil, awaiting his trial. My husband, my eleven-year-old daughter, and I had spent the time between Jamil’s murder and the trial in almost perpetual anguish and confusion. We were subject not only to the devastating pain of Jamil’s loss but also to the troubling unreality of the accounts of Jamil’s life and death. The media peddled vivid stories about drugs and guns and gangs to make real and solidify for the public the spectacle of the African-American criminal “other.” Very little in newspaper and television portrayals of Jamil bore any resemblance to the talented, poetic, kind—and, yes, sometimes confused and troubled—young man who was our son, brother, and friend.
Sitting in the courtroom during the trial I found it difficult to sense what I actually felt about the young man accused of murdering my son. I knew what I was supposed to feel. I knew what the prosecuting attorneys, other family members, and friends expressed through their anger and rage: he was a cold-blooded, ruthless, heartless, young man with an extensive criminal record who had brutally murdered Jamil for an insignificant reason. But I wasn’t feeling that way. Oddly, there were even moments when I imagined that he could be my son. As the fight between him and Jamil was described during the trial, I could imagine it turning out differently, with their positions reversed. I wondered who he was, where he came from, what circumstances in his life had brought him to this moment?
As the stories unfolded at trial, I moved more deeply into myself. I found myself angry and enraged—not at the young man, but at a society that rests easily while violent dramas between young people play out over and over again, resulting in thousands of deaths and imprisonments each year. I just kept saying to myself that this was a deeply sad story, and now it was my deeply sad story. My son was dead, and another woman’s son would most likely go to prison for the rest of his life.
In the end, he received a sentence of twenty-five years to life. As painful as the trial had been, I realized, as it drew to a close, that I had expected it to bring a closure of sorts, or at least start a process of healing. Instead I found myself and my family re-traumatized and numbed by the details of the murder recounted during the trial.
Eventually we moved on to live new, “normal” lives. The numbness made it seem like we were doing fine—or even better than fine at times. But at a certain point, a grief counselor magically appeared in my life and told me, “Numbness often gets mistaken for courage.”
That message didn’t sink in at first. Family and friends had expressed relief at how I hadn’t disappeared from the scene or descended into a swirling tunnel of despair. I could talk normally about everyday things. I could even talk about “him” without collapsing into the gut-wrenching sobs that I knew everyone feared I would succumb to. They began to think it would never happen. When one of my closest friends called me her “hero” for my stoicism, it made me question my seemingly passive reaction to the heart-shattering loss of my son. I tried explaining to her that what she was seeing in me was not really courage. It was the skillful dodging of a reality too unbearable to process in my own lifetime.
In spite of my misgivings, however, I began to find the hero identity appealing. Adopting this role provided me with a place to hide as my life began to unravel around me. It seemed safe and elegant and, before long, it became solid and fixed. I was a hero even to myself. I imagined myself as a courageous bodhisattva, because I couldn’t think of anything else that would keep me standing and moving from one side of the day to the other, teaching, meditating, engaging.
Four years later, quite comfortable with my courageous bodhisattva identity, I sat upright and serene on the final day of a weekend meditation program. Then we began to practice tonglen, the practice of taking into our hearts the suffering of ourselves and others and of sending out compassion. This practice had become second nature to me over the past four years, so as I began to move through the beginning steps, I was completely unprepared for what happened next.
As I breathed in, sobs rose up from unfamiliar depths. I found a young man named Germaine, a friend of Jamil’s, sitting right there in my heart. At five, Germaine had watched as his father shot his mother to death. With his mother dead and his father in prison, he and his brother and sisters were separated from each other and placed in foster care. By the time he was fifteen, when he and Jamil found each other, Germaine had lived in several foster homes and had spent time in juvenile detention. I met him briefly when he and Jamil got into some trouble at school. I found his detachment and simmering rage too hard to take, and I just wanted him out of our lives. Now he was sitting right there in my heart. Then another scene arose: Germaine sitting on our couch two months after Jamil’s death, in heartbreaking disbelief at the news of Jamil’s murder. He had been living out of town; he didn’t know.
As I continued to feel Germaine’s story take root in my heart, I tried to stop the tears I’d been holding back for so long. Concerned with disturbing the quiet in the meditation hall, I struggled to get Germaine out of my heart. I wanted this weekend for myself. I felt my composure, my hero identity, slipping away. I tried and tried so hard to shut Germaine out of my heart, but my resistance was turning the sobs into roaring waves too great to control. There he stayed, and with him his story.
The day when I told Germaine about Jamil’s death—and watched him sit, stunned, unable to cry, expressing love for a most trusted brother and swearing to take revenge—he met my attempt to embrace him, to calm him, with a cold rigidity that seemed to say, “I can never be loved.” I felt the cold rush through me as an accusation. Only later did I realize it was also an invitation.
Germaine was one of the many “others” that Jamil brought into our family’s life. As politically astute and progressive as we considered ourselves, we also didn’t want Jamil’s life, our lives, made messy or problematic by getting too close to people who had “those problems.” As quickly as he would bring them into our lives, we would move to banish them, to diffuse the scent of otherness, so that we could get back to the ongoing challenge of living the American promise of a comfortable, protected, middle-class life. As an African-American family living in a mid-sized, mid-Southern town that had not yet (and still has not) thrown off the vestiges of slave-plantation society, we were fully caught up in the daily strains of trying to make good on the promise of America. We were so caught up in our lives that we failed to notice something profound going on beneath the surface of our material life. Now, with what I had been through, with feelings welling up from deep within, I was beginning to take notice.
I began to notice how children present us with deep questions about the contradictions in our lives—questions we need to examine as individuals, as families, as a nation. The United States is the wealthiest nation on earth but has the worst record of material, psychological, and spiritual care for children among industrialized countries. A litany of dismal statistics—high poverty, homelessness, hunger, homicide, suicide rates—tells us this. Yet, it is individual stories, like Jamil’s and Germaine’s, that might finally capture our attention and arouse our compassion. We might finally notice just how many marginalized young people are haunted by our society’s disregard for who they are.
It is these young people we have chosen to ignore who can shake us out of our apathy and immersion in materialism. They can help us to get in touch with the deep currents of meaning and communion that are the basis of real society. In a reversal of the heartfelt processes by which ancestors and elders guide youth, our youth today can gently—and at times not so gently—guide us back to our humanity, back to a sense of our basic goodness and all that it implies. When he arose in my heart that day in the meditation hall, Germaine brought that message to me.
Some time after that experience, I found myself sitting and talking with another of Jamil’s friends, Joshua. Jamil had called him a brother and asked that we call him a son. Joshua had told me his story many times before, and as he told it again I heard him calling to my heart through the silences and tears, asking that I take my role as elder and help him find his way. Before this conversation, I had not listened deeply. For once, it was time to listen to what the children and their stories had been trying to teach me, teach all of us.
When Joshua was fourteen—by which time he had got himself into a fair amount of trouble—his mother put a gun to his head and told him to get out of her house, out of her life. His father was already out of his life, serving a lengthy sentence in prison. With his grandmother’s help, Joshua found a place to stay and lived what he admitted was a wild and crazy life for a while. But then, at a certain point he stopped trying to escape from the overwhelming pain in his life, and something deep began to take hold. By the time he was eighteen, he was visiting his father and his friends in prison regularly, bringing them messages of encouragement and support.
Through intensive reading and deep conversations with his grandmother and with men and women his own age, Joshua began to put the pieces of the puzzle together for himself. He began to understand where history had placed him and why. As a young black man who had lost many family members and friends to drugs, prison, and homicidal and suicidal death, Joshua began to realize something profound: that the kidnapping from Africa, the Middle Passage to America, and life in slavery on the plantations had not annihilated the spirit of African Americans. But the silent, unacknowledged, physical and spiritual genocide of their children would—if something didn’t change.
It would be natural for the recognition of this injustice to arouse in Joshua a rage that would fester just beneath the surface—the kind of rage that settles in the heart of so many colonized and subjugated peoples. But something else happened. He realized that he also carried the blood of the Cherokee Nation and of the Scots-Irish of Appalachia. And although the racial codes of our society discourage most of us from claiming all of who we are, Joshua found himself able to do so. Underneath his rage, Joshua found grief, and within his grief he found his broken heart. From the compassion he found within his broken, open heart, he has been able to do something.
As Joshua prepares to leave after a long and rich conversation, he thanks me, as he has so many times before, for offering him a place to be heard, a home in my heart, and sometimes a message or two that moves through me from some ancestral anguish-wisdom. How can I begin to tell him that he has offered me so much more, without confusing his desire to respect me as elder and express his gratitude?
Before he leaves, he removes a picture from an envelope that had rested between us as we talked. There they are, the three of them—Jamil, Joshua, and Rasheed—the wisdom brothers, as they called themselves and were called by many. They offered each other community, connection, and understanding. They made music and poetry together, to share with us all as they tried to heal themselves. And somehow, through their confusion and pain and rage, they had made their way to the river beneath the river and answered the call of the ancestors to begin the journey back to their hearts. In the process, they opened a way and invited us all.
Looking at the picture of the wisdom brothers, Joshua and I are both crying now. We see that in the picture they look like warriors. The weight of what they know—their penetrating wisdom, what they see in the world, the reality they’ve experienced, so different from fantasy of twentieth-century U.S. material culture—is evident. So is their courage to make a difference. Neither of us can find the words to express the anguish this picture holds. Of the three depicted there, only Joshua remains. We lost Rasheed to murder a year after we lost Jamil. Joshua whispers through his tears, “I should not be here. It’s only a matter of time.” I hold him close, connecting with the sense of powerlessness I know I share with my enslaved African ancestors, whose children were ripped away from them with a brutal force.
As he leaves, Joshua reminds me about a gathering that will take place the next day. Over the last year, he has been bringing together the youth of the community to talk, to cry, to rest for a while knowing they are not alone. In this safe space, they acknowledge the broader historical, political, and cultural contexts that have given rise to the trauma and estrangement they experience in their communities. Having such a space is important to them, because they know the costs in shame and self-blame that come from not having a broader understanding of their situation.
During these gatherings, these young people invoke the mighty warriors past and present to help guide their healing journeys: Frantz Fanon, W.E.B. Du Bois, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni. They revive ancestral rituals. Through the pouring of libations, through prayer and reflection, they reconnect with sacred communal space. This is deeply spiritual experience. For them, spirit is political, and it is in communion that they begin the personal healing that will help them move forward to heal their communities.
Joshua asked that I come to the gathering, as an elder, to provide centering energy and wisdom. I felt intimidated by his request. What could I offer that wouldn’t intrude on or weaken the intention of this gathering? What could I offer that would truly be helpful?
I thought of my Jamil, carrying the blood of Africa and the blood of indigenous people here and from the Amazon. I thought of his pained and tumultuous journey and his friendships within the war-zone communities of the United States. I thought of my Jamil and I knew—from that place within that always knows the truth—that his life and his death are profound teachings. They’re teachings about the urgency of seeing, really seeing, and working to heal the oppression and cruelty that has developed over many decades within these communities. Joshua’s request was calling me to do this urgent work, and I realized why I had been so afraid. I had been afraid of convincing myself, and of convincing these young people, that I have a solid and certain answer to offer. I was equally afraid that I had no answer to offer at all.
In the end, I found the courage to go and offer whatever I could as an elder, and to learn whatever I could from the young warriors there. I went there with my broken, open heart. I went where Jamil guided me that day in the meditation hall, by reminding me of Germaine’s story of tragic oppression and isolation. I have now decided to stay in a place of vulnerability where Germaine’s story lives, where my story lives, where my tears flow into a river that carries me through Jamil’s heart. It is my vulnerability, my story, my tears, and the teachings they bring that I share as comrade, friend, and elder with the young people at the gathering. As we journey through each other’s hearts, we prepare ourselves together for our work in the world, for Jamil’s work, and the work of all who have left a message of what we still have to do.
The Poetry of Authentic Presence
The Poetry of Authentic PresenceA Cascading Waterfall of Nectar
Shambhala Publications, 2006; 312 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)
How to begin? How to describe the sense of thankfulness and wonder one feels for the life and writings of Thinley Norbu Rinpoche? Some may already know he is the son of Dudjom Rinpoche, the late head of the Nyingma lineage, and the father of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the well-known Buddhist teacher and film director. Some may know him as a great artist and poet who has tirelessly displayed wisdom-kindness for over six decades and continues to transmit, in a compassionately uncompromising style, the depth and subtlety of the Buddha’s message. Now, for those already familiar with Thinley Norbu’s teachings and those new to them, a fresh feast is available. He has written A Cascading Waterfall of Nectar to alert and encourage new practitioners, and to awaken old-timers from their dogmatic slumber.
The contemporary Nyingma scholar Tulku Thondup calls Cascading Waterfall "a great original work and the enlightened vision of one of the greatest realized Nyingma masters of our age." This publication has been eagerly anticipated by Tibetan and English audiences alike, for it is Thinley Norbu’s most extensive composition to date. He has translated his own Tibetan teachings into an idiomatic English intended to convey the living sense of the original, which was written in a style of intimate directness (upadesha). He wrote down, he says, "whatever spontaneously and naturally came to my mind on its own."
To signal the importance of this book, for both Tibetans and non-Tibetans, the volume has prefaces by four leading scholars of the Nyingma tradition (two of them also reproduced in the original Tibetan), as well as the original Tibetan for the two texts he comments upon in English translation. (The original Tibetan commentary is to be found in volume one of his two-volume Collected Works, an expanded version of which is anticipated.)
The first section in the book is a commentary on the preliminary practices (ngondro) of the Vajrayana tradition, entitled An Easily Understood Commentary Flowing Like a Cascading Waterfall. It is destined, I think, to become a contemporary classic of the preliminary practice genre for Nyingma practitioners, taking its place next to The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Shambhala, 1994) by Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887). It presents the practices and pith instructions on the entirety of the Buddhist path, and is suffused throughout with the Dzogchen view, which are the special teachings of the Nyingma school. The topics elucidated include: 1. how to discover and sustain the motivation to turn away from worldly fascinations; 2. how to take refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha; 3. how to generate altruistic intentions for the sake of enlightenment; 4. how to purify tendencies toward spiritually wayward behavior; 5. how to offer the abundance of cosmological energies for the benefit of all; 6. how to enter into and sustain union with the guru; and, 7. how to transfer one's consciousness at the time of death, and how to offer the gift of one's body.
This section is a treasure trove of Buddhist practices, encompassing the foundational perspectives of spiritual confidence and refuge (Hinayana), the expanded perspectives of spiritual courage and enlightened altruism (Mahayana), and the adamantine perspectives of pure vision (Vajrayana). What makes this commentary so endearing? Could it be the palpable sweetness of "cascading nectar," the sign of authentic presence that flows ever-fresh from wisdom mind? Ezra Pound reminds us that poetry is "news which stays news," and, I would suggest, the poetry of authentic presence is ever-fresh. According to the Dzogchen view, authentic presence is spontaneous, not fabricated, primordially pure, open, radiant, and ever-flowing. And so it is with the poetic presence of Thinley Norbu; his elucidations have the seal of genuine transmission.
The second section of the book is entitled The Light Rays of the Youthful Sun. It’s a commentary by Thinley Norbu on The Melodious Tamboura of the Lotus, The Concise Fulfillment of the Dakinis, a text composed by his father, Dudjom Rinpoche. It is elegaic in tone and invokes the presence of playful and sublime dakinis in the context of a feast of enlightenment. As such, it encodes, in lyrical form, the entire panoply of enlivening beings in their wisdom dance, renewing our bodies and minds with their primordial presence.
Those who are new to Thinley Norbu Rinpoche's brilliance may want to consult three of his previous works. Small Golden Key (Shambhala, 1977) offers, in a slim volume, essential perspectives on Buddhism. Magic Dance: The Display of the Self-Nature of the Five Wisdom Dakinis (1981, expanded and reissued by Shambhala, 1998), is a masterful account of how the entirety of existence, mundane and sublime, is due to the dynamics of five wisdom energies. White Sail (Shambhala, 1992), lays bare the twin failings of nihilistic and eternalistic fixations, and invites us to explore such topics as love and faith in vivid detail.
If Thinley Norbu Rinpoche lived in Japan he would most certainly be regarded as a Living Treasure. I, for one, am thankful that he continues to enliven the hearts and minds of sincere seekers, and remind us of the sublime abundance that awaits those who humbly accept the gift and challenge of being with a wisdom teacher.
Steven Goodman, PH.D. is co-director of Asian and Comparative Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. Goodman's specialty is the Indo-Tibetan-influenced forms of Buddhism in traditional rural Himalayan and contemporary urban settings.
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2007 January Books in Brief
BOOKS IN BRIEF January 2007
THE ENGAGED SPIRITUAL LIFE: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World
by Donald Rothberg
Beacon Press, 2006; 272 pp.; $16 (paper)
The moniker “engaged Buddhist” has become a bit of a catchall category for social activists who occasionally meditate and for meditators who occasionally agitate or resist. Here, finally, is a handbook for those seeking to earn the title by uniting the contemplative life with a social and political one. Longtime Vipassana teacher and Buddhist Peace Fellowship organizer Donald Rothberg identifies ten guiding principles, tying each to a specific practice or exercise that can be applied across the individual, social, and collective domains. He argues that the development of a deep spiritual practice is not only beneficial to the individual but also to society, and, likewise, that the individual gains by expanding his or her contemplative practice into the world. Rothberg is a Buddhist and uses a Buddhist framework, but this guide will be useful to progressive spiritual practitioners from all traditions.
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I CELEBRATE MYSELF: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg
by Bill Morgan
Viking, 2006; 720 pp.; $29.95 (cloth)
THE BOOK OF MARTYRDOM AND ARTIFICE: First Journals and Poems: 1937-1952
edited by Bill Morgan and Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton
Da Capo, 2006; 416 pp.; $27.50 (cloth)
It has been fifty years since City Lights published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, and—at least in the publishing world—Ginsberg lives again. (On the poem “Howl,” for instance, see Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression by Bill Morgan, and The Poem That Changed America, compiled by Jason Shinder.) In I Celebrate Myself, Morgan—archivist, Beat specialist, and official Ginsberg bibliographer—relates the poet’s life from start to finish. Many episodes are fascinating and illuminate Ginsberg’s brilliant mind. Not surprisingly, others reveal that brilliant mind struggling with Ginsberg’s well-known psychosexual obsessions (which make a more compelling read in the first person). Morgan’s text is helpfully annotated with references to Ginsberg’s complete Collected Poems, also released this year by HarperCollins. To get the Ginsberg/Beat story straight from the horse’s mouth, check out The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, a collection of Ginsberg’s private writings from his early years, a time when the poet was beginning to flex the muscles of his art and intellect.
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ZEN PIONEER: The Life & Works of Ruth Fuller Sasaki
by Isabel Stirling
Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006; 320 pp.; $25 (cloth)
If there is ever assembled an American Zen Walk of Fame, the oft-overlooked Ruth Fuller Sasaki deserves a place. This short biography by first-time author Isabel Stirling sketches Fuller Sasaki’s remarkable life and re-publishes several of her booklets on Zen, which today are difficult to track down. Born into a wealthy Chicago family, Ruth Fuller was raised to be a “society lady.” After she married a lawyer twenty years her senior, the pair undertook a polite study of Eastern spiritualism, which would fully blossom for Fuller. Two years after her husband’s death, she married her Rinzai Zen teacher, Sokei-An Sasaki Roshi, but he died within the year. Widowed again at 52, Fuller Sasaki made it her mission to maintain The First Zen Institute that Sasaki Roshi had established with her help. The only woman ever to be made a priest of a Daitoku-ji temple, Fuller Sasaki spent most of her remaining years in Japan, where she spearheaded the English translation of many Zen texts and mentored young translators such as Philip Yampolsky and Gary Snyder. The grand dame of American Zen died in 1967.
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ZEN MASTER WHO? A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen
by James Ishmael Ford
Wisdom Publications, 2006; 280 pp.; $15.95 (paper)
There are a couple of historical surveys of Western Buddhism to review this issue, and the first takes on American Zen. In his forty-year study of the tradition, Zen teacher and Unitarian Universalist minister James Ishmael Ford has digested the “whos and whats” of Zen, presenting a personable and readable introduction to its major players and teachings, both in the East and West. Ford has practiced with a number of American teachers from several “families” of Zen—among them Mel Weitsman, the late Jiyu Kennett, and John Tarrant, from whom Ford received inka in 2005—and has a style that tends toward synthesis rather than analysis (Ford’s Boundless Way Zen Center is a single organization that unites a network of meditation centers from several Zen traditions). Zen Master Who? is a friendly orientation to Zen for the new student of Buddhism, and the book’s final section, in which Ford considers the future of Zen in the West, will prompt discussion among its older students.
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ALL IS CHANGE: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West
by Lawrence Sutin
Little, Brown, 2006; 403 pp.; $25.99 (cloth)
All Is Change is a broad history of the encounter between Buddhism and Western thought, and of Buddhism’s influence on the cultural landscape of America. “Been there, done that,” you might think to yourself. But it’s not likely you’ve been around this block before. Author Lawrence Sutin, a biographer of Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley, begins his account with the exchange of ideas between classical Greeks and Buddhists of India, the impact of sixteenth-century Jesuit missionaries in Japan and China, and the influence of Buddhism on Western philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer. If you’ve read a lot about Western Buddhism before, this first half of the book will be most interesting, if somewhat speculative. In the second half, Sutin traverses the familiar territory of the Theosophists, the Transcendentalists, the Beats, and the Buddhist teachers such as Suzuki Roshi and Chögyam Trungpa, who came to the West from Asia in the twentieth century.
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by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Metta, 2006; 226 pp.; For Free Distribution (paper)
The American-born Theravada monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu is one of today’s most prolific writers on and translators of Buddhist teachings. You can find a wealth of his material (including this book) on the Access to Insight website, accesstoinsight.org, a repository of online readings from the Theravada school. Than Geoff, as he is known to his students, also publishes books that are available free thanks to the support of donors. Meditations 2 is a collection of thirty-nine talks on subjects related to the practice of meditation, delivered at Metta Forest Monastery near San Diego, where Than Geoff has been abbot since 1993. The word Theravada means “way of the Elders,” and with its emphasis on form and renunciation, Theravada has gained a reputation for old-school-style Buddhism. But the topics in Meditations 2 (such as “Start Out Small,” “No Mistakes Are Fatal,” and “Exploring Possibilities”) reveal Theravada as a pragmatic and flexible style of practice, and Than Geoff comes across as a warm and encouraging guide.
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