Imagine a Pine Tree (January 2012)
Imagine a Pine Tree
THICH NHAT HANH answers a retreatant’s question on what to do in the face of suffering.
Thay, I suffer a lot and I know that suffering is part of my practice.
My suffering comes from two main things. One is that I have a chronic
illness, which causes me a lot of physical pain. The other is that I am
an activist and I care very deeply for the world. Sometimes I feel a lot
of despair about what’s happening in the world around us, in terms of
violence, poverty, and environmental destruction. What practices would
you recommend for those of us who are living with physical pain or are
in despair about the suffering of the world?
Nhat Hanh: As activists we want to do something to help the world to
suffer less. But we know that when we’re not peaceful, when we don’t
have enough compassion in us, we can’t do much to help the world. We
ourselves are at the center. We have to make peace and reduce the
suffering in ourselves first, because we represent the world. Peace,
love, and happiness must always begin here, with ourselves. There is
suffering, fear, and anger inside of us, and when we take care of it, we
are taking care of the world.
a pine tree standing in the yard. If that pine tree were to ask us what
it should do, what the maximum is a pine tree can do to help the world,
our answer would be very clear: “You should be a beautiful, healthy
pine tree. You help the world by being your best.” That is true for
humans also. The basic thing we can do to help the world is to be
healthy, solid, loving, and gentle to ourselves. Then when people look
at us, they will gain confidence. They will say, “If she can do that, I
can do that too!”
anything you do for yourself, you do for the world. Don’t think that
you and the world are two separate things. When you breathe in mindfully
and gently, when you feel the wonder of being alive, remember that
you’re also doing this for the world. Practicing with that kind of
insight, you will succeed in helping the world. You don’t even have to
wait until tomorrow. You can do it right now, today.
Buddha proposed so many ways to practice to reduce the pain in your
body and in your emotions, and to reconcile with yourself. We have
learned in this retreat that you can reduce physical pain through the
practice of releasing tension in the body. Pain increases as a function
of tension, and it can be reduced if we release the tension. You can
practice relaxation in the lying or sitting position. You can also
practice relaxation when you walk, and with every step you can help
release the tension. Walk like a free person. Put things down, don’t
carry anything, and feel light. There is a burden we always carry with
us. The skill we need is how to lay down our burden in order to be
light. If you sit, walk, or lie down like that, it’s very easy to
release the tension and reduce the pain.
Buddha said that you shouldn’t amplify your pain by exaggerating the
situation. He used the image of someone who has just been hit by an
arrow. A few minutes later, a second arrow strikes him in exactly the
same spot. When the second arrow hits, the pain is not just doubled; it
is many times more painful and intense.
when you experience pain, whether it’s physical or mental, you have to
recognize it just as it is and not exaggerate it. You can say to
yourself, “Breathing in, I know this is only a minor physical pain. I
can very well make friends and peace with it. I can still smile to it.”
you recognize the pain as it is and don’t exaggerate it, then you can
make peace with it, and you won’t suffer as much. But if you get angry
and revolt against it, if you worry too much and imagine that you’re
going to die very quickly, then the pain will be multiplied one hundred
times. That is the second arrow, the extra suffering that comes from
exaggeration. You should not allow it to arise. This is very important.
It was recommended by the Buddha: Don’t exaggerate and amplify the pain.
Ocean of Dharma
Ocean of Dharma
has been twenty-five years since the death of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche,
a seminal figure in twentieth-century Buddhism and founder of this
magazine. BARRY BOYCE surveys his vast body of teachings and their
lasting impact on how Buddhism is understood and practiced.
1. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
the summer of 1968, a twenty-nine-year-old Tibetan monk traveled from
Scotland to Bhutan to do a retreat in a small and dank cave on a high
precipice—a place where Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet,
had practiced 1,200 years earlier. He brought along with him one of his
small cadre of Western students. For the student, it was an exotic
journey filled with hardships, including ingesting chilies no Englishman
should be asked to eat. For the monk, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, it was
challenging in a different way. He felt imprisoned by his circumstances.
He’d been trained since age five in a rigorous system of study and
meditative practice—intended as a direct path to the Buddha’s
realization. It had passed from teacher to student in an unbroken
lineage for more than a thousand years. He longed to share that training
and understanding but couldn’t quite see how—in his new home the
buddhadharma was a foreign plaything, either intellectualized or
In 1959, when he was nineteen, he had fled Tibet, leaving behind the
teachers who had trained him, the monasteries he’d been responsible for,
and a society in which his role had been clear. After a few years in
India, he’d traveled to Britain to study at Oxford and eventually
established a small center in the Scottish countryside. In monk’s robes
in this adopted home, he often felt he was treated like a piece of Asian
statuary uprooted from its sacred context and set on display in the
British Museum. Few Tibetan colleagues offered support, seeming to feel
Westerners were sweet but uncivilized and incapable of training in
genuine dharma. Deep in his heart, he felt it must be otherwise. What to
later years, Trungpa Rinpoche counseled students faced with daunting
circumstances not to drive themselves into “the high wall of insanity,”
pushing for answers that may not be ready to appear. Instead, he
advised, allow the uncertainty of those pivotal moments to unfold
completely and rely on one’s meditative discipline to keep one on the
ground, just as the Buddha had done when he famously touched the earth
just prior to his enlightenment. In the cave at Taktsang, Trungpa
Rinpoche let the uncertainty build and build. And a breakthrough
great clarity, he saw that the obstacle to a flowering of the Buddha’s
teaching and practice in the modern world was not simply better
cross-cultural communication. It was materialism. Not the focus on
material wealth alone, but a subtler, deeper form of comfort: “spiritual
materialism.” He coined this term to describe the desire for a
spiritual path that led you to become something, to attain a state you
could be proud of, instead of a path that unmasked your self-deception.
The conviction dawned that if people could see spiritual materialism and
cut through it, they would find the genuine spiritual path, and it
would be fulfilling on the spot. The path itself would be the goal. He
left retreat intent on finding students willing to make this journey
As a result of this breakthrough, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche went on to become a dharma pioneer. He lived up to the name Chögyam,
“Ocean of Dharma,” and left behind a voluminous and varied corpus of
teachings. Right now, you can download eight volumes of his Collected Works
to an iPad or Kindle, some 4,500 pages, covering all manner of Buddhist
practice, history, art, education, poetry, theater, war, and politics.
There are other published books waiting to form future volumes of the
Collected Works and more than a hundred potential books to be created
from transcripts of his teachings between his arrival in America in 1970
and his death in 1987. He is the author of a small shelf of seminal
bestsellers that have shaped how the West understands dharma, such as Meditation in Action, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, The Myth of Freedom, Journey Without Goal, and Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior.
His archive is a treasury of calligraphy, painting, photography, and
film, as well as audio and video of many teaching events. Here we will
dip our toe into this ocean.
are many stories of Trungpa Rinpoche’s life, but focusing there can
mislead. You may conclude “you had to be there.” In fact, no one can
claim to have been there for more than a modest slice of the amazing
amount of teaching he packed into his forty-eight years. He lived to
leave a legacy, so that far into the future people could experience the
dharma he taught not as an artifact of a past time and place, but always
as “fresh-baked bread.”
2. The Charnel Ground
Vajrayana, or tantric, master, Trungpa Rinpoche was at pains to dispel
wrong-headed notions about the exoticism of tantra. He didn’t shy away
from graphic tantric imagery but emphasized the perspective the imagery
embodied. He presented it as a subtle and elaborate picture of what our
mind experiences. The tantric perspective is potently conveyed in a
practice text that emerged in the mind of Trungpa Rinpoche in the cave
at Taktsang: the Sadhana of Mahamudra.
For forty years, it has been chanted on new and full moon days in
centers he founded and is available to be practiced by dharma students
new and old.
part of this practice, one recites a long description of the “charnel
ground.” Since the earliest times, Buddhist practitioners practiced in
burial grounds, surrounded by powerful reminders of life’s impermanence.
Eschewing philosophical statements about “impermanence,” tantra
suggests our life is in fact a charnel ground. More than a burial
ground, as Rinpoche described it, it is an environment where “birth,
life, and death take place. It is a place to die and a place to be born,
equally, at the same time.”
perspective on life tends to be choosy, he pointed out. We project a
partial reality to suit ourselves, but the perspective of tantra takes
in the whole picture. We would like things to be just one
way—comfortable for us and never-ending—but there are unsettling
dichotomies all over the place: As soon as we are born, we are starting
to die. Whenever we’re happy, there is a tinge of sadness. We long to be
united, but we know we are alone.
feel wretched, he observed. There is so much wrong with us. And at the
same time, we are glorious. We are the buddhas of the future. In some
sense, we are buddhas right now.
we can find the bravery to face the totality of our circumstances— the
negativity as well as the richness—a world of invigorating energy will
reveal itself. The dichotomies begin to resolve themselves because we
stop trying to ally ourselves with one smaller perspective or the other.
For example, he taught, if we rely too heavily on our intellect to sort
things out, we ignore our emotions. And if we give full throttle to our
emotions, we lose our insight. What the tantric view and training can
teach us to do, he said, is to “bring together emotion and insight.
Insight becomes more emotional and emotion becomes more insightful.” We
can exercise control and relaxation simultaneously, he said.
a vision would find appeal among young spiritual seekers in the West,
who had become disillusioned with what society and traditional forms of
religious practice offered. To be told you’re both completely wretched
and glorious rang true. It meant you weren’t crazy for feeling bad and
good at the same time. He proclaimed to his students that it was not
only okay but wonderful to be in a place of simultaneous birth and
death, celebration and mourning, and that in fact buddhahood was not
some faraway place. It existed in the middle of the charnel ground,
where the places we usually run from could be fertile ground for
discovery, where, as it says in the Sadhana of Mahamudra:
you see partakes of the nature of that wisdom which transcends past,
present, and future. From here came the buddhas of the past; here live
the buddhas of the present; this is the primeval ground from which the
buddhas of the future will come.
3. Just Sit…Then Sit More
two years of his revelatory retreat in Bhutan, Trungpa Rinpoche found
himself in America. A farmhouse, barn, and surrounding acreage in
northern Vermont that was soon dotted with retreat cabins became the
first home for his teaching and community. He had taken off his robes,
married, and settled in among a growing body of students inspired by his
honest assessment of the way things were: both the wretchedness and the
glory. One seminar after another took place in a tent set up on the
front lawn. It was a festival atmosphere befitting the hippie era.
addition to the dangers of spiritual materialism, one theme
predominated: the centrality of “the sitting practice of meditation.” He
was uncompromising. The only way to realize the tantric possibilities
described in the Sadhana of Mahamudra—
wherein “pain and pleasure alike become ornaments which it is pleasant
to wear”—is to sit and to sit and to sit more. When I attended my first
seminar as an eager teenage seeker, after a few days we decamped to the
town hall/gymnasium for an entire day of sitting meditation. I couldn’t
believe it. Soooo boring and claustrophobic. And yet somewhere in there,
a little space, a little glory peeked in. The path began.
foundation undergirds Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings. If you sit with
yourself, with no project other than to follow a simple technique of
paying attention, you will gradually familiarize yourself with the
texture of mind. Over time, the technique falls away and you’re left
with mindfulness of the details of life and awareness of the surrounding
space. It’s nothing other than what the Buddha himself taught, but
Trungpa Rinpoche presented the Buddha’s message in a new vernacular he
he crisscrossed the country, setting himself up in Boulder, Colorado,
and teaching in city upon city, he changed the terms on which dharma had
been approached. In an earlier period, Buddhism had been taught as
philosophy or religion. He expressed it in terms of its insights about
the human mind, borrowing terms from Western psychology and developing
fresh ways of translating the Buddhist lexicon. He spoke of ego and
egolessness (which the Oxford English Dictionary
credits him with coining), neurosis and sanity, conflicting emotions,
conditioning, habitual patterns, projection, the phenomenal world, and
so on. His teachings intricately described processes of mind more than
doctrines. The message was that by becoming familiar with mind in an
intimate way, seeing it in the relaxed space of sitting meditation, we
meet ourselves fully for the first time.
Buddhist practice, as he described it, is scientific and exploratory.
We learn what is true— that clinging to an ego is the cause of all our
problems— through our own efforts, not because we’ve been told what is
true. Because it’s our own discovery, it has more power. He trusted that
any human being, regardless of cultural background, can engage in
sitting practice fully and attain what the Buddha attained. He was the
best-known and most prolific of a body of teachers—such as Ajahn Chah,
Mahasi Sayadaw, Suzuki Roshi, Maezumi Roshi, Lama Yeshe, Kalu
Rinpoche—who began teaching Westerners in the belief they were equipped
to take on the rigors of practice, not just sit on the sidelines with an
intellectual appreciation of what the real practitioners were doing.
Buddhism in the West was off and sitting.
4. The Soft Spot
of the dichotomies in Trungpa Rinpoche’s life was his dogs. He had a
large dog, a mastiff named Ganesh, and a small dog, a Lhasa Apso named
Yumtso, or Yummie. Ganesh intimidated and Yummie ingratiated. Hard and
soft. When Yummie toddled along behind Rinpoche on his way into the
shrine room to teach, you couldn’t help but laugh and when she jumped
onto his lap while he was teaching, it touched your heart—not in some
big spiritual way but in the ordinary way we’re all familiar with.
Trungpa Rinpoche called that the “soft spot.” We all have it. It can be
as simple as a love of ice cream, some way in which we’re human,
soft spot represents embryonic buddhanature. Each of us in our
essential nature is a complete, perfect buddha. It may require some
uncovering, but as a result of this basic nature, we have a big open
heart, or bodhichitta, which he often translated as “awakened heart.”
Rinpoche used the soft spot as a jumping off point for teaching
Mahayana Buddhism, the path of the bodhisattva. In the mid-seventies, he
began to devote considerable attention to these teachings. The
foundational path of mindfulness and awareness, in the system he
followed, is known as the narrow path, focused on liberating oneself
from suffering. The Mahayana is the wide path, focused on liberating
others. The Vajrayana is the path of totality that lets one dance with
all the energies of the phenomenal world. While they have distinct
methodologies, the paths intertwine, and in Rinpoche’s tradition all
three are implied at once.
a certain point on the path, we reach the limitation of working solely
on ourselves. We’re holding out hope of a final resting place with our
name on it. As Trungpa Rinpoche put it, we want to witness our own
enlightenment, or more pointedly, ego would like to be present at its
own funeral. At this point, it’s necessary to go bigger, to put others
before ourselves. We’re now stepping onto the path of compassion, the
wide path of the Mahayana, but this brings its own dangers. If
compassion becomes a display concocted by ego for its own
aggrandizement, we will be back in the trap of spiritual materialism.
the classical Buddhist teachings, Trungpa Rinpoche taught that the only
way for real compassion to emerge of its own accord is in concert with
wisdom. Wisdom in this case means realizing shunyata. This term has long
fascinated and confounded philosophically minded students of Buddhism.
Western scholars initially described it as the void, as nothingness. The
newer term “emptiness” was an improvement, but it could still leave you
puzzled. Once again, Rinpoche taught about it experientially:
literally means “openness” or “emptiness.” Shunyata is basically
understanding nonexistence. When you begin realizing nonexistence, you
can afford to be more compassionate, more giving. We realize we are
actually nonexistent ourselves. Then we can give. We have lots to gain
and nothing to lose at that point.
present these teachings most thoroughly, Trungpa Rinpoche gave
extensive commentary on a classic Mahayana text built around a series of
sayings, which he referred to as slogans. (These commentaries are
published as the book Training the Mind.)
A slogan such as “Be grateful to everyone,” when memorized, can emerge
in your mind at an opportune moment—not as some rule you’re struggling
to follow but as a sudden catalyst for your soft spot. You find the
possibility of putting others before yourself—without having to
A key practice to cultivate bodhichitta is tonglen,
literally “sending and taking.” You send out warmth and openness to
others and you take in their pain and difficulty. This practice, similar
to the Theravadan metta
practice, became the focus of the books of Pema Chödrön, who learned it
from Trungpa Rinpoche. This great switch, where the first thought is of
others, is the essence of genuine compassion and a key to real
5. Art in Everyday Life
in his time in America, Trungpa Rinpoche was hailing a cab in New York
City. The Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was trying to hail the same cab. They
were introduced, and Trungpa Rinpoche, his wife Diana, Ginsberg, and
his ailing father shared the cab. After dropping off Ginsberg’s father,
they continued to Ginsberg’s apartment, where they stayed up long into
the night talking and writing poetry. In the introduction to Volume
Seven of the Collected Works
(devoted to poetry, art, and theater), editor Carolyn Gimian notes that
this chance meeting started a long and fruitful friendship: “On the
Buddhist front, Rinpoche was the teacher, Ginsberg the student; on the
poetry front, Rinpoche acknowledged how much he had learned from
Ginsberg, and Ginsberg also credited Trungpa Rinpoche with considerable
influence on his poetry.”
had received training in Tibetan poetics, where the metrical forms were
well established and the topics restricted to the spiritual. Ginsberg
was a worldly poet, composing in a freeform style. Yet he shared
Rinpoche’s deep appreciation of classical forms, believing that learning
strict meter allows one to have good rules to break. Poetry became an
arena in which Rinpoche could play, and display a sense of humor. For
him, humor meant not jokiness, but seeing the dichotomies and the
totality at once, which allowed one to play—with one’s communication,
with one’s perceptions, with one’s gestures. It evinced real freedom.
In the jungles of flaming ego,
May there be cool iceberg of bodhichitta.
On the racetrack of bureaucracy,
May there be the walk of an elephant.
May the sumptuous castle of arrogance
Be destroyed by vajra confidence.
In the garden of gentle sanity,
May you be bombarded by coconuts of wakefulness.
Rinpoche saw art and the arts not as diversions to give one relief from
the serious side of life, nor as something for an elite who could
afford the time and money. He spoke of “art in everyday life,” that life
could be lived artfully. Our speech, our movements, our gestures, our
craftsmanship, can be carried out with grace, not self-consciously as a
performance, but intrinsically as part of our being—and as an outgrowth
of meditation. In fact, he felt that art and artistry emerged from the
space of meditation:
El Greco, or my most favorite person in music, Mozart—I think they all
sat. They actually sat in the sense that their minds became blank before
they did what they were doing. Otherwise, they couldn’t possibly do it.
early on, he played in many realms: film, theater, song, photography,
painting, calligraphy, flower arranging. In 1974, he founded the Naropa
Institute (now Naropa University) as a place where an artistic
sensibility could be an integral part of higher education. Education at
Naropa, he said, would marry intellect and intuition. As Gimian points
out, in the Japanese notion of do, or way—as in chado, the way of tea, or kado, the way of flowers— he saw a model for how secular activities of all kinds could become paths to awakening.
on formal training in flower arranging, he used it as a means to convey
certain principles, such as heaven, earth, and human—with heaven
representing open space, earth the ground, and human that which joins
the dichotomy. In theater, he created exercises that helped actors
engage the space around them, coming to know relaxation by knowing
tension. In visual arts, he explored the process of perception, the
interplay between the investigating mind that looks and the big mind
that sees. These teachings formed the basis for a program called dharma
art, which used simple exercises like arranging objects to help students
go beyond the limits of perception based on ego’s small reference
points. He and a team of students created art installations containing
outsized arrangements of natural and constructed objects that could
bring on a blanking of the mind. (These can be seen in the film Discovering Elegance.)
In the path of dharma art, the worldly and the spiritual completely
intermingled, and became in his words “an atomic bomb you carry in your
6 . Victory Over War
the mid-seventies, what had begun as a loose association of hippies
following a guru evolved into a multifaceted community. People had grown
up and taken on families and greater responsibilities. Trungpa Rinpoche
had begun to emphasize care in how you dressed and conducted your
household. There were simple protocols. For talks, for example, he
expected students to sit up and pay attention rather than sprawl about.
Senior teachers from Trungpa Rinpoche’s Tibetan lineages were hosted on
crosscountry tours. The head of the Kagyu school, His Holiness the
Sixteenth Karmapa, made the first of his three U.S. visits in 1974. It
was a monumental affair. Trungpa Rinpoche transformed before his
students’ eyes. They saw his great devotion to the Karmapa and to his
lineage. He met the Karmapa’s great beaming smile with an equal smile
and a bow of respect. We his students wanted whatever they were having.
warrant devotion and service, a teacher must genuinely embody the
teachings. Ultimately, student and teacher effect an eye-level meeting
of the minds. Relatively, the student supplicates and serves the
teacher. As Trungpa Rinpoche demonstrated how to do this for His
Holiness, we learned to do it more for Trungpa Rinpoche. This is how he
had learned from his teachers in the longstanding tradition that began
in India with the earliest Vajrayana masters. Serving the teacher means
helping in the propagation of the dharma and can encompass everything
from translation to giving meditation instruction to helping run a
household to acting as an appointments secretary. In inviting students
to take on serving and attending roles, he made it possible for them to
learn the dharma in day-to-day situations, where the rubber meets the
road. We discovered that serving the teacher can be a powerful element
in the spiritual path, part of the process of wearing down ego and
opening the student to teachings that challenge cherished habits and
form of this practice as service was called the Dorje Kasung, which
roughly translated means those who protect the teachings and help make
them accessible. The kasung could help the teacher create a good container
in which the teachings can be heard and experienced. A meditation hall
that is clean and quiet and well lit and ventilated provides an
excellent container for mindfulness practice and to hear teachings.
Likewise, if someone sits at the gate in an upright posture looking out
as a reminder to students to enter attentively—and make a transition
from the speed of daily life—they’ll be inspired to hear the teachings,
take them to heart, and wake up.
of us who joined the Dorje Kasung dressed in simple uniforms and our
role was well known to students. One might sit for long hours doing
almost nothing outside a meditation hall, acting as a kind of
gatekeeper, just as in the temples of old. We provided information and
direction to those who entered the center for the first time. We were
also there in the event of emergency, such as a power outage or fire or
theft. Students began to feel the kasung helped ensure a safe, calm
atmosphere for practice and study, a good container.
had taught meditation and meditation-in-action, and now he taught
meditation-in-interaction. He gave seminars especially for the Dorje
Kasung, which inculcated in us certain principles, such as gentleness,
putting others first, and fearless action in the midst of chaotic
situations. The teachings were often expressed in metaphors that one
could unravel and unpack in those long hours looking at a rug and a dog
in the entryway to the teacher’s residence:
there are lots of clouds in front of the sun, your duty is to create
wind so that clouds can be removed and the clear sun can shine.
training often focused on how our minds respond to threat. The
discipline, which proved valuable in many facets of life, honed your
ability to remain alert and spacious at the same time. It encouraged you
to learn how to “be like a mountain” amid provocative and even
threatening situations—with gentleness and precision, not creating a big
scene. You were exhorted to become a “warrior without anger.”
Rinpoche decided to take this training to a higher level. He instituted
an annual encampment, which followed militarylike protocols. People
spent ten days living in tents, dressed in uniforms, and drilled—a form
of moving meditation in the way he approached it. In its ritualized
schedule, self-sufficiency, direct experience of the elements, regular
practice of meditative activities, and sameness of dress, it was a
Western form of monasticism, he said.
was monasticism with an edge—it would push deep buttons. We engaged in a
mock skirmish, a version of capture the flag. There was uproarious
humor, but we boys and girls were also shocked and humbled to find the
aggression and anger that could emerge in our minds while playing a mere
this practice program came the motto for the whole Dorje Kasung:
Victory over War. In essence, he was teaching us how war could be cut
off at its origin. Conflicts test the mettle of our awareness. If our
discipline doesn’t prepare us to face them, we will revert to
deep-seated negative patterns and create great destruction. This is how
war is born. It’s killing people all the time. It’s killing them now.
This form of meditation-in-interaction that encouraged people in the
midst of challenging situations to manifest with gentleness and
humor—rather than anger and fear—carried implications for seemingly
insurmountable challenges we face in the world at large.
7. Enlightened Society
1976, eight years had passed since the pivotal moment in Bhutan when he
saw a way to bring dharma to the West. In that short period, he had
taught hundreds of seminars, initiated many hundreds of students into
advanced Vajrayana practices, founded an array of institutions and
meditation centers, and infiltrated the dharma into unfamiliar territory
like avant-garde theater and Beat poetry. Now, another pregnant pause
The Sadhana of Mahamudra was a kind of revealed text known as terma.
Traditionally, terma can emerge as a whole in the mind of a great
practitioner. They’re not regarded as the teacher’s personal work, and
special marks are put on the text to indicate that. In being revealed,
they transcend the personality and ownership of the teacher who receives
them. They have an inherently egoless quality, you might say. They are
the fall of 1976, Trungpa Rinpoche began to discover more terma. These
spoke to a form of teaching that was not strictly Buddhist. They became
the basis for Shambhala training, which Rinpoche intended as a secular
means of mind training. He called it a path of warriorship. Warrior in
this case referred not to someone who fought to gain territory, but
rather someone who was brave, who was willing to work with their fear.
On the path of the warrior, you work with your fear not by pushing it
down, but by “leaning into it.” At that point, he taught, you discover
fearlessness, which is not the absence of fear, but the ability to ride
breakthrough he had during this period occurred on several levels. For
one thing, Rinpoche stepped back from his intense schedule to take a
year’s retreat. When he emerged, he began to exhort his students to
“cheer up!” He felt their practice of Buddhism had become stuck in many
respects in earnest plodding and a habit of looking inward, both
personally and as a community. Though many strongly resisted at first,
the warrior teachings of Shambhala offered larger possibilities of
opening up, in the form of a great societal vision:
vision applies to people of any faith, not just people who believe in
Buddhism. Anyone can benefit without its undermining their faith or
their relationship with their minister, their priest, their bishop,
their pope, whatever religious leaders they may follow. The Shambhala
vision does not distinguish a Buddhist from a Catholic, a Protestant, a
Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu. That’s why we called it the Shambhala Kingdom. A kingdom should have lots of different spiritual disciplines in it.
What he called kingdom here, he also referred to as enlightened society, where each person could realize they possessed basic goodness.
Through group sitting practice married with contemplation of the
warrior principles of fearlessness and gentleness, Shambhala training
was designed to instill an appreciation of basic goodness in all its
dimensions. If such seeds are planted one by one, our society could
become an enlightened one.
As with the Sadhana of Mahamudra
and dharma art, the power of the Shambhala teachings lay not in an
imposing ideology but in a direct perception of the world, described in
this context as “discovering magic,” experiencing a quality known in
Tibetan as drala:
could almost be called an entity. It is not quite on the level of a god
or gods, but it is an individual strength that does exist. Therefore,
we not only speak of drala principle, but we speak of meeting the
“dralas.” The dralas are anything that connects you with the elemental
quality of reality, anything that r eminds you of the depth of
8. Such Thunderstorm
late seventies and the eighties saw tremendous deepening and maturation
of the teachings and institutions Trungpa Rinpoche laid down. He
presented the most refined levels of what he had been taught and had
discovered. At times, these teachings could be hard to fathom, but he
provided commentary so future generations could follow the footprints
and see for themselves what they might reveal. By the end of his life,
he had personally conducted thirteen Vajradhatu Seminaries, three-month
training programs in the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana teachings.
Rigorous periods of all-day practice and study alternated in a way that
had no precedent in the traditional training regimens Trungpa Rinpoche
learned under. He told some it was his greatest achievement.
1987, he died. And we had to let go. His death was commemorated with
great pageantry in a high meadow on the Vermont land where his journey
in America had begun. Thousands paid tribute. Prominent Tibetan
teachers, Zen masters, and other Buddhist teachers he had influenced,
artists, poets, and politicians joined students who had walked the many
paths he introduced. It was sad, and yet joyful. He left all of himself
for all to see. Many more people in the future will derive benefit from
his teaching than those who knew him in his lifetime. In his will, he
left these parting words:
Born a monk, died a king.
Such thunderstorm does not stop.
We will be haunting you along with the dralas.
True Nature (November 2011 Editorial)
I grew up in a subdivision—a built-quick neighborhood full of cookie-cutter duplexes with vinyl siding and shutters that didn’t close and no trees in the yards except skinny saplings tied to supporting sticks. Given the simulated flavors and manufactured materials, suburban life could feel light years from nature, but when I cracked open the window, nature was right there. My family’s house was on the subdivision’s edge. To the right was a swath of spruce and maple, and a small lake bordered my backyard.
When I was twelve, my friend Rose and I used to go “surviving.” This entailed packing our knapsacks with sleeping bags and a book called Edible Wild Plants of Nova Scotia, and hoofing it until we were on the other side of the lake, where we made camp. Rose and I never survived for more than twenty-four hours at a stretch because we didn’t bring food or a tent, so we depended on the light fare of sweet-fern leaves and bunchberries, and we were at the mercy of cold Atlantic raindrops.
I learned so much from “surviving” that back in suburbia nothing ever looked the same. The hunger pangs and the small, jewel-like miracle of finding blackberries made me question—for the first time in my life—the origins of what was inside the fridge. I realized on a gut level that the lettuce in the crisper had begun as a seed; it once had roots in the earth; then someone picked it and wrapped it with plastic. Likewise, building a shelter of twigs made me contemplate my family’s house—its skeleton of trees. I didn’t know the term that Thich Nhat Hanh has so famously coined: “interbeing.” But I sensed it.
“We’re all in this together,” says Rebecca Fletcher, one of the young environmentalists profiled in this issue by Margot Sammurtok in “Walking the Talk.” “Each life creates ripples outward, and we are all dependent upon the land and communities that sustain us.”
According to David Abram, human beings naturally have the view that the earth itself and everything on it is alive, but by the twenty-first century, those few groups still informed by the experience of an animate, wakeful landscape have had to stifle this understanding in order to survive. Nevertheless, Abram writes in “The Living Language,” “the older belief in a world all alive, awake, and aware simply cannot be eradicated… the felt awareness of a living, expressive terrain may have been buried for some forty or fifty generations, yet it has never been vanquished: even at that depth it moves and stirs, exerting its influence upon our bodies and our dreams, waiting patiently for the moment when… we breathe of it once again.”
In other words, we inter-are with the world, even when our conscious mind is unaware of it. But why continue in unawareness when awareness is so fresh and enjoyable? It feels good to be connected to the world and it’s that sense of pleasure that has often been missing in environmentalism. Until recently, says Barry Boyce in “The Joy of Living Green,” the ecology movement has used shame and fear to motivate us, and, though it has made strides in limiting pollution and protecting species, it’s done little to change the lifestyle of the average person. Now, he says, a new breed of ecologists is helping people live green—and love it.
Mary Pipher in “The Green Boat” talks about her struggle to preserve the Nebraskan landscape in the face of the proposed XL Pipeline. When she was little, she would carry home animals that needed nursing. Now, as an adult, she says her activism “is the adult version of rescuing baby field mice.” She does it for fun, but it takes energy and her energy comes from being present for the land—“from lying on a prairie and being nourished by the sight of the clouds skittering overhead.”
Pipher, it seems, has never lost her connection to nature. I did, though. In the autumn when I was twelve, my mother decided that surviving was too dangerous for young girls on their own and she put her foot very firmly down. I got out of the habit of exploring the forest and over the years my passion for ecology dimmed. Then, in 2009, I took up birding. This has brought me back into nature and I’ve fallen in love with it again—the ferns uncurling, the maple leaves falling. Pipher says we humans take care of what we love, and it must be true. In love again, I want to take care of the earth.
Stream, wild orchid, velvet green moss—may every person find something natural to love.
— Andrea Miller, deputy editor
The Joy of Living Green (November 2011)
The Joy of Living Green
BARRY BOYCE reports on the new environmentalism that celebrates the positive. Because the green life is the good life.
Cop an attitude early and it can be hard to shake. Take growing food. I’ve always thought of gardening as drudgery. Let’s say, though, that my friends Tom and Melissa entice me into joining them for an afternoon of work at a rooftop farm plot—or trick me into doing it by inviting me for “lunch.” Maybe, just maybe, once I’m past the boredom and resistance, my attitude will slowly change. I might start to like it a little. I might even return and start volunteering to work there, remembering the loamy smell and the feel of soil in my fingers. I may take home some fresh cucumbers. When I eat them, I’ll notice how naturally sweet they are—sweeter than white sugar. When I return to the farm and look around, I’ll have to work at remembering I’m in the city, and the map in my head labeled urban may start to change. I’ll grow things on my terrace. I’ll walk more. I’ll get a bike.
When it comes to planet earth, what you do counts more than what you believe. That’s the credo for a green movement that has been popping up here and there for many years in a variety of highly visible, hands-on forms: urban farms, green-collar job programs, edible schoolyards, recycling flashmobs, naked nighttime bike rides, cityscapes with natural features and birdsong, and more. Proponents of this movement—sometimes called transformational ecology (because it’s about transforming how we see the world)—have been learning from brain science that behavior (what we do) is more likely to change attitude (what we think) than the other way around.
The old green often tries to persuade through piling up frightening statistics and playing out grim scenarios in the expectation that the information will move us to action. It has made great strides in abating many forms of pollution, protecting species, and creating regulatory frameworks. But it has not significantly changed the lifestyle and behavior of the average person. That’s the next frontier. Almost fifty years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—the ostensible birth of modern environmentalism—our planet is in an ever more precarious state and our rapacious appetite continues unabated. For example, the International Energy Agency announced in May that, despite an economic slowdown in many parts of the world, global carbon dioxide emissions last year rose by a record amount.
Oakland activist Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy, says we’re in the middle of the era of “third wave environmentalism.” To oversimplify, the first wave, in the early twentieth century, espoused conservation; the second, beginning in the sixties, fought against pollution; the third seeks to change how we behave day in and day out and how we see the world.
Many of us think green thoughts and take small actions we learn about in the free eco-mag from our bank, but in general we don’t do very much to alter our footprint. Advocates in the new green movement respect how hard it is for us to change, so they’re intensely curious to discover how people really do change. Many are long-time environmental warriors and have tired of pounding away at us with logic and rhetoric, and they’re being joined by a new generation who will soon be the movement’s leaders. They want people to discover that living green is not wearing a hair shirt. It’s biting into a tomato that is so juicy and flavorful you have to stop and really enjoy it. To care about the earth, you have to appreciate living here.
“Environmental issues come from separating things into lots of pieces,” according to Jonathan Rose, who started the transformational ecology initiative at the Garrison Institute in upstate New York. “For example, we make economic decisions as if they weren’t ecological decisions. We need to see the interrelationships and shift our mental model of the world from linear to holistic and interconnected.” Rose and his wife, Diana, founded the Garrison Institute in 2003 to bring together contemplative practice and engaged action. Jonathan, a prominent national real estate developer, has been the main convener of a series of annual meetings that brings behavioral science and contemplative discipline to bear on climate change challenges.
“We’ve learned that within our brains,” Rose says, “we have what you might call a ‘me system’ and a ‘we system.’ The me is single-issue, single-response. It’s not designed to deal with complexity. I’m threatened. I do something about it.”
The me system only kicks into high gear if we feel truly threatened. Vague pronouncements about future climate dangers, no matter how shocking and shrill, rarely move us. Advertisements about saving money by energy-upgrading our homes garner a tepid response. “But if you’re able to make it an energetic group thing,” Rose says, “a neighborhood thing, akin to a barn raising, the we system switches into gear and many more people participate.”
Spurring people to act holistically, Rose says, is more about coaxing and cajoling than convincing. Providing good information is
clearly part of the picture, but effecting changes in behavior results
from paying attention to how our brains tend to work as we make our way in the world. “We used to think,” Rose says, “that if we could just convince people to love the environment, they would do all sorts of things differently. Scaring and scolding became the norm. When you scare and scold, though, the me system goes on defense and may even run and hide.” Better to invite someone to take part in something that’s happening among their peers.
“We now know,” he says, “that behavior changes attitudes more readily than the other way around. If you coax someone into riding a bike, recycling, or rooftop farming, the physical act reshapes their brain in a way that starts changing their attitude. At that point their attitude can also begin to reinforce the behavior. Anyone who starts playing the violin, or practicing meditation or yoga for that matter, usually has a pretty strong attitude that it can’t be done. With physical practice, that changes.”
One of the coaxing mechanisms Rose and others promote is to take advantage of what are called “cognitive biases,” mental habits that help us navigate the world but sometimes don’t work in either our own best interest or the world’s. For example, “the status quo bias” causes us to leave things the way they are in the absence of a strong impetus to do otherwise. Rose offers an example of counteracting the status quo bias. So few people were setting their programmable thermostats that the EPA removed the Energy Star rating from the product. Because his tenants tended to leave their thermostats alone, Rose decided to have all thermostats in his buildings set to green settings (lowering the temperature in winter at times we’re likely to be sleeping or out of the house, for example). “We spread this idea through our Climate, Buildings, and Behavior program to dozens of building owners managing tens of thousands of units. Then, I decided to call up a friend at the Home Depot Foundation to see if they would set all the thermostats they sell at a green setting. It turns out they were already planning to do so. Imagine the energy savings.”
Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools, a project of the U.S. Green Building Council, loves to talk about a grade school with zero-net energy consumption in Manassas Park, Virginia, where green lights tell children when it’s best to open the windows for natural ventilation; the students themselves monitor water usage; each wing is designed to reflect one of the seasons; and each floor matches the flora and fauna at the corresponding elevation in the forest nearby. Sustainability is a complex word, she admits, but if students are surrounded by a culture based on the principle, “understanding and actions can become automatic and we don’t have to worry about names and labels. I hope that in a generation, ‘green school’ will be an obsolete term.”
Gutter has influence over the footprint left by a large number of buildings. While that’s important—40 percent of greenhouse gases come from buildings, and there are about 150,000 school buildings in America—Gutter focuses on the students inside. “We can raise sustainability natives,” she says, “which is different from raising environmentalists.” While an environmentalist fights to bring the perspective of the earth’s needs into everyday life, a sustainability native sees the needs of the earth as integral to everything we do.
“Historically,” Gutter says, “an environmentally aware student might have taken environmental education, gone on a camping trip, and learned about ecosystems. That’s critically important, but today we’re trying to do something larger. Sustainability is integrated into every aspect of the curriculum. The values are supported by teachers, administrators, and parents. And the school building and grounds are sustainable.”
Gutter practices yoga and meditation, and is a regular presenter at Garrison programs. “We simply don’t sit in quiet enough,” she says. “In my own life, my yoga practice is often too separate from the rest of my life. Interweaving sustainability discussions with contemplative practice helps us make better decisions. When we take even a few minutes to sit with the silence, it helps our behavior align with our views and beliefs. We see ourselves as part of a bigger picture.”
“When I first went into homeless shelters to make my pitch to work on a farm,” Harry Rhodes told me, “I got a pretty strong reaction. People said, ‘Are you crazy? I’m no farmer. My family left the south to get away from that. Why in hell would I want to do that?’” Rhodes is the director of one of the innovative programs Van Jones celebrated in The Green Collar Economy. Growing Home was founded in Chicago in 1992 by Les Brown of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Brown, who died in 2005, recruited Rhodes in 2001 to set up a training program for homeless people to work at three sites: the Wood Street Urban Farm, the Su Casa Market Garden, and what is now called the Les Brown Memorial Farm in Marseilles, seventyfive miles south of the city. The produce is sold at a farmers’ market in downtown Chicago and at on-site farm stands. It’s also served in top Chicago restaurants and distributed in weekly food baskets through a community-supported agriculture program.
A seasoned activist who had tried to get Arabs and Israelis to work side by side, Rhodes was undaunted by the initial response from the homeless people he was trying to recruit. He calmly explained that they would be paid, and after all, it would be something new and different. After visiting several shelters, Rhodes was able to muster a group of six people to take out to the farm in Marseilles. Just as Brown had hoped, they began to like it, and took well to training. “Homeless people are rootless and have trouble finding purpose. There’s nothing like working in the soil to give you roots and a sense of belonging. The case manager at one shelter was astounded that the guys would get up at six in the morning for an hour-and-a-half drive, work all day, and come back with smiles on their faces.”
Since its inception, Growing Home has provided training and transitional employment for more than two hundred interns. In addition to working on the farm, they tend their own plots in the city and can use the food for friends and family. The program also supplies low-cost weekly vegetable baskets in the Englewood and Back of the Yards neighborhoods. The inner cities of America have been described as “food deserts,” where fast-food joints prevail and few markets can be found. Children grow up with no sense of where food comes from or what unprocessed food looks, smells, and tastes like. “Sixty years ago, everyone was eating locally grown food, all throughout the world,” Rhodes says. “Now, agribusiness systems bring us poorer quality food from great distances, at a high cost to our planet. On top of that, we have an epidemic of poor nutrition and obesity. People need affordable, healthy, local food.”
A founding member of Advocates for Urban Agriculture, Rhodes see lots of positive developments in the campaign: farmers’ markets are springing up all over the place, cities across the country are passing ordinances that permit raising livestock and farming within city limits, and programs like his and Growing Power in nearby Milwaukee and the Brooklyn Grange in New York City are getting noticed. “Experiential education can make a big difference. It helps people see food in ways they haven’t before. When people come to our farm stand in the inner city, or an open house, or a cooking workshop, they have a hands-on experience. Slowly attitudes change. Our graduates are different people than when they started. Not long ago, one of them said, ‘When I first came here, I didn’t even know how a vegetable grew. Now I’m growing my own.’”
You never forget how to ride a bike, but you might very easily forget that it’s an option for getting where you want to go. Last year, Bicycling magazine named Minneapolis the best city for bikes in America. It has 127 miles of bikeways, more bicycle parking per capita than any other city, the largest bike-share program in the country, and the second-highest (after Portland, Oregon) bike commuting rate—just under 4 percent. Since 2007, ridership has increased 20 percent. “Once you have the infrastructure, which city departments are accustomed to providing, the hard work of outreach and education begins,” Gayle Prest, the city’s sustainability manager, told me. “You need to focus on a range of audiences and get to know who they are and what motivates them.”
Like all cities, Minneapolis has a cadre of hardcore cyclists, but most people will never become spandex-wearing superbikers. You don’t need to be ready for the Tour de France to go downtown or to the grocery store, and bikes could be a transportation alternative for lots of people, particularly as cities become denser. Lugging around tons of metal and burning gallons of gas to haul one person to work or on an errand would seem astoundingly impractical. Among the key audiences Prest focuses on right now are women, children (who need to get away from their screens every now and then), low-income groups, and recreational bikers.
The majority of bicycle riders are men, and a number of women say that fear of getting into an accident has held them back. As well, a priority of parents is the safety of their children. So Minneapolis has bike safety classes, and makes cycling more inviting through programs like bike buddies for first-time commuters and bike ambassadors who reach out to as many potential riders as they can. “These volunteers,” Prest says, “can give someone the hands-on help they need to feel safe and competent to go biking in an urban environment.”
Since sustainability includes equality, Prest says, inequality is unsustainable over the long run. Inequality makes it difficult for a community to pull together. If people with lower incomes feel bike culture is something that doesn’t include them, they’ll shy away, no matter how many arguments you make about its affordability. “One of the biggest challenges is not having people perceive bicycle riding as an ideological statement or part of an exclusive social structure,” she says. “Our promotional materials never show people in spandex. It’s not svelte people with high-tech gear on superbikes. We show regular people of all shapes and sizes on upright beater bikes. Some people aren’t in the best physical condition.”
Minneapolis is blessed with lengthy bike trails that wend their way around twenty-two lakes, so there are lots of recreational bikers. But when it comes to commuting, many of them get in their cars. “We would like to coax them into seeing a bike as something they can also ride to work, including in winter,” Prest says. “We want them to see biking to work or going on an errand as a normal thing, something their friends and neighbors would do. We market commuter biking as a mainstream activity.”
In my conversation with her, Prest echoed something Rachel Gutter had put forth as a hallmark of new green strategy. You don’t overcontrol the message and start lobbying everyone to support your special mission. You find partners. Their passions, when stoked and let free, create something emergent, something you didn’t plan yourself. (One of Gutter’s key partners is a Tea Partier who feels green schools save taxpayers money.)
Plenty has emerged that Prest and her colleagues didn’t create. Minneapolis has crossed a bicycling tipping point, with many repair shops, nonprofit bike recyclers, social media groups and clubs, bike-oriented cafes and bars, filmfests, and art shows cropping up. (Art Crank, a bicycle-themed poster art show, has been exported from Minneapolis to seven other cities, including London). Biking culture surrounds you, which could at times contribute to the alienation that concerns Prest, but fortunately the bike culture is diverse, and when people start cycling, they like it, and judgmental attitudes fall away. She’s found that “people begin to surprise themselves—Wow, I can ride for half an hour… I can ride for an hour!—they start to feel healthier and better about themselves.”
The Minneapolis bike explosion has begun to affect development patterns. Realtors are paying more attention to the value of neighborhoods where you can readily bike to schools, libraries, stores, cafes, farmers’ markets, or offices. On the dedicated bicycle commuter road (a two-lane trench free of car traffic), businesses are opening up along the route to serve cyclists. “When you start to have bicycle-oriented development,” Prest says, “you know it’s becoming mainstream.”
When we live closer together, we use less energy. We use less energy to heat and cool our living spaces. We use less energy getting around. We use less energy because we share more—things like washing machines. One of the reasons for the low housing density in North America is flight from cities. To the thinking of many city planners, we made cities progressively less livable, and with the help of transportation subsidies, living in big houses on sprawling lots on winding streets with a lot of separation from neighbors was seen as desirable. From this point forward, though, we have little choice but to move closer together. And to many people’s way of thinking, if we’re able to activate the “we maps” we all carry within us, we’ll be delighted to do so. It will build community.
When I visited with neuroscientist Richie Davidson recently at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, in Madison, Wisconsin, he and one of his researchers, Donal McCoon, talked animatedly about doing research using the Happy Planet Index, created by the New Economics Foundation. In a nutshell, the index tries to calculate a society’s well-being (defined as life satisfaction and longevity) in relation to its ecological footprint. North Americans have a very high level of well-being, but it comes at an unsustainable cost to the planet. What Davidson and McCoon would like to find out is how people could somehow internalize this information and willingly reduce their footprint— with the confidence that they would not decrease their genuine well-being.
John Rahaim, San Francisco’s director of planning, is in the trenches with this kind of challenge every day. He was paying close attention to a presentation on neuroscience during a “Climate, Cities, and Behavior” gathering at Garrison, and afterward I asked him why. “I’ve spent my whole working life trying to bring about behavioral change in a direction that’s positive for the city as a whole,” he said. “I’d love to learn anything that could help me do that better.”
San Francisco justifiably has the reputation of being one of the loveliest and most livable cities in the world, but most people don’t have to work with the whole city in the fine-grained way Rahaim does. There are many challenges in the effort to find common ground in creating a livable, sustainable community together. For one thing, Rahaim sees tech workers in their twenties and thirties who live in San Francisco commuting down the road to their jobs in Silicon Valley. Why can’t they work where they live? His department would like to encourage denser housing in parts of the hip new South of Market neighborhood (SoMa), but residents are putting up resistance. As new as many of the current residents are, they don’t want even newer residents changing the place. “In the thirty years I’ve been doing this work,” Rahaim says, “it’s become more complicated and contentious. The governmental mechanisms we have for reaching decisions together don’t work well anymore. With the diverse people and groups involved and the complexity of the issues, throwing it out to a public meeting where everyone has their two-minute say just doesn’t work.”
Rahaim and his colleagues, like their contemporaries in other cities, are experimenting with different ways of engaging people, including smaller meetings where a few opinion leaders can be heard for longer, and more intelligent debate and exploration can ensue. As Gutter and Prest emphasized, this kind of work is about finding the audiences that you need to hear from and work with as partners. You can’t really learn what makes them tick during their two minutes on the soapbox.
While Rahaim and his colleagues have their frustrations, they keep exploring new ways of helping the public reach decisions that benefit the city, and there are successful community engagement processes that have led to inspiring projects. Among the projects that Rahaim is excited about is the redevelopment of Cesar Chavez Street, a famous thoroughfare that marks the dividing line between the Mission and Bernal Heights neighborhoods. “Cesar Chavez,” Rahaim says, “is a six-lane road with parking on both sides leading to a freeway interchange. It cuts right through the heart of some lower-income neighborhoods. It’s pretty unsightly. It’s really suffered over the years.” Various departments were slated to do maintenance and upgrading. Rather than approaching it piecemeal, however, the planning department consulted the residents to find out what they thought about the way it was now and how they would like it to change. The residents told them it was a noisy, industrial, unpleasant place to be—lots of traffic but little city life “
The resulting plan will reduce the road from six lanes to four,” Rahaim says. “There will be a median with greenery and a bike road on either side going in opposite directions. Six lanes of nothing but concrete will be transformed into a much more gracious boulevard.” Some will undoubtedly complain that the project is slowing traffic on a major thoroughfare, but that’s a change the city wants to make. “We think differently about our streets now,” he says. “They’re not just about moving cars. They’re really part of the public environment. At 25 percent of the city, our streets are more than all of the park space combined. We want to make them as amenable to walking and biking and living as possible.”
To find the new Cesar Chavez Street, consult your “we map.”
Let It Shine! (November 2011)
Let It Shine!
When we have confidence in our inherent basic goodness, says SAKYONG MIPHAM, we sparkle with brightness and vitality.
Just as there are precious jewels in the world, there are psychological jewels that we possess. One of these is the ability to relax our habitual patterns and feel our inherent goodness, to possess the primordial. When we have the bravery to feel that, a sense of splendidness arises naturally in that moment—which can be any moment of the day.
This sense of splendidness is the fifth and final form of bravery in the teachings of Shambhala warriorship. The first four are being free of deception through awareness of habitual patterns and afflictive emotions; leaping into the freedom of the present moment; gaining the vision of the Great Eastern Sun, which reveals the sacredness of ourselves and our world; and synchronizing body and mind, which gives rise to a sense of dignity because we are grounded and in harmony with the world around us.
The sense of splendidness arises from feeling our wealth. We have confidence in our inherent goodness—the beating heart of each individual and all humanity. This confidence is conveyed by the Tibetan word ziji, which conventionally refers to a person’s beauty and healthiness—in general, an aura of brightness and vitality. The first aspect of the word—zi, means splendor, the ability to shine. Splendidness is like a halo, which is traditionally depicted as a bright light surrounding saintly individuals, reflecting their embodiment of goodness. When we are brave enough to have confidence in basic goodness, we are on the journey back to our natural and inherent glory.
We might think of bravery as perseverance in the face of difficulty, an effort fueled with sheer willpower, where we hunker down and put our shoulders to the grindstone, determined to reach our goal. While such perseverance is admirable and often necessary, essentially it is the bravery of the “have-nots.” Splendidness, on the other hand, is the fully mature bravery of the “haves.”
The energy of splendidness comes from being fully present in whatever we do. My father, Chögyam Trungpa, who introduced the Shambhala teachings to the West, put it this way: “You are not hiding anywhere.” Hiding means our splendidness is obscured by embedded habitual patterns. One characteristic of hiding is that we are always self-observing. Self-observing comes from not trusting our inherent goodness, and therefore keeping the reins tight on our mind. It is different from awareness or introspection because in observing ourselves this way, we are not really sensing or feeling the moment. We lack the lucidity to simply be splendid, so we tighten up and hide. We have half-thoughts and half-emotions. When we do experience something wholly and completely, it is disconcerting and disorienting.
Hiding creates private havens for many of our personal habits. We hunch when we drink our coffee. We are unable to look our spouse in the eye. We fidget as we meditate. We pursue entertainment constantly. Socially we are threatened, thus we lack vision. We fear change. We actually feel comforted by the lack of synchronicity between our mind and body. Because we are hiding, and therefore sheepish in our mental and physical behavior, it is hard to embody a sense of splendidness. This lack of splendidness becomes a magnet for negativity, attracting like-minded individuals. “Not hiding anywhere” means we have reduced and lightened our embedded habits and tendencies, which allows us to shine.
As spiritual practitioners in this materialistic and prideful age, we might associate shininess with worldliness, and feel that we should abandon anything shiny. However, the Shambhala teachings present goodness as our base, and splendidness as the natural state of being. It is neither spiritual nor worldly, but inherent— there to be uncovered. Although it may be easiest to access in the stillness of meditation, the glow of splendidness is present always and everywhere. Connecting to our splendidness is connecting to the ground of goodness. We are not abandoning the world; rather, with splendidness we use the full spectrum of our mind and our emotions. Nor does splendidness mean that every day is sunny. It means that goodness is our ground—as we cry and as we laugh. That is a basic sense of splendidness.
The word “sense” indicates contact that has transmuted into feeling. We have learned to bring ourselves into the moment by opening our sense perceptions. Our sense perceptions nonconceptually touch our basic goodness. Touching the primordial ember of basic goodness, we feel. When we truly feel, each moment feels fresh: we have touched the beginning of time. We have heard about basic goodness, and after this visceral encounter, we feel that it is true.
Such bravery is simply the beauty of recognizing that we are alive. It is the constant interplay between perception and perceiver being in utter harmony and synchronicity. There is gaiety and inquisitiveness. Because we are not hiding, we are able to relate to any aspect of our lives. As written in the Tao Te Ching, “In family life, be completely present.”
The quality of splendidness is perfectly embodied in the mythical snow lion of Tibet, which moves with grace and power, exuding bravery. The light sparkling off its luscious coat captures the delight in its eyes. As it prances, dances, and preens, it is frolicking in its own splendidness. Just as this allows the snow lion to leap suddenly and splendidly from one mountain to another, a sense of splendidness allows us to move from one situation to another, not losing any dignity as we traverse life’s landscape, always touching the heart of now. This snow lion level of splendidness brings good fortune and success.
Feeling such splendidness is synonymous with feeling our goodness. We are not getting close to goodness; rather, that splendidness is the visceral sense of goodness itself. We encapsulate it by leading a life that is brilliant, manifesting strong windhorse—lifeforce energy—in all that we do. Splendidness shows that we have learned to join the inherent unity of our body and mind with our surroundings. We are successful, and we shine. Because we shine, we stand out, becoming beacons for others and for the world.
Splendidness is a physical expression as well as a psychological one—the result of bravery in relationship to our physical being. Meditating with our whole body increases our realization. Eating in a balanced way brings energy. Moving energizes us. As soon as we are at all disenfranchised from our physical well-being, our splendidness diminishes. Through bravery, we are fully activating our vitality. We are appreciating the preciousness of what we have obtained. Therefore we wholeheartedly embody every aspect of our physical domain.
All the great teachers I have known embody splendidness: they understand the inseparability of the mind and body. This union of psychological and physical splendidness is connected with the notion of richness. That splendidness is therefore brilliant because our minds and bodies are the jewel from which bravery radiates. Having felt, touched, and sensed our own richness, we realize that it is a vast treasure trove, unending and self-perpetuating.
Thus bravery comes from discovering our inexhaustible wealth. It allows us to be splendid to others—in contrast to what the British call “splendid isolation,” where we remain on our island, constantly separated from others. Because such a state is exhaustible, it is not truly splendid. Splendidness is to be shared with others. When we smile with bravery, we have plenty to go around. Thus, our manifestation is splendidness. We exude unyielding confidence in basic goodness. Because we are brave, we cannot deceive ourselves.
The feeling of splendidness is a direct experience that transcends interpretation altogether. According to my father, it is “the essence of strength and bravery.” Initially, we might have thought that bravery was aggression or bravado. But rather splendidly, it turns out, the essence of strength and bravery is splendidness itself. The nature of true bravery is to feel the impressiveness of our own being.
Sakyong Mipham is the spiritual leader of Shambhala, an international network of Buddhist meditation and retreat centers. He is the author of Turning the Mind Into an Ally and Ruling Your World.
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