Meeting Shuddup Lama
Meeting Shuddup LamaBy
Paul Maxwell gets married in Mongolia, and gets to know a most unusual lama.
My fiancee and I were on our way from Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, to her family’s house in the desert, where our wedding would be held. She said we should bring a present for the old lama who lived near her parents, and I asked what would make a suitable gift. “Oh, you know lamas. They always like liquor or bottles of snuff.” She wasn’t joking. I told her the lamas I had been around were mostly non-drinkers. “Not our lama,” she said. “He smokes and drinks. Plus, he’s clairvoyant.”
A few days later we called on the lama, whose name was Shuddup, to present the gift (a bottle of snuff) and to tell him about the upcoming wedding. His house was a tiny, weather-beaten adobe shack in a patch of scrub leading up to the dunes. He lived in one of its two rooms and used the other as a shrine. “So,” Shuddup Lama said when he heard the news, “you’re going to marry a man who can’t speak our language and can’t eat our food.”
“Well, he can eat our food.”
“And your father can’t even talk to him!” He busied himself for a few minutes feeding dried cow dung into the mud-brick stove that was his sole source of heat. It was Christmas Day, and the temperature was already below zero. Turning to me, he said, “You’ve got a camera, right?”
“And you want to take a picture?”
Sure I did. But how did he know I had a camera? It was out of sight in my shoulder bag. Was that an example of his extrasensory perception, or an example of how predictable foreigners are?
He was wearing extremely ragged and dirty clothes, but slipped into the closet-sized shrine room and reappeared a moment later in a brown robe, maroon shawl, and peaked yellow hat. He sat cross-legged on the k’ang, a carpeted sleeping platform, with the loose pages of a Tibetan book on a little table in front of him. I took two pictures, and then he immediately returned to his stool in front of the stove. We stayed for about an hour, and when we left he said he would see us at the wedding the following day.
“What do you think about our lama?” Sarengowa’s sister asked me when we got back to the house.
“I liked him. He was dressed in rags...life must be hard for him.”
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s poor,” she said. “Shuddup’s got plenty of money. He lives that way because he just doesn’t care.”
I expected him to wear his lama gear to the wedding, but he arrived on horseback in a Chinese army tunic. Inner Mongolia, like Tibet, is an Autonomous Region of China, and during the Cultural Revolution the Mongolian lamas were forbidden to practice their religion or wear their robes. Monastic dress is permitted now, but few of the “country lamas” have gone back to it. Still, the army tunic was a surprise, and so was Shuddup’s wedding present: a lovely piece of pale gold silk and a generous sum of cash.
He had cut his finger on a barbed wire fence, and had tied a grimy strip of cloth around it. I had a first aid kit in my pack, so I cleaned the cut with antiseptic and put a band-aid on it. The band-aid was a real novelty; he seemed quite pleased with it and showed it to several people. At that moment he apparently decided that we would be friends, and at the wedding party we sat together for several companionable hours, unhindered by our lack of a common language.
The party started in the afternoon and continued until ten o’clock the next morning. Shuddup Lama sat cross-legged, with his back straight, drinking barley liquor and chain smoking, from beginning to end. Then he stood up, walked outside, mounted his horse, and rode off. He was 75 years old at the time.
Shuddup Lama’s reputation as a clairvoyant was due in large part to his ability to locate lost animals. For Mongols who live outside the towns, herding sheep or goats is often the only occupation possible. Most people also keep some horses, cows and donkeys. An animal that strays into the dunes is unlikely to survive for long; it will either die of thirst or fall to a predator. Vultures will eat the soft parts (eyes and genitals) before the creature is even dead. But Shuddup could tell a herder where to look for a stray, and the local people credited him with a very high success rate.
My mother-in-law, Mem (“Mother”), told me about the last time she had lost a sheep. She searched the sands in vain, and naturally she told Shuddup Lama about it. Two days later he came to the house and said, “You can find what’s left of your sheep at the market tomorrow.” He had just paid a visit to a Chinese family who lived about a mile away. They were considered newcomers to the area, having arrived from the south about twenty years earlier. (There are now more than twenty million ethnic Chinese in Inner Mongolia, compared to about two million Mongols.) The woman of the house served him tea in the yard, which was a strange thing to do in early March when winter was still lingering. There was a pile of sheepskins on the ground, and the lama casually ran a hand over each hide. Only one was fresh. But in the course of the conversation, the woman made a point of saying that they hadn’t done any slaughtering lately. She also mentioned that she was planning to take the hides into town to sell the following morning.
The next morning at dawn, Mem was waiting behind a roadside dune on horseback. When the Chinese woman went by on her little motorbike loaded down with sheepskins, Mem followed her. She confronted the woman in the marketplace and identified the hide. The protestations of innocence were feeble: “We didn’t know it was your sheep. Somebody gave us this sheep...” It was agreed that an animal would be given in compensation, but this didn’t settle the matter, because the sheep that was eventually presented was obviously not equal in value to the one that was stolen. It was doubly aggravating because the two families had always been on good terms, and Mem had been generous over the years with milk, cheese, butter and clothes for the woman’s ten children. The thief had attended our wedding.
Every Mongol house in the region has a pair of three-pronged spears planted in the ground in front of the door, in token of the honor Genghis Khan paid the local warriors 700 years ago when he chose them to form his household guard. Genghis, faced with a thieving neighbor, would probably have killed every member of the family, as well as their relatives, pets and livestock. But Mem did nothing; she didn’t even report it to the police. Had four centuries of Buddhism made the Mongols more peaceful? I don’t know, but what interested me most about the story was Shuddup Lama’s role in it.
Because of his reputation, everyone in the area naturally informed him whenever they were missing an animal. He was therefore in a unique position to see a pattern to the disappearances, which led him to deduce that there was a thief at work. The Chinese woman’s husband had been stealing a sheep from each flock in turn, so that no single herder ever suspected that the loss was due to anything other than natural causes.
Nearly two years later, on our first visit to the desert since our wedding, over a leisurely breakfast of salted milk tea, butter, cheese, and millet, I mentioned to Mem and Aweh (“Father”) that I intended to go to Shuddup Lama’s house that afternoon. “I want to ask him some questions about Buddhism,” I said. “Do you think he’d mind?”
Mem laughed. “Buddhism’s the last thing he wants to talk about. He’s a lot quicker to pick up a bottle of booze than a Tibetan book!” She and Shuddup had been friends and neighbors for more than 50 years. We were still at the breakfast table when he rode up on his horse. “It’s his psychic power,” Mem said sarcastically. “He knows you’re here.”
But Shuddup wasn’t coming to see us; he was so angry he hardly noticed our presence. He had a little spread just east of Mem and Aweh’s; it wasn’t much land but it was enough for his fifty head of sheep. Now he had discovered that another family was secretly bringing their sheep over to his property at night to graze. This is more serious than it may sound; grass is a scarce resource that must be carefully managed. There are often disputes over grazing, but they usually arise when someone hasn’t been keeping a close watch on their animals. Deliberately leading a herd to a neighbor’s land was outrageous, and talking about it brought his anger to the boiling point. “I’m going right over there!” he said, and quickly left.
Late that afternoon another neighbor dropped by, and he added to the story. Shuddup had gone to the home of the transgressors to confront them. But the man wasn’t there, and his wife had just set out some fresh millet and a jar of new butter. Fresh millet is a once-a-year treat, and the pretty young housewife fixed Shuddup his favorite dish: a big bowl of tea, with heaping spoonfuls of millet, butter, dried cheese and sugar added. After that he couldn’t bring himself to tell her why he’d come in the first place. But by the time he got home he was mad again.
I had sent a photo of Shuddup to some Buddhist friends in the U.S., who of course thought it was funny that his name sounded like the English expression, “Shut up!” Now Sarengowa explained the joke to the neighbor. He said, “Ha! Shuddup needs to shut up! He’s always arguing with everybody!” He added that the elderly lama had recently gotten into a fistfight with a young Chinese man who worked for a local family. Once again it involved some sheep or cows being where they shouldn’t have, and Shuddup started throwing punches. I asked who had won the fight. “Well, you might say Shuddup Lama did. Remember, he’s 77. The other guy was afraid one good punch might be fatal. It kind of kept him on the defensive.”
Shuddup Lama generally avoided the advice-to-the-lovelorn type of fortune telling—he said that people didn’t want to hear the truth—but occasionally he made an exception. A young woman from a local family moved to a distant city and married a man she met there. She returned with him to the desert for the New Year holiday. The young couple had been quarreling constantly since their wedding, and the husband decided to consult Shuddup about their problems. The lama was blunt: “This marriage won’t work out. There will never be any children. If a child is born, you won’t be the father.” The man returned to his in-laws’ house and accused his wife of adultery—in the future! Later the woman revealed that Shuddup had divined her husband’s secret: he was impotent. The following New Year she came back alone; they had divorced.
Back at home in Tokyo, I asked Sarengowa if she had ever consulted Shuddup Lama. “Just once,” she said. As a teenager who dreamed of a career in classical music, she wondered if she would ever be able to escape the desert and move to Hohhot, a three-day bus ride away and the only place she knew where her dreams had a chance of coming true. (When I first met her, in Hohhot, she was a cellist in the Inner Mongolia Radio-Television Orchestra.) “So I asked him: Will I ever get to Hohhot?”
And he said, “Oh, you’ll get to Hohhot all right. And then you’ll keep on going. You’ll keep on going!” Shuddup Lama died in his sleep last year at the age of 83.
Paul Maxwell is a writer and editor in Berryville, Virginia.
Nothing But the Present
Nothing But the Present
Robert Hirshfield on Toni Packer's no-trappings approach to Zen.
With her eyes closed, with the morning light streaming through the windows, Toni Packer begins by saying, "I want to talk about the breeze that blows right through this room, touching skin, hair..."
In a way, Toni's teachings are like that breeze: simple, free-flowing, without technique. But they can also spin you around like a strong wind coming from a silent place.
In a private meeting with Toni, on the fifth day of a week-long retreat I attended recently at her Springwater Center, I spoke to her about my fears of death.
"What exactly are you afraid of?" she inquired.
"The loss of the known," I said. "The loss of body, mind."
"But isn't it really the loss of an idea that you fear? Our fear of death is the fear of letting go of our story."
Toni Packer is seventy-three. This, briefly, is her story:
Raised in Nazi Germany, Toni was and is passionately allergic to all forms of authority. As a gifted Zen teacher at the Rochester Zen Center of Philip Kapleau Roshi, she began questioning the bowing, the rakusu-wearing, the teacher's special seating. Were they not just spiritualized expressions of hierarchy and conditioning?
She found herself drawn to the teachings of Krishnamurti, who said, "Truth is a pathless land." When he broke with the Theosophical Society in 1929, he said, "I maintain that no organization can lead man to spirituality. You are all depending for your spirituality on someone else, for your happiness on someone else, for your enlightenment on someone else."
Toni's break with the Rochester Zen Center came in June of 1981, and it was wrenching. After Toni was put in charge of the center during Kapleau-roshi's absence, a meeting was held in which she was accused of subverting the Zendo's rituals. "Some people would love this type of thing, thrive on it," she told Lenore Friedman in Meetings With Remarkable Women. "Whereas for me, having grown up in Hitler's Germany, this really touched off a lot of old fears—of being accused, of being denounced."
Toni left to found her own center, the Genesee Valley Zen Center. Later, she established a new center south of Rochester called the Springwater Center. It's a place notable for the absence of the usual religious birdcalls: symbols, ceremonies, structures and ideologies. The meditation hall is lined with neat rows of cushions, but no one is obliged to meditate during retreats. Your obligations are limited to keeping silence and doing the job you have been assigned.
"The work at Springwater," Toni maintains, "is attending to what is happening within and without, from moment to moment."
As Toni speaks, with her eyes habitually closed, with a slow shuttling of her arms that seems to help with the birthing of her words, I hear a great deal about listening. She talks about a "new listening," which she also calls "awaring."
"What is this new listening?" she asks. "All the senses open and in touch in a new way."
And if there should arise the expectation of getting something from this listening?
"Then listen to the rumble of expectation. The whole organism is involved when there is expectation."
And if comparison muscles its way in?
"Listen to the buzz of comparison as it comes into awareness. Drop the objects of comparison and listen to what it does physically."
Before Toni's morning talks during retreat, the wooden partitions that fence off one row of meditators from another are hauled away like pieces of a dismantled stage. There's a pleasurable wiggling of toes, a pulling up of knees, a hungry swiveling of heads towards the silver-haired woman taking her place in her chair. Accustomed to the preponderance of women at Buddhist retreats, I'm struck by the large number of men in the hall. I hadn't expected that at Springwater, with its strong female teacher.
To some who come to Springwater from the Zen and Vipassana traditions, with their strict meditation timetables, the lack of structure can be a problem. Toni has said of this issue, which comes up at every retreat: "This desire for discipline, imposed discipline—it's as if this human being, this body/mind, were incapable of arousing energy when it is really interested. It is very capable!"
It is not structure but Toni's presence—alert, silent, always listening—that seems to arouse the alertness, silence and listening in those gathered around her. (I can hear Toni admonishing, "You are projecting things onto Toni. Toni does nothing." Maybe so. Maybe just her being fully there is enough to inspire fully-thereness in other people.)
The first time I speak privately with Toni, in her tiny meeting room with its two clocks, I ask her about awareness and effort. Toni has made the distinction between the normal, dualistic thinking mind, and awareness, which she defines as "presence without a self-referential center." So is effort required for awareness to happen? A purple and blue afghan covers her knees, and with her glasses off, her face looks soft and unprotected. Outside the room, people are waiting on cushions to see her, but she is in no hurry to answer. Effort, she says eventually, is incompatible with awareness. Effort implies tension, and usually involves some storyline about "I," "me," or "mine."
"It is important," she emphasizes, "to be without the tension of creating a storyline. In the awareness I am talking about, there is no tension. There is freedom."
Toni falls silent. I notice her looking at my fingers. "Are you aware of your fingers touching?" she asks. I was not.
Toni's own life during the retreat is anything but easy. Her husband of fifty years, Kyle, is suffering from cancer, from which he will later die, and she drives daily to the care facility to see him. Joan Tollifson writes in her memoir, Bare-Bones Meditation, about one of her meetings with Toni:
"There's too much pain," I tell Toni. "I'm not sure I can stand it."
To which Toni replies: "It takes enormous patience to see the sorrow. To be with it. To not move away. Or find easy comfort. To look. To see human history. Because it is not just one's personal pain that is contacted. It's humanity's pain, the universal sorrow of human beings."
In the group meetings that are held twice a day during retreats, any subject can come up. A woman speaks of a sudden craving for marshmallow cups. Toni suggests she might try going with the craving and order a crate of them. Or she could stay with the sensations the craving arouses, like salivating. Or she could watch the wily mind as it maneuvers: it's okay, you can order marshmallow cups today, but maybe not tomorrow.
Once Toni asks the group what's going on with them. A woman barely out of her teens replies, "There's nothing going on. I can't wait until Saturday and the retreat is over." Toni throws back her head and laughs. The remark is free of self-judgment, which delights her. Judging, she observed, "is an enormous habit, which by now is probably right in our DNA. We judge everything."
At one point during these meetings, I encounter a side of Toni that grates. We are talking about gurus, and people are taking turns carping about their sexuality, their money, their vanity. Toni chimes in about the pope's visit to Poland. "He let himself be adored by over a million people," she fumes.
My first thought is, "She is so angry. Is she aware how angry she is?" Thinking about it later, I don't know what to make of my dismay. Everyone gets angry. Everyone has a blind spot. With Toni, it's papal grandiosity. So why do I overreact? Is it because of my own concepts of immaculate guruship?
"Our ideas keep us from the innocent energy of life," Toni says in one of her talks.
Of the problems that get aired at Springwater, one's "Niagara of thoughts," to use Toni's phrase, is the most persistent. Toni assures everyone that this "Niagara" is not eternal but dissoluble.
"There is an awaring that is free from self-reference, maybe only for moments at a time. And in that, there is no right or wrong, good or bad. There is freedom to observe, to see, to be.
"Actually, these moments happen on their own. I have never found a cause for this opening, for this presence. And reading the literature, everyone calls it causeless, unconditioned."
Like Krishnamurti, Toni claims not to be a teacher. "If you are not a teacher," I say to her, "why are you here? Why is this place here?"
Toni doesn't say. She just tilts her head. She takes no offense.
The whole teacher/non-teacher issue comes heavily seeded with confusion. The regular retreatants uninhibitedly claim to be Toni's students, and Toni doesn't seem to mind. But she forcefully reiterates that the images they create and perpetuate around her are the products of thought, memory, projection, conditioning. The things that matter to Toni spring from the timeless moment, innocent of conceptualization.
Inasmuch as Toni does give teachings she is, in the conventional sense, a teacher. But it is risky to put a label on Toni. She stated in a 1996 interview in Tricycle magazine, "I do not have the teacher-image of myself. It dropped away quietly." When someone comes to her for answers, she says, "Unconfuse yourself by not knowing," and this gets a laugh. But Toni is serious.
"What are we doing here?" she inquires. "What are we doing in sitting? The first answer is, 'I don't know. I don't know.' Is this a genuine 'I don't know' or a sort of throwing up one's arms and eyeballs in despair? There are many different 'I don't knows.' The one I am referring to is this true not-knowing, and therefore, more freedom from all the stuff we know, and entering into it freshly. Not-knowing!"
One morning, Toni giggles as she begins to tell a story about one of her recent California retreats. A storm has leveled some trees on the land where the retreat is being held. Chain saws are brought in and the silence of the retreat is shattered. Everyone has paid a lot of money for the silence, so there is great dismay. One woman protests and a halt to the sawing is ordered, at least while the talks are being given.
Toni poses the question: How do we live with circumstances that grind on the nerves? In the presence of sawing, what else is going on?
"Is it possible," she wonders, "to purify perception by beholding what comes in between? Our own psychological and physical reactions do come in between. And they may abate when they are seen.
"Actually, quite a number of people learned a lot from this chainsawing about this amazing ability to drop annoyance factors by not thinking in certain terms about them. Not resisting. Not resisting. Do we know what this means, not resisting? Noticing all the gross and subtle resistances that this body/mind has cultivated or become habituated to over a lifetime. They are subtle, and so is the attention that detects and replaces them. The seeing replaces the habit that is seen. The seeing is open and quiet and present. Empty."
Toni is aware of the difficulty some people have with her unflinchingly simple here-and-nowness.
"It means looking just at what's there, at one's mind, and the workings of one's mind: the boredom, the judging, the 'I am a hopeless case.' It's nothing spectacular."
Robert Hirschfield is a social worker in New York and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of spiritually-oriented magazines.
The Case for Contemplative Psychology
The Case for Contemplative Psychology
Han F. de Wit argues that spiritual tradition can be viewed as its own school of psychology. As such, it offers more effective techniques and profound goals than the "ordinary unhappiness" aspired to by conventional psychology.
Why is it that some people become wiser and gentler during their lifetimes, while others become more hard-hearted and shortsighted to the needs of others? Why do some people develop the ability to cope with suffering, while others fall apart? And what is it that causes some people to experience an increasing measure of joy in their lives, while others become more anxious and fearful?
These questions are central to contemplative psychology. They concern an inner flourishing—sometimes willed, sometimes not—that occurs in the depth of our being. Whether it is present or absent can determine our attitude toward life.
Although this flourishing occurs, in a certain sense, in the hidden depths of our heart, it is not something abstract and detached from our lives: this inner flourishing manifests in how we live our everyday life. Its fruit is visible in the specific way in which we relate to our environment, our fellow beings and ourselves—a way that deepens and elevates our own lives as well as those of others.
We all know people who, at moments or perhaps continually, radiate something—a certain warmth, an unconditional interest in their surroundings, a clarity of mind that is catching and inspiring. This is not necessarily because their situation in life provides them with a special opportunity or because these people are especially fond of us. Rather, these qualities appear to belong to their very nature.
Furthermore, all of us experience moments in our lives which like a flood wash away our self-centeredness. These are moments of liberation that reveal new possibilities. Faced with a crisis, people often "rise above themselves": they abandon concern for their own private projects and ambitions and act from a much broader perspective. At such moments people experience freedom, strength and even joy, in a very fundamental sense. This is why, even in the most difficult of circumstances, they are able to encourage and inspire those around them.
We sometimes have the tendency to view people who act from this broader perspective as special and far above us spiritually, as people who possess a spiritual power that is beyond our reach. But the spiritual power and joy in life we recognize in them is not essentially alien to us. We ourselves also have moments when our attitude to life is like this—moments when our fundamental humanity is awakened and manifests itself.
The inner flourishing of which I speak concerns the uncovering of this fundamental humanity. The term "fundamental humanity," or "humaneness" for short, may sound quite pompous or theoretical, if not somewhat moralistic, but I use this term to refer to a very concrete and familiar experience. Let us take a closer look at humaneness and how it is visible in our own lives.
Because fundamental humanity manifests itself under circumstances of both prosperity and adversity, there is no single way to describe its qualities. In times of personal adversity, it takes the form of courage. Confronted with the adversities of others, it manifests itself as compassion. In times of personal prosperity or in viewing the prosperity of others, it manifests itself as taking joy in life.
In addition to these three forms, there is a fourth, clarity of mind. This clarity allows us to be realistic in our view of the world and ourselves. It is not so much an intellectual clarity; rather it resembles the inquisitiveness, sensitivity and interest that we can see in healthy young children. Yet age has little to do with it. This clarity is the universal human capacity and desire to learn, to see, to be aware.
In moments when we experience our humaneness we feel that we are "at our best"—not in the sense that we could make a top-notch job of something or that we feel happy, but rather in the sense that we feel that we have been born fully equipped for human life in all of its prosperity and adversity. At such moments we realize that we are born first and foremost as human beings, and not as "John" or "Mary." Experiencing our humaneness lifts us above individual identity and brings us closer to ourselves simply as human beings.
In a certain sense such moments go beyond, or lie hidden under, the satisfaction or frustration of our desires. It is as if the rich soil of genuine humaneness exists within us independent of our desires. We are aware of this soil sometimes in prosperous circumstances and sometimes in adverse circumstances. Yet more often, it does not manifest itself at all. Why is this?
Joy in Life Versus Satisfaction
When we are born we know nothing. We are naive, in a certain sense; our existence is veiled in darkness, unarticulated.
There are no instructions for life lying beside our cradle. But small and helpless as we are, we are not out of the game: from the very first we have an open, unconditional interest in and devotion to the world of phenomena. We are, apparently, born this way.
But look: with some people, this unconditional zest for life manifests increasingly in their lives, while for others it seems to disappear as they grow older. Even over the course of our lives there are periods in which it manifests itself in a greater or lesser degree. Why this happens is one of the central questions that contemplative psychology addresses.
Let me give a broad indication of the answer to this question by contrasting one of the four aspects of humaneness, joy in life, with the notion of satisfaction. Joy in life is a state of mind directed toward our life in its totality, and not toward certain circumstances. In contrast, there is a conditional form of joy called satisfaction, which we experience when we succeed in satisfying our needs and desires. Ordinarily we use the word "happiness" to refer to this satisfaction of our desires, and we can lose this kind of happiness, just as we can lose material possessions.
Viewing happiness in terms of satisfaction can be called a materialistic view of happiness, and this view is the soil for a life dominated by anxiety, by hope for gain and fear of loss. Then there is a spiritual view of happiness, understood as joy in life—the profound, unconditional quality of being in touch with one's humaneness.
When we live joyfully from the perspective of our humaneness, then the other three qualities—compassion, courage and clarity of mind—also manifest themselves freely and unconditionally. Whenever suffering appears we quickly jump to someone's aid. Whenever we meet with confusion or fear, our humaneness manifests as clarity of mind and courage. We do these things not because it is some sort of duty, but because we cannot do otherwise.
The desire to realize our humaneness fully is the basis of the spiritual traditions. It is precisely in the great spiritual traditions that we find all kinds of psychological insights into our humaneness and disciplines through which it can be cultivated.
In fact, the spiritual traditions contain a psychology in their own right, a contemplative psychology very different from our conventional Western psychology. This psychology has as its main objective to discover the dynamics that make our humaneness flourish or wilt. For that purpose, it looks at our human mind and designs ways to cultivate it.
The assumption of contemplative psychology is that human beings have a certain degree of freedom to shape their own minds. They have the freedom to imprison themselves within a state of mind, and the freedom to liberate themselves from it. And because our mind determines what we say and do, the way this freedom is used manifests in our actions and speech, which in turn is felt in our personal lives and our society.
When this freedom is continuously used to form certain egocentric habits, they become rigid patterns, difficult to change. Not only individuals but entire cultures can become so convinced of the inevitability of the formed patterns that they view them as absolute. When this happens they become part of our very concept of humanity: "That's how human beings are." This influences the way in which people raise their children, thus closing the circle. Within this vicious cycle it is very difficult to unravel what is the cause and what is the result.
Spiritual traditions are concerned with identifying and letting go of the mental habits or patterns that obscure the manifestation of our buddhanature, the working of the Holy Spirit in our heart, or whatever the particular tradition calls it. In the terminology of contemplative psychology, the spiritual path is directed toward opening a mental space in which our humaneness can flourish.
The Spiritual Disciplines
Why can the spiritual traditions be of so much more benefit to us than conventional Western psychology? It is because their psychology has an eye for the basic plasticity, or freedom, of the human mind. Traveling on the spiritual path involves working with this plasticity, molding the mind by means of spiritual disciplines. In fact, it is because of this plasticity that something like a spiritual path exists.
In analyzing the enormous wealth of spiritual disciplines and methods, contemplative psychology draws on a classic spiritual division: the disciplines of mind, the disciplines of speech, and the disciplines of action.
The mental disciplines are naturally concerned with cultivating insight into the nature of our mind. They are par excellence directed at the cultivation of inner flourishing by exploring our attitude toward life and allowing us to connect with our humaneness. The disciplines of speech and action are then directed at manifesting our humaneness through the cultivation of a decent, caring way of relating to our fellow human beings and our environment.
Within the range of the mental disciplines, contemplative psychology distinguishes two main groups: the disciplines of thought and the disciplines of consciousness. Simply put, we can think about our perceptions and we can perceive our thoughts.
The Disciplines of Thought: Intellect and Imagination
The disciplines of thought work with the creation and use of mental content—concepts, ideas, theories, representations, images and symbols. So the term "thought" has a very broad meaning here. Some of these disciplines are specifically directed at enlarging our intellectual understanding of the spiritual path, our mind and experience. This is like studying the road map. Other disciplines of thought make use of our power of imagination. They offer us mental images that can evoke a different, more humane way of experiencing reality.
The systematic use of our intellect and of our imagination are, psychologically speaking, two very different disciplines. So the disciplines of thought can be divided into the intellectual disciplines and the disciplines of the imagination.
Of these, the intellectual disciplines are the best known. Since ancient times they have been considered very important and have been widely used in the spiritual traditions. The strength of the intellectual disciplines is that they are very communicable, for they work with language and concepts.
The disciplines of imagination are less familiar to us. Although we make representations of everything and anything in everyday life, our culture—with the exception of a few modern cognitive psychotherapies—hardly values the systematic use of the imagination as a means of transforming our experience of reality.
The disciplines of imagination amount simply to the replacement of unwholesome images by images that have a beneficial experiential value. In general terms, they work with images that are at odds with our conventional egocentric mode of experiencing reality. Even though these are nothing more than images in our stream of thought, they can open our eyes to the qualities of our own fundamental humaneness. In fact, these images derive their effectiveness from being the expression of our fundamental humaneness, just as our conventional images derive their power from being representations of an egocentric mind. The visualization practices of vajrayana Buddhism are a good example of this discipline.
The Disciplines of Consciousness: Mindfulness and Insight
It is striking that the disciplines of consciousness are found in almost all spiritual traditions, and that the reasons given for practicing these disciplines are almost identical.
The first reason is that our minds are so scattered and fragmented. The second important reason is that our mind has the tendency to lose itself in a self-created and egocentric mental world that prevents us from seeing phenomena as they actually are. We are caught up in a consciousness that can no longer distinguish completely between illusion and reality. Thus we live in a hazy, imaginary reality and suffer from that.
The disciplines of consciousness allow us, first, to overcome our mental agitation, and second, to see clearly the nature of our mind and experience. Because of this double purpose, the disciplines of consciousness are divided into the disciplines of mindfulness and the disciplines of insight. The disciplines of mindfulness are mainly preparatory exercises for the disciplines of insight.
A familiar metaphor for the agitation of our mind is that of a wild horse. The horse seems free to come and go as it pleases, but precisely because it is wild, it is extraordinarily skittish: it takes only the flutter of a leaf to send it rushing off. This is the way our mind is when it is captured by the egocentric conception of reality: it only takes one ego-threatening thought to make it bolt. The mind is too high-strung, too vulnerable to unrest, to give itself the time to take a good look around.
Because of this, we are not fully conscious of our actual situation; we are "absent," not completely there. As many traditions put it, we are asleep, not awake. The purpose of the disciplines of mindfulness is to do something about this absent-mindedness. To this end, we practice focusing our attention on one point.
The discipline of mindfulness is simply a way to do this systematically. In many traditions, it takes the form of sitting meditation: we sit erect in quiet surroundings on a chair or a meditation cushion and focus our attention on, for example, our breathing. When we notice that our attention has got caught up in the content of our stream of thoughts, we turn our attention again to our breathing, the focal point for our mindfulness.
How is it that we are able to bring our mindfulness back to its focal point at all? The human mind is apparently shaped in such a way that moments naturally occur when we notice that we have been caught. These are the crucial moments in the practice of the disciplines of mindfulness. It is at such moments that we can choose to direct our mindfulness once more to the focal point. All disciplines of mindfulness make use of this ability of the mind, this natural wakefulness.
Then once mindfulness has been established, how do we practice the disciplines of insight? Is there a certain technique for training our discriminating awareness? The answer is typical of the disciplines of insight: the practice goes beyond every technique. Nonetheless, it is a very disciplined practice.
How are we to conceive of this? As the disciplined practice of open-mindedness itself, by which we mean a mind that is free from being fixated on or lost in the contents of thought.
Open-mindedness, which is the fruit of mindfulness, forms the basis for the disciplines of insight. This open-mindedness creates the space in which our discernment, our discriminating awareness, operates and can be active.
This discernment allows us to see the world of phenomena from the vantage point of unconditional open-mindedness. It penetrates and clarifies our egocentric experience of reality. We begin to recognize our self-created experience of reality for what it is: an illusion. At the same time, it gives us insight into reality and allows us to experience its qualities, which are none other than the qualities of our fundamental humaneness.
Gradually we discover that this open space is inhabitable, real and joyous, and not a spiritual myth or mystery. This gives rise to an enormous inspiration, one based not on hope but on experience. From an egocentric perspective this open space may appear groundless, deadly and lonely, but seen from its own perspective it is alive, clear and warm. It is the space from which our fundamental humanity can arise and flourish. It gives us insight into human existence, with all its shortcomings and suffering, and offers a perspective that makes us more caring, milder and wiser. Discovering this space and allowing it to embrace our experience is nothing other than the cultivation of the flourishing within.
Han F. de Wit is a leading European writer on the connections between science, religion and spirituality, and is actively involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogue. He is the author of The Spiritual Path: An Introduction to the Psychology of the Spiritual Traditions (1999) and Contemplative Psychology (1991) both published by Duquesne University Press.
Among the Living and the Dead of Angkor Wat
Among the Living and the Dead of Angkor Wat
Pico Iyer visits Cambodia's famed monument and ponders the conundrums of travel-cell phones and ancient spirits, killing fields and champagne breakfasts, beauties past and tragedies present.
Eyes followed me everywhere I walked around the half-lit monuments of Angkor-out of darkened doorways, out of openings in the carvings of devils and dolls, out of little Buddhist shrines illuminated by the flicker of a guttering candle. An old crone waved an incense stick at me as if it were a curse, and another, her lips stained red with betel nut, spat out what looked like blood. Everywhere, soldiers were standing in the shadows of the temple, scarcely discernible by candlelight, and a white-robed soothsayer, in a sudden patch of sunlight, was dealing out futures to villagers. The Buddhas I saw in corners were not serene or reassuring presences, as they might be in other parts of Asia. They were often skeletal, or pinch-faced, like wraiths in some complex pagan pageant (as befits, perhaps, an area that went from Hindu to Buddhist to Hindu to animist monuments during the six centuries of its creation). All around the scores of temples scattered across 77 square miles of jungle in northwestern Cambodia were images of snakes, of leper kings, temples to Yama, God of the Dead.
"Look, there are demons here, look," said my guide as he pointed out the frescoes that twist and swarm across the sprawling complex known as the Bayon. Indeed, there were demons everywhere. Every time I got out of my car, wild and dusty children swarmed around me, like spirits of the jungle, waving Buddhist amulets at me, waving fans and postcards, calling out, "Mister, mister, only one dollar." Their sweet, strange faces seemed spooked, of a piece with the ancient carvings all around, and if I said no to one, her features would scrunch up till they looked like a howl, and her eyes themselves a hiss.
From the trees all around came the chattering of green parrots, and in and out of all the stone corridors of the temple, children were slipping and slithering, parroting back the sad excuses of foreigners with an eerie exactness: "You come back tomorrow, you buy from me?" "You buy T-shirt, you buy only from me? Sir, sir, you buy from me?"
On New Year's Day I drove out into the darkness with a handful of others, a lonely winking light from a policeman on a motorbike in front of us guiding us through the dark. At 4 a.m. or so, we disembarked near the temple of Preah Khan, a 12th-century Buddhist monastery almost enfolded in jungle. We each were handed an oil lamp and invited to walk into the night.
We walked and walked, through a long avenue of candles, the forest buzzing on every side, the trickle of lamps in front and behind flickering like fireflies. Into the heart of the old, half-ruined building, up unpaved steps, through a chattering of crickets from the silk and cotton trees nearby. Through a chamber for Buddha, another for animist spirits, a sudden phallic Shiva shrine. Every now and then, by the light of candles placed in the broken windows, we could see a man watching in the dark, a child creeping out from behind a pillar.
Finally, after forty-five minutes of walking through the lane of lights, we came into an open space at the far edge of the eastern causeway to see white-cloth tables and all the appurtenances of a sumptuous New Year's Day champagne breakfast laid out in the jungle (put on, free-of-charge, by the Grand Hotel d - Angkor). And slowly, as the light seeped into the area-with a group of Cambodians gathering on a ridge above us, in cowboy hats and baseball caps and the red-and-white scarves associated with the Khymer Rouge-we watched the features of the ancient structure emerge from the trees and come into sharper focus.
Then, suddenly, from a nearby courtyard, we heard the sound of traditional Cambodian instruments. We followed our ears to the Hall of Dancers, where a group of tiny children from a local school was performing angel dances in the place erected for such rites eight centuries before.
I brought, I suppose, an active imagination to Cambodia, and all the associations built up over years of the great extended holocaust of my lifetime, the Khmer Rouge (like those encamped nearby) having killed one-and-a-half million of their countrymen or more in the fields of Cambodia, those around Angkor included. But still, I had gone there with no particular expectations, simply to accompany my mother to the legendary religious site she had been dreaming of since she was a little girl.
In the other old monuments of the world-Machu Picchu, Borobodur, the pyramids of Yucatan and Egypt, Rome-I had been forcibly reminded how insensitive I am to history; they were living places, certainly, charged with memories of all that had taken place there, but I had left them feeling that they were of interest mostly to historians or sightseers.
Angkor, however, was different. It was alive, for one thing, electric with the unburied presences of the jungle all around, the soil, the long-ago workers who had built temples across an area twice the size of Manhattan, and the blood-soaked fields all around. Angkor was the shrill whine of cicada bells issuing from the trees, and the little girl who put a pink water pistol in her mouth and pulled the trigger. It was the bullet holes in the temples and the marks left by recent tanks, and the creepers enfolding the shrines of the "holy city" (as "Angkor" truly means), the finger-like roots swallowing up lichened archways, the protruding branches encircling a face of Vishnu, snake-like vines threatening to pull the buildings back and back into the forest.
At times there is an overpowering sense of Eden to Angkor-the virgin light falling through the trees, the houses on stilts above the green paddies, the water buffalo chomping along immemorially beside Tonle Sap lake. But look a little closer, and you notice a one-legged man hobbling towards you with a dirty cup extended, or a swan-necked girl following your every movement from afar. Walking along the national highway, unpaved just a few minutes out of town, you can feel yourself in some sepia-colored dream of a temple in a jungle from an earlier time. But tugging at you from the edge of the idyll is a girl who stops at the waist, rolling towards you in her aged wheelchair, and pulling you back into something primeval-atavistic-where all the lights are turned off and you can't tell right from wrong.
The reason I had gone to Angkor now was that, for the first time in my memory, it had become possible to visit the embattled monuments with relative ease. For years I'd been trying to fix up a trip for my mother, but every time I was about to make our reservations, fighting would break out again, or some political convulsion would yank the country back into the darkness, behind the creepers. The area around Angkor is still not entirely safe-2.6 million land mines remain unexcavated there, I was told, and it could take twenty years at least to find them all-and the political situation is still as changeable as the wind. But now, for the first time since 1969, there are direct flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap (the provincial town four miles from Angkor Wat), allowing you to bypass the tumult of the rest of Cambodia. And, as of the last day of 1997, the Raffles International Group of Singapore has reopened the restored Grand Hotel d - Angkor, a sumptuous French Colonial palace built in 1929, and now a luxe hommage to the nostalgia of Indochina, all wicker chairs and slowly turning fans and teak paneling, a vision of Banana Republic chic.
Knowing that Angkor had been cut off from the world for more than twenty years, and knowing that it could disappear again at any moment, if not through the intermittent fighting nearby, or the simple encroachments of the jungle, then through the sheer press of human bodies, I told my mother we should go now. Angkor would never be frictionless, I thought, but it would surely never be much more accessible than now.
I think of myself as a relative veteran of the moral and political conundrums of visiting difficult and wounded countries-in Tibet and Burma and Cuba, I had visited every corner of the debate about whether to go to a land in which almost every penny you spend will go towards a government that is oppressing its people and destroying its culture. I'm used to those wrenching forms of calculation whereby one tries to puzzle out how much one is helping those in need with cash and information and visions of a distant world (changing their own home in the process) and how much one is harming them. Yet I've seldom felt the ache so plaintively as in the Grand Hotel, where every $6 cup of coffee costs as much as the average Cambodian earns in a month (and the $1400 a visitor may spend on a bathrobe in one of the elegant boutiques could support a whole village for a year).
Sometimes I stood on the terrace of my beautifully appointed room-all wooden desks and framed prints, with copies of the Herald Tribune flown into the gleaming Business Center every day-and watched the workers far below, crouching down to make the four formal gardens, the jogging track, the 20,000 trees around the swimming pool and the pavilioned spa immaculate. As soon as the hotel walls ended, the overgrowth began again, and there was nothing in the distance but a rusted ferris wheel.
When you visit Angkor Wat, the glorious centerpiece of the Khmer Empire (so central to the country's sense of itself that it has appeared on five consecutive national flags), you find yourself walking through a long causeway of the crippled: a boy grins at you from a broken wheelchair, a man with stumps for legs holds out his hand for help, others in khaki fatigues like ghosts from the time of Pol Pot smile over their souvenirs, and little girls with cataracts play with monkeys on a string.
It's a transporting thing to come upon the vivid carvings of the temple that take you up, up, up the chambers filled with gods and candles, to a roof from which you can see across the trees (the Buddhas around you sitting under the protective hood of a cobra). Yet it is a desperately poignant thing, too, to see the children, with faces that are unnaturally old (and bodies that seem unnaturally young), calling out, in all the languages of the world, "Hello papa! Madame, madame! Esta bella!"
What I had learned by day, then, was supplemented by the lessons of the night. In the blue tropical mornings and afternoons, I took in the wonders of the past; after nightfall, I returned to the hotel, paged through a copy of The Merchant of Venice in its paneled library, and mused on all the riddles of the present. To give money to that little girl whose face looked as if it had been defaced by acid might be, inadvertently, to give money to the Khmer Rouge guerrillas who were still shadowing the country; yet to withhold money from her might be to hasten her decline. And why give it to her and not the man on crutches, or the blind father wailing a plaintive melody? Cambodia is a kind of emotional puzzle with spikes, and anyone who puts his hand into it emerges with bloodied fingers.
The locals I met, of course, seemed to see only good in tourist faces. "Now is a marvelous time for us," said a young friend named Phalla, one lazy afternoon in Siem Reap. "Now we have cell phones; three years ago, only guns. When I came to Siem Reap, ten years ago, we never saw a foreigner." For Phalla, clearly, tourism was a blessing from the heavens, offering him opportunities that had not been known in the Cambodia of his lifetime. He had picked up English (and watched CNN every morning over breakfast in a tiny local cafe); he dreamed of setting up his own travel agency.
"Tourism is good for us," he went on, echoing the New Year spirit. "We worry about our monuments, the conservation; but we are happy that the money is here, even if only 7%, 8% goes to the temples." When Pol Pot instituted his Year Zero in 1975, people were routinely executed for wearing glasses, for speaking English, even for having gone to school. To this day, therefore, Cambodia is even more desperate than its status as the poorest country in the world outside Africa (in per capita terms) suggests. By the time Pol Pot returned to the jungle in 1979, there were scarcely 300 people in the whole country who had received higher education.
And when I looked at the little girls selling postcards for $1 a set, I wondered what alternatives they really had. If they weren't living off visitors, how would they be living at all-given that their fields, their lakes, their villages had been devastated? Tourism was turning the children into parasites, yet the absence of tourism might turn them into skeletons. (It was striking, too, to see how these kids with no formal schooling were picking up bits of Japanese, French, Italian and English). Give money officially to Cambodia (as the UN had done recently, to the tune of $2 billion), and it promptly disappears inside the coffers of those who need it least; put it in the hands of a child in a T-shirt with a skull on it, and at least it seems to go to someone who needs it.
At the Grand Hotel, the workers in the hallways, achingly sweet and eager to please-every time I passed them in the corridor, they would stop what they were doing to smile and wish me a good evening-seemed glad of the chance to have any work, and to expand their horizons. Most of them had learned English only because they had been forced out of their country to refugee camps in Thailand, where English was taught. On New Year's Day, they placed candles in lotus leaves and sent them floating across the hotel swimming pool, turning the night into a field of little lights.
The people who officially oversee the "City of Monasteries"-Auctorite Apsara, as the signs on the vans say-try hard to ensure that tourism does not overrun the mysterious site: so far they have resisted the idea of a Sound and Light show at Angkor Wat lest it damage the sandstone walls, and they try to enforce strict rules over all the new buildings that are coming up. (The road from the airport into town is lined with multi-story new palaces being built-all hotels, but all constructed by decree in traditional Khmer style). Good will, however, is powerless against sheer need, especially in a country as broken as Cambodia: when a foreign company comes in and wants to build a hotel larger than four stories, all it needs to do is place a few coins in the right palm, and suddenly the rules are forgotten.
"There are serious, serious problems connected with mass tourism," I heard on New Year's Day from a foreign archaeologist at Angkor, one of the many overseas workers who are working heroically to protect Cambodia's monuments and its people. "But so long as some of the money goes to Cambodians, it does some good. They may get a museum going; they may start returning statues from the Conservation Office stores to the sites." Right now, the fact remains that one of the most astonishing World Heritage Monuments on the planet still lacks a real museum on site, or any kind of Visitors' Center from which to get reliable information or help.
A visit to Angkor Wat at sunset is already a journey through a mini-Coney Island of sightseers and tour buses and legless Cambodians trying to make contact with them. Urchins come up to you with postcards, soft drinks, guide books. "Onne-san! Nomimono? Mitte, kudasai!" ("Sister, you want a drink? Look, please look," in Japanese). A trio of broken men plays stringed instruments, and toddlers use the discarded boxes of Kodak film as toys.
"You remember me?" a little girl cries out in the failing light. "I saw you yesterday, Preah Khan. Yesterday you say tomorrow. Sir, you remember me?"
The final complication of Angkor, of course, is that the temples themselves are as vulnerable as the country around them, and the government's very realization that Angkor is its greatest asset has done as much to imperil the monuments as to protect them. Ever since the temples were first built, more than a millennium ago, they have been a prime target for looters, often from abroad-even Andre Malraux, later France's Minister of Culture, was apprehended trying to smuggle nearly a ton of statues out of Angkor in 1924-and the chaos and desperation of recent decades have only intensified the pillage. Even now, many-ton statues (hardly easy to transport across borders surreptitiously) suddenly show up in Bangkok antique rooms, while other priceless antiquities are found in the jungle, broken, a few hundred yards from where they sat for centuries. As recently as 1993, the Khmer Rouge were holding the exquisite temple of Banteay Sari hostage-close to fifty land mines have since been excavated there-and seemed ready to take Siem Reap. And when the guerrillas are not looting the temples for their own gain, the equally penniless military men are doing so, with the help of power drills.
In Preah Khan, the Buddhist training center where I saw in the New Year (another likely target for Khmer Rouge guns in 1993), a British archaeologist, helped by the World Monuments Fund and the Ministry of Culture, has been working for years to restore it to the state of a "partial ruin" and to train a new generation of Cambodians to appreciate and tend to their heritage. Now, though, the government wishes to cut down some beautiful 200-year-old trees to ensure the safety of the Hall of Dancers, leaving all who care about Cambodia in an agonizing position: to protect the temple is to damage the environment, and yet to do honor to Nature is to imperil Art. And to worry about either can seem almost obscene when 40,000 people in the area are limbless because of land mines, and the children are calling out, "Sir, go to school, go to school. Four hundred, five hundred [riels]."
Besides, what really distinguishes Angkor from most "ancient sites," I was coming to see slowly, as I wandered among headless Buddhas and children playing weird, thwanging tunes on jew's harps-the buffet-table at the hotel offering "Serpent Head" every day-was that it belongs as much as ever to the haunted country all around: to an uncanny degree, the people living nearby the old temples are living in a way not so different from those ancestors who must have erected the buildings centuries ago. You can see a few signs for "Konica Photo Express" in the scrappy little town of Siem Reap, and children can be spotted in weird, batiky shirts representing Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic; but stray only a block from the rickety main street and you are in a village made up, essentially, of crowing cocks and mangy dogs and flimsy houses, one of which collapsed on the mother of a minister while I was there, killing her. There are almost no road signs or cafes or anything in sight; when people talk, it is in the age-old terms of fish and rice and jungle and night.
At the Bayon, a hundred and fifty or so stone faces stare down at you with the implacable gaze of Easter Island statues, their expressions not benign or protective, often, but leering, scowling, grinning with a kind of demented malignity. The place has always unnerved foreigners (Paul Claudel, the French diplomat and writer, called it "one of the most accursed, the most evil places that I know," and even Pierre Loti, the lifelong enthusiast and romantic, became "overcome with a peculiar kind of fear"). But what gives it its particular resonance now is that the children all around-wincing, gentle, wizened, sad-look so much like the offspring of those statues. It makes you wonder even more what development will bring.
My last night in Cambodia I returned to Angkor Wat to see the magical temple for the final time. Above the long avenue of the blind, the limbless and the deformed, a glorious full moon rose, and a lame man on the ground played a haunting melody on his flute, as darkness fell and the night began to chatter. The temple complex was much smaller than I had expected-it does not open onto a city of other monuments, as I had imagined from the pictures. Yet the experience of being there was infinitely more profound than I had expected, and when I went back to the hotel I knew I would be telling my friends to come to Angkor if they could-so long as they recall that, together with the 8,000 apsaras, or angels, that archaeologists have counted in the area, there are probably an equal number of dark spirits.
The next day, as he took us to the airport, our unfailingly sweet and intelligent guide turned around in the front seat and said, "Thank you for coming here, for giving me employment. Tourists are very important for our economy, also for the conservation of temple." "Before, we never thought of this," he said, referring to the protection of Angkor. "If you do not come..." And with that, his voice trailed off. In the departure hall, a little bowl had been set up for foreigners to place coins or banknotes (worth three cents each), under the sign, "Please Help the Poor Victims." In the distance, I could almost hear the voices still calling out, "Hello papa, why you not buy?"
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.
Without Center or Limit
Without Center or LimitBy
As sentient beings, we think, we remember, we plan—and the attention thus exerted moves towards an object and sticks to it. This mental movement is called thinking or conceptual mind. We have many different expressions in Tibetan to describe the functioning of this basic attitude of mind, of this extroverted consciousness unaware of its own nature. This ignorant mind grabs hold of objects, forms concepts about them, and gets involved and caught up in the concepts it has created. This is the nature of samsara, and it has been continuing through beginningless lifetimes up to the present moment.
All these involvements are merely fabricated creations; they are not the natural state. They are based on the concepts of subject and object, perceiver and perceived. This dualistic structure, together with the disturbing emotions and the karma that is produced through them, are the forces that drive us from one samsaric experience to another. Yet all the while, there is still the basic nature, which is not made out of anything whatsoever. It is totally unconstructed and empty, and at the same time it is aware: it has the quality of being able to cognize. This indivisible unity of being empty and cognizant is our original ground that is never lost.
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