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In a Word, Dharma Print

In a Word, Dharma

By .

According to Reginald A. Ray, dharma is a fascinating term because it integrates several levels of experience, from our first moment on the path to the achievement of full realization.

The Sanskrit word "dharma" is without doubt the most important and most commonly used term in Buddhism. Among the three jewels of buddha, dharma and sangha in which all Buddhists take refuge, the dharma is pre-eminent. It is a realization of the dharma that produces buddhas and it is the dharma that provides the pretext for the sangha (community) and binds it together.

But what does the word "dharma" actually mean? This is a particularly fascinating terms because it includes and integrates several levels of experience, from our first moment on the path to the achievement of full realization.

The Eternal Dharma

In the early Theravadin texts, Buddha Shakyamuni is reported to have remarked that the dharma is always present, whether or not there is a buddha to preach it or a sangha to practice it. Dharma in this sense is the underlying, substratum of reality-of our lives and of our world. It is the ultimate and primordial fact of who and what we are.

It is the goal of all Buddhists to uncover this "true nature," as it is called-not just to glimpse it, but to be able to rest in it, identify with it, and forget any other "self" that we may have imagined. In such a realization, we see that what we most essentially are has no beginning and no end, and expresses itself in universal love.

Is this eternal dharma inaccessible to us ordinary people? Not at all. In fact, it is always hovering at the periphery of our consciousness, whether we are Buddhists or not, or whether or not we have any apparent interest in spirituality at all.

Dharma as Phenomena

The Buddhist scholar Th. Stcherbatsky wrote an early, influential book entitled The Central Conception of Buddhism and the Meaning of the Word "Dharma." In this work, the author tells us that dharma is the basis of our ordinary existence-of the multitude of thoughts, perceptions, and occurrences that make up our experience as human beings.

Here, a distinction needs to be made between our concepts of what ordinary reality is, our preconceptions and wishful thinking, and its raw, implacable facticity. Dharma in this second sense is what is so in our lives, whether we like it or not, whether we wish for it or not, whether we expect it or not. Sudden illness, the breakdown of a relationship, and unexpected death are all expressions of the breakthrough of dharma in this sense. But so also are the light that fails to go on when we flip the switch, the unanticipated phone call, the surprising joy of seeing a newborn child. And so is the sudden shock of seeing someone else as more-or less-than we thought.

All such events bring us up short. They reveal just how much we have been locked up a dream of our own making, a dream of who we are and what the world is like. They wake us up, if only for a moment. It is in this sense that the great Tibetan master Atisha tells us that, "All dharma agrees at one point." All that occurs, when seen in its own light and from its own side (dharma), proclaims the unreality of our fixed notions of ourselves and our world. The dharma as phenomena is thus finally not distinct from the eternal dharma. The nakedness and starkness of phenomena, as they are, represent the breakthrough of the eternal dharma into our lives.

Dharma as the Path

How we respond to the disruption and destabilization caused by the eternal dharma, as it shows up in the experiences of our lives, is a matter of choice.

For example, we may fall into avoidance and denial, seeking to reconstitute our solidity, comfort and security. Or we may see in the dharma a harbinger of ultimate reality, and turn to it as the path. The first approach leads us to deny what we have seen and to pretend things are otherwise. This results in to further bondage, to increased confusion, negative karma, and suffering. The second leads, to recall the words of the Theravadin meditation teacher Ayya Khema, not to the elimination of suffering but to the gradual dissolution of the one who suffers.

In the beginning, the path is difficult and painful: through meditation and the other Buddhist disciplines, we train by bringing ourselves back again and again to the uncomfortable edge of the dharma, to the ambiguity and groundlessness of the present moment. In time, however, we find in such returns solace and relief. At this point, in Trungpa Rinpoche's felicious phrasing, the path of dharma begins to unroll naturally and effortlessly beneath our feet.

Dharma as Teachings

Finally, in its most concrete sense, the dharma is the teachings delivered by the Buddha and added to by countless generations of accomplished and realized men and women. This dharma describes, points to, and evokes the eternal dharma as it appears in our unadorned and uninterpreted life experience.

Originally and most essentially, the dharma teachings were the words spoken and sung by the realized ones. Sutras, the words of the Buddha, always begin "Thus have I heard" not "Thus have I read." In the same way that one could not expect to become a world-class pianist simply by reading piano manuals or a cook simply by reading cookbooks, one must receive the dharma teachings by hearing them from a teacher. To learn the dharma, we must hear the nuances and subtleties; we must experience the eloquence and the flights of those steeped in living understanding and realization.

It is said that the Buddha and the later teachers tailored their discourses to the specific needs of their listeners. They spoke the reality of dharma in a form that could communicate to their listeners. This "tailoring" was not, we may be certain, particularly deliberate or self-conscious.

When teachers give voice to dharma nowadays, they often draw on textual tradition. But at the same time, the words that form in their minds, the images, analogies and logic, are drawn from the atmosphere, they are reflections of and address everyone in the room, and they express the unique configuration of reality that exists in that moment.

The spoken dharma is infinitely more nuanced, evocative, and communicative than anything written could be. It carries an abundant and pregnant burden of meaning that is instantly received in its totality by the listeners. Hearing Sri Lankan, Zen or Tibetan monks chant a Buddhist sutta is an entirely different experience from reading it in print. Through the recitation, a world is suddenly opened and we are immesed in an atmosphere and a feeling that are complete.

In listening the dharma, it is not so unusual to hear a teacher describe a scene, say, from the life of the Buddha, and to find ourselves, before the description is half begun, feeling the coolness of the Indian night and smelling its rich, sweet and pungent scents. It is true that, beginning the in the first century BCE, the dharma began to be written down and now exists in tens of thousands of pages in the various Asian canons. At the same time, it is important to remember that the dharma as teaching is most fundamentally a spoken truth, of which the written word is an analogue and a support.

Particularly for Western Buddhists, the written word is often the initial gate to the vast world of dharma within. Often a book leads us to encounter a Buddhist teacher from whom we may hear the dharma in oral form. Often that teacher encourages us to undertake the path, engaging in the practice of meditation. This, in turn, begins to lay bare the raw and rugged character of our ordinary lives. As we make a fuller and fuller acquaintance with our lives, we may begin to sense the background of awareness that runs like a thread through all our experience. As our sense of this awareness-known as buddhanature-deepens, we begin to realize that, more than anything else, this is who we most fundamentally are and always have been.

At this point, we have journeyed from seeing that dharma as an interesting book to discovering the eternal dharma as the final truth of our own inherent nature. The entire path, then, is encompassed and summarized in this single word.

Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., is Professor of Buddhist Studies at Naropa University and teacher in residence at Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. He is the author of Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet.

Originally published in the May 2001 issue of the Shambhala Sun.

Do I Exist or Not? Print
Shambhala Sun | March 2001

Do I Exist or Not?


"No one told us to see ourselves as solid entities. We came up with that on our own."

"Some kind of voidness, the complete negation of everything-is that Buddhism? Well, Buddhism is more complicated than that: things don't exist, but they don't not exist either."

On the Buddhist path, we look at our own experience. For example, people are always talking about their age. We feel we are supposed to accomplish certain things by a certain age. We want to feel we are living fully, and even though we may be very sane and stable, we have doubts about whether or not we are living up to our own expectations. This causes anxiety, edginess. Why?

When we examine our expectations, we see how many concepts we have about our life. We have gathered a set of beliefs and opinions about ourselves and we've made them solid. We've created a self-image that we feel is real.

We are all trying to find meaning in life, some kind of personal satisfaction. We yearn to discover the basic fabric of our experience. "Is this genuine love? "Is this going the way I've heard it should?" We wonder what it is that we're supposed to experience. When a good situation changes and we are no longer happy, we get a glimpse at how hard we try to hold the concepts together. We look back and realize, "That was not a genuine experience: I was always second-guessing myself, wondering if I was doing the right thing." We may feel we were fooled by the appearance of things.

From the Buddhist point of view, we are always trying to find something that is inherently real, real by nature, in our environment and in our mind. One of the basic questions in Buddhism is what is the difference between the true nature of things and the way they appear to us?

The Buddha discovered that the genuine, true thing we keep looking for isn't there at all. The whole world only appears to be real, and what appears to be the most real is ourselves. This goes beyond the level of ego-we are talking about existence itself. We feel that we exist. We feel that our thoughts, our dreams and hopes, are real.

So if the Buddha tells us that's not so, do we decide nonexistence must be real? Some kind of voidness, the complete negation of everything-is that Buddhism? Well, Buddhism is more complicated than that: things don't exist, but they don't not exist either.

The Buddha discovered the truth because he overcame his obscurations, his ignorance. It is basic ignorance that keeps us from seeing the existence/nonexistence of things. What if we were to sit down and try to find exactly where the "me" abides? Is it in the brain, is it in the heart? We would have a hard time pinning it down exactly. On one level, of course we are here. But on another level, are we as solid as we've always believed ourselves to be?

So "Who am I and what is my world?" might be the next question. Understanding this is a journey that takes a while. We need to try to understand existence before we can understand nonexistence. Things are not real the way we think they should be. Life will not turn out the way we think it should. We have built our house over an underground stream. Essentially, we have been operating with a misunderstanding about reality. And first we have to let that go.

If we learn to let go of our expectations about how things should be, then we can appreciate what is actually happening. This notion can be very subtle. One way everyone experiences this is through disappointment. We really want to have a good time, but somehow it doesn't work out that way. Not trying to conceptualize that something is going to happen in a satisfactory way, or that something is real-this is what I'm talking about.

It may sound ridiculous for me to say that things are not real. But if you think about it, you know that the world is constantly changing-even though it appears to be solid. We age and die. Nevertheless, we all want to leave our legacy.

If we learn to let go of our expectations and concepts about how things should be, then we can appreciate what is actually happening. On the Buddhist path, the purpose of meditation is to develop a stable mind in order to observe what is going on. When we meditate, we observe how our thoughts and emotions come and go.

Sometimes emotions feel overpowering. Desire, hatred, pride, jealousy-what are they really? They are torments of the mind. If someone injures us, we feel mad. We believe that we are an entity that exists and that that entity has been insulted. Therefore we feel justified in being angry because we feel our sense of self is being challenged. The anger torments us; it stirs up our mind. When we're caught up in this process we are not at ease. The path of meditation means working toward stabilizing the mind so that we are not so susceptible to these states of affliction. These states of mind are not natural; in its natural state, the mind is at ease, not tormented.

When painful emotions come up, we ask ourselves, "Why me?" We want to blame someone or something for our situation. Well, if we wait for someone else to get rid of our negative feelings, we will be waiting a long time. Buddhism is about taking responsibility. No one told us to see ourselves as solid entities. We came up with that on our own. The point here is not to blame ourselves, but we could look to our own mind as the source of the confusion.

The Buddhist path teaches that the Buddha was not the only human being who could realize the truth about reality. We can do it ourselves, but we have to accept the responsibility. The Buddhist teachings are not some heavy, oppressive, liturgical thing, but more like sane advice from a friend.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is president of Shambhala International and holder of the Shambhala Buddhist tradition established by his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Do I Exist or Not?, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, March 2001.

Earth's Original Face Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2001

Earth's Original Face

       Distant countries may be found within a few miles, or at most a few hundred miles, of every woman, man and child in the United States. These countries are remnants of the earth that have escaped the ages of iron and steel. Here the heart still beats of mountain, creek, prairie, plains, desert, river and seashore. Such places are found in national, state and county parks and forests. They are found in out-of-the-way private lands that have so far escaped destruction by logging, ranching, farming or development.

          These places are distant because some hardship is required to reach them. To get there, like pioneers of old, we must walk carrying only a few things on our backs. The further we wander from our airports, malls, motels, cafes and houses, from our roads and even our trails, the more intimate we become with the earth as it once was.

          Thoreau called it "wildness" and "the preservation of the world." It's unobstructed nature, the earth prior to human intervention, the wilderness. It is earth's original face. Here we taste an infinite variety and beauty that makes all nihilisms trivial and absurd. Simultaneously we touch the depth and magnificence of the mind itself. For it is, after all, retina, optic nerve, visual cortex, and our own miraculous consciousness that form themselves into cloud, tree, rock, eagle, buffalo.

          Every year I go on a pilgrimage to wildness. One recent summer I hiked with two old companions, Tom Decker and Fred Hoffman, to Cirque Lake in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. It's a tiny high lake cupped in the formation called the Cirque of the Towers. (A cirque is a natural high-mountain amphitheater at the head of a stream or glacier.)

          It takes Tom, Fred and me two days to reach the Cirque of the Towers. At 62, 58 and 57 years of age, we don't compete with the gung-ho twenty-something climbers hustling past us, making the journey from their cars to the cirque in a single arduous day. We hike five hours the first day, and on the second, we spend seven hours on a trail that labors up and down, snaking through boulder fields and frequently losing itself on stretches of bare rock above chasms and cliff faces.

          But finally we stand at 10,800 feet on Jackass Pass. We're now on the southern edge of the great amphitheater. Looking a mile and a half to the north through thin, clear air, we see the twin peaks called Camel's Hump on the opposite rim of the bowl, rising to 12,500 feet. Behind us are the Warrior Peaks, ending in the feathery spires of War Bonnet Peak. To the left, a half-mile away and five hundred feet below, a waterfall slides smoothly off broad, glacier-sculpted slabs of granite bedrock. The creek gathers itself and runs on down into Lonesome Lake. Its western shore lies to our left, rimmed by high, sharp peaks.

          "That's got to be Pingora," says Tom, pointing toward a high, sheer tower that stands up from the west end of the lake. "And there's the creek that cascades down from Cirque Lake." He points just to the left of the base of the tower, where a thin, white finger of water begins to thread down through steep slopes of rock and turf. It's a full mile away and straight across the valley.

          "Incredible," says Fred. "Cirque Lake sits higher than we are here on Jackass. And look at that ring of spires flying off to the left of Pingora!"

          "You can see why it's called Cirque Lake," I say. "It rests in a high bowl at the end of the Cirque of the Towers. It's in a little cirque within this huge cirque.” Thinking it’s a good time to look at the map, I pull out the quadrangle of paper, unfold it, and line it up with the terrain before us. "Listen to this," I say, singing out the names of the peaks that soar around Cirque Lake: "Pingora, Wolf - s Head, Overhanging Tower, Shark's Nose, Block Tower, Watch Tower."

          "Well, let's get down and find a camp," says Tom. "We don't have much light left, and I don't see many big trees. It'll take some doing to hang the food higher than a bear's teeth and claws."

          We shoulder our packs and start down the trail. After a quarter mile, we turn off into a steep hillside broken by blocky outcrops of granite interspersed with snowfields and patches of green. We stop in a cozy meadow alive with springs and tiny streams. We pull food out of our packs, setting aside packages of beef stroganoff and chicken soup for dinner. Tom throws the rest of the food into a bag, grabs a rope, and walks off to hang it. Fred starts setting up the tent on a floor of soft turf.

          I scavenge for firewood, then start a fire in an old pit on a rim of shelving granite looking out over the huge bowl. On my right is an ancient whitebark pine. Honed by weather, it has no single trunk. Its many twisted branches, thick as my thighs, writhe like octopus arms around each other. It stands hardly higher than my head, hunkering below a granite block that breaks the killing winter winds.

          Finally, chores done, exhausted, we eat a simple meal as darkness falls, leaning back against chunks of rock. Firelight flickers among the winding branches of our pine. Chilled by an icy wind that suddenly flows down the slopes from the Warrior Peaks, I scrunch in toward the dying embers, my knee stinging from glowing coals a few inches away. Fragrant wood smoke drifts past my face and nose.

          "No use adding more wood tonight. I think we'll all soon be in our bags," I say to grunts of assent.

          "Remember the old Indian saying," says Fred. "White man builds big fire. Stands far away. Indian builds small fire. Sits close."

          "That's the sad story of modern civilization," adds Tom.

          The next day we linger in camp till lunch time, then wander the streams and waterfalls below us down to Lonesome Lake. Back at camp in the afternoon, I look for a meditation seat a hundred yards from the tent where a spring rises at the head of our meadow. I find a slab of circular granite about ten feet long embedded in the grasses. Ice and gravity fractured it, then dropped it here, its shape reminiscent of a turtle shell.

          I make a cushion of my jacket and set it in the grass on the turtle's back. I rest my palm on the rock itself. It's warm and welcoming after a day in the summer sun. I stand and bow to the southeast toward Jackass Pass behind me. The steep slopes are purple with lupine. I turn and bow northwest toward the cirque within the Cirque. Up there, I know, the goal of our pilgrimage lies hidden. I sit down, loosely crossing my legs and drop my gaze down to the expanse of meadow. Rivulets braid themselves through a profusion of grasses, mosses and flowers—asters, daisies, purple gentian. After days of walking through rough terrain, my body is toned and supple. Muscle, tendon, ligament and bone fall quickly, gratefully, into the ease of sitting in meditation.

          I shut my eyes, allowing silence to flow in from the immense bowl of air surrounding me. I mark the steady hiss of old age in my ears, year by year more prominent. I listen to the quiet babbling of a little finger of water that springs out of the grass at my left hand. I hear a tiny music filled with an endless, liquid "el-el-el." And now, too, there is a stream of sibilants, a constant "shhh." And inside this are tinkling "t's" and the drip drop drip of "d's." Sound rushes through me; my body fills with sweetness. "A mantra," I think, "going on and on forever. Thousands of years before me. Thousands after."

          I look down smiling on my bubbling spring. For long minutes I watch the water float through my gaze, then swing my eyes back to the grass, a patchwork of many greens. Some clumps have blades as soft and fine as baby's hair. Near the turtle's nose, where spray leaps up, the grass is coarse, the broad blades drenched with trembling droplets. Everywhere, woven through the turf, tiny ferns raise their triangular fronds, and below them the buds of mosses cling to crumbs of moist soil. Higher up, on the tops of little hummocks where the summer sun has already dried out the soil, drought-resistant grasses, tough and wiry, turn to brown and gray.

          I breathe deep into my belly. My head is sky. My feet are earth. My buttocks granite. My mind and body fill with the great cirque, taste its eternity. Every passing season is a heartbeat, each revolving year the ebb and flow of breath.

          Then I think I hear Tom or Fred hailing me. I raise my eyes, look about, and find only a tiny gnat flying around my head. It's no bigger than a pinhead, but its buzz, here in this amphitheater of rarefied air, sounds almost like a distant human shout. Slowly, I look up across a mile of air to the thin white thread of water plunging down from the base of Pingora, then beyond to the wild circle of peaks beneath which Cirque Lake lies.

          "It's the Grail," I think. "Surely at that last Passover supper, the gods transformed the vessel from which he drank. Those dull disciples saw him raising to his lips an ordinary cup. But Jesus, amazed to find he drank sweet wine from a bowl of mountains, knew suddenly he could bear the cross. Or maybe, after all, it's the jagged dome of some ancient buddha's skull. Left over from an age when the buddhas were all giants. And this precious relic was carelessly dropped, lost by some thoughtless disciple."

          The next morning dawns clear and fine. As we cook breakfast over a small fire, we plan our pilgrimage. "We can pack a lunch and head up later today," I suggest. "You never know what weather might roll in tomorrow. We're only in the Cirque for three more days."

          “Let's get with it, then, right after breakfast," says Tom. "No shilly-shallying and fussing with gear."

          An hour later we're dropping down four hundred feet to cross over a wide, mushy meadow that lies on the flank of the broad waterfall. We balance from stone to stone through the shallow waters at its top, then start up the drainage on the other side. As it steepens, the creek turns into many terraced basins. Caught on the precipitous hillside, the waters pulse and flow, pooling between lips of rock and turf. Each step upward touches heaven. I lose myself in the twisting watercourse, balancing step by step as close to each quivering pool as I can.

          "Come on, Storlie," Tom yells after half an hour of slow progress. "Shake a leg. At this rate, we'll never get there."

          "Okay, okay," I say. "But remember, when we get there I expect you guys to join me in a nice swim."

          "I seriously doubt it," says Tom.

          "Maybe," says Fred. "I reserve judgment.”

          Fred and Tom move on ahead of me up through steeper and steeper rock. Then suddenly we're all three at the top. Cirque Lake is a thousand feet long and half that wide. It's held by sheer granite cliffs and steep boulder fields. At the far end a great snowfield sweeps down from cliffs and into the water. Dozens of icebergs, each a few feet high, float lazily, their whiteness turning to a glacial blue in the depths. Mirrored at our feet on the tranquil surface, the peaks soar in a circle around our heads.

          Hot, sweaty, I quickly start pulling off my boots, then my clothes.

          "You're nuts," Tom says. "What do you think that floating white stuff is out there?"

          Fred laughs. He sits down and begins unlacing his boots. "Come on, Tom. After five days, you need this bath."

          Naked, we enter the water quickly, walking out on big slabs of shelving granite. We know if we hesitate, we’ll never do it. We scream as we hit the water, the echoes flying back and forth in the circle of peaks. Within a minute, we're stretched out on flat rocks in the sun—chilled, numb, and panting.

          "God, we've done it," I exclaim. "We've found the Grail. What a day. What a beautiful day."

          Tom agrees. "It's hard to top."

          And now, Fred points out, it’s time for lunch. And so it is.

Erik Storlie studied with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Dainin Katagiri Roshi, helping to found the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, where he currently serves on the board of directors. He is author of Nothing on my Mind: Berkeley, LSD, Two Zen Masters, and a Life on the Dharma Trail

Earth's Original Face, Erik Storlie, Shambhala Sun, March 2001.

Meeting Shuddup Lama Print


Meeting Shuddup Lama


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?”

“Well, yes.”

“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 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. 

Meeting Shuddup Lama, Paul Maxwell, Shambhala Sun, March 2001.

Nothing But the Present Print

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.

Utterly Simple, Toni Packer, Shambhala Sun, March 2001.

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