The Buddhist approach to contemplation: che gom and jok gom

I am presently on my way back home from a six week retreat with my teacher Sogyal Rinpoche at Lerab Ling, France. Right now I am visiting family in Munich and in a few days I will return back home to Hawaii. As you may have noticed it has been a little challenging to keep up the continuity of my blog postings. I am very happy that I found some space today to write a new post. I concluded my last post by saying that I wanted to write next about what the essence of Buddhist practice is. (Over the last few months I have been working on clarifying and simplifying my practice. My last two posts were on what is the essence of Buddhism is and what enlightenment is about.)

With regards to what the essence of Buddhist practice is, two points stand out for me. First we need to understand what the goal of practice is. Second we need to know how to practice. This post is about the first, on how we can arrive at a good understanding of what the teachings are about. I already wrote about how this is explained, but just hearing or reading the explanation is not enough. Why? The teachings are actually not aiming to provide intellectual understanding but a personal experience of what is true.

Lerab Ling, Sogyal Rinpoche’s international retreat center in the South of France – by Heinz Nowotny

How can we arrive at a personal experience of the teachings? We need to use the three wisdom tools of listening, reflection and application. As we apply these three wisdom tools things will slowly become clearer through reflection and then when we bring that understanding to our practice it will become a personal experience. As a result we slowly arrive at a deeper inner conviction of the truth of the teachings. Isn’t it interesting that the Tibetan the word of practice means to take to heart?

The first step of is to reflect. But how do we do that? In the Buddhist tradition there are some wonderful and special teachings on how to reflect and I thought I could share how reflection helps me in my practice.
When I sit down to practice in the morning right after I wake up, my mind is usually a little dull and likes to ponder questions like: What is Buddhism about? What is Buddha nature? What is the main point of practice? Even though the questions stay the same the answers that come to my mind are always a little different. Depending on how my mind and my mood is I need a different explanation. There are no precooked answers, because these questions are explained in the teachings in many different ways. Why? Buddhism is about realizing how reality is. This truth is beyond words, beyond thought and beyond description. So the teachings are like a finger pointing towards the moon. The point is to see the moon. There is only one moon, but there are many ways to point towards the moon. That’s why there are so many different ways to explain the same point.

What I find really wonderful is that even as a beginner we can already get little glimpses of the moon.  By glimpses of the moon I mean having moments of inspiration, deep inner conviction and clarity. When this happens I stop reflecting and just rest. The teachings advise that when the reflection has helped our minds to settle, when we arrive at an experience of inspiration or clarity, or if we get tired of reflecting, then we just rest in an open and spacious state of mind. My teachers have explained that this feeling of spaciousness is a little experience of shunyatha, emptiness.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche in Lerab Ling 2007

One of my teachers, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, once remarked he finds that for Westerns it is often very difficult to meditate straight away. Our minds are very agitated because our posture is not good, our breathing is not natural and relaxed, our muscles are tight and tense. All these factors affect the flow of our subtle energy. The mind is compared to a rider which rides on the horse. Our mind rides on the inner air (prana) that flows through a system of subtle channels in our body. Thus the inner air (prana) is compared to a horse and the road on which this horse travels on are the subtle channels in our body. When our energy is all blocked and disturbed, our minds become wild and it becomes very difficult to meditate.

When Tibetan teachers first began to teach Westerners Shamatha meditation, – the first level of meditation, which tries to bring a state of calm abiding or peacefully remaining – they were initially quite concerned whether Westerners would be able to accomplish this practice. Apparently their students finally managed it, but it took a long time because their minds were initially so wild and unsettled. I think that is why Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche advises his students to begin with contemplation. Once our heart opens, for example when we feel inspired, or experience compassion or devotion, then these obstructions in the flow of our inner energy dissolve and then we can practice much more easily.

In the Buddhist teaching reflection is explained as a two stage process. In one of the Rigpa courses it is explained like this: “The Tibetan terms for these two stages are “ché gom” and “jok gom.” “Ché” roughly means “analytical” or “investigative,” and “gom” means “meditation. “Jok” roughly means “resting,” but it is much more than just ordinary resting. You could think of these two phases of ché gom and jok gom as something like “exploring” and “assimilating.”

The way to practice it is to go forth and back between the two. You contemplate until you arrive at a point of clarity, inspiration, or personal experience of what you are reflecting on, or until you feel tired of reflecting and then you simply rest in an open spacious state of mind until your thoughts naturally come back. Then you continue reflecting and so on.

I have a very busy mind, my body tends to be tense and my breathing shallow and uneven, so this approach works really well for me. Once reflection has brought some inspiration, peace or clarity then it has served its purpose and it is time to drop it, because the main point of practice is to rest in an open and spacious state of mind.

Reflecting this way helps us to come to a personal understanding of the teaching. My next post will be about the essence of how to practice.

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Ordinary Enlightenment

Since the aim of Buddhist practice is to attain enlightenment, it might be good to ask: What is enlightenment? Enlightenment is a very misunderstood and misused word in the modern world.  Often it is talked about as some far out special experience. But actually, as I understand it, the heart of enlightenment is just about becoming a true human being. What might it be like? Maybe the sense of clarity, wisdom, peace and warmheartedness that we can feel in the presence of a realized beings can give us a taste of what enlightenment might be like. For example, I know of many people, including myself, who had this kind of experience in the presence of the Dalai Lama. I have also personally experienced this in the presence of my teachers many times. These teachers convey the sense that enlightenment is something natural and undramatic.

My teacher Sogyal Rinpoche is not easily impressed when students have dramatic experiences in their spiritual practice. There is nothing wrong with having experiences. They are part of spiritual practice. My teacher tells us again and again that it is very important to stay grounded and not get attached to them. Over the years I have seen how Sogyal Rinpoche trains us by giving us a deep experiences of the truth of the teachings that is beyond concepts and, but is cutting again and again our attachment to the more dramatic emotional and conceptual aspect of experiences like bliss, clarity and absence of thoughts. He has a special was conveying a personal experience of our nature that is beyond words or description. On the one hand, he is showing this again and again. On the other hand, he tirelessly works with our egos and habits and cuts every aspect of solidifying these experiences or getting attached to them. What really impresses him is when someone’s basic character changes a little to the better. That may sound simple, but is not an easy task!

Tertön Sogyal, Lerab Lingpa

He once told us about his predecessor Tertön Sogyal, who was the teacher to the 13th Dalai Lama. He was a very powerful master who was known for his miracles. However, Tertön Sogyal was not impressed if someone was able to make a ceiling into floor or fire into water. He was impressed if someone was able to purify one negative emotion. Then he considered that person a really miraculous person. My teacher explained that this is like saying I take my hat off to someone who’s able to transform one negative emotion. The teachings say if you’re able to transform one negative emotion into wisdom, then all the Buddhas will come and prostrate to you.

Once Sogyal Rinpoche asked a student of another teacher who had just completed a three year retreat about what she had realized. She told him that she had hoped to change more, but after the retreat she noticed that she found it easier to live with the things she had hoped to change in herself. Rinpoche was very impressed by that person’s accomplishment.

I recently returned to Lerab Ling, the Rigpa retreat center in France where about 300 people had spent three years virtually in seclusion to follow an extensive program of study and practice. Many great teachers came and visited us during that time. For example, Tsoknyi Rinponche, a well known Dzogchen teacher, visited us several times during the retreat and gave us some very special teachings and advice. On one of his visits he walked to the top of the hill that overlooks the land where we stayed. He was very moved. The way he said it was that he “cried inside” because he was so happy to see so many people devote themselves to spiritual practice and use their precious human birth so meaningfully.

Lerab Ling, Rigpa's International Retreat center in the South of France

I was at the retreat for the entire period, but because of health problems unfortunately I wasn’t able to participate as fully as I had wished. I was a little sad about that at the end because, like the person in the story above, I had hoped to accomplish more and change a little more than I felt I did. When the program concluded, I remember remarking to myself one day that I didn’t really see a lot of change in my friends either. I was a little disappointed and thought to myself that although three years are quite a long time and we genuinely tried to change, apparently its was not enough time to accomplish much. This was a humbling observation which made me realize how difficult it is to change. However, it did not diminish my trust in the Buddhist teachings. It just made me realize we need to keep practicing more.

When I came back this summer I saw a lot of my friends for the first time after being away for 9 months. Most of them I have known for many years. Over time I had gotten to know all their little human quirks and idiosyncrasies that make our personal character, but also cause a lot of the drama in our lives. Initially I didn’t see a lot of obvious changes. After a few days it began to strike me that many of my friends, seemed more simple and natural. A lot of their quirks had vanished, their faces were more clear and they radiated a quiet natural happiness and contentment. It made me very happy to see that they had obviously become more decent genuine human beings. It gave me hope that we can all change.

Here is a passage from chapter four of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche from a section entitled “The Promise of Enlightenment”:

“Enlightenment, as I have said, is real; and each of us, whoever we are, can in the right circumstances and with the right training realize the nature of mind and so know in us what is deathless and eternally pure. This is the promise of all the mystical traditions of the world, and it has been fulfilled and is being fulfilled in countless thousands of human lives.

The wonder of this promise is that it is something not exotic, not fantastic, not for an elite, but for all of humanity; and when we realize it, the masters tell us, it is unexpectedly ordinary. Spiritual truth is not something elaborate and esoteric, it is in fact profound common sense. When you realize the nature of mind, layers of confusion peel away. You don’t actually “become” a buddha, you simply cease, slowly, to be deluded. And being a buddha is not being some omnipotent spiritual superman, but becoming at last a true human being.”

In one of my next posts I want to write about the essence of Buddhist practice. What do we need to so that our practice is genuine authentic practice which will successfully bring us to enlightenment.

Posted in Buddha, Buddha nature, Buddhism, zz HH Dalai Lama, zz Sogyal Rinpoche, zz Tsoknyi Rinpoche | Tagged , | 2 Comments

What is Buddhism about?

My wife just started teaching an online course introducing Buddhism. We had a few conversations about it which inspired me to reflect on this topic myself and start a new thread on this blog. The Buddhist teachings are very vast and profound and I often get lost in their richness. It is easy to forget what the main point and essence of Buddhism is. I hope reflecting on it will help remind me!

When my teacher Sogyal Rinpoche explains what Buddhism is about, he often begins by pointing out that in Tibet Buddhists actually don’t call themselves Buddhists. Only others call them Buddhists! In Tibet other people call Buddhists “Sangyepa”, which means followers of the Buddha, whereas Buddhist practitioners call themselves “Nangpa” which means someone that is looking for the truth inside. He says this very humorously and jokingly and makes everyone chuckle and laugh, but actually I find that it is a very profound statement and that there is a lot to understand in it.

Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with calling a Buddhist practitioner a follower of the Buddha. It is a true statement. However, the word “follower” might give the impression that Buddhism requires us to accept a certain view of the world and to follow rules of behavior that were given by the Buddha.

The second statement that the aim of Buddhist practice is to discover what is true about this world is a much better description of what Buddhism is about. It makes it clear that the Buddhist teachings are not a dogma, but that they lay out a path through which we can personally discover the truth.

Sky over the stupa next to the temple at Lerab Ling, France by Heinz Nowotny

That’s why the Buddha told his disciples not to blindly follow his teachings but test them and verify them through their own experience like a goldsmith tests the purity of gold. For example, in one his public talks my teacher Sogyal Rinpoche once explained that:

“The Buddha himself urged us not follow his teachings out of love or respect for him, but to discover their truth for ourselves, as if we were “analyzing gold, scorching, cutting, and rubbing it to test its purity”

Of course, it initially requires some trust and give ourselves a chance to examine the teachings. At first, we need to give them the benefit of the doubt. If we do not  listen to the teachings, reflect on them so that we understand them correctly and then practice applying them in our meditation and into our lives, we will not be able to accomplish the practice correctly and personally experience the truth directly in our being.

So what is this truth that Buddhist are looking for? It is simply about discovering how things truly are. Buddha nature refers to “our” nature. It is the most simple and natural thing we can imagine. It is what we see when we are able to see clearly how things are without distortion. All beings have this nature, but unfortunately at the moment we can’t see it because it is obscured.

Buddha means “Awakened One” and was given to a person named Siddhartha after he fully and irreversibly realized the ultimate truth. He found that realizing the true nature of our being brings suffering and dissatisfaction to an end once and for all and gives rise to freedom and lasting happiness.

Thus Buddhism is not a system of believes we need to subscribe to, but about investigating how reality really is. That’s why Buddhism can be looked at as a philosophy, religion, science of mind, way of life. It is not something Buddha invented, but about the true nature of things.

How is this nature? It is limitless, timeless, beyond birth and death, wise, self-knowing and alive, naturally manifesting and acting compassionately. That’s why the essence of the Buddhist teachings is said to be wisdom and compassion.

There is another important point in the word “Nangpa”. It says that we are looking for the truth inside. Why inside? Because this truth is not something we can obtain outside. It is discovered by understanding our mind, by realizing the nature of our mind which is also said to be the nature of everything.

Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche at Rigpa Summer Retreat in the Pyrenees/France, August 1986 by Heinz Nowotny

Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, one of the foremost holders of the Dzogchen teachings in our time and one of the main teachers of my own teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, who I had the good fortune to meet several times myself, used to say again and again that the main point of the teaching of the Buddha can be essentialized in one line: To train and tame or transform our mind!

What makes someone a Buddhist is taking refuge in the three jewels. Sogyal Rinpoche sometimes jokes that these jewels are not diamond, ruby and emerald but refer to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Refuge is explained as seeking protection from fear and compared to a child that is chased by a wild dog and is running for safety to its mother and climbs into her lap. What are we afraid of? The fear of suffering, dissatisfaction and pain that we have to face in our life. Illness, death are like the dogs that can wait in ambush around the corner, ready to chase and bite us if they manage to get us.

Buddha said that the place of refuge is the realization of our nature. If we come to the conclusion that the answers and solutions to life’s challenges that the Buddha found will help us then realizing our Buddha nature will become the mothers lap we are aiming at. If we can do that it is the ultimate refuge. But realistically speaking we need some help to get there.

Just as when we want to make a journey we need a guide who knows the way, instructions and guidance on what to do during the journey and the support of friends who want to reach the same destination. In the same way, when we wish to make a commitment to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha and to realize the truth he discovered, be it because of conviction that arose through careful reflection or deep inspiration, we begin by what is called taking refuge. So practically speaking, on a relative level, refuge is to take the Buddha as our guide, the Dharma, his teachings, as our guidance, and the Sangha, the community of practitioners as our company. Because it so precious to have a realized teacher, an authentic teaching and community of genuine practitioners these are called jewels.

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In my last posts I have been writing about how to find lasting happiness. Ultimately it can only be found if we recognize the nature of mind but on a relative level the practices of meditation, compassion and devotion can help us come closer to this realization.

I already posted passage on meditation and compassion from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. Here is  a collection of short passage on devotion from the same book:

Buddha said: “It is only through devotion, and devotion alone, that you will realize the absolute truth.”

“The absolute truth cannot be realized within the domain of the ordinary mind. And the path beyond the ordinary mind, all the great wisdom traditions have told us, is through the heart. This path of the heart is devotion.” (p.139)

“Real devotion .. is not mindless adoration; it is not abdication of your responsibility to yourself, nor undiscriminating following of another’s personality or whim. Real devotion is an unbroken receptivity to the truth. Real devotion is rooted in an awed and reverent gratitude, but one that is lucid, grounded, and intelligent.” (p.140)

“All the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and enlightened beings are present at all moments to help us, and it is through the presence of the master that all of their blessings are focused directly at us. Those who know Padmasambhava [who is considered to be the second Buddha by Tibetans] know the living truth of the promise he made over a thousand years ago: “I am never far from those with faith, or even from those without it, though they do not see me. My children will always, always, be protected by my compassion.”

All we need to do to receive direct help is to ask. Didn’t Christ also say: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you. Everyone that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth”? And yet asking is what we find hardest. Many of us, I feel, hardly know how to ask. Sometimes it is because we are arrogant, sometimes because we are unwilling to seek help, sometimes because we are lazy, sometimes our minds are so busy with questions, distractions, and confusion that the simplicity of asking does not occur to us. The turning point in any healing of alcoholics or drug addicts is when they admit their illness and ask for aid. In one way or another, we are all addicts of samsara; the moment when help can come for us is when we admit our addiction and simply ask.

Jikmé Gyalwé Nyugu (1765–1843) was one of the foremost disciples of Jikmé Lingpa and a teacher of Patrul Rinpoche.

What most of us need, almost more than anything, is the courage and humility really to ask for help, from the depths of our hearts: to ask for the compassion of the enlightened beings, to ask for purification and healing, to ask for the power to understand the meaning of our suffering and transform it; at a relative level to ask for the growth in our lives of clarity, of peace, of discernment, and to ask for the realization of the absolute nature of mind … ”

Devotion becomes the purest, quickest, and simplest way to realize the nature of our mind and all things. …

The teacher of Patrul Rinpoche was called Jikmé Gyalwé Nyugu. For many years he had been doing a solitary retreat in a cave in the mountains. One day when he came outside, the sun was pouring down; he gazed out into the sky and saw a cloud moving in the direction of where his master, Jikmé Lingpa, lived. The thought rose in his mind, “Over there is where my master is,” and with that thought a tremendous feeling of longing and devotion surged up in him. It was so strong, so shattering, that he fainted. When Jikmé Gyalwé Nyugu came to, the entire blessing of his master’s wisdom mind had been transmitted to him, and he had reached the highest stage of realization, what we call “the exhaustion of phenomenal reality.” (p.142-143)

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Bringing the Mind Home

In my last post I wrote that ultimate true happiness can only be found if we recognize the nature of mind but that on a relative level the practices of meditation, compassion and devotion can help us come closer to this realization.

Last time I already posted a passage on compassion from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. Here is one of my favorite passages on meditation from the same book:

“Over 2,500 years ago, a man who had been searching for the truth for many, many lifetimes came to a quiet place in northern India and sat down under a tree. He continued to sit under the tree, with immense resolve, and vowed not to get up until he had found the truth. At dusk, it is said, he conquered all the dark forces of delusion; and early the next morning, as the star Venus broke in the dawn sky, the man was rewarded for his age-long patience, discipline, and flawless concentration by achieving the final goal of human existence, enlightenment. At that sacred moment, the earth itself shuddered, as if “drunk with bliss,” and as the scriptures tell us, “No one anywhere was angry, ill, or sad; no one did evil, none was proud; the world became quite quiet, as though it had reached full perfection.” This man became known as the Buddha. Here is the Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful description of the Buddha’s enlightenment:

Buddha Shakyamuni

Gautama felt as though a prison which had confined him for thousands of lifetimes had broken open. Ignorance had been the jailkeeper. Because of ignorance, his mind had been obscured, just like the moon and stars hidden by the storm clouds. Clouded by endless waves of deluded thoughts, the mind had falsely divided reality into subject and object, self and others, existence and non-existence, birth and death, and from these discriminations arose wrong views–the prisons of feelings, craving, grasping, and becoming. The suffering of birth, old age, sickness, and death only made the prison walls thicker. The only thing to do was to seize the jailkeeper and see his true face. The jailkeeper was ignorance. . . .  Once the jailkeeper was gone, the jail would disappear and never be rebuilt again.

What the Buddha saw was that ignorance of our true nature is the root of all the torment of samsara, and the root of ignorance itself is our mind’s habitual tendency to distraction. To end the mind’s distraction would be to end samsara itself; the key to this, he realized, is to bring the mind home to its true nature, through the practice of meditation.

The Buddha sat in serene and humble dignity on the ground, with the sky above him and around him, as if to show us that in meditation you sit with an open, sky-like attitude of mind, yet remain present, earthed, and grounded. The sky is our absolute nature, which has no barriers and is boundless, and the ground is our reality, our relative, ordinary condition. The posture we take when we meditate signifies that we are linking absolute and relative, sky and ground, heaven and earth, like two wings of a bird, integrating the sky-like deathless nature of mind and the ground of our transient, mortal nature.

The gift of learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this life. For it is only through meditation that you can undertake the journey to discover your true nature, and so find the stability and confidence you will need to live, and die, well. Meditation is the road to enlightenment.” (p.57-58)

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A deeper happiness based on inner peace and contentment

Many Buddhist teachings begin with the statement that all beings want to be happy, but that unfortunately they are looking for happiness outside and fail to understand that true happiness can only be found inside. The goal of Buddhist practice is to find a deeper happiness which is based on inner peace and contentment. This peace is not something we can obtain or get. It arises naturally when we know ourselves. So it is just a question of getting rid of what obscures our innate capacity to know. It is about awakening from being lost in the appearances and activities of our mind. Sometimes this is spoken of a new level of consciousness. Mind is waking up to its natural, pure, open and self-aware being.

While ultimately this natural great peace arises from the recognition of our true nature, the nature of mind, the teachings explains that on a relative level there are practices that bring us closer to this are meditation, compassion and devotion.

Whatever topic I am reflecting on, I always find that The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche seems to be an inexhaustible source of inspiring passages on every imaginable topic of the Buddhist teachings. Here is a passage that explains wonderfully how compassion can help us find real happiness:

“The logic of compassion
We all feel and know something of the benefits of compassion. But the particular strength of the Buddhist teaching is that it shows you clearly a “logic” of compassion. Once you have grasped it, this logic makes your practice of compassion at once more urgent and all-embracing, and more stable and grounded, because it is based on the clarity of a reasoning whose truth becomes ever more apparent as you pursue and test it.

We may say, and even half-believe, that compassion is marvelous, but in practice our actions are deeply uncompassionate and bring us and others mostly frustration and distress, and not the happiness we are all seeking.

Isn’t it absurd, then, that we all long for happiness, yet nearly all our actions and feelings lead us directly away from that happiness? Could there be any greater sign that our whole view of what real happiness is, and of how to attain it, is radically flawed?

What do we imagine will make us happy? A canny, selfseeking, resourceful selfishness, the selfish protection of ego, which can, as we all know, make us at moments extremely brutal. But in fact the complete reverse is true: Self-grasping and self-cherishing are seen, when you really look at them, to be the root of all harm to others, and also of all harm to ourselves.1

Every single negative thing we have ever thought or done has ultimately arisen from our grasping at a false self, and our cherishing of that false self, making it the dearest and most important element in our lives. All those negative thoughts, emotions, desires, and actions that are the cause of our negative karma are engendered by self-grasping and self-cherishing. They are the dark, powerful magnet that attracts to us, life after life, every obstacle, every misfortune, every anguish, every disaster, and so they are the root cause of all the sufferings of samsara.

Sogyal Rinpoche with his master Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö

When we have really grasped the law of karma in all its stark power and complex reverberations over many, many lifetimes, and seen just how our self-grasping and self-cherishing, life after life, have woven us repeatedly into a net of ignorance that seems only to be ensnaring us more and more tightly; when we have really understood the dangerous and doomed nature of the self-grasping mind’s enterprise; when we have really pursued its operations into their most subtle hiding places; when we have really understood just how our whole ordinary mind and actions are defined, narrowed, and darkened by it, how almost impossible it makes it for us to uncover the heart of unconditional love, and how it has blocked in us all sources of real love and real compassion, then there comes a moment when we understand, with extreme and poignant clarity, what Shantideva said:

If all the harms
Fears and sufferings in the world
Arise from self-grasping,
What need have I for such a great evil spirit?

and a resolution is born in us to destroy that evil spirit, our greatest enemy. With that evil spirit dead, the cause of all our suffering will be removed, and our true nature, in all its spaciousness and dynamic generosity, will shine out.

You can have no greater ally in this war against your greatest enemy, your own self-grasping and self-cherishing, than the practice of compassion. It is compassion, dedicating ourselves to others, taking on their suffering instead of cherishing ourselves, that hand in hand with the wisdom of egolessness destroys most effectively and most completely that ancient attachment to a false self that has been the cause of our endless wandering in samsara. That is why in our tradition we see compassion as the source and essence of enlightenment, and the heart of enlightened activity. As Shantideva says:

What need is there to say more?
The childish work for their own benefit,
The buddhas work for the benefit of others.
Just look at the difference between them.

If I do not exchange my happiness
For the suffering of others,
I shall not attain the state of buddhahood
And even in samsara I shall have no real joy.2

To realize what I call the wisdom of compassion is to see with complete clarity its benefits, as well as the damage that its opposite has done to us. We need to make a very clear distinction between what is in our ego’s self-interest and what is in our ultimate interest; it is from mistaking one for the other that all our suffering comes. We go on stubbornly believing that self-cherishing is the best protection in life, but in fact the opposite is true. Self-grasping creates self-cherishing, which in turn creates an ingrained aversion to harm and suffering. However, harm and suffering have no objective existence; what gives them their existence and their power is only our aversion to them. When you understand this, you understand then that it is our aversion, in fact, that attracts to us every negativity and obstacle that can possibly happen to us, and fills our lives with nervous anxiety, expectation, and fear. Wear down that aversion by wearing down the self-grasping mind and its attachment to a nonexistent self, and you will wear down any hold on you that any obstacle and negativity can have. For how can you attack someone or something that is just not there?

It is compassion, then, that is the best protection; it is also, as the great masters of the past have always known, the source of all healing.” (p. 192-194)

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The wisdom that realizes egolessness

I am finding it very helpful to reflect on how ego works. When I reflect on the teachings I always try to combine intellectual understanding with personal experience of what is said. In the Buddhist teachings this process of assimilation is described as the “Three wisdom tools.” First we need to learn through the ‘listening and hearing’, then we need to gain understanding through “reflection and contemplation”, and finally we need to free our minds through “application and meditation”.

Recently I have been reflecting why emotions like desire, anger and indifference (or ignorance) are considered to be destructive emotions and how that relates to ego. For example, when I feel desire it gives rise to a strong sense “I want”. With anger there is a strong sense of “I don’t want” and with indifference “I don’t care”. In that way these emotions feed my false sense of self.

Actually, the emotions themselves are not the problem but how they give rise to ego and become an addictive habit. It is not the thing we want but the addiction to the wanting something. As soon as one want is satisfied, the habit of wanting looks for another target.

Why am I addicted to wanting? Because it gives me a sense of self and I am craving to feel this sense of “I”. Whenever there is a sense of “I want” in my mind, I get a short experience of high. Similarly “I don’t want” or “I don’t care” feed this false self. Even being angry at someone reinforces it. No wonder these emotions are called the three poisons! They poison my mind by feeding a false sense of self!

A few days ago I came across a very insightful passage from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, that brilliantly describes the workings of ego:

“I sometimes wonder what a person from a little village in Tibet would feel if you suddenly brought him to a modern city with all its sophisticated technology. He would probably think he had already died and was in the bardo state. He would gape incredulously at the planes flying in the sky above him, or at someone talking on the telephone to another person on the other side of the world. He would assume he was witnessing miracles. And yet all this seems normal to someone living in the modern world with a Western education, which explains the scientific background to these things, step by step.

Sogyal Rinpoche translating for Kyabjé Dudjom Rinpoche in the 1980’s

In just the same way, in Tibetan Buddhism there is a basic, normal, elementary spiritual education, a complete spiritual training for the natural bardo of this life, which gives you the essential vocabulary, the ABC of the mind. The bases of this training are what are called the “three wisdom tools”: the wisdom of listening and hearing; the wisdom of contemplation and reflection; and the wisdom of meditation. Through them we are brought to reawaken to our true nature, through them we uncover and come to embody the joy and freedom of what we truly are, what we call “the wisdom of egolessness.”

Imagine a person who suddenly wakes up in hospital after a road accident to find she is suffering from total amnesia. Outwardly, everything is intact: she has the same face and form, her senses and her mind are there, but she doesn’t have any idea or any trace of a memory of who she really is. In exactly the same way, we cannot remember our true identity, our original nature. Frantically, and in real dread, we cast around and improvise another identity, one we clutch onto with all the desperation of someone falling continuously into an abyss. This false and ignorantly assumed identity is “ego.”

So ego, then, is the absence of true knowledge of who we really are, together with its result: a doomed clutching on, at all costs, to a cobbled together and makeshift image of ourselves, an inevitably chameleon charlatan self that keeps changing and has to, to keep alive the fiction of its existence. In Tibetan ego is called dak dzin, which means “grasping to a self.” Ego is then defined as incessant movements of grasping at a delusory notion of “I” and “mine,” self and other, and all the concepts, ideas, desires, and activity that will sustain that false construction. Such a grasping is futile from the start and condemned to frustration, for there is no basis or truth in it, and what we are grasping at is by its very nature ungraspable. The fact that we need to grasp at all and go on and on grasping shows that in the depths of our being we know that the self does not inherently exist. From this secret, unnerving knowledge spring all our fundamental insecurities and fear.

So long as we haven’t unmasked the ego, it continues to hoodwink us, like a sleazy politician endlessly parading bogus promises, or a lawyer constantly inventing ingenious lies and defenses, or a talk show host going on and on talking, keeping up a stream of suave and emptily convincing chatter, which actually says nothing at all.

Lifetimes of ignorance have brought us to identify the whole of our being with ego. Its greatest triumph is to inveigle us into believing its best interests are our best interests, and even into identifying our very survival with its own. This is a savage irony, considering that ego and its grasping are at the root of all our suffering. Yet ego is so convincing, and we have been its dupe for so long, that the thought that we might ever become egoless terrifies us. To be egoless, ego whispers to us, is to lose all the rich romance of being human, to be reduced to a colorless robot or a brain-dead vegetable.

Ego plays brilliantly on our fundamental fear of losing control, and of the unknown. We might say to ourselves: “I should really let go of ego, I’m in such pain; but if I do, what’s going to happen to me?”

Ego will chime in, sweetly: “I know I’m sometimes a nuisance, and believe me, I quite understand if you want me to leave. But is that really what you want? Think: If I do go, what’s going to happen to you? Who will look after you? Who will protect and care for you like I’ve done all these years?”

And even if we were to see through ego’s lies, we are just too scared to abandon it; for without any true knowledge of the nature of our mind, or true identity, we simply have no other alternative. Again and again we cave in to its demands with the same sad self-hatred as the alcoholic feels reaching for the drink that he knows is destroying him, or the drug addict groping for the drug that she knows after a brief high will only leave her flat and desperate.” (p. 120-121)

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Getting to know ego

My last post was about how ego operates. One aspect of understanding ego is with the intellect and the other is to experience how this unconscious identification with a false sense of self is happening in myself.  The first aspect is challenging enough but to actually be aware of my ego and being able to see it directly in myself is something I find even more difficult.

Conceptual understanding is of course very important but it is like learning the theory of swimming, the technique and the different strokes e.t.c., and is not the swimming itself. Reading a lot about it isn’t really enough to be able to swim in the water. However, for some people it is crucial to first understand the properties of the water, so they can arrive at a confidence that floating on top of the water is possible. But that is just a first step, to help us find the courage to step into the water, and not the swimming itself. So it is important to keep in mind the difference between theory and practice. Understanding something does not necessarily mean being able to do it. The 19th century master Patrul Rinpoche compared the mistake of thinking you have realized something when you just understood it intellectually with reading a dance manual and thinking you are dancing.

The Yamantaka near Dzogchen monastery cave where Patrul Rinpoche did personal retreat

That’s why I am trying to go forth and back between both trying to understand as well as experiencing ego in my being. With respect to what ego feels like, I have sometimes been able to notice how there is a vague sense of “I am”. It is almost an unconscious identification with what I am doing, feeling, thinking.

This sense of self seems to be created by unconscious identification with the activity and appearances in my mind, rather than the nature of how my mind is. The problem is not “what” I am doing, feeling and thinking, but the “I” because it is a false sense of self. My ego self is defining what I am by creating a mental image based on my personal and cultural conditioning. The sense of “I” is not something real, objective or truly existing, but quite subjective, transient and one could even say irrational. It is based on both past and future and not the present and what truly is. For example, how I think of myself is based on what happened to me in the past. These events and experiences happened because of many causes and conditions and have nothing to do with my inherent self.

My ego is also constantly looking into the future. Most of the day my mind is not with what I am doing in the moment, but with hope of future fulfillment. I might be driving to Lodeve (which is the closest town to Lerab Ling, the Rigpa retreat center in the South of France where I am right now.), but I don’t really care much about the driving. I just want to be in Lodeve, and my mind is in the future, already in Lodeve, and preoccupied with thoughts and ideas of being there. That’s why being in the present is such a powerful practice. It is the direct antidote to living in the past and future. How could ego be, if I don’t let my awareness get lost and absorbed in past or future thoughts? How could ego feed itself if am fully aware of what I am doing and what is happening right now?

During the last week I also started to ask myself: Why does ego arise? Why do I identify with a false sense of self? I seem to have a deep inner yearning to know myself, or maybe better said, to know “what I am”. When I am present and aware of the natural sense of being that is my true nature —which is something beyond words concepts and description — then this unconscious identification cannot take place. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen a lot. When I am out of touch with this innate knowing, in which there is a natural certainty and confidence of who or what I am, my mind starts looking for an identity and ends up identifying with something that is not really me. My awareness then gets lost in this process and I seem to lack the insight and intelligence to tell the difference between my true being and a false sense of self. It  is a very subtle process, and it is not easy to know the difference between what is my true and false self. Why? Because my mind’s clarity is already clouded and impaired. Imagine how difficult it might be to distinguish a genuine dollar bill from a fake in dim light. In the same way, at first glance the false sense of self we call “ego” looks and feels like the real thing!

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How does ego work?

I am trying to understand better how ego works. The Tibetan word for ego is Dak Dzin. Dak means “self” and Dzin “to grasp”,  and put together it means grasping at a self. In particular, the teachings say that it refers to grasping at or identifying with a false sense of self.

In the Buddhist teachings the fact that our ordinary sense of self is false is called “emptiness of self” or “egolessness”. When I reflect on and try to understand this truth I always find it helpful to look at this from two sides: to understand how things are, but also to understand how I got deluded in the first place. Today I want to focus on the second.

How does this false sense of self come about?  I recently heard a nice description of how children develop their identity. In the beginning, babies seem to neither have an idea of name or an “I”. By the way, this sometimes brings up the question whether a childlike  state of mind is enlightenment. I have heard my teacher explain that even though it is a very pure and innocent state of mind, children are not able to recognize their inherent nature. Therefore, sorry, the answer is no. Now, back to how the sense of self is formed.

In the first stage, even before there is an idea of “I”,  children start to relate to themselves with their name. For example, after hearing their parents to refer to them with a name, a baby might say “Baba is hungry”, “Baba go here” (… yes you guessed right, “Baba” is how I used to call myself as a baby!) First the children get the idea that the name “Baba” refers to themselves and then in the next stage they adopt that name as their identity, as their sense of self. They start to use “I” to refer to themselves. Then slowly all the attributes and qualities of their person become their identity. We define ourselves by how we are: I am short / tall, skinny / overweight, intelligent / stupid, beautiful / ugly e.t.c. We say: I have blue / green /brown eyes, I am dressed nicely / shoddily. Our education, profession, friends, cultural and social conditioning begins to define ourselves and determines how we think of ourselves.

When we feel good, we say “I feel good” and if not “I feel bad”. The feeling becomes adopted as our identity. Interestingly, there is a sense that our identity is always the same, we ignore the fact that all these attributes that we make our identity change all the time. It seems to me this one of the reasons why such an approach to happiness doesn’t work. We think happiness is to make feeling good our identity, but that feeling good is just a fleeting state of mind and can’t possibly last. Over time we develop a strong habit to identify with our feelings or thoughts or judgements. When feeling good inevitably changes to something unpleasant, then our sense of identity has no choice but to change to “I am feeling bad”.

One thing that is funny is that ego is not very consistent. For example when we have a headache, sometimes we says “I am sick”, and sometimes and we say “my head hurts”.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche

One of my teachers Tsoknyi Rinpoche describes the process of how our mind becomes deluded with the example of looking at a flower. The first moment you see a flower, you see it purely, just as it is, without judgement. But then the next moment mind comes in and starts to label the flower and then to evaluate and judge. It gives it attributes like: tall stem, green leaves, yellow blossoms, smells like lavender, this is a flower. The next step is to either say “I like it” or “I don’t like it”.  If we liked it, we say “I want it”. Then we take action: we pluck the flower and take it home. Or, if we don’t like the smell, we say “I don’t want to smell this” and do what we can to get it as far away from us as possible.

All these reactions take on a life of their own. In the process of identifying with this false sense of self our awareness gets completely absorbed into the forms we identify with. Our mind gets lost in this process. Our pure awareness which has the ability to look at things with wisdom and clarity gets covered up and when this happens we loose our freedom. Our often irrational feelings, judgments, habits and unconscious reactions start running us and our lives.

The way to come back to our true selves and to regain our freedom begins with coming back to this pure consciousness that can see things as they are. How can we do that? By refocusing our awareness on the present moment? If we can simply learn to be present and be aware of the thoughts, feelings, and impulses in our mind, this process of investing our identity with them will no longer be able to happen. In the light of this pure and natural awareness we will be able to see the transient nature of all these arisings. We can see that these risings are in flux. They take form, stay for a while and then dissolve. In that presence of awareness there is also an understanding that our true being is simply open pure awareness, insubstantial, and without a concrete identity.

When the cognizant aspect of our mind — the aspect that can know — recognizes its own nature, there is a natural sense of being and sense of knowing oneself. When our cognizance is not able to recognize what it is, then it feels the need to find an identity and unfortunately gets entangled and lost in the forms it identifies with.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

The great master Tulku Urgyen always used to say:

“Samsara is mind turned outwardly, lost in its projections. Nirvana is mind turned inwardly, recognizing its nature.”

In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche wrote that, “we have to understand, the buddhas took one path and we took another. The buddhas recognize their original nature and become enlightened; we do not recognize that nature and so become confused. In the teachings, this state of affairs is called “One Ground, Two Paths.”

In Tibetan the pure and pristine awareness of nowness that can see things as they are is called Rigpa, and awareness that is obscured and deluded is called Marigpa, usually translated as ignorance.

What we need to do is to recognize our natural pure awareness and then reconnect with it. Meditation is often described as “getting used to”. If we are able to simply be aware, we become like a light in which the darkness of identification with a false sense of self naturally dissolves. We need to decide that this is the way to become free and make a choice to strive to develop this natural presence.

I find it quite difficult to remain in my natural pure awareness. My habits of grasping and feeling attachment to what feels good and aversion to what doesn’t are very strong. That’s why in meditation we try to develop a deeper equanimity and even mindedness. My teacher Sogyal Rinpoche always says that we need to be like a charming hostess who is able and willing to accommodate even the most difficult guests. The Zen master Suzuki Roshi used to say “The best way to control cow and sheep is to give them a big grazing field. Some risings might stay for a while, and it might seem they will never go away but we need to have complete confidence that they will eventually naturally dissolve when their karma is exhausted.

Another very important point is that being in our natural and pure awareness is not just a solitary state that is removed from life, but that it can be integrated into all aspects of our lives. We can learn to perceive forms, sounds, smells, touch, tastes, thoughts or feelings with our full being. We can even act with our full being without loosing that deeper sense of awareness and presence. When difficulties arise we will then no longer take things personally. We will be able to deal with them with the understanding that they are not able to affect our deeper sense of being. When we experience negative emotions we can welcome them with understand that we are not our thoughts and emotions. Because of many causes and conditions these thoughts and emotions arise and will eventually dissolve.

When I study and reflect on the teachings, I find it so inspiring and encouraging that the solution is simply to be present in the face of whatever arises. It is not easy but it is very simple. We already have Buddha nature. There is no need to try to get something nor trying to get rid of something. We just need to reconnect with our fundamental nature which is already perfect in itself!

Posted in Meditation, Shunyata, zz Tsoknyi Rinpoche, zz Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Clarifying my practice

I arrived in Munich a few days ago after a week of traveling, and have been trying to rest and recover from the massive jet lag. I had hoped to make a few posts once I am here in Munich, and I have plenty of notes from my reflections, but I got stuck trying to get them finished. The main topic I have been reflecting on recently was how to clarify my practice. However, I had so many different thoughts about it that I didn’t know where to start or how to all put them into one coherent post. I decided to just wait and see. Finally I got fed up and decided to get this post written up. That approach worked, but it took me a couple of days to get it completed.

The reason I have been thinking so much about how to clarify and simplify my practice and how to be clear about the main points of the teachings is that I often get stuck and overwhelmed with all the details of the different teachings and practices. When that happens my practice feels incomplete and I yearn to bring everything into a clear and simple main point. At these times I usually ask myself questions like: What are the most important points about practice? How can I make sure that my practice will be successful?

There are two things that stand out for me: The right motivation and a clear understanding of the teachings

Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche

The right motivation
I believe that if I can be clear about my motivation, I won’t follow the path half heartedly. If one does something whole heartedly one will be much more effective and successful. That’s why I try to understand clearly why I am practicing and where I want to get to with my practice. The spiritual path seems like a journey to me. A journey requires having a goal or destination. In order to become interested in the journey, and to make a decision to embark on it, one needs to know where one wants to go and be motivated to do so through understanding the benefits of reaching the destination. The advantages of getting there need to have enough value to create an interest in leaving home.

The way I look at it, a good motivation needs begin with convincing reasons that practice will lead to a better way of being, and confidence that the path towards that goal will work, e.g. that it will bring me  to where I want to get to. Then I need to know how to travel the path and have all that is needed to make the journey successfully. For example, if you want to travel through a desert you need a map, fuel, food, water, the right clothes etc.

With respect to my spiritual path, what helps me to be motivated is on the one hand to look at and acknowledge the dissatisfaction and shortcomings of my present way of being and on the other hand to see the potential of becoming free and bringing suffering to an end once and for all.  When I reflect on this, I first remind myself of the shortcomings of my present life, how my present approach to happiness is flawed, and how futile my unceasing chase of short-lived pleasure and happiness is. It is hard to let go of the fantasy that these transient states of feeling good will last, if I just keep trying!

Then, I contemplate on the wonderful message of the teachings of the Buddha which tells us that there is the possibility of a lasting happiness, of freedom from suffering, and most of all that we all have the potential to awaken and recognize and embody our true nature.

Another important aspect of the motivation is to go beyond my self-centered concerns and wish to bring all beings to enlightenment. Usually I just want to be happy myself. When I see others people’s ignorance and suffering I forget that they want to be happy as a I do, and that I am confused and suffering, just like they are, in my own ways.

I also find it helpful to consciously acknowledge and remind myself that what all of us living beings share in common is our wish for happiness. Sometimes the wish to bring all beings to enlightenment feels contrived to me. It seems like I am trying to impose this on all these other beings. But actually, when I reflect on this, it becomes clear that deep down, whether they know it or not, all beings wish for this lasting happiness of enlightenment. We are all together in this mess of samsara. So, isn’t the right thing to do to want all beings to become free of suffering and delusion?

It is also not enough to just have a nice wish that all beings may awaken from ignorance and become free of suffering once and for all. It has to be more than a fleeting feeling or thought, but something  that I serious and passionately feel needs to come true. It is said in the teachings that I need to go even one step further and personally commit to make this happen. The attitude here is to say to myself, “if need be I will get this done  all on my own!”

I find this a very noble and rich motivation to aspire to. There is so much contained in it:
– Renunciation, which is the determination to be free and the willingness to give up the deceiving promises of samsara.
– Refuge, which includes a deep confidence that we have the Buddha nature, a conviction that realizing it will bring lasting freedom and happiness, and dedicating one’s life to this goal. We take refuge in the path that the Buddha has shown.
– Bodhichitta, which is the wish to bring all beings to enlightenment.

For me, the essence of this motivation is to make awakening my goal and, more importantly, to do this not in self-centered way just for myself but extend my innate capacity to care to all living beings.

Sogyal Rinpoche holding a statue of Longchenpa

Understanding the main point of practice
The second important point that comes to my mind with respect to practice is the need to have a clear understanding of the goal of practice: enlightenment, realizing Buddha nature or the nature of mind, however you want to call it. A crucial point to understand here is that Buddha nature refers to the natural state of how things are and implies a perfection already inherent in the ground of my being. It is not something that needs to be created or fabricated, because the teachings say that my fundamental nature is already perfectly present, although unfortunately it is presently obscured. Because this perfection is already naturally present, all that is needed for attaining enlightenment is to remove the obscurations.

With this understanding practice is no longer about getting or gaining something but about removing the obscurations. One of my teachers often says that Buddhist practice is not about getting something but to get rid of! The point is to get rid of obscurations and ignorance and not to gain knowledge or “creating” a state of enlightenment. We are looking to uncover something that we already have. There is nothing to grasp at or to get!

The essence of Buddhist practice is often described as nothing more than to purify obscurations and to accumulate merit and wisdom. Merit is the power, energy and momentum that comes from the positive actions we engage in on the path. Wisdom is not something we can gain but is naturally revealed as the obscurations are purified and the veils that cause misunderstanding and ignorance are removed. (Of course, initially we need to cultivate some conceptual understanding.)

Reflecting on Buddha nature this way also reminds me that my fundamental nature is not touched or stained by my confusion, faults, negative actions etc. That’s really good news, isn’t it! And it also helps me to understand relative reality better, that everything is impermanent and nothing has inherent existence!

If you understand how the nature of reality truly is, this is said to give rise to an attitude of non-grasping. If I understand correctly, the key point of understanding how to practice is this attitude of non-grasping.

There is a final point. We begin with a noble motivation, then practice with an attitude of non-grasping and at the end of the practice we need to dedicate all our efforts and all the benefit they might bring to the benefit and ultimately the enlightenment of all beings.

When I reflected on the main points of practice, somewhere along I realized that my teacher Sogyal Rinpoche had already told them to me many times what is essential to have in my practice and also wrote about them in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:

“In the teaching of Buddha, we say there are three things that make all the difference between your meditation being merely a way of bringing temporary relaxation, peace, and bliss, or of becoming a powerful cause for your enlightenment and the enlightenment of others. We call them: “Good in the Beginning, Good in the Middle, and Good at the End. …

These three sacred principles–the skillful motivation, the attitude of non-grasping that secures the practice, and the dedication that seals it–are what make your meditation truly enlightening and powerful. They have been beautifully described by the great Tibetan master Longchenpa as “the heart, the eye, and the life-force of true practice.” As Nyoshul Khenpo says: “To accomplish complete enlightenment, more than this is not necessary: but less than this is incomplete.”
— from chapter 5 of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Looking at this teaching on the three noble principles helped me fill a lot of gaps in my own reflection. I can definitely say that reflecting like this helped me to clarify and simplify my understanding of the teachings and what practice is about. But when I read my notes again afterward I realized that my attempt to essentialise probably still reads quite complex and complicated. Sorry! In a way, it should be no surprise: Aren’t we human beings fantastically complicated, complex and messed up! Don’t the teachings be rich to address and entangle all this confusion? However, while these reflections still helped me to get things clearer in mind, it is probably the reflecting that helps to clarify and not the reading the result.  So maybe everyone has to reflect on this themselves!

Posted in Bodhicitta, Buddha nature, Buddhism, zz Longchenpa, zz Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, zz Sogyal Rinpoche | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment


I had to leave early today to drive to the airport for a two and a half month journey to Europe. After stopping over for a few days on the mainland to see some friends, I will visit my family in Munich and then go see my teacher Sogyal Rinpoche for six weeks at Lerab Ling, his main center in the South of France. When I left home this morning it marked the end of an important phase in my life: settling back into a new life after the three year retreat. We found a wonderful inspiring and healing environment to live in, settled into a new home.

It has been busy the last couple of weeks getting everything in order to leave. I have kept up my practice and even managed to type up my reflections, but just didn’t find the extra time to post them on my blog. I now have plenty of stuff for a bunch of posts that just needs a bit of putting together and editing. In theory, it should be easy to catch up posting these reflections, when I find some spare time during my travels.  I will give it a try. Practically speaking I am not sure it will work that way. I usually find that if I don’t finish up writing up my reflections when they are fresh in my mind they fade away. Let’s see!

I had mixed feelings about going away for such a long time. A part of me didn’t want to leave. I was just beginning to feel settled here and wanted to just stay, take it easy for a while and have some quiet time for study and practice. I felt I needed some more time to digest the rich and intense experience of the three year retreat, before being ready to return to Lerab Ling and visit my friends and family.

The farewell was not easy. I had to say good bye to my wife who decided to stay behind this summer because the traveling would be too hard on her health. I spent a few moments with our latest addition to the family: our two sweet little kitties Bodhi and Chitta (you can read all about them on mywife’s blog Chitta hurt on of her paws a few days ago and is limping but fortunately the vet thought she would be ok. That was a great relief to find out.

The drive to the Kona airport on the other side of the Big Island is very scenic and inspiring. The road goes high up through the mountains and passes by the two volcanoes Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. As I was driving I felt deep gratitude for having met the Buddhist teachings. Why? Because they help me to understand what I am as a living being and they provide me guidance to live my life. They show a path that will ultimately lead to “nirvana,” a natural state of freedom beyond suffering, where my awareness will embody and manifests its true nature and being: pure, omniscient and capable of manifesting in myriads of ways to help other beings. Until I get there, the teachings will help me deal with both life and death and even what comes beyond that.

I am still at the very beginning of the path but the way I look at it, it doesn’t matter. The teachings say that just taking refuge in this truth and the path leading to it will ensure that liberation will eventually happen.  In my tradition there are special teachings that are said to be able to bring enlightenment in this life. If you are practitioner of the highest capacity, that is. I don’t have my hopes up. With the pace that I am going at, there is no way that this going to happen in my case. The more I understand about what enlightenment means and the clearer I see my habits and obscurations, enlightenment seems far away, if not almost impossible.

I like the Zen approach to this: enlightenment may seem impossible but we try anyway. It may seem impossible to liberate all beings but we vow to do it anyway! Because it is the only thing worth doing! The most noble endeavor we can devote our life towards! It took Buddha three countless eons to travel the path to complete awakening. Maybe it will take me several dozen countless eons! I am okay with that, because I understand that fundamentally my being is indestructible and as long as I cultivate and strengthen a pure intention to work towards this noble goal of a nirvana not just for myself but all being, it will eventually come true.

I know these things intellectually but it is no so often that I feel them deeply. It took me over twenty years time to be able to sometimes feel this more deeply and feel deep confidence about the truth of it. This morning I also felt a deep gratitude for my teacher who showed me this path. Without his kindness my life would not be nourished and infused with meaning by the nectar of the Dharma.

This morning, on the way to the airport my hesitations about the trip dissolved. I feel ready to visit my friends and family and go back to Lerab Ling.

Posted in 05 Preciousness of Human Birth, Buddha nature | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Han at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center

A few days ago I came across a very inspiring image of the Han at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Tassajara was founded by Suzuki Roshi, who I quoted in my last post. I find the inscription a great reminder of the preciousness of life and impermanence and immediately made it the desktop background of my laptop!

I had to look up what a “Han” is and here is what I found at

“A han is a wooden board struck by a mallet with a particular rhythm to announce the beginning of a zazen period in a Zen monastery. It is also sometimes struck before the monks retire for bed.

Often, a variation of this verse is engraved on the han:

Let me respectfully remind you,
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time passes by swiftly and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken.
Awaken! Take heed, do not squander your life.”

Posted in 05 Preciousness of Human Birth, 06 Death and Impermanence, zz Suzuki Roshi | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

What is the nature of my being?

Since my last post I have been reflecting more on the question ”Who am I?” or better phrased “What is the nature of my being?”. I have been looking at some of the teachings from the Zen Buddhist tradition.  What I like about these teachings is that they focus not so much on the theory of Buddhism but on the direct experience of what is true about the world. I heard a Zen teacher explain that Zen follows the action of the Buddha. Buddha became enlightened by sitting under the Bodhi tree, he explained, and in the practice of Zen we follow his example to realize the truth.

What I like about Zen is how it talks about the direct experience of what is true, looking at reality freshly and openly so we can see what truly is. Normally I spend most of my life in the past or the future. Most of what I experience gets colored by my past experiences and memories as I label, judge and analyze. I spend a lot of time thinking planning and scheming how have a happy life. Unfortunately I tend to get lost in these thoughts and miss the direct experience of life. Trying to understand things and planning one’s life is necessary but if you miss the present  that’s like throwing out the baby with the bathwater! The teachings of Zen emphasize being in the present and experiencing life freshly and directly.

Shunryu Suzuki

Here are some quotes from a wonderful book by the great Zen master Suzuki Roshi titled Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. He used to describe the practice of Zen as cultivating “beginner’s mind”, which he explains as follows:

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” (p. 21)
A few pages further he gives a profound example of how we experience ourselves in meditation, called zazen in the Zen tradition:

“When we practice zazen our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say “inner world” or “outer world” but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, “I breath.” The “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves, that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing; no “I,” no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.” (p. 29)

There is a blog with transcripts of the teachings given by Suzuki Roshi on the website of the San Francisco Zen center and also there are wonderful videos of some his teachings that have recently bee restored and made available on YouTube.

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The world is a mystery

Usually I am very groggy when I first wake up in the morning and it takes a while for my mind to show any signs of consciousness. But sometimes I wake up in the morning with a sense of wonder. I sit up on my bed, look out of the window, and life seems like a big mystery. I ask myself “Where am I?” “What the heck am I doing here?” The last day seems like a dream. The present is full of wonder. I am full of questions: “Where is this room coming from?” “What about the beautiful trees in the garden?” At those moments it feels like a deep mystery how this world could have possibly come into being.

Question like “What is the meaning of life?” and “Who am I?” have been running like a thread through my life since I have been a teenager. At times the lack of a satisfying answer to the meaning of life was very painful. I have found over time that there is no satisfying intellectual answer, but that when I can connect and experience my true being a little then these questions simply dissolve … at least for a little while!

Studying and practicing Buddhism has helped me to get little glimpses of what my true being is. I haven’t been able to fully embody the experiences of these special moments, but they have become like a beacon in my life. Working towards realizing this truth more deeply through studying and practicing Buddhism has giving my life direction and purpose.

I realize that eventually my questions about what or who I am will disappear, but until they do, I find it helpful to reflect on them. Intellectual understanding is not the ultimate answer but it is a support that gives you a road map on where the path leads and how to get there.

Interestingly, when it comes to reflecting on our true nature, the Buddhist teachings focus more on “what we are” and not on “who we are”. The reason for this is that when we really look there is no “who” to be found. Therefore it is much better to think of ourselves in terms of what we are. Here are two quotes about “what we truly are” by two of my teachers that I find very inspiring:

In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche writes beautifully about the “Heart of Meditation”. He writes:

“The purpose of meditation is to awaken in us the sky-like nature of mind, and to introduce us to that which we really are, our unchanging pure awareness, which underlies the whole of life and death.” (p. 60)

In his book Joyful Wisdom Mingyur Rinpoche beautifully describes this pure awareness:

“Pure awareness is like a ball of clear crystal—colorless in itself but capable of reflecting anything: your face, other people, walls, furniture. if you moved it around a little, maybe you’d see different parts of the and the size, shape, or position of the furniture might change. if you took it outside, you could see trees, birds, flowers—even the sky! What appears, though, are only reflections. They don’t really exist inside the ball, nor do they alter its essence in any way. …. They don’t alter the nature of that which reflects them. The crystal ball is essentially colorless.

Similarly pure awareness in itself is always clear, capable of reflecting anything, even misconceptions about itself as limited or conditioned.” (p. 85-86)

Isn’t it amazing and wonderful that our true nature is like this and that we can learn to experience and embody it through the practice of meditation?

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Your religion is not important

Yesterday friend of mine sent me an email with a a brief dialogue between the Brazilian theologist Leonardo Boff and the Dalai Lama, which deeply touched me. Here is what Leonardo, one of the renovators of the Theology of Freedom, recounts of this remarkable encounter:

In a round table discussion about religion and freedom in which Dalai Lama
and myself were participating at recess I maliciously, and also with interest, asked him:  

“Your holiness, what is the best religion?”

I thought he would say: “The Tibetan Buddhism” or “The oriental religions, much older than Christianity.”

The Dalai Lama paused, smiled and looked me in the eyes …. which surprised me because I knew of the malice contained in my question.

He answered:
 “The best religion is the one that gets you closest to God. It is the one that makes you a better person.”

To get out of my embarrassment with such a wise answer, I asked: “What is it that makes me better?”

He responded:
“Whatever makes you
more compassionate,
more sensible,
more detached,
more loving,
more humanitarian,
more responsible,
more ethical.”
“The religion that will do that for you is the best religion”

I was silent for a moment, marveling and even today thinking of his wise and irrefutable response:

“I am not interested, my friend, about your religion or if you are religious or not.

“What really is important to me is your behavior in front of your peers, family, work, community, and in front of the world.

“Remember, the universe is the echo of our actions and our  thoughts.”

“The law of action and reaction is not exclusively for physics.  It is also of human relations. 
If I act with goodness, I will receive goodness. 
If I act with evil, I will get evil.”

“What our grandparents told us is the pure truth. You will always have what you desire for others. Being happy is not a matter of destiny. It is a matter of options.”

Finally he said:
“Take care of your Thoughts because they become Words.
Take care of your Words because they will become Actions.
Take care of your Actions because they will become Habits.
Take care of your Habits because they will form your Character.
Take care of your Character because it will form your Destiny,
and your Destiny will be your Life

… and …

“There is no religion higher than the Truth.”

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Neither block your thoughts nor chase after them

Today, I would like to share more advice by Mingyur Rinpoche on how to deal with thoughts and emotions, that he gave in the context of the exercise from his book The Joy of Living, which I described in my last post. He wrote:

“The point of the exercise is to simply watch everything that passes through your awareness as it arises out of emptiness, momentarily appears, and dissolves back into emptiness again—a movement like the rising and falling of a wave in a giant ocean. You don’t want to block your thoughts, emotions, and so on; nor do you want to chase after them. If you chase after them, if you let them lead you, they begin to define you, and you loose your ability to respond openly and spontaneously in the present moment. On the other hand, if you attempt to block your thoughts, your mind can become quite tight and small.

This is an important point because many people mistakenly believe meditation involves deliberately stopping the natural movement of thoughts and emotions. It’s possible to block this movement for a little while and even achieve a fleeting sense of peace—but it’s the peace of a zombie. A completely thoughtless, emotionless state is a state devoid of discernment or clarity.

If you practice allowing your mind just to be as it is, however, your mind will eventually settle down on its own. You will develop a sense of spaciousness, while your ability to experience things clearly, without bias, will gradually increase. Once you begin to watch these thoughts, emotions, and so on come and go with awareness, you’ll start to recognize that they are all relative experiences. A happy thought is distinguished by its difference from an unhappy thought, just as a tall person may be distinguished as “tall” only in relation to someone who is shorter. By himself, that person is neither tall nor short. Similarly, a thought or a feeling can’t, in itself, be described as positive or negative except through comparison with other thoughts. Without this kind of comparison, a thought, a feeling, or a perception is just what it is. It has no inherent qualities or characteristics, and can’t be defined in itself except through comparison.” (p. 67-68)

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