September 2008, 4:00 a.m.

Ha, ha, it’s not really 4:00 a.m. as I write this. I just wanted to echo the title of the first post I wrote, a year ago this month. Normally at 4:00 a.m., we are starting our first meditation session (tun) of the day. Each morning between 4:00 and 5:35, we must complete 100 each of the preliminary practices: prostrations, Dorje Sempa (Vajrasattva), the mandala offering, and Guru Yoga, now that we have finished the intensive accumulation of 111,111 of each of those practices. The other three meditation sessions of the day are devoted mostly to our current main practice.

On the main practice front, we recently finished two weeks of intensive calm abiding (shinay) meditation, using a sequence of techniques similar to the ones we practiced at PSC based on the presentation in Bokar Rinpoche’s book Meditation: Advice to Beginners. Our manual in retreat is one of Bokar Rinpoche’s sources, the Ninth Karmapa’s Ocean of Definitive Meaning.

Now we have begun two weeks of intensive taking and sending meditation (tong len), which we also studied and practiced periodically at PSC. It is quite wonderful to be able to practice for several hours each day with no other interruption than our own internal distractions. These, of course, are no small thing, but retreat provides the leisure and incentive to really work with them and learn to see them as part of the practice rather than an intrusion. We are taught not to try to block thoughts or think our meditation is unsuccessful if thoughts arise. Instead, we aspire to see through whatever arises in the mind; to rest in its essence, the nature of mind, instead of engaging in our usual habit of following thoughts into long bouts of distraction or disturbing emotions such as anger, desire, jealousy, and pride, thus further obscuring the mind’s naturally peaceful essence.

September 30 will be the first anniversary of my move to Palpung Thubten Choling Monastery. A year ago, I was in the midst of sorting and packing my belongings, and anticipating how much I would miss people and places while in retreat. I do miss people; and sometimes at odd moments I find myself mentally revisiting familiar scenes, often from the vantage point of driving: passing the peach orchard on Young Road in Barrington (it’s peach season right now!) or driving on Roller Coaster Road in Strafford; traveling Route 4 in Nottingham and Northwood; waiting to make a left turn at the traffic signal in front of the main entrance to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine.

Especially during taking and sending, these memories, and any associated emotions, provide more fuel for practice. We spend all day (ideally, anyway) visualizing ourselves taking on the suffering of others, both specific individuals and sentient beings in general, and exchanging it for our own happiness and merit—breathing in everything painful or unwanted, breathing out everything positive and desirable. Anyone who comes to mind becomes a target for this practice. May all their suffering come to me, and may they experience all my happiness, good deeds, merit, and prosperity of the past, present and future. May they enjoy complete freedom from suffering and attain full awakening. Right now!

Realized practitioners are said to be able actually to accomplish this exchange, as in the classic story told by Kalu Rinpoche in his book Luminous Mind. Maitri-yogi, a teacher of the eleventh-century master Atisha, was giving a teaching, when suddenly he cried out in pain. Someone had just thrown a rock at a dog nearby, and Maitri-yogi instantly took the dog’s suffering upon himself, sustaining a large bruise on his back.

When contemporary aspiring bodhisattvas first learn taking and sending, someone always asks, a bit anxiously: what if I really start to feel the other person’s pain? Kalu Rinpoche’s famous answer: “Think, ‘Oh good, it works!’” But most Lamas just say not to worry about it, it’s not going to happen, except possibly in our overactive imagination. At this stage, the practice is really for our own mind training and operates mainly at the level of aspiration. Though some positive energy is surely dispatched in the other person’s direction, our real goal is to begin to lessen our own ego-clinging, our reflexive sense of me-first, the true source of all our own pain and suffering, through mentally reversing one of our deepest habitual patterns: seeking pleasure and fleeing pain, taking the best for ourselves and leaving the dregs for others.

We are supposed to continue the practice all the time—while walking, eating, going to sleep, any time we are able to remember to do it. Breathe in the bad, breathe out the good. In the Torch of Certainty, the nineteenth century master Jamgon Kongtrul advises us, “Even on your deathbed when you cannot perform any other practice, use your time sending and receiving for as long as you can breathe.” Truly, this is a practice we can do any time, anywhere!

October 5 will mark the beginning of our tenth month of retreat. The outside world has definitely faded, though I often think of family and friends and keep in touch as much as I can by mail. I haven’t heard a phone ring or a new song, read a newspaper, or seen a movie in almost a year. I am finding that, aside from my loved ones, there’s not that much I miss. What does it matter if I know who said what about whom, which movie is an Oscar contender, whether Britney is still in the news. It’s all just more fuel to keep the cycle spinning, the same old laundry going round and round.

In retreat, as the cacophony of outer phenomena recedes, you start to notice more inner space, more peace and quiet, more opportunity to catch a glimpse of what’s real and unchanging at the heart of all the relentless commotion of this world. In fact, at the moment, the only things happening outside my immediate mind (“outside” being of course a relative concept): a pair of yellow-shafted flickers are pecking at the ground under the picnic table, a squirrel is making a great racket peeling a walnut, and the groundhog is getting wicked fat.

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