Palpung Thubten Choling Monastery, my home base, has been hosting a monthly sangha discussion via Zoom during the covid pandemic. The theme for March was “Refreshing Our Practice,” and by enthusiastic request we are continuing that general theme for a couple more months.
In March, we covered a variety of topics, beginning with the importance of consistent daily practice on the cushion or chair, within a time frame we can realistically maintain — 15 minutes a day was recommended as a good place to start. It can be challenging at the beginning to sit down every day to practice, and to stay sitting; but with repetition it gradually becomes a habit, like any other routine we wish to establish in our lives. And we may find that not only does our resistance diminish over time — we may even begin to look forward to this daily opportunity to deepen our understanding of our own mind.
In April, we zeroed in on how to work with our practice when it begins to lose vitality and become rote.
A few days ago Guru Vajradhara Tai Situ Rinpoche shared advice about how to manage our safety and our fears and remember the dharma during the covid-19 pandemic, which continues to escalate. This video, embedded below, has been widely shared on social media, but I wanted to also preserve it here. Guru Vajradhara Tai Situ Rinpoche is the spiritual director of the worldwide Palpung network of Karma Kagyu monasteries and dharma centers, which includes Palpung Thubten Choling and its affiliated centers.
Rinpoche begins by reminding us that this pandemic is not an extraordinary or unique event in human history. “Many things like this have happened, and this is happening.”
With our routines upended by this week’s public health efforts to contain the coronavirus-covid-19 pandemic, this may be a good time to revisit the profound Buddhist teaching that all our experience is ultimately no more real, solid, lasting or reliable than a dream. Last week we were complaining about going to work, our kids were complaining about going to school, restaurants were packed, Disneyland was open, March Madness was about to begin, and you could buy toilet paper in any supermarket. This week — it’s all gone. Just like last year’s winter and last night’s dream.
We have a song for this, and so does the Buddhist tradition. First, ours:
Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily: life is but a dream.
A vintage dharma quote popped up in my Facebook feed this morning with what turns out to be an excellent suggestion for constructive use of our social distancing time now that covid-19 has been declared a global pandemic and we are all urged to stay home to help contain it (though if you are a healthcare or other essential worker, overwhelmed with WFH, or have kids home from school, you may have to find your moments). As dharma practitioners, this may be the very best thing we can do with whatever extra time we have:
I feel that it is absolutely important to make the practice of meditation your source of strength, your source of basic intelligence. Please think about that. You could sit down and do nothing, just sit and do nothing. Stop acting, stop speeding. Sit and do nothing. You should take pride in the fact that you have learned a very valuable message: you actually can survive beautifully by doing nothing.
It turns out that our old friend from the 14th century, Togme Zangpo, the author of The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva, had something to say about how to deal with fear of coronavirus (and all other illnesses) in the 21st century:
If it is better for me to be sick,
May I be blessed with sickness.
If it is better for me to recover,
May I be blessed with health.
If it is better for me to die,
May I be blessed with death.
Ken McLeod begins his commentary on the 37 practices, Reflections on Silver River, with these words. Ken says that when he first encountered this prayer in the 1970s, “It was the strangest prayer I had ever seen and it made no sense to me. Why would you pray to be ill? Why would you pray to die?”
In addition to “others first,” another important resource the mind training tradition offers us is a set of specific practices for empowering both our life and our death (point 5 of the 7 points of mind training, Great Path of Awakening page 25).
In both cases we are applying the same five practices, literally called the five strengths or powers, but in a different order and with somewhat different content depending on whether we have entered the bardo of dying or not. According to the Vajrayana teachings, the bardo — or transitional state — of dying begins as soon as we know what’s going to kill us, e.g, when we get a terminal diagnosis, even if we potentially have years yet to live. However, since we don’t always get a lot of notice, it’s good to be familiar with the five ways to empower our dying process even when we are fit and healthy, and especially if we find ourselves facing a fearsome cause of serious illness and death.
When Lama Karma Samten taught the seven points of mind training at Palpung Thubten Choling Monastery in 2016, he began by summing up the entire path of mind training in two words:
The worst thing about fear is that it can cause our awareness to contract around our sense of danger and personal vulnerability, and we can temporarily lose sight of our dharma perspectives of putting others first and recalling the emptiness of all phenomena.
However, through mind training practice, the arising of anxiety, fear, anger, or illness can instead become a cue to reconnect with our basic Mahayana motivation of cultivating wisdom and compassion in order to wake ourselves up for the benefit of others in all circumstances, and we can immediately put it into practice wherever we are both by helping others in material ways and by engaging in taking and sending, the meditation practice associated with mind training.
Before I get started on the Gampopa Ornament of Precious Liberation class notes, here’s a short presentation I gave a couple of weeks ago at an interfaith prayer service in Richmond, Virginia. Organized by Chaplain David Curtis at Westminster Canterbury Retirement Community, the service’s theme was how peace can be lived in different areas of life: self, home, community, and the world. While Buddhism would have been a natural fit for peace within self, I addressed how it views the possibility of peace in the world.
The beloved Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh originated the idea of “mindfulness bells,” things that crop up naturally in our lives that we can set as reminders to bring ourselves back to the present moment, such as the ringing of a phone. In my three-year retreat, I wrote about a potentially deadly mindfulness bell that was hard to avoid within the retreat compound, and thus really got our attention.
Mindfulness is how we develop equanimity, but today we are going straight to equanimity itself, and how we can use specific situations that are not only inevitable but also tend to trigger emotional reactions that disturb our peace of mind. I’m sure you can identify others, but today we’ll just start with two: the weather, and stoplights.