Monthly Archives: May 2008

Lineage: So What?

I’ve heard it said that when you meet a prospective spiritual teacher, the most important question to ask is who their teacher is—to make sure they come from a genuine tradition with certified results. Otherwise, you could end up entrusting your innermost well-being to someone who just had an interesting idea…and is testing it out on you!

 Each teacher inevitably puts his or her own stamp on the teachings s/he is transmitting, but it should be a question of style and not content. Even Chamgon Tai Situ Rinpoche (the “Tai Situpa” who has written several excellent books on Buddhist practice), one of the foremost Lamas of the Kagyu Lineage, when he visits the US and teaches at PTC Monastery, always warns us when he is deviating from the traditional explanation of things. He calls these moments “my own rubbish.” They are inevitably very helpful explanations from his own experience, which happens to be firmly rooted in traditions and teachings that go back in an unbroken line for 2,600 years. Calling his personal spin on it “rubbish”—that’s just how careful he is being to keep the traditional teachings completely pure and uncontaminated by someone’s bright idea—even those of a realized master.

People whose techniques don’t have the advantage of a long history of verification are often offended by the concept of lineage, and try to brush it off as some sort of outdated, closed-minded clique mentality. And of course, not having a lineage doesn’t necessarily mean your methods don’t work; they might. We just don’t know yet.

 We live in a culture that seems to reserve its highest esteem for the latest thing. There’s an energy in innovation, a freshness, that is very seductive; and new things do sometimes turn out to be improved as well. But they can also get us into trouble. I spent 15 years as a medical journalist and reported on hundreds of studies of new medications and surgical procedures—some of them worked, some didn’t, and some caused irreparable harm. You don’t know until you’ve tested it out on enough patients for all the flaws to become apparent—which can take years, and leave behind a trail of permanent damage and death. Thalidomide…DES…hormone replacement therapy…Vioxx…lobotomy…if I had Google in retreat, I’d list a lot more. We always assume they’re fine until the damage is done.

 Genuine lineage is insurance that methods have been thoroughly tested and that you are not a guinea pig. There are many spiritual traditions to choose from that come with this sort of quality assurance—that they are very likely to be effective if applied diligently and with the proper guidance, and very unlikely to do any harm.

 And to take it a step further, just because someone claims to be part of or to represent a particular lineage doesn’t mean they do. The teachings urge us to check out a teacher thoroughly before we make a commitment; our spiritual progress and well-being depend on it.

 It could be argued that the Buddha himself had no lineage—he started one. He did study with a number of teachers, but he felt their methods didn’t go far enough, and he had to forge the rest of the path on his own. If you meet a teacher who claims to be doing the same thing, and you are confident that you are putting yourself in the hands of another Buddha: by all means go for it! Meanwhile, I’m sticking with the tried and true, and hope that it continues to be preserved and handed down for many generations to come.

Five Ways to Not Meditate

  1. It’s a bit chilly, I’d better close the window / put on a sweater.
  2. Darn, I forgot to turn off my cell phone.
  3. Better get a glass of water in case I get thirsty.
  4. That other hand position might be more comfortable.
  5. What a great idea! (Where’s my pen?)

Sitting down to meditate is an invitation to re-initiate the cycle of samsara again and again. Our situation is never quite right at any given moment; there is always a little something we could do to improve it. We are engaged in an endless, bootless quest to perfect our external circumstances, rather than relax and really get to know what’s in front of us right now; and meditation can be just one more arena in which to play out that scenario.

 Lama Norlha Rinpoche told me shortly before three-year retreat began, “If you follow the first thought, the second thought is inevitable.”

 That brings us to a good working definition of meditation: being aware of every thought and impulse that enters our mind, but declining to follow or act on it. From this process we learn something very useful that we can apply throughout our daily life: every thought and impulse fades away automatically if left to its own devices. (How I wish I could remember that all the time!)

 So…if you feel a little chilly, what will happen if you don’t get up and put on a sweater? If it’s a minor discomfort, you may find that chilliness is a fleeting feeling; it might disappear, it might come and go; if you put on a sweater, you might even be too hot and have to take it off again! This applies to most feelings of minor discomfort or dissatisfaction that arise in meditation, or in daily life; it’s amazing how many things will take care of themselves, at least in the short term, if you just let go of the thought. (Caution: in cases of significant or persistent physical discomfort or pain, no need to risk illness or injury…go ahead and fix it. Just use the little things to practice on.)

 What about that cell phone—if it rings, will the disturbance invalidate your meditation? My own experience suggests that, on the contrary, the ringing phone may bring you back from a reverie and remind you to go back to your scheduled meditation already in progress. When I lived near a busy street corner in Brooklyn circa 1980, my meditation schedule seemed to be coordinated with that of a regular passerby who, every morning, would stop and linger on that very corner with his boom box (a 1980s word for a very large audiotape player). At first it was annoying, but after awhile I realized that the boom box, which always caught me unawares, was the very reminder I needed—every day—to apply myself to meditation instead of my habitual daydreaming or planning. (I’m not suggesting you leave your cell phone on on purpose…just that it may not be worth getting up to turn it off if you forgot.)

 As for the great idea: that’s one of my personal favorites. The solution to a problem, an idea for an article or project, something you absolutely must not forget at the grocery store…meditation provides just the environment for bringing such treasures to the surface. It becomes a bit less compelling when I ask myself, what use will it be when I am grief-stricken, disabled, or dying? Sticking with my meditation will develop inner resources to help me at those times—long after I’ve forgotten whether I had all the ingredients for tomorrow’s dinner.

Four Thoughts That Turn The Mind

At our meditation study and practice meetings in New Hampshire, we often talked about the Four Thoughts, also known as the Four Reminders. Their full title is the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind, i.e., redirect it from worldly to spiritual concerns.

 Lama Norlha Rinpoche has always placed a great deal of emphasis on really getting to know these thoughts; he says it is like building the foundation of your house. If you haven’t really internalized these thoughts, your Dharma practice will never be truly stable. (Just before we entered the three-year retreat, he gave a teaching on these same four thoughts.) Whenever you find yourself wavering about whether to do your meditation or go make some popcorn and put in a dvd, you can always come back to the Four Thoughts to remind yourself why the dvd isn’t going to help you when things go wrong.

 Informally expressed, the Four Thoughts are:

 The Precious Human Existence: We need to appreciate what a rare opportunity we have in this life; we have everything we need in order to free ourselves from the otherwise endless cycle of confusion and suffering. We are not gravely impaired or imprisoned in a situation that leaves us no leisure; and we have access to the Buddha’s teachings and to living teachers who can help us apply them. Not everyone has this situation, and we might not have it ourselves the next time around; we need to put it to work for us.

 Impermanence and Death: Darn, there’s that D-word again. Why do Buddhists have to be so morbid? Because it’s the truth: we don’t know how long this opportunity is going to last. Even if we don’t die tomorrow, something could happen that could prevent us from practicing. It could happen any minute (wait, is that the phone?)—so we have to make use of our time right now!

 Karma, Cause and Result: This one is very complicated; even if I understood it, I wouldn’t try to explain it! But Jamgon Kongtrul, the great nineteenth-century Kagyu teacher, says in The Lamp of the Definitive Meaning (aka, The Torch of Certainty, translated by Judith Hanson) that anyone can understand the fundamental underlying law of karma: virtuous-positive-helpful actions lead to future happiness, and unvirtuous-negative-harmful actions lead to future suffering. Part of Dharma practice is to conduct ourselves in the world in such a way that we don’t create more negative conditions for ourselves or others. This isn’t a moralistic edict, it’s completely practical: we are looking out for our own future, which may kick in to some extent in this lifetime, but really takes hold when we die and as we move on to our next life. As Lama Norlha Rinpoche often advises: don’t set yourself up for regrets on your deathbed, because there’s nothing you can do about them then.

 The Disadvantages of Samsara: Samsara is the Sanskrit word (Tibetan kor.wa) for the endless cycle of suffering that goes round and round from lifetime to lifetime. The Buddha taught that it’s all suffering, every atom of it. Even what feels like fun is suffering in disguise: if it doesn’t make you fat or aggravate your asthma, at best it has to end; and if you look at anything in life closely enough, you see that it came to you via a trail of others’ pain and destruction, especially if you believe, as Buddhists do, that even tiny animals count. (How many insects died for your bowl of brown rice or strawberries?)

For a more classical presentation and more detail about the Four Thoughts, some good books are The Torch of Certainty by Jamgon Kongtrul, The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche, and two books by Kalu Rinpoche: The Writings of Kalu Rinpoche (his first book, available from PTC Monastery) and Foundations of Tibetan Buddhism.

Meditation 101

A number of good books exist that can help you get started meditating. We have studied several of them at Kagyu Samten Chöling in New Hampshire. Bokar Rinpoche’s Meditation: Advice for Beginners is our standard handbook. I recently read Mingyur Rinpoche’s Joy of Living and found his instructions extremely helpful as well. (The first part is about the correspondences between traditional Buddhist methodology and recent discoveries about how the brain works. It’s quite interesting, but you can go directly to part two for the meditation instructions.)

 It’s best to supplement your study of a book with direct instruction from a qualified teacher, especially if you are interested in a particular spiritual tradition. As a reminder, or in case you don’t have any other resources handy, here’s a concise introduction to the basic procedure of what our tradition calls calm abiding meditation, the first type we do, which helps to calm our mind and train it to stay focused rather than zoom off after every thought that pops up.

Sit down. (You can also do walking meditation, but I’m not addressing that here.) Pick a place where you’re not likely to be interrupted, and a realistic time frame (five or ten minutes is good to start), and resolve that you will absolutely, definitely not get up from your seat during that time for any reason short of a certifiable emergency. If you accomplish this much, even if you don’t feel you did anything else, that is the first triumph of meditation: you have already gained a bit of control over your unruly mind.

 Pay attention to posture, but don’t get fraught about it. There are traditional instructions on posture that you can get from a teacher or a book, and following them can help your mind settle down more easily. But according to Mingyur Rinpoche, the posture can be summed up in two points: keep your spine comfortably straight (including the neck) and the rest of your body as relaxed as possible. I am not able to sit cross-legged on a floor cushion, which is the traditional posture considered most conducive to settling the mind; so I sit in a chair, but I can still observe these two points (and most of the others).

Pick something to rest part of your attention on. It can be a visual object, or whatever sounds arise while you are sitting, or, probably the most popular and easy to use: your breathing. Just breathe normally, don’t try to manipulate your breathing in any way; it should be relaxed and natural, and your only job is to observe it. Whatever your focus, the goal is to keep track of it during the entire time you are sitting. However, it should only take up a small part of your awareness, just enough that you always know it is there; the rest of your mind is relaxed and wide open to whatever sensory input arises from without or within. During this time, keep your mind alert to notice each thought that appears; then: don’t engage your mind with that thought, just notice that it has come up—and let it go. (Do NOT kick it out; just let it make its own way to wherever it is going next.) This is not easy, and we may be able to do it only for very short periods—even a second at a time—but each time we let a single thought or emotion pass without getting caught up in it—even if we only manage it once per session, even if we spend the rest of the time completely caught up in one thought after another—that is the next triumph of meditation. If you meditate regularly, it will get easier and easier; and you may even notice that you are sometimes able to apply this skill just when you need it in everyday life—if even once you avoid a confrontation or stressful situation by letting a potential provocation pass, that is the next triumph of meditation!

Give up any idea that you are doing it wrong. This seems to be a pitfall peculiar to us Westerners, who think a) everything is complicated, and b) we should do it perfectly the first time we try it. As long as you are making a sincere effort to apply this very simple method according to your understanding of it, you are meditating, and you will definitely gain benefit from your practice. Or, as Mingyur Rinpoche puts it, the “intention to meditate” is what really counts. There are refinements you can learn from further study, but all you really need is to sit and do it. Don’t think about how it’s going—if you’re thinking, you’re not meditating; conversely, if you’re letting go of thoughts about whether it’s going well or not: you’re meditating!

 Do it every day. If every day is not possible, do it as regularly as you can. “Every time you feel like it” won’t get you anywhere fast. It’s best to make a plan and stick to it. The benefits may not be apparent right away, so don’t give up at the end of a week when nirvana doesn’t seem to be in sight. Lama Norlha Rinpoche assures his students that if we keep at it, practicing regularly and attentively, we will start to notice an improvement in our mental and emotional well-being within a few weeks or months.

 P.S. About walking meditation: There are a lot of ways to do walking meditation, but the simplest is to apply this technique (except for sitting part) while you are taking a walk. It’s very portable, and can make walks more spacious, relaxing, and vivid. But: don’t neglect sitting meditation; regular practice on your cushion or chair in a quiet, undisturbed place is the key to steady progress.

(Indiana Jones and) The Quest for the Wish-Fulfilling Gem!

Suppose someone gave you a treasure map, with a guarantee that if you followed it, you would find a million dollars at the end, and it would be ALL YOURS—no taxes, no fine print, no legal hassles. What would you do? Who wouldn’t drop everything that could possibly be dropped and devote every spare minute to the pursuit of such a fortune?

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You Can Do It!

Enlightenment seems so…unattainable. Why even sit down to meditate, when the goal is so far away? You can watch a whole movie in two hours, bake a cake in one.

But wait! The Buddha says it can be done; he did it himself with no instruction manual. He trained with teachers along the way, but found their systems ultimately inadequate, so finally he sat down under the Bodhi tree and resolved to just stay there until he got it.

Fortunately for us, he did, and thus we don’t need to reinvent the wheel (that’s not a bad pun, if you happen to be Buddhist). The Buddha left detailed, step-by-step instructions, and we have teachers who have traveled the path themselves to help us follow them. The Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism is designed to accomplish enlightenment in a single lifetime, which is what distinguishes it from the many others that lead to the same goal. Of course, there’s no reason to go for speed…no hurry at all…the cycle of samsara is endless, and we are welcome to wander in it as long as we please. (No disrespect to the many other genuine spiritual traditions…each has its own compelling reason to be, and it’s best to choose the one you are most comfortable with.)

Our shining example of enlightenment in a single lifetime is the great eleventh-century yogi Milarepa: he practiced black magic and committed murders early in his life to exact revenge on relatives who had mistreated him and his mother and sister, thus creating enormous obstacles for himself; yet once he put bone to the stone, as the Tibetans say, he reached the goal with time to spare and left behind a substantial collection of enlightened poetry to inspire and instruct subsequent generations of practitioners.

In case we aren’t prepared to take the word of a saint who passed away a millenium ago, we have the living example of realized teachers within our tradition, who have traveled the path and embody the goal in their every word and action. That’s what inspires most of us to practice: we have clear evidence that the path works.

So then how do we know WE are up to the task? The Buddha taught that all beings, from gods, kings, and queens to earthworms and ghosts, have the same potential, which he called Buddha Nature. What this means is that we are already Buddha, already enlightened, in our basic nature; we just have to wake up and recognize it.

As Tai Situpa puts it in his book Awakening the Sleeping Buddha: “Ultimately, there is no difference between sentient beings who are suffering in samsara and a Buddha who is completely enlightened and free from all limitations. They are the same. It is good to contemplate this paradox.” Or, as he also phrases it in the same chapter, “Every moment we are enlightened, but we don’t recognize it.”

What this seems to mean is that it’s just a matter of looking at the same old things and seeing them differently…clearly…the way they really are. Apparently, this ultimate truth is staring us in the face all the time, we are immersed in it, eating and sleeping and breathing it, it’s like looking for our glasses when they’re on top of our head: a cosmic joke!

On top of that, I think we have a lot of invisible support in our quest: bodhisattvas and other enlightened beings all around us all the time, throwing things in our path, from material objects that appear just when we need them to situations that can help us recognize our patterns and break through them.

So why can’t we see it? Because we are used to not seeing it; we are so entrenched in our habitual patterns of perceiving, thinking and reacting, built up over many lifetimes of thought, word, and deed,  that we view everything through a filter, and can’t see clearly what’s right in front of our nose (or on top of our head). We need a teacher to point it out, and then we need to put our own bone to the stone and start chipping away at those habitual perceptions through practice so we can truly see for ourselves.

It all comes down, once again, to meditation. Like putting the key in the ignition, as Lama Norlha Rinpoche has said…someday, we will be able to drive right off!

Efficiency Expert

February 2008

As Buddhists, we are encouraged to spend a lot of time contemplating the impermanence of all phenomena and, in particular, the inevitability of our own death. We realize that if we are going to reach enlightenment, we had better get started right now! There is not a moment to waste. Our opportunity might end before this paragraph is over—by death, disability, or a life-changing phone call—and if we don’t attain mental freedom in this lifetime…we will have to do the whole thing over again, all the confusion and suffering, lifetime after lifetime, sort of a cosmic version of the movie Groundhog Day.

In retreat, I am learning how to harness this quickly passing time and make it work for my benefit as long as it lasts. I won’t be able to transpose this lesson entirely into my post-retreat life (assuming I live that long), but I think I am learning a few valuable tricks. Mostly they have to do with habitual patterns I wasn’t even aware of.

Retreat is an exact inversion of my previous agenda. I would plan for everything else in my life, and maybe even program in a daily slot for some meditation, but in general, Dharma practice was reserved for whatever free time I had left at the end of the day…unless I wanted to watch a dvd…or read the New York Times online…or chat with a friend on the phone, or attend a really important meeting, etc,. pretty much ad infinitum. In short, not much time for Dharma practice at all!

In retreat, it is all about Dharma practice. We have four meditation sessions a day, beginning at 4:00 a.m. and ending at 8:30 p.m., for a total of more than 8 hours of solitary practice in our rooms, plus additional practice to finish up each session after it officially ends, totalling over an hour; plus 4 hours of group chanting practices—in short, 13 hours of scheduled practice daily: that’s five more hours than a full-time job. Everything else has to be fit into the spaces between practice sessions—that includes eating, sleeping, exercise, showers, laundry, brushing your teeth, getting dressed or undressed, cleaning your room, communal chores, dealing with pieces of paper, writing letters, studying, reading, getting out for some fresh air, etc.

At first it seemed completely impossible—on most days we have less than two hours of unscheduled time, most of it in increments of 15 minutes or less, in which we have to fit all of the above activities and anything else we might need to take care of.  And most breaks are usually just enough time to visit the bathroom, get a cup of tea, adjust clothing, and take care of any preparation that’s needed for the next session. (There’s an additional hour and a half of “free” time after lunch, but it is usually taken up by work or classes. There’s also an hour after the 8:30 p.m. gong—but it includes a half hour of follow-up practice, and anyway I am toast by then and just go to bed as soon as possible.)

If it sounds grim: it’s NOT! It’s quite wonderful to wake up every morning and live the same day over again, a day devoted almost entirely to the very thing I thought I most wanted to do and considered the most important before, but never found time for. Every day is Groundhog Day in retreat … with the potential to get it right every day, and still do it all over again the next.

An additional benefit: I have become an efficiency expert. I plan in minutes and seconds; I know precisely how long most things I have to do take, when pared of most of the thoughts, daydreams and spacing out that fill up so much time in our ordinary lives. I shower in five minutes flat, get dressed in about a minute, eat in ten, wash my dishes in one. If I find myself in the basement with my toothbrush in my hand and my tea cup empty one minute before I’m due formally dressed in the shrine room (2 floors up) to begin the 6:00am chanting session…no sweat! I fill my cup from the perpetual hot water pot, dash up the stairs, put my toothbrush away, put on my zen (monastic shawl) with all the folds properly in place (or, occasionally, not), grab my mala (prayer beads), turn off my light, and make it upstairs just before the shrinekeeper sounds the first, wrathful blast of the conch.

An interesting and previously unsuspected thing about time: when your mind is really focused, time becomes spacious. Five minutes to spare now seems generous and relaxed; a minute or 30 seconds is enough time for any number of things, without rushing. It turns out, there is plenty of time for Dharma practice (13 hours a day!) if inessential activities are eliminated and others reduced to the minimum time actually needed to do them.

Of course, I have a much simpler life now than I did outside retreat: no shopping, errands, medical appointments, family and social obligations, or income to produce, and most meals are prepared for us. Those things do take up a lot of time, so it wouldn’t be possible to spend 13 hours in formal practice in my ordinary life. But I hope I will find a lot more time when I go back to it than I did before. One less movie is two more hours of meaningful time; 5 minutes less in the shower adds up to over 30 hours in a year. And what do I really get from browsing the political commentary in the New York Times, besides more spinning thoughts?

The more time we have for meditation and Dharma study, the quicker we will start to deactivate the habitual patterns of thought and perception that keep us confused and in pain. The Vajrayana path says complete mental freedom can be attained in this very lifetime, if we play our cards right.

So… enlightenment…or a long, hot shower?

What It’s Like In Three-Year Retreat

March 2008

At first it was hard to get up and be ready to start the day’s meditation practice at the sound of the 4:00 a.m. gong. Just under two months into retreat, I look forward to it (at least, most of the time). The first practice we do each morning is breathtakingly beautiful, and the day goes on from there.

Our day is divided into four meditation sessions, called thuns (pronounced toons, but with the o’s more like those in look), which we do in our rooms, on our own. The shortest lasts an hour and a half, the longest almost three hours. These periods are devoted to the current practice that we must complete. As I write this, we are working on the ngondro, or preliminary practices. We spent a month studying and contemplating the common preliminaries, the four thoughts that turn or redirect the mind from worldly to spiritual concerns, a week on each of them. (If you want to review them, there should be a post called “Four Thoughts.”) Now we are working on what are called the uncommon or extraordinary preliminaries, a set of four hands-on practices that will prepare us to move on to the more advanced practices that have the potential (if we apply ourselves) to speed our minds toward awakening during the last two years of retreat. These intensive practices could become tedious done for hours on end, if we don’t keep our minds on the goal rather than the repetition.

One of Rinpoche’s students once expressed skepticism that she could actually reach the goal by doing the practices; it seems so, well, unattainable. He replied that it is just like starting a car; if you turn the key in the ignition, the motor comes on. Just like that.

Vajrayana Buddhism, the form practiced in Tibet, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, with its ornate rituals, complex visualizations, and numerous bells and whistles. It’s not the only path to awakening, and we all pick the one that most appeals to us. But it is a tried-and-true path; it has worked for many centuries, and been handed down from teacher to teacher, generation to generation, in an unbroken, precious lineage. We don’t have to rely solely on faith to believe this; we have living, highly realized teachers who demonstrate it every day of the week. If you don’t believe me…look up an authentic Lama, preferably one of the old school, actually trained in Tibet and India, and recognized by a genuine practice lineage, and spend some time in his or her presence, if you can. (That opportunity is getting rarer by the day.)

Besides the individual meditation sessions in our rooms, we spend about four hours a day in group chanting practices, two hours in the morning and two in the evening. Each session consists of a number of different practices and prayers, each designed to fulfill a different purpose, all in the service of awakening our minds and connecting us with powerful positive forces in the universe and deep within our own minds. These sessions have a very different energy from the room practice; the two complement each other and make each day feel complete.

It is not a design-your-own kind of retreat—bring in the books you’ve always wanted to read and your journal, do some hiking, take a dip in the lake, etc. The schedule is quite rigorous, and the program very specific, with pretty much every minute accounted for; it can barely be covered in three years and three months, so we are always pushing ourselves hard. The other kind of retreat has its appeal, but at the end, what would you have achieved, besides at best a nice, relaxing three-year vacation now at an end? Our retreat is a recipe for success, designed and thoroughly tested by people who achieved the goals we are seeking.

All the practices done in three-year retreat, at least in the first part, are also accessible to laypeople outside the retreat setting. The same chanting practices are done daily in the monastery’s main shrine room. Anyone may attend and participate. The preliminary practices we are working on now are also available to anyone interested in undertaking them. If you finish the preliminary practices, you can go on to the more advanced ones. But it’s relatively rare for practitioners to finish all the preliminaries outside retreat, as the practices take quite a lot of time, focus, and discipline, all of which can be hard to find in the midst of a busy household life.

Men and women do retreat separately. There is always a men’s retreat and a women’s retreat taking place concurrently, each in its own house. The roof of the men’s retreat house is visible from my window.

Being cloistered with a small group of people day after day for years on end can have its tricky parts. I am very fortunate to be in retreat with a relatively easygoing, mutually supportive group of women, six of us in all, plus two nurturing caretakers.Of course, there are potential annoyances, but two months in, so far so good. Overlooking or dealing generously with minor (and major) sources of friction is a practice that is integral to the retreat experience. When people suggest to Rinpoche that they would like to do a solitary retreat rather than a group one, he generally laughs and informs them that in solitary retreat they would never have the chance to confront and iron out their emotional rough edges. It’s easy to think you are more spiritually developed than you really are, if there is no one around to push your buttons or tempt you to push theirs.

In some ways, being in retreat feels like traveling back in time. Sometimes it’s the 16th century, sort of Girl with A Pearl Earring with a Tibetan theme—the long skirts, the intricate handmade dough-and-butter offering cakes, the time-honored rituals, performed to the best of our ability just as they have been done for hundreds of years. On the other hand, we have electric lights, running water, hot showers (even if no time to take them!), a washer and dryer, a propane stove and heater. And then there are moments when you could swear you’ve been propelled into some alternative universe of the distant future. It’s a strange mix of technologies, and you can travel many generations from one moment to the next.

During the chanting on these winter evenings, when it gets dark early, in our cozy shrine room painted in rich, warm shades of red, orange, and yellow, with the shrinekeepers bustling about while the rest of us chant—making sure candles are lit, emptying and drying the dozens of fine copper water offering bowls, performing the details of each ritual at just the right time in just the prescribed way, following exactly the same routine night after night—I am transported back over centuries, millenia. I feel a deep kinship with Vestal Virgins and Celtic priestesses, with medieval Catholic nuns in their cloisters, and with everyone else who has ever participated in ceremonies to tame the forces of darkness and concentrate the forces of light—internally, externally, in ourselves, and, we hope, in the world.

I am very happy here. I am at home.

See you in 2011!

Now My Name Is Chödrön

February 2008

You enter three-year retreat without a lot of the things that constitute your identity out in the world. There are specific reasons, practical or symbolic, for each thing you give up, but the sum effect seems to be to wipe the slate as clean as possible at the outset so you can jump right in to the hard work of deconstructing that elusive yet pervasive sense of “me” that is a magnet for every kind of confusion and suffering.

First, you have to get rid of most of your stuff, or at least store it somewhere. Everything we bring with us has to fit into our room. Mine is one of the bigger ones in the retreat house, about 10 by 11 feet.

The day before retreat began, we got our heads shaved. I loved that. I thought it would be uncomfortable, maybe even painful, and that my head would be cold (it was January); but it was quite a pleasant experience, and so far my head is never cold. Every once in a while, when I make it outside at lunchtime for a thrilling 10-minute walk on the gravel path around the house, I put a hat on; but I almost always take it off, unless the weather is frigid.

Next, we put away our clothing and assume the traditional robes worn by Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns. (We are considered temporarily ordained while in retreat; the vows we take are identical to lay vows, with the addition of celibacy. The vows expire when retreat ends, though we can choose to keep honoring them, and some retreatants opt for lifelong ordination if the opportunity arises.)

I always thought I would love the simplicy of robes—I never felt I really passed Fashion Sense 101. But…robes turned out not to be all that simple! I’m used to them now, or at least used to most of the outfit. The skirt, called a shamtab, is a very wide maroon cotton or wool tube, with no top or bottom. You put it on over your head and have to find a way to make several specifically prescribed folds and get a cloth belt around it before it falls down. The first day was total panic, but by the end of the week I could do it in a minute or less. The sleeveless traditional yellow monastic shirt, while a badge of honor, is a bit of a pain, as it has a button-and-loop system that can be tricky to do up and undo—that’s the kind of thing that can make you late around here, where every second counts. But the biggest challenge is the zen (monastic shawl). It’s a long rectangle of maroon cloth that you have to get just right, under the right shoulder and over the left, with the short right end flung over the left shoulder just so, and the long left end folded several times and draped over the left arm. Fortunately, we don’t have to wear the zen all the time, so far just for formal group activities, such as chanting or teachings in the shrine room.

Somewhere in this process, we also take on a new name that we are known by in retreat. All of us had already received our names when we formally took the vow of refuge to become Buddhists, but most of us just kept it tucked away in a dresser drawer up until now. I got mine from Lama Norlha Rinpoche in 1980: Karma Yeshe Chödrön. Karma means I belong to the Karma Kagyu lineage, whose spiritual leader is the Karmapa, now in his seventeenth incarnation. Yeshe means means Wisdom, the kind you always have whether you have discovered it or not. Chödrön means Lamp of Dharma (Dharma means the truth, the way things are, what the Buddha taught.) We usually go by just one of the three names, though some people have a two-word name; Rinpoche said I will be called Chödrön (the Lamp of Dharma part).

Sometimes two of the names are shortened and combined, typically the first syllable of each of the last two words. I lived in fear that Rinpoche would call me Yechö, to which I think most people would have replied, “Gesundheit!” People who get names that sound really bad in English usually ask Rinpoche for a different version, and I’ve never known him to refuse. One of my fellow retreatants got the very beautiful name Khachap Zangmo. Khachap means “pervading space,” and was the name of the fifteenth Karmapa. But…you have probably figured out why she prefers to be called Zangmo (which means Woman of Excellence), the name Rinpoche selected for her.

So: new name, new clothes, new vows, much less stuff, and no hair.

Oh….and no cell phone!