Tag Archives: lineage

The Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa

May 2008

In its thirty years of existence, PTC Monastery has hosted many great Lamas, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche (under whose guidance PTC was founded), Chamgon Tai Situ Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Bokar Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, and many others. Just to read their names confers blessing!

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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of a long history of verification are often offended by the concept of lineage, and try to brush it off as some sort of outdated, closed-minded clique mentality.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.

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!

Why Three Years?

March 2008

Just before retreat started, a friend asked me why I wanted to do a three-year retreat. I didn’t give her a very good answer, because I hadn’t really thought about how to explain it. Most people don’t ask the question, though it must be in everyone’s mind: how can you give up friends, family, restaurants, hiking, driving, concerts and movies, email, the internet, teaching Latin, cell phones, the New Hampshire seacoast, etc. to sit in a room by yourself for THREE YEARS! A week, or maybe even a month…maybe…but THREE YEARS!

For me, there are five basic reasons.

First, in the spiritual tradition I’ve been part of for the past 27 years, the Kagyu Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, three-year retreat is hands-down the best way to acquire all the basic tools you need to attain complete enlightenment, a.k.a. awakening, a.k.a. seeing everything the way it really is, with no confusion or errors. That sort of realization also enables you to help other people without accidentally making things worse, which is one of the pitfalls of trying to help others when you are confused yourself. It is what the Buddha discovered 2,600 years ago when he set his mind to end suffering for all beings, no matter what it took.

Second, even if I don’t attain enlightenment this time around—and I admit that may be asking a lot—the Buddhist path has many, many tools to help us develop emotional equanimity and tame our minds so we are not at the mercy of every little thing that happens to us. I’d like to not even bat an eyelash the next time someone starts yelling at me or I realize I forgot to buy the chocolate chips. There are a lot of studies now that suggest meditation makes people not only more focused, but also happier. If you want to explore this option outside retreat, a good place to start is any of Pema Chödron’s books, or my current favorite, The Joy of Living by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

Third, and you can stop reading now if you don’t want to think about this, one of the things Buddhism does best is to help us prepare for that inevitable moment of death we are all going to face whether we think about it or not. We learn in Buddhism that the moment of death and what happens after it are crucially important opportunities, and a lot of our practice is specifically designed to enable us to take advantage of them and help others do the same. That may sound far-fetched in a culture where old age is invisible and corpses wear lipstick; but…what if it’s true? (Look up “Pascal’s wager” for seventeenth-century Christian advice on a similar topic.)

Which brings me to reason number four: Why am I so sure three-year retreat can deliver on these goals? Because I have the example of my teacher, Lama Norlha Rinpoche, and other realized teachers I have met, who have traveled exactly this same path before me. You have only to be in a room with one of them for five minutes, maybe less, to know they are operating on some level of clarity, competence, and compassion that we can’t even imagine. I can’t hope to achieve that in three years or even this lifetime, but I do hope to get the process underway.