The Glittering Night

Every Christmas while on my Buddhist three-year retreat, sacred time magnified, and I would reflect on the overlay of these two traditions in my life. Here below is an excerpt from my memoir, a journal entry from the final year of retreat, sharing with you now.

December 24, Christmas Eve, 2014

The glittering, glittering night, my gratefulness knows no bounds.

My appreciation for the dark solstice, the inner stillness of winter, gave rise today, Christmas Eve, to an integration of my chosen path of Buddhism and my Christian roots; the latter having paved the way at a young age to sublime mystical life at Christmas, now crissing and crossing between traditions, unifying them, and reflecting.

Quiet, so quiet today, but allowing music into retreat, music and the flexibility to meet my spontaneous and natural inclinations. So much joy in one day.

The integration point lit up in reading Anam Thubten’s book in which he wrote, “The greatest miracle is Enlightenment.” Yes, this I believe. And, but of course! And it struck me, having read it at this Christmas time, that that is what Christmas is—celebrating the miracle of Enlightenment.

The Christians see Enlightenment in their Christ only, as a reflection of God’s light. His birth—he came that way, like a tulku. But the miracle is that anyone—someone—manifested as an expression of the ultimate—full of profoundest love, wisdom, impartiality, compassion. And light.

For Buddhists this possibility is everyone’s birthright, and has manifested countless times. When this manifestation happens it’s a reflection of the Dharmakaya, like the Christian God, full of light, pervasive, and beyond conception.

In either case, the once or the many, the miracle of transcending the mundane, or awakening into super-reality, is so awe-inspiring, we’re called to celebrate. Even we mundane ones recognize it, long for it, can nearly define it. Why? Because we all have the same essence, we’re programmed somewhere deeply inside, to also wake up.

So Christmas is a celebration of this bright light of Awakening that sleeps in everyone’s heart. In all this music, the words sing in the language of poetry, which sometimes allude, as poetry does, point to without saying, like art does. Sometimes that’s the only way to get to the heart of the mystery, the paradoxi, where the linear cannot go. Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming, Christ the Apple Tree, The Counselor, Lord of the Dance, Holly and Ivy, Three Ships. And Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, a hundred times.

I think without these ancient songs, this poetry and this praise, we can scarcely begin to comprehend it. It’s why the quite ancient pieces speak especially to the mystical, magnifying the vicarious experience of this enlightenment, or at least, the awe. It is in the dark of winter that the mystical landscape, this tapestry can be spread. It is in the dark of this glittering night that the miracle of this glorious light’s brilliance can be most appreciated. And in the holy moment we fall to our knees.

tulku – reincarnation of an enlightened being
Dharmakaya – ultimate level of enlightened “existence

A Protection: The Sacred Enemy

Outrage, fear, and acrimony are in the air these days. We do have much to be concerned about, though I won’t make a list. These emotions, pent-up or straight-up, are an invisible, toxic soup, wafting like the visible wildfire smoke over the Pacific NW these days, stinging my eyes, wearying my thought processes. And isn’t that the same with the pervasive emotions of our time? Stinging, wearying, poisoning.

Then today, I remembered a protection in a two-word packet. It comes from a poet and philosopher, a champion of the wilderness, native of the Northwest, and a Zen Buddhist—Gary Snyder. I began reading him intensively a few years back on my long retreat, and felt deep gratitude for his being on the planet. I’ve been meaning to go on a little pilgrimage to the Sierras where he lives, to thank him. But by the time people are traveling around again, who knows, plus he’s 90 now.

Here it is: Sacred enemy. Those words jumped out to me from the page, in an interview with Snyder found in the book, In the Footsteps of Gandhi, Conversations With Spiritual Social Activists by Catherine Ingram. It was the briefest of mentions and I had to know more. Later I found another brief mention in his set of essays, The Practice of the Wild.

I wonder if I can sum it up. All types of beings have sacred enemies, and if you’re a non-human, there is a natural acceptance of this relationship. Some humans and cultures also understand this, even the interdependence of this relationship. The idea is that once we incorporate this, even though we continue to take our stands—as we must—the rage, fear, and acrimony drop away. “Sacred” is essential here because the whole of life with its cycles is sacred, and that means that not one iota can be rejected.

In the animal world, this is easy to see. Predators and prey—both necessary to cycles of life. Traditional sacred enemy relationships, like hawks and rabbits, are known to each other over countless millennia. Rabbits don’t resent hawks, haven’t developed extra layers of bitterness or fury. And they also don’t stop checking the air space, nor stop fleeing at the right time. No one gloats when their side wins.

What of the human sphere, where, with adversarial situations, we have a tendency to ladle on layers of complicated emotions? Snyder suggests viewing these relationships in the same way as the animal kingdom. If we view the powerful as a sacred enemy, then at the same time that we’re taking politicians to court, or organizing protest marches, or even forming debate strategies while reading the newspaper, we can take the stance that we’re in a timeless dance. Those who oppress can then more easily be viewed with compassion, that they’re caught up in some thoughtless, automatic trap bereft of their deeper humanity. And in this new perspective, our own counter-actions might be more effective, now no longer blinded by rage, cut down by fear, nor perverted by acrimony.

This perspective is one way we may bring the principles of Buddhism together with political and social activism, incorporating depth of forgiveness, compassion, and big mind to the struggles with our political adversaries – without giving up the fight. It’s by seeing the universal play at work, and we take our place in that play.

Seen from a depth psychology viewpoint, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her tome, Women Who Run With the Wolves, writes about the innate predator found within the psyche…and without. She tells us, the foe is ancient and contemporary, yet it’s not one bit about submitting.

And so, I wonder, why should we be surprised, incensed, and bitter? What if, instead, we employ “sacred enemy”? And shed the toxicity that pollutes our own heart and mind, while retaining the deeply humane and beneficial work of setting things right.

~ ~ ~

Note: Somewhere in the murky past I came across other writing of Snyder’s where he actually explains the sacred enemy idea as it relates to the human and political realm, but I cannot now find it. If you know where it lies, what it says, please let me know.

In Pinkola Estes’ book, the points above are found in Chapter 2, “Stalking the Intruder, The Beginning Initiation.”

Photo: Daniel Mott, Stockholm, Sweden. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

A Vivid Presence

I just got word that my friend, Thrinley diMarco passed away, on Sunday, April 12, on San Juan Island. She was 83. I’m very sad. When i read this, for one instant i thought i should call her up and say, Hey, Thrinley, did you hear about your dying?! The news was so absurd and you would just want to tell her something of such import. She was just so present, a vivid soul. She was also a supporter of my work, in the sense of moral support, for decades would often send a little email reply to say, Wonderful! or something like that, when she got one of my email newsletters. And once in awhile we had very deep talks.

Thrinley, San Juan Island

We had some things in common–she was a real communicator, and as the caretaker/manager of the temple on the island (Sakya Kachod Choling), was the glue and engine for that Buddhist community for many, many years. I know that it wasn’t just me for whom she was supportive, but can imagine that everyone up there was the recipient of her warmth, confidence-instilling, cheerleading…which came from deep within her, somewhere around her solar plexus–you could just feel that viscerally, like she was implanting this same engine within you.

At the same time, she was an equal friend. She was capable of sharing her own deep feelings and stories from her life that illustrated lessons that she learned along the way, including mistakes that she had made. But with her perspective you could see how wonderful it is to be human, to be capable of also making mistakes, and yet to see it as part of joining the human race, with all our foibles…and with all the beauty.

What a wonderful artist, too. Pottery, collage, etc. The tiny house she built for her retirement, while in her later 70s was gorgeous. Not long ago, just last fall, she had it moved from that steep hillside next to the temple, down near town onto her son’s property. I was so glad, kind of relieved, as i can imagine were all her friends and family… And she had six children! She was of Italian descent, and part of that dynamism seemed to spring from that, too.

The last time i saw her was probably last summer, in the post office in Friday Harbor. She was with her sister who was visiting from out of town. We were SO happy to run into each other, and so we sat for awhile on a bench and talked. She had grown incredibly frail, incredibly fast, which had that jarring effect, of waking up (once again) to the impermanence of life. Even Thrinley…

Oh gosh, this has been a year for me of losing people who feel like personal supporters–in a variety of ways. Last summer five old friends, all extraordinary men, died, who i had been close to, one of them like a brother, all of them respected my work and capabilities. My mother-in-law, Margi gone, too, though it felt different because she had already been on her way for quite some time. I guess this is what it’s like to edge up to our own cliff of life and death. One begins losing people, and then we’re out here on our own, in a way, hopefully capable of standing strong in our own core of confidence, cheering others on…

om mani peme hung

Consecrating Whidbey Island Temple

NW Dharma News published an article last summer by my good friend, Brian Hodel, describing the elaborate consecration of the new temple on Whidbey Island, Phagtsok Gendun Choling. Somehow I missed seeing the article when it first came out, but it’s well worth reading as, beyond the general description of what went on, it contains interesting tidbits about Buddhist ritual, cosmology, and belief. It also conveys the intensity of the multi-day event…and includes mention of the related sand mandala tour that our Seattle group organized.

Rinpoche didn’t want to simply import Tibetan designs, but rather to incorporate those with Northwest building styles. The temple, he said, was to be “in harmony with nature,” and “a cause of happiness for all beings.”

Champion of Humankind

Thirty years ago on a June day my friend Susan invited me to tea and to meet her husband, Rick. She had been telling me bits and pieces about the Tibetan Buddhism that they practiced, but said that Rick would be the one to convey it to me more completely. I carved out time on my birthday, as a gift to myself, and anticipated the day with great eagerness.

They lived high up in a small apartment at the local Episcopal church, coincidentally in the Seattle neighborhood where I’d grown up. Rick worked as caretaker of the church. He’d been a semi-pro tennis player, tall and fit. He had been working on an avante-garde film with his friend, Torbin, a famous Danish Buddhist and tennis star.

Susan and Rick, warm and welcoming, gave me tea and invited me to sit on their floor with them, the only seating in their living room. Rick spoke long about Buddhism, then lent me three books. I admired their altar with so many objects that I did not yet comprehend, including photos of their teachers. I was spellbound. When I finally left with a full heart, clutching the books, I had a sense that I’d found the spiritual home i’d been searching for – for years, or perhaps my whole life.

In the following months I returned to discuss the books, or further thoughts. They invited me to attend a weekend retreat with their teacher, who became my teacher. I was entering a world at once familiar and exotic. The teacher had spoken about duality and non-duality. I had no idea what this meant, along with so many other concepts. I turned to Rick’s depth of philosophy and understanding for answers.

Susan, with her southern accent, was very down-to-earth, someone I related to easily, an instant sister. And in fact, this quality of hers convinced me that Tibetan Buddhism would not be so esoteric that I couldn’t reach for it. But it took Rick’s facile and patient explanations to lead me, and his openness to one’s own inner process to give me confidence. Their teacher was Tibetan, rarely visiting Seattle, and anyway, remote, traveling the world to his many hundreds of students. It was left to someone like Rick to introduce beginners like me to this form of Buddhism.

In those early days I joined their group which met weekly in their small apartment where we chanted and sang a collection of Tibetan prayers. I dove straight in and loved it from the start. Through the years we attended retreats together, practices, and got together for discussions. Then, my life took adventurous turns, going to Asia, meeting a Tibetan teacher whom I brought back to Seattle, too much to tell. By that time, Rick and Sue’s involvement with their sangha had cooled, and they went into a long period of reflection, while my life was taken up more than ever with my teacher and his Buddhist teachings.

But Rick’s inordinate calling to philosophy, to inquiry of the mind, and to community, wasn’t going to stop there. I saw this when, after many years, I reconnected with them both. I learned about their long involvement with dialogue groups, with contemporary western philosophers sometimes mixing with Buddhism, and a particular avenue of communication. It was intriguing, but what I was most caught by was the continuation of this beautiful aspiration of both Rick and Sue to help others to see, to find their way—not only others, but themselves, and within their relationship, each other. …And this was fueled by a deep confidence in the inner process, and a great, great humanity.

Rick New’s life ended yesterday, July 9, 2019, and humankind has lost one of its champions.

Mandala: Visualizing the Spiritual Dimension

Mandala means circle in Sanskrit. The flat drawings that we normally see are meant as maps of the three-dimensional universe, or even multiverse, in Buddhist and Hindu cosmology.

Mandalas have arisen in the world’s spiritual traditions, from the calendars of the Mayans to the Persian symbol of the sun, or the Celtic cross. In Christianity, they appear in walkable labyrinths, or stained glass windows of ancient cathedrals. Mandalas are found in nature: think of flowers, or the cross-section of a tree trunk, a conch shell, the iris of an eye, or a snowflake.

The earliest Buddhist mandalas appeared in India around 200 CE, and spread to other Asian countries, including Tibet. In Tibetan Buddhism the Mandala represents the sacred essence of the universe, or the enlightened mind. It is an outward manifestation of inner spiritual dimensions, using color, form and sacred geometry. The Mandala is a tool through which philosophical and religious principles are passed from teacher to student over generations.

The Tibetan mandala is an exquisite form of ritual art. Every intricate detail carries deep symbolic meaning. The form often appears as concentric circles around a perfect square, representing a four-sided temple containing the essence of the Buddha or other deities. Each deity has a corresponding mandala constructed of specific shapes and colors. The Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara’s mandala, for example, appears differently from one for Manjushri, Buddha of Wisdom.

Medicine Buddha Sand Mandala, Bellingham, Washington, 2019

Each mandala detail represents precise parts of a palace, including cornices, columns, lintels, etc. The mandala is inhabited. At the center resides the main deity, and around the circular perimeter is a row of protector deities. The four sides have entranceways through which the deity is approached. The mandala is divided into four sections that correspond to the four directions, indicated by its characteristic color. The center makes a fifth direction. Blue in the east; yellow south; red west; green north; and white at the center. (Sometimes blue and white are switched.)

In contemplative meditation, the Mandala can serve to focus and calm the mind. At other times, practitioners may visualize the symbolic representation of the pure land of that deity, or pure essence of the enlightened mind. This is meant to cultivate one’s inner spiritual qualities and the potential to achieve an enlightened state.

Mandalas are created as offerings to bless and heal the world and all its inhabitants. They are also a profound teaching on impermanence—a central principle of Buddhist philosophy. Although some Mandala art is preserved in sacred paintings, practitioners create mandalas of sand and other materials that are then dissolved and returned to nature. From creation through dissolution, the Sand Mandala is a beautiful dance illustrating the impermanence of all things.

Thanks to Marcia Meyers for contributing to this piece, and to Brian Hodel for the title. Copies were handed out at the Kilung Foundation’s 2019 “Prayer for the Earth: Tibetan Sand Mandala Exhibit.”

Prayer for the Earth

Eight Tibetan monks have come to the Pacific Northwest to consecrate the new temple on south Whidbey Island, home of the Buddhist sangha, Pema Kilaya. Its name: Dharma Land of the Great Practitioner; in Tibetan, Phagtsok Gedun Choling. (See last blog entry for photos.)

Consecration of a Tibetan temple is a complex undertaking, requiring years of ritual experience by the practitioners. These men each began their monastic life as children of the Himalayas, joining temples there, and after decades, made their way to Buddhist centers in the very Buddhist country of Taiwan. This is where they met Kilung Rinpoche…which led to an invitation to help him ritually energize the new Whidbey temple.

Expanding the sphere of blessings. These monks are also experienced in the ritual of creating sand mandalas. So, following the consecration of the temple, three locations in the Pacific Northwest will be treated to this sacred practice. The public is invited to these free events, also featuring public talks by Kilung Rinpoche.

Seattle at the University of Washington’s Intellectual House
June 6 – 7

Whidbey Island at the new temple in Clinton during their Open House
June 9 – 10

Bellingham at the Firehouse Arts & Events Center
June 13 – 14

Full Details at Exhibit Website

The sand mandala, sacred art of Tibet, is a form of meditation in action, benefiting the artist, the observer, and broader world. A precise template is first laid down, based on sacred geometry; the monks then tap out of special instruments minute amounts of colored sand, covering the entire “canvas”; a ritual is done to consecrate the image, powering the intention of bringing good to the world; at the end the mandala is ritually “dissolved,” the sand collected up and poured into a large waterway — to distribute the blessings throughout the world. From creation through dissolution, the sand mandala is a beautiful dance illustrating the impermanence of all things.

We hope you will join us.

Purpose of a Temple

One Monday in January the new Buddhist temple at Yeshe Long on Whidbey Island welcomed a large and joyful crowd for its first-ever evening meditation, led by Dza Kilung Rinpoche.

Yeshe Long Temple, Whidbey Island

No matter that the hall wasn’t quite complete, nor yet consecrated, the spiritual energy magnified by place, by its very form, was fully engaged. Entering just after sunset, the color of the walls, the warmth of the wood, together with the lighting, felt as if walking into a golden sphere. The perfect mandala shape of the outer walls, rising high above our heads three levels to the points of an embedded crystal, seemed to focus the sacred intent of those present, while bringing in the lineage of centuries of Buddhists. Our brief chant, taking refuge in the three jewels, reverberated with a musicality i’d never heard before. Maybe with my sense of expectancy and delight to be there, i conjured it all, but i don’t think so.

Kilung Rinpoche leading the first meditation, January 21, 2019
Nearly 80 people attended, here settling in before the meditation began. There are four alcoves, one in each cardinal direction; traditional hand carving on the beams.
High above, the center of the temple-mandala refracts the light in a symmetrical pattern, this by accident; the timber will remain unpainted, a nod to the aesthetic sensibilities of our Pacific NW.

Sitting there in meditation, surrounded by so many friends, Rinpoche in front of us all, in this beautiful space, my mind went back twenty years to the beginning, when we first began, with nothing. Now look! My heart was full, with spreading happiness and peace. Thank you…

Prayer for the Self

Last month, one of my meditation students shared in our group that he was undergoing personal stress due to an obstacle of a practical, financial, and life-course nature. I suggested praying for a positive outcome. This elicited from him a certain hesitation on the grounds that he didn’t feel it was quite right to plead his case (to the universe) for himself. A kind man, he understandably didn’t wish to be self-serving, feeling that prayers were best made on behalf of others.

My understanding of Buddhism, i responded, includes oneself in among the all of the “all sentient beings” for whom we continually dedicate the efforts and positivity of our practice. So it’s allowable. And furthermore, if our own suffering is reduced, we may be of more use to all those “other” beings. I recommended that he expand to include himself in prayer.

But more to the point, there is a heart-rending aspiration that is common in Buddhism that i shared that evening, the words coming spontaneously to my mind, combining ideas from the Bodhicaryavatara, and teachings by present-day bodhisattvas. Here they are:

May the suffering I’m undergoing due to this obstacle be the means for all others to avoid suffering due to obstacles of a similar kind. 

And furthermore, when this obstacle dissolves, may its absence and my resulting ease cause me to be of greater benefit to all beings.

I went on to write him:

Go ahead and also pray directly that this obstacle dissolves… so that you can be of more benefit to the world, others, your family, and self.
Feel free to substitute more specific language about the obstacle as you see fit.

When one reads that topmost aspiration, one may think, but how is it even possible? If taken to its logical extent, and as presented in the Bodhicaryavatara, how can one take on all the suffering of all beings, without expiring on the spot? I find that it’s just this conundrum that, like a koan, jars the heart-mind, my spirit, for just a moment, that then causes an inner shift to take place. In an instant, a surrender, an opening. And in that space, blessing and healing rides in.

And it’s even more than that–an expansion of the heart to include the welfare of others, stepping stone on the path of the bodhisattva, carries with it the actual power of prayer. There you go.

After everyone went home that night, this student sent a message asking me to write down those words and send to him. So i did. He reported later that this approach made it possible for him to include his own predicament, himself, in his prayers. And so i thought to share that prayer more widely here, in case others may find it useful.

The Bodhicaryavatara, The Way of the Bodhisattva, by Shantideva, 8th C.

Kilung Rinpoche on How To Meditate in 7 Ways

The room was filled with warmth and an inner brightness, even before Dza Kilung Rinpoche stepped through the doors. This Tibetan lama was already known to many in the full house at East West on Sunday, December 2, as he has been teaching in Seattle for the last twenty years. Once he took his seat, the audience was rapt and devoted. The topic was a continuation of his previous engagement months before—the seven meditations of his book, The Relaxed Mind: A Seven-Step Method For Deepening Meditation Practice. This Sunday, he deftly took us on a journey through all seven meditations, explaining, and then leading us deeply in each. 

To meditate in the presence of a reincarnated meditation master is a kind of transmission, a teaching accessed beyond language, through experience. And so he, and I think most of us, approached this day as a kind of meditation retreat—for us, an opportunity to sit in meditation with a master, regardless of the cognitive material presented. But in fact his words were lucid, fresh, and instructive. Here is a sampling.

Meditation 1: Make a habit of awareness of one’s body, of resting with the body, as the starting point of every meditation session. He advised those with chronic tension or pain to keep awareness of the entire body and being, rather than staying pinpointed at the source of the trouble.

Meditation 2: In Calm Abiding, we extend this body awareness to the breath, or resting the gaze on an object in our visual field. At this point we’re training for focus and calm, but importantly, in an unpressured way. The “single” of single-pointedness often referred to in this meditation doesn’t mean to focus on an isolated object; rather it’s a unified perspective that we want to foster. Then, one’s focus becomes subtle and relaxed.

Meditation 3: For Refined Sitting meditation, one drops the breath as the object of meditation. One pulls back, without grasping onto an object, experiencing a bigger space…a joy with satisfaction, contentment, almost an “as it is” state of mind. This gives rise to clarity, not as a sudden light bulb switching on, but as a growing lack of confusion. This growing energy can become a radiation of the heart, of bodhicitta: compassion. Then that becomes the focus.

Meditation 4: Let it be. Insight meditation as taught by the Tibetan lamas is often a much more global and relaxed approach than what one may encounter in other traditions. Clarity is the main point here, along with awareness of the present moment, and is a natural outgrowth of practice one has developed in the preceding meditations. Rinpoche’s main point today was to allow, to notice the resting mind, to let it be. It can be that simple.

Meditation 5: Rinpoche summed up Open Heart-Mind meditation with this story. Sometimes people come to him for pith instructions—a simple, direct way to work with their mind and progress on the path of Buddhism. He tells them, “Open your heart, your mind. Just sit with that and see how it goes…This can bring one to a vast view. Everything is there.” That’s the essence of this meditation, and it can be a powerful tool. He said he finds that in highly developed countries like ours people are so busy, so tied up, without time for the inner self. So the heart-mind needs this opportunity to open—to contact our humanity. And then we can extend this openness, without walls of any kind, to all sentient beings, even to ourselves. 

Meditation 6: Attitude is all. This sums up Pure Mind meditation: to protect against the neurotic tendencies of one’s mind, to give up stories about things that have happened, and then to develop a more positive perspective and qualities. This is also sometimes called Sacred Outlook, and can be applied to how we can view the environment, the earth as sacred. And beyond, to seeing the true nature of things, that purity is just there. Some examples to nurture: Let me see the courageous side of myself, rather than a closed-off version of myself. Or, if during meditation the phone rings, or someone snores, think: Ah! there’s a ring that’s pure, snoring that’s pure.

Meditation 7: Non-Conceptual meditation is an entry into Dzogchen, which is about letting go, free of any engagement. This is not about thoughtlessness, as potentially more thoughts can appear. But truly no walls, totally free with a vast view. Non-doing and utter simplicity. At this point, we don’t try to change the thoughts, and our knowing mind remains aware. But there’s no separation between experience and the experiencer. The final instruction? Give freedom to your inner mind. 

I wrote this posting for the East West Bookshop Journal, which they published today.

Dza Kilung Rinpoche is a lama of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, the fifth reincarnation in a line of enlightened yogis. Rinpoche first came out of Asia to Seattle in 1998, and now leads an international sangha, with his main residence on Whidbey Island. At the same time that he oversees multiple projects, including the building of a new temple on the island, he has maintained responsibilities as the head of his monastery in eastern Tibet, and makes trips there annually.

I initially brought Rinpoche to the west, to Seattle, and helped him develop the Kilung Foundation and Pema Kilaya Sangha. Rinpoche has been my teacher for more than 20 years; he guided me through my three-year retreat, and continues to advise me.