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. 

Happy 20th

Wishing the Kilung Foundation a Happy 20th Anniversary!
It was created officially in November of 1998, and here we are at 20 years! Not only maintaining, but expanding, with beautiful accomplishments all along. Kilung Rinpoche is still leading and teaching, an actual temple on Whidbey Island is about to welcome practitioners, and countless benefits have been extended to the people of Dzachuka, Tibet. 

Thank you to everyone who has participated, by volunteering and donating, and by practicing and supporting the Buddhadharma. And deep gratitude to Rinpoche for coming to the West in the first place, then deciding to stay, with his remarkable and enduring wisdom to lead the way.

PS: I accompanied Kilung Rinpoche to Monroe Penitentiary this week where he gave refuge vows to nine inmates in the medium security prison where i’ve been teaching over the past year. It was tremendously moving as you can imagine. This was his second visit; his first was one year ago.