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.

Gonpo, the Lion Hearted

My great friend and Tibetan nephew, Gonpo, died today, at age 41. There’s no big message here, just sadness. Of course we could discuss the three diseases he died of, and the state of health facilities on the Tibetan plateau. But today, only sadness.

I met Gonpo in 2002, when i first traveled to Tibet with Kilung Rinpoche, Gonpo’s uncle. He was one of many monks who were so curious to meet me, curious and warm-hearted. Gonpo stood out as incredibly open, forthcoming, energetic, and wonderfully hilarious.


Photo by Li Ming Yang

He had a strong baritone voice that emanated from deep inside, like a lion. Later on that trip, some of us traveled from Dzachuka in the east, to Lhasa in the center of Tibet. And there Gonpo revealed himself as a protector, willing to do whatever it takes for someone in need. In this case, me.

Our small group had been planning to circumambulate Mt Kailash. But something had come up for me, an interpersonal thing with one of the westerners going on the trip, and i felt i could no longer go. I was in tears explaining it all to Rinpoche, with Gonpo sitting there listening to this in English, not comprehending the words, but the meaning. All at once, he looked at Rinpoche and said in Tibetan, he would forgo the trip—his chance to make the lifetime Kailash pilgrimage—in order to stay with me. Can you imagine this? Further, he had a duty, in a way, to stay with Rinpoche as his attendant. Understanding all of this, I was deeply touched, and will never forget his offer. Of course I declined. Tears, yes, but i knew i would be okay, and didn’t wish to be the cause of such a sacrifice.

There were more trips to Tibet and more meetings and adventures with Gonpo. I watched him once in a passionate fight with his brother, thinking one of them was going to kill the other—Gonpo was interrupting some alcohol-driven action of his brother, and his brother had a large knife—again, Gonpo as protector.

Every westerner we brought with us to Dzachuka was charmed by Gonpo in his imp manifestation, including the time he reached through an open window and smeared a female relative’s face with a huge handful of cake frosting. He was often the cause of belly laughing.

I watched him mature, taking on increasing responsibilities at the monastery. He was a doer, with this combination of fearlessness, big-heartedness, and capability. He was his uncle’s right-hand at the monastery, and indispensable for his family and community.

So, in 2009, when I was in India with extra weeks on my hands, his uncle asked me to help Gonpo, who had crossed the border to seek medical treatment. Of course I said yes. I became his advocate at the hospital, with doctors and medical technicians, and I learned how to navigate the health system in New Delhi. After the main treatments were completed, together with his cousin, we three made a pilgrimage up and back to some Himalayan destinations. And Gonpo and I continued looking after each other all along the way. When i put them on a bus in that hot, dusty Delhi parking lot, headed back home to Tibet, I didn’t know that would be our last meeting.

I thought Gonpo had been cured—of two diseases, Hydatid disease and Hep B —in China and in India. But no. More recently add to that a third, TB. You can look up the first one. Difficult. Dzachuka has one of the highest incidences per capita in the world.

Even though he went out of this life too early, Gonpo lived well and completely. He was beloved by countless people, including that brother of his, who did recover himself, now settled down with wife and kids.

I remember one time in my thirties, saying to someone, a stranger on a bus, “I’ve lived so fully at this point, if i were to die tomorrow i’d feel satisfied.” I think Gonpo could say this, too. Yes, young, but a beautiful life, a beautiful being.

He’s being honored by Kilung Monastery, his body being brought into the sacred space there, prepared for a lama’s cremation.

Om mani peme hung


Prison Meditation

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I accompanied Kilung Rinpoche to Monroe Penitentiary for his teaching to a group of 15 prisoners, and it exceeded expectations. My friend Jeanne, also in attendance, agreed. The men were rapt while Rinpoche spoke. He shared very touchingly about his uncle’s experience in a Chinese prison in the 1950s; about bodhicitta; led the group in meditation; and answered many questions. The men also had shared a bit about their practice and history with Buddhism. 

Their sincerity and eagerness for the teachings were conveyed throughout the evening. The impact this had on Rinpoche was clear. At the end of the session, he went around the room to each man, lingering with each one while giving them a personal blessing. The heart connections were visible and very moving to observe.

Then it was my turn, and on Tuesday I went out to Monroe with my volunteer sponsor, Sandy, to begin the Seven Meditations program with them. Again, a large group of about 15, and everyone present, warm, and engaged. They were so happy to hear that Rinpoche had enjoyed his time with them. After I shared my story with them, they each went around the circle summarizing their own experience with meditation and Buddhism. Again, I was so impressed with how many meditate on a daily basis, some of them for many years. Quite a number also mentioned that they practice mindfulness continually throughout the day. And many spoke of the real difference meditation had made in their lives: peace, equanimity, concentration, kindness. One of them even said, “I’m beginning to see that this circumstance of prison is akin to being in a monastery…where one can spend time in meditation and practice without the usual distractions.”

At the end of the evening, the donated books were passed out to a very grateful group! One of them, lovingly holding the text, said, “This is like Christmas!” Then, many handshakes all around. After leaving, Sandy said, “You know, everyone was just so happy!” Yes, it was like that the whole evening.

​~ ~ ~

Thank you to everyone who donated for a copy of The Relaxed Mind for the prison program. Funds came in immediately, from the Whidbey Island Monday Meditation group, and also in response to the last email newsletter I sent out. That was 17 copies altogether. And as mentioned above, the men were really happy to receive their book!

In the press

My friend Steve Wilhelm, editor of NW Dharma News, very kindly asked me to write up something about my three-year retreat for their newsletter. After some hesitation, i obliged. Here is what they published, in 2017.

Seattle Woman Completes Three-Year Retreat, Uniquely Blending Stamina, Creativity, Balance


Riverside perch on first year of retreat, 2012, just outside Raymond, Washington

Curiosity abounds about three-year retreat, from within the ranks of Tibetan Buddhism, and from without.

People in this largely secular society of ours often don’t know how to respond when hearing, so unexpectedly, that I lived for more than three years as a Buddhist hermit. I sometimes follow with a bit of humor to break the awkward silence, or offer just earnest explanation. More often than not it’s better to leave the subject unsaid, I’ve found.

Among Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, however, the topic elicits interest and a guaranteed conversation. Many people have mulled over the question of whether or not this is the route for them. Three-year retreat has been held out as a potent portal to the holy grail of enlightenment, and for many years it also held that allure for me.

But for years I was far too engaged in my work with Dza Kilung Rinpoche, a lama from east Tibet, whom I had met in India in the mid-1990s and later brought to Seattle.

First we started Kilung Foundation to raise funds for rebuilding the Nyingma monastery, which Rinpoche directs in the Tibetan region of Kham. Later we started a sangha, Pema Kilaya, and both organizations expanded.

The foundation added multiple humanitarian projects in Rinpoche’s homeland, while his Buddhist teachings and students spread far beyond the Pacific Northwest. Eventually we moved our headquarters to Whidbey Island, northwest of Seattle.

My hands were full, over-full in fact. But with more sangha members to help, I began considering that it was time for me to take a break, and to step into serious personal practice. For 15 years I had not only been engaged full-time in Dharma organizing, but simultaneously was taking a very specific kind of training known as “serving the lama.” I had come to see it as understudying, in a way.

Now it seemed the best route to augment this was to go deep into the life of a hermit in traditional Vajrayana form, lo sum chok sum, a retreat of three years, three months, and three days.

But to accomplish such a retreat I had to surmount a few hurdles: There was no retreat center; I was to be the sole retreatant; and I didn’t have large savings. Normally a group of three-year retreatants stays together in a cloistered setting, especially for an initial retreat.

But my retreat would be the orbiting, slightly-wandering kind. My retreat “hut” was eventually in five different locations, and I relocated eight times. Most locations were in unoccupied houses of friends and relatives, and also at an isolated retreat center in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon.

Mine was basically a solo retreat. But to ward off the risks of too much isolation, I stayed in regular phone contact with a confidante, with my family to some degree, and with my retreat helpers—friends—who brought weekly supplies. And of course there were retreat consultations with Kilung Rinpoche.

A few times one or another of my sangha friends also came by for a few days of parallel retreat with me. And then the contact tapered off over time.

All of this made for a somewhat unusual retreat, though not unheard of in Tibet. The point was to stay in balance, to encourage development, while going not too fast with the danger of being thrown off the rails—in a number of ways. And secondly, to find a way to do this kind of retreat without the infrastructure of a retreat center. I thought of this as in particularly American “can-do” terms: Anything is possible—just figure it out. So we did. I began the retreat in the fall of 2011 and ended in the spring of 2015. Afterward more retreat was wished for, so I went back for an additional nine months ending a year ago, the fall of 2016.

According to a promise I made to some family members, this will be the end of long retreats for this lifetime. I think it’s enough. Even as the experience is still unfolding, it’s time to rejoin society and to share the perspective of all these years—of the understudy and the hermit.

The Eclipse of the Goats

The eclipse called, so I went further south to spend a couple of days in Raymond with my friends Brent and Kathy. We had a great time. Not in the totality zone, but closer to it than Seattle, we had hiked up a steep small mountain, in the woods, friends together, quietly meditating and doing Buddhist practice–all what I was hoping for–except for the surprise visit of a herd of a dozen goats! who rambled over our little encampment, nibbling and taking bites out of anything they could put their lips around! This included my hair, one shoe, Brent’s sacred text, books, and water bottles. One even took a bite out of a foam sitting pad. It was quite, quite funny. We scrambled to try to gather things up, but when one went off, another two would come to investigate something else.

The gentle goatherd, the owner of the property, a friend of Brent and Kathy’s, kept chatting amiably with Brent. Finally Kathy gave a hint that maybe they could all move on (well, in a very diplomatic way), so the three of us could once again sit down and watch the ongoing eclipse…which they did. He set out, calling them, and they happily kept up. They were beautiful animals, and i loved seeing and brushing up against them, while yanking things out of mouths and telling them to move off!

A whimsical convergence of sacred moment and goats. With the right lens, all arisings have sacred, even humorous, potential.


Too much thinking, no good

Long ago and faraway… When my daughter and i got to know Sonam Gonpo, monk-nephew-attendant of Kilung Rinpoche, in Asia, he was one of the funniest people we’d ever met. He would often have us both in stitches, and Sorrel’s laughter would ring like bells throughout their cement apartment. That was in spite of his little English and our near-zero Tibetan. He would also sometimes try to redirect Sorrel’s teenage mind with this Tibetan saying: Too much thinking, no good. Decades later, we both still carry it around with us, when needed. I’m sure we Americans think too much, but if Tibetans didn’t, there wouldn’t be a saying about it.

More recently, I was listening to a teaching online by British dzogchen teacher, James Low. I took down these words of his:

The fewer ideas you have, the more you’re likely to taste what is going on. The function of meditation is to release our addiction to ideas as the vehicle of truth.

So, you know what to do…put that in your pipe and smoke it!

Soul Portraits


Portrait #10 by Deborah Koff-Chapin

This image is one in a series of 16 “soul portraits” of me by my friend and artist Deborah Koff-Chapin. She utilizes a wonderful technique called Touch Drawing, and gives workshops in it all over the world. Just at the end of my second long retreat (Sept 2016), I sat for Deborah for this coming-out-of-retreat gift, capturing a reflection of one’s ether-realm, like taking the pulse on the unseen at that moment of emergence.

I’ll post others of the 16 portraits from time to time.

Infrequent, Hopefully more whimsical, not irascible

From buddhism to bloggism, my first foray into the latter. I begin with this: How inspiring can a blog be when the term so thoroughly reminds me of a book title that used to be on our living room shelf, The Bog People, by PV Glob. This was an actual book–you can look it up–written by a Danish archaeologist, one copy collected by my then-husband. Much later the term “blog” was invented, and i thought, why? But here we are, in a very different world than then.

This webpage i named “Bloggish” to hint at its predicted infrequency and indeterminate purpose. Currently i’m thinking of it as a catch-all, for things which don’t fit into the other menu categories; the infrequency because i’d like to save my writing energy for a book i’m working on. More on the latter later.

The website came into being because of the need to post event flyers (see Happenings), so this bloggishness just an afterthought, and i hope, occasional enjoyment.