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.

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.

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.

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!