In Eight Steps to Happiness Geshe-la says "'Self' and 'other' are relative terms, rather like 'this mountain' and 'that mountain ... 'This' and 'that' therefore depend upon our point of reference. This is also true of self and other. By climbing down the mountain of self, it is possible to ascend the mountain of other, and thereby cherish others as much as we presently cherish ourself."

Saturday, March 31, 2012

"Everything is practice"

I don't know what the soccer legend Pele meant by this quotation, but I thought it applicable to spiritual practice. It reminds me that my whole life can be my practice - that it is not just when I am sitting on my cushion meditating that "counts."
Gen-la Dekyong is always telling us that everything can teach us Dharma if we let it - all the situations we find ourselves in, the people we meet, even the "ducks on the lake," as she once said in NY.
What do I think when I see the mallards and wigeons and coots when Saradog and I go for walks at Green Lake? That I am fortunate to be human, to have a mind that is able to understand Dharma and the conditions that allow me to practice it, which sadly animals do not, this time around.
I have to say I've learned a lot from my pets, especially my former dog, Utah. He was part golden retriever and had such a good heart. When we'd go to an off-leash park so that he could run around, he'd approach other dogs, asking if they wanted to play, and approach people, as if asking if they needed to pet him so that they would feel better. If not, he would just move on. As someone who used to be scared of people and rejection, seeing this played out in front of me over and over was a teaching. He was happy either way; it was all fine; it was about what others needed, not what he wanted.
We'd gotten Utah as an older dog, and he'd had very little training. He was house-broken but didn't know what a command was. Training my mind felt very much like training Utah: It took a long time and at times seemed hopeless, but by constant repetition, not giving in, eventually we both became more disciplined - and happier for it.

When Gen-la was in Seattle, on a walk near the Temple, she said she heard a train whistle, as the tracks for the train to Vancouver run nearby, and she thought "train, train, train" (as in train your mind). Such a flexible mind to come up with that double meaning!

Pele's quote also implies that we are always trying to improve. According to karma, no action is ever wasted. Which is why even trying to meditate creates positive results in the future.

I find it helpful to think this way, because then I'm less afraid of mistakes. In practice, it's good to make mistakes and learn from them. There's a more common phrase we tend to hear associated with practice, but actually it doesn't matter if it ever "makes perfect." No one's watching. With patience in my practice, I don't have to be anxious about getting results, which is just discouraging.

Just for fun, I'm passing along this this saying from Yogi Berra I stumbled on: "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is."

Tharpaland Will Be Moving

Tharpaland, the blessed retreat center in Scotland where Geshe Kelsang did a long retreat, and where many others have had the opportunity to do short or long retreats, just sent out this update:

"Thank you for all your support and offers to help Tharpaland International Retreat Centre with the move. For now we are staying where we are and are running a full retreat programme until June 2012. We have no further news other than that Tharpaland's relocation is taking longer than we expected, please keep us in your prayers and dedications. 

For those of you who want to help with the move please keep in touch and we will let you know how you can help and when as soon as we know ourselves.  Also keep checking our website: for any further updates and for retreat information. And meanwhile why not come to Tharpaland and enjoy our special retreat conditions?"


Thursday I got about 2 pints of "red drops" and am now getting some energy back (they warned me it would take about 24 hours before I really started feeling better).
The nurses were very careful administering the blood, even more so than with the chemo. It's a similar setup, essentially a plastic bag hanging from a pole, driven by a pump, into my port, but the blood went through an additional filter. With each new bag, they would take my vital signs (including listening to my lungs and taking my temperature and blood pressure) every 15 minutes as one way of making sure I was n't having an adverse reaction, even though the blood center had already run a bunch of tests and compatibility checks on my blood and theirs. The pump controls how fast the fluid flows, and at the beginning they ran it at a slow rate, only increasing it after they were confident I was tolerating this foreign substance.
Which is why it took 6 hours.
For chemo, they have a detailed process of having two people check the drug and the patient: With each chemo drug, they ask my name and birth date, and then the 2 nurses check the doctor's orders with the labels on the drugs. For the transfusion, I also had to spell my name for each bag of blood.
There was even what they called a "rinse cycle" of saline at the end.

By the way, when you get so many fluids pumped into your body, you have to unplug your pump and roll your pole down the hall to the restroom a few times. It's probably good to have a reason to go for a little stroll; when I'm not attached to this "infuser," it's usually my dog who prompts me to get out for a walk.

So the procedure went well and seems to be producing, temporarily, good results, but the trans-fusion I'd really like is to be transformed into a higher being through realizing the fusion of the 2 truths.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Saying "No"

A companion post to Saying "Yes" ...
I say "yes" to Buddhism, but as a Buddhist I say "no" to samsara, the ongoing cycle of suffering in life after life after life, which is renunciation.

My friend of the "yes" said the ultimate "no"- she killed herself, in her early 30s, after surviving the most horrific childhood I have ever heard of. Kerry was a close friend, and we often talked about her wish to kill herself. This was B.D. (before Dharma). I wish I had some Dharma wisdom then - maybe I could have helped her. How do you convince someone it's worth sticking around when their life is so painful? She rarely slept because she feared the traumatic dreams that left her soaked in sweat. I knew that she had a lot of trouble imagining hope for herself, so I tried to get her to rely on my hope for her.
She was a Religion major, and her favorite religion was Mahayana Buddhism, because she loved the idea that you weren't just trying to get into Heaven for yourself and then, as she said, pulling up the ladder behind you. Unfortunately, her intellectual knowledge didn't lead to believing.
She was an amazing person, working with the homeless when she could have been a professor, as many of her own professors encouraged her to be. Bloomington, Indiana gave her a key to the city for her work. When I visited her there, she couldn't walk down the street without being greeted by people she had helped: an alcoholic who almost froze to death in his car who was working for the parks department, a schizophrenic who had gotten Section 8 housing thanks to her, a father who'd regained custody of his kids.
One of her intellectual interests was the idea of ''action at a distance,'' which I thought of at the time as history but now see as karma (even though you could say history is a subset of karma). I think she lost hope when she found out that geographic distance from her family wasn't enough.

Later I met a psychiatrist friend who's had this suicide conversation with too many of his patients. He's deeply influenced by Buddhist thought and believes the best answer is impermanence. He thinks that depressives have a strong sense that nothing will ever change.

When I find myself tempted by worldly pleasures, I sometimes think of Kerry. There is nothing that is going to make up for that loss - there is no lemon tart, no sunshine on the beach, not even a true heart-to-heart conversation with a good friend is going to come even close to balancing that out. Not just her dying - the fact that any of us has to die. That there's war, and addiction and famine and disease and depression and ... I could go on and on, and it could get really depressing listing all the sorrows we have to experience.
Do you ever feel like our situation is unacceptable?
Samsara is a losing proposition. It's a con game. They say you can only be conned if you want to be. I don't necessarily believe that, but to the extent it's true, it applies to samsara. Switching analogies: I don't want to play anymore. You cannot win. To  keep betting is to put yourself deeper and deeper in the hole. The house will let you win just a little to keep you in the game (those small, temporary pleasures we think of as happiness), but the odds are not in your favor. The only sure thing is that you will lose, and the longer you play, the more you will lose.
Samsara is like being constantly lured into an ambush, with shiny gee-gaws as bait, which turn out not to be the precious jewels we imagine but worthless plastic trinkets.
We are fools. I am a fool for thinking any of these things can really make me happy.

The Force that Feeds You

One of my early influences growing up was the writer James Baldwin, who I thought and still think was eloquent and wise. In conversation with the poet Nikki Giovanni, a conversation that was later published as a short book, which I still have, he said:
It isn't even a question of keeping yourself happy. It's a question of keeping yourself in some kind of clear relationship, more or less, to the force that feeds you. Some days you're happy, some days you ain't.
For me, Kadampa Buddhism is the force that feeds me.
And the part about not being happy some days makes me think of the part of How to Solve Our Human Problems where Geshe Kelsang says:
Normally our need to escape from unpleasant feelings is so urgent that we do not give ourself the time to discover where these feelings are actually coming from. ... Unfortunately, by reacting so quickly, we do not give ourself the time to see what is actually going on in our mind. In reality, the painful feelings that arise on such occasions are not intolerable. They are only feelings, a few moments of bad weather in the mind, with no power to cause us any lasting harm. There is no need to take them so seriously. We are just one person among countless living beings, and a few moments of unpleasant feeling arising in the mind of just one person is no great catastrophe.
Just as there is room in the sky for a thunderstorm, there is room in the vast space of our mind for a few painful feelings. And just as a storm has no power to destroy the sky, unpleasant feelings have no power to destroy our mind. When painful feelings arise in our mind, there is no need to panic — we can patiently accept them, experience them, and investigate their nature and where they come from.
 Boy, I wish I had learned that a long time ago.

Taking and Giving Blood

Thursday I am going to get a blood transfusion to help alleviate my fatigue, which contributed to putting me in bed rather than attending Offering to the Spiritual Guide at the Temple on Sunday.
Today I traded a small vial of my blood, to be "typed and crossed" for the 2  "units" of blood that some kind beings have donated (it's not a set quantity, my phlebotomist explained, because it depends on the concentration of red cells in that particular batch). I send my deep gratitude to all you Bodhisattvas who have given your body in this way.

I had a transfusion before from low hematocrit on chemo, and I felt so much more energy afterward. I am hopeful that this will allow me to enjoy more of US Festival and my family visits next month. My oncologist offered it as a choice, which I gladly accepted. From my experience, I expect I would have gotten more and more fatigued without it.
You may be thinking that what I need is iron supplements, but that is actually not recommended in my case: All of my doctors have told me it's OK to have iron in foods but that supplements would interfere with my treatment (they've also said that if I did take supplements, they wouldn't improve my levels fast enough).
The procedure is considered quite safe - I think it may strike some of you as being more serious than it is. Here's a bit of info to reassure you, from the blood bank associated with my cancer treatment:
The risk of exposure to HIV is estimated to be approximately 1 in 2.5 million or less per unit. Since 1985, no patient has been reported to have contracted HIV from a transfusion provided by Puget Sound Blood Center. The risk of hepatitis C infection is estimated to be approximately 1 in 1 million or less per unit, and the risk of hepatitis B, approximately 1 in 750,000 or less per unit. Bacterial infection and other types of infection from a transfusion are possible, although also unlikely.
Very fine print: Your karma may vary : ) I'll make some prayers that obstacles be removed.

If only I had a stronger mind, I wouldn't identify so closely with my body, but I am happy to say that I'm working on it. When I'm fatigued, my mind feels more vulnerable. This is overly dramatic, I realize, but occasionally it feels like being assailed by soul-sucking Dementors, for those of you familiar with the Harry Potter series, and having to do the Buddhist equivalent of the Patronus charm with all the faith I can muster. (I am actually more of a Lord of the Rings fan - the journey that Frodo makes resonates with me spiritually - but I deeply enjoyed having Richard read both the Potter and Rings books to me at bedtime; he is wonderful at giving voice to all the different characters.)

My faith is my most precious possession, and over the years I have learned the importance of actively protecting it. For example, when my faith is strong, I can listen to someone with doubts about  Buddhism or the New Kadampa Tradition; I have compassion for them. Depending on where they are and what they're wishing for, I can try to help them. I feel my own faith getting stronger, like a workout at the gym.
The Dorje Shugden controversy really deepened my faith. I was very fortunate to be able to attend many of the demonstrations and to meet Tibetan practitioners who had directly experienced persecution. I also researched the issue, reading different points of view, and came to a greater appreciation and understanding of this precious lineage.

However, when I read non-Buddhists make sweeping generalizations about life that contradict what I know and believe, I put up my armor: I protect my heart. Materialists (people who deny there's any spiritual or transcendent dimension to life) seem to pop up when I'm reading book reviews - there are some popular books by atheists and scientists getting a lot of attention in the press. Sometimes writers don't even try to make an argument - they just make a statement as though everyone believes what they do. Mostly I just think it's nonsense. (One of the reasons Americans need Sangha is that Buddhists are swimming upstream in what's mostly a Judeo-Christian culture - there are so many embedded assumptions. But I will save that for another day.)

When my faith is shakier, I will stop myself from reading. If I'm with someone who is denouncing my Spiritual Guide, I will try to excuse myself or at least stop listening to them and listen instead to an inner dialogue, at the very least a mantra. I will "conjure up" (to use the Patronus metaphor) a love for Buddha, Dharma and Sangha - it is refuge in my heart. I go inward, to my heart, with my Guru.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Registration for UK Festivals

Did you know that booking for UK Spring Festival is already open?

And that booking for Summer Festival opens @5am Seattle time* on Wed. April 11?

I pray that everyone with a strong wish to attend is able to go.

* according to the World Clock time converter at

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dancer and the Dance

Years ago at an offsite emptiness retreat on Vashon Island, my first Teacher described our involvement with the objects we see as being like a dancer and their dance: There is no dance without the dancer. There is no object without a mind perceiving the object. "It takes two to tango," as the expression goes : )
You could riff on other variations of this idea:
* No music without the musician
* No magic without the magician
* No love without the lover ... it's a (co)dependent relationship : )

Offering a Mandala on Shrine

For January Lamrim retreat, following the instructions, we offer a long 37-point mandala where the sadhana calls for a short one. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to continue with it, but only when I was happy to, which turned out to be most days.
We're reminded that our spiritual practice should be like a child at play. When I make mandala offerings, I feel like a kid making sand castles at the beach. And both are clearly impermanent, as we usually collapse the mandala right after we've constructed it.

When I was admiring Chondzin's extra-small mandala kit, she said that it was a good size because it fit on her small shrine. (By the way,  I've only seen for sale at KMC New York; if you want one, maybe they'll have them at US Festival next month.)
On the other end of the size spectrum, I remember Demo's mandala kit because it was huge. Of course, the physical size of the offering isn't the main factor, but I do associate it with her vast collection of merit, from all kinds of Dharma activities.
Chondzin's comment gave me the idea that I could also offer my mandala on my shrine, as we used to do at my Center before other offerings took up that space on the shrine.
I feel more energy in my mind for spiritual practice when I make this larger offering.

Because I have more practice, my mandala offerings are now more beautiful - that is, more symmetrical / less wonky. But also messier: Rice tends to spill onto the floor and onto my shrine.
Because the center's mandala offering had rice beneath it, I do the same thing - I associate it with putting rice in my hands before holding the mandala base.
I'm thinking that a plate with a lip would help; if I was more of a shopper or less of a procrastinator, I would have bought one already. I did buy a small whisk broom and dustpan for my meditation room, because they're better than my vacuum at picking up rice.

Friday, March 16, 2012

My Body as a Phantom Limb

In previous posts I've mentioned phantom limbs as a concept that helps me understand the emptiness of the body: People who have lost a limb can still experience pain where it used to be. It shows the role of the mind in perceiving a body even though it - and everything else - is essentially in the mind.

At the Western Canada Dharma Celebration in January, Gen-la Dekyong mentioned that our body seems to extend a bit beyond the borders of our skin. It's true - we conceive an area of personal space around our body and can sense it when someone enters that zone. I think of it as being akin to the territorial waters around a country, which it defends along with the land within its borders. Interesting, too, that how far our personal space extends is largely culturally determined - mind again!

Did you know there's a phenomenon that's the opposite of a phantom limb, where you deny having a part of your body that's still intact? A friend has a daughter with a brain injury; when she looks at her arm she says, "That's not my arm."

Today when I was meditating on the emptiness of my body, I was imagining the whole thing as a kind of phantom body. The body I was perceiving was no more real than an amputated arm. I think it also helped with the idea of an absence, to keep me from seeing emptiness as nothingness.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Two More Months

of chemo

The groundhog must have seen a shadow ... on my CT scan.
Actually it was my radiologist who saw the shadow: my brain MRI was normal - hooray - and my abdominal CT scan showed that all the small tumors had disappeared, except for one, which went from 2 cm to 1 cm. My oncologist considers this very good news, because the chemo is working. He wants to wipe out that last small mass; I do too. Because it's working, I'm going to get the same chemo drugs on the same chemo days, starting again next Tues, but with a break so that I can attend US Festival.
I have to say that being on chemo feels very familiar. Like Bill Murray's character in the movie Groundhog Day, I hope to become a better person by going through this.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Prayers for MichaelM

Please make strong prayers for Michael M, who is in the hospital with a staph infection in his heart, and for his family, Eve, their toddler Lily, and his teens Nate and Polly.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Saying "Yes"

When I was in college, a close friend used to use the expression "saying yes" to things she liked. For example, she'd say a new favorite song or a thought-provoking book were "yeses." Things that were really good were "big yeses."
For me, finding Kadampa Buddhism has been a huge "yes."

I'd spent years searching. In particular, I wanted to know why there was suffering and how to help other people. I used to have a pet theory that different people are drawn to different religions and philosophies according to what they see as the essential questions. Unlike a lot of people, I wasn't particularly interested in what happens after you die.

I tried reading the Bible and becoming a Christian, as my family was what I'd call nominally Episcopalian, but I couldn't make the leap of faith. I wanted to say "yes" but couldn't.
I've always appreciated that Buddhism doesn't require a leap: You can take baby steps. You don't have to dive in the deep end - you can just dip your toe in. I love that there are so many entry points in Kadampa Buddhism, so many ways to start, from Prayers for World Peace on Sundays to Food for Thought; from Lunchtime Meditation to Urban Retreats. It's like a smorgasbord - take what you like, try a bite of something new, come back for more of whatever appeals.

I've always appreciated that Demo - before she was Demo, much less Gen Demo, Teacher at the Temple in Florida - let me join Foundation Program even though I hadn't been to very many General Program classes. In those days, the GP classes were held at the Friends Center because the house that was Vajralama Center was too small. There was a special vibe at Vajralama that even I, who am not very intuitive that way, could feel.

When I attended my first class at the Center, I felt anxious and uncomfortable. No one said "hello" to me, because I gave off such a negative vibe. Yet I felt a sense of "shelter" - that was the way I thought of it. And I didn't yet know the concept of refuge. (For a long time, Vajralama Center would have an annual class about refuge that was called "Shelter from the Storm.") I felt like I'd been on a road walking, out in the elements, for a very long time, and that I could finally get some rest.

The first teaching I heard there was that each of us is holding a burning stick of suffering, but that Buddha can show us how to let go of it. At that point, the solution didn't even matter to me - I felt like someone was finally telling me the truth. No one else seemed to want to acknowledge suffering or death, much less suggest that everyone could be permanently released from them.

I realize that many people associate saying "yes" with a marriage proposal : ) I will just say that I am in it for the long term. I pray to "never turn away / even for an instant."