Equanimity

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Equanimity means stability or composure, an evenness of mind and attitude. In the Buddhist sense, this means an imperturbable vision in which nothing stands out, all phenomena being regarded as literally equal. No phenomena distinguishes itself from any other. There are no extremes. One dwells in the vast depths of the ocean of phenomena, undisturbed by the turbulence of the surface. In the absolute sense, equanimity is thus another way of referring to true nature, as it is the quality of Buddha nature that is the capacity to remain in such perfect repose.

Such an infinite and sustained evenness implies a profound freedom. We think of it as freedom from the essence of samsaric existence, the continuous flowing into our selves, the core of the Second Noble Truth, the perpetual attachment to and search for what is ultimately a superficial and illusory happiness. In equanimity, authentic happiness resides in the freedom from the search, though not in separation from the reality of the search or from other beings consumed by it. If I cannot be ruffled by the routine zigs and zags that life takes, even and especially by the extremes (old age, sickness and death) that we can all expect sooner or later, I have achieved some grace, have I not?

Equanimity might be mistaken as dullness or vacuity, a smoothing over, even a suppression of natural human response. But no, authentic equanimity is not a flattening of responsiveness. Neither is it a dulling of perception. Quite the opposite. It is based on a heightened awareness of the forces and beliefs luring the mind away from balance, yet remaining in unity with all.

Each of us lives in a personal world of relative equanimity, a continuously fluctuating continuum. We ourselves and everyone we know or will ever encounter, in their own way, is moving back and forth on that continuum and, we hope, generally toward greater equanimity. That may seem a bold statement. And it is surely slow process. But even the most tortured among us have some awareness of their own suffering and are likely making whatever progress they can manage toward being less driven by their emotions, which is not to say they are becoming more effective in repression, but rather more effective in looking beneath to the essence of disruptive mental habits.

Some days we are able to maintain both engagement and a bemused balance of mind. On others, we’re deer in the headlights–engagement and balance completely escape us. We are well aware of our own flaws, the times when stress is overwhelming, when anger or sadness, helplessness or loneliness burst forth either without considering the consequences or even despite having considered them. These are moments of reverting to the attachment to self and misunderstanding the origins of thoughts. At such moments, authentic (absolute) equanimity,  the infinitely even quality of awakened mind, is nothing more than a distant dream.

The implication of true equanimity, the absolute state (Brahman), is that the effects of ego have been quieted. If there is an “I” which can be differentiated from others, then the inner experience of “I,” the super Disney E-ride emotional roller coaster will always be drawing us into differentiation of experience into extremes of good and bad. As the Four Immeasurables prayer says, ” May all beings be free of attraction, aversion and partiality and rest in great equanimity.”

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche says in Courtland Dahl’s Entrance to the Great Perfection: A Guide to Dzogchen Preliminary Practices, “What would you do if there was no you? If there were no ‘you’ and no ‘I,’ then just imagine, what would become of passion? What would you do with it?”

On one level, he is asking what would become of the inborn tendency to make judgments, the relative passion of falling into partiality and attachment, deciding something is good or bad and wanting it to change. He goes on to remind us that emotions, in essence, are not other than emptiness. True equanimity is being able to recognize and observe emotion without being drawn into the drama. This does not mean we can deny emotions or act as if they are not real. Equanimity is the refined capacity to experience emotion fully and to transform it into its true nature.

The Latin origin of the word passion is passio, “to suffer.” The crudest form of passion, deeply rooted in illusion of the separate self, accompanied by only a rudimentary capacity for equanimity, does indeed imply great suffering. The self-oriented kind of passion that thrives on confrontation, competition, the zero-sum passion, is never fully satisfying because the outcome will always be temporary and superficial.

To paraphrase Dzongsar Khyentse further, we might regard the relative form of passion  as the opposite of equanimity. It involves fabrication, like constructing ornaments on the original tree of an emotion. Such adornments quickly become a personal agenda, which doesn’t coexist well with equanimity.

But what of inspiration, the passion to benefit beings? What of the generous impulse to contribute to a better world? What happens to passion as the capacity for equanimity grows and matures? Does it disappear? Or does it transform into love, into com-passion, the motivation to benefit others? The com-passion seeking definition here, derived from the latin “to suffer with,” is what arises with authentic equanimity. It is not the passion of attachment and fabrication of the self; it is the dawning of wisdom. That is an altogether different quality of passion than how we would normally think of it, a passion that is not grounded in attachment.

How do we know the difference?

There is clearly such a thing as relative equanimity, just as there is relative compassion or relative bodhicitta. This is conditioned equanimity, still subject to cause, still residing in a dualistic frame. Duality has not been dissolved. A personal agenda coexists with this version of equanimity. It is still possible to alleviate suffering effectively because we are cultivating a capacity to respond to immediate conditions with grace instead of with grasping, with selfless generosity instead of aversion.

While we experience the temporary bliss of relative equanimity, the accompanying relative compassion can indeed be very effective…temporarily. If we aren’t checking and noticing our personal agenda and how it is intruding, then the outcome of our efforts will likely descend into exhaustion, confusion and disappointment.

This is how Narayan Helen Liebenson ( a teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center) spoke  recently:

Ultimately, we are trying to cultivate a passion for life rather than for the things of life, a passion that expands our heart and our sense of what is possible in this world. This kind of passion is love, not just for a select few, but for all. In this way, [com]passion and equanimity come together in love and in wisdom.

As equanimity grows, so also does wisdom. As strong motivation (passion) becomes less oriented to the solitary self and more so to the collective, so compassion grows. And along with that, service. Cultivating equanimity increases our capacity to love in a more universal way. We make a transition from “me” to “we”. Our passion for our selves opens to an active loving passion for the benefit of all.

Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche said it well:

You can be open and love someone and not be attached. One might call it passionate, but it is open—and that is what makes the difference between love [passionate service] that benefits and love that causes us to suffer. Our equanimity comes from open awareness itself. Each time you let go of your attachment, you reconnect with open awareness. This is what is known as the path. 


 

The Last Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, the “holder of the ocean of Dharma,” IVth Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, the embodiment of Chenrezig, Buddha of Compassion, leader of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism, Nobel Prize winner and possibly the most widely known and admired person on earth (except in China), has said that he will be the last Dalai Lama.

Such a decision can only be the result of much contemplation over a long period of time. For westerners, for most Buddhists the world over, it may appear that this decision is made primarily to prevent Tibetan Buddhism from being subsumed or split by the Government of China, to preserve whatever remains of the independence of traditional Tibetan spiritual and monastic culture from becoming an appendage of the Chinese State. Yet the price of terminating the lineage may be high, as a stateless people will have to grapple with the loss of their most important institution providing a cultural glue between the past and the future.

At one time, monastic culture in Tibet was the State. Throughout the troubled history of the succession of Dalai Lamas, centuries of shifting relations with Mongols and multiple Chinese dynasties, Tibet managed to retain a tenuous (even debatable) independence from China based on the spiritual accomplishments of its multiple lineages…until 1950. Now, after the systematic destruction wreaked by the Cultural Revolution and the limited restoration of monastic culture since, China has declared that they will name the next Dalai Lama by drawing lots.

This may appear to be a radical shift in their relations with the Gelugpa in particular, but it isn’t really. Their interference with the succession of the lineage, and the Gelugpa tolerance of it, goes back to the 16th century. But in declaring their intention, they would presume to subjugate the spiritual hierarchy of Tibet to the interests of secular political control. This is surely a major consideration for whatever decision His Holiness makes.

I’m not about to claim historical authority, but there are a few points to make about China’s relationship with Tibet. In the west, we tend to regard the relationship between China and Tibet as a black and white issue. China invaded Tibet in 1950, effectively ending Tibetan independence. That’s just about the limit of popular knowledge. Yet China’s relationship with Tibet goes back at least as far as 640 CE, when a daughter of the Chinese Tang Emperor married the Tibetan Emperor, Songsten Gampo.

A stone outside the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa is inscribed with the language of the treaty of 821 between a later Tibetan Emperor, Trisung Detsen Ralpachen, and the Tang Emperor Mu-Zong:

‘Both Tibet and China shall keep the country and frontiers of which they now are in possession. The whole region to the east of that being the country of Great China and the whole region to the west being assuredly the country of Great Tibet, from either side of that frontier there shall be no warfare, no hostile invasions, and no seizure of territory.’

So began a long and complicated relationship for the next 1300 years.

Since the beginning of the Yarlung Dynasty of Tibet (7th C), the language and culture of Tibet was infused with Chinese influence, including literature, astrology and medicine. During the Mongol period of China (13th-14th C), emperors sent caravans of gold westward to the Lamas of Tibet in support of their message and their monasteries. As political power shifted in China away from the Mongols, the clarity of Tibetan independence from China muddied, even as internal political influence was an ongoing topic of jealousy and conflict between monastic systems and schools.

It was the Mongols who bestowed the title of Dalai Lama upon a succession of abbotts of Drepung Monastery. Later, it was the Great Fifth Dalai Lama who invited the Chinese armies to subdue their Red Hat enemies. Thus, the Gelugpa lineage of Panchen Lamas and Dalai Lamas and the political influence of the Yellow Hats was secured by a foreign army, a favor unlikely to be forgotten by any subsequent ruler.

Ongoing rivalry between the Mongol and Chinese royalty was played out in Tibet well into the 18th C. During this time, several Dalai Lamas met suspiciously early deaths, opening the way for the Chinese to maintain control and resist further Mongol influence. The Gelugpas maintained spiritual and political primacy, but were also isolated from the outside world in exchange for peace and domestic tranquility at the behest of their Chinese patrons and occupiers.

In the late 19th century, Russia and Britain were battling for control of Central Asia. In 1904 the British sent thousands of troops to Tibet. Hundreds, if not thousands of civilians were killed. Shortly afterwards the British took control. In 1906 Britain and China entered into an agreement: the Chinese agreed to pay Britain two million rupees for Tibet (!).  In exchange, London recognized China’s right to annex the country, which they said had always belonged to them anyway. To this day, the conventional reason China invaded Tibet is its belief that it rightfully belongs to the mainland.

In 1912, the XIIIth Dalai Lama made his return to the country after years in exile. During this period, China was in chaos as the Qing dynasty had collapsed. The few Chinese troops that were stationed in Tibet where easily defeated. The Dalai Lama proclaimed independence which lasted until 1949.

In 1949, under Mao Zedong, China launched its invasion of Tibet. In October, 1950, the Chinese Army took over the country, starting at Chamdo. A year later the Dalai Lama through his representatives, signed a treaty with the Chinese. In it they recognized the authority of China over their country. When looking at the reasons why China invaded Tibet, the importance of this agreement (the 17 Point Treaty) cannot be overlooked. While the Chinese say it verifies their claim, the Dalai Lama and Tibetans in exile have long claimed it was a treaty signed under threat of force (and without the Dalai Lama’s review) and is therefore invalid.

Under Chinese rule and with the steady infusion of Chinese into the territory of Tibet, the local population has been subjected to economic, social and racial inequities. According to the exile community, over half a million Tibetans have died due to starvation, disease and imprisonment since the Chinese occupation. They also point out that the entire country is being inexorably assimilated into mainland China, turning it into a home for its own people. With the development of a transportation infrastructure, massive and rapid urban development and the gradual marginalization of traditional Tibetan culture, the time will come when Tibet and its culture will disappear as it is subsumed into the Chinese culture.

Of course, the PRC disputes these claims. Beijing says that from 1912 to 1949, the economic situation in the country had deteriorated. What the Chinese Army did was to liberate the people from suffering, inept leadership and a feudal economy controlled by the monastics.  With help from the mainland, the say, the economic and individual status of the people has improved. The government also releases statistics saying GDP figures have risen tremendously since the occupation. They also point out that workers there are paid highly (although many jobs are not available to those for whom Chinese is not the primary language) and infrastructure has improved. The Chinese also claim they have embarked on a mission to preserve historical sites.

The decision the Dalai Lama has to make is whether to remain passive in the face of probable assimilation of the Buddhist hierarchy into the influence of the State or whether to stand for the independence of monasticism from the state. Regardless, monastic communities within greater China have had to reconsider and redefine their economies according to Chinese political restrictions, avoiding the economic structures for which the Land of Snows was originally invaded in 1950.

What effect would the disappearance of the Dalai Lama have on dharma in the West? Will Western Mahayana Buddhism gradually dissect out the cultural associations with Tibet while preserving the essence of the teachings unencumbered by 1200 years of tradition, including the bad habits, sectarianism and faulty thinking of the very people who have brought it to us?

When the Dalai Lama says he will be the last, does he mean the last Tibetan Dalai Lama? What if the Dalai Lama were to reincarnate (and be recognized) outside of Tibet? Could he assume the traditional responsibilities as head of the Gelugpas? What if he were to reincarnate as a non-Tibetan? Or as a woman? What of Tibetans bereft of leadership? How will the Tibetan people, both in exile and in Tibet, already in profound pain, react to a selection of the next Dalai Lama by the government of China? For that matter, would they follow a non-Tibetan, or a woman? Would such a loss incite mass suicidal rebellion or deepen existing hopelessness?

What if he does not reincarnate at all? What happens to the drama of discovery and selection that has endured the centuries and sustained an unbroken lineage? The only clarity among all of this uncertainty is that we will still live in a world on the brink, a world just as much in need of Tenzin Gyatso’s religion of kindness, with him or without him. We will still be in need of the blessings of Chenrezig, the further proliferation and flowering of global efforts devoted to collective awakening. To whatever degree His Holiness has inspired devotion, generosity, compassion, the application of the principles of dharma, his loss will undoubtedly inspire an even deeper commitment if not also a greater sense of urgency.

 

Restoration

 

I

the Path is like walking backwards
on a tightrope between knowing and guessing

where you are going may come as
premonition or by sensing beyond the senses

yet grasping for where one has been
is to lose one’s sense of place

clouds arise and disappear
obstacles may appear as demons that are no other

than energies of purification noticed from a silent perch
structures of design whisper their secrets

to many deaf ears listening from the lower registers
of superstition to the higher octaves of reality

where shall I build my listening post
cloaked in the chimera of “mine”

where non-action assembles the scattered pieces
sources of the shifting image of now

                                 II

what was once a portal to clear intent
moistened by tears of surrender

shed under imagined guidance
hard-won by chain linking the signs to mark the way

by neglect becomes a bleak and darkened barred
window opening to implacable gloom

there is no substitute for breathing life and light
into a hardened maze of practice than gratitude

                                     III

for every state in which one dwells or seeks to occupy
an equal and opposite condition awaits
life is audited in real time by a neutral accountant

without a source yet possessing inconceivable omniscience
that is in truth not different from your own
were it to be unleashed in an explosive surprise

take a moment to consider there is no place
and no time like the present to digest the vajra truth
that there is no time and no place where you do not dwell

The Abuser in Chief

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There have been recent developments in the case of a well known Tibetan Buddhist teacher accused of abusing his students over a long period of time. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse posted a substantial statement about this issue, going into detail about the … Continue reading