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 Gekugpa 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 relationship between teacher and student in Vajrayana tradition. It was informative and clear and helpful. If you’re interested, you can access it here.

In some respects, this story is a parable of our time. As Eastern religious tradition has intersected with Western secular culture in the past 40 years, the dictates of a teacher, even what we might regard as extreme prescriptions, are not always fully understood in the context of developing pure perception, the foundation of clarity and vision that lead to the propagation of compassionate action for the benefit of all. The teacher may deliberately push buttons to confront the student with their own projections and egotistical habits in order to incite a full understanding of karma, the nature of reality and the ultimate purpose of the teachings.

In secular culture, however, we have laws governing and setting limits on interpersonal relationships. At some point those laws place a limit on student-teacher relations allegedly devoted to personal spiritual development. The western student might have some understanding of the traditional eastern student-teacher relationship, but at the extremes the relationship with a teacher may be tested by familiar western secular limits. Not that these are misplaced or that they don’t apply. Of course they do. The question in each case is when the teacher-student relationship crosses into abuse.

To say that it is always wrong for the student to question what’s going on would be ridiculous. Likewise, for the teacher, the temptation to abuse can be a corrosive mix of intra-personal dynamics, the amounts of money involved, the tug of war between personal ethics, spiritual teachings, the power dynamics of the relationship with students and a failure to take the karmic nature and ultimate purpose of the relationship into account. To overdraw the limits on the relationship, however, would likewise be counterproductive.

Similarly, the presence of Donald Trump in the Oval Office is pushing the limits of the consensual relationship of American citizens with the government. Not to paint Donald Trump as a guru, but in some respects he is very much a teacher whose every act reflects our collective views on leadership, our collective progress toward conscious action in the world and the limits of our tolerance for aberration and abuse.

The dynamics of abusive relationships are well-understood and shed light on what happened with the students of the Buddhist teacher in question. The abuser typically uses gaslighting to sustain his/her position and power. Gaslighting is the attempt to convince the abused that their own intelligence is faulty. The abused’s version of reality is undermined to the point of making internal excuses for the abuser’s behavior, a dynamic that can last years, even decades.

The abused comes to question her own perceptions, even her own sanity. This might explain why it takes so long for the abused to speak up and what it takes for the abused to finally speak up. By virtue of the devotional nature of the relationship, a teacher has a great deal of influence over the student. When there is true abuse, the internal struggle of the abused is to convince oneself of the truth and reliability of one’s own perception.

Here in America, on a much grander scale, amidst income inequality, plutocracy, rising authoritarianism and a king-tide of personal desperation, the conditions are ripe for a populist-nationalist ideology.  We have entered into relationship with a classic sociopathic serial abuser – someone now identified as a malignant narcissist. We’ve placed an abuser at the head of the family table. His abuse is evident in his relations with women, his family, business partners, employees and subordinates of every kind. He now employs aides, advisors, attorneys, linguistic contortionists and elected  representatives to leverage the abuse. The cumulative acts he performed throughout his campaign and since his election are singularly devoted to dominance and amount to gaslighting on a massive scale.

Yet to describe Trump, even gaslighting is an inadequate term that doesn’t nearly cover the full dimensions of what is afoot. The Republican congress have become not merely enablers of the abuser, but abused themselves, and actively leading in the deconstruction of government because that has been their objective all along.  The base, the dead-enders, like the classic abused spouse, cling to the relationship with practically no regard for what is dished out, railing against “elites,” rationalizing egregious behavior with ever more bizarre and convoluted conspiracy theories, misplacing their faith in an illusory vision of lost prosperity, lost agency, lost racial purity, supporting destructive policies neither in their own nor in the national interest.

The abuser has not only deflected focus on the abuse itself by using racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric, he is undermining the very definition of leadership, respect for law, responsible governance, the social pact between citizen and government, the constitution and the values of the nation. The psychological defense against gas lighting is to cling to “normal,” even if the primary feature of normal is denial. As the desecration continues, what some people will do to reinforce their version of “normal,” what they manage to excuse for the sake of maintaining a sense of normalcy, becomes ever more extreme.

As the assault on truth and the conventions of leadership continues daily from the White House, clinging to a reconstructed version of normal becomes an increasingly urgent, tortuous, yet thoroughly misguided psychological defense. Print journalists have been doing it since before the election, television is certainly doing it to varying degrees, conservative talk radio is doing it by rationalizing violence and calling for more violence in too many forms to enumerate here, even to the extreme of suggesting that the President is being drugged, and falling for every distraction for the sake of creating and maintaining the patina of normalcy of this administration. This is self-destructive violence.

Against this backdrop of dissolution, millions have managed to resist the instinct to retreat behind the sheltering barricade of normalcy in the face of the hurricane of lies, misdirection and deconstruction. The purest act of resistance is to name the abuse itself, to face the truth of our own desire for “normalcy” and any tendency to fall into exhaustion, depression and disengaged compliance. Donald Trump is proving to be a powerful teacher whose extreme behavior has so starkly driven individual clarity, commitment and the urgency of collective action.

As Dzongsar Khyentse might have described it, radical abusive behavior is driving us closer to the true meaning of pure perception.  Trump presents a continuous challenge to resist the comfortable, to elevate engagement, sacrifice, community and diversity; to resist the debilitating effects of the continuous assault on truth, to resist violent confrontation without shying away from opposition, to embody the true meaning of leadership in our own lives, to embrace the sacred, act with kindness, share without reservation and speak with compassionate honesty.

Between the twin threats of nuclear conflict and climate change, the drama has reached existential levels. Yes, more direct acts of resistance are necessary, but we are not truly dealing with Others. We are in an extreme karmic dance with our own demons, avarice, hatred and ignorance, temporarily represented as political opponents. And even as “they” appear to be intransigent and however monstrous the deconstruction of civil society or “normalcy” may appear to be, the dynamic is just as much internal as external. It becomes an even greater imperative to use the the accelerating influence of abuse to break free of its gravity, to break through escapism and the comfort of insular thinking, to examine and address the roots of violence, to demonstrate in all our relations the depth and truth of a more humane way. Otherwise, with all of this supposed clarity, we will blindly perpetuate our problems rather than solving them.

Sikkim

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From my hotel, Kanchenjunga, more than 60 miles away.

Sikkim is my final stop in India, an outlier literally and figuratively. It’s out of the way, far Northeast, a tiny state squashed between Nepal, China and Bhutan. And because it is a border area and because India and China are perpetually skirmishing, there is a heavy military presence.

The patron saint of Sikkim is Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava. Bhutias (Bhutanese) call Sikkim Beyul Demazong, which means ‘”the hidden valley of rice”.[17] The Lepcha people, the original inhabitants of Sikkim, called it Nye-mae-el, meaning “paradise”.[17]  

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It’s thoroughly mountainous, like Nepal, but greener. Everything is built on ridiculously steep slopes. It’s environmentally conscious, being the first officially organic state in the world. Everything produced there is done so organically. Some plastic products and styrofoam have been banned. It’s wet, with rainfall and rivers galore. It’s relatively clean not only of litter, but, well…there are almost no cows. No. Cows. I’ve seen two cows and that was outside the city. No place for them to graze. Enough said.

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Gangtok

It’s melting pot of culture and language: Sikkimese, Ghorkhan, Newari, Tamang, Gurung, Hindi, Bhutia, Tibetan. Hinduism and Vajrayana Buddhism are the dominant religions. It’s comparatively affluent to other parts of India. Yes, there is definitely poverty, but beggars are scarce. The high-end walking street downtown Gangtok is full of people every night shopping and enjoying good food. The lone houses dotting the hillsides are relatively well-kept, some beautifully so with gardens.

When I arrived a couple of days ago, I was thoroughly aghast at the density and size of Gangtok development on the sharp inclines of the mountains. The average size of structures is 6-7 stories. As I entered the city, finding my hotel required negotiating a maze of ever more narrow and steep roads until, on arrival, unloading required that we block traffic. Driving is a regular dance of stopping, backing up to permit other vehicles to pass, brushing past retaining walls, open drains, children walking to school. Pedestrian traffic is often spared the traverse that vehicles must take, often climbing stairways, shortcuts to the next street level instead. I regularly climb a steep two blocks followed by 100 steps to a street where I can find food or an ATM.

Today I was driven in a large taxi west from Gangtok to Pelling, a distance of 112 km that takes 5 hours, winding up and down through thickly forested hillsides and small villages at an average of 20 km/hr. In some areas, the road is badly decayed, where pavement no longer exists. There are rock slides and mud slides partially blocking the road, even a downed tree or two. We cross many streams, wind through a hundred hairpin turns, carefully negotiate past other vehicles and hold our breath as large trucks barrel toward us as if they own the road.

Fortunately, there is a substantial portion of the road to Pelling that is newer and well-paved. The vegetation is lush tropical and thick with banana, bamboo, hanging vines, giant tropical plants and trees. Some parts of the road are so well-shaded, dark and moist, I am reminded of driving through redwood forest…without the redwoods. The uphill side of the road is frequently stabilized in parts by long stone retaining walls, covered in moss, ferns and climbing vines. Sikkim is home to 300 species of fern and over 4000 species of flowering plants. I could have been driving through Bolivia, Hawaii or Laos.

Every few hundred meters there is a stream falling through the vegetation to the road. Some are small. Some are waterfalls 30-80 ft high and strong enough to flood the road. The open drainage ditch by the hillside is always running full. Women carrying large baskets and small scythes harvest edible plants along the way.

In the city, this abundance of water is also common, but the stream beds are despoiled with garbage. In the wilder parts of Sikkim, they run clean and so fresh except right after a storm. Pipes are planted to run gravity-feeds to nearby homes. Truck drivers stop at the streams to wash their vehicles.

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The views down the mountainside and across the deep valleys between are dotted with small farms up to ridiculous heights, hyper-terraced with a practically fluorescent green of mature rice. Farther off in the distance, higher peaks jut upward into the clouds.

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I am on my way to Pelling to catch a closer view of Kanchenjunga, at 8586m (28,156 ft), the 3rd highest peak in the world straddling the Nepal-Sikkim border. Incredibly, from about 100km away, it’s visible to the northwest in the early mornings directly from my Gangtok hotel room. It’s also visible from Darjeeling, about 80 km away. From Pelling, it’s maybe 60km. Clear views are a treat, but it can also disappear in minutes as clouds close in.

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I visited an old Nyingma monastery, Pedmayangtse, just outside Gangtok, an important outpost of Dzogchen practice.

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A giant 3D mandala constructed in a room above the main shrine. About 3 meters high.

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Guru Rinpoche awaits inside

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A past abbott of this monastery and an important 20th C. figure.

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By far the most ubiquitous architectural feature of India.

Farewell India. Time now for a deep reboot in Ao Nang and Phuket.

 

Essence Nature

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Most people would probably agree that the biggest human questions are why are we here and where do we come from. We generally do not believe anyone who claims to have received a phone call from God. And even if such a claim turned out to be true, that would take all the fun out of the inquiry, wouldn’t it?  Plenty of people have plenty to say about this, but no one has the ultimate credibility.

Anyone may glimpse the truth–if only for a fleeting moment, a flash, a single dramatic image, or a rare case of true spontaneous awakening.  To articulate the detail and nuance of what is revealed is something else.

For example, I’m not so sure I believe in reincarnation, the cyclic return to this realm of cause and effect under circumstances determined by karma. Karma is regarded as an individual thing. “My” karma is specifically mine, unique to “my” mind stream—as if something about “me” is substantial, ongoing — apart from this identity I have spent a life creating as if it truly is “mine.”

Each of us is unique and temporary. Whatever is unique about us is itself part of a much larger and far more complex murmuration of inconceivable magnitude. We are but a single bird in a vast flock of numberless creatures. Each of us a part of the journey of the whole, a fine thread of a vast dynamic finding its way back and forth in and out of time, woven with threads of fellow beings and with the whole itself.

But there is nothing eternal about this version of “me” I have adopted. It is all a temporary suit allowing me to present the idea (of me) as if it has enduring reality. I would grant that it does, in a way, within our limited system of rules, if the universe of physics were the only universe. I am created by someone…or something. I am the author. But ultimately, I am a flawed and insubstantial interpretation of ultimate truth precisely because of my inescapable conditioned nature. At the conclusion of my allotted period of expression, I will dissolve into the reservoir of images that await their own evolutionary moment of greater expression.

I’m not sure there’s much choice involved. It’s nice to tell ourselves that we “chose” this body or this identity for this life to learn something. It is temporarily satisfying. And it may even be close to the truth. But I do not fully subscribe to this idea. A non-dual view suggests there is no such thing as a separate consciousness that drives that choice. Again, we seem to be temporary expressions of a consciousness that is in constant flux, moving into and out of these brief material manifestations and weaving ourselves into networks of similarly transitional expressions, aka other beings.

From the non-dual view, how can we define karma as strictly individual? So much is spoken about relative and absolute truth. The same distinction might be made about karma—as if there is a relative karma of our everyday transactions, the everyday activity of mind, the  unconscious habits of attention that we adopt to manipulate the outer or inner world, including our interpretations of the world and the actions we take in regard to all those related events.

We understand the meaning of karma to be “action”—which initiates and sustains the cycle of cause and effect, what we know as samsara. All of samsara, every bit of it, is karmically generated. Karma is the seed within every action of every being, including our attachment to our mental delusions, in the sense that they initiate the harvest of effects that arise in our lives.

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Given the vast field in which we act, including the familial, tribal, the collective social context, the political and the global, to focus on individual karma is to overlook the true nature of our presence. To fully appreciate the nature of our predicament, we have to place ourselves within a multi-layered reality that is itself only a relative version of the journey we are all on, which is itself a relative version of the timeless condition of no condition, the ceaseless condition of arising and non-arising.

We operate not only in helplessness and confusion. There is also bewilderment, a primal search for our eternal nature beyond the laws of physics, mixed with an awareness of our physical nature hopelessly anchored in the laws of physics. Sure, there is a karmic component of all our transactions; there is also a karmic component to our interpretations of events. This is the karma of our karma, predisposing the interpretation of the activity we are observing. We can never have an objective view. There is no such thing.

Adopting tools of interpretation can either facilitate awakening or inhibit it. We are boxed in by our own box. Our habits of mind operate regardless of our intent or our self-reinforcing assurances. Our view is always inescapably relative. No doubt we do have karmic encounters for some mutual purpose. If we differentiated karma, we might say relative karma applies to the individual, while absolute karma is a aggregate condition of the whole, the entire fabric of samsara we share.

Our lives–what we experience as the separate nature of our journey–are brief holographic representations of the whole truth, the entire timeless web of existence, the knowing that fuels us and which so frequently stumps and confuses us. At that moment of entering the realm of physics, the universe of sensation, we lose awareness of the whole. We enter the realm of forgetting, helplessness and bewilderment. There is no going back. There is no recovery. There is no absolute solace. Whatever true perspective, equanimity or peace we may achieve comes only with great diligence…and is itself impermanent.

Our ultimate nature, the timeless and absolute view, always present, is pure, fearless, compassionate awareness. These words alone, being frail derivatives of non-conceptual reality, fall hopelessly short of conveying unconditioned nature. They convey what appears to have distinct attributes such as purity or compassion or fearlessness. But these terms are redundant. They describe a single facet of a condition having no attributes, that is indivisible and cannot be described in terms appearing to differentiate one quality from another.

There is no purity without awareness. There is no awareness without compassion. Compassion does not exist apart from fearlessness. Anything detracting from the purity of open awareness is obscuration. Fear is a characteristic of our embodied condition, the dualism of confusion and bewilderment inherent to the universe of sensation.

If this is the truth of our ultimate nature, then every moment we are ensnared in the mental universe, conceptualizing and imagining these qualities to be separate attributes of truth, we are failing to notice the dynamic nature, the unity, the immeasurable spontaneous, ever-renewing beauty of moment-to-moment presence.

Rishikesh

 

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Rishikesh is the yoga training capital of the world. There are as many yoga schools here as there are city blocks, or cows. And there’s an ashram for practically every one of them. You can find a drop-in yoga class at virtually any time of day within 50 meters of wherever you are, though most are early morning. The beginners have to brave the afternoon heat for their dose.

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Rishikesh is built on both sides and wrapped around a few curves of Ganga-Ma, mother Ganges. Here, about 200km from the source in Gangotri to the north, the river is wide, mostly deep through town and swift. It’s also chilly.

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There are only a few bridges in town, accessible by foot or motorbike, but not by car. The eastern shore is more oriented to tourists, backpackers, yoga students, a younger and very international crowd. The narrow lanes are packed with the usual cafes, tour operators, jewelry and gift shops. Walking here, as in nearly all the other places I’ve visited, is a delicate exercise between dodging vehicles, mud, other people and cow dung, all while looking cool. Of course.

Across the river is more standard commerce, hotels in layers down the hillside toward the river, dust, traffic, rutted and decaying roads, ghats, battalions of noisy tuk-tuks. I attended ceremony one night at the Traveni ghat.

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Hanuman priest.

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Sunset ceremony:

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Farewell, Rishikesh.

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We Will Dance With Mountains III

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Chiang Rai, Thailand

After partaking of the first two in 2015 and 2016, I am about to enter the third iteration of a “writing” course with my Nigerian brother, Bayo Akomolafe.  He calls writing a “tool of emergence,” but for those of us fortunate to walk with him, more accurately, it becomes a mirror of our personal and collective journey into realms beyond reductionism, duality and colonial influence, beyond boundaries cultural, linguistic and egoic. 

Prior to the launch the current course, he asked a question:

What profane jewel did you re-earth as you danced with mountains amongst fellow travelers and tribes? 

This and every question, every use of the word tribe or emergence or indigenous now leads to the same considerations. While we play at the limits of language, tease ourselves toward the edges of our identities and beyond, slip out of our innermost garments together, uncertain yet eager to trust and be trusted, we enter a realm of poetics and play, a release from the strictures of identity, race, nationality, culture–or at least, this is what I imagine is possible.

This is part of my personal definition of decolonization: stripping away every arbitrary divisive construction possible, not merely revealing ourselves to each other, but dissolving the very idea of ‘other’: what Bayo calls with-nessing.

I imagine everyone can feel the momentary shifts back and forth across habits of thinking on a daily basis, or indeed, intra-daily, noticing conditioned ideas about others, a tentative entry into a liminal space of not-knowing and not caring to “know”–as such a thing feels too much like our reductionist training–our internalized colonization–asserting itself, back to the socialization of elementary school with its annual placement of one more ring of patterning upon the trunk of our willowy youth. And then all the years of adulthood cementing those rings into the structures that likely determine our bias for the rest of our lives.

Along with the de-conditioning that seduces us, like a clean and clear pool of purifying waters somewhere in a New Mexico desert, just waiting to receive us, there is a giddy awakened exhilaration upon entry, an un-tethered whimsy in which we find ourselves, particularly because we are engaging in this rhetorical and psychological and spiritual skinny dipping with a crowd of like-minded others.

Drape yourself around this rock. Allow its residual heat to warm you as it slowly dissipates into the night sky. What words erupt from this? What feelings demand expression? Is sound even necessary? What poetry entangles the feeling and words and the air moving in and out and the place and the others here with you? What do we share that is begging for discovery, for which there are no words yet invented, yet can never be uprooted?

What haunts me, the profane jewel with which I have an approach-avoidance (avoid-dance) relationship is that for all the exhilaration, the whimsy, the refreshment of my soul, the stripping naked, the dancing around the fire, the pure addictive release of the jail-break from ego, all revolutionary acts, I must remind myself that what we dally with is also deadly serious. I’ve read and heard and witnessed plenty of people who talk about human evolution, birthing the “new human,” the transition to the Ecozoic. But it’s mostly talk.

It’s philosophical or it’s spiritual or it’s New-Agey, but they don’t use the word “decolonize.” That’s a very practical term. It means peeling back the layers of harm we do to each other–and to ourselves– knowing and unknowing, in the name of all those functional but ultimately arbitrary labels….like “tribe,” or “nation” and especially “self.” Modern corporatist- socio-political culture, late-stage capitalism, is all about invading, manipulating and mining the resource of the isolated, unconnected self who wants nothing more than to satisfy ever more bizarre and meaningless appetites–which must then be constantly restored and reinforced….only to be mined further. It cannot so easily be mined or manipulated as soon as the labels are discarded.

I repeat this exercise in the name of bridge-building, in the name of connecting these revolutionary acts with the expanding web of emerging danger, the radioactive waste of Hanford, Washington, the North Pacific gyre, the barrios of Mexico City, the rainforests of Brazil, the melting permafrost of Siberia, the calving of Greenland, the wild Karnali river of Nepal, super-bugs, the introduction of recycling to a place like Varanasi, India. On and on. It is a far-flung self we engage beyond the simple definitions of cause and effect, of the linearity of influence, beyond the oppositional games of coalitions and compromise. I am slowly learning to operate on a different plane where the definitions of complexity and uncertainty merge with ancient yearnings, birthrights, mysterious practices and incantations.

The profane jewel, if you will, being re-earthed here, is that we get to be all that, or at least try it on, or at least I open in that direction. And it’s painful, isn’t it?–the awakening? The discomfort is a sign of its seriousness.

I’m writing this on a train passing through rural India between Varanasi and Lucknow. My window is the closest I’ve come to watching TV in a good while. The passing scene is a darkening panorama of marginal living, environmental degradation countered by the soothing geometry of agrarian life, a nighttime soap opera in snapshots of cyclic existence, the human treadmill in it’s most abundant and resilient, starkest and brightest terms. Much of it looks like suffering to these western eyes. But really, am I so different? My margins are my own and my definitions of suffering may exist on a different scale, but I must also deal with my own order of attachment, loss, despair and renewal. Dancing With Mountains includes all this and more-cracking the boundaries so that light can shine through. We all need that now. Everyone says so, right?”

India: random shots

Tomb of Mughal Emperor Humayan, Delhi

Amidst the gardens, the magnificent gates, the grandeur of red sandstone and marble, the tomb itself is most humble.

Swaminaryam, Delhi. (100% marble)

Unfortunately, Ashkhardam, right next door, was closed the day I was there.

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Ghurdwara Bangla Sahib: Sikh temple in Delhi

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Golden Temple, Amritsar

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A continuous flow wait for entry into the inner sanctum.

The Guru Granth Sahib is being sung continuously and broadcast throughout the temple, with the verses displayed on giant screens. The musicians are not referring to any script. They know it by heart, an impossibly complex musical accomplishment.

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Engraved plaques cover the walkways.

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Headwear must be worn at all times.

 

Surrender II

In recent conversation with a poet/yogini friend, I offered to advance her book of poetry via a connection I had in McLeod Ganj. The advantages seemed too serendipitous to pass up. She was appreciative, but expressed reservations, wanting to finalize her publishing deal first. She also made references to other more mysterious factors to be assessed before proceeding in the way I suggested. She had referred to herself as a shaman in previous communication. Now she was sounding like one. I was drawn into her view, which was entirely about fully opening awareness, not to obscure conceptualization, but to the unseen, the non-conceptual un-evaluated forces that impinge on important decisions and activities in everyday life–if we take the time to notice. A shamanic view.

Not only that, I was being drawn into such awareness in that moment, suddenly immersing in the flow of my own life. But I had no doubt it was the energetics of the moment, the exchange we were having that drove my attention in that way. I was having a burning reflection of my personal default state, my primary orientation to material existence, to causes and conditions, to the imaginary nurture of dualism, a force-based mechanical self-assessment and decision-making process about nearly everything I do.

This came as a shock, and with considerable emotion, as if I was suddenly permitting myself to see clearly and to let go, releasing into a more expansive view of everything. The sense of boundaries, physical boundaries, psychic boundaries, the limits of my separate identity all relaxed. The sense of my own influence in the world and in my very own life, my agency, also relaxed. Or perhaps, to be more accurate, my need to exercise that agency relaxed. I sensed the fear at the root of that need melting away. It was a welcome feeling. I was not surrendering agency; I was redefining it. I was no longer the sole agent, the sole cause and director of my separate life, but the effect of energies far beyond my comprehension or influence.

About a month ago I had an experience I called “dissolution.” It was a temporary disappearance of the normal boundary between the perceiver and the perceived. I experienced a dissolution of whatever we imagine separates phenomena from each other.  Everything appeared as a single seamless image in which all phenomena including myself, arise and return to a single source-less source, in no-place in no-time. My friend read what I had written and recognized it as territory of common interest.

Returning to and continuing to reside in that no-place and no-time requires more conscious deliberation lest the experience recede and become inaccessible. It’s barely accessible even now. Trying too hard becomes mere contrivance, as if one can set the stage and wait for the actors before the drama has been written. Dissolution, allowing all  contrivance to fall away, becomes the new challenge. Yet transcending the contradiction of learning how to “not do” is possible, even if only for brief moments.

In those moments, the presence of death, the inevitable end of everything, arises into awareness, where it has always belonged, where it has never truly left. Fear subsides, striving dissolves, apprehension and anxiety about the past or future disappear. The sense of oneself as simultaneously insignificant abides, being a mere instrument of reality, as well as being an unusually powerful voice of truth.

Exploring these pathways, I re-inhabit a body-mind relaxation-response I associate with surrender. Infusion with this dose of reality becomes a form of surrender, though not in the conventional sense of erasing myself, or giving up something, autonomy; more like redefining the self I imagined, having an opportunity to revise hidden assumptions about autonomy.

The dissolution of duality, the separation of living and dying, arising and disappearing, is not a matter of doing. Neither is the state of non-meditation–entirely different from not meditating–a matter of doing. It is a matter of un-doing, walking backward through the layers of mental construction of everyday mind, the obscuration of reality, to the fundamental nature of mind–a placid pond on which thoughts arise from nothing and skip like stones into exhaustion. The observer disappears. Surrender cannot be true, and remains a limited self-delusional contrivance, if the subject-object structure of perception is preserved.

The most common buddhist inference about surrender implies subsuming oneself to a greater influence, abjectly deferring one’s will to a larger purpose; namely, the intelligence, the practice, the clear seeing of a teacher. One is admonished to regard the teacher as an emissary of the dharma, a voice of all teachers; not merely as just another ego, but even as a Buddha himself. A karmic partnership is expressed in the one who reveals our own self-cherishing to us, holds a mirror to our flawed thinking, doubt and twisted perception.

Yet we also have to ask, “Who is surrendering? And surrendering to what?” There is no doubt that grasping and contrivance may be revealed in relationship, but it is equally flawed to regard the Other as any more real than oneself, with all of the same flaws, feelings and constant tripping over one’s own garments. Subsuming one’s ego to another’s guidance without noticing the empty essence and primordial purity of the entire transaction will not be of ultimate benefit. Light is not other than the sun, but the sun itself in different form. The vast expanse is not other than the vast expanse in every possible form, appearing as Other. Surrender into a relationship that is not dedicated to the dissolution of boundaries, to the promise and evocation of the seamless image, not merely to the destruction of the witness, but to the shamanic inclusion of everything as witness, that is the promise of true surrender.

 

McLeod Ganj

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I went to the railway station in Amritsar for my 8:20 train a week ago and discovered all trains had been cancelled-not only for that day but for four days. I had no choice but to take a taxi east to Pathankot and then north from there to Dharamsala and McLeodganj further up the mountain.
It was 85 degrees at 8am and the AC was not working. There was no way I was going to travel 4 hours in a car with no AC. So I told the driver he had to go back. He fiddles with the fuses, goes to an auto shop (an unmarked doorway behind a closed storefront), but can’t get the AC to work. Forty five minutes later, I tell him he can get another taxi to meet us. Soon his brother shows up.
Pathankot is about 120 km from Amritsar, and there was another taxi already there to meet me and take me to the mountains. All of this amounted to an unexpected expense of about 6000 rupees ($90), plus the train ticket I had already paid for.
There was also no internet in Punjab for three days because–a local guru with a global following of 60 million was convicted in an Indian court, in a trial lasting ten years, of two rapes committed 15 years ago. His followers hit the streets in mob actions that killed 38 people. The government response was to cut off internet, all train travel, some of cable TV and even schools in multiple western Indian states for three days.
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The main square of McLeod Ganj, the confluence of seven roads. This is early morning. By 10am and well into the night, it is jammed with taxis, cars, buses and people 

But yes, I arrived in McLeod Ganj just fine. This is the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. It’s cooler, more colorful, cleaner, with safe food (a Big Deal!) a large Tibetan population, monks and more spoken English. The Dalai Lama is teaching for three days starting Tuesday here at (the main temple) Tsuglakhang, so there’s an extra contingent of global visitors. Lots of backpackers, a few grizzled hippies, western tourists and western monks from everywhere.
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McLeod Ganj has the feel of an Alpine village, with the center of town full of boutique-y shops, street vendors, restaurants and cafes selling clothing, a wide range of jewelry items, religious objects, textiles, thangkas, coffee, fancy pastry and international foods. A  Little Lhasa. I’ve seen it all before, but it’s still interesting to browse. The rest of it is narrow, rough roads tucked between layers and layers of structures stacked far up the hillsides one upon the other.
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Looking down this stairway from street level, I thought I’d stumbled into an Escher drawing. Five walkways going different directions.

I came here for teachings that were scheduled for Buddhist communities of Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.  The venue is quite modest, really. Very simple compared to everything I’ve seen in Nepal and Tibet: a small inner shrine surrounded by large, multi-level, covered patios with a capacity of several thousand.
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Every square foot of this space and large spaces upstairs will be filled with those attending.

Inside the temple, the walls are lined with paintings of Tsongkhapa, of course, being the founder of the Gelug school. There are no large statues, only a couple of enclosed shrines and the teaching throne.
Each morning, the Dalai Lama enters from a residence behind the teaching venue, walking a corridor between seating areas, accompanied by his considerable retinue of security officials and high lamas, all of this to the strains of the Tibetan national anthem.

Large monitors are strategically placed to permit wider viewing. Seating areas are roped off for international groups from Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Romania, Russia and more. Thousands of Tibetans are attending. Ninety percent are sitting on the concrete floor. I sit in a designated area with several hundred chairs.

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Each day, the teaching is opened with a different international group reciting the Heart Sutra in their native language. Simultaneous translation of everything is occurring in 7-8 languages. The material for the teaching is Buddhapalita’s interpretation of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamikakarika), a text written 500 years after Buddha which has been a primary basis of buddhist instruction for 2000 years.

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Afternoon recap of the morning teaching.

Teaching on the Buddhapalita is new, but the Dalai Lama’s fluency with Nagarjuna’s highly sophisticated, meticulous and sometimes impenetrable logic is so impressive. He has taught it many times, I’m sure. The ease with which he conveys the material makes it seem, ironically, both fundamental and very advanced at the same time-which, of course, it is.BAF17D2B-80CA-4D86-BFBE-782531463532

Meanwhile, up here in the clouds, moments of clear weather are few and brief. Best to take note when they arrive.

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