Repkong to Labrang: Drakar

 On to Labrang, the road lifts to a 3600m peak through vast open grasslands with multiple mountain ranges off in the distance. It was classic and strikingly beautiful Tibet. Continuing further, a gathering of nomads was evident in the distance, making offerings to the mountain gods.

And further, we peaked again at 3400m, stopping at a popular viewpoint with a viewing platform, a few small shops, tents for overnight guests up on the hill. Small groups of Tibetans and monks were lounging, drinking tea and picnicking on mats under portable shade.

    

Further still, we turned off the main road and went 9km, reaching a small monastery called Drakar on a remote hillside up against soaring walls of granite. The highlight of the day.

Drakar

The abbott of this location is a 75 year old woman who has been meditating in hermitage for 50 years—that’s two extremely unusual circumstances in the body of a single person.

     

There are two hundred monks here. Everything about this place, how we were warmly met, shown around, allowed into the shrines, given time to contemplate, felt inviting and friendly. In fact, my driver knew one of the lead monks here from three years ago when he brought several American filmmakers for three days.

 

  

We were invited to lunch inside the monk’s quarters and served by a young monk with tea, soup, fruit and bread. The interior was wooden flooring and cabinetry, and quarters themselves housed-as far as I can tell- three monks on snug and warm mattresses, covered with the casual beauty of Tibetan blankets. There were armchairs, a flat screen TV, kitchen, an “office area,” a small washing machine and western plumbing. I don’t assume all the monks apartments were this comfortable.

Then something else was brought to the center of the table, what looked like it must have been a yak stomach inside which were pieces of meat. The entire concoction had been cooked over hot stone. All at the table, except me, plucked pieces of meat from this organic container that smelled so very much of dead animal. Not appealing.

We couldn’t leave without giving our host a crash course in auto maintenance for his brand new 15 yr-old Lexus SUV. I have no idea how these things are financed.

But Drakar is a place I would return to. Its remote setting is spectacular, commanding a vast view across verdant grasslands to the far mountains while holding a snug position against its own soaring backdrop of vertical stone.

A word about my guide:

Tenzin is twenty-nine years old now. He was born in Tibet and was taken to India at age 11 by a family member. He entered India as an undocumented person. He attended primary and secondary school there, learning English and Chinese and even completed three years of university majoring in English literature, but was unable to complete the final year because his parents wanted him to come back. They had not seen him for 10 years. So he returned to Tibet, just as he left, without passport, in 2011.

Without government ID, you are a non-person here. He managed to get ID (I did not ask how), and to find work. His parents are indifferent to him completing his bachelor’s degree. He can do the coursework by attending a Chinese school, essentially a mail-order university, but if he signs up for a course, he has to complete it within a specified period of time and must work to support himself while studying.

It’s extremely difficult for a Tibetan to get a passport now. Just another restriction placed on the movement and activities of Tibetans.  So his prospects for employment are limited. He would not be able to find a job requiring fluent Chinese because the Chinese apparently believe that those jobs should be reserved for people for whom Chinese is their primary language. A Tibetan fluent in Chinese is simply not considered capable. (Imagine the effect of such a policy in America–or anywhere else but Tibet)

His prospects for completing his university degree are limited and his travel is limited because he doesn’t have a passport. I suspect Tenzin is much better equipped to make his own way under the present circumstances than the average Tibetan, yet even with his skills and education, there are few doors that are truly open and he is not free to seek opportunity elsewhere…except by illegal means, of course.

I found him intelligent, capable of conversing on a wide range of topics, good humored, insightful and very knowledgeable on the topics of interest to me. I was well-taken care of. I hope we can meet again sometime.

On to Labrang.

Repkong

Repkong straddles the Repkong River, mushrooming upward with the infusion of government capital in the form of high rise apartments, government buildings and hotels dedicated to future residents. It looks like a city of at least 200,000, though actual residents may only number 100,000. Still, that’s number could not have been foreseen 10 years ago when the city was only 10,000-and almost all Tibetans. All the major roads downtown are under renovation, causing widepsread inconvenience.

Here’s the rub of reality for Tibetans: development is happening so fast and on such a scale that they have no time to adapt. The government has erected barriers to full economic participation, yet insists on Tibetan assimilation. The Chinese population of Tibet long ago exceeded the six million Tibetans that remain. The future foretells much more of the same.

Rigjong Ling

My first actual stop in Repkong was an art gallery, Rigjong Ling, devoted in part to a reknowned and highly honored tangka artist Shawo Cho, displaying some of his work as well as a fabulous collection of aged thangkas, statuary and masks.

Repkong is known as a colony of highly skilled artists. I was not disappointed. These next few photos are of sub-parts of one of Shawo Cho’s works, a $500,000 tangka. Each of these shots are worthy of being central subjects in their own right, are most often depicted that way and would command high prices on their own.  But here, they are mere sideshows to the main subject.

It’s yours for 3.4M RMB

Elsewhere in the gallery was this 400 y.o. rendition of Yama.

…and another of Palden Lamo

…and for a change of pace, a peaceful version of Dorje Palmo.

On to Sengshong Gaden Phuntsok Choeling, a colorful 350 year old monastery in Repkong. On entry, one is immediately met by two large chortens, one for Kalachakra, one for Atisha containing relics of the founder of the monastery.

  

Sengsong Gaden was spared damage during the Cultural Revolution because it was turned into a grainery, something also done elsewhere in Tibet if there was time before the Red Guards appeared.

  

Outside and inside the main temple, grain was stacked up about 5 ft from the floor, covering small murals at ground level. Above 5 feet, the large wall paintings on both the outer and inner walls, perhaps six feet square, were turned backwards to face each other and pro-Communist slogans were painted on the blank backsides. This turned out to be a pretty reliable way for smaller monasteries to escape the wrath of the proletariat.

I discovered that the monk manning the ticket booth is also a painter. His work adorned the walls and was stacked on the floor. One piece of extremely fine work in particular caught my eye.

Talent and dedication can be found in the most unexpected places.

We walked around the corner from the monastery into another school where the teacher and two students were painting. First I asked how many hours per day these students worked. Twelve hours. I asked how long it takes to become an accomplished artist. Four years of daily practice to achieve a level of competency required to turn out high quality work. And with that competency comes complete fluency with all the deities of Buddhist cosmology, all the protectors of precious qualities, the Dharmapala (guardians of the dharma) all the bodhisattvas, teachers and all the Buddhas. Such is the nature of the lineage stretching down the centuries that produces images of these characters filled with the most precisely detailed symbolism and attitude. Any proficient student must master all the lesser subjects before even being permitted to paint the Buddhas.

(The young man above is painting with 24kt gold. He kept wetting the brush with his tongue.)

I visited two painting schools—both exhibiting quality beyond what I have seen in Nepal. I tried to buy one for $1200 and another for $1600 but there was no way to use a credit card. No bank except Bank of China will certify a credit card transaction and no bank will change currency except Bank of China. No Bank of China branch in Repkong.

Manjushri. The one that got away.

Note: If you are looking for a high quality tangka, bring cash.

We took a break in the middle of the day, had lunch and rested for couple of hours before going to Rongwu, the largest monastery in Repkong. We intended to time our visit with a debating session at 5pm. Unfortunately, it rained. No debate.

In each of the monasteries in Repkong, just as in Trika, there is a temple for Tsongkapa in which he is flanked by the first Dalai Lama and the first Panchen Lama, his principle disciples and the highest and second highest figures in the Gelug sect, respectively.

Rongwu Monastery (founded 1341) is large, like a village really, a maze of cobblestone pathways linking the monk quarters behind high stone walls. There are multiple temples, to Haryagriva, Tsongkapa, Manjushri, Kalachakra, Amitabha, Tara, and Palden Lamo (in which resides a full set of robes belonging to the 14th Dalai Lama, right next to the donated bottles of vodka—apparently Palden Lamo likes to drink).

Rongwu also has two dozen satellite monasteries in the Repkong area. They are not alone in this respect. Kumbum and Labrang are the same.

There are 700 monks at Rongwu, a mere 10% of what the community that once lived here before the 1960s. The number of monks at any of the large monasteries in Tibet are uniformly restricted to about 10% of what they once housed before the Cultural Revolution.

 

 

  

Trika to Repkong

Prayer wheels at this monastery are covered in painted yak hide.

 This morning started with a drive from the hotel in Trika to a small local monastery named after the Jokhang in Lhasa. It’s 400 years old and shows its age, but it was quite busy with local people performing prostrations, korra and offering prayers. No photos allowed. We didn’t spend much time there but I was happy we went. It definitely had a community feel to it.

From there we drove to Kamra National Park, the last part of the drive taking us along the Yellow River. When we got to the entrance, we stopped at a ticketing area where we learned that cars were not allowed in the park. They were only allowing people to go into the park on small tour buses that held 20 people each. We were heading to destinations beyond the park so we didn’t want our schedule blown by this surprise. My guide managed to cajole the agent to allow us into the park because we couldn’t come all the way back to the entrance before going on to our destination. The agent relented and allowed us into the park for 100 yuan.

As we are depart the ticketing area and head back to the road to go into the park, we are stopped by a young woman who didn’t believe our ticket was real and wouldn’t let us through. Fortunately, Tenzin was able to guarantee our passage by calling the ticket agent back and having him talk to her.

The road into the park is a long, looping, winding climb that must have taken us up at least 500 meters. We left the river far below, making our way up into a lush valley with grassy hills studded with trees, rocky dry stream beds and the odd walled compound suggesting living inhabitants. Reaching the crest, the road wound further and quickly transitioned into a downhill challenge. But even greater vistas awaited, including mountains rising another 1000 ft or more across a deep canyon below.

From where we stopped to savor the view, it was all green except for cultivated fields of bright yellow, possibly mustard, terracing on the hillside beyond and above that and rocky spires further down the valley below.

Once we got further down into the canyon, we took a turn onto a dirt road that wound along a small stream. Soaring up from both sides were 2-3000 ft mountains. It could have been off-road Colorado. It could even have been Utah, deep in a red rock canyon with spires jutting upward along the way. After crossing the stream a few times, we wound upward into another canyon where we could see the nunnery stepping down from far above.

We stopped opposite the nunnery at a stairway reaching far up into the hillside. At the top is a treasured shrine dedicated to three monks who escaped the reach of Langdarma (838-841). Although there is some dispute about his true intentions,and even whether he was Bon or Buddhists, he is remembered for trying to wipe out Buddhism in Tibet. He wasn’t successful in his short reign, obviously, but the terror that followed his edicts was no small matter. These monks spent several years inside three small caves at the top of this mountain. And here, presenting me with my first climbing challenge at altitude in this Land of Snows, was a 1000-foot stairway leading to the top.

  

The entire course of this zig-zagging climb upward, was strewn with prayer flags of course, with platforms at several locations for climbers to rest. We rested, yes, but not for long. I was thankful for the time I spent on the stair climbers in the Berkeley YMCA in June, pacing myself as near as I could estimate to the rate I managed there. But this was at 9-10,000 ft. For Tenzin, my guide, this climb is 20 minutes. For me, it was a bit more, maybe 25. OK for a geezer.

At the top was a small shrine, filled with images of Chenrezig. I took a single photo at the entrance and was immediately admonished by the attending nun, “No photo!” I thought, “Lady, I just managed a heart–attack climb to get here and you’re telling me I can’t take a photo?”

 

Atop the next peak over and above us by a few hundred meters was a huge statue under construction. The steel frame was nearly complete. Rumor is it will either be Tsongkapa (this is his territory, after all, having been born and ordained here) or Guru Rinpoche. I vote for the former. But most amazingly, a long and significantly more grueling stairway coming all the way up from a point on the road well below us, with several platforms for rest, had already been constructed along the ridgeline leading to the statue.

I could not imagine making that climb. Building a road to the top would have been far more expensive. Tsongkapa is best known for showing the way to the top, yet his way would have been the more arduous climb, not the easy drive.

The nunnery itself is perched at the edge of a 150 ft. cliff. This nunnery, Aching Namdzong, founded in 900, is among the oldest in Tibet. The gompa and teaching spaces occupy an uphill position while the nun’s quarters are strung out downhill on a narrowing spit of land with a steep drop-off on both sides. We were escorted by a young nun into the central shrine and assemble hall. As in most all the places I have visited, photos are not permitted inside.

Red Mahakala

Our drive to Repkong from there took us along a winding gradual uphill climb. We stopped at a viewing point. To my surprise, we were now looking down on the unfinished statue of Tsongkapa atop the hill that seemed so high just a few hours before. Coming down the other side of this range, we could see a man made lake, the second largest hydro-power installation of this province.

Tibetan graffiti

From here, we descended to the city of Repkong.

 

 

Kumbum Monastery

Kumbum is a large complex spreading up and across a hillside about 25 km south from the center of Xining. It’s central temples lie in a notch between two hillsides while its auxiliary buildings sprawl upwards on both sides.

Kumbum was ordered constructed by the 3rd Dalai Lama in 1583, marking the place of Tsongkapa’s birth in 1357. The name of the monastery means “100,000 enlightening bodies of the Buddha,” referring to the images that appeared in the leaves of the “Great Tree of Merit” that had grown up upon the spot where Tsongkhapa’s umbilical cord had touched the earth.

It seems to be a hugely popular tourist destination for the Chinese, possibly because it’s one of the more accessible monasteries. There are, after all, 200 million Buddhists in China. This sounds like a lot. But considering the total population is about 1.2 billion, such a number hardly raises an eyebrow. On this day it was teeming with groups small and large swarming every inch of this complex.

Like going through the turnstiles at Disneyland.

We entered perhaps a dozen small temples, each devoted to different figures, Shakyamuni, Buddhas of the past, Maitreya, (the Buddha of the future) and Kalachakra. We entered a couple of assembly halls as well as Manjushri’s temple.

100% yak butter.

A magnificent new temple three stories high inside featuring a glass-enclosed very detailed diorama (which, judging by the space, promises to become even more amazing) made entirely of yak butter. There is also the centerpiece of the entire site, the golden temple of Tsongkapa. Photographs are prohibited inside every one of these–except of the yak butter–with guards at the doors and monitors ambling throughout.

Golden Temple of Tsongkhapa

The “Golden Tiled Temple” is revered throughout Tibet and Mongolia. It is a small building with a roof of pure gold plate. Inside, it is full of wonderful relics, great banners of silk brocade called “katas“, wonderful lamps of gold and silver, thousands of small vessels burning butter, a colossal figure of Tsong Kapa, said to be made of gold. All is in semi-darkness which adds to the mystical effect, and the gleam from the butter lamps threw into relief some beautifully wrought temple vessels, or the queer blank face of some saintly Buddha image.”[2]

—-Wikipedia

Wooden flooring worn by continuous prostration

Many visitors recite prayers, make offerings, are blessed by an attending monk before leaving. The assembly hall was a dark and dense space, the wooden floors and walls.

The walls in this particular hall were covered either with 1000 niches eight levels high each containing a small statue of Tsongkapa, or with niches housing sutra in their wooden boxes draped with colored fabric, some apparently untouched for a century. The ceiling was hung with banners, thangkas hung from the rafters, the pillars were wrapped with carpeting.

The golden pagoda housing a huge image of Je Rinpoche (as Tsongkhapa is often called), who is considered to be an emanation of the bodhisattva Manjushri, lies on the spot where the “Tree of Great Merit”  grew. It was once accessible to direct contact, but now resides behind a glass enclosure. The whole of it cannot be seen, but any part of it displays some of the 270 kilos of pure gold that cover its surface. Pilgrims outside this small temple perform prostrations day and night.

Naturally, there was a large Manjushri temple, but the Kalachakra temple is most notable because it houses several finely detailed golden three-dimensional replicas of the Kalachakra mandala. Again, photos are not allowed, but when I visited, the guard was outside.

A single shot like this cannot do it justice.

Kumbum is one of six principal Gelug monasteries in Tibet. Three are in Amdo, three in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. I did not exactly plan it this way, but by the time I am complete here, I will have visited five of the six. Not that this is particularly significant, other than confirming the historical picture of the stature and influence of the Gelug school.

The Great Thangka

  

On the way to Xining, capital of Quinghai province in northwest China, I stopped overnight in Xian. It’s a colorless city, with isolated clots of high rise satellite apartment cities dotting the flat landscape. Stark concrete structures line the perfect straight boulevards. Traffic moves either fast or in fits and starts, but it is all very orderly. Xian is not a walking city, at least not where I was. It has all the marks of a planned Chinese city with the charm of East Germany. No English signs except banks and global brands, franchises. However, ALL the motorbikes are electric. It’s 95 F. Some buses are not air-conditioned. Some are. Bicycles are for rent everywhere, plugged into racks. Many are parked unlocked on the sidewalks. I could barely communicate with the hotel clerks. No one speaks English, a taxi driver does not know the word “airport.” It’s a Tuesday morning. But there seems no rhyme or reason to explain which businesses are open or closed.

Flying into Xining the next day, I see an increasingly mountainous landscape. Every arable inch is meticulously terraced. Small villages are tucked into narrow green valleys. One cannot help but wonder at the industry necessary to cultivate these areas.


Xining is 2.2 million people, a small city by Chinese standards. Everything about it is first class, the infrastructure, traffic control. Also, everything is spic and span. There is a very noticeable muslim population. My guides are at the airport to meet me, even after a 2 hour delay.

This is an unprecedented intellectual accomplishment on Tibetan medicine, compiled into 60 volumes covering 8 categories in 78 chapters and 60,000,000 words. It took 27 years to complete, enlisting over 1000 doctors, scholars, professors, monks and village doctors. Tibetan medicine may well be more respected by the Chinese than any other aspect of the Tibetan heritage. This museum, after all, is a government supported project.

The next morning, my tour of Tibet starts in spectacular fashion. I am driven to the Museum of Tibetan Medicine in Xining. Three-quarters of this two story building is devoted to medical exhibits. I breezed through them rather swiftly on my way to the main event–The Great Thangka—commissioned by the government, assisted in its creation by several hundred Tibetan artists and historians who together created a single painted fabric over 600 meters long (2 meters high) tracing the history of Tibet from its earliest mythic origins to the present day.

In a continuous meandering course through one wing of the museum, the viewer is treated to an unbroken mural depicting the evolution of the Tibetan people from monkeys to humans, from warriors to spiritual warriors, the earliest kings and the many who followed through the centuries, the protector deities of the four cardinal directions,  mythic characters embodying

Guardian of the North–the protectors of the four cardinal directions are depicted in mural form in virtually every monastery.

Guardian of the West.

precious qualities of the Dharma protectors, 21 different representations of Tara, multiples of Vajrapani, Mahakala, Vairochana, Vajrasattva, Naropa….

King Songtsen Gampo–8th C.

peripheral detail

Milarepa, the five Buddha families, biographies of Shakyamuni, Padmasambhava, Atisha and the rest of the arhats, Machig Labron, Tsongkhapa, the founders of the Bon religion, the Kagyu school, representations of all the Karmapas, all the Dalai Lamas (save the 14th–this is China, after all) and the first Panchen Lama (with pictures of all the rest). Far more than I could ever show here.

The Wheel of Life

Chakrasamvara

The entire tableau is mounted on the wall, protected by a glass shield and presented in a curving maze through which the viewer walks, becoming lost in ever-renewing niches that appear around the next curling corner. I and my young guide were, for the most part, completely alone on this path, the lighting ahead of us turning on as we approached, lighting behind us shutting off as we moved on.

Dorje Palmo–protector of feminine power.

Palden Lhamo–one of the two great oracles of Tibet.

Classic Milarepa–too weak to hold up his own head without help.

Classic Tsongkhapa–founder of the yellow hat Gelugpas. 

There are 130 mandalas and about 50 small reproductions of wall or ceiling designs found at temples and monasteries from all over Tibet, concluding with depictions of everyday life in Tibet from birth to death.

All of this is done with amazing color and fine detail, overwhelmingly beautiful, with the highest quality technique, in some cases flashing with the great brilliance of thangka painters found anywhere in this region.

130 more of these.

Two-armed Badass Mahakala

I felt as though I was ambling through the fissures of the Tibetan brain, every significant detail of temporal and spiritual history imprinted there. Indeed, this great thangka is one very attenuated and magnified molecule of the DNA of the Tibetan people, mastered in a continuous display of coded information reproducing every nuance, shifting from background to foreground and blazing with magnificence at every turn.

Neichung–the other oracle of Tibet consulted by the Dalai Lama when considering escape in 1959. The Neichung said “Go!” Palden Lhamo said “Stay.” His stature has been diminished ever since.

Small scale reproductions of temple ceiling designs–50 more of these!

Peripheral detail

Peripheral detail.

And this, on my very first stop on this journey.

Departure

We’ll get there eventually.

At the core of the past 2.5 years has been a willingness and expectation of walking into unfamiliar circumstances, not merely for the novelty (or counterphobic stimulation), but with a mindful intention to observe my process. Two and a half years ago I had a fantasy that I would be completely comfortable with the uncertainty of that way of being and I would adapt easily to foreign circumstances, cultures, schedules, people, and lifestyles. It does have a way of bringing one into the present, after all.

This has become true and also not true. If my intention was to monitor internal habits, leanings and the comfortable handholds of identity, that part has always been possible. Letting go of those handholds is not quite as easy as it may have seemed. I am still a creature of some habit(s). I have preferences and standards for personal comforts and lifestyle and maintenance activities that I do not easily relinquish. They are the anchors, the furnishings of my inner tranquility…or safety. I am aware that to a degree those preferences are driven by fear, a fear that despite a view of myself as resilient, rearranging the furniture will reduce the possibility of tranquility. I admit to having a mild counterphobic streak, deliberately pulling the rug out to freshen experience and discover what my responses will be.

Tiptoeing into the unknown and meeting myself there is no less enticing, appealing and creatively stimulating than it ever was. I do not long for “stability,” whatever that is anymore. The world is not stable and becoming even less so. If you’re feeling comfortable, you are not paying attention. We are not in an “Ozzie and Harriet” episode (a 50’s television show depicting an ideal American family—the Nelsons). In fact, we sense the slide toward instability. But as we in the West are learning from the ancients, what we regard as chaos may not be chaos at all, and in whatever it is, there is opportunity. Maybe I’m just getting a head start. Yeah, that’s it. I’m a pioneer.

The past couple of years have also become a journey into the meaning of place. Do I have a place? What is place? Is my place in relative motion really so different from anyone else’s more rooted place? Is there something different to see or learn from being in motion than there is in being rooted? My personal place has become one with fewer boundaries. I am more comfortable having no place, which makes every place a little more my place than it used to be. Then again, no place is my place. I am not tethered to real estate, property, to community or even nation. My concerns are not local. They are more global. That alone does not set me apart. The global view is creeping into mass consciousness more each day simply because that’s the nature of information flow, given the tools at our disposal.  Information is like an oar in the river of consciousness, guiding the development of knowledge, cultural exchange, the ongoing development of mass awareness of far away places, the state of humanity, treating the far away as if it is the right here…because, to an increasing degree, every pace is here.

A thousand times Manjushri–cutting through illusion.

On the other hand, not being sedentary means I give up the opportunity to nurture the full depth of sustained personal relations, the chance to explore the dynamics of community, sustained intimacy, romance.

As much as this venture at the outset may have been about my personal story, it is now becoming a more universal story, reflected both through my own and through the eyes of the individuals I meet. Any place becomes every place. And even in their striking and infinite uniqueness, any story becomes every story, shining a sharp light on the depth and import of the common story.

In witnessing, experiencing the universality of experience, yearning, accomplishment, struggle and suffering, my story becomes less important. We can never hear that enough. We all need to know and reaffirm, as never before, how we are connected, how we are alike, how our destiny lies in every pair of hands.

Beyond this, there is also, in the never-ending journey, the freshening awareness of loss, of grief and magic and their omnipresent linkage, the unceasing and unlimited joy of spontaneous creativity, the integral nature of appearance and reality unfolding as a continuous surprise. Sure, I am just as automatic as anyone else in the instantaneous categorization of every moment into its proper place in the library of personal memory, values, predispositions and perceptual bias. But there is still and always the chance, the narrow window through which a luminous clarity intrudes through the prosaic, transforming all of it into transcendence.

 

Be Here Now: The Future Depends On It

What is the “present moment?” I assume most people have experienced something they would call a “present moment.” I know when I am there, or at least close, but planning on it is…well, a contradiction. We’ve all had experiences that were so intense, so embodied, so clear and blissful that they are imprinted forever and remain the standard for presence. We’re completely undistracted by the past or the future, free of mental activity, grasping at scenarios that have nothing to do with the what’s happening right now. Even if it’s only for a few brief moments, we are out of our minds. The prevailing standard of mental activity has dissolved.

To occupy the present means time stands still. That’s what it feels like. Vastly spacious, everything is happening sooo slowly. Experience and feeling is so rich we can be overwhelmed. We are compelled by the moment until, eventually, we begin to ask ourselves how this can be happening…. and then, why can’t this be happening all the time? By now the present moment experience is already corrupted. Thoughts such as these, the maddening but seemingly inevitable reassertion of the witness (the ego), are the reason the present moment is so elusive, so vivid and yet so transient. That witness is pondering how to control the future.

We want to go back to the present. I know I do. Maybe we look for maps that will take us back…or forward…or inward, teachers and methods that will guide us deeply into fully embodied presence. We practice and believe and observe and record. Siri, directions to the present moment, please. Siri, take me out of my mind. Siri says, what? I didn’t get that.

This is not a frivolous thing because it’s not an experience of tuning out. It’s tuning in. Way down and way in. We know it’s important and we understand why it’s important. And yet, evolutionary biologists have been hell-bent to interpret social behavior, our interactive life, in terms of its utility and survival value. This is the scientific approach to understanding behavior, ecology, genetics, sexuality, the natural world. Everything is interpreted as a survival imperative, as if science can reduce all behavior to fit into the reductionist box that’s only about utility and efficiency.

Behaviors that don’t fit into that box, inefficient activities that don’t readily produce measurable results such as play, compassion, empathy, artistic expression, time out for tenderness, the pure simple enjoyment of this delicious life–or being so utterly present in the moment as to regard all action as superfluous– somehow these activities are left off the survival bus as if they don’t deserve a seat… because they might even be irrelevant, because they aren’t about the next meal or defense or the next reproductive act.

But as Eisenstein** and others note, our focus on efficiency and producing what can be measured has cost us immeasurably in things that cannot be measured: the erotic and creative ground of relationship, sacred community, our immersion in the planetary matrix of the non-human world. In achieving productive efficiency, maximizing utility and the productive use of our limited time, we have been giving up our relation to the timeless, giving up our access to the present moment.

There is another view, promoted recently by Martin Seligman, who has published a work called, “Homo Prospectus,” renaming our species to reflect our pre-occupation with the future. For him, our capacity to visualize the future is a distinguishing feature of humanity. For him, it is the reason we thrive. For me, and, I suspect, for many others involved in sketching out the New Story of Humanity, it is also the reason we are approaching a real possibility of extinction.

It has been said for a long time now that the Old Story of Humanity is one of separation. When we speak of separation, we talk about separation from each other and from the natural world. Overcoming that story doesn’t simply mean re-establishing relationship, but overcoming the very mental operations that so naturally and habitually divide us from our own experience. We are separated from ourselves, dispersed, as Thich Nhat Hanh might call it, from our own center, an organizing principle of existence. Or, in Seligman’s terms, we are lost in the future, our perpetual obsession with improving life.

Being fully in the present means there is no such reflection. There’s no time for it. There’s no purpose for it. In the animal world, the behavior of beings that don’t have the reflective capacities of humans exhibit behaviors essential to survival. There is nothing frivolous or extraneous or obsessive there. Likewise, just because humans have a reflective capacity doesn’t mean behaviors that don’t fit in the efficiency and utility box are irrelevant. What is more likely is that such behaviors, empathy, compassion, artistic expression, spontaneous creativity are just as essential to our own survival precisely because the most attractive expressions of these behaviors occur without reflection–as if they are completely natural. And, by the way, such behaviors occur spontaneously…in the moment. They improve life now.

It is the very un-reflective, natural, totally present commitment of the animal world that exhibits the complete enjoyment of life, integral to whatever utility these behaviors might otherwise be imbued with by human science, and upon which survival depends. Such behaviors are viewed as being driven by instinct, completely unconscious motivations buried in the genetic material and passed from one generation to the next.

For humans, we not only spend a great deal of time contemplating the future, Seligman notes that we depend on our fellow humans to do the same, insuring that we have so many comforts and essentials of life close at hand. Prospective thinking is what has created the multitude of choices among those comforts and essentials. Yet is is also prospective thinking that has created the myth of perpetual growth. It is the reason for environmental destruction.

The transformational journey we are in is to overcome the inertia of the myth of perpetual Industrial Growth and to recover the capacity to be in the present moment, to indulge in un-reflective spontaneous enjoyment, to dive into the erotic earth in the center of our souls and get messy with the pleasures there because these are the glue of relationship, of community, of connection with and commitment to the welfare of the whole. This is the medium in which we are immersed with the entire non-human world.

Further teasing out the meaning of the present moment requires making a somewhat technical point. Maybe it’s even irrelevant. But when we look more closely at what we mean by “present,” we quickly realize that there is no such thing as the present moment, as if time stands still for us to experience our connection to all things. No, it does not. Any designation of time as a discrete unit is artificial.

The present moment is not separate from any other moment. It is all moments. It’s not a thing. It’s everything. If there us no such thing as a unit of time and thus no such thing as the present moment, then we must liberate ourselves from the (default?) tyranny of eternally imagining the future and recombining memories to support that new vision. Even if we are doing that (which is most of the time), we needn’t be prisoners of the process. Every moment is the present moment and there is no moment in which we are not connected to all things. There is no such thing as the present….or, for that matter, the future.

The way that our survival depends on knowing this is by realizing that the present moment, which does not exist, is the erotic ground of everything, the natural mind, the source of everything, yet is always perfectly still–even while we are busy constructing future scenarios. Knowing this, we can begin to discern and distinguish phenomena, events, thoughts, relationships, every dynamic of our known matrix that is disconnected from this view. That is the basis of creating a different world.

** NB: a podcast conversation with Charles Eisenstein, December, 2015.

Tongue Candy

How the words spill forth like an endless freight train
crossing an open prairie, each car holding precious cargo,
the order random or familiar, reminding me that ideas,
whatever else they may be, are also obstacles
to knowing, with the tenacity of lichen growing

in the crannies of a mountain ledge. Words–ceremoniously
tucked away in libraries of inner conflict, confusion,
obsessive deliberation and terminal differentiation.
Who says we have to say anything? Or be anything?
Why should I believe that taking the fateful step, creating

and dancing with the object of my attention, will benefit
anything, least of all my own soul? Words on the page may
line up like the straight faces of unruly children hoping
for ice cream after a tumultuous meal of tantrums and tossing
vegetables, but in the end, they are all empty calories,

impediments to the reality of taste, to the experience of
all my senses gone wild, a temporarily soothing precipitate
of the original solution, visible yet reminiscent of something
already long dead. But alas, they are my skin in the game,
triumph and risk intermingled inseparably unrecognizably

irrefutably inevitably terminally together, a flash flood
of certainty washing through a desert wadi of perfectly dry
truth that was doing just fine until you came along thank
you very much. Words are a temptation standing at a precipice,
inviting us to jump, bridges to the foreign, beasts of burden,

immutable strains of familiar tunes, or mere domesticated
animals to be kept around the estate for show, a comforting
arm on which to sashay into the prom. Tongue candy.
They are what’s left over after what we know has been devoured,
the bones telling us what we already knew before dissolving

back into the void, rash actions taken to dispel an unspeakable
fear of the wreckage that we are, epithets hollered into
canyons of doubt we inherited at birth coming back as haunting
echoes, spinning and dangling like hood ornaments on our
personal vehicles. As scalpels, daggers, or the artist’s chisel

stripped of all menace, soothing as a mother’s touch, language
is both familiar and foreign, inexplicable, overreaching,
failing miserably or seducing unwittingly, its codes working
unexpected and unnoticed magic on its creators, metaphors satisfying
and mystifying, making music of what can never truly be spoken.

Beginningless Time

Reincarnation Cycle Hinduism Hindu reincarnation cycle · found on ...

In referring to previous lives (if there is such a thing), the cyclical nature of existence (there is definitely such a thing), Buddhist texts frequently refer to numberless lives stretching into beginningless time. From the non-dual perspective, this term is itself a non sequitur. It refers to a condition having no beginning and no end. There is no time. If there is no beginning (and no end), how can there be time in the conventional way that we understand it?

Woody Allen once famously said, “Time is nature’s way of preventing everything from happening all at once.” From the view in which subject and object exist, we can only imagine “everything” as discrete events, jumbled together without order, arising in random fashion, crowding each other out, competing for “space” in the chaos of phenomena, all competing for our attention. The nature of mind is such that this “competition” appears as the constant arising of sense perception, the evaluation of that perception, thoughts in relation to the timing of “events” that we perceive or imagine to exist.

But absolute reality is not some other unconventional form of time, unfamiliar to us, in which “events” occur. There is no sequence of events. There are no events. It is time-less. There are no discrete moments. There is no present, no past, no future; no procession from one thing to another. There is only what is-now. The term beginningless time is a conception arising from within our own limited view of reality, our conditioned view, which is intrinsically based in time. Normally, we are not capable of another view.

The Sanskrit meaning of samsara is “continuous flow”– the repeating cycle of the major transitional events in one’s existence: birth, life, death and rebirth (reincarnation). The root meaning of the word samsara also refers to “flowing into ourselves.” If we only thought of the transitional events (birth, death and reincarnation) as features of samsara, we would be overlooking the continuous flow of moment-to-moment events in between these major transitions —our continuous flow into ourselves.

In this sense, samsara is happening in every instant. We are subject to its terms. We also flow into and perpetuate those terms with every act of consciousness. Being asleep to micro-events of our lives, we become wanderers, constantly re-creating ourselves without realizing our true relationship to what we take for granted as “events.” If we are to have any influence on the terms of samsara, this is where our attention must go.

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The more we awaken, the more we learn about the terms of samsara and our condition, the more we might come to regard our predicament as a perpetual purgatory, which is in every instant a condition over which we seem to have little if any control, but which is also a choice we make of view and of conduct.

Even the discipline we apply to the development of attention, to resting in a quality of effortlessness in our daily existence and to the attention we bring to the activity of mind all seems to be limited by the reality of samsara itself, the fundamental limitations to which we are helplessly subject. That limitation is time. And…it is also timeless.

Karma is the essential feature of samsara. Our action is what fuels samsara, the continuing moment-to-moment co-origination of phenomena that we call time. Karmic action can only exist in time. Our conceptual frameworks reflect the ways we are embedded in time. Language to a great degree also reflects these conceptual frameworks …and fireworks.

The individual aspect of karma, what we recognize from a sweeping perspective of an entire life over time, is what we may inherit from a previous life; that which follows us into this life; what we create in this life by conscious or unconscious action. This is the material of our practice, the essence of our own personal version of delusion. In order to have any influence over our own karma, our own unique way of navigating time-which is our identity-our practice must come to rest at the level of our habitual view and decisions about time.

This conventional view of karma as strictly a reflection of our individual path is what I would call relative karma. It is relative in the same sense as we speak of relative truth, relative reality. It is relative by virtue of the artificiality of viewing ourselves in isolation from others, from the whole, from the universe of sentient beings.

As the bodhisattva is concerned with the karma of all, any being who has managed to extinguish all of her personal karma is the one who has revealed the habitual decisions about time and untangled from them entirely, developing awareness that transcends time and becoming concerned with the absolute karma of the whole, the timeless dimension of collective activity, thought and behavior. The accomplishment of the bodhisattva is the ability to remain stable in the view of the absolute karma of all beings while acting at the level of relative karma with individual beings. I cannot reference any text to support this opinion. It is simply mine alone…as far as I know.

It is a Western view that imagines such a thing as collective karma; group, tribal or ethnic karma; national karma; even planetary karma. Moreover, we tend to think in terms of good and bad karma according to conventional (relative) values of good and evil, assigning them to collective karma in the very real sense that good and bad things happen to groups and that shared responsibility exists for consequences of shared decisions in ways that are just as real and painful as those effecting individuals.

Such decisions certainly do exist at the group, tribal, national and global level. Yet when attempting to tease out the factors effecting collective actions, we inevitably encounter conflicting values and the difficulty of evaluating the relative importance of each, and the relative participation of individuals in hierarchies of relevancy and influence. What is the greater good or the greater harm? All of this occurs within the relative view.

Reincarnation, the ‘Interlife’, Universal Consciousness & the ...

From the absolute view, all phenomena are equal; there is no such thing as ultimate good or ultimate evil. These distinctions dissolve as we peer beyond the relative view, as we uncover the relative activity of mind that assigns these attributes to what is essentially a valueless arising. This is very difficult to grasp, let alone accept, given our religious, social and cultural conditioning. Yet all phenomena are both “here” in the relative sense of time, judgment and evaluation and also “not here” in the sense that the ground “from” which they arise is not conditioned or conventional reality at all, but something else entirely—a pure, unobstructed, unconditioned “space” in which, ironically, neither time nor space have any meaning whatsoever.

If all phenomena are the same, then relative karma is conditioning to see the world in terms of extremes such as good and evil. Liberation is the extinction of all karma, freeing oneself from all evil, all good and ultimately any tendency–or even capacity–to make any such distinction.

Death

Since I just recently posted a couple of poems about death, you might get the idea that I am dwelling on this topic. I don’t even know what “dwelling” means in this case; one man’s dwelling is another’s obsession.

I don’t know you, but am becoming increasingly conscious of the entropy of my days. Perhaps you’ve had a brush with mortality in the form of disease, declining function or an accident. I have been fortunate in that regard. But otherwise, I doubt I am very far from average. I don’t think much about my death in general, but every time I have an encounter with impermanence, a disappointment, a loss, someone else’s loss, whether it’s a specific or a general loss such as, you know, a gas attack or any of the fanatical US military escapades abroad, famine, disease, I’m likely to contemplate, even if for only briefly, my own demise.

There are other times when one encounters mortality, such as in deciding what to do with one’s stuff or completing an advanced health care directive. In fact, recently I had to decide who to put on a list of people I designate to receive my personal medical information. The only time I could imagine such a list being relevant or such information being useful would be if I was incapacitated or at the end of life.

Just the other day I was looking at my premium notice for long-term care insurance. I don’t know how many people have such policies, but the decision to get one is  accompanied by journeys into end of life scenarios. And those journeys can become complex, even take on a life of their own if you aren’t careful. Although most people prefer to think of their demise as a short period of declining health or even a sudden event such as a heart attack or stroke, the reality is that for the majority, the end of life is a long and slow process. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the segue from denouement to the downhill slide.

That being the case, some years ago I decided to insure myself against the potentially exorbitant expense of personal care out of concern that my family should not be burdened with that responsibility if I could possibly relieve them of it. But here was this premium notice in front of me and I started thinking about my life expectancy and the relative values of the insurance versus other options. It’s a crapshoot, really. And this is only one way of thinking about one’s death.

Another way has taken place intermittently for me over the past few years. From time to time, I have meditated on feeling my way into the precise frame of mind I would choose to generate at the moment of my death. This has been an deeply illuminating practice of construction, not very different from the vajrayana practice of guru yoga. What usually occurs is that for short periods I am fully able to internalize an expansive and infinitely generous state, settling deeply into vast spacious clarity, unlimited and unreserved loving and also…not surrender, but a fearless acceptance. A choice. What is also interesting about this practice is that while I can visualize myself in some undetermined future, I am less adept at generating this state in the present moment. It’s much easier as a hypothetical than as an immediate reality. Hmmm.

I noticed right away that there were obstacles to sustaining this frame of mind. I began to  look more closely at what these obstacles were and engage with them as if they had personalities of their own. Invariably, they involve some form of self-cherishing, some need to concretise my beliefs, hold onto an identity. I was either afraid of feeling my fears or exploring attitudes that limit my ability to open completely to the possibility of unlimited, unconditional, unrestrained loving regard for all. There is something in the way that needs to protect itself, guarding against the prospect of that loving regard not being returned….or a plethora of other reasons. If there was any sense of opening resulting from these internal encounters, it was from realizing that if there’s no one home, there’s nothing to protect.

Which is not to say at all that I don’t exist–or some other self-satisfying emotional dodge. Ultimately, such an exercise is actually about living now rather than living or dying in some imagined future. After all, the idea that at the moment of death I will have the presence of coherent mind to choose my view is a complete projection. It’s a worthy objective, but it’s also a creation of ego. And yet, the contemplation of the finer details of that projection, such as how I really feel about leaving everything or just dropping off into the complete unknown, offers a vehicle to examine the immediate nature of ego operating in a less than fearless and open way.

Engaging directly but with impeccable neutrality with emotional resistance creates a vantage point to approach that resistance with true and unlimited compassionate regard–bodhicitta. It allows me to look more deeply at the resistance I feel to awakening into fearless loving in this moment.  A neutral orientation is supremely important. No effort is required, no judgment is possible, no narrow definitions or any agenda are necessary. No requests made, no time limit allowed, no limit at all to the depth of ones ultimate positive regard for whatever hinders one’s innate capacity for fearless loving.

Another component of the imagined ideal mental state at death is its uncontrived and spontaneous nature, unreactive to anything, welcoming everything, undistracted by either the past or the future. Everything is equal and everything is positive. Being present in one’s actual state as it is. No regrets, no needs, no desires; a supreme letting go. Like a bundle of kindling collapsing when its binding is cut. And again, imagining this state in an undetermined future invariably brings me directly into contemplating the reality of this state in this moment.

Take it into the world-now. How does that feel–everything opening up right now into the vast expanse? Isn’t it amazing? Suddenly death is a million miles away….and also, right here.