Category Archives: Spirituality

What a Difference a Year Makes

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A little less than a year ago I wrote here about how I learned a life lesson about disappointment. I had traveled across the country to see the Dalai Lama for the first time and to participate in an initiation he was conducting. His physicians asked him to rest an extra day before traveling from Tokyo to California and as a result he missed the event. I spent one night angry, sad, and disappointed, and then spent the next day begin taught about humility, compassion, and real suffering and disappointment.

I knew right away what an important event that was, and one year later I can confirm that it was life-changing. For one thing, my practice shifted in tone and pace. I stopped being in a hurry to reach enlightenment. I began to focus on the present moment and where I was on the path at that time, rather than craning my neck to see what was coming up around the bend. I learned to appreciate what I was doing and experiencing at any given moment, instead of counting up the things I’d done or the things I wanted to do. I stopped trying to accumulate experiences and knowledge (though, to be honest, I haven’t stopped collecting books—my love of reading and learning continue to overpower my will and overtax my shelves).

I also started to get over myself. As deeply spiritual as my life has been at many times, both as a Christian and a Buddhist, I think I sometimes have been a tad too impressed with myself. Despite feeling somewhat lost exploring my path as a Buddhist, I still managed to inflate my spiritual self-importance. I was a bit too proud of the new spirituality I was developing, of the experiences and knowledge I was collecting like baseball cards and comic books (I should write sometime about The Green Lama).

A few months later, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC, to attend the Dalai Lama’s conducting of the Kalachakra. I had difficulty trying to decide whether to go, so soon after the humbling I received in California. Was I succumbing again to the temptation to hit a spiritual home run? I seriously doubted my motivations at the time. In the end, I went, and it was a phenomenal decision.

When I received word late last year that His Holiness would be returning to Long Beach to “make up” the initiation he missed, and was invited by the event host to return free of charge, I wasn’t sure if I should go. The experience of the Kalachakra  would be very hard to top. And although Gaden Shartse Thubten Dargye Ling would be comping me the event tickets, I’d still have to pay for the flight, hotel, meals, rental car, and so on. I was ready to pass. Then my boss asked me to attend a conference that he and I alternate going to; this was supposed to be his year. The conference was in Las Vegas, practically all the way to California, it was the same week as the Dalai Lama’s return to Long Beach, and my employer would be paying for the flight out to Vegas. I realized I was being led back to California; who was I to kick against the goads.

I got chills when I drove into downtown Long Beach Thursday evening, past the convention center where the Dalai Lama was supposed to appear last year, by the Westin where the humble Khen Rinpoche shamed me for my “disappointment” and the wise Robert Thurman put my feelings into perspective. When I checked in at the Courtyard, the desk clerk said he was switching my room to move me away from a large group of noisy young boys. My new room number was 619, which looks an awful lot like a yin-and-yang to me. I took it to be auspicious.

Two days later, as I type this, I am still processing the experience of see His Holiness again and participating in the initiation. I’ll write about it soon. In the  meantime, here are a few fuzzy photos I took with my phone. Hopefully, there are some better ones on my camera.

Namaste. Peace be yours.

Dharma Digest, Vol. 1, No. 1

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A collection of recent posts on the Dharma Beginner page at www.facebook.com/dharmabegin

Laissez-Faire v. Micromanagement

“Life is a thing that mutates without warning, not always in enviable ways. All part of the improbable adventure of being alive, of being a brainy biped with giant dreams on a crazy blue planet.” – Diane Ackerman

Achieving a balance between laissez-faire and micromanagement is tricky. We accept that change is a fact of life, inevitable, and remind ourselves that the more detailed the plan we construct, the more likely it is to go awry. A life that follows strictly along a meticulously laid out plan is illusory.

Some degree of planning and preparation is necessary, though, isn’t it? Eating healthy requires real planning, I find. Being a vegetarian adds to the challenge. So where do we draw the line between obsessive attempts to control life and flitting about on the wind without any direction?

Perhaps it is at the point, still hard to discern, when “planning” one’s life becomes “attempting to control” it. (I say attempting, because I don’t believe we ever reach a point at which we are truly in control of life.) The practice I try to embrace is “flexible” planning—don’t make your plans rigid, but leave room for the unexpected (which, if past is prologue, really should be expected) and be ready to adjust. Expect things not to turn out as planned. Or, minimize your expectations, and thereby minimize disappointment. Not always easy for me to accomplish, but I’m working on it.

The Common Thread

“There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.” – George Bernard Shaw

I have long held an ecumenical view of religion, and never believed that my religion was any better than anyone else’s. My belief was that god, the higher power, whatever you call it, manifested itself differently to different people, in ways that were meaningful and understandable to them. But underlying all of the surface differences, they were constructed on the same basic foundation.

True, in their attempts to live out their religions, some people go astray and lose sight of the sameness of everyone, the inextricable connectedness of all beings. That does not, however, diminish the fundamental similarities of the various religions as they were originally conceived. One may try to establish that their way is the right way, their view is the correct view, but the things they do to distinguish themselves, to make themselves appear unique, in my opinion lead them away from the universal shared values of love and compassion.

Flexibility of Mind, Body and Spirit

“I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.” – Everett McKinley Dirksen

A yoga teacher was making a point about achieving balance by keeping flexibility and ease in poses, and avoiding rigidity. While the students were in tree pose (standing on one leg, other leg bent at the knee with the sole of the foot against the upper thigh of the standing leg, arms raised straight above the head), the teacher wandered the room, lightly poking the students on the shoulder. The students that were rigid, with locked knees and clenched jaws and gritted teeth, would teeter and drop out of the pose. The students that maintained ease in their pose, who were not overly rigid, teetered…but then regained their balance.

Have you ever been in a tall building and felt it sway? If buldings were not designed with flexibility that allows them to move in the wind, they would risk collapse. It’s not much different with us. If we go through life inflexible, unable to deal with anything less than our imagined ideal, we are destined for pain, suffering, and eventually collapse. The ability to adapt to the vicissitudes of life, to “roll with the punches,” to “bend in the breeze,” is essential to the presence of mind needed to progress toward enlightenment.

Human-ness and Saintliness

I read a quotation from the Dalai Lama’s brother about the Dalai Lama’s fascination with technology and invention as a child. His brother said the Dalai Lama’s favorite invention was super glue, second only to the invention of the stuff that removes super glue.
Reading that, I was reminded of the thing I love most about His Holiness: his human-ness. He is, without a doubt, an incredibly special person. And he is just a person, like you and me. He often refers to himself as just a simple monk, which he really and truly is. And yet, he also is so much more.

Two of my great spiritual inspirations have been Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. Obviously, they were two amazing people. But what first attracted me to them was how they were both very human, with all the frailties that come with being human. I read each of their autobiographies (The Seven Storey Mountain and The Long Loneliness, respectively; I highly recommend them) as a young man and was amazed by how flawed Thomas and Dorothy were, how matter-of-factly ordinary, how much like everybody else. Their extraordinary accomplishments and the example they set for me were all the more remarkable in light of their human-ness. I couldn’t believe that these amazing, saintly people were little different from me. That never fails to encourage me

I Didn’t Seek It, But I’ll Take It

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About a year ago I began this blog as one way to actively think about the path I was walking. For over 40 years I had walked a spiritually fulfilling path as a Christian, until realizing a couple of years ago that, somewhere along the line, I had stopped being a Christian and had become a Buddhist. Now I was walking an even more spiritually fulfilling path, though one far less familiar to me.

A lot of questions presented themselves to me and it seemed at times like I was feeling my way around in the dark. So I started blogging as part of my attempt to seek answers. It also occurred to me that I was probably not the only person seeking to answer those same questions. There might be a few people out there who would benefit from reading what I’m thinking, and it would be great to connect with those people and walk the path together.

Not long afterwards, I decided to create a page on Facebook with the same name, Dharma Beginner, as an extension of the blog and, primarily, to publicize its availability. My intention had been to post notices when new material was available on the blog, and perhaps the occasional quotation or link to a relevant online article. What happened next was wholly unexpected.

As of today, the Dharma Beginner page has 18,592 likes. That’s roughly 18,500 more likes that I would have predicted. So, an error of just 20109 percent, or slightly better than the accuracy of my NCAA basketball bracket.

This was not what I bargained for. This page has taken on a life of its own. In fact, I have been blogging only about once a month on average, but I am posting just about every day on the Facebook page. The regular visitors to the page seem to enjoy my blog but are obviously returning for other reasons given the infrequency of my blogging.

The regular visitors formed a beautiful little community right under my nose and without me noticing at first. Our virtual sangha, as I like to call it, has the same cast of characters as any in-person community. There are the gurus, as I think of them, the really experienced and knowledgeable people who can always be counted on to offer the perfectly apt quotation or to answer a baffling question. Thank goodness someone at the page knows something, because it’s not me!

There are the wallflowers who keep coming back but lurk in the corners, soaking up the experience while they shyly remain silent except for the occasional peep. Keep coming guys and gals and don’t feel pressured to speak up if you don’t want to. Just be there, because I love knowing that the page feeds you.

There are the hurt, those whose past experiences with organized religion have left them scarred and hypersensitive. My heart breaks for them and my compassion kicks into overdrive. I hope that they find some solace when they visit the page and are helped to recognize that happiness is within their grasp.

There are the debaters, ready to pounce on a point and beat it to a bloody pulp. I don’t know what I’d do without them, because they remind me that mine is not the only point of view and, quite often, their knowledge and passion puts me back in my place.

What there are, more than anything, are myriad people grateful for what they find at the page—which is amazing to me because I feel grateful for their presence. I am enriched by their many different voices and their common search for peace and happiness. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without them.

And this brought me up short recently. It began to dawn on me that I had a responsibility to the visitors to the page. I had been continuing my very low-key, minimally-responsible approach, posting the occasional quotation or article. But what happens when I go away, or simply am too busy to post? It doesn’t go unnoticed. People get worried about me. More importantly, people come looking for inspiration, a good word or two, encouragement, and see nothing new. I have given them a reason to expect such things, and sometimes I don’t deliver. Maybe they go away disappointed and never come back. Gosh, I hope not.

It occurs to me that, even though I can’t see the members of this community, it is a community nonetheless. One that I created and, therefore, am responsible for and to. If taking the Bodhisattva vows means that I have dedicated my life to aiding others in their search for enlightenment (and it does), then this is clearly one of the ways I have chosen to do so. Do I feel like I am upholding my vow in this regard? Not so much.

The issue has to do with much more than providing for new posts while I’m away on business or vacation, though. It has to do with taking risks, putting myself out there, and opening myself up to whatever may come. Just posting quotations and links to articles incurs very little risk. (Though, every time I refer to Chogyam Trungpa or Mother Theresa I set off a maelstrom! Can you say “polarizing individuals”?). My approach has been quite safe from criticism, quite safe from someone disagreeing or saying that I’m flat out wrong, quite safe from steering someone wrong and living with the consequences.

But more and more I find people reaching out for help publicly on the page and directly to me in private. Am I not responsible for helping them find an answer? I believe that, as the creator and maintainer of the page, I am. It is not a responsibility I sought, but I find that I am grateful for it and willing to embrace it.

I once heard one of my personal heroes and mentors, Bishop Walter Dennis, address a group of layreaders—people who read the Bible lessons to the congregation during church services. He emphasized the importance of preparation and taking the task of the layreader seriously by saying, “When you read the lessons, it may be the first time that someone has ever heard the scriptures, or it may be the last time they ever hear them because they will enter heaven before attending church again.” What an awesome responsibility! When it comes to this Facebook page, is it really any different? It could be the first time a visitor has ever read the Dharma or it could be the last time. Do I not owe it to them to provide something worthy of such occasions? I believe I do.

The denizens of Dharma Beginner may have noticed recently that my offering of quotations has come with some additional thoughts attached. That is me putting myself out there, expressing what the quotation says to me. That is me taking a little risk by exposing what I know and—more often—what I don’t know, opening myself up to disagreement, to the possibility that I will offend, to the chance that someone will read what I wrote and “unlike” the page, never to return. That would pain me indescribably, but I believe the potential gain, for the visitors and for me, to be far greater.

For a time now, I have been talking with my therapist about feeling called to do something different with my life, to set aside what I do now professionally in order to pursue a career helping other people spiritually. It’s a scary proposition: I’m very good at what I do now (as a researcher and author on government finance), I’m respected and well-known nationally within my particular industry, and I make a decent living. I have no idea if I’d be any good at being an author and speaker on spiritual matters, or whether I could support myself and my family doing so. So I’ve decided to take a small step in that direction, a toe dipped in the water, and the Dharma Beginner page is the base of operations from which I’m going to start doing that. I’ve been using the Twitter account associated with the page (@dharmabeginner) more often. I’m thinking about writing some things to submit to other web pages and magazines. I hope you’ll stick with me and continue to lend me your thoughts and opinions and support and friendship. Because it means so very much to me, and because I am so very grateful for it. Thank you.

Bearing the Pain of Others

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I learned a lesson today about walking the Bodhisattva path. It started with a painful conversation with my daughter. She was in pain, sad, distressed, and it made my heart break. I never understood that expression, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you,” until I became a parent myself. When I first understood it, my eyes opened wide with the realization of how much my own parents love me. I felt incredibly humble and enormously grateful. The unconditional love I have for my daughter amazes me no end, and to know that there are people who love me the same way—well, that’s just stupefyingly mind blowing.

A manifestation of the unconditional love I have for my daughter is that I would bear any pain to spare her pain. I would rather endure agony than see her suffer the slightest pain; seeing her in pain is agony. I would bear any pain to spare my wife pain. I would bear any pain to spare my father, my sister, my nieces and nephews—really, anyone in my family—their pain. I love them, feel compassion for them.

Of course, it wouldn’t really be in any of their interests for me to spare them of all their pain. Pain is natural, common, unavoidable, because we are human and prone to suffering. Yes, we all desire to be free of it, but it exists nonetheless. The people we become, we become in part because of the suffering we have endured and overcome. Even if I had the power to spare my family all of their pain, I’m not sure I’d be doing them any favors.

The desire to free them of their suffering, however, is paramount. The compassion I feel when I see a family member in pain springs from my awareness of what pain feels like and my own desire to be free of suffering. Knowing pain’s unpleasantness, knowing that a family member is experiencing it, drives me to want to do all I can to help my daughter, wife, sister, father free themselves from their suffering.

I’m getting to the lesson now, bear with me. It occurs to me that a Bodhisattva is one who feels that love, compassion, and desire to help others free themselves from suffering, but for all beings. I try to imagine what it would be like to feel that kind of universal love, and it is difficult to comprehend.

Could I feel the compassion I have for my daughter for a close friend? Would I willingly bear his pain? Yes, I think so.

Could I feel the compassion I have for my wife for an acquaintance? Would I willingly bear her pain? Maybe.

Could I feel the compassion I have for my sister for a stranger? Would I willingly bear his pain? I don’t know.

Could I feel the compassion I have for my father for someone who has committed terrible crimes? Would I willingly bear her pain? If I’m going to be honest, then no, I don’t think I’d be able to. Not yet.

But I want to. I really do. And that’s a step in the right direction.

Happy Lent!

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Happy Lent!

Granted, it’s not the happiest of times in the Christian calendar. The Lenten tunes in the Episcopal hymnal are singularly dirge-like. “Forty days and forty nights, thou wast fasting in the wild…” Zzzzzzzzzz…

But growing up, I learned to actually “celebrate” the season, much as I would celebrate Christmas or Easter, though with obviously different undertones. Whereas one might celebrate the latter two seasons joyously, Lent is perhaps more appropriate celebrated quietly, piously. It is a time, nonetheless, for celebrating life and the divine spark that inhabits it. There are different aspects of our spirituality, of our relationship with our higher power, but all are worthy of being celebrated and experienced to their fullest.

I was taught that, when giving something up for Lent, one should choose something that is truly a sacrifice. For instance, I would never have the slightest problem giving up cauliflower. Giving up sweets or television, though, truly felt sacrificial (at least from my admittedly middle-class, suburban perspective). Eating fish on Fridays felt like the cruelest form of torture (especially if the fish were in a form other than sticks!).

I am grateful for the parish priest who challenged us to make our sacrifice permanent—to consider Lent not a temporary exercise, but the beginning of a lifelong habit. Even more importantly, in my mind, I learned to take something on during Lent, in addition to or instead of giving something up. One might institute a new healthy practice, like walking or meditating, incorporating it into their daily life during Lent and then continuing well beyond Easter morning.

Toward the middle of the Easter Vigil, the church service that takes place on the eve of Easter Sunday, it is traditional for worshippers to ring bells during the singing of the Gloria. It is a part of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, signaling that moment in the proceedings as the transition from Lenten sobriety to Easter gaiety. (Hooray, we can sing “alleluia” again!) It is tempting to view the raucousness of the ringing bells and booming organ as a celebration of the end of dreary Lent but, in fact, it is a celebration of Christ’s victory over death and the beginning of new life.

The notion of Lent as a time to improve upon our spirituality is one that we can seek to emulate, regardless of spiritual or religious affiliation. This is a good time for all of us to consider doing something new, or something more, or something differently, with an eye toward making a permanent change for the better in our lives. Ring your bells, toll out the news that you are rejuvenated and ready to pick up the pace as you walk the spiritual path.

Karma Lottery

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It is my view that life is not about grand gestures, but rather a multitude of small acts; individually almost unnoticeable. Out of the innumerable beings that exist, only a relative few accumulate positive karma toward a precious human birth via a great act—martyrdom, or saving another’s life, for instance. Heck, precious few receive a precious human birth, period.

At any rate, one plays a dangerous game if one depends upon such an eventuality to ensure rebirth in the human realm. One may reach the end of this life still waiting on that opportunity, having squandered countless chances to build positive karma along the way. It would be like deciding not to work and earn income because you expect to win the lottery.

Nor should one seek out a bold act, perhaps by putting oneself in harm’s way, in the hope of hitting the karma jackpot. Even if successful, your store of positive karma may still not be sufficient and, depending upon the outcome, you may no longer be able to accumulate karma of any kind in this lifetime.

We may, in fact, do great things with our lives. My point is not to say we are not destined for such. To the contrary, I believe we are. But I don’t believe we are called to live life saving up for the big moment. I believe we are called to spend every moment like a big moment, in search of opportunities to commit acts of compassion and love of all sizes, to give of ourselves, to make others’ lives better.

The big things may indeed come along, and if we have lived this life of daily compassion we will be well prepared to act.

I think of compassion like a particular muscle that requires daily exercise to remain strong, and which otherwise atrophies rapidly. Using that muscle daily to show love in myriad ways makes it strong, supple, and conditioned for endurance, for the long haul. Occasional heavy lifting with that muscle will not build it up as well, and certainly will not give it the responsiveness and endurance it will require when the big need, the opportunity for a major contribution, does indeed come along.

Snowshoeing Meditation

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Thich Nhat Hanh has his niche, walking meditation. (Okay, his “niche” is as wide as the Grand Canyon, but humor me.) Now I’ve found my niche, snowshoeing meditation.

I went snowshoeing for the first time today, on a crisp, sunny morning. (By crisp, I mean cold enough that exposed fingers could be snapped off like icicles hanging from your gutter.) The snow was nearly pristine, save for a handful of human and dog footprints (and the occasional patch of yellow snow) and a couple of bicycle grooves. The sun was bright, if not warm. There was nary another soul to be seen.

Perfect conditions for meditation. Snowshoeing meditation is going to take off. Get in on the front end before the meditation trails fill up with meditators. Because they will, when people hear about the rare insights that I found while trudging through the powder.

Humility

Mortal embarrassment is a reasonable approximation of humility. I was no more than a tenth of a mile into my first snowshoe journey when I stepped on one snowshoe with the other snowshoe and tumbled head first, ass second. Laying on my stomach, snowshoes tangled behind me, snow in my face, I benefited from the unique perspective of looking up at the rest of the world. Lest I think the experience a fluke, I repeated it misstep for misstep a mere five minutes later. No mistaking the message: This is the way I ought to look at the world.

Impermanence

Barely a day ago, this path along the Tarrytown reservoir was bare, perhaps sporting the occasional dead leaf. Late yesterday it was a pristine boulevard of unmarked snow. With the passage of each hiker, dog walker, squirrel, deer, child on a mountain bike, and other wild animals, the path changed. Sometimes slightly, imperceptibly; sometimes significantly, unmistakably. No doubt, as the day progressed, more and more beings passed through, experiencing a different path from the one I did, and altering the path again. Tomorrow it promises to be warmer, there may even be some rain, and the path will change again.

Attachment

Fresh snow resting atop tree branches is a lovely, peaceful sight. There was plenty of evidence of the damage last year’s major snowstorms did, however, with the woods populated by jagged stumps of trees that had snapped in two from the weight of the snow. Occasionally, as I passed a younger tree bending under its snow coat, I would poke a branch with one of my walking poles. Freed of its burden, the tree would snap upright again. The things that we attach ourselves to, or that attach to us, can weigh us down as well, bending us over under their accumulation. Meditation, acts of compassion, and other practices are needed to shake those attachments off and free us to walk the path uprightly.

Mindfulness

As I neared the end of my snowshoe trip, I was beginning to draft this blog post. That’s the way I generally write. By the time I sit down to type, much of what I intend to write is already in my head. That’s neither good nor bad, but it’s definitely not conducive to snowshoeing. I guess I had already forgotten the lesson of face planche-induced humility. My snowshoes tangled again, nearly dumping me on my melon once more. I literally heard the words in mind, Pay attention! I had stopped being mindful of the main task at hand, putting one snowshoed foot in front of the other, rather than on top of the other. I was grateful for the lesson, and thankful that it didn’t take another face full of snow to learn.

So, am I right? Snowshoeing meditation is going to be all the rage, right? Hello?

Happily Heathen

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Heathens. Godless ones. Terms that didn’t so much scare me when I was a Christian but saddened me. My God was such an important, constant presence in my life that I could not imagine how one could live without God, any god. I knew that God was always with me, beside me, inside me. I could speak with God any time I wished. I could listen for God speaking to me. Wouldn’t people who didn’t believe in God be completely lost, alone, forsaken?

When I stopped going to church several years ago, and even after I recognized that I had become Buddhist, that sense of Presence didn’t just go away. Though I wasn’t quite sure what it was anymore, I still felt it, and was glad, comforted, safe. I had ceased praying to this lifetime companion—well, let me rephrase that. Intercessory prayer, seeking the intervention of that Presence in my life and others, had ceased. But I was still enjoying it, benefiting from having the Presence around me. In other ways, I was still speaking to it, still praying as I understood it, which was a vastly more multifaceted form of communication than simply asking for things. And I was still offering prayers for those in needs, for guidance in my own life, though I no longer had any idea who I was sending those prayers to.

I can’t say for certain that I’ve figured out what is going on with me in this regard, but I have had a hunch lately. I think that what I am sensing, what I previously referred to as God, is the universal interconnectedness of all beings. The constant Presence is the sense of my connection with everyone, of being one with all and leaving me and them behind. I believe that when I am feeling down, solitary, that I am slipping into dualism and sensing a disconnection from the universal whole. And the prayers that I offer now are not seeking an omnipotent being to swoop in on a fiery chariot and act on my behalf or for another’s sake. They are a sharing of concern, of need, of a particular kind of energy that resonates with the universal whole and calls on it to heal, aid, support its constituent parts.

Clearly, I have a lot more thinking and meditating to do on this subject, but I put these newborn thoughts out there in the hope that it will help lead me further along the path. Thanks for reading and walking with me for the past few minutes. Peace and love and wholeness be yours.

P.S. If “trading in” god for the new-agey universe thingy makes me a heathen, then light a bonfire so I can strip down and start dancing. I embrace it.

Kalachakra, July 14 & 15, 2011

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It has taken me a week to process just the merest fraction of my experiences in Washington, DC, attending the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra for World Peace. I suspect events like these are called “life experiences” because it takes a lifetime to fully experience them. The Kalachakra, though an event itself, was just the beginning of a life guided by the vows taken over the three days.

So, I don’t exactly have anything earth shattering to share at the moment, other than a few more general impressions. For the first of these, I thank Taylor McKenney, a member of this blog’s companion virtual sangha on Facebook, also called Dharma Beginner. Taylor posted, “the Kalachakra was amazing! totally missing being surrounded by like minded people!” She marvelously summed up my feelings over the past week, a mood I couldn’t myself translate into words. Turns out, I was suffering from sangha withdrawal!

The best antidote, I have found, has been sharing the Kalachakra experience with the brothers and sisters of my virtual sangha. The response to the news, links, and photos I shared has been overwhelming. It didn’t occur to me how much such a small act on my part would be appreciated. I feel very blessed to have vicariously included so many people who couldn’t be there in person.

I continue to marvel at the holiness and presence of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. I have been fortunate to have met some very holy and spiritual people, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bishop Paul Moore, and Bishop Walter Dennis. Each possessed qualities that served to draw you in and painlessly imbue in you their morality and values and prayerfulness, quite without your realizing what was happening. Each was supremely human as well, people who could be cranky, tired, impatient. People who loved to laugh, to spend time with friends, to do many things that everyday folks like to do. People who could be deep and meaningful at one moment, and childlike and playful the next, yet exude spirit and love and grounding in both moments.

The Dalai Lama is very much like this—to the power of 10. I hung on nearly every word he spoke, though half of them were in Tibetan, and I don’t speak Tibetan. I might not have understood all of the words, but I keenly felt their meaning—when they were serious, when they were instructive, cautionary, joking. His facial expressions spoke volumes. He often seemed to walk a fine line between solemnity and hilarity, many times leaping headfirst into the latter. He was particularly quick to laugh at himself, such as when he described his cough as sounding like someone blowing through a conch shell.

A scene at the end of the Kalachakra epitomized how he simultaneously planted one foot in the somber and one in the silly. Shortly after His Holiness began the concluding chants, a man staggered to the front of the stage, waving a red, white, and blue top hat in the direction of the Dalai Lama. Security swooped in and began to lead him away, but not before the Dalai Lama saw the man and, particularly, his hat, and beckoned him to the stage. The chanting continued, but the Dalai Lama seemed to have just one thing on his mind now—the Uncle Sam hat. When the hat was finally brought to His Holiness, he promptly plopped it on his head. An immensely silly thing, one might think, for so holy a man to do. Yet, it did not seem out of character for him in the least. No, it is exactly the kind of thing that makes me love him so much.

The Bodhisattva and tantric vows taken during the Kalachakra can seem daunting. There are so many of them, for one thing. But taken in the presence of the Dalai Lama, they appeared light and simple and effortless. I felt that, for him, I could do anything. I expressed the feeling to a friend by paraphrasing Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets: He makes me want to be a better person. No, she said, he makes you want to be yourself.

I’m sure I’ll have more to share as time goes by and what I witnessed continues to reveal itself to me. In the meantime, I hope you’ll join our little virtual sangha on Facebook or walk the path with me on Twitter @DharmaBeginner.

Kalachakra for World Peace, 7-13-11

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Brief impressions of the preparation ceremony for the Kalachakra Initiation, July 13, 2011:

  • I was struck by the sight of robed monks, men and women of peace, stepping through the doorways of hockey rink walls that normally admit hulking players looking to drop the gloves.
  • The combination of being among so many Buddhists, and in the presence of the Dalai Lama, had my head spinning a bit at the beginning of the event. When my focus finally began to sharpen, I realized that the Dalai Lama was talking about the importance of concentration and not letting one’s mind drift. Did someone mention irony?
  • The volunteeers were doing a great job despite trying circumstances, particularly after the event when the participants were trying to collect their kusha grass and red strings. Thank goodness for the volunteers.
  • Looking over the heads of the crowd in the hallways of the Verizon Center, as the attendees held their stalks of kusha grass upright in their fists, it appeared like a field of grass swaying in a breeze. I emerged from the building to streets filled with people clutching their stalks of grass. In every direction there were clumps of kusha grass sprouting from hands. The platforms in the Metro station were awash in kusha grass. The clumps thinned as one moved further from the building, as the participants scattered to their various hotels and homes, to restaurants for dinner with friends and family, to other events. At my own Metro stop a mile or so away, I saw a couple of women holding kusha stalks. I was reminded of the way that plants seem to sprout up from nowhere, distant from where they were originally planted, their seeds carried by the wind, birds, and insects. It struck me as a perfect metaphor for the Dharma: Each of us was carrying the teachings we had received that day to far flung places, where it would take root and blossom. No matter where you looked, no matter how far you traveled, the Dharma could still be found, flourishing.