Thursday, April 09, 2009

what's in a name?

My name requires a lot of spelling aloud, multiple times. Often, on the phone, there is first a pause, and then
"Could you spell that?" Not once, but two or three times. It is understandable; it is not a familiar name here in the west.

It is not the name of my birth; my Australian parents had more conventional taste. I received this name when I was ordained as a nun, and chose to legally change it to my one and only name. Not all ordained western Buddhists choose to do that, they often retain their birth name for legal or business purposes, and go by their ordained name at the Temple or perhaps more generally. This seemed too complicated to me: 2 names on my voicemail, people knowing me in one guise and not the other. Driver's license, passport holding a name I no longer relate to. Buddhism is a method to cut through dualistic thinking - I certainly didn't want to be dealing with two different 'me's. Of course, for old friends who feel uncomfortable with the transition, or perhaps have not yet met me as a nun, I am happy to go by the old nomenclatures. Although, to be honest, I no longer have the same sense of belonging to that name or nicknames. I am someone else.

Today I accidentally found a girl in Tibet with my name. A site with grade after grade of school children, photographed on a magnificent, treeless plateau, each with names that have in the last decade become familiar to me. And one with my name, an orphan, 12 years old.

I looked at her unsmiling face, the blue jeans and sweat shirt a contrast to the traditional garment on top. How disparate our live are, how little our experiences will have had in common. And yet we share a name that for her is traditional, and for me is a constant source of explanation. We are joined, in a sense, by a short string of letters that has crossed a cultural divide.

I was compelled to sponsor her. To offer some of the benefits I have accrued with a family and education and life without true lack, despite my sometime complaints. The landscape she stands in is extraordinarily powerful, its vastness touched my heart, even in that solitary snapshot. A hard place to live, I imagine.

So Kunzang Drolma and I have connected, even if only in a peripheral way. Yet cause and effect will always play out, and somehow this moment is a resolution of the past and a forecast of the future. I have no idea what that will be, I am simply grateful to have the chance to offer her a little something, and hopefully make a difference in her life.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

a great Teacher has passed from the world

His Holiness Penor Rinpoche in Lhasa

When I awoke yesterday morning, although I did not know it, my world had changed. Across the ocean, in southern India, the great Lama who had with great kindness guided countless people on a pure, unbroken path of Buddhism, had passed away.

His Holiness Penor Rinpoche was probably not as well known a public figure as HH the Dalai Lama, yet he, too, had escaped the terror of the Chinese Invasion, fleeing over the mountains with 300 followers; only 31 survived the treacherous journey and attacks by the Chinese. His Holiness has been recognised as a living Buddha, and was considered one of the foremost masters of Tibetan Buddhism; stories of miraculous events even as he was 3 years old have been recorded.

He was the 11th Throneholder of the Palyul lineage, in the Nyingma School, the first school of Buddhism established in Tibet, in the 8th Century. He had also been Supreme Head of the Nyingma School, one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Although he was a living Buddha, who was accomplished in every way, His Holiness was not a distant or theoretical teacher, he lived fully a life of active compassion, working tirelessly to help others. He was out digging latrines with a shovel as the monastery in southern India was being built. He worked side by side with his monks, whatever was needed, to bring to life what has been left behind in Tibet: a foundation from which the Dharma could flourish and spread.

His Holiness was, in a sense, my spiritual father; I received ordination vows with him at his upstate NY retreat Centre in 2000. I have been extraordinarily fortunate to have received many teachings and empowerments from him, and to have had the opportunity, while at retreat, to sit at his feet and receive brief instructions. His door and heart were always open.

Many Tibetans now in the USA also go to retreat, and through their eyes I experienced the depth of who he was. Devotion is a little foreign to us in the west, but a seamless part of other cultures. When I saw his monks or lay Tibetans watching or waiting for or even glimpsing him, I saw a deep and certain, unshakable love and respect, that was not blind faith, but rich and broad and based on a connection of one heart to the next, a language of hope and family and compassion.

Over time I had seen his health deteriorate, but not his dedication. For some years he had experienced great pain on walking, and always needed assistance on either side; he would grimace at times with pain, but still he came for us, to us, because until his breath stopped, he did not give up his commitment to make the world a kinder, more compassionate and less judgmental place. To share his boundless wisdom with words that met our minds.

At retreat a couple of years ago, at almost every morning teaching for a month, he reminded us to "have no doubt". Again and again he said that, earnestly, trying to share with us the potency of what he had to offer : the lesson that all of us can share, whether Buddhist, or Christian or of any faith or none. That we each have the power to change ourselves and the world. To be kind and compassionate, to care for the welfare of others, to not turn our backs or close our hearts or be judgmental. To know the courage of loving - kindness will transform.

His Holiness has passed from this world, and hearts are grieving on every continent. Yet he has not left or abandoned us. His presence, his legacy, are these qualities sown in countless hearts, from babies to the very old. I have no doubt that his commitment and strength and vision will continue on until suffering in every form has ceased.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

radical acceptance

Friendship eludes simple definition, and yet impacts on every life in some way. Having, or not having, friends can shape our experiences, our expectations, whether life seems good or bad. Facebook and other social network sites have re-defined what friendship is; people who have – will never – meet or probably even communicate are termed as ‘friends’.

Friendship has always had the potential to ignore boundaries. The pen-friendships of my youth, with someone of like age in a far-away place, had a tinge of magic, of something rare and exotic, as photographs and words were exchanged with a tantalizing lapse in time. If English was the second language of the pen-friend, there was added excitement. But when there was little in common the friendship petered out. My short lived foray was with a boy in Sweden; the one sentence that has stuck in my mind from that ill-fated match was “I like swimming, girls and cars”, which was the beginning of the end.

The photo is a moment in Berlin, in summer, when the wall still stood as a reminder of the potency of hatred and war. Our lives intersected for varying times, and then we moved on. We each were born in a different land, and our native languages were varied: German, French, English. But for that space of time – perhaps just that day - we were friends, sharing laughter and silly times. Two of these women drifted out of my life, the other remains a friend in my heart, although communication is now rare.

Two days ago I re-connected with another old friend, who in fact, in a different time and place, also shared a friendship with me and someone in this photo; friendships collide and shift, re-forming the landscape of life. I had googled, then emailed, my friend, and within minutes she had responded, bringing great joy. It has been more than two decades since we have spoken with or seen each other. Many years, through which we each have lived and laughed and grieved; grown older, perhaps wiser.

My memory of her contains sharp snapshots of moments; she worked in a bookstore, I for the government, and we would meet some days in the city. She played violin with grace and inspiration, an instrument the sound of which I have always loved. I remember one day we piled into cars – a group of women, sunburned with summer, some of us hungover – and drove from the city, weaving on narrow roads through bushland, to an old dam in the midst of forest. We picnicked and played and swam and took photos. It was a day of laughter and friendship.

Now I write this, I think – was she there…I am sure – yet memory also reduces the past to a pastiche of what we perhaps imagined to be true. But I will place her there, for if she was not, she could well have been. No, I am sure she was, wearing black bathers like everyone else. It was days such as this that we knew together. For a while she lived in the house I shared with my partner and our several cats. Life had its ups and downs, but we were buoyant with youth and the potency of dreams.

My friend now lives in a nearby state, only a road drive away. The twenty year absence I hope one day will be resolved with a very short journey. Her life, she explained, contains much joy and pleasure, although she now lives with illness and pain that cuts very deep, and leaves her in bed many days.

She spoke of radical acceptance of her pain, as part of the life she is journeying on. This expression touched me deeply, and lead to contemplation about the capacity to radically accept where we are in our lives, and allow that – even if hardship – to form a foundation for movement, for growth, and even for joy. Her words were not heavy with suffering, in fact they sparkled, vibrant, suffused with an eagerness for life and the happiness it can bring. Her letter made me smile and rejoice, and imagine her in her beautiful, abundant garden, a reflection of inner qualities she has chosen to nurture – that of growth and love and an open mind.

Today’s Rigpa glimpse of the day echoed her words:

“The practice of mindfulness defuses our negativity, aggression, and turbulent emotions, which may have been gathering power over many lifetimes. Rather than suppressing emotions or indulging in them, here it is important to view them—your thoughts and whatever arises—with an acceptance and generosity that are as open and spacious as possible. Tibetan masters say that this wise generosity has the flavor of boundless space, so warm and cozy that you feel enveloped and protected by it, as if by a blanket of sunlight.”

Radical acceptance can be challenging, although my life contains no such extreme suffering as my friend’s. More often resistance, even to that which is known to be true, and needs to be accepted, leads to internal tension and anguish. What if each task, each experience, every shifting emotion was embraced fully with an open heart, with generosity : what a different world to experience! One of transformation, where dark becomes light, where flowers blossom in abundance, where deep happiness prevails. Where movement and growth, compassion and wisdom, are inevitable.

After more than 20 years, and without having even seen me, my friend unwittingly gave me a gift. Words can be harsh or gentle, they link us together in anger or in love. They are the foundation of friendship. The links of continuity that defy time and space. When she wrote of radical acceptance, she opened my heart a fraction more, to a possibility of living life so that the full richness of potential is not lost, but enjoyed.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Perfect Teachers

His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche

His Holiness has passed from this life in this form, our paths never crossed. Yet his presence has drifted through my life, the gentle whispering of a breeze that has no form.
On seeing this photo, I stopped, momentarily pulled from ceaseless thoughts. There is a welcoming gentleness there, a beauty that is beyond physical. As if love has no boundaries of time or space, of now or then, of photo and real life. It is a simple presence that can echo in our hearts - does echo in our hearts - at any time. In every moment. The perfection of his gift will never cease.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

a good day to smile

Words and thoughts for a post buffet around in my mind a lot. Mostly discarded, because time flows and relevance shifts. My littlest dog, Maddie, I think has her eyes set on a post. She has already sent a message to my friend Rabden via chat (yes, really!), and googled for something. I came back to the desk and found the screen open at search results for some obscure medical thing. I guess it wasn't what she was looking for, as she had already departed the keyboard. So maybe she is working up to a tantalising post.
What I will say is that today - a blustery, sunny, wild sort of day at Dakini Valley - is a great day to share words of kindness and support, to be generous and openhearted. To do something that will bring a smile to someone else. To feed the wild birds. To just be be the sort of person we all hope to have around us when things are rough and tough in our lives.
Today is a holy Buddhist day, a day to be mindful of the gifts we have to offer - the positive ones of compassion and basic goodness. I have been fortunate to learn so much about making choices that bring benefit - to myself, to others, to the animals, to the world. I don't always make the right choices, of course, but I know where to turn if things get in disarray: to my teacher, my Lineage and to the incomparable example of the head of our Lineage, HH Penor Rinpoche.
I have had the good fortune to attend HH summer retreats for 6 years, beginning in 1999, when I was so green around the edges (a brand new Buddhist), it makes me both cringe and laugh.
Like everything else, my retreat path has not been linear. I did year 2 three times, for example. And the experience each summer is vastly different than the one before. But what has been consistent and unquestionable has been the unwavering kindness and dedication of His Holiness to each and every student. His teachings, his presence are the purest essence of wisdom and compassion, and if you listen with an open receptive heart you cannot fail to change and blossom.
Over the years I have witnessed his health vary, but never ever, not for one second, did that impact upon his commitment to uphold the pristine teachings of the Buddha, and to offer them to us in ways we can receive, and live. That is why he is there for us, every single one of us - even when he has been in pain, he has never let us down.
What a gift he gives, and that is the gift we can share with each other. Kindness, graciousness, no judgment and blame. A wide open heart that embraces everyone and every being without distinction. Such a simple thing, in this complex world, and yet one available to everyone, wherever, whomever we are. That is its perfection.

Monday, January 19, 2009

absence and longing

This is my first memory: a photo not of me. It was taken by a newspaper photographer when I was 31/2 years old. My absence is branded in my heart. The occasion was my father's swearing in as a judge to a labour court, with a fancy name: The Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. My father later became President of this court, and remained there until retirement at age 70. He was involved in and presided over cases of great significance to Australian history, such as equal pay for women; he was known for a period as "the hippie judge" because he wore bright ties and his hair touched his collar. He was knighted for his contribution to society, was often featured in the newspaper and made the front page of The Bulletin magazine in the 1970's.
In 1959, when he was appointed to the court, it was considered inappropriate to have a 3 year old child in the court room during the hearing; I might have made a fuss. Instead, I am told, I remained outside, cared for by the driver of my father's official vehicle. This is erased from my memory. What is startlingly clear, however, is the recollection of the newspaper feature the next day, this photo of happy family smiling from the page. Although details are lost, the memory of exclusion is vivid: this is my family, but I am not there. Amazing to me that such a momentary event - one photo - could have left such an imprint on a very small child.
Longing to be loved, feel secure and cherished is something familiar to many of us. We search for people, places, states of mind in which to feel held, happy. And sometimes we do lead lives of contentment and love, at least for a time. But even within that life, we may know moments of longing for something more, undefined.
The first essay I had published was titled "the hollow inside"; it explored my topsy turvy desire to have a child, to satiate a longing for love. In the essay, the perspective was that the longing was in fact not for a child, but caused by a perceived hollow inside that could be filled instead by some deep innate strength or knowing. Ironically, some years later I truly did yearn for a child, and spent years on a fertility program, living and re-living every month the painful loss of a child never borne. Tears and great anguish marked the moment that dream was finally relinquished and allowed to dissipate forever.
Jetsunma has spoken so beautifully and eloquently about this longing:

You were born with the longing to awaken. You were born with a longing to know your own nature, to taste that nature. You were born with a longing and a homing instinct to find your Teacher. You were born with a longing to find a pure path, and there were no words like that when you grew up.

This longing is the call of our heart, our primordial nature, to awaken to that which we truly are. But we have forgotten the language, we do not recognise its echo in our lives, and so we interpret that longing, that hollow, in different ways. Sometimes causing ourselves even greater pain, as we search for happiness in all the wrong places, or numb ourselves with transitory pleasure.

That great compassion is never absent, it cannot be. It pervades every breath, every blink of our eye, every moment. We may look at the snapshots of our lives and imagine something is missing, but if we open our minds and turn just a fraction, we can glimpse the truth for which we have unknowingly be searching. And if we recognise our Teacher and surrender to that truth, the potential is even more potent.

Things are not the same as in 1959. Some years ago, my brother was sworn in as a judge to a labour court, I think one which replaced my father's court. His second son was also very young, just as I had been, but he was allowed to attend the ceremony. When he saw my brother on the bench, I am told, he cried out with joy, "That's my daddy!" Far from expressing displeasure, people smiled at the happiness and pride of a small child for his father.

Each and every one of us will lead lives filled with landmarks, seared into our memory. Some painful, others a reflection of great joy. But hidden within all of these - good and bad - is always that longing, that echo, that possibility to know the vastness of compassion alive in our hearts. And when we do awaken, we will surely recognise that the longing and absence were simply mistaken views of a photograph of something we held to be true, but which never was.