Geshe Kelsang was in a car being shown around New York City some years ago – people were trying to point out the sights, he wasn’t unduly excited. At one point he shook his head, and said:
So many people, so much suffering.
Suffering can be seen on many faces in this towering concrete jungle. The overly entitled have affluenza in their penthouses, for example, while down below over 20,000 kids are homeless, including the frozen girl outside the Path subway stop with her cardboard sign. (Unbearable, she is still only a teenager but has been there for years. What future?) But there was a change in pace and noise over the weekend with the landing of Storm Jonas, when many were given temporary shelter, no cars were allowed on the roads, the snow muted all other sounds, and the usually high-octane New Yorkers were obliged to take it down a notch or two and cozy up inside.
I had my snow days over the water in Jersey City – we dug the car out but clearly weren’t going far on those roads, and the train was closed, so we stayed mainly on the sofa instead, along with millions of other East Coasters. Except I did go for some magical walks around the neighborhood with the dog – kids were making snowmen and tobogganing down their front stoops, everything felt far more peaceful than usual, the cars were neatly buried, the blue sky and whiteness showed the colorful Journal Square houses off to good effect, even the cemetery looked good. It was like the olden days, like the 1950s or something, everyone convivial, the narrow or unpassable sidewalks forcing us to stand courteously aside for each other and smile. And everywhere, just everywhere, people were shoveling snow.
I had Winston with me, in his warm winter overcoat but his belly soaked. (Some people were dismayed by a photo I posted of him on Facebook because he was submerged to his nose, but what you might not know is that he is a Tibetan spaniel with snow in his DNA who chose to jump into the deepest mounds.) On Monday, as I was about to go inside, a friendly voice called me, “Hey! I didn’t recognize you!” I turned around. “Oh, it’s not you! But it is Winston! Where is Julian?” I told him that I was staying with Julian and France again, and that he and I had bumped into each other last year, which is true, his name is John. We got to chatting, he’s a very genial man, and he asked, “Have you come to live over here?” I said no, I still lived in Denver, to which he replied, “You should come and live with us! And meanwhile look at all this snow you brought! But it is a beautiful day.” We chatted a little longer and had some laughs. This was a good encounter and, though brief, left both of us feeling a warm connection. Life did not seem so rough in this neighborhood for a change.
Later as I was getting ready to go to Manhattan, the whole street for some reason filled up with emergency vehicles – a fire truck, 2 ambulances, a police car, all lights flashing. A queue of adventurous cars behind, no way they could pass on the snow-narrowed street. One ambulance left, one stayed. Emergency crew were coming and going with bits of equipment, and pushing snow fast to make a pathway for the stretcher. Clearly someone was in distress. “Perhaps it is the old Chinese man who lives next door?” said Julian. “I hope not, but maybe it is. Often people have heart attacks when shoveling snow.” I’d never heard that. I waited quite a while until someone was finally brought out on a stretcher, the ambulance crew still trying to pump his heart. To me, he looked dead, he had gone, only a body was left. And I said, “Julian, is that John?”
We never know. Then we saw his distressed wife and 12-year-old daughter getting into the police car. I have heard since that he died in the house, that the first responders were never able to resuscitate him.
This has made me think, not for the first or for the last time, that life is way too short to waste in anger, frustration, disappointment, or intolerance. We have a few hundred months left at most. Life can end anytime so do we want to waste any of these valuable years, months, weeks, days, or even moments being angry or unkind? John was holding his shovel while we were talking. He was around my age, he looked perfectly fit and healthy, he was having a beautiful day — but he still had a heart attack while shoveling snow. I was possibly the last person he talked to, an hour or so earlier, and if I had known then what I know now I would have asked him to go inside and sit on the sofa instead.
But that is not even all. On the Kadampa Buddhist Prayer Request FB page, someone has asked for prayers for her brother Thomas, aged 53 with a clean bill of health, who also died in New Jersey on Monday night while shoveling snow. He has left behind a “devastated” wife and teenage son. Please remember John, Thomas, and their families in your prayers.
Bodhisattvas, those intent on attaining full enlightenment to free every living being from their suffering and its causes forever, have a prayer, beautifully articulated by Shantideva:
Therefore, in whatever I do, may I never bring harm to others;
And when anyone encounters me, may it always be meaningful for them.
Walking down the street this evening with Winston, I saw the tree John planted for France and Julian outside their house, his black landscaping truck that has stood still for 3 days even though the road is now clear, and his blue home with all the curtains closed, perhaps his beloved poodle waiting by the door. And I thought how the remaining piles of once innocent snow, now grubbying and yellow, might be reminding his wife and daughter of their unfathomable loss, and how they might always find snow sinister after this.
It makes me want to remember at all times that we are all on our way to dying and our next lives, so whoever we think we are and wherever we think we come from, we are all in this together. So let’s just be kind to each other on our way.
… our pilot just welcomed us. And this reminded me of Geshe Kelang’s first flight to America in July 1990. As they set off from Heathrow, he said to the 2 students traveling with him, one of them my closest friend at the time:
We are flying to Vajrayogini’s’s Pure Land…
… and then he absorbed into meditation for the next 6 hours, only arising when prompted to eat lunch, of which he partook of a mere forkful. (As both these students were sitting either side of him, that kind of scuppered any chance of conversation… But it was still apparently a darned good flight.)
And I always think of these words when I fly. Besides, we need to go to the very friendly higher sky of Vajrayogini and Heruka’s Pure Land – Keajra – even when stationary, and we can leave through our crown chakra.
Why? Because samsara’s pleasures are deceptive. I can hear the video game violence emanating from the ear buds of the youth next to me – so how loud is it blaring into HIS ears?! Not that he cares of course, he is never going to get middle aged and old and die. That only happens to other people, like the woman next to him (me). A friend in his 50s recently developed tinnitus. Of course he didn’t see that coming despite years of headphone abuse. And who amongst us hasn’t blissed out to loud music – but even music is deceptive, my friend was telling me. All sense pleasures are. All appearances mislead us while we remain overpowered by them, not realizing they are empty, not realizing they are not really there.
As Geshe Kelsang explains in Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition, the Buddhist master Vasubandhu used various examples to show how attachment to sense pleasures creates suffering. Moths are ensnared by attachment to visual forms when they fly into the flame; deer to sounds when they are enticed by the hunter’s flute; flies to smells when they land on food and are swatted; fish to food when they are impaled on the hook; and elephants to tactile sensations when they sink helplessly into mud. Meanwhile, humans are ensnared by attachment to all five!
But everything we encounter can also teach us everything about Dharma if we let it. As Milarepa said:
I have no need of books because all the objects around me are my books. From these I learn about death and impermanence, the disadvantages of samsara, and the emptiness of all phenomena. Great Treasury of Merit p. 212.
Sooooo, so far today … It started with a teaching on my early morning coffee – Life is short. Stay awake for it. (Don’t know what to suggest for those of you who don’t drink coffee.)
The snack cart just came down the aisle, and my attention was captured by Buddha Bowl Foods™ (Trademark! Since when did a snack company get the trademark on Buddha’s begging bowl?) – organic popcorn with pink Himalayan salt. What will they think of next? But although it is seasoned by elements from faraway holy lands, this popcorn is still not worth the $4.99 price tag. Though it makes me shudder a bit to see Buddha smiling out from a disposable snack wrapper, I also think it is lucky that Buddha is not fussy – maybe someone will create an indestructible potential for enlightenment as they chow down on their salty morsels.
Everyone is either snoozing or plugged in. Some are multitasking their entertainment — managing to be on their personal devices AND watching the latest movie on the seat-back in front of them. In this worth-reading NYT article about death, Arthur C. Brooks reports a scary illustration of the disconnect between what we want and what we do due to the power of distractions:
The women reported deriving more satisfaction from prayer, worship and meditation than from watching television. Yet the average respondent spent more than five times as long watching TV as engaging in spiritual activities.
So far I have resisted the itch to swipe my credit card and watch The Martian … but temptation is always all around. I need to think this could be my last flight, and what would I do if I ever did have to follow the second of these helpful instructions (pictured)? (Has anyone ever actually survived by using their cushion for a flotation device?! Ok, I admit, I got distracted and googled it. Apparently, yes, they have, in 1970.) But, should the cushion fail, given that I am unprepared for my activities just over the next week in NYC, where does that leave my next life?
In the security line
So much effort goes into becoming a functioning adult – it needs years. There are students behind me in the security line, all young, hip, fresh-faced, and about to have their moment ruling the world. “Boulder has changed so much! Like, totally,” one says, as if she has been there well over her 17 years. “I major in education,” she carries on saying to her new friends. “So are you gonna become a teacher?” “Yeah.” “Cool.” That will take years of money and resources. A small earnest boy with oversized spectacles and a watchful mother — will he be a teacher one day? How much money and kindness will make that possible? Then it starts unravelling as you see from the deeply lined woman hobbling by with a stick, maybe she was an educator once.
It is so easy to grasp at permanence, at things staying the same. Sometimes I fast forward in these snaky queues — where will we all be in 10, 20, 50 years’ time?
My young co-queuer from Boulder has also wasted no time telling her new friends that she is traveling to see her boyfriend, who inconveniently lives in New York. “Man! That sucks!” “I know. But it’s okay.” (Clearly right now it is way more than okay for she cannot help grinning, albeit in a cool, I can take it or leave it girls, kind of way). It may last for decades, like Alan Rickman and Rima Horton, but the odds are against it, and she may have the first of several broken hearts, perhaps even on this trip. How many have you had?! I have had my fair share. While we remain with attachment, broken hearts are an unavoidable side effect at any age. There is a joke in California – before you get serious with someone, ask yourself:
Is this who I want my kids to spend the weekends with?
Back on the plane, but on this same subject, I am now actually across the aisle from a hot couple meeting and flirting for the first time. We do quite rightly like the bliss of connection — and they are, after all, the only people around here immersed in the present moment as opposed to asleep or on their gadgets — so I think it’d be wonderful if that bliss could last forever. However, fast forward 5 years and they’ll be watching box sets on the couch with the dog like the rest of us. We need to know where our bliss actually comes from. Geshe Kelsang once told me that it is not possible to get between someone and their object of attachment. (But was I applying these wise words to myself?! Umm, no. No more than I got his teaching on eating mindfully when during a tea party I offered him a huge slice of chocolate cake and he said, “This is poison for me,” — so I ate it instead, and he laughed. Geshe-la has been infinitely patient with me. With all of us, really.) Try telling someone as they start licking the honey off the razor’s edge, “That’s going to hurt you know!” And will they listen? Will they heck.
Talking of Alan Rickman, he seemed to be well loved by all who knew him for his loyalty, kindness, and willingness to go the extra mile. And his kindness will guide him to happiness now too, none of it is wasted, it’s a win win — happy in this life, creating the causes for happiness now in his next life, as well as being prayed for and wished well on his way by the many people he helped.
Back in the security line …
You snake past the same people over and over in these lines. It reminds me of being on the same flight from Portugal as someone who loathed me. We both pretended we didn’t notice each other, and got away with it on the plane; but upon arrival found ourselves in one of those long looping queues — having to look at our phones, over to some friends, up at the roof, etc — each time we were about to pass. Five times we managed it — only to bump right into each other as we emerged from the restrooms. It makes me think that we cannot hide forever from our karma, we have to face it over and over again until it is exhausted; so we may as well learn to love everyone in the line. We will have to keep bumping into everyone forever, so why not learn to enjoy it. Reminds me of a quote from Abraham Lincoln:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Love this quote.
And, like I was saying, we need to get out of this long queue as fast as possible – like those people in the Clear Me line who have created enough merit to breeze through. Then we can fly the friendly sky of the Dharmakaya, and help everyone else do the same.
We seek transcendence. People do crazy extreme sports and jump out of airplanes to get the thrill of flying. I saw a poster trying to entice passers-by with, “Learn to stunt drive!” Why would I do that?!! I am just now noticing my neighbor with the noisy headphones watching a man walk on a wire high high above New York City. He is lying down! He is pointing at a magical sun behind a cloud! A white dove is flying toward him! This is all pretty cool, especially as I’m not distracted by the narrative. Still, I would want more than a wire between me and the ground 70 stories below. Like a direct realization of emptiness, for example.
Talking of sports, people ask why I don’t ski. I used to as a child living in Turkey and visiting good friends in Switzerland, but now I prefer to enjoy it in my mind — for some reason, maybe my precious human life and a distinct preference for a body in one uninterrupted piece — I have gone off the idea of standing at the top of a steep mountain with two insanely slippery sticks tied to my feet. Not judging, because I also kind of admire the spectacular fear-defying feats I watch from the comfort of the gondola cafe in Breckenridge or Aspen. And it makes me blissful to watch, except when people fall. Nurse an overpriced cappuccino long enough, and someone is bound to fall. Especially if they are sufficiently high, and/or under some illusion about their skill-set or permanence in this life. People get into all sorts of trouble in the mountains through underestimating their environment or overestimating themselves, according to an English friend in Breckenridge. He goes out whenever called to save people in an utterly heroic fashion, whether on skies, or wheels, or even by air, on a variety of cool snow vehicles. He does this in his plus fours, tweed cap, and a tweed jacket, and honestly looks just like Tintin — but the people who have gotten themselves into any number of of idiotic situations are always very happy to see him.
And my final observations for now: a full cup of coffee + rough air = bad combo. But the flight attendant did just call me “Miss” instead of the dreaded “Ma’am”, which I like, even if he is about 75 years old. And remind me again why I insist on always traveling
with a ripe banana that I have to clean out of my bag upon arrival?You may conclude from these rambling observations that I have way too much time on my hands, spend way too much time in airplanes, and should get a proper job like all the other functioning adults of this world. In my defence I will say that I write most of my stuff while traveling between places, and though I do, naturally, like the feeling of being on perpetual vacation while technically not, a feeling I believe I may have inherited from my parents, I also do have a few other things to do from time to time, I promise. So bye bye for now. Thank you for flying united.
Postscript: This ended up long, and I thought about putting it in 2 installments to make some of my readers happy (you know who you are, France and Philippe.) But then I realized they could just stop reading halfway and come back to the rest later. Don’t know why I never thought of that before.
I should not have been surprised, I suppose, but when David Bowie died I quickly realized that it wasn’t just me who felt so connected to him.
People reported being “devastated”. One old school friend of mine cried all day. Another whom I’d called on urgent business on Skype just stared at me blankly and said he was in shock. This kind of thing has been happening all over the world these past few days!
I had a dream about him a long time ago that’s remained with me my whole life – he was a fellow Buddhist in my dream, and a deep friend, and I felt I had always known him. But I can see now that this is not remotely a unique experience! Are any of our experiences ever unique?
So, possibly unparalleled by any other musician or artist of my lifetime, David Bowie got to people. A lot of people. Just a cursory glance at the internet can show you that. For everyone wants a part of him, everyone seems to have a part of him. And with all the love directed his way, it looks like we are part of him, too. We are all parts of one totality that includes David Bowie! And, therefore, it would seem, each other.
We are all made of stardust.
None of us really belong to just one person. How can we, when we belong to everyone? And in the unbounded cosmos of time, each of us has spent lifetimes with each other. So,
Fill your heart with love today … Love will clean your mind and make it freeeee.
And at the same time:
The things that happened in the past only happened in your mind. Only in your mind.
Starman influenced my teenage years, as I described here; but clearly not only mine if you saw the Brixton mass sing-along of Starman in an impromptu celebration of their local hero.
Here is a small smattering of what people have been thinking aloud on the internet:
Soundtrack of my life
Thank you so for all the beauty, creativity and inspiration you brought into the world. You definitely provided the soundtrack to most of my teenage years and your passing is like the loss of an old friend.
It is strange to mourn for someone you never knew, but the sense of loss feels the same as if it were someone close. Somehow he weaved his way into so many people’s lives in so many ways.
So very unique. I can’t put my finger on it-but man something about him just shined.
Something is missing, something I can’t explain, as if a part of my life was ripped from me.
“His music was immortal, so we thought he was too.” That pretty much sums up my feelings for the great David Bowie…my past 40+ years of music, my hero!
This video shows that Bowie was pretty prescient, 15 years ago, on how the internet would affect the world (and how it’s a life form from outer space ;-)) Bowie was indeed a visionary. He saw the impact of the internet, especially in music and art; and he reveled in the interdependence between the artist and the audience. Perhaps this joy in connecting contributed to his alien mystique combined with his everyman approachability – you felt you could hang out with this rock god in your local pub, and indeed many people did.
As he said at the end of at least one concert:
God you are a great bunch of people, you really are. It’s been a pleasure playing for you.
He inspired and still inspires creativity. A friend of mine wrote and played music in a band for years largely because of him. Someone else just said: “Bowie’s parting album has got right into my skin. So much that it’s re-inspired me to start composing again after a long and empty void.” Stories like this are everywhere. As my talented filmmaker friend Julie said earlier today, we all have our own forms of creativity and means to connect meaningfully with others, and Bowie made it safe and possible for untold numbers of people to express themselves as they wanted to.
And I have got way too much on at the moment to find the time to write this article, but I find I have written it anyway.
Here is a lovely story, told properly and in length here, and now paraphrased probably poorly by me:
In 1989 a young student was sitting in his room feeling sorry for himself when a mummy walked into his room and asked if he knew where he might find a hotel? The answer was No.
“Oh, that’s OK,” the mummy said. “But could you at least tell me where I could get a decent cup of tea?”
I began to sob.
“No,” I cried. “We only have Bigelow!”
He placed his elegant hand on my shoulder and said, kindly:
“Hey, sad kid, it’s OK, don’t feel this way, you are a beautiful comet in the infinite universe.”
The mummy then peeled the bandages off his face, and stayed for a cup of tea. The rest, as they say, and for this author, was history. As he said:
… the little nuggets of weirdness inside us just needed a divine spark so we could become the celestial children we were always meant to be.
“I didn’t know David Bowie could die …”
… as someone said on Facebook. And as someone else added:
I think that’s part of why his death hurts so much. Because for my generation, it is the loss of our youth. It’s a harsh reminder that for all of us time is truly short and that no matter how hard you try to hang on to it, you cannot stop its cold march forward. Someone like Bowie, who has been there through most of our lives, who seemingly goes on and on, we find is mortal after all. It gives us a reality check, it brings our lives into perspective as its shows us, with a hammer blow, that we are all mortal too.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven.”
At the same time, I find his death to be strangely hopeful – if we transform our minds, who knows what adventures we can look forward to upon passing from this impure, often painful life. Death doesn’t have to be bad providing we go toward it with wide-open eyes, having been aware of its reality our whole life.
In a touching tribute on Facebook, Annie Lennox says:
The bejewelled remains of Major Tom lie dormant in a dust coated space suit…
It leaves me breathless.
You must see it to believe it…
He could see through it all.
The jeweled skull in Blackstar is reminiscent of Tantric bone implements, where it symbolizes impermanence, of course, but also the transcendence of an impure body and mind (Major Tom’s?!) through the exalted wisdom of bliss and emptiness. The clear light of death, if transformed into the clear light of bliss, has the power to destroy the hallucinations of samsara once and for all.
In the Lazarus video, the artist seems to retire back into a CS Lewisian wardrobe, while Bowie is transported to another realm:
This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me.
The man who fell to earth is hopefully returning to the Pure Land from whence he came. “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” Maybe he is. For he did die on Vajrayogini Day, and one of the principal Vajrayogini practices is being transported to Keajra Heaven, the “higher sky” above us; she has that power. Just as our ordinary mind can go to the moon just by thinking about it, so our un-ordinary mind Vajrayogini can go to the Pure Land just by thinking about it. We can go to the Pure Land out of an intense renunciation for the impure world of suffering, yet also remain here to help others. We can sort of be in two places at once. Be in the world, but not of it. Be practicing our spiritual path and helping others as if we have already arrived at our destination. And that feels wonderful, quite inexpressibly wonderful.
Just how that works is explained in the special powa (transference of consciousness) practice called The Uncommon Yoga of Inconceivability – a practice I love because it is mind-blowing in all the right ways. If you have a chance to attend Kadam Morten’s guided Highest Yoga Tantra retreat on this at Manjushri KMC starting next week, I really hope you take it, and discover your superhuman powers. (If you don’t have Highest Yoga Tantra empowerments yet, they are coming up in October in Canada.) From the Bowie song I listened to a thousand times aged around 14 to 16, identifying with every line (which explains a lot):
I’m not a prophet or a stone age man, just a mortal with the potential of a superman. I’m living on. ~ Quicksand
Bowie seemed quintessentially in this world but not of it, both from outer space with those eyes, and an impeccable gentleman. Whom he was or whom he was not, we may not know for some time. For, when all is said and done, who are any of us?
The unbearable lightness of being
In New York City, there were double rainbows photographed all over on the morning of January 10. And it turned out they coincided with Bowie’s passing. As well as with Vajrayogini self-initiation practice at KMC NYC …
Bowie was interested in Tibetan Buddhism around 1965-1967, the very early days. He said of that time: “I was within a month of having my head shaved, taking my vows, and becoming a monk.” He was, he said, looking for salvation. As we know, he found another way to inspire the world instead; but you can still sense many liberation themes running through his work.
According to The New York Times, the song people are listening to most after his death is “Heroes”.
I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing, will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be heroes, just for one day.
One day at a time, maybe. King Heruka and Queen Vajrayogini can beat delusions, ordinary conceptions, and all suffering; and is this not what it really means to be a hero?
We can be heroes, forever and ever,
What d’you say?
David Bowie left Blackstar as a parting gift, just short days before he died. And everyone seems to be listening. Someone said:
Blackstar is playing on repeat in every country on the planet .. isn’t that incredible? It’s stirring, it’s sad, it’s joyous, it’s soulful, it’s haunting, it’s timeless, it’s true genius …
Apparently, a black star is a transitional phase that is created when a collapsing star is close to reaching singularity, where the star’s influence becomes infinite and spacetime itself ceases to exist within it. Although the star at this point has died, it has been transformed into something else altogether and its energy will continue to be released indefinitely…
We are all the same, we are all constantly transforming into something else; and we all have infinite potential. And meanwhile almost every physical element on Earth was formed at the heart of a star.
We are pretty darned attached to our bodies, thinking “Mine!!!” and even “Me!!!” When, although we have this illusion of separateness, all that’s happening is that a little bit of stardust comes together for a while and then it all disperses, and our consciousness is once again released. Hopefully to the omniscient wisdom of the Dharmakaya, if we focus properly.
Bowie was always hard to pin down, never feeling quite as solid or real as other great artists. His shape-shifting and androgyny helped people let go of grasping at these fragments — these bodies, minds, and selves — as absolutes, which is the ignorance that keeps us trapped in one dimension. Omniscient wisdom sees the totality of all things existing interdependently, which allows us to fly anywhere and everywhere. And I am reminded of Buddha Tara’s excellent quote when, in a previous life, accosted by a sexist monk who condescendingly says she should pray for a male rebirth next time, she stamps her foot and says:
In this world there is no man, there is no woman.
There is no person, self, or consciousness.
Man and woman are merely imputed and have no essence.
Thus, the minds of worldly beings are mistaken.
We can all be Heruka and Vajrayogini, they are the same nature. Once Venerable Geshe-la was talking to me about the importance of female practitioners when, all of a sudden, he got up from his chair and “pretended” to be a woman. Right in front of me he transformed himself into a Dakini.
Rising from the dead
Tomorrow, 4 days after his death, I half-wonder if Bowie will arise like Lazarus and say his death was a fake, an elaborate publicity stunt?! His death may be mere appearance to mind, a fake in that respect, like all our deaths; but I don’t think Bowie was ever into stunts for their own sake – his impressive dying enterprise shows he was a genuine artist. Blackstar is what he wanted to do when he was dying, it means something.
Knowledge comes with death’s release. ~ Quicksand
I have of course no idea what his motivations in life were, but it seems he didn’t care about fame for its own sake, he even refused a CBE and a knighthood (easy to say, “Ah yes, I would refuse them too, I didn’t do all this for that!”; but would I refuse, when the invitations actually plopped through the letterbox?!)
I just read this a day after I wrote this article:
“David Bowie’s body has reportedly been privately cremated in New York following his death at the age of 69. In line with his wishes, no family or friends were present at the ceremony in the city where he had lived for much of his life.”
So, he even died in the manner of the old Yogis. All alone.
Frank Hatch, a local legend
David Bowie was not the only one to pass on January 10th. An old friend of mine, Frank Hatch, died at the same time, which, knowing Frank, may be no accident, particularly as it was Vajrayogini Day too, and he liked her and Heruka a lot.
Like Bowie, you’d be forgiven for thinking Frank was supposed to be immortal. When I first met him, at Manjushri Centre about 20 years ago, he weighed about 120 pounds. He was fading away physically (never mentally!), but new drugs then surprisingly saved him. He lived with HIV for more than 20 years, only to be diagnosed with late-stage prostate cancer in 2010.
But he kept going. Frank lived every single day to its fullest – one of the last things he did was guide a 16-day rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. I wrote this article on rebirth with Frank in mind a few years ago, when he was ambivalent about dying; but it seems he died very well when it came to it.
So to both David Bowie and Frank Hatch, I would like to say, “I’m happy, hope you’re happy too.”
Goodbye, Starmen, thank you for falling to earth, don’t go too far.
I just failed my drive test. I was sort of speeding without realizing it, so I guess I deserved that and don’t mind too much. (I also knew things didn’t bode too well when, unavailingly trying to woo the instructor with my suave in-control persona, the alarm went off as I opened the door … and, being as it wasn’t my car, I had no clue how to turn it off again.) More to the point, however, is why am I even having to take a drive test when I’ve already been driving for 30 years?!* But one may just as well ask, “Why do I have to take rebirth and go to school all over again? I already flipping well did that.”
I was asking myself just this while I waited the 50 unsettling minutes at the Denver DMV leading up to my failed test. Samsara is relentlessly monotonous and we keep having to do things we don’t want to do, not just once but over and over and over, ad infinitum. We keep having to take tests, even though I have only met about 3 people in my life who like them, and no one looked too exhilarated to be on their plastic chairs in the DMV. A friend of mine has to re-sit her whole psychotherapy exam just because she has moved to a new state, even though she has been a psychotherapist for hundreds of years. It’s annoying. And that is just in this one life. In samsara, we keep on having to re-learn stuff we already spent way too long learning and have no need for – I sometimes think the only thing I have retained from geography lessons, for example, is a rudimentary knowledge of ox-bow lakes, and I have yet to find a way to put that to any use.
Why do I mention this? Well, because when I think about dying and taking even a best-case scenario human rebirth, I think how much I dread having to go to school all over again. So then I think I want to get out of samsara quickly by accessing and purifying my very subtle mind, and how right now, in this precious human life, I have the opportunity to do so, lucky me. Which motivates me to practice meditation with an appreciative mind, with a good feeling of gratitude in fact.
Whenever we practice meditation, especially meditation on Mahamudra, it makes a huge difference if we know that we are not doing this on our own. We are connecting to a lineage through our Spiritual Guide, through his or her Spiritual Guide, and so on, back through an ocean of practitioners to Buddha himself. Their minds are all on offer so we can connect to a vast reservoir of assistance. It is not us duking it out with our delusions on our own. Not at all. Receiving blessings may not come intuitively, we need to train. Why? One reason is that we are in exile in our head most of the time, and it doesn’t occur to us to go into our heart and connect.
First way to receive blessings
This is something I like to do before doing any meditation, and it works very well with Mahamudra.
We imagine we are receiving the blessings of Buddha and all holy beings in the form of blissful lights or rays of sunshine, coming from their hearts and filling our body and mind. This enlightened energy, enlightened mind, mixes with our mind like light mixing with light. We can do this after reciting some prayers, if we like, such as Prayers for Meditation or Heart Jewel, where “receiving blessings” is almost always indicated – but we can also do it anytime, anywhere. We are bathing in an ocean of delicious blessings, which are very interesting and also everywhere.
As explained more here, blessings, or “jin gyi lob” in Tibetan, means “transformation through inspiration”, and they are not that mysterious — we are affected by even ordinary waves of mental energy so of course we can be uplifted by transcendent minds if we tune into them. This makes everything easier. We can receive blessings from any holy being we believe in, whoever works for us. Traditionally for Mahamudra meditation we rely on Je Tsongkhapa.
Why Je Tsongkhapa?
Je Tsongkhapa is the founder of our Buddhist tradition, the Kadampa tradition. He lived in the 14th century but his teachings are still flourishing because they have been carried from generation to generation in an unbroken lineage all the way, marvelously enough, to us. I believe that Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is the latest in the line of fully realized adepts in this lineage, and he has made it his life’s work to help us gain these realizations. And Mahamudra (literally, the union of great bliss and emptiness) is the specialty of this tradition. Buddha Shakyamuni gave 84,000 different teachings, and the pith essence of all of them is Mahamudra. As one scholar, Gungtang, puts it (using Je Tsongkhapa’s ordained name, Losang Dragpa):
The emptiness that is explained in Buddha’s Sutra teachings,
And the great bliss that is explained in Buddha’s Tantric teachings –
The union of these two is the very essence of Buddha’s 84,000 teachings.
May the doctrine of Conqueror Losang Dragpa flourish for evermore.
Now is the time
Maybe some of you have reached that place known as “over the hill” and things look very different from this perspective – if you’ve ever biked downhill, you know you speed up. So maybe, we think, maybe we better wait till next time round to attain enlightenment, we might have left it a bit late this time. But the truth is that the opportunity we have now will never get better. We can come under the care and guidance of an exceptionally qualified Mahamudra master. His new book, The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, published in Tibetan at the request of many Tibetan practitioners and now translated for us into English and other languages, is unbelievable. Geshe Kelsang is now regarded as the authority in this world on Mahamudra. Sometimes I think we have no idea how fortunate we are. “Kelsang Gyatso” means “ocean of good fortune”, and all the ordained Sangha are given the name “Kelsang Somebody”, meaning “Fortunate Somebody”.
Second way to receive blessings
In the second way of receiving blessings, we can imagine that Buddha, or Guru Tsongkhapa, comes to our crown and his body of wisdom light shrinks to the size of a thumb, facing the same way we face. There is all that Buddha power on our crowns, enlightened beings are all within that space; and then we can imagine Buddha entering through our crown chakra and flowing slowly and blissfully into our heart. As he descends, we slide down with him into our heart. Now he is a presence in our heart, and once again we can think that our minds mix. This helps us get into our heart and also appreciate that he is doing the meditation along with us. It’s not necessary to visualize him clearly, we just think he’s there with us in our heart. We can experience bliss, and then mix that bliss with emptiness or the conventional nature of the mind. Also, we can use that bliss in any meditation, and we can invite any holy being.
Hope you have fun with it!
*The technical, if not karmic, reason is that I let my Florida driving license expire. Like letting life expire before getting some stable, ever-lasting realizations, I guess.