A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Humming Activity--Peace and Quiet

I was in two places last weekend, the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra monastery, and the Karme Ling retreat center associated with it. KTD is the public face of Karma Kagudpa Buddhism in America, and Karme Ling is its private face. The retreat center is about an hour and 30 minutes away from the monastery over winding roads in the Catskill Mountains.

At KTD, as I said below, Mingyur Rinpoche was teaching on the profound practice of Mahamudra, which is our tradition’s name for the direct realization of the nature of mind and its unity with phenomena. Rinpoche was also giving the transmission of the practice and the text of one of the important termas of his predecessor Mingyur Dorje.

This practice is the one that is the lifelong practice of Kagyu layfolk such as myself, and it is centered around Karmapa II, known as Karma Pakshi, whose image is above. Karmapa II was the teacher of Mongol emperor Kublai Kahn, and Karma Pakshi’s extraordinary supernormal powers, or siddhi, were witnessed and described by no less a figure than Italian traveler and trader Marco Polo, during his stay at Kublai Kahn’s court, who reports of them in his book, The Travels of Marco Polo.

In addition, one of the resident lamas of KTD, Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, was having a booksigning of his latest book, about his illustrious 19th century predecessor.

Finally, the birthday of the 17th, and current, Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, was being celebrated on Sunday the 26th.

So the joint was jumping.

I reported below that I was eager to meet Mingyur Rinpoche, and he did not disappoint. He was as direct, profound, and screamingly funny as reports had made him out to be, deeply wise and greatly experienced in Buddhist meditation, its practice, its goal, and its problems. He is not yet thirty.

If you hang around tulkus or reborn teachers enough, this will not surprise you. They are usually, and quite self-evidently, extraordinary and precocious individuals, and this is visible in them whether you believe in rebirth or not. In fact, their consistent precosity is one of the major pieces of objective evidence for rebirth.

Mingyur Rinpoche is exceptionally so. To train as a Kagyu lama, you must complete a group retreat, completely isolated from contact with the outside world, lasting 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days (it is on a lunar time cycle). During this time you sleep no more than four to five hours a night (the best retreatants eventually do not sleep at all, but remain in meditation for that time) and learn and practice Buddhist rituals continuously during your waking hours, both as a group and individually.

Mingyur Rinpoche’s first such retreat was undertaken at age 13, and was so incredibly successful that he was immediately put in charge of a second retreat, as the spiritual master, at the age of 17! If you know anything about these matters you will know that Rinpoche cleared a very high bar indeed to have this happen, even for a tulku.

KTD is in upstate New York, in the cute-as-a-button little artist and artisan town of Woodstock. The folks from down the mountain and anywhere within 2 hours driving distance pile in to the Monastery when good teachings, or a party like Karmapa's, are in order, and last weekend was no exception.

I was in a dorm room in the old, rambling summer hotel in which I have stayed, off and on, for twenty years. The hot water is still inconsistent in the showers and the kitchen still has the same commercial stove I used to clean twenty years ago. I cleaned it again this time as a part of my guest work assignment.

I must say that I experienced a little bit of culture shock. I have not been much on the road from Ohio for more than a decade now, and the sense of how many real, though subtle, cultural differences exist in America has rather faded from me. I was a little taken aback by the huggy, kissy, touchy, feely, social liberalism you find among the people of Woodstock, even though it has not really changed in twenty years.

They probably were as bemused by me as I was by them. What with the summer heat and all, a rotund man like me is the most comfortable in a colored cotton t-shirt with wide tradesman clip suspenders holding up his pants. This is particularly the case when they have to be long pants rather than shorts, in the name of Dharma etiquette at an institution where there are Buddhist monastics. I certainly got some odd looks from the Woodstock crowd that I never would have gotten in Ohio, so I suppose my Buddhist persona would have to be something like Farmer Dharma, just as my blogging persona is Joe Claus.

I often marvel at how much my friend The Anchoress and I not only politically disagree, but also actually live in different worlds. The public swimming pool of giddy and feckless Blue-state social liberalism, which had gone off my radar screen until last weekend, is a factor that I consistently underestimate in her opinions. And the goofy, drifty, and ill-informed Fourth of July parade of dour and inhibited Midwestern conservatism is equally a closed book, I think, to The Anchoress.

Be that as it may, the teachings were fine, though the temperature was in the 90's even up on top of the mountain. The main shrine hall was an oven. I sweated through four days worth of clothes in two (I deliberately overpack by two days on any trip, in case of emergency) and I drank gallons of water, which kept me from the heat stroke that was always no more than 3 feet away. As I remarked to my hostess (who kindly paid for my trip and is one of my favorite Dharma sisters), "Since you can practice mindfulness anywhere, I think I'll go practice it in the shade, where there's a breeze!"

Those of us who are already allowed to do the Karma Pakshi practice, including my hostess, decided to squeeze one in during the afternoon downtime immediately before the teaching. Rinpoche was in the main shrine hall, in deep meditation, preparing for the transmission ceremony that night. We were gathering in one of the subsidiary meditation rooms for our practice, when all of a sudden a whole busload of Chinese pilgrims piled into the gompa, or main Monastery building.

After doing the guided tour of the main shrine hall, with Rinpoche sitting on his teaching throne, completely undisturbed by the passing crowd, they filed into our little side shrine room where we were about to start our chanting. My hostess, the chopon or shrinekeeper, was preparing the insence sticks, the designated lopon, or gathering master, was taking out the double hand drum and bell that he plays during the group ritual, and the umdze or chant leader, was settling in next to the large hanging drum with which he keeps time.

We waited politely while the tour proceeded. The pilgrims were far more deferential to us, as regular practicioners, than we probably deserved, and they were clearly happy with the richness, beauty, and Dharmic atmosphere of our stately gompa and its occupants. They filed out and we got started, closing the doors so we wouldn't disturb the folks in the waiting area next to our small shrine room. By stepping up the pace a little, we managed to still finish the practice in time to settle in for the next teaching, without having to walk in late.

The next day was the birthday celebration, with a special long-life practice, dedicated to His Holiness Karmapa, where Tibetan tea, taken with salt and butter, was served with saffron rice and raisins. The last teaching followed. My group decided to leave before lunch, because we knew that the birthday party itself, under a huge open canopy, would be incredibly crowded, with even more tour busses expected, or already parked and unloaded.

And we wanted to stop off at Karme Ling for some peace and quiet.

It is important to understand that one half of my joke about meditating in the shade was serious: mindfulness, the basis of Buddhist meditation, can be practiced anywhere and under any circumstances. So, despite the elements of situation comedy that almost always occur in a visit to KTD, much of the real work of meditation and retreat goes on there, if you let it, not in spite of the stimulation, but because of it.

There are reasons, however, to also practice in solitude and quiet. The 3 year retreat is a time of intensity because of the depth of learning and experience necessary to become a lama. For some, this single experience is sufficient to prepare one for a life benefiting sentient beings by not being permanently in retreat, as my own center's resident Lama Kathy Wesley has done. For others, longer time spent in group retreat, or individual solitary retreat, prepares them best to fulfill their Bodhisattva Vow in one of the many possible ways.

Karme Ling has four buildings: one for male lay retreatants, one for female lay retreatants, one which eventually will house either monks or nuns, and a guest house for the Retreat Master, Ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, and other high lamas. Khenpo Rinpoche is also the abbot of KTD, but, at 83, he stays much more often at Karme Ling, not only to fulfil his duties as Retreat Master, but also for needed quiet and rest.

This guest house, which is what we toured, is pristine, beautiful, and spotless. It is surrounded by mini gardens each centered around a particular Buddhist outdoor statue and separated by flagstone paths. In it, and in the monastic house, there are rooms for individual short-term retreatants, as well as quarters for the lamas. My hostess has done several short retreats there.

The Western nun, Ani Samten, is the chief housekeeper for the guest house as well as the outside contact for the female retreatants. She brings in groceries, finds doctors to come see a sick retreatant, and so forth. Ani-la, whom I met for the first time, is just radiant with laughter and happiness, kind and gentle and warm. This is characteristic of being a Buddhist generally--whatever the situation or problems, Buddhists are largely happy people, and the deeper you go into the private and more solitary side of Buddhism, generally the happier you become.

Ani-la also has her tough side, usually displayed to the bone headed and stubborn drivers for UPS who absolutely insist on personally delivering packages to closed in religious retreatants! It is not only by the ten foot fence around the building that the retreat houses are guarded.

We toured the beautiful lama rooms, had tea made by Ani-la, and sat, under a picture of His Holiness Karmapa, while talking to her a little about life in Karme Ling and serving Khenpo Rinpoche. She shared with us her horror and mortification about killing a deer with her car when she couldn't stop in time. Just to think of it brought her near to tears. Then, after about an hour, with handshakes and hugs, we went on our way to return to Ohio.

And sometimes, in the dance of things, a practicioner may best benefit beings by staying in solitary retreat for the rest of their life. This time around at KTD I met Mary, who used to work the reception office desk, for the first time in 20 years. She had a hard life, both in and out of KTD, and always struck me as someone who had both great potential as a meditator as well as great karmic obstacles to overcome. She always had a wild and zany edge to her, and she was by far my best friend up there in my youth when I could stay at the monastery for one or two months at a time.

She had been in solitary retreat for many years before this weekend, and was trying to accumulate enough patron support, with the help of the Kagyu high lamas, to go into solitary retreat permanently in Colorado. I hope she makes it. Retreat has done her a world of good and, undoubtedly, the dedication of the immense amount of merit she accumulated in the process of clearing away those nearly insurmountable obstacles has been of great benefit far beyond her retreat cabin.

I asked her to pray for me. For I must carry the practice of Karma Pakshi through an uncertain world, where every facet of the soap opera, the tragic drama, and the situation comedy must become fodder for what mindfulness I can manage to achieve this time round. I am no longer young and must seek all the help I can get.

Sarvam Mangalam.

Karma Zopa Kunkhyab

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