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Living Dharma: Walking the Path

Good evening everybody. In the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin and since I was just in Israel a few weeks ago, moreover since it is such an important issue for our times-reconciliation, peace-making, forgiveness, tolerance, and, above all, basic sanity-I would like to reflect on the import of these tragic events. How hard it is in our world to achieve anything positive, and how dangerous and destructive it is to indulge in violence and to try to solve things that way. If you are fighting for peace, you are still fighting. We don't want to be enraged Buddhists; we want to be engaged Buddhists. I think that if we work for peace, if we pray for peace and reconciliation and harmony, we have to pacify our own volatile, virulent emotions and our conflicting passions. Not just passions-it's important to live passionately-but our conflicting passions, our destructive defilements. Not just fighting for peace, proselytizing for truth, killing for peace; but going beyond that, through the spiritual life, using our tender hearts, our meditations, our prayers, to cultivate the healthy, positive emotions of love, kindness, and compassion. And through our actions in the world, which is where it counts-with our families, in our workplaces, and in our relationships-living an impeccable, virtuous life.

If we hate or harm others, if we harbor ill will and enmity, we keep perpetrating more of the same. Though we hear a lot about the latest buzzword, compassion, I feel like we need to further emphasize or relate to its implications, including empathy, sympathy, feeling what others feel, having affectionate feelings for others, cultivating friendliness and kindness, connectedness, forgiveness, tolerance, and forbearance. All these qualities that are in the Bodhisattva's bodhicitta teaching, which is so challenging to apply in our actual life as we struggle with the issues of our lives, whatever they may be.

I was very touched that Rabin was assassinated while he was singing a peace song. Moreover, he was assassinated by a Jew, not by one of his non-Jewish enemies. This really demonstrates the limits of fanaticism and dogmatism. It reminds me how we should be careful not to indulge ourselves in that kind of behavior in the name of the Dharma, or for any reason or justification, really. We are all prone from time to time to fanaticism and dogmatism, I'm sure. I don't know if you are aware of this, but the nerve gas cult guru in Japan, Shoku Ashahara of Aum Shinrikyu, is not so far removed from us as one would like to think. In fact, I met him in India at the feet of my guru. These things are around, even here in our area. So let's not fall prey to these things ourselves in the name of "true Dharma," thinking our way is the Only Way, and all that. Truth is every way, and the great way is everywhere. Let's open our hearts and minds, as much as we possibly can.

In terms of living Dharma, last year in a series of Monday night talks here I tried to introduce Buddhism from the ground up in the language of contemporary Dharma, towards an American Buddhism, using the traditional teachings as a framework, explaining it according to my own understanding. Going through the three basic Buddhist trainings-ethics, meditation, and wisdom; the four noble truths-suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path to the end of suffering; the six paramitas, the eightfold path, and so on. All of these are really means of living Dharma: How to live the enlightened life. Not just how to get enlightened, but how to be enlightened. How to live in a sane, beautiful, and perfect fashion. And I don't mean perfect like prim and proper or perfectionist; but in an appropriate fashion, in an impeccable manner, in honor of our highest, deepest spiritual nature. Ethics, virtue, awareness, wisdom, the three trainings-that's how to live impeccably. To live morally and straightforwardly and honestly. To live with awareness, attention, consideration, and wakefulness. And to live with common sense, loving-kindness, and wisdom. That's sila, samadhi, and prajna-the entire path of enlightenment.

Living Dharma is not just about Dharma theory and knowing the three this's and eight thats, and the thirty-seven other things. It's to live the Dharma in our daily life. Each of us has our own Dharma to live. And I don't mean Buddhism or any ism, particularly. I refer here to our own path, wherever that may be found-to live, to actualize, to manifest truth and love in this world. This can take innumerable forms, can't it? Not just sitting cross-legged like frozen ice cubes on our little black cushions. Not just to be so square all the time, but to manifest our truth; to live authentically, to live honestly and not to fool ourselves; to not lie to others, but rather to live straightforwardly and impeccably. To live our truth, to find our true vocation. To be genuinely ourselves. All these clichés of the New Age are true. We get tired of hearing them, of course; we can put fancy words around them, but they're true. To be all that we are.

But what does it mean to be yourself? Which self? How many selves do we have? Is self with a small s or a capital S? Or selfless self, transpersonal self? Which self? Our business, workaday self? Or our Monday night or Sunday morning church self? Which self? What does it mean to be yourself? What does it mean to live authentically? I hope you're not waiting for me to give the answers. I'm giving out the questions tonight!

What does it mean to be genuine? As one of my teachers, Tulku Jigme Khyentse Rinpoche told me after I had done two three-year retreats-and I was supposed to be a lama, a leader, and chantmaster of our retreat over there-and I was coming back to America for six months-I should never tell you these things because then you'll understand where I'm really at, but what the hell!-he said to me, "Surya, I think you could afford to be a little more genuine." It was like being busted, you know? I was thinking about what he meant. I was going off to America. And, of course, what he meant was to live Dharma, not just Tibetan Dharma. He's Tibetan; he can live Tibetan Dharma. But I needed to find myself, in the West, in America, and in ourselves here. That is American Buddhism: our own Buddha-nature and its aliveness here in us. I am still reflecting on what that tulku said. It still bugs me! Who's he to say that to me? I'm older than him! Of course, he also has some reincarnations behind him so maybe he's older in some other way. I don't know. It's hard to keep track of time; time is so unreal. But words of truth have a way of speaking for themselves.

We could all afford to be a little more genuine, couldn't we? We could all be a little more authentic; but we have to be more in touch with ourselves to be more authentic, don't we? Not just saying words like "be yourself," continuing to be an addict or depressive, or whatever you are. Is that your true self, your highest nature; to just continue to live out addictive habits? I don't think so.

In terms of living Dharma: Who do you think is going to keep it alive? The Buddha? Are we going to blame him if the Dharma dies? Or blame Tara, our Buddha-mother? We're going to blame our mother again?! We're the ones who have to keep the Dharma alive if we love it, if it means something to us. It is a living Dharma. We have to live it, we have to discover it, we have to create it anew in each moment. Not just meditation Dharma. Not just copying-the-sutras Dharma. Not just playing-Japanese-gong Dharma. What about playing-jazz Dharma? Jazz is one of the few unique contributions Americans have made to world culture. It is something we could be proud of. When Tibetan lamas come to visit our centers, instead of beating little Tibetan cymbals together and playing some long Tibetan trumpets that we had to buy at a Nepali or Tibetan boutique, we could play jazz for them, we could play organ music to welcome them. I am counting on you musicians-I see that a lot of you are musicians here-and everyone else, whoever you are, whatever you do, to keep the Dharma alive and to live the Dharma like pioneers, carving out the path authentically. The path leads everywhere, not just in one direction. You can't miss it. Let's recognize it and affirm it in our own variegated daily lives-it is nowhere else!

If we don't live the Dharma, there is no Dharma for us. There's no way if we don't live the way. Studying Buddhism is not enough. Just sitting is not really enough. So it is really up to us, as always. This is the Buddhist message, isn't it? To be a light unto yourself. To walk the path, and do it yourself. (It's very American, very democratic, very modern, actually.) As it says in the title of a Dzogchen text, the Buddha in the palm of one's hand. It's all up to us how we use it. It's up to us whether that Buddha within lives or dies or remains dormant in permanent hibernation. As if trapped in amber for another age. Like a seed fallen far from soil, water, and light.

So when we leave here, you have a little homework assignment. This is Cambridge, the thinking capital of the land, and you are all very studious and scholarly. We are surrounded by books in this town, even in this zendo. (In Japan there would never be books in the zendo, by the way.) When we go out of here, let's notice: Is there a difference between this beautiful, holy, wakeful, clear, empty, calm zendo, and the street outside? Do we perhaps rely too much on externals to be wakeful and aware? Is the street also not quiet and beautiful? The air is redolent from oxygen from all the autumn leaves on the black pavement, from all the overhanging trees on Sparks Street, like a Zen garden. After we leave tonight, walk over by the lovely, gentle Charles River and look at all the lights reflecting in the water and all the fireflies going by on Memorial Drive and Storrow Drive. Instead of thinking "Oh, I wish the cars would stop," one might just as easily reframe one's ordinary, habitual perceptions-stop, look freshly at the same experience and reflect upon fireflies and haiku and the shimmering, luminous reflections in the water. What is more beautiful? That numinous immediacy of experience, or this empty living room with no furniture called "zendo"? The zendo is out there actually. This is just an old house with no furniture and a bunch of old books. The true temple or sacred space is the entire universe, in all its inconceivable mystery and marvelous variety.

With a little shift in perspective, we might find that instead of once a week on Monday night for two hours here at the Buddhist center being our Dharma experience, the rest of our week becomes more integrally our Dharma experience. Monday night is just like a class, which we should eventually graduate from, into the greater universe-city of all life.

Question: Even going to the mall?

When I came back from India after years of cultural deprivation, I thought that going to the mall was much better than going to the movies or going to a party. It was like New Year's Eve there every day. It's just a matter of what you're used to. There is so much light and swirling sounds, scents, and people, colors. You can see it as a spectacle, a dreamlike magical display quite easily, if you squint a little to break up your mental formations, your habitual conceptual framing. By the way, these are secret Dzogchen practices: If you move your eyes around, you break up your mental formations. Also if you forcefully exclaim, "Ha, ha, he, he" while squinting and moving your eyes from side to side… Then check out the mall or Harvard Square. It looks a little different. However, you grew up in malls your whole life, so it's become a jaded experience of consumerism, of desire and insatiable shopper-acquisition mentality of low chakra energy, right? That's why you chose mall as an unattractive image when you asked the question. Most people in the world would like to be reborn in our malls, and live there. They have very little opportunity to acquire the consumer goods in malls, which we take for granted.

The traditional literature of old talks of the yogis going to meditate in the cemeteries and terrifying charnel grounds, where dismembered corpses are strewn around and the jackals and the ghosts and spirits are wandering around. That's like going to a mall or the Bowery in New York City, or into Central Park at night. Yogis go there to confront their fear and their reactions, to practice Chöd ("cutting egotism"). If everything is perfect in the Great Perfection as the teachings say, then go to that charnel ground or scary park at midnight and see how you feel. Does it feel like a blissful Buddha-field or do you feel that you can't wait to get out of there? It's sort of like that with the mall, which some people might find trying, jangling, wearisome. But if we can't face such feelings and situations, then we are not really facing life, are we? It's nice to stay as if on campus here in a protected environment, but we might not want to remain like graduate students our whole life. On the other hand, we might. That's fine. We can become professors. We can stay in the academic community, or the New Age or Buddhist community if we like, obviously. Let's just remember that there is a whole big world out there.

Sometimes there is a need to go beyond what Buddha called attachment to empty rites and rituals to the more essential teaching, but also sometimes we need the rituals. Could you talk about what kinds of rituals and ceremonies would be appropriate for Buddhists in this country?

Personally, I love ritual instruments and puja and chanting. I do a lot of it myself in my own personal practice. I have drums and bells, and do all the rituals and some of the shamanistic-style practices that lamas do. But I think the shamanic aspect of practice is not what should be emphasized first in this time and place, helpful as it can be at a later date. Primary is the heart of the matter of awakening, the themes I always emphasize, including self-inquiry, awareness, meditation, compassion, virtue, and so on. We can then build personal prayer and practice rituals-as well as congregational ceremonies and holiday celebrations-around that, and use different tools, depending on how much we like or need to use them. You know, it's like a ritual to sit on a cushion cross-legged, bow and chant at the beginning and the end of the meditation period, ring the gong, light the incense on the altar, and so on. We also have many daily rituals in our lives, like brushing our teeth every morning and night, and other things we regularly do. We light candles on the dinner table. We read a paper over our breakfast each day. We look in on the sleeping kids before we retire at night. They may not seem explicitly religious but they are spiritually significant. These rituals bless and enrich our lives. We do little things in a familiar, regular way each day; these are daily rituals. Daily exercise can also be a wholesome, healing, enlivening, contemplative-style ritual. I think Buddha would have it as part of his timeless Eight-fold path, for today and tomorrow.

Moreover, we have year-round rituals like holidays, planting, and harvesting. Our lives are quite ritualized actually, more than we usually realize. The exoteric rituals of religions are actually meant to be conscious, intentional rituals, which are ritualized forms of awareness training, of contemplation in action. A broader example is a sangha or an ashram; it is an intentional community, which is supposed to bring our attention to the possibility of true community, of greater communion and kinship with all, not just insularity or cultic withdrawal from the larger human family. Rituals can help us bring our attention to the rituals that ennoble our daily life, and to the sacred dimension of our own ordinary world. This can work simply through use of attention to the ritual, even without necessarily knowing all the esoteric meaning of it. There are many levels we could discuss about rituals. Rituals usually have meaning; some of the meaning is beyond rational meaning. Performing puja-style practice seems like exoteric or theist worship; it has many levels, though, and can be deep and rich. They touch our various senses. We see things. We hear things. We smell things. We feel things. Incense, candles, drums, and gongs make us feel something viscerally, don't they? This might be very awakening for some of us who are insulated against feelings. So in a ritual setting, don't just think, "Oh, what does that mean?" Feel the beat. Sense the incense, which might open our senses a little more. See the candlelights, and see how similar they are to the lights on the river and the numinous dance of the clear light of reality before our eyes and through all our senses.

Tibetan Buddhism is the most ritualized form of Buddhism, as the Roman Catholic Church is the most ritualized form of Christianity. There are various forms of Christianity. Different people like different styles. There are Unitarian churches that have almost no symbols or ritual appurtenances in them; there are Roman Catholic churches at the other extreme, with the elaborate Gregorian chants and incense and Latin Mass, in which most of us don't even know what they're saying. Tibetan Buddhism also contains the entire smorgasbord. From the austere to the rich and lavish, from the subdued and solemn to the celebratory, from the silent to the musical and ritualistic.

Are there any American Buddhist rituals?

That's a large and quite interesting question. I'd like to ask what you see? Are there any currently evolving that you notice? There must be some emerging; what do you see?

The question and answer period seems like an Americanistic Dharma ritual, something uncommon in Asian sanghas.

Very good. I was thinking that our sangha's interpersonally talking together is like a ritual in contemporary Dharma circles here in the West; having circle-sharing and potluck dinners, and so on. Professor John, as a learned Buddhist, knows that the group question and answer period after a Dharma talk is not part of Tibetan practice. The lama usually gives lengthy, detailed teachings-tells you where it's at-and you bow down and go away to reflect on it. We have much more talking together here, and counsel with each other in a circle. We share ourselves and our issues and questions. We all use the same level of language, without honorifics or matters of seniority among group members, like who speaks when and so on. We can learn a lot from each other here. Some of the best questions often come from our youngest member, Patricia, as you all know.

We need to develop contemporary, enlivening rituals. If we want to include families and children, we need to have Buddhist holidays, celebratory times, seasonal acknowledgments, lunar cycle observances, rites of passages. We have vajra feasts in Tibetan Buddhism, but we don't do such elaborate rituals much here. In Buddhist countries, there are Buddhist holidays that include the families, with ritualized ways for everybody to participate. In Asia Dharmically minded folks, young and old, went on pilgrimages, circumambulated stupas and holy mountains, and so on. These are rituals; they also include exercise, a communal spirit of practicing together, etc. Let's see how to do things here that incorporate those wholesome principles. For these principles include all our being-body, speech, and mind; spirit and matter; head and heart. Such wholesome rituals heal and renew the wholeness and natural state of our bodies and souls, in this life and the next, it is said.

You know, mantra chanting and heartfelt prayer helps open the mind and heart, and opens the throat chakra, too. But singing lessons can also do so! Thich Nhat Hanh told my friend Lew Richmond, who is one of Suzuki Roshi's senior Zen students from way back, "Music is your spiritual practice. Don't jettison it in favor of just sitting."

Perhaps Lew was born on a musical note. Perhaps each of us has his or her own form of muse. We would do well, I think, to worship her. Then we'd be able to give naturally to our own very meaningful and organic rituals, rituals befitting our time and place yet deeply grounded in the timeless.

What is the place of astrology and magic and astral travel and the Rainbow Body Tibetans talk about and other such things?

Astrology can be very helpful. There is a well-developed ancient Tibetan and Chinese astronomy and Indian Vedic astronomy. You can read about these things in many books. You can also astral travel all you like, if you train in it and if you can. But it's just like any other kind of travel. It depends on where you're going and why. There's a lot of white magic in the Dharma, especially in Vajrayana and tantra, like prayers and longevity practices and healing. But rather than seeking out-of-the-body experiences, I think we ought to experiment with some in-the-body experiences. All of us, including me, could be more fully in our bodies and feelings. Then we could really inhabit our experience. Feel our feelings, see what we're seeing, hear what we're hearing, taste what we're tasting, touch what we're touching, know what we're thinking, and use more precisely our basic intelligence. We'd be more aware. We'd more fully have our feet in our shoes, not a few steps behind or ahead of our shoes. Then our heads would be more squarely on our shoulders. We could walk each step 100 percent, and not be all over the place-distracted, spaced out, harried, alienated, fragmented, feeling dislocated-always being elsewhere rather than right where we are. It is a big challenge. It's not a small thing. It is very worth doing.

This would be living Dharma.

November 6, 1995

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