Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Meditation Lesson

When I was seventeen, my teacher's infinite ocean of compassion inspired him to pretend that he required a secretary. Due to causes and conditions, I became that secretary. 

Every day, I would attend my teacher's puja room. He would sit behind his small puja table, the altar to his left. I would sit upon a cushion to his right, and together, we would go through the day's correspondence. 

My teacher's correspondence was considerable. This was just shy of a decade following the fall of Lhasa, and it seemed that every refugee lama in the world was writing to him.  My teacher read each letter quite carefully, sometimes more than once. Sometimes, he would read the same letter over and over again, for a period of several days. After he did so, he would translate the letters for me, and then we would discuss their contents. 

This was how I was first introduced to some of the most famous teachers of that era. I don't think it serves any useful purpose to name names. Were I to do so, I would feel disloyal. For the most part, these letters touched confidential and sensitive matters. You can imagine emigre politics, social struggles, survival issues, and all the other baggage that goes along with refugee life. 

These daily discussions about the mail also became the opportunity for me to speak freely with my teacher about various other matters. When we concluded whatever business was at hand, he would always ask me if there was anything I wished to discuss with him, or if I had any news for him. Usually, whatever matter I happened to raise would be dispensed with in a few minutes. Sometimes, the resulting discussion would last all day. 

Need I add that I relished these times? I was seventeen, as I have said, and loved my teacher so dearly that I absolutely treasured every hour spent in his company. 

How strange it seems to say those hours were spent more than 40 years ago. Lately, a young Tibetan friend of mine has repeatedly asked me to spend them again, by writing of my experiences. So, today I will tell a story about what happened one day when we finished reading the mail.

"Rinpoche?" I asked. "Can you teach me how to meditate?"

First, he looked startled. Then, he looked incredulous. He began laughing, and he laughed so loud and so long that other people in the house peeked in the room to see what was so funny. He laughed so hard that I began to blush. I blushed bright, beet red. I felt embarrassed to have asked the question, and wished I could take it back. He could demolish a city with his laughter, so you can imagine what effect it had on the fragile ego of a seventeen year old boy.

The outburst of mirth ended abruptly, when he changed his demeanor and quite seriously asked me, "Why do you think you need to learn how to meditate?"

I believe my answer was something along the lines of "everybody else is doing it," or some such cringing nonsense. I clearly recall stammering, and trying to explain, but he cut me off.

"If you start thinking about meditation," he said, "It is just going to be an obstacle for you."

"Well, you meditate," I replied. "Didn't your teachers teach you how?" My teacher had twenty-five different teachers, of whom seven were his root gurus. I was willing to wager that the subject of meditation had come up with at least one of them. Yet, my question met with no response. My teacher just studied his fingernails.

Meditation is a peculiar subject in the West. 

People try to package meditation and sell it like a vitamin or something. You hear all sorts of foolishness about meditation does this, and meditation does that. No wonder it becomes tempting to think of meditation as a commodity. Maybe if you meditate, you will be able to manage stress. Maybe your blood pressure will be lowered. Maybe you will feel better, look younger, and meet interesting people. Maybe someone will become interested in you, and fall in love. Maybe you will become powerful -- some sort of abstract power, some sort of tangible power -- and this will change everything for you. Maybe your meditation will gain something for you. In the West, that is how we tend to think about meditation: in terms of gain, or benefit, or accumulation.

Meditation is looked upon as an objectified quality. "Oh, he is such a strong meditator," I once heard someone say about someone else. How could we possibly know such a thing? Is it because of how the person sits? Is it because of how the person looks? Is it because of the amount of time involved? Is the judgment based on frequency? 

Meditation is also branded. We have Tibetan meditation, Japanese meditation, Chinese meditation, Buddhist meditation, Hindu meditation, Christian meditation, and so forth. You don't need me to tell you these things. You can go on Amazon and enter the search word "Meditation." You will find thousands of books. Chances are good you can look at your own bookshelf, and find all sorts of experiments you have already conducted.

In such climate, it becomes all too easy to get confused. You can begin to confuse Buddhism with meditation, or meditation with Buddhism. However, sooner or later, no matter how much you circle around, you are going to come back to the ship. Like the crow, remember?

I've told the crow story before, because my rabbits like that story.

There is a fellow who snares a crow, puts him in a burlap sack, slings the sack over his shoulder and saunters down to the docks. 

He boards a ship, and the ship sails out to the middle of the ocean. There, the man opens the sack and sets the crow free. In classic exposition, the matter is set forth thus:
"Flying upwards it finds that the sky is empty, and flying back down the space between is empty. Below there is nothing but water. Flying up and down and in all directions, it finds no place to go, no place to land. So it returns to the same ship and lands there."
That is from Sarah Harding's translation of Patrul Rinpoche's Clear Elucidation of True Nature. You can find it quite easily. Patrul Rinpoche is also the one who said that the most important thing is to be kind. He said you can leave meditation until just before death, because by then you will meditating anyway.

On that afternoon, those years ago, I had not read Patrul Rinpoche. All I had was the man in front of me, who counted among his seven root gurus the incarnation of Patrul Rinpoche.

After an interval, he sighed, and said, "Well, if the matter ever comes up in the future, and if someone ever asks you, you can just tell them it is very easy. Very simple. The main thing is not to make it complicated."

My teacher snapped his fingers. "That is thought arising," he said. 

He snapped his fingers again. "That is thought passing."

He snapped his fingers a third time. "That is thought dispersing."

"So, what is meditation?" I asked.

My teacher snapped his fingers. "Between here... " He snapped his fingers again. "And here."

I thought that was pretty simple, so I laughed. "That's all? That's ordinary!"

He smiled at me with a kindness in his eyes that I have no words to describe. 

To keep the memory of that kindness in my heart seems selfish. 

I want to give it away to you.

To make a proper gift, I should not give you something that belongs to someone else. I should not give you something meant for other eyes, like an old letter, forgotten between the pages of a book. People also press flowers between pages. But, a pressed flower only makes sense to the one who also saved a corresponding memory. Although these may represent some transient comfort or passing solace, you cannot take someone else's old letters and pressed flowers into battles and expect them to protect you. 

Yet, because I lack any particular quality or ability, these memories are all I have to give you. Sometimes, when old cherry trees shake in the wind, there are only a few petals left to fall. From them, we may with some imagination infer the tree in its blossomed prime.

Therefore, from this shared memory of a long-past afternoon, it is my earnest hope you may infer something of my teacher's boundless generosity and inexhaustible loving kindness, and like the crow on the ocean, find this place to return and calmly rest.

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13 reader comments:

Peter Lim said...

So great! Thanks you!

Divine Lotus Healing said...

Your words here leave me with a great sense of peace and tranquility. Thank you for that. Namaste.

Stephen said...

Thank you for very BRAVELY pointing out the many FALLACIES surrounding "meditation", just as you BRAVELY pointed out other FALLACIES in "Does Samsara Need Janitors?" regarding compassion and social action in the context of Buddhism. I wish Buddhists where I live would read them and shed their blind adherence to such fallacies.

Richard (Yeshe) said...

Dear Rinpoche:
I am certain that your words here have helped and will help many thousands of people. I am just writing to say that I am one of them and it is difficult to believe that anyone could have been helped more than me by these words. I guess what I am trying to say is this teaching is incredible. Thank you so much.

Timothey R. said...


Anonymous said...

I don't get it :(

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this with us. Your guru taught you the essence of meditation based on your nature and karma.

Other meditatiton methods are needed for various people.

A good teacher should be able to guide his or her disciple according to their paramita.

Africa Boy said...

The same teacher back in the early seventies had me watering the front lawn garden while he was making sure that I was not drowning the plants with my excited state of mind. I wanted to engage him in dialogue about Dharma so I asked if plants were sentient beings. He ignored the question and told me to water another spot. I repeated the question but still no response and then my thoughts began to race into an emotional frenzy. I became so upset I forgot what I was doing and wanted to disappear. To calm me down he signaled for me to
relax and said "Boy, the body is only a vehicle.Just water the garden." When I finally was able to do a long retreat a few years later, that personal interaction with my teacher served as a template for a deep understanding of my own mind and the body that I inhabit.

Editor said...

Africa Boy:

Are you the one he made walk from North Africa to South Africa because you spilled a cup of tea?

I really enjoyed hearing this. You were lucky. When I had the "are plants sentient beings" argument it went on all morning. Then we switched sides and it went on all afternoon. He beat me in both directions, so you know how that is....

So, this is the thing about him --- everything he ever said to you, no matter how inconsequential it may have seemed at the time, still reverberates to the present moment.

We don't need to boast about him, or spend his name like cheap currency.

Time is the witness: he never stops teaching.

I pray for his long life.

africa boy said...

I was the one who he stood up after puja at Pema Ling and he asked me where is mind (my mind). After a severe bout of exploratory prodding he annouced that I was to do a retreat in the jungle of Africa and not to come back until I was successful. I talked him into letting me do a retreat on Eagle Mountain,BC at Rod Devenish's retreat center but after 4 months of solitary retreat I decided to go to Africa because I was blocked.
I made it to Zaire and was arrested and deported before I could continue the retreat. I returned to Pema Ling but left in 1976 to Montreal when My grandfather died. I went to Yeshe Nying Po in 1978 and studied with His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche's family for 14 years, working as a co-ordinator of Orgyen Cho Dzong until 1993. Since then I have lived in Taos as an unsuccessful practitioner with my many children.

Editor said...

How do you know you are unsuccessful?

J.Crow said...

Having an affinity for crow's.I say this is all very true!

katsoul85 said...

deeply moved by your gift of this story. thank you tenpa. great generosity and love.