Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Echo In Empty Valley

"Turn your back on your fatherland,
Accept another’s homeland,
Live at the base of a rocky cliff,
Take wild animals as your companions,
Abandon concern for food, clothing or renown.

Root your mind in the Dharma,
Root your Dharma in humility,
Root your humility in the thought of death,
Root your death in an empty valley."

I believe that quotation is attributed to Dromton Gyalwe Jungney, but only subject to correction, because these days I am trying to forget everything I ever heard about Buddhism, in order to remember what I might already know. 

As it happens, I am camped at the base of a rocky cliff. If not wild, the rabbits around these parts are at least rowdy. I do not have a whole lot of choice where food, clothing, or renown are concerned. I do not know about humility -- I think if one says, "Aha! I am humble," then one is no longer humble -- but I do know about death, because it whispers in my ear ever more loudly.

Oh, and one more thing... this place is the very definition of an empty valley.

Over the past several months, we've been publishing sketches of this place, and for the past several weeks we've been examining the history. Perhaps you will recall we mentioned that a famous shaman used to live here, but it seems we  never explicitly stated why he lived here.

Well, that oversight is simple to rectify.

The wind has sculpted the rocky cliff over the past seventeen thousand years. At the right of the photograph immediately above, you see a crevice where a spirit once lived. The land was underwater then, and this was the spirit's cave. In the photograph with which this post begins, you see the "cave" that the wind subsequently formed, once the waters receded. Taken as a whole, these features of the cliff embody a remarkable "Earth Ear."

If you sit in the cliff's wind cave, you can hear at very great distances -- almost magically so. A person standing three hundred yards away can turn his or her back and whisper something, and you will hear what they say as clear as a bell.
"As for these present appearances of stones and rocks, mountains and forests, trees and plants, and so forth, do not believe them to be anything at all, and do not assert them to be anything at all. Do not deny what appears, and do not assert them to be or not to be. Their appearance is a natural appearance, and their... emptiness is a natural emptiness. Like the identity of space, let their identity be naturally empty, and let their appearance be devoid of a self-nature." -- Padmasambhava
So, it seems easy to get carried away with all this nonsense about cliffs, valleys, shamans, and acoustics, doesn't it? Particularly when we stop to recall that all we are doing is watching a magical motion picture. You take the photograph below. Do you see, there in the center,  where the ravens have turned to stone? Do you see where a "HUM" is changing into a "BAM" in the clouds? 

You can make up your mind to hear anything you want to hear. You can see anything you want to see. You can convince yourself of anything.

Every situation supplies its own instruction. At the very moment it is posited, every question embodies its own answer. When you step away from this place -- when you walk a short distance into the chaparral, away from the base of the cliff -- when you turn back and clap your hands, or whistle, or shout, you are greeted with an echo.

An echo.

When you are inside the ear the wind carved from the cliff, you hear things quite clearly, and when you are outside, you are treated to one of the eight, great similes of illusion?
"As in an echo, things can be perceived but there is nothing there, either outside or inside." --Patrul Rinpoche
Patrul Rinpoche liked to quote from Dromtonpa as much as I do. He once recounted a story where Dromtonpa asked Atisha, "what was the ultimate of all teachings." Atisha replied that the "ultimate is emptiness of which compassion is the very essence." Dromtonpa wondered why, if this were true, there are so many people who claim to have realized emptiness, but have no less of attachment and hatred. 

"Because their realization is only words," Atisha replied.

Many celebrated masters have stopped talking, and turned their backs on that which is merely ordinary, in order to cultivate that which is utterly ordinary. In the generation that is now almost thoroughly gone -- save for a few diehards -- it was common to spend a great deal of time at the base of rocky cliffs. None of the teachers I have personally known failed to take this step. None of the teachers proclaimed as great have failed to take this step. It seems almost necessary, doesn't it? As an example -- you look at these pictures of Chatral Rinpoche published here, and maybe you will be inspired to think to yourself, "Well, if an old guy like that can do it, then why can't I?"

Oh, indeed. Once, many years ago, I was up the Eldorado County with my teacher, traveling along a highway surrounded by magnificent mountains and forests. I think we were on our way back from Nevada or something. As I looked out the window, I remarked, "You know, I always wanted to live in a place like this."

"Bullshit," my teacher replied.

"I beg your pardon, Rinpoche? I was just saying that I always wanted to live in a place that looks like this."

"Bullshit," he said again. "If you really wanted to do it, you would have done it already."

Emptiness of which compassion is the very essence is the same issue. You can claim this and that, but still have a very hard heart. However, if you are really quite sincere about wanting to be of benefit to others, then things will change very quickly. Of this I can assure you. All you have to do is just do it. Just stop talking about it, and go do it.
"It is no use taking all the vows, from those of refuge up to the tantric samayas, unless you turn your mind away from the things of this world.
It is no use constantly preaching the Dharma to others unless you can pacify your own pride.
It is no use making progress if you relegate the refuge precepts to the last place.
It is no use practicing day and night unless you combine this with bodichitta."
Patrul Rinpoche wrote that, quoting Geshe Kharak Gomchung. What this means is that you can go off tramping in the hills and wastelands, and park at the base of cliffs until the rabbits play banjos, but if you don't get a little softer every day, something is really, really, really wrong.

The most important aspect of this thing we have agreed to call "Buddhism" is to proceed from a fully-flowered wish to benefit others. Often as not, this wish blossoms from extreme suffering. For example: perhaps a loved one has died. You are quite bereft. Maybe you want to go jump off a mountain in order to join them. So, you climb the mountain and wail to the sky, "I don't want anybody else to go through this! All this life just ends in death and then we cry! I want to find a way to save everybody else this misery! I don't care what happens to me anymore!"

Such a thing is quite spontaneous, and natural. Such a thing is always inherently present in the human heart; it is the way our heart speaks to itself. One tiny moment -- one fraction of a micro-second -- of that natural arising is enough to sustain an entire lifetime. Maybe it can sustain several lifetimes. We are speaking of something that powerful.

This is what joins us, or connects us, or defines us, or expresses us as human beings. Whatever words you want to use. This is where the erroneous perception we have of each other as somehow separate, apart, or unique breaks down completely. This is where we look at the sky, and see ourselves. This is where we look at each other, and see ourselves.  This is where we look at ourselves, and see others. This is where we look at ourselves, and see the sky. This is where the judge, the critic, the commentator, and all the gossip come to an abrupt halt.

This is what we are here to recognize.

The reason one hangs around the cliff, listening to whispers, and hooting the odd echo, is to give one's self a chance to root out the thing that will allow one to love.

To become love, actually.

[If you'd like to read more from the work we quoted, consult Patrul Rinpoche, The Words of My Perfect Teacher. Shambala edition (1998).]


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3 reader comments:

me said...

What you speak of here....

"I don't want anybody else to go through this! All this life just ends in death and then we cry! I want to find a way to save everybody else this misery! I don't care what happens to me anymore!"


I like to refer to as a Tower Crumbling moment, (from the Tarot, most vividly) when the self built Tower of Ego crumbles. It seems to be that only in those moments that true, unselfish compassion arises.

When we all, in those moments, share the common phenomenon of truly seeing what is behind the structures of ego. And that with enough opportunities, enough times of having the ego shatter, we can then identify that what is behind the structures of ego is indeed...love.

And that since (other than ego) all and only that which is love truly exists....we are already become love.

We just don't, or can't, acknowledge that. Or, lol, try to rapidly forget it.

Maybe that is why most Towers seem to be built on the edge of cliffs!

And perhaps, if we are very lucky, we will at some point, if we consciously practice crumbling our own Towers.....

May one day find a Holy Man waiting patiently for us at the bottom of our cliff!

Anonymous said...

Rinpoche, you say at the point that when we connect with our own suffering, all the judgement, criticism and commentating halts.

But what about if we look at ourselves and find nothing there but a hard heart?

In that situation, how does one stop going to one extreme and becoming totally apathetic on the sight of that, and the other extreme of trying to contrive, force and push; craving for a dramatic ''authentic'' experience of that softness and genuine sadness which isn't readily apparent or felt.

Having been confronted with immense fear when one looks to one's heart and finds nothing but hardness and numbness, that seems to me to be the point when the mind is more quick than ever, out of fear I guess, to start with the judgement, criticism, and commentating.

Thank you for your post

Editor said...

Dear Anonymous:

You are quite correct to avoid trying to contrive.

So, if you understand this, it is quite good; your fundamental impulse to be honest is asserting itself.

You seem to be looking at yourself and because you don't see what you think you should see, you are disappointed.

You use the word fear, which can never be used apart from the word hope -- so maybe you do not see something you hope to see.

But, what is essential at this point is, I think, to have confidence that you do, in fact, have bodhicitta inherent in your nature at all times --- and then just relax, because sooner or later this will make itself felt in the way that is individually and spontaneously meaningful to you.

There are volumes and volumes of teachings about how to wake this up, but for you, really, the important thing is to just let it come naturally from an understanding of emptiness.

So, it isn't necessary to force things or go hunting for things or try to make things fit a preconceived notion of what "compassion" looks like or feels like.

After he visited America, Kunzang Dechen Lingpa said:

"There is a well-known statement or formula, which is "Openness (emptiness) having the nature of great compassion." If you understand this, you possess, you are the owner of all the four traditions of Buddha Dharma. The meaning of great compassion is the intention to benefit all sentient beings. If you have this great compassion, it is like possessing the most precious kind of jewel, a jewel that can create other jewels. .. then everyone gets to have a jewel and enjoy the satisfaction of having their own precious jewel. Compassion is the same way. If you understand the nature of openness (shunyata-emptiness) and compassion, whether your work is a worldly work or associated with Dharma, it matters not. Whatever you do in the world becomes Dharma."

You know, some surgeons are awfully hard-hearted, but they still save lives.