Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Reflections on dying and new beginnings

The 18th slogan of Lojong is about death, and it says "On how to die, the Mahayana teaches these five strengths. It matters how you act." On the one hand many things can be said about death, on the other hand, basically the idea is that you also need the five strengths, just like you need them during life. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche mentions that although five strengths apply equally, the order in which they are applied differs. For example, he says we should start with "seeds of virtue" when coming closer to death, because filling our mind with actions that benefit others may help us to have a peaceful death. And for Buddhists, having a peaceful death is one of the most important things.

Yet, here I want to focus more on death itself, which showed up quite distinctly in my life in the past weeks. First, a good friend's wife, who was maybe just about my age, passed away, just after their honeymoon. I cannot imagine how cruel life is! This also hit home because it shows how death can come at any moment, even when you are relatively young like myself. This feeling of the closeness of death became more acute during my journey to India, because there always death is relatively close. Especially when you are on a crazy taxi journey through the Himalaya, as I did...

This closeness of death is considered to be quite a good thing, because it reminds you of what is really important in life. I noticed how I started to get very wrapped up in my work, and did not have time to think about anything else. Now seeing a person so close to me very suddenly pass away made me think about what I really want to do with my life. Am I really meeting every person in my life as if it is our last encounter? Am I really trying to cultivate awareness in my mind knowing in the back of my mind that this is my last chance to train my mind? Probably not. So it is good to take this really seriously.

A few days after this devastating news, death came around once again. This time, my Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche suddenly passed away. He had been in the hospital and undergoing chemo, but still the news was very sudden. Because of the recently uncovered evidence of abuse at the hands of Sogyal Rinpoche, I felt quite conflicted. Despite the fact that these abuses cannot be denied, at the same time he was really able to communicate the dharma (Buddhist teachings) very effectively in a way that at least I could very much understand. He was also able to motivate people (myself included) to do amazing things such as building temples, doing 3-4 hours of practice every day and more. Whenever I think about Sogyal Rinpoche, I feel sadness that this is over, and that there will never be any more new teachings. On the other hand, in the mind, he is still very much there, and closer than ever before. Now is the time to really make use of all these thousands of teachings he gave and actually put them into practice. Now is also an opening to start anew--to learn from the mistakes made in the past that allowed the abuse to happen, and develop a form of Buddhism in which there is no place for such abuses. That would be such a wonderful legacy! While sudden bouts of sadness and crying still strike, I let those be, and console myself in the knowledge that in every death there is a new beginning...

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Little happy seeds during a crazy journey

The next slogan in Lojong is another very comprehensive one that pretty much subsumes the whole Buddhist path: "Practice the five strengths, The condensed heart instructions." What are the five strengths? They are determination, familiarization, seeds of virtue, reproach and aspiration. Determination refers to being very steadfast in your vow to practise training your mind. Sometimes we can be a bit cowardly and say: "well, I'll work with my mind tomorrow, when I am not so tired." But that does not work--then it will never happen. I notice how this excuse has started to creep in my practice recently: to feel like waiting with practising more until I am less busy. That will probably take many years so better start practising now.

The second strength is familiarization: nothing is easy until you get used to it. Now we are so used to worrying about all our hopes and fears--hoping for fame, fear of insignificance, hoping for praise, fear of blame, and so on, that that is very easy for us. And it makes us often very tense. I did not notice this, until a few days ago I started my vacation by taking a road trip from Manali to Leh. This is a pretty "bone-shaking" journey, so once we finally arrived in Leh at 22:30 after being in the car from 5 am, and having crossed passes with heights of 5300m, I noticed my jaw was completely clenched. This was probably especially due to the last few hours where I was seriously worried about whether we were even going to make it to Leh! In the last few days I have been working on consciously unclenching my jaw, and I notice the difference it makes to my meditation!

The third strength is my favorite one: "seeds of virtue." This refers to never letting go of any opportunity to do something positive, even if it is very small. Sometimes I can be very ambitious, but what I find encouraging about this strength is the focus on just keeping it small. You don't have to make it very special: even just smiling at someone can make a difference in their day. I have been following the daily compassion program from the free app from Being Bodhi, and this very much makes you familiar with that. During the crazy (but beautiful!) ride from Manali to Leh, also thinking about this and just spending some time wishing well in my mind helped me to come out at the other end.

The fourth strength is reproach: catching ourselves and acknowledging it when we do something wrong, but also not getting stuck in that. Just learning from the mistake and owning it. The fifth strength is aspiration: this is a more traditional part of the Buddhist religion, which has aspiration prayers. I personally often have trouble connecting to these prayers, but one beautiful way to consider the meaning of these prayers is that we often with our lack of wisdom do not really know what to pray for, and these prayers are help from the buddhas in what to ask for so it is really beneficial. Anyway, for now I think I will just simply stick with cultivating seeds of virtue, one little bit at a time...