Geshe Dondup’s Overview of Kamalashila’s Stages of Meditation

photo of Geshe Dondup TseringThe Concord sanghas recently had the honor of a visit from Geshe Dondup Tsering, a friend of Venerable Lobsang’s. Geshe-la gave us a two teachings on Kamalashila’s stages of meditation. We had studied this years ago with Lobsang, and it took several months, so this was more of a welcome refresher/overview of the material.

Geshe-la went over a few different types of meditation used during the stages, for example, equanimity meditation. In this meditation, you envision someone you are very close to and care deeply about, someone you don’t like or regard as an enemy, and someone you don’t know and are neutral about. By examining these perspectives, we may find that is is possible for people to travel between these states very easily, sometimes during the course of a single day! Seeing how ephemeral our impressions can be, we might over time reduce our overall attachments, and approach people and situations with a more open mind and heart.

Geshe-la was brave enough to broach the topic of emptiness, which can be difficult to grasp. He had some wonderful analogies, and also led us in an analytical mediation on the suffering of animals who are killed for food. It was a sombre, but thought-provoking exercise.

At the beginning of the new year, Geshe-la will undertake the Kalachakra Initiation conducted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Bodhgaya, and will follow that with a commitment to complete 100,000 prostrations. One of our sangha members suggested that we would pray for the well-being of Geshe-la’s knees! He hope that he meets this daunting and impressive challenge and visits us again next year.

Sangha Updates – August 2016

Guanyin sculptureFor the month of August, the Thursday evening sangha is not meeting at the First Parish Chapel. It’s a chance for us to not oblige the sexton of First Parish to wait for us to pack up at 9 pm. Instead, we met at sangha members’ home for two weeks, with unexpected benefits — one week included an indoor Japanese garden and the other featured a very sweet dog and social cat who meditated with us.

For the other week of August, we did something new and different — we attended a lecture at the Museum of Fine Arts on a particular sculpture of Guanyin, the Chinese Bodhisattva of Compassion. Sangha members are familiar with the Tibetan version of the bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara, who figures prominently in the Heart Sutra. Guanyin shifts and transcends genders, and both names roughly translate as “hearing the cries of the world”.

The talk was given by two of the principal experts involved in the conservation and renewal of the 12th century sculpture, which took two years. Equally fascinating was one of the scholar’s travels through the region of Shanxi from which the figure originated, comparing similar works in small temples. We also learned about the Song dynasty and its aesthetics. More about the impressive conservation effort: http://www.mfa.org/collections/conservation/feature_guanyin

Seeing the wooden sculpture up close was truly amazing. It is a “water moon” form — imagine the ephemeral depiction of the moon reflected in a body of water as a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of all things. After being removed from view in 1999, it is wonderful that this sculpture is back in a public gallery for all to enjoy.

For the final week of August, we’re on vacation, and looking forward to starting fresh in September, back in our Chapel home.

The idea of saving everyone

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In this first chapter, Shantideva talks about the wish to liberate all sentient beings from samsara (cyclical existence), which is the Mahayana tradition. For most of us, it is hard to imagine freeing our own mind, becoming fully awakened, let alone bringing everyone else along with us. This can feel like the kind of wish you make when you imagine winning the lottery. “Oh sure, if I won the lottery, I would start that charity and start painting again, oh, and go to the gym. Everyday. Definitely.” Pretty safe when you don’t even buy a lottery ticket!

It feels…ridiculously impossible. Pema Chodron has a great explanation of the importance of this mindset:

“By making such an aspiration, our ordinary, confused mind stretches far beyond its normal capacity; it stretches limitlessly. When we extend our personal longing for liberation to include immeasurable numbers of beings, the benefit we receive is equally immeasurable.” (14)

We are making a leap then, one we cannot really fathom, but we do so with the aspiration to undertake what seems impossible. The willingness to engage in this way is almost on a different plan of logic. We become accustomed to notions like the size of our solar system, or how much a trillion dollars is, or sub-nuclear particles, so why not the idea of liberating all sentient beings? What if the guide that Shantideva sets out puts more people on this path; what happens to all of the people those people encounter? Is it enough for a subtle but inevitable shift to begin?

Thinking about traveling, vs. booking a trip

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Shantideva talks about two types of relative bodhichitta (vs. absolute bodhichitta) and explains the difference between them.

1.15
Bodhichitta, the awakening mind,
In brief is said to have two aspects:
First, aspiring, bodhichitta in intention;
Then, active bodhichitta, practical engagement.
1.16
Wishing to depart and setting out upon the road,
This is how the difference in conceived.
The wise and learned thus should understand
This difference, which is ordered and progressive.

This is such a good analogy. Many concepts get hung up by language and translation, but this description is so poignant and stark. Do you surround yourself with travel books and watch videos and visit websites about the Galapagos, but never actually book the trip? You have the money, and it’s something that you’ve always wanted to do. You fully intend to, but…the time just isn’t right, not now, at least. There’s always some good reason not to. In some way, maybe it’s more comfortable to dream about the Galapagos than actually go?

The awakening mind is similar. It might be much more comfortable and familiar to work on aspiring to take on the practices of waking up. There is undeniably great value in having good intentions and working through plans to carry them out. But at some point, the “rubber hits the road” and you have to take your aspirations out for a test drive. Instead of imagining how you will stay present and mindful when your aggravating coworker does that aggravating thing, you have to fully engage and see how you do. Again and again and again.

it would be hard, if not impossible, to have one type of bodhichitta with out the other, of course. You don’t magically show up at the Galapagos without making some plans first. But Shantideva reminds of the importance of actually engaging.

A Flash of Lightning

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There is imagery throughout The Guide to the Boddhisattva’s Way of Life, which is valuable not only for its beauty, but because it gives a visual metaphor to illustrate difficult ideas or anchor important points. An example early on is verse 1.5:

As when a flash of lightning rends the night,
And in its glare shows all the dark black clouds had hid,
Likewise rarely, through the buddhas’ power,
Virtuous thoughts rise, brief and transient, in the world.

When one has not been exposed to an awareness of goodness that embraces all sentient beings, a glimpse of its possibility is as brief and dramatic as an illuminating stroke of lightning on a stormy night. Our ordinary awareness is limited and self-absorbed, perceiving only our immediate reality in the dim gloom at hand. In an instant, we see much further, discerning the entire landscape and our place in it, connected to countless others.

We’ve all had this experience, of sudden recognition and an opening of our heart to great peace, contentment, or understanding. The goal, of course, is to escape the darkness of negative thoughts and actions through nurturing our own buddha nature, and not wait for the next chance storm.

Shantideva’s Back Story

shantideva_450 Shantideva’s The Guide to the Boddhisattva Way of the Life has one of the best back stories of Buddhist texts. At the prestigious Nalanda University, he was ridiculed by his fellow monks for his indolence. It was said that he did little besides “eat, sleep, and defecate”, which provoked his peers to the point that they insisted he deliver a teaching. They were either hoping to publicly shame him, or to goad him into taking his studies more seriously.

When the day of his talk arrived, Shantideva asked the assembly whether they wanted to hear a classic teaching, or something new. They chose novelty (as we all do!), and were probably prepared for Shantideva to fail miserably. Instead, he delivered The Guide to the Boddhisattva’s Way of Life, to their astonishment and delight. (It is said that Shantideva actually levitated at one point, and this is often depicted in art.)

It was good that they asked for something new!