April 4, 2013

Time for the truth.

As I hinted at earlier in the introduction to the Lojong – the Training the Mind post – my practice has deteriorated seriously over the past year.

As I haven’t gotten to the end of the story in the narrative section, I’ll not go into the details of my practice when I started this blog, but it was a very strong practice. At least I thought so. It was regular and deep. Perhaps not regular enough, or deep enough.

I still can’t sort out all the elements that got me off track, but it was complicated. As I mentioned earlier, my mother’s death, and three days later my wife’s father’s death, threw both of us into a cycle of anger, grief and depression that is still having an impact on our lives.

But I think the main problem came because I made the fatal mistake of taking a break from the cushion. A mistake that I know the warnings against, the dangers of, the difficulties of recovering from… yet out of weakness and selfishness I made the mistake.

I have been struggling for months now to get back into a solid practice. Depression is a great enemy of meditation practice, precisely because meditation practice is a great help in dealing with depression. Depression has a sleazy, insidious way of undermining anything that may help you get over it, so it really seems to hate meditation.

In taking a break from the cushion, I allowed the depression to move in and undermine my confidence in the practice itself, I allowed it to introduce doubts about my practice. Which in turn made it harder to get back on the cushion. It becomes a vicious cycle. I’ve almost had to start all over.

As I mentioned, I have returned to some of my earlier rituals and simple things like morning vows and chanting, as well as the Lojong, as a way to get back into practice. I’ve been practicing for some time in the Vipassana tradition, which teaches that such things are not likely to take you to the deeper levels of meditation… and that seems true to my experience, but it could be wrong. At any rate, I am finding them helpful in getting myself re-oriented.

I hope to use these Practice Notes as a way of sorting out how things are going for myself, and perhaps they’ll be helpful to readers as well.

I hope I will be able to be consistent and honest in my reports of how it goes.

Lojong #6 In post-meditation, be a child of illusion

This is meditation in action, the discipline of daily life. Trungpa says to continue the experience of meditation in your daily activities, remembering that all this stuff that seems to be going on is, at least as understood on the absolute level, just an illusion created by your mind-system.

Remember to keep everything soft, pliable, workable, with lots of space. Recognize the simplicity of the phenomenal play.

The phrase “child of illusion” has always been hard for me to understand. My best take on it: – it suggests that you – that notion of ‘self’ that is identified as ‘you’ – are created by (child of) the illusion of experience. To ‘be’ that, perhaps, means you recognize it clearly.

Yes, this one is a bit confusing, unclear perhaps. As I understand it, the “be” means just being aware of this truth. The “child of illusion” is the Self. The essential notion is that the Self is not a fixed, permanent entity, and keeping that in mind as you go about your daily life helps to lighten things up a bit. The self, in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, is understood to be simply the product of stringing together all these discrete experiences of ongoing life and reifying the experiencer as some entity, “me.” Of course, since all this stuff going on is essentially created by the mind, it is an illusion, so its creation, the Self is also unreal, in the absolute sense.

Judith Leif says, “In this slogan, the particular postmeditation practice is to “be a child of illusion.” It is to play within an environment that we recognize to be shifty and illusory. So rather than trying to make our world solid and predictable, and complaining when that is not the case, we could maintain the glimpses of the illusory nature of experience that arise in meditation practice, and touch in with that open illusory quality in the midst of our daily activities. That looser more open quality is the ground on which the compassionate actions of the bodhisattva can arise.” from — https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/train-your-mind-slogan-6/

Lojong #5 Rest in the nature of alaya, the essence

Ah, this one is so sweet! [long deep release of breath…]

Alaya means ‘abode’ (as in Himalaya, abode of snow), and refers here to the 8th consciousness, clear, non-discriminating mind, basic goodness.

Resting in this state is the Ultimate Bodhichitta practice, the practice leading to realization of awakened heart, understanding that phenomena are non-solid, self-luminous. The idea of ‘resting in’ means we are seeing this as a beginning point for deeper awakening, not as some end in itself.

Trungpa says, “You can just come home and relax. The idea is to return to home-sweet-home.” The home of our basic consciousness, pure awareness. This is the essential element in shamatha practice, and the Ultimate Bodhichitta practice, and is the beginning point for all that comes.

Lojong #4 Self-liberate even the antidote

Realization of emptiness/impermanence (shunyata) — the antidote — is helpful in not taking ourselves or anything else too seriously, but it may tempt one to slide into “the poison of shunyatta” attitude: ‘nothing is important, so why bother’. In Zen, this is known as ‘the stink of Zen.’

Trungpa says we must get beyond this naivetè, stay grounded in practice, and remember: “We are not particularly seeking enlightenment or the simple experience of tranquility – we are trying to get over our deception.”

Again, this is a key point, or barrier to get past. When you realize what your deception consists of, you’re on the path to real liberation, true enlightenment.

In considering all these things – which, by the way, you shouldn’t think about too much! – it’s helpful to remember that a main notion in Buddhism is ‘the middle way.’ As the Thai man said to me, “Buddha say, not too much, not too little, just enough!”

It’s also helpful to remember that non-dualism is an underlying notion in all of this. Beyond this and that, good and evil, wrong and right, deceived and not deceived, enlightened and not enlightened. Just this.


Lojong #3, Examine the nature of unborn awareness

Ah, this is a pithy one!

Simply look at your own basic awareness, mind, noting that if you pursue it to the deepest level (which means spending a lot of very still, silent time) there is nothing there.

No color, no shape, no size, no attributes or qualities – just awareness. Sometimes referred to as “pure awareness.” Awareness that has no content. Essentially, we realize that awareness is simply the potential to be aware of some content. So the mind, in itself, without anything else, is nothing.

Pursuing this, eventually we see that the nature of everything is impermanence, emptiness or shunyata – not that it doesn’t exist, but simply that everything is empty of an independent, abiding nature. So it doesn’t exist in and of itself, it only exists in co-existence with everything else.

As I said, pithy. You might have guessed that this is the essential thing you must get before much else in the Buddhist meditation catalog really works for you…

Lojong #2 Regard all dharmas as dreams


In the interest of developing compassion and openness, it’s perhaps best to regard whatever happens as only phantom… “Nothing ever happens. But because nothing happens, everything happens.” I.E. don’t take this so-called ‘reality’ too seriously. Whatever ‘reality’ is, all we can ever know of it is what our mind-system perceives and conceives. Which keeps everything light and open….

Bodhichitta means enlightened heart or mind… ultimate Bodhichitta slogans are those that are concerned with the absolute nature of reality, as opposed to relative, which is the everyday practical stuff.

Before you get too stuck on this one, be sure you go on to #3 and #4…

Lojong 1: First, train in the preliminaries

The Preliminaries means shamatha meditation – basic, formless meditation.

This also includes the idea of the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind (to the path of Enlightenment): 1. the precious opportunity of a human life; 2. impermanence and death; 3. the reality of karma (cause & effect); and 4. the suffering that is samsara – normal life.

Kongtrul, one of the early commentators on these slogans, says: “Take an attitude of devotion to the path of loving-kindness.”

On Training the Mind

After something of a gap, I’m back to posting Practice Notes on this site, and hope to continue the Meditation Guide as well, as time allows.

This gap has roots in a complex matrix of causes and conditions, prime among them my depression and confusion following the death of my mother… of which I may write more later. It all has created something of a gap in my meditation practice as well, and so, casting about for some way to get back on the path, I have been digging into my past practices. I’ve begun to do yoga regularly again, and have been relying heavily on anapana – following the breath – and some chanting of the Gate Gate mantra – as well as some minor rituals – reciting daily vows at my morning altar.

These have all been helpful, and I’m feeling closer to resuming a solid daily meditation practice.

Another thing from my past practice that has been very helpful is lojong practice, which comes from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, most famously in this country from Chogyam Trungpa and his disciple Pema Chodron. Though Trungpa was a controversial character, his ‘crazy wisdom’ has been a powerful stream in US Buddhism, and his book Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness has been a powerful influence on my practice.

Although my formal practice was Zen, I have also practiced tonglen, or sending and taking, and used the lojong slogans in my mindfullness practice.

Tonglen is a very powerful practice that should be undertaken only with a solid foundation of shamatha – formless meditation – and preferably with a teacher’s guidance. Of course, I always disregarded that advice and just jumped in where angels fear to tread, but I realize now I really do need a teacher for truly developing the practice. And I certainly would not presume to guide anyone into this practice via this blog.

Even without a teacher, however, the lojong practice – the slogans themselves – seems to be very helpful in dealing with the difficult process of putting the teachings into practice and dealing with the vagaries of everyday life in the Twenty-first Century. The slogans are very down-to-earth practical advice, “a grandmotherly finger-point” on how to apply the Buddha’s teachings to your life situations. Even without understanding them properly and deeply, they are helpful.

I have read Trungpa’s book several times straight through and been through it taking one slogan a day quite a few more times. In addition, I created cards for myself summarizing his commentary about each of the slogans and have been through those more times than I’ve counted. I posted a few of them on the original Shunyata’s Apprentice blog several years ago.

The point of going through the fifty-nine slogans is that one becomes very familiar with them, so appropriate ones tend to come to mind in various life situations, prompting reflection and a meditative awareness that can help turn potential disasters into highly enlightening experiences. “Poison as medicine” is how Pema Chodron describes this process.

In my recent attempt to get my practice back on track, the slogans have been immensely helpful, and I have been going through them with renewed intensity, finding new ways to keep them active in my mind, including making a small booklet from my cards that’s convenient to carry around and refer to. I also have begun posting computer-generated versions on my Instagram feed… with links to these further explications included.

So welcome, if that’s what brought you here! Hope you find these explanations enlightening! Even better if it motivates you to read Trungpa’s little book yourself! Here are a few independent bookseller sources.