Posted in lojong

What is Lojong?

Lojong is a set of techniques for training the mind. These techniques are designed to open our hearts and awaken our minds. There are fifty nine slogans and they offer us a lot of help in transcending our egotism and putting down the baggage we are carrying.

The fifty nine slogans have been used by Tibetan Buddhists for centuries in order to help Buddhist practitioners focus on what’s important in our efforts to train and tame our minds. Sometimes on the Buddhist path we can tend to forget why we’re doing this and what’s important.

The important thing about these teachings is that they help us to meet ordinary situations in life with a Bodhisattva state of mind. Lojong really involves making our views more expansive,  cultivating a compassion that includes everyone.

These teachings have been handed down for 8 centuries. Lojong is considered a Mahayana teaching. Vajrayana Buddhism has been so influential on the Buddhism of Tibet that Mahayana teachings sometimes get overlooked. As a practitioner of Mahayana Buddhism, I love delving into teachings like these.

Lojong practice helps me to transform all of the aspects of my life into the path of Enlightenment. It reminds me that there is no separation between the sacred life and ordinary life, between the spiritual and the worldly. It helps me to be less pulled around by my egotism. When we practice lojong even really difficult circumstances can become more workable.

Lojong practice is one of my teachers.

The Lojong slogans are said to come from the great Indian Buddhist teacher Atisha, who received extensive training in bodhicitta and mind training. A Tibetan student of Atisha’s founded the Kadam lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Now Lojong practice is found in all of the major branches of Tibetan Buddhism.

Lojong is a list of 59 slogans that summarize the view and application of Mahayana Buddhism. They provide a way to train our minds through both meditation practice and daily life. The foundation,  as with most Buddhist teachings, is on developing mindfulness and awareness.

With this practice we become more aware of how self-centered our worldview is. We practice to reverse that and have a broader vision, a vision of gentleness and fearless compassion. This way we begin to think of ourselves as part of the world, rather than making enemies of everything all the time. We want to prevent our actions and motivations from being quite so motivated by projections and expectations.

Our practice in ordinary life is based on learning these slogans and being able to remember them when we need them. If we study them diligently, we will find them coming into our minds when we need them.

Lojong teachings can inspire us to live with more gentleness and compassion. They inspire us to transcend the self.

Lojong practice can serve as our basic training on the path of the Bodhisattva.

The Lojong slogans are divided into seven categories. I’ve written about each one as a series here:

Train in the Preliminaries

Training in Bodhicitta

Bad Circumstances are the Path

Make Practice Your Life

Evaluation

Disciplines

Guidelines

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Posted in buddhism

Flashes of Experience

The Tibetan Master Jamgon Kongtrul described various experiences that can come up during our meditation practice. These are temporary experiences that come up sometimes and we can see them as sort of a roadmap for our awakening. If we’re having experiences that are confusing to us, we can look at his list and see if they match.

They are called nyams, which means flashes of experience. Nyams can be experienced both in sitting and in daily life, if we have a regular practice on the cushion and we’re mindful off the cushion. We want to notice these experiences but not really attach to them. They are temporary, but they can be used to keep us in the present. There are 5 nyam and 3 advanced nyam.

They’re described through metaphor. I’m going to list them now.

  1. Brook on a Steep Hill: This is where our thoughts are very fast and busy. Our thoughts are said to be like water flowing downhill. It’s difficult to stop them or even slow them down.
  2. Turbulent River: Our minds are even more chaotic. Thoughts come like a river going through a rocky area, like whitewater rafting. Total chaos. Lots of thoughts that we can’t even begin to manage.
  3. Slow River: Thoughts become calm and familiar, smooth and slow. This is where we start to settle down. Sometimes we have to sit for a long time to get to this point in our sitting because our minds are so frantic.
  4. Ocean Without Waves: This is a space of absolute stillness, when we’re absorbed in our meditation. This is the point where a lot of people lose track of time in their meditation practice. Suddenly the timer goes off and you can’t believe it’s been 30 minutes.
  5. Candle Undisturbed by the Wind: This is a complete stillness. For a moment self and other drop away. There is no meditator, but just the act of meditation.

And the advanced nyam. These are often only experienced on retreat, or at least in longer sitting periods.

6. Bliss: This is when we feel refreshed. We have a sense of well being. There might be tingling sensations and flashes of joy. Sometimes this nyam makes us feel inspired to go create something.

7. Luminosity: We gain a sense of clarity and a feeling of interconnectedness. Separation between ourselves and the world around us drops away. We have a panoramic vision that is beyond duality.

8. Nonthought: No thoughts arrive. There is a stillness and silence. Not only has the individual separation disappeared, the entire universe has disappeared and we are dwelling in the void. This is an experience that many people find terrifying. An intuitive understanding of Emptiness.


These states can and do come up for many of us. All  we can do is notice them and not cling to them. Sometimes people have those 6th or 7th nyam experiences and think they’ve attained Enlightenment. Weird experiences do come up if you practice for a long time. That’s part of the reason it’s important to have a teacher and/or spiritual community, to keep us from getting carried away.

Posted in buddhism, Uncategorized

The Three Yanas

These are the three Yanas, or the three great sects, of Buddhism.

If we’re going to compare the three yanas to western religion, I think the appropriate thing is to liken them to the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Although they have essentially the same foundation, those religions have some big differences. Buddhism is the same way. And just like those religions, Buddhism has many many subsects within the three yanas. We can’t suggest that these yanas are 100% separate, as each of them does penetrate the others a little. Vajrayana especially has lots of elements of the other two yanas within it. All three of these yanas have come to the west.

Hinayana is called “the path of the worthy ones”. It’s the oldest of the three yanas. It’s said that there were 18 hinayana sects and only one, Theravada (the way of the elders) has survived into the modern era. Hinayana is pragmatic and deep-rooted. It’s emphasis is on the core Buddhist teachings: the nature of the mind, meditation, suffering, impermanence, egolessness, personal development. It’s based on training in mindfulness, awareness, cultivating virtue and equanimity. It’s foundation is the refuge vow. Theravada Buddhism is mainly practiced in  Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.

Mahayana is called “the path of the awakened beings”. It’s the biggest of the three yanas and there are numerous sects within the Mahayana, to name a few: zen, pure land, tendai, nichiren, and many many others. It’s founded upon the premise of combining wisdom and compassionate action. It’s about serving and saving others. In the Mahayana we cultivate wisdom through the view of emptiness. We practice lojong (mind training) based on cultivating the six perfections; generosity, virtue, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom. It’s foundation is the bodhisattva vow. It’s mainly found in China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Vajrayana is called “the path of fearless engagement”. It’s by far the smallest of the three yanas, but it’s well known because of figures like the Dalai Lama and Chogyam Trungpa. It’s based on devotion to one’s teacher, spiritual empowerment rituals, visualization meditations, and devotional practices that are almost like prayer. It’s considered a whole hearted practice, one you engage in with all of your energy. It’s foundation is samaya vows, vows of devotion to one’s teacher. Vajrayana Buddhism is mainly practiced by Tibetans (many of whom don’t live in Tibet) but there are also some Vajrayana branches from Japan that still exist.

 

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Posted in Uncategorized, vajrayana

I Don’t Do Visualizations

I attend a local Rime (nonsectarian) Vajrayana Buddhist Temple and I love it. I go to as many events and retreats as I can and I volunteer for a few duties, including teaching classes. My community means a lot to me.

This means I’ve been on retreats with Vajrayana teachers multiple times (sometimes Theravada and Zen teachers visit too). I like Vajrayana teachers, I really do. I find the bowing and chanting and bells and drums to be interesting and entertaining.

I have to admit the big focus on rebirth is something I don’t connect with at all. I am, by nature, skeptical of such things in a way that most of the people in my community are not. And that’s okay. That’s definitely on the list of reasons I give when people ask why I have trouble thinking of myself as a Vajrayana Buddhist. But that’s not what I’m writing about now.

I’m writing about visualization practices. I’m confessing that I don’t really do them.

A point comes where the teacher says something along the lines of: “Imagine a glowing ball of clear light directly in front of you.” or “Picture a Buddha sitting up here in front of you, looking upon you with eyes of compassion.”

These sound like lovely practices and they are. But I have trouble. And I wonder if I’m the only one. I sit there trying to picture clear light for 20 minutes. Sometimes I do for a little bit, but I always end up giving up and going to following the breath or zazen instead. And I often wonder, “Are the other 40 or so people in this room doing this without difficulty? Am I the only one?” and “When people say they connect with Vajrayana practice, is this what they mean?”

I have friends who are deeply involved in Vajrayana practice. They are engaged in dedicated study with a good teacher. They do visualization practices and I don’t think they struggle with them at all.

On a final note I want to say something about Trungpa. I almost consider Chogyam Trungpa as one of my teachers. I consider him a patriarch of American Buddhism. I’ve meditated in his stupa. I’ve studied his teachings a great deal. But there’s only so far I seem to be able to go with the training he set up.

Visualization meditations are a huge roadblock for me and at the higher levels of his teachings, that’s really not something you can get around.

 

Posted in bodhisattva, Striding Through the Universe, vajrayana

Shambhala Road

I set off on my journey at 4 in the morning, hours before dawn. I was not on a road trip. I was on a pilgrimage. I was not traveling with family or friends, I was taking this journey alone.

I was crossing the empty and desolate plains of western Kansas to enter Colorado. I live on the eastern edge of Kansas, so I would have to cross the entire state. My destination was the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, the final resting place and shrine dedicated to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He was the founder of the Shambhala lineage and one of the first people to bring Vajrayana Buddhism to the west. He was the first Tibetan Buddhist teacher to really and truly embrace western culture and teach in that context.

 

Being a devout Buddhist, I decided that’s it’s silly that there’s this great Buddhist holy site 10 hours away and I’ve never been there. I know a few people that have, but I don’t know if they’ve seen the journey as a great pilgrimage, as I see it. My friend Ray Porter, who taught me “The Way of the Bodhisattva,” said that he donated to the stupa project when they were building it, but he’s never taken the trip to see it.

Being a 36 year old man, I decided it was silly that I had never seen a mountain and never gone west of Kansas.

It was a year ago that my marriage ended. Since then I’ve realized that a lot of loneliness sometimes comes with a lot of freedom.

It’s been one year since the end of my marriage. There have been some big struggles but some good times too. I’ve made mistakes along the way but some good choices too. Everything is different now and I am different too.
I drove 1500 miles in a weekend so I could go to the mountains, so I could see a Buddhist holy site, so I could have a big experience to help me put down my emotional baggage.

My plan was to go to Red Feather Lakes, to the Shambhala Mountain Center to see that stupa and maybe hike a little. Then, go sleep in Fort Collins in an Airbnb. Then, travel to Boulder Saturday to explore a little. Then, stay at the Airbnb again and return home Sunday.

I went on 4th of July weekend, knowing I could get home Sunday and rest all day Monday before going back to work.

I wanted to sit and meditate under the rocky mountains.

So, away I went early in the morning. As the sun was rising I was driving through some interesting scenery called the Flint Hills. I saw rolling  hills of beautiful green grass. After that I entered the void that is western Kansas. The only thing that catches your attention driving through western Kansas is the giant metal windmills.

Endless time seemed to pass before I crossed the state line into Colorado. I knew I still had four hours left before I would get to Red Feather Lakes, but I still felt like I had accomplished something by driving across the entire state of Kansas.

Hours later I saw them. They were far away in the distance, so far that I thought they might actually be clouds. They were mountains. A new kind of excitement flowed through me as I continued. I turned onto a dirt road to go up to Red Feather Lakes. Mountains were all around me now. I could hear my little car working harder as the elevation increased. I don’t think little cars like mine are meant to go up in mountains.

It was 3pm when I got there.
I came to Shambhala Road and turned left. I parked my car in a parking lot with many other cars. There were signs marking the path up to the stupa, and flags all the way up the path, so I wouldn’t get lost. I could see it in the distance, poking out from behind the trees. It was majestic and beautiful. It was 108 feet tall. It was a long winding path, so the stupa kept coming into view and disappearing again among the trees. I think I walked a mile or more on this mountain path.

 

 

Eventually I came upon it. I noticed a dark statue standing toward the top, built into it. I walked around the stupa clockwise once, as a sign of respect. There was a spot just outside the door for my shoes, so I left them behind and went inside.

 

There was a shrine room inside. There, sitting in front of a row of cushions, (all gomdens, no zafus) was a giant golden sitting Buddha with a beatific smile on his face. And suddenly I had a beatific smile on my face too.
The floor, walls, and ceilings are covered in intricate sacred designs. My friend Lama Matt told me, “When you’re there, don’t forget to look up.” I did look up and there was a beautiful mandala on the ceiling. And there are little alcoves built into the walls all around, even behind the statue. These had different things in them, pictures of Trungpa, notes on his life, statues of Bodhisattvas. All these alcoves were very interesting.

I sat on a cushion at the feet of the Buddha and looked up at him. I noticed my heart was racing and I felt a little light headed. I wondered if it was from the walk up to the stupa and the high elevation, or if it was because of the sacredness of the stupa and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

My head was spinning as I sat there. Then I felt at peace. I felt oneness with the statue, and the other people around, and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and the mountain. I felt oneness with everything. I felt a dropping away of body and mind. I heard the inconceivable thunderous silence of a mostly empty universe. My sense of self was gone.

I was empty and I was emptiness and everything was bliss.

I had a timeless moment of unconsciousness and I saw the golden eternity. There was no coming or going, there was no one and no path. There was only emptiness. And love. There was love too. I felt like I turned a corner in my spiritual journey. I felt like I had put down a lot of my emotional baggage. I felt light and free.

 

I felt like I was receiving teachings from Trungpa, and also from the earth and the sky. I felt so….connected. And aware.

I had a spiritual experience on Shambhala Mountain. Or maybe it was just the lack of oxygen from going up the mountain too fast. Either way I feel transformed.

After an endless and deep sit, I cam back to my body. I stood, opened the door, and stepped out. The sun was shining brighter, everything was infused with wonder. As I walked down the path, a deer walked right up to me. We stood for a moment, looking at each other. Then it ran off. Animals behave differently when they aren’t being hunted. In Kansas deer get the hell away from you as fast as they can. In Colorado they come up to you.

I made my way down the mountain.

I spent that evening exploring Fort Collins and I spent the entire next day exploring Boulder.

These were wonderful places. I saw a man in an African tribal mask dancing and playing bongos in the middle of downtown Boulder. I went to a jazz festival. They had food trucks, just like festivals here. But there was no unhealthy food. It was all kale shakes and salads and vegan burritos. (here in Kansas city it would be chicken fingers and ribs). That’s probably why everyone I saw in Boulder was fit and thin. That, and the bicycles. There are bike lanes on all the streets and I saw people riding bikes everywhere.

A cute hippy girl tried to sell me a pendant with a secret compartment to hide my stash in. I wondered why I would need such a thing in Colorado.

I expected Boulder to be full of Buddhist temples. I only found three and the only one that really seemed like it got a lot of visitors was the Boulder Shambhala Center. There were two Buddhist stores with Tibet in their names. And there was a new age-y bookstore that had a lot of Buddhist stuff too.

I didn’t travel to Colorado to party, but I did buy pot in a store, just because I could.

Sunday morning I came home.

The drive home was harder than the drive there. As you go from Colorado to Kansas on I-70 the scenery slowly gets less and less interesting. But I made it. I got home in the early afternoon.

I brought a little of the mountain back with me.

 

 

 

 

Posted in tattooed buddha

The Purpose of Buddhist Strings

author's own photo

I have three strings around my wrist.

There are two red ones and a yellow one. One of the red ones is looking a little worn. I’ve had it for a while. It’s something people notice sometimes.

Everyone knows I prefer the Zen tradition and strings aren’t part of that, but I have spent a great deal of time practicing in the Vajrayana tradition and it has meant a lot to me too. Each one has a different meaning.

The first red one was given to me by Lama Chuck Stanford when he gave me Refuge Vows and I officially became Buddhist. The second red one was given to me by Lama Chuck when I took Bodhisattva Vows, deepening my Buddhist commitment.

The yellow one was give to me by Lama Lena Feral, and it was blessed by her teacher Wangdor Rinpoche—a famous Vajrayana Buddhist teacher from Tibet who held several lineages.

But, what do these strings mean?

They are sometimes called blessing cords and sometimes called protection cords. They are used in several lineages of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism.

These cords are blessed and given by Lamas on important occasions, for example when one takes vows. Taking vows is a part of most branches of Buddhism, but taking vows doesn’t always involve receiving a string. One can also be given a string when one does an important retreat or receives teachings from a well known teacher, especially secret teachings. I was given my yellow string because I received teachings from Lama Lena.

In ancient times, people would just wear their cords until they fell apart. In the modern world they last much longer because we have synthetic material.

Legend has it that these cords can bring good luck or offer some kind of protection.

In the traditional practice the Lama ties a knot in the cord, blows a mantra into it, and makes a blessing. They say this allows you to take your teacher with you, even after they are long gone. Many religious traditions have this kind of process, where a teacher imbues an object with spiritual energy and blessings.

Now, I’ll be honest and tell you, I don’t believe these strings provide any sort of protection or good luck. I’m skeptical of such things. But I do think they serve a purpose.

They can be a reminder.

I have a string that reminds me that I took Refuge Vows. It reminds me that I am a Buddhist and I should live mindfully.

I have a string that reminds me that I took Bodhisattva Vows—that my purpose is to spread compassion and wisdom, to save as many beings and bring as many to Enlightenment as I can.

And I have a string that reminds me that I have received additional teachings. This one reminds me that there is always more to learn and there are always more steps to take.

I have three strings and I have seen people with more.

I think reminders have some value.


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Posted in Uncategorized

What’s the Difference Between Zen & Tibetan Buddhism?

Zen is my favorite Buddhist tradition and I think everyone knows that. But, I am part of a non-sectarian Tibetan Buddhist community, and I love this community very much. I volunteer there and I teach classes there.

But sometimes people—especially people who follow my writing—ask me questions about Zen.

An entire book could be written on the subject, I’m sure. But I will answer as briefly as I can so that it’s not so long that no one reads it.

Here in the West Zen and Tibetan style are the two most well known branches of Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhism is really well known. This is largely due to the popularity of the Dalai Lama and the efforts of Chogyam Trungpa, and there are other factors as well. But worldwide, Tibetan Buddhism is actually not all that common. It’s usually considered the smallest branch of Buddhism, even with all of it’s different lineages. It only seems big here. There are branches of Buddhism like Pure Land that are really common in Asia, but have barely taken root here.

Zen, on the other hand, is common here and worldwide as well. It’s been here in the West longer (since the late 1800s at least) and it’s taken root in a lot of places.

So, here we go.

Zen really emerged as a distinct sect when Buddhism entered China and Buddhist ideas merged with some of the Taoist philosophy that was already there. Tibetan Buddhism emerged when Buddhism entered Tibet and Buddhist ideas merged with the religion that was already present—a shamanic religion called Bon—that included a lot of things like nature spirits and ancestor worship.

Because that’s what Buddhism does. It mingles with whatever cultures are there already. Buddhism adapts to local conditions in a way that other religions don’t always. It’s a very versatile spiritual path.  Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism both have several different lineages that emphasize different things, so I can only really write about this in broad strokes right now, although I may go deeper in a later article.

The really short answer is this: Zen Buddhism is minimalist and Tibetan Buddhism is much more elaborate.

Zen meditation is mainly about following the breath as well as emptying the mind. It also includes a few deeper things like meditative inquiry and riddles. Tibetan meditation often includes things like mantras and visualizations and concentrating on really complex thoughts.

Tibetan Buddhism is more what we would think of as religious. There are a number of divine beings and Bodhisattvas that are talked about, visualized, and even prayed to. There are also very complex rituals and prayers. Zen Buddhism has rituals too. Practitioners are expected to bow a certain way and enter the temple a certain way, but things are just a less complicated.

And how are they similar?

They both talk about lineage. Who your teacher was matters a great deal. They both emphasize Buddha nature—the teaching that we are Enlightened already—we just have to realize it.

I don’t think one is better than the other. They are both authentic forms of Buddhism. If you like elaborate ritual, then Tibetan style is probably right for you. If you don’t, then Zen might be a better choice.

Posted in Uncategorized

Rime

The first time I went to the Rime Center I had never met another Buddhist. I had been studying Buddhism on my own for several years. I knew some people with a slight interest in Buddhism, but no one that really wanted to engage the practice with me.

 

I found the Rime Center due to it’s location. In 2009 I started working at the IRS building downtown and I happened to notice where the Rime Center was because it’s between my work and the highway. I literally drove right by it every single day on my way to and from work.

 

 

Anyway, I had been practicing Buddhism for five years or so on my own, studying sutras and meditating for thirty minutes every day. I had learned about it through reading books on the subject, as I imagine many people do.

 

The philosophy really spoke to me on a personal level, along with the fundamental practices: nonviolence, compassion, cultivating insight and wisdom. And when I started practicing daily meditation I could clearly see the great benefits to my mental and emotional well being.

 

My devotion to Buddhism grew when my daughter Nissa was born, it grew some more when meditation practice helped me get through the end of my first marriage.

 

It was at this point that my solitary practice reached a critical mass. I wanted to practice with a Sangha. I wanted to meet other Buddhists.

I didn’t really want to go, however. I had been studying Buddhism for years and I knew about the different sects and I wasn’t all that interested in Vajrayana Buddhism. The worship-like devotion to Bodhisattvas, the empowerments, all the bowing and such really didn’t appeal to me. I thought it sounded silly. I wanted to experience either Zen or Insight Meditation.

 

But, the Rime Center was there, so I went. It was in April of 2009

 

So, I walked up a long stone staircase and entered the building, which is an old hundred year old church. I went alone. I had tried to get a friend to go with me, but several attempts to coordinate our schedules had failed, so I went alone. Later, I would take my daughter, but not that first visit.

 

There was a strong smell of incense, a smell that I enjoy very much. I wondered if I would smell like incense all day.

 

There was bowing and chanting and bells and it was wonderful. I fell in love with the Rime Center that day.

 

I wasn’t a regular yet, however. I only went occasionally that year. But I did take Refuge Vows.

 

When I took these Vows, it did actually change my life. I was inspired by my Refuge Vows to work harder in my Buddhist practice. Later I would take Bodhisattva Vows and become inspired to improve myself beyond anything I thought possible. Vows do help. I don’t they have a supernatural meaning, but they do give us strength and inspiration. If it wasn’t for taking these vows at the Rime Center, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today.

 

After my daughter turned 4 I took her to Dharma School for the first time.

 

She loved it. We started going together.

I would later learn that there aren’t a whole lot of Buddhist children’s programs in the country. At most Buddhist temples there aren’t really opportunities to take your children with you. I like having the opportunity to share Buddhism with my children.

After my son was born in 2010 we became regulars. I started volunteering in Dharma School a few months later.

 

After a few years I ended up leading Dharma School, it wasn’t really because of anything special about me, it was only because those ahead of me had gone away. I happily accepted the position.

 

I’ve been practicing with children for several years now and it’s been very rewarding to me spiritually.

Buddhism teaches the interconnectedness of all things. Kids seem to understand that intuitively. Maybe as we get older we accumulate more delusion. I’m not sure. But children seem to take to learning about some of the deepest Buddhist concepts very well.

 

 

I’m glad to say that in spite of their age differences, the children tend to get along very well.

 

There are very few arguments, and there is no fighting. They act like a community. That could be because of the very positive atmosphere of the Rime Center, or I suppose it could be because they are being raised by their parents with Buddhist values. Either way it’s a great thing to see.

The years before I joined the Rime Center I really didn’t think it was that important to be in a Sangha. I enjoyed practicing Buddhism by myself. But when I joined the Rime Center I learned why community is important. Being in a Buddhist community make me want to be a better Buddhist. Knowing that I’m not alone motivates me on the path.