Finding Resonance with Your Practice: Easing into the New Year January 31, 2023 19:01
If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, click here for the audio link.
It's hard to top last month's blog post about a life-changing trip to India, so I'm going to keep things simple and easy this month.
January, with it's cold temperatures and snowy conditions, has brought many opportunities for practice, and I have gently leaned into all of them.
This month, I committed to beginning each morning by reciting the 21 Praises of Tara. Before reaching for my phone, before getting dressed--I turn on my bedside table light and chant these praises in English from a small booklet I received from an earlier retreat.
It takes just a few minutes, and it's an easy, peaceful way to begin the day.
Mornings are fairly hectic for me, especially on the days when I tutor. I'm scrambling to shower, dress, eat breakfast, make a lunch before leaving for school. However, taking five minutes to practice right when I wake up is totally doable.
Sometimes, Zora will join me. She'll jump up on the bed, stare at me with her big green eyes, and purr as I chant the stanzas to a simple melody.
I'm sensitive to music, and melodies stay with me for a while, even after the music has stopped, so all the Taras are with me as I'm making breakfast and pouring hot tea into a tumbler. They also ride with me in the car as I'm commuting to school, which is perfectly fine by me. I enjoy their company.
At the beginning of this month, my friend Kim invited me to participate in a ten-day meditation challenge through the Ten Percent Happier app. I'd heard about this challenge on Roshi Joan Halifax's Facebook page, and I'd listened to the Ten Percent Happier podcast with the interview with Dan Harris, who was the main host of this ten-day challenge, so saying yes to this challenge was a no-brainer.
I enjoyed the brief videos before each meditation session. Harris and Roshi Joan had traveled to Dharamshala to interview HHDL for this project, and seeing familiar sights where I had recently traveled with my Dharma friends was motivating and comforting.
Roshi Joan led the meditations each day, which lasted for ten minutes. It was easy to make time for them--some of the sessions I was able to do at school between student sessions. This was a short-term commitment, and Kim and I encouraged each other to practice daily through the app.
Over the past few winters, I have committed to participating in Sravasti Abbey's Retreat from Afar. These retreats span the course of several months, and participants can choose how much time they wish to devote to the daily practices--anywhere from one to four months.
Personally, I like the four-month commitment. This year's retreat is a little different from previous retreats. The focus this year is on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, which I have heard about, but I haven't delved into specific practices related to them.
For previous RFA retreats, I would listen to the teachings the nuns would post on YouTube and read the weekly articles they would share via email. I would practice the meditation or sadhana sessions on my own.
This year's format is more community-based. I've been looking forward to participating in their daily practice sessions on Zoom. They host two public sessions. Sometimes I catch the morning practice, and sometimes, I have to wait to practice during their evening sessions.
It's nice to have a couple of options, and I'm enjoying the structure, format, and melodies of the prayers. I'm also enjoying the guided analytic meditations and visualizations nestled between the sadhana prayers.
One of the things I like about these annual retreats is I don't have to leave home and abandon my work responsibilities. I also like that the nuns freely offer recorded teachings via YouTube. For this retreat, Ven. Sangye Khadro shared a series of twelve teachings related to the Four Establishments that she taught in 2021. She also recommended a book, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Gunaratana to supplement and support our daily practices.
While this opportunity requires more time and dedication than the ten-day meditation challenge and month-long Tara recitations, it is interesting and engaging to me, and I am definitely reaping benefits from it.
I'm hoping to be able to visit Sravasti Abbey in person some day.
Since September's Chenrezig retreat led by Geshe Kunga at TMBCC in Bloomington, I have been practicing the Chenrezig sadhana on the daily at home. I read it aloud in Tibetan and in English. This practice, too, has become more comforting and familiar each time I recite it.
I enjoy the melody shifts as I make my way through each section of the sadhana, and my fluency and pronunciation with the Tibetan language continues to improve slowly with this practice as well.
My days lately have become crowded with various practices, but they aren't burdensome have to's--they are sources of comfort, and they offer just enough structure to make me feel like I've accomplished something meaningful.
Some of these practices are temporary. The Retreat from Afar will end in April, and I have one more day of reciting the 21 Praises of Tara in the morning.
Each practice is an offering--a dedication, and, collectively, these practices dovetail and enhance each other. Most importantly, I've noticed that the more regularly I practice, the more benefits I notice when I'm not sitting on the cushion.
*I'm calmer and more relaxed.
A couple of Sundays ago, the temperature was just low enough to turn wet streets slick and icy. I was driving in Bloomington early in the morning, and my brakes locked up as I was approaching a red light. I was able to glide over into the right lane to avoid the stopped car in front of me, and I continued to glide through the red light without getting hit--or freaking out.
*I don't plunge into spirals of worry and anxiety...as often :).
My husband and I were notified by a sub contractor for the power company that they were going to have to cut down 25 trees along our long driveway in order to replace a couple of old telephone poles. While this news was upsetting, I didn't freak out. My husband had a contact that proved to be invaluable--the name and number of the regional director of this power company. He called and explained the situation.
In the meantime, I did what I could--I reached out to my monk friends and asked if they would offer prayers for these vulnerable trees during their next puja ceremony. During my own visualizations during practice, I imagined miniature golden Shakyamuni Buddhas on every branch of these trees. These Buddhas dissolved into bright lights and traveled into their trunks all the way down into their root networks.
We received good news this afternoon--the trees would not need to be cut down, and the sub contractor that gave us the bad news initially would be removed from this project, replaced with someone with a little more respect for nature and compassion.
Was it the phone call or the prayers and visualizations? Maybe all of the above. It doesn't matter--skillful action and dedicated practice paid off.
* I'm more open to exploring options and adventures.
Instead of sitting in the never-ending construction traffic on I-465 when driving home from school only to exit onto another major road that is also under construction, I explored several options, thanks to Google Maps, until I found a route that avoids major traffic, long waits at stop lights, and views blocked by semis and dump trucks.
I don't save much time with this scenic route, but I don't mind. I am able to keep moving at a safe, steady pace, I enjoy the view along the way, and when I arrive home, I am in a much calmer state of mind.
One of the biggest lessons that I've learned over the years is the importance of finding my way into my own personal practices.
What works for some of my Dharma and spiritual friends doesn't necessarily resonate with me, and what resonates with me, may not resonate with you....and that's OK. Practice is practice.
The important thing is to find what does resonate--and to make a commitment and some time for practice--every day, even if it's just for a few minutes. Sometimes it takes an open mind and an adventurous heart to find what works, but when you do, you'll know it because your life will begin to change...for the better.
I have added several beautiful malas and quarter malas to the online collection recently. Check it out, while you're here--and if a design resonates with you...you know what to do :).
See you next month--
Interdependence and the Trip of a Lifetime: The Balance of Giving and Receiving December 31, 2022 13:33
(View from Namgyal Monastery, HHDL's temple in Dharamshala)
If you prefer to listen to this month's blog post, please click HERE for the audio link.
Americans, in general, are a bit fussy about independence. We like to be able to do things "all by ourselves," and many of us are hesitant to accept help from others. However, one of the biggest lessons that my Buddhist practice has taught me is that we are constantly riding the waves of our own personal and collective karmas, and that because of various causes and conditions, no one journeys through life alone--we are interdependent beings, whether we realize it or not. Life is more fun when you realize it, though.
I was very fortunate to be able to travel with a group of Dharma friends to India in November. We spent a week near a monastery in South India, and then we went to Dharamshala in North India for a week or so.
This truly was an amazing trip of a lifetime, and it would not have been possible without the presence, assistance, patience, kindness, compassion, generosity, expertise, and effort of many, many others.
One of the biggest lessons of this trip for me focused on the importance of giving and receiving--especially maintaining a healthy balance between these two actions.
Too much giving--especially feeling pressured to give, can leave me feeling depleted and exhausted. By the same token, too much receiving makes me feel uncomfortable, undeserving, selfish, and mired in the grippy tangle of attachment.
This trip was a beautiful dance of give and receive, and our group members were willing participants in its choreography.
One of the things we were grateful for was the delicious food we enjoyed while in India. While we were in Delhi, we were invited to a dinner at the Tashi Kyil Guest House and were served steaming platters of momos, veggies, fresh bread, and cups of hot chai.
I remember hearing the clatter of dishes, pots, and pans--the hiss of steam--the spray of water in the kitchen. Many hands were involved in preparing this meal, and it was delicious.
We enjoyed all of the meals during our trip, whether they were served in fancy hotels or prepared in tiny local restaurants, like Dolma's Kitchen in Dharamshala, where all the food was made from scratch--the tea from the Norbulinka Cafe, the cheesecake and yogurt mousse from a tiny restaurant near Namgyal Monastery--and all those wonderful honey lemon ginger teas and cappuccinos.
No matter where we went, we were greeted with warm, smiling faces and sincere service. We pooled our rupees and took turns paying for each other's meals. It was a beautiful exchange of give and receive--one fueled by meaningful service and gratitude.
(Geshe Kunga treated us to tea at an outdoor cafe along the kora in Dharamshala)
We did not partake in street food. However, one of my favorite meals was "soup in a bucket." Our teacher, Geshe Kunga, who took very good care of us throughout this trip, sent us an urgent message one evening to come to the temple. We hurried down dark, crowded streets to Namgyal Monastery to be greeted by Geshe-lak, who served us steaming bowls of spicy vegetable soup with thick, hand-made noodles from a large metal bucket. He had sponsored a dinner and wanted to share it with us, too. Monks from Namgyal prepared it for their sangha members. We sat on metal benches at the Dalai Lama's temple and enjoyed the warm, savory soup that was lovingly prepared by many monks for the benefit of many others.
(Mmmm...mmmmm...good. Sangha members enjoying homemade soup)
Interdependence was literally all around us--and it was not limited to restaurants and coffee shops. It was with us in the bustling Delhi airport--it was with us in traffic as taxi drivers gracefully chauffeured us among other cars, trucks, tuk tuks, scooters, pedestrians, and even livestock on crowded streets.
Interdependence was with us as we navigated our way on foot through narrow alleyways of the Tibetan Quarter in Manju ka Tila, busy markets near Hubballi, and the sloping network of streets in McCleod Ganj.
We had so much to be thankful for on this trip, but the day before Thanksgiving, we had the opportunity of a lifetime--our group had an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
I can't begin to fathom all of the causes and conditions that had to align in order for this meeting to occur, but we were beyond appreciative.
I remember waking up at 3:00 AM in my hotel room at the Serkong House. I was too keyed up to practice, so I sat in bed and chanted the long Chenrezig mantra. I made a cup of tea, continued to chant, and waited.
Later, I showered, changed into a chupa (Traditional Tibetan dress) and pangden (apron) and met the rest of our group in the lobby at 6:15 AM.
We walked to the temple in the cool darkness. A black feral dog walked with us, escorting us most of the way to Namgyal Monastery. I was a little nervous about our meeting, but continuing to chant the Chenrezig mantra helped me remain calm, clear, and focused.
Geshe Kunga was waiting for us at the gate, and we walked to the office where we all took Covid tests. Our group was scheduled to meet with HHDL last that morning.
We showed our passports, went through security, and waited. We placed objects that we brought with us for HHDL to bless on a small table. I brought my white Selenite mala and a small quarter mala that I had made for someone special and gave these to the attending monk.
When it was time, our group was ushered upstairs to a room where couches and several chairs were arranged on either side of HHDL's seat in the middle of the room. Once we were seated, we remained very quiet as attending monks bustled quietly around us. One brought in a tray of beautiful statues and placed it on a nearby table.
We could hear groups of people just outside the door, and occasionally, HHDL's voice and gentle laugh as he patiently greeted those who came to see him, along with the rapid shutter clicks of a camera.
We waited quietly in the room for thirty minutes or so. Geshe Kunga gave each of us a Medicine Buddha statue from the tray to offer to HHDL. We unfurled our khatags that we brought and rested the statues on them in our laps. Then, His Holiness quietly entered the room, flanked by attending monks who guided him to his seat. All of my nervousness melted away, and I felt very calm and at ease in his presence.
Takster Rinpoche, a young lama who is connected to our Bloomington center, was kneeling on the floor beside him. Our connection to this young lama is the reason why our group was here--and why this private audience was possible.
His Holiness was very kind and nurturing to the young Rinpoche. He affectionately touched his head and patted him as he talked to us. He encouraged Rinpoche to continue his studies, and he emphasized that this was very important. His sincerity and encouragement were quite moving for all of us, particularly for Rinpoche, who wept quietly as he spoke to him.
Afterwards, attending monks helped us to line up with our offerings. At the last moment, while I was waiting in line, one of the monks, Geshe Sangay, gave me a beautiful jeweled conch shell to offer as well.
My mind was calm, and my hands were full with beautiful offerings. When it was my turn, I knelt down before HHDL as attending monks collected the offerings; in turn, they gave me a small Buddha statue that had been blessed by HHDL. We met eyes and smiled. He held my gaze briefly, leaned forward to pat my cheek, and brought his forehead to touch mine.
No words were spoken--and they weren't necessary-- it was merely a quiet exchange of sincerity, joy, compassion, and gratitude.
He placed the khatag around my neck, attending monks helped me to my feet, and they led me out of the room.
Our group gathered our things and blessed items and took several group photos in front of the temple. We walked back to the Serkong House for breakfast in a blissful state--among fellow pedestrians, scooters, tuk tuks, vendors, monastics, and feral dogs. I have never felt a stronger sense of connection to all of humanity in my life. I felt calm, connected, and interconnected to everyone and everything around me. It was a beautiful experience and a memory that I will treasure always.
(Meeting HHDL was a joy)
(Dharma friends with HHDL)
(Group photo with our group outside HHDL's office)
Every day of this trip was an adventure, and every day revealed the reality and significance of interdependence.
Meeting His Holiness was an amazing and meaningful opportunity, but I was hoping to meet someone else who was just as special to me.
I have been sponsoring a nun through the Tibetan Nuns Project for several years. Venerable Tsundue Palmo resides at Tilokpur nunnery, which is about an hour away from Dharamshala. Before our trip, I had reached out to TNP administrators to see if it would be possible to arrange a visit during our trip. Our schedule was tight and unpredictable, but many hearts and hands came together again to bring Venerable to Dolma Ling, a nunnery much closer to Dharamshala.
Honestly, I was a little more nervous about meeting her than I was meeting HHDL. Our group had rented a car and traveled to Gyuto Monastery first. The buildings were painted bright yellow, birds were everywhere, and young monks were chanting mantras from open windows. It was a beautiful, sunny day--Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.
Then, we traveled to nearby Dolma Ling and met with Tenzin, who helped make this meeting possible. After a few minutes, a car arrived at the nunnery, and I was able to meet Ven.Tsundue Palmo in person. I was surrounded by my Dharma friends when Tenzin introduced us. I offered Venerable a khatag, a donation in a bright orange envelope, and the quarter mala that I had made for her, which had been blessed by HHDL the day before.
Venerable was very soft-spoken, peaceful, and pleasant. Tenzin took us on a tour of Dolma Ling nunnery, and we stopped by the office so my friends could make prayer requests and donations to TNP. Then, we invited Venerable to join us for lunch at nearby Norbulinka, a beautiful monastery with a museum, restaurant, and gift shop.
Another member of our group, Victor, happened to be connected with the project manager at Norbulinka, Nyima, and she graciously treated our group to lunch and a tour of Norbulinka. It was another wonderful day--and interdependence made it all possible.
It was a joy meeting Venerable in person, and it definitely strengthened my motivation to continue to support her and the Tibetan Nuns Project.
(Victor taking a photo of me offering a khatag to Venerable Tsundue Palmo)
(Venerable and I --a joyous meeting)
(Venerable after lunch at Norbulinka)
Our group was riding the waves of our collective good karma, but it wasn't finished with us yet. Another member of our group, David, had met with Rinchen Khando Choegyal years ago when he had traveled to India in the 70s. This previous meeting with her was extremely inspiring and meaningful for him, so he reached out and managed to arrange a private audience with her and our group.
Rinchen-lak is the founder and special advisor of The Tibetan Nuns Project. She is the former Minister of Education in the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, and she is the founding President of the Tibetan Women's Association. Oh, and she's also HHDL's sister-in-law.
Later in the week, we rented a car and drove to Kashmir Cottage to meet with her. We were seated in a small, airy room where her attendant brought us glasses of ginger tea.
She was very kind and generous with her time. We talked with her for an hour. She told us that her family was originally from Kham in Tibet, and her family came to India in 1958, a year before the Chinese invaded Tibet.
She came from a wealthy family and was able to attend school. Rinchen-lak later married the Dalai Lama's brother, and she started a bakery to provide food for other Tibetan refugees. She also helped provide clean water for the nuns at Tilokpur (the same nunnery where Ven. now resides) and opened Kashmir Cottage as a guest house.
She worked very hard to ensure that the nuns were fed and cared for--that they had qualified teachers and received a good education. She emphasized practical, foundational matters, tending to the physical wellbeing and mental health for the nuns as well as practicing Dharma.
Rinchen-lak was a kind-hearted, generous host, but in hearing her story, she was also wise, fiercely determined, and dedicated to helping the Tibetan people and to preserving the Dharma and Tibetan culture. Her work in educating and supporting Tibetan Buddhist nuns is beyond inspiring, and her primary message to us was..."For everything that you have, now it is time to give something back."
This is the essence of interdependence.
(Rinchen Khando Choegyal at Kashmir Cottage)
(David expresses his gratitude)
(Dharma friends with Rinchen-lak)
These were just some of the highlights of our trip to India. There were actually many other examples and many more wonderful people that I could have mentioned in this article.
I am very grateful to have experienced all of the events of this trip with my Dharma friends. Much gratitude to Geshe Kunga and TMBCC for making this trip possible. My hope is that sharing these moments with you will be of benefit as well.
May you give and receive with an open heart.
May you graciously accept help from others and offer help when you can.
May 2023 offer you many blessings, adventures, and opportunities.
May you continue to learn, grow, practice, and flourish in the coming New Year.
(Geshe-lak flanked by monk friends in Dharamshala)
Retreats: Recharge, Renew, Reflect September 30, 2022 14:46
If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, please click HERE to listen to the audio link.
I recently read Tenzin Palmo’s biography, Cave in the Snow, by Vickie MacKenzie. She is a well-respected Buddhist nun who had spent over twelve years in a solitary mountain retreat.
While I have no desire to climb up a mountain in the Himalayas to meditate in a tiny cave while enduring blizzards, avalanches, predatory creatures, and minimal options of food and medical supplies, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s dedication to practice was certainly inspiring.
Retreats can be rejuvenating and motivating, but not everyone has the privilege or karma to leave home and practice in an isolated environment. The good news is, retreats don’t have to occur in harsh, barren landscapes (or extravagantly elegant ones, for that matter); they don’t have to be expensive; they also don’t have to be lengthy to inspire meaningful practice and to be of benefit.
This month, I had the opportunity to attend three retreats of different sorts: a three-day Chenrezig retreat in Bloomington, a ten-day Feldenkrais summit, and a series of online teachings that focus on Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s The Power of Mantra: Vital Practices for Transformation.
Even though each retreat had a different focus and topic, I was able to participate, practice, and tend to the other obligations and responsibilities in my life. As a householder, I don’t have the luxury or time to practice uninterrupted in a secluded place, but these mini retreats have helped me maintain my motivation to practice as well as honor my family and work commitments.
- Chenrezig Retreat
This past Labor Day weekend, Geshe Kunga held a Chenrezig Retreat at TMBCC in Bloomington.
He held a similar retreat a few years ago, and I was able to stay on site by renting one of their cottages. This time, however, I chose to commute each day instead. Several other retreatants had traveled from other states and countries, and I didn’t want to inconvenience them or deny them the opportunity to stay on site.
This retreat included three days of in-depth teachings and meditation sessions on Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion. We spent time reading, analyzing, chanting, discussing, and unpacking a specific sadhana practice.
Before this retreat, my personal practice had become a bit inconsistent and sporadic, so this retreat and sadhana practice was the perfect jump start that I needed. It offered just enough structure, it was meaningful, and it didn’t require a lengthy time commitment.
Since Labor Day weekend, I have been practicing this sadhana every day. I read it aloud in English (and Tibetan), and I look forward to my practice. Sometimes, I can practice in the early morning; sometimes I practice in between student sessions at school, and sometimes I practice later in the day or evening. Regardless of the time of day, I feel like I’ve accomplished something meaningful, and it gives me a sense of purpose. This jump start wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for this short retreat.
I wasn’t in a cave—I still have to deal with rush hour traffic—I still have to make trips to the grocery store—I still have to pay bills and wash dishes—and I still have to interact with others. But the thread running through all of these “beads of responsibility” is the practice.
- Feldenkrais Summit
The second retreat that I participated in was the Move Better, Feel Better Summit hosted by my friend Cynthia Allen. She has hosted several online Feldenkrais summits in the past. This is an annual, online event that lasts for several days. This year’s event was a ten-day summit which included keynote speakers, presentations by experts and Feldenkrais practitioners from all over the world, and three short Feldenkrais lessons led by practitioners each day.
Because the interviews and lessons were pre-recorded, participants could access them online at their convenience. I could choose which interviews to watch and which lessons to practice, and the best part was, this event was free.
This summit is a wonderful opportunity for those who are new to the Feldenkrais Method to learn more about it, and for those who are familiar with the method, it’s a great opportunity to deepen their understanding and practice.
Like most conferences, this online event can seem overwhelming at first, and it’s tempting to want to see and do everything. If I lived in a cave with internet access, I probably would, but instead, I chose to watch one interview and practice at least one of the three lessons each day. Carving out time for my movement practice—making room to cultivate curiosity through learning, growing, and playing while still tending to real-life obligations has helped me maintain a healthy life balance.
I was able to listen to interviews while I was sending morning emails to students—or while cleaning my living room, and I could begin or end my day with a short movement lesson. This summit added novelty and structure to my life, and it encouraged me to make time to move, play, and attend to my life more fully.
- The Power of Mantra
Finally, my third retreat, which is still ongoing, focuses on reading and analyzing a Buddhist text: The Power of Mantra: Vital Practices for Transformation.
Venerable Yӧnten is an amazing Buddhist nun who is currently teaching at Vajrapani Institute in California. She is teaching a series of online lectures that focus on this text by Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
I’ve been following Ven. Yӧnten’s teachings for a few years. She’s a young Mahayana Buddhist nun from Montana who is extremely knowledgeable (and funny). I appreciate how she can unpack and explain complex Buddhist ideas as well as incorporate relevant and contemporary examples to bring clarity and understanding to ancient teachings and concepts.
I had attended several of her live teachings on Zoom a few years ago when she was teaching in Israel. I remember waking up at 4:00 AM to attend these talks.
Her current teachings from Vajrapani Institute are also available live via Zoom. However, she is also sharing them on YouTube as well, which is more convenient for my schedule.
This text, The Power of Mantra, is a compilation of what Lama Zopa Rinpoche considers to be the most accessible Buddhist deities and their respective mantras. It includes chapters describing Shakyamuni Buddha, Chenrezig, Manjushri, Tara, Medicine Buddha, and Vajrasattva. In addition to explaining the significance of each deity, this text also includes mantras and short meditation practices that correspond with each.
The text alone is an absolute treasure, but being able to listen to Ven. Yӧnten explain in more detail and lead listeners through the meditations is an even greater gift.
Retreats are important—they are meaningful opportunities and necessary pockets of time for practice—whether it’s a meditation, movement, or mantra practice—whether the practice is intellectual in nature, or rooted in curiosity, creativity, and play. Taking the time to delve into practices that resonate with you is extremely important. Retreats can help boost, recharge, and energize a fading or forgotten interest, and they can help add structure to a sporadic practice, helping to make room or time for them even during the busiest of days. They can also give you something to look forward to.
The best part is, you don’t have to take refuge in a cave (or an expensive resort) in order to make time or reap the benefits of meaningful practices. With a little creativity, resourcefulness, and planning, retreats can occur in the middle of your own life, and they can become the sutra running through your own beads of responsibility.
Enjoy your own practices, everyone! Talk to you soon.
If you haven't visited the MMM online shop in a while, new designs have been added. Enhance your own personal practices with a beautiful, hand-knotted mala. Visit the current collection here .