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)
Less Is More: The Beauty and Benefits of Quarter Malas July 30, 2022 10:36
To listen to this month's blog article, please click HERE for the audio link.
Lately, I have been inspired to create a series of quarter malas. Quarter malas include twenty-seven beads (1/4 of 108) plus a guru and tassel.
Practicing with a quarter mala, as opposed to a full mala, has several benefits, and in this month's article, I'd like to share what some of those benefits are.
One benefit of practicing with a quarter mala is it's portable and easy to use while traveling. They are convenient and store easily in the console of a car, a carry on bag, or a desk drawer at school or office workplaces.
Construction delays and traffic jams are perfect opportunities for mantra practice in the car in order to keep calm and carry on. I also keep one at school in my desk drawer. Sometimes, between student tutoring sessions, I'll take it with me as I walk around the track--moving mindfully and chanting mantra is a wonderful way to take care of myself during the work day and squeeze in a little practice time.
The quarter malas I design are intended for practice. Sometimes, people will ask if I can make "stretchy bracelets." I don't--for a couple of reasons. One, I'm not able to create a knotted quarter mala with stretchy cord--and the knots are an important part of the design. They represent the obstacles and challenges we face in life. The beads represent the beautiful aspects and blessings--and a balanced, meaningful life requires both.
Two, stretchy bracelets break fairly easily, and it's too easy to slip one on and go about your day without thinking about practicing. Having a knotted quarter mala that you keep in a place where you'll see it or can find it easily will remind you to practice. They serve a special purpose, beyond that of a pretty bracelet. Consequently, they aren't designed to be worn throughout the day. So, for those of you who were wondering, that's why I don't make stretchy bracelets.
*Reciting Longer Mantras
Saving time and cultivating a consistent daily practice are two additional benefits of quarter malas. This is especially true when reciting longer mantras. Some sadhana practices, for example, include lengthy mantras, and reciting a 100-syllable mantra 27 times vs.108 times can be more practical and efficient.
Not everyone has time to (or wants to) chant mantras all day long. Family obligations and work-related responsibilities are important priorities. Carving out a few minutes each day for practice can be challenging at times, and working with a quarter mala can help establish a necessary balance among work life, family time, and self care.
This "less is more" approach (chanting 27 recitations as opposed to 108) makes it easier to cultivate and maintain a daily practice. It's easier to stay present and focused with each recitation, especially with longer mantras. On really busy days, taking time to practice with a quarter mala makes me feel like I've accomplished something important and meaningful--that I've done something to help myself, and others.
I recited the Long Gayatri mantra daily for several years. I actually used a half mala for this practice, but looking back, a quarter mala would have really come in handy. I've also used quarter malas for Vajrasattva and Medicine Buddha sadhanas. I created a specific quarter mala for the Vajrasattva practice, and another one for Medicine Buddha. Know that it's OK to use the same mala for different mantras, but I like to use one, specific mala for a each corresponding mantra practice.
Another benefit of quarter malas is that they are perfect for safe keeping on home altar spaces. They don't take up much room on a small altar, and they are beautiful reminders to practice.
*Gifts and Offerings
Quarter malas also make meaningful, thoughtful gifts for fellow meditators, practitioners, yoga friends, and teachers.
I've been very fortunate to have had ethical, kind-hearted, and knowledgeable Dharma teachers, and I have given many of them quarter malas as gifts of appreciation.
I've also given them as gifts to loyal customers over the years for their continued support.
Quarter malas also make beautiful offerings for special events and pujas at Dharma centers and temples. Generosity is a practice in and of itself, and offering quarter malas to others with an open heart is a beautiful way to give.
Finally, quarter malas are perfect for practitioners on a budget. Most of the quarter malas I create are between $40--$50. I take time and care to create beautiful hand-knotted designs with high-quality beads in the hopes that they will inspire practice (this is just as true for quarter malas as it is for the full malas).
Whether you are a beginning practitioner who is just starting on the path of a daily mantra practice, or a seasoned practitioner who is looking for more opportunities to practice throughout the day, quarter malas are beautiful, convenient, affordable, and meaningful tools to assist you on your personal journey.
Although I try to keep a few quarter malas in the ever-changing collection on the MMM website, they tend to go quickly. Please know that I can also create custom designs. For example, if you would like a quarter mala, but there aren't any available on the online shop, please reach out through the Contact Us page. I would be happy to create a quarter mala design that's just right for you.
Feel free to visit the home page to view the current collection of mala designs. Until next month, keep practicing!
Unlikely Offerings September 15, 2020 15:52
If you prefer to listen to this blog post, click HERE.
It's early morning. I light a stick of incense, grab a Granny Smith apple from the bowl by the fridge and a scoop of birdseed from the bag near the front door. I pick up Maya with my free hand (which is a challenge because she's jumping up and down in excitement) and slip into a pair of sandals.
With both hands full, I carefully open the storm door with my left elbow and walk toward the small garden in the front yard.
The tip of the incense stick is glowing bright red in the early morning light, and white smoke that smells of juniper wafts around us.
I am thinking about my friend's dog who recently passed away. I am also thinking of another friend's son-in-law and a former colleague's brother--both of whom have died within the last few days.
I carefully place the incense stick in a small metal bowl at the base of a tree stump and sprinkle the cup of birdseed into the open palms of a concrete Buddha statue.
Maya and I walk down the driveway looking for a few acorns that have fallen from a nearby white oak, and I also pluck a few black-eyed Susans that are blooming near a mulberry bush.
I place them on the tree stump near the Buddha statue, along with the green apple.
We do this twice a day, this simple ritual of offering. It's dedicated to all sentient beings: insects, animals, loved ones, strangers, celebrities who have passed away in the last 49 days (in Buddhism, the intermediate state, or bardo, can last up to seven times seven, or 49, days). We make these offerings so that these beings may navigate their way safely through the bardo in the hopes that they find happiness in their next life--so that they may be of benefit to others in their next incarnation.
I offer a brief prayer to the outdoor altar, and then Maya and I make our way back to the house.
This is an example of a traditional offering: flowers, fruit, incense. However, offerings don't have to be traditional to be meaningful or valid.
Offerings can be very simple, subtle, and sometimes...unlikely.
Anything given with an open heart and from a spirit of kindness and generosity could be considered an offering. Here are just a few practical examples:
* Sharing home-grown veggies from your garden with friends or neighbors.
* Helping someone who's having technology issues or a friend who needs help with a home-improvement project.
* Letting someone enter the flow of traffic, especially when traffic is heavy.
*Offering kind words of encouragement.
* Acknowledging and thanking a cashier or clerk by name at a grocery store, bank, or gas station.
* Wearing a mask and honoring social distancing guidelines during a pandemic.
Offerings can also be a blend of the traditional and everyday common courtesy.
I often practice japa when I'm driving. I use a clicker counter or knitter to keep track of the recitations (and it's safer than using a full mala for me). Often, when I'm reciting, I offer the benefits (or merits) of the recitations to the drivers, passengers, and pedestrians around me:
* May they arrive safely to their destinations
* May they be happy
* May they be well
Even during a more formal sitting practice or during a sadhana, it's not unusual for miscellaneous memories or sudden flashes of people I haven't seen or thought about in years to pop into my head. Instead of viewing this as an annoying distraction to resist or push away, or interpreting this as evidence of being an undisciplined meditator, I briefly acknowledge them and wish them well:
*I see you
*I love you
*I remember you
*I forgive you
*I honor you
Usually, when I take the time to witness and appreciate these "surprise visitors," they dissipate fairly quickly, and it opens up even more space for my practice. In fact, I see acknowledging and honoring these memories and flashes as an important part of my practice.
So, what are the benefits of making daily offerings, whether they are tangible objects, courteous acts or gestures, or meditative thoughts?
* They encourage generosity and selflessness
One of the quickest ways to bust out of an "I,I,I...me,me,me" mindset is by considering or giving to others instead of thinking about yourself.
* They foster connections and interconnection with others
Offering words, thoughts, or things with a kind-hearted spirit helps dissolve feelings of separation or disconnection toward others.
* They inspire a sense of purpose and meaning
On an individual level, offerings can add a little structure and motivation to a practice. When the intention is right, and when the desire for recognition is absent, it feels really good to do charitable things or offer kind words of support to others.
Offerings can strengthen and bolster compassion for self, for others, and for the planet.
By the way, supporting a small business is another wonderful way to make a meaningful offering. Feel free to visit the Middle Moon Malas online shop (here) to purchase a one-of-a-kind mala for yourself or a loved one. These beautiful designs are intended to enhance your own practice, and they make wonderful gifts....or...offerings.