Buddhist Preperation for 2012
This morning I took a wander over to a Tibetan style Buddhist class on the nature of inherent emptiness within forms. Ordained English Buddhist Kelsang Rinchen runs the Cheltenham meditation class. For those with no knowledge of the Tibetan Buddhist systems and schools I will provide a little background at the end of this post.
I have attended NKT meditation classes before, several times over the years, and always found them to be very welcoming environments led by extremely light-hearted and bright teachers. Today the class was no exception. Kelsang Rinchen had a bright, radiant face that made one feel instantly at ease with his presence. It was hard to tell whether he was in his late twenties or early forties (turned out he was 35) as he had an ageless quality to him.
We opened with some sung prayers for gained peace, clarity and wisdom. Essentially encouraging the Buddha, or Buddha nature, to rise up and help extinguish the suffering of all living beings. The words of the prayer, or hymn, deal with the ideal that to help other beings be at peace and feel happy, first one deals with oneself. In destroying personal delusions and suffering one can become a light for others. Eminently sensible if you ask me.
This was followed by a talk on emptiness and the illusionary nature of reality. To be honest emptiness is one of the trickiest core teachings in Buddhism and it can be a stumbling block for many would be Western practitioners. In a very human way our teacher had to pause at times for though or check his notes, this really endeared him to the group. It helped dispel the projected idea of a great guru able to just roll off all his mighty wisdom to we mere mortals in the audience (all 15 of us).
I liked his use of analogy in which he took the sky and its quality of being blue as comparative to form being empty but seeming to have inherent existence. We all know that the sky looks blue, we refer to a blue sky, yet intellectually we also realise it is not factually blue. Anyone who has ever flown in a plane knows that if they look out the window there is just emptiness with no blue to be found. No blue trailing from the wingtips or hovering over the land below. So it is that on examination things of form so dissolve into emptiness of inherent, independent, self-existence.
Our belief in forms being independently real was also compared to the famous old desert mirage in which one sees water. We can easily go running off after the water fully believing it to be really there, yet in truth it is not. Our senses can leave us confused, worn out, and rather cheated. The mirage of water does exist, yet at the same time the water itself does not exist. It is simply a coming together of certain factors within the environment and within the being that cause the mirage of water to appear. Once the specific conditions for it move apart then the mirage promptly disappears as though never present.
We then meditated on the nature of emptiness in relation to our self, the thing we refer to as ‘I’ or ‘Me’. We were asked to track it down whilst in meditation to see whether it had its own reality, whether it was somewhere inside, around, or external to our form. Are we this thought, that feeling or a certain habit?
Inevitably the meditator has to admit this ‘I’ is nowhere to be found and thus is no more inherently self-existent than the mirage of the water, or the blue of the sky. One person is merely the coming together of certain conditions that bring about a general sense of a whole self. It’s a funny feeling of course to conclude this as fact, bearing in mind that we run much of our daily lives centred on an ‘I’ which has never existed.
Try it for yourself sometime.
After the meditation we had a tea break in which I enjoyed a chat to a lady fairly new to the ideas of Buddhism. She compared its tolerant stance to her cousin’s homophobic Christian beliefs. Also rightly pointing out the air of humour, lightness and non-judgement that the morning’s class had to it. This is something I too appreciate about Buddhist teachings that I have enjoyed in the past.
The last part of the session was more focused on the human body and how emptiness could be found there also. In a rather graphic description Kelsang Rinchen asked us to identify the body. Was it our hand, the skin, internal organs or any other part of flesh. Inevitably one concludes that a body is a complex collection of things that are not bodies. He then suggested that if we took some cats and stacked them into a dog-like shape they do not form a dog. We would merely have a collection of cats stacked in a novel manner. So it is with the body. No matter which part we focus on we can’t identify that part as ‘the body’. The meditation on this was similar in form to the previous one, with us trying to track down the body whilst in altered state.
I very much enjoyed the class and will likely attend again soon.
Kindly Kelsang Rinchen also answered two questions for me, which have been bothering me lately. As part of my investigation into my past lives I hit two snags that seemed likely to unravel my revelations so far if utterly incorrect. My evidence collected so far would suggest that in my last life I finished up as a pretty nasty piece of work and ended life smashed to bits in a car wreck, this was then followed by a trip to the hell realms. The life before that it would seem likely that I was a Tibetan Buddhist Monk killed by a Chinese bullet whilst defending the holy texts within my temple.
The two helpful pieces of information garnered from my questions were firstly that it is possible for a being to go from a life in which they are mostly good in nature to one in which they are nastier. Also the vice versa being possible, and that of course it can happen within a single lifetime as well. The second piece of helpful data was that it is perfectly possible for time in a hell realm to run at a different speed to that on the earth plane due to the fact both are artefacts of delusion anyway. Time, as Einstein once said, being itself illusionary in nature. Thank you Kelsang!
Now as promised here is a brief description of some of the background to this particular contemplative path.
The Tibetan Buddhist system is broken into sub-divisions of thought popularly called schools. The four main schools being called the Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya. Most famous is the Kagyu, as this is the school from which H.H. the Dalai Lama originates. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, the head of the New Kadampa Tradition in which Kelsang Rinchen is a monk also comes from a Kagyu backgound.
For those with a wider knowledge of the subject it’s worth briefly mentioning the controversy that has led to Kelsang Gyatso (amongst many others) being effectively excommunicated by the Dalai Lama. Its important to note that Kelsang Gyatso is a very well respected Lama, invited to the West by Lama Yeshe (a high Rimpoche recognised reincarnation) with a international popularity for the effective way in which his form of teaching has reached western practitioners.
The fallout with such a respected figure as H.H. the Dalai Lama is both unfortunate and a blessing. It is unfortunate in that unified Buddhism is a great thing, Buddhist sects from all traditions of the world in all Buddhist nations have always maintained friendly and rewarding lines of communication. Anything that causes a degree of infighting within Buddhism is of course a great shame. On the other hand I see breaking of lines of authority between Western Buddhist teachers and central leadership within the Tibetan Buddist Government in exile as a step forward for our forming unique Western schools.
In every land Buddhism has reached its exact form of implementation has been modified, keeping the core teachings but fitting the needs of that nations practitioners. This seems to me to be part of the birth of our own flavour of Buddhist thought and practice. I intend no offence to the die-hard followers of the Dalai Lama’s thoughts on this matter.
I will not explain the entire basis of the division. Suffice to say that it stems from differing beliefs regarding one particular spiritual being, a certain Tibetan guardian deity. The argument is complex, and for a Western practitioner almost utterly irrelevant. Suffice to say that for some reason undue importance has been put upon a mode of practice that is not required for enlightenment. It would seem that both sides have made something of a mountain out of a molehill. I do however see why a high profile individual like the Dalai Lama would at times distance himself from practices that might be advised in his name if he feels they are giving negative results. As someone with more of a Therevada education I would of thought the whole matter should have been cleared up by whether use of the practice relating to this deity gave positive results. The Buddha taught that if something in any teaching did not give positive tangible results it should be discarded and not held as an article of faith!
By Bruce Fenton