The Transitory Nature of Existence
We normally think that a person is a subject who perceives and is separate from objects, and we tend to treat objects as if they were solid and dependable in some kind of absolute way. Yet mental objects—wealth, power, a house, a television show, an idea, a feeling, whatever phenomenon you can think of—are really not so absolute but instead are relative, arising and passing away, and seen only in relation to other phenomena.
But how can this be, you may ask? Surely as ‘‘I’’ read a ‘‘book,’’ they both exist, since there seems to be an ‘‘I’’ who holds the book in my hand. The answer is that all things exist in relation to one another, and existence is marked by change. Perhaps the best way to clarify this a bit would be to use the example of the body. The body is changing all the time. In babies, we can see this more vividly because they grow so quickly. But we all know that every body changes, even from day to day—for example, according to what we eat or how much we weigh. Even our moods can affect the body and be reflected in how we look, perhaps crestfallen or haggard or else bright and vital. Above all, we know that the body ages and eventually passes away. The body is a vivid illustration of the transitory nature of existence. If we think of the body as solid, fixed, and unchanging, and cling to this notion, that is grasping at the body as ‘‘self.’’
Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by two subjects, ancient Egypt and Tibetan Buddhism. And both passions were sparked by movies—Egypt, by Boris Karloff's The Mummy (1932); and Tibet, by Sam Jaffe as the High Lama in Lost Horizons (1937), Frank Capra's screen version of James Hilton's novel (1933). I will talk about Egypt in another blog, but today I want to address things Tibetan.
|"We believe in moderation," explains the High Lama.|
The new moon on May 6 was the beginning of what the Tibetans call the "month of merits." Every day in this month is celebrated with conscious awareness to accumulate merits. Saka Dawa (also known as Vaiśakh or Wesak), on the full moon of this month, is especially celebrated as commemorating the birth, death, and enlightenment of the historical Buddha, Śākyamuni ('the sage of the Śākya clan'). This year, that occurs on May 21 in the US. (It reaches full at 5:14 pm EST; that would make it 6:14 AM May 22 in Tokyo, and 5:14 am May 22 in Lhasa.) I shall be celebrating it with friends in Japan on the evening of Friday, May 20, the eve of the festival, and the date chosen by the United Nations to celebrate the birth of the Buddha (enlightened one), who lived in present-day India and Nepal between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, and whose teachings focused on messages about compassion, peace, and goodwill.
Let me describe my journey as a Buddhist. Even in high school, I was first drawn by the idea of reincarnation and studied Hinduism and yoga, and in college I began studying Transcendental Meditation and Zen Buddhism. Upon coming to Japan in 1974, one of the first places I visited was Mt. Koya, the head of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism, but, having no place to study, I just gained book knowledge, which in turn brought me to the fascinating world of Tibetan Buddhist teachings, which I again studied on my own, getting as many books as I could. There were no Tibetans teachers that I knew of in Japan, and if any were here or came here, I did not know how to get any information. Until one day when I was visiting a friend who runs a publishing house specializing in Buddhist books, and was introduced to E. Gene Smith. Gene was one of the greatest scholars and supporters of Tibetan religious texts in the world, and single-handedly did more to preserve them for posterity than anyone. A student of HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, among others, he was surely a bodhisattva incarnate upon earth. He also founded the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC), and digitized over 12,000 volumes of Tibetan texts. It was an honor to meet such an individual, who was one of the most humble people I have ever met. I had the good fortune to have him introduce to me to my first real Tibetan teacher, the Venerable Nyichang Khentrül Rinpoche.
|HH the Dalai Lama XIV with Gene Smith; Ven. Nyichang Rinpoche; Ven. Tulku Thondup|
Nyichang Rinpoche is the only high-ranking lama living in Japan, and he belongs to the last generation to have received full monastic training in all fundamental religious rituals in Tibet before the Chinese invasion. Most of his training has been in the Nyingma tradition. His greatest teachers were the Ven. Shugsep Jetsün Rimpoche, the reincarnation of Chöd originator Machig Labdrön; HH Dudjom Rinpoche; and HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. He came to Japan at the request of HHDL, in order to teach at Koyasan University. When I went to meet him for the first time, I felt blessed that he gave me the khrid and rlung transmissions of the Mantra of the Medicine Buddha, and both a prayer to, and the mantra of, Orgyen Menla (Guru Rinpoche as the Buddha of Medicine). Shortly thereafter, he made it a point to give me the transmission of a lovely Green Tāra practice as well as a Praise to the 21 Tāras from Shugsep Rinpoche. I still have and still do these practices, and am very grateful to Rinpoche for transmitting these precious practices, among others. One of Rinpoche's students introduced me to the practices of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, from whom I received the full Mandarava initiation as well as the rlung transmissions for a very great number of other practices. But what I am perhaps the most grateful to Nyichang Rinpoche for is that he introduced me to another great teacher, Ven. Tulku Thondup Rinpoche.
I had wanted to study the Longchen Nyingthig practice of the Dzogchen tradition that Nyichang Rinpoche teaches. He had received it directly from the Fourth Dodrupchen Rinpoche, so it is of the purest lineage. But the practice is very long, and I was afraid that I might not be able to maintain the practice with my long working hours and busy schedule. So Nyichang Rinpoche introduced me to a another Nyingma lama, a scholar-monk who had escaped from Tibet in 1958, who was also a student of the Fourth Dodrupchen Rinpoche, and that was Tulku Thondup. Tulku was living in Cambridge, MA, at the time, and sometimes visited the fourth Dodrupchen's Mahasiddha Temple in central Massachusetts as well as the Chörten Gompa in Sikkim. I visited Tulku at his residence in Cambridge, and was blessed with the khrid and rlung transmissions of the abbreviated Longchen Nyingthig practice that had been created by the Dodrupchen Rinpoche for his "lazy" American students! (I had already received a full dbang empowerment of an anuttara-yoga practice from Kyabje Trülshik Rinpoche, so he said I needed only the teaching and the reading transmission.) I later was able to also receive the rlung of a Medicine Buddha practice (in Shelburne Falls, MA) and the beautiful Rigdzin Dupa practice (while visiting Mahasiddha Temple).
After practicing the Longchen Nyingthig ngöndro (foundation practice) for a couple of years, and only two weeks after I received the complete Kālacakra initiation from HH Pema Norbu (Penor) Rinpoche at the Palyul Ling temple in central NY state, I was fortunate enough to meet an amazing Japanese monk of the Shingon sect named Shūhō Kobayashi. He had also studied Tibetan Buddhism extensively and had long lived in Nepal, so we had lots of things in common. He took me under his wing and tutored me in Shingon doctrines, and I took ordination through his introduction at a temple on Mt. Koya (2008). Kobayashi continued to teach me mantras, prayers, and rituals, and, again, with his assistance, I was able to complete the training and receive the Transmission of the Law (denpō kanjō; Skt. dharma-abhiṣeka), making me an ajari (< Skt. ācaryā, teacher), a high-ranking priest empowered to perform the goma (Skt. homa) fire ritual. Yet even as a Shingon priest, I still perform some of the Tibetan practices I have come to love and cherish.
So I have followed a path that entailed receiving one blessing after another, each leading to the next, and I wonder where this fascinating journey is going to take me next. . . . But who is this "I" that I have been writing about? In how many lifetimes have "I" followed a similar path? But who is "I" and where is the path. There is no "I," and there is not "no I"; there is no "path," and there is not "no path," there is only what is. Neither is true and both are true.
So the "I" who is now living in Japan will practice several rituals and recite many prayers during this "month of merit," and also conduct a special prayer ceremony on Friday, May 20, in the hope that it may benefit all sentient beings. I recently read somewhere that Guru Rinpoche, the Lotus-born one, said: "It's not that the times are changing; rather, it's that the people who are actively involved in harmful acts are blaming the times for no peace and harmony." I don't know if he really said that, but it gives us all the more reason to celebrate the month of Lord Buddha's birth with prayers and practices to obtain merit for the benefit of all sentient beings. throughout the many universes.
Sarva Mangalam -:- May all beings know happiness.