Washington D.C., USA– July 11, 2011
From Michael Jolliffe:
On my floor in the dorm where I am staying there are three showers. I find it poetic that the midmost one is the best. The first, to the far left, has a broken head and only a single stream pours out, like pouring tea from a pot. For someone as big and dirty as me, it’s like trying to wash a muddy car with a straw. The third, to the far right, has a detachable hand-held fixture designed for people with disabilities and I’m too clumsy (and lazy) to fuss with the flexible hose which always seems to twist in my hand. I was very tired when I first tried this one and when I realized that the shower wall was getting more water time than me, I gave up and scurried nakedly to the middle one in hopes of more success. Don’t get me wrong, this shower is merely the best of the three; it’s by no means a spa. In fact, the hottest it gets is on the edge of fairly warm and it sort of leaves me frustrated. I find this poetic too.
The last three days of His Holiness’ teaching have been in preparation for receiving the Kalachakra initiation. It is customary to do this because Buddhist tantra contains imagery and elements that are so radically different from the historically oldest forms of Buddhist practice that people can easily become confused. Our concepts of tantra are usually too heavily influenced by popular culture and it is easy to start believing that tantra is more sexy than it is. It seems to me that His Holiness is going through the 37 Practices of the Bodhisattva to make the very serious point that Buddhist tantra is based on two things alone: the infinitely compassionate heart and the wisdom that frees one from disturbing emotions.
After today’s teachings, I was able to attend a talk by Ven. Thubten Chodron, a fully ordained Buddhist nun, the abbess of Sravasti Abbey in Washington State, and a long-time student of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. From what I have observed, Ven. Thubten Chodron (and her students) are extremely devoted to Buddha’s teachings and monasticism, seeking ways to create the space for Westerners to engage authentically with the Buddhist monastic tradition in an unsympathetic environment. Another thing you’ll notice about her and her students is that they are, at least in my opinion, oatmeal-raisin-cookie wholesome and refreshingly unpretentious.
What Ven. Thubten Chodron seemed to be saying during her talk was that our spiritual problems (and even our everyday problems) are essentially the result of a crisis of identity: we identify ourselves in a certain way and, because “we are the centers of the universe,” expect that people will treat us accordingly. And of course, when people inevitably don’t treat us how we expect, we become angry and frustrated. Ven. Thubten Chodron stressed that by using Buddhist philosophy to shatter the solid identities we’ve already constructed and then using Buddhist tantra to reinvent ourselves as compassionate and wise beings, we have a real opportunity to sincerely open our hearts to others and to learn to benefit them perfectly.
Someone in the audience asked how minorities should understand her points if they are actually oppressed and suffering because of their identities. I thought her answer was brilliant. She told the story of how as a young nun she would become angry that monks were always tasked with distributing consecrated food at certain ceremonies and never the nuns. She said that as she was thinking this, she suddenly realized that if the nuns had been given the task instead, she would have become angry that the monks were allowed to sit without doing any work! Her point is that she saw how she had adopted an identity as an oppressed woman and how this was shaping her entire perspective in such a way that only she ended up miserable. Her advice was to find a way to recognize that one suffered from oppression but never to assume an oppressed identity because it would only limit one’s ability to progress spiritually. You can fight to change how things are, she seemed to suggest, but you never have to suffer emotionally or mentally while you do so.
When I think of Washington, D.C. as being the place where the Suffragist and Civil Rights Movements had some of their greatest successes and triumphs, I cannot help but think how impressed the leaders of those movements might have been to hear her words.