Today I am settled into my sweet room at the Sri Lankan Monastery in Lumbini, Nepal, which is the birthplace of the Buddha and feeling the impetus to put some thoughts down before too much new accumulates and lest I lose some of the most recent juicy details or insights. Also, time is precious now because hopefully, I will be going into a 10 day silent retreat very soon, where I will be relinquishing the communication devices in favor of communion of a different sort.
Yes, I am being drawn again to the sweet simplicity of the Theravada tradition. It was my formal introduction to Buddhist practice in the year 2000, when I attended my first 10-day silent Vipassana Retreat out of Goenka-ji's lineage from Burma.
Somehow it feels appropriate to reconnect powerfully in this lineage after the more recent intensity in my spiritual evolution of ardently attempting the left-handed path and going to such extremes as embarking on a 3 year, 3 month, 3 day Tantric Meditation retreat from 2010-2014 within the Vajrayana Buddhist Tradition from Tibet.
But, I am jumping ahead. Just for the sake of context as to why "I" qualify as a misfit in this so-called spiritual world i am writing about, despite my current very 'ordinary all-American appearance', let me just say that in the years preceding 2000, I was becoming broken, disenchanted with all the world had to offer. And by the dawn of Y2K, I was a very 'old' 24 year old. I was a being desperate for a solution to the suffering I was barely enduring. Suicidal at times, rarely sober, and running, I ran into the arms of Loving Kindness literally when I found refuge in an awareness that far surpassed the effects of cocaine or alcohol. I was still perhaps 'pretty' on the outside, but literally dying inside.
It’s liberating to share these spiritual resume details so candidly. As a practice nowadays, rather than trying to manage my thoughts and manipulate karma, (thereby continually reinforcing an ‘I’ that can’t exist), I instead allow the freedom to express whatever comes up in the field of this one’s awareness without shame or need to either hide or embellish. This makes for an interesting reflection often on the contradictions of life, the ability to be both saint and sinner in one life and certainly prompts a redefinition of who is eligible to be a spiritual practitioner or yoga teacher.
"If we could not be bought by praise or defeated by criticism, we would have incredible strength. We would be extraordinarily free, there would be no more unnecessary hopes and fears, sweat and blood and emotional reactions. We would finally be able to practice 'I don’t give a damn.' Free from chasing after, and avoiding other people’s acceptance and rejection, we would be able to appreciate what we have in the present moment."
~ Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
Needless to say, It has been quite an adventure in attempting to ‘reach’ enlightenment!
Recently, I was on the Dalai Lama’s circuit in one of the most remote places in India, or perhaps the world even, to attempt to follow him! Despite the strong objection from China, HH. the Dalai Lama went to the village of Tawang (which is incidentally also where he found refuge in 1959 fleeing the Chinese invasion of Tibet.) With current threats from China, India stepped up though and provided plenty of military support to protect him on this tour as they have for many years now and he taught for 3 days in Tawang. There were 60,000 attendees coming from Bhutan, nearby villages including some yak herders from other remote mountain locations, maybe even some from the now currently labeled 'China'. The latter were obvious by the smell of the yak in their clothing and permeating from them when they brushed by, their rugged beauty, and deeply etched faces from years in the sun.
One might say I have some incredible good fortune to have been able to attend teachings there and sit so close to His Holiness and other sincere practitioners and oracles who it would seem on the outside have no connection to this misfit ex-addict from America. Of course, the irony especially for me was to travel so incognito as to not reveal my previous participation in a 3-Year meditation retreat.
I hitched a ride to Tawang literally from a group of Japanese sponsors who supported and were on their way to a place called Manjushree School & Orphanage. Through this ride, I ended up also staying there and not only being fortunate enough to attend these rare teachings by H.H. with 'dignatary' status, but also build tender bonds with children who lived there. What is super special about this place is the fact that the children will receive Tibetan education; their culture will not be lost. Also children who's parents can't afford to care for them, have somewhere to go. I highly endorse sponsoring a child or offering any donation you can, because i can say firsthand that the situation there is beautiful and the children are happy and cared for. But there are many more than they can afford to accept and still many need sponsorship for medical care, adequate clothing, books and food.
or email directly and ask for a list of available children to sponsor
Through this association, I also found myself sitting in a Tsog Ceremony (special prayers recited along with offerings) at the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama. It was being conducted in honor of the current Dalai Lama, a day before he arrived to Tawang with highly esteemed monks and a very special oracle recognized by H.H. named Khandro Ma. She was the only woman active in the ceremony and also its leader. Her presence and graceful movements with phurbas (ritual daggers) and dhamaru drums was beyond inspiring. While she dressed similar to a nun, she had long thick black hair pulled up in a perfect bun on her beautiful physical frame and was the living example of penetrating wisdom emanating as a modern Buddha in the female form for those of us lucky enough to witness. (For a glimpse of her see the video's embedded below.)
As a side note, this 6th Dalai Lama has quite a story! Also known as the ‘rebel’ or ‘fugitive' Lama; he was wild and enjoyed women and alcohol, resisting his heritage to reign in a righteous way among the Tibetan people. Eventually he was recognized again in a market and he finally accepted the role, probably leaving behind his wild ways, but one can never know for sure! Here is a sample of his poetry:
‘If the maiden will live forever The wine will flow evermore. The tavern is my haven; With wine I am content'
I like him a lot, because I relate to his life and his seeming desire to live in the pursuit of pleasure rather than the weight of a moral life, so it felt extra special to be in his birthplace and to, for me, honor the transformation story. Very often the Dalai Lamas' stories are the stories of a being born into a lineage spiritual royalty, conditioned that way all through childhood and being basically ‘good’ all one’s life. I appreciate the paradox, the visiting of the underbelly of life and rubbing elbows with those who live in vices, and yet, somehow maintaining or finding again the intrinsic inner purity that allows for a sense of stainless beauty, even while taking intoxicants to a state of oblivion, for example. Perhaps it’s my Christian conditioning, Jesus hanging with prostitutes and all, or my childhood exposure to some very raw and far from innocent behaviors….Or most likely, my own story, of visiting despair and dark chambers of life and eventually emerging in the light, with scars, but with a deep capacity to identify and empathize with the entire human condition.
I humbly put forth that it’s not until we are willing to admit we too, are capable of anything, and I do mean anything, that we can truly forgive. And, how can we know that fully until we have made a few ‘mistakes’, and lived long enough to see their consequences?
Another poem from H.H. the 6th Dalai Lama:
'If I could meditate upon the dharma As intensely as I muse on my beloved I would certainly attain enlightenment Surely, in this one lifetime'
I look at my life like a pendulum swing…I have swung in extremes on ascetic attempts to awaken and swung back into self-destructive spirals that would surprise any ‘spiritual’ friends or yoga students that this seemingly “healthy, white girl” could even be capable of. It’s been almost absurd how many roles I have managed to play in this life! Now, as this life reaches its midpoint, integration, which is another way to define yoga, is simply the goal. To integrate all the different facets of this journey, forgive completely all the mistakes, betrayals and disappointments of both myself and others and live wholly in the present moment, no longer living as a ghost of mySelf.
Part of the integration process for this one has included following those who have managed to attain unshakable peace and abiding in the atmosphere that surrounds them, receiving their teachings on the conceptual level and using that precious time in their presence to contemplate and rewire my own patterns. To also cultivate that feeling of awe for the mystery of life and variety of spiritual paths humans have adopted to connect to it, and to trust my own intuition within any group of spiritual practitioners, even if that has me disagreeing with the accepted dogma of any particular sangha. For the Buddha himself advocated questioning authority and never encouraged people to make idols of his form to worship.
"O monks and wise men, just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so must you examine my words and accept them, not merely out of reverence for me.
My teaching is not a philosophy. It is the result of direct experience...
My teaching is a means of practice, not something to hold onto or worship.
My teaching is like a raft used to cross the river.
Only a fool would carry the raft around after he had already reached the other shore of liberation.
If you were to follow the Dharma purely out of love for me or because you respect me, I would not accept you as disciple. But if you follow the Dharma because you have yourself experienced its truth, because you understand and act accordingly - only under these conditions have you the right to call yourself a disciple of the Exalted One."
-words of the Buddha quoted from Old Path, White Clouds by Thich Nath Hanh
The Dalai Lama’s energy field is palpable and the devotion of those who practice Tibetan Buddhism is contagious and all-embracing, even if much of it originates in a shared cultural heritage and is not based on a deep study and necessary comprehension of the teachings. As a foreigner in this realm, it’s fascinating to observe how much blind faith exists toward one particular being. Coming from a culturally Christian country, everything i learned about Buddhism was delivered to me through reading the Buddha Dharma, listening to others’ teachings and translations of Pali, Sanskrit and Tibetan, and of course through my own practice and retreat. It was through that final experience especially, that I have reached my own convictions. But, I wish to emphasize that I certainly wasn’t raised to see anyone as particularly more holy because of a divine reincarnation, so it’s interesting to be swept up in that energy. I witnessed H.H. touch a Bhutanese Nomadic woman who was perched atop a precarious step to be in his walkway as he ascended to his teaching throne. She broke into tears and melted as his hand caressed her crown. It was not too unlike when someone accepts Jesus for the first time, the type of energy it carried. Her weeping was then so overwhelming that her husband had to catch her, as she swooned in the sensation of being touched by a living God. Of course this type of energy is also prevalent around rock stars, and I can remember witnessing it as Billy Idol brought a hand of a loyal and super hot fan to his leather crotch during the Rebel Yell concert tour I attended long ago.
Not to minimize the power of devotion, by any means. But it’s at times very entertaining to observe the emptiness of any object of devotion. Devotees of course may argue in favor of their teacher and why they are inherently worthy of devotion, but in this world I have yet to witness the unanimous devotion to any one deity, rockstar, spiritual teacher or God.
And that being said, the fact that there is ever violence inflicted in trying to enforce anyone’s choice of worship (even to the cult of statism: faith in a particular type of government) is something quite tragic. In my own heart I have rooted out the causes of why that happens. Sadly, I can confess all the times that I have been afraid of someone stepping out of a dogma I fiercely adhered to, how I needed the group to feel ‘right’ in my own faith at times in my life. May we all have the courage to step out of that peer pressure fearful thinking and find what is true for ourselves.
But the path of self-inquiry means that you must do it alone. No one can do it for you. There is no guru who can clean all of one’s dirty laundry. (Well, without a price that is!) That doesn't mean of course, that we can't have help, support and kinship with our spiritual friends and mentors along the way. Personally, it is these types of critical thinking and open minded allies that I surround myself with these days.
"There is almost a sensual longing for communion with others who have a large vision. The immense fulfilment of the friendship between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality impossible to describe." -Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
So, Insha'Allah, with the onset of May I will dive in again…to a no frills practice, no malas, no sadhanas, no prostrations: mental or physical, no beautiful yoga poses, but just surrender to bare awareness. I begin a 10 day silent retreat at Dhamma Janani, meaning ‘Mother of Dhamma’ (in the language Pali), here in Lumbini 16 years after my first one. Auspiciously BUDDHA PURNIMA will fall toward the conclusion of this retreat which is the full moon in May celebrating when Lord Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and left His body, and for this reason I trust that the timing is right. I have tried to escape this retreat because there will be a heat wave with temperatures around possibly reaching 114 degrees. For those of you from the desert like me, this is familiar, but the difference here is the lack of AC or swamp coolers. I left Tucson to avoid the heat this summer, but it appears I am diving headlong into a retreat that will have me immersed in the hottest season here in Nepal. Oh, the irony of trying to find the perfect conditions!
It's ok, in my rich fantasy life, I liken myself to a feminine Indiana Jones: sweat on my brow, knife strapped to my leg, and traveling light with only a satchel with some faded maps inside slung over my shoulder. The treasures I am seeking are not mere relics though, rather inner realizations of ultimate reality currently existing as termas in my heart, just waiting to be found. I am grateful and humble enough to use the directions of a few others who have gone before investigating this terrain, following their maps and jumping through snake pits of the mind to discover ...
well, now, that is a topic for a future post.
with love from Nepal,
your misfit mystic,
tamara lee ~*~
~ If you are interested in booking a private pilgrimage with my guidance and support, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange your personal transformational journey, which we can do more intuitively and with less strict adherence to a plan.
~Or, (equally wonderful but just a different approach,) for a group pre-set itinerary tour, join Modern Mystic Yoga Academy & Himalayan Yoga Tours in August for an incredible journey into the Buddhist circuit in high altitude India: