October 31, 2006

My Antarctica

On Saturday evening I went to The Hinsdale, one of two annual parties held at Architecture Hall, this one in honor of the “largest urinals west of the Mississippi” – the Hinsdale in the men’s restroom. Thought I’ve spent the better part of two and a half years in Arch Hall now, I’ve never attended one of the parties. Saturday was part of my ongoing campaign to be more social, to fit in. However, it now leaves me questioning the wisdom of that campaign.
I did not enjoy myself at the Hinsdale, though I tried. I arrived early, the traditional curse of the socially awkward. I was in costume, a generic ‘warrior woman,’ though not recognizable as any particular character. I smiled, I made eye contact, I said hello, and I spent the entire evening mentally begging someone to notice and talk to me. The one person who did was one of the girls from a year below me who at the time I did not recognize. She is one of those boisterous persons who tend to make me uncomfortable by their very act of never seeming uncomfortable themselves. Despite that, I was and still am grateful to her attention, fleeting though it was in the chaotic jumble of the party.
The capstone of the evening, when I finally decided this was not where I belonged, even after the fun of the toilet paper forest and the costume contest, was the young man passed out in the back hall on a vomit covered floor. I knew him, though he was not in my year. The professor with the duty of baby sitter had just come around the corner with a very concerned look, heading the opposite way, so I knew he was aware of the young man. The girls he had come with showed up very quickly with the returning professor, paper towels, and water and they took good care of him. I hurried on by, up to my studio to get my coat, feeling scared for him and upset for myself. I stopped on the way back to make sure they could get him home, but only lingered a few moments. I was glad to be gone from there, out in the fresh cold air where I could breath again (despite my tightly laced bustier) where it was blessedly quiet.
I think part of understanding my ongoing quest to be social must also be not only understand, but to accept myself. I need to be social on my own terms and in situations I find comfortable. When I am uncomfortable, nothing good will come of it no matter how many people I surround myself with. I must have compassion for myself in this and understand that I am not like other people and that is okay.
I have spent many years of my life ‘pretending’ to be something I was not: outgoing, caring, and positive. I have pretended so well that I have become outgoing, caring, and positive despite starting out reclusive, apathetic, and cynical. A person raised in Florida can eventually become used to Alaska, to such a degree that they don’t even notice the change.
I have found my own personal Antarctica, and no amount of acclimatization is going to help be comfortable there.

October 26, 2006


Is the bardo weird? Someone made a comment to me yesterday about chapter 2 of Gehlek Rinpoche’s book in which he discusses the processes of death and the bardo state between life and death. “Isn’t that weird?”

Is it? I had never particularly thought so. I guess I’m so divorced from my own cultural heritage of religious traditions (Christian, United Methodist) that I don’t have anything “normal” for comparison. After all, when you think about it, isn’t the idea of Saint Peter meeting you at the pearly gates a little weird? I understand this is a misrepresentation of actual Christian dogma, but I think the metaphor works. I just consider them as differing mythological systems associated with different religions. I realize I’ve fallen into the habit of separating the mythology of a religion from the message. But if I do that, does the message still apply?

In my Intro to Philosophy class we studied the various philosophical basis for morality. A traditional view (Thomas Aquinas) is that morality stems from God. Morality is whatever God says it is. The rebuttal of this is what I call the “God as a bully” argument. I’m not going to go into the entire debate here, but it is similar to the debate of an objective morality which I’ve talked about in prior posts. Does God (like us) discover morality or create it? If he (or she) simply discovers morality, that means morality independently preexists God.

So is there a contradiction if I accept the message of Buddhism as practiced by Tibetans but not the mythology? I don’t reject the mythology outright, mind you. I’m just giving it the benefit of the doubt and withholding judgment at this point.

I met a man at the mountain center summer before last who seemed to think so, Mark. I had expressed my reservations at the concept of reincarnation, but said that I felt the system of Buddhism worked regardless of the existence of any higher power or spiritual existence. Mark felt very adamantly that they entire authority and legitimacy of Tibetan Buddhism was drawn from it’s dogma. The entire system of teachings would break down if that dogma proved untrue. As the time I wondered why someone would follow a tradition they felt would fall apart if one aspect, reincarnation, was disproved.

But how can love and kindness cease to be relevant just because we can somehow prove the Dalai Lama really is just a normal everyday Joe and not in fact the 14th manifestation of the aspect of Avolokitesvara, the Bohdisatva of Compassion?

October 23, 2006


Sometime I see things so clearly. At least, I think I do. They seem simple and straightforward and easy to me. When other people see obscurity where I have clarity it makes me wonder if my understanding of that thing is somehow naïve; that it is possible I have simply skimmed the surface of what is in fact profound and complicated.

Kindness seems an obvious wisdom to me. I am kind to others in order that they might be kind to each other and to me in turn. Even if I cannot see the path that kindness will take to return to me, I see a clear and easy relation between my actions and those of others. And the more kindness I show others, the more altruism I build. Kindness becomes more and more an integral part of my nature and the selfish desire to receive kind treatment in turn becomes less and less important. That, ironically, makes me feel better about myself, even when people are unkind to me. I see great benefit to maintaining kindness and compassion even for the most difficult people, those greater society might think I had good reason to hate.

Then someone questioned compassion. “Where does it come from?”

This simple question made me in turn question my understanding of compassion, of loving kindness, and empathy. Do I cling to an over simplistic goody-goody conviction out of a need to feel good about myself?

No. We must first have compassion for ourselves. We must be kind to ourselves. That is the root of our kindness and compassion for others. Those who do not have this kindness towards themselves cannot be kind to others. Those who believe they have no reason to be kind to others truly have no reason to be kind to themselves either. Those who can be kind to themselves create the ability to be kind to those similar to themselves and from that grows a kindness to all beings as they come to realize all being are essentially like themselves. All beings want happiness. All beings want to be free from suffering. That includes me.

Perhaps I am naïve in other things, but kindness I think I understand well.

October 19, 2006

Inherent Existence

INHERENT: involved in the constitution or essential character of something : belonging by nature or habit : Synonyms: intrinsic, innate, inbuilt, natural, inborn

EXISTENCE: 1a obsolete: reality as opposed to appearance, 1b: reality as presented in experience, 1c: the totality of existent things, 2: a particular being 2d : sentient or living being : LIFE, 2a : the state or fact of having being especially independently of human consciousness and as contrasted with nonexistence, 2b: the manner of being that is common to every mode of being, 2c: being with respect to a limiting condition or under a particular aspect, 3: actual or present occurrence Synonyms: survival, continuation, life, subsistence, being, reality, way of life

Buddhists have this concept of emptiness. The way I understand it is through a simple phrase: all things are empty of inherent existence. Or, nothing exists in and of itself. Nothing comes from nothing. Everything comes from somewhere and is dependent on causes and conditions for both its existence and our perception of its existence. Because nothing exists in and of itself, one could say that nothing really exists at all, therefore it is empty. Everything is empty. Sounds rather nihilistic, but I think that is an overly simplistic understanding.

It’s a very obscure concept (and yet very simple as most Buddhist concepts are) and I must admit I have only the lightest intellectual understanding of it. What got me thinking of it today was Professor Potter in my Philosophy of Law class. Apparently there are two different schools of thought in legal philosophy: positivists who believe law is grounded in moral principles, and realists who believe there is no such abstract thing as law, it is simply the opinions of judges (and other ‘lawmakers’).

This goes back to a conception of moral theory. Does an objective and independent morality exist? Or is morality simply a fabrication of human culture and subject to the whims of society? Do we discover morality or do we create it? Does morality have inherent existence?

Until today, I probably would have said yes, morality exists as an absolute whether we understand it or not. Then Professor Potter used the words ‘inherent existence’ which brought me back into my Buddhist teachings where those words are used commonly when discussing emptiness. Previously, when saying that things are empty, I was thinking of things, objects, physical structures, both living and inanimate. What about concepts? What about things which are not things?

If nothing inherently exists, does objective morality exist? Or justice? Or love?

Buddhists certainly think love exists. Loving compassion is a central teaching and the foundation upon which we as human beings have the ability to build a good world. So love exists, but does it inherently exist? Is it still empty? Is love merely a human construct? It doesn’t particularly bother me if it is. But what about morality? The idea that morality is a completely human construct is a little more worrying.

Thankfully, Buddhism also teaches about ultimate and relative reality. Most people do not have a conceptualization of ultimate reality because most of us aren’t Buddhas. So far we’ve had one enlightened Buddha in the past two and a half thousand years, so I’d say having an understanding of ultimate reality is fairly rare. Thus, I don’t feel to bad for my lack of understanding. Most Buddhist teachings are, by necessity, couched in relative reality. (Doesn’t that sound funny: “relative reality?”)

From the standpoint of relative reality, I think I can safely conclude (for now, and not without reservations) an objective morality exists, even if it is ‘empty.’

October 15, 2006


I am coming to understand Refuge. When we take refuge as Buddhists, we take refuge in the Buddha as the teacher, the Dharma as the teachings, and the Sangha as the community of practitioners. I had only the Dharma in the form of books, magazines, and the what is available on the internet, which is really quite a lot.

In these books, the importance of finding a teacher is emphasized. At first I felt I was perfectly capable of learning on my own, as has been my way for a very long time. However, the more I learned the more adrift I felt. It was not so much that I did not understand the teachings, for intellectually I think I understand them rather well, but that I had no one to share them with, no sounding board, and no one to point me in the right direction. Part of that need I tried to meet by placing my thoughts on the internet, for others to see, hoping that if I blundered too deeply someone would notice and pull me back.

I found I needed a teacher in many more ways than one. I needed not only a Buddhist teacher, but teachers in the other subjects I studied. I wanted someone to encourage and value me and be a true mentor, not just a professor I had for this class or that.

I found this is abundance. I found a friend at Shambhala Mountain Center who I can ask questions of and who I can see as a living example of the practice, but we also share other critical interests and values which make our interaction much more multi-dimensional - Dickie. Here at school I have finally found a faculty member I can respect as an individual and who pushes me to grow - Brito. I have a boss now who is more of a mentor in my academic career than I have ever had and who can guide me as a young woman as well - Sandi. In these three remarkable people, I have found good teachers all.

In Shambhala Mountain Center I have found a sangha, of a type, but they are very far from here. Last week I went to my very first meeting of the Jewel Heart Lincoln Group, Buddhist practitioners following the Tibetan teacher Gehlek Rinpoche. I was anxious about going. I had known of the group since before moving to Lincoln, but had consistently procrastinated attending. Now, I am so glad that I went. Even more interesting is who I found there, another professor from my college, Duncan. I have not had any classes with him, but I walk by his office every time I am in Arch Hall. He seemed interested to see me there as well and told me to stop in to chat any time. Over the next several weeks we will be studying Gehlek Rinpoche’s book “Good Life, Good Death.”

A year ago I cemented my aspiration to take Refuge, without really having anything to take Refuge in. Since them, those things which are central to the vow of Refuge have come into my life. Now I am making arrangements to make that vow official and hopefully by this time next year, I will look back on my Refuge ceremony with satisfaction.

Before I was only taking Refuge in myself – that I had the inherent wit and wisdom to find my own path and that even if I stumbled I would eventually figure it out. That was not truly Refuge. Now I take Refuge as it was meant – in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

I didn’t know what I was missing until I found it.

October 10, 2006

Trip One, Day One

I had never gone to a Buddhist center before. I had never spent time in the Colorado mountains. I had never ridden on a train before. In early August, 2004, I did all of that and found myself at Shambhala Mountain Center as a participant in the Shambhala Training Level 1: The Art of Being Human workshop.

The bus which took me from Denver to Fort Collins traveled on the flat plain of eastern Colorado, with the mountains just visible in the western distance. The interstate we traveled looked much like Nebraska and the development bordering it was much the same. The bus driver who dropped me at the Hilton hotel in Fort Collins took one look at my backpack and rolled sleeping bag.

“Going to Shambhala, huh? I can always tell.”

I waited at the hotel with another lady bound in the same direction. She had come all the way from New Mexico. After a bit, a girl about my age wearing a yellow name badge around her neck found us chatting in the lobby. She was our transportation, with her beat up little hatchback, to the mountain center. She said she had lucked out by agreeing to come in and pick us up, she was able to make a town trip and get reimbursed for the gas. She was working up at the center for the summer. After that she didn’t know where she’d go.

We traveled on roads which became more and more twisting and climbed almost 3,000 feet into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. There where grey cliffs and places where red earth had been thrust up at an angle, all covered with scrub grass and short pine trees. Farther into the mountains the trees got larger, the hills rounded and hugged closer together, and the air dried out. The dirt county road in to the mountain center was even more crooked, but well maintained. It became pitted with pot holes past the front gate, but I half think that is intentional to prevent fast driving.

There was a little guard shed, unmanned, and an old log cabin with an open sided white tent next to it. We registered in the tent and got our white name badges. They had fruit and tea waiting for us. Our guide took us to our tents, or as close as she could get. First we went to Red Feather, where the other lady was staying and where we would eat dinner and participate in the workshop. Then we followed the pitted dirt road along the high ground ringing the valley to the Ratna bathhouse, a large brown wood structure set on stilts on the mountain slope with a porch rapping around three sides.

She couldn’t get there in her car, but if I walked the path leading east from the bathhouse, past all the Ratna tents, I should find my own tent: Vajra number 4. Sure enough, it was there, set a little apart from the other tents, a hundred feet off the path, and down the hill from a large lonely ponderosa pine, which would become my landmark and nighttime friend.

It was a tall green tent, about fourteen feet on a side, set on a green wooden platform with a little awning and a porch painted with V04 in tall white letters. Inside I could stand without hitting my head unless I was right next to a wall. It had windows on three sides and a door on the fourth, facing south back up the hill. There were two beds, two hanging racks, and two shelves all made of raw lumber. The beds each had a six inch foam mattresses on them and nothing else. I chose the one on the east side. Unzipping the back window, I could see across the valley, down to the meadow and the shrubs growing along the creek, up the other side the a cluster of buildings our guide had called ‘Downtown.’

I unpacked most of my things, slung my pack with my copy of Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa in it over my shoulder and headed back the way we had come. The clouds were so big and close overhead, as though I could reach my hand and run my fingers through their soft undersides. I could hear the wind roaring and rushing, but rarely felt it in the protected valley. Otherwise it was quiet and I counted only two birds on the mile or so hike back to Red Feather.

The road to Red Feather gradually sloped up and my footsteps became slower and slower as my heart beat unexpectedly loud. I stopped for a bit, to look back down the valley at a cream colored building with a green metal roof and a two story tower on the southeast corner. I thought it was a nice looking building. When I reached Red Feather, I let myself into the dining hall, a long one story building set along the road with a full length porch facing east. There was a group of young people hanging out on a couple of soft couches. They were staff members and were friendly and happy to let me join them.

In moments a man a few years older than they can and rousted them out and put them back to work. At first, I think he wasn’t sure if I was one of them or not, but then he spotted my white name tag clearly marking me as a guest. I was early. Most of the participants would be arriving in the next few hours, but I was welcome to make myself at home.

I read a little of the book by the person whose name I still could not pronounce and napped on the couch. The train trip to Denver had been overnight and I hadn’t slept very much, being unused to the swaying motion of the tall train cars. People started to wander in. They were young and older, some well dressed, some casual like me, men and womean alike. Some joined me on the couches. The atmosphere was very relaxed and friendly.

Dinner was served at 6:30 p.m. I was hungry and the food was good. They served roasted chicken breast as well as marinated tofu, which much to my surprise I enjoyed. I ate at a table with a group of retired middle school teachers from Denver. After dinner, we made our way down a short path to a very large, very white tent. Following the lead of those in front of us, we removed our shoes and stowed them in the cubbies which walled off the entry. The remainder of the tent was a large open room filled with orderly rows of blue cushions which were quickly filling up.

In the center of the long north wall was an alter of sorts which I had never seen before. There was a large reddish orange box with gold trim of about counter height. It had many things set on it, golden bowls holding objects, oil filled candles, and a large calligraphy painting which seemed to depict nothing so much as the number one. Later I would learn this symbol was called ashre (ah-sh-ray) and did not stand for any specific number or letter, but rather a concept. Beside the alter, or shrine I learned later, was a beautiful, but simple, black chair, a small table with flowers on it, and a clear glass of water.

I hunkered down on my cushion close to the front on the right side of the teacher’s chair. The sun had gone down by then and I was glad I had not left my coat in my tent. When the tent was full, and the audience of over seventy sat quietly even though no one had told us not to speak, a lady entered the room followed by a younger man and woman. The young woman was dressed in a fashion I tend to think of as bohemian, not mainstream fashion, but much too nice to be hippie. She was my age and pretty with beautiful chestnut hair, immaculate makeup, and trendy librarian style glasses perched on her nose. Her name was Farradee.

She introduced the man with her. He had short dark hair and reminded me of a track runner. He wore an improbable looking khaki military uniform with odd looking badges and a green beret tucked over one shoulder. He was Ian, head of the Dorje Kasung, whatever that was, and proceeded to give us a lecture about bears, mice, birds, water, flashlights, hats, and the color of our urine. He was personable enough, but obviously had given this lecture many times before and also obviously took it just as seriously this time.

Then the lovely Farradee introduced the woman in the teacher’s chair as Cynthia Kneen. She was about my mother’s age and smartly dressed in a business suite with her brown hair artfully styled and makeup done. She was someone I expected in a board room, not a tent in the middle of the mountains, but she had something about her that seemed to make her perfectly at home and perfectly suited to this time and this place. She had a softness I had never seen before in another human being.

That evening she explained with a soft voice and a gentle laugh about basic goodness and how wonderful it is to be a human being. I confess I didn’t understand it all, but most of it made sense, and something in her manner told me I would come to understand it in short order, even if I didn’t tonight. She told of her own journey through the winter snow of Vermont when she was just a bit younger than I to meet the man whose name she pronounced as Choge-yahm Trung-pa Rin-poe-shay, the last word meaning teacher. He became her mentor. She told the story of the mythical kingdom of Shambhala, said to have existed in Tibet many thousand years ago. It did not really matter if it ever existed or not because it stood for a principle or ideal or how human beings can live when they recognize their own basic goodness.

After a couple of hours and a very sore back from sitting on the meditation cushions, called a gomden and a zabuton, my head felt full and soft. I was still slightly skeptical, but happy. We adjourned for the night and the large group left almost as quietly as we had come. Some stopped at the entrance to bow to the shrine. I did not.

People set off with their bobbing flashlights, free to chatter beyond the confines of the shrine tent, and I did likewise. Or tried to at least. Their were no stars or moon and a hundred paces from the dining hall I couldn’t see anything, not my hands, not my feet, not the trees or mountains, and certainly not the path I was trying to follow by the feel of the ground alone. I have been to'Middle-of-Nowhere' Nebraska and I never could have believed anywhere under the open sky could have been darker. I was wrong. I was also starting to get just a little bit panicky. All of the other guests seemed to be staying in Red Feather and I had no idea how I was going to get all the way across the valley to Vajra.

After a few moments of indecision, swinging my head back and forth from the dark path to the lit dining hall behind me, my rescue crunched up the path to me. Two staff members, a couple, were heading back to their own tent in Padma, wherever that was. If I followed them to Downtown, they would give me a flashlight and set me on the right path for the Ratna bathhouse. I was shaky and scared and very, very relieved. They set off confidently down the hill in the pitch black and I followed. Every so often a little solar garden light would pop up on the side of the path, be visible for about ten feet, then disappear in the darkness.

We made it to Downtown and a mud room attached to a larger building. The young man rummaged around in a backpack hanging in the row of pegs and came up with a small penlight. They led me through downtown to the edge of the meadow, where I could see the Ratna bathhouse glowing halfway up the hill. We said goodnight and I made my way, with my little penlight to keep me from stumbling on the boardwalk which crosses the wet meadow. After a quick, and cold, stop in the bathhouse (prompting a quick decision to shower during the day instead), I was on the path to my tent.

The little penlight didn’t shed enough light to see my tent from the path, but after a bit of uncertainty, I found my friendly tree. Turning from the tree at a right angle and heading down the hill brought me to my tent in short order. My roommate had moved in sometime during the day and was now curled securely in her own bunk. I shed my boots, coat, and pants, kept my sweatshirt on, shivered, and crawled into my own sleeping bag. I slept fairly well, though I did keep one ear open for bears.

October 05, 2006

Lessons from the Universe

I think I'm supposed to learn something today. As I got home, a woman was unloading some things from the back of her car on my block. I really wasn't paying much attention. I was opening my mailbox when a very rough and VERY masculine voice asked me if this was a secured building. It was the 'woman' coming up the walk with a trolley behind her. I told her it was and that the only way to get in was to ring someone inside. She said she had phone books to deliver and didn't know anyone inside. I told her she could leave them in the lobby, where the other companies leave phone books, but she said the training video told them to deliver them to the door, not in the lobby. I told her I guess she couldn't deliver them then. She turned around and walked away. If there is some irony in a drag queen delivering phone books, it escapes me at the moment.

I think I'm supposed to learn how to deal with people who make me uncomfortable.


Today a man accused me a being a witch. On the face, that’s a rather funny thing, and I tried to be amused by it. The fact that the man doing the accusing was a drunk bum at the bus stop at nine o’clock in the morning made it less amusing. There are a number of bums in downtown Lincoln, all generally harmless, as this man doubtless was, but some more verbal than others. I made the ‘mistake’ of saying hello to this man before I got a good look at (and smell of) him.

I say ‘mistake’ because I wonder if my aversion to this man is symptomatic of my own problems rather than his. Buddhism teaches us to let go of attachments, of which aversions are the flip side of the coin and must be dealt with similarly. It teaches us to be open to the present moment, maintain equanimity, and generate compassion. The fact that this man made me so uncomfortable I felt it necessary to get up and walk down to the bus stop on the next block shows me I have progress yet to make.

I tried to be polite, but I really didn’t want to encourage him and nothing I said or didn’t say seemed to disinterest him. First it was the way I pulled my ponytail through the back of my hat and when I had explained that to his satisfaction he caught on the fact I must be a witch, but he wasn’t afraid of me. He even showed me the pentagram he had drawn on his hand to prove it. He was a warlock and I didn’t have the kind of magic he had. I couldn’t make a pentagram out of blood or turn a stick into a snake or make the oak tree bear fruit. At that point, I decided avoidance was the wiser policy.

But I wonder, how bad would it have been to wait the few more minutes for my bus at that stop? The man probably hadn’t had anyone to actually talk with for a long time, though he said hello to everyone who passed, all of whom ignored him more successfully than I did. Would it really have been that bad to talk to him? I don’t know. It was a rather strange encounter.

Can aversion of someone unpleasant cause them more suffering or is it just a moot point?