Deity Practices

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Padmasambhava (central figure above) has come to mind a lot lately, even though I have not been practicing deity ritual. For the last year or so I’ve kept up some habits and attended some classes or events, but have not set out to learn anything nor to be a Buddhist. If asked why, I would probably say it has been a time of integration, but on another day would admit to a loss of faith. Both are true. It seems obvious that integration is only possible with that context… when contrivances make way and what remains is allowed to come clear. Loss of faith and surrender to what is can be very similar.

Encountering the ornate, iconographic images of Tibetan thankas was not comfortable at first. Western ideas of religious worship tainted my projections of why the images were made and the roles they played in a culture. So I took a scholarly approach to satisfy my curiosity by reading about figures and history, learning basic happenings of the stories.

However, until my curiosity grew enough to begin Vajrasattva mantras and practices (generally the first introduction for new students) myself, there remained a strong inner/outer barrier. Sometimes I was outside looking into an other-world, and sometimes I was trapped inside my own other-world looking out. One side was always abandoned. It is only in retrospect that I perceive patterns that changed once Padmasambhava became real for me: once he was a person whose voice I could hear, whose laughter and mischief I could share in – once he was not only a teacher in an ancient time but also as intimate friend.

I think there is healthy logic to picking up something like a deity practice, even in our time, even for a non-religious person. When making a friend or coming to relate to a teacher on a personal level, we immerse in their view and qualities, know their ways. “In him we live and move and have our being” the disciple says of Jesus. Virtuous qualities become alive and begin to act out. Embodiment rather than knowing ‘about’.

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” Anais Nin

cultivating ways of retreat

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Attempting to plan an online retreat. It is a strange undertaking, and impossible to measure the success of because individual experiences are mutually witnessed, but mostly reduced what is consciously shared. Not that it isn’t the same in other retreats, but there are fewer ways and places to hide then.

I work within these limitations because I need to – not because I believe them equal to face to face retreats. They can be a good fit for persons who are disabled or hindered by high social or financial barriers, so in that sense, worth honing, but fall as short as a choice as did “homeschooling support groups” when we tried those. You can never be too neutral or free-flowing for some, and you can never be too structured and ritualistic for others. In essence, you always fail in these things if you are looking for something called success.

My main preparation is to first tend to my own field of awareness – first spend time with quiet and questions that come up within intentional space. Questions can be a miracle when the timing is right, reaching both the coarse and subtle layers in the field. Nothing is too silly to ask, from the mundane “What would you do if money were no obstacle?” to more meditation-oriented questions like “What are the emotional and relationship patterns that arise for you continually?” and “Can you catch which mind arises when ____?”

I found that the first question, the one I find intellectually sort of lazy, tapped immediately into everything else. This time around there was something that wanted to be understood, just waiting for a slight provocation. I wrote pages and pages and then had little that stirred up for the rest.

What I learned is that I long for company…. that if money were no obstacle I would be facilitating others to spend time with me in interesting ways…. that almost everything else would be connected to that central desire for meaningful and adventurous companionship. I knew this about myself already, yet was still surprised by the depth of the desire. Simultaneously I would tend to a deeper cultivation of secret practice – getting ‘away’ from all those companions in more drastic ways. Solitary and near solitary retreats, mainly.

This is not a pattern which is not playing out already; it was just not as clear to me as it became. There is something quite powerful about actually seeing – about recognizing the responsibility one is already engaging with, in a conscious way – where it came from, what it is tied to. Every stage of my life is represented in this pattern, from the childhood playgrounds where I deeply desired to be included in clubs and games, but refused to show that – to the families I desperately wanted yet refused to dance for. Chips on shoulders. Pretending not to want to be recognized in various ways. Acting out subconsciously to destroy current situations and create yet another ‘start again’ point. Where imagination stops – the bar it reaches. Things like that.

So my retreat challenge then is to create and atmosphere within which to then present others with simple suggestions for tapping into what wants to be known and seen, in their own fields of awareness and experience. We’re not trying to change the patterns, just see them, just witness for and with one another, let in some light.

mythic imagination

Spent the morning with Joseph Campbell, introducing him to A as one of the heroes of my life and someone whose ordinariness allowed him to openly crack open hidden components of stories that still largely dictate the freedoms/limitations humanity envisions and draws out for itself. I couldn’t help but imagine what might have been different in my own scope, had I been exposed to a thinker like Campbell earlier on, or had I not been vaccinated against his brand of playful thinking and way of hiding-and-seeking with literalisms.

Rather than feeling I’d done A favors in not subjecting him to the same sort of programming, raising him outside of religious contexts for the most part, I felt wistful sadness that he had only a moderate amount of curiosity about the basic myths and stories that Campbell masterfully illuminates. But then I realized that the energy of the loosening came from what had been the intensity of the tightening for me – that my own appreciation comes forth in response to my context, my time. His is unique. Not introducing the dichotomies as fundamental in the first place may be more possible than I know… room for more “middle angels” than I myself can yet fathom.

To me, Campbell is a Padmasambhava figure, not bound to strict contexts and able to play with situations and stories that appear. That his work isn’t commonly drawn upon is strange to me, since our ignorance as a species continues to be astoundingly expensive. Indeed in some ways it has cost — I have spent — my whole adult life, undoing even just the edges of the blindfolds I was raised in as given. Daunting.

We are always teaching something, handing something down … a left over grudge or quest. I don’t think we can help that entirely (even by not giving A a specific religious education I have given him something along those lines). I do think we can help handing these stories down as literal.

ordinary stars

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In the last week or so I’ve canceled subscriptions, closed social media accounts, and turned the TV off again. This time it isn’t coming from a reactive place, but rather feels like an obvious process, stepping off one stone to another. Not reaching for heaven, not escaping hell.

The last drama that I marathoned was a re-watch: You From Another Star. The sacredness of ordinary life was the heart of the story – how precious and to be envied are the moments of this precarious human life.

I asked ST once, to teach suchness. Why he found this request amusing is something I understand better now.

Luster not Shine

What I wrote a week or so ago:

I acknowledge that my tendency is to stay at the bloom level and pursue the shiny thoughts, the insights. Or maybe it used to be. Maybe I’ve changed a little, am a little less shiny.

What I read today, from David Brooks:

Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, “was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.”

compassionate programming

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[spoilers always]

Upon recommendation from a friend after letting my initial interest drop, I bolted out of the door just in time to see the film Ex-Machina. I found it less riveting as a film than as a question – rich ground for contemplation on the nature of identity and consciousness, evolution, humanity and compassion.

The film introduces the Turing Test as premise under which a gifted hacker is brought to an isolated environment to interact with AI beyond anything in our current capabilities. “Eva”, is fluid of movement, has curiosities, is able to calculate and feel resentment. She even imagines a life beyond her current situation. She desires and feels herself as a “her” self, able to measure effect on a “him.”

If Turing’s Test aims to give a way to access an interaction with an “other mind” – a way to evaluate from the outside whether self-awareness/sentience is present – by all measures Eva passes the test at an intellectual level. Let loose in the world she will blend, function, manipulate, and be resourceful enough to have her “own life.”

However, she has an “empathy chip missing.” Eva has ground for empathy, which she was shown by someone else, but it doesn’t register, or doesn’t register as necessary or efficient. There is no indication that her awareness of self includes awareness of other in a compassionate way. She is largely made up of data gleaned, down to micro-expressions and human-appropriate emotional responses, but bypasses compassionate connection. We aren’t sure whether it is a matter of capacity or of phasing something deemed unnecessary, out. Which is a flaw in the Turing Test, or at least of basic understanding of the test, and presents crucial questions we might not have the answers to before we reach the next stage.

If there a war between intellect and (this, figurative) heart, my side is with the Dalai Lama, who has said that compassion is crucial, not from a standpoint of fuzzy emotions, but in terms of survival. And I think we can be somewhat logical about this, making rational arguments and decisions in compassionate directions, without falling into utopian territory.

Another question the film raises is that Eva is crafted from not only random data. She is particularly tailored to suit the tester’s preferences, gleaned from internet searches. She projects back qualities he has sought out, especially through porn sites. So this is a slightly different question that reaches into the ethics around selecting for preferences in offspring, as it is always possible to argue that one is doing what is best for a child by bringing them into the world with qualities particularly favored by the world, rather than trying to change the whole world to be favorable. Although evidence may abound in favor of certain traits, there are sufficient variables that no trait is a guarantee of optimum world-friendliness so I think we largely avoid this experiment so far.

The maker of the film, Alex Garland, compares the question of AI to the question of nuclear technology, both in its risks and potentialities, and also in the scope of the puzzles it poses about humankind and coexistence. He would not give up nuclear technology, even seeing the devastation upon Nagasaki and the threat of man-made, unfathomable scale disaster that humanity lives under since that time. Mankind pushes on, evolves in ways that it would not have without that knowledge. And must relentlessly evolve, without seeking perfection.

I agree that each time mankind has sought a perfect world, totalitarianism resulted, but I would like to believe we can do far better than that sort of devastation while still engaging in full-hearted discovery.

Which brings me to my main thought: we are only half-aware ourselves, while giving tests to measure awareness. Much or most of our own motives and intellect are obscured as we deal with ourselves, much less with other humans, much less with potential AI. Any test we give remains highly suspect.

tending

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It surprises me to see that I have visitors to this blog-without-purpose, even having intentionally left open the possibility. I enjoy writing here, and seem more integrated when doing so. So I’ll just have to get used to that feeling as a form of self-care, like the skin care routine I’ve picked up in the last few months, inspired by Korean bloggers.

Others have written in detail about the process, so no need for me to do that, but what is funny to me is how life has brought me around to laugh at my previous silly self, judging people I felt spent too much thought on “externals.” I was wrong. These practices can be basic expressions of tending and very much an internal cultivation as well, carving out restful spaces in an otherwise generally too restless life.

Some of the products are indulgent, but last a long time, and considering the roughly 40-50 minute period in which step by step I relax a little deeper and deeper before bed, something nicely justifiable. Add a few glasses of water and peaceful music (tonight I’ve been listening to Ji Sung), and it can have quite a wonderful effect… as spiritual as anything I’ve engaged with.

Randomness and Flourishing Time

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I woke going over ideas that would be taught hours later in a class titled Orderly Chaos and mused that while it may seem a given that time and perception are two sides of a coin, to trade in that needs practice not theory.

Orderly Chaos is a term unfolded by Trungpa Rinpoche, within a context called Mandala Principle. My way with the material is a little different from the rest of the class so far, which is made up of older and more historically invested/trained folks within the Shambhala lineage – actually a nice situation.

I have a bit more of a background with the Nyingma tradition whose teachers tend to talk more about time itself, so when holding the mandala image, my mind first drew out two kinds of time as “this and that”, two ways of relating with phenomena, while bracketing the concept of what some have called a third, or better, zeroith time.

Orderly Chaos presents three levels, so to me it was a nice parallel: linear, spontaneously arising, and no-time. Still, the comment I made in this direction was met with some confusion, which brought me to reexamine.

For me, time is a tangible daily practice and can present clear distinctions, which makes it kind of a treasure house with many openings: memory, motion, progress, measurement, situatedness, dreaming. I struggle to accept the effects of time every day, forever trying to tame it for my own benefit and use, even knowing better. Or trying to tame myself for its use, as though something (separate).

There are days in which everything productive and “good” appears; the world is smiling, the universe is friendly – opening follows another to another. On other days nothing much happens – ‘meh’ days waiting for the first to occur again; I suspect I may have turned a corner at which they might not anymore. There is a light but pervasive panic, like writer’s block. Lucidity withheld. In actuality there are no good days and bad days, or even meh days. It is mind that moves, not the flag (zen koan). In practice, the illusion is persistent.

So you have what is, the way it is, and simultaneously there is the way you experience that. One teacher put it this way: that we are used to thinking in terms of subjects perceiving objects, but what if there are only subjects perceiving subjects? Dogen said that “All the universe is one bright pearl.”

I’m skipping around but will draw more parallels anyway. There are karma dreams and dharma dreams… dreams that are processing the days content, and inspired or lucid dreams. In meditation there is shamatha (calm abiding) and vipassana (insight). Waking life is like this too. Already there are many people who have opened to this 2nd level way of living, or at least the aspiration – people from every sort of background and religious tradition. The third is more illusive because it can’t be touched nor defined even in the vague terms we use for the 2nd level. However, dream yogis use terms like “clear light.”

In terms of Orderly Chaos, and samsara/nirvana, I think of it like considering a coin with both sides exposed and in hand. Maybe there could even be the additional parallel of hungry ghost vs god realms, with the human fathoming both and manifesting or exhibiting both. One might say that one side of the coin represents the order and the other, the chaos, but when another student in the class said something similar, the teacher laughed a little – that it was too pretty of a picture – that she didn’t think CTR would have accepted that simple of an idea so easily.

I’m reminded of the saying that “the departure is in the arrival” which implies seeing through to the other side from any vantage point.

Trungpa Rinpoche continually flipped formulas… Socratic in that way. In terms of mandala principle, we are, at various views: the mandala, and are in the mandala, and are part of mandala of others. Which presents a kind of mandala of mandalas – diverse and dynamic. Yet in zeroith time (or what buddhists refer to as ultimate reality) there is no mandala, no eye, no ear… (reference to Heart Sutra).

A few posts ago I wrote about a character whose talents arose spontaneously as she encountered situations. Although she set out in a linear way to prepare for a certain end (there was a stated goal for the character), that goal was like an egg shell she abandoned after its purpose had been fulfilled. There was still a pattern, path, process – mandala drawn. Yet, what bloomed was far more than what was imagined or set out for.

To focus only on cultivating a bloom is going after the treasure while ignoring the treasure holder, which is a type of stealing. All over Miami right now there are blooming Royal Poinsettia trees, but not all are spectacularly expressive. It has to do with whether they are situated to receive proper nourishment, sufficient depth for flourishing.

When you truly awaken,
You have no formal merit.
In the multiplicity of the relative world,
You cannot find such freedom.
Self-centered merit brings the joy of heaven itself,
But it is like shooting an arrow at the sky;
When the force is exhausted, it falls to the earth,
And then everything goes wrong.

Why should this be better
Than the true way of the absolute,
Directly penetrating the ground of Tathagata?

Just take hold of the source
And never mind the branches.
It is like a treasure-moon
Enclosed in a beautiful emerald.
Now I understand this Mani-jewel
And my gain is the gain of everyone endlessly.
– from the Song of Enlightenment

I acknowledge that my tendency is to stay at the bloom level and pursue the shiny thoughts, the insights. Or maybe it used to be. Maybe I’ve changed a little, am a little less shiny.

There is a reason I titled this randomness, but I find myself veering away from making that point. What I’ll say is that from my perspective a lot of confusion might be cleared up about what evolution means, by digging farther into what randomness means. The connections are not mere cause and effect nor can they be traced any more than one can remember all the steps of their day and the thoughts that led to each movement. When people criticize evolution, it is usually a very old and incomplete model of linear progress they are refusing. Randomness isn’t without purposefulness, anymore than emptiness is without fullness. In that sense evolution misunderstood is like the linear, first view of time, with randomness the second view. It isn’t that the second negates the first, but if missing its partner dimension it is easy to make into a mere caricature.

A few months ago a friend lost her mother. She hadn’t spoken to her mother for many years, nor had she any hope for a relationship with her for the future. Still, she was hit hard by the permanence of the loss. Following, however, came an emotionally rich process of unpacking, reframing former views as she learned more about her. Some might count only the time she and her mother were talking with one another as relationship, or meaningful time, but what we can quantify is a sliver of what we can’t pin down and impossible to trace out on the branches.

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