Archive for February, 2010

Stepping Onto the Bodhisattva Path

As those of you who read my post “DIY Bodhisattva Vows” will know, I was prompted to write that post as a response to a brief article in the last issue of the magazine Spirituality and Health.  I submitted a shorter version of my post to them as a letter to the editor, and the editor wrote back to say he’d publish it in the next issue (which has just come out!)  He also asked whether I’d like to write a short piece for them on my bodhisattva vows and what they mean to me.  Of course I said yes, even though he gave me a 600-word limit!  So, in this week’s post, I’m giving you a preview of the piece which I sent to the editor yesterday.  It is exactly 600 words.  Didn’t think I could do that, did you?  Well, enjoy the brevity, because this will probably be my shortest post ever! :)

Stepping Onto The Bodhisattva Path

I can’t pinpoint the precise moment when I decided that I wanted to take Bodhisattva vows, but I do know that I’d been working with my Buddhist teacher less than six months when I asked whether I could take the vows with him. In his dharma talks, he would often speak of bodhisattvas, their qualities, and their task, and almost as soon as I began learning about bodhisattvas, I felt prompted to step onto that path myself.

Going through a vows ceremony wouldn’t make me a bodhisattva, but it would formally set my commitment to relieving the suffering of beings.  I’d be an aspiring bodhisattva. You become a true bodhisattva only when you develop bodhicitta, a boundless love and compassion for all beings which prompts you to devote all your energies to relieving their suffering – in this and all future lives. You vow that even if you  reach enlightenment along the way, you will keep taking rebirth until all other sentient beings have also been liberated. Then you can retire to the Buddha paradise along with them.

Compassion has always motivated my work (first as a teacher and now as an energy healer,) so the fact that my request to take bodhisattva vows sprang not from the intellect, but from my heart, seemed fitting.  Even so, my teacher responded circumspectly. In the coming months, at our Buddhist group’s weekly gatherings, he would discuss each of the vows involved.  But I would also need to follow a separate course of study, which he would direct.  That made sense. So we’d both be sure of my commitment. And so, over the next nine months, I worked with him on the Lam Rim (the classic Tibetan Buddhist discourse on the steps one takes to reach enlightenment) and  Way of the Bodhisattva by the 8th century Buddhist scholar, Shantideva.

The Lam Rim and my discussions with my teacher gave me insight into the fine points of the Buddhist teachings. Shantideva taught me what it means to be a bodhisattva: how you develop, nurture and protect bodhicitta, and how you hone the skills which enable you to grow more and more skilled at helping beings.  And my teacher showed me, through his own example, how you go about putting these teachings and principles into action in your own life.  I quickly understood that bodhisattva work is both infinitely challenging and rewarding.

By the time I stood before my teacher at the vows ceremony on July 16, 2007, I knew what was expected of me, and I knew in my heart that I was ready to devote myself to the task of becoming a true bodhisattva. That evening, surrounded by candles and incense and friends and family and my fellow students, I took sixteen vows.  I vowed to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha; to do good, to avoid evil, to do good for the sake of all sentient beings; I vowed not to kill, steal, lie, use intoxicants, not to engage in sexual misconduct, idle or divisive talk, not to withhold help or dharma, not to harbor ill will, and not to be ignorant about the true nature of reality.   And these vows guide my actions every day.  But one particular stanza from Shantideva also expresses the desire in my heart which prompted me to commit myself to this path in the first place.  It’s from the third chapter, “Commitment”:

“For every single thing that lives,

In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,

May I be their sustenance and nourishment

Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering.”

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Viktor Tsoi’s Bad Karma Song

Usually when I talk about a “bad karma song”, I’m in the car with my daughter Emily and she has put in a Lily Allen CD.  In that case, what I mean by “bad karma song” is, “that girl better watch her step because the stuff she’s doing there is gonna leave her in a world of karmic hurt.”  But today’s post is about a bad karma song of a different type:  ”Look After Yourself” by Viktor Tsoi, who was the lead singer and songwriter for the Soviet era rock group Kino (”Cinema”.)

Kino was astronomically popular, one of the top three rock groups of the Soviet period (together with Aquarium and Time Machine).  Time Machine and Aquarium’s lead singers were earnest and talented, but Tsoi had them beat hands down (in my humble opinion) with his deep, dark vision, charismatic sexiness, and a certain non-ethnic Russian look  - the result of a combination of genes from his Russian mother and half-Korean father.   But mainly, I think, with his voice, deep and dark as his lyrics.

Viktor Tsoi

Viktor Tsoi


Anyway, while Aquarium and Time Machine gave their listeners what I always saw as slightly self-righteous – if heartfelt – social commentary that highlighted the many ways in which Soviet culture  was a wasteland, Tsoi managed to express the same bleakness of life admidst the Soviet landscape through his very personal and sometimes raw excursions into the individual psyche.  There’s “Pack of Cigarettes”, in which he notes that when everything else is going to hell, if he has a pack of cigarettes in his pocket, then “it means everything’s not so bad, for today.”  Implying, of course, that tomorrow everything might be really, really bad. And showing the need for some means of escape, whether it was via cigarettes, or wine. Or the friends you could count on.  Or music.

“Look After Yourself” is one of my favorite Kino songs.  I’ve translated it into English for you below.  Read the lyrics.  You may wonder why the heck this would be one of my favorite songs.  I’ll tell you.  But first read the lyrics.  And then click here to watch a video of Viktor Tsoi and Kino performing this song in 1989 at a concert in Alma Ata on YouTube.

“Today they say to someone, “Goodbye!”/ Tomorrow they’ll tell him, “Farewell forever!”/ A wound in the heart will grow blood red. /Tomorrow, someone will return home/ and find their cities in ruins/ Someone will break loose from a tall crane./  Look after yourself, be careful!/ Look after yourself!

Tomorrow morning, someone in bed/ Will realize that he’s fatally ill./ Someone will come out of his house and be run over by a car./ Tomorrow somewhere in some hospital/ The hand of a young surgeon will shake/ Someone in the forest will stumble onto a mine./ Look after yourself, be careful!/ Look after yourself!

In the night a plane flew over us,/ Tomorrow it will fall into the ocean/All the passengers will perish./ Tomorrow, somewhere – who knows where?/ A war, an epidemic, a blizzard/ black holes in space…

Look after yourself, be careful!/ Look after yourself!”

This song seems a chronicle of a host of bad outcomes that might suddenly befall any of us.  One day everything is more or less okay and we’re doing what we do in the course of our everyday lives – leaving our house, walking in the woods, taking a plane flight, waking up – when suddenly something shifts, and we are beneath a car, or atop a mine, or flying earthward from a crane or a plane.  The overwhelming sense is of unexpected tragedy.  And Tsoi’s tone is both somber and monotonous or, perhaps, defeated.  As if all of this is both a surprise and not.

And really, it shouldn’t be a surprise.  That’s what I thought, listening to this song last week.  If you look at the Buddhist Lam Rim teachings (see two posts ago for an explanation of this…) you’ll see that they all stress the unexpectedness of death, that it can – and often does – sneak up on us when we are least ready for it. (As if we’re ever ready for it!!) Like having your heart give way, or perishing in a blizzard.

The Lam Rim stresses these sudden deaths as a way to motivate us to begin studying the dharma.  And it describes particularly gruesome deaths as a way to motivate  us to be kind to those around us, so that we can avoid the kind of karmic ripenings that plague those who act to hurt others.  I think of “Look After Yourself” as a bad karma song because Tsoi’s list of bad deaths reminds me those cautionary  Lam Rim tales.

No wonder Tsoi sounds sad as he sings.  But how are we to respond to this laundry list of karmic disasters?  ”Look after yourself,” Tsoi exhorts us.  But given the situations he describes, Tsoi sounds like, although he sincerely wants us to watch out, he doesn’t hold out much hope that we’ll be able to keep ourselves safe.  And how could we protect ourselves from a faulty airplane or a too-light grip atop a crane, or a mine buried in the earth and leaves beneath our feet?  It seems an impossible task.  Especially within the reality of Soviet life of the time.

Or maybe not.  Maybe “Look After Yourself” is both a bad karma song with the seeds of a good karma song planted within it.  Certainly no one can escape death.  If you happen to be a Buddhist, and you study the Lam Rim, you can learn the real way to look after yourself, by acting in ways that will benefit others and help you avoid an excruciating end.  But I’m pretty sure Tsoi was not a Buddhist.  So, how, then, does he expect us to look after ourselves, to save ourselves from ending up this way?

There’s no prescription here, and what strikes me most about “Look After Yourself”  is the darkness of Tsoi’s vision, a darkness which crops up in so many of his other songs, too. And I wonder if that vision was somehow connected in Tsoi to a sense of his own karmic state.  Let me tell you the end of Viktor Tsoi’s personal story… It was August, 1990, and he was driving back to Moscow from Latvia.  Somewhere, along some stretch of probably decrepit Soviet highway, his car smashed head-on, at high speed, into a bus headed in the other direction.  Tsoi died instantly, and his car was so thoroughly demolished, they say, that one of the tires was never found.  The official report said Tsoi had fallen asleep at the wheel.  How would they know that?(Even though officials claimed the autopsy had proven it.)  And how could he have been going so fast if he ‘d fallen asleep?  These questions spawned a conspiracy theory that one Russian friend told me – that the Soviet government had had Tsoi killed – by sabotaging his car, perhaps.  Why?  Perhaps he was too popular, too hard to control, his songs too full of underlying anti-Soviet sentiment? Anyway, that theory about his death lives on today.

I don’t know what really happened on that highway in Latvia.  But what struck me last week when I was listening to this song as I drove along an American highway, is that in “Look After Yourself,” Viktor Tsoi had, in a way, predicted his own death. Had he had some sense that his end would be as dramatic and violent as those he wrote about?  Was that why he was fascinated by those unexpected moments of bad karmic ripening?  Because he knew he would experience one himself, perhaps when he least expected it?  And become himself like a line in his ultimate bad karma song?

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33.3 % Fewer Kitties


Blackie on the counter!

Blackie on the counter!


Blackie relaxing

Blackie relaxing

Blackie was my son Michael’s cat.  We got her in 1992 when he was four, and she had always seemed pretty much invincible.  One day when she was eight months old, she came straggling home, her rear left leg dragging.  We never found out what had happened, but it turned out that despite having sustained numerous breaks in that leg, Blackie was fine  - no internal injuries.  So, being loath to euthanize an otherwise healthy kitten, we surprised (and delighted, I imagine) our vet and coughed up the huge sum of money needed to, as my husband said, fly the best orthopedic surgeon in from Vienna.  That was nearly 18 years ago, and she bounced back from that surgery – quite literally!  We called her the bionic kitty. 

During the intervening time between then and last weekend, Blackie had her share of excitement: the shock and horror of a dog being introduced into the household, the shock and horror of us going to Russia for 5 months (although she spent that time living in pampered comfort with our friends Catherine and Brian), and, two years ago, the shock and horror of two kittens being introduced to the household.  Plus a scare with a skin tumor a few years back.  But through it all, Blackie  remained her plump, purry, yet sometimes cranky self, meowing indignantly for food whenever she damn well felt like it, thank you very much.  Just ask Emily’s friend Renee to do her imitation of the Blackie meow and you’ll get the idea.

And until last weekend, that was pretty much Blackie’s life – yowling for food, eating, sleeping, avoiding the kittens.  Then on Saturday she began a quick decline.  By Sunday she pretty much was not eating or drinking and had parked herself on our big round table atop some of my papers and just stayed there.  Even when we set up a nice fluffy towel for her on the floor in the corner by the stairs, by the next morning when I got up, there she was, on top of the table again.  Who knows why that spot was so appealing!

I could tell she was probably nearing the end, so I consulted with our vet, whose service is strictly house calls.  She said she wouldn’t be in Easthampton until Thursday.  I said I wanted to avoid euthanizing her if at all possible – based on my Buddhist beliefs and my hospice volunteer work, I for some reason thought it was important for Blackie to be able to do this last big job at her own pace, and to not be hurried, unless she was clearly suffering.  So, Dr. Massaro and I agreed that I’d call her if Blackie seemed to be in pain, and we’d go from there. 

But I had another reason for not being quick to euthanize Blackie.  About ten years ago, we’d put down one of our other cats, Buddy.  He was about twelve and had developed diabetes.  We decided that it would be too expensive and too difficult to give him the daily medication he would need to control the diabetes.  And so, I found myself sitting by his side as the vet injected him with the drugs that would put him to sleep.

Although I wasn’t a practicing Buddhist back then, part of me felt there was something not quite right about putting Buddy to sleep in order to make things easier for the humans in the household.  Certainly in any situation of this sort one has to take into account one’s capacity to deal in a positive way with a situation – whether financially or emotionally.  At that point, we were not up to either challenge.  And so we put Buddy down.

But happily, life has a way of giving us chances to do things differently.  You could put it another way and say that life forces us into circumstances that allow us to do things differently.  Or to put it in Buddhist terms: our karmic ripening is constantly presenting us with opportunities to break negative karmic cycles.  And I realized that Blackie’s decline was giving me just this kind of karmic opportunity. This time would I be up to the challenge?

Over the few days of her steep decline, it would have been easy to rush her off to the vet to be put down – except that the vet wouldn’t be in town until Thursday.  When I asked at what point I should consider doing that, she told me, “Well if you notice that she’s having difficulty breathing, or that it’s difficult for you to listen to her difficult breathing, that would be a good time.”  That seemed heartless to me, probably because I was seeing this through the lens of Buddy’s death.  And so, without even realizing it consciously, I set about seeing Blackie along on her journey in an attentive, conscious way, so as not to rush her, not to “disturb her process”, as I thought of it.  After all, I knew from my hospice work that the death process for humans can be transformative, allowing them to release and confront issues in their lives. Who’s to say the same isn’t true for animals?  They’re sentient beings, too, after all.  So, our house became like a little feline hospice unit.  We introduced whatever comfort measures we could, backing off if she refused water or food or affection.  We tried to make it all about her and what we intuited her needs to be.

I guess that it was a good decision to try to make use of this karmic opportunity in this way, because on the day Blackie died, Wednesday, a special series of karmic ripenings facilitated the whole process: first of all, the vet was not in town; second, because of the snow forecast, Emily stayed home from school, which meant that Blackie wasn’t alone in the house while I was out at morning appointments at the Center.  And my late afternoon client cancelled, which meant that I was able to be home all afternoon, monitoring Blackie’s progress.

By early afternoon I could tell that Blackie really was uncomfortable, and it was hard to see that, so, even though I thought she wouldn’t last long, I let a message for the vet.  Maybe Blackie sensed that this was her big window of opportunity. I’ve seen it happen enough with humans – that they choose to go when certain circumstances are present – so why not with Blackie?  

Mid-afternoon came, and Emily and I were both downstairs.  I had spent a lot of the afternoon petting Blackie and giving her Reiki, although she seemed oblivious to both.  Then she began coughing in an unusual way, and I understood that she was on her way. So I sat down next to her and lay my hands on her, sending her Reiki and love.

After a couple of minutes, she was lying still, but it seemed to me that she was purring.  Then I realized that my hands were vibrating very strongly. Maybe that’s what I was feeling?  I honestly couldn’t tell whether she was still breathing or not, so I asked Emily to come over to check for me.  Blackie had gone.

And so, we now have 33.3% fewer kitties in the house.  Our two young cats, 2 1/2 year old sisters, seem to be taking Blackie’s absence  in stride.  It seems to me that allowing Blackie to die at home might have made the process easier for them, too.  Now they know exactly what happened to her.  And yes, there was something indescribably moving about being able to spend Blackie’s last moments with her as she passed naturally, at her own pace, comforted, I hope, by our presence and the Reiki. Not that it was easy.  It wasn’t.  But I feel that we did right by Blackie in a way that we perhaps hadn’t by Buddy, and that we made good use of this powerful opportunity to meet the challenge and break a karmic cycle.  

About an hour after Blackie died, Emily and I were in the kitchen, and we heard the wind chimes on our porch begin to ring.  They were my mom’s wind chimes.  After she died a year ago in August, I hung them on our porch, and I feel Mom uses them to say hello, to let us know she’s around.  When they began ringing this time, Emily and I looked at each other.  We both had the same reaction. It was Mom letting us know that Blackie had made her way safely through and was there with her now. ? We weren’t surprised.  After all, Mom had loved Blackie, too. Sweet of her to let us know all had gone well, wasn’t it?

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You Navigate, I’ll Drive

Two of my friends joke about how, when things get difficult in their lives, sometimes they just throw up their hands and cry, “Jesus, take the wheel!”  They are not religious, or really ready to turn the wheel over, but clearly the idea of doing that  is tempting to them now and again.

I have never been tempted to hand the wheel over to Jesus, or any other higher power, for that matter.  When my sister and I were discussing this last year, she agreed with me.  She said, as if speaking to a higher power, “You can tell me what route to take, but I’ll do the actual driving, thank you very much.”

I share her view.  Which explains why I never made it as a Christian.  Not that I tried very hard.  I must have realized early on that I was not okay with the idea of having God control my life.  That’s how I understood God’s role – to control your life.  No way I was going to sign on for that. I was too independent, born into a family of Midwesterners who were exceedingly independent, perhaps to a fault.  So, it was never an issue for me: my grip on the wheel would stay firm.

That left me without a spiritual path for decades, until about 4 years ago, when my life got turbulent enough that I decided it might be a good idea to embark on some life-altering (read: life-improving) spiritual path.  And within moments, as it seems to me now, I found my way to Buddhism, specifically Tibetan Buddhism.

One thing about Buddhism that particularly resonated with me was that there was no higher being trying to wrest the wheel from my hands. Quite the opposite: in Buddhism, thanks to the law of cause and effect, the law of karma, we are all (for better or worse!) 100% masters of our own fate.  So,  control-freak that I am, it is not surprising that I took to Buddhism like a monk to scripture, or that I gravitated toward Tibetan Buddhism which is, as I see it, the most control-freak-friendly version of Buddhism.  That’s because Tibetan Buddhism has the Lam Rim, a name for a teaching which you can translate as “Stages of the Path To Enlightenment.”

There are numerous published Tibetan lam rims by different teachers, and they are all kind of like how-to books, like roadmaps to enlightenment.  They tell you what you need to grasp in order to leave the cycle of birth and death forever.   So the lam rim explains why you should care about reaching enlightenment in the first place, and once you’re properly motivated, you can read further and learn how to find a teacher, how to meditate, what to meditate on, all about the law of cause and effect, how to understand the true nature of reality, how to develop and nurture compassion, and how to become a bodhisattva.  All in pretty technical language.  Some versions are peppered with lots of nice stories to help motivate (or scare!)  you.

When my teacher, Jeff Brooks, suggested I look at one of these lam rims, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, I was thrilled. Here was everything I needed to know, a step-by-step guide in one volume!  The perfect approach for me, since I am a real Can Do kind of gal: just tell me what to do, point me in the right direction, and I’m off!  As my mother used to say, once I make up my mind to do something, you’d better not get in my way.

Of course, just because the Lam Rim tells you what you have to master, it doesn’t mean it’s easy, any more than showing you all the possible endings you can put on a Russian noun will make it magically easy for you to learn them. If you bear in mind that the time it takes to reach enlightenment is commonly expressed as three countless eons, you realize that settling in with the Lam Rim for a weekend will not do the trick.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that what appealed most to me was the Lam Rim gave me a plan I could follow to learn how to transform this and all my future lives.  In short, it allowed me to be in control of my spiritual path.  At least that’s what I thought.

Sure,  I do have control over my actions and thus, over what karmic ripening I’ll experience in the future.  But what I definitely do not have control over is when I’ll experience any given karmic ripening. So, although I know that acting to help others now means I’ll have pleasant experiences in the future, while acting to hurt others will bring me future suffering, I have no idea which will crop up when, or in what form.

And this is where, as a Buddhist, I came face-to-face with the necessity of giving up control.  Control in the sense of  thinking I  have any say about what comes my way in the present moment.  Will it snow today or not?  Will that pastry I’m just sitting down to enjoy turn out to be tasty or not?  Will my business continue to thrive, or not?  Don’t know.  How all of that will play out depends on my past actions.  And I can choose either to obsess and worry about what will come my way and hope for a certain outcome, thereby bringing myself an awful lot of stress.  Or, I can let go of the wheel in the present moment by being willing to meet and accept what karmic ripening I meet along the road, and focus my energy instead on choosing to act in the present moment so as to benefit those around me and, ultimately, myself, too.

So, see how tricky those Tibetan Buddhists are?  They drew me in with the promise of control – a promise which began to come true when I began to understand how the law of cause and effect works, and which I gladly make use of every moment – but then they somehow also managed to motivate me to let go of the wheel in a way I never expected I would be willing to do.  Or, I could put it this way: I’ve still got my hands on the wheel, and the Lam Rim is my GPS. What I pass on the side of the road may be divine or icky, but I have complete trust in my navigation system , so instead of being thrown off course by the scenery, I’m able to stay focused and keep rolling on down the road.

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