Chapter 35

DISCOVERY AS A BODHISATTVA

1992-09-18, Kathmandu


"Within the World may I expound the 
    highest sacred doctrine
and never become bored, or weary of accomplishing 
    the welfare of the others;
and by my own tremendous, impartial service
    to others
may all beings attain Buddhahood together."

           'The Dzog-Chen: Innermost Essence'  LTWA


"It is like the supreme Gold-Making Elixir,
   For it transforms the unclean body we have taken
into the priceless jewel of a Buddha-form.
   Therefore firmly seize this awakening mind."

     'Guide To The Bodhisattva's Way Of Life"   Shantideva

Reflecting back on my decision and events surrounding that now, it seems in some ways like a massive Karmic joke. Perhaps a trial, meant as a lesson, yet still an amusement for the Gods. At least now I can smile with them, having gained a measure of compassion for myself.

I left Ladakh amidst tears, grief, confusion and determination. The relationship I had been in had finally ripped asunder. The most deeply intimate partnership I experienced for the past two and a half years, no more, crashed and burned.

I was lost and numb. Moving on the road in a cloud, just knowing I needed to find a safe haven. And feeling disturbed that there really is no security at all.

A deep sense of failure hung in my gut, I could not breathe. The lessons of attachment and impermanence I had received in those Buddhist Monasteries, frighteningly real.

Flying out toward Srinagar and Jammu, in Kashmir, I was headed toward a war zone. The strife between Pakistan and India is focused in Kashmir, and there is a significant Terrorist uhhh... 'Independence' movement happening.

Had to pass through on my way back to Dharmsala, and I knew, gloomily if briefly, heading back into 'Indian' India.

Nine body and three luggage searches later, on a two-leg flight, Leh to Srinagar to Jammu, and I arrive. Even air travel in India is becoming an Olympic Trial. And with the stopover, delayed for hours in Srinagar, the Kashmiris keep up a constant pressure:

"Hey Friend! Welcome to beautiful Carpet and Terrorist capital of all Asia! Just look, no buy. We have everything you need. Papier Mache, rugs, carpets, silk, wool shawls, Tibetan statues, Machine Guns! Want Deluxe Houseboat, Cheap price?"

My spirits lifted, feelings of well-being, happiness and familiarity began coming in waves on the bus into Dharmsala from Pathankot with every kilometer. I had passed through Kashmiri territory, then the hot plains, and was still alive.

Now the final leg to my destination. I was almost home! As we climbed up towards the foothills of the Himalayas, I felt elated!

McLeod Ganj is a Hill Station, a retreat above it all, a mountain aerie, tree-filled, monkey and mongoose abundant, overlooking the plains. Take a taxi up winding rock-strewn mountain roads half an hour from Dharmsala. Along the way you pass an Ashram dedicated to Shiva.

Next the Tibetan Library and other Government-In-Exile offices. The flavor of the land and the people change remarkably as you enter the foothills. This is no more India. It is a new land. You are entering Tibetan territory up here.

Monasteries, Gompas, Prayer-Wheels, Mala-Beads, and the Dalai Lama.

Having spent time in McLeod Ganj and environs before Ladakh, this felt like home. As much of a home as any on the road. I returned here for rest and recovery. I needed to write, and spend time in the library studying Buddhist texts. I also came on a quest for a Hindu Saddhu living here who taught Yoga. Finally, I had made a decision to take Bodhisattva vows.

Deepening my meditation practice, catching momentary glimpses of Samadhi, of emptiness, of peace, I had also come to embrace more fully the Buddha's teachings, as followed in the Tibetan tradition. My personal experience just kept validating for me the truth of the message.

The Bodhisattva way of life is the path of immaculate compassion. It nurtures the development of an attitude of oneness, belonging, and selfless service. The teachings must become embodied and owned as an understanding that all and everything is connected. That if there is any being that suffers, we all suffer.

This recognition must bring an awareness within the consciousness of that total unconditional unity with everyone. The Intention to become Bodhisattva is the affirmation to move beyond the small self, not only in spiritual pursuits, in everyday life as well.

The awareness of this moves one away from a self-centered desire for personal Enlightenment into a space of acceptance of others and intention to help other beings achieve Buddhahood. Only in this affirmed recognition can we grow within ourselves. It is a Tantric path toward aspiring Buddhahood.

I want to be a Bodhisattva!

Being in Mcleod Ganj, above Dharmsala proved to be the ticket. Restful and peaceful. While still suffering, at least I had found a safe refuge for awhile.

Tibetan people here are genuinely friendly, open and warm. They have an abiding freshness and acceptance that just permeates the air. A real feeling of safety, somehow.

Even though they are in exile here in India, they have adapted to their conditions, made homes and successful businesses. They have kept much of their way of life intact. And they accept whatever comes their way with equanimity and calm acceptance.

I feel an attraction to these wanderers, a kinship on a level deep below any rational understanding.

I rested, relaxing in the restaurants, sitting in meditation at Tushita Gompa, walking the mountain paths full of pines and monkeys, and writing.

My meditations in the Gompas bring a sense of surrender to the inevitable. I can witness moments of grief and despair. I had been clinging for so long, to my own fantasies and to my partner.

I began to realize how much I have tortured myself, created this Karma. I know it for what it is, impermanent, an illusion. Still, To release all will take time.

Even with my personal drama heavy like an albatross, I am clear about my intention. This is no escape or reaction to tragedy. In a way, I feel a kind of surrender and acceptance. My heart responds with the sensation of encouragement that I am moving in the right direction.

What I need, and find for myself is breathing space. A deeper space wherein all becomes quiet again. Where there is no drama, no movie or external events. Just a calm abiding. For now, that will do.

It rains here, in torrents during monsoon season. The sky just opens up and pours. This rain smells sweet, and the mountains are covered in lush new growth. There is a special aura around the foothills of the Himalayas this time of year. A pristine tingling of new growth, of rebirth.

The rains help keep me focused on my writing, and spread a curtain of calm abiding for my mind.

After settling in to the environs, renewing my energy and spirit I went in search of Lamas. One would think they are plentiful up here in Little Tibet! I find out differently! Many are out traveling the world, spreading the Dharma.

Finally, in a spontaneous moment, I walk into the office at Namgyal Monastery, solicit a young monk behind the desk, and tell him I would like to take vows, and would like to make an appointment with the Abbot. Namgyal is a very auspicious spiritual sanctuary, The Dalai Lama's Residence.

Much to my surprise, the monk directs me to the Abbot's quarters. He instructs me to visit the Abbot personally for an appointment.

Weaving my way through the maze of living quarters, I find an unobtrusive door near the side of one old building, marked simply 'Room 16'. Construction is going on all around. This Gompa is in constant repair. Bricks and mortar piled in corners, wooden boards laying along the walkways, crumbling walls of buildings, some being torn down, others in the midst of renewal.

I knock, take my shoes off, and am led into the Head Lama's small, simple yet airy private rooms.

Kendup Wangdok, the Head Abbot of Namgyal, receives me in a comfortably spacious room that appears to be a combination study, living and eating area. He sits atop an elevated platform about one foot above the floor. Making the requisite prostrations, I sit close by, cross-legged on a cushion.

Lama Wangdok wears a monk's red blanket around his waist. He has an orange tank-top for a shirt, that's all. He looks comfortable, a big man, bald, the typical broad Tibetan neck and shoulders. A wide grin, friendly smile, he greets me: "Hello!'

Bowing humbly before him, I tell the Lama I have come to receive Bodhisattva vows. He nods, reaches over, picks up a book from the side table, hands me the English-Tibetan dictionary and phrase book. He understands little more than "hello" in English; it's up to me to be understood.

For the next hour, looking through the phrase book, I labor. It becomes a game, as I look for a word, or phrase. Telling the Geshe, or teacher, where I am from, talk about the weather, food, practicing phrases: 'Teduche' 'Thank-you', 'Tashe Delek' 'Good day to you.'

He laughs a lot, corrects my Tibetan. His easy-going demeanor totally disarms my frustration with the language. It is not so much what is said, as how we relate, our rapport.

I realize this is not about getting a message across through talking. It is our connection that is important, and his discernment of my determination and readiness.

Sometimes difficult, yet the Lama's smile, and his patience are impressive, inspiring.

We set an appointment for Monday, two days' time. I have made my initial visit, and feel relief that it is successful. I was a little fearful at first, just walking into a High Lama's home. Did not know what to expect or how to be. I had my determination and that was all. I need to bring a translator for the ceremony. I wish him 'Tashe Delek', then depart.

The next day and a half seemed karmically destined. I felt the Gods in the heavens agreeing with my intention, and the Buddha smiling.

A day after meeting the Abbot, setting the appointment, I took a stroll toward Bagsu, a small village just east of McLeod Ganj. Bagsu is the home of a holy river and bathing ghats. The village is a minor pilgrimage spot on the Hindu pilgrim trail. I was looking for my friend the Yoga Saddhu who lived there.

I am enjoying a leisurely contemplation, just walking the path, feeling in harmony with the planet, with myself on this peaceful day. An old Hindu woman, a pilgrim coming from Bagsu where she has performed Puja, or ritual prayers, at the sacred waters, comes up to me. I am wearing a traditional Indian white kurta and pajama pants, and she believes I am a wandering holy man, a Saddhu.

The old woman, painted in ochre dye, her hands and feet drawn in intricate detail, white chalk in three stripes across her forehead a symbol of Shiva, red in hair and throat, adorned with malas, prayer beads, falls at my feet.

She bows, hands in Lotus Mudra, moving from head to heart to head. Her eyes, placating and reverential. I sense a deep longing emanating from her body.

Placing her hands upon my feet, she rubs the ochre dye over me, kisses my feet. Her exhibition of spontaneous reverence is startling, and while momentarily surprised, just let that go, becoming curious what is next.

As she rises up, deep in reverie, she grabs me, hugging. The old woman is awash in tears. Putting my arms around her, holding her, stroking her hair, just being there for her, my heart filled with empathy, accepting this other.

It is an altogether natural situation. She lifts her head, kissing my cheeks, looks into my eyes. I feel open, caring, wanting to help alleviate her suffering.

I feel a deep well of lovingkindness, and in that moment have indeed become the Saddhu, the Holy Man!

I am inspired by the chance meeting on the road. At first bewildered, yet, what on the surface is nonsensical makes perfect sense. All things are possible up here in the clouds!

This encounter lifts my spirits so. It is an acknowledgment that I am swimming in appropriate waters. I decided to take the vows as an acknowledgment of the understanding that has emerged from within.

A conviction and feeling that I am indeed connected with all beings. That as I progress on my own path, ultimately, I must drop all identification with an individual self. This space of awareness is mandatory to receive even higher teachings. If I do not become grounded, than all may be useless.

I have come to this acceptance with some difficulty. In many ways denying my responsibility toward others. 'It's their own trip!' This too is illusion. That has become plain in my own hard lessons.

That even in the suffering of others I have felt a corresponding suffering within myself. And as much pain as I release within myself, replacing that with a real joy of existence, that too can be shared. I felt elated that others, like the old Hindu woman, recognize the divinity I began to taste like a cool mountain spring within.

Monday arrives. I have meditated intently, intensely, the past two days. Have reviewed the vows and precepts, read The 37 Practices Of All Buddha's Sons, a guide in poetry to living the life of a Bodhisattva. I have aroused strong determination toward following the path of compassion, accepting the Buddha's invitation, and working for others.

I have begun to develop the aspiring mind for helping all sentient beings achieve Enlightenment. I feel ready to take my vows.

It is an auspicious day as I enter the monastery, stop briefly at the main Gompa, bowing to the Buddha, and settling my thoughts. In the hall a Puja is being conducted. This is part of the seven-day Heruka ceremonies.

Monks sitting in rows, old men toward the front, younger monks trailing along close by the doors. Gold and orange robes swaying, in meditation, chanting, their hands forming sacred Mudras, all the while playing bells and drums. An obscure Tantric Rite.

In the corner on a raised pedestal, aglow in spotlight, the Heruka Sand Mandala. Heruka, one of the Deities, Gods in the Mahayana pantheon of meditational objects, representative of a powerful state of mindful awareness and being.

A brilliant Mandala, nearly four feet square. Hand-created in intricate detail using a kaleidoscope of colors and subtle shades of sand.

The woven pattern so precise, as if painted on, all by brush. The detail and precision leave me breathless. Such dedication. Such beauty. After the Puja is finished, on the final day the slate will be wiped clean, the Mandala destroyed.

In many ways this reminds me of the Native American ritual art. Hopi Sand Paintings used to invoke spirits, bring fortune and healing to tribal people, and when their work is finished, the sand is dispersed.

There is a kind of resonance here for me, another Shamanic Synchronism. I feel inspired, and with a shudder of quiet excitement, knock on the Abbot's door.

Tenzin, a young monk who will translate, accompanies me as I enter the Abbot's quarters. Kendup Wangdok is waiting, sitting upon his dais, wrapped in blanket and serenely warm meditative smile.

I am reminded of the other Lama's I have sat with, like Lama Lundrup in Nepal. This mixture, so typical of Tibetans, of heartful happiness, compassion, wisdom and childish humor.

Lama Wangdok laughs as I bid him "Tashe Delek!" and prostrate myself.

Tenzin and I sit upon mats, half-lotus, before Geshe-la. We chat. Simple, easy conversation and shortly, unceremoniously, Geshe-la begins to direct my attention to the reason I am here.

He reviews the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha. The nature of suffering, and the desire of all sentient beings not to suffer. Next, he talks about the necessity for meditation and contemplation of cyclic existence. The development of Bodhicitta, the mind of compassion for all sentient beings.

The Lama explains that through this Bodhicitta nature we strive for Enlightenment. This is not simply adopting a false attitude of 'being nice', rather a deep and abiding confirmation of our ultimate responsibility that must be experienced and acknowledged.

"You must work unselfishly for the Enlightenment of all sentient beings, whether they reside in the animal, god, demi-god, hell or human realms." Even the mosquitoes.

He emphasizes that this is a practice. My rewards will manifest and grow in relation to my endeavors. The pursuit requires patience and dedication. Contemplation, meditation and action should continue, whether here in India, or at home in America.

Now I must recite the affirmation. These four lines, all in Tibetan, affirm my faith in the Refuge, The Triple Gem of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I must affirm my unconditional intention to follow the Bodhisattva Path. I am inspired by the Abbot's words, his presence and abiding spirit.

My heart is beating fast, this is a significant step!

While he speaks, I am aware of how far I have come.

Yes, I still have moments of pain and doubt. I know this is not a panacea. I am not looking for a drug to make everything better. Aware of my own foibles and failures, there is a more intimate place I have access to that supports my intention.

As Lama Wangdok slowly pronounces each syllable of each word in a phrase, I listen intently, stumble along repeating the whole line in questionable Tibetan. He smiles, occasionally corrects me. We continue.

Finally all four lines are finished. A shudder, like an errant wave, rips through me. 'What have I done? This is a BIG Responsibility!"

I receive the oral transmission of the Buddha's Mantra, with instructions for visualization, chanting and practice:

"TAYATHA OM MUNI MUNI MAHA MUNIYE SOHA"

Finally, the Lama's blessing, as I kneel, head bowed before him. He places a white cotton Kata, a blessing scarf around my shoulders, and chants an invocation.

A significant facet of the ritual for me is the simplicity in which Lama Wangdok acts. No ostentation, no pomp and circumstance.

He implores me afterward to be cautious. This affirmation of intention does not require that I go out immediately and give money to every beggar I meet on the road. Rather, to reflect in my heart first. To develop Bodhicitta internally, and let that manifest.

Was this advice borne from years of experience or has he seen something else?

As with other practices among the Tibetans, Bodhicitta is not a simple affirmation of empathy toward others. There is a philosophical grounding for this, yet, it has arisen out of an intimate spiritual experience. The nature of this advice, and the experience is a deep current. A powerful river of abiding consciousness.

I left Dharmsala shortly afterward, for Delhi and Varanasi. The plains of India. It was easy practicing compassion and heartfulness among the Tibetans.

In the Plains, in the heat, among millions of crowded people, a mass of humanity, this became something else again.

I entered a deep dark Night Of The Soul, where all my fear, anger, prejudice and resistance rose before me. Constantly impeded by difficulties and illness. Constantly assaulted by old women, young children, cripples and lepers crying for baksheesh. For weeks I struggled, a monkey on my back.

I felt lost, drowning. Repressed grief for the lost relationship, near violence toward greedy rickshaw-wallahs, I was dazed and confused.

Wondering what was happening. Wondering if this was truly the end. Feeling ashamed that I had broken my vows. I felt hopeless, doomed.

I know now that Karma is created by me, fully. And that the illusions of good and bad are simply that, events to be witnessed and to learn.

I had been a victim of my own mind. All of it, the good and the bad. The relationship trauma, the peaceful feelings among the Tibetans, the rickshaw wallahs. All created.

Coming through, later, I realized what a mirror, a looking glass I had been living in. When I could laugh at the amusement of my life and circumstance, I would. Knowing now that Karma had an important lesson waiting, regarding patience, practice and personal acceptance.

The vows are just a start, a beginning. The work has really just begun. Intention is great residing in heaven. As I move through all the other realms of existence and my experience, my practice and patience must be firm and abiding. Compassion begins inside.

Compassion starts at home.


Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman


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