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Monday, August 18, 2014

Tushita - finding happiness.

About three months ago when I decided to go to India, I decided to look into Buddhism courses, as the county is home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama while he is in exile from Tibet, I figured it be one of the best places to learn about more about this religion/ philosophy, something I had wanted to learn more about since my brief time teaching English to monks at Rigon Choeling Tashi monastery in Nepal, the fact that I believe the Dahlia Lama is the happiest person on the planet, and I want to be happy too and help others to be happy. Using good ole Google, I came upon Tushita, located in the hills only a 10 minutes from his home, which focuses on teaching Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism. Twice each month they offer a 10 day residential "Introduction to Buddhism" course for a nominal fee (enough to cover food and shelter) to whoever was interested in learning.  It seemed perfect, except for one catch, the course was to be done in silence, but not 100% silence as you could ask questions during lectures and in the organized discussion groups. After some pondering and some discussions with family and friends (no I would not shave my head and become a monk...well unless I really thought it would make me happy) it came down to two thoughts I really wanted to learn and that some monks do this for years so I surely could survive 10 days.
I finally arrived on Saturday, August 9th, my mom's birthday. There were 51 other people, from around the world, with different cultural and religious backgrounds taking the course with me. The only surface things we had in common was English, an interest in Buddhism, and that we had to follow the same rules during our stay.  In addition to being silent we all had to follow the first five monastic vows: do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, remain celibate, and do not use intoxicants.  Since they cooked amazing vegetarian meals for us, kept us pretty busy; first meditation at 6:45 am, then breakfast, two lectures on Buddhist , lunch, karma yoga job (mine was washing windows which I finished in one day), discussion groups, another lecture, tea, meditation, dinner, meditation and expected us to stay on Tushita grounds for the duration, what I internally called the safety net during my course, they were pretty easy to keep. The hardest part was forgetting my good habits, saying bless you, please, thank you, and keeping "noble silence," not looking at people in the eye or smiling at them.  Also because everyone was supposed to be in silence it was hard for me to be patient with those who were not, I constantly had to tell myself to act compassionately, something Buddhism holds at its core, for those who found it difficult. 
Besides compassion another thing I really like about Buddhism / H.H. Dahlia Lama is my understanding that they want everyone (emphasis on everyone) to be happy aka reach nirvana and do not think the Buddhist path is the only way, just the way, they believe, to be the fastest.  For example during the first lecture we were given two pieces of information: first, that we may treat Buddhism as a supermarket, by picking out the pieces of the teachings that we find most useful; and second, that (as the first Buddha himself said), it is absolutely necessary that we do not take anything on faith alone. We must be cautious buyers, such as a goldsmith buying gold, you must check each nugget of data with our own rational minds before accepting it as to be true.  This approach hands the controls to the individual, which is both a curse and a blessing.  You are allowed to deal with our own doubts and difficulties in our own individual ways, but it also means you have to make up your own mind on what is good for you and the planet as there are no  absolutes.      
To teach the above Buddhist philosophy and more, the course was a mixture of lecture and meditation.  This combination gave us space and time to work through any challenging material and to put the lessons into practice. I never knew there we different kinds of mediations, I thought meditation was simply a mind empty of thoughts.  I found out their are a variety of types and our course would focus on "mindfulness" meditation and guided "analytical" meditation.   Mindfulness meditation is essentially a practice in focus; one chooses a single object, often the sensation of the breath or a mental or physical image, and attempts to single-pointedly observe that object without distraction. The idea is that, when mindfulness practiced in meditation is applied to the rest of life, we are more aware and in control of our own thoughts, emotions and actions.  This is the one I have an extremely hard time with during the course and the one I will need to practice and not give up on because in the long term I think it will be super beneficial to me and my sleep. On the other hand, analytical meditations are meant to bring the knowledge from the lectures or anything we comprehend intellectually, to a deeper level of understanding.  This understanding provides an easier path to put into to practice or accepting, as it is for you and no one else.  These mediations were a bit easier for me and not only helped me better understand thing, but were also extremely healing.
An example of this teaching is one of the lessons about the Buddhist view of "emptiness." I put emptiness in quotes because it is the Buddhist view of it and not our traditional view of the word. Basically, the idea is that everything that we see, experience, perceive, exists only through the filter of our own minds; nothing has an inherent existence without its relation to something else; without good there could be no bad, without many colors there could be no yellow. Because of this reasoning, we must understand that any attachment or aversion that we hold towards these pieces of the world is only a construct of our own minds as well. Thus, the emotional responses that we habitually fall into because of these attachments are aversions are in our own control. For example, using this thought process, if a person says something that I find irritating, I can recognize that the person is not inherently irritating, nor are the words inherently irritating, instead these "realities / irritations" are created by own mind alone, and through this knowledge I can avoid being irritated.  This simple shift in perception of reality puts a person in control of their own experiences and their own emotions, and gives one the full power to be happy.  Having this knowledge is the first step, now putting into to practice, against old habits, shared customs, ignorance is the hard part, and something I will struggle with until the day I die. 
Speaking of death, we talked about it a lot and even meditated on it, since Buddhist philosophy not only teaches emptiness it also teaches impermanence. The metaphor for it being a river.  From moment to moment, second to second, a river is always changing, not just the water but the animals, the trees, the world, and of course us. This constant changes means eventual death and is one of the easiest ways to gain an understanding of impermanence and our resistance to accepting it. Each second, we are getting closer to this moment and even though we all know it is going to happen to us all one day, we still tend to deny it. So we talked about it instead of leaving it down deep and had an amazing, yet heartbreaking, we at least for me, meditation about it. Again we all know we are going to die, but most of us don't know, unless the doctors give us an estimate, so the guided meditation instructor told us three weeks and walked us through the days, asking what we would do, who we would have to say goodbye to and the tears in the room started to flow.  I didn't cry for the physical things I would not have the chance to do since I have led an amazing life, but it did remind me I better keeping living each day the best I can and to the fullest. I did cry about the lost friends and the ones that deserve my forgiveness or I need to ask forgiveness of.  Mainly, I cried at the goodbyes not wanting them to happen, but knowing no matter what that someday they would have to happen. Facing this heartbreaking reality, through meditation, was a way to start conquering the fear of death (for me the goodbyes) and one of many tools that will help me be prepared for when they are certain to happen.  Crap, I'm crying now just as I reflect, so you can imagine a room full of people meditating on them, sounds of tears running and sniffles in every direction, which may sound strange and uncomfortable, but in fact was the opposite, because it reminded everyone you are not alone as we all face death and the things that come with it.  Another reason to be kind to those you love, those you hate, those who are strangers.  Also even in facing death there is a world going on around you that you can care for, so in this meditation not only we were facing our own impermanence and the worlds, we were able to help each other through it - you could feel the love and warmth in the room, which in turn made it a safe place to deal with even deeper things.  
Tantra in Buddhism is the combination of wisdom and compassion, which is exactly what we received with our teachers. Our very insightful dharma teacher (wisdom) was Venerable Tenzin Legtsok, who has a very interesting story on how he ended up finding Buddhism and deciding to be a monk. In a nut shell, he grew up Catholic going to Catholic schools in Vermont, to a mom who was working to become a nun and a father working to become a priest until the found each other and love and decided to marry instead of being ordained. In turn they had a son and daughter. The son, Brian, would question the idea of a creator God, fight cancer and some how end up in India finding the answers he searched for in Buddhism. He has been living and studying at Sera Monastery, and takes breaks to help others find answers by teaching at Tushita.  I wanted to hear more but decided my short time at Tushita was better spent focusing on self (aka why we took the vow of silence anyways).   Our meditation teacher (compassion) was Richard, a former yoga center owner and teacher from Holland now who volunteers, basically full time, at Tushita where he lives inside a gompa of all places.  Even with his dedication, I find it interesting that his guru (Buddhism teacher) advised him not to become a monk.  He was so kind and compassionate, and as you read before, led the group on some amazing meditations.  To my head he is a bit out there, but as life goes on I have been learning to believe in the maybes and more importantly not to dismiss someone's belief (unless they hurt them or someone else), especially since I might actually be the one who is wrong (kind of like, the majority of people thinking the world was flat for centuries).  They make him happy, so why not. 
Thinking about Richard and his thoughts on energy and spirits made me think of other things I used to close my mind off to but now think maybe.  Such as reincarnation, which is a big part of Buddhism and also Hinduism, and how both religions explain karma.  I believe in its existence because of one of the monks I taught English to being a reincarnation that has memories of his past life.  Hearing stories about him and seeing with my own eyes how age old wisdom would flash into his eyes, made be believe it was true for him and maybe others. Since I'm still wrapping my brain around it, I plan on reading Ian Stevenson's, a University of Vermont professor, "20 Cases Indicating Rebirth," to learn more.  I told my discussion group I believe that when we die we each make our own decision on where we end up, if we believe we are going to hell, we go to hell, if we believe we will be reincarnated as a hungry ghost we will be reborn as a hungry ghost, if we believe we end up as worm food and only have one chance then the circle of life it is for us.  The part I'm struggling with is for those who don't know, don't believe, which includes myself.  They joked I should start my own religion, I joked back my parents though I might be joining a cult by taking this class but in actuality they should be afraid I might be starting my own.  Another "maybe" I explored while in McLeod Ganj, was reiki (energy healing).  My classmate was taking courses and her teacher could fit me in before I had to hop on the night bus back to Delhi.  After the intense 10 days I thought this might help with the transition back to reality.  I have no idea if it helped or not, as it is hard to differentiate with all that I learned and the amazing full body massage I had for $10 after, all I know is that directly I didn't feel a thing. My friend assures it takes a few times to notice, which combined with my lack of belief might means it might take longer.  My western need for immediatance and the fact the same treatment back in the states is triple the cost has me thinking this one will always be a maybe.  Lastly one of my Tushita classmates, who throughout the course seemed the most dedicated to the Buddhist path, is a hypnotherapist.  I have seen the shows where people act like they are having babies, stripping every time they hear "I am sexy and I know it" and feeling like they are being tickled every time they are gently touched but always thought it was a elaborate entertainment hoax, until my new trusted friend explained and demonstrated on our fellow classmates.  Seeing him practice it and how they literally couldn't remember their name, become stiff as a board, and their reactions after the fact made me a believer and also a bit freaked out knowing it actually works...especially when another classmate blurted he wanted to know how to control people.  At least my new friend the hypnotist, assured me that he only works toward better the person he is hypnotizing.  I'm still not ready to try myself though, as I can still believe it will be hard for me to put under, one of the few benefits of me not being able to relax and let go. 
There are so many things that made an impression on me but the last one I want to be sure to mention was the affect of coming out of silence had on me. On our last day after our first meditation we no longer had to follow the rules, the only one some people seemed to stop following instantly was silence, which freaked me out, the easiest way to explain it is labelling it as culture shock. I wasn't ready for the idle chatter, to open my mind back to the reality outside Tushita, and having to decide when to talk/make noise again.  The weirdest thing was over the course of the day, during certain intervals I couldn't talk I could only cry, I was extremely overwhelmed.  I have stopped crying but feel like I have been a lot quieter since, which has been awesome as it is making me a better listener. I only hope it continues as I settle back in to my life.  
This blog is just one small drop out of the ocean of wisdom I  was granted over my time at Tushita. I came out of Tushita brimming with warmth, a sense of calmness, better able to focus on the present, and what my happiness, not society's or anyone else's looks like. I can only hope, I don't slip into my past bad behaviors and remain friends with the beautiful people I met.....this post is dedicated to you! 

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