Tag Archives: NKT

It was a very good day

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Thursday night when I got home late in the evening, I just had to smile to myself and say “that was a mighty fine day.”

It started out with an informal interview for a job I’m actually pretty excited about.  The job hasn’t yet been posted, but the person I would be replacing is really excited that I want the job and wanted to introduce me personally to her boss so we can get a chance to chat before the whole formal process begins.  There was a lot of enthusiasm on all sides – me about the job, and potential-new-boss about me.  When I left she said she was going to call me the moment the job posted so we can get the ball rolling.

I’m excited, but I’m cautious.  I’m a strong candidate, but since I’ll be asking for the upper end of the pay scale and the person controlling the purse strings is known to be very tight, it’s not a done deal.  She may opt to make do with a Ford, which would certainly get the job done, rather than spend the money on a Mercedes that not only will get the job done, but will do so with style and class.   Still, it felt good to have somebody blown away by my skills and experience, and what I can bring to the job.  Even if this process goes no further than this, my confidence has increased and perhaps I can overcome my inertia and fear of looking for new job.

On the way home, I opted to go back home taking the Golden Gate Bridge, rather than the more utilitarian Bay Bridge.  Every time I go over the Golden Gate Bridge I’m like a kid.  I look up at the soaring towers, and then to my right to see the City and Alcatraz and up ahead to the always green Marin Headlands.   This is why I live in the Bay Area – there is such easy access to both natural and man-made splendor and beauty.

Later that afternoon I head over to my friend Elaine’s house for a reunion of some of my old NKT buddies.  Elaine has a beautiful house in the Berkeley Hills with such an amazing view.  It’s what I would call a three bridge view – the Bay, Golden and San Rafael bridges.   Some of these friends I see somewhat often, for others it’s been almost a year.  Only one of them is still involved with the NKT on a regular basis.  But, our friendships have moved beyond that now.

We had a light dinner of the famous Cheese Board pizza (who knew peach and arugula would make such tasty toppings?), some salad,  and finish with a fresh organic fruit salad.  Simple, but perfect for a hot August evening.  As soon we had finished eating, Obama’s speech was just about to start.  We gathered around the small TV in their study and tried to put aside our well-conditioned cynicism about politicians.   Mostly we watched in silence without much commentary.  And as the speech started to wind down, Elaine’s husband Ivan pulled up the blinds to reveal a stunning sunset.

“Do we dare hope?” one friend asked as Obama’s  inspirational speech ended.  Sure.  Maybe.  Well,  OK.  Maybe things can change.  Just maybe.  So,  like with my potential job, I’m excited, but cautious.

We then left and headed down to catch the dharma talk at the Thursday night Insight Meditation class.  It was a small crowd, compared to other nights.  Probably Obama’s speech and the heat kept people at home. Our timing was great though.  We walked in right at the break after the meditation, but before the dharma talk.   The topic was the fourth chapter of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.  Sitting with these friends, my former NKT classmates, listening to commentary on the very book that we were studying together when our center fell apart, made it feel like we had come full circle.

Yup, it was a very good day, indeed.

Severed ties

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Even though I have not attended any classes or been affiliated with any New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) center for almost a year now, I find that the NKT is still something I end up talking about quite a bit whether on this blog or with my friends. There were many reasons that I left, none of which had to do with the quality of people I met there. Many, if not most of my good friends are people I met in the NKT. Some are, like myself, completely out of the organization, and others are still in but most definitely questioning their involvement, particularly in light of the recent protests against the Dalai Lama.

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Dirty Laundry

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As far as the major religions go, Buddhism has a pretty good reputation. In general, we don’t go around embarrassing ourselves in public on a major scale. You’ve never seen stories about pedophile Buddhist monks, nor are we associated with terrorism in people’s minds. We don’t have any problems with evolution and seem to be pretty chill with the whole gay marriage thing. Our panties don’t tend to get into a twist about other people’s very personal choices. Overall, we don’t tend to make a big fuss or even statements about political matters. And hell, and the most famous Buddhist in the world is a beloved public figure with a great laugh, twinkly eyes and a Nobel Peace Prize under his robes, to boot.

So, when the whole issue of Tibet comes up, the Dalai Lama and the Tibet supporters tend to get a very sympathetic hearing. Even people who don’t understand the whole history of the issue tend to come down on the side of Tibet simply because the picture in their minds of the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monks and nuns is that of peace and compassion. This positive image is a huge weapon in the arsenal of the pro-Tibet camp.

Oh? What’s this? Why are these Buddhist monks and nuns protesting the Dalai Lama? Oh lordy, lordy, it’s Tibetan Buddhism’s dirty laundry getting strung up for all the world to see. It’s the Dorje Shudgden controversy rearing its ugly head again.

The controversy is quite complex and there are plenty of resources on the web on both sides if you really want to dig deep. (Also for further information about the NKT that is free from the NKT PR machine, please see go here) However, here’s a thumbnail sketch from my perspective: Years ago, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (aka Geshe-la) who is the founder of the New Kadampa Tradition got into a rift with the Dalai Lama over a dharma protector/demon (depending on your view) named Dorje Shugden. My feeble understanding is that the Dalai Lama views Dorje Shugden as a demon who is out to harm the Dalai Lama as well as the future of Tibet. In 1996 he asked his followers to no longer engage in any practices worshipping/propitiating to Dorje Shugden. To do so would be to go against His Holiness’ well being as well as the Tibetan cause. Geshe-la, on the other hand, views Dorje Shugden to be an integral part of the lineage that both he and the Dalai Lama share. In fact, to NOT do Dorje Shugden practice would be going against their teacher Trijang Rimpoche. In Tibet, after the ban, reports say that Dorje Shugden practitioners were being oppressed and harassed. The conflict gets ugly and people on both sides are harmed, and even murdered. Geshe-la joins the fight on the side of the Shugden practitioners and calls for his students in the NKT to protest the Dalai Lama outside his speaking engagements in the States and Europe. The reputation of the NKT got pretty tarnished. Geshe-la eventually gave up the cause publicly. The NKT continued to practice Shugden. Outside certain Tibetan Buddhist circles no one really cared.

Apparently, because there has been recent activity against Shugden practitioners in Tibet, the NKT is once again taking up the picket line against the Dalai Lama. When I first heard this, I shook my head in dismay. While my NKT days are now behind me, I still have good friends who study and practice within the NKT. These may be very confusing times for them. I remember when I was asked to participate in the protests of a decade ago. Here I was this relatively new practitioner, and being offered a free trip to New York City. New York City!? I love New York! Oh, if I accept the free trip, I have to participate in the protest against the Dalai Lama . . . uh . . . um . . . no, no thank you. The issue made me uncomfortable then, and it makes me uncomfortable now.

I don’t know who is wrong or who is right, or if there is even a wrong or a right in the matter. If the Dalai Lama is truly oppressing the people who wish to practice Shugden, that is wrong. Right? I mean, most people would agree that religious intolerance is wrong, and when we see it happening, good hearted people should stand up for the oppressed. Yet, doesn’t the Dalai Lama, as the spiritual leader of most of Tibetan Buddhism, have a right to change doctrine? But, what about his role as the political leader of Tibet? Can you truly have both a political and spiritual leader without advocating a theocracy? Tibet is really the only country I know where people long for the old days of the theocracy.

I guess my real problem is the timing of these protests. With the Beijing Olympics putting the Tibet issue on the front page, how messed up is it that a splinter group comes and tries to move the spotlight into this little known corner of Tibetan infighting. I mean, come on . . . Also, the NKT, as an organization seems to be going through some turbulent times and people’s faith is really being put to the test. Who knows, maybe that is the point. Maybe the point is shake people out of their comfort zone, to strip them of their attachment to good reputation and to test if they truly have reliance upon their spiritual guide. I don’t understand it. I’m really hoping that the reasons behind the protests do have to do with religious freedom and justice, and not anger or power or wanting to suck up to the Chinese government.

I’m glad this is not my battle. I don’t want to fight. All I can do is pray: may everyone be happy, and may everyone be free from misery.

The comfort of the familiar

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One of my old (or shall I say former, he’d hate to be called old) meditation students asked me if I wouldn’t mind accompanying him to the main regional NKT temple to hear a teaching. He was growing weary of the relentless cheerfulness of the teacher who had replaced me and was considering coming into the City for the weekly class if he liked the teacher better. So, I agreed to meet him for dinner and to take in a teaching at the temple.

It has been at least two months since I have attended anything sponsored by the NKT, which is the longest I’ve been away in the ten years I was involved. I’ve been off doing my own thing and enjoying it thoroughly. And during this time, I’ve been following the very busy NKT Survivors email discussion list, which validated that I was doing the right thing by leaving. Many people on that forum feel as if the NKT has done them great harm and feel quite angry, and/or are fully convinced that the NKT is an evil cult. I have been trying to maintain a mind of equanimity about the organization, and even gratitude for the dharma I have learned there.

It was odd to be in the temple again. So many beautiful statues and thangkas. It felt like the giant Buddha statue greeted me as an old friend. The room was filled with unfamiliar faces, but as I began to settle in I started seeing old, good “Buddha buds” scattered in the audience. The teacher was warm, unassuming and self-deprecating. Her teaching style gives you a lot of space to come to your own conclusions. Yet, because of everything I knew, everything I had been through I couldn’t completely relax into it.

It felt like seeing an ex-boyfriend with whom you had an amicable break. He wasn’t a bad guy, in fact he had a lot of good qualities. But, there were reasons why you broke up. Good reasons. Yet, when you see him again you are drawn in by the familiarity, the acceptance and all the good memories. You start to trivialize all the bad stuff – he wasn’t really all that bad. Sure, maybe he could be a little creepy and controlling at times, but isn’t that what intimacy is all about? I mean, once you get close enough, everyone can seem at least a little creepy, right? Right?

That draw of familiarity and acceptance is powerful. It’s probably the same dynamic that keeps people in bad, even destructive, relationships. It would be so easy to just stay. No questing, no questioning. Take the bad with the good. If I could just focus on my practice and not pay attention to all the annoying merit grabbers or some of the more cult-like aspects of the organization, it would be fine, just fine. Here have a homemade cookie. Have a cup of kool-aid . . .

No. No thank you.

The quest continues. My friends and I have a meeting in a couple of weeks with the teacher from the Dakini Temple, Anan Thubten Rinpoche. We opted to meet with him together as we are all NKT refugees and have similar questions and concerns. I’ve been to three of his teachings so far and I’ve been impressed (for lack of a better word). There is also another trip or two scheduled out to Spirit Rock, and another teacher I would like to check just across the Bay. And the writings of Pema Chodron continue to touch my heart and blow my mind.

And I just keep a-stumblin’ . . .

This, that, and the other thing

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This: The other night I was very pleasantly surprised to get emails from both of my teenage nieces thanking me for the Amazon gift cards I sent them for Christmas. This is the first time I have ever received any acknowledgment, much less thanks for the annual sending of the $25 Amazon gift card.

My brother, the girls’ father, and I have been estranged for about a decade now. And even before that the relationship was strained and before that there was another period of estrangement. Our most recent estrangment started after I “came out” to him as a Buddhist. As a fundamentalist Christian, I guess he didn’t want me to have a bad influence on his children. Who knows? But, even though I hadn’t seen the girls since they were very young, every year I sent them Amazon gift cards, and every year it went unacknowledged. I never knew if they got them, or if they got them if they knew they were from me. But, it was the only connection I had with them, so eventually I let go of all expectations of gratitude and sent the cards and hoped the kids were able to buy something fun with them.

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You gotta have faith? Part 2

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For some people faith comes quite easily. I used to have little respect for people of faith; it was for the naive, the gullible, the less educated ones. It was something I didn’t have, and it was something I didn’t miss having in my life.

Yet I had entered a Buddhist path that was filled with rituals, deities, strange incantations and gurus. While I decided on this path because I loved the teachings, and had become quite fond of my teacher, Togden, eventually I knew that I was going to have to develop some faith if I was going to take in the whole package.

Shortly after the empowerment I decided to sign on for a twice a week study course in order to immerse myself in these beautiful teachings and to improve my meditation practice. I let my mind relax around the rituals and prayers, realizing they are not magical in of themselves, but rather it was what my mind brought to them. And I liked my teacher, Togden, a lot. He was warm, funny, and compassionate, with seemingly unwavering energy. He seemed to be genuinely walking the walk.

I knew that I was supposed to see Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (Geshe-la) as my Spiritual Guide, but I couldn’t connect. He was just this little Tibetan guy who lived in England and wrote really good books about Buddhism. So, when people started gushing about Geshe-la, I always took a step back. I simply couldn’t relate to the adoring way that people spoke of him as if he were a rock star . . . or a savior. It made me very uneasy. Certainly no one person was deserving of such praise and adoration. Maybe this Buddhism stuff wasn’t for me after all. After one particular effusive discussion session with some classmates, I went home in tears believing I was never going to be capable of such faith – it was simply not in me. So, I wrote to Togden and told him I had to drop out because I was never going to get a handle on this whole faith thing. He simply responded with two questions: do you believe what you have learned from Geshe-la to be true, and are you happier now than you were before you met the teachings? Since the answer to both those questions was “yes”, he told me to stop worrying about faith, it will come eventually.

For the next nine years I soldiered on in the NKT through sangha friends coming and going, teachers coming and going, and even centers coming and going. I stayed in the study program and maintained marginal involvement in the center activities. I was steady, but I was lazy (my moniker is no lie). The dharma center was an important part of my life, but it was not going to become all of my life. I was fortunate in that I had a full-time job and a non-practitioner boyfriend so I couldn’t get completely sucked into the black hole of need (uh, merit making machine?) that is a dharma center. My faith in Geshe-la increased, but I still was never filled with that passion that some of my co-practitioners seemed to have have.

Everything seemed to be on auto-pilot in my spiritual life. That is, until about a year ago. It was Fall Festival in New York, with the opening ceremonies of the US Kadampa Temple as the crowning event. The temple and the surrounding countryside, located in upstate New York, were quite beautiful. Even though we had to queue up outside in the near freezing temperatures, everyone was quite excited and happy to be there. The excitement grew when people were finally allowed into the temple. “Ah, how auspicious!” “How wonderful!” “How fortunate we are to be here on this wonderful, auspicious day!” My mind, however, started growing dark. When Geshe-la spoke I couldn’t understand a word he said – it was as if he were speaking a different language. His words and presence simply did not connect with me. My aversion towards everyone in the room was growing stronger by the moment. I hated those damn bliss bunnies. The puja did not sooth me, but only increased my irritation.

When it was all over, I fled from the temple desperately needing to get away from everyone, and mostly from the darkness of my own mind. When I ran into my good friend, John, I burst out in tears. He quickly ran off to find his good friend, a very senior and revered monk, whom I shall call Monk-la. By this time the sun was setting the and the temperature was now probably somewhere in the 20s. I was sitting forlornly on a wall when Monk-la cozied up to me. “Couldn’t you have your crisis of faith somewhere warmer?” It felt good to laugh. I told him about how my mind had gone dark and it felt like any faith I had developed had completely disappeared. He paused. “Huh. Well, it sounds like something shifted . . . don’t pay too much attention to it.” With that another monk approached and offered Monk-la a dharma book wrapped in one of those white offering scarf things. He graciously accepted it. He peeked at the contents and then bonked me over the head with it several times and then gifted me the book. “OK. Let’s get some chocolate, shall we?” And with that, the crisis was over.

I was grateful for Monk-la’s advice. Something had shifted and now I just needed to see where this would lead me. More about that in the next post.

You gotta have faith? Part 1

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I’ve been thinking a lot about faith these last few days. Maybe it is reading about the struggles of some former NKT-ers in the New Kadampa Survivors forum, or perhaps it is coming from my reading of other teachers other than Geshe-la.

Something Pema Chodron wrote in “Comfortable with Uncertainty” hit me hard:

We sometimes think that Buddhist teachings are something outside of ourselves – something to believe in, something to measure up to. However, dharma isn’t belief; it isn’t dogma. It is total appreciation of impermanence and change. The teachings disintegrate when we try to grasp them. We have to experience them without hope . . . The message is fearless; dharma was never meant to be a belief we blindly follow. Dharma gives us nothing to hold onto at all.

So, as a Buddhist, what is it that we have faith in?

What initially drew me to Buddhism was its logic. It made total sense to me – no leaps of faith required. In fact Buddha taught that we are not to believe simply because he was the Buddha, but only once we understand to be true for ourselves. I also resonated with the belief that we are ultimately responsible for what happens to us and our own enlightenment. There was no big guy in the sky who would save us. I always felt that to be nonsense, and it was refreshing to know that I could still have spiritual path without believing in any God. I felt that I had finally found a spiritual path that I could completely embrace.

I was quite happy attending weekly our local NKT General Program classes. They were led by a gentle monk who demonstrated a sense of serenity that I aspired to myself. The classes included meditation and a talk on a topic . Being rather shy, I didn’t stay for tea and chatting after class. I just came in, got my fix, and quickly left.

After a few months, the teacher told us about this wonderful event coming up – a Vajrasattva empowerment. I really had no idea what an empowerment was, nor who Vajrasattva was, but I figured this was the next step, so I signed up.

The empowerment started early on a Saturday morning. I was a little nervous as I didn’t know anyone there, except for the slightest personal acquaintance with my teacher. From the moment I got there, I knew this was going to be different than the classes to which I had become accustomed. Maybe 60-75 people were milling about outside in silence. Someone whispered to me that we would be queuing up to enter the hall, and when they pour the saffron water in my hand to take three sips to purify body, speech and mind, then rub the remaining water on my head and maintain silence when I sat down.

When I entered I was somewhat surprised to see a monk already seated in the front. He was muttering something to himself accompanied by elaborate hand motions. My mind started to tighten: oh shit, this is starting to look like a religious ceremony. I looked at the booklet that had been on the chair – it was the words to the chanted prayers. Oh shit shit and double shit. What had I gotten myself into?

I don’t remember much of the ceremony, except how Catholic it felt when we were lined up in front of the presiding monk, kneeled before him, and were bonked on the head with this funny little marzipan figure while he muttered something in Sanskrit, or Tibetan. It could have been Latin for as far I knew. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

After the ceremony everyone was blissfully happy and quite friendly to me. But, I fled with tears in my eyes. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I felt confused and more than a little duped. My beautiful Buddhism was a religion after all!

On my way home was the City of Cemeteries, Colma. I’ve always been a big fan of older cemeteries as I find them incredibly peaceful and soothing. So, I decided to pick one of the cemeteries and go for a little stroll. It’s hard to say what happened there. I only remember being struck by the thought “this is where we all end up. It doesn’t matter what we believe in the interim, this is where we all end up. So, what if this Buddhism might be an actual religion, and not merely a philosophy? What is so wrong with believing in something?”

And so I headed back to the retreat center to catch the afternoon commentary to the empowerment. And for the next ten years the New Kadampa Tradition was the center of my spiritual life. I’ve never stopped struggling with faith, no more so than the last year. But that is for another post.

Do I stay or do I go?

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My teacher, who has been the object of much of my pain and anger, is truly out of my life.  Yesterday, on her way back from Festival in Singapore, she was not allowed back into the US because her Visa had expired.  So, she left on the next plane out to her homeland of Canada.   My feelings about it were all over the map, but the best analogy I have is that it felt like someone I was getting ready to break up with had up and died instead, leaving me as a potential executor of her will.

Teachers come and teachers go with unsettling regularity in the NKT.  That no longer surprises me.  But for her to have allowed her Visa to expire?  I’m not buying that excuse for a minute.  She was on top of that shit.  Whether this was a conscious or unconscious way of getting out of situation here (basically a sinking ship of a center), I guess it doesn’t matter.  It’s the lack of honesty that bugs though.

However, with this obstacle removed, I am now face-to-face with my questions and obstacles re: the NKT.  If there is a time to leave, it is now.  The coast is clear.  However, as an officer of the center, I need to help during the transition. If the new teacher is someone I like does staying mean I’m denying my issues with the underlying organization?  I fear that if someone new comes, I’ll get sucked back in again now that the excuse of the rift with my teacher is gone.  Yet I want to be able to help my friends who are excited for a new start for our center.

I just have to keep in mind it’s the dharma, dummy.  Everything else is ordinary, and by its own nature, infused with suffering.  My own practice has fallen off in the last couple of weeks since Mr. Binkles has entered my life (How chickenshit is that?  blaming it on a cute wittle bunny wabbit.  For shame!) But, he does now have custody of the sun room, which was where I meditated in the morning.   Something needs to change.  Tomorrow Mr. Binkles and I need to figure something else out in terms of his housing so I can reclaim my meditation space.

I wish for the comfort of certainty.    Sometimes just making a damn decision, even if it turns out to be a bad one, is such a relief.   I’m no longer willing to embrace the NKT, nor am I quite willing to let go.   However, If I can remember to keep going for refuge, I’ll be OK either way.