Reflections from the Mahamudra Retreat – June 2024

Yangsi Rinpoche welcomes H.E. Ling Rinpoche

 Life is amazing, exhilarating, inspiring, an opportunity for profound awakening. It can also be painful, challenging, vexing, and confusing. As an acupuncturist, my goal is always to help people feel better and find balance within this matrix of change.  Health or wellness have many levels. Relief from physical pain is huge for those suffering from acute injury or sickness – and acupuncture works for this! But relief from physical pain represents only the bottom rung of health.  In order to climb higher, we need to achieve a degree of emotional intelligence, giving us the ability to respond skillfully to the ups and downs of mental feelings and moods.


Painting tsa-tsas for a reliquary stupa.

Mental health is fully realized when our inner peace is undisturbed by the external world. This does not mean evolving into a robot-like existence without feelings of sadness, grief, frustration, anger, etc., but that these emotions arise within a much more stable atmosphere grounded in deep understanding and mindfulness, allowing for an enlightened response.  A disciple of a Zen master once saw his teacher weeping. The student was confused and addressed him: “Master, you taught that all life is like an illusion, why are you weeping?”. The master, whose daughter had recently died of a disease replied, “Yes, that is true, and, losing one’s child is the greatest illusion of all”.

Mastering emotions is not the final level of health from a Buddhist spiritual perspective though. Sigmund Freud famously said regarding his psychoanalytic theory, the best anyone could hope to achieve was to replace neurosis with ordinary unhappiness. This ordinary unhappiness is called “dukkha” in Buddhism. Dukkha is a Sanskrit word which is often translated as “suffering”, but this translation can lead to misunderstanding.  I like to think of dukkha as “unsatisfactoriness”. However pleasant our situation may seem, nothing lasts. Every pleasure fades. The beautiful flower wilts. The chocolate cake turns into a belly ache. Birth ends in death, and so on. Mick Jagger famously expressed this idea in his rock music lyrics:  “I can’t get no satisfaction, and I tried, I tried….”

Yangsi Rinpoche guiding the Mahamudra retreat.

Shakyamuni Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha in northern India (today within Nepal) with a pleasure palace for every season. One day though, he grew jaded of the maidens and minstrels and snuck out of the palace where he witnessed the Four Messengers – an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and an ascetic. Never having left the palace before, always shielded from the sight of anything unpleasant, he had many questions for his attendant. Gaining insight into the universal truth of suffering and seeing the serene smile of the ascetic, he cut off his long hair, gave away his silk clothes, and donned the plain robe of a mendicant wanderer, determined to solve the problem of dukkha.

After six years of rigorous ascetic practice, he felt frustrated at his inability to find the answer. He was so thin from fasting that his spine was visible through his belly. Gazing at his skeletal image in the river, he fell in and nearly drowned. Sujata, the farmer’s wife saw him and mistook his gaunt appearance for a tree spirit. In a gesture of profound compassion, she fed him milk and rice. Something shifted giving Siddhartha the strength to resume his meditation and realize Nirvana (enlightenment) through a middle way approach avoiding the extremes of asceticism and over-indulgence:

After his enlightenment, Buddha wandered from Bodhgaya to Sarnath, contemplating his awakening further. He had gained complete freedom through understanding the Four Noble Truths: There is suffering. It has causes (delusions and karma). There is an end to suffering (Nirvana). There is a path leading to the end (the 8-fold path): Right View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration. While all steps of the path are necessary to achieve enlightenment, it is Right View (wisdom) which is the key that unlocks the door to freedom.

For 11 days in June, my wife and I attended a retreat at the Forest Refuge Center outside Portland, led by Maitripa College President, Yangsi Rinpoche. Our daily routine began at 6am with morning prayers and meditation, and continued into the evening, interspersed with community chores, an afternoon discussion group, and teachings by Rinpoche, with a delicious vegan buffet for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Even in this beautiful environment, great discipline was required not to sneak to the car and check email and text messages, to continually maintain an attitude of inner silence and reflection on the Dharma teachings of compassion for all sentient beings and the wisdom required to be of highest benefit to others. Such an opportunity for quiet reflection is extremely rare, so consumed that we modern humans are by thoughts of survival, getting ahead, maximizing our sensory enjoyment, etc.

Spiritual friendship – the foundation of the path.

Mahamudra is another Sanskrit word roughly translated as “great seal”. Just like a notary seals a document with an official stamp, so does the correct view of emptiness seal one’s passage to liberation and enlightenment.  But what is the correct view? While there is much debate over this point, the Prasangika Madhyamaka school of Tibetan Buddhism – in brief – says that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence. At the most subtle level, everything is merely labeled by mind. However, this does not negate the conventional reality of our commonly shared world. Even though when one analyzes in deep meditation, searching for the solid thing that is a car, one realizes that a car is just a pile of parts put together and given the label “car”. And each of those parts has sub-parts all the way down to the subatomic level where quantum physics breaks down our conventional notions of solidity. Nonetheless, we still need to acknowledge the conventional existence of “car” when we step off the curb to cross a busy street, or to find “our car” in a big parking lot.

The car analogy is then applied to the person in meditation. A person is composed of a mind and a body and is given a name at birth. In meditation, one focuses on a situation where the sense of “I” appeared very strongly. Perhaps someone praised us or criticized us, or we were frightened by an incident. Having identified this solid sense of “I” (called the object of negation in Buddhist philosophy), one then attempts to pinpoint this seemingly solid I in meditation using any one of several different reasoning approaches. It is often said that the dependent origination analysis is most effective. An inherently existent (independent) person cannot exist because the person is dependent on causes and conditions, dependent on parts, and dependent on conceptuality. Let’s break this down a bit more:

This person merely labeled “Jordan” only exists because of the love my parents shared for one another resulting in the sperm and egg coming together and forming two cells which subdivided quickly and repeatedly.  In just six weeks, the brain, nervous system, and all major organs and limbs begin to develop. My mother cared for her body during the pregnancy, optimizing my health at birth. I’m told that I wailed the loudest of all the babies when it was feeding time, causing the nurses to pick me up first and bring to my mother. After birth, my parents fed me, but food on the table is dependent upon all the pollinating insects of crops, farmers, harvesters, truckers, distributors, grocery clerks, cooks, authors of cookbooks, paper manufacturing, etc. etc. My parents gave me love, changed my diapers, taught me the basics of ethical discipline, provided me with clothes, supported me with my education, and at all stages, encouraged me to lead a meaningful life.

Countless people and living beings contributed to the experience of being “Jordan”. Every book I read, every piece of technology I use, all my interpersonal relationships, and most importantly of all, the relationship with my spiritual teachers – all of these in various ways, nourish and contribute to the phenomenon that goes by the label of “Jordan”.  “Jordan” wouldn’t exist without this interplay of karmic forces.  “Jordan” also depends upon parts, as already explained. At the most subtle level “Jordan” is simple a name – I could have been named “Ace Cool” or “Jyoti Prakash” or “Konchog Yeshe” instead.

As the Zen koan goes, “who were you before you had a name?” or for that matter, “who were you before you were born”?  One needs to reflect on depend origination again and again to penetrate beyond a mere conceptual understanding until finally, one understands this truth non-conceptually, attaining gnosis – direct knowledge, liberating insight.

And yet one must not lose the middle way – between the extremes of nihilism and permanence or eternalism. “Jordan” cannot be found using this ultimate analysis and is therefore empty of inherent existence. This refutes the idea of an eternal soul, or “Atman”. However, that does not mean that “Jordan” does not exist. There is a valid “Jordan” that exists based upon conventionally held understandings in society. He has a social security number, a home address, an email. Sometimes he shaves his beard, other times he does not. He has a license to practice acupuncture. He votes, pays taxes, etc. In short, Jordan lives on Planet Earth, with 8 billion other humans, in the Age of the Anthropocene, in the time of climate emergency, widening disparity of wealth, war, social upheaval, spiritual awakening, etc. Choices and actions have consequences. Ethical behavior is the foundation of the spiritual path. This refutes the idea of nihilism – that nothing matters, that our existence is pointless, that we are doomed, etc. Each moment of every life has great meaning, is pregnant with the opportunity to awaken and bring benefit to other sentient beings. Which path we choose is up to us!

May the lives of all the spiritual teachers be long. May everyone be healthy and live a meaningful life.

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