Thursday, September 6, 2007
Letting Go Greed, Anger & Ignorance
In late July mom and I boarded a near empty plane to Beijing. The World Health Organization had just lifted travel bans for China due to SARS. Unlike what we usually do during the fifteen-hour flight—sleep—I stayed up and watched all four movies though not much stayed with me. Mom’s behavior seemed even stranger to me. While she was meditating, she would hit her head with her hand from time to time. I wasn’t just jittery about SARS. I somehow knew there was much waiting for me, and this trip could change my life.
We spent two days indoors in Beijing, getting over jetlag while avoiding the other nineteen million inhabitants of the city. Next came the packed train ride to Lanzhou, twenty-four hours of sharing the same air with seventy other people in a sleeper car. Lanzhou is a city in the sparsely populated region of western China. Immediately after arrival, we rode in a taxi for four more hours on a mountain road with rivers running across it. Being tossed against the roof of our taxi wasn’t as bad as when we got stuck in potholes half its size. But somehow the tiny flimsy car always climbed out of them. We arrived in a pitch-black village on top of the mountain at midnight.
When I woke up the next morning and opened the blinds, my eyes were overwhelmed by gushing greenness. Emerald green mountain ranges embrace endless rows of tender fields. A crimson wall stands in front of the hotel window, decorated with bright, characteristically Tibetan designs. The luxuriant greenness seems to drip with dew, with an infinitely open, high and powdery blue sky as the backdrop—just like what you would see in Tibetan photos. The mountain is on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, 2,500 meters (about 7,500 feet) in elevation.
We met Rinpoche Duoshi at his summer home in the monastery and were invited at stay there. The living situation was far from comfortable. The beds were so hard that we woke up stiff and sore night after night. An all-pervasive dampness compressed all four layers of extra bedding we got into wet, hard, cold lumps. The first week, I wore everything I brought, five layers, and was still cold. During the day, we were followed by swarms of flies, and at night the mosquitoes took their shift—Tibetan Buddhism forbids killing of any creatures. And when the power was out, there was no running water.
Rinpoche Duoshi is the best-known contemporary Tibetan scholar in China. He has translated the most esoteric Tibetan Buddhist texts into modern Chinese language. During the school year he is a professor of Tibetan Buddhist studies at the Lanzhou University. He is often summoned by politicians, CEOs, religious and social organizations for private meetings and public speeches. Every summer the Rinpoche comes to live at the Tiantang Monastery for peace and quiet. Yet he receives several groups of visitors a day, and gives lectures in Tibetan to the more than sixty monks of the monastery.
He is an elderly man in his late sixties, with a close shaven head, smallish eyes and big, slightly tinted glasses. He wears a dark red cardigan that is the same color as monks’ robes. During the Cultural Revolution he was forced to marry—according to the Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, he may no longer wear a monk’s robe. When he looks at you, his eyes are at times stern and serious, and other times most kind and grandfatherly.
At first I was a bit afraid of him, knowing how he was chosen at age seven to be the re-incarnation of an earlier Rinpoche, then studying and teaching all his life to many thousands. I felt unsettled that someone could predict where, when and into which family he would be reborn, and then as a small child, he would recall things used in his last life. I couldn’t tell if he could read my mind or if he had extraordinary powers. At one point, mom being as direct as she is, actually asked him whether he had extraordinary powers. He said no, and I wanted to believed him. Mom didn’t. She said that in Tibetan Buddhism, one is strongly discouraged from showing special abilities. So I continued to wonder about Rinpoche Duoshi.
Two Cantonese men had been staying at Rinpoche’s home for a few days. During dinner conversations we found out that one of them is the head of his county’s urban planning department, and the other man is the Communist party leader of that department. As party members, they are not allowed to belong to any religious sect. So they had been praying to hidden statues of Buddha for decades. Unlike mom and I, they seemed to be familiar with and follow the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism. Mom never follows rituals. She says that the most important thing is the heart. The two men played their familiar roles as the initiator and the conciliator, all through the days we spent together.
Then there was Little Ding, a computer whiz and head of a small computer distribution company. He had been here three summers in a row, and he played the enthusiastic advisor role to us newbies. Rinpoche appointed Little Ding as his computer advisor. He often asked Little Ding to come up to his office for hours at a time. Rinpoche has always been fond of learning new things.
I agreed to accompany mom on this trip with a clear purpose in mind. I had been feeling that the three miseries of humankind described in Buddhism—greed, anger and ignorance—were indeed the cause of all my unhappiness and the biggest obstacles in my spiritual and personal growth. I wanted to learn practical ways to lessen these characteristics in me.
Mom met Rinpoche Duoshi last year on the tail end of her Tibet tour. She discovered his book at a metro stand, and thought that he was an enlightened being. So she changed her plans and went to meet him. As a result of that meeting, she started to organize a group to study with the Rinpoche. That plan had to be canceled because of SARS. So she and I came by ourselves.
Mom is a scholar and practitioner of Taoism, Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, and Confucianism. She came to the Rinpoche with many questions about the differences and similarities between the three practices, and about her own practice and teaching. She was persistent in getting answers. Though Rinpoche is a well-read scholar of other practices, he evaded her questions. When she wouldn’t settle for a vague answer, he seemed to get a little angry and said that he is within a strict practice tradition. I inferred that he is not allowed to talk about other practices. After a period of silence, the topic changed back to current politics.
People working for and around the Rinpoche are all very formal with him. They offer him tea in his special palm-sized bowl with both hands and head bowed down. They stay attentive throughout the meals so that before the Rinpoche takes his last bite of food, they are already standing beside him with their head bowed, waiting to refill the bowl.
A couple of days before leaving, the elderly woman who served us meals told us proudly that the Rinpoche is her older brother. Then we found out that the younger female cook is also a relative. And the man working on the re-construction of the courtyard wall is Rinpoche’s brother. Rinpoche’s sister was born just a month apart from my mother, yet she looked a generation older.
The assistant manager of the house is a young man nineteen years of age. As one of the Tu minority, he is one of the few monks who have to learn Tibetan from scratch. As he manages the day-to-day operations, he looks so serious that he seems to be in his late twenties. When he was playing badminton in the courtyard with us, he talked animatedly and laughed heartily, trying in vane to hold shut his maroon and yellow monk robe that flies about him, he seemed barely adolescent.
The head administrator of Rinpoche’s house is a thirty-two year old podgy monk named Aka Gadan. He also manages Rinpoche’s bookstore just outside of the Monastery. He always seems unbothered by any event, and chuckled at everything. He is also of the Tu minority, and became a Tibetan monk at age eleven. In his late teens, he walked barefoot across Tibet to India and back. Perhaps this is one of many things that differentiate him from others.
Visitors of the day and the five of us, Little Ding, the two Cantonese men, mom and I, always filled a large round table at mealtime around Rinpoche. When there are few visitors, Aka Gadan and Aka ____ also joined our table. Rinpoche’s relatives almost never did. They formed another table with less number of dishes. Our table was the chatty one. We chatted not only about our practices and philosophies, but a smorgasbord of topics. Heated talk of politics and the world situation often moved from the meal table into the flower filled courtyard. Talks went on for hours until we were summoned for the next meal. On sunny days, our talks were accompanied by trying some of the freshest and tastiest local fruits picked the same day and delicious homemade white yak yogurt, a true delicacy. These are all gifts to the Rinpoche by his daily visitors.
A particular thought stayed with me from these discussions. While discussing world religions, Rinpoche commented that science is a religion, too, with plenty of theories that are not supported by hard data. Because science is not based on compassion, he said, technologies end up hurting humanity and the world more than helping. Without compassion, more technology can mean more suffering.
Rinpoche paid daily attention to his flowers, and they responded with blossoms all summer long. The tall, blue orchids especially were full of blossoms and they became more and more vibrant each day. Everywhere, sunflowers grew from unintentionally dropped seeds. The soil here is not only rich for plants but also for spiritual development. Tiantang Monastery was the largest Tibetan monastery north of the Yellow River at the turn of the century. The Cultural Revolution wiped everything out. Now it’s in a rapid process of re-building, with support from newly rich Chinese business people. But it still isn’t on foreign visitors’ maps yet.
The Tiantang Monastery consists of four temples, two houses for two rinpoches, a house for the head manager of the monastery Aka Zanzhou, and a few dorm-like houses for the sixty monks. All the courtyards are among muddy, uneven paths and overgrown wild flowers. The Tiantang Monastery houses the largest statue of Zonggeba in the world, also the kindest face of a Buddha I have ever seen. Everyday mom and I visited him. He always looked directly into me. My heart quivered every time.
The monastery also has the first and only temple dedicated to Dumu. The temple house huge statues of _____--a monster looking ____ mating with the Dumu. These statues are usually hidden behind curtains in other Monasteries because visitors might misinterpret the posture. The unusual monastery was built last year by a couple who are qigong teachers and business people from Beijing. They have became dedicated to Tibetan Buddhism and to their teacher, Rinpoche Duoshi. The couple also built a vacationing village near the monastery with their own power generators and the only upscale restaurant in town. So they had nice hotel beds, bathrooms and always had power and hot water. Although mom and I were invited to stay there ahead of the trip, staying at the Rinpoche’s house was a chance that cannot be turned down. At the time we lived at the Rinpoche’s house, the wife of the couple was in Biguan—behind closed door—for two weeks, practicing red _____ the entire two weeks. Three meals are delivered into the room. In the past, practitioners usually did Biguan in caves deep in the mountain where there is no human disturbance. The concept of Biguan seems so mysterious to me that I wondered exactly what determined if one is ready. I yearned for the time when I would be ready to Biguan.
On the third day I got a strange headache. I rarely get headaches. This one was so different that I couldn’t tell what was wrong with me. The headache kept on moving from one spot to the next the entire night. I woke up many times whimpering with pain. The next thing I knew someone was knocking on our door very loudly, saying that we were going to climb the Maya Mountain and pay reverence to the holy Buddhist sights. It was six am. My ears were ringing, too. So mom got up and went. I stayed home pouting. The headache and the ringing ears went away hours later. I realized that I wasn’t sick. It was just high altitude reaction. That day seemed to have gone on forever, especially the couple of hours I waited at the dinner table until the slew of climbers finally came back. They kept on talking at a high, excited pitch all through the meal and kept on repeating how I had missed the chance of a lifetime. Was that it? Did I really miss what I came here for? I kept on wondering.
Before bedtime, mom told me in details about the climb. The angle of the climb was mostly at forty-five degrees. A few times, it was more like sixty degrees. On one of these steep and slippery hills, she fell on all fours to stop from rolling down. Her wrist was bloody and stained her sleeve. But the snowy mountains, the water falls, the caves and the lusciously green lakes were all so beautiful and touching that it was worth pain in her muscles and the bad high altitude reaction she got when she came down. The next morning, mom woke me up from my deep sleep, “Look, Claire, look!” The bloody scrape that was vividly on her wrist is nowhere to be found. Her skin looks perfectly smooth. “It must be the miracle mud we brought back from the cave.” When she was collecting the mud, a bit of it was spread on her hands and wrists. “And, I have no muscle pain whatsoever!” Mom was getting so excited that I tried to be the nonchalant one, and said, “Okay. Okay, mom. Fine.”
After about a week, Rinpoche gathered the five of us for the morning, and taught us the Green Tara practice. It seemed all quite straight forward. Rinpoche taught us the practice without much mystery, almost like any kind of exercise, step by step. After Rinpoche finished, the two Cantonese men gave their Gongyang—providings—to Rinpoche as the Rinpoche protested, “You don’t need to be like this, so formal.” Then the two men proceeded to do full body prostrations. As they kept on prostrating right in front of me, the minutes seemed sticky and long, and I was more and more embarrassed, maybe for them, maybe for myself. Then, we were on our own to practice whenever we chose to. When we asked about group practice, Rinpoche simply said, “Just practice in your room.”
We had been here for eleven days now; I still didn’t feel that I believed in Tibetan Buddhism and its practices. Mom’s miracles are hers, not mine. Every morning when mom and I chanted mantras as we turned the wheels, and then went around the temples to pay reverence to the Deities, I still couldn’t bring myself to do the Tibetan full-body prostrations. My body was killing me from all the discomforts. My urges to leave were getting stronger and I felt antsy. That afternoon in Rinpoche’s bookshop I saw a young woman—perhaps in her mid thirties—exchanging Tibetan jewelry and buying an expensive set of beads. Little Ding gave her lots of smiles, and called her his Little Buddhist Sister. That evening at dinner I learned that her name is Ms. Zhang. She lives in Canton. She had donated six hundred thousand yuan to build the Wenshu (Manjushri) Hall and Library. That’s about seventy five thousand dollars. She is thirty-nine. Aka Gadan, head administrator of Rinpoche’s house, invited her to the biggest and best dinner we had had so far at the vacation village, with spicy Sichuanese rabbit dishes and a variety of seafood. After dinner, Rinpoche received her privately in his study.
All this made me feel more and more uncomfortable. I told mom that Ms Zhang seemed successful and very capable to me. She was also definitely the center of attention which made me feel jealous. Mom said she felt it too, but she hit her head to get rid of the idea as soon as it appeared. She told herself to “yu ren tong le”—to be joyful along with others when they are happy. Yes, that is the right way, I said, because she is doing such a good thing. So what she has characteristics that I don’t care for? That’s another matter. I should feel glad and show my gratitude toward her. Then I hit my head too and decided to adopt mom’s method. It’s funny that mom had told me about this method of hers many times before. But this was the time I finally let it in. Right away I felt happy because perhaps this was why I needed to come here, to learn from mom how to get rid of the seed of negative emotions by knocking the beginning of a negative idea out of my head. I was thankful.
To continue to benefit from my newfound modesty, mom taught me how to sit without back support by visualizing the Green Tara and chanting the mantra. I sat on a pillow cross-legged and began the practice. I started by cleansing myself through breath, and as usual I yawned a great deal. As soon as I saw the Green Tara and started chanting, my entire body became instantly quiet, then calm, deeper and deeper. I felt as if there were weights between my hands and on my tongue. They became heavier and heavier as the rest of my body became less and less felt, until all the rest of my body seemed to have disappeared except the two heavy weights like solid iron balls resting on my tongue and in my hands. I saw the Green Tara smile and I felt happy. I saw Rinpoche smile at me, so clearly. I was thankful to Ms. Zhang. I felt really thankful to mom. And I felt thankful to everyone. Then emptiness. Just the mantra and Green Tara. Complete emptiness. Time disappeared. Space disappeared. I disappeared.
I became the Green Tara. My heart expanded. Joy and thankfulness to everyone and everything filled the expanse. Then it changed. Joy melted into immense sadness for everyone and everything. Tears filled my eyes and rolled down my face. Is this the Bodhi heart I hear about? I, the Green Tara, extended my green light to every living being, helping them ease the sadness in their heart and their suffering. I extended my green light, offering to all my teachers and Buddhas, all the two thousand nameless Buddhas who came before Bodhisattva and taught him… In my own body and spirit, I experienced and understood why the Buddhist method is correct and has been the path for many for so long. I gave my thanks to Rinpoche’s teaching. He smiled again, full of benevolence and compassion. All through the sitting, Rinpoche appeared seven or eight times, each time smiling kindly. When the existence of my body came back, I felt that the kinks in my back had eased, and I was sitting straight without effort. My body felt warm and my heart full of love.
The next day I told my experience first to mom then to Rinpoche. I felt that I had learned methods to work on the three miseries of humankind, from a day to day practical method to stop the thoughts before they began, to a meditation practice method to grow my own compassion and feel the connectedness with all. Of course just when I thought I had got it, some thoughts became words and actions before I could jump on them. After briefly feeling defeated, I smiled again. My life is my process. As long as I keep on working on my practice, day after day, there will be gradual results. So this trip didn’t bring me instant enlightenment. I shall be patient.
During the two weeks, there were times when I found myself simply standing there, not thinking, just looking at something, nothing. Plenty of times during the day, mom and I lied in bed fully dressed, covered with a layer of blanket, talking about many things that we haven’t brought up in the past. I couldn’t remember the last time we talked like this—like old friends, equal, without the usual mother-daughter dynamics. It didn’t take much effort to get along. Time slowed down.
Just like any other practice, I also learned the disadvantages of the Tibetan practice from the cramps in my pelvis. I have been only sitting and meditating and completely neglected my movement qigong practices. I also learned that Rinpoche has high blood pressure. So great masters are not necessarily perfect either, and certainly not all achieve longevity, enlightenment and realization. Heart-mind cultivation and body maintenance are both necessary tools for attaining realization in this world.
Time accelerated the last couple of days we were there. I had forgotten or had gotten used to all the inconveniences and discomforts of the remote area. But it was time to go home. Saying goodbye to Rinpoche wasn’t easy because he had become my grandfather in my heart. Soon we were driven to the hand-built, swaying and dilapidating suspension bridge on the edge of the village, walked across, got into a pre-arranged taxi, and two and half hours later mom and I were in Xining. We took the twenty-eight hour train back to Beijing the next day.
Back in Beijing, mom introduced me to Professor Fuyin Chen, a doctor, scientist and qigong master. Professor Chen, his wife, a sociologist, mom and I met in a quiet teahouse one afternoon and began talking about anything and everything. Professor Chen is in his sixties and looks like an ideal scholar with a thin build. He spoke with clarity, precision and an undeniable passion. As wonderful thoughts poured out of his mouth, sparks danced in his eyes. A few simple thoughts stayed firmly in my mind. I asked him what he thought of the quality of compassion in Tibetan Buddhism. Professor Chen began to talk about how we all know how much work it was for our mothers to bring us into this world. Just imagine carrying several pounds of weight for nine months, walking, eating, and sleeping without any break. All her organs are making room for you; her skin is stretched to the limit, the nausea, the need to eat often and go to bathroom often, the change of diet… And finally the pain at birth. How could we not owe our mothers and be thankful always?
What we also forget is that we wouldn’t have the kind of life we lead without other human beings and other living creatures giving us a roof to live under, warmth, food, and all the comforts of modern living. The moment we are born into this world we already owe everything to every living creature before us and around us. How could we not give back? How could we not be serving others?
A question had been on my mind for quite a long time. So I took the opportunity to ask Professor Chen. I had an unresolved question about teachers. In the past, I would find a teacher who is really good at teaching something. A while later I would find qualities that I don’t like so much about the teacher, for example, too rigid, too traditional, or philosophical with no real practice, or lack of compassion or principle, etc. I wondered what to do with these weaknesses I perceived in my teachers. I once read a book by an American Tibetan Buddhist teacher who talked about the Empty Teacher. He said to list all the good qualities and all the weaknesses of your teacher. Then go down the weaknesses list and use it as a mirror for yourself. Whatever you see as a weakness in others resides in you, too. As soon as you have gotten rid of a weakness, you won’t see it in others anymore.
I asked Professor Chen how he sees the search for the right teacher? He smiled. His eyes shone, and said finding the right teacher is not difficult; finding the right practice for you is not difficult; attaining enlightenment is not difficult. It doesn’t even take that long to attain enlightenment. The key and the most difficult step is to go into yourself. Ask yourself what it is that you really want. Clarify, clarify and clarify. Once you are clear about your life goal, you’ll know clearly who your teacher is, and your practice will progress fast as well. Perhaps in two to four years you may attain enlightenment.
Now I am back in the States. People tell me that they see or feel changes in me. “You have this peacefulness in your eyes,” they would say. They ask me what I have learned on my trip. It’s not so easy for me to notice my own progress because I often still find myself in negative thoughts and feeling miserable about something without catching the thought at its bud. The peace in my heart gets disrupted more often than I like—though my heart does seem to return to peace sooner now than it used to. But my awareness is coming in sooner now and it comes from the heart.
Then, day after day I come back to what I’ve written, I fill in more changes I have noticed in myself. Now when I practice qigong, some unfamiliar, deep feelings rise up from my heart. This thankfulness, this connectedness, shows up during many of the exercises that I have been practicing for years. I not only know but I FEEL the big picture. I feel the presence of the living universe. I feel the present moment in my body, in my heart, in my spirit.
When I am teaching, oftentimes tears rise up in my eyes. I feel my heart directly communicating and receiving warmth and compassion with others’ heart. I am thankful and glad that others are on this path, sharing their heart with me. I am thankful that they are coming to class. It’s not so easy to stay on this path in our modern society, everyone working harder than ever, with inhumane schedules and workloads. I am so thankful. There is something that I know I have learned. That is without giving up on the practices I have learned, this progress will continue, step by step.
The summer trip to China was a lamppost on my path. I want to share my experience and learning with you. Perhaps something will click for you sometime down your own path. When that happens, it would add to my joy. I would like to share something I read the day after my return to Seattle, conclusions from recent findings in biology. It summarized what I have learned in a simple, elegant way,
“Think of each organism as an entity that is not really confined within the solid body we see. The visible body just happens to be where the wave function of the organism is most dense. Invisible quantum waves are spreading out from each one of us and permeating into all other organisms. At the same time, each of us has the waves of every other organism entangled within our own make-up…each of us is supported and constituted, ultimately, by all there is in the universe.”
—Mae-Wan Ho, PhD, Reader in Biology at Open University, UK
Claire GuYu Johnson grew up in Beijing, China in a family of qigong, taichi and herbal medicine practitioners. Her playground was among the ancient trees and temples. Through her parents’ Qigong Association of America, she met and studied with a number of Taoist and Buddhist qigong and taichi masters. In 1999, she traveled with Grandmaster Mingtang of ZY Qigong to many cities in Russia, Ukraine, Germany and China, while Mingtang taught seminars and saw patients. In 2000, she set up the first ZY Qigong office in the U.S. in Seattle, WA. Since then, she has been expanding the non-profit organization, teaching classes to practitioners and the general public, seeing clients, and sharing this simple tool for healing and spiritual development with all. She also brings teachers of many different practices to the ZYQ Center so she and her students can learn from different areas and perspectives.
Pilgrimage to an open horizon:
o To see the world from a different point of view,
o To jump out of our daily life and immerse in a different way of life, with different rhythms and cadence.
o To forget the monkey mind and to remember the comprehending heart.
o To receive and to give.
o To communicate with thousands of years of information stored in these dynamic landscapes.
o And to learn from a well designed, time-tested system.