We will be featuring the writings of members of the Celtic Buddhist Community. Included will be excerpts from an unpublished book completed in 2016.
A Dance of Love - Embracing the Leper
Every day we have a choice, an opportunity. The opportunity is to live our life honestly or to live it disingenuously. And by “disingenuous” I refer to living a lie. And it is the worst kind of lie, because it is a lie we tell ourselves and others about who we are and what is truth. The greatest gift Celtic Buddhism gave to me and gives to me every day is the freedom that comes from knowing myself and the strength to live out of that.
There are many writings and authorities on Buddhism. But that is not where truth is found. Truth is in the experience of a sparkle of dew on the grass and also in the glint of red blood on a stone. It is in the pain of hunger and in the joy of the warmth of a ray of sun. It is in our hearts. It is what we are when we have dropped all notions of ourselves and hold hands with our clan, with everyone in the universe, with ourselves.
When I first met Seonaidh I had recently left eight years of hard-core Zen monastic training. I knew what a Buddhist should look like, should act like. I knew how to be a Buddhist monk; I had been well trained. I knew how to stand, how to speak, how to chant, and how to meditate. But I did not know what a genuine person was. I did not know, until I met Seonaidh, how to live out of honesty—which is nothing more than the compassion and laughter that arise from humility.
The Celts deeply understood the interconnectedness of life, and so they know humility. A leaping salmon, a dead bull, a rock, a Celt. There is no difference. We all dance together in a dance of love. It is only when we start to put artificial values onto lives and activities that we forget who we are; we lose our humility and fall out of the dance.
One of the quickest ways to become ourselves and drop the facades and games is by following the example of St Francis of Assisi and embracing our leper. St Francis was very afraid and repulsed by lepers, and for good reason. They have a visually frightening, deadly disease and it is contagious. In St Francis’s time, there was no cure for it. Lepers were scorned, feared, hated, looked down upon, and banished from society. It took St Francis many tries before he was able to approach and embrace a leper. But when he finally did so, his entire world changed, because he found himself by dropping himself.
We all have a leper that stalks us. It may be poverty, powerlessness, a bad reputation or being unloved. There is something that deep inside we fear. And consciously (or more often subconsciously) we live our lives trying to avoid that fear. We believe we are not that, and so we run from it. We may believe we are “good” and so we refuse to look honestly at any unkind or selfish thing we do. We may fear poverty, and so we base our actions not in love but out of a need to be rich. It is different for each of us, and yet not so different. We end up living in ways that are disingenuous to our hearts in order to avoid our leper. We end up losing our true selves because we are afraid of losing a false image we created of ourselves. And in losing our true self, we lose our connection to the dance of love. We lose our connection to life.
For me, one of the toughest lepers I ever embraced was admitting that I needed to leave the Zen monastery I had called home for eight years. In asking to leave I was told (and I believed) that leaving made me a quitter, a loser, a selfish person. It proved I didn’t understand the Dharma. It proved I valued my ego over spirituality. It made me unworthy of the black robes. I lost my family, my job, and my home. And all of that was everything I feared being and losing.
But it was the one thing I did right. It was my heart that was speaking, and for once I listened and embraced it. I am not saying it was fun. It destroyed me in a very painful way. But that wasn’t the real “me,” although the pain was very real. The real person we are is the person who cries at the sorrows of this world, is the person who laughs at the joys of this world. It is the person who is not separate from everything and everyone else. It is the being who gives up protecting himself and herself in order to live a genuine life, a life of service, a life from the heart.
Celtic Buddhism requires a warrior’s heart. One cannot embrace their leper without it. But it also requires celebration and joy. Seonaidh taught me that one of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s favorite sayings was “Now this is a cause to celebrate!” Passion is a tantric thing. Celtic Buddhism is a tantric thing. And like anything, its value is in the intent. If there is only pain, if there is not real joy on one’s spiritual path, then it is not a very true spiritual path. Here, one trains hard and one plays hard. It is the Celtic Buddhist Way.
The killing of the frogs at my monastery was the pain that gave me the courage to embrace my leper and find Celtic Buddhism. Celtic Buddhism allowed me to trust myself, to experience (by Seonaidh’s example) what it is to live a genuine life, and to begin to live my own life out of genuineness and laughter. This poem is for the frogs. I owe them and Seonaidh much.
Requiem to the Frogs
soft, cool, wet
glistening like a priceless jewel.
slowly i reach out my hand
to touch you.
are the same.
is not different.
I feel the love within you.
Do you feel the sorrow within me?
The abbot says that I must learn to accept
what I cannot change.
But how can we know what cannot be changed
unless we try to make that change
and try and try and try again?
Did Gandhi accept? Did Mother Theresa accept? Did Schindler accept?
Accept??? Let go???
Better to be conscious while feral dogs rip out my entrails.
Better to feel my flesh burn off of my bones.
Better to feel my heart break again in an oh too long life of failures.
and i have failed you today.
and i failed you yesterday.
and i will undoubtedly fail you tomorrow.
I wish you had a better champion than me,
but until then,
i will piece my heart back together one more time
and try again
We are all heroes and villains, failures and victors, sages and fools. All of us. And there is no greater relief, no greater joy, and no greater way to truly be of service than to live a genuine life that springs forth from the humility of knowing ourselves. Stand up with a Celtic heart and face your leper. Embrace your leper and you embrace yourself—then you can dance again.
Working with Ourselves and Others
Celtic Buddhism begins with developing a deep understanding and
affection for ourselves. We learn to look at our talents, shortcomings,
and inner and outer conflicts with frankness and curiosity. We are
able to do this when we believe what our teacher sees, that there is no
problem and there never has been. From this unlimited view, we find our
personal situation is workable and, eventually, we extend our appreciation
outward to the rest of our world. Celtic Buddhists start where they are, no
longer waiting for a preconceived approval. As soon as we see the need,
we begin our efforts.
On a daily basis each of us interacts with others, so there is an
immediacy and directness to working in this area of our lives. Each of our
meetings and conversations is imbued with energy and potentialities. There
are opportunities to strengthen friendships, increase understanding, gain
insight, and share enjoyment. There are also the less pleasing outcomes of
disturbing thoughts, harming relationships, and creating difficult emotional
states. Who among us has not felt annoyance, disappointment, guilt, or
anger from a short conversation with a friend or spouse? With close relationships, emotional flare-ups can happen several times each day, and on top of that, think about our moments of discontent with store cashiers, coworkers,customers, and even pets! On every hand we have rich and plentiful sources of experiences and practice opportunities for working with others.
There is a tricky side to our aspiration to work with other beings,
because our efforts often contain the seeds of trying to make someone
happy, promoting a religious view, or making our own lives more
pleasant. Any of these and more may be outcomes, but the essence of
working with others does not have a goal. It is simply an outgrowth of
our developing compassion. We find compassion is inescapably connecting
us with our world and we begin acting through it. As we do so, it is
helpful to have guidelines for how to proceed, as our usual touchstones
of Self and its preferences are problematic and best left behind. Instead,
we can use the Buddhist characteristics of generosity, discipline, patience,
and exertion as our reminders in everyday social interactions. They can
be the basis for increasing sanity and enjoyment in our personal worlds.
These virtues, or paramitas, are an established part of the
Buddhist path to realization, which is how I came to learn about them.
There are six of them altogether1 and practitioners work to perfect them
through meditative practice. Originating in the monastic tradition,
the written definitions and applications of the paramitas are traditionally
presented in the perfected form exhibited by an enlightened master.
For instance, generosity is often illustrated with stories of offering
one’s entire wealth or physical body in an act of generosity. Discipline
is demonstrated by years of solitary meditation in a cave, deprived of
warmth and food. Very few of us can relate to these stories of idealized
generosity, patience, discipline, and so on. The paramitas presented in
this way seem to present unattainable goals to beginning practitioners.
Used as reminders, however, their application to our ordinary lives is
extremely valuable and relevant for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
Generosity can be more than giving objects to others. I first began
to see the practical application of Generosity, the first of the six Buddhist
paramitas, while waiting for my husband at dinnertime. The cooking of the
rice, chicken, and steamed broccoli were coordinated perfectly, the table
set, and I was hungry. However, my spouse was puttering at a task and
not responding to my call. As I became increasingly irritated and upset, I
took a look at my clutching to time. What if I gave my time as a gift, in as
generous allotment as needed for my spouse to come to his seat at the table?
We all know about giving gifts of food, money, clothing, and
electronics. But what about generosity with Space, letting others have room
to think, talk, and decide? This is a fun one, as we see if we can let go of
our own thoughts, ideas, and voice, giving the opening to the other person
to fill. Another favorite is being generous with Approval. The craving for
Approval runs deep in us, and without it relationships cease to prosper and
improve. In conflicts with others, denying Approval is a potent weapon and
often the last one we set down. When we work with others, being curious
about how and when we grant Approval offers insights into our generosity.
Discipline, the second paramita, is not reminding us to be
harsh, authoritative, or punitive. Instead, we use it to increase our
ability to relate calmly and helpfully with others. In working with others,
maintaining discipline in what we say and how we act is integral to creating
openness and relationship. Every time we refrain from our impulse to
blame, belittle, scold, or manipulate we are actively practicing the virtue
of Discipline. Just think how many times in a day we are irritated by
others’ talk, their actions, their clothes, their looks! How often are we
offended by other people’s actions and presence, or even worse, being
ignored? If a reminder pops up in our minds to let go of our reaction,
that is Discipline coming to our rescue. When, instead, we respond
with a rant about our boss, a snide comment to our coworker, or a mean
thought about our neighbor, that is the time Discipline took a nap. Put
simply, Discipline is the vigilance that watches and reminds us to put
ourselves to the side and bring Generosity and Patience into action.
Patience is often viewed as a weak antidote for the anger and
disappointment we feel when things began to unravel. “Be patient”
is a remonstrance most of us have heard from early childhood. It might
have been our model car that came unglued, our dog that wouldn’t
behave, or our hurry to finish a task in order to play with friends. As
adults, we need to reacquaint ourselves with Patience and the calm and
space it provides. Patience can be vast, encompassing and allowing everything to exist in its own way. With practice, we can use Patience to allow others to find their own way and events to unfold at their own tempo.
It is quite evident that Patience is not an attribute sought or
nurtured by most Westerners. We have been indulged with promises
of “speedy delivery,” “first come, first served,” and “time is money.”
Finding a way to wean ourselves away from the hurry toward a goal is
a challenge. Meditation is an ideal method for cutting through our
speed and need for forward velocity. With practice, each of us can
become familiar with our mind and its native quietude. Then, when
we are with others, we are able to recreate that mental stillness and
talk and act out of it. The ability to feel the other person’s emotions
and undercurrents are enhanced and communication improves vastly.
There are so many things to be patient with when we interact
with others. Patience as they describe and explain, deceive and manipulate,
accuse and interrogate, push and plead. We need Patience when
anger is directed at us and when our plans are suddenly upended. As
our Patience increases, we are able to remain steady and calm in the
weather systems spawned by circumstances and the beings around us.
Exertion provides the interest and energy that pump vitality
into our Generosity, Discipline, and Patience.
Exertion, or enthusiasm, is the paramita that reminds us to perk up and pay attention.
It is the energy we feel upon arriving at the ocean after a long
drive. We breathe in the sea air, listen to the gulls’ cries, stand in sun
and sand, and feel a surge of excitement. Similarly, Exertion sparks
the curiosity and interest needed to actually relate properly to others.
Too often our tendency is to be sluggish or lazy when we are with
another Being. It is easy to be hesitant, disinterested, or even bored, our
enthusiasm for relating reduced or nonexistent. I’m sure we can all think
of an occasion when this has happened! Perhaps our friend is telling us for
the tenth time about her difficulties at her job, or how she was unable to
find a pair of shoes to go with a new outfit. Our mind just goes to sleep!
Or perhaps our thinking becomes muddled as a supervisor rambles on
with irrelevant information. Instead of listening, we begin to plan out
our next actions on a particular task ahead. The paramita of Exertion
reminds us to yank up our interest and pay attention to what is happening.
One remedy we can apply to torpor or a wandering mind is a swift
cutting through, an instant letting go of one’s entire mindstream. It is a
straightforward action we can all do. Notice the need and just open your
arms and let the grocery bags fall! Enthusiasm and interest will naturally
return and you can start anew relating to the Being in front of you.
Actively working with yourself and others is central to Celtic
Buddhists because it is the pre-eminent way to reduce suffering in the
world. It is all about rolling up your sleeves and getting about the job
at hand. And although most of this essay referenced humans, please
understand we are also talking about properly relating to insects, dogs,
fish, birds, and other living things. Once we realize our close connection
to these beings, we naturally begin to relate to them with consideration,
patience, and generosity. Compassion is the basic condition for
this work, as my teacher Venerable Seonaidh Perks has demonstrated
over and over during the years I have known him. On occasion, I or a
fellow student barraged him with confusion, anger, sadness, or another
emotion. Without fail, we were met with a vast compassionate space
that allowed the whole thing to dissipate and resolve. He extends this
same compassion to bees, birds, plants and animals, as beings equally
deserving of happiness. We are not describing a moralistic Buddhist
“must do” that someone might read about and decide to adopt. This is
simply a demonstration of our ability, as humans, to develop compassion
and extend it outward to all beings, meeting them with active interest
and all-encompassing warmth. May we all become living examples of
compassionate skillful action, increasing the well-being in our world.
*1 The entire list of paramitas is generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditative concentration, and discriminating awareness.
"The One Who Hears the Cries of the World"
In the depictions of Avalokiteshvara the central pair of hands clasps the mani, or jewel, to Avalokiteshvara’s heart in prayer-like reflection. The jewel represents compassion, which is his primary purpose. The jewel is held to his heart because compassion is central to Avalokiteshvara’s being. Compassion is Avalokiteshvara’s essence.
I do this work of service because of that jewel, because of my heart. It inspires me, it gives me courage, it shows me the way.
The exterior arms hold a mala and a lotus flower, gifts to the world. Avalo offers these with her compassion extending into the world for all beings. The mala represents meditating with the recitation of the Avalokiteshvara mantra Om Mani Padme Hung, symbolic of the repitition of good deeds in a Bodhisattva’s life. Over and over again we recite the mantra and over and over again we seize the opportunities for service that are presented to us. Service to all beings is our gift to the world.
In the Tiantai school, six forms of Avalokiteshvara are defined. Three of these inspire my practice in Celtic Buddhism;
Great compassion has been a practice in my life since an early age. My parents taught us that three things were important in life, patience, understanding and kindness. I followed their instruction and example as much as possible. Although not living like a Jain, I respected all living things and practiced compassion toward man and animal alike. As a child compassion was better understood as kindness growing into Great loving kindness and then Great compassion as I grew into adulthood and embraced Buddhism.
Early on it was not the concept of compassion or the ideal of compassionate work that moved me to action but just the basic understanding of who needed help and what needed to be done. I saw that a simple act of kindness that took little effort had great results. As a child it was the usual animals and birds kindness that saw strays and injured finding their way into my heart and life.
Strays and injured soon included humans and I became aware of the opportunity to extend compassion to my own kind. People replaced the fallen bird and homeless people, elderly and the disenfranchised became the strays.
Buddhism came into my life in the 60’s and with it the understanding of the place of compassion in the practice. Suddenly there was the story of Aavaloketeshvara with his head blowing up from the overwhelming presence of suffering despite her efforts and being reassembled by Amitabha as a more efficient and effective warrior against the suffering of all sentient beings. It was all new to me but the idea of your head blowing up because of something struck a note. I read more, practiced more and looked more for opportunities to benefit others. There were homeless people in Boston that gladly accepted food, water, meals at holidays and blankets in the cold. There were shut ins who gladly enjoyed a young man’s company in conversation, over a board game or in the kitchen preparing brought in food. There were young men returning from war who never really wanted to be there and now were happy someone wanted them back either when they got off the bus or when they lay in a hospital bed damaged by the results of their conscription. There were the men who in the 1970’s had to tell their families in one breath they were gay and in the next they were dying from AIDS sitting with them as the ravages of the little understood disease and socially unacceptable lifestyle cast them on the outskirts of society.
It was here that I started to understand Lion Courage.
It is to me the heart of compassionate service. Not that you have to be animal like brave to do it but you have to be courageous enough to witness suffering and not to be discouraged by the volume of it and strive to end the suffering that you are present with.
A life of service is not for the faint of heart. If you do it right, it is selfless. If you do it with devotion it is consuming. If you do it with all your heart it is what matters most in your life. Family and friends have to understand that you don’t love or care for them less you have to share this love, this caring to all sentient beings.
I have always been humbled by the courage of many that I have served at their perseverance in the storms of their lives. Their meeting the challenges even when there seemed to be no refuge. Lion courage is present not just in the giver. This was so evident to me in the lives of the young men, the soldiers and the sick.
In the 1990’s I brought Great compassion and Lion courage to Northern Ireland when I was asked by a small group of mixed faith, mixed heritage Buddhists to come and sit with them in North Belfast and to observe the difficulties and tragedy that “The Troubles” had brought. I made multiple trips to the North and witnessed the death and destruction that the people on both sides of the “Peace Wall” had to deal with. I was fortunate to meet with many people involved in the conflict from Gerry Adams in the Nationalist leadership and Gusty Spence on the Loyalist side, Church of Ireland Primate Robin Eames and people like Emma Groves of the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets who started the Campaign after the death of John Downes eleven years old killed by a plastic bullet fired by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. She herself struck in the face by a plastic bullet and suffered major trauma disfiguring and blinding her. Sitting in the living room of this mother of eleven children with the softest voice I knew I was looking at the heart of Lion courage.
There were tragic stories on both sides of the wall and in all the sectarian neighborhoods but they shared one thing and that was poverty. Great compassion and Loving kindness was displayed in the soup kitchens and pantries that provided resources and support for the disadvantaged in each community.
Traveling with the Belfast Exposed, a group of fledgling photographers and videographers I was able to witness the results of the hatred that existed between two sides of the same culture and the intolerance of those who were supposed to uphold law and order. Young men and women lay dead in the street or slumped in cars because of the hatred that eclipsed kindness and the absence of compassion by those who were supposed to be trusted by the communities. The courage to be there at that time in those streets was insignificant compared to the Lion courage of those who lived on those streets.
These last years of service since embracing Celtic Buddhism seem mild compared to those years of service in the streets of the 60’s to the 90’s. Gone are the tumultuous times of witness and activism for human rights and dignity now replaced by service to those in the quiet passing of life.
At the same time that I became a Lineage holder in Celtic Buddhism and meeting my teacher H.H Venerable Seonaidh I found Casa Del Asilo (House of Sanctuary) in Bocas Del Toro, Panama a government run, poorly funded center for homeless elderly people. It became the heart of my Great compassion bringing the gift of loving kindness to the homeless elderly people with chronic care who became my Asilo Family following in the tradition of Arya Avalokiteshvara and the teaching of Venerable Seonaidh who challenged me to, "do this work until you drop and do what has to be done from the heart of Avalo”. Spending quiet days in service doing what needed to be done from companionship to preparing the bodies of those who died giving them the dignity that they deserved in death as well as life became my every day.
In Celtic Buddhism the Refuge Chant says that,” “As we become Anam Cara to those in need…” In Celtic spirituality, the anam cara friendship is the essence of spiritual compassion. We are together with all beings in an ancient and eternal bond, the stewards of the compassionate world.
Taking my seat at AnaDaire Celtic Buddhist Center in Saxons River Vermont I am again present with the opportunity to serve those who are hungry, homeless and at the end of their lives. Compassionate service never ends as I will always hear the cries of the world.
May I serve to be perfect.
May I be perfect to serve.
Lama Naomh Tomás Au Flaithbheartbagh
29 July 2015
The Drala Priciple
The “drala principle” refers to a body of teachings the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa presented in the last decade of his life, from 1978 to 1986. The roots of the drala principle precede the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet and are found in the indigenous traditions of that country—as they are in all countries. The
drala principle is applicable, not to Buddhist practitioners alone, but to anyone. These teachings speak to the heart, whether one is, so to speak, religiously, artistically or politically motivated.
Drala is the elemental presence of the world that is available to us through sense perceptions. When we open to trees, flowers, a creek or clouds we encounter an actual wisdom, though one that is not separate from our own. Beholding a river is much more than merely looking at a river; potentially, we are meeting the dralas. A friend of
mine was once with her family in upstate New York. It was winter and they had hiked into a forest. The landscape was one of cold and snow, whiteness and silence, birch trees. Astonished by the pristine beauty, my friend realized it was her duty—not just to notice this beauty—but to stop and linger with it. To let it penetrate her. To listen. We have failed to see our first responsibility to the world is an aesthetic one.
In the drala teachings, each of the senses is considered an “unlimited field of perception” in which there are sights, sounds and feelings “we have never experienced before”—that no one has ever experienced! Each sense moment, if we are present for it, is a gate into the elemental wisdom of the world; even a cold sip of coffee could ignite the experience of Yeats: “While on the shop and street I gazed / My body of a sudden blazed.” Every perception is a pure perception; from the feel of a meager pebble stuck in our shoe to the meow of a house cat. Through this kind of perception we discover that we live in a vast, singular and unexplored world.
To make a stone stonier, that is the purpose of art.
Sometimes a stone, a tree, a teacup or a violin processes an intangible presence, a numinousity, that cannot be explained. The presence might not always be there, or be there for only a short period of time, but that presence may refer to another dimension of the drala principle. Just as our tangible world is populated—and sometimes densely populated—with people and other sentient creatures, the intangible or “invisible world” (invisible to most of us) is densely populated as well. Among these beings, entities, or spirits are classes of beings, or qualities of being, called dralas, also known as katumblies, kachinas, kami, gnomes, elves, angels, gods. Any being who acts on behalf of the nondualistic and compassionate nature of existence could be considered a drala. The dralas are not really part of some other world, but are latent everywhere. The dralas, as Chögyam Trungpa so often said, want very much to meet us.
Using metaphors in the form of words, names and especially mantras or seed-syllables traditionally plays a central part in calling to the dralas, announcing our interest in meeting them, our availability. One example of the fertility of the drala principle is the Ganges River, perhaps historically home to the world’s largest population of dralas. The Ganges is itself a drala. This river, so long adored (and now, like most rivers, under siege by pollution and human disregard of its essential sacredness) traditionally has 108 names, each of them a form of praise and, in that it speaks of a specific quality, the name of a drala(s) as well:
Visnu-padabja-sambhuta : Born from the lotus-like foot of Vishnu
Himancalendra-tanaya : Daughter of the Lord of Himalaya
Ksira-subhra : White as milk
Nataibhiti-hrt : Carrying away fear
Ramya : Delightful
Atula : Peerless
Japa Muttering : Whispering
Jagan-matr : Mother of what lives or moves
Discovering the Dralas
On the most simple and immediate level, the moment-to-moment path of discovering the drala principle might follow the steps given in the Course of Study offered here. Each moment of perception can potentially be experienced as a moment of pure perception—experience not yet mediated through discursive thought and conceptual process. These moments are not yet conditioned by hope and fear, by our opinions, desires and beliefs. This immediate awareness of pure perception is “without choice, without demand, without anxiety.”
Moments of pure perception are experiences of beauty expressed though specific details. It is our duty to notice the details that call to us—any taste, any sight, any sound. This is the call of the dralas.
If we quiet our mind by opening to these details, and if we listen to the response of our heart, we may discover our moment-to-mo ment, day-to-day direction. Thus we begin to follow our heart, to live beyond conditioning—and to be led by the dralas. Not only is our heart the source of our direction in life, it is the source of our confidence.
A Course of Study
Below is a partial outline of some of the topics of study of the drala principle. Each topic is introduced and briefly described, often simply with a quote. (In teaching, I’ve shared these themes—and quotes—with hundreds of people. These words are old friends that I’ve shared with people who have become friends, and that I am now sharing with new friends . . .)
The experience of drala is as close as our own eyes, ears and tongue. We don’t have to try to taste, say, an orange, we simply need to relax into the presence of the flavor on our tongue and the orange naturally begins to communicate with us. We are generally too active and our own business drowns out the messages of the world around us. To access the dralas we must do less and be more.
Give Yourself a Break
This doesn’t mean to say that you should drive to the closest bar and have lots to drink or go to a movie. Just enjoy the day, your normal existence. Allow yourself to sit in your home or take a drive into the mountains. Park your car somewhere; just sit; just be. It sounds very simplistic, but it has a lot of magic. You begin to perceive clouds, sunshine and weather, the mountains, your past, your chatter with your grandmother and your grandfather, your mother, your father. You begin to pick up on a lot of things. Just let them pass like the chatter of a brook as it hits the rocks. We have to give ourselves some time to be.
We’ve been clouded by going to school, looking for a job. Our lives are cluttered by all sorts of things. Your friends want you to come have a drink with them, your other friends want you not to. Life is crowded with all sorts of garbage. In themselves, each one of these things may not be garbage, but they’re cumbersome when they get in the way of how to relax, how to be, how to trust, how to be a warrior. We’ve missed so many possibilities for that, but there are so many more possibilities that we can catch. We have to learn to be kinder to ourselves, much more kind. Smile a lot, although nobody is watching you smile. Listen to your own brook, echoing yourself. You can do a good job.
In the sitting practice of meditation, when you begin to be still, hundreds of thousands, millions and billions of thoughts will go through your mind. But they just pass through, and only the worthy ones leave their fish eggs behind. We have to leave ourselves some time to be. You’re not going to see the Shambhala vision, you’re not even going to survive, by not leaving yourself a minute to be, a minute to smile. If you don’t grant yourself a good time, you’re not going to get any Shambhala wisdom, even if you’re at the top of your class technically speaking. Please, I beg you, please, give yourself a good time.
—Chögyam Trungpa, from The Great Eastern Sun
Limitation is the practice or discipline that supports being. Becoming receptive or open is a natural byproduct of limitation. Meditation is a quintessential act of limitation (though one shouldn’t be hemmed in by preconceived ideas of what meditation is, or where or how it can occur). Even watching a movie requires the limitation of remaining quiet and sitting still. There is, obviously, no better way possible to receive the experience of a movie (though the drala principle is a more interesting movie that costs nothing to see). Accepting limitation is a conscious choice in which we have begun to realize the world becomes a far more interesting and abundant place if we limit ourselves.
One tires of living in the country, and moves to the city; one tires of one’s native land, and travels abroad; one tires of Europe and goes to America, and so on; finally one indulges in the sentimental hope of endless journeyings from star to star. Or the movement is different but still extensive. One
tires of porcelain dishes and eats on silver; one tires of silver and turns to gold; one burns half of Rome to get an idea of the burning of Troy. But this method defeats itself, it is plain endlessness.
My own method does not consist in such a change of field, but rather resembles the true rotation method in changing the crop and the mode of cultivation, rather than the field. Here we have the principle of limitation, the only saving principle in the world. The more you limit yourself, the more fertile you become in imagination.
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I embarked on two years of painting those paintings, two lines on each canvas, and at the end of two years there were ten of them. So I painted a total of twenty lines over a period of two years of very, very intense activity. I mean, I essentially spent twelve and fifteen hours a day in the studio, seven days a week. In fact I had no separation between by studio life and my outside life. There was no separation between me and those paintings. . . .
I put myself in that disciplined position, and one of the tools I used was boredom. Boredom is a very good tool. Because whenever you play creative games, what you normally do is you bring to the situation all your aspirations, all your assumptions, all your ambitions—all your stuff. And then you pile it up on your painting, reading into the painting all the things you want it to be. I’m sure it’s the same with writing; you load it up with all your illusions about what it is. Boredom’s a great way to break that. You do the same thing over and over again until you’re bored stiff with it. Then all your illusions, aspirations, everything just drains off. And now what you see is what you get.
—Robert Irwin, from Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees.
Become Part of a Lineage
A lineage, as the word is used here, means any tradition that evokes and propagates drala. A painting by, say, Paul Cézanne is loaded with drala. A man like Cézanne does not simply happen, but is someone who received the training and inspiration of countless ancestors before him and then put what he received into practice. That Cézanne apocryphally painted until his eyes bled is a measure of the work and sacrifice required to become a great lineage holder. Spiritual or religious lineages have no doubt produced our greatest lineage figures, but the path of drala cannot be defined as strictly sacred or secular. It could occur wherever genuine goodness and devotion are manifested. We might not even realize the lineages we are already part of; anyone who has ever read a poem has made contact with one of humanity’s most universal, primordial and wonderful lineages.
I found no grail. But I did discover the modern tradition. Because modernity is not a poetic school but a lineage, a family dispersed over several continents and which for two centuries has survived many sudden changes and misfortunes: public indifference, isolation, and tribunals in the name of religious, political, academic and sexual orthodoxy. Being a tradition and not a doctrine, it has been able to persist and to change at the same time. This is also why it is so diverse. Each poetic adventure is distinct, and each poet has sown a different plant in the miraculous forest of speaking trees. Yet if the poems are different and each path distinct, what is it that unites these poets? Not an aesthetic but a search.
—Octavio Paz, 20th-century Mexican poet and Nobel Laureate
Seek Victory over War
Chögyam Trungpa initially translated Tibetan drala into an English compound word, wargod. He admitted that this was “not the best translation,” but its provisional use was to establish dralas as “gods who conquer war rather than propagate it.” We can think of dralas as expressions of the fundamental, nondualistic nature of the world; they potentially come to our support when we express the courage to be nonaggressive. Chögyam Trungpa
coined the term, “victory over war” to express a goal of the drala principle.
Just as murder is an extreme expression of aggression, war is collective aggression at its utmost, but the seeds of war are in each of us. Aggression alienates us from the drala principle. Aggression divides people from one another, but it also divides us from the world we are in. War is no longer simply a military exercise; we are so at war with our environment that our very survival is imperiled. So great is this threat that our various regional wars—or even nuclear war—are overshadowed by our environmental crisis. The drala principle requires an honest study and constant unmasking of our own aggression and an allegiance to nonaggression. Nonaggression is not necessarily pacifism, but is an intelligent, firm and awake state of being.
War has an alluring simplicity. It reduces the ambiguities of life to blacks and whites. It fills our mundane days with passion. It promises to rid us of our problems. When it is over many miss it. I have sat in Sarajevo cafés and heard that although no one wished back the suffering, they all yearned for the lost spirit of self-sacrifice and collective struggle.
War’s cost is exacting. It destroys families. It leaves behind a wasteland , irreconcilable grief. It is a disease, and in the night air I smell its contagion.. Justice is not at issue here: war consumes the good along with the wicked. There will be no stopping it. Pity will be banished. Fear will rule. It is the old lie again, told to children desperate for glory: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
—Chris Hedges, author, former New York Times war correspondent
Discovering That “Luxury Is Experiencing Reality”
The intriguing quote, “Luxury is experiencing reality” is another phrase Chögyam Trungpa used that goes to the heart of the drala principle. In our modern world of technology and consumerism we live tremendously and unnecessarily shielded from the elements; as Trungpa taught, “so many devices are presented to us . . . ten thousand types of gloves and a hundred thousand types of shoes and millions of masks to ward off animals in the real world. . . . Just in case you smell a cow, you have an aerosol.”
Chögyam Trungpa counseled his students that the life envisioned in Nova Scotia must be highly connected to the Earth. We are talking about a farming situation in some sense: how we are going to experience the land properly, the real land, the land that grows crops and the land on which animals are raised. It is very, very important for us as students of Shambhala that when we first wake up in our bedrooms, the first incense we smell is either cow manure or horse manure or the smell of plants. . . . We have to get back and experience how the earth works rather than purely smelling our neighbor’s bacon cooking as soon as we wake up. . . . We all have to work on the earth, literally and properly.
Chögyam Trungpa’s vision was of course not the forced “re-education” of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but a call for devotion and sacrifice in the spirit of sanity and as an alternative to the dark future facing humanity if the excesses of our age continue unchecked. Quite simply, when we live with awareness of the elements, we live in luxury. Conversely, nearly everything we have come to call luxury is an excess, a distraction, a prison. The experience of rain is one of life’s great luxuries, the source of life falling from the sky! To experience the reality of rain does not mean to go out without an umbrella or a jacket if it is cold, to give up common sense comforts. But the luxuries of the “setting sun” world of modern mass culture is mere endless consumerism based on hungering for ever greater and more mindless comforts and entertainments.
In the following Taoist passage, one doesn’t need to understand its esoteric implications to be moved by its dramatically devastating conclusion.
The fading away of the Tao is when openness turns into spirit, spirit turns into energy, and energy turns into form. When form is born, everything is thereby stultified. The functioning of the Tao is when form turns into energy, energy turns into spirit, and spirit turns into openness. When openness is clear, everything thereby flows freely.
Therefore ancient sages investigated the beginnings of free flow and stultification, found the source of evolution, forgot form to cultivate energy, forgot energy to cultivate spirit, and forgot spirit to cultivate openness.
When openness turns into spirit, spirit turns into energy, energy turns into form, and form turns into vitality, then vitality turns into attention. Attention turns into social gesturing, social gesturing turns into elevation and humbling. Elevation and humbling turn into high and low positioning, high and low positioning turns into discrimination.
Discrimination turns into official status, status turns into cars. Cars turn into mansions, mansions turn into palaces. Palaces turn into banquet halls, banquet halls turn into extravagance. Extravagance turns into acquisitiveness, acquisitiveness turns into fraud. Fraud turns into punishment, punishment turns into rebellion. Rebellion turns into armament, armament turns into strife and plunder, strife and plunder turn into defeat and destruction.
—From The Immortal Sisters: Secret Teachings of Taoist Women, translated and edited by Thomas Cleary.
The above section was written in the 10th century by Tan Jingsheng. It’s called Transformational Writings, and it sums up the Taoist view of the evolution and involution of both individuals and collective processes.
The following is from the text of a “Shambhala Day” (Tibetan New Year) address I gave at Naropa University in 1998.
The word I have chosen is: ASTONISH. It is a very beautiful word. It comes from the Latin extonare which means “to thunder.” It means to strike with sudden wonder, or even sudden fear. John Lennon said, “Because the world is round, it turns me on.” That’s the idea. Since I thought of this word a week ago—almost immediately after I was asked to give this address—I really have been noticing how astonishing the world is. Every perception that comes to us. A person’s face is astonishing. The way my dog tries to smile at me in the morning by baring his fangs is astonishing. The dentist’s drill is astonishing.
A term in the Shambhala Tradition called The Great Eastern Sun means the world is always presenting itself to us for the first time. Chögyam Trungpa used to begin his talks by saying “Good Morning” because the sun rises in the east. The east is where things are always new. I think he saw his students this way, because when he looked at you he always seemed astonished (even appalled!). Some things are so astonishing they seem uncalled for, gratuitous or almost absurd. A flower!
Moments of perceived astonishment can transform depression and give us real vision. There is a poem by the Greek poet Odysseas Elytis in which smelling the branch of a bush transforms his mind.
One day when I was feeling abandoned by everything and a great sorrow fell slowly on my soul, walking across fields without salvation, I pulled a branch of some unknown bush. I broke it and brought it to my upper lip. I understood immediately that man is innocent. I read it in the truth-acerbic scent so vividly, I took its road with light step and a missionary heart. Until my deepest conscience was that all religions lie.
Yes, Paradise isn’t nostalgia. Nor, much less, a reward. It is a right.
Take One’s Seat
The ultimate purpose or expression of the drala principle is to take genuine responsibility for one’s life. Although this requires sacrifice, it is not a burden but a joy. Becoming responsible means taking one’s seat, but this seat—or throne!—is found in the chamber of one’s own heart. Quite the contrary to what we’re taught in school, where we are often “slowly reduced to disbelieving in ourselves” (Odysseus Elytis, Eros, Eros, Eros, p. 105), responsibility is the fulfillment of our true or fundamental desire, what we irreducibly believe in (even if long forgotten).
Two Shambhala terms are helpful in understanding this responsibility. The first is the sakyong principle. When my son was seven years old, I showed him a photograph of a clear-cut forest and he burst into tears. He cried immediately, inconsolably and seemingly out of any proportion. The sakyong principle entered him, or emerged from him, from his heart. Sakyong means “Earth protector,” a term for the highest seat we could claim, one that is devoted to protecting the Earth itself, and, or course, all the beings that live here. The sight of the destroyed forest—a sight of grotesque unsustainability—evoked from my son an archetypal response of the deepest kind.
The tears of my son demonstrated not only sadness but a kind of tremendous potential energy—so much energy that I’ve never forgotten that moment! We must use the energy-awakeness of the unbidden heart to have the courage to journey toward taking our most deeply human seat as Earth protector: Sakyong. It is seemingly only this kind of collective awakening that will save our planet from continued degradations and possible catastrophic collapse.
The unbidden energy we sometimes feel (perhaps only once in a lifetime) in or from our heart is something more than the constituents of our personality or the type of person we are trying to be. This energy is connected to the ridgen principle, the second pertinent Shambhala term. You could say that, although this primordial energy is not “elsewhere,” it nevertheless originates from a kind of ultimate or unconditioned space (which all spiritual traditions attempt to evoke, understand or at least speak of). In the Shambhala tradition, it is not spoken of, or conceived of, as God, but as the “Rigdens,” the highest form of nondual intelligence or being. The Rigdens are not exactly separate from us, yet we can say—and experience!—that they want to help us.
Rigden means “possessing family heritage.” Our heritage goes back through our mothers and fathers and every ancestral predecessor to the dawn of humanity. But even that is an arbitrary designator, because our genetic heritage not only continues back through apes, but to the original creatures of our Earth’s oceans, back to single cells, to carbon, to stardust. It is impossible not to possess this heritage, but our minds have acquired endless ideas and conditioning that ultimately make us feel alone and alienated from any heritage at all. Existence, in the form of the Rigdens, and in every cell of life, does have an allegiance to helping us reunite with our true family heritage. The ultimate and highest dralas are the Rigdens themselves.
How exactly will the Rigdens help us? There is a simple process we must undertake and in the undertaking help arrives inseparable from the process and perhaps, for a long time, unnoticed. There are steps to the process, though not necessarily in this order:
I. We must recognize our response-ability (to separate the word into its obvious halves). Each of us has a unique ability to respond to our life experience and thus affect the world around us. Not everyone is equal, precisely because there is not a single “ability” to measure us all by. In hitting a tennis ball, some have more ability than others, but this is only one of an infinite number of abilities to possess. Just as we are not all equal, none of us are particularly special, only unique. If each snowflake that has fallen since the beginning of snow is unique, how could each human (dog, cat, tree) not be?
The great Zen teacher Dogen said, “Everyone has all the provisions they need for their lifetime.” Amidst injustice, deformity, starvation, war and poverty it hardly seems believable that we each have the provisions we need. The provisions Dogen spoke of were the ones needed for each of us to wake up, and waking up can never occur from material other than what we already have, however awful. To recognize the material of our response-ability is a lifetime process that is too infrequently tried.
As we do try to recognize and commit to our response-ability, the world offers a response—you could say the Rigdens respond. Small forms of acknowledgment occur; accidents, synchronicities, threads of new possibility. The sense of “moving in the right direction” is palpable though not always tangible; it is a kind of real support that comes to our aid.
II. We must realize our privilege. Most of us living in the so-called first world have tremendous privileges over the greater majority of human beings who live in the so-called third world. A hundred dollars does not necessarily mean a great deal in, say, middle-class United States, but in terms of the overall world economy where the majority of human beings make only a dollar or two a day, one-hundred dollars is a tremendous amount of money.
Strangely, we in the first world often live far more in the grip of economic fear than our brothers and sisters who are making two dollars a day. Mortgages, credit-card debt, home and automobile insurance policies
(not to mention the homes and the automobiles), the warranties, deeds of trust, legal contracts, iPod rebates, parking tickets, security clearances, credit ratings, golf course memberships and orange juice coupons become a heaping pile of overhead we feel duty-bound to acquire and scared to death to do anything other than support. And thus our life force goes into supporting primarily these things, making us quite irresponsibly responsible.
That we could leverage our life in an entirely different way—and for very different purposes—is the point of realizing our privilege. Recognizing and acknowledging our privilege takes courage because it begins to dissolve that sense that we are “special,” that we are entitled to what we have and that it will always be there.
Quite simply put, the dralas do not prefer cowards, whereas any expression of the courage to become more vulnerable will potentially attract the dralas. Acknowledging our privilege means to become more vulnerable. The rigden principle—as the ultimate drala principle—is the self-existing sense of fearlessness we find in ourselves. As we become courageous we become anointed—or self-anointed—with courage—and the process of courage grows on itself.
III. We must begin to simplify and to risk. When we realize “luxury is experiencing reality,” simplifying is not a hardship but something natural—and natural things tend to do very well if they are allowed to. Simplifying provides the ground to risk. Most of us in the first world have far more resources available to us than the vast majority of humanity. We not only have the possibility but the responsibility to risk some of our so-called security for the possibility of finding and taking our seat and in turn, helping others.
IV. Supplicate for vision and support. If we are unwilling to simplify, risk, renounce our privileges and assume responsibility, it is unlikely it would occur to us to supplicate for a vision, much less receive one. Conversely, if we do have this willingness, we already have a vision; vision is surrender to what our heart desires. This is not the vision of ego, which always “wants” that which will make us more comfortable. A vision will have its way with us, but it will also come with a curious way of providing the necessary provisions. Simply to supplicate into the unknown is an act of courage and a link with vision.
What is vision? It is the truth of the human heart, which exists in nowness outside of time and can never be discovered through hope and fear.
He Is Risen
He is risen.
(She is risen. It is risen.)
From the damp floor of the forest, from the suburban wood
Chips and freedom lovers
She is risen as the sun rises with no weariness
But a slight ache. Where do they go?
There is a little rock in the forest
Covered with a mantilla of moss, friendly
With the dead wood and thrusting croci, lovers with the earth
Left by old generations. Silent rock, warming slowly,
By August you will have a heart that lasts
Until frozen through again; this is the kindness of the seasons;
Now we realize, now we know the secret
Of the floor of the forest in this modern time.
Silence, and no question, and time, and time, and time.
Risen late, shaving for night, you find
The imperfections. In fact there is no perfection. It is the outside
of your face.
You find the light finding you
Just as you are, loving the floor with the passion
Of gravity, of simpleton feet on their sophisticated shins,
Or is it the opposite?
Clay Brook, Grant Brook, Mink Brook, home.
Easter, not yet raining, warm enough, alone.
Having An Ordinary Mind in a Magical World: A Perspective of Celtic Buddhism
Brian C Schwartz
A Prefatory Caveat
I find writing about Celtic Buddhism similar to writing about the taste of my tongue. The taste is familiar, but hard to articulate. I can’t know whether what I have written is relevant or accurately conveys my experience to anyone else. In spite of that, I have written the following about Celtic Buddhism. I hope it will be of some benefit.
Celtic Buddhism has clarified a lot of my confusion concerning spiritual practice, the nature of reality, and life in general; however, I must qualify this by saying that this clarification is in relation only to my previous levels of confusion. It does not indicate a very high level of spiritual realization. I am still a confused human being traveling the path of Celtic Buddhism. I have, however, dropped much unneeded weight and have learned enough that serves as a sort of spiritual survival craft—I have learned how to build a shelter, light a fire, make do when things get rough, and for the most part, to enjoy the journey.
Celtic Buddhism has imbued my life with increased vitality and sanity. It has done this by providing a space in which I can unravel and root. This process did not occur because I was privy to a set of Celtic Buddhist doctrines or techniques; the process occurred because of the outrageousness of Celtic Buddhism, and how it opened up a very supportive space for me. The lineage had the audacity to manifest wisdom gone crazy and allow a space for a confused man like myself to rediscover basic sanity.
Be forewarned: I make proclamations I would not utter if I were
engaging in either scholarly or more traditional Buddhist discourses.
What I share with you is not intended for the scholar, the religious
Buddhist, or historian. It is written for fellow Celtic Buddhists, potential
Celtic Buddhists, and those currently on an unorthodox spiritual journey.
Like the Celts who walked in the in-between, what I will
share is relevant to a certain in-between state of reason and spirituality.
Take what I have to say as high spiritual teaching and you will
be disappointed; take it as historically astute and you will be deluded.
Perhaps I err on the side of speaking freely, but when I make wild
assertions, remember the context in which they are stated. If I sound like
I am solidifying or defining Celtic Buddhism, it is solely due to my lack
of writing prowess. In order to offer a glimpse of Celtic Buddhism I speak
about my path, discuss a peculiar take on what it means to be a Buddhist
and a Celt, and conclude with a meditation practice that hopefully will
give you the flavor of Celtic Buddhist practice. Remember this is a tale told
by a Celtic Buddhist with little realization, understanding, or discipline.
Last, please be aware that the Druids of old forbade the writing
down of their teachings. This refusal to codify shows that the Druids
were keenly aware of the potential for spiritual realizations to become
diluted by being traded about like a commodity. Many wisdom traditions
teach that spiritual visions are not to be shared with others until
many years have passed since they have occurred. I will therefore abstain
from sharing the more outlandish experiences I have had as a Celtic
Buddhist (hopefully there will be time to talk of dragons at a later date).
My Path and Celtic Buddhism
In the fall of 2003, I attended my first meditation and dharma talk
with Seonaidhd and the Celtic Buddhist sangha. I had recently graduated
with a master’s degree in Buddhist Studies from Naropa University
and entered the mandala with a propensity to drink, smoke, and reside
too much in my head. Phenomenology, beat poetry, Vedanta, and teachings
on Buddha Nature influenced my orientation to Buddhism much more than a sense of renunciation or a disciplined mediation practice.
The dharma talk was entitled something like “Mahamudra and the Lake of Wisdom.” The only thing that I can clearly remember from the talk is that Seonaidh described the way people tend to conduct themselves at spiritual teachings as squirrels on high alert. The statement struck me like an arrow.
I felt groundless with the sense that my previous dharma practice was not as pure as I had thought it was. The dharma I had learned was indeed pure; however, my fundamental orientation towards practicing it was somewhat confused. Like a squirrel on high alert, I was straining upward, on my tiptoes waiting either a nut of wisdom to fall or finally by the sheer act of straining upward to pierce through some invisible threshold into a heavenly dimension. I had been blessed with several spiritual experiences as a young man and knew different realms of experience were possible. Spiritual practice for me had become a way to validate those experiences and to use them to dissociate from what caused me suffering.
By clinging to and seeking transcendental experience, I was making the spiritual into something separate from my ordinary mind and environment. After a teaching or meditation I would return to my normal everyday experience with little fundamental change. I may have gained an insight or had a meaningful experience, but the experience or insight would never be fully integrated on the day-to-day, calloused-toe level of experience.
As I am continuing to learn, spirituality is not about crossing some threshold into a heavenly realm, it is about becoming open and relaxed enough for the positive qualities of our mind and world to reveal themselves. It is also about developing the integrity to live according to those qualities. I came to Celtic Buddhism wanting to learn about the nature of mind and Mahamudra; instead, I learned more about the path to becoming a more authentic human being. Somehow the space that had opened up because of Seonaidh’s teaching allowed what I had heard many times before to enter my heart in a more direct manner.
After the talk, I had a chance to talk with Seonaidh and perhaps have a sip of whisky. Like someone with something to prove, I flashed my spiritual badges. I spoke the names of the respected teachers I had meditated and studied with. Seonaidh asked me if I had seen Pirates of the Caribbean, which had recently been released. I said no, and he said Celtic Buddhism was like the film. I replied with a question, “Swashbuckling?” His answer was simply to reveal a smile that only a buccaneer could smile. I had to come back for more.
In a matter of weeks I felt very close to Seonaidh. I was blessed to travel to Ireland with him and spend many days cavorting with him. The teachings and practices he gave are not what I recall; instead it was the way Seonaidh and the Celtic Buddhist sangha created a space for the teachings I had already heard to become enlivened and take root. Spiritual teachings are like seeds; we are like soil, and a teacher and the sangha serve as the water and nutrients by providing a living example of what a spiritual life is. All the conditions need to be present for real growth to occur. Celtic Buddhism provided that kind of rich environment for me.
Thanks to Celtic Buddhism I am continuing to bloom and blossom. Like many plants, I am still prone to fungal infections, the occasional pest, and the occasional overwatering; however, I have reached a certain level of maturity due to the ground prepared for me by Celtic Buddhism. To explain how Celtic Buddhism managed to accomplish this and how we can hopefully accomplish it for others, let’s explore what it means to be a Buddhist, a Celt, and ultimately a Celtic Buddhist.
Acquiring an Ordinary Mind: Being a Buddhist
Trungpa Rinpoche, Seonaidh’s teacher, repeatedly stated that all sentient beings have basic goodness and that the world is fundamentally sacred. Suffering arises from our attempt to dull the brilliance of our basic goodness and the sacred dimensions of the world.
We recoil from vibrant and intense emotions.
We create buffers to shield us from that which we perceive to be too much to bear.
If we honestly look at ourselves, many examples abound.
The compounding of numerous buffers and defense mechanisms requires a tremendous amount of physic energy to maintain. We must constantly exert energy to keep our stories going, and as we do so, our defense mechanisms slowly drain us of our life energy. Suffering naturally arises from this process. Buddhism teaches us that when we learn to stop creating and maintaining our buffers, something miraculous can happen. We can enter pure and sacred lands; however, to enter such lands a very ordinary mind is required.
We must learn to allow our Buddha Nature to be as it is without hindrance in order for the world to appear as it is, not as we contort it to be. If we can allow our Buddha Nature to manifest as it is, then magic will surely creep into our perceptions and auspicious coincidences will abound.
Bring up magic and many things may arise to the mind: telepathy, meditation, bliss, out-of-body experience, or numerous other phenomena. All these phenomena and more occur because reality is fundamentally an open vastness not contained by the concepts we place upon it. Spirituality is basically the way we learn to meet the vastness and ultimately reside there. Buddhism is an approach to spirituality based on a very direct method of allowing the world and ourselves to be as they are, without denying any aspect of experience.
Many approaches to spirituality view magic as something rare that needs to be attained. Buddhism takes a different view. Because we have basic goodness and the world is primordially sacred, magic is actually the way things really are. Accordingly, any attempt to become magical actually covers over what we are looking for in the long term. The Buddhist path does not deny the ordinary; the ordinary is the gate to the fairy realms.
On my path, I was definitely trying to realize that nature of mind or the ground of being when I met Seonaidh. He taught me that an ordinary mind was all that was required to walk the path. The mind has Buddha Nature as it is right now and we just need to connect to it. This is where we need to learn to be somewhat without ego. The ego wants to be victorious against its self, but actually the spiritual mind is no other than our ordinary mind let alone from our hopes and fears long enough for it to relax and revel in its true qualities. This is where the disciplines of meditation and spiritual practice come into play. We need to relearn what it means to let go and allow experience to be what it is.
When I speak of the magic of the everyday world I don’t simply mean a beautiful landscape or a feeling of magic, I am speaking about the mysterious space we reside in. This mysterious space can include all kinds of strange phenomena that arise due to the karma of individuals and societal groups; including telepathy, seeing the future, recalling past lives, and communicating with unseen beings, and many other phantasmagoria. Please note that I am not speaking about these things from the perspective of spiritual curiosity or claiming the paranormal as a way to legitimize Celtic Buddhism. Spiritual phenomena do not belong to any school of spirituality and believing so just leads to suffering-causing dogma! To someone who perceives things other people do not perceive, it is just the way it is. Likewise by staying open, relaxed, and present, we become aware of more and more. As we become aware of more and more, our concern or compassion naturally becomes vaster. That’s the path and the result. It’s that simple. That is what being a Buddhist is about.
We humans have been complicating things for a long time with our strategies, reactions, and experience. It’s time to have just an ordinary mind and encounter the extraordinary world. So my definition of Buddhism is a path where one:
Uses various techniques to allow the practitioner’s nature to manifest as it is
Allows reality to manifest without denying whatever arises
Has faith in basic goodness and the fundamental sacredness of the world
The faith part is crucial because as most meditators know, when we try to rest our minds we are much more likely to be inundated with a relentless barrage of thoughts and images that were previously below our conscious radar than we are likely to merge with the vastness of being.
The definition of Buddhism I have just given is highly idiosyncratic and may appear to be lacking in the fundamental tenet that “life is suffering.” Such things can be discussed elsewhere. Rest assured that I know many Buddhist teachers are in agreement when I state Buddhism as a spiritual path is often confused for how the historical and cultural aspects of Buddhism have manifested as religion. It may seem rather peculiar of me to claim a Buddhist essence free from its societal and cultural (religious) manifestations; however, from the perspective of the path, it is indeed so. Buddhism is about becoming a Buddha and realizing Buddha Nature. It is about becoming an awakened one and realizing oneself as fundamental wakefulness in union with all that presents itself.
In Celtic Buddhism the skillful means passed down from lineage holders in the Kagyu, Nyingma, and Zen traditions are used to help us awaken; however, Buddhism as present in Celtic Buddhism is about wisdom, not any particular historical manifestation. Lineage is vital, but lineage is something entered, met, and interacted with. Lineage is living blessing, not a list of authority or rules handed down through the ages.
I want to stress that if a traditional cultural form of Buddhism appeals to you, then please practice whatever tradition speaks to you precisely as taught from teachers in those traditions; however, if you are too unruly for a solidified tradition or have heard the call of the Celts, then by all means participate in the Celtic Buddhist path. The Buddha’s path can never be owned by any Buddhism.
So to reiterate: Buddhism is about awakening to one’s true nature. It is not about learning to interpret one’s experiences in a culturally appropriate way or conditioning one’s mind to fit certain expectations. It’s about learning to be who we are and learning from an authentic lineage. As Buddhists we always start exactly where we are and we do not deny suffering. For in the midst of the ordinary, in the moment of suffering, the gate to the fairy realms always remains open.
On Being a Celt: Living in a Magical World
As the years have passed, I have found myself on the fringes of the Celtic Buddhist Mandala. My contact with the sangha is minimal and I miss the opportunity to practice with them. I have found spiritual communities to practice with, in the Tibetan tradition, but I miss the Celts! I miss their flasks, fiddles, and fairy-like foolishness! I hope that one day I may be in your company amongst the Celts so you will know firsthand that of which I speak.
I like to come out straight and say that being a Celt is not about simply holding an ethnic bloodline. The Celts were a people of multiple ethnicities who participated in a culture that spanned from the British Isles all the way to Turkey and the Hungarian Plains.
Being a Celt is about participating in a certain culture. A culture wherein individual artistry and warriorship are esteemed and the participants celebrate a calendar year that stresses the twilight or the special in-between of reality. Similar to how I believe Buddhism is often misconstrued to be a culture or a religion, I believe Celticness is often taken as an essence instead of the active participation in a culture.
All human beings are social animals. Social customs and practices often function as a macrocosm of the buffers and defense mechanisms we all have on an individual level. Habits become solidified and become taken as indications of being cultured or of being a true human being. We all have to deal with the structural violence such social ossification causes. As spiritual practitioners, we can remain on mountaintops, but if we allow ourselves to be as we are compassion will arise and we will be called to engage the world within the societies that we find ourselves. From this perspective, it is helpful to choose a certain cultural identity to help us combat the ossification caused by societal life.
Participating in Celtic culture can allow us to incorporate Buddhism’s fundamental tenet of codependent origination into our active participation with society. Things arise dependent upon all other things and we cannot pin down simple causation. When we look closely at phenomena, we find entities and processes to be empty of inherent existence. This is reflected in Celtic culture by the way human beings dwell in twilight or the in-between. We reside always in-between heaven and the lower worlds, birth and death, and happiness and sorrow. Since prehistoric times Celts consider a new day as beginning at nightfall with the setting sun. Major holidays were not the solstices and equinoxes, but the cross-quarter days between them. These cross-quarter days would fall upon the full moon closet to the first of November, February, May, and August. These days of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasadh were great feasts celebrated by the Celts.
Some parishioners of Celtic Shamanism require that people wishing to practice with them have Celtic blood ancestors. Celtic Buddhism does not have these requirements. One’s current lifetime comes with an ancestral lineage within in one’s DNA, some spiritual practices work with ancestors, but such practices are not necessary for participating in either Celtic culture or Celtic Buddhism.
Though richer in meaning than simply being transitions between seasons, the Celtic cross-quarter days can be seen as the first day of each season. Samhain can be seen as the first day of winter; Imbolc, spring; Beltane, summer; and Lughnasadh, autumn. Seeing the seasons like this allows us to glimpse the natural progression of the year in a fresh way. A walk around Vermont on February 1st can yield many signs of spring to an open mind, likewise when we see things in twilight we allow ourselves the flexibility of seeing multiple perspectives and are thereby much less likely to be deluded by either our own or our society’s confusions. As Celtic lore always reiterates, one can be taken to the land of the fairies at the most random and surprising of times.
When we learn to be open and celebrate the unknown and in-between, we can begin to live life with greater immediacy because the filters of our preconceptions become transparent. We take nothing for granted because we don’t know what is leaking into the present moment. We must be awake, authentic, and direct to stay in contact with what the present is presenting. Being a Celt helps us do this.
When I say I miss the Celts I am referring to the celebrations and the strong personalities of individual Celts. Celtic warriors are famous for avoiding military strategy and preferring direct one-on-one combat. Celtic artisans produced wonderful works of art through their craft. They did not mass-produce. Today, this can manifest as a strong artistic passion, deep interest in some activity, being a musician, or being a rascal in terms of any overly organized form of life. Obviously today’s society is mechanized and requires the adherence of disciplined scheduling. This is the Roman way. The Celtic way is different, and thankfully one can be a Celt in Rome.
We need to awaken from the social conditioning we have inherited in a manner similar to the way that we need to awaken from our defense mechanisms. Celtic culture allows us an avenue to do this. Celtic myths provide a rich tapestry of alternatives to humdrum identities available in the contemporary ethos. Being a Celt is about honoring the immediacies of experience and social groups instead of solidified ways of doing things. It is about honoring the twilight in all our relations by staying open to the unknown. Through celebrating and connecting with the Celtic Holidays
Please note I am using the phrase “Roman Way” to describe the imperial nature of an overly structured and mediated orientation to life. The myths of Rome and much to be found in Roman culture are otherwise than Roman Imperialism.
we are able to acknowledge the other dimensions that bleed into our own. We dwell in the twilight and try to see the transparency of our faults and are able to work directly with others and ourselves. Spirituality becomes our way of dwelling in this twilight or world of the fairies, the tuatha de dannan.
The tuatha de dannan of Celtic lore were legendary beings. We each are also fairy folk when we reside in the in-between and allow it to be so. Meditation and other disciplines build our capacity to reside there, for we need to be fearlessly present and daring in the degree of our presence. This cannot be simply a solitary process: It needs a cultural component. The stories of Celtic legend, the calendar year, and other Celtic cultural practices provide the Celt with numerous examples of the magic of the everyday and can assist the practitioner in becoming more present as an individual and as a being embedded in multiple cultures.
So my working and highly idiosyncratic definition of being a Celt is actively creating and participating in a culture that honors the twilight by celebrating a traditional Celtic calendar year, finding empowering stories within Celtic mythology, and honoring immediacy in human and worldly relations by enacting the Celtic cultural mythos.
Being a Celtic Buddhist
So I hope it now makes some sense when I say that the path of Celtic Buddhism is about having an ordinary mind in a magical world. We are Buddhists practicing being Celtic by living life fully, honoring the twilight dimensions of reality, and celebrating with like-minded ragamuffins. It works for us and it may work for you.
Celtic Buddhism is not about a particular set of teachings or building a particular identity, it is about using the skillful means of a culture one resonates with to promote dharma and allow it to root. Many great meditation masters have said that the key to meditation is to not force awareness, but to let the mind be as it is so awareness can dawn. This requires us to participate with reality as it is and allows us to be who we are whether we are alone or in relation with others.
The practice of allowing realization right now is known as Crazy Wisdom. The magic of being around Seonaidh and the Celtic Buddhist sangha is that their hearts and minds are open enough to warmly invite whatever arises to be encountered as sacred. Participating in such a sangha allows one’s confusion to naturally arise, but since it is met in such a sacred way we are empowered to stop distorting it, and eventually this allows our distortions to run out of energy. It is not necessarily a quick process, though momentary glimpses of freedom are bound to present themselves, for our Buddha Nature is never totally obscured.
The door to the land of the fairy folk is open to us each time we come back to the present and relate to our world with true immediacy. The path of Buddhism teaches us to come back to the present and the Celtic culture teaches us to relate with our world fearlessly and authentically in a manner that encourages openness.
Now with the explanation of my view of Celtic Buddhism, I offer a way of practicing it. The following is a simple meditation for obtaining an ordinary mind in a magical world. I call it cauldron breathing.
The Practice of Cauldron Breathing
The purpose of cauldron breathing is to lower our wind mandala and simultaneously open us to higher levels of vitality. In Tibetan medicine and yogic theory our health and mental activity is based on the movement of wind (energy) into different centers of the body. Most Westerners have a wind pattern that is concentrated in the head. Cauldron breathing is intended to root ourselves in a deeper locus in the body, allowing us to have more presence in the world and at the same time open ourselves to the world’s magic.
We need to be ordinary, free of false concepts, and reside exactly where we are in order to relate to all that is right in front of us. It’s a huge journey and I hope this practice can help you to begin, continue, and ultimately enjoy your journey to authentic presence!
The practice is simple and yet it has the power to be very transformative. I ask that if you take up this practice you will do so with a light touch. Your visualization should be loose and match your experience instead of being forced. If you have questions, feel free to contact me and I will try to be of assistance.
The meditation consists of visualizations for inhaling, holding the breath, and exhaling, as well as the simple act of resting between rounds of conducting the visualizations. Please note that the visualizations should build upon each subsequent step.
Start by breathing deeply into the area cradled between your pelvic bones. As you breathe there, imagine your breath stokes a fire. Try to see and feel the fire as clearly as you can. As you continue to inhale and your breath has filled your pelvic area, visualize a cauldron above the flames residing roughly from several inches below your navel to about your solar plexus. As your breath fills this area of your body, visualize and feel that the cauldron is strong and capable of holding whatever arises.
2. Holding the Breath
Now hold your breath and imagine the cauldron to be a place of alchemy where anything that arises in your mental stream can be placed and create a wish-fulfilling smoke. This stage is about acceptance as well as transformation. According to the teachings of the Buddha, the same river appears as sublime nectar to a deity in the god realm while it appears as pus to a demon. Likewise we must embrace all the facets of ourselves if we are to allow confusion to slowly unravel. Something may arise in our mindstreams that we have revulsion toward; allow it to be held within the cauldron, and know that it is being made available to whoever will find nourishment from it. As you hold your breath, visualizing the cauldron, let whatever arises be accepted as the nectar it is by allowing the fire to transmute it to the smoke, which can carry it to an appropriate place. Hold for as long as you feel comfortable.
As you exhale, imagine smoke rising from the cauldron to nourish your heart, throat, and head. The smoke contains all that has arisen and will naturally travel to where it will be of most nourishment. Feel the smoke rising heavenward and then dissipating out into your environment above your head. Feel that you are nourishing yourself and the space around you. After you exhale, drop the visualization.
Take several deep breaths into the space below your navel and simply rest. Feel free to practice whatever calming meditation works for you or just be simply present. Repeat the exercise as much as desired, but note that a short inspired meditation session will ultimately be more worthwhile than a forced prolonged one of too much effort.
The Buddha Monk Blues
A monk punk tale
I was invited to visit in a prison
Some inmates wanted to hear the Buddha's wisdom
I gave them lessons on the Dharma
Spoke about the Precepts and the Karma.
Sadly compassion stops at the Main Gate
The Boss don't care about the Buddha inmates
She changes the rules whenever she desires
She don't care if it causes lotsa ire.
No matter what I try to do
There ain't no cure for the Buddha Monk Blues.
So I raised a fuss and had a holler
After spending many years in this prison squalor
I went to the Pollies and they said quote
"Won't help ya man, ya ain't worth enough votes.
The Prisons HO cared even less
Branding me as a serial pest
They made the laws which they wouldn't bend
Even when I asked for justifiable amends.
No matter what I try to do
There ain't no cure for the Buddha Monk Blues.
The Prisons HO said I should stop all this drama
It had nothing to do with the giving of Dana
I asked if I could meet their State Boss
Politely they told me to go and get lost.
Finally got to see the Boss of the Jail
What she told me turned me quite pale
You are barred forever from this Prison
No reason just my own decision.
No matter what I try to do
There ain't no cure for the Buddha Monk Blues
I took my tale and sought litigation
All the lawyers agreed it was discrimination
I thought their answers were Buddha sent
But they wouldn't take on the Government
They warned me about the sensationalist media
As some of the inmates suffered Paedophilia
My life would become a living hell
And they'd show no mercy to my supporters as well.
No matter what I try to do
There ain't no cure for the Buddha Monk Blues
So I sent my tale to the United Nations
They told me they couldn't make a determination
Spoke to the Secretary and she said quote
This can't be true it gotta be a joke
Many laughed at my failed endeavours
No one dared offer me a white feather
I sat on my cushion to meditate and think
Watched as my efforts oozed down the sink.
No matter what I try to do
There ain't no cure for the Buddha Monk Blues
A Buddhist Nun asked if I would talk
To a Big Apple girl from New York
The Prisons HO said I couldn't visit
You're a male so it would be quite illicit
So I sent her a D T Suzuki book
For her to have an informed look
It told about the thoughts of Gautama
And explained the Precepts and the Dharma
No matter what I try to do
There ain't no cure for the Buddha Monk Blues
We wrote on and off to each other
She even told me about her mother
And she wrote about her life's tales
All about her wins and her fails
When her time comes to an end
The Prisons HO on a plane will send
Her back to New York, New York
Very sadly we will no longer talk
No matter what I try to do
There ain't no cure for the Buddha Monk Blues
Was invited to attend a Parliament Committee
The Butler served hot scones and tea
The talk we had was a real inconsistency
There were much better places I would rather be
The Chairperson was the major offender
No proper questions or set agenda
The others too were as useless as can be
The best thing that happened was the scones and the tea.
No matter what I try to do
There ain't no cure for the Buddha Monk Blues
Only one Pollie has visited a slammer
This was a big issue and a dilemma
They had heard tales they didn't know if true
Sadly they believed what the media said too
"Don't waste your compassion on these inmates
Ensure you lock and bolt the Main Gates
We know we should love our fellow men
But these bastards are already locked up in the pen"
No matter what I try to do
There ain't no cure for the Buddha Monk Blues
I write to a few of the lonely inmates
In some of the prisons around the State
The Prisons HO has tried to stop this too
But the Post somehow manages to still get through
I was asked to visit the prison's psycho centre
Crazy Wisdom inmates are strictly mentored
Where Court Orders and Shrinks run the race
Strangely the Buddha is welcome in this place.
No matter what I try to do
There ain't no cure for the Buddha Monk Blues
I'm very tired and longer bold
The rest of this tale will go untold
I now don't visit any guys in the slammer
The Prison Boss is still the major dilemma
She made up lotsa dictatorial laws
So she can lock down all the cell doors
I've stopped banging my head on the Main Gate
Cos she ain't gonna let me visit any Buddha inmates
No matter what I try to do
There ain't no cure for the Buddha Monk Blues
If you break the law and go to the Can
You'll have to suffer the Buddha Monk ban
You can only thank the Prisons HO
For they're the ones who told me "No Go!"
You'll sit alone eating your vegie rations
There ain't no dessert no cake of compassion
No Dharma dish or Precepts pie
The menu is set by the Prisons HO guys
No matter what I try to do
There ain't no cure for the Buddha Monk Blues.
(Acknowledgement to the late Eddie Cochran and his song “Summertime Blues”)
Rt Rev Eido Boru
Celtic Buddhist Bishop
Andrew Peers (Dru)
Sitting on my granny’s farmhouse lawn one afternoon, the garden gate suddenly crashed open. A wild goat stood there. I looked at his bearded chin, twitching nose and into an oblong pupil. Being only about three years old at the time, I was amazed. I could see rose bushes, trimmed lawn and even the sky all being mirrored in this oblong frame for what seemed like an age. Clattering about-face he then ran off down the road and back up to ‘the rock’ directly behind the house, the limestone cliffs where many goats roamed. The interruption was so dramatic and unexpected that I’ve never forgotten it. Almost every summer was spent in an Ireland now all but disappeared, an old-world Ireland bursting with relatives. Many of them have passed on but my connection to the land remains, a connection going down into the black soil of the bogs there.
Over the past few decades the speed of life has dramatically increased. Surely there has to be more to life than making it go faster. The ‘wisdom gone wild’ that is called crazy wisdom in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is described by some as swimming against this tide. It calls on the gentler rhythms of nature and the energy of our ancestors. Without a connection to the earth the heart becomes hard; lack of respect for growing, living things soon leads to lack of respect for humans too. It is wise to live close to nature’s softening influence. For the indigenous peoples of many lands, nature was not considered harsh or wild. For those living in it every day, there was an intimacy with nature that was taken as normal. Crazy wisdom pre-supposes this knowledge of nature, the experience of working with things as they are at the kitchen sink level of life. Only then can the ‘the transparent view that cuts through conventional norms and conventional emotionalism’, as Chogyam Trungpa describes crazy wisdom, descend. Only then can it appear ‘as an ornament to the basic wisdom that is already there’ (Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa Vol. IV, pg. 131). In Tibetan Buddhism art the eighth aspect of Padmasambhava is depicted as Dorje Trolo, the final and absolute aspect of crazy wisdom. Trungpa attributes to him qualities of fearlessness and bluntness. The same qualities seem to fit the Celtic god Tuireann (“Te-dan”), the god of thunder. A pan-European god, one description has him riding the heavens in a chariot drawn by goats.
I first encountered Celtic Buddhism while living as a Cistercian monk in the Netherlands. In monastic life, basic kitchen sink sanity comes in spades. And to begin with at least, I needed that badly. My non-acceptance of modern life as a punk rocker had brought me to the very lip of madness and I was to spend a long time in the monastic enclosure getting my map back the right way up. At the head of the community when I arrived there stood a charismatic Gandalf-like abbot whom I came to know quite well acting as his assistant in the regular meditation retreats he gave both in and outside the abbey. He was sympathetic to my disillusionment with standard Pauline theology with its classification of everyone as ‘sinner’. I much preferred to see everyone as basically good and essentially innocent, already enlightened though often unaware of it, even crying out for love. The basic Christian tenet that God had made the world I also found glaringly contradictory: how could God have anything to do with something so beautiful yet so fundamentally flawed? But then, where did the world come from? The Buddhist description of life as a dream seemed much more workable. If I focussed too much on that however, life became meaningless.
Having become a little too sane, I decided to leave the Cistercian Order and headed to Anadaire Celtic Buddhist Centre in Vermont in the U.S.A. There I practiced deity yoga under the guidance of the Venerable Seonaidh Perks. The practice brought new awareness of my inner wealth and of the transforming power of visualization. It was a time of recovery after a long monastic journey. Almost every day I would bathe naked in the river and dry off on one of the many huge boulders. The sound of flowing water in my ears was like music. The vitality of the environment re-awakened my sexuality, now liberated from the promise of chastity. The mossy river rocks felt as smooth as the inside of a woman’s thighs, while the fine air, trees and bird-call all combined to invite me back into my body again. Everything was communicating. One morning, a particularly personal message came through.
On the way to Anadaire I had spent time with family in Ireland. The welcome was cool and I attributed this to my new status as a layman. I tried to visit an ailing auntie but as I was recovering from shingles I was barred from visiting. She was a favourite aunt of mine and she was also very fond of me. Disappointed, I was obliged to continue my journey and crossed the Atlantic to America. One particular morning at Anadaire the news came through that my aunt had died. I went down to the river. As I was getting into the water I noticed a pale green luna moth flapping about near the opposite bank. It flew off down the river but after a couple of minutes came back again. I stood up to greet it and had to duck when it came straight at me. It circled around again, and then I knew. When I put out my arm the huge moth landed on it, trilling and drumming while I spoke with it. Then it launched off again and into the woods, disappearing from sight. About two weeks later I found a book about Celtic myths and legends in the local bookshop. Tears flowed down my cheeks when I read that the Welsh believed a departed soul would return to say goodbye to a loved one in the form of a moth.
On completion of the 100,000 mantras, Chogyam Trungpa’s boots were placed on my head in a surprise ordination ritual one evening, and from a selection of gifts offered to me I chose a small agate wheel to wear as a pendant: a symbol of the dharma but also of Tuireann, the wheel god, though I was unaware of it then. That same night brought a dream in which was said, “He’ll need protection, we’d better go with him.” In the dream I found myself standing before a giant figure seated on a stone throne. He kept looking about as if keeping watch. “If you are the Thunder God,” I shouted up at him, “you can come with me!” A day or two later, a violent storm felled two trees in the garden. Then the tail end of hurricane ‘Irene’ hit Vermont. Floodwater gushed down the hillside on which the Anadaire stood, but the stream divided before the front door into two separate channels flowing to the left and right of the building. The neighbours living above us came down to see if we had been washed away, but no damage was done to the house. After a week the power came on again, just in time for my last meal with the community before the departure back to Europe.
So it was past wrecked and mud-filled houses that I hitched a ride to Boston for the flight back to Ireland. After three months of trying to settle in Sligo and start a meditation group, it became clear it wasn’t going to happen. Ireland sat in the shadow of an economic recession, as practically every other television programme bore witness to. The decision to leave the monastery still felt right yet huge waves of grief engulfed me. I went on a retreat by an Irish shaman and learnt about trance journeying, and then made a pilgrimage to Boa Island in the north. A white bull was grazing in the field next to the two-faced standing stone at the site. I approached the stone and stood next to it, not really knowing what to do next. Whether I slipped down into the earth or the earth somehow came up through me, I then saw a young primitively-dressed family smiling at me. The whole tribe assembled in a wide ring while I was held upright under each arm during what I can only describe as an initiation. There was joy and dancing afterwards and the sun broke through, Anu giving her blessing.
The hopelessness of my situation however intensified. There seemed no way forward. Every day I felt like jumping in the river. Nothing I did seemed to work. I had made two good friends who talked regularly with me. The discussions brought out new lines of thinking, precious seeds for the future. Out of the blue then came two letters sent by two different friends from the same town in the same week inviting me back to the Netherlands and I took the hint. Saying goodbye again and letting go of any plans for Ireland, I returned to the Low Countries and soon managed to get a meditation group off the ground. Another letter arrived, this time from my abbot informing me that due to my ordination as a Celtic Buddhist priest being made public, I was required to immediately sign and return a letter stating that I considered myself as having left the Cistercian Order. Dialogue about the decision was not an option. There was now definitely no going back. So I went on, and without regrets.
Softening the heart
Meditation retreats on a local farm on the eastern side of the Netherlands followed. The retreat schedule includes sitting in silence, silent walks, gathering wood and herbs for cooking over an open fire, with storytelling around the fire on the Saturday evening. An introduction to shamanic trance journeying is offered. The approach is open, inclusive, and down to earth. The strict disciplined approach to training both as a monk and in meditation schools has been put to one side. Buddhism is not particularly emphasized. Every person knows the unconditioned primordial place in the heart when they are in silence. Our Celtic ancestors did too. Perhaps even more so, much less burdened by a dualistic mind as they were. They knew the ‘thin places’ in nature, portals where we can let reality touch us. When we open to the trees, flowers, a river or clouds we encounter a wisdom not separate from our own. No-one is insisting that I’m a sinner or that God made the world. Instead, the onus is on each person to formulate their own unique questions about life and to set out in search of some kind of an answer.
I write this article from the Scottish borders. I’m living in an old farm labourer’s cottage near a village. There is neither shop nor pub there, only a small church and primary school. A nettle is growing in the telephone box. Otters hunt trout in the river flowing at the foot of the hill and although I haven’t swum there yet, I regularly go to listen to it. Sitting or lying on the ground here makes it possible to think more deeply and feel more keenly. Walking the lanes, sometimes all nature seems to be smiling. I almost feel I become the Irish saint Columcille who once travelled these same paths. On the way back from the river this afternoon, nine roe deer ran past on the other side of the hedge, led by an antlered buck. For a few moments, a huge cloud takes the form of a descending dove.
The lesson of Columcille
It was the biography of Columcille that inspired Trungpa with the idea of Celtic Buddhism. As the saint came to understand in his own life, the spiritual path isn’t about fighting and winning. He was renowned as a man of letters but also for his great tenderness, especially with animals. The first line in a monastic Rule attributed to him reads, ‘forgiveness from the heart of everyone’. I often wonder what kind of forgiveness this is? Surely not the traditional, ineffectual kind in which the error is first clearly seen and only then overlooked? That only makes the error real, and so overlooking it becomes impossible. For-giving really has more a meaning of giving beforehand, forgiving anything that the ego throws up in front of us, whether that’s catching a cold or a fatal car accident. Obviously in some cases this may prove too difficult to do immediately, and it may have to be repeated it until peace is re-won. In this sense, forgiving has the bravery of warriorship.
Trungpa’s title was vidyadhara, one meaning of which is, “he who holds the scientific knowledge …continuously scientific in the sense that it is continuously in accordance with the nature of the elements.” It is this knowledge makes crazy wisdom more than merely ‘acting the goat’. Kitchen sink sanity forms the basis but sooner or later the experience of hopelessness rises. The spiritual life becomes a prison of our own making from which we can no longer escape. Abandon hope all ye who enter here was carved in stone over the door to the monastery where I first entered and the retreat here in Scotland has reminded me of these monastic years and the wisdom of being willing to surrender the idea of authorship over my life. Living alone, beyond the cloister wall, there is a deepening softness to the nature of the elements. Hopelessness has not gone away, but something has happened: my grinning skull is now dangling from its belt.
Vision for the future
Celtic Buddhism is a clan of very diverse people incorporating the archetypes and symbols of our ancestors into meditation and deity yoga practice. Not that it’s necessary to have Celtic blood to feel Celtic. I’m in it to proclaim help, the simple fact that there is help. There really is a way to get out of the madness of modern existence, a message I so desperately needed to hear as a young man. And because I was helped, I am glad to help others release themselves from the prison of the mind. Celtic Buddhism has a unique vision for the future in this respect. It is not a religion yet it has monks, ordained priests and even Bishops within its ranks. The paradox can be so intense it causes catharsis. Yet real spirituality has to do precisely with the undoing of the pre-conceived ideas of the ego so as to find ‘head-room’, space relating to the world. Thinking and seeing not in terms of boxes and labels, but of wholeness. Reality cannot be seen with the body’s eyes, but it can be experienced by the mind. Tuireann’s white lightning destroys the idea of separation from the divine, and anything else that makes this world seem real, anything at all that disturbs my peace. Practice is not a question of pretending to be innocent. We are innocent. The Celtic Buddhist lineage harnesses wild goats to an ancient chariot for the return to our pre-Christian innocence. It teaches the scientific knowledge of a crazy wisdom that turns the tables on the ego: there is no world, there is no Andrew Peers and nothing is happening. Not everyone is ready to hear this message, a message far too radical for pop spirituality. But I’ve embraced that. Somebody’s got to.
*Excerpt from unpublished Celtic Buddhist Writings 2016
Excerpts from Gabriel Rosenstock's Sneachta