Monday, May 9, 2011

Opening the Heart: Buddhist Meditation Weekend

“How can we take up the bodhisattva path?” This is the question with which Anyen Rinpoche opened this weekend retreat at Naropa University in February of 2011. Rinpoche was very affable, humorous, and relaxed, but at the same time intensely serious. His English was very good, but he was assisted by his wife and translator, Alison Graboski, who enabled him to have very precise interactions with the students, whom he engaged quite frequently over the course of the weekend. In a natural yet systematic way Rinpoche led us through an overview of Mahāyāna Buddhism and gave us specific instructions for practicing the bodhisattva path. Rinpoche’s definition of this path was simple—to put others before ourselves.

Anyen Rinpoche challenged us to think about how we might do this with the people closest to us: our boyfriends, wives, or partners. In the first of several personal anecdotes, he told us how, as a young tulku,1 he had been given the only comfortable seat—a cushion with branches under it—in the tent which served as a practice hall. He related how he gave his seat up to an old lama who was in physical pain, and how he had to consciously make the decision to do so—to follow through, in action, on the concepts of the bodhisattva path he was studying. Rinpoche then gave detailed teachings on some of those concepts.

The Four Seals

First, there was a lengthy discussion of the “Four Seals,” or the four things which characterize all existence, according to Buddhism: 1) All conditioned phenomena are impermanent. Rinpoche said “Impermanence is the door, or the key, to the spiritual path—if we could think about this [that everything is impermanent], our life can become easier, because we realize there is no reason to be attached to either happiness or suffering. This realization will bring us patience, diligence, and compassion.” 2) The nature of saṃsāra is suffering. Suffering is broken down into three categories: all-pervasive suffering, the suffering of suffering, and the suffering of change. All pervasive suffering is the background noise of saṃsāra—the basic unsatisfactoriness at the root of confused existence. The suffering of suffering is simple pain—the pain of an injury or slight. The suffering of change is the pain we feel when he are happy, yet we know that it will not last. 3) All phenomena are empty of self. According to Anyen Rinpoche, this seal points to the path to getting rid of afflictive emotions. Examining things, we find they have no inherent existence, but are the result of innumerable causes and conditions in an infinite web of “dependent arising.” 4) All phenomena are characterized by enlightenment. This means that enlightenment, or nirvāna, is the actual state of that which seems to us to be confused.


Rinpoche discussed two types of bodhichitta: conventional and absolute.
Bodhichitta (literally “awakening mind”) is the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. On the conventional level, it is aspirational and engaged. On the absolute level, the belief in self and others no longer operates, and compassion is a natural function of a non-dual experience of emptiness. Rinpoche stressed the importance of motivation for those who would undertake the bodhisattva path. He encouraged us to examine our motivation at every turn, and if we found it to be selfish, to try to turn it towards benefiting others, saying “beings who have excellent motivation sooner or later experience the benefit of that motivation [themselves].” He also said that without the proper motivation, it would be difficult to practice the six pāramitās of generosity, discipline, exertion, patience, meditation, and wisdom—the six “perfections” necessary to help beings. Rinpoche discussed the two accumulations: of merit and of wisdom. He said that merit is more important than wisdom—that it alone would suffice whereas wisdom alone would not—and that generosity could include all the other pāramitās.

The Four Immeasurables

Another way to cultivate bodhichitta is the practice of the Four Immeasurables. Equanimity is “not falling into attachment or aversion” and can be cultivated through śamatha, or “calm-abiding.” Loving Kindness is unconditioned love, like that of a mother for her child, and can be cultivated by wishing that “sentient beings should have happiness and its causes.” Compassion is putting others ahead of ourselves, and can be practiced in tonglen, or “sending and receiving” meditation, which Rinpoche taught us, and in which we learned to take the suffering of others—even our enemies—and transform it into benefit for them. Finally, Joy is to rejoice in the happiness or good fortune of others instead of being jealous of them.


I found Anyen Rinpoche to be a sensitive, humorous, humble, and compassionate teacher, and I left the retreat feeling very inspired to put his teachings into practice. In addition to his extensive doctrinal teachings, Rinpoche spent quite a bit of time practicing with us, both śamatha and tonglen, which gave us the opportunity to follow his instructions directly and immediately, with his very presence to guide and invigorate us.

Of the many personal stories he told, one in particular was very touching and I still remember it vividly. When he was a small Child, and was still living with his parents and being tutored by his first teacher, Lama Chupur, he had a “yak baby” which he loved very much. When the baby yak got sick and died, he was inconsolable, and would not let his father “touch a knife to the yak baby’s body.” Lama Chupur used the situation to teach the young Anyen Rinpoche about the truth of impermanence, and told him to cultivate that same feeling of love he had for the yak, and to extend it to all sentient beings. This strategy of starting with cultivating bodhichitta towards someone we love—for whom its easy to feel compassion—and then expanding the feeling to include more and more beings, is one that Rinpoche recommended, and which makes a lot of sense as a method. The idea of generating compassion and love equally for all beings can be daunting, and starting small can be a way to get a handle on the practice. I now have a renewed sense of urgency toward acting out the creed of the bodhisattva as elucidated by Anyen Rinpoche. He is truly a treasure, and we are extremely lucky to have him as an instructor at Naropa University.

1 Tib., sprul sku, a reincarnated master.