Saturday, August 29, 2009

Letter to Ted

Dear Ted,
I never met you, but as someone whose life has been touched by a great deal of your work, I feel like I know you well. I am so very grateful for your service to this country and to countless people around the world.

It is a difficult thing to keep hope alive in the hearts of those who feel hopeless. You used your life to do that despite the many times when you yourself must have felt hopeless. Even the times when you helped a single individual gain freedom, it created a better world for all of us. You never once decided you had done enough for others and that now you could rest. I ponder the ripple effect of such kindness, courage and tireless effort. I rejoice in those decisions.

I know you didn't always make good decisions. I know sometimes you made downright horrendous ones. Though my mind is like a teeter-totter that wants to form a final conclusion about you, I make myself step back and look at the whole picture. In this lifetime, you did what we have all done in each of our countless lives-- created a mix of virtue and non-virtue.

Even though you were Catholic in this life, I believe you would have been fine with any manner of prayer sent your way---especially prayer that included everyone else-- so I offer this one on your behalf.
Dedication of Merit
by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

By this effort, may all sentient beings be free of suffering
May their minds be filled with the nectar of virtue
In this way, may all causes of suffering be extinguished,
and only the Light of Compassion shine throughout all realms.

Ani Sangye

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Health Care for Buddhas

No matter which side one is on, we can all agree that the controversy about health care reform has sure gotten ugly. I make no secret about which side of the fence I'm on : I believe equal access to health care is a right, not a privilege. I base my beliefs not on any political platform but on the same principles and teachings that govern all my actions in life.

These are teachings born of the pristine blossom of Compassion and nurtured in the soil of understanding that all beings are exactly equal in their true Nature. They are the teachings that illustrate with perfect logic and reasoning that we are not separate from one another no matter what our senses tell us. We are interrelated, interconnected and interdependent. If we were ignorant of this fact before, haven't the poor economy, banking and housing crises been a clear demonstration of this principle, at least on an ordinary level?

The Buddha taught that we all suffer from self-absorption. Those who defend the status quo and protest the health care reform proposals so passionately are displaying the same habitual tendency we all have: Me first. We think that when we meet our own needs we'll be happy. We leave others to fend for themselves. We cloak our selfish tendencies in prideful talk of "pulling oneself up from the bootstraps," and perpetuate the myth that those of us who have things like health insurance have worked harder than those of us who don't. We feel entitled. Or perhaps special in the eyes of God.

All of which completely ignores cause and effect. Pull a single thread and the entire argument comes undone : If someone who has worked very hard to get a good job with good insurance suddenly loses that job and that insurance, what happened? Did they stop working hard? Did they stop being special? The Buddha taught that everything we experience is the result of our past actions. Things like good jobs and good insurance are the karmic result of having taken care of others-- of countless lifetimes of generosity and compassion for others.

We don't see those efforts of course. We see only the illusion of "I worked hard in this life and got this thing." And that very ignorance of cause and effect leads us to do terrible things. Like act without compassion. Deny health care to others. Keep our hands in our pockets when someone right next to us is drowning.

So in time we become the other, and the cycle continues.

We don't openly acknowledge it, but in denying others health care, we are consenting to deepening their suffering. The result is a rationing of health care and what underlies it--rationing of compassion. I'm convinced that even the angriest town hall crasher could not look a gravely ill person in the eye and tell them they're not worth the only drug or procedure that will save their life. It's like road rage-- anonymous, faceless, easier.

No one would dream of rallying to close fire or police departments even though they cost a lot of money. Why would we treat health care differently? We can do this. We can shake ourselves awake enough to see that millions and millions of people should not be abandoned, and that not a single one of us is safe unless we are all safe.

Friday, August 14, 2009

School Days and Uh-oh

Hearing an awful lot of chirping, I looked out my window this morning and saw about 30 sparrows in my yard, pecking for food. They filled the entire ground---thirty of anything in this little yard is a lot of something.

Most were on the ground but others kept flying up and down from the fence. It took me a minute to realize that many of the birds were fledglings. The adults were going up and down to show them how to look for food. It was a sweet few minutes, then they were off to another classroom.

A moment after they left a robin arrived. Just one. A male. He sat on the fence and stared at the overhanging deck. I've learned that robins often nest twice in one year. "Oh-noes" if they like prefab houses....

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sweet Not Always (Truly)

The other day, a bunch of us were eating lunch at the temple following our morning practice. Ani Pema-- one of our nuns who also happens to be a veterinarian-- was updating us on how her studies are going. She's in Acupuncture school. We offered all the standard jokes about how she'd better start sharpening up her needles, etc.... She laughed and began to describe a particular acupuncture technique where no needles are used.

That got everyone's attention.

Apparently, acupuncturists can assess one's dominant constitution by smelling the patient. You read that right. They SMELL you. In the technique she described, they can treat a patient according to that sniffed-out constitution just by talking with them. Of course, our conversation never even explored the treatment part of it, because we were all caught up in the "Smelling the Patient" part.

Now, because Ani Pema is also a vet, we (okay, I ) immediately accused her of being around dogs too much. To top it off, some of the constitutions are best detected by smelling the LOWER BACK. This was too much for us. I mean, that's just a few humiliating inches away from what happens at dog parks! Naturally, none of us was rude enough to get up and walk away, but I'm sure I wasn't the only one who was relieved to be sitting with my lower back conveniently inaccessible. I did not want to be sniffed. In public, no less.

Nevertheless, we pumped her for information--what kinds of smells, what is each constitution like? This information did not put us at ease. Here are the descriptions :

Water: Putrid. Smells like Bounce fabric sheets, the salty ocean or a dirty pond. Smell the lower back.
Wood: Rancid. Smells like mulch, fresh cut wood, pine needles or rancid oil. Smell lower back, neck or top of head.
Fire: Scorched. Smells like smoke, ashes. Smell top of head or neck.
Earth: Fragrant. Smells like flowers, perfume, ripe fruit. Smell lower back or neck.
Metal: Rotten. Smells like rubbed coins or compost. Smell lower back, neck or top of head.

So... unless you're Earth-dominant, do you have any self-esteem left?

I don't know my 5-element constitution, but in Ayurveda, I'm Earth/Water and secondarily Fire. That would make my smell fragrant, putrid and smoky. Huh.

In truth, I don't know what I smell like. My dogs seem to like my smell. They don't leap backwards when I walk in the room or anything. But Lotus likes to roll all over dead fish when I feed it to her, so maybe she's not a good judge. Patch--who is a bit more refined-- is probably just being polite. He does have good manners. But no one has ever told me I stink. No one has ever said, "Ani Sangye, you smell like putrid pond water."

Even Ani Pema didn't tell me that. When I asked what her GUESS was (ie, no sniffing involved) for my constitution, she grinned like the Cheshire Cat. Well, I may not be the sharpest tool in the box, but I know you don't grin like that if someone smells like rose petals.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Tibetan Buddhist Altar

Today is my 4-year anniversary of being ordained as a nun by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche. To celebrate, I'm sharing a new website that has been created by my lama, Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo.

With this website, as with all her miraculous activity, Jetsunma continues His Holiness' tireless efforts to dispel darkness and hopelessness from the world. It is her offering to people everywhere who wish to learn about Buddhism or even just take a peek. It is exquisite-- a pure offering born of love and compassion, and the wish to end suffering for all beings.

May all beings be happy and well.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Backyard Dharma

To see me today, you'd never think I was capable of producing a blood-curdling scream first thing this morning. I even surprised myself.

Here's what happened. I woke up and let the dogs out into the yard. After doing their business, they both disappeared into the chest-high weeds for a few minutes. Neither dog likes to be in high weeds, so I wondered what they'd found. I was thinking cat poop. After several minutes, Lotus came running to the door, proudly carrying what she'd found. I thought it was a deflated basketball and bent forward to get a better look. That's when I screamed. It was a huge turtle.

In case it isn't clear at this point, to say that I'm afraid of turtles would be a ridiculous understatement. What I've got is a full-blown, sweaty-palmed, run-away-crying phobia, not some little Oh-I-just-don't-fancy-turtles thing.

I called my landlady upstairs and begged her to come take it away. She sent her teenage son, who showed up wearing neon pink dishwashing gloves and a look of complete terror on his face. I tried to be the adult and stay calm. Tried. He couldn't bring himself to pick it up, so I suggested he scoop it onto the snow shovel and carry it to the pond around the corner.

I had already done some mantra for the turtle and played Jetsunma's "Prayer to Be Reborn in Dewachen." So, despite being scared into his shell by two big dogs, carried in the mouth of one of them and set down in front of a screaming nun, this turtle actually had a pretty good day.

I, on the other hand, was emotionally spent. My body just can't sustain an adrenaline push like that without going awry. To see if I could stop the biochemical cascade before I crashed completely, I decided to meditate. This was a good decision. It's incredible to watch your mind when it's relatively calm-- thoughts continually arising, the mind wandering, and engaging in conversations, shopping and to-do lists. But it's really something to watch your mind when it's completely stirred up. It was like a cafeteria food-fight in there. There was fear, judgment about fear, anger, judgment about anger, sadness, remorse, guilt, curiosity and every other emotion possible, all battling with each other, shouting each other down, each one arising immediately on the heels of another. Some thoughts were connected to prior ones, and some just came out of nowhere.

I found myself constantly replaying the whole scene from the yard, like a printing press that keeps spitting out copies of the same story. It wasn't just the storyline, of course, but each emotion was reproduced as well, along with a corresponding physical reaction. After awhile, the story began to lose its grip on me. A little. Enough so that I became more of an observer of the rising and falling emotions.

I decided to contemplate the object of my fear-- the turtle. My fear of it is my fear. Someone who loves turtles would have reacted totally differently-- their heart instantly opening with love and compassion for the turtle, the way I would if Lotus had brought me a puppy instead. Other people are pretty neutral towards turtles, and might have gone on with their day without giving it another thought. So clearly there was nothing innately fear-producing about the turtle. It was just "turtle."

This helped me relax a little. I decided to take things one step further and see if I could dissolve my conceptual boundary that says "I am me, and turtle is other." This was pretty tough. I didn't make much progress-- maybe just punched some microscopic holes in it. My fear just had too much of a stranglehold over my mind to do much. I gave it a good try and let myself rest. It is a pretty tall order.

At the end, I contemplated where it had all come from. None of it-- the turtle, the scream, the meditation and contemplations-- was what I expected this morning. Certainly neither the turtle nor the dogs expected it. All that karma ripening for the four of us as swiftly and unpredictably as lightning in the sky. Incredible.

It took me awhile to find the courage to put the dogs out again. Both were repeatedly drawn back to where they found the turtle. They retraced the steps over and over. They'd pick up its scent, and I could see excitement rise in them. Then confusion, finding nothing there. Attachment that held them there. Desire, when something else caught their attention. Then the scent once again, leading them back into the loop. As animals, they have no way out of it. Their instincts and senses trap them, and they are incapable of observing their own minds.

Because of the large deck overhanging, the yard is the only thing I can see when I look outside. When I first moved here from the spaciousness of northern Arizona, this fact almost undid me. But now this little yard of mine is proving to be quite the arena for Dharma practice. In it are hopes and fears, beginnings and endings, mysteries and plainness, dramas and meditations. And every bit of it a perfect display of my own mind.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


A few months ago, a guy started hanging out in my yard. He'd just stand there and stare for hours. I knew he was trouble. I even called my landlady and warned her, "This might become a problem." She replied, "Okay, but just keep me posted. I've never had anything like that happen before, and I'm not sure what to do." I knew what I had to do, I just didn't want to do it. But finally I decided it had gone too far and if I allowed it to continue, someone might get hurt.

So I let the dogs out.

Now, depending on your habitual tendencies, you might be coming to various conclusions about what this is all about.

Here's a clue :

Once Spring sprang, birds began flying all over the neighborhood looking for nesting sites. The large deck that overhangs my yard has a wide beam underneath. There's a particularly sweet spot right in the center that's nicely sheltered from rain. A male robin began scouting it out by sitting on my fence and just staring at it. For hours. Every day. He'd fly to it and sit there, then fly back to the same spot on the fence and stare at it.

(I understand this behavior. Anyone who's ever gone shoe shopping with me will never do it again. I'll try on the same pair over and over, then the same shoe in the same size, then another size, etc.... Sometimes I just sit there and stare at the shoe, too. Once I find a shoe that fits, I don't buy another pair of shoes until it is totally worn out. Even I can't stand myself.)

When I realized he was casing the place for a nest, I was thrilled. Then I realized the nest wouldn't be far from my door and not that high above where the dogs play outside. The dogs can't reach the nest, but their running around would definitely startle a mama bird off her eggs. I figured my coming and going would be enough to make him change his mind.

No. After about a week, he brought his wife to check out the 'hood. They flew back and forth, sat and stared, examined it from other angles. All day long for several days. I know nothing about robins, but I never would have guessed they were that picky.

About two weeks into this, I woke up and saw long pieces of dried grass hanging over the beam. They'd been hard at work since dawn. When they returned, she stood on the fence with her beak full of fluffy dried grass, looking like she was holding a pom-pom. I knew it was my last chance to take action. That's when I let the dogs out to play. The two birds watched at a safe distance. She held onto the pom-pom. It was heartbreaking. They had worked so hard, made so many plans. It took a long time to convince them to go. They couldn't relinquish it. I kept the dogs outside until the defeated pair finally flew away. Over the next few days I let the dogs spend more time in the yard. Bit by bit the long pieces of grass left hanging over the beam were stolen by other birds.

But then I let my guard down. Well, sort of. I spent a few days in the hospital, and when I got out I discovered that the persistent couple had taken advantage of my time away : the nest was complete.

Thankfully, she hadn't laid eggs in it. I stepped up my efforts of making the area undesirable for a young avian family. Not only did I let the dogs out more, but I spent more time out there brushing them and cutting their nails. After a few days, the birds gave up and never returned.

Their little nest is still there. I have mixed feelings when I look at it--I miss the babies that never got to use it, yet I know I did the right thing, albeit the difficult thing.

A few days ago, a small songbird began sitting on the fence and staring at the nest. I just hope he doesn't show up with a realtor.