At The Feet Of The Bodhi Tree.

I’m in Bodhgaya, India for the 26th annual Nyingma Monlam, a prayer festival that has drawn almost 20,000 people to the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment.

Dawn at the feet of the Bodhi Tree.
Dawn at the feet of the Bodhi Tree.

So far my time here has been amazing. For starters, I’ve been inspired to the point of awe by the faith and devotion of all the pilgrims here. They spend their days in constant practice: making offerings, reciting mantras, and doing prostrations. Many are here accumulating as many as 100,000 full prostrations, a gesture made all the more potent and beneficial by doing it at the feet of the Bodhi Tree.

In the past two weeks, I’ve had the good fortune to attend teachings by His Holiness the Karmapa and other great masters. And now, for the next six days, I’ll have the privilege of sitting and chanting prayers with my brothers and sisters from monasteries all over the Himalayan region.

I often find myself wondering how I’ve found my way here. What luck or chance has led me to such a fortunate place?

My teacher, Anyen Rinpoche, would call it “merit”, the accumulation of positive actions, aspirations, and auspicious connections with the Dharma stretching back over many lifetimes.

Now, I don’t remember my past lives and I certainly don’t remember doing any of those kinds of things.

But still, the point hits home for me. What you do with your life now really matters. Your actions have the power to set you on a trajectory that is either positive or negative.

You don’t have to go on long, difficult pilgrimages to find this out (though these certainly help!). You don’t even have to believe in past and future lives. You can simply cultivate positive actions every day of your life. You can be generous, ethical, patient, and kind. You can treat others (human or not) with the repeat they deserve.

And little by little, amidst all the strife and struggle, I think you will find yourself feeling that your own world, and maybe even the world at large, is a better place.

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A New Year’s Vision.

I was never a big New Year’s Eve guy but ever since I started looking a little more closely at the Buddhist views on impermanence and death, I’ve thought the holiday to be, at best, a little depressing.

I mean what are we really celebrating here? Another year has gone by and it will never come again. And on top of that, we’re 365 days closer to our inevitable end. (This post gets more upbeat in a couple of paragraphs, I promise…)

"We're all just gonna die anyway."
“Nice party. We’re still all gonna die.”

Most of us (including yours truly) let life go by without giving these kinds of things too much thought. The sun rises and sets, day after day. Sometimes things go according to plan. Sometimes they don’t make any sense at all.

But that doesn’t make life meaningless (or hopeless). Life can be as meaningful and purposeful as we want it to be. It’s up to us how we view it and how we use it.

A few years ago, my teacher Anyen Rinpoche, began encouraging his students to keep a yearly journal that he calls a “Dharma Vision”. It’s a way we can keep track of our life’s overall spiritual direction. It’s a time to check in with ourselves and make sure we’re staying on the course we set out on.

I’ve been keeping a Dharma Vision for a few years now. I usually work on it around this time of year. New Year is a good reminder to me that time crushes on. It’s not going to slow down for any of us.

What I’d like to do today is share a few of the questions that I ask myself each year. I usually spend a day or so working on them, taking the time to really reflect and writing out answers as honestly as I can.

So without further ado…

Question #1 How do I view impermanence? What examples of impermanence can I recall from this year that really hit home for me? Is my understanding and acceptance of impermance deepening?

Question #2 How’s my spiritual practice going? Have I kept all the commitments I’ve made? Am I consistent in my practice or do I only do it when I feel like it? Have I cultivated any insights or seen any signs of progress? (If not, that’s ok! Progress doesn’t always wear a name tag.)

Question #3 How am I doing with lessening my attachment? One of the main aims of Buddhist practice is to see things realistically. We often view objects, possessions, and even people as sources of our happiness. But that’s not really true. Even though we may be able to enjoy external objects for a time, the experience of that enjoyment is always going to pass.

Question #4 How am I doing with anger? This is the flip-side of attachment. Am I learning to view my anger for what it is: an impermanent emotion that comes and goes? Am I more mindful when it arises? Am I able to work with it skillfully or do I fly off the handle?

Question #5 What is the overall state of my mind? Do I look at the contents of my mind on a regular basis? Is my mind settling down or is it still wild and unruly? Again, don’t worry too much about “progress”, just be honest.

Of course, these questions are all pretty specific to the Buddhist path. You can come up with others on your own and tailor them to fit your specific needs.

The point is that we spend a little time honestly reflecting on what we’re doing with our spiritual lives. If we do, at the very least, we’ll get to know ourselves a little better and hopefully make our lives a little richer.

So give this journal a shot and let me know how it goes!

If you’d like more detailed instructions about Anyen Rinpoche’s Dharma Vision, check out his book, Dying With Confidence.

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

To be honest, I’ve been a bit overwhelmed here in India as I adjust to my new life as Tibetan Buddhist monk. Still, it’s turning out to be another chapter in an amazing journey.

I’m slowly getting used to the robes and my daily routine. I’m making good friends, too: men and women of all ages who have held the vows for a while. They’re turning out to be great role models and a wonderful support as I take my first steps on this new path. 

Today I was reflecting on how I got here. Hard to believe that it was only 2008 when I got on that plane for my first trip to India. What a ride it’s been ever since!

So as a way to honor journeys and life’s ever unpredictable twists and turns, I thought it would be nice to share the opening of The Narrow Way one more time.

I hope you enjoy it!

By all accounts I should be dead. But instead, through some miracle of chance or karma, I am alive. I do not pretend to even begin to understand how I came to wake up from my long and nightmarish sleep. Instead I just smile, a little dumbly and serenely, in the midst of the crowded airport as I wait for the long flight to India. In three hours I will head off on a pilgrimage, a spiritual quest that has been almost a year in the making. That leaves me plenty of time to think and wonder about this new arc that I am on, this upward spiral that for so long had sent me soaring down, down to a hard and hopeless bottom.

My old life comes into clear focus now. The free fall of eight thousand dark nights and blinding days. Countless hits and drinks and drags. The suicides, the self-sabotage, the shame. Twenty years of hiding, alone and afraid, and in the end all I had to show for it were the jagged shards of broken bonds and promises and dreams.

Was that really me? Was that my wake of destruction that I left behind? Would I ever be able to truly change and make amends?

Yes. It was me and I have already changed. As for amends, I will just have to wait and see.

I shiver and shake the memories off, safe on the firm earth for now. I look out the window onto the tarmac. The plane has already rolled up to the gate and the ground crew buzzes around like a stirred up hive of bees. They execute their synchronized dance of cleaning, restocking and refueling and my heart thumps louder and faster as I realize there is no turning back now. This is it. The moment of departure is at hand.

We are to fly up and over the top of the world, across Greenland then the Netherlands, arcing steadily over the brow of the earth until we roll down her eastern cheek like a tiny, shining tear. Fifteen hours from now New Delhi will come into view and I will press my nose into the glass like a ten year-old boy until it is mashed and sore. The lights of the city will fan out into the night and the humid air will be thick with the smoke of a million campfires. Still, the air will be good there, just as good as it is here and I will breathe it in, in great gasps fueled by the excitement and the shock and the fear of being in that strange place.

Then the air will turn thin and cool as I make my way up, up into the Himalayan foothills and the home of the Dalai Lama. It will feel good on my skin, chill and damp at night, and I will take it into my nostrils as I breathe slowly and surely in Dharamsala, learning again how to watch that simple thing, learning how to watch the breath.

I will wake in the early morning, in the cold and the dark, light candles and let myself be swept away by the spell of the melody of the deep mantras of the monks. I will walk in lock step with them for a pace or two on the path to liberation and I will see the goal clear and bright, so close that I will reach out and almost touch it.

Refreshed and renewed, I will make my way back down into the hot plains of great mother India and she will open her arms to me. There, I will follow in the footsteps of the Buddha. I will walk where he walked and see what he saw. There will be guides and signs and portents. There will be magic and mystery and illumination. Everyone and everything I come across will be my teacher. And though there will be hardship and I will cry for days, it will wring my heart free of all its toughness, until it becomes soft and pliant and I can finally put it to good use.

I catch my reflection in the glass and see that I am trembling now. Then I smile warmly at the new me and think: it’s OK if none of this is true.

“We will now begin boarding flight two-nine-two with direct service to New Delhi,” the attendant calls over the loudspeaker. The voice blows through my fantasies and daydreams and they collapse like a house of cards. It is real now. Whatever is to come is out of my hands. I feel the earth under my feet, solid and real. There is no time to waver, no time for remorse or even hope. It is time to take that first step. It is time to answer the call…

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Adopt A Turkey Today!

As Buddhists, we try to remember that ALL living, sentient beings wish for a life of happiness free from suffering. Just as we do, they hold their lives dear and don’t wish die. In this way, we can consider ourselves to be in a state of equality with all of our furry, scaly, and feathered friends on this planet.

Wild Turkey strut

It’s estimated that 45 million turkeys are killed in the U.S. every Thanksgiving. I don’t mean to preach. The choice to eat meat or not can only be made by each individual.

Still, I humbly offer the link below (to my favorite T-Day charity) for your compassionate consideration.

Save a life! Adopt a turkey today!

http://www.farmsanctuary.org/giving/adopt-a-turkey/

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A Day In The Life Of A Monkle

I’ve been a Tibetan Buddhist monk (my niece calls me “Monkle Chris”) now for about 3 months. I’m down here at Namdroling in Bylakuppe, South India, continuing my quest for fluency in Tibetan Language.

A friend of mine recently hit me up on Facebook wanting to know more about what a typical day at the monastery looks like.

So at the risk of putting you all to sleep, here we go!

6:00am My alarm goes off. Notice I did not say “I get up”. Many of the monks here are up and about by 4 or 5am. Some, like yours truly, find that to be a bit little extreme (i.e., crazy). So after a couple of rounds with the ‘snooze’ button, I’m up and at ‘em…

6:14am Ok, let the fun begin! I get up, put on some coffee (yes, monks drink coffee), do some morning practice of making offerings, saying prayers, that kind of thing.

7:00am Time for coffee and my morning ritual of writing in my journal. This one’s in English-thoughts, musings, petty complaints, as well as notes for a future book about how on earth I ever decided to go through so much trouble to be a Buddhist.

8:00am Now we really get cooking. Tibetan study time begins here. I start out warming up with practice writing of a new (to me) cursive script called Khyug. I do this for about 30 minutes then switch up to reciting and memorizing a famous poem called The Great Living Tree. It’s a super-condensed collection of verses about the basic rules of Tibetan grammar. It’s about three pages long and after 5 and a half weeks, I’ve got two pages down cold (well,  tepid at least). This is huge for me as I suck at memorizing things. Another couple of weeks should do it.

Tibetan Khyug script. It's really kind of soothing to write it.
Tibetan Khyug script. It’s really kind of soothing to write it.

9:00am Conversation class. I’ve got the huge fortune of having two hours of private tutoring time. This hour is focused on casual conversation. Mostly we just talk about the weather but sometimes foray into more advanced topics like the World Cup, politics, and American Pro-Wrestling. Good stuff.

10:00am Reading practice. Here, I just read out loud (emphasis on “loud”) until I can’t stand it anymore.

11:00am A little break, a walk around the monastery, and an early lunch.

 

The plumbing stinks but the view's not bad!
The plumbing stinks but the view’s not bad!

12:00pm Rest time. There’s still quite a bit to come…

1:00pm Now we get into the nitty gritty. For the next hour, I study Tibetan grammar. The text I’m using these days is a 500 page monster. It’s in English, but I’m finding it’s really helpful to have the basic (though always maddening) elements of the language spelled out clearly. I’ve been working with it for about 5 weeks and I already see huge improvement in my understanding of the written language.

2:00pm Reading comprehension. This is a fun hour. I just read Tibetan folktales and stories, teasing out the meaning little by little. At least, I think so. The one I’m working on now is supposedly called “The Urinating Jewels”. True story. Anyhow, it’s getting easier.

3:00-5:00pm Translation. Working with two books right now. One’s a collection of transcribed talks by His Holiness the Dalai Lama called “The Peaceful Mind”. This one’s tough as it’s chock full of very technical Buddhist terminology. His Holiness is one of the most highly educated people in the world, so of course he speaks very well. As a result, it’s kind of like a second-grader (I’m being generous here) trying to translate MIT lectures on astro-physics. Still, it’s a good exercise. After that, I work on some short prayers and verses. Sometimes they’re easy, sometimes not.

5:00pm Tibetan journal writing. My least favorite activity of the day. Tibetan spelling is confounding to say the least. I’d be pulling my hair out if I had any (that’s a monk joke). In almost two and a half years, I still have no clue as to the rhyme or reason of it. The only way to learn it is to use it. So I just do the best I can. Though I have to admit, I sometimes “forget” the time, and just kill and hour or so checking what’s going on with Facebook.

6:00pm Kora time! Kora basically means “to circle”. It’s a devotional practice as well as a kind of walking mediation. It’s practically instinctual for Tibetans to walk around holy objects and places, reciting mantras and saying prayers. It’s said that we accumulate tons of merit (the causes for ultimate happiness and enlightenment) by doing this practice. It’s also pretty darn relaxing, too!

7:30pm Conversation class, take 2.

8:30 Time to start winding down. Not that my life is all that stressful. But still, learning a new language takes a lot of mental energy. Sometimes I’m pretty wiped out. So it’s dinner time (if I have dinner), then an hour or so of a Tibetan-dubbed soap opera I’ve become addicted to. Then some reading and off to bed.

And that my friends, it the life of a monkle!

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Stepping Stones (Taking The Monastic Vows)

“…I will finally see that the path, just as it’s always been and always will be, is right there in front of me.

That’s how I ended my first book, The Narrow Way. It was meant to be a teaser. A hint at the grander things that I hoped would come. The thing is, I really had no idea where that path would ultimately lead.

But then again, maybe I did.

From the beginning, all the way back to that first trip to India in 2008, there was a part of me that knew that someday I was going to become a monk. I’m certainly not clairvoyant, but I remember a clear vision of myself, as clear as an open-eyed dream, of some not-to-distant future.

I was dressed in red robes, head shaved and shiny in the sun, sitting (I remember green grass and clear sky) legs crossed and smiling. I looked genuinely happy.

I always held that picture in my mind as a carrot at the end of a stick. A goal to look forward to as I took on the sometimes daunting tasks of writing books, trying to cultivate some understanding of the dharma, and learning a new language. All of that in-between hopping across the oceans, to and from, India.

But for the longest time, I kept the “vision” mostly to myself. I would whisper hints to my close friends and family from time to time. But always I’d end with a shrug of my shoulders and a coy “Yeah, but we’ll see…”.

I think I just knew how serious of a choice it was. I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a fleeting whim. I mean, I was talking about taking the monastic vows, after all. Promises to commit myself to the Buddhist path, to see it through to its ultimate end. I didn’t want to take them lightly.

Seven years past. I flip-flopped from time to time, thinking that maybe I would wait until retirement to take the vows. Or maybe I would just wait until some future life.

But the feeling, the pull, the longing (for that’s what it was and more), kept coming back.

“You must become a monk,” a voice kept saying. “It’s the only way to make the best use of this precious human life. Anything else will just be marking time.”

And as I thought these kinds of things, I would realize that my lips were turned up in a smile. The same smile I imagined in that vision of my future self.

So back in March I made up my mind to finally ask my Lama, directly and decisively, for permission to take the vows of a novice monk, also known as Getsul vows.

He looked around the room as if he were thinking. Then he asked me to think about when I wanted to take the plunge.

But there was no need to think.

“As soon as possible,” I said.

There were some ups and downs after that. Quite a few downs actually. Was I making the right choice? Would I be able to uphold the vows? Would I ultimately fail?

But these were just echoes of my fears. Some old, some new.

In the end, I went for it. I can’t be too particular about the details of when, where, and how. Politics, ya know?

It was beautiful, that much I can say. It had been raining for days. Snowing in the high mountains even at the end of August. There had been magic and mystery a plenty on the trip so far, but for that hour, as I sat in front of my preceptor reciting the promises to spend the rest of my life (and more) on the path of liberation, there was just stillness and waiting.

And then it was done. I was a monk. Easy as pie.

IMG_0780

 

It’s been about a month now. I’m almost comfortable getting dressed in the morning. The robes are tricky things to learn how to wear. My hair is growing back from that first shave but I’m already looking forward to cutting it again.

I’m down at Namdroling Monastery in South India now, taking the first few steps on a journey of deepening my understanding of this new life I’ve decided to live. I will be resuming my study of Tibetan, as well as learning how to be a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

But they’re just stepping stones really. The real lessons I think, will be in learning to let go of myself, my fears, my personal agendas and desires. All the things that keep us bound and tied.

In any case, and as always, I’m looking forward to sharing the journey.

 

 

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And Here We Go…(Again)

Cute posing prairie dog

So, it’s been a while since I’ve put up a blog post. What have I been up to, you ask? Let’s take a short quiz and find out.

Has Chris Lemig been spending the past six months:

A. watching too many 90’s rock music videos on YouTube?

B. eating pint after pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream?

C. working on a novel featuring a preacher’s daughter from Texas, a transexual mystic, a Hopi U.S. Marshall who uses his powers of astral projection for evil, and a fuzzy (but wise) prairie dog who’s bearing sole witness to the End of The World?

D. planning a two-year trip to China, India, Nepal, and possibly Sri Lanka, where he will not only finally get a grip on the Tibetan language, but also find out if red really is his color (more on that enigmatic bombshell to come…)?

E. all of the above.

Leave your answers in the comments section. Other speculations as to my whereabouts and activities (past, present, and future) are also welcome. All winners will receive the ultimate prize of “Total Consciousness”.

But seriously, my friends. I’m off again! In just about 12 hours, my brother, sister-in-law, and sweet, sweet niece will be dropping me off at Denver International Airport. From there I’m heading off to western China for three weeks, then down to Bylakuppe in south India for a two year stay at Namdroling monastery.

There, I’ll be working out the finer points of Tibetan grammar while keeping a close eye on the tree line of the jungle for signs of cobras, leopards, and gianormous insects.

It’s going to be an amazing trip. One sure to be filled with magic, mystery, tropical heat, fear, loathing, and possibly even a glimpse of enlightenment.

But whatever is in store, I’m looking forward to sharing the journey with you.

So stay tuned and stay in touch. I’ll be back with more as soon as I can…

 

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The Big Heart: A Meditation on Love and Compassion

I just finished my third show in a series on Lessons in Joyful Living. Another fun one to be sure!

As promised, here’s a recap of the meditation on love and compassion we touched on during the show.

As always, take a moment to settle into a good meditation posture. For a detailed explanation of this, click here.

Once you’ve relaxed into the present moment visualize three people in the space in front of you:

A friend, a neutral person, and someone you don’t like.

Begin with the friend. Call to mind how she experiences happiness and suffering. Does she want comfort, good food, health, material abundance, pleasurable experiences, satisfaction in work, relationships, and family life?

How about suffering? Does she want to avoid illness, physical and mental pain, loss of life and possessions, sorrow, conflict, hunger, thirst, and all the other things that bring us suffering in life?

Of course she does.

Think of as many situations as you can where these things are so.

Chenrezig thangka, Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion, crowned by Amitabha, holding a lotus and mala, wearing an antelope hide, sun, moon, stars, Tibetan Buddhism, Seattle, Washington, USA

 

Now, cultivate a feeling of empathy towards your friend. Doesn’t she want happiness and to avoid suffering just like you? Are the two of you really all that different?

Continue to contemplate these questions and situations until you can generate the strong wish that your friend be happy and free from suffering.

If you like, you can visualize pure white light surrounding and protecting your friend. Think to yourself how good it feels to be able to love and care for her like that.

Repeat this mental exercise with the next two kinds of people, the neutral person and the enemy.

Both of these will pose their own challenges but work on them until you come to the conclusion that even difficult people and those you don’t know are still the same: They want nothing more than their own happiness and to avoid suffering.

The main benefit of meditations like this is that we can transform and improve our minds. When it comes to changing long held habits and beliefs, this can take some time and effort.

So give this meditation a try for at least a week. Let the realizations sink in until they become new habits and new ways of seeing the world.

Then, just maybe, you’ll see how big your heart really is.

photo by: Wonderlane
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Found in Translation: Translating The Buddha’s Teachings

Did you know that more than 200,000 pages of the Buddha’s teachings have not been translated into modern languages?

Most of this precious advice, spiritual teaching, and insight is still encased in wood block printings in Classical Tibetan. This language is disappearing fast, and fewer and fewer people are able to read and translate it.

84,000: Translating the Words of The Buddha, is a project started by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche that aims to translate all of these invaluable teachings into modern languages.

For today only (Tuesday, 5/6/14), share the post of the video on the 84,000’s FaceBook page and a generous donor will contribute $1 to this vital project.

Check out the video here…

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Gay Monk Lays Buddha Smack-Down

A friend of mine posted this over at Buddhadharma the other day. It’s a great video clip of an interview with a Thai Buddhist monk who used to be a transvestite.

The interviewer is a little annoying at times. In his overly sensationalist, typical tabloid-in-your-face-a-current-affair journalistic style, he seems hell bound on getting a rise out of the guy.

But the young monk never looses his cool. Towards the end of the interview segment he lays the Buddha smack down on the show’s host:

“Can you cease it in your mind? A gay is a gay. Let it be. I am what I am.”

That’s right!

Watch the whole video clip here:

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