|Tigers in a Tropical Storm|
I spent a few months one summer in the 1980s at the Monastery of Tai Situ Rinpoche in Sherab Ling. This monastery is nestled between the folds of some foothills in Himachal Pradesh in the eastern Himalayas of Northern India.
At that time it was not very developed and there were a number of retreat houses scattered throughout the forest below the main monastery compound. These small houses had been built by western students so that they could live near Tai Situ Rinpoche; a high Tibetan Buddhist master from the Karma Kargyu tradition.
Their intention had been to spend their time near their teacher in order to receive his blessing and instructions and to practice as much as possible in retreats. In those days there were no fences marking where the boundaries of the monastery ended and the forest began.
When i was there, all of the huts, dotted throughout the forest were empty. Their owners had moved on and were either, back in their own countries working or living in other parts of the Himalayas. Most of the dwellings no longer contained any of the belongings of their previous tenants. Therefore, i had a choice of where i could stay. I decided upon a small wooden hut comprising of an upstairs loft where i could practice and sleep and a kitchen area below on the ground floor.
There were many non-human residents around when i moved in as it had been a long while since anyone had actually lived there. A large family of mice had made a home for themselves in the kitchen. There were several birds nests in the ceiling and many, large, hairy spiders all over the place.
It was obvious that no one had been around for quite a while, as these residents had pretty much taken over. I had quite a time of it, cleaning, sweeping and airing the place out. Fortunately, i had a mosquito net with me so i could tuck it in all around my bed. I had discovered the virtues of mosquito nets in northern Queensland in my teen years when i stayed some months in a tropical forest. Not only did they keep out the mosquitoes, but also spiders, snakes, mice and so on...
During my first night in the hut at Sherab Ling, all the spiders came out from their places, and i will never forget it! I was sitting on my bed, fortunately with the net securely tucked in around me. I had extinguished my kerosene lamp and was sitting there in the dark, beginning to settle into a meditation session. I began to notice a peculiar sound, something like the tuk tuk tuk of numerous, tiny feet. I turned on my torch and flashed it around the room. Oh wow! Many long-legged spidery forms darted around among the shadows here and there. That night the spiders were, quite literally, dancing! They were coming out from every nook and cranny to check out the 'intruder'. Surely, i have never seen so many spiders before or since!
I was totally unnerved by this vision. Almost overwhelmed by the creepy sound of countless tiny claws scuttling around in the dark. I almost gave way to my fears and if it had not been for the flimsy mosquito net, which gave me a false sense of 'protection' i would have rushed out of that place and never gone back. Needless to say, i passed a very restless night.
Interestingly, they all disappeared during the following day and the second night they kept a respectful distance and adjusted themselves to my presence. For the remainder of my stay, i kept out of their way and they kept out of mine.
However, the stage had been set. My mind began to create all sorts of real and imagined stories with regards to the spiders and their whereabouts, especially at night!
In Himachal Pradesh, it is not tigers that roam the forests, but leopards. These beautiful animals occasionally came down from the hills to prey on the livestock kept by local villagers and in the monasteries, and while i was staying at Sherab Ling, down in the forest, at least one such animal was reported to be on the prowl.
There were numerous pug marks to be seen here and there on the trails and so i had to be on my guard, especially in the evenings, when they were most likely to appear. This was potentially something a good deal more bothersome than the spiders. So I was forced to take note.
During that time I was taking lunch and evening meals up at the monastery, so i got into the habit of eating the last meal long before dark, and then trekking down to the hut before the sunset, as it was a good ten minutes walk along a dirt trail through the forest.
One night i was woken by, not one, but three leopards prowling around my hut. From what i could make out, there was a mother with two cubs, already halfway to adulthood.
They stayed for quite a while, sniffing around. One even jumped onto the straw awning that jutted out from my upstairs windows. I sat on my bed all through their visit, trembling. My windows were open, and if they had decided to come on in, i would have needed a lot more than a mosquito net for protection!
However, that did not happen. Instead, they went up the hill and killed the monastery's pet Ram, a grumpy, charismatic fellow who had been butting and playing with the children there for many years. I decided it might be a good idea to stay up in the monastery after that incident and moved up to the guestrooms the very next day.
Over the years, in the earlier part of my training, the presence of creatures, heard, but not seen, gave rise to many occasions in which my mind became completely preoccupied with all manner of distracting and fearful thoughts. They provided a fertile and challenging ground in which i could begin to unravel the 'workings of my mind.'
Perhaps the greatest value of staying in all those retreats was the fact that they gave me the time and opportunity to notice how 'mind' functions. When we are alone with your own 'mind' a lot, and begin to spend time noticing its movements, we start to see what a sneaky fellow it is!
Becoming acquainted with the way 'mind' works, is essential if we want to begin to live in peace without ourselves and others in this world. It is the little 'golden key' with which we can unlock the door into 'self-awareness.'
Kyabje Chatral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche
Some years after my visit to Sherab Ling, i met the great Dzogchen Master, Chatral Rinpoche. He began to send me off to my retreat hut with challenges like, 'go and see if you can find your mind, and come back and tell me about it.' With this bait thrown at me the whole tone and focus of my time in the mountains began to shift and change.
The great saint of South India, Sri Ramana Maharshi said;
'The attempt to destroy the ego or the mind through vehicles other than atma-vichara, (self-inquiry) is just like the thief pretending to be a policeman, in order to catch the thief, who is himself.'
The paths of Dzogchen and Atma-Vichara, (Self-Inquiry) have a lot in common.
Finding the mind, finding one's self'?
Impossible; because they do not exist!
The one cancels out the other!
And this is the whole point and beauty of these practices. However, until one takes up the challenge and seriously embarks upon the path of investigation, this cannot be truly understood or known.
It is a ludicrous exercise, but a very necessary one, and in the beginning one has little choice but to innocently go off and try. This 'inquiry' is absolutely crucial because it turns the mind 'inwards' towards its source. Unless and until we turn our gaze away from the distractions of worldly outer life, focussing all of that energy onto the nature of 'who and what we REALLY are,' we remain caught up like flies in a vast spiders web of thoughts and their endless spin-offs.
In order to assist his students to begin to turn their 'minds' inwardly, Chatral Rinpoche used, on occasion, to throw out zen-like 'koans.' When he was training a particular disciple, he would watch, wait and see how they would react to the 'bait' that was being dangled before them.
One of these koans consisted of the phrase; 'there are tigers in the forest'.
Every time he would meet one particular student, at some point in their conversation he would always throw in these words; 'there are tigers in the forest'! And then go on to some other topic, leaving the phrase just hanging there in the air, quite unconnected to anything else being spoken of, and apparently, quite nonsensical.
It became something of a standing joke between Rinpoche and one particular student, who later recounted this tale to me. The student in question understood that Rinpoche had something very specific in mind, and was directly pointing it out, and this friend drove himself half nuts trying to figure out what it could be, but he just could never quite get it.
Then one day, the two of them were sitting in Rinpoche's room and while a conversation was going on between them, Rinpoche threw in the usual 'mind spanner'.
'There are tigers in the forest'. Student and teacher sat there looking directly at one another.
The conversation had suddenly come to a complete halt with these words. The young fellow sitting opposite him, in total exasperation, all wide-eyed, and open-mouthed, blurted out, 'are you sure?'
Upon hearing these words, Rinpoche collapsed into a fit of unconstrained, uncontrollable laughter. He was so unspeakably amused that five minutes later, visitors and Lamas who had been milling around in the anterooms, began to appear in the doorway to see what was going on. They found the pair, rolling around on the floor, with tears flowing down their cheeks, clutching their bellies.
When Chatral Rinpoche found something funny, he gave himself over to the humor of the moment with the gay abandon of a child. It was unspeakably infectious and utterly delightful to behold.
This was to be the culmination of months of baiting and challenging. It was such a pity that this valuable 'koan' was not really understood by the student in question. You can rest assured that he was laughing because Rinpoche was laughing. At that time he didn't actually 'get the joke', let alone it's deep and underlying meaning. The moment had not yet come for the 'penny to drop.' At least, not then. Only years and years later did he begin to 'understand'.
But in such matters 'time' is of the least concern. The seed had been planted, in due course, it would ripen and bear fruit. Each must proceed in his/her own time. Each in his/her own way.
This 'koan' was particularly relevant to the student in question. His solving of it contained therein an opportunity for him to address a deep and underlying 'habitual tendency' that consistently kept him from realizing the deeper truths which could have freed his mind from his habitual tendencies thereby helping him to break ground in his meditation practice. This is the value of a 'koan'. It is targeted and requires the active participation of the disciple, giving him/her a chance to resolutely dive more deeply into their own inner experience.
If ordinary mind is like a forest, then the tigers that roam there can be equated with certain types of thoughts, the type of thoughts that sneak up on us unawares and steal all of our attention. Tigers move about with the utmost stealth and considering their markings, they really have to in order to catch their prey unawares.
Of course the 'tiger' example is rather rustic and out of date but nevertheless, it points to a profound truth. For that particular student, it was well aimed and, like an arrow, it hit its mark, even if it was not recognized at the time. This 'bait', gave the mind something to grasp onto, thereby focusing, rather than scattering it. When the mind is focussed it becomes a powerful tool.
Where ever we are, whatever we do, our mind goes with us. Whether we like it or not, it is our constant companion, the shadow that accompanies us on every journey. We know it is there, but until we shine the flashlight of our attention upon it, it behaves like a shadow. Always present, but just out of the line of vision.
Finding the source of our mind, the source of our thoughts is the key to solving all of our problems.
Until we do this we are at the mercy of the 'tigers in the forest,'
the tigers within our mind.
This excerpt was taken from Tibetan Masters and Other True
Tibetan Masters and Other True Stories. The second book in the series, Shades of Awareness.