Sunday, 29 July 2018

The Tigers in our Mind

Tigers in the Forest
Tigers in a Tropical Storm
Henri Rousseau

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.'

During the years that followed this incident i stayed in other forests and encountered other types of 'visitors', but none were ever more prevalent than the visitors in my own 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.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Letting Go of Our Addiction to Hope and Fear

Ever notice that we spend most of our time in a distracted state somewhere between an ever-swinging pendulum of hope and fear?

If we really give it some consideration it does not take much to realise that we keep ourselves away from the happiness which is always available to us in the present moment, by being constantly distracted by the hope of 'getting something' or the fear of losing it.

If we boil it all down, this is how things are for us.

So, while we are all seeking our happiness every moment of every day we are constantly sabotaging our own best efforts. We are our own worst enemy, barking up the wrong tree and generally way off the scent to use a few well-worn cliches.

A mere shift of focus and we could transform our world simply by staying with the dynamic and ever living present moment which is completely free, ever available and the only thing which we really can ever have. Instead, we are like mice on a treadmill, running and running after something that we can never quite catch and no matter how far we run or for how long we just can't get anywhere or achieve the happiness we so desperately long for.

Why do we do this to ourselves? In the first place, we don't actually need to go anywhere and in the second, there is nowhere to go!

 A friend recently told me something which I found very interesting. 

In certain places in India, it is not uncommon to see fortune tellers parked out on the pavements with a pack of cards and one or two green parrots locked up in a tiny cage. Many people believe that these green parrots have clairvoyant powers and can predict a person's future or a future outcome.

In the South of India, where this belief originated, one can find the green parrot honoured among the religious pantheon as a messenger, a harbinger of news and tidings. If we scrape the surface of deeper meanings here we can uncover a very profound truth indeed and one which has nothing to do with clairvoyance.

When a 'parrot astrologer' is approached for a 'reading' the questioner will usually want answers to some issue or problem which is plaguing him/her. With great solemnity, the 'teller' opens a small sliding door in the tiny cage, in which the parrot or parrots are housed.  This gives the bird its queue and he waddles out and picks out a card from a pile which is stacked up in front of him. He may remove many cards before choosing just one that he then grasps in his beak and places in front of the astrologer.

It is believed that the card which the bird has chosen, holds the key to predicting the person's future and the outcome of this or that matter for which he is seeking guidance.

It is one of the many peculiar things that one can see in the great land of India. I have spotted many such people over the years and always wondered how on earth they caught the parrots!

Yes, I know, most people would be puzzled by other more pressing issues such as whether these birds really have psychic powers or not. They certainly have a very odd 'career. 

However, for me, it was not so much the possibility of their psychic capacity, as i believe all sentient life has an instinctive psychic awareness. My curiosity was more to do with the logistics of the parrots confined situation. How did it get caught in the first place and then cope with the very miserable life it had to endure thereafter? One could see, by the bird's condition, that this life as a confined prisoner was unenviable.

According to my friend the method used to capture the parrots is rather ingenious. In fact, it raises more questions than it answers. I had to marvel at the insight and inventiveness of its creator.

The trapper places a thin piece of wire between some branches in a tree or trees where he knows that the parrots like to roost. He then goes away to mind his own business and only returns whenever he is free to take hold of his loot.

You might think that the poor birds get caught up somehow in the wire and become entangled and yet what actually happens is something very different indeed. Unsuspectingly they sit on the wire and then finding it too thin and slippery to clutch hold of they flip over so that they are suddenly clinging to the wire upside down.

What is intriguing here is that they could, at any time, simply loosen their grip and fly away and yet they do not. They hang there
pathetically hour after hour until the trapper returns and pulls them off one by one putting them into a cage.

And that's it!
Isn't that rather tragic?

They could have flown away at any time if they would simply let go of the wire. Nothing at all is preventing it accept their belief that they can not let go...

And, ladies and gentleman, are we too, not rather like this? We believe in our future as vehemently as we cling to our past and yet neither actually exist outside the realm of our imagination!

If we were to examine the present moment we might quickly make an extraordinary discovery.

Self-secret is a Vajrayana Buddhist term that points to a truth which is completely open and obvious and yet which fails to be seen or recognised.

Our addiction to hope and fear can be likened to a 'thin wire' upon which we stake our very lives and existence and yet at any time we are completely free to let go. We are enslaved by our hope and fear, by our unquestioning belief in our past and in our future. 

We believe that we are a 'somebody' who needs 'something and yet we are in fact 'nobody' and we need nothing. Everything that we require is already ours and can never be taken away.

Recognising our true nature means witnessing the truth which exists as the present moment and clinging to that alone.

Happiness is indeed in the very palm of our hands
The present moment is ours.
We have only to believe in it, pay homage to it, and own it. 
It is the only moment we can ever know. 
The rest is a dream...

Sunday, 29 April 2018

The Face in the Mirror

Whose is the face in the mirror?

Behind that face, there is only 'now'
And 'now' is the faceless face of a million aeons...
The timeless 'you' beyond all seasons.

Colliding with the universe
We are cast out from infinity
Mind creates a circle of illusion.

But we are Blessed.
Our Source is ever Pure and Free
Even though we are Bound by the thrill of 
Being and Becoming.

May we swiftly
Merge into the Vast Expanse
Once and for All...

Lyse Lauren

We have such a strong habit of accepting that things are as they appear to be and yet our true purpose in life is to uncover how things really are, beyond appearances. The only way to really do that is to take a long, hard look at ourselves. Not at the image, as it appears in the mirror, but at what is perceiving the image as itself.

This journey begins and ends with our recognition of awareness.
We have an innate propensity to be mesmerised by the image in the mirror. We fail to notice what it is that is doing the noticing...

It is an interesting and extremely common dilemma and yet most people do not realise that it is the very cause of their failure to embrace the natural 'happiness' to which all are entitled by virtue of just 'being.'

The mirror is a great little tool in helping us to perceive what is already present and yet beyond recognition, yet we seldom fail to use it for that purpose. We can see our 'face' in the mirror and we take it for granted that we are connected, in some mysterious way, with that 'face.' Yet, once we are no longer gazing into the glass, the 'face' disappears and we simply believe that we continue to exist in that form.

The mind and senses trick us and snatch our attention away from the present moment. They distract and bind us inside an enchanted circle. Yet we can unravel this web of delusion. It is within the power of each and every one of us because what is true is direct and near and utterly fundamental. Perhaps it is too near and too direct...

Our attention is almost always in a state of movement and flux and because it is so colourful and vacillating our attention gets caught up and fixated on these shifting appearances. 

Behind that face
there is only 'now'
the faceless face of a million aeons.
The timeless 'you' beyond every season.

A million 'faces' have come and gone but the essential current of our existence, that which is perceiving them all, is stable and un-shifting. It has been our constant companion; un-shakable and consistent.

This is not a matter for debate because we can and should verify it for ourselves right here and right now. In fact, our happiness depends upon us doing just this. Unless we stop and take the time to investigate the mystery of our existence we remain like the two fish who swim around in the ocean debating the existence of 'water.' Or like the beggar with the golden begging bowl. We have to break this cycle of delusion.

There is a popular story about a group of employees who worked for a large company. One morning when they reached their offices they were greeted by a small notice on the door that led into their workspaces. It read; ' Yesterday, the person who has been hindering your growth in the company, passed away.' It went on to invite all the employees to a funeral service which would be held on the premises later that day.

Naturally, this event caused much discussion between the people in the offices and the whole day there was the buzz and anticipation of the impending 'service.' There was much speculation as to the identity of this deceased person. No one seemed to know who it was and this deepened the general excitement and enhanced the sense of curiosity.

Later that evening there was a large gathering at the venue which had been designated for the 'service.' The room was humming with the mutterings of its eagerly waiting attendees.

A coffin could be seen near the farthest wall, large and beautiful bouquets of flowers had been placed near and around it, incense had been lit, there was soft and pleasant music in the background and the lights in the room had been dimmed. A single candle had been placed near the casket and cast a warm glow over the solitary coffin.

A small barrier had been erected so one ventured near.
In due course, the proceedings began. There was a muted speech or two and then one by one all were invited to approach and pay their final respects.

Each person present had one thought in their minds. 'Who is this guy who has been hindering my progress?' As each one approached the coffin and looked inside they were confronted by a mirror.
Silence reigned as they moved on one by one, each had been thrown into a cavern of reflection. 

A sign had been placed inside the coffin and near the end of it were the words;  'Your life changes when YOU change, when you go beyond your limiting beliefs when you realize that you are the only one responsible for your life. “The most important relationship you can have is the one you have with yourself”.


One can well imagine what kind of impact something like this could potentially have on all those present.

We might take this story even further by inviting ourselves to look beyond the image in the mirror to what it is that is perceiving that image...

Why is it that we fail to notice that..?

Lead me from darkness to light
From death to immortality
From the unreal to the real.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Snakes and Fear, a True Story

You are the guardian of a treasure,

Oh, just like a sleeping serpent

And you shall see, I shall make you

Spin around like that sleepy snake.

Listen to me.

 Jalaluddin  Rumi 

India's Snake Woman,  the Nagini Druvinka Puri

Why do snakes inspire in us, two-legged creatures, a sense of wonder and fear?

Surely this has been so since earliest times? Their link with the primordial wisdom state and their connection to a mysterious realm not well understood by us, warm-blooded beings, does nothing to diminish our sense of their strangeness.

In New Zealand where I spent the earliest years of my life, there is nothing more poisonous afoot that a slimy little bug called, by the Maori, a Weta. Snakes in the land of the 'long white cloud,' are creatures that one only hears about. They are somewhere else; from far and distant lands. They could have been from Mars, for all I knew or could really envision in those formative years of my life.

Then, when I was sixteen years old, I moved to Australia and in a period of a few short months found myself in the wild northern territories. The lands of numerous peculiar, primordial, creeping and crawling creatures. Crocodiles, lizards and spiders of all shapes and varieties and of course numerous breeds and brands of snakes.

However, it was not until I moved to a patch of tropical forest near the small town of Kuranda in Northern Queensland, that I had my first close encounters with many varieties of these creatures.

I had moved to the forest in order to 'meditate,' but the good Lord had other plans for me. On the very first day in that new world, I had two very close encounters with a tree snake. Certainly, this breed is not usually poisonous, so as far as a gentle introduction goes, I suppose this was it. I quickly discovered that there were numerous and far more dangerous snakes also living in close proximity.

The tree snake and I, however, shared my forest hut for some six months or more. We respected each other's boundaries after the first two startling encounters and soon settled into cautious co-habitation. The snake lived in the loft of my forest abode where it had found access via some gap or other near the roof. I felt that this resident was infinitely preferable to a Boer constrictor, the likes of which very much favour such places.

I learnt many, many things in this new environment that I could never have gleaned from any book or college. In fact, in these few short months, a whole paradigm change took place within my mind, one that was, very effectively, to shape and prepare me for future adventures which were not very long in coming.

I went into this environment at the age of eighteen. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, had never lived alone in my life and was as naive and innocent as a newborn babe.

One among many adventures that took place during those months recently made an appearance in my little store of memories. It virtually bowled me over when the memory of it suddenly resurfaced while speaking with a friend on some related matter.

Until that moment I had quite forgotten about it altogether.

I would like to share it with you as it was one of those formative experiences, the likes of which we all encounter under different guises at one time or another in our lives. Very often we are shocked to the core of our being, but then somehow magically, we forget all about it within quite a short period of time. This was what happened to me.

I am sure that my body and psyche have retained and to this day continue to retain some imprint of the psychic impact of this experience, hence this post. Let me endeavour to unravel it with you, it may stir in you some long forgotten memory of your own.

While living in the forest in Kuranda I used to come and go from my hut to the village on a small road bike. At that time I was staying some distance from the town and the only access to it was via a gravel road which forded a small river and was soon after followed by a very steep dirt track.

I would make the journey into the town probably about once a week or more frequently if the need arose. One time I remember coming back from one of these excursions and noticing a small creek trickling down amid the dense foliage on the side of the road. It had been my experience in the recent past when with friends that at the source of these little creeks one could often find beautiful waterfalls and cool blue ponds.

We had made several such explorations in this area and they had all been well worth the effort. For some reason, that day, I was very much pulled to explore this particular creek even though I was alone.

My curiosity was piqued and I was feeling particularly buoyant and adventurous that morning. I parked my motorbike on the side of the road and took off up the side of the rivulet. It was a gorgeous morning and sunlight shone through the forest leaves in dappled strands. The coolness and the luxurious greenness of this landscape lured me like a promise and taking no heed of anything else I dove into it bounding from one rock to another as I made my way up the stream.

In this mood of great exuberance, I continued to climb on and on always hopeful that the expected waterfall and icy pool would soon appear. Probably about an hour into my climb I found myself among a sea of boulders and the stream had disappeared beneath.

All along the route, I had begun to discard various pieces of my clothing. It was getting hotter and hotter and I did not for one moment even consider that I would ever meet anyone in such a place. I continued for a while longer until it became clear that the stream was not issuing from any nearby waterfall but rather perhaps some hidden spring which was well beneath the boulders over which I was climbing.

Taking a moment to catch my breath I suddenly noticed a movement in the corner of my eye. I looked towards it and saw a very large brown snake glide soundlessly beneath the large rock on which I was standing. I froze with fear.
An instant terror just rose in my belly and I suddenly felt paralysed.

By that time I had, of course, encountered many snakes in and around where I was living. However, what I discovered that morning in this completely isolated place was that I had climbed into an area that was literally crawling with these creatures. I became aware that I was being watched and not by human eyes. There were snakes basking on the rocks to my left and to my right, above where I was standing and beneath the rocks I was standing on. Finding myself in their midst suddenly left me feeling incredibly alone and vulnerable. I became painfully aware of my nakedness as though someone had just thrown icy water all over me.

Somehow the myriad eyes which were watching me were unspeakably strange, alien and frightening.

I had climbed into this place unmindful of the dangers and completely engrossed in my mood of joyful curiosity. Becoming aware of my foolishness and the danger that I was in was unspeakably discomforting. I stood rooted to the spot, utterly petrified. The mood had shifted from joy to terror, without anything in between.

This shift was so sudden and shocking that it froze every cell in my body and I simply could not move. There was no one to call, nothing to do, no apparent way to escape.

I could not imagine how I would retrace my steps all the way back to the road without one of these creatures lunging out at me and yet I had to try to get back to the road and my bike.

On every side I felt the cold and piercing gaze of countless silent eyes watching, waiting. This was their place, I was an intruder and my instinctive fear created a barrier between them and me and rendered me supremely vulnerable and in their power.

With the utmost care and as slowly as I could I began to move back down the boulder-strewn creek. In agonising horror, I could only pray and move one shaky limb after the other hoping that these 'lords of the realm' these 'serpents of wisdom' would let me pass by unmolested.

The descent felt as though it took an eternity. The stress and tension in my body turned every fibre in my being into a mass of straining nerves. The blood was pumping through my body so intensively that all I could hear was its pounding in my ears.

I picked up the pieces of clothing I had discarded along the way and
by the time I finally reached the road was fully attired and utterly exhausted.

The gratitude and relief that I felt at seeing my little Yamaha bike sitting exactly where I had left it some hours before was something I could never have anticipated when I had parked it there earlier that morning.

I made my way back to my forest hut, thoughtfully and much chastened by the morning's unexpected adventure.

In those days I was encountering my 'mind' in ways that I could never have even dreamed of. It felt as though the forest around me was conspiring to teach me the ways of 'awareness.' The very environment in which I lived and moved became my 'guru,' pushing me towards discoveries that were to prove pivotal and life-changing.

I escaped unharmed from that place which was crawling with snakes but that left me with no sense of victory, rather I was quite taken aback by the shameless fear that had risen up in me so unbidden and so uncontrollable.

Fear is a useful mechanism for keeping us alive in certain situations but many of us seldom, if ever, examine it for itself. If I had not been consumed by fear during the encounter with the nagas in the forest in Queensland, I can't help but wonder as to what frontiers of 'awareness' these creatures might have led me.

Certainly, in India, snakes are feared but they also respected, even revered and the Nagini Druvinka Puri provides us with a striking example of how one kingdom can cross a threshold in order to encounter another. What are the boundaries which separate us in the first place?

Surely these boundaries exist only in our minds?

I could not rise to fully meet the occasion of that unique challenge, but even so, my curiosity is still piqued. No longer am I concerned about the imagined cool blue pond giving rise to a stream but rather the lives that dwell near the stream and whose consciousness existence appears to be so alien and strange.

As with all who dwell in this world, in whatever form, the naga snakes have their own peculiar lives and are an integral part of the mystery of our existence.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Gone Forever: the Impact of an Unexpected Death

"In my early teens I used to cycle to school with a girl who lived quite near our house.
Jessie was a little older than me. She had gorgeous, healthy, long blond hair that always seemed to fall in perfect folds around her face. She was not beautiful but she was certainly attractive. Neither was she one of my closest friends, or a confidante, but I enjoyed her company on the long cycle rides to and from our college and over the years we had developed an easy going and pleasant friendship.

Every day we had to traverse many miles of road. We often found ourselves pushing into a strong head wind which made the journey seem that much harder and longer. Cycling together, Jessie and I would chat and joke about all sorts of things and the trip felt less tiring. Near the end while on our way home, we would push our heavy cycles together up the indomitably steep, ‘Tamaki Street’ which stretched up the hillside on the last leg of our journey. Alone, this last climb seemed interminable, but when there were two of us it didn’t feel quite so bad.

We made these trips two times a day and five days a week, month after month over a period of several years and because we shared this routine so regularly I seldom thought anything of it.

Then suddenly one day she was gone. I got the news from my sister, who heard it from a friend of hers. Jessie had been instantly killed when a motorbike, on which she was a pillion passenger, somehow missed a bridge, flew off the side of the road and crashed into a dry riverbed far below. It had happened two nights before word had reached my ears.

I was utterly stunned. Then, as the numbness began to wear off, a gradual and painful sensation of having been betrayed swept over me. I thought of all the days that we had cycled to and from school together. I thought of all the hours that we had spent in our respective classrooms, yet I could not think of anything that she or I had done in these past years that could have in any way prepared us for this!

I could think of nothing in my school or home life that came even near to addressing the fact of ‘death.’
The things which I had spent all my time doing up until that point suddenly appeared superficial and irrelevant. It felt as though the past years of my life had all been a dream.

All the days, months and years that we spent in our college, doing our lessons and then all the hours spent after school doing homework, suddenly all of that seemed like some kind of bad joke.

Despite my previous experiences, nothing I had done up until this point had ever really come close to addressing the issue of death. There quite simply had been no apparent place for it in the routine and predictable life that I had been living. But Jessie’s sudden demise completely shattered that illusion.

Suddenly everything felt empty and meaningless. There was something about this ‘death’ that made everything else appear unreal.

That life could be snatched away suddenly was something I had brushed against much earlier, but ‘I’ had gone on, life had gone on and once the old routines recommenced I had been lulled back into that shadow land which engrosses all of our energy and attention with things that we are somehow made to think are important.

That someone I had seen and shared time with almost every day for several years had now simply ceased to be; this was something quite new, strange and inconceivable. Of course I had heard about people dying but that was something outside my own personal experience.

With Jessie, it was different. I had walked and talked with her only days before. She had been so alive and so vital. Somehow to grasp that she had gone and that there was nothing that anybody could do to bring her back pushed through a barrier in my mind and challenged me to look beyond it.
I felt the presence of a ‘mystery’ which was simply unnameable.

That very day I made the cycle ride to school alone. It was a cold Monday morning. Never will I forget walking into the classroom and having to endure the silent stares of the entire class. No one knew what to say, no one knew what to do. Something unspeakably ‘mysterious’ had happened right in our midst and yet we all just sat there doing our lessons hour upon hour without even alluding to it.

In those days there was no pupil counselling to help students through any kind of crisis, there was no support at all.
One was simply expected to get on with it; with the same useless, meaningless grind, as though nothing at all had happened.

When Jessie died, everything felt different in a new way. I had reached an age when my mind was beginning to question and inquire. In earlier years I had simply accepted whatever came along, but now I felt no longer able to do that.

Her death left a completely unexpected, gaping hole in a day to day ritual that we had shared for several years. I found it impossible to accept that she had simply ‘ceased to be.’ The sense of absolute mystery about her disappearance from the world threw me into a sombre mood. I found no comfort in the words I heard in church.

I urgently needed to know what it actually means to ‘die.’ I did not want to hear some secondhand stuff that had been pulled from a book. I wanted more than that.

During that time, I discovered one thing that could bring a sense of relief and perspective to my life. I took to sitting outside at night and gazing up at the sky.

When I did this I could feel the ‘mystery’ and the ‘something’ which is so unfathomable about our existence. To look out and see countless stars and universes helped me to bypass my questioning mind and feel directly something which I could not name. When I looked into the vastness of infinity I could feel at once that there is so much more to our existence than the petty day to day concerns that ate up all our time and energy. This helped me to cope with my grief and frustration.

I suppose that is when I began to understand that the society I was growing up in would not be able to satisfy the deeper, inner questionings that this event triggered.

The intense and actual mystery of so-called ‘death’ loomed up before me as a huge and solemn unknown.

How was it possible to continue on with petty, boring daily life knowing that we all faced this huge ‘thing’ and that one day we too would die? Surely there was something more which we needed to know, something which needed to do to address it. This all welled up inside me with a great sense of urgency.

Western societies are not known for prolonging their mourning. In fact, the feeling one gets is that as soon as the loved one is buried or cremated, as the case may be, it is expected that there should be a sense of closure or, at least, the expectation of closure and everyone then goes on with whatever it was they were doing before.

To me, at that time, that felt like a travesty.

I felt that ‘death’ was not being given its full due, it was being brushed over in a way that seemed superficial and inconsistent with the fact, that each of us would have to face it at some point.

Why was it that no one seemed to wonder where she went or what actually happened to her? Why was it that people were able to believe, so unquestioningly, what they had merely been told? I knew that could never work for me.

It takes some unravelling to get to the bottom of the complex feelings that can accompany the loss of someone who has touched our lives. Most of the time, these feelings are glossed over, ignored, or buried beneath a load of distraction. There are endless ways of not confronting the reality of loss and death directly.

We avoid the confrontation by filling our time with self-centered and artificial distractions. Very often we are preoccupied with all manner of things that are not in the least bit vital and this is primarily how the days, months and years of our lives are filled. All the while, we know very well, that the ‘clock is ticking,’ that our time is running out, yet we are no closer to understanding what its all about.

Inherently we are so much more than we are led to believe. There is a mystery in that. A mystery far beyond the confines of what our day to day ‘thinking mind’ is willing or even able to comprehend. We can get a striking sense of that even very early in life.

Surely death is the greatest of teachers.

The fact is that we cannot escape ‘ourselves’, where ever we go, whatever we do. The inescapable fact of our existence is bound to  confront us, sooner or later and ‘death’ is one of the most powerful ways to bring this before our attention.

This is why it is vital to look more closely now in the midst of so-called ordinary life, with all its cares and distractions, because the ‘now’ is itself filled with immensity and holds the key to the deep, disclosing recognition of who and what we really are.

The now is all that we really have!

Jessie’s life came to an early and abrupt end and she did not know herself  beyond the body and mind and the routine day to day needs and preoccupations of worldly life. But it can be different for us. We have the chance to look inward and discern beyond what appears to be true to what actually is true.

Life gives us a push and in some instances a sharp and hard slap, forcing us to look further and more deeply. We are not bound to believe all that others would have us believe, we must discover the truth for ourselves and the signposts that rise up on our individual journeys are often uniquely and perfectly tailored to help us do just that and thereby, wake up.

May the inward journey for each of us begin now; fresh and renewed with each passing moment!"


This excerpt is taken from my latest book;
Who Lives? Who Dies?
What We Need to Know Before We Go

Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Whispering Ones, Secret Lives of Trees

Tane Mahuta. Lord of the Forest
I was deeply touched when my mother shared with me an experience which she had a number years ago with her younger sister, my Aunt Carolyn. Carolyn passed away several years ago from breast cancer and this particular incident of which I am about to recount took place a year or two before she died.

My mother was in Auckland visiting Carolyn at her beautiful home on the outskirts of that big New Zealand city. The two became very close in later years and my mother often made the trip north to spend time with her. 

The later visits were particularly poignant because of Carolyn's illness and yet despite this, they were also joyful visits and deeply satisfying as Carolyn never tried to hide or ignore the fact that she might not overcome her illness. She was honest about it and honest about the fact that she was not quite ready to face the ultimate challenge and yet one could sense that she was nevertheless facing her fears with enormous courage and coming to accept them in her heart.  She took the fruits of this precious 'teaching' into her everyday life with the understanding that every moment was precious. 

There was none of the anger that can often accompany an unexpected and serious illness. Instead, there grew in her an implicit understanding that sooner or later we all must face the 'great leveller' and being an utterly gracious and compassionate woman, she knew enough of 'truth' to know when to bow down to it.

One day, during this particular visit, she surprised my mother by asking her to get ready to accompany her. She would disclose nothing at all about where they were going. It was all rather mysterious.

They put a few things into the car. Loaded the picnic basket and took off into the cool and pleasant morning. Several hours they were driving along, stopping often to gaze out at the contrasting colours and beauty of the New Zealand countryside.

Eventually, they turned onto a dirt road and followed it along on the loose metal surface for several miles until they reached a small car-park. Still, without giving away anything as to the purpose of their visit, Carolyn climbed out and beckoned to mum to follow.

They wandered along a gravel pathway until suddenly they turned a bend in the path and right there before them was Tani Mahuta. The name was given by the Maori and translates as Lord of the Forest. It is a huge and very ancient kauri tree. 

The sheer size, the silent power and majesty which rose before them so suddenly in the shape of this whispering giant made my mother gasp. It simply took her breath away. Never, in her entire life, she later recounted, had she felt such an instantaneous and overpowering sense of awe, quite spontaneously the tears had begun to flow down her cheeks and her immediate instinct had been quite simply to fall on her knees in homage.

In those days Tani Mahuta was not as famous or as frequently visited as it is today. One could approach the tree along a forest trail that was completely closed in on all sides by thick and towering trees and undergrowth. It could not be seen from the road or even the pathway until one came to a bend in the path and turned the corner. Then it suddenly appeared right in front of one's vision in all its immensity and splendour.

Now there is a wooden walkway in place which carries one right to the base of the tree but not close enough to be able to touch it or trample the immense roots beneath. These are now all protected very tastefully by wooden walkways and the whole tree has been fenced in, so there is no more the possibility to embrace this mighty giant even if only a tiny part of it.

Perhaps my mother and Carolyn were among New Zealand's earlier tree-huggers and in those days, they had ample opportunity to do just that.

Tani Mahuta is the largest known surviving kauri tree in the world. Its age is unknown, but it is estimated to be somewhere between 1,000 to 2,500 years old. It is from the Argarthis australis genus of trees and stands today in the Waipoua forest north of Auckland.

For my mother, this occasion was a deeply spiritual experience of which she never spoke without a renewed sense of reverence and awe.

Tane Mahuta
This extraordinary world in which we live is a dynamic and living web of interconnected life. How is this so? What is the unifying factor which pervades this universe? Like one breathing organism, our world expands and contracts in a continuous revolving cycle, the very centre of which is unmoving and unchanging. The source of all being is a common factor which binds us all inextricably together whatever outer form we may find ourselves in.

In this instance, I make mention of 'trees.' Often they surround us on all sides. They are the silent witnesses to our lives and yet how much attention do we ever give them? Most often they are simply there on the fringes of our awareness, present and yet largely unseen.

It is time to pay homage to 'trees.' How they have blessed my life and I am sure they have blessed yours as well, is a fact for which I am immensely grateful.

It is so easy to pass them every day and barely notice them at all and yet there they are, the whispering ones...
With complex and sophisticated networks of communication between and among themselves and a sentient life all of their own, they most assuredly deserve our attention.

Jai Krishnamurti asked; 

How do you look at a tree? Do you see the whole of the tree? If you don't see it as a whole, you don't see the tree at all. You may pass it by and say, 'There is a tree, how nice it is!' or say, "It is a mango tree," or "I do not know what those trees are; they may be tamarind trees." But when you stand and look -I am talking actually, factually- you never see the totality of it; and if you don't see the totality of the tree, you do not see the tree. 
Seeing the Whole, from the Book of Life.

As with all things in nature, trees give us another opportunity to witness, first hand, our interconnect-ness with the world in which we live, move and have our being. These silent warriors are like sentinels guarding the very portals to awareness itself.

All trees are interconnected with one another in ways in which we are barely even cognisant and the trees, in their turn, are connected to us within a vast network of interlinking, breathing living-ness.

Tree Temples
When I was very young, forests always appeared to me to be very lively and mysterious places. My parents favourite picnic spot, when I was growing up in Nelson, New Zealand was a large forest of pine trees which grew on a piece of land that jutted out into the bay, called Rabbit Island.

We often visited there. Whenever entering its precincts I was immediately overcome with the fresh scent of thousands upon thousands of pine needles and cones from the many acres of looming coniferous trees. They emitted the delicate, fragrant scent of cedar and pine.

I always felt so refreshed by this fragrance whenever we entered these forests and to this day the smell of pine needles and the sound of a breeze among the pine trees hold a deeply nostalgic significance in my heart.

There is nothing of the mental in this and yet everything of direct and emotive experience. I will always be grateful for what the forests of this earth have and continue to teach us. Their wisdom is given so freely and simply and points towards the very highest of truths.

Our forests and our trees are the precious earthly heritage that links us to that essential nature which is present within all living things.
This is a sacred link and must be treasured and guarded.

It is fitting to conclude with the verses by Joyce Kilmer;


I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree


Sunday, 7 January 2018

Chatral Rinpoche and the Importance of Saving Lives

Honouring Chadral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche, who passed away (30.12.2015) in Parping, Nepal.


Homage to the Beloved Lord of Refuge. 
 Your Kindness is as Boundless as Space. 
Merging into the Expanse of Wisdom 
you continue to Benefit Countless Beings...

"Limit yourself to just a few activities 
and undertake them with all diligence."
Kyabji Chadral Sangye Dorje

One of the activities that Chadral Rinpoche undertook with all diligence, was the annual fish release into the sacred Indian river, the Ganges. This continues to take place each year, right at the point where this vast river finally flows out into the Bay of Bengal and the wide open sea.

He began this project in the 1960,s with little more than an old wooden canoe, a few bucket loads of fish and a couple of helpers. Today the work is carried on primarily by his wife, Sangyum Karmala and various sponsors and volunteers. It is now a large operation involving many helpers, a number of boats and many truckloads of fish which are purchased from the fish farms in and around Kolkata and then released with prayers and auspicious mantras into the milky green waters of the great 'Mother Ganga'.

During the 1990,s I used to wonder about the little black pouch that Rinpoche always wore around his waist. He guarded this pouch very carefully as it was stuffed full of various denominations of Indian and Nepali rupee notes which devotees had offered for the purchase and release of fish. 

He was thoroughly scrupulous about the offerings which came in ensuring that all the offerings intended for the fish release were carefully added to the bulging purse. All offerings were assigned to its designated purses which denoted different causes, but somehow the funds for the 'fish release' were always very abundant and the little black pouch was often seen around Rinpoche's waist fairly bursting at its seams.

However, this had not always been the case. When Rinpoche first began this project, he was only newly arrived in India as a refugee from Tibet and extremely poor. In those days he was establishing the very first Buddhist Meditation Three Year Retreat center in the Sub Continent and as they could not afford to hire many workers, he rolled up his sleeves and took up a shovel, carrying, digging and labouring on the repair work site with everyone else.

Funds for the Fish Release were very scarce. One time the monastery caretaker walked into Rinpoche's room with tears in his eyes. He had just discovered that Rinpoche had sold a lovely piece of precious brocade, one of very few items that they had managed to bring with them from Tibet. With these funds he had bought a dial up phone so that he could call Kolkata to order fish and keep tabs on progress for the annual end of year release!

The caretaker was in a state of utter misery a good deal of the time during those years of scarcity. He was always wondering how on earth they would all be able to eat and carry on the general business of very simple living, but Rinpoche was never concerned and always waved him away with words of solace, telling him that ‘all would be well.’

I know that Rinpoche would have given the clothes off his own back in order to keep on releasing fish into the Ganges. In fact he ordered Lolu, the caretaker, to sell some of his scant personal possessions in order to do just this, on more than one occasion.

I used to watch Rinpoche's handpicked group leave from Salbari Gompa every year for this great event, with tears in my eyes, wondering if I would ever have enough merit to be allowed to go with them and help. They all stayed at the house of a Marwari Hindu who had taken a 'shine' to Rinpoche's project and Rinpoche, ever mindful and sensitive about respecting others, was always careful never to take more people with him than was absolutely necessary for the task at hand. He did this so as not to over step or impose on the kindness of a generous donor.

One year, however, I decided to take matters into my own hands. At the time, I was living in a small retreat hut in the forests of the Darjeeling hills and had come to know that Rinpoche had arrived at his Salbari Temple. He had journeyed from Nepal and was already on his way to Kolkata. I did not want to ask for permission and risk being sent back to my hut, so I just packed a few things, went down the hill and caught the night train. At that time i was living at his retreat place at Das Mile Gompa, a small monastery in the forests of Lopchu. 

After arriving in the wee hours of the following morning and finding myself a suitable lodging, I made my way to the place where I knew the release would be taking place. I was able to reach the banks of the Ganges just as they were all preparing to begin work that day.

It was naughty of me to go without his permission, but I never once regretted my decision and Rinpoche never said anything to reproach me nor showed any sign of displeasure at my unasked for appearance. Within an hour i was chugging out onto the river on a funky old wooden tugboat together with one of the Lamas. The two of us had loaded our boat with the help of a band of Indian workers, with large, waist high buckets filled to the brim with fish.

Four other boats, each with two helpers to unload the buckets came and went in a constant procession as we began to release the truck loads of fish that were being bought down to the river.

It was hard work in the unforgiving sun, but we barely looked up to notice it. Throughout most of the day, Rinpoche sat quietly on the banks and watched us come and go. There was such a special atmosphere, like a rain of blessings enfolding the whole procedure and although we laboured for hours with only occasional breaks, none of us faltered or felt tired.

Many times I found myself with tears in my eyes and spontaneously, mantras and prayers flowed from our lips as we lifted bucket after bucket-load of fish and poured them in droves into the waters. The moment of their release was so exhilarating. It was a joy to watch them flicker away like sparkling darts as the rays of the sun's light flashed for a moment off their silvery fins.

As it turned out, the year I went was one of the last that Rinpoche, already well into his nineties at the time, could attend in person and his wife, Sangyum Kamala and others have come forward now to carry on the work.

Just think of how relevant and how meaningful this work, which had such humble beginnings, has now become. This is not just a symbolic act that shows remarkable foresight and conveys a powerful message; this is a living demonstration of something much deeper, which has profound implications.

It is true that the fish in our seas are being caught indiscriminately and in droves and who is giving anything back? Can we take and take without end? But there is also another point to be made and one which needs to be repeated far and wide again and again.

All sentient life is aware and its existence is sacred. The Buddha recognised this more than 2,500 years ago and repeatedly pointed our the significance of this truth and yet we have been slow to recognise it for ourselves. Chadral Rinpoche found a unique way in which to honour the Buddha's teachings. When he released the fish which had been reared in captivity at farms in and around Kolkata he did so with the universal wish that each and every one of those numerous lives would find their way to liberation. 

However, this story does not end here, there is a twist in this tale and i want to include a mention something that happened to a young newly-wed couple who were about to embark on their honey moon in the Andaman Islands. Their story is a remarkable tale that reveals the intricate and subtle underlying threads between the motivation and the activities of those who live, work and exist in this world only to benefit others.

On the day of their departure, the young, newly-weds were walking through the Kathmandu airport, when they noticed an elderly Lama sitting to one side with his family and entourage. It was Chadral Rinpoche, about to set off for Kolkata to undertake the annual fish release.

As the husband’s family members were all long-time devotees of Rinpoche, he immediately went over to receive the Lama’s blessing. During this encounter Rinpoche made some comments which the young man was not able to fully understand at the time. He had asked Rinpoche to bless them on their trip and this Rinpoche had graciously done. However, he had also said something to them that they had both found very unexpected and disturbing.

He had said something major was about to happen and that much life would be lost as a result. As a political conflict was raging in Nepal at that time, the couple attributed his words to this. Rinpoche had told them that he was going to Kolkata to buy and bless fish which had been raised in fish farms. He had told them that he would release the fish into the Ganges and that he was praying that by doing this, he could save a few lives.

The couple offered a donation towards the purchase of the fish and he thanked them and then added that it would be offered in their name, but not only for their long life, but for the benefit and long life of all beings.

It was mid-December in the year of 2004. Exactly two weeks later there was the huge 9.1 earthquake near Indonesia. The massive quake released a gigantic tsunami which devastated a vast swathe of south-east Asia and took with it some quarter of a million lives. It happened just off the coast of Aceh, not far from the Andaman Islands where the couple was still holidaying at that time. The newly-weds lives were spared but their known world thereafter was completely shaken and they could never forget the timely words or the powerful blessing of the Lama.

(This excerpt is from the chapter called Ransoming Lives and is quoted from my third book, Masters, Mice and Men, in the Series, Shades of Awareness.)