Tuesday, April 29, 2008

4/29 - A new kind of challenge

I had a long, dramatic post written up, but I fear it would be imprudent to post it just yet. In lieu of that, here's the essence of it.

This next stage is interesting. The more I want it, the harder I try, the more I even think about it, the harder it is to achieve. I've had tastes of it, but it's far from stable. The further I go, the more it feels like I'm just sitting there. No doubt this is why the main Zen practice is called shikantaza, which translates as "just sitting," and why it's so hard to describe in words.

If it never stabilizes, oh well. If it does, I should have more to write. In the mean time, I suspect not much of interest will happen.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Monkey and elephant

Here's a nice picturesque representation of what shamatha meditation is all about.

The second half of the page illustrates the stages.

Friday, April 25, 2008

4/25/08 – Ace, Bob, or Aditya?

Imagine, if you will, the local video arcade. Ace and Bob have just finished another long day at the factory, and as usual, are cooling off steam playing Ultimate Fighter Pilot. There's a war going on out there, but both men have somehow, thankfully, avoided the draft.

Blam! Every time he downs a bogey, Bob gleefully imagines he's a true flyboy. It's a good way to distract him from reality. He knows he should be at home with his wife and kids, and the bills surely aren't going to pay themselves. But man, what a rush! Nothing will ever come of it, but he doesn't want to admit that. Maybe, just maybe, an Air Force recruiter will happen by, and SEE, dammit, that he is The One. Then he'll really be somebody...

Ace has always had a funny feeling in the back of his mind. He doesn't know why he's always been attracted to games like this -- but whatever, it's fun. Every now and then, he gets shot down, and wonders why he's wasting his time. But something keeps him there. He doesn't know it -- at least not yet -- but years ago, he was one of Britain's top guns. In his head, just behind the amnesia, a little man is sitting, smiling at the irony. No matter, he thinks; soon, destiny will take its inevitable course, and in a flash of insight, all will become clear...

Meanwhile, next door, Aditya sits writing stupid stories, knowing fully well he should be meditating instead.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

4/25 – Get enlightened or become a vegetable trying

So I’m sick of trying to locate the breath below my nostrils. My hay fever is bulldozing right over the Claritin, and besides, I think years of ineptitude with shaving have left the skin above my lips a barren, insensitive wasteland.

So I asked myself today, just wtf IS meditation? Well, I thought I’d try a different version, one that comes with a warning label: “for advanced meditators only!” Now, I’m no advanced meditator, but read the canonical description of shamatha without an object:

By completely abandoning thought and the object of thought
One should let the mind settle in the natural state of an infant.

Hey, I could do that! It sounds like how I spend most of my time (just ask Grant)! In fact, it sounds suspiciously like what I imagined meditation to be before I was disabused of the notion by such statements as this, written by Tibetan Buddhist adept and scholar Alan Wallace in his indispensable The Attention Revolution:

During the early 1970s, I knew of one fellow who decided on his own that the whole point of meditation was to stop thinking, and he diligently applied himself to this goal for days on end. Eventually, he reached this goal by becoming vegetative, unable even to feed himself, and he needed to be hospitalized.

Hmm… Then a few chapters later, we have quotes from Padmasambhava and Tsongkhapa, both founders of Tibetan Buddhist schools:

Vacantly direct your eyes into the space in front of you. See that thoughts pertaining to [everything] are completely cut off.


Resolve, “I will settle the mind without thinking about any object.”

So there you have it, folks. It’s all just a big hoax.

Just kidding. Luckily I have a few lamas here to help me sort it out.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

4/23 - Not just a fluke

Now for some good news: today's sessions suggest that perhaps I wasn't just lucky these past few weeks. I think I'm doing just fine progress-wise.

4/23 Talking to myself

I was gazing at a tree after meditating outside, and I almost said out loud “wow, isn’t that beautiful.” Not very clever. In fact I wasn’t taking in the beauty at all -- I was only telling myself how obviously beautiful it must be. Sometimes I have to do that, I think: use a few words to remind my brain what I’m “supposed to be” focusing on.

Do you ever do that? Like while working out a problem, talk either out loud or in your head to jump-start the thinking process that got sidetracked, bogged down, or simply faded out a few seconds ago?

4/23 Stream of consciousness

Breathe in… breathe out… breathe STUPID FLY get off my nose! … breathe … why I’ll KILL YOU!! … breathe in … what?! only 12 minutes so far?! … breathe out … gosh I hope I don’t waste all 3 months like this … breathe maybe I should take a nap.

So I’m an impatient, uncompassionate, anxious, neurotic, drowsy wreck. Oh well, at least it’s an improvement over two weeks ago, when I didn’t even know it! Welcome to the untrained mind, I guess.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

4/13 - A nice Zen moment

(Yes, I know this post is out of order. Oops.)

So here I am, sitting outside in the 65 degree weather, the warm desert sun shining down, a bowl of strawberries in my hand. What could make it more beautiful? Ah, a nice butterfly coming to land on my… AH CRAP it’s a buzzing moth! Get away from my ear!

4/20 - Yes, progress

I don't wanna jinx it, but today there were signs of real progress. Of course, it's unbecoming a Buddhist to discuss details of his 'accomplishments', and besides, maybe I've just been lucky thus far. But keeping my fingers crossed...

4/16 - The chomping metronome

You ever have a song playing in your head while you eat? It's so much worse, because you're going chomp chomp chomp at a regular pace, giving your mind a nice metronome. I thought I'd trick my mind (worst Buddhist evar) by varying the pace of my chewing.

All it did was make for a more interesting rendition of The Legend of Zelda theme.

4/15 - I am now officially a Buddhist

Today Khenpo gave my lay ordination as a Buddhist practitioner. I am now officially ... (drum roll) ...

Choki Senge

A couple hours later, while cleaning the bathroom, I almost broke my vows and killed a spider that decided it would be clever to scare me.

4/14 - I want a nostrilectomy

After 5 long hours of practice, it would be nice to be able to feel something other than my nostrils. I actually have to breathe through my mouth to turn off the feeling...

Plus, my head hurts.

4/14 - Progress?

Mark Hallett, Helen Neville, Amir Amedi, and Ehud Zohary.

Those are the names I remember from the book last night ("Train your mind, change your brain”. Hey, it’s about “a groundbreaking collaboration between neuroscience and Buddhism” – and pretty inspirational!).

I didn’t have to re-read sentences, understood what was being said, read faster than usual, and got distracted much more rarely than normal. And somehow, those names stuck (okay, I cheated a little – I re-read those names while reading yesterday). And I think I remember what each contributed.

I have to remind myself not to get too excited about my progress…

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Today at lunch, Khenpo's friend noticed that the three retreatants were all silent. We've all decided not to talk (as much as possible). Khenpo made the amusing observation (in his unique brand of English) that "Everyone silence. Only three monks not silence!"

Well I found it funny anyway...


Today I’ve woken up at 4:30 to get some practice in before breakfast. Reminding myself why I’m here and practicing bodhichitta should be enough to keep me awake until I zonk out after prayers.

Khenpo loves talking, but I think it’s time for me to practice silence. I think I’m going to try out earplugs and no talking. Silence and vegetarianism… looks like I’m going this one alone.

I’m not sure yet if caffeine is a crutch. Buddhism says tea is fine (even good). It does help me focus. And presumably some skills I learn while on caffeine (mindfulness, introspection) will stay even when the caffeine goes.

One subtle obstacle I’ve found is trying to immediately regain my level of focus immediately after a largish distraction. I can go on for minutes fruitlessly trying to vividly attend to a fine sensation at the nostril for minutes, but never finding it. Instead, I find it best to begin with general relaxation and watching the breath as a whole, and quickly it becomes refined.


Today we had a “special” meal cooked by Khenpo’s friend, an outgoing Tibetan lady. She tells me she doesn’t meditate, but is sure it’s very easy. On the other hand, she’s heard stories (friend’s mom’s dog’s sister) of monks who have gone mad during retreat.

The special dish is beef soup. There’s also a veg version, but surprisingly enough, only 3 of the 10 attendees opt for it. Khenpo only does because HH has said he should. Lama loves meat though, which surprises me.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


Last night I asked khenpo about vegetarianism. Apparently the Dalai Lama, after eating meat for many years, recently said (decreed?) that all Tibetan monks should stop eating meat. Until then, Khenpo ate meat. He says that in Buddhism, it is okay to eat meat so long as you are not responsible for the death of the animal. Tricky, I think, in our culture.

Practice went rather well yesterday. Today, so far by 10:30 all I’ve achieved is a nap, after maybe 15 minutes of so-so meditation after prayers. But boy, this morning felt very nice, alert, and peaceful:

I just had this recurring (nagging) dream where I’ve failed to graduate from college because I skipped too many classes (and missed some finals or too much homework or something). Every time I have it, I yet again fail to show up to class and pray I’ll graduate anyway. This time, I actually went – and paid attention and took notes in class! This is a good sign…

At lunch, I sprinkled some chili powder on my food and started sneezing. I commented that I should stop using it, and Ron jokingly commented that it’s an addiction. A funny thing happened. I noticed my mind start to defend itself (“but I’ve only used it twice in three days!”), and then pat itself on the back for simply joking along, and then start to wonder how true it was. All in a very short time. I’m sure that’s always going on, but it’s fun to notice.


On Monday, Khenpo Jigme and a friend from Alamosa arrived to pick me up from the airport. Upon finding out what I do, Khenpo offered me a deal: he’ll teach me meditation if I teach him how to use his computer. I gladly accepted.

When I arrived, the only other retreatant was a woman doing 6 months of completely silent retreat – we can talk to her, but she cannot respond with her voice. The other inhabitants are Khenpo Jigme, Lama Wangdu, and a western monk named Chosang. Perhaps “monastery” is not too far off the mark.

Now it seems there’s the occasional other person coming and going. I imagine it will be hard avoiding contact with everyone during the next few months, since it feels rude. But it will probably be quite a distraction introducing myself to everyone who shows up.

Maybe because of the altitude adjustment, or maybe as an excuse because meditation is so hard and boring, I find myself taking frequent naps. I also partake in the occasional Lipton, telling myself that it’s at least better than coffee…

Here are the deer that come to eat the scraps we feed them:

Sunday, April 6, 2008


Tomorrow I leave at 7 AM to drive through hellish LA traffic for my 10:44 flight. I don't arrive til 5:38 MT in Alamosa, where Lama Wangdu has promised to give me a ride into the boonies where I'll be locked away for the next 3 months...