Tag Archives: Pat Little

RETURNING TO SILENCE: ZOOM RETREAT WITH DÓNAL CREEDON

Photo: Yeshe Dorje

31 December 2021 – 7 January 2022

There is something in the title that Dónal chose for this retreat that only became clear as it progressed: we are to return to silence as our natural state. This silence has been obscured: we have been diverted from it by the noise and bustle of the world and, more fundamentally, by an error of perspective.  But it is possible to find it again. This perception formed a kind of ground bass to the seven days we spent together meditating on the theme.

We were deeply grateful to Dónal for engaging once again with a retreat through Zoom, due to the pandemic still raging throughout the world. The pros and cons of using Zoom are finely balanced. On the negative side, there are the technical hitches that inevitably beset all those participating, including Dónal himself; there is the distancing effect of working through the screen rather than face-to-face and the impossibility of engaging with other participants in a meaningful way; and there is the fact that participants are still having to deal with the intrusive every day, still having to keep the ship afloat in terms of family and professional commitments. The real test of the retreat is therefore how adequately one maintains mindfulness in the storm when one is not ‘on the cushion’, literally or figuratively.

On the other hand, there is the undoubted plus of having participants gathered together from many parts of the world – in this case uniting Ireland with the UK and mainland Europe, but also Southern Africa, in centres where Dónal has been in the habit over the years of conducting physical retreats. The result was that there were over ninety retreatants present in virtual form for some sessions, coming from many different spiritual traditions or none at all.

The daily schedule was similar to that to which we have become accustomed: early morning silent meditation, then a teaching session followed by another meditation session. In the afternoon there were three more meditation sessions, sometimes with a teaching element, or Question and Answer, with the final session of the day given over to silent loving-kindness meditation. The breadth of possibilities this afforded was chosen deliberately by Dónal, reluctant to impose specifically Buddhist forms on the retreat, given the varied backgrounds of the participants. So no Chenrezig, for instance.

This breadth, in fact, reflects Dónal’s own background as he outlined his own spiritual journey from his initial discovery, as a young man still feeling his way, of Krishnamurti’s teachings, with which he still engages, to Tibetan Buddhism and long retreats in Samye Ling, leading to the discovery of many ‘sublime teachers’  such as Ringu Tulku Rinpoche and Thrangu Rinpoche being prominent and with whom he follows with loving attention. But concurrently, he spent several years as Resident Buddhist Scholar at the Krishnamurti Centre in Varanasi, India, refining his knowledge of that teacher’s work and influence.

His itinerary is charted in the study he published in 2017, (The Main of Light: Common Ground and Dividing Lines in the Teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti and Buddhism in which the two main aspects of his spiritual path illuminate each other with a rare intensity.

On the first morning of this Zoom retreat, Dónal outlined the principles that should guide our meditation. We should bear in mind the traditional approach of the lamas, who emphasised listening with the correct motivation: the noble bodhisattva motivation, at its most basic, reposing on the wish that all beings be happy and free from suffering. This was crucial, he said, whether we felt that the teacher was talking sense or nonsense: we listen with this motivation, and analyse afterwards. The traditional approach includes study, retreat and meditation on the words of great Dharma figures of the past and the present. This is the way of complexity.

There is also, however, the direct path of the yogis, Mahamudra and Dzogchen. In this approach, there is no need for intensive study of texts and teachings: the study involved is that of the mind itself. Simple, but not easy, Dónal emphasised. Outlining the approach, he went through the various stages involved:

  • The body should be firm like a mountain

  • The mind like space

  • The breath free like the wind.

Then again:

  • Rest naturally, without altering

  • Don’t follow thoughts about the past or the future

  • Don’t invite thoughts

  • Trust, don’t doubt the mind’s capacity for spontaneous wisdom

This should be done, at the beginning at least, for very short periods: using the breath as support, counting up to three breaths, resting / not resting, but with total attention. This sounds easy enough, but the meditator needs to discover for him- or herself what this means.

In subsequent teaching sessions, Dónal turned his attention to the sufferings endured by all beings in the world. What is their cause? The Dharma identifies some of these; craving is one basic one, defined here as the movement of the mind in the dualistic situation in which we find ourselves. The solution to the problem is always somewhere else, ‘out there’, in the future. But this is just self-delusion, the condition of conflict and sorrow in the world, both personal and on a global scale.

This craving in its turn is based on ignorance, ignorance of the way the world works and how our minds function. In a fascinating teaching, Dónal compared the interpretation of the self in Western and Buddhist traditions. Using the Western developmental model of the child, he demonstrated that in this way of thinking, an individual has to develop a firm sense of self to be whole and to function adequately. According to the American psychotherapist Jack Engler [See interview with Jack Engler] the self is the organising principle of the psyche, and a lack of a sense of self leads to mental illness. ‘You have to be somebody before you can be nobody’, as Dónal put it.

In Buddhism, on the contrary, it is craving that creates the self, and that leads therefore to many problems of the mind. For Buddhism, the self is not solid, it is a process rather than an entity, and its construction can be defined as a verb rather than a noun. Dónal evoked the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus at this point, for whom all is flow. You never step twice into the same river. This apprehension leads to a great openness, an optimistic perspective that we are capable of change, that we are not stuck in a rigid state from which we cannot escape. The Buddha’s teachings are thus not just about suffering, but rather about the solution to suffering.

To understand this, we need to understand the nature of craving, based as it is on a fundamental split, between me and the object craved for, a dualism so fundamental that we seldom question it. And yet it is fundamentally flawed, an error to be corrected, as Thrangu Rinpoche has ably demonstrated. It is only a step to seeing thought itself as the main problem. This somewhat revolutionary idea is put forward by figures such as Krishnamurti, an inspirational but controversial figure, and the physicist David Bohm, as against our usual perception of thought being one of the glories of the human mind. Dónal ably summarised the problems created by thought:

  • Thought fragments, divides what is undivided. Take the Irish Border, for example, that border is created by the human mind, but has no real existence, in spite of its potential over the decades to create human misery.

  • According to Krishnamurthi, thought is always in the past and, being bound by the past, cannot meet the present.

  • (Related to this point): thought thinks it is free and independent, but in fact it operates in the past, in memory, resembling a computer programme.

  • Thought operates through labelling, shortcuts that have no validity in fact: we say “I’m Irish”, “she’s Russian”, but these statements are meaningless, mere labels created by humans.

  • The mind regards the images it creates as objective reality, but they are in fact mere projections of thought. We try to fix these images, of ourselves and others, but in the end, our world is created by thought.

On the other hand, true wisdom, prajna (knowing deeply, deep perception), realises that what comes up in our minds – its very confusion – is the material of meditation, and beyond rational thought. We should not look on thought as a problem, however: it has a limited function, creating chaos only when it tries to go beyond this. Thought thinks it knows, whereas knowing in the deepest sense belongs to a different realm altogether, accessible only through vipassana, insight. The true nature of thought is dharmakaya, the ultimate truth of things, emptiness. But this is not in fact how we experience things, and the meditator needs to start not with ‘non-duality’, but with ‘me and my thoughts’.

These perceptions help to elucidate another topic to which Dónal gave his attention and which causes problems to Westerners: the ‘accumulation of merit’, as presented in the Diamond Sutra. There is the tendency in the West to interpret this process as a balance-sheet mentality (and therefore to reject it uncomprehendingly), whereas the accumulation of merit does not belong to the realm of cause and effect, operating in a realm that is beyond these. It nevertheless enriches our body-mind in the field of time and becoming. A positive thought or action always leaves its mark, and a compassionate act creates something for the person performing the act, however small or insignificant. In the same way, offerings to the Buddha and to sublime beings create karmic connections with these beings by opening us up to what they represent.

Reflections of this kind brought out in the course of the retreat, and under Dónal’s expert and compassionate guidance, the significance of the title, ‘Returning to Silence’. By paying attention to what is happening, while it is happening, we learn bit by bit to still the chatter of our minds and listen – truly listen – to the sacred silence that is already there within us, that is not dependent on the outer environment, not just an absence of sound.

It is impossible in a limited review to do justice to the richness and depth of the material presented during this short retreat. But we are deeply grateful to Dónal for sharing his wisdom and experience, and giving us the confidence to believe in our natural access to the silence within.

Pat Little

Saint-Geniès de Malgoires, France

20/01/2022

Photo: Yeshe Dorje

Thank you to Pat Little for submitting an engrossing account of Dónal’s retreat. (Ed)

Review: The Dalai Lama’s Cat

David Michie, The Dalaï Lama’s Cat: A Novel. Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, India, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States: Hay House, 2012.

For Elizabeth, who introduced me to HHC

A cat’s-eye view of the bodhisattva (bodhicatva) path, this wise and witty novel follows the progress of a Himalayan kitten, snatched from the jaws of death in a New Delhi slum where, as the runt of the litter, she is about to be consigned to the rubbish-heap. She is rescued by two young attendants of the Dalai Lama, stuck in a traffic jam while returning to his Indian home from a trip to the United States. The ensuing tale is one ‘not so much of rags to riches as trash to temple’.

We have the usual disclaimer on the book’s copyright page, about any resemblance to persons living or deceased being ‘strictly coincidental’. But the interest of the novel is precisely such a resemblance, which comes to be seen as the kitten’s good karma. Stunningly beautiful with her long, luscious white fur and her sapphire eyes – Mrs Trinci, the Dalai Lama’s favourite cook (she of the ‘operatic temperament’), calls her simply ‘The Most Beautiful Creature That Ever Lived’) – she is adopted by His Holiness, in whose beneficent presence the whole novel bathes.

The first-person narrative from the perspective of the kitten allows us to chart her spiritual progress from the inside, her gradual recognition of her spiritual limitations (gluttony, which nearly gets the better of her, being the chief one, as well as a certain understandable vanity) and her efforts to overcome them.

The question of what to call the cat looms large early on, and is never resolved in any hard-and-fast way. Her karmic link with the Dalai Lama makes ‘His Holiness’s Cat’ (abbreviated to ‘HHC’) an obvious and lasting one. But she is also ‘Rinpoche’ by association with His Holiness, while he himself favours ‘Snow Lion’. Mrs Trinci adds ‘Tesorino’ and ‘cara Mia’ to ‘The Most Beautiful Creature That Ever Lived’. The only name rejected by HHC herself as being thoroughly undignified is ‘Mousie-Tung’, bestowed on her by one of His Holiness’s attendants.

The Dharma teachings which are the essence of the novel are conveyed in the main informally, through His Holiness’s conversation with his many visitors, mostly distinguished in worldly terms (although Thich Nhat Hanh makes a brief appearance), seeking enlightenment at the feet of one of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders. In the earlier pages these tend to be brief and unelaborated, with the narrative taking precedence, but as the kitten becomes a cat and her understanding of such matters develops, they become teachings of some range and complexity. They are thus an important structuring device to the novel. As befits the central concept of the equal potential for enlightenment of all beings, we feel no surprise or artificiality at the idea of a cat having access to these fundamental teachings.

In spite of the deep seriousness of this subject-matter, the narrative never becomes solemn, the cat’s perspective ensures that other characters are introduced with a fitting sense of irony. One of the chief of these is Franc, of Café Franc, a ‘Tibetan Buddhist theme-park’, according to our feline observer, Franc himself being where ‘Metropolitan chic meets Buddhist mystique’. Franc, with his Om (single) earring, blessing-strings, his tight black clothing, his shaven head and his French bulldog, is a cat-hater, until he discovers HHC’s link with the Dalai Lama, which he turns into a selling-point for patrons of the café. HHC, for her part, is only too happy to adopt the vantage-point of the magazine-rack ‘between Vanity Fair and Vogue’, as she awaits the copious meals Franc bestows on her.

Franc himself is brought round to some degree of understanding by the Dalai Lama himself, in a contact over Franc’s dog and Kyi Kyi, a Lhassa Apso rescued by His Holiness. The latter immediately penetrates Franc’s façade, and sends him off for teachings to Geshe Wangpo of Namgyal Monastery. Little by little, the Buddhist trappings fall away, the self-cherishing is muted, and a more genuine, happier Franc materialises, but not before the reader has been treated to some basic Buddhist teachings.

HHC herself grows in understanding, gaining insight into her inadequacies, evoking her ‘poor meditation skills, [her] habitual negative mental thoughts’, her fretting at the fact that her ‘impeccable breeding’ as a pedigree Himalayan cat remains undocumented. This new understanding does not prevent ordinary feline passions being satisfied, and an encounter with a large male tabby from the slums of Dharamsala leads inevitably, towards the end of the novel, to the announcement of a forthcoming litter, to the delight of His Holiness.

Thus, the happiness of all beings is fully recognised, and the lightness of touch with which the teaching is conveyed is maintained throughout.

An engaging and thought-provoking read.

About the Author:  Pat Little is a member of Bodhicharya Ireland and the Dublin Kagyu Samye Dzong. She has a keen interest in ecological matters, notably the Sowa Rigpa Medicine Garden which Ringu Tulku Rinpoche is developing in his Sikkim Retreat Centre, where she worked for a brief spell in 2009

 

 

 

 

Bodhicharya Summer Camp

Bodhicharya Summer Camp

14-20 July 2014

Casa da Torre, Braga, Portugal

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The Camp was hosted for the third year running by Bodhicharya Portugal at Casa da Torre, near Braga, from 14 to 21 July. With around 110 participants from 20 different countries, mainly European, the atmosphere was lively, the discussion animated, a chance to renew old friendships and make new ones.

Ringu Tulku’s teachings continued and concluded the study of Dakpo Tashi Namgyal’s magisterial text, Mahᾱmudrᾱ, The Moonlight: Quintessence of Mind and Meditation, which he had started four years previously in Lusse, France. He made it clear from the outset, however, that study of a text is only the beginning: we must use this study to work on ourselves, which is the main meditation. Ultimately it is our practice and we must integrate the teaching at the level on which we find ourselves. Throughout the week’s teachings, he stressed the Dharma as a living reality, and this somewhat forbidding text was made accessible to us by our knowledge that our teacher had been there himself and was reporting back from the land of realisation for samsaric beings at an earlier stage on the Path. And yet he managed, consistently, but without any diminution of the text’s austere wisdom, to open it up to our understanding.

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