Thoughts and Feelings From The Edge Of A World Going Mad
Tom Kenyon, published 2006
What a long strange trip this has been.
Judi and I left for our third around-the-world teaching tour in December of last year and went straight away to Japan to do both a Hathor and a Magdalen workshop.
Both of us find it interesting that the Japanese are so fascinated with the Magdalen. I recall our first workshop in Tokyo a few years ago on the Magdalen Material, which took place at the request of our publisher. One of the first questions from participants was, “Who is Mary Magdalen?”
As we explained the history and legend of this enigmatic figure, we also explored with them the place of women in Japanese society. It was, no doubt, a naiveté on my part that I thought shame and guilt would be lacking in a primarily Buddhist society—far from it. What struck Judi and me so deeply was that as men and women shared their insights and feelings about their society in light of the Magdalen material, it became clear that Japanese women face many of the same challenges that women face throughout the world.
After the workshops, we left for our favorite city in Japan—Kyoto and climbed the first part of Mt. Kurama to do some personal work. It had snowed intensely several days before and it was bitterly cold at the Buddhist monastery. The monastery is unusual for several reasons—the first being that the spiritual leader is a woman in her eighties and the second is that it is believed that on a slope of this mountain, Sanat Kumara, ascended in what they call his “heavenly chariot.”
The spot of his ascension is marked by a small shrine and is a pilgrimage place for many throughout Japan. One of the interesting things about this monastery, which is spread out over the side of the mountain, is that there is a small model of Sanat Kumara’s heavenly chariot. It is made out of sand and molded into what legend holds to be its actual shape. And what is this shape? Well, it kind of looks like a large bowl sitting on top of a larger plate, and bares a striking resemblance to what I would call a flying saucer. I had hoped to take photos of it to share with our readers, but alas, the thing was under a blanket of snow. But Judi took a photo of it on our first trip to the monastery a few years back, and here it is.
Japan was turning colder and colder and fortunately we left for Bangkok just before a record snowfall plunged the country into a virtual crisis. People were stranded in Tokyo airport and sleeping on the floor waiting for flights that had been cancelled. We had gotten out just in time.
We spent some weeks in Thailand with our Asian guide, Ken Ballard, planning our upcoming trips to Tibet and Burma. We then all left for Kathmandu, Nepal. It is here that we often take our Tibetan tour groups in order to acclimatize for altitude before flying into Lhasa. We were there to meet with Hari, one of our young porters from the last Tibet trip, and with an amazing man named Krishna whose life service is taking care of orphans from the Maoist-led conflicts in Nepal. We were also there to go through another collection of rare Tibetan bowls, which are getting harder and harder to obtain.
While in Kathmandu, we attended a Buddhist Full-Moon festival at our favorite stupa in Nepal—Bodinath. I took a few snapshots of the festival, which are scattered throughout this article. After circumambulating the stupa several times with thousands of Tibetans, we sat down at a small café for some tea. As the full moon slipped over the top of the stupa I felt intoxicated from the chanting and display of devotion. My reverie, however, was disturbed by three explosions that shook the air. It turns out that Maoist rebels had penetrated into Kathmandu and had blown up three police stations and shot several army personnel nearby. The air in the city the next day was decidedly tense. Armed soldiers were everywhere, even more than before. We had two more days in Nepal before we could leave on our flight. I chanted and prayed a lot in those two days for our protection. Finally, our flight left Nepal and we headed for Egypt. We received increasingly desperate emails from our friends in Nepal. The country was falling apart, and as you may know, the king’s powers were greatly reduced by a national revolution by one of the smallest countries on Earth.
The story gets even weirder. And I must say that from here on I became a believer in that odd phrase—life is stranger than fiction.
We flew into Cairo and met Abdallah, one of our land guides from Guardian Travel. And before we get any further, let me say that they deserve the name. This was our second tour to Egypt with Guardian and they look after and protect their charges like no other tour company. If you are considering a tour to Egypt on your own, or if you are thinking about taking a group there, you could not do any better than Guardian Travel. You can reach them by going to the web. If you email them, tell Mohammad that Judi and I said hello.
So…we arrived in Cairo a few days before the group to rest and finalize plans with Guardian. For the next two weeks, we traveled Egypt and sailed the Nile with a group of travelers that made the trip sheer magic. And for all of you who were on that trip, we thank you for your sincerity, ability to roll with the challenges that always arise on journeys to less modern cultures and for your great sense of humor. I was deeply touched by the ancient sites of Egypt, as there is still magic in the air—a testimony to the depth of their alchemy and the power of their inner and outer technologies.
But back to our odyssey—Mohammad, Guardian’s Director, wanted to gift us with a few days of R&R in Dahab right after the tour. Dahab is a downscale seaside resort on the Sinai that may sound familiar if you follow the news. It was the site of a terrorist attack where three bombs went off killing a lot of people just a few weeks after we left. Watching the horror of the aftermath on TV, we recognized the restaurant, the store and the bridge we had crossed many times.
Mohammad had suggested Dahab because he knew that we love to snorkel. The thing is—the Red Sea, during that time of year, is colder than a well digger’s ass to use an off-colored phrase. In order to get into the water for more than a few minutes, most people have to use wet suits.
I won’t rehash the trip to Dahab because I go into it in the article entitled The Unbearable Light of Awareness. What I didn’t mention in the article was what happened as we tried to leave Egypt and get to decent medical attention in Spain.
If you choose to read that article you will find out how I tore tendons in both my shoulders leaving me remarkably helpless, barely able to lift my arms. It was the worst pain I have yet experienced in my life, and it left me truly humbled. All metaphysical skills went out the window.
The only input into my brain was mind-numbing pain. I suddenly understood the concept of unrelenting anguish, and the only spiritual practice I could undertake was the Practice of the Compassionate Mandala in which you realize that there are other sentient beings suffering the same ways you are. And you send compassion out to them without knowing their names or where they are. (I thought some of our readers might be interested in how to create the Mandala of Compassion, so I have included some basic directions at the end).
I know that what I am about to tell you may seem like hyperbole, but it is the actual truth, and I have five witnesses who can verify this.
The road trip out of Dahab back to Cairo took us another eleven or so hours due to a freak rainstorm. It was past twilight, right at the edge of night, when I had an ominous feeling that something was terribly wrong. I had what I thought was a fantasy that we were heading for an accident. I told myself that I was just paranoid and stressed from my injuries. I still could hardly move my arms and was incapable of lifting much of anything. But a deep instinct told me to start chanting silently. It was the same feeling I had had on our last trip into Tibet when we had to drive across the Tibetan Plateau. Our Toyota Land Cruiser blew a rear tire at the edge of a precipice that from the looks of it, dropped down about a thousand or so feet. I started chanting, silently, for the entire three-day trip into Lhasa.
And so here on this strange road in Egypt, I started chanting in my mind. Unknown to me, both Judi and her daughter Adrianne had strange premonitions and thoughts about car accidents at the same time.
Several minutes into my silent vigil an army truck carrying six armed soldiers sitting in the open back of the pickup, lost control right in front of us, flipped in mid-air and rolled onto the desert floor off to our right. Our driver slammed on his brakes and we just missed hitting the vehicle by inches.
There were screams in the night as the soldiers were thrown across the desert breaking their arms, legs and God knows what else. We were told to stay in the van as this was Bedouin country and they were known to rob and kill travelers. It was one of the more surreal moments in my life. There I was, unable to move my arms, listening to the sounds of men screaming in pain in the darkness of the night.
When ambulances arrived our driver headed on to Cairo. The van was silent, all of us lost in thought. The driver drove very slowly and cautiously all the way to the edge of Africa’s largest city—which took several more hours.
It took one more day to actually get out of Egypt, due to the fact that we had to change our airline tickets. This involved driving through Cairo to the Lufthansa Airlines office, which was, in and of itself, a journey. If you’ve been to Cairo, you know what I am talking about. The sheer volume of cars and people and the cacophony of noise makes New York look like a little suburb. Cairo is a mad swirling multi-dimensional mandala of sheer chaos.
After packing our bags at the hotel, we rushed to the airline office only to be bogged down in traffic. We finally got there shortly after twelve noon. Our agent was processing the tickets, when she looked up and said—“I assume you are planning to take the flight tomorrow”—to which Judi replied, “No we are leaving today.”
The agent looked up at the clock and said, “You will never make it.”
Judi, without blinking an eye, said, “Yes, we will.”
Sometimes when it is time to leave a place, you need to leave as soon as possible. Judi and I had talked about this and agreed that the signs were there—get the hell out of Dodge.
The agent hurried through the ticket procedure and reserved us seats on a flight for two days later as well—in case we didn’t get to the airport in time. We ran out to one of the Guardian vans with our tickets in hand and headed off to the airport—well over an hour away in good traffic, and the flight left in less than an hour an a half. Time wasn’t just tight; it needed folding.
And it was here that I witnessed one of the most remarkable displays of intuition in action that I have ever seen. Ehab and the driver continually spoke in Arabic to each other, planning our route of escape. They would pause at choked intersections where buses, cars, and camels stood still as pedestrians ran for their lives to cross the street. Ehab and the driver would point in different directions, intuitively and logically planning what road they should take. Miraculously, we arrived at the airport about twenty minutes before the flight took off. The gate should have already closed.
There were hordes, and I mean hordes, of people milling about. You could hardly move, but like a modern day Horus—undeterred by the obstacles before him, Ehab managed to rush us through the first level of security and up to the counter, just as the gate was closing.
The agent at the desk rolled her eyes at the massive amount of baggage we had—we were, after all, traveling the world for an entire year with video cameras, audio equipment, clothes and miscellaneous items. We looked like a traveling circus, but there were only two of us.
One of my three Egyptian doctors had given me a note for assistance with my hand carry items, as I could not lift my arms. It was determined by the desk agent that I should have a wheelchair even though I didn’t think I needed one.
As the agent weighed our bags, one of the handlers winked at me—an Egyptian signal for baksheesh. You see Egypt, like many of the third-world countries we have visited, has a whole system for handling problems like this. We call it a bribe, but it isn’t really a bribe, as we understand the term. It is more like oil for the machinery. And so I winked back and asked Judi to hand him the equivalent of twenty US dollars. She palmed it to him, and he whisked off and got me a wheelchair and started to roll me through customs. But there was a hitch.
A short male supervisor stepped forward and started looking through our tickets for any problems—any details that were missing from our documents so he could deny us entry onto the flight or demand that we pay an exorbitant sum in over-weight. What he didn’t realize was that everything was in order and although our luggage was excessive, we had been approved by the airline to carry this much. He also didn’t realize that he would be dealing with Judi—whom I sometimes call Kaliana, after the Hindu goddess of death and transformation—Kali.
Normally Judi is very calm and friendly, but if someone does something outlandish, out of integrity, or attacks one of her loved ones, she will, metaphorically speaking of course, cut their throats. The diminutive agent launched into his speech, and Judi cut him short. Everything he said, she countered. The agents surrounding the desk seemed to be in some kind of shock. Time was standing still. Finally, the supervisor acknowledged that we were within our rights, waived his hand in the air, and walked away.
Ehab turned to Judi and whispered, “That was impressive. You bested him. I’ve always wanted to see someone do that to him.” The desk agent handed us our boarding passes, and we were quickly rushed through security and onto the plane by the attendant we had handed twenty dollars. We entered the plane, just as they were getting ready to shut the doors.
As our Lufthansa jet left the runway, heading to Frankfurt and then onto Spain, I was reminded of a bumper sticker I saw a few years ago. It said, “The question is not, are you paranoid? The question is, are you paranoid enough?”
Fortunately, the Costa del Sol area of Spain had great medical treatments and an attitude that put the US medical system to shame. A series of MRI’s were ordered that would have cost me over $3,000 in the states and here they were $250. Not only this, but I could read them for myself and see what the doctors were talking about. I was handed them after they were taken, and it was my responsibility to take them to the doctor. They became my property, not hoarded by some gargantuan system that doesn’t give a shit about the individual. And I was treated with a degree of respect and courtesy that I have rarely experienced with the US medical system. Ummm. What’s wrong with this picture?
Well, to make a long story short, thanks to the efforts of some great doctors and physiotherapists I was able to complete our teaching tour in Europe and return home in much better shape than when I left Egypt.
I also learned a lot.
Now I am not of the opinion, like some, that the universe contrives to give us lessons. I think it is much too impersonal to care what happens to me specifically. I do, however, think that we can possibly learn some things about ourselves and those around us if we are willing to pay attention. So here are a few of the many things I have learned this time around the world, after almost getting bombed, shot and nearly killed on a road in the Sinai.
#1. Don’t get cocky. I had trained for this trip by going to the gym three times a week for months. When we left the US I was doing lat pulls of 150 pounds. When I left Egypt I could barely lift a glass of water.
#2. Enjoy your time here because it won’t last forever. With apologies to the physical immortalists, life is not permanent. Life’s impermanence became so clear to me as a result of multiple encounters with disasters, I was almost stunned from the harsh reality of our human condition. I must admit that for a time, I felt rather depressed about the whole affair. But now, it has served to strengthen my resolve to make the most of this life.
#3. There are times when we need to do things by ourselves, and there are times when we need to ask for help. For an autonomous guy like me it was quite an FGO (Fucking Growth Opportunity) to ask for help with things like pouring water into a glass, or helping me put on a jacket. As I said, the experience left me humbled, which, although I didn’t care for it much, was I think, a good thing. (P.S. If you wonder why humility might be a good thing, then you probably need a good dose of it).
#4. Always eat dessert first. You never know when a bomb might go off.
The Mandala of Great Compassion
First of all, some basic concepts would be helpful before proceeding.
Mandalas are painted geometric patterns that are related to forces or aspects of consciousness. They are used extensively in certain types of Buddhist and yogic meditation. A typical mandala has a center and four directions. Depending upon the type of mandala—the central figure(s) may be separate from the outer spaces of the mandala or may be emanating (sending energy) into the outer spaces of the mandala.
In this practice, The Mandala refers to all of the phenomena that are occurring in the universe at this moment. You are at the center of the mandala that is your life, because it is from your personal perspective that you experience the world. In turn, each of us is also at the center of the mandala that is our life. As a result none of us experience the world in exactly the same way because our centers (our personal sensory perception and ways of being) are different.
Tantric yogis and yoginis (female yogis) view this in somewhat different ways depending upon the lineage they are working in, but essentially they would agree that our experience of the external world is a result of subtle energies within our nervous systems. In other words, the world does indeed exist independently of us, and our mental/emotional experience. But how we experience that world is a result of how we personally internalize it through our senses.
According to Buddhist tantra, at the moment of death these subtle energies of consciousness, called lung (loon) in the Tibetan language, or subtle wind element in English, dissolve, and with them our experience of the world disappears as well. Lung is not the same as breath, but rather refers to the movement of life-energy through minute energetic channels in our subtle bodies (called nadis). Taoists call this type of subtle energy chi, while yogis refer to it as prana.
The practice of The Mandala of Great Compassion is based upon the understanding that in any given moment, innumerable beings are suffering. Suffering from the perspective of Buddhist tantra is a result of attachment to sensory experience. Thus, when someone feels a loss as experienced through his or her senses, there is suffering.
As humans, we can experience suffering around almost anything—the loss of a relationship, possessions, money, health and so on. The list is virtually endless.
This practice is based upon the understanding that suffering is inescapable. And so tantric practitioners do not seek to end suffering, but to transform the roots of suffering within their own consciousness (called mind in Buddhism). If he or she can assist another being to avoid suffering, he or she may undertake to do so. And certainly, in moments of personal suffering he or she would do what could be done to alleviate it. But whatever actions are taken for self or others takes place within a specific context—the knowledge that all beings suffer as a result of being in samsara—the illusion of relative existence in the physical world. The task of a tantric practitioner, then, is to transform his or her own negativities so that the bliss of nirvana is realized in the midst of samsara.
There is, from my experience, a lot of confusion about the terms nirvana and samsara. Part of this confusion arises, no doubt, from what stream of Buddhism we are talking about. Some lineages focus upon leaving this sensory world in order to experience the bliss of nirvana at death. Other lineages say that one can experience the bliss of nirvana in the midst of life, in the hot bed, if you will, of sensory-based samsara. They point out that nirvana is experienced whenever one is at the center point of consciousness. In fact, according to many yogic and tantric traditions, the center point of awareness, or one’s transcendent Self, is, by nature, bliss (ananda, in Sanskrit).
Most people have to die in order to quell the sensory circus of life so that the bliss of nirvana can be even momentarily experienced. However, a tantric master can experience glimpses of nirvana whenever he or she enters deep meditation (Samadhi). But while experiencing bliss is an important benchmark for tantric practitioners, it is not the goal.
Buddhist tantra deals with the realities of being in samsara. Its goal is nothing short of dissolving the illusions of samsara while in the midst of samsara itself. This is a Herculean achievement, and those who do so are called Tantric Heroes or Heroines in Buddhist lore.
In moments of personal suffering, of any kind, including mental, emotional, spiritual or physical, it is an ideal time to practice The Mandala of Great Compassion.
I say this because this practice imparts understanding as to the nature of your suffering, and it builds spiritual merit (or positive force). The beauty of this practice, then, is that merit is generated in the midst of one’s own suffering, and may also assist to decrease the suffering of others.
I must digress here for a moment and talk about what I consider to be great misunderstandings about the nature of spiritual merit in spiritual communities in general and Buddhist sanghas in particular.
True merit arises when we give spontaneously from the heart, or take a beneficial action with no thought or desire for personal reward. It is this spontaneous expression of bodhicitta (your innate Buddha mind) that generates merit. There is no Buddha in the heaven worlds with a little book marking when you do good things or bad things. Rather, positive actions strengthen one’s innate bodhicitta, and one of the results of this is that prajna or transcendent wisdom increases. In other words, we move closer to an enlightened mind.
Doing something good in order to get merit does, in fact, not build merit. It only perpetuates self-obsession, and in my experience there is nothing quite as distasteful as spiritual ego. Give me good old-fashioned ego, any day, over someone who is infested with self-righteousness.
The practice does not require any particular type of posture, incense, prayers or even quiet time. I have done it while shopping for groceries and even driving. Ideally it is done in the very searing heat of one’s own suffering—in the moment that it is happening.
There are three parts to the practice—focus of attention, mantra, and a union of the view and emanation.
Focus of Attention
Place your awareness in the center of the chest, behind the sternum about midway between your chest and your spine. This is the location of your heart chakra, and it is from here that you generate the energies of Great Compassion.
The mantra for this practice is that of the Buddha of Infinite Compassion, called Avalokiteshavara (in Sanskrit) or Chenrazig (in Tibetan). This Buddha has many forms, one of them having a thousand arms and a thousand hands, and in each hand is an eye that witnesses the suffering of beings in samsara.
It is vital to understand that this Buddha figure is nothing less than your own highest spiritual nature. It is not separate from you, but rather it is an archetypal being that represents a quality inherent in your own being—compassion.
According to tantric understanding, mantras carry the energy of the deity they correspond to, and the deity resides within the vibratory fields of the mantra itself. But deity in Buddhist tantra is different from the creator gods of other religions. These tantric deities are manifestations of powers or aspects of one’s own consciousness. By chanting the mantra silently, or out loud, one activates the residing deity of that mantra. The mantra used in this practice is Om Mani Peme Hum or Om Mani Padme Hum, if you prefer the Sanskrit version to the Tibetan.
It means Hail To The Jewel In The Lotus. The jewel is compassion and the lotus is the heart chakra.
The View and Emanation
In order to enter into the practice of The Mandala of Great Compassion, you first realize that no matter how miserable you are in this moment, there are other beings suffering as well.
After you have this clear mental concept in mind, sense yourself at the center of a giant mandala that fills all of space. There is no part or parcel of the universe that is outside this three-dimensional mandala that has you at the center. This is the View.
Then simply focus your attention in the heart chakra. Breathe naturally and whenever you inhale, silently repeat the mantra so that you feel its subtle vibratory energy in the heart. As you exhale, normally, you send the emanations of compassion from your heart out to all other sentient beings who, like you, are suffering in that moment.
There is no need to do anything other than intend that the emanations of the mantra and feelings of compassion be sent out from your heart.
Depending upon your level of sensitivity to such things, you may just experience this as an idea, or you may actually feel the vibrational energies of compassion radiating from your heart chakra to all beings who are suffering, as you are. If you are aware of spiritual light, you may also see various colored lights emanating from your heart for the benefit of other suffering beings. If any phenomenon arises like lights or sound or other non-ordinary sensory experiences, just let them be. Don’t focus on them. They are not why you are doing this. They are a side-effect of the subtle energies of consciousness.
The reason for doing this practice is that it increases self-awareness around your personal suffering and builds spiritual merit by releasing a beneficent energy into the world.
You do not need to be in suffering to do this practice. You can do it whenever you wish to send beneficial energies to sentient beings. But when you do find yourself in suffering, it changes both the quality and understanding of your suffering.
Sometimes our personal suffering may be so intense that we cannot even muster the will to repeat the mantra. If this is the case, then simply send feelings of compassion out on your exhales into the Mandala of the Universe.
And what exactly is compassion? In its root, it means to feel with. Thus when we feel compassion for another being, we feel along with them. This is not the same as sympathy, which is feeling sorry for someone. Compassion recognizes that we all suffer, and when you extend compassion to another, you are a witness—nothing more and nothing less. And yet through the power of being a loving or caring witness for others, we somehow mysteriously help to transform their suffering as well as our own.
A Short Prayer for the Dispelling of Obstacles
For those of you who undertake this practice, I offer this simple prayer.
May all the Enlightened Ones come to your aid. May you find the pathways into the jewel that resides in the lotus of your own heart. And may all beings benefit by your attainments.
May all beings of the Sambhogaya, the Pure Lands of Light and Sound be with you.
May the grace of the Bodhisattva, Tara bless you in your pursuit.
Om Tare Tutare Ture So Ha.
May All Beings Be Happy. May All Beings Be Free.
A Short Clarification for Buddhist Practitioners
If you are a Buddhist practitioner, I feel the need to clarify a few things.
First of all, this is a Mahayana Practice, in that its goal is to emanate beneficent energies to those who are suffering in the grips of samsara. This is, however, not a tonglin practice. In tonglin, as you may already know, the practitioner takes on the negativity of others and transforms it. But that is not the intent nor the method of the The Mandala of Great Compassion.
The underlying concept of this is somewhat more Hinayana than Mahayana. Each sentient being is a co-creator of his or her reality and life. Thus, it is his or her own responsibility to transform his or her personal negativity—not yours.
When you, yourself, are suffering, practice of The Mandala changes the quality of your suffering. It quickens your bodhicitta, and you gain a deeper insight into why and how you are creating suffering for yourself. This is, from a tantric standpoint, one of the great gifts of The Mandala Of Great Compassion. It generates self-awareness of aspects or tendencies in yourself that perpetuate your own personal forms of suffering. At the same time the practice emanates positive energies to other sentient beings.
When you undertake the practice of the Mandala at those times when you are not suffering, you are also building merit (if done with the proper attitude). But at no point in the practice are you advised to take on the negativities of others. To do so would be an error in this particular practice.
In other words, the boundaries of self and non-self remain intact at the level of Nirmanakaya (the physical world) during this practice.
The practice can be done, as I mentioned earlier, when you are not actually suffering. For these times, when you undertake the practice solely to emanate positive energies to the cosmos, you may wish to recite the personal form of the Short Prayer for the Dispelling of Obstacles. This is in keeping with traditional Mahayana tantric meditations that call upon protector deities and also dedicate spiritual merit to the elevation of all life. The personal form of this prayer would read as follows:
May all the Enlightened Ones come to my aid. May I find the pathways into the jewel that resides in the lotus of my heart.
And may all beings benefit from my attainments.
May all beings of the Sambhogaya, the Pure Lands of Light and Sound be with me.
May the grace of the Bodhisattva, Tara, bless me in my pursuit.
Om Tare Tutare Ture So Ha.
May all beings be happy. May all beings be free.
I wish to point out, however, that the practice of The Mandala of Great Compassion is designed to be used in the heat of samsaric delusion. In such instances, there is no need to recite the prayer. Indeed, in moments of extreme suffering such undertakings can be very difficult. Just move into the View and start the practice without need of formalities. I mention this for those members of the sangha who have become attached to the form and dogma of right meditation.