Last week I had the great opportunity to go to Gampo Abbey to attend a teaching by Pema Chodron on the subject of “Living by Vow”. Pema (as we affectionately know her) is an American Buddhist nun in one of the Tibetan lineages. As such, she is carrying forward a long tradition, with forms most ornate. That is probably the best word for the Tibetan practices. Statues are painted gold, offerings and paintings are arranged just so, there are rituals for lighting the candles, and the incense, and for closing the shrine. We bow when entering the room, before chants, after chants, when leaving the room. And there are chants in Sanskrit, sometimes in Pali, sometimes in English. They are droned rather than sung. Meditation is taught with the eyes open, the better (the challenge) to work with what arises in each moment.
I have also spent time at an Ashram in India. There the meditation was done with eyes closed, the practice to focus on the mantra and ride it into stillness. Sense withdrawal, unity consciousness, (connecting with? recognizing?) Atman. The chants were in Sanskrit, sung rather than droned, but we were given translations to learn so that we knew what we were saying. (“Let me not come into conflict with my teacher,” comes to mind.) I sat (accidentally, at somebody else’s behest) in the seat where Swami Rama meditated in his hut during the later decades of his life. I watched the sun come up over the Himalayas and experienced insight into a portion of the Bhagavad Gita at the moment the sun became unbearable, and I had to look away. This was bookmarked at the end of the day watching the guru make the offerings (milk and flowers) to the gods. Something cracked open in my heart, a little bit more presence, a little bit more love available in the world. “We can’t look upon the gods (the great All), so they give us one another,” sprang into mind.
I try on practices, experiment with form. I am cautioned (by Chogyam Trungpa) against spiritual materialism, the tendency to accumulate experiences as a priori evidence of one’s spiritual “success”. But the questions I ask myself, again and again are, “Does this bring me closer to sanity? Does it make me more open, more loving, more functional in the world? If it offers me a loving universe, does it deliver? What does it have to say about angst, this great dis-ease that eats away at me?”
All religions make both ontological and epistemic claims: “This is how things are. Here is how you find out about it.” But there is religion, and there is practice. Religions are formal structures and interpretations overlaid upon teachings about personal practices. In each, have found a core of techniques designed to bring you into connection with an ontological position, but they are difficult and demanding. They require commitment, and they are ultimately arbitrated not by an authority figure, but by confronting reality. I’ve encountered these through Buddhism, yoga, Sufism (to a much lesser extent), modern pagan practices, and even (eventually) happened upon Christian mysticism.
Religion is an institution. It is a human social structure in which the rules and their enforcement inevitably override the practices and their… practice. It is much easier to focus on the level of performance than to deal with the discomfort of acknowledging this deep terror that lies at our core. “I am separate. I am alone. I am going to die.” This is (absurd/tragic/terrifying/angst-ridden). The Ego (this layer sitting on top of consciousness, our local field, if you will) constructs itself, and then seeks evidence of its existence. “I am a good person. Look! I follow the rules! In fact, I make other people follow the rules. I shall be found not-wanting in the eyes of the divine.” This is the bigger caution against spiritual materialism: that you shall perfect the forms and take that as evidence of being favoured.
And where does the Vow fit in all of this? It is a form, a rule, but if it is one freely undertaken, it can become a part of a container that makes your life, if not easier, at least simpler. It restricts your choices. I have taken the Shambhala vow, which includes the words, “I will manifest joyfully and with confidence.” On the way home from this ceremony, I found myself trying to remember exactly what I had promised. What I seized upon was the fact that I had (in effect) promised not to despair. That despair was… self-indulgent. That at this time when (I can’t remember the exact wording), the future of humanity might turn on a handful of small actions, we don’t have the right to neglect our practice, to despair, to slip into fear. I must confess, I panicked. Apparently I rely on despair.
But having been reminded, I have found myself this week catching the thoughts. “Oh, I could never… Everything is going to hell anyway… ” And I have the vow as a defence: No. I said I wouldn’t do that. In a moment of clarity, I determined that it does not serve, and spoke that as a truth in my world. Now I must live by that. (Or at least, I have the opportunity to live by that.)
May I confess that I am glad I have so far only promised to meditate, and not to do it daily?