A talk to myself when crisis in the life bardo grips my mind
“Aversion to pain is really a misplaced aversion to suffering…
…suffering is only one response to the experience of pain.”
--Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living
Old woman in pain and wanting it to be otherwise, old woman in pain for the living beings of this world, for sisters and brothers struggling in the life bardo, children and grandchildren, humans descended from that ancient mitochondrial mother in Africa, non-humans descended from hominid mothers and primate mothers and mammal mothers, from bird mothers and serpent mothers, fish mothers and bee mothers, myriad life-holders, egg-bearers, containers of mystery—old woman, stop grieving and be thankful for all those laboring for life on Earth, caring for our children now and those to come, for air and water and soil and food and wisdom untainted by pollution, for peace and for freedom, for trees and for gardens, teaching and healing, working to keep alive the ancient maternal mystery of selfless care, laboring with love and courage in this moment wherever they may be on Earth, laboring against great odds, knowing life is a rare and delicate and painful thing that comes to an end, and how it comes to an end determines how it begins again.
Old woman attached to life, wandering from self-enclosed sentience to self-enclosed sentience, from life to death and death to life since immemorial time, your mind projecting itself over everything, always entertaining itself, fomentingcrises---stop for a moment! Examine this endangered life, the causal patterns of samsaric time in which we who have feelings have each been each other’s mother and each other’s child as we time after time embodied in the life bardo prone to sorrow, sickness, degeneration, death and ignorance as well as beauty, love, wonder, fellow-feeling, peace and insight depending on the thoughts and humors coursing through our mind in each moment.
Out-dated romantic dreamer of Swabian heritage, seeped in Sehnsucht, Heimweh, Angst und Schmerzen, always longing for things to be other than they are, for a moment to pause and be perfect--examine the coursings of your mind! Like Schwarzwald streams, like the waters sung by your poets are its coursings. Everything that seems to be solid slips from your mind’s grasp. Your fixation of grief at loss and death and pain and harm slides through and dissolves and returns. Your question how to appease it, how to solve it slides through and dissolves and returns. This is the nature of water, of your mind and the life bardo.
Old woman distressed with fear for life’s future as glaciers melt and waters rise, as islands sink and green lands turn to desert, as deep springs are poisoned or dry away without trees and roots holding earth for them, old woman growing older and older, watching these man-caused changes grow stronger, old woman whose present life bardo draws toward the dying bardo and the bardo of rebirth, who sees peers, children and grandchildren carry on through the stresses of youth and age as our personal and shared karmas weigh heavily on each of us, old woman always ranting in your mind, for the flash of this moment pause and be thankful! Remember what you have heard from dear deep-looking teachers, your mother, poets of mysteries, spiritual masters, lamas and gurus. Through the bardo of meditation they examined the life bardo and the death bardo, the bardo of dream and the bardo of illumination. They saw death and life, which is deathless though hidden, flash together in a void lit by love’s thunderbolt. They felt pain and were not afraid. They took deeper refuge.
Slippery and slithery are their words in my mind, supple and ungraspable as naga water snakes. The path of mind is slow in the nagas’ deep abode. Their void-opening argument is subtle and tricky, tasting the poisons of fear, of wanting things to be otherwise, of unawakening inattention, finding the interdependent roots of these in samsaric mind, how it is of one taste with nirvanic mind, equally void and free of a self to hold on to. Yet for me and most of us, each imperiled on this imperiled Earth on which we humans through our mothers enter our life bardo, our samsaric minds fiercely blown by our karmic winds, the perils overwhelm the argument. We are lost and tossed at sea, each alone in our samsaric self. We are now more than seven billion, each of our minds separate in its life bardo in a human realm driven by wanting and not wanting. I am wanting it to be otherwise, but things are as they are. In the nagas’ symbolic abode lies wisdom beneath and within the way things are.
Mythic poets tell how Patanjali, the ancient teacher who codified yoga’s penetration of the mind’s depths, was a naga incarnation. Coiled beneath seven underworlds in a sea of milk lies the beginningless, endless source of every form, Adishesa, imperishable residue. One-thousand headed, human above and snake below, he bears our Earth as a tuft of hair on his jeweled hood. He is the coiled couch of the deathless Purusha Vishnu, the energy that preserves. On him Vishnu sits and watches, or rests in yoga sleep when things, having died, await rebirth. From him come the myriad nagas that keep the concealed wisdoms of the deep-looking teachers, the inner teachers and their incarnations. In each of us he lies, at the base of our inner underworlds. He is the coiling wind of our samsaric mind, the primal couch and vehicle of our individual person. His energy spirals and coils in our DNA, our paths of blood and nerve, our dynamics of thought and motion, our bonds with earth and water, our shedding our bodies at death as we grow and slip through time from age to age. He is our hearing through our skin the vibrations of earth and water and their intimations of peril, the way things are.
In the primordial age, Lord Vishnu sat entranced by the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva, the Yoga Lord whose energy, in the cycles of life and mind, destroys to begin again, mirroring as one the dance of Shakti his consort who displays all natural things, physical, mental and spiritual, and through yoga returns them back to her source unmanifest, in union with him. In this enchantment, Vishnu’s body vibrated with heavy rhythmic pulse. Under his press, Adishesa could hardly breathe. “What is this change?” he asked. Being told of the dance, he asked for the grace to learn. Thus by Shiva’s grace he went into meditation. In a vision he saw his earthly mother Gonika, a yogini praying for a son and heir to her teachings. As she was doing her morning oblations to Savitri, Illuminator of inner and outer worlds, offering water in her hands, a tiny snake appeared in the water. Taking human form, Adishesa asked to be her son. She named him Patanjali, “fallen into hands cupped in oblation.” She taught him how to watch the mind’s endless flow, how to calm its fluctuations, how the waters become still and clear as a mirror, how they show the form of the watcher Shiva unmarked by Shakti, by the waves’ forms. In this samadhi, Patanjali entered the bliss of their union.
Patanjali became a most excellent teacher. His Yogasutras thread words like glass beads reflecting or seeds sprouting, like pearls of attention reflecting each to each. He abjured myth and poetic image. He used no extra words. He never digressed from his careful analysis of the mind and how to calm it. “Sutra” means thread; the sutras thread like a serpent through mind’s waters, they carry the mind into its residues. Each word requires reflection and discipline. “Mind,” “waves,” “restraint”—these words define what yoga is.
In the form of his avatar Krishna, Lord Vishnu also came incarnate to Earth. He taught the yogas of knowledge, devotion, meditation and action to the hero Arjuna who was distressed, as we are now, by our ability to be locked in mortal conflict with our fellow beings, in danger of destroying everything. His teachings, recorded by the legendary poet Vyasa in the Bhagavadgita, inspired the non-violent action of Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama, and the fight for peace and life on Earth today. They teach how we each have our inner dharma, our karmic potential. At each point in life, we can work to energize our good residues and pacify our not good. In a yoga of devotion, we give our beneficient action to the Lord, the deathless Purusha, the human-shaped Person, Krishna, Buddha, Christ, the inner Teacher, the Man of Light, the Knower of the Field, the chosen deity we carry like a flame illuminating the deepest reservoirs of our heart.
Moment by moment, coordinated with the flow of the life breath and illumined by the yoga of devotion, the yoga of meditation focuses me inward. My attention fastens on the pains in my muscles and bones, in the Earth’s vital elements, in living beings whose cries I hear. The cries of pain in myself and the world draw me toward Buddha’s examination of suffering.
According to legend, Gautama Buddha stored his subtlest insights in the nagas’ domain, in deep mind waters. These insights are born of the Wisdom Mother, of Her selfless compassion, fresh in each moment, lighting the mind’s path to freedom from suffering. Buddha predicted that his student Priyadarshana’s reincarnation would have naga in his name and recover the teachings. Nagas’ energy moves in the deep waters of reincarnational minds, shedding skin after skin, appearance after appearance, slipping birth to birth. Thus when Nagarjuna was Priyadarshana, Buddha’s teachings left traces in his mindwaves and with his new birth reentered the life bardo.
The Heart Sutra, the heart of the sutras retrieved by Nagarjuna, begins with homage to the Noble Mother Prajnaparamita, Perfection of Wisdom. The Lord Buddha, dwelling with his entourage of students and bodhisattvas on Vulture Mountain near Rajagriha, is seated absorbed in profound meditation on the way things are. At this same time, the noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, moving in wisdom’s deep course, sees how all phenomena are empty of own-being. Buddha’s disciple Sariputra, through the power of Buddha, asks Avalokiteshvara how a person in the lineage should train if he would practice the profound perfection of wisdom. Avalokiteshvara says, he should correctly and repeatedly behold each phenomenon and all phenomena as empty of own-being. Then, he says, there is neither attainment nor non-attainment. The mind then dwells without coverings, without obscuration or fear. He proclaims the mantra of the perfection of wisdom: “gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha--go, go, go beyond, go entirely beyond, awaken, her blessing.” Then the Buddha arises from meditative absorption and commends Avalokiteshvara’s teaching of the profound perfection of wisdom practice.
The Dalai Lama, in his commentary, points out that the Buddha is said to have given 84,000 collections of discourses, variously addressing the range of dispositions and inclinations among living beings. The teachings in this sutra are at the heart of his teachings, recited daily by practitioners. Through perfection of wisdom practice, all physical and mental elements are contemplated as dependently originated, empty of own-being. In profound meditation, the mind, gone “entirely beyond” and awakened, is aware of relative and ultimate truth, samsara and nirvana, at the same time. In the conclusion of the sutra, Buddha’s absorption in profound meditation is thus shown to be not separate from his awareness of the conventional world of Avalokiteshvara’s and Sariputra’s dialogue.
His Holiness relates the perfection of wisdom training to five classic stages of the path to Buddhahood. In the first stage, the path of accumulation, one begins to learn about, reflect on and more deeply understand the empty nature of phenomena. This is where I am now. In the second stage, the stage of preparation, conceptualization during meditation recedes. In the third stage, the path of seeing, dualistic perceptions, as of subject and object, are removed. In the fourth stage, the stage of meditation or familiarization, one progresses through uneradicated mental afflictions, propensities and imprints. In the fifth stage, no more learning, “the obscuration preventing the simultaneous perception of both ultimate and conventional truth within a single cognitive event” is removed. In this experience, as Nagarjuna writes, “not even the subtlest difference is to be found between the extreme of nirvana and the extreme of samsara.”
According to the legend, Nagarjuna was an eminent teacher and debater at Nalanda, India’s renowned Buddhist monastic university. He kept noting a strong scent of sandalwood whenever two particular young men attended his teachings. Upon questioning, the young men said they were not human, but were naga princes wearing sandalwood to protect them in the impure human world. The nagas, they said, had attended Buddha’s teachings on the Perfection of Wisdom and written them down for safekeeping, since few humans at the time understood them. On their invitation, Nagarjuna went with them to their underwater kingdom, studied there for fifty years, and brought the sutras back to the human world. He lived on, according to legend, for six hundred years! He wrote Root Verses on the Middle Way, the classic text of Mahayana Middle Way philosophy and source of the quote above. He concludes the Root Verses, “I pay homage to Gautama who, out of compassion, taught the true dharma for the relinquishment of all views,” intimating that Buddha’s insights shed words, concepts and views as if written on water.
Toward the end of this long life, Nagarjuna went away again and stayed with the nagas in Uttarakuru, a northern place, from where he brought back Buddha’s secret teachings onhighest yoga tantra. These teachings, involving complex meditative symbolism and deity visualization, are personally transmitted from guru to student. They begin with Perfection of Wisdom emptiness yoga practice, since it is upon realization of the empty nature of phenomena that the powerful meditational deity energies are projected.
As a great tree, deep-rooted, firm of trunk, with vast-reaching branches, circulates the airs and waters of life between earth and sky and invites all kinds of living beings to live in its circle, so a Buddha draws beings of all kinds near him as he sits deep-rooted in meditation, firm of trunk, grounded on earth, with boundless compassion for all beings. Around him are envisioned vast numbers of devas and nagas, natural luminous and serpentine energies of spiritual and material worlds gross and subtle, and of bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who manifest in physical and mental forms for the benefit of others to alleviate their sufferings. The vastness of this great assemblage of energies, at once natural and enlightening, around the unshakeable center of a Buddha’s presence awakens the bodhi seed of compassion and wisdom in each practitioner’s heart.
Deity yoga, it is said, is particularly suited to crisis-ridden times such as ours, to transform our habitual negative energies into Buddha energies and realize the empty, lucid, unlimited nature of mind, all limiting coverings removed, so that we can live and act with greater clarity.
Bending my afflicted body and afflictive thoughts, I press my heart and brow to the Earth and prostrate myself before the compassionate Buddha and the Mother Wisdom, before the ancient still-living lineages of poets, teachers and mothers, before all those who selflessly labor for this precious life on this precious Earth.