Friday, November 20, 2009

october shifts

The month of October brought many shifts to the quiet routine that had been established in our community. Damchö returned from her long stay in the States, her PhD at long last complete and officially behind her and very much ready to move forward to life beside her Dharma sisters in India. The four of us renewed the bonds of affection that connect us, exchanging tales of our time apart and drinking deeply of the joy of the spiritual life that we share as women on this monastic path.

Within days of returning, any hopes of resting after the long and intense period of writing and defending her dissertation were dashed, as a series of translation jobs came tumbling in, one after the other. While Damchö stayed at home working on texts to be used during the upcoming Kagyu Monlam prayer festival in Bodhgaya, Dapel, Nangpel and Drolma had the great privilege of attending teaching after teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in his home monastery in Dharamsala.

First were teachings on the Diamond Cutter Sutra and Sevenfold Mind Training, two texts that focus, respectively, on the cultivation of wisdom and of compassion. To our great delight, a third text, Three Principles of the Path, was added unexpectedly to the program—for it is precisely this text that is the basis of the ten-week study program that Nangpel, Dapel and Drolma will attend this coming January. After a short break, His Holiness offered a second series of talks directly in English at the request of a group from Singapore. The ostensible topic was the Four Noble Truths, the first teaching that Buddha gave after his own enlightenment. But the experience of receiving His Holiness’s wisdom without the intervention of a translator opened a certain sense of closeness and immediacy, as His Holiness spoke from the heart on secular values. Following each set of talks, His Holiness offered an opportunity to take the bodhisattva vows—vows in which we commit to actively cultivate compassion and work for the welfare of others—directly from him. At such moments we see vividly the value of being located here in India, where such rare opportunities occur regularly.

Also this month, we had the opportunity to meet privately with the Gyalwang Karmapa, our spiritual guide, reporting to him on our activities over the past months, and seeking his counsel for what lies ahead. In particular, we presented our aspirations for a study program that would meet our needs as Westerners in whom Buddhism needs to be actively inculcated. As we articulated our wish for a program that could combine elements of Western pedagogy with more traditional Tibetan methods of transmitting knowledge, His Holiness responded to our request by expressing his own strong interest in developing such a program, and we now plan to work to have a working curriculum in place for when Dapel, Nangpel and Drolma return from their study program in Nepal.

Meanwhile, even as the rhythms of this month were punctuated with teachings, private audiences and other special events, day in and day out, Nangpel and Drolma continued with their intensive daily meditation commitments, as they move toward completing their ngondro (preliminary practices) and at the same time continue their meditation training. For her part, Dapel continues her study of the Tibetan language and her own daily practice commitments. And for all of us, supporting one another in these activities itself forms a core part of our spiritual practice.

Later in the month, a solemn ceremony was held down the road from our house to formally release a biography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama that had been long in the making. With HHDL himself in attendance, His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa officiated at the proceedings, with a multitude of Tibetans gathering to express their deep appreciation for the Dalai Lama’s extensive activities. The ceremony took place close on the heels of a series of executions of Tibetan protesters by the Chinese government, and at the close of the ceremony, His Holiness the Dalai Lama commented that prayers are stronger when made on the basis of a shared relationship with the one for whom we are praying – such as family relationships, relationships that come from sharing experiences or belongings, or the relationships that link spiritual teachers and disciples. Therefore, His Holiness said, it would be good for us to pray together for those who have been executed, and for happiness and peace throughout the world. Seated before these two exceptional beings, joining them and the rest of the Tibetan community in prayers, it hit home just how remarkable it is to have a culture fundamentally saturated with the wish to ease the suffering of others, and headed by leaders whose own commitment to the well-being of others is unequivocal. Even if those aspirations prove challenging to implement or even sustain, simply setting them at the notional center of a society is already a great deal.

Shortly after this event, our community found itself somehow entrusted with the task of translating a text by the great Indian master Nagarjuna from Tibetan into Spanish for use during the Kagyu Monlam. His Holiness Gyalwang Karmapa will teach on that text, Letter to a Friend (Suhrllekha) in December, so our deadline was extremely tight. It was our first essay at co-translating from Tibetan to Spanish, and the experience produced a special joy, as we spent day after day fully immersed in the powerful verses of Nagarjuna, offering the fullness of our attention and energy with the imminent prospect of connecting Spanish speakers with this text and with the lama who will teach on it. Some years ago, Nangpel had worked on a Spanish translation of Damchö’s English translation of the Sanghatasutra, but this time we worked directly from Tibetan into Spanish, with Damchö first rendering into her version of Spanish, Nangpel then reworking each verse into a suitably literary Spanish, and Drolma contributing her suggestions and editorial talents. As the three of us worked away on the Spanish translation, Dapel was occupied in formatting the German translation for inclusion in the same book. We rather optimistically named this an effort of the “Nuns’ Community Translation Team,” with the wish that it may not be our last opportunity to offer our service in this way. For Nangpel especially, the project was a culmination of her years of experience working with the Spanish language and literature, and served as poignant proof that at this point in her spiritual path, everything that has come before can be made useful, as long as the aspiration to be of benefit to others remains central.

For Spanish speakers, we share three verses we three found particularly moving from this text:

61) Vivir en lugares propicios,
confiar en personas sagradas,
sus propias aspiraciones nobles y mérito acumulado en el pasado:
estas cuatro grandes ruedas le pertenecen.

107) Si no hay sabiduría, no hay concentración.
Sin concentración, no hay sabiduría.
Para quien tiene ambas, el océano del samsara
es como el charco en la huella de una pezuña.

112) Entre los tesoros de las enseñanzas del Buddha
este del surgimiento interdependiente es el más precioso, el más profundo.
Quien lo ve correctamente, por entender la realidad tal como es,
ve al Buddha, en su forma suprema.


The translation was completed in early November, just as Nangpel and Drolma were to leave for Nepal to renew their Indian visas. Damchö and Dapel accompanied them on the first leg of their journey, to Delhi. Dapel and Damchö stayed on, attending to some minor health issues but most importantly, receiving an extraordinary teaching from their lama, on his way back from speaking at the TED conference in south India, where His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa called for spiritual practitioners to pay greater attention to the particular sufferings of women around the globe.

During the teaching in Delhi, His Holiness commented on how to put to practice use the notion of emptiness, which is the term used in Buddhist philosophical to describe ultimate reality. Emptiness, His Holiness said, does not mean a lack or an absence of things, but means rather an interval or a gap. Emptiness, he said, is the opening from which all opportunities spring. If we have the sense that the world is taking away our opportunities, or robbing us of chance to develop, we should recall that endless opportunities are always present, able to spring from the interdependent arising that is the ground of our existence.

In that spirit, we wish you an endless arising of goodness and joy, now and in the month to come.

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