sunnuntai 28. huhtikuuta 2019

Fresh Breeze of Buddhism

Fresh Breeze of Buddhism

Buddhism, as a religion and philosophy, has been around for 2500 years, since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. Prior to Shakyamuni and after him, there has been many other buddhas in human form. There has not been only one single buddha, but many. That there are many buddhas, can also be seen in the rich array of buddhist paths that teach the core principles of buddhism from their own unique perspectives. Also according to buddhism, there are buddhas and bodhisattvas in nonphysical form.

During the history of buddhism, there has been many phases in its expansion to new areas and lands, integration to new cultures, blossoming of the teaching, inevitable decomposition and again spreading to new areas. Many places where buddhism has once blossomed, have become deserted of the real meaning of dharma, leaving behind only its outer shell. This has been seen in Asian countries such as India, China, Tibet and Japan, where for one reason or the other, buddhism has lost its vitality. Nothing in this world lasts but having said that if old forms of buddhism lose their attraction and disappear, the core teachings need to be and are being revitalised so that dharma can keep benefiting sentient beings.

Buddhism has always been organic. It has been like a forest where new seedlings grow next to already grown trees, with natural expansion. Buddhism itself grew next to its elder sibling, hinduism, and both of them took influences from each other. Buddhism has renewed and remodeled itself throughout the history of buddhism and this, I feel, is one of the reasons it has survived over 2000 years. If these renewals hadn't been done over the centuries when buddhism has spread to new areas, it is likely that it wouldn't have succeeded.

To me personally, buddhism has never been a religious practice. To me, buddhism has never been a belief-based faith but rather a reasonable philosophical hypothesis that is and needs to be supported by various yogic practices, such as sitting and chanting of mantras and prayers. I was raised in Finland which is one of the most secular cultures in the world and was baptized in Eastern orthodox church. I never felt that belief-based religion had much to offer to me and honestly have hard time understanding why people choose faith-based religion because this seems to add to peoples' confusion, inequality and narrow-mindedness, rather than bringing about open-mindedness and harmony among people.

When I lived in temples in Japan, in 2004-2005, I was astonished to find out that some Japanese people practice buddhism in as religious way as christians do in my native country. Prior to meeting such people, it had never occurred to me that buddhism could also be seen that way. Later, I find out that this is actually very common all over Asia. Religious buddhists, knowingly or unknowingly, look at buddhism as a set of beliefs and rituals, rather than as a method that is used to illuminate one's minds. As old and deflated forms of Asian buddhism have spread to Western world, it is not uncommon to see Westerners who don't realise that the form of buddhism they exercise doesn't actually accumulate wisdom, or does so in minimal degree.

I think that one common problem why buddhist cultures are eventually destined to disintegrate, is that when the doctrine becomes too fixed in its ways and forms, distance is created between the followers and the teaching. Even texts, that over time become considered as root texts and classics, gather unnecessary baggage. (See Ken McLeod's article). When that happens, the teaching cannot be understood, the dharma cannot be realised and embodied. In other words, the meaning of dharma is lost.

If we look at the biographies of the great masters of buddhism, we can see that they all took up buddhist study and practice because they were existentialy confused. They took up buddhism to solve their problems and used it practically to transform their self-based confusion. Could they have accomplished that if they were taught religious beliefs and merely followed external forms? If the masters of the old had seen buddhist teaching as something high and holy, as something external and distant from them, they would have never become embodiments of wisdom and compassion, and beacons for other sentient beings.

Vast emptiness, nothing holy
(廓然無聖, Kakunen musho, from Bodhidharma)

Buddhism is for all people. I say this because all people have the same problem, that of self-based delusion which is the main cause for dissatisfaction (skt. dukkha). Confusion about one's existence can only be solved by seeing through the false sense of me-ness or entityness (skt. atman). This is the main principle of buddhist meditation or vipashyana, that can be practiced in three main ways: sutra, tantra and dzogchen. Regardless of which of these paths we follow, eventually our confusion is put to rest through realisation that all thoughts and other mind phenomena are empty (skt. sunyata, emptiness, -ku) and do not create a permanent self. This realisation happens in degrees and with each insight (j. 見性-kensho) we come to see the very same truth, ”Vast emptiness, nothing holy”, as Bodhidharma, the great Indian yogi, taught.

Bodhidharma is considered to be the 1st patriarch of Zen in China but actually this truth is universal to all buddhism because all buddhists seek liberation through the means of realising emptiness, be it through the means of relying on one's own efforts (j. jiriki) or through relying on the grace of the buddhas (j. tariki). Both approaches are perfectly valid and can be simultaneously used for better success, as is done in vajrayana buddhism.

To be continued.

Thank you for reading.
Namo Guru Rinpoche,

-Kim Katami,
Founder and head teacher,
Open Heart Sangha,

perjantai 19. huhtikuuta 2019

Teachings on Preliminaries (Spring Retreat 2019)

Teachings on Preliminaries
Open Heart Spring Retreat 2019

For the past year, I have worked on the Preliminary Practices of Open Heart. Preliminaries are largely what Buddhism teaches. The word preliminary itself comes from Tibetan word ngondro or nundro. In total, there are about 30 preliminaries on the list that will soon be published. In the following, I discuss a few of them as practice material for this Spring Retreat of 2019 held near Dublin, in Ireland.

Dzogchen Preliminary: Going to Nature

Read these passages every day on retreat.

Nature of mind is the same indoors and outdoors so basically there is no need to change anything. Outdoors it is easy to be supported by the natural state of the surrounding nature, while indoors because alive physical nature is not there, it is not that obvious. For this reason yogins and yoginis have always prioritised practicing in nature. Anyhow, if the weather doesn't allow sitting outside, and I'm pretty sure it doesn't (ha!), simply feel nature beyond the building walls. Having a window open so that natural sounds come in is very helpful.

When you sit outside, don't sit too close to other people. You should have the sense that you're sitting alone, in your own peace, just you and the surrounding nature. Also, if it is possible to go to woods with trees and bushes, that is much better than a man made garden.

I have written in the preliminary instruction: Go to a forest or any natural place, like a hill, cliff, riverside or a desert. Pick a place that is pleasant and safe to be. Sit down. Don't meditate. Feel connected with the surrounding nature, sights and sounds. Just be together with the surrounding nature without anything else. Prayers, mantras or other aspirations are not needed, although can be used.

Nature is in the natural state of mind already. Anyone who has spent time in nature hiking, camping, fishing or hunting already knows that. Physical nature, the power of it, is so compelling that even the most stubborn ego will yield when in nature. What is needed to achieve this? Nothing, except you need to go there in the midst of nature. That's it. No need to make effort of any kind. Just go out there and sit, letting the surroundings in... without thought or intention, be together with nature: trees, bushes, animals, sky, ground, wind, light and the aliveness of it all. Just go out there and it will happen by itself. If for some reason you are hopelessly restless, shout Phets. This is the practice. It's nothing special.

Common Preliminaries
(To be read on afternoons)

I had intended to talk and guide workshops about other preliminaries: Transcience of Life, Acknowledgement of Confusion and Value of Dharma. I'll write about this in a nutshell.

Dharma is not about happiness.

Dharma is not about happiness... Say that to yourself a few times. Are you practicing dharma to make your life more happy or to make it better somehow? Well, that is OK but not the real purpose of dharma. None of the yogins and yoginis who realised their nature in full and became enlightened practiced to become happy. Why did they practice? They practiced to see the reality of themselves. Seeing and experiencing the reality of ourselves is the core of dharma. In Buddhism, there are many exercises that are practiced extensively so that we can perceive the reality of ourselves, know ourselves as perfectly and completely awake awareness which is embodied by the contents of our mind and our physical body. Read this last sentence three times.



We become attached to life. We become attached to comforts, that in our Western society are many. We also want to avoid discomfort. Yes? No? Think about it. Be honest, don't bullshit yourself. Countless causes for dissatisfaction are created because we convince ourselves that we could become happy by momentary pleasures, like delicious food, wild sex, physical exercise, intoxicating drink, intoxicating drugs, luxury massage, new car, new house, new partner, new pet and so on. It can also be something subtler, like being attached to a certain kind of breakfast. None of these examples are causes of suffering, if there is no attachment, that is, self, me-ness involved. If you see that none of these things can give you lasting happiness, you won't rely on them. In that case you get your fix from knowing yourself as a buddha. This fix is no-fix and everyone, everyone, is seeking that. All sentient, samsaric, beings have buddhanature and this very fact is the reason why we cannot get satisfaction from fleeting stuff.

I am sure everyone in the room will have heard this before. "Yeah, yeah, I know all that already", you might think. I am sorry to break the news for you but you don't really know until there is not the slightest shadow in your mind. Admit and acknowledge that you are confused because you are attached to your human condition and the pleasures that are available to you. This point needs to penetrate one's whole being, otherwise you are not doing the practice. If you go to a pub in a samsaric rapture of wanting a good crunk, some fatty food, good laughs and maybe even get laid before passing out into obvilion, if even a trace of that selfish excitement is there, you are still attached. If you are not ready or willing to admit this, fine, no need to force it. Samsara will do it's thing so eventually you will get it.

Transcience of Life

We are all human beings with human bodies, names, personas and we do stuff that humans typically do. Also human beings have buddhanature and therefore can get released from samsara, cyclical existence. Buddhanature itself is the cause for liberation.

I'd like to ask you to contemplate the following: The inevitability of death through accident, illness or old age. Have you heard of anyone who avoided death? Of course not. You, I and everyone else, including our loved ones, will die. I am sorry to put it so bluntly but it is a fact that you, I and everyone else cannot prevent the wheel of time from turning. We can only leap out of it by knowing ourselves as buddhas. So when talking about these three preliminaries as dharma practice, we are to sit down, contemplate and imagine our bodies dying in sudden accidents of various kinds (be creative), or being ill with horrible diseases or being so old that your body simply cannot perform anymore, so that you cannot walk and move anymore, cannot eat because the stomach doesn't digest, you soil yourself, your mouth is dry, your eyes are blurry and your ears don't hear well. If you contemplate the transcience of life in this manner your attachments and self-based confusions will transform and you will become more clear minded, that is, a little bit closer to being free.

We do not know when the moment of death comes but it is certain that at one moment your body will fall down on the ground and the breath stops. Heat will escape the body of a samsaric human in hours and the body begins to decay, rot and smell. Have you seen a dead body with your own eyes?

Statistically, 151 000 people die every day. That's over a million in a week. A million human corpses... Young people, old people, children, black people, white people, Asians, tall people, short people, smart people, dumb people, handsome people, attractive people, unattractive people, leaders, followers, PhD's, millionaires, billionaires, poor people, heteros, gays, lesbians, trans's, liberals, conservatives, activists, extremists, terrorists and a few spiritual practitioners too... How many of them die in peace and have a clear mind? If you are not comfortable with the idea that you will die and leave everything you know behind, you will die confused, afraid and anxious... Such a corpse is not a pretty sight. Yogis and yoginis welcome death with an open mind and die in equipoise because they know it is an inevitable change and life continues afterwards. I am using quite graphical descriptions with the hope that you will be shaken up a bit and listen. Mortality is a good meditation and has been one of my main practices since I was teenager, for over 25 years. I am still not done and am certainly samsaric so when I die you might see my body go dry and black. That's a joke. Haha!

Life is transient and that is one of the beauties of it. Everything is in motion. It is typical for humans, when we grow up, to create a belief system and absorb fixed views about all kinds of things. Self and attachment are present pretty much from the day we are born. Of course it is.

One of the most central teachings of Buddhism is transmigration between different realms. Now we are (samsaric) humans, in 100 years we might be dogs, cats, pigs, angels, gods or demons, depending on what kind of mind we cultivate. Or we might be liberated! Actually even sooner than hundreds of years. When we realise, real-ize or actual-ize our inner buddhahood, depending on readiness or willingness (which is merit), karmic connections meaning teachings and teachers, and effort in practice. Readiness and karmic connections come from previous lives and are further strengthened in this one, if one practices. Effort in practice also comes from previous lives and greatly defines our ability to understand dharma quickly through flesh and bone, instead of brooding on mental concepts.

Some practitioners, the moment they hear of dharma, of buddhas, of emptiness or something like that, are already on the path. It just clicks. It's like the old analogy of a horse and whip. A brilliant horse runs at the shadow of the whip. At the other extreme, the horse walks lazily and takes breaks even if it is hardly beaten. I've seen many such bad horses in people who are very casual about dharma but because they don't practice, they are mere believers, convinced that they know what the teaching of the Buddha is about. When such people draw their last breath, it will be a crazy and scary rollercoaster. Maybe they won't take dharma for granted in future lives. Such people never listened to their teacher and never really did preliminaries. Then there are horses in between these two. What kind of horse are you? Clarify your motivation to yourself to make your path easy and straight. If you are after happiness or just nibble it, bite here and there, you have a long and winding road ahead of you. It is not a problem for me and I am not admonishing you either. So, mortality and transcience of life is a great preliminary.


Honesty is another preliminary. We need to be honest and willing to see our own faults. Not many people can practice that well because we want to affect things to our favour, to make it better for us, so that we can be happier. If we cultivate honesty and sincerity, by simply reminding ourselves to be honest in this moment, that already reveals ourselves as buddhas. Honesty and sincerity brings in a flood of energy that is pure, pacifying and grounded. If we remain honest about our thoughts, words and actions, we are already buddhas. It is a misconception to think that if one remained honest for 30 years, then the reward would come after such a period of cultivation. No, the reward of non-reward is instant and has an instant effect on our mind. The preliminary of honesty, reminding ourselves to be honest, like other preliminaries needs to be repeated many times. In that way we are actually transforming our self-centered and self-invested habits. Being honest purifies our actions.

Acknowledgement of Confusion and Value of Dharma

We cannot really know the value of dharma, unless we can acknowledge the depth and seriousness of our confusion. Again, think about the wheel of life (skt. bhavachakra) and transmigration in realms. If you don't practice the dharma, you cannot know yourself. If you don't know yourself, you are unaware of karmic records stored in your subconscious mind that will kick in, in full at the moment you die. When a filled but untied balloon is released in a room it flies all over the place and ends up in a random place! Look at your emotional reactions and you get a sense of where you're heading. Maybe you end up having another human life, but think of all the possible places and cisumstances you could end up... When we are still in a human body and have the opportunity to practice the dharma, that very very very few people do, you can remain honest and acknowledge the scope of your self-based confusion. As tantrics, when we realise that we truly are fucked, that is the moment when we take refuge in the mahasiddha guru, mainly Guru Rinpoche. And he is more than happy to help anyone!

Past mahasiddhas are literally hanging in the air, on all corners of the world, just waiting for people to turn to them. We only need to make the initiative and when we do it's such a joyful and fulfilling ride. Through guru yoga, this association, we come to know the reality of ourselves which is the whole point. Like this, bit by bit, we come to value the dharma. Little by little, appreciation and valuing dharma comes to us. This is nothing else but your awakened nature.


All these preliminaries (tib. nundro) give arise to bodhicitta, the heartmind of enlightenment. Bodhicitta is just another way of saying that we begin to become who we essentially already are. Samsaric beings don't give a shit about others because they are only concerned about their fix and the happiness of those they know or who belong to their group. Aren't most people acting exactly like this? It's a bloody mess, isn't it.

By caring for others, bodhisattvas break their bubble made of habits, likes and dislikes, that is, the self. We begin to care for others because we become less self-immersed and begin to see that everyone else around us suffers too.

Thank you and bows for listening. Now practice, actualise, these teachings. Make these words of countless predecessors your life line. Don't waste your time.

Again, I am sorry that I couldn't make it over due to being ill. I wish you all a great Spring Retreat!

Much love,

torstai 11. huhtikuuta 2019

Reflections on Retreats and Dharma Culture by Lama Karl Eikrem

Reflections on Retreats and
Dharma Culture 
by Lama Karl Eikrem, Tiia and Kim Rinpoche
From time to time I like attend retreats and events held by other spiritual traditions than that of my own. I find it healthy and beneficial to compare my own practice with that of other schools, as it gives me an understanding of the differences and similarities between different forms of practice. Besides it is always nice to connect with other serious practitioners.
Last year I attended two 4-day retreats taught by well-known Western teachers from traditional Tibetan Dzogchen lineages. Although I did enjoy the retreats, there were several points that struck me as problematic about the way they were conducted. In this text I will elaborate on these issues.
Before I get into it I want to make it clear that this text does not represent an attack on anyone's dharma practice, on any particular sangha or tradition etc. Rather the purpose is to highlight some problematic areas of the culture of spiritual training as was reflected in these particular retreats.
It could be argued that two Dzogchen retreats hardly represent the present culture of Tibetan Buddhism, which is true. Nevertheless, the problems highlighted in this text I have found to be common to many of the orthodox Tibetan Buddhist events and teachings I have participated in. Thus, it is my sincere belief that highlighting them can be of benefit to many dharma practitioners. 
Lack of Practice Time
The first thing that struck me about these retreats was the lack of actual practice time. To me, the whole purpose of retreats seem to be to take time off from daily obligations in order to practice the dharma intensively. Through increased practice in a conducive environment, retreats can offer us yogins an actual taste of what the dharma is all about. This again leads to increased clarity, motivation and confidence channelled directly into our daily practice.
Despite this, at both of the retreats I attended there was hardly any practice time at all. Instead participants were given long talks about the dharma and the importance of practicing it(!). At one of the retreats I estimated that for every 3 hour session 20-30 minutes was spent practicing, 30 minutes was spent drinking tea and going to the toilet, and the remaining 2 hours was spent listening to talks given by the teacher.
The other retreat did have about two 60 minute sessions dedicated entirely for practice, but these sessions were poorly instructed. In fact, the teacher did not attend himself, and as a result the sessions were somewhat unattended by the retreatants as well.
Whereas I am used to retreats where people, including the teacher, show up on time and take the practice seriously, here participants seemed to walk in out as they wished, not really certain what to do with the time. It seemed to me that the reason for this was not due to laziness etc. on the part of the practitioners, but because the retreat culture itself deemed the practice sessions subordinate to the lectures.
It is widely acknowledged that Dzogchen teachings represents the pinnacle of Buddhist teachings. Nevertheless, my experience from a Theravadin retreat some years ago, was that it was vastly superior in terms of experiential insight compared to the Dzogchen retreats. So while the Dzogchen view may essentially represent a higher realisation than that of the Theravadin traditions, due to the lack of practice time this was not at all reflected in these retreats. 
Lack of Guidance
The second thing that struck me at these retreats was the lack of actual involvement of the teachers towards the practice of the students. When time eventually did come to practice, the sessions would usually be preceded by a short and often very general introduction of the technique. Then when the bell rang for practice to begin, the teachers would retreat into their own practice for the duration of the session. In other words, during the meditation there was no guidance or supervision whatsoever.
As an apprentice teacher in my own tradition, I would be scolded by my teacher if I showed such little commitment and sense of responsibility towards students during sessions. Glancing around the meditation halls from time to time, I could tell that people were not really practicing what had been taught. Some were dosing off, most were just sitting in a murky state of mind, and yet the teachers did nothing at all to clear things up. Being so occupied with their own practice, I would be surprised if they were even aware of what was going on in the room.
I cannot think of any other are of human endeavour where those in charge are openly allowed to show such negligence. If a medical professor at the university would show the same lack of responsibility for their students, I find it likely that something would be done about it. Yet, my own experience shows me that when it comes to dharma, a lack of standards has become the standard. This brings me to the next observation.
Lack of Clarity and Relevance
Throughout the retreats the teachers seldom mentioned anything concrete about the spiritual path. Yes, they talked about the human condition, emptiness and bodhicitta and so on, but in response to a question regarding initial awakening from identification with the subject-I, or "me-ness" presented by one student, for example, the teacher at one of the retreats told the student that he did not need to bother his mind with such things.
Excuse me...?
As anyone with first-hand insight into the path of realising the true nature of mind will be able to attest to, the relative spiritual path passes through several more or less concrete stages. Shakyamuni Buddha himself taught about these stages, and so did many other masters of old. Yet modern teachers, except for a few shimmers of light here and there, seem to avoid the whole subject. And in avoiding it, the practices specific to each stage are also left out. As a result the dharma becomes vague and irrelevant to people's particular life situations.
After the teacher had given his answer to the student, I asked him directly if he knew of any methods that would lead to initial awakening. He said that he would get to that in the next session. As I have never come across any orthodox Dzogchen teachings on this, I eagerly waited to receive these teachings, but what was presented to us was a meditation on love.
Now, there is nothing wrong with meditating on love. In fact I consider it an essential practice. Nevertheless, meditation on love or the awakened heart is not intended to bring about the first permanent insight, that of initial awakening. Thus, presenting it as such was just another example of what happens when teachers do not understand the underlying principles of dharma in relation to the mechanics of existential confusion.
When taught by someone with comprehensive experiential knowledge of cyclic existence and the antidote to it, the dharma becomes very concrete and clear. Then when we practice it, we can see results quickly. When taught by someone who, despite perhaps having broad intellectual knowledge, lacks the experiential insight, the dharma becomes abstract, irrelevant and vague. Practiced vaguely, we can not expect to see much result of our efforts. In this way it is easy to see the importance of a clear and pragmatic approach to spiritual training.

It should be noted that since I am focusing on the problematic areas here, I might come across as overly negative. This is not my intention. The basis for writing this text is the fact that the dharma is the most important aspect of human existence, and thus I feel it is only right that it should be treated as such.
I believe it should be a minimum requirement that practitioners are given the teachings in a manner that leads to actual experiential insight. First and foremost, this means that practice has to take the centre stage over long intellectual lectures.
Furthermore, spiritual teachers need to take their jobs seriously and teach from a space of actual experience and a genuine care for their student's progression on the path. Approached in such a manner, the inherent clarity and concrete nature of the teachings is allowed to shine forth. Only then can the dharma blossom in our culture. 
May all beings be free,
-Lama Karl Eikrem,
Pemako Buddhist Sangha,

Tiia, teacher in training: My exp is very similar to the blog text. I've taken part in a few dzogchen teachings, both live and online, and had big expectations of pointing out instructions and actual practice, but unfortunately got disappointed. Eg. the latest retreat on last spring lasted on Fri-Sun, and it was all about lecturing, for several hours, including one 10 minutes Ati session on Saturday. Ati was without any guiding or pointing out to the natural state.
During the weekend there was a lot of talk about emptiness, clarity, clear light, and several pointers to the sense of self by saying "return attention back to the seer", but no meditation on it. Only talk. I doubt anyone in the audience got that.
Somehow I sensed that the lama had genuine insight and knowledge, fresh bodhicitta and enthusiasm, and I appreciate him very much, but why only read the texts and talk. I can't help thinking that Western people are sometimes underestimated by Tibetan buddhist lamas. Many people in West have already done their preliminaries through emotional and mental suffering and existential crisis, and they want to know HOW to get rid of it, so why not to offer real tools, experiences, that blow up their minds on a new level.

Kim: There is and has been a handful of lamas who have and do point out the nature of mind at every chance they get, so there are also exceptions, fortunately. I don't wish to blame lamas who say they teach dzogchen but then don't or can't deliver for the simple reason that the fault is in their methods and pedagogy, rather than in them. If you don't have effortless recognition yourself, how could you have confidence telling about it to others? You can't but then you are involved with a lineage that has its system of training, position in the organisation and people ask you to teach dzogchen because they've read about it. So all these geshes, khenpos and lamas end up in this tricky position... Some lamas are asked by big publishing houses to produce dzogchen courses and they do that because apparently they can't refuse and falsely have confidence to teach dzogchen because their lama has told them they can teach it. Then you end up having silent recorded pointing out sessions recorded because the lama doesn't know what to say becaus he doesn't know... It's a one big mess but what's new in samsara? :) Since when there were people (in plural) walking here and there who you could ask about the nature of mind and they could answer right away without tricks? Maybe they had something like it during mahasiddha era over thousand years ago, when yoginis and yogis shared their experiences beyond their chosen religions, brainstormed and practiced properly but for a long time now there has been so many faults disturbing the process. Irrelevant practices, dogmatic beliefs and poor pedagogy are the strongly beating heart of this problem.