In February 2005, I entered a traditional Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) Buddhist 3-year, 3-month, 3-day retreat.
I had told my meditation teacher I didn’t think I could relinquish worldly life because I was too invested in men, money and dancing. By day I was a mild-mannered schoolteacher, by night an increasingly proficient samba and salsa club dancer. But it turned out the hardest attachment to let go of was my dog Cosmo, who had been my companion for ten years. I cried for three days straight, rekindling a shelved childhood memory. At around age seven, my family had potentially serious plans to move to Saudi Arabia for my father’s career. I delivered an emphatic No, stating I would happily stay behind and live with my cocker spaniel, whom I planned to marry.
Long retreat is a kind of death simulation. You leave behind family, friends, income, privacy, media, sex, career, autonomy, home and even country to hole up in the woods and examine the only thing left: your own messy mind. Life episodes and relationships are replayed and dissolve, sometimes after much self-torturous re-hashing. Timelines start to soften and become a bit less linear; fixation on identity relaxes into deity visualization, service, the soothing structural repetition of mantra, ceremonial music, raking leaves, washing pots and pans. Of the many practices we learned, the most oft-repeated and emphasized as truly essential, was the practice of pure vision, or pure perception (dak nang in Tibetan). In Tibetan Buddhism everything is taken as the path, nothing left out. For some, pure vision comes more easily. For others, seeing all beings, events, circumstances and environments as primordially pure takes some effort, an application of intention, of will. Fake it ‘til you make it, as they say, which does work over time. As one of my lamas says, “We accomplish whatever we practice,” admonishing us to choose wisely.
Another of my teachers describes the process of fabrication, in relation to guru devotion. He says it may take time to develop deep authentic devotion (or pure perception), so we apply effort leading to eventual effortless devotion, as long as the student-teacher relationship is a suitable one. Traditionally, it is recommended both teacher and student “interview” each other for 2 or 3 years, to ensure it is the right karmic match, to create benefit. Pure vision plays a key role. I like to think of it as ordinary phenomena becoming subsumed by extraordinary phenomena rather than being opposed.
Buddhist practice is fabrication, but no more so than what we apply all the time in “ordinary” life. We are fabricating our identities and stories 24/7, unless we switch gears to fabricate something new, something perhaps more nourishing, more beneficial, more effective toward awakening our true nature. Eventually the two merge, “the two” being the story and the backdrop, or in more basic terms, the worldly and the spiritual lives we seem to be leading. I love the Tibetan story of a yogi who gave up meditation after 12 or more years, having seen no results from reciting mantras for his given deity. He threw down his mala and walked away, fed up. But then he heard the deity relentlessly calling his name! When effort or hoping are exhausted, pure perception can arise effortlessly.
Hope is as futile as romance, avoiding death, or finding parking in Haight-Ashbury. Accepting what is, an antidote to hope (and fear), is cousin to pure perception. I return again and again to Chogyam Trungpa’s treatise on hopelessness ("Illusion’s Game", p.61-62) a teaching which spirals around with deeper meaning upon each tasting. Trungpa packs a punch with, “The basic requirement for treading the spiritual path is hopelessness.” He goes on to leave us further bereft by assuring us there is no refuge whatsoever even in this hopelessness. It is truly hopeless! But instead of eliciting despair, this brings relief. There is no way out other than a be-here-right-now-in-this-and-every-present-moment, no matter what it is, and be awake. Our present reality -at Safeway, in traffic, at work- is a kind of sadhana (practice of spiritual activity).
Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel says, “The broader definition of sadhana is ‘spiritual exertion toward an intended goal.’ Our life is already a sadhana. When we understand this, we can organize it in a way that supports our intention. The world seems very rich when we see it in this way.”
This brings us back to pure vision. Living our life as a practice, we experience everything and everyone as key elements of a sacred mandala. How? We enact pure perception. It’s the same as love. When we love someone, we generate love for them over time and it deepens. It doesn’t mean they always act right or smell good, but we arouse love anyway. Pure perception is the same. Maybe we fabricate this for some months or years, and then it becomes authentic, happens naturally. This effects change in the fabric of the universe, and all its delicate interconnections. This is the “World Peace begins with me” action we proclaim on bumper stickers and in Facebook posts. At its root, love is acceptance, regardless of liking. Which leads me to dogs. Dogs are great role models of loving, forgiveness and acceptance.
Last month a former long-term retreat companion asked me to accompany him to Laurie Anderson’s new film “Heart of a Dog.” I jumped at the chance, having been heavily influenced by her sound performance art as a teen in the early 80’s. Anderson describes her film as “a story about how one tells stories,” and it’s woven through with themes of Buddhist wisdom and raw human (and canine) experience. She constructs a dreamlike, visceral collage of life threads expressed through sound, animation, narration, music, with both still and moving images, including Go-Pro cameras on dog collars. Altogether the montage resembles an experience one might find in the bardo state after death; piecemeal, sensorial, nonlinear yet somehow coherent.
According to one interviewer, Anderson “wanted it to feel like life itself, with its random and unexpected digressions.” * The premise is an ode to her dog Lolabelle, who went blind yet still learned to paint and play piano. Just as we follow the storylines of our lives, meditation invites us to examine the story weaver and the fabric and the loom and the floor underneath, examining ever deeper to find the original ground of all experience. Through “Heart of a Dog,” the dark thread running through is Anderson’s ambivalent relationship with her mother. The golden thread is her recalling her teacher’s advice for coping with the death of a loved one: “Practice feeling sad, without being sad.” This bit of wisdom keeps sinking in deeper.
Remembering hopelessness dispels clinging to false hope (youth, delusions of immortality or grandeur), keeps us on the right path, using our time wisely.
Engaging pure perception enables us to embrace all phenomena, the good, the bad and the ugly, leaving preferences aside, accepting what is.
Keeping company with dogs (and cats, and humans, and all beings) reminds us why any of it matters. We are decaying and dying, yes. But so are all motherly sentient beings, and we keep each other company, sharing what wisdom, love and kindness we can. I always felt Cosmo was a bodhisattva in canine form. He would lick my tears one by one with the tip of his tongue, looking greatly concerned when I was sad. And he could make me laugh out loud with his antics and perpetual optimism. When we lived in the Southwest that dog never caught a single desert rabbit, yet he put all his heart and muscle into the attempt, every single time.
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* Christopher Wallenberg, The Boston Globe November 28, 2015.