Saturday, May 12, 2012

Black widows

Mind training in seven stages, stone scorpions moving up the river, green female superheroes hovering above my head: these are the main things I think of when it comes to the Tse Chen Ling Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies on Webster Street at Oak in the Lower Haight.  After a few months of going to the SF Zen Center every Saturday I decided it was time to check out something in the Tibetan tradition, and I'd come across this place online.  It's just up the street from me, but it's hard to tell that it's a Buddhist center from outside.  What you see is just a largish San Francisco house, although once or twice I've stumbled across red-robed lamas when I've set off for runs in Golden Gate Park.  Once you climb up the long stone staircase, you know you're entering a place of peace: there are potted plants and flowers all the way up, and a stone statue of the Buddha at the top.  It's like the memorial staircase leading up to chapel at my boarding school: before evensong there were candles on either side.  You had to keep silence, and if you didn't your friends would punch you on the arm.

The first time I went in I'd decided to show up for their Saturday morning, 9am meditation session, which is supposed to be welcoming to newcomers and seems to serve the same purpose as the 'Introduction to Zazen' period at SFZC.  There was a determinedly kindly man with hippy jewelry and a pony tail who let me in.  To the left there was a bookstore full of yellow and orange volumes about tantra by lamas called Rinpoche; there were also some large metal containers with tea and coffee.  To the right of the entrance was the main part of the temple.  At the far end of the smallish room was the kind of ritual paraphernalia I'd last seen at the Tibetan place I'd once frequented in London.  There were seven glasses of water on the altar.  There were statuettes of lamas with saffroned hats that made them look like they were portaging with bright yellow canoes.  There were framed potraits of real lamas grinning piously and looking nice.  On the walls were tapestries full of strange deities of various colours and shapes and sizes.

That first morning I happened to be the only person to show up for meditation, along with the man who was leading the session, a gentle middle-aged guy with glasses.  We sat in silence for half an hour, and then for the next half-hour he read me the scripture the center had been working with for a few months, the Seven-Point Mind Training.  The text as we have it was composed in the 12th century by Geshe Chekhawa, but the tradition was inaugurated by Atisa some three hundred years earlier.  The Seven-Point Mind Training is not so much mind training and a set of ethical principles and pieces of advice on meditation practice; also, it has 59 points, though these are grouped into seven sections.  These include genuinely helpful reminders ('Don't expect gratitude'), sensible but rather obvious reccommendations ('Don't eat poisonous food'), haunting but hard-to-interpret aphorisms ('Don't make gods into demons'), and bizarre proverbs ('Don't transfer an ox's load to a cow').  My favourite was 'Don't make sarcastic remarks'.  Yeah, that's really going to work.

The following week I went on Sunday morning for the 10am dharma talk by the resident lama, Ngawang Dakpa.  This time the room was full of extremely earnest Western students, most of the sitting cross-legged on cushions, wearing beads on their wrists, and taking notes in notebooks.  Dakpa sat cross-legged on a raised platform at the front and began the session by chanting a series of Tibetan sutras in a guttural voice at an unfollowable pace.  The Western students did their best to keep up, mumbling the weird syllables printed in their liturgical handbooks.  The actual sermon was also in Tibetan, and was translated into English sentence by sentence by a thin white-haired Englishman sitting nearby (with occasional input from a very young Tibetan monk who seemed to have a better grasp of English than his elderly teacher).  In my limited experience of Tibetan Buddhism it has always struck me that native Tibetans still seem to have a monopoly on teaching; I haven't come across senior American teachers in this school to compare with the convert masters at SFZC or PZI.

Partly because of this, I've always found that the cultural distance between the Tibetan teacher and the Western followers is often very great, even if the Western students have spent some time in Tibet.  To the newcomer, the experience of trying to piece together what a lama is saying from a simultaneous translation is often nothing short of bewildering.  Dakpa gave level-headed advice based on the Seven-Point Mind Training, but also enlivened his points with anecdotes from his youth (for example, the story of a monk who gave away all his possessions, only to have a change of heart soon afterwards and go around asking for them all back).  At one point there was a story about a monk with evil thoughts who encountered a scorption underneath a stone.  Here the translator looked puzzled, and the younger monk intervened.  It was actually not a live scorpion, but a stone one.  Everyone looked very relieved that the matter had been cleared up, so Dakpa went on to tell us how the stone scorpion travelled every year a few meters up the river, towards the stupa with the miniature stupa inside it.

Confused?  I was.  I was also surprised that there had been no formal meditation as part of the morning's service.  So I went back two weeks later to the Saturday morning meditation.  This time it was led by a different person, a younger man called Scott wearing an T-shirt advertising Iceland.  He led us in the kind of visualisation exercise that I tend to think of as typical of Tibetan practices and that I'd come to the center partly to explore.  After the usual calming preliminaries (easing tension in the body, watching the breath), Scott invited us to visualize green Tara, a deity that was pictured on one of the tapestries hanging on the wall.  She was a princess, sitting cross-legged; she had silver bracelets on her wrists, a crown on her head, and a large blue flower in her hand.  On her face was an expression of serenity and compassion.  Her body was green but immaterial, and she was floating right above our heads like a green light.  We were invited to identify our mind with hers, and both of these minds with the minds of our personal teachers.

This was probably the most complex (and, frankly, trippy) meditation practice I'd experienced, so it's not surprising that I found it strange and difficult.  I noticed a resistance within me to meditating on my teacher as if he were an object of religious devotion; I felt a resistance to visualizing a deity (although Scott said it was fine to see her as an archetype rather than an actually existing spirit).  Above all, there was something that was just a bit Star Trek about a beautiful green woman.  Beautiful?  Well, I have to admit that when I was asked to visualize a woman, my mind immediately started visualizing a sexy woman.  Since I'd just seen a trailer for the new Avengers movie, green Tara in her regal attire started out looking uncannily like Scarlett Johansson in a one-piece leather outfit.  Then when we were reminded that G.T. symbolized active social virtues, she began to look a bit like my girlfriend, who does a lot of volunteering.  Then we were supposed to integrate our personal teachers, so that green Tara - an alien avenger version of my girlfriend - started to take on some of the features of my teacher David, who is a man in his fifties with a white goatee.

All of this was very confusing, so I asked about it at the end of the session, half wondering if the instructor would be shocked by the places my mind had gone and cast me out on my green-woman-fancying ear.  In fact he said that this was a very common reaction, and not at all to be discouraged, as long as the practioner was able to use the momentum of his natural desire for a greater enthusiasm for the practice.  He said that human desire is actually welcomed in the Tantric traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and that the Gelugpa school he was a part of sought to unite the Tantra and Sutra traditions.  The danger was that students would misinterpret the advice and let themselves go, so that meditation turned into sexual fantasy, and an esoteric practice of liberation into a familiar habit of dependency.  In this way, he said, Tantra was like walking a razor's edge between not using the energies you have natrually arising within you, and being wholly directed by those tendencies.  I wasn't too worried: David did recently tell me that when he visualized Guanyin the image that most came to mind was Alfred E. Neuman, so I took my experience in that spirit.

When I came out of the center and walked down the steps I noticed that the guy with the pony tail seemed to be holding a garage-sale.  I asked him about it, and he told me that they were getting rid of all the stuff they didn't need for their impending move.  Move?  It turns out that the Tse Chen Ling Center will only be at its current location only for a couple more months.  Where are they moving to?  They're not sure, but they are looking for a smaller place, in the city, with good links to public transportation.  It sounds like they have the resources to move, but haven't yet been able to confirm a new location.  They'll need quite the moving van for all their ritual objects.  In the meantime, they're there every weekend.  Go up the stairs past the flowers and pass the stone Buddha, who may or may not be a scorpion mounting an aggressive (yet very slow) takeover against a stupa inside a stupa.  Inside there are tapestries of kick-ass green superheroines, who will dance right above your head if you will only sit still and be quiet.  Because, you see, though it might look like there are 59 stages to Mind Training, there are really only seven, and they are all right here.  

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