Although my first contact with the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism was at Kagyu Samye Ling, most of my time has been spent at Kagyu Samye Dzong London, its affiliated centre in Bermondsey, south of the Thames and east of Tower Bridge. And one of the great benefits I have found of regularly visiting places like these is the presence of great teachers and great meditators such as Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, the abbot of Kagyu Samye Ling and director of the Holy Isle Project, and Lama Gelongma Zangmo, the director of Kagyu Samye Dzong London.
Lama Yeshe Rinpoche and Lama Zangmo are, for me, outstanding examples of how it is possible to become a vastly better person through the constant practice and application, in every moment of daily life, of the principles of Buddhist ‘dharma’. Lama Zangmo impressed me from the first moment of meeting her as a much more enlightened human being than the ordinary norm that I had, until then, been in contact with; Lama Yeshe Rinpoche, at each successive encounter, has never failed to open up new inroads of wisdom in my mind; both of them paragons of perfect discipline, and yet irrepressibly joyful. They would themselves protest that they are not flawless or infallible, and that is not what I claim; but they demonstrate to me, through each and every one of their actions, how they can interact with every sentient being they come across, and react to any of the external circumstances that this convoluted human existence of ours keeps throwing up, always in a skilful, mindful, compassionate way.
(And this is where you see that they are truly exceptional teachers. It is easy to talk the talk – almost anybody can give a mind-blowing presentation on the theory of ‘dharma’ – but it is another thing entirely to walk the walk, and to embody the ‘dharma’ in every instant. Ken Holmes, who is another of the inspirational retreat leaders at Kagyu Samye Ling, recently brought up the question of controversial teachers on his Facebook page. I did not comment at the time, but on reflection I can say, if you want to test someone’s mettle, look not just at their teachings: volunteer to work alongside them and see how they react under pressure. Skilful behaviour at all times is the mark of the great.)
‘Skilful’ is an adjective that is used a lot in Buddhism. My good friend Chris Walton observed, at the start of our now nearly five-year-long journey through the Buddhist experience, how helpful it is that (the usual terminology of the Noble Eightfold Path notwithstanding) experienced ‘dharma’ practitioners generally shy away from labelling behaviour as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They are not overly concerned with making a moral judgment about actions, but rather with an evaluation of the results that come from these actions. Thus the things we do can be either beneficial for ourselves and for others, or they can be harmful; we can act skilfully in promoting the well-being of the greatest possible number of those around us, or unskilfully by giving in to the confused mess of impulsive responses and bad habits that usually populate our busy and intemperate minds.
It is no hardship to confess that my decision to take robes was in no small measure prompted by the possibility of learning, by training my mind through sustained meditation and proper conduct, to live my life as well as I could see these great teachers doing.
Of course it could be argued that this could have been accomplished even without the robes. I have to acknowledge, however, two undeniable facts: that the great teachers I keep referring to are all monastics; and that the Buddha himself prescribed leaving behind the preoccupations of a householder’s existence, and entering monastic life ,as the best avenue for achieving a more enlightened state of mind.
Ultimately, I hope indeed to be able to keep mindfulness of thought and action going even in the midst of a bustling existence. But it has become obvious to me that before facing that kind of challenge, firstly I have to develop a strong, stable habit of meditation, and that it is easier to do so in an environment, like that of Kagyu Samye Ling, conducive to it. And secondly I have come to realise, not least through the experience of the Nyungney retreat described in a previous post, how important it is to have dedicated skilful practitioners around as the invariable yardstick along which to align myself.
(And that is something I now feel I miss on Holy Isle. There is Lama Rinchen, of course, the resident spiritual director of the long-term retreatants on the South End of the Isle, but she is a kind of Buddhist Superwoman totally beyond my pay grade.)
Having said that, proximity to the great teachers is not without its dangers and pitfalls. Those ruddy enlightened minds can see right through you, clearly spot all your habitual deficiencies, and come out with precisely the (possibly painful) remedies that you need to take on to correct them. Lama Yeshe Rinpoche is the specialist in this art form, from his opening words during the very first teaching I attended with him (“I’m very glad to see you here. Now go out there and meditate!”), to his repeated admonitions to “Change the mind!”, and most of all his decision to send me to the practice maelstrom of Holy Isle with the mission to be “Warm, welcoming, smiling ... and non-judgemental!”
On the other hand, I have absolute confidence that he sees equally well into the best way to guide me along. Whereas others have reported being (virtually) bashed into line, so far I have felt only a gentle prod here and there, and a willingness to allow me to come to wherever I need to be by my own means. (If that gives you a mental picture of a troop of donkeys being driven on a mountain path, it is just about right.) It is no guarantee that I will get there, but it is the best shot at trying I can be given.