Sustaining the teaching — and the teacher

Until the next-to-the-last chapter of my novel What’s Left, the resident Tibetan Buddhist master, Rinpoche, stays largely in the background.

He’s a stabilizing influence of Cassia’s family, all the same.

As she realizes, in earlier drafts of the novel:

I am impressed by Baba and Tito’s roles — the entire family’s role, in reality — in establishing the Buddhist institute. Our charitable foundation was established as a vehicle to support Baba’s research time as well as the institute and the new Pan Orthodox church — along with college scholarships for family children as well as those of many who’d worked for us. The foundation, then, was another enterprise from Dimitri’s socialist cognizance as it blended with our growing spirituality.

The family’s financial security was especially important in supporting her own parents through some transformative years:

For my parents, it provided enough income for them to pursue their dreams, even before we kids came along. Manoula’s share of the dividends and, I’m inclined to think, a consulting stipend from the company itself also allow Baba to focus on establishing the Tibetan institute here. For the first year, the Tibetan research operates out of their apartment, along with our publishing setup. And then, with Rinpoche in place, the institute settles into a small house more or less in the middle of Mount Olympus, where the guru can live in proximity to selected students the way Baba had.

But over the years, their individual practice wavered. With Barney, for instance, as Rinpoche explained:

More and more, we argued. Your Baba could still converse with him about these matters, but Barney kept quoting another teacher, far more permissive than me. What he allowed, we wouldn’t. But a few years ago, that guru died of complications of his wild lifestyle. It was scandalous.

As for her aunt Pia?

Rinpoche tells me she attended the weekly sessions with Theos Barney and the rest of the family, but her heart remained with the church.

And then Cassia has more pressing matters:

Pain? You say it’s an illusion, not real.

Oh, I’ve had some long discussions with your priest about that! From a Buddhist point of view, pain’s not real the way material things aren’t real. That doesn’t mean they don’t get in the way. You just have to learn to see through them. You can’t refuse to directly examine an obstacle, though, and expect to be liberated from it. You just have to remember what’s beyond it.

The mountain?

There’s no avoiding it.

~*~

In Cassia’s family her father finds much more than a circle of faith. He gives and receives support in everything he values.

How do you support others? Is there one place you feel is especially important? What causes or organizations do you help?

~*~

Tibetan Buddhist double-dorje emblem. To me, it looks almost Greek Orthodox.

~*~

On the road to satori

Like Zen, my mind works in strange ways, and this is how I too often see things.

How I often see or hear life around me.

I can imagine a Buddhist sutra in which two monks observe the sign. They’re walking, of course, rather than driving.

The first says something pithy asking how Zen, being nothing, can do anything, much less work.

And the second replies that work’s nothing, too. But it’s not lazy.

Better, I suppose, than “ZZZ Working,” which many assume while passing the usual sign and seeing the crew standing by idly.

If you like this, please clap with one hand.

Finding another dimension of personal growth

In my novel What’s Left, one of Cassia’s big discoveries is how much her father had changed in the span from high school to his return to the college town a few years after his graduation.

Among the passages I cut from the final version is this:

No, I guess Baba takes it all in stride because of all the healing and growth that had happened within him since Nita introduced him to Tibetan practice.

~*~

Not everyone, of course, looks deeply into the people and the world around them. Some seem oblivious to the cosmic harmony or greater good that could be shared.

Too many, in fact, remain blatantly superficial, considering the threats now before human existence.

But I’m preaching. I’ll apologize.

There are other options, as I discovered when I took up yoga.

Who or what have you seen helping people you know change for the better? Is there any practice or teaching you’d recommend?

~*~

Cassia’s hometown may have looked something like this. Front of the store at 109-113 South College Avenue in downtown Bloomington, Indiana. Built in 1895, it is part of the Courthouse Square Historic District listed in the National Register of Historic Places. (Photo by Nyttend via Wikimedia Commons.)

~*~

 

Learning more about the Buddha and strands of his legacy

In my four Freakin’ Free Spirits novels, Cassia’s father is a Tibetan Buddhist scholar as well as a noted photographer. There’s even a rumor he was accidentally reincarnated in Iowa rather than in the Himalayas.

In my survey of other ebooks at Smashwords, I’ve found a range of helpful books on Buddhism. Most are of the nonfiction variety, but some tell of personal experience more than textbook classifications. A few even go for flip, self-deprecating humor. Especially illuminating are the ones by Westerners who have long practice to draw on.

Of the lines of teaching, my bias has long been toward Zen, with its spare aesthetic, and Tibetan, which is far more liturgical, esoteric, and colorful. In fact, the more I investigate, the more I’m convinced that Tibetan is a lot like Greek Orthodox Christianity (as I intuitively assumed when drafting my first novel). Zen, meanwhile, is more like Quaker Christianity – something others have also noted.

Without getting technical, what I’ve found most informative in my recent readings is the much different nature of the Buddhism that headed from India into Indochina rather than the branch that headed north in China and then on to Tibet, on one side, or Japan, on the other.

It’s quite a rich mix. To see what I’ve found, turn to the book reviews at my Jnana Hodson at Smashwords page.

Got any related books to recommend?

Climbing the family tree

When she sets out in the task that’s become my novel, What’s Left, she doesn’t expect to be creating a family genealogy going back through her great-grandparents. But there’s no avoiding it.

As I explained in an earlier draft:

Theirs is a unique odyssey – one where the final homecoming is far from its point of origin. As a tragedy, the suffering comes at unmapped turns in the quest for the American dream. As a comedy, well, there are hot dogs, hippies, Hoosiers, and hope. Take your pick.

She gets insights on her parents’ generation:

Thea Nita notes that children in her generation grew up hearing of the woes of the Great Depression as a staple of conversation at big family dinners. In our case, that included the diner shooting.

A good genealogist doesn’t turn back when the details get disturbing:

By now I’m rather astonished at the events Thea Nita’s uncovered. Every family has things it wants to keep secret, but as a journalist, she’s driven toward disclosure. What did I tell you about listening closely to arguments? The dirt that comes up, even years later? Or even in what might transpire in mother-daughter confabs.

~*~

Does it work for the reader? I certainly hope so.

One reason, I suspect, is because Cassia is part of a family that holds many experiences in common. They live close to one another, work in the restaurant or related enterprises, play and grow up together, worship in one of two streams they’ve blended. Whatever they have flows from a shared source.

~*~

Speaking of family, Cassia’s oldest cousin, Alex, would be quite a catch. Where would you want to dine with him – romantically or just as a friend?

~*~

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers. (Rochester, New Hampshire)

Does a family that meditates together glow together?

The first decade of her father’s presence in the family was one of great growth and deepening personal awareness for every member – especially before all of the children, including Cassia, come along.

For one thing, her parents’ generation is still working on its Buddhist studies together. As I noted in an earlier draft of my novel What’s Left:

You know, Baba will say one night after our family meditation, most of these enterprises wouldn’t stand a chance if it weren’t for one thing.

What’s that?

Rinpoche, the Tibetan master.

Then the room will fall into a profound reverie.

Well, it was all no doubt pretty exotic to all of them.

And then the vision got even heavier:

It’s the concept of living as a people of the Holy One, however we phrase it. A peaceable people. A peaceable kingdom. The great wisdom or enlightenment.

There was even a question of how much diversity they could manage:

Religions? Say the way a piano is a world apart from a trombone or a double bass or a clarinet, even if they rely on the same kind of musical notation? And that was before your Manoula weighed in on some wildly divergent ethnic musics based on entirely conflicting theoretical foundations.

Well, that got too esoteric, even for me! Play it as you will.

Still, not everybody in the family was so high on the Buddhist excitement:

The Temple Room relocates to the first-floor parlor next to Yiayia Athina before moving altogether to a more public location, one having chambers for our anticipated Rinpoche’s full-time residency. Yiayia Athina makes no secret of being glad to see them go. The chanting was getting on her nerves.

Oh, I’m so glad Cassia stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

~*~

Cassia’s family obviously takes all this seriously.

What spiritual practice or source of inspiration is meaningful to you?

Looking for a natural high

Just what so intensely motivated her father-to-be to quit everything so he could retreat into monastic Buddhist practice for three years? It’s a question that’s impossible to answer fully. (My parallel experience of living on a yoga farm is the basis of my newest novel, Yoga Bootcamp.)

Still, I’m required to try. In a passage from an earlier draft of my novel What’s Left, the explanation went this way:

Thea Nita suggested another take. Your Baba yearned for the highs, she says.

What about drugs?

You don’t think that was a problem, she counters. Don’t you think I wasn’t worried, at least until Rinpoche came into the picture?

Well, I’d wondered about that with my uncles, too – that whole hippie thing?

Oh, that? Nita chuckles and admits it posed a danger, especially before she returned to town. Barney, especially, enjoyed being stoned when he could. As she says, that could present problems in a commercial kitchen.

And then? They learned they could get a natural high through meditation – if they steered clear of drugs, as they did when Baba, by then a militant practicing Buddhist, entered the scene. Besides, there was no escaping the reality we all had work to do – and it better be done right.

~*~

As Rinpoche told Cassia about her father:

He needed the lightness and even playfulness he encountered in the Tibetan Buddhism – the high, in fact – that he hadn’t found in his Christian past. To be fair, I am finding indications he was discovering that in the Judeo-Christian side, too, during his final years. What a loss, then.

Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

~*~

And then there was her mother’s presence, as Rinpoche explained:

Your Baba found his missing half in Manoula and through her, his place in this world. But he always sensed there was more to life. The rabbi here tells me that when Moses came down from the mountain, he carried two tablets. The first one was about man’s relationship to God, and the second one was about relating to each other. So your Baba was working on something like that. He sometimes referred to it as finding the right balance.

And that mountain?

It was about all that would hold him down. For now. Maybe they were well matched.

~*~

Here we are talking about religion, and I see the question turning to something unexpectedly related:

What makes you smile?

Ten perspectives on Tibet

It’s not just Cassia in What’s Left who wants to know about her father’s fascination with Tibetan Buddhism. It plays a big role in his movements in Pit-a-Pat-High Jinks and Subway Visions, too.

  1. Number of Tibetans in U.S.: Estimated at 9,000.
  2. Buddhists in U.S.: 3,860,000 (Pew Research Center, 2010). Other estimates range from 1.2 million to 8 million.
  3. Number of converts: 800,000.
  4. Buddhism in Indiana (scene of What’s Left): Includes the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center and Kumbum Chamtse Ling Temple, both in Bloomington and founded by Thubten Norbu, brother of the Dalai Lama.
  5. Other major Tibetan Buddhist centers in U.S.: Barnet, Vermont; Berkeley, California; Boulder, Colorado; Chino Valley, Arizona; Red Feather Lakes, Colorado; Poolesville, Maryland; Portland, Oregon Seattle, Washington; Sedona, Arizona; Woodstock, New York.
  6. Population of Tibet: 6 million Tibetans, 7.5 million Chinese settlers.
  7. Estimated number of Tibetans killed by Chinese since 1949: 1.2 million.
  8. Number of monasteries destroyed: 6,000.
  9. The Dalai Lama: Its spiritual leader has more than 13 million Twitter followers.
  10. Most Tibetans fear the spirit world and its demons: They’re blamed for illness, bad luck, and misfortune.

Ten Buddhist basics

Thanks to Cassia’s father in my novel What’s Left, she’s familiar with Buddhist teaching and practice.

Here are ten basics.

  1. Siddhartha Gautama: Historical figure who established the teachings in northern India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. Often referred to as the Buddha.
  2. Buddhas: Transcendent figures found throughout the universe. Gautama embodies one of them.
  3. Dharma: The law or the way taught by Gautama to overcome suffering or dukka (perhaps better rendered as stress or dissatisfaction). One translation has Dharma as the process itself.
  4. Reincarnation: The state of one’s next rebirth is determined by the fruits of an individual’s karma (actions) in the present life.
  5. Nirvana: An eternal state of perfect peace, bliss, and enlightenment, usually achieved through meditation and breaking the chain of further rebirth.
  6. Boddhisattvas: Figures who have attained nirvana but instead of going their immediately, compassionately reincarnate to assist others.
  7. Sutras: The scriptures (literally “stitchings”).
  8. Three major branches of Buddhism: Theravada, prominent in Indochina; Mahayana, the largest and most liberal branch; and Vajrayana, which emphasizes the magical and the occult.
  9. Tantra: Sacred texts in the Vajrayana branch describing secret methodologies and practices.
  10. Mandalas and tankas: Vajrayana visual images to aid meditation.

Gee, I didn’t even get to koans, those mind-boggling puzzles presented to Zen aspirants.