A BIRD'S EYE VIEW
TLC's Column by Bird Trungma
TLC's Board of Directors is tickled to welcome Bird Trungma and you to her new column of spirit, wit, and wisdom.
Bird offers her comments, thoughts, and musings on TLC's programs with "A Bird's Eye View", for your pleasure...
ABOUT BIRD...Bird Trungma was born in Brooklyn, New York on June 21, 1946. She was raised by her parents and grandmother near the boardwalk, and loves the fresh, salty smell of ocean air and the sound of waves crashing. She graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School and after working in Manhattan she packed up and moved to Greenwich Village, where she attended Hunter College and worked nights as a transcriber. Finally, in the late 1960’s, Bird flew to San Francisco, finished college there [BA, Psychology], but later returned to New York for her MA in Journalism at NYU.
Bird first encountered Zen Buddhism-her professor began the semester with a talk on The Four Noble Truths. “The Buddha said, ‘Life is suffering.’” That was all she needed to hear; her heart recognized this immediately and her mind cried out, clear as a bell, “Here, finally, is a religion that tells the truth!” She took Refuge at Gold Mountain Monastery a few weeks later. Bird met her guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, taking a course in Comparative Mysticism. Bird tells us, “Taking Trungpa as my guru was not an intellectual decision…I knew I had to get to the San Francisco Dharmadhatu right away. I entered the House of Trungpa and now, more than 40 years later, I have never left it.” Bird adds, “My guru is omnipresent. I see him wherever I look. It is said that “the world is a cosmic mirror.” I see him in the mirror, in me. My guru’s mind has become so strong and clear since his death. This has caused me to understand that the extreme barrier separating life from death which we imagine exists is not ultimately real. It is only real to the extent that we believe it so."
Bird wants us to know, "I am so glad to have encountered TLC, an organization dedicated to working “hands-on” with a subject that most people shrink from. I think when there is more knowledge about death, there is less fear. Therefore, it is a wonderful bodhisattva project, and I am so grateful to have been welcomed to join in.”
Musings on Impermanence - November 10, 2021
A Bird’s Eye View by Bird Trungma
Death: A Karmic Cliffhanger
What makes a good death? It is an interesting question. Some of us have received specific instructions for the transfer of consciousness when the time comes. Others have received no such instructions and will just have to wing it. But where will we wing it to, or for that matter, where will we transfer our consciousness to?
If we think we are going to go anywhere, we must first acknowledge where we are to begin with. Sometimes we say we are in the human realm, or we say we are in Jambudvipa, but if we try to find those places on a map, we may search forever and still never find them. If we hope to be reborn in Sukhavati, where is Sukhavati on any map? Which way is the Pure Land of Amitabha? Try Googling the route and see how far you get!
If you have started to smile or laugh at this, that is a good first step. If you are dead serious, you may not get far. The dharma teaches us that everything is empty, yet at the same time, it is real. There is nothing solid or permanent at all in any absolute sense, yet we experience everything deeply. We experience our lives. We experience our lives because we experience our minds. No mind, no life. That teaching is as straightforward as can be. Mind is the true diamond. Mind is the treasure. Mind is the Buddha in the Palm of our Hands.
What then, makes a good death? It is the same as what makes a good life. There may be much less of a distinction between the two than we think. We draw a line or put up a barrier separating them in our minds. Then there comes a certain point where we must step over the barrier. Our doctors’ medicines all have stopped working. Death can no longer be frightened off or seduced away by the doctors’ pills. This can become a big hurdle for us. But how did this hurdle of having to pass through such a barrier come to be there in the first place? Our minds placed it there. If we believe in the realities of birth and life, we must believe in the reality of death as well, because everything that has a beginning has an end. It is the same as in all of life. There is nothing solid about it. Realizing emptiness is like carrying a spiritual eraser around with you in your pocket, or at the very least, wearing a wonderful new pair of spiritual eye glasses. It erases all sorts of bogeymen created by the longtime conditioned habits of superstition. It allows us to transcend all sorts of hurdles, experience all kinds of gaps without falling into them, negotiate transitions from one set of experiences to another without falling prey to fear.
Ha! Once we have taken the leap, it is too late for us to change our minds. There is no turning back. Our bullet train has taken off. We can try calling out to the engineer, but the sound of the engine is too loud and he cannot hear us. If we try to look back at the friends and relatives we left standing on the platform, we can no longer see them, and even the platform itself is now invisible, forever gone from our view. Nevertheless, as the “Sutra of the Heart of Transcendent Knowledge teaches us:
"Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form.
Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness."
Does this mean life and death are the same? Should we value them equally? For my part, I must admit immediately equating life with form and death with emptiness the minute I hear this quote. I then have to stop and notice my more usually unnoticed superstitious assumptions taking control over my mind. The moment I notice this, the superstitious coup d’etat of habit taking over control of my mind comes to a halt. It does not leave, but it takes its seat as a student, along with all of the other limitless multitude of students who inhabit the classroom of my mind. There are so many of them! Have I really taken a vow to enlighten them all?
I feel a lump in my throat, but still, I manage to swallow and breath and do everything else which is necessary for me to carry on. This life, along with its impending death, provides me with so much space to become humble!
If form is emptiness and emptiness also is form, then life and death are truly one, to be valued as the same. If life is a kind of dream or a holographic set of experiences, then as far as ultimate reality is concerned, existence and non-existence are one. The big barriers we create to separate them are permeable. Likewise are all the barriers we create to separate ourselves from one another, to separate ourselves from our feelings, to separate our minds from our hearts.
We may spend a million kalpas trying. Ego does not give up easily. That is fine. We can fight the good fight and at the same time, we can surrender to the chaos, or to what Trungpa Rinpoche described as “orderly chaos.” We can feel confident knowing that everything always works out perfectly, just as it should, no matter how crazy everything seems to get in the interim:
“It is always timely. It directs one further.
It brings discriminating insight to the wise.”
(from Oryoki liturgy, Zen monastic meal chant)
We still we live in a world where there is the smell of spring in our noses, the icy touch of winter on our skin. Although none of it is absolutely real, it is nevertheless profoundly beautiful, and we experience that beauty profoundly. That is as close to real life as we get, and as far as I am concerned, so long as our hearts-minds are open, nothing is missing. Life is a precious, magic bubble, and our awareness of its empty nature only makes it more beautiful and magical, not less. Then what of death? Is death a precious, magic bubble as well?
To some extent, our training as Buddhists may help us to replace fear with curiosity. When we do this, death becomes a karmic cliffhanger. Then, when the time comes, as Trungpa Rinpoche might put it, “Jump in with a sense of humor.” Ha! Ha! He might also say, “Don’t jump the gun.” And in our between time, let us appreciate and enjoy the raindrops...Bird
Musings on Khenpo Norgay Rinpoche's Teaching,
"The Sutra that Reveals the Eleven Recognitions",
Lord Buddha's Advice for the Time of Death - August 29, 2021
A Bird's Eye View:
What the Buddha Knows that Dr. Fauci Doesn’t
We are all suffering from a grave mental illness: Chronic Undifferentiated Samsara (CUS). CUS has infected everyone all around the world. Its symptoms, to list just a few, include delusional thinking (Wrong View) resulting in unkind actions (an absence of compassion). These unkind acts lead to increased pain for oneself and others. Without proper treatment, the prognosis is dire: we die and then re-emerge either here in the human realm or elsewhere, only to become sickened by the disease again and again (innumerable lifetimes). We go around in a vicious circle, reaching out for one medicine after the other, but all of them fail. The symptoms of passion, aggression and ignorance, among others, overwhelm us because we do not know what the proper treatments leading to real cure are. We do not understand that accumulating more goods, or even less obviously materialistic “items,” such as love, approval, learning, and the respect of one’s neighbors, will never relieve passion, and that striking out against ourselves and others (aggression) will not bring relief from our pain. We ignore some of the symptoms too, falsely believing that they will just go away (like a certain former major world leader, who claimed that Covid would “just disappear”), but Covid is still with us and so is the even more dangerous and deadly condition, CUS. As we all might learn from this lesson taught to us by both diseases, ignorance solves nothing. CUS leaves us in a terribly precarious situation, to put it mildly: a world-wide pandemic without vaccinations to prevent it, the inevitability of death, and none of the usual cures that we know of work. Besides that, I cannot resist mentioning from my own experience, that the pain this disease gives rise to is often excruciating. I am certain that countless beings all around the world will agree with me on that, and while I have no wish to be cruel, either to myself or to others, I believe that this pain might contain within it just the hint of a cure, or at least, the beginning of a reasonable search to find the cure. The Buddha taught that life is suffering. Pain comes with the territory, so none of us need to feel alone with this. The diagnosis, even just by itself, provides some relief. Once we understand that suffering is woven into the fabric of life, we are able to relax just a bit and stop fighting with it, stop trying to fix it, which usually just makes it worse. This first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is a winning diagnosis, because it is a correct one. Hallelujah! My heart starts to flutter with joy just from thinking of it. Truly. I am not exaggerating. It is here, Rinpoche pointed out in his extraordinary “Buddhist Medical Model” talk, that we might find the beginnings of a treatment that actually works.
Moving beyond the diagnosis, Buddha teaches us what has caused this awful disease: we are ignorant of our true nature, ignorant of the fact that we are, just like Buddha himself, insubstantial and impermanent manifestations appearing as real form, but essentially empty. The problem here is that we get tricked, believing that these apparent forms make us into some kind of a real deal, but we are mistaken, confused, thrown off course by this Wrong View. Our essence, the essence of the world and of all our lives, everything we experience, is Wisdom Mind, Wisdom Heart, Omnipresent and Omniscient Goodness (traditionally referred to as “Buddha Nature”). Whatever happens in our lives needs to be investigated and understood properly (Right View), letting go of the false belief in a real individual self, that is, ego. Once we begin working on that, some of the disease’s worst symptoms, such as passion, aggression, and ignorance, begin to become less severe. If we wish to get better, this Buddhist Medical Model provides us with the only real treatment there is: we need to find a proper physician (teacher), and study the dharma and practice, practice, practice. What is it that we must practice? Whatever our marvelous physicians, our holy gurus who have travelled here all the way from Tibet and other places in the beautiful Himalayas, along with their western-born residents and interns, give us to practice. Every patient is different; you would not swallow somebody else’s medication when you have a sore throat or pains in your stomach, would you? Our special dharma physicians know what they are doing. You can bet your lives on it. I have bet mine and am able to state, without any reservation, this was no frivolous gamble. I harbor no regrets.
Alas! What is our prognosis once having embarked on such a course of treatment?
Ha! Until realization, those habitual tendencies which brought us here in the first place will re-emerge elsewhere, in another world of illusion, in another holographic dream. As Rinpoche stated in his talk to us, “Karma will always ripen and its consequences are unfailing.” Nevertheless, as we continue to practice, working hard to align our minds with the Truth of Emptiness (insubstantiality; egolessness) and Impermanence, we will continue the process of healing wherever we are, and wherever we are yet to be.
The best news of all is that Enlightenment is also highly contagious, so all of us will have the opportunity to spread some “good germs” around.
My personal evaluation of Khenpo Norgey Rinpoche’s talk? O.K., here it is, easily expressed in a single word: Wow!...Bird
Musing on Lama Padma Gyatso's Teaching,
"The Teachings of Masters-A Buddhist View of Life & Death" - June 19, 2021
A Bird's Eye View:
What I Learned from Lama Padma Yontan Gyatso~
Don’t Let Your Mind Become a Graveyard for Words
I once studied with a foreign language instructor who refused to allow her students to take notes. “Just listen!” she told the class. “Listen carefully instead of writing. You will make good use of the words that go into your mind, but the words you put into your notebook will just die there. Your notebook is a graveyard for words.”
I never thought much about how that teaching might apply to spirituality or Buddhist practice until Lama Padma’s talk, although I probably should have. In all honesty, the Lama did not present any material I had not heard many times before. He reviewed basic Hinayana and Mahayana teachings. There was nothing extraordinary or magical about what he presented.
I did feel that there was something quite unusual, however, about the manner of his presentation. He did not merely teach the Sutrayana correctly and appropriately, but in a manner that that somehow catalyzed those concepts within me, turning words into action. He talked about concepts which, probably because I learned them so long ago, were sitting and doing not much else, in the back of my mind. In a way, I could say that my mind had become a graveyard for certain Buddhist concepts which, rather than examine and re-examine them in the face of time and experience, I had simply allowed to sit and sleep, which was certainly not their purpose. Lama Padma now revivified them in an immediate and direct manner, impelling me forward to become a ‘”Don’t think too much; just do it now!’ lojong activist’”right on the spot.
All we have is now. Yesterday and tomorrow are only ideas that exist in the mind right now. That is the Buddha’s teaching.
I particularly liked the way Lama Padma tied the Hinayana to the Mahayana and to the inevitability of death. He said, “Dukkha and impermanence do not leave us a lot of time to walk around the world wondering what to do. If something works, get with it!”
He was right on with that too. Perhaps because of his age and because of mine, that communication of urgency was mutually felt and shared by both of us, and probably most of us who were his students for that afternoon with TLC. Could that perceived urgency have been the catalyst? If there is no other catalyst to trigger the abandonment of a lax approach to dharma practice, the ever-present Face of Death should be sufficient. Death is everywhere. She is right there when we look in the mirror. It is impossible for the dharma to get more “in your face” than that!
“Death is caused by birth,” is the way Lama Padma phrased it. “It is not caused by this disease or that one. These various illnesses for which our doctors treat us are the conditions for death, but they are not the cause.”
Then after death, comes life again and then death again and once again, life. The lives we are born into, the myriad worlds we are born into, are always none other than manifestations of our minds, manifestations of our own pain and greed, which is based on the fear that we are not self-sufficient; we are not enough. We are afraid, so we cling, misperceiving apparent phenomena as real and misperceiving ourselves as real. It is this clinging to the delusional self which causes suffering.
Lama Padma described samsara as a closed loop. This leads to that inevitably, over and over, fueled by our habitual patterns.
How do you break out of a closed loop that is fueled by lifetime after lifetime of the habitual wrong view that: I am real, and I come first; I have to take care of “number one”?
The practice of lojong, training in love and compassion which puts the importance of others’ happiness before one’s own, is a way to break out of that closed loop, to loosen up those ancient patterns of selfishness which we have all been practicing for countless lifetimes, from before the time we were roundworms to the time we finally became mammals until the present.
I’m still looking for the catalyst here. Maybe it was the way the whole thing fit together so smoothly. I realized it was time for less talk (I mean “talk in the mind” here or thinking things over) and more action.
I live in Kirkland, Washington, in a senior community. Yesterday, it was 103 degrees here. Nobody in their right mind (or even in their wrong mind) wanted to fix dinner over a hot oven. I can barely force myself to make a cup of coffee in this weather.
From time to time, one person treats all of his/her neighbors to a meal or dessert. In the four years I have lived here, that person has never been me. I always invented some excuse to give myself, mainly about being “too poor,” but yesterday, I finally dropped the poverty psychology. As Ani Choying Drolma sings, “The path is my wealth.” Since that is the case, I am most certainly a woman of substantial means.
Well, at least substantial enough to treat everyone in my building to Domino’s pizza. A giant leap forward for fearlessness – I stopped grabbing on to my wallet so tightly and in doing so, loosened the chain of samsara I’ve been spinning around in just one tiny bit.
I benefited myself and others. Indeed, the pizza was quite delicious!...Bird
Musing on TLC's Lama John Ross Teaching
"Skillful Means at the End of Life" - May 8, 2021
A Bird’s Eye View:
The Teaching of Forgiveness
Of all the preparations we must make for death, forgiving those who have hurt us is our most important task. Unless we forgive them, not just in words, but thoroughly and properly in our hearts/minds, the process of moving forward within the bardo of death will be much more difficult, with anger and resentments weighing us down at each step. Lama John’s talk was so rich and full; it dealt with the ABCs of everything we need to get done from a material standpoint, as well as the spiritual work for getting ready to die. What he said about forgiveness, however, was like a perfectly aimed arrow piercing the center of my heart. I have work to do, and it isn’t all paperwork.
Forgiving is, I would say, a subcategory under the main category of “Unfinished Business.” Unfinished Business is Hazardous Business. Just picture it: You are walking down a road which you have not walked down in many years; you do not know what lies even a single step ahead of you, but instead of looking at the road in front, your head is turned to look behind. Your mind is so preoccupied with the past that you ignore the present.
Uh-oh! Now you have lost your footing and you are on your seat instead of on your feet, looking around bewildered at an unfamiliar environment. You may become so overwhelmed that you faint, and when you are revived, you will not be back in Kansas. You may long for some solidity, some ground from which to build a nest, a home where you can nurse your spiritual wounds or comfort yourself. However, now you will not have a body to provide you with such a buffer zone.
The only solution is to jump in; you have little choice. Everything you see and hear and feel is much more intense now. If you have been fortunate enough to have had some dharma training in your past, you will understand that everything is an expression of your mind, and all of the grudges you have been carrying around with you are manifest here. If there is unfinished business, it does not simply disappear with the stopping of your heart or the flattening of your brain waves. Looking at the situation from a positive standpoint, you are embarked a new adventure and have another chance to finish all the unfinished business, to forgive everyone in the world for everything, even including yourself.
Why wait? Learn now to look straight into the present, without all that garbage from yesteryear weighing you down. The truth is that we live only in the present. “The future” is merely a word; it is entirely conceptual. “The past” has escaped us completely; it is gone, just like sand falling through our fingertips.
So how do we learn to live in the present, to really be in the moment without looking back to confirm our identification, our existence, every minute? The only answer is to practice: practice, practice, and then practice some more. Besides that, get a good education in Buddha dharma, so you understand why you are practicing what you are practicing, and you understand why you are experiencing what you are experiencing, and you know the right way to work with all of this, both for yourself and for others.
Lama John Ross has added an incredible amount of knowledge to my Buddhist education, and for that, I am extremely grateful...Bird