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Florence Rastogi commented on the blog post 'Just Called To Say...'
"G' night"
6 minutes ago
Florence Rastogi commented on the blog post 'Just Called To Say...'
"The obvious question :  why did he teach, then, and to whom - if he was not aware of others, or only saw their illusory selves ? (by the time i put 2 comments, Rudi, you added 3 which i didn't see.. i take long time to carefully chose…"
24 minutes ago
Florence Rastogi commented on the group 'Near Term Human Extinction'
"Correction, the author is F. William Engdahl."
37 minutes ago
Florence Rastogi commented on the blog post 'Just Called To Say...'
"In other words - is paying attention exclusively self-centered?"
1 hour ago
Florence Rastogi commented on the blog post 'Just Called To Say...'
"Agreed. Although, paying attention may have it's own colorings ?  Otherwise, how could it make us oblivious of wilful lies, if  it  doesn't make us oblivious of our own doubts, burdens or questions ?"
1 hour ago
Florence Rastogi commented on the blog post 'Just Called To Say...'
"i would agree with that. What if,  'What is, is perfection'  was just another way to be oblivious? ....... That is, if one didn't also lucidly observe the lies, manipulations and heartlessness we are subjected to on a grand…"
1 hour ago
Florence Rastogi commented on the group 'Near Term Human Extinction'
"“Control the oil, and you control nations. Control the food, and you control the people.”* -Henry Kissenger"
2 hours ago
Florence Rastogi commented on the group 'Near Term Human Extinction'
"Fascinating introduction , in the book 'Seeds of destruction - The diabolical world of genetic manipulation'  by F. Roald Endhberg (introduction in its…"
2 hours ago

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Paradox to life, meditation, and enlightenment...

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Is Haiku in danger of extinction (smile).?  Gary... where are you?

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Tibet 2.0

Transcending Tibet
Through April 12, 2015
Rogue Space, New York

Tserang Dhundrup's Gold iPhone sums up the contradictions of modern urban life in Lhasa.

Organizing an art show around a geographic region or ethnic group is treacherous: it can easily result in a grouping of works that otherwise have nothing in common or, worse, reinforce unwanted stereotypes. Transcending Tibet—presented by the Trace Foundation in partnership with Arthub Asia—is alert to these dangers and does a good job of avoiding most of them.

Curators David Quadrio and Paola Vanzo accomplished this by commissioning all new pieces for the show. They asked 26 Tibetan artists—living both in and outside Tibet—and four non-Tibetan artists influenced by Tibetan culture to respond to the question “What does it mean to be Tibetan today?” On view at Rogue Space in Chelsea are 30 different answers.

For both the curators and the artists, “Transcending Tibet” means transcending the image of Tibet as both a mysterious Shangri-La (an image embedded in the Western imagination since the time of Marco Polo and energetically promoted by Chinese tourist boards) and as a political cause (for groups promoting human rights and democratic freedoms in the Tibetan region, since 1951 a part of the People’s Republic of China [PRC]).

Transcending Tibet also means, in many cases, transcending tradition. Most of the artists included in the exhibition struggle to find a balance between preserving Tibetan culture (which is also primarily a Buddhist culture) and addressing the contemporary realities—such as modernization, urbanization, and the secularization of Tibetan culture—of those living in Tibet and its diaspora.

Many of these artists, including Rabkar Wangchuk and Tulku Jamyang, update the forms of traditional Tibetan Buddhist thangka paintings, prayer scrolls, and folio scriptures. Others adopt the tropes of Western Pop Art, as in the case of TseKal, or Communist Socialist Realism, as does Pempa (who, like many Tibetans, uses only one name). Although some Tibetan contemporary artists produce abstract paintings, and while much Tibetan traditional art, from sand mandalas to textiles, features reductive images or geometric designs, the show does not include any nonobjective art. Even Pema Rinzin, an artist known for abstraction, is represented here by a painting of stylized, but recognizable antelopes. The omission constitutes one of the show’s few missteps—some examples of non-illustrational art would have helped balance its occasionally didactic tone.

Of the artists employing traditional Buddhist imagery, some retain its original meaning in works meant to express their faith, while others repurpose it to convey a social or political message. In the former category is Livia Liverani, an Italian who has studied classic Tibetan sacred art. Isolating visual elements from traditional thangka paintings, she presents them as delicate appliqued and painted images. Her work for this exhibition depicts the blue, three-faced, six-armed Vajrayana deity Guyasmaja engaging in sexual intercourse with his consort. Representing the union of wisdom and compassion necessary for full enlightenment, the couple—flanked by flowering plants cut from Japanese textiles—floats on a pure orange ground.

Other devotional artworks include Puntsok Tsering’s calligraphy spelling out the words for “butter lamp”—a ritual object used to make the traditional offering of light—and Chinese artist Lu Yang’s digital animation Wrathful King Kong Core, which advances the practice of analytical meditation by explaining scientifically how the brain can become wired for anger (and rewired through mindfulness). More ambiguous is Jhamsang’s depiction of the Buddha of long life, Ushnishavijaya. Trained as a thangka painter, Jhamsang here employs a traditional technique of fine black lines on a gold ground but presents the deity as a robot, invoking the language of anime to indicate the goddess’s superhuman powers—or perhaps comment on contemporary society’s devotion to technology.

Tashi Norbu's Circle of Khataks suggests the performance of “Tibetanness.”

Buddhist imagery is also used to address political, environmental, and social issues. Nyima Dhondup’s Tibetan Map includes a calligraphic passage extolling the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way political philosophy. Part of the text reads, “The Middle Way policy is a mutually beneficial policy based on the principles of justice, compassion, nonviolence, friendship, and in the spirit of reconciliation for the well-being of entire humanity. It does not envisage victory for one self and defeat for others.” The Middle Way policy is itself an example of how Buddhism permeates every aspect of Tibetan life, including politics.

Individual and collective trauma haunt Sonam Dolma Brauen’s mandala made from a stack of folded Tibetan monks’ robes, which shelters in its center nine tsa tsa—offerings made from clay and the ashes of the dead—in the shape of stupas. The tsa tsa mold used to make them was carried out of Tibet by Brauen’s family in a journey that took the life of her sister. Trauma is also addressed in Nortse’s Fragments, which combines an ink-jet print of a damaged antique bronze Buddha with real broken glass, and in Rigdol’s Wrathful Dance, a brocade and paper collage of a Buddha in flames that brings to mind the Tibetans who have self-immolated in protest of Chinese Communist Party rule.

Other works address the complexities of daily life for Tibetans both in the PRC and in diaspora. Tashi Phuntsok’s quiltlike painting of rows of houses surrounded by protective prayer flags suggests the simultaneous claustrophobia and reassurance of community. Tserang Dhundrup’s photoreal painting of a Khampa wearing traditional hair ornaments but also a Nike puffer and holding an iPhone sums up the contradictions of modern urban existence in Lhasa. That this life is attended by rigid controls on religious and political activities on the one hand and the promotion of Tibetan culture as tourist attraction on the other is suggested by Tashi Norbu’s wonderful composition in which Matisse-like acrobats perform a complicated gymnastic routine. Each wears a traditional mask, suggesting that the performance of “Tibetanness” comes at the expense of individual expression.

Sodhon captures the immigrant experience in New Life.

Censorship and self-censorship also lie at the heart of Meditator Beware, a self-portrait by Benchung, a Lhasa native. The painting depicts the artist as a yogi who dons a meditation belt and mala, but also, oddly, a camouflage pattern t-shirt and a diaper. A swarm of words—including the name of Chinese dissident Ai Wei Wei and of websites like Google and Facebook, which are blocked in the PRC—forms a golden halo around his head. According to a statement by the artist, the Band-Aid on the figure’s arm symbolizes the covering up of injury, and the diaper the loss of autonomy under a parental Communist state.

Sodhon captures the immigrant experience in New Life, a wonderful, comic strip–like painting reminiscent of the work of Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine. Shown drawing on an iPad, the artist occupies the center of the canvas and is surrounded by beautifully observed vignettes of New York City life. In each vignette, the word bubbles are left blank, perhaps because the work’s protagonist still finds English a confusing babble.

Not to be missed are two extraordinary paintings by Tseren Dolma. The first, titled Desire, depicts a tiny woman with a big head engaged in eating a globe while holding on to the three poisons—ignorance, attachment, and hatred embodied as a pig, a rooster, and a snake. In the second painting, Underworld, a dark opening in a green landscape reveals a pair of cheerful dancing skeletons and a flock of vultures feasting on bones. Rendered in an exuberant, naïve style, Dolma’s canvases are powerful, original, and, while nodding to traditional iconography, deeply personal. They exemplify the individualism that marks all of the works here, and they walk away with the show.

Anne Doran is a writer and editor for the visual arts. She lives in New York City.

Images courtesy Trace Foundation

Don't Just Sit There

We all seek out meditation in order to relieve pain of one kind or another. If we weren’t at least vaguely dissatisfied, we wouldn’t try it. 

Many of us sense that by working from the inside, meditation addresses the root of our problems. But that introspective effort remains handicapped if we give way to pain-producing actions and words off the cushion. 

To end suffering, the Buddha prescribed a compound of three essentials: morality, meditation, and wisdom. Meditation practice without morality and wisdom is like a stool with only one leg—it is bound to fall over. 

The Sanskrit term for morality—the first of the three trainings—is sila, which also translates as “discipline.” Both English equivalents creak under the weight of dualistic judgments about right and wrong, good and bad. But in actuality, when upheld in daily life, sila brings lightness and ease to meditation.

The last things we need in meditation are sticky burrs like regret and guilt, yet we invite them into the mind through misconduct. Those without a contemplative practice might be able to hasten through their days and nights without regard for consequences, skating over ethical lapses without a second thought. But once we start sitting on a regular basis, we open ourselves up to sobering reflections from the past. 

Consider the fourth precept of sila: refraining from lying. Common as it might be, lying can take a toll on us. A coworker of mine expressed an understanding of this simple truth when he mused, “I like to tell the truth ‘cause I like travelin’ light.”

Worries also arise following instances of wrong speech like angry words, snarky comments, and arrogant boasts. Hardly crimes, these petty transgressions nevertheless return to awareness during meditation to disturb the mind and disrupt concentration.

Our haphazard bumper-car collisions with the precepts can impede practice not only by haunting our sits, but also by weakening our faith in what in Zen we call our intrinsically enlightened nature. Until we have awakened to the perfection of our fundamental nature, we harbor traces of doubt—about our teacher, our practice, and ultimately ourselves. Any such doubt is bound to show itself sooner or later, usually at pivotal points in our practice, as it did for the Buddha himself in the form of the demon Mara, who visited him as he neared enlightenment. The more effectively we live up to the precepts, the more likely we are to trust and realize our true self.

Wisdom (prajna), the third leg of the stool, is often understood as our original nature, unborn and undying. Until enlightenment, our practice is vulnerable, our meditation and conduct both prone to wobble. Nonetheless, until we do confirm our innate wisdom, we need to work at it as best we can. As the saying goes, we “fake it” with the faith that, realized or not, innate wisdom is still ours to use “until we make it.” 

This we do through mindfulness and concentration, the twin functions of awareness. Put simply, concentration arises from a state of stabilized awareness. But to help us uncover our innate wisdom, concentration requires mindfulness—the noticing of what arises in one’s mind, body, and surroundings. 

Off the cushion, hours can pass as we sit rapt by movies, cat videos, Angry Birds, and the Kardashians. Every once in a while, these lazy afternoons happen to the best of us. But by bringing together concentration and mindfulness, we’re less likely to indulge in such passive activities and more likely to remain alert when taking part in active ones. This will make all the difference when we sit down to meditate.

By cultivating wisdom in this way, we free ourselves from delusive attachment. 

Finally, the three legs of our practice—morality, meditation, and wisdom—work together as a complete unity, and our practice becomes a stool that all the angry birds in the ten directions couldn’t topple.

Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede is abbot of Rochester Zen Center. 

Image: Xavier Portela/Gallerystock

The Progress Question

“I’ve been meditating for some time, but my mind seems just as chaotic and confused as when I started. Am I doing something wrong?”

Almost everyone who practices meditation has similar concerns, no matter how long they’ve been doing it—whether three weeks, three years, or three decades. When students confront me with the progress question, I just try to redirect their attention. I’ve found that the best thing is for them to just keep practicing.

We call meditation “practice” for a reason. Any form of practice consists of doing something over and over again and failing at it over and over again. Through this process, we gradually build the capacities that make it possible to do what we are practicing. There is nothing special about meditation: like anything else, it’s a collection of skills.

Much of the confusion about meditation results from the fact that the different processes involved tend to get lumped together without clear differentiation. It's as if in learning how to play the flute, we didn’t distinguish between blowing a long, sustained tone and a full round one, or between the skills of tonguing and fingering.

When it comes to meditation, some people are able to sit still without tension in their bodies; others are able to track the coming and going of the breath; yet others are able to open to everything they experience; and still others excel in clear and sharp focus, in visualization, and so on. There are many ways to practice meditation, but all of them involve a number of separate skills.

As with athletic or artistic endeavors, if we are serious about meditation, we spend a lot of time training in these basic skills. We don't train in all the necessary skills at the same time; we train one, then another. It's repetitious and not particularly exciting. But as we acquire competency and proficiency in each, we become capable of combining them in increasingly complex ways. Then things start to get interesting.

But even then, we can’t expect success in every attempt. We are training, and because we know we are training, we need to be willing to learn from our failures. Every failure reveals what we lack in precision, strength, flexibility, resiliency, stamina, or dexterity.

We learn where our weaknesses are and how to compensate for or remedy them. And we also come to appreciate where our strengths are and how to build on them.

If we’re learning to play a piece of music, we practice and practice and gradually it comes together. We become capable of holding sustained notes with good tone so that we can play the slower passages. Our fingers develop the flexibility and dexterity to handle the faster, more complex sections.

I may play lyrical pieces beautifully, but I may never be good at the kind of pyrotechnics needed for solo performances. And you may be able to bring out the passion and power in Beethoven, but miss the nuance in Satie’s subtle duets with silence. And that’s just how it is.

The apps, neuro-feedback devices, and other instruments to track various bodily and neurological states that have entered the spiritual marketplace may be helpful in developing and refining certain abilities. But it makes about as much sense to reduce meditation progress to such measurements as it does to reduce music to how long we can hold a sustained note or how quickly we can play a certain scale.

When it comes to meditation, we have to look at the different skills involved and figure out how to train in each of them.

Take mindfulness, for instance. It has attracted a lot of attention recently, but in terms of meditation skills, it's just one of many. If we regard the mind as a musical instrument, then mindfulness involves simply learning how to play in tune. That’s very important—if we can't play in tune, nothing we play sounds good and other people probably won't want to play music with us—but even after mastering playing in tune, we still have to learn how to play actual melodies, to make real music. Mindfulness may be great for baroque, but when we discover the blues we find a whole new set of skills to learn. The same holds for meditation.

Then comes the question of commitment. Again, the similarities with music are striking. If we practice half an hour a day on a musical instrument, we will slowly learn how to play it. If we practice an hour or several hours a day, our skills will develop more quickly. On the other hand, if we practice too much, we may burn out and be unable to learn at all. Thus, as with many other aspects of life, balance is important.

But why practice at all?

While there are well-documented benefits to meditation, approaching meditation for its particular benefits is very much like exercising to stay fit. It becomes a task, another thing to do. This is not the best approach. Frequently, it results in a not-so-subtle form of resentment that undermines the equanimity and ease necessary for effective practice.

Although meditation is now most frequently presented as something “good for us,” it is closer to an art form. Difficult and challenging, it requires a complex set of skills. And it takes time and effort to learn, let alone master.

Again, the parallels with music are interesting: we may sometimes resent the many hours we’ve had to put into practice, but the enjoyment we experience in playing music brings pleasure to us and to others throughout our lives.

If we take up meditation as we would any other artistic pursuit, it is unlikely we will have any regrets. Quite the contrary, the practice’s significance will grow and unfold throughout our lives.

Ken McLeod is the teacher and director of Unfettered Mind, which he established in Los Angeles in 1991. His last article for Tricycle, “Forget Happiness,” appeared in the Spring 2014 issue.

David Wright/Flickr

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