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Bon Buddhist Meeting, other Buddhist info, and various and sundry ramblings of a tired man

October 10, 2010

I stay up late, and almost never get out of bed before 11 am unless I have an important reason. I felt that the Bon Buddhist scheduled for yesterday morning would be more than worth while to attend, so I awoke at 7:30am. This was the second Bon Buddhist meeting I attended.

A couple weeks back I went to the first meeting of what is called a retreat. A “retreat” is a series of meetings, usually over the course of more than just one day, and one or more meetings during the retreat being many hours long. I went to the first Bon meeting of the retreat. It was held at a Congregational Church – a quite liberal Protestant church. The liberal Churches, such as Congregational, Church of the Brethren, and Unitarian Universalist (which is not specifically Christian) are open to renting out rooms for groups who practice other religions. The local Zen group meets in a too small room on the campus of a Church of the Brethren toward the edge of town. Luckily for me, the Bon Buddhist meeting was in a church that’s closer. I could have walked – not sure why I didn’t.

Although I have long been aware of Tibetan Buddhism -kind of hard not to be aware since the Dalai Lama has been in the news periodically during my entire life thus far – I had not been aware that there were several types of Tibetan Buddhism. All I knew was that the DL was from Tibet, I knew a bit about his life, that he had to flee Tibet because of the Chinese invasion, that he escaped over the Himalayas, and found refuge in India, set up a place for Tibetan Buddhists in the Indian town called Dharamsala, and is believed by many Tibetans and other following Tibetan tradition to be the 14th incarnation of the original Buddha – the man who was once called Siddartha Gotama, and born 2500 years ago. That’s why the current DL is called the 14th Dalai Lama.

If you are reading the word “lama,” and thinking about a furry four-footed animal from the Andes mountains in South America that likes to spit a lot, you are thinking about the wrong lama. That animal is called a llama – with two “L’s.” Thought I’d clarify that for the uninitiated.

The Tibetans believe that their great teachers, or at least some of them (called lamas, as well as rinpoches and geshes – I don’t, as of yet, know much Tibetan terminology so I can’t clarify the difference in these terms but they are all teachers, as far as I know) keep reincarnating after they die. They pass away, and come back in another body to teach more people, and repeat the cycle, choosing to come back, instead of not being incarnated anymore, and becoming one with all that is – which is the ultimate goal for Hindus and Buddhist (most of them, anyway). How much emphasis being placed on escaping the wheel of death and rebirth depends on the sect or group. Reincarnation tends to be more of a big deal in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism than it is in Zen, for example. Some Zen Buddhists don’t believe in reincarnation at all.

I sort of believe in it, sort of don’t. If is true, then I’ll likely be back here after I die, and this life right now is the afterlife, because I’ve lived many times before. If there is no afterlife, even better. I used to believe in the Christian concepts of heaven and hell. I don’t anymore, but still worry a little on occasion that the hardcore Christians might be right, and that only the “saved” will go to heaven, and that every other soul will burn forever. A hell where everyone burns for all eternity is the worst concept ever invented by the human mind.

Tibetan Buddhists have a rather complicated system of reincarnation. I once saw a PBS special regarding this. It was a talk by one of the most well-respected experts and teachers of religion and mythology, Joseph Campbell who died in 1987, after having written many books, given many talks, and even inspiring George Lucas quite a bit. You might have heard of George Lucas – he created Star Wars. If you know anything about mythology and Eastern philosophy, you also know that the Star Wars films are crammed full of myths, archetypes and Eastern thought.

I usually love watching Joseph Campbell TV shows. However, his lecture on Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation was so complicated that I had to give up! There are so many realms in the Tibetan system – people can be reincarnated as other people, as animals, as ghosts (which is REALLY bad), they can be reborn on earth, or in hellish or heavenly realms or many other places. One good thing about the Tibetan system is that a soul being born into a hellish realm will not stay there forever. It’s not a permanent destination. Which is pretty cool.

Frankly – I have no use for an afterlife – I don’t see the point, but if there is one, there is one. Sometimes I think I have pretty bad karma. Karma is positive or negative energy generated by good or bad deeds, and lasts over the course of however many lifetimes we have. Sometimes I think I did bad things in past lives, and that’s why my life is rather difficult in certain ways. Perhaps I’ll never know. Like I said, this life I am currently living might be the afterlife of a former life. Yeah, it gets pretty deep, but that doesn’t mean I have to. As I wrote in the previous blog, I’ve decided to do something uncharacteristic, and not do tons of research on my current religious/spiritual interest/direction. I want to put Buddhism into practice instead of just learning about it intellectually. Trying to deal with all the Zen concepts I read about for so long really screwed me up for awhile. I should have just gone to the meetings first. Oh well. Lesson learned.

I got turned on to Bon because I was browsing through Craigslist. The site is rather notorious these days, but is still quite useful for a variety of legitimate reasons. Great site for shopping for cars, housing, musical instruments, bikes.. and also sometimes good for finding activities, clubs to join, bands to join or see in concert, and, it turns out, even Buddhist meetings. I was checking in the activities section and found the listing for the Bon meeting. Serendipity sometimes smiles, even on me.

The terminology gets tricky. The group putting on the meeting is called the Bon Buddhist Fellowship. What I find tricky is that sometimes Bon is listed separately from the other branches of Tibetan Buddhism, and some Buddhists consider Bon to be separate from Buddhism completely, not Buddhism at all. I was told that Bon Buddhist practitioners used to be sneered at by the other Tibetan Buddhists – yes, even in religious systems in which ego destruction is considered very important, and tolerance and compassion are paramount, there is still, unfortunately, a pecking order. Bon has been gaining acceptance lately though, as it has attracted more followers.

Perhaps I am one of these followers.

I still don’t know much about it at all. What I can tell you is why I am going this route.

After attending only a few Zen meetings, I could tell right away that Zen was not right for me. I can’t hang with zazen – Zen meditation – just sitting there on a pillow, facing a bare wall, and breathing, counting my breaths for long periods of time. The walking meditation practice is good, helps keep the legs from cramping up too badly. Walking meditation is just walking very slowly, holding one’s hands in a certain position, still working on the breath and trying not to get hung up on any particular thought.

There is some chanting in Zen services. I like chanting – more on that later. But the meditation, yikes – one of the last meetings I went to, even my arms cramped up badly because I was holding them in a certain position, and I tense up quite a bit while trying to meditate. Ouch.

Also, the local Zen group has teamed up with a twelve step program, and this does not please me. The head priestess in the area, who works with several sanghas in various cities, tries to blend Zen Buddhism – which is basically atheistic – God not being talked about – at all – with a 12 step program, which is entirely based around God. There is a contradiction here. Her blending of these distinctly different points of view are improper, in my opinion. If I wanted to learn a lot about God and believed in the Christian God, which the 12 step programs are based on (even though they say “higher power”), I would have stayed a Christian, thank you very much. But I didn’t.

Also, I got too hung up on the Zen paradoxes, and the doctrine of “no-self.” I’m not going to write about these here, now. I’ve already covered these subjects, and my struggles with them, in previous blogs. Perhaps there are many paradoxes in Tibetan Buddhism as well, but I don’t yet know if that is the case.

The main reason I am getting into Tibetan Buddhism is because Tibetan practice is more active. More chanting and moving around. I don’t know if Bon Buddhist meetings differ a whole lot from other Tibetan Buddhist meetings from the other traditions, because I haven’t been to any other Tibetan Buddhist meetings.

I’ll tell you about the two Bon meetings I’ve been to so far.

The first meeting of the retreat- was kind of a big deal, because the people leading it were two actual Tibetan monks, who, like the Dalai Lama, also escaped Tibet and showed up here. By the way, it is a great irony that all the horrible destruction caused by China – the despoiling of Tibet – is what caused Tibetan Buddhism to be spread to the West. It might have happened eventually anyway, but it happened faster because of so many Tibetan monks escaping to India, and from there heading into Western countries. Such was the case with the Geshe who led the meeting, and his translator pal.

It turns out there are only 5 Bon lamas currently living in the US. I am guessing that lamas outrank geshes.. but I don’t know. This particular geshe is in the process of settling into the Bay Area of California, but I don’t yet know what city. Maybe he doesn’t either. He’s been traveling the country for awhile, leading retreats – retreats are long meetings – sometimes lasting all day for several days.

There were two meetings scheduled for this particular retreat, which was a few weeks back. I only made it to the first one, which lasted two hours or so. The one the following day lasted for 8 hours. I wasn’t feeling well that day, and didn’t know if it was ok or not to show up a few hours late, so I didn’t go to the second one.

For whatever reason, I was already tired at the first meeting, even though it took place in the evening. I got lost pretty quickly trying to follow the lengthy chant in Tibetan, and some of the Tibetan words were not typed out phonetically, which didn’t exactly help. Also, as usual, I was distracted by some women around me.. often I DON’T want to notice women around me, I’m trying to be more peaceful within myself, not more horny. In fact, I am pursuing Buddhism to get lots more mental clarity and peace and so forth. I am not distracted just by horniness, of course, but it is one of the things I deal with that causes stress. I also deal with anxiety and some other stuff, and am hoping the right Buddhist practice (right for me) will really help.

During the meeting there was a time for silent meditation, and I dutifully sat on my pillow, and, as in the Zen meetings, my neck and shoulders immediately tensed up, and my mind went wild. This mind going wild – that’s how our Western minds are – constantly distracted, stressed out, always in overdrive. That’s why there is so much substance abuse and mindless entertainment. When we westerners sit down and try to meditate in silence, we go even crazier, at least, for awhile.

Buddhists call this mental state the “monkey mind.” Imagine a monkey constantly swinging from tree to tree. Monkeys are referred to in various religious systems, and the reference is usually not positive. One of the big time Hindu deities is a baboon god, whose name starts with an “H,” but I don’t quite remember it. He is revered, but I don’t know of any other positive references to monkeys. In the shamanic traditions of various Amazonian peoples in South America, the monkey spirit is one of the worst to attract. People who are possessed by and work with the monkey spirit end up lazy, laughed at, and are pretty much useless.

And we have monkey minds. I was worried about my monkey mind getting really out of control at the second meeting, and had hardly gotten any sleep, so I stayed home. My monkey mind is pacified by such things as sleep, movies, books, writing.. so I did these things, instead of going to the meeting.

For awhile after I’d been to the meeting, I was pursuing paganism. I had been curious about various forms of paganism for many years, but felt too uneasy about it all to pursue it, and found I wanted to purse Buddhism first. I decided that I’d pursued Buddhism enough, and felt a strong need to get into paganism.

I did more reading, listening to podcasts, and contacted a few local pagans online. Things didn’t go well.. see a previous blog, which I wrote this past week.

During the time I was digging into paganism, or trying to, I got a couple emails from the woman leading the local Bon group, announcing that there would be meetings once a month at her place. I decided to go to the one that met yesterday morning .

I wrote back and forth with this woman for a little while before going to the first meeting with the monks at the church. She was quite helpful, and wrote several rather long emails to me, giving me lots of info, providing helpful web links, and so forth. She is what’s called a “Spiritual Director.” Turns out this is an actual profession. She is a licensed inter-faith minister, and spiritual guidance counselor – she helps people find their way. I like that! Might have helped if I’d met her sooner, who knows, but life didn’t work out that way.

I met her at the first meeting – the one at the church. She’s white, in her 40’s, I’m guessing, smart, and a nice person. She’s one of the people who will be leading th monthly meetings at her house. I talked with her briefly. After that first meeting I had thought I wouldn’t be getting into Buddhism anymore, at least not for a long while, because I figured I could meet some pagan people and get plugged in with them. That didn’t happen. I’m glad that didn’t happen, and also glad I went to the Bon meeting this past morning.

I am in a bit of a weird mental state right now, and I have been all day due to lack of sleep, even though I had a short nap. Overly tired, been busier than usual, and lots of heavy things have been on my mind these past weeks. I had expected to be writing blogs about paganism by now, not Buddhism.. and other things… hmm.. which I already wrote about last night, and won’t get into here.

The meeting was sparsely attended, but I’m used to that. I was quite surprised over 40 people showed up to the big meeting at the church. Not surprised that, besides the woman leading it, and her husband, there were only 5 people at yesterday’s meeting, including myself. I was also not surprised that all the other people were older, some quite a bit older, than me. There were some people younger than me at the big meeting, but I figure they probably didn’t want to get up early on a Sat. morning. I’d been out the night before, but felt it important, maybe very important, to put up with lack of sleep and go to this meeting.

I have been thinking for awhile that there is something very important about sound – sound generated by us – chanting and singing – reverberating through us and out into the world.. the universe.. I use my breath to play musical instruments, and that also good, but I feel it important to chant and sing too. There was this crazy comedy made years ago, staring Warren Beatty (however his name is spelled). The movie was called “Bullworth,” -very profane and very funny. There was a homeless guy in that film – he only had a few lines, but he was a sort of mystic type. One thing he said really stuck with me. He said, “the spirit cannot arise without song.” I agree. You will not likely find any religious tradition without sometime of chanting, singing, praying, some sort of vocalization. It’s a human thing to do – we’ve been doing even since before we were human.

Tibetans, as I mentioned are big into chanting. They chant mantras, which are prayers, sort of, but not necessarily to anyone – it’s more like generating good energy within ourselves and sending it out.

We first did these mantras in Tibetan, reading along with the somewhat phonetic spellings. And these mantras were sung! Not just chanted in a monotone, until we switched to English. In Tibetan these were sung, our pitch rose up and down, at least a little.

At first, I just listened, but pretty soon, I joined in. I don’t have perfect pitch, but can match a musical tone pretty good, and rather quickly. So within half a second after the woman leading the chant sang a particular syllable, I could do it, and chant along. We did this for awhile, and other things besides.

Let me go back a little bit though, and describe the house where we met.

First the neighborhood and the house. The woman and her husband live in a track house neighborhood, but the nicest one I’ve seen. The houses are good-size, but not overly huge, not too close together, and there is enough variety that you might not guess you are in a track house neighborhood. I liked the area.

This house was nicely decorated, with a large kitchen and has two stories. There were three striking things I noticed about the house.

First thing – not a very large backyard, but a lovely one, with bird feeders and a well-built and pretty goldfish pond – nice!

The second thing was the room in back, which opened to the backyard – the room where we met, which was just off the kitchen. Not one, but two Buddhist altars, with large Tibetan Buddhist tapestries of two goddesses which looked VERY much like the most famous picture/statue of the Hindu god Shiva – the one where Shiva is dancing on a dwarf, surrounded by a ring of fire, standing on a lotus platform or something like that. These deities were not Shiva, but the pose, person being danced on, ring of fire, etc. were all the same. I suppose I should not be surprised. Tibet and India border each other, and the religions of Tibet and India have many commonalities – also, Buddha was a Hindu, who reformed Hinduism.

Quite a sight, these tapestries and altars – one alter was quite small, the other large enough to accommodate various bowls for incense and other things, bells, that sort of stuff. No sharp objects though, like you’d find on pagan altars, and no foodstuffs, like you’d find on Christian altars. I like Buddhist altars best.

There was also a ..hard to describe – a board with a series of frames built into it that could be rotated. In each frame was another far out picture of another Tibetan deity. I don’t really know much at all about Tibetan deities, and I’ll leave that be, except to say the art is both cool and kinda scary.

Also in the room were mats and pillows, just like you’d find in Zen meetings, photos of a few Bon monks, including one who had led the meeting at the church, and some little baskets with books, including some Christian books. Also, on the wall above the main altar, and next to the big scary goddess tapestry, there were was a small crucifix and an iconography card of madonna and child (Mary and baby Jesus). This woman really does practice and teach several spiritual disciplines. As I showed for a Buddhist meeting, I could have done without the Christian imagery blended in with it, but it’s not my house.

The third thing about the house I noticed was a peculiarly decorated bathroom. It was a shrine to Marilyn Monroe – what appeared to be over 50 framed portraits and posters of her in various sizes. I thought of trying to count them all, but figured it would take to long. All these pictures of Marilyn a bathroom.. hmm.. Marilyn Monroe is one of the sexiest women to have ever walked the planet. It is difficult to spend even a little time surrounded by a multitude of images of her, and not feel at least slightly aroused. Alrighty then.

Now, back to the meeting..

Besides chanting, we did breath work -similar to yoga breathwork, I am guessing – closes one nostril with one hand, breathing in, then breathing out the other nostril, that sort of thing, holding our thumbs against our ring fingers because that keeps evil entities away who might want to trouble us (or enter us?) while we are meditating. Did I mention Tibetan Buddhism is really far out? You get some mention of entities in Zen, but not much. Not like this!

Besides the breathing, we did some yoga-type exercises. We did these while staying seated on our cushions, but still moved around a lot. We waved our arms around our heads, we moved our abdomens around similar to what belly dancers do, we clapped our hands above our heads and moved our hands around some more. Yes, it was indeed more active than a Zen meeting! Yay!

We worked with chakras, too. I don’t know much about chakras, except that they have different names, and are energy centers within us. I think the hindu system might have 8. The Bon system has five. Crown Chakra – forehead – where third eye is (don’t ask me to explain third eye, because I can’t do a good job of that), Throat Chakra, Heart Chakra, Navel Chakra, and Secret Place Chakra (the woman leading the meeting says the “secret place” chakra is the energy center located between the anus and genitals. Ok.)

Let’s see.. I’ve pretty much covered everything. We did one final manta, which was nice. It wasn’t the all time classic, Om Mani Padme Hum – which most people who are into Eastern practices know – I think the English translation is “hail to the jewel in the lotus,” or something like that, whatever that means.

The Bon version is called “The Five Warrior Syllables,” or “The Five Seed Syllables.” I’ve no idea why. Some things were explained, some were not. I just rolled with it. The Bon version goes like this : A OM HUNG RAM DZA, and the “D” is not pronounced. It felt good chanting this with a group of people, instead of just chanting some mantra in my room alone – which I will be doing, daily, I hope..

Overall, even though I was behind in sleep, I felt good about this meeting. It went well. I felt it was very healthy.

It was long. I was at the house for over three hours. We did take a break two thirds of the way through, and had nice snacks and good tea. During the break, a big and friendly cat came into the kitchen and let me pet it. I was told the cat is 17 years old! Wow! Really cool cat – very pale in color – light beige, quite friendly. The cat followed us back into the shrine room and sat there purring for a little while before heading up backstairs.

During the meeting, we pulled out many sheets from a packet of information, typed out chants, and directions for various practices. Some of these practices are 10,000 years old! I wonder how who figured that out, and how. Probably something to do with archeology.

We had a bit of a talk at the end, but it wasn’t a dharma talk (what Buddhists call sermons) it was more just informational – a little about Bon, and about the main monk who led the earlier retreat. He has officially recognized our little sangha (Buddhist group or congregation), and has incorporated it into his organization, which, thus far, is still pretty small, but still, now, our local sangha is official. Here is the link to his organization: Sorry, I can’t get the hyperlink to work. You’ll have to cut and paste.

I feel pretty good about these techniques, which the monk and our local leader taught. Some these I will be able to do at home. We asked the leader for a recording of the chants, so we could sing them properly, but she didn’t have one. She said she’d ask the monk real soon if he could make one. She has a decent voice, and we asked her to record herself for us, but she seemed quite hesitant to do this, so for now, I don’t have a recording of the Tibetan chants. I can do the English translations in monotone, but not the same.

I can work on the breathing and other exercises.

I really want to get serious about this, work at it everyday, I think it will be very helpful and healthy.

So, that’s how the meeting went. Quite interesting! Very good.

Post Script :

I just read a blog profile written by an Asian American who is angry that white people discriminate against Asian-Americans by not having Asian-Americans in their Buddhist periodicals, such as “Tricycle” magazine. He certainly has reason to be bothered by this.

He also is offended by the term “Western Buddhist.” He doesn’t like that the term is used by white people to mean “other-than-Asian Buddhists.” I don’t see why he is angry about this, or bothered that non-Asians, and white people, in particular, are getting into Buddhism. Maybe we white folks don’t get everything right, but we are doing the best we can. Many Asian-Americans are not exactly welcoming us into their temples. Quite the opposite is true. I ask nicely if I can attend, but have been turned away.

Also, regarding race and religion.. You don’t find ethnic Jews angry that non-Jewish people practice Christianity – even though Christ was Jewish. Also, I am not aware that there are any Arabic people who are offended that non-Arabic people convert to Islam.

The term “Western Buddhist” makes sense to me – as meaning “other-than-Asian-American Buddhist.” Asians living in North America and Europe who are citizens of North American or European countries are people who live in the West, but are not Western people. They are people from the East. I mean no disrespect to anyone when I use the term “Western Buddhist,” and I will not be changing my nomenclature.

One last comment about this.. Another Asian left a comment on the angry Asian person’s blog, saying that Buddhism in certain parts of the East is dying out, and that he is grateful Buddhism is spreading to the West, and that non-Asians are diligently studying and practicing Buddhism. I think that commenter is correct. It is a blessing to have the Dharma take root and flourish everywhere it finds rich soil, whether it be in the East, or West. This is one Earth, after all.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Angie Hansford permalink
    October 10, 2010 5:19 AM

    I’m glad to hear your meeting went well and you seem to have found something that is right for you. Continue with it and practice as often as you can and you’ll feel the benefits!

  2. October 11, 2010 12:22 PM

    Well said. Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace. Thanks for sharing!

    • tomschronicles permalink
      October 12, 2010 12:04 AM

      you are quite welcome! “Better than a thousand hollow words.. ” Your comment is excellent!

  3. Kem Bunhong permalink
    September 17, 2011 1:02 AM

    Hi ! Mr. Kem Bunhong . I want to know about the Buddhism meeting , Who can tell me ?

    • tomschronicles permalink
      September 17, 2011 2:00 AM

      The meeting I went to was in California. There might be other Bon meetings in various parts of the world. Just type in “Bon Buddhism Meetings” into Google and go from there. Bon is a rare form of Buddhism of Tibetan Buddhism, and not many people practice it.

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