On The Passing of Teachers

Zen Master Wonji Dharma (left), Lama Chuck Stanford (right)

In the last few months of 2021 two of my Buddhist teachers died. They were both over the age of 60, but they certainly could have had a few more decades in this world. Their deaths have affected me more than I imagined they would. I am mourning their passing. It was a shock that their deaths were so close in time.

Lama Chuck Stanford taught me in the Tibetan Rime tradition.

Venerable Wonji Dharma taught me in the Korean Zen tradition.

The Rime Center Buddhist Community is left to figure out how to go on without Chuck Stanford in this world.

The Five Mountain Zen Order is left to figure out how to go on without Wonji Dharma in this world.

And they will go on. Both these teachers had already retired and trusted their legacies to others. Buddhism outlives teachers, even great ones that touch a lot of lives. We have to go on. I’m hopeful that seeing the ends of these lives that were so dedicated to spreading the Dharma can help us motivate ourselves. We can’t waste our lives. Our spiritual journey is important and needs to be something we focus on.

There’s a story that gets told about the death of the Buddha. It’s said that his cousin Ananda was at his side and had time to ask two final questions.

Ananda asked, “Do we have to follow all the rules that you set out?”
And the Buddha replied, “Just follow the important ones. Don’t worry much about the minor ones.”

(Ananda forgot to ask which rules were the minor ones)

Then Ananda asked, “Who is going to lead us when you’re gone?”

And the Buddha said, “Be lamps unto yourselves.”

It was up to his followers to figure out how to go on. And when our teachers pass it’s up to us to figure out how to go on too. We can get through losses like this. And we will go on.

As Aaron Burr says in ‘Hamilton’, ”Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. It takes and it takes.”

Since the passing of these great teachers I’ve started doing a daily recitation practice along with my meditation each morning. (I used to do a much shorter recitation)

Both of these teachers manifested great compassion, so a compassion prayer seems appropriate. If you feel so inclined, you can do this daily practice as well.

I used to really see myself as a secular Buddhist, so prayers like this felt off limits and unapproachable to me. That has all changed in the last couple of years. I’ve grown more and more comfortable with Buddhist devotional practices after going through the isolation of the pandemic and the passing of these teachers.

I’ve been focusing more and more on practices to open my heart and I’ve been studying more diverse teachings and practices.

Loss is tragic, but it can also inspire us.

How can I serve others? How can I help you?

These are big important questions.

Buddhism teaches us that loss is the nature of things. Many of us know that very deeply.

Loss is still hard. It’s up to us to figure out how to go on and to try to carry on the legacies of our teachers. They can still motivate and inspire us.

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I Don’t Do Visualizations

I attend a local Rime (nonsectarian) Vajrayana Buddhist Temple and I love it. I go to as many events and retreats as I can and I volunteer for a few duties, including teaching classes. My community means a lot to me.

This means I’ve been on retreats with Vajrayana teachers multiple times (sometimes Theravada and Zen teachers visit too). I like Vajrayana teachers, I really do. I find the bowing and chanting and bells and drums to be interesting and entertaining.

I have to admit the big focus on rebirth is something I don’t connect with at all. I am, by nature, skeptical of such things in a way that most of the people in my community are not. And that’s okay. That’s definitely on the list of reasons I give when people ask why I have trouble thinking of myself as a Vajrayana Buddhist. But that’s not what I’m writing about now.

I’m writing about visualization practices. I’m confessing that I don’t really do them.

A point comes where the teacher says something along the lines of: “Imagine a glowing ball of clear light directly in front of you.” or “Picture a Buddha sitting up here in front of you, looking upon you with eyes of compassion.”

These sound like lovely practices and they are. But I have trouble. And I wonder if I’m the only one. I sit there trying to picture clear light for 20 minutes. Sometimes I do for a little bit, but I always end up giving up and going to following the breath or zazen instead. And I often wonder, “Are the other 40 or so people in this room doing this without difficulty? Am I the only one?” and “When people say they connect with Vajrayana practice, is this what they mean?”

I have friends who are deeply involved in Vajrayana practice. They are engaged in dedicated study with a good teacher. They do visualization practices and I don’t think they struggle with them at all.

On a final note I want to say something about Trungpa. I almost consider Chogyam Trungpa as one of my teachers. I consider him a patriarch of American Buddhism. I’ve meditated in his stupa. I’ve studied his teachings a great deal. But there’s only so far I seem to be able to go with the training he set up.

Visualization meditations are a huge roadblock for me and at the higher levels of his teachings, that’s really not something you can get around.

 

My Life

Do you know that my life exploded last year?

People reading this probably know I spend a lot of time at the local Buddhist temple these days. People reading this might also be aware that my life changed a lot last year. What you may not realize is that these things are connected.

I fell apart last year. By the end of the summer my life had exploded and everything was destined to be different. I could have made a few different choices, of course. We can always make different choices.

I don’t want to go into too much detail because I think it is too soon and it would be, at the very least, very rude. I just want to let you know that I was married and I’m not anymore.

It didn’t explode like a roman candle. It was more of a slow burn like one of those snake fireworks that just spreads out over the ground burning a slow silent death.

What I learned is that a loveless marriage can breed madness. People stay in loveless marriages every day, I think. And loveless relationships too, really. Even when it’s really easy to leave people sometimes don’t. But when it’s hard, it’s really hard. It’s easy to say, “unhappy people should leave,” but of course life is rarely that simple.

Looking back, I am so incredibly different now. I made plenty of decisions that make me think “why did I do that?”

I feel like I died and I was reborn.

Then I had to grow again.

I struggled a great deal in those first few weeks. I did things I shouldn’t have done. I made plenty of mistakes. My entire life was different and I didn’t have a clue what to do. If not for my two wonderful children I might have given up. I might have become an alcoholic or something worse.

I started working out and that’s done a lot for me. My body feels better than it ever has and I have plenty of energy. I don’t want to gloss over that because it is important. There’s a free gym in my office and I make use of it. Physical fitness was never important to me before but it is now.

Mental and spiritual fitness are important too.

I also threw myself into spirituality. I’ve always been a dedicated Buddhist, as anyone reading this knows. I spend an inordinate amount of time writing about it and reading about it too. Not a lot of things inspire me. I don’t just practice Buddhism and study it.

I love it.

 

Historically most of my Buddhist practice has been done on my own.

After my life exploded that changed.

I was just a casual visitor to the Rime Center before, as many are. I would go once in a while, but that was it. (although I did lead the children’s group for a while).

After my life exploded I became a regular. I became one of those people that goes all the time. I’m like those people who go to church twice a week and have bible study.

I go to the Rime Center three times a week, every week. And even more every time I can.

I’ve spent countless hours writing about Buddhism (as everyone reading this knows) but actually putting it into practice, especially with other people, is something different. I’m so happy to have a supportive spiritual community. Being able to go there, to add visits to the Rime Center to my regular routine really helped my put myself back together.

My community saved me. I had to put myself back together and I used the programs at the Rime Center to do it.

Now I’ve found ways to give back.

I’m leading a Zen practice group every Monday night. We’re sitting in the traditional Soto Zen style, which is completely unavailable in Kansas City. Which is weird. There are Soto Zen temples in Wichita and Omaha and Cedar Rapids, but we don’t have one.

And I’ve been given the title ‘Gegan’ which means teacher. I’m teaching classes too. I’m going to teach a class on the Diamond Sutra (the best Sutra ever) in the Spring and then more classes going forward. I’m really excited to share the teachings.

Dogen said, “The life of a Zen Master is one continuous mistake.”

I won’t go around calling myself a Zen Master. But I think I know what he meant. My life has been one continuous mistake.

But I’m getting better.