The Refuge of Simplicity
People often ask me why I decided to ordain as a Buddhist nun. “Why did you choose to give up so much?” they ask. “Isn’t it hard? Why do you have to give up pleasure in order to be a nun?” The answer is simplicity.
From March 2000 to July 2006, I lived mostly in silent, solitary retreat. I went into my first three-year retreat as a layperson, and decided to ordain as a nun at the end of that retreat.
In the course of my first long retreat, what I discovered through trial and error to be the most conducive to deep meditation and serious contemplation was in most respects exactly in accordance with the monastic vows. For example, I found that having a few changes of simple, comfortable clothing and a simple hairstyle (at this point I still had hair!) and dispensing with adornment and even a mirror eliminated the distraction of focusing on one’s appearance. Three heavy meals a day didn’t work — two light meals were best, eaten early in the day, as eating a substantial meal in the evening led to a groggy, unclear evening meditation, as well as sluggish sleep and reluctant rising the next day.
Listening to music didn’t work-the songs would repeat endlessly in one’s head during meditation; and one plaintive love song by a female vocalist could easily lead to endless obsessive ruminations about old relationships. Even though I didn’t have access to TV, movies, or the internet in retreat, I could only imagine the effects would be similar, if not worse. Of course, strict celibacy was imperative, and sexual fantasies and daydreams were just frustrating and pointless.
When I met with the others in the hermitage, we took great care to make our interactions harmonious, as any harsh interactions or misunderstandings led to feelings of either irritation or remorse (or often both) that would linger and disturb one’s meditation for days, even weeks. We also found that too much “conversation” and note-writing about mundane, non-spiritual subjects led to restlessness, a marked dissipation of energy, and even a physical feeling of bloatedness, similar to the aftermath of overindulging in junk food or sweets! Idle chatter was also out.
Simplicity of lifestyle, elimination of distractions, harmony of relationship. It seemed to me, in reflecting on what we’d discovered to be conducive for contemplative practice, that these actions of body, speech, and mind met the Vinaya-the monastic discipline-and meshed perfectly. Through trial and error and our attempt to analyze the most effective conditions for retreat and realization, we had discovered the system designed by the Buddha more than 2,600 years ago to accomplish exactly the same thing. During that retreat, I had decided to get ordained, and this discovery just strengthened my resolve, as I gained a fresh appreciation for the perfect container that living in ordination creates for awakening.
So what can lay practitioners do? Is it necessary to become ordained in order to practice deeply?
Obviously, very few Buddhist practitioners will decide or ordain or engage in long retreat. But I think the same principle of simplicity applies to lay life as well. Many students find that, as their practice progresses, they feel drawn to simplify their lives: get rid of excess clutter, reduce their exposure to entertainment and media, take an email “Sabbath” every weekend, choose different activities for their time off work. All of these things can support one’s deepening contemplative practice, and tend to happen gradually and naturally. So it’s not about what one “should” do to be spiritual, but about what naturally unfolds as a result of the practice. If we follow this natural unfolding, we will discover for ourselves the deep refuge of simplicity.
We live in a culture that idolizes and glamorizes youth, but being young in today’s world is not always easy. Stress, self-hatred, self-consciousness and confusion in the face of the seemingly limitless possibilities new technologies have made available to us are just a few of the challenges facing the millennial generation. And our mainstream consumerist culture is, for the most part, so emphatically secular. Sadly, the transmission of wisdom and spiritual values, something that could at least provide a guiding framework to young people, is rarely viewed as a priority.
Against this backdrop, how is it for young people who do have an interest in spirituality? Do spiritually oriented young people today feel out on a limb? What first draws them to get involved in exploring the spiritual side of life, and how do they stay “plugged in” and spiritually nourished? What benefits have they felt from their efforts?
Angelica Walker (27) grew up at Vajrapani Institute, surrounded by Dharma. She first went to Vajrapani Institute’s Family Camp (now Wise Heart Family Camp) when she was five. When she was 13 she started to volunteer at the event as a Camp counsellor.
“Camp was amazing for me growing up,” she recalls, “because I didn’t usually get to share the Dharma with other kids. It was the one time in the year that it wasn’t this sub-culture thing. We all were together, all the kids there were Dharma students. We learned to meditate together and it was this fun, social thing that also created a Dharma family, my peers.”
Like a number of Family Camp participants of her generation, Angelica attended Tara Redwood School in Soquel. The founder of the school, Pam Cayton, was a student of Lama Yeshe’s and the secular Buddhist principles enshrined in the Universal Education (now Universal Wisdom Education) movement Lama Yeshe founded, were deeply embedded into the school’s activities.
In 6th Grade, however, Angelica transitioned into the public school system, where she says Dharma was completely absent. “It’s not part of our culture at all, especially in the school setting,” she says. “I think in high school in one text book, in my history class, there was one tiny, tiny paragraph that mentioned Buddhism and Tibet. That was it.
“I was embarrassed about being a Buddhist, because nobody else was, pretty much. But for me, it was a big part of my world because I grew up out here at Vajrapani.” Angelica says she remember having friends over and worrying that they might notice the Buddha pictures, the thangkas, on the wall, and that she would then have a lot of explaining to do to bridge the cultural divide.
Angelica says an integration happened for her when she was a bit older. She started to recognize the practical value of the Dharma she’d been taught: how Dharma principles could actually be applied to the challenges of being a 17-year-old high school student. “I was struggling with being at high school and all the superficial aspects of it. I felt like the Dharma gave me some connection to my truer self and helped me cope with what I was experiencing. I think I realized that it was an unusual thing to have exposure to the Dharma and that a lot of kids didn’t have anything to look to, anything to get support from. I had a method that did give me a way of feeling supported.
“So when I was 17 I started getting interested in meditation myself and going to teachings and not really wanting to be ashamed of that, because it was an important thing for me. I felt like there was a part of me that could relax. It wasn’t a weird thing to meditate and be saying mantras.”
With this new appreciation came the confidence to share the Dharma with others. Instead of being secretive about it she says she started to think, “Why not talk about it with people so they can also learn about it?”
Over the years, in addition to volunteering at Family Camp Angelica has also helped out on occasion at its offshoot for older kids, Teen Camp (now Wise Heart Teen Camp). She says that some of the activities at this event are specifically set up to help young participants directly address the challenges of teen life.
“It’s intense for them these days, I think.” She says. “Because of social networking, there’s a lot of comparing yourself to others and feeling that you should be a certain way. Because of the media there’s a lot of sex being implanted in your mind all the time, and I think the drug culture in high school, though I don’t know much about it, I think it has always been the case…”
Among many other activities, participants at Teen Camp are given opportunities during the course of the weekend to join a discussion session moderated by Camp Director, Julia Hengst, who is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist. The format deliberately protects privacy, as group members are invited to anonymously write one of their live issues on the whiteboard. “We can then look at them together and see that a lot of people are having the same struggles,” Angelica says.
One of the biggest benefits of Camp that Angelica identifies is offering kids an experience of being accepted. “They feel a sense of connection and acceptance. They want to be here. I think acceptance is a big one. Being accepted into a family and knowing that you are OK, however you are. That’s not something you find everywhere, especially in the public schools, now. Just being a teenager, it’s always judgmental. It’s just a judgmental scene. So I’ve known kids that come (to Camp) and they say, ‘I just don’t want to leave. It’s different here. I feel accepted.’ That’s really powerful to see.”
Danielle Beutell (24) recently arrived at Vajrapani Institute to participate in the summer work study program. She says that although she was raised without religion her parents created an environment where open exploration was encouraged, and she remembers always being very naturally interested in social sciences, personality theory and psychology. “Even as a kid I loved taking psychology quizzes and hearing other people’s quizzes. It’s self-discovery.”
A reference to Jainism in a High School history was Danielle’s first encounter with what she describes as more of an Eastern spirituality perspective. She recalls this as providing a fleeting but significant spark of interest for her. “Something about Jainism really resonated with me,” she says. “There’s non-violence and I like how it reflects having symbiotic energy in your life and in your community.”
A few years later, at 18, Danielle started delving a little deeper into Eastern spirituality. “I had been really sick for a year. Because of that my social life was not as active, so I was reading a ton and I was coming back to things I wanted to. That’s when I started studying Chakra Psychology … Anodea Judith’s book, Eastern Body, Western Mind blew my world open. I loved it. I still love it!”
As Danielle’s adventure of self-discovery started to gather momentum she found herself experiencing a growing frustration with the limiting attitudes held by those around her. Eventually in the summer of 2014 she decided to make a fresh start somewhere more conducive. “The biggest reason I left Chicago is no one was talking about this, nobody was reading about it. I was getting stereotyped as a witch, which is ridiculous! I was like, ‘I need to be somewhere more progressive!’ So I moved to Los Angeles.”
The move to Los Angeles afforded Danielle a wealth of opportunities to learn about spirituality, and she entered into the adventure with relish, even moving her career focus away from the fashion writing she had trained in. “I started doing spirituality writing, because I wanted to get paid to learn about meditation and other forms of spirituality. I even got into writing for some mystics and psychics. I wanted to learn about anything.”
Something Danielle found herself writing about a lot while in Los Angeles was meditation. “Meditation is super-trendy right now,” she explains. “It’s the new wellness trend. People were hiring me to work for their meditation brands.” Part of the reason Danielle started learning to meditate was so she could write about it better, and one of several places where she learned was UCLA’s Mindfulness Program. She found that she really enjoyed meditating and started to feel a lot better. However after a while, she says, she felt like she reached a point where she plateaued. She started to feel that the ‘non-religious’ variety of meditation was somehow incomplete. “I felt like the philosophy of Buddhism is necessary to expand on the value that meditation offers. And that’s the drawback of it becoming so mainstream and trendy outside of the practice of Dharma… While at the time I didn’t feel called to be a Buddhist, I knew that Buddhism was the history and foundation of meditation and I felt like I should go to the source.”
Going to the source, for Danielle, took the form of coming to Vajrapani Institute. It was a place where she felt she could find some of the missing answers. “I didn’t feel like I had a good foundation for the ‘why?’” she says. “Why are we doing the practice this way? I’m so intellectual. I have both sides, I have the open intuitive side too. But that’s why I like Buddhism so much, because it makes sense. There’s a lot of logic. If you have those questions about why you are doing things there is so much history of research and insight into why the practices are taught the way they are, and how to overcome the obstacles.”
Overcoming obstacles was a topic that Danielle felt particular relief in learning about when she started taking formal Buddhist teachings. This was one of the vital ingredients missing from her previous exposure to meditation training. “I learned that I am able to overcome things that I thought were ‘my faults’. I thought there was something wrong with me, but it’s like, ‘Oh yes, that’s just you being human!’”
As well as providing Danielle with plenty of opportunities to receive Buddhist teachings, she is also finding the community setting and the healing energy at Vajrapani Institute very restorative. “I have healing to do. I’m not solid in my practices and beliefs yet and that’s a very vulnerable place to be when you’re in a chaotic city environment where you’re constantly in competition. I love city culture but I wanted to be in a safer, more ‘held’ place so I could build up my strength, have some solid sense of what practices work for me and what mindsets help me. So when I go live in the city, which I know I want to do …I’ll have a stronger idea, I won’t waver as much.
“My long-term intention is to go to grad school and do integrative psychology. So another reason I am prefacing the rest of my life with this experience is because I feel it’s going to be incredibly valuable. Buddhism is so complementary to psychology and therapy.”
RJ Smith (23) has been living and working at Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) Dharma Centers for the past four years. After a stint at Milarepa Center in Vermont he moved to Vajrapani Institute in 2014.
RJ’s wide-ranging journey of spiritual exploration has been fueled by a deeply inquisitive mind. At 13, he says, his spiritual position was “staunchly humanist atheist.” He read philosophy books avidly and cites Descartes and Nietzsche as prominent influences. “I became interested in examining the way things are. I was very anti-social as a teenager, for various reasons, so hardcore stoicism also really resonated. Like, ‘People are really hard to be around because they have emotions.’ Of course now I see that that’s not the best way to go about things, and it was all intellectual, but it was helpful at the time.
“Then I discovered that there was a whole series of Eastern religions. This was shocking to me and Eastern philosophy was very interesting to my teenage mind. I explored Taoism. Then I realized Buddhism was in line with a lot of beliefs I already had and that I could cultivate even more understanding through Buddhist philosophy.”
The first Buddhist book RJ remembers reading was How to Practice, The Way to a Meaningful Life by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He was about 16 at the time and His Holiness’ message made a huge impression on him. In particular it helped him start to really value the concept of compassion. “Through Buddhism I learned that the best way to live is not necessarily an exclusively intellectual journey, but an experiential journey as well. Buddhism, unlike the other philosophies I was exploring at the time, emphasized compassion. Reading How to Practice made me realize that just because things don’t appear as they are, it doesn’t mean that things don’t matter to people, or that we shouldn’t cultivate compassion towards others.”
Reading His Holiness’s message of compassion towards all beings helped shift RJ’s teenage world view significantly. It opened up the possibility to him that there might be a lot more meaning in life than he had previously considered. “While it wasn’t integrated as a practice or as a thing I identified as believing, it still made me realize that there are schools that say ‘just because things don’t appear as they are doesn’t mean they don’t matter.’ This is still something I struggle with and I think most of us do.”
The next stages in RJ’s story included one or two fairly sharp twists and turns. While still a teenager, he got very involved in hospice work, motivated by a sincere interest in “death and dying” and a heartfelt wish to alleviate suffering. “It was obvious that people were suffering hardcore,” he says. The social service work got a bit too much though, eventually, and RJ tried a different tack for a while. More Dharma lessons came fast:
“After the social service I got really jaded and I partied really hard. I grew up in an area that was deep in addiction. A lot of young people were dying from overdoses in that area and still are to this day. To see this sort of thing is heavy on the mind…. Something happened that is probably the biggest thing that led me to the Dharma. (I had been examining the Dharma again, but in a half-hearted way because I was so deep into partying.) I had been partying for a long time …. I went to a rave on New Year’s Eve and after the rave was over there was more partying and a guy died. It set me into a zone. It made me realize that I too shall die and that I was basically wasting my time, my Precious Human Rebirth. That’s when I first started practicing Tibetan Buddhism heavily, and found a teacher. Then I went to Milarepa Center (an FPMT Dharma Center in Vermont). That was five years ago.”
Being in a Dharma-focused environment remains very important to RJ, to this day. “One of things I have realized now, suddenly, in my early twenties, is the importance of having and relying upon a spiritual teacher. It’s one of the most important aspects of the spiritual path. Having a community of like-minded practitioners is just essential because it reminds you, at those times when you get confused. Having the wisdom of those who have gone before us is important… And there’s an arrogance that comes with youth, classically, and has done throughout the history of time! The arrogance of youth, the poison of it, can find an antidote in relying upon the spiritual teacher.
RJ’s message to other young people out there who might be struggling to find their way spiritually is not to be superficial in their efforts and not to get put off if they find themselves having doubts and questions. “The thing is not to be attracted by the ‘hipness or sexiness’ of Buddhism or any tradition, but to really explore it and not just to take it at face value,” he says. “And also to remember that healthy skepticism is different than arrogance and that healthy skepticism is an essential part of growth and of true understanding. Don’t feel discouraged if you feel some skepticism. People get discouraged a lot about that and they don’t need to.”
Young Muslims from North America and Europe leaving home to join ISIS, much to their parents’ alarm. Several years ago, college students joining the Occupy movement in large numbers. Urban youth joining street gangs with strict codes of honor and loyalty.
Do these phenomena have anything in common?
Recently I’ve been investigating the work of Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist. Haidt posits what he calls the “three dimensions of social cognition or social space”: the dimension of closeness or solidarity (how close we feel to others, and how much mutual obligation we feel), the dimension of status or hierarchy, and the dimension of divinity or elevation. This third dimension involves moving up or down a scale with behavior we find disgusting and degrading at the bottom, and behavior we find inspiring, uplifting, or elevating at the top. Haidt says that we move up on the scale of divinity by activities that invoke the self-transcendent emotions of elevation (the good feeling we get when we witness acts of virtue done by others), awe, and wonder.
People we admire as great saints or great moral examples, people like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and His Holiness the Dalai Lama would be at the top of the scale, and inspire the emotion of elevation in us.
Many world religions have codified this last dimension into their ethics, rituals, and belief systems. Haidt posits that this third dimension is innate in humans; we seek elevation or self-transcendence, and avoid that which is degrading or debasing.
So what happens when you live in a world, like modern secular North America, where the social space is flattened into two, or even one, dimension? What happens to your innate wish for self-transcendence, for inspiration, elevation, and wonder?
I remember growing up as a hippie teenager, in a time when we were rejecting the materialistic world of our parents, the post-war world of consumerism and consumption. We were finding our need for self-transcendence fulfilled in social and political protest, Eastern spirituality, and mind-altering substances. During this time period, we see in retrospect that these activities were relatively benign, even virtuous.
What are young people turning to these days to fulfill this need, in the flattened, one-dimensional world that we live in? Are their choices as benign as ours were in the ‘60s and ‘70s, or is there much more risk involved in their exploration and experimentation? Is there anything that we can do to provide the moral compass, fulfill the deep spiritual needs that are common to all human beings, when they are not being provided by the culture at large? Or will we continue to act as if a flattened world is normal and turn our backs on the desperation of our youth, who are seeking to fulfill these needs with whatever arises?
For over 20 years, Vajrapani Institute has been providing programs for children, youth, and now young adults. It started with Kids Camp (later known as Family Camp) in 1994 which later generated an offshoot as the kids grew up, Teen Camp. The latest addition to the program is the Young Adult Retreat. Many of the young people involved in these programs have been coming back year after year, from the time they were small children, as they find these programs provide them with the guidance, community, experiences, and ethical framework that are missing in their experiences at school and in their communities. Perhaps the staff at Vajrapani hasn’t thought explicitly in terms of the third dimension of social space, and the self-transcendent needs of these kids, but is fulfilling this mandate nevertheless in a world so desperately in need of these alternatives.
According to the Buddhist worldview we have all been reincarnating since beginningless time, a rather mind-bending thought! Nevertheless, even though this means we come into the world with a great deal of preconditioning, and not as “blank slates,” it is well-known that the influences we are exposed to in childhood and the habits we form in our early years have a particularly significant effect on us and our future development. Childhood is a deeply formative time and receiving positive spiritual guidance sooner in life rather than later can help us live happier, more beneficial lives.
But exposure to the wrong kind of spiritual input in childhood can be disastrous. Before I go further, I want to declare my vested interest in writing about this. Like a small but significant proportion of those currently studying in Western Tibetan Buddhist circles, I was raised a Catholic. Unfortunately, mine was not such a happy experience. I was an earnest and sensitive child and remember feeling deeply enthused by the lightness and expansiveness I experienced at events such as the occasion of my First Holy Communion, at the age of seven. But I was also deeply traumatized and confused by the terrifying hell rhetoric thrown at us by some of the nuns at the convent school I attended in my early years, and by the sadistic behavior the more twisted among them often displayed.
At my First Confession, age six, I threw hysterics. My fear of hell fires became so severe that I spent three years in the grip of episodes of migraine and cyclic vomiting. Indeed, I was so frequently sick and lost so much weight that I had to repeat a year of school. Further down the line, at the age of 23, while in treatment for depression, a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist pronounced that my core belief was that I was bad. A light bulb went off as he told me this; I recognized the accuracy of his diagnosis. It has taken me another twenty years, though, to shake off that belief and to truly get to the bottom of where it originated. Call it strong karma, if you will.
That’s enough about me for now, though. I am sharing this painfully personal information with the very specific aim of illustrating how terribly wrong things can go when spirituality is transmitted to kids unskillfully. Of course, this doesn’t mean that as Buddhists we should shy away from exposing children to the Dharma. Far from it. But I certainly believe we should proceed with caution.
In my bid to find out more about this delicate but potentially wonderful territory, the skillful transmission of the Dharma, I decided there were few better people I could interview than Jonathan Landaw. Jon is a long-term Buddhist practitioner, a family man with three grown-up children, an author of several Dharma books and editor of many more. He is also a gentle, humble and much appreciated spiritual teacher and retreat leader. He became a student of Lama Yeshe back in the Seventies and when he speaks of Lama, his devotion is palpable.
When we met for the interview, Jon had just returned to California from a teaching tour in Florida. And one of his next Dharma “duties” is scheduled for July, when he is to deliver an illustrated presentation of the life of Buddha at Vajrapani Institute’s annual Wise Heart Family Camp. This camp has been held for the past 23 summers and Jon has narrated the story of Buddha at nearly every one of them. (He says he never gets tired of telling that story.) He bases his annual presentation on the book Prince Siddhartha, which he was originally asked to write while studying Tibetan Buddhism in Dharamsala, India in 1975. Most of the illustrations for his talk are also taken from that book and were created by his dear friend Janet Brooke, one of the original Vajrapani pioneers.
Because Jon has been so involved in Family Camp over the years and his life’s journey has been so deeply connected with the Dharma, I had somehow assumed that he would have grown up in a spiritually oriented setting. To my surprise, it emerged from our conversation that this was far from the case. “My father’s attitude,” he told me, “which strongly shaped my own, was straight out of Marx: Religion is the opium of people. Although he never denied what I would call ‘true spiritual qualities,’ he disparaged the hypocrisy, superstition and oppressiveness so sadly evident in the religious organizations with which he was familiar.”
Jon continued, “A great deal of the religiosity that I grew up distrusting seemed to me to boil down to the systematic instillation of guilt, a powerful means to exert control over others. When I was younger I actually took perverse pride in asserting that Jewish guilt, which I knew best and which was repeatedly caricatured in the movies of Woody Allen and the stories of Philip Roth, was the gold standard of such guilt. But later on my Catholic friends would disagree and assure me, ‘Jewish guilt is nothing compared to Catholic guilt!’ Then Protestant friends of mine would throw in their two cents. ‘Oh, no,’ they would declare, ‘both of you are amateurs! Protestants are the real professionals when it comes to feeling guilty and making others feel guilty.’
“So it eventually dawned on me that no one group has a monopoly on this crippling emotion, although many of its American manifestations can probably be traced back to those Puritans who, settling in New England, frightened their congregations into piety by insisting that their fundamental nature was rotten and completely depraved and that it was only by the grace of God ― which is reserved for an elect few only ― that such abject sinners have any chance of salvation at all. This attitude was so powerful that it seeped into the American consciousness as a whole, and is the likely source of the screwed-up attitudes towards sex and other ‘forbidden’ pleasures so prevalent in American culture. Lama Yeshe would often laugh at us and say, ‘You people! You cannot even take a bite of chocolate without feeling guilty about enjoying it!’”
As I listened to Jon I started to wonder how on earth, given that so many cultures have got it so painfully wrong, can we find a clear way to pass on wholesome spiritual values to our kids? I found myself asking him how his Heart Guru, Lama Yeshe, used to be around kids and whether Jon had ever seen him giving them formal Dharma teachings?
Jon replied, “Lama Yeshe loved kids and kids loved him. He was like your favorite uncle: so loving, good-natured, humorous and affectionate. He could be stern if discipline were required, but never arbitrary or malicious. I think the main way he taught spiritual values to kids was basically the same way he taught them to us so-called grown-ups, by his clear and present example rather than through formal lessons.
“There’s no question that the primary way kids really learn is through having an example that is being modeled for them consistently. Relating to a kid ― or to anyone else, for that matter ― with sincere respect and an attitude of genuine love and concern is the essence of both effective parenting and teaching. One of the things about Family Camp that I so greatly admire is how well the staff members are able to create and maintain a loving and supportive family environment. This atmosphere depends on the cultivation of respect, which in turn comes from recognizing that each individual, no matter what his or her outward appearance might be or how they may be behaving at any given moment, possesses the same potential for full enlightenment that the great spiritual masters, such as the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, have fulfilled and demonstrated.
“Every year Family Camp is built around a specific theme, or spiritual quality, and this quality is usually illustrated by an image introduced through art projects, story-telling, play-acting and other creative, age-appropriate means, including mantra recitation and meditation. For example, if the theme for a particular camp is Wisdom, the image provided would be that of Manjushri; if it is Compassion, it would be Chenrezig; if Enlightened Activity, it would be Tara, and so on. But at the same time that the kids are becoming familiar with these “external” images, the main emphasis of each camp is on helping them become aware that they each possess, at the profoundest level of their being, the “internal” quality each image symbolizes. True respect for oneself as well as respect for others grows naturally out of such awareness.
“In Buddhist texts this in-dwelling limitless potential for spiritual growth is sometimes referred to as our Buddha Nature, but when speaking with kids I prefer not to use such terminology. Instead it is more effective to point out, using examples from their own experience, that we each have an undeniable capacity for love ― wishing others well ― and for compassion ― wishing those in pain to be free of it ― and that these qualities can be developed and expanded by simply focusing on them and giving them room to play. For example, a skillful parent or teacher can take advantage of children’s natural curiosity about small animals and even insects ― in this respect, children are natural-born zoologists ― to help them recognize, through close observation, that these creatures are living beings like themselves. Moreover, they can not only learn how to care for and protect these beings, but that it feels much more deeply satisfying to do so than to harm them. This kind of spiritual ‘education,’ if you want to call it that, is largely a matter of creating a culture in which values like love and the compassionate concern for others are consistently supported and demonstrated. ”
Listening to Jon, it struck me that a consistent culture, where qualities can be repeatedly modeled over time, is precisely something that Family Camp is able to offer participants. Although the event itself is quite short, lasting only from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon, it occupies a much larger space in the children’s experience and imagination. Jon mentioned that many of the kids and their parents come back year after year, and when they are too old to attend Family Camp, some go on to Teen Camp, and then on to Young Adult Camp, and along the way a few become counselors and assistant counselors. Also, since the format of Family Camp requires attendance from a parent (or an adult who is significant in the child’s life), these parents have an opportunity to soak up the positive principles that are being shared at Family Camp and to continue to model them in the family setting once they return home.
For some reason, when Jon talked of families returning home after camp and carrying on with their spiritual growth there, I envisioned them sitting down together to meditate. But Jon was quick to correct me on this one. “I don’t consider Family Camp to be a success if families are meditating together at home,” he told me, “or a failure if they’re not. I think a camp can be considered successful to the extent that it helps inform the way the family members actually live their lives and relate to one another. If they bring into their lives elements of mutual respect and understanding, of learning how to listen to others, of sympathy and so forth, then even if they don’t do any formal meditation practice, that’s not a problem for me. It’s not about the outward stuff ― the altar, the painted images, or even the meditation practice; it’s about the extent to which we can access our love, our compassion, our wisdom, our deeper nature, and share it with others.”
When it comes to creating a consistent positive culture, Jon shared with me a quote from a young camp participant that I found particularly poignant. This camper, while sharing feedback in a closing circle, said that the thing she found most special about the camps at Vajrapani is that they are the only places she knows of “where it is cool to be kind.” Jon then commented, “Such a statement is both very heartening and very disheartening at the same time. It is disheartening because it implies that in the ordinary environment our children inhabit, it is considered cool to be sarcastic, or cutting, or blasé. But during those three or four days at Family Camp, being kind is what is considered cool.”
Before we ended our conversation, I asked Jon if there was anything further he would like to add. Earlier, I had shared with him a little bit of my own mixed and sometimes rather agonizing experiences of childhood spirituality, and whether it was intentional or not, the last thought Jon shared with me struck a deep and soothing chord with my younger guilt-ridden self. I feel compelled to share it here; it feels like essential and deeply healing advice that many might benefit from hearing.
“Once, many years ago, I asked some advice from Diney Woodsorrel, a dear friend and early member of Vajrapani who died in 1983. She was a parent and I wondered what the best way was to help when kids were feeling some really powerful negative emotion, whether it was fear or hatred or something else. She answered that the first thing is do was simply acknowledge it. Support the child in recognizing whatever feeling is arising, rather than glossing over it or trying to brush it aside. Affirm to the child that he or she is actually feeling that way; no blame or judgement, just an honest acknowledgement of the truth. The second thing is to point out that he or she will not always feel this way. Like all feelings, they last a while and eventually fade. So even though this feeling is part of the child’s present reality, it is not who the child ultimately is. It is not the child’s fundamental, unchanging nature.
“I found Diney’s advice simple, profound and very helpful, especially when I eventually became a parent myself. And even though Diney didn’t explicitly draw the connection between the transient nature of the disturbing emotions and the existence of our fundamental Buddha Nature, I think the two insights are interconnected. It is from the clear, open space left behind when these emotions subside that the deeper qualities of love, compassion and wisdom can arise. Depending upon the age of the child and the parent’s skill in communicating, I think these insights can be shared effectively.”
It seems to me that these are precisely the words my traumatized childhood self so badly needed to hear almost forty years ago, as I stewed in confusion and hysterical vomiting and unconsciously sent myself repeatedly to hell. I’m glad I finally got to hear them. And I’m glad that parents and kids at Wise Heart Family Camp may get a chance to be exposed to such a healthy brand of spirituality. What Jon describes sounds like something that can cut through the instillation of guilt so often associated with organized religion and instead sow the seeds of a culture where it is ‘cool to be kind.’ How cool is that!
The following article appeared as part of Vajrapani Institute’s 2015 Annual Report
The 2016 Vajrapani Teen Camp will be its eighth official year. However, it started two years before that, with “teen tracks” taking place during Family Camp. Within this ten-year span, huge shifts in technology and access to drugs/alcohol have created an extremely challenging environment for teenagers – an environment so different that many adults cannot even comprehend it. If you do a search for the top problems facing teenagers today, they include: cyber bullying, drugs, body image issues, eating disorders (on the rise among boys), technology issues, depression, teen sex/relationships, social anxiety, obesity, academic pressures and lack of motivation.
As a Marriage Family Therapist who specializes in teenagers and young adults, I can say without hesitation the number one issue raised by teens – whether in counseling or in group teen events – is self-hatred. Self-hatred is epidemic, and is paradoxically tied to the high levels of interaction teens can have with each other through various forms of technology. Before their brains have reached adult levels of growth and maturity (now scientifically proven to be around age 25!), teenagers live as if on stage in front of a panel of virtual judges everywhere they go and in everything they do. While the internet is a blessing in many ways, bringing connection and integration, its ability to give bullies the power to express violence, misogyny and discrimination in all its forms (homophobia, racism, classism, etc.) is a curse.
Young people today have higher levels of self-consciousness and self-criticism because they have so many social platforms that can mirror negativity back towards them. They need help. They need to know there are other teens who struggle with similar thoughts of depression, loneliness, anxiety, shame and fear. They need to know it is possible to create community and build trust, that there are other teens who genuinely want to connect with each other in deeper, more vulnerable ways. One teenager told me she is “surprised there aren’t more school shootings” and “everyone goes through an eating disorder phase.” This is the new norm, and we want to counteract this horrifying “norm” to help kids know there is positivity inside themselves, inside each other and that they can create meaning and purpose in their lives.
Buddhism says we are stuck in cyclic existence, and as Dr. Robert Thurman puts it, we are all infinitely inter-entangled. Once we realize our fates are connected with those of everyone around us, and that it is in our best interest to be more compassionate to all living beings, we can begin weaving consciousness with others rather than suffering. Teen Camp provides the space where kids can learn how to create happiness rather than suffering. They can learn which actions of body, speech and mind become seeds for connection, joy, equanimity, and which ones will cause future misery. After asking me about teenagers recently at a lunch at Vajrapani, Lama Zopa Rinpoche told me that karma is so powerful, if teenagers could learn how to make one offering in the morning or at night to all the Buddhas and dedicate the merit for the benefit of all beings, it is unbelievable how much good karma it creates. Then parents, parents who worry so much about their teens and have no idea how to help them, won’t feel so powerless in knowing how to help their kids. Rinpoche said if teens learn some techniques for creating good karma, parents won’t feel so worried all the time.
Teen Camp empowers teens by showing them how to connect to bigger sources of positive power during a time when negativity permeates the airwaves (literally, psychically). Yes, we help teens develop mindfulness, but we go further in that we help them use that mindfulness proactively: to create merit, to see their own karmic patterns, and to discern what is needed to dissolve the negative karmic patterns and grow the positive ones. It is a tall order, but as one of my mentor’s told me, the world is a calamity right now, and “we need to get as many people through the fence as we can!” In the west, we tend to think we can just “will” things into being with magical thinking and intellectualizing. This is a mistake. We must create the karma for positive future outcomes. Teen Camp – and all the camps at Vajrapani – help young people learn how to do just that.
A key Mahayana Buddhist approach to eradicating problems is the practice of Thought Transformation (Lojong in Tibetan). This practice, when viewed without some understanding of Buddhist ideas, can seem quite bizarre and even counterproductive. It is a practice and theory where one uses problems, difficulties and challenges as an actual practice to overcome unhappiness. It is actually quite an advanced strategy and was, historically, taught to only a few adepts and was kept as a “secret” spiritual practice.
I believe Lojong was taught secretly not so much because of it being some esoteric, mysterious or elitist training but because the context for the practice was, and is today, paramount in understanding Lojong’s application. You see, to read without context or explanation that one should “Give up every hope of reward”, or “Take on all the sufferings of others and give away all your happiness to them”, or “To cherish your enemy as your kindest friend”, will likely lead to a misinterpretation and some serious negative effects.
When the great Buddhist scholar and contemplative Langri Tanpa advised:
Does me wrong by attacking or belittling me,
I will take defeat upon myself,
And give the victory to others.
One can only be left scratching one’s head in confusion or disbelief. How can this possibly make sense when in Buddhist teachings it is taught that the goal of spiritual pursuit is the attainment of happiness for oneself and others? The answer, of course, is in understanding psychology and the causes of happiness.
Happiness in the Buddhist approach is equated with mental health or mental well-being. The more a person cultivates mental health then the happier he or she is. It is simple. Happiness is not derived from any outer circumstances such as wealth, friendship, and status, although these things may be more advantageous than their alternatives, they nonetheless have little to do with true happiness – mental well-being.
So, what is “mental well-being”? At its most basic level it is a balanced mind. That is, a mind that is not whipsawed by the various disturbing emotions such as fear, insecurity, craving, irritation and so on. Also, as the mind settles into balance, manic states are seen as a disturbance to happiness, balance.
As one develops his or her mental balance one notices more and more subtle disturbances. This is what happens as one trains the mind. Unfortunately, I guess sadly, the mind does not become healthy just by wishing it to be so. Just like one cannot run a marathon just by wanting or thinking for it to happen. It takes training to run and it takes even more training to control the mind so that the mind is not controlled by the disturbing, untamed emotions, thoughts and feelings. These disturbing thoughts have never been really trained and they rebel at any approach to tame them now. It takes time. It takes persistence. It takes education as well. We need to study the nature of the mind, the nature and causes of the disturbing thoughts and emotions, and the interventions to subdue these afflictive mental states and then arise the remarkable positive qualities of the mind.
There are many methods to subdue the unhealthy aspects of the mind. But in the end we need to understand the actual nature of the mind, the afflictions, reality. The view of reality is the ultimate solution to all of our problems. When reality is understood then a practice such as Lojong makes complete sense as a means to subdue the unhealthy mind. The misunderstanding we have is that if we can just look after our own needs and wants and attempt to satisfy this sense of self, this identity called “me” or “I”, then happiness will be fulfilled. In fact, by understanding the nature of our identity, and the false identity that is tricking us into believing in a formula that does not work, we then become truly healthy and happy. It is by standing up to the wrong messages this false sense of identity is feeding us day after day that we can then truly be healthy and break free of this false sense of self. When we say, “Give up every hope of reward”, or “Give the victory to others”, we are standing up to the false idea of our identity and bringing it into the spotlight. At that point we apply our wisdom, the wisdom that understands the false way the self-identity shows up (there is a correct identity, of course, but this one tends to hide in the shadows) and by exposing it’s tricks then the false sense of self evaporates and leaves a stainless, radiant quality of the healthy mind.
As we continue to cultivate this quality of mind, a mind that is accompanied by the wisdom of reality of who we are, we find that the mind becomes progressively balanced, peaceful, caring, joyful. By subduing, eliminating the unhealthy, unbalanced, states of the mind we allow for the healthy, lucid, and even blissful qualities of the mind to become progressively dominant. At this stage we just continue to awaken to our true nature. Becoming familiar with the false view of reality is the actual practice of Lojong, thought transformation.