Nine Purifying Breaths: Basic Form

2016/04/05

I want to talk about one of my favourite Buddhist energy work techniques. Personally right now my system is a bit sluggish, and considering I’m doing a retreat and spending the next three weeks pretty much living in temple with my Rinpoche I need to be at my best, so I’m doing this a lot. Also a few weeks ago I was at a party and a friend asked about clearing out her system, and I wanted to do a write up for her and forgot.

The Nine Purifying Breaths (དགུ་རླུང་བསངས་ gulung sang) is a great technique, it’s simple, it’s effective, and it has the potential to be really complex and powerful, but doesn’t have to be. It’s also a fairly popular technique. Without even pausing to think I can come up with three books I’ve seen it in. The “trouble” is the way it’s written about differs, I’ve learnt it from four different lamas in four different forms. There is a Tibetan saying (according to my Rinpoche, google came up with nothing) “Every lama has his own rituals” which basically means everyone does things a little bit differently.

This post will be a little bit different from all the times I’ve been taught it, or read it, but I’m going to write it in a way, that will allow people to “scale up” as needed and able. What I mean is the practice, as is most traditionally taught relies on a fair amount of Tibetan Buddhist symbolism, but if you aren’t familiar with what red or blue or green symbolize, or what a snake or chicken symbolize the practice will be more bizarre than helpful. That said it’s a practice that I’ve effectively seen simplified by teachers to make it accessible, and those of us with more of a foundation in tantric practices can add in more as we go.

The Nine Purifying Breaths is pretty much what it sounds like, a set of nine breaths that purify your energy system. They do a lot more than that, especially in the complex forms, but at the basic level it’s a great way to get energy moving and cleared out. It’s practiced in all the schools of Vajrayana Buddhism, and as far as I can tell historically it predates them and comes from the Bön tradition. (I can find historical mentions of the practice, but never any mention of who came up with it, which suggests it came from Bön)

Before we can even begin you need to have a sense of the Energy System we’ll be working with. First disclaimer: If this doesn’t match the way you see your energy body that is fine, these things are our codification of abstract stuff beyond our understanding, so just practice it this way with these visuals and then you can go back to your own system, that does work. What is described here is a model, not ultimate reality.

Pay attention to the placement of the channels, don't worry about the colours or the other shapes.

Pay attention to the placement of the channels, don’t worry about the colours or the other shapes.

The practice will focus on the three main channels: The central channel which opens at the crown of your head runs through the spine (or just in front of it) and opens out the base of your spine, and the left and right channel which open at the nostril go up behind the eyes over the skull and down the side of the spine and then curl up into the central channel just above the base of the spine. There are traditional colours associated with the channels, but they differ occasionally, and aren’t important for the basic version of this practice. The central channel is about as thick as your thumb or index finger, the left and right channel are a bit thinner than your pinkie finger. Some other practices and systems have the left and right channel swirling around the central channel, or looping at certain points, in this case they just go straight down. Do not worry about your energy centres and how these channels do or don’t interact with them, it’s unimportant at this point.

Onto the actual practice: Sit in a proper meditation posture, if you can do the Seven Point Posture I recommend that. This is one of the few practices where I feel the need to stress sitting on the ground in some form of crossed legs. Getting it to work properly in a chair is a bit of extra work, though it might not seem like it, because how the subtle channels interact with the physical body it is important.

In both hands place you thumb firmly against the base of the ring finger and keep them there until the practice is done. Raise your right hand and with the ring finger press it against your right nostril to close it. Take in a slow deep breath through the left nostril. As you’re breathing in picture radiant clear light flowing in with the breath, into the left nostril, up the left channel behind the eye and over the skull, and down beside the spine, and then finally into the central channel. Don’t worry if you can’t “fill” the central channel, you’re not trying to, you’re just trying to put your breath into it. Pause holding the breath and move as much of this light into the central channel as possible. Move your right hand over, and using the ring finger block your left nostril. Breathe out your right nostril. As you breathe the light moves from the central channel into the right channel where they connect by the base of the spine, travels up the channel around the back of the head over the skull, behind the eye and out through the right nostril. As the light moves through this channel it clears out the obstructions, the negative/stagnant energy, the gunk and crap stuck in that channel, the breath that comes out isn’t the clear light that came in, but instead is a thick oily smoke. You can guide the smoke to either settle into the ground where it is absorbed by the earth and carried deep into the planet to be purified there, or it can spread out into space like smoke would and as the light and wind catch it it is scattered and purified into nothing. Repeat this two more times.

Now repeat the same process, but switch sides. Taking your left ring finger block your left nostril and breathe in clear vibrant light through the right nostril, up the right channel, down the channel, and finally into the centre. Move the left hand over and block the right nostril. Breathe out the left nostril, having the light drain from the central channel into the left channel through the connection by the base of the spine, up the channel, clearing out the gunk as before, then finally releasing the oily smoke through the left nostril. Repeat this two more times.

Place both your hands on your legs near your hips, palms up. Press down with your wrist putting a bit of pressure on your legs, your wrists should be over your femur. (I’m going light on the more technical/physical instructions, but I feel this is a good practice even in the simple form) Breathing in through both nostrils draw in that radiant clear light into both the left and right channel at once, up behind the eyes and over the skull, down the back and curling up into the central channel. Pause holding your breath for a moment to draw as much of the light into the central channel as possible. Now continuing to press down on your legs, slowly start to bend over from the waist as you breathe out. While the breath is physically leaving your nostrils, the light is actually going to travel up through the central channel, as before clearing and purifying as it goes, and out through the crown of your head as that oily smoke again. You don’t have to bend all the way over, but as far as you comfortably can. When you’ve finished breathing out the black smoke from your head sit up straight and repeat two more times.

This post is becoming longer than expected, so I’ll have to explain the more complicated/detailed elements in another post. For now practice it this way.

I will give some advice though. If it’s your first time doing it, or the first time in a long time, only do nine breaths. It might seem simple, and you might want to try again, don’t. Give you system time to adjust. After a day or two you can try doing the nine breaths twice in a row if you want. You should never do more than three sets of nine even if you’re used to it. That’s a general rule I see, and I find trying to do more will leave you more light-headed and open than is useful. You can wait a few hours and do another set, just avoid doing them too close together. Also I’ve been told you’re never to do more than three sets of three in a day, but I’ve never done that many, so I can’t say if that limit is symbolic or there for a purpose, but I can think of several reasons why it would be unwise.

The way I put it here has you do three breaths on one side, three on the other, and then three for the central channel. Another way to do it is to do one breathe on the right, one on the left, back and forth until you’ve done three each, and then do the central channel. I find that is less effective in the simple form if your system isn’t clean yet, you’re pushing some of that energy gunk back and forth, rather than slowly pushing it out of the system. If your system is in good shape though and you don’t have much to push through, then it’s fine. I find it’s less effective in general with the more complicated forms, probably because you’re doing more complex visualizations and energy work, and switching energy types and visuals back and forth is less productive than the repetition.

Since this is something I’ll have to revisit soon to explain more, ask questions and I’ll try to incorporate them into the following posts.

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Magickal Failures and Deadzones

2016/04/01

Failure is a part of magick. It’s a good part of magick, a healthy part of magick. It’s also a #$^#@$^#$ing frustrating part of magick some times. I’ve talked about how Failure is the Sign of the Magickian before. (Five years ago O.o) I stand by that to this day. If you never fail at magick, you’re either deceiving yourself, or not trying.

That said there are times when failure isn’t a good thing. Specifically when it’s chronic and general. As much as I say failure is the sign of a sorcerer, success has to be a big part of that formula too, and I can sadly think of some folks who tend to swim in the failure side of the pool. There can be lots of reasons for this: maybe they don’t know how to tactically root their magickal goals in reality? Maybe their techniques are flawed? Maybe they’re shooting too high or abstract? Maybe they’re just idiots who don’t know what is going on? Maybe they’re crossed? I doubt the last one, it seems more often than not an excuse to avoid working on the self. “No no, my magick is perfect, someone’s cursed me.”

I’ve talked about this on my facebook a bit recently, and some forums, but I want to discuss one of my major failures. I want to reframe it first though, because I don’t think it’s the chronic and general failure from above, and I would like to think I’m not deceiving myself in that regard.

When it comes down to it, I can’t do employment magick for myself. I have a pretty good success rate with clients. It’s not a specialty, but I can get things working for folks generally. Myself…not so much, to the point where I wonder almost superstitiously if my magick is interfering with mundane functions.

I just finished the 31 Days of Magick, and I admit, I didn’t stick through all the way again, but did most of it. I decided though, to focus everything on the same goal. (Note: Generally you can make a case about doing too much different magick on a single goal being a bad choice. Possibly true in this case, but not being able to influence jobs is a trend in my life, so I’m assuming this is another piece of data on that line)

I did all the tactical and strategic planning. I made sure my goals were SMART Goals like I’ve discussed before, I broke it down into micro and macro enchantments. Micro: Find an appropriate job post. Enchanting the cover letter, working on the HR personnel, etc. Macro: Get the job. I even tried to different routes. Enchanting very specifically for a specific job I wanted, and more general “This is the type of job experience I want.”

I gave both a timeline of a month, which is a bit short I know, but I also don’t think it’s unreasonable. Also in this time I was searching on my own, as well as having an employment agent trying on my behalf. Nothing.

I’ve tried different approaches, tactically, magickally, mundanely. And it never quite pans out, I am certain it’s not an issue of technique because even if one or two methods were flawed, something should have stuck by now. (So thank you, but I probably don’t need your “Surefire get a job spell”) I have friends with similar issues, but other blocks. A friend of mine is like this with relationship magick. He can do pretty good work for others (but results tend to favour fast and furious relationships, not more emotional and stable ones) but not for himself. I’ve seen it (and experienced it) with a friend and healing, can’t stop a sniffle for herself, but actually really proficient in working on other people’s health.

My ponderance is if you have eliminated things like poor planning, techniques, goals, and skills, and if the failure tends to be in the same area, what causes this, what can be done?

The easy/obvious answer falls somewhere along the line of astrology/fate/karma. And I can’t necessarily say it’s wrong, maybe there is some factor in our existence that says “You can be good at these things, alright at that, but magickally you can’t touch this” but that shuts down inquiry, investigation, and experimenting. If there is one thing I dislike, it’s being told that I literally cannot have the capacity to do something, just ask my son that resulted from such a claim. (Long story, don’t ask)

Are these some sort of block to work through? I can totally see where my childhood condition growing up below the poverty with parents working at least three jobs between them to put food on the table could interfere with the way I perceive and interact with employment. But I’ve always had good jobs, and almost every job I get is a step above the last, so I’d like to think I’ve come to some terms with it, and this relies on giving my subconscious a lot more power in my magick than I like. (It’s a huge factor, but some forms of magick shouldn’t really be swayed by it). Maybe if I come to terms with it, I’ll be able to work employment magick?

Maybe it is something that can’t be helped, I don’t like that answer, but it’s always a possibility. Maybe this magickal deadzones can teach us how to work around things. Like when I am employed, I’m great at manipulating things for more money. When I was in sales I could easily outsell my team, in office work I could always magick my way into overtime if I needed more money. Raises were usually granted. I could work to better my job, just not to get one. Maybe we just need to skip the deadzone and focus on what we can do.

I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve seen enough people I considering competent, if not actually down right good, sorcerers who have these spots that they can’t influence. So if you have one of these places. Don’t feel bad, you’re in good company, and it might not be your fault. The task is to work with what we can, strive to understand it, and always push forwards.


31 Days of Magick: Redux

2016/02/29

Back in December I posted about the 31 Days of Magick

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Basically it’s the idea to do something magickal, and different each of the 31 days of the month. I got about a week in during the January run before my health severely bottomed out on me, and I just couldn’t continue. Thankfully March has 31 days too, and I’m feeling better. (Okay, today I’m not, but in general I am) So I figured I’d start this again, and I recommend it to people.

Some of the days might seem super simple, and that’s fine, to me the value is to do things different. We often get into routines with the type of magick we do, and that’s fine, it’s hopefully what we’re good at, but it’s also good to flex our other magickal muscles every once and a while. So take the time, do a little something each day, and stretch yourself. You might never go back to the one form, but at least you gave it a try.


Buddhism 101: Emptiness

2016/02/25

Believe it or not folks, this entry was one of the main reasons I started this series, and it will probably be the last post of it for a while. I still might intersperse some Buddhism 101 stuff as I go, but I’m wanting to start posting about other stuff again.

This was a weird post to write, I actually discussed with my teacher if I could write it, and got permission. Technically it’s against a vow I’ve taken, I’m not to discuss Emptiness with people who don’t understand. Seriously. The reason of this vow is a historic one, back when the tantric side of Buddhism was far more secretive than it is now, most people who weren’t Buddhist didn’t know the concept of Emptiness, and even many Buddhists didn’t focus on it (which boggles me). The trouble is, as you’ll see later in this post, if I say “All things are Empty” unless you know what that means in a Buddhist sense, you might misunderstand. In fact, it kind of sounds bleak doesn’t it. It’s all empty, nothing is real…what’s the point? This is why the vow says don’t talk about it, because people will misunderstand it, and it will discourage them. Who wants to practice a religion that says you’re empty and not real?

That said, the secretive nature of tantra is changing, for better or worse, and part of that is the fact that a lot of people are familiar, at least in passing with the idea that Buddhism says all things are empty. This post is actually a response to that.

First things first: Emptiness, also known as Sunnata in Pali, Shunyata in Sanskrit, and Stongpa nyid in Tibetan. It literally translates as Emptiness, it’s not a translation problem like “Suffering.”

While the doctrine of Emptiness is important in my understanding of Buddhism, it seems like it’s something that grew in important. It gets very little treatment in the Pali canon, mostly just interpreted into stuff. By the time of Mahayana it became more important, the understanding being that all things are Empty. Then into Vajrayana not only are all things Empty, but Emptiness is the true nature of reality, and in the quick (dangerous) path to Enlightenment you need to learn to experience it.

It’s most popular expression is from the Prajnaparamita Sutra (The Book of Perfected Wisdom) which states “Form does not differ from emptiness, and emptiness does not differ from the form. Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.”

Simple enough.

I’m going to discuss it mainly from a tantric position, also, because Tibetan Buddhists are really good at classifying and nitpicking I’ll point out there are literally dozens of types of Emptiness we recognize. I’ll be discussing generalized Emptiness, but there are more specialized forms of it.

It is translated in English alternatively as Emptiness, Nothingness, and more recently Openness. None of these translations do the concept justice. When using the term Emptiness in Buddhism it isn’t a reference to a hollowness or a lack in the way one might say that the bottle is empty. Nothingness is not the same in Buddhism as it is in Western thought, it doesn’t refer to a void or non-existence. Openness has a bit more of a poetic truth to it, but still does not hit the mark.

Unfortunately due to the centrality of Emptiness in Buddhism, and its long history, several classifications and types have been categorized and written about. It is not a concept easily explained, but it can be pointed to and overtime a practitioner can truly experience it and understand what was being acknowledged.

On the simplest level Emptiness refers to being empty of an inherent and distinct individual nature, it is essentially in this form the flipside of Buddhist Interdependence. To borrow and abuse Plato’s classic example of Form take a table. We might all know that a table is a table, but what makes it so? What is the inherent nature of a table? What makes it distinct? Why is it a table and not a footstool? What makes it separate from everything else? Now add in a dash of an abstraction of the sorites paradox. If we have a table and cut it down the centre it is no longer a table, but what happened to its “table-ness?” If the table-ness was real how could a cut undo it? If we cut the table in half through the legs we still have a table, but one half as tall as before, how is this still a table when it is missing half its height? How short could we make the legs before it stopped being a table? Even without human agency if we watch a table over time it will rot, fall apart, and become a pile of rubbish, and that pile of rubbish is not a table, yet we cannot say where the table-ness went nor identify the moment it was a table, and the moment it was not.

From a Buddhist perspective the table is Empty, it is Empty of inherent characteristics, it is made up of a combination of elements; material, a surface, supports, purpose, and understanding, and as those elements change we realize the table is not a table, it is just a unit of temporarily coherent elements we think of and use as a table.

Now take yourself as a person. What is your inherent distinct individual nature? You know you are you, but what makes you you? If you were to suffer a brain injury and lose your memories or mental faculties, would you still be you? Some would say yes, and some would say no, but if you had a true inherent existence, then there could be no disagreement. If there was a “real” you, there would be no question. Look back at the person you were a year ago, five years, ten years, are they still you? But how many things have changed? How can that person and you be the same? On a physical level in the last decade every cell and particle in your body has been recycled, destroyed, and built a new, there is not a particle in your body that was there ten years ago, yet you say you are the same person despite having not a single particle in common with 2006 you. When you were a child you a fraction of your height and weight, but if that child was you what were they missing, or what do you have now since you’re twice their size? If you lost a finger in an accident, would there be less you? If you forgot a vacation you went on, or got over a temper problem, would you still be you? It is hard, or arguably impossible to point to what you really are.

Going back to the table, it’s not just a matter of the form of the table, but its composition that make it empty. The wood from the table used to be a living tree, but now it isn’t, when did it cease being a tree and begin being a table? Both tree and a table are empty, but you can see how they are connected. The tree did not become a table by a miracle, a person cut down the tree (either by hand or through a mechanical device), so that person is as much a part of the table as the tree is. The sun’s light nurtured that tree, so the table is composed of sunlight as well.

When you look at the particles in the tree it might contain carbon that was once in the lungs of Caesar Augustus, or part of the body of a forest animal, those are all part of the tree, and the table, and those all show how the table and the tree are empty. The table could not exist without all of those things, and an infinite chain more. The table is empty of its own nature but instead is an aggregate of everything. Your table is not a table, but your table is also the saw blade that cut it, the mountain that metal was mined from, and the person who dug it out. Your table is the person who crafted it into a table, it’s the carbon distilled from the air as it grew, the water used to transport material inside the tree, the sunlight, the star that exploded over four million years ago to produce the particles that would be recycled into the earth, and thus the tree, and thus the table. All of this, and many many more things make up your table. Your table is empty of an inherent being, but through that it is connected to everything.

All things are Empty. They are always Empty, it is merely a matter of being aware of it, and accessing it.
Emptiness could be described both as Empty, but also Full, filled with everything. It is an undifferentiated potentia.

It is common in many Buddhist practices to “dissolve into emptiness” or to “rest in emptiness.” This does not mean Nothingness, but that state of infinite potential and connection. When you see yourself as empty it does not mean to be hollow like a tube, or to cease to exist. Instead it means to recognize that you do not exist independent of anything, but infinitely connected to, and not separate from anything else. You are connected to everything and anything. When you dissolve into Emptiness you still exist, but you enter a state of understanding that you do not exist in any inherent or independent way, you exist in relationship to every element of everything else.

By accessing Emptiness, that infinitely connected and undifferentiated reality as the basis of all things, you can also create anything. When you dissolve into Emptiness, you can then reform yourself in any way, looking the same, but being composed of the stuff of the gods or divine archetypes. You dissolve into Emptiness, so that you can arise and reform yourself into anything.

Emptiness is also very important to the understanding of Compassion in Buddhism. After all, how can you not express and experience Compassion for other people when you realize that both you and them are Empty, and thus connected, even the same. You are them, they are you. Put poetically: The heart of Compassion is Emptiness.

If you’re curious for a bit more detailed of a look, I recommend The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra by Thich Nhat Hanh

This is just a very basic explanation of Emptiness. Considering it’s broken down into over twenty categories, and is still a huge part of Vajrayana debates you can tell it’s a complicated topic. Hopefully though my middling explanation of it though will help you understand that when Buddhists say something is Empty/Void it isn’t a nihilistic thing, but an infinitely connected perspective, one meant not to instill a sense of nihilism or depression, but connection and compassion.


Buddhism 101: Karma Followup

2016/02/21

My entry on karma had some good comments I wanted to address.

Harry, from The Unlikely Mage, corrected me in my use of terms. That technically Karma is cause, and Vipaka is result, at least historically. I don’t find that supported in Vajrayana Buddhism. In fact despite the language I used about karma being the result, we frame it as both the cause, and the effect.

While it might be easy and convenient to split things up into cause and effect, there really isn’t a distinction. Every cause is an effect, and every effect is a cause, and even if we take a specific event, like the punching analogy from the first entry cause/effect blur into an infinite sequence.

We tend to think of it as I punch you, you get mad and dislike me. But really it’s I get mad (effect), I’m mad (cause) so I punch you (effect), I punch you (cause) you fall back (effect), you fall back (cause) and get angry (effect), you get angry (cause) and dislike me (effect). Even that sequence could be broken down thousands of times into smaller units of both thought and action. As is I started part way into the sequence with me getting mad…but what caused that? And what caused that? And what caused that? This plays into the Buddhist concept of interdependence that I want to talk about next post, but basically everything is infinitely connected and entwined. There is no way to separate anything, so we see karma as cause, and effect, because they’re not different really, just a different point on an infinite continuum.

While in some ways it could be less precise, I like it because it eliminates the illusion of concrete events of cause and effect, and reveals a continuous stream of them. We do use language like karmic seeds and karmic ripenings to differentiate between karma as cause, and karma as effect in specific cases, but it’s clear they’re both karma.
Uratriura also brought up a good point (one I might have wanted to elide) “Since karma seems to be resolved in the here and now and only specific sections taken to other lives the theory of having several souls forming a group of “learning” from each other (or resolving each others karma or being interwined in each others karma) seems to be obsolete. It simply seems to be a random gathering in random lives. But when and what is this rare case of meeting up again in other lives?”

So I mentioned that interpersonal karma essentially dies with the people, and meeting up again in other lives happens rarely. I misspoke in an attempt to simplify matters. Remember how at the end of my last post I stressed that everything that happens is karma? Same is true for meeting people. What I should have said is technically you probably have some karma with everyone you encounter, so much so that it becomes meaningless to fixate on. In Buddhist theory this is commonly expressed in the idea that every sentient being has been your mother at one point in time. While this might not be literally true, the idea is what matters.

Let’s take some simplified math with generalized numbers. Modern humanity has been around for 200,000, average lifespan for most of that time was about 35 years. So assuming you’ve been incarnating on Earth all that time (Buddhism says it could have been elsewhere), and that you’ve been human all that time (you could have been anything), and we’re not counting human species that came before us, just to make the math simple, you’ve had nearly 6,000 lives. So that’s 12,000 parents, assuming monogamy (which is just false historically) that’s 6,000 partners. Let’s assume, for not reason other than to make more numbers, that you had on average four kids per lifetime, that’s 24,000 children. So we’re up to 42,000 people who have been parents/lovers/children. We’re not even including siblings, extended family, or non-family relationships.

You can quickly see how many people you’re connected to. Add in two more siblings, and three close friends, and we’re up to 57,000 people. That’s just 200,000 years as humans, not including life on other planets, or dimensions, or whatever. So while I said it’s rare to meet someone from the past. I guess it’s more accurate to say it’s rare to meet someone from the past, and have it be relevant or important in any way.

So while you might meet someone again, and you might have karma to “work out” it’s not a significant thing…it’s probably the majority of your relationship. Also, it’s not about them. If you didn’t meet up with them ever again, you’d still eventually be able to work out that karma in other ways. Like people who hold great (possibly justified) anger at someone else. Sometimes they can confront the person and work it out, sometimes they can’t, but over time it’s dealt with. Meeting up and working through karma is convenient, not cosmically significant. Karma is also not a perfect one-for-one, which is why Western notions of it often fail. Imagine I have karma with someone whom I abused in a past life, my karma is around my hate/ignorance to that person, but realistically anyone I encounter who “triggers” that karma can let me work through it. It doesn’t have to be the original person, just someone who “reminds” me enough of them to bring out that same mental/emotional pattern.

Now I’m getting more speculative, because it’s talked about less in these terms. When it is important, it’s probably due to something really intense. Here is where I shit on soul mates. I’m sure we all know at least one elderly couple who still seem to be very much in love, and have been so for decades. When people say they’re meeting up with a love again, because they’re soul mates and love each other so intensely, it again ignores the 11,999 other lovers they had (assuming the historically false monogamy), unless they claim to be really monogamous, over 9000 times. So when I say intense, I mean something more than love. In fact I’d argue you’re more likely to be connected to someone through hate or fear in the case of being murdered. Traumatic deaths stick with you more reincarnating because they’re an intense emotion at the moment of death which is imprinted in the mind, and part of that imprint is the person. When you’re murdered that fear/anger is the last thought and it fills you completely. But if you love someone, while it can be intense it’s not this flooding/pulsing emotion after all those years, so it’s not as prominent if you die slowly and naturally.

I find in interesting that all the people who claim they’re meeting up with old lovers or people to learn from again because of “karma” are people from cultures/religious upbringings that don’t have karma. I never hear my Hindu or Buddhist friends (who were born/raised that way) talk about it like that in any way. Perhaps it goes back to my last post as well about the idea that it’s said we really don’t know what’s going on with karma, that only highly-realized beings can really have that insight, so there is an arrogance to assuming that something is A) Karmically/Cosmically important, and B) that you can tell, you’re just that advanced.

Theoretically there are also karmic vows which are imprinted in the mind. While strictly a Buddhist thing (Mahayana and Vajrayana) I don’t see why it has to be limited to them. Vows often include mentions of future lives, and if you take that seriously, it becomes part of your mind. So when you reincarnate it, or at least the seed, is there, and if someone else has similar, you can be connected. Maybe not some cosmic bungee cord drawing you together, but just practicality. You’re both born in a time and place that gives you access to what you need to fulfill you vow, maybe born in a major city with a Buddhist population. You both are drawn to Buddhism, eventually through trial and error find a temple/teacher that clicks, and meet. It’s not karma drawing you two together to complete the past, but who you are leads you to make similar life choices and that leads to you meeting up. It’s similar to having friends who you always run into in public, because you have the same taste in movies, music, and food. You’re not cosmically tied, it’s just you have similar ways of thinking and only so many options.

The next question they brought up is about karma’s “storage.” As mentioned there is no universal track-record of karma, but wouldn’t there still need to be a place where karma is stored or recorded? After all if it’s action and reaction, you can’t react to something in a future life without an action. Is this higher self? If the universe doesn’t care, what brings it up again. If insignificant karma more or less dies with the body, who decides it’s insignificant?

A great and complicated question. I believe it is in Theravada Buddhism but I know during some of my initial training around anapana and vipassana the body itself was called the Storehouse of Karma. Our karma is recorded in our very being. Here is where it gets abstract. Our bodies “remember” everything that isn’t resolved, or that is significant. When you meditate, as in anapana or vipassana styles, you will eventually get distracted by physical sensations. In fact what you don’t realize is that right now, everywhere, your entire body is filled with sensations, but you ignore it, you block it out, and your attention isn’t clear enough to notice it. Your body feels the slightly draft of air that subtle shifts a hair on your arm. Every square centimeter of your body has dozens of sensations happening right now, it’s aware of heat and cold, even if you think about it, and can’t perceive it, there are probably itches and stabbing and shifting feelings everywhere. It might sound hard to believe, I didn’t initially until I did a retreat. After two days of nothing but meditating on the breath, you can see sensations everywhere. You could focus on any part of your body, and feel what is happening, temperature, pressure, pulses, itches. We have to ignore all this or we’d be overwhelmed.

Theoretically these unnoticed and random feelings are the karma playing out in our body, or representations of it, and when we ignore it (all the time) nothing happens, if we give in (get angry at that itch and scratch it) we reinforce it, and if we observe it but don’t react the karma is weakened, and eventually goes away. Less abstract think about a fight you had with your mother, think about it, hard. Now, do you feel that somewhere in your body? Maybe a pressure in your head, racing pulse, a sinking stomach. That’s your body record of the karma involved in the fight.

Now, you’re more than just your body. This is also stored in the mind. Like every time the topic of that fight comes up, you might feel guilty for what you said, or angry because it’s unresolved, or proud because you stood up to your mother, whatever. That’s a mental imprint of the karma.

So who decides if karma is insignificant? Believe it or not, you do. The person that holds onto karma, and makes you accountable to it in future lives? It’s you. Those imprints are in your body, and if they’re strong and unresolved they’re imprints in the mind which carries over into the next life. If you’re still attached to something, the universe doesn’t take that attachment and then drop it into your new baby mind, you carry it with you. If you still have karma around anger, it’s not the universe trying to balance cause and effect which gives you anger issues in the next life, it’s you, it’s been in your mind they entire time. No one can forgive you, and no one can make you guilty, it’s all about you.

Now, since for the sake of simplicity I misspoke previously. I’d like to say I’m not discounting, discrediting, or denying the more woogity side of karma, the magickal energetic side of it, but that the vast vast majority of karma is better explained as a mental imprint, a conditioning of mind/soul. I think the fixation on the woogity side of karma is problematic, and impractical. It’s like people who cry ghost or bad energy for everything that happens, without looking and mundane practical causes and ways of dealing with things. Not every random bad mood is someone beaming hate into your soul (cause you’re so special you’re worth that), sometimes it just happens, in fact I’d say almost all the time that’s what is happening. Karma is the same. Sure something might be happening due to some woogity out there karma influence, but chances are, butt number of 99.99% of the time, at least, it’s interpersonal/mental karma.


Losar: Karma, Clean, Exorcise, Eat

2016/02/08

So Losar is upon us again, Tuesday the 9th by most reckonings. (It’s confusing for some folks because Chinese New Years is today). For those just tuning into this blog, or who have forgotten. Losar is the Tibetan New Years. It’s probably one of the only Buddhist holidays I actually go out of my way to celebrate, with the possible exception of Labdab Duchen. Recently a friend shared an article with me about the traditions of Losar asking if it was a legit article, and in telling her that it was, I got thinking about how common certain ideas and practices are across the world regarding New Years. So I got thinking about the Losar traditions in and outside Tibetan Buddhist contexts.

The Julian calendar New Year of January 1st has really lost a lot of the traditions around the changing year, it’s just a day off work and a night to party. If that’s all you want from it, that’s fine, but I like making everything in life part of my practice. (And by like, I mean I’m oathbound to do so…) Personally though January 1st as New Years has struck me as too arbitrary. Really my favourite days to celebrate New Years would be my birthday (as I’ve mentioned here before) and an event like Tibetan New Years. I like Tibetan New Years because it’s a combination of the Solar and Lunar calendar. It’s based on the moon phase, in relation to where the sun is. (Even though I will admit deciding on which moon phase and what solar position is also arbitrary in many ways, why not the full moon, why not the winter solstice?)

The first thing I want to address around Losar is the period leading up to it known as tön. This is generally a difficult time of year, lots of chaos and obstacles can come up. It’s said to last ten days, seven days, or five days, depending on the tradition. The belief is that as the year comes to a close all of your “simple” karmic loose ends are trying to tie themselves up. This causes upheaval, all the things you didn’t dealt with and aren’t “serious” enough to carry over into the next year will come up. This generally manifests as increased accidents, minor illnesses, odd behaviour between people, and the like. This isn’t a uniquely Tibetan belief, I’ve seen it in south east Asian and south Asian beliefs, and even the Epagomenal days of the Egyptians . Of course since all these cultures have different New Years, it’s not the date itself that has any relevance, but it’s the fact we’re “plugged into” them. So because some Buddhist practices are tied into the solar and lunar cycle we’re attuned to a certain ebb and flow, which makes some days and times very powerful for certain practices, but also means we experience a chaotic tön period, when non-Buddhists have no issues with this period.

Tön is a great time to address what appears to be karmic issues. A way to identify a karmic issue is a reoccurring pattern in your life. So perhaps over the last year you’ve been sick off and on, when usually you’re pretty healthy, that might be a karmic issue. Maybe you’ve had to repair one thing after another at your house, or had to replace all your appliances as they died over a few month period, could be karmic. Maybe it’s been a year of fighting with and losing friends, karmic issue perhaps. So in tön you want to address these issues in the hopes that you’ll clear out the karma connected to them, and not have to deal with them next year. The simplest way is to do work that counters the general trend, but being a Buddhist system, generally you try to counter it for others. So if you’ve had a year of illness, don’t try to heal yourself during tön (or don’t focus only on yourself), but work to heal others. If you know people who are sick, work for them, if you don’t, take the Buddhist approach and scattershot it, work to heal all who are sick and suffering. Granted as an individual person when you try to help so many people at once you’ll probably accomplish nothing notable, but it helps get the ball rolling. Focus on helping others with the same or similar issue you’ve been going through, and remember when you are trying to help all beings, you’re one of them, so you can still help yourself.

There is also a more “active” way of dealing with it. I can’t explain the major details, but in my lineage we create a torma, a cake, of a scorpion which is a symbol of our karma. We say a ridiculous amount of mantras over it, to transfer our karma or at least our attachments to it into the scorpion. Then we light a bonfire, evoke a god into the fire, and burn the scorpion and the karma with it. I know other Buddhist lineages use a cake ram’s head.(Also similar to an Egyptian practice of making a snake representing Apep, and destroying it before the new year.)

Another part of the lead up to Losar is the house cleaning. Basically this is when you should do your big clean. Don’t just tidy up the house, make sure that you’ve vacuumed and washed what you can. If possible focus on the two extremes of your mess first, the daily clutter (all that junk on the sidetable beside your chair) and the more longterm clutter (remember when you thought you’d move that wall unit, and so you stacked everything on the floor and you still haven’t put it back up after three months? Do that now). You want to start the New Year clean and fresh. This is also a spiritual thing, not just physical. It’s common for people to do prayers in every room, purifying the space. So do your banishings, your cleansings. Here is a method I wrote about a few years ago I still use a variation of it.

It’s also traditional to paint the ashtamangala (the eight auspicious symbols) inside the house. Each one represents something else, but if you’re not Buddhist you probably won’t connect with them, but you can still paint your own symbols inside the house. Usually you’d paint it, and then paint over it, but that’s from a time when we didn’t have long lasting latex or acrylic paint and you’d have to repaint every year anyways. Now it’s more common to “paint” with holy water. Think of it as a way of reconsecrating your house and marking what blessings you want for the upcoming year.

It’s also when you do your protector practices, specifically the day before (which in this case should have been yesterday really), so after you banish you set up your wards, you call your protective spirits, give them offerings and reaffirm your connection and requests. In some cases you’re really recharging/refreshing them, or you might just be reconnecting. Even if you’re sure the wards are up and your guardians are there it doesn’t hurt to touch up wards, and it’s good to be nice to your protectors.

Leading up to the New Years you’ve dealt with minor karma, you’ve cleaned the house, exorcised it, blessed it, and warded it.

My Losar altar three years ago.

My Losar altar three years ago.

Then on the day you wear new clothing. In poorer regions of historical Tibet it wasn’t unheard of for people only to get a new set of clothing on Losar, but it was so important to them that if that’s all they got they wanted it for Losar. I think the symbolism is more than obvious about having fresh new clothing to start a new year. Another important part of the Losar celebration is the offerings, of course, Tibetan Buddhism is all about the food. Set up your altar, and pack it with food. Your Buddhas and Dharma texts should be hiding behind cookies and fruit and tea. The idea is to make a big offering to them, to everything, start the year off generous, and in return the year will be generous to you. Do your prayers and rituals over the altar. Leave it for a time. Then the next day, maybe after some more rituals and prayers, it’s time to give away the food. It’s not just food, it’s sacred offerings, the Buddhas and whatnot have taken what they need, now you’re sharing it, and those blessings with everyone else.

Even striped of the Buddhist context you can see the logic and value to preparing for the new year in this way.

If I might sound horribly Buddhist, may all beings be happy in the coming year.

Losar tashi delek.


Buddhism 101: Karma

2016/01/29

One thing I wanted to talk about when I started this series was karma. I can think of no word that isn’t offensive that makes me cringe so much whenever I hear it or read it. It is a word so misused and abused that I try never to discuss it directly with non-Buddhists and part of me wants to only ever use the Tibetan word in general, except then I’d have to explain the word each time, and the person would go “Oh you mean karma?” and I’d be back at square one.

Previously I shared a ten (!) year old essay of mine on karma as it is presented textually in Hinduism, which I’d recommend reading too

As I mentioned in that post karma comes from Hinduism, but it’s somewhat different in Buddhism, and in that post and this one I’m not going to talk about karma as some absolute inviolate rule of reality, or that the texts are 100% right. I’m not looking to argue what karma “really is” but just explain how it’s understood in the tradition.

I’ll give you a hint, anytime you see karma in an internet meme, it’s using it wrong, I can almost guarantee it.

Except for this case.

Except for this case.

So what is karma? Well the word is generally translated as action, but reaction would be a more appropriate word. It’s about cause and effect, in fact you could argue karma is both the cause and the effect, but we focus on it being the effect.

Karma…is complicated, but basically it’s the reaction for what you do. As you move through the world you react to the world, it reacts to you, and karma forms. Everything is karma, no good or bad karma, all karma is unwanted in the long quest for enlightenment. Karma is internal psychological patterns, karma is external life patterns, karma is what pulls you into a vagina/womb eventually causing rebirth. It’s not just the bad stuff that happens and you blame karma, karma is the effect that follows cause, external, internal, magickal, energetic, or personal psychological patterns.

I repeat no good or bad karma. Now more recently the language has shifted, so you’ll find wise teachers who know what they’re talking about saying “good karma” but what they’re really discussing is another concept called merit, which we’ll leave aside to avoid complications. All karma is unwanted, it is what keeps you incarnating and keeps you discontent, even the “good” karma. The fact we’re making distinctions between “good” and “bad” karma shows we’re still trapped in karma and can’t escape this divisive dualistic sense of reality we have. Enlightenment is when you’re free of generating karma.

There are a lot of ways you can divide karma, into what caused it, into what influenced it, into what it influences, and more. I’m not going to focus on that. It’s academically interesting, and if you’re studying to be a monk, it’s good to know, otherwise it’s pretty impractical for most people.

I will talk a bit about a few general divisions of karma though to explain what it is. As I said karma is everything, it’s internal psychological patterns, it’s external life patterns, it’s physical, it’s interpersonal, and it’s abstract magickal woogity…and it can be all of these at once.

Say I’m in a discussion with someone, and they say something that pisses me off, that’s my psychological karma. I have some mental construct that reacts to what they are saying. They piss me off so much I punch them. Now I’ve generated at least three kinds of karma. First off whatever mental psychological pattern I had inside of me that let me get so angry, I just fed it, I validated it, so it grows stronger, I reinforced that karma. Any physical injury I did to myself is karma, it is literally the reaction of my fist hitting their face. I might feel guilty for hitting them later, another psychological element of karma. Chances are now they’re even more mad at me, I’ve ruined a relationship, and might be under threat, that is their reaction to me, that’s the interpersonal karma I generated in this interaction. None of this is a judgment on whether I was right or wrong to hit them, this is just simply cause and effect. (Also notice, all of these karmas, and I don’t have to discuss some abstract woogity)

No good, no bad, no right, no wrong, no Cosmic Judge, just cause and effect. Karma.

It’s not always so extreme though. Karma is the situations we are in, and our reactions to them. Are you in a long term relationship? Karma brought you together. I don’t mean there was some cosmic reason that you two had to meet out of the billions of people on this planet, out of billions of planets in our galaxy, out of billions of galaxies, out of billions of alternate realities and realms. I just mean cause and effect. You decided to be nice to someone at work one day, which led to a friendship, and three years later they introduced you two, cause and effect. But if you decided not to be nice, or you broke off the friendship early and you didn’t meet your lover, that’s also karma.

The problem with karma is the anthropomorphizing of it, and the whitewashing judgemental side of it. This becomes really problematic for a lot of reasons. I know people who purposefully do what they consider “good deeds” when trying to get something good to happen because “karma.” If you’re doing good to get good, you’re acting from the wrong place. Also when you get judgmental with it, it’s easy to use “karma” to make you feel better. So-and-so is an asshole, but don’t worry, karma will get them. Rather than you addressing your own issues, or confronting theirs. It’s also abused in this regard to blame people from crap in their life because obviously, karma, they did something to deserve it. It’s also used as a selfish excuse not to help people “Well, it’s their karma to be poor/sick/whatever, if I help them they won’t learn.” All of that is bullshit, and frankly your misusing a word to satisfy your own selfish inactions and misguided ways. The world reacts, we react, we’re all reacting to each other. It’s not judgment that a pen knocked off a table falls to the ground, it’s just how things work on Earth here and now.

But I hear you saying “If there isn’t a judgment behind karma, why are there rules to follow to avoid it?” Because, generally speaking, these rules are good advice. I’m talking about the five precepts of Buddhism, mentioned here. (TLDR: Don’t kill, don’t steal, avoid sexual misconduct (whatever that is), don’t lie, don’t use intoxicants) Now if I steal, I can create karma. I can feel guilty, or afraid of getting caught, that’s karma, or I think I’m better than the people I’m stealing from and that’s misguided, karma. Maybe someone knows I did it, and wants revenge that’s karma. But a great way to avoid that? Not stealing. Not because there is something cosmically wrong with stealing and if I take your wallet I’ve thrown the universe out of balance, but that it is interpersonally wrong in most cases.

There is a lot to be said about motivation in karma. Arguably the most powerful form of karma is the mental karma, because that’s what sticks with you. Physical karma dies with the body, as it’s the karma of the body. Interpersonal karma dies with the person (generally, meeting up again in other lives happens, but very rarely, so it usually doesn’t matter). But your mind continues, even if you don’t remember anything, it’s the same consciousness, and your karma is still there. How many of us have gone to bed in a good or bad mood, and woken up in the same mood even though we’ve forgotten the cause? It’s similar between lives. If you live an angry life, die angry, chances are you’ll be reborn and deep inside your mind somewhere are all those angry habits you haven’t dealt with yet, that’s a mental karma. The understanding and motivation of why you do something are often more important than the action in the long wrong.

thisiskarmaKarma and morality aren’t clear cut though. In the stories of the Buddha’s previous lives there is a time he murdered a pirate, to save the pirate from his own karma, and he didn’t get karma for it, or a time when he committed suicide, to feed a hungry tigress, and didn’t get karma for it. Buddhist hagiographies are filled with things that at the surface might seem morally wrong, but aren’t karmically wrong because of their purpose and understanding, so you get the occasional murder for a good cause, or poisoning a kingdom for the highest good.

Now before you get it into your head to try some of this, when these people did these things, they were supposedly very enlightened people, psychic and wise beyond our wildest dreams. When the Buddha killed the pirate, he did so because as soon as he saw the pirate the Buddha saw in detail what a horrible life that man was going to have in his next incarnation, so he killed him out of compassion to prevent him from the actions that would lead him to that life. Not to save the lives of the people he would kill, but to save the pirate from his own horrible karma. So unless you’re claiming that level of enlightenment, don’t try this at home.

All of this is without a woogity side of karma. Now here is the kicker…not all forms of Buddhism nor all Buddhists believe in a woogity karma. It’s all mental, physical, and social cause and effect. There isn’t some cosmic scorecard checking off mistakes and successes and failures, it’s all recorded and stored in you. When something happens because of karma, it’s through you, your choices and your actions, not because the universe willed it to balance things out. I’m not saying there is or isn’t a woogity side of karma, if there is, it’s not what karma generally refers to, and not what you think it is.

So the next time something bad happens to you, and you think “that’s karma” you’re right, but remember it’s not that you did “bad” that bad happens, nor because you do “good” that good happens. Every thing that happens, good, bad, neutral and boring, are karma. Cause and effect, without cosmic judgment.


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