Center: Bodhipath, 113 W. Gutierrez Street
Class Attended: Meditation and instruction, Thu., 7-9 p.m.
Resident Teacher: Bart Mendel
Tradition: Tibetan (Mahayana) Buddhism
Number of members: About 25
Special Offerings: Chenrezig compassion practice, Sundays, 11 a.m.-noon; periodic weekend retreats; opportunity for dues-paying membership which includes personal use of the meditation space
Although the faces in Bodhipath’s one-bedroom apartment-cum-meditation room are all quite American, the Center conveys a sense of being linked to Tibet. This is due in part to the elaborate Tibetan scroll paintings (or thankgas) of the Buddha and Chenrezig (the embodiment of compassion, manifested as a being of white light) hanging before an altar of candles, statues, incense, and seven bowls of water representing the seven limbs of Tibetan prayer. Such an altar serves to remind practitioners to awaken their own inherent compassion and wisdom, as represented by the Buddha’s various physical forms.
But the link to Tibet is also literal, as Bodhipath is part of the Karma Kagy¼ lineage, which has passed the teachings in an unbroken oral chain that can be traced back to the historical Buddha. Resident teacher Bart Mendel has studied Buddhism under the internationally renowned Tibetan teachers Chgyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Shamar Rinpoche, both of the Kagy¼ lineage.
Bart’s manner is open and relaxed as he explains both the origins of specific teachings and how they are applicable to current life. Although it requires effort to put these teachings into practice, Buddhists are cautioned not to strive blindly to master these teachings, which would contravene Buddhism’s central tenet, which, in Bart’s words, is, “Every single problem without exception is a result of clinging to the self.”
After the dozen or so practitioners had become acquainted or caught up, we assumed our seats on the cushions set out in front of the altar or the chairs in the back of the room. We began by chanting in Tibetan a traditional prayer to Chenrezig, which essentially asks that all beings be free of suffering. Although the wording of this chant addresses a specific deity, as Bart pointed out, “In Buddhism, prayer is an invocation of our own inherent wakefulness.” In chanting to the perfect embodiment of compassion, we are asking ourselves to act with an enlightened mind.
Once the chants were completed, we sat in silent meditation for about 45 minutes, interrupted only once when Bart sounded the gong to signal the beginning of Tonglen, which is the essential Tibetan Buddhist practice of taking in the sufferings of others (on in the in-breath) and releasing joy and well-being to others (on the out-breath). Employing visualization techniques, it can be practiced for a specific being in need, someone the practitioner can’t stand, the entire world, or even one’s self-in this way, one learns to feel compassion for all beings and to maintain equanimity in the face of suffering.
Following a short break at the end of meditation, we returned to our cushions to listen to and discuss that day’s teachings. Although the classes are part of a series, newcomers can learn much just by dropping in for one class. This month’s talks are focused on Lojong practice, or the Seven Points of Mind Training, which offer advice for cultivating on-the-spot compassion and equanimity in one’s daily life, often with the use of slogans.
This particular week, Bart discussed the slogans, “Drive all blames into one’s self” and “Contemplate the great kindness of everyone.” The former refers to taking full responsibility for one’s own suffering, rather than angrily blaming others. “This doesn’t mean that other people aren’t crazy,” Bart explained. “They can be crazy. Why should it matter to you?” As soon as you start blaming others, he continued, you get stuck in your unhappiness. “The moment you drive all blames into yourself, you are free.”
The latter slogan refers to feeling a sense of gratitude to everyone because every single interaction with another being is an opportunity to put the teachings into practice, becoming more compassionate and awake, and therefore more peaceful. “Without people,” Bart said, “there would be no practice.”
Mahayana Buddhism places a special emphasis on practicing for “the benefit of all sentient beings.” Bart’s talk made it clear that helping-and harming-the world are simpler matters than we often think. For instance, if you see that you are “reacting aggressively” to someone-a boss, your husband, an irksome neighbor-“that is polluting,” adding negativity to the world. At the moment you stop reacting with aggression or anger, “you help the world.”
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