Photos from our Meditation Retreat!

Karma Thegsum Tashi Gomang Crestone ColoradoMonth long retreat in Crestone and Trungpa Rinpoche bringing Dharma to America

I just returned from a month long retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche in Crestone, CO. It was a great integration of practice and teachings. During the first week Rinpoche gave three empowerments from the Chokling Tersar cycle of teachings – a Guru Rinpoche,  Vajrasattva and a Tara. (here’s a link to more on Chokgyur Lingpa

The Life of Chokgyur Lingpa (PDF version)

Month long retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Crestone, COMonth long retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Crestone, CO

For the next three weeks we moved to a Tibetan tent on Pundarika land where Rinpoche taught on Gampopa’s “The Precious Garland of the Sublime Path”.  This text includes lots of 10 things to do and not to do on the path…10 useless things, 10 ways to destroy yourself, 10 necessities, etc.(a big change from Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s usual Dzogchen teachings), but all in all, a very practical guide to the three Yana path. Outside of the 3 hours of daily teaching in the big tent we practiced another 7 hours divided into 3 sessions in our own locations. I personally find this kind of retreat, based on the Tibetan yogi camp style of daily teaching and isolated personal practice, the perfect way to assimilate the dharma.

For some reason the underlying theme of the retreat was summarized by this quote from Buddha that we found one morning on our zafus, “My dream-like form appears to dream-like beings to show the dream-like path to dream-like enlightenment.”

Toward the end of the retreat Rinpoche called for more audience participation to share our own personal experiences or words of wisdom. Here are two of my favorite quotes.

Since everything is but an apparition, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may as well burst out in laughter – Longchenpa

Not sure who said the next one: “If you don’t know it’s a thought it becomes your reality.”

For me, besides enjoying the presence and teaching of Tsoknyi Rinpoche and a few meditative Nyam experiences, that while lasting longer than usual still faded into Sunyata, I had one epiphany that was no ordinary dream – I mean this really happened. I was practicing in my tent one afternoon when I saw a sudden movement out the corner of my eye and heard a thump by the tree about 10 feet from the tent. My first thought was – that was too big and loud to be a squirrel. Looking over I saw a mountain lion approaching my tent. My heart stopped and my mantras silently repeated rapidly in my mind. The lion walked past the large triangular screen window on the left of my shrine, about 5 feet from where I sat, and continued past the next screen window on the right. I was too afraid to move or even breath. I was thinking one swipe of his giant paw on that screen and I would see if I was really ready for death. I thought it would be hard to rest naturally while being eaten.

Mountain lion shot in controlled settingMountain lion shot in controlled setting

I have photographed a lot of wildlife over the years – bears in Alaska, all kinds of animals in Africa, Borneo and Belize, even hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos but this was really the closest I had ever been to a wild deadly predator. And here I was sitting on my ass without a camera. (This lion photo was taken in Montana) Anyway I finished an hour more practice, not because I was a great practitioner but because I was too scared to move and I wanted to give the lion plenty of time to wander away. Worried about the meaning of this experience (what are the odds of  having a mountain lion approach when doing your sadhana practice in retreat) or whether I should continue practicing in my tent I ended the session with a lot of loud belling ringing and damaru playing and went to see Tsoknyi Rinpoche.

Driving down from his group interview he rolled down his window and asked me what’s up. I told him about the encounter with the lion. He asked if I had food in my tent and still shaken from the experience I didn’t come back with a clever comment like I am food, but just said no. He said, “don’t worry about it.” I said, you mean I should go back to the tent.” He said, “Yes.”  Geraldo, his translator asked me how big the lion was. Rinpoche rolled up his window and they drove off. So matter of fact – I wasn’t sure if Tsoknyi Rinpoche had some kind of clairvoyance or simple had no idea what a mountain lion was capable of. My phenomena guru, my wife Kathy, had some practical advice. She said remember the movie “The gods must be crazy” – you should carry a big stick, make yourself look big and walk with 360 degree awareness. So for the next week I carried a long pole, said a lot of “om ah hums” and “phats” out loud as I walked down the path to my tent to make sure that if that lion was still hanging around he knew I was coming. I got a stiff neck from looking back so much but after a while the goose bumps went away. The lion never returned, or at least I never saw him again.

Towards the end of the retreat I received a request from Johanna Demetrakas, who is working on a film on the life of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, for any pictures I had of CTR or those early days of the Shambhala sangha. While searching through some old boxes of negatives I came across a few good early portraits, some scenes from the first summer of  Naropa in 1974, visits from His Holiness the 16th Karmapa and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and a few other moments I wanted to share.

If you see any friends you recognize please pass on this blog. Looking through these old images I was touched not only with a feeling of nostalgia but a sadness for the impermanence of our lives as Dharma practitioners. Many of us have passed away, others are sick and all of us are getting old. This morning I cracked open a copy of The Myth of Freedom and was struck once again by Trungpa Rinpoche’s straightforward no-nonsense approach to presenting Dharma to westerners. I imagine there were many newly aspiring young Tibetan Buddhist  “practitioners” like myself who fantasized that maybe we could just continue or solidify our psychedelic experience into this new spiritual journey. I once described to Trungpa Rinpoche, during one of my first interviews, these recurrent visions I experienced in past LSD experiences where I would see this interlaced network of moving triangles of light descended from the sky into my being and asked if these might be the infamous vajra chains I had read about. He looked at me and said, “Maybe you shouldn’t  focus so much on the glorious.” He picked up his tea cup and said Mahamudra is right here. Still haven’t learned that lesson.

Some words of wisdom from CTR from the “Myth of Freedom”:

People complain that Buddhism is an extremely gloomy religion because it emphasizes suffering and misery. Usually religions speak of beauty, song, ecstasy, bliss. But according to Buddha we must begin by seeing the experience of life as it is. We must see the truth of suffering, the reality of dissatisfaction. We cannot ignore it and attempt to examine only the glorious, pleasurable aspects of life. If one searches for a promised land, a Treasure Island, then the search only leads to more pain. We cannot reach such islands, we cannot attain enlightenment in such a manner. So all sects and schools of Buddhism agree that we must begin by facing the reality of our living situation. We cannot begin by dreaming. That would be only a temporary escape; real escape is impossible. That was from the first chapter Fantasy and Reality.

In the chapter titled Aloneness Rinpoche goes on to say “I am this, I am that.” “Am I doing all right, am I meditating correctly, am I studying well, am I getting somewhere?” If we give all this up, then how do we know if we are advancing in spiritual practice? Quite possibly there is no such thing as spiritual practice except stepping out of self-deception, stopping our struggle to get hold of spiritual states. Just give that up. Other than that there is no spirituality.

Again and again I can’t help feeling that the Vidyadhara, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was the Guru Rinpoche of our time in America. For me, at least, he opened the “door to the treasury of oral instructions.” Without his thorough training in the three yanas I doubt I could appreciate or understand, to whatever extent I do, the Dharma teaching of my present teachers. I sure wish there was an enlightenment pill you could take rather than face the stark reality of Milarepa’s last pointing out instruction to Gampopa where he pulled up his robe and pointed to his callous butt.

Wow, long winded blog for me. Must be from coming out of a semi-silent month long retreat. I want to thank all those new and old friends at the last two retreats that purchased my prints and book. We raised close to $3000 for the Nangchen nuns and a couple of thousand for me. For those still interested who may have missed their chance at the retreats you can check out the prints on the Nangchen Nuns tab above or click on the Searchable Photo Archive gallery link (upper right column under the photo) and check out some of the galleries there.

I will be in Washington DC from October 6-10 photographing the Mind & Life conference on Educating World Citizens with The Dalai Lama and a group of prominent scientists and educators.

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