November 23 – December 3, 2012
“I’VE TAKEN A COTTON TO YOU”
One late afternoon I meandered through the desert, my camera in hand. I was ready for the daily spectacle of the setting sun. Following some tractor tracks through an opening between small trees, I walked into a vast field of . . . cotton! I had heard agricultural equipment, so I knew there were planted fields nearby but seeing ripe, ready-to-harvest cotton surprised me. The leaves of the cotton plants were withered brown, red and green. The hard-shelled pods, called bolls, were in various stages of erupting into fluffy white balls. Only a few of the mottled green, black and purplish bolls were still shut tight.
The cotton bolls usually had four, sometimes five sections, each with a wad of white down, the size of, well, a cotton ball, like the ones we use at home. There were numerous seeds imbedded inside, refusing to easily separate themselves from the fibers. The cotton gin was invented to remove these and, you might remember from history class, revolutionized the cotton industry.
The field of snowball-like cotton glowed against the desert mountains and the multi-colored sky. There were quail and cottontail rabbits (their tails looking more like cotton than ever before) running about the outskirts of the fields. A coyote trotted along one edge and then ducked silently into the tangled bushes of cotton. I picked one boll that had fallen to the ground to bring back and inspect in detail.
LESSONS FROM A COYOTE
One of my outdoor meditating spots on the ground looked out across the creosote shrubs and debris of the desert floor. A few feet in front of me sat a pile of scat. I ignored it for awhile. Then, when I looked closer, what I thought was domestic dog poop, turned out to be from a coyote.
I had recently read that some tantric practitioners put human excrement on their altars, to represent the sacredness and non-differentiation of all things. I get the point, but poop on altars isn’t my cup of tea so I chose to gently sweep it out of view. The next morning when I sat there again, a feet or so from the original spot of the scat was a new fresh moist pile of coyote poop. I let this one be. (No, I didn’t take a photo of it.)
During the retreat I read parts of Natural Great Perfection by Noshyul Khen which I had brought along on the trip. In the cabin I found and read a copy of Longchenpa’s, You Are the Eyes of the World. Longchenpa was a 14th Century teacher and transmitter of Dzogchen (an advanced teaching of the Nyingma lineage) in Tibet. He, like many of the famous teachers of Tibet, spent part of his life as a vagabond, wandering from place to place, often practicing in mountains and caves. So I like to think of my wandering sabbatical as inspired by that tradition. It is said they traveled “without agenda or itinerary”. The only thing I am missing is their “realization as vast as space”. But I am working on it and I do have a vast sky to practice with.
On the walls of the cabin were two tangkas (also spelled thangkas or tanka). Tangkas are traditional Tibetan Buddhist paintings that are used as teaching and meditation tools. They may represent an historic or imagery being, show mandalas or represent a Buddhist teaching. Every detail in the image has significance and specific meaning.
The one depicting a four-armed Chenrezig was familiar to me. The other one was new; it showed a deep blue-black Buddha in union with a white, unadorned consort. Chenrezig is a Tibetan version of the Buddha’s disciple Avalokitesvara and is associated with love and compassion. The four arms represent the four Brahma Viharas or qualities of the awakened heart: lovingkindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.
With some research I found the other tangka depicted Samantabhadra Buddha, his blue-black color representing emptiness. The consort, Samantabhadri is completely white, except for her flowing black hair, and is naked with no ornamentation. (Some figures in Tibetan tangkas are decked out in all kinds of jewels, robes and finery.) She represents clarity of mind, free of all thought constructs. Together they illustrate the union of emptiness and awareness, one of the basic Dzogchen teachings about the nature of mind. The third and last aspect of natural mind is “unlimited Buddha activity”, meaning the free flow of unconditional love and compassion. Here Chenrezig fulfills that function. I don’t think it was by accident that these images were there.
The only downside to this retreat spot is the encroachment of Phoenix as it continues to expand and the noise from the nearby freeway, I-15. The traffic on the freeway was continuous but the loudness of it varied tremendously during the day. At night or in the early morning, the sound increased to a loud close rumble that was a constant companion and intruded into awareness most of the time. During the day, the sound receded, becoming more of a hum, sounding farther away than it was, and was often unnoticed or barely audible. This phenomena was so pronounced, I had to look it up and find out exactly what caused it. I found the simple explanation is that when air is cold, the molecules are closer together and conduct sound more efficiently.
THE LAST NIGHT
My last night there, I soaked with Camilla and Bill, the owners of Dechen Ling. I wanted to meet Camilla since she was the Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and had outfitted the retreat cabin.
She was a Dzogchen student of Lama Surya Das with whom I had also studied for many years. It was Surya who named the place, Dechen Ling, meaning retreat cabin in Tibetan. She also knew Lama John Makransky and Lama Willa Miller. We shared updates and information about people we knew in common as well as suggestions for other teachers and retreats. We had very likely been on meditation retreats together but had never actually met before.
What was truly surprising was discovering that we had lived in western Massachusetts during the same period. She had worked at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where I had gotten my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Even more amazing is we had both lived in the tiny town of Conway, although not at exactly the same time. I am sure we passed each other as strangers in many different places over many years.