Born in rural Sikkim near Gangtok to a refugee family of Tibetan nomadic herders, Lama Phuntsok [pron. poontso] entered Sherab Ling Monastery, H.E. Tai Situ’s monastery in India, at the age of nine. He trained and completed the three-year retreat there under the guidance of Situ Rinpoche and Khyabje Salje Rinpoche.
In 2000, Lama Phuntsok moved to Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he lived for nearly two years. He is one of the teachers for three-year retreatants at Söpa Chöling. Since December 2001, when land was donated near Guelph, Ontario, Lama Phuntsok intends to build a retreat centre called Palpung Yeshe Chökhor there, which will be under the direction of Tai Situ Rinpoche and Mingyur Rinpoche.
He is the director of Thopaga Foundation, a centre in Kitchener, Ontario with a website at www.thopaga.com. He enjoys addressing classes at local educational institutions, such as Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo.
La. Phuntsok speaks English. He is an accomplished calligrapher and visual artist, who paints in both traditional and contemporary style. In himself and others, he values individual experience and personal expression. His own work may be seen at a local Kitchener gallery.
When Lama Phuntsok was asked to give genyen (householder) vows to someone at Centre Rigpe Dorje, Shambhala Montreal took the opportunity to invite him to give a talk. (Shambhala Centre is in the Alexander Building, just across the street from St. James Cathedral, at 460 Ste-Catherine West, suite #510. Tel. 514-397-0115.
The evening's topic was Why Meditate? It was translated into French by Christian Collet, and a nice rhythm was established from the start. It was recorded on audio cassette.
To the surprise of organizers, and thanks in large part to the energy and efficiency of Ghislain Auger, 50 people turned up despite the fact the event had a mere one week's notice. Every blue cushion was taken. (There are some chairs for those less flexible.)
At Shambhala, members make one bow as they enter or leave the shrine room. That Friday evening the shrine room was full.
After recitation of the Refuge and the Kagyu lineage prayers (in the somewhat militaristic Japanese manner,) in English out of courtesy to the lama perhaps, director Jim Wagner welcomed everyone and introduced the lama, saying that this was an especially auspicious occasion, with "the 3 sanghas together" (Shambhala, Rigpe Dorje and Nalandabodhi, all rooted in the Karma Kagyu tradition.)
He invited guests to return in future to learn meditation, to take part in group meditation, or "to see what else Shambhala has to offer." (Tibetan founder Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche found merit in various Japanese arts such as archery (kyudo) and flower-arranging (ikebana,) and he also instituted a form of leadership training.)
Lama Phuntsok responded by mentioning his association with Gampo Abbey and the Nalanda Translation Committee, both established by Trungpa Rinpoche, whose original Shambala centre this is, albeit not at the current location.
The lama introduced the topic by saying that the question of meditation is a most important one, whose answer lies in the essence of the Buddha's teachings: The 4 Noble Truths. He reminded us that there were the three distinctive "Turnings of the Wheel" of dharma: Hina-, Maha- and Vajrayana. The Truths are from the First Turning, and begin with (#1) "Existence is suffering."
"We have to know that. But why do we suffer? And what is its source? It is our attachment, or what is called our ego. We are attached to ourselves, and we create negative emotion. We are always looking for happiness; everybody is looking for happiness. This applies to all sentient beings."
"We do not know how to move -- which way to move, and that creates further suffering."
"All 3 Turnings emphasize the mind because that is where/how we create negative emotion. Remember, the 3 ways are related. The First, Hinayana, focuses on the individual: how we deal with our own desires. We could all work on abandoning our desires, and go to a monastery. In fact, at first the Buddha used this method, but it was not too successful (or popular.)" The lama laughs.
"Hinayana is about how to behave, therefore people observe various vows." [There are levels and kinds of vow, and the rules for monastics are encoded in the Vinaya.]
"The important thing here is meditation (or, concentration) [monitoring the mind] first with shamatha [relaxed meditation; what is called in Shambala terminology, 'one-pointed meditation'] and then, vipashyana. This analytical meditation is especially good because it emphasizes positive emotions."
"Everything is changing all the time. We have a habit of thinking 'it's peaceful' it's good,' but reality is change. Consider a flower. It goes from a seed to a shoot; then to a plant. Then a flower appears and then fruit, and then we have a seed again. But when we think of the process, it's growing but actually things are ending.
"We usually don't realize it. We cannot really pinpoint the moment of the flower. The flower is empty of Reality [it has no absolute existence.] Meditation like this reduces the habit of thinking in terms of permanence, so when things change it really affects our mind. So meditation helps us reduce the habit of thinking in terms of permanence."
[We are like the flower, there is no permanent self or, subject.]
"Suffering comes from our grasping at the self. We tend to worry about our selves. So you can see that it is beneficial to analyze, asking, "Where is the self? Then we can see that it is empty of any intrinsic existence."
"Then, in the Mahayana, we develop compassion by focusing on the object. We transfer our attention to others. First [it may be] one's mother, then friends, family, then our community, country and then the whole world, and then the universe. So finally we have universal compassion for all beings. If we have it for all, then we have no time for self-preoccupation.
"But we do need a storm shelter for ourselves, because we rarely use all our energy. We need to use it all, instead of just the usual half. (You know that when we read with half the energy, we only get half the meaning.) To do this, we need to stabilize the mind through the practice of shamatha."
"Then, finally, in the Vajrayana, we focus on the nature of Mind. With Hinayana and Mahayana, it takes a long time to realize that our body is only blood, flesh and bones. Who is it that expriences happiness? The mind. And who is it that experiences suffering? The Mind. We have something -- an energy that is subtle and powerful -- we could say our "basic goodness," the proof of Buddha-nature that is in the fact that we constantly search for happiness. Some think it will be found in a new car, a house or other material thing." [or in a special relationship with someone.]
"We do not know where to look. But it is what lies within that is 'completely pure and shining good that is there concealed by layers of negative emotion. That is why we meditate -- to uncover or discover it."
"A great master is pure, good, gentle and makes no errors because he or she has eliminated all negativity and obstacles. The pure mind is completely pure. But we are confused [and overwhelmed] by fear, anger, jealousy, pride, etc."
"It is important to recognize that all negative emotions are empty of any intrinsic nature. Now, when we meditate, we are helped by training in the Vajrayana -- how marvellous is the Vajrayana! In that context, we speak of the "diamond mind." It has five lights that are actually the 5 buddha families, so that if you do not meditate, they are the 5 poisons. [These poisons are a kind of habit, and violence is one manifestation."
"Vajrayana teachings use visualization to transform energy. Scientists say that we are actually vibrations" [rather than solid matter, as we normally think ourselves to be.] We visualize ourselves as a light form -- and we are actually light forms -- we are not completely Empty. Remember, we should not fall into either of the two extremes, as is taught in the Prajnaparamita. [Neither completely material nor immaterial.]
"For example, Mahamudra energy uses three lights white, blue and red when we visualize relating to Guru Vajrasattva. We receive them into our body, and then we offer the whole universe to him, knowing it is empty of inherent existence -- it is appearance. This method speaks of Vajra body, speech and mind.
"Consider speech -- it is sound. It arises form Emptiness and this is the same as speech and mind, too. All our thoughts are similar [having no inherent nature.] So, through this type of practice we try to know the true essence of our own body, speech and mind.
"For example, we are not trying to reach space; we are touching space right now. We do not have to come, go or do anything. We are just here. 'We are her right now.' We are already this universe; we are not separate from it. So [ritual worship] practice is important for it teaches us how to relate to body, speech and mind. That is a major part of Vajrayana -- how to work with this, and that is the main point of sadhana.
"We are so lucky to have received these teaching!
"I will stop here, so maybe we can have some questions."
Q: I am amazed by the energy in group meditation, but when I am alone it is not the same. I'd like to find a way to have a similar experience by myself.
A: It is always helpful to meditate with a group, but at the beginning, if this is not possible, start with "one-pointed concentration."
Q: I hear it can be suicidal to embark on the Vajrayana without going through the Hina- and Mahayana.
A: That is why before we do the Hinayana and Mahayana practices. But for some, one's comprehension can grow through reading and so on. Also, it is really important to go to a centre not just to meditate, but to learn what devotion is, and to apply it in daily life. Then we get it exactly right; we can have confidence.
We had begun at 12 minutes after eight and since it was nearing 10 o'clock, a skillful person stood: "We are honoured to have you here, and we are grateful to the Tibetan people for carrying these precious teachings to us. We also hope you do not catch a cold!" at which there was some laughter from us all, including the lama.
The lama agreed that we were indeed fortunate, adding that Trungpa Rinpoche had accomplished a great thing. He added, "Remember, karmic connections are necessary for these things to happen."
"This has been a marvelous opportunity. Thank you."
The group recited the dedication in English that is known in Tibetan as Sonam de, and when the lama and translator had departed we also rose to leave.
NB. Editorial remarks in square brackets [ -- ] were inserted after consultation with Lama Phuntsok.