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Meditation Saved My Life
A Tibetan Lama and the Healing Power of the Mind
By Phakyab Rinpoche, Sofia Stril-Rever, Claire Belden Webster
New World LibraryCopyright © 2017 New World Library
All rights reserved.
I Grew Up with Growing Mountains
Flying toward the Unknown
Saturday, April 26, 2003. The Royal Jordanian plane cuts through the veil of heat that shrouds the city of Delhi in the early morning. It gains altitude and, for ten minutes or so, flies along an arch of mountains blocking the distant skyline. Seen from the sky, the rocky barrier seems to recede, but its mountainous landscape stands out against India's open countryside of Haryana. It is as if it has been stretched upward by the power of an extraordinary will. These are the cyclopean boundaries of the Roof of the World — Tibet, my country.
The summits draw a white-inked line, like calligraphy on the ochre soil, slicing through the cloudless sky, forming a stealthy track I can follow through the window. Then I turn my head in vain. The message — if message there was — has vanished behind me, as fast as a flash of lightning. I am unable to decipher it. My heart is heavy with loss. I have thrice risked my life and braved this rocky and icy belt. After much unbelievable difficulty, I have struggled up passes more than sixteen thousand feet high, with no equipment, no shoes, no appropriate clothing. I was compelled to walk by night to escape Chinese patrols so that I might reach the hallowed land of India and receive the transmission of the wisdom that awakens the mind to its true nature. Today, I am flying far away, toward my destiny, toward the unknown.
At the age of thirty-seven, I have spent twenty years studying Buddhist scriptures, along with commentaries by generations of Indian pundits and Tibetan yogis. During lengthy meditations, in the secrecy of solitary caves, I have contemplated the loving and radiant basis of the mind that transmigrates into the cycle of lives. But in geography and biology, I do not even have the elementary knowledge of a middle school pupil. I do not know that the Himalayas are the youngest and highest mountain range on Earth, with some fifty summits exceeding twenty-two thousand feet. Only later will I learn that, in the dawn of time, instead of these mountains, there was an ancient sea that Western geophysicists call the Tethys Ocean, and also that scientists believe, forty million years earlier, continental drift caused a fantastic collision of India against the shield of Central Asia. The junction line between these territories follows the uneven course of the Brahmaputra River, which has its source in Tibet, where it is called the Yarlung Tsangpo River in memory of the kings of our first dynasty.
As if under the action of an awl, the successive pressures of the Indian subcontinent raised the seabed of the Tethys, and from its abysses emerged the Country of Snow. In fact, the series of grandiose Himalayan peaks evokes an ocean of gigantic waves, petrified during the climax of an apocalyptic storm and frozen durably under sheaths of ice. Saltwater lakes were left behind by the receding sea, as well as arborescent corals, pearls, and shells, which were highly valued by nomadic people. A profusion of these can be found on the high plateaus. As children, we delighted in unearthing them for the jewelry and finery my mother used to make.
The upward movement of the Himalayas is ongoing today. Topographical surveys show that this is constant and never ceasing, rising by approximately four inches per year. I have felt this pressure of the earth toward the sky. I felt it in my body as a child. I grew up with growing mountains. The wide-sweeping movements of the tectonic plates can be seen in the landscapes where I used to graze my droves of yaks and my flocks of goats and sheep.
I remember vast, serene expanses stretching out as far as we could see, which suddenly mixed with tangled, rugged mountainous landscapes. I also remember the nearby Nyagchu River racing at the speed of an unbridled horse to meet the Blue River, as it rushed toward the Asian lowlands through jagged-walled abysses. We could cross above these breathtakingly high crevices thanks to bridges whose frail wooden roadways swung over the drops. The deafening racket sounded capable of disintegrating the bodies of anyone foolhardy enough to inadvertently linger over these bottomless abysses. The underground convulsions threatened our lives, since we were vulnerable to landslides and earthquakes, which occurred regularly. To minimize their impacts, our houses were traditionally built around sturdy pillars of whole tree trunks. Nature relentlessly reminded us of the implacable law of impermanence by subjecting us to the fluctuation, and transformation, of the elements.
As I fly away from my native Country of Snow, I recall this teaching of the blessed lord Buddha:
As a star, a hallucination, the flame of a lamp,
An illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble of air,
A dream, a flash of lightning, a cloud,
Consider the world of phenomena.
This life is as fleeting as an autumn cloud.
Observing the birth and the death of beings
Is like watching the movements of a dance.
A life is similar to a flash of lightning in the sky,
It quivers by, and it rushes down,
Like a stream on a steep mountain.
The Mighty Body of the World Coming to Life in My Child's Body
What I remember is that the irresistible rise of the Roof of the World is demanding. It appeals to setting new challenges — in a literal and figurative sense — and to transcendence. It asks us to transform these high plateaus into a mirror of the sky, so that the men living at that altitude can devote themselves, body and soul, to contemplating the divine.
Tibet is a land of myths and legends. I have often noticed how similar popular beliefs are to the invisible reality that today's sophisticated technologies reveal. For example, when I discovered the theory of the primeval sea that once bathed my country in a distant past, it was not really a surprise. My grandmother had told me that the Country of Snow had once been covered by water. Above the water, five pink clouds appeared and hung in the sky before becoming goddesses. They ordered the waves to recede and covered eastern Tibet with thick evergreen forests. To the south, they made abundant harvests ripen, while they draped the north and the west with green pastures. Having accomplished their task, the goddesses returned to the sky to create the celestial Kangchenjunga mandala. Clouds transformed into goddesses who gave birth to trees, wheat, grass, and finally to sacred mountains. The legend of these origins describes the great cycle of water, which fertilizes Mother Earth in the shape of clouds before rising back to the sky and settling on the mountaintops to become a source of life again.
Without the slightest reference to modern science, the memory of the ages of the world was thus passed down to me. My childish imagination was infused with the greatness of nature. My first gurus were the sky, the rivers, the trees, the animals, the mountains, and the plants. I deciphered the language of the universe long before I learned how to read and write. I only studied the alphabet at the age of thirteen, when I became a monk. By then, without the distorting screen of the mind and its interpretations, I had already been introduced to the secret essence of all things. Besides, is it not in the scriptures? The Sutra of the Essence of the Doctrine teaches the following:
Even if the Buddha is not present,
Those whose mind is healthy can hear the sky,
The mountains, and the trees
Teaching the Dharma.
The pure-spirited truth seekers
Will see the Dharma arising only through the strength
Of their prayers of aspiration.
The secret that gives access to the deep understanding of oneself, of others, and of phenomena is very simple. It consists in understanding that everything is linked. Everything is interdependent. Everything is unified. I meet many people whose lives are painful because they have not understood that. They suffer from a sense of separateness — failing to realize that the outer world and their inner world were born together. I have always known that universal life is alive through me. My oldest memories are lit up with joy — the joy of the mighty body of the world coming to life in my child's body.
My Native Province Is an Outpost of Historical Tibet
I was born on the heights that overlook the Roof of the World, in the Sino-Tibetan marches of Kham toward the east. Kham, a fortress of ice rising above the foggy plains of Sichuan, gives Asia its most powerful rivers: the Salween, the Mekong, and the Blue or Yangtze Rivers, along with its tributary river the Nyagchu, whose bold waters rush through the valley where I grew up. Separated by chains of mountains, their slopes densely covered by forests, their meandering north-south courses recall the curves of giant dragons. They roar ferociously, reverberating the primordial tumult of the spirits of water that cut through the depth of the earth in the hollows of breathtaking abysses.
My native province is an outpost of historical Tibet. I am a descendant of the famous Khampa horsemen, who, at the height of their power, defeated Emperor Munzo of the Tang dynasty, extending their domination in the tenth century all the way to the cradle of Chinese civilization in Xi'an, the former capital of Shaanxi. These fierce warriors, their faces battered by altitude, carried on the custom of bearing a gold-and-silver-butted rifle slung across their shoulder, while keeping a short-bladed and silver-sheathed knife fastened to their belt, both symbols of their legendary bravery. The men in my family traditionally tie in their hair a tassel of red threads trimmed with elephant teeth. They also like to wear fox-skin caps and to throw back the right sleeve of their cloaks, the ends of which hang along their yak-leather boots.
Under Chinese rule, Kham was arbitrarily divided into two administrative divisions on either side of the Blue River, the Yangtze. Today, to the west is the western part of the Tibet Autonomous Region, with Chamdo as the prefecture-level city, while the territories on the eastern bank, where I grew up, were incorporated into the Chinese province of Sichuan.
My family lived in a valley close to the city of Lithang, which saw the birth of two Dalai Lamas: the Seventh "Ocean of Wisdom," Kelzang Gyatso, in 1708, and the tenth, Tsultrim Gyatso, in 1816. Lithang was also home to two prestigious lamaseries. One was founded in the twelfth century by the first Karmapa, whose sixteenth successor left his footprint in the rock in the 1940s. The other dates back to the Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, in the sixteenth century. It was partly destroyed during the bloody Chinese bombings of 1956, which aimed to wipe out the Khampas' resistance to the advance of the People's Liberation Army. Its ruins, and the Karmapas' monastery, were completely destroyed when the iconoclastic fury of the Red Guards later swept through the area.
My best childhood memories are linked with the life of my family, which has peasant origins on my father's side and nomadic on my mother's side. Historically, in Tibetan society, the peasants, called rongpa, settled in the valleys and worked in the fields. Their activities were distinguished from the nomadic shepherds, the drokpa, who liked to say with a touch of boastful pride: "We are not herded like pigs under the goad. We fly together like birds."
Recognizable by their heavy sheepskin-lined pelisses, a type of jacket, the nomads migrated during the summer to the high plateaus with their flocks. At more than thirteen thousand feet high, the grass is short and far less lush than in the luxuriant meadows of the green hills of Kham that descend toward Dartsendo, "the gateway to Tibet." This city marks the boundary between uphill, our yak and barley highlands, and downhill, the Chinese buffalo and paddy field plains. Our family would take our herds to graze at high altitudes, where the scarcity of vegetation was compensated for by the effects of the strong solar radiation, which increased the nutritional value of plants by accelerating photosynthesis. Isolated within huge areas, the nomads of my family circle kept alive their thousand-year-old traditions.
Kunchok, my father, belonged to a family of farmers who worked a narrow strip of land at the bottom of our valley. The alluviums left by the Nyagchu River made the land fruitful, while the faces of the mountain kept the warmth of the sunshine, creating a natural greenhouse effect. These favorable conditions, along with hard work, enabled farmers to harvest barley, wheat, and buckwheat, as well as some vegetables, radishes, turnips, cabbages, potatoes, beans, and spinach. Thanks to the strong sunlight — provided hailstorms didn't destroy them — the orchards yielded apples, apricots, peaches, and nuts.
My father traded with the community of shepherds living in the pastures. He exchanged his roasted barley, or tsampa — our staple food — for meat, butter, and cheese. While swapping these foodstuffs, he met my mother, Sonam Dolma, the daughter of nomads. Our family assumed a double lifestyle. We farmed our plot of land between October and April, nestled in the hollow of the valley in a gray stone house. It was a squat, three-story, rectangular fortress, its walls capped by a gabled roof covered with shingles that were weighted by flat stones. The large and low front door gave access to a barn and a shed. At the back, a narrow staircase led upstairs to the main room where our family used to gather. Long wooden benches covered with rugs ran along the walls; we used these as seats by day and as beds by night. Rustic wooden tables and shelves were all around the room. They were used to put away the copper or wooden utensils and to keep the dishes that stored flour, rice, water, and other ingredients. Later on, when the Chinese government lifted the ban on owning liturgical objects, my parents set up a family altar on the upper floor. My parents slept in the living room, and my grandmother had a room isolated by a curtain hanging from the beams. I shared a big room on the second floor with my two brothers, and my sisters slept on the third floor.
I liked taking care of the animals. In turn, my brothers, my sisters, and I were in charge of taking them to graze in the valleys neighboring our hamlet. In early May, we would go up to the pastures and camp out until the beginning of fall. During the summer, we would move our camp from valley to valley, so the flocks could find enough fresh grass to feed on.
Traveling on the Flanks of a Yak
At the end of April, we were very busy because we had to gather the animals and pack the trunks with all the clothes, provisions, utensils, and various tools we might need for the four months we were to spend high up. The excitement of departure grew as the date neared. After several days of preparation, once the yaks were at last saddled and loaded, the long-awaited moment would come. My father would grab hold of two deep, woven bamboo baskets, which men used at harvest time to carry ears of barley on their backs. He would fasten them with leather straps to the wooden saddle of a yak on both sides of the animal's flanks. Then he would lift us up — my younger brother and me — and settle each of us in the bottom of a basket. Standing straight on our little legs, we would watch the departure of the caravan setting off at the slow, rhythmic pace of the yaks to a chorus of bells and whistling.
How proud I was when I passed my playmates who were staying in the valley! I never had the slightest consideration for Luda, my best friend. He would sob as he watched me leaving, for it would be long months of waiting before being able to go back to the hut we had built on the edge of the woods, where we liked to go and be alone in the world. Boubou, Nyima, and Lotenpa would walk by my side for a while. I would push them away with a willow branch when they tried to throw brambles or pebbles into my basket. Once, Boubou even came with a frog in each hand to frighten me. I cried out in such a shrill voice that my father interfered and drove him away.
My mother — with my younger sister Tsomo slung across her back — and my paternal grandmother rode ahead on little skittish horses, followed by three yaks transporting our tent, some provisions, and our equipment. At the back, my father, my uncle, and my older brother, Tamdin Gompo, would make sure the drove was moving on. We used to take about fifty animals to the pastures. Not all were ours. Some were white and black sheep, goats, and dzo — hybrids of yaks and cows — that our neighbors entrusted to us. Goaded by the rhythmic whistling and the hoarse calls of my father — or Pala in Tibetan — and of my uncle, and surrounded by four huge hounds, the animals formed a massive bulk making orderly progress.
I remember a nursery rhyme that Sherab Jimpa, my younger brother, and I used to sing at the top of our voices. In the plane above India, I smile as I recall the words:
He who catches the wild yak by its horns
Is Magchen Rampa.
He who seizes the tiger with his hand
Is Saya Pechö.
He who harnesses water with a lasso
Is the Zhongthog yaksha.
He who builds sand castles
Is the Kara Kugti bird.
He who strikes water with a sword,
Inflicting it with wounds,
Is none other than water itself.
He who follows the tracks of
a pheasant running along the rock
Is none other than the grass.
The bird that can give birth
Is the bat.
The predatory animal that can lay eggs
Is the weasel ...
Excerpted from Meditation Saved My Life by Phakyab Rinpoche, Sofia Stril-Rever, Claire Belden Webster. Copyright © 2017 New World Library. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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Table of Contents
Book 1 My Remarkable Recovery
Part 1 When Iron Birds Fly 3
Prologue: My Fate Is Sealed 5
Chapter 1 I Grew Up with Growing Mountains 9
Chapter 2 Ragged Yak 33
Chapter 3 Night of Pain in Tibet 43
Part 2 Surviving 57
Chapter 4 The Program for Survivors of Torture 59
Chapter 5 Cutting Is Not Curing: I Refuse Amputation 87
Chapter 6 Balancing My Happiness against the Suffering of Others 109
Part 3 Meditation and Healing 121
Chapter 7 Why Do You Seek Healing outside of Yourselp 123
Chapter 8 My Meditation Grotto in Brooklyn 151
Chapter 9 The Mind Was Never Born, the Mind Has Never Died 179
Book 2 May Everyone Hear What They Need to Awaken
Chapter 1 The Sutra of the Heroic March 195
Chapter 2 An Exceptionally Powerful Healing 213
Epilogue: In This Life and in All Lives 231
Chronology of Phakyab Rinpoche's Healing 239
Phakyab Rinpoche's Associations 251
Books Sofia Stril-Puever 253
Books Dr. Lionel Coudron 255
About the Authors 257