East Meets West


Earlier this month, I attended a meditation and teaching weekend at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in downtown Montreal. When I arrived, it struck me as incongruous that the event was taking place in the Salle Jean Béliveau, named after a hockey star who played for the Montreal Canadiens. But on second thought, it occurred to me that Montreal’s multicultural environment actually lent itself to the mix of Canadian popular culture and Tibetan Buddhism. As it turned out, the teachings of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist Master, merge aspects of Western and Eastern philosophyan.

As described on his website, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

is a widely celebrated Buddhist teacher and the author of Emotional Rescue, Rebel Buddha, and other books. A lover of music, art and urban culture, Rinpoche is a poet, photographer, accomplished calligrapher and visual artist, as well as a prolific author. Rinpoche is founder and president of Nalandabodhi, an international network of Buddhist centers.

The title and theme of Rinpoche’s talk was “Seizing Every Opportunity.” First of all, he clarified that opportunity and opportunism are not the same: opportunity is something that can benefit ourselves and others. In order to seize opportunity, one must be prepared — the key is preparation. Once prepared, the moment to seize opportunity has arrived. If you find there is no opportunity, create one. However, you may be the block.

Inner development is required. It’s not all out there in the external world. We must develop our minds, our inner world. We need to tame our minds, and this requires discipline. By way of example, Rinpoche commented on how much time we spend on our cell phones and checking our email. (According to a recent New York Times Wellness section, on average we check our cells 47 times a day!) Instead, we should spend more time cultivating and connecting with our minds. In order to do this, we need to learn to meditate so that we can become mindful. Then we can create opportunity. So you see, Rinpoche presented a blend of western material culture pep talk and Buddhism teaching.


May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.

May they dwell in the great equanimity that is free from passion, aggression, and prejudice.

The next day, Rinpoche continued to discuss and define opportunity. He began by stating that we have the power to create opportunity, that we are actually the seed that must be cultivated. Unfortunately, more people are interested in crisis, pain and death than in life — in how to live or to transform our consciousness. He reminded us that every form of crisis is actually a chance for us to create an opportunity. This kind of thinking harks backs to the Greeks, the originators of western culture. According to the Greeks, a disaster, or crisis, presents a turning-point, a chance to do things differently and, thereby, offers an opportunity. It’s not just an opportunity to learn something but a space is opened up that provides an opportunity to create something new. Crisis is productive; it’s an opportunity for awakening, to encourage positivity, to help and be kind to others. Rinpoche urges us to use every moment in the best way you can. As he likes to say, “GoKind!”

Here is where meditation becomes important. It is a means of getting to know one’s mind. “Know thyself!”  Meditation leads to mindfulness, an awareness that the individual is connected to the collective. It is the path of the Bodhicitta. Being kind means becoming vulnerable, so one must also be fearless because the path will be difficult. One doesn’t know in advance what an opportunity will become; it requires a kind of blind faith.

So we must prepare and practice, developing not only our skills, but our mindfulness. Then we can seize the opportunity to make the world a better place.

The Promise of New Life

Three weeks ago, I flew home from Mexico at the end of a three month stay. It was a night flight, and because I fell asleep soon after take off, when I woke up six hours later to land in Montreal, I found myself entering a completely different world.

Although it was officially spring, the trees were still bare and patches of snow could be seen on the frozen ground. It is only now that the bluebells and apple blossoms are beginning to come out and the trees are finally budding.  If you allow yourself to feel attuned to the promise of new life after a long cold winter, there is something soft and soothing about the spring. Everyone loves a fresh start.

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In contrast, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Southern Mexico, the heat and the sunlight are intense, even during the winter months. The heat actually penetrates the body, so one becomes much more aware of one’s body and, consequently, feels that much more alive. In that particular part of the world, it’s as if the earth has an entirely different vibration and emits a kind of primal energy that can be empowering and intoxicating. Mexico does have its magic.

Image result for view from villa sol beach puerto escondido oaxaca coast mexicoAside from the beautiful beaches and the fresh food, in the early mornings, I enjoyed practicing yoga inside a palata. It’s the next best thing to being outdoors. Staring up at the thatched roof made from dried palm leaves and listening to the birds happily greeting the day became a source of inspiration. I felt I was in paradise.

One evening I attended a meditation session with live music, mostly bells and drums as well as chanting. After about an hour, the chanting became much deeper and the drumming intensified. I imagined these were the voices of the ancestors, lamenting what was happening to the earth. There was a sense of urgency in their cries, even anger, urging us to do something and soon. But what is to be done?

Shortly after getting home, I read a strange and fascinating book by the Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Alchemy of Light: Working with the Primal Energies of LifeAlchemy of Light Book CoverVaughn-Lee fears that we and our beautiful planet may lose our soul. He urges us to awaken to the spiritual dimension of life and to recognize that we are all one. For those of you who prefer a more scientific approach, the neuroscientist Daniel J. Siegel, MD, has the very same message. He  is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute.

It seems that more and more people are opening up to the scared dimension of life, the realization that we and every living being on the planet are connected. Yesterday I listened to a talk by Eckhart Tolle on the power of presence, by which he means learning to be present in our bodies. He mentioned that he had 150,000 people who had signed up to hear his talk. As far as he was concerned, this was good news and he suggested we pay less attention to the mainstream media, as it focuses almost entirely on those who remain unconscious. It is hard to imagine CNN announcing a new consciousness is emerging, isn’t it? But let’s not give up hope.

Well, I’ve resumed my yoga and am now taking a course in Yoga Qi Gong. It incorporates aspects of Tai Chi and much of the practice involves working with energies. The room where we practice is quite different from the palapa I came to love in Mexico; it’s the meeting room of a large and modern condominium. One side of the room consists of glass doors that stretch from the floor to the ceiling and provide a view of the grounds. I noticed yesterday that the grass has grown quite long and swayed in the wind. Perhaps when it gets warmer, we’ll be able to open the doors.