A Warm Oasis of Contemplation at NalandaWest

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Photo Credit: Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

In our modern world where speed-of-light technology brings both the beauty and the pain of the world literally into the palm of our hand, more and more of us recognize an equal increase in the demands on our ability to cope with the amount of information we’re exposed to and the rapid changes around us. Whether what we’re focused on is more worldwide; global warming, changing markets, and the war on terror, or more specific to our community and family; aging parents, growing kids, and sustainable lifestyles, many of us feel challenged to find time to integrate it all into a coherent, meaningful narrative that makes sense in the larger picture of our lives and cultivates our ability to be present with what is.

Luckily, in the heart of Seattle, we have a warm oasis of contemplative programming and classes for those wanting to explore deeper and more thoughtful ways of being in the world that go beyond the often handy, but surface, answers provided by Google search. For almost 10 years NalandaWest, an event center run by the Nalandabodhi community of Buddhist practitioners in Seattle, has been hosting esteemed lamas and teachers from a variety of Buddhist lineages, from Tibetan to Theravadin to Zen. But most recently, NalandaWest has begun new, expanded programming that brings teachers from a variety of wisdom traditions from both the East and West, creating the opportunity to delve deeply into the inquiry about what it means to live a meaningful life in an age of smartphones and instant access.

“We have so much information available to us, but how do we decide what’s truly important? How do we stay in touch with what is wise and enduring, and when do we take a break?” asks the center’s new event director, Elle McSharry. “No matter what religious tradition appeals to you, or whether your personal inquiry into what it means to live a meaningful life is based in social activism, science, or the arts, family or community life, NalandaWest has something to offer you. We recognize that people are hungry for experiences that help them take the time to feel more connected to themselves and the people around them. We want to create an environment where these types of experiences just naturally unfold.”

For their first program of 2013, NalandaWest hosted cancer survivor and eminent poet Mark Nepo (see his prose piece about the ancient Nalanda below). The program began with a Friday night poetry reading featuring local poets Elizabeth Austen, Jourdan Imani Keith, Peter Pereira, and Mr. Nepo reading to a full house. As the weekend progressed comments from participants came flooding in: “A heart opening experience….” ; “I now have tools to help me move forward…I take away new wonder and joy at being human….”

“Those responses reflect exactly the type of experience we’re hoping to facilitate for our community” says McSharry. “And that community is growing well beyond Seattle, as we’re webcasting all of our 2013 programming so that we can really live our commitment to bring great contemplative programming to anyone seeking a generative resource of warmth and wisdom.”

Drawing from the tradition of scholarship at the ancient Nalanda University (5th century – 1197 AD) in India, NalandaWest is offering programming inspired by “The Five Fields of Knowledge”: Creativity; Communication; Health & Well-Being; The Mind; and Direct Insight. Designed with the commitment to bring a practical direction to a contemplative life, the intention of each program is to meet participants where they are and give them a piece of heart-felt wisdom to go home with; a new perspective, a new set of tools, the radical “a-ha!” or even the let-go of “ahhhh” that refreshes and renews the spirit—reinvigorating a commitment to peace, social activism, creative or scientific pursuits, or the work of caring for family and community.

“One thing about the Five Fields is that they make you look at every aspect of life in a deeper way, a more thoughtful way. Not in the way you normally think of—it makes you re-think things like a child’s innocent question about what happened to her cat after it died, or how to approach the blank canvas as an artist, what healing is, or the experience of communication and conflict. With new ways to approach these and other important topics you have the chance to meet these moments with fresh eyes. It’s the cultivation of mindfulness as a way of transforming our society. Building a mindful community of people who come from various traditions and support each other on that common ground of inquiry is a powerful action for good in the world and very important right now”, says McSharry.

“We’re committed to expanding the conversation around that, so we all support each other in contemplating together so that we experience maximum benefit from what we’ve learned in the program, and support each other in taking it out into the world. It’s where contemplative life and social activism meet”.

For those out there who have always valued the traditional Buddhist teachers that NalandaWest is already known for don’t worry, you’ll still enjoy these programs. March 15-17th the center will host married lama and author Tsoknyi Rinpoche who will teach a program on compassion with a practical focus on applying Buddhist teachings in a too busy, modern world. The program, titled “Creativity and the Heart of Love”, will also be webcast.

September will feature the wisdom of meditation teacher and Yoga Journal columnist Sally Kempton who will lead a transformative workshop based on her latest book, “Awakening Shakti: A Celebration of the Divine Feminine”.  And in October, thought leader Meg Wheatley will lead a weekend retreat that draws upon the archetype of the spiritual warrior. Participants will explore how this archetype can help them engage fearlessly with the problems of our society.

In ancient India, where scholars from many wisdom traditions gathered at Nalanda University to debate, study, and live together, could they have ever imagined that generations later, in a land named after a Native American chief half way across the world, the seed of their contemplation would be re-planted in new soil to bear new fruit?

~Ceci Miller, Director of External Communications and Outreach, Nalandabodhi, US

The Seeds of Our Nature (The Story of Nalanda) by Mark Nepo

As we go deeper, Let’s honor the place in which we meet. Nalanda West lives in the tradition of Nalanda University, which was an ancient center of learning for six centuries (5th century—1197 AD) in Bihar, India. During that time, the University assembled one of the largest, most comprehensive libraries in the history of the world.

Known as Dharma Gunj (The Mountain of Truth), the library of Nalanda held the most renowned repository of Hindu and Buddhist knowledge in the world at the time. Its collection comprised of hundreds of thousands of volumes, so extensive that when it was sacked and burned by fanatic Turks in 1193, the smoke of all those books lingered over the hills for six months.

How do we hold such noble effort and such travesty at the same time? Imagine all the wisdom gathered, page by page through the years, one monk at a time, preparing the ink, scribing the sutras, pressing them dry, building the shelves. Imagine the questions rolled and unrolled by teachers before novices, year by year, the discussions of knowledge and the quandaries of living carried in all those stories. Imagine the generations of monks rubbing their noses in the books like studious bees and spreading the pollen of wisdom in the world. And imagine the conquering Turks fevered to stop this invisible power that they couldn’t find or slay. Imagine the first handful of warriors trampling through the temple, their horses stumbling over books as they set them aflame, and the cries of the monks helpless to stop them. Oh, see the stories smoldering for days, distilling to their essence, dispersing in the air. After the flames died down, see the smoke of wisdom rising for months from the broken bits of ash, to be inhaled by the land, and inhaled by those farming the land. Day after day, the resin of what took centuries to record swirled into a fine, dark dust that settled on the skin of those just born. And the essence of all that learning filled their pores and lungs, informing, without anyone knowing, the kindness in one stopping to free the stuck wheel of another’s cart.

This magnificent harvest and release of wisdom over six hundred years despite the harsh, tragic burning of one in a day reveals the inexplicable paradox of how the inexhaustible essence survives beyond all inexcusable violence. It challenges us to accept and work with the fact that while the things that crack us open are often unjust, what is opened matters more. And while we are ever called to repair injustice, that effort is hollow unless we remain servants of the essence that is opened.

It was the French engraver of the twentieth century, Georges Rouault (1871-1958) who said, “The just like sandalwood perfume the axe that strikes them.” And so, the wisdom burned is never lost. The kindness torn open is no less kind. And the illumined truth is no less true when blocked by the clouds of our unawakened humanity.

If we probe deeper, we discover an even more difficult but lasting paradox: that all things are true. It is the work of our incarnation to uncover and inhabit how.

Often, in our heartache, we misplace our acceptance and bow to the effects of our nature (the violence, the cruelty, the relentless self-interest). This only breeds cynicism. More deeply, we’re asked to accept the seeds our nature, that we are capable of all things. This stirs our responsibility to engage all aspects our nature.

We are always lighting the truth and burning the truth and we need to understand that in us which does both. The history of learning, whether formal or informal, whether in great universities and monasteries or in small cafes, is the lineage of lighting the truth. Every time we give of ourselves to listen and reflect, to feel and seed our compassion, we counter the burning of truth.

So we gather this weekend to participate in the lineage of lighting the truth, to better understand the seeds our own nature and how we’re capable of both lighting the truth and burning the truth. We gather to quiet our cynicism and stir our responsibility to engage all aspects our nature, so we can inhabit the gift of our wakefulness, so we can be as fully alive as possible in the blessing of time we have.

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