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  • Karl Thunemann

A Panoply of Preliminaries

Four or five years have elapsed since I first ran into the Lojong slogans, and finally I am embracing them. This is not an apology. It is a statement of fact—can there be fact in such matters? –about the nature of self-taught wanderers.

One cannot wander very far in learning how to meditate without stumbling across the injunction that it is imperative to have a teacher. In one sense I do. My friend Adrienne is my meditation adviser. She did not hang out a shingle advertising herself, Oh, no, This is just the way our friendship has evolved, and I am grateful for it. She is, after all, very knowledgeable. And in another sense, I was born to wander. I do not regard this as a disorder. I doubt if I could be “cured,” not even if I checked myself into a mendicant’s hut at a faraway abbey and committed to meditating twelve hours a day.

So on with the wandering!

I first encountered Lojong while reading Pema Chödrön’s great book, Start Where You Are, when my meditation practice was scraping bottom. There, she trots out a handful of useful slogans, selected from the roster of 59. And I said, Yes, yes before rushing onto the next part of the book, in which Pema offers instruction in Tonglen, or the practice of developing compassion by taking and sending. Adrienne cautioned me against pursuing Tonglen without a teacher. I thanked her and plunged off in another direction.

Tonglen and Lojong retained a grip on corners of my mind. I decided I would pursue Lojong methodically. I ordered a boxed set of Lojong cards, replete with stand, figuring I would post a fortnightly epistle, addressing the slogans in order. I figured this would consume about two years and five months, by which time, if I were still alive, I could be finished with this blog—or it with me.

The box still lies unopened, but I have been pondering the first slogan with deep misgivings. In its title, the slogan is so non-specific. (The slogan and its components are presented nearby.)

First, train in the preliminaries. Wait a minute, I rejoined. What ARE the preliminaries? And of course, I consumed a few weeks of a walkabout before I actually sought them out. I could scarcely read them without extending my rejoinder. These are not “preliminaries”—they must be the core of the process! Just think about it—the preciousness of human life, the inevitability of death, the power of karma, and the reality of samsara, that humbling cycle of aimless drifting, wandering or mundane existence. (Hey, some wandering must be good!)

While I may eschew teachers, I am rarely without my bibles. And I quickly found my LoJong bible: The Practice of Lojong: Cultivating Compassion through Training the Mind, by Traleg Kyabgon, a contemporary Tibetan master …

And of course I was born in a time when “preliminaries” had a specific meaning, when boxing was a cultural presence, when such figures as Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, and Muhammed Ali were honored as men of consequence. So unlike our own time when few can even name the heavyweight champion. Preliminaries were the “undercard” of evenings headlined by champions and contenders. Pitting has-beens against wannabes, the undercard was never televised and rarely reported. But I knew what preliminaries were. I was certain the Buddhist luminaries had committed a sin of mistranslation. Surely, they ought to have opened with First, train in the fundamentals.

Please bear with me on another leg of wandering. While I may eschew teachers, I am rarely without my bibles. And I quickly found my LoJong bible: The Practice of Lojong: Cultivating Compassion through Training the Mind, by Traleg Kyabgon, a contemporary Tibetan master adept at making these ancient teachings relevant to our times. When I started reading in the book, I had a sense that it is well organized. Yet as I idly leafed through it, I wondered, where is his list of 1 through 59? Eventually, through further internet research and looking at the book’s table of contents, I learned what a teacher might have revealed during week one. LoJong slogans are not a thing in themselves. They are a sort of syllabus for a larger course: The seven points of mind training. In the table of contents, I discovered there are seven chapters. Duh.

And even more to the point, I learned that the preliminaries ARE the fundamentals. Every time you sit to practice Lojong, you are supposed to orient yourself by reviewing these four fundamental issues. That is what makes them preliminaries, even though they be on a par with Joe Louis. And I try to do this, although some days I can remember only three.

So this is, I guess, my epistle on the first Lojong slogan. I will have to return to review each of the preliminaries in detail—at least once. So maybe my path over the next 60 months will not be as straightforward as I initially imagined. Besides exploring the vagaries within Lojong itself, I will have to explore how to integrate my deeply personal Loving-Kindness meditation with the cosmic vision of mind training. Talk about radical change!

Blogger’s note:

How can I have made my way through this epistle without explaining its title? It came to me in the night, a phenomenon I have to trust. But doubts assailed me. Maybe I meant plethora. But when I looked up these words, I discovered that plethora is an excess, while panoply refers to a rich and varied resource, And one night I could remember only plethora and panoply. Preliminaries refused to come to mind, Yet another word whizzed by: paroxysm. Might this be how my panoply might appear to the passing observer?


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