Fortifying the Lojong Preliminaries
As the pandemic began releasing its grip, I had an experience that appears seems to be widely shared. Oh, I did feel relieved, and happy to meet in person with people I haven’t actually seen for more than a year. But I also felt a persistent sense of sorrow—perhaps better described as a low-grade depression. Meanwhile, I read articles by mental health experts who say that this kind of manifestation is widely shared.
Maybe it’s not depression that has so widely shown up, but intimations of our vulnerability to mental illness. And this wasn’t exactly the first time I have had this feeling. Many years ago my wife tried suggesting that I might be afflicted with dysthymia, a persistent, low-level depression. The idea was too threatening for me to confront. Had I possessed more equanimity, not to mention some signs of musical talent, I might have answered, Do you think I should organize the Dysthymia Jazz Quartet? Ah, the opportunities that are lost to the earnestly young.
Back to the almost present. My basic everyday meditation didn’t seem to help. I was intending to meditate every day with the mala beads, those humble necklaces that trace their roots to Hinduism and Buddhism alike. Many other traditions—including Catholics with their rosaries--have some version of this practice. Still, now the mala beads did not seem to help, where I had always felt buoyed by the experience.
This commentary opened a new door to a problem that frustrates me. How does one employ joyfulness to dispatch loving-kindness to people who are simply intolerable? So I decided to grant this slogan a promotion: I would review it daily, along with the four official preliminaries.
At first I thought the problem arose from the sweeping changes (I called them radical!) I had installed in my meditation practice. I had seven or eight meditations that interested me. For starters, I was integrating the first step of the lojong slogans with my fingering of the beads. The first slogan, oddly enough, calls on the practitioner to train in the four “preliminaries”—which all strike me as fundamentals. I guess doing them first is what makes them preliminary. Duh. (See the adjacent box that outlines this quartet.) So I would start by sorting through them in my mind while holding the beads in my lap.
I had ordered a book by Pema Chödrön’s teacher, and when it arrived I spent a few minutes leafing through it before going to bed. I glanced at the table of contents, and my eye was captured by this entry for one of the slogans, with the quaint fashion they often reflect. sometimes sport: Always maintain only a joyful mind. (It is slogan 21, if you like playing by the book.) Do we really need always and only together? Isn’t the one implicit in the other? But I reined myself in to read the two pages of commentary.
What I discovered was both thrilling AND humbling. First, this reminded me of the initial “starting lineup” of my loving/kindness meditation, simple wish: May I be joyful. Somehow over the past several months this had slipped out of my daily practice. And it was this loss—this neglect—that I found humbling.
This commentary opened a new door to a problem that frustrates me. How does one employ joyfulness to dispatch loving-kindness to people who are simply intolerable? So I decided to grant this slogan a promotion: I would review it daily, along with the four official preliminaries. And then, supposing I responded well and more easily generated, I would give it a holiday and let another slogan rub shoulders with the core preliminaries.
And next I noticed—just while wandering through the internet! –yet another book by Pema Chödrön. This one was titled with my new favorite lojong slogan. Well, it’s almost the same, except Pema—or maybe Pema’s editor—had deleted that redundant “only.” Always Maintain a Joyful Mind. And then I had to wait. I was having trouble writing this epistle, so I busied myself imagining how much Pema would have to say about being joyful. It would be a short book, I was certain, but vital throughout. Yet after my first session with this book, I felt disappointed. The title is a bit misleading. It’s actually a small compendium of commentary on the 59 slogans, not an extended meditation on being joyful. But in effect she too has promoted the joyous to the rank of preliminaries.
I consoled myself by marking the occasion: now I have three books of commentary on the Lojong slogans—certainly enough “bibles” for any budding non-Buddhist who is trying to run dysthymia off the road. It’s a handsome little book. It will look good on my altar. Plus it comes with a 40-minute CD that I haven’t even listened to yet.
Finally, in her introduction, Pema delivers an extraordinary short depiction of what lojong is all about:
“The basic notion of lojong is that we can make friends with what we reject, what we see as ‘bad’ in ourselves and in other people. At the same time, we could learn to be generous with what we cherish, what we see as ‘good.’ If we begin to live in this way, something in us that may have been buried for a long time begins to ripen. Traditionally, this ‘something’ is called bodhichitta, or ‘awakened heart.’ It’s something that we already have but usually have not yet discovered.”
This seems a fitting end to this little journey. May my understanding of lojong be deepened, and may I never again have to stop and ask, Can you tell me exactly what bodhichitta means?
Blogger’s note: I suggest reading this rather lengthy epistle along with its companion piece: “Pema Chödrön Skates to the Rescue …Again.” Both were posted with Keyboard No. 29
The four preliminaries, in brief
Point One: The preliminaries, which are the basis for dharma practice
Slogan 1. First, train in the preliminaries; The four reminders.[ or alternatively called the Four Thoughts.
1. Maintain an awareness of the preciousness of human life.
2. Be aware of the reality that life ends; death comes for everyone; impermanence.
3. Recall that whatever you do, whether virtuous or not, has a result; karma
4. Contemplate that as long as you are too focused on self-importance and too caught up in thinking about how you are good or bad, you will experience suffering. Obsessing about getting what you want and avoiding what you don't want does not result in happiness; ego.
--Adapted from Wikipedia