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Nonviolence, caring, and sacred creativity shape an environment for curating a contemplative life tailored to our individual circumstances

by Karma Yeshe Chödrön

One of the many blessings of our three year cloistered meditation retreat at Vajra Vidya Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado is teachings our small group received from Ani Pema Chödrön in person, in a very intimate setting, during her annual stays in Crestone for her own contemplative retreats.

And if you have read her books, or attended her teachings, you know how transformative her impact can be. Like so many others, Ani Pema is a spiritual hero of mine, a shining example of how to engage the Dharma with integrity in contemporary times from a deeply grounded place of devotion and dedication to the Buddha, the lineage masters, and her own practice, and centered on the unwavering confidence in buddhanature, the true essence of all beings.

Ani Pema was so kind to us all, and also so firm. She certainly walks the walk of precision, gentleness, and humor that she describes as vital to practice.

Even before retreat, my favorite among the many Pema Chödrön books was Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. During retreat, reinforced by her guidance to us in her personal teachings, the framework for this elegant volume instilled itself deeply in my heart.


In Living Beautifully, Ani Pema offers up the heart of the traditional teaching of the three vows of Tibetan Buddhist practice (in Sanskrit: pratimoksha, bodhisattva, and samaya) through a contemporary lens with a deft and skillful perspective characteristic of what I call sacred creativity, a vision for engaging life and reality that is responsive to the paradox of embodying a mind that is pristine by nature, yet clouded by circumstance, in ways that open our hearts and connect us with the vitality of living the sacred right within the everyday.

Casting the formal practice of the three vows in the light of personal commitments for living, Ani Pema kindles in us the natural wish to tread lightly in life without harming others, progress fearlessly into benevolence and caring in a challenging world, and foster acceptance of the world as it is. Using Ani-la's framework as a starting point, we can fashion a contemplative lifestyle of nonviolence, caring, and sacred creativity to foreground vital energies that provide inspiration and momentum for the path.

One way of understanding the implementation of the vows and these vital energies is through the three essential elements of the Mahayana path. Comprehended broadly in terms of simplicity, courage, and paradox, these elements are accessible to everyone, irrespective of spiritual inclination.

The book presents wisdom in theory and in practice to support such a lifestyle, with guidance on how to align our perspective with the most profound teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, and suggestions for incorporating that view in formal and everyday practices. Incorporating the theory and practice of the path in this way yields a dynamic evolution of mind that I like to describe as healing, transforming, and transcending.

Awakening to the interplay between these paradigms within and around us provides a multidimensional, living framework for a contemplative life.


Click to listen to Prajna Sparks podcast episodes Simplicity, Courage, Paradox, Heal, Transform, Transcend


For example, healing refers to identifying and acknowledging the ways we play into a limited, dualistic projection of our rich experience. As Ani Pema puts it, it is the "tricky business [of] not rejecting any part of yourself at the same time that you're becoming acutely aware of how embarrassing or painful some of those parts are." Healing draws deeply from a life of simplicity, keyed to prioritizing nonviolence and wise self-care, all elements of the pratimoksha vow of liberation.

As we heal from the strictures of mind shackled by misperception, our vision loosens and expands, transforming a reactive and rigid self-righteousness to a more panoramic and responsive intentionality that leans into experience.

The integration of caring for oneself and other that is only possible once we let go of the insistence of dividing the whole cloth of interdependent origination into pockets of you, me, us, them, and all the rest is more than a discrete practice. It is a lifestyle foregrounding the courage to open our heart-mind beyond dualism-driven tunnel vision to a panoramic perspective that cares out of infinite interconnection rather than self-importance: the lifeblood of the bodhisattva vow.

Ultimately the healing and transforming reinforce one another, and, alongside deep practice of the Buddha's teachings, we draw nearer to transcendence. This is not a transcendence of who we are, or of life and the world, our loved ones, our interests, and the like. Such interpretations are a signal of a substantial misunderstanding of the nuance and subtlety of nondual presence, the unhindered awareness of all things that is characterized by complete knowledge, boundless love, and unhindered capacity.

The discernment, love, and power of this state makes itself felt even before it is fully manifest, capacious enough to allow seemingly contradictory elements to coexist. We can accept the world affectionately, just as it appears as we hold the paradox of being in the process of manifesting our ever-present, inherent buddhanature, the vision of the mantrayana vow.

To the extent we are open and allowing, the teachings at the heart of Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, and those we access from there, can provide us with the individually pertinent and inspiring means to curate a contemplative life of vision, intentionality, and presence that is beautiful in its activity: exquisitely responsive to circumstances without falling into dualistic extremes such as passivity or aggression.

This month, I welcome those who wish to join me in a practice-centered exploration of this meaning-packed volume of Dharma nectar. We will read and discuss the book together, engage practical exercises in everyday life, and deepen our understanding of seminal meditation practices of this vibrant, tender, powerful path to buddhahood.

Taking our life in our hands, we will use Ani Pema's words as a springboard to weave together the threads of simplicity, courage, and paradox into a living tapestry of healing, transforming, and transcending. This is living practice: embodying a virtual hymnal for honoring the privilege of life by tapping the contemplative vein of existence in a manner tailored to our individual circumstances, development, and predispositions.

Exploring the book in depth, in community, through practice, discussion, and everyday living experiments opens the door to seeing just how vivid and intimate are the teachings of the Buddha, reaching out from behind doorways, in through windows, out of the woodwork, sprouting up from the earth, and raining down from the skies in unceasing, dazzling play.



THURSDAYS May 19 to July 14, 2022

Noon to 1:00 PM USA Mountain Daylight Time

Online and open to all - enrollment size limited to optimize participation



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