Sailing Through A Perfect Storm: A reflection by Tulku Sherdor

“Any fool can sail a silent sea.” So said one of my first meditation instructors, Christopher Titmuss, as we learned to sit with and through mental and physicial discomfort in the Burmese Vihar, Bodh Gaya, circa Christmas 1982. And so I write to you in the midst of a seasonal blizzard in the western Catskill mountains of upstate New York.

This storm is but a coda to three months of furious flurries and foul weather. I am referring, of course, to the dismal economy, whose wailings have followed me to China and back, across the country, and to Nepal and back this fall. And now, I fear, the winter of our discontent commences tomorrow, December 21.

How is your path across these perilous seas, through the towering waves, and into the void faring right now? Are you blistered and cold from gripping the cords on your sails tightly, bracing against the indifferent gales?

 

To all of you who, like me, have watched your fortunes sink down into Davey Jones’ locker, thrown overboard and lost like so much excess ballast, I ask: where is your dharma practice right now? All of the money I saved from my law practice, invested to secure my future survival while I dedicate my life to the work of dharma is... gone! So many years of all-nighters, drafting interlocutory pleadings, deposition outlines, antitrust economic expert report drafts, affidavits and declarations. Nothing to show for it now.

 

In recent years I have come to reflect more and more on the meaning of taking refuge, and of reliance on the three jewels. In Tibetan there is an evocative phrase to describe how to entrust ourselves to the guru as the very embodiment of the principle of refuge: “ling chur chi ched shay.” It means something like going “all in” at the cosmic poker table, with your very life and soul wagered, nothing held back in reserve. Or as Longchenpa’s “heart essence” guru yoga prayer says, “From now on, until I reach enlightenment, no matter what happens, good or bad, come riches or poverty, happy or sad times, whether I reach the heights or plummet to the depths, noble guru Padma Sambhava, I am totally in your hands.”

Times like these remind us all too poignantly that any other form of refuge, looking anywhere else for security and protection, is fool’s comfort and a fool’s errand. It works only so long as the seas of life are placid and still — which ever remains the exceptional state, and not the rule. When we overly devote ourselves to managing or controlling the risks of this existence through trying to predict or calculate how unstable and fragile phenomena will unfold, we actually are misplacing our refuge. While we might be able to avert one disaster after another, eventually all will fall apart around us, because that is the nature of composite phenomena, of transitory experience. It is unreliable because empty. That is an irrefutable fact.

So what are we doing crying long into the night over spilled milk? If it doesn’t spill today, it will spoil tomorrow. And what will we do then? Please remember that the leisures and endowments of a precious human existence include no provision for material wealth, other than the freedom to avoid occupations that perpetuate destructive habits and impulses. So the luxury of a swollen bank account was never the point. I hate to see even one Buddhist friend devastated and panicked by this unprecedented evaporation of money. Frankly, few humans are privileged enough, in this world, ever to have enough money to cry over.

One of my former clients cried bitter tears for years because he felt entitled to earn many millions of dollars in commissions for having identified the property where a prominent investment bank relocated its headquarters in New York. The bank only wanted to pay him a cool million, and he was outraged, and fought to no avail in the court system, enduring and causing no little agony in the process. A few short years later, that bank lost 97% of its market value almost overnight. So what was all the fuss about? What ever is built up will later fall down, the Buddha assured us. Can you doubt it? More importantly, how do you deal with it when it happens? The best way is really to be prepared at all times for the best or the worst to happen. And the way to do that is to practice for real, taking the truths of dharma to heart and applying them to your life fearlessly. And I must do the same.