October 12 is the day on which Columbus Day has been traditionally celebrated in the U.S. It also happens to be the birthday of one of the first Americans to be recognized as a reincarnate lama in the tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism. Students of Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, KPC Spiritual Director, may enjoy the joke in that coincidence (after all, “Columbus Day” is called “Discoverers’ Day” in some states), but her birth on this continent is no coincidence. Considered a “dark” continent by Vajrayana teachers, because, until recently, the Dharma had not taken root here, North America would have been a logical place for Jetsunma to take birth: she had students here.
The birthday of a bodhisattva is a time to think about gifts. Not the wrapping-paper-and-bow kind that someone receives on a birthday; rather, the gift that any bodhisattva gives in being reborn. For Vajrayana (and Mahayana) Buddhists, a bodhisattva is one who attains realization of the true nature of reality, and in so doing, realizes the end of suffering. Because that realization is inseparable from universal compassion, the bodhisattva then chooses to return again, lifetime after lifetime, to help all others to the same attainment.
For that reason, Vajrayana teachers have traditionally given the practice of “Guru Yoga,” a meditation on the Mind of Enlightenment as embodied in the spiritual teacher. Through that practice, a student generates a bond with the teacher that cannot be dissolved. Not with the teacher’s personality, or appearance in the world, or great learning, but with the teacher’s mind: the mind that realizes the empty nature of all phenomena, the mind that realizes we are not separate—teacher and student, friend and enemy, cockroach and cocker spaniel.
Students may practice that profound meditation imperfectly; may neglect the practice; may abandon it, and the teacher, altogether. But, in Jetsunma’s own words conveying that practice to her students, “Once that relationship has been attained, you can count on it. It will support you and, if you make a mistake, it will come back for you. It will help you attain all of your dreams, all of your hopes, and truly, it will help you attain your Bodhisattva vow.”
The birthday of a bodhisattva is a time to rejoice in the gift of his or her commitment. And because the commitment is to a relationship—with us!—it is appropriate to think about what gift we really can give in return. Again, in Jetsunma’s words, “Will it be that this day, through the gift of the heart of the Buddhas, you will destroy all negative thought? Or will it be that this day you will love truly unconditionally? Will it be that you will practice with a great diligence the Bodhisattva vows during all that you do?
“What gifts will you give your Lama this day? It must be a gift of spirit and you must never tell another. This is between you and your Lama. It will be seen and known and recognized.”