Dzogchen and the Serenity Prayer

My son Carl has become my favorite hockey goalie. He plays roller hockey with a team called the Warriors in a league at Shooters Indoor Sportsplex in Midlothian, Virginia. Last night, the Warriors won the league championship in Game Three of a series vs. the Dirty Ducks. The Warriors’ team captain declared Carl the most valuable player, not only on the team but in the league. He blocked 32 shots on goal in last night’s game. The final score was 5-3.

Carl Voctory (2)Over dinner after the game with Carl and his teammates, we talked about hockey, especially about the danger to players of becoming wrapped up and distracted when things don’t go their way. I thought that must be especially difficult for a goalie, who spends the entire game protecting 24 square feet of space from a three-inch-wide wide rubber disk traveling at up to 100 miles per hour.

I asked Carl how he stays so focused, even after a puck gets past him. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” he replied, “but every time the other team scores, I turn around, face the net and say the Serenity Prayer.” If you don’t know it, the Serenity Prayer asks our Higher Power to

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

That wisdom from my 21-year-old son got me thinking about my chosen spiritual path in the Dzogchen tradition of Buddhism. Dzogchen means “Great Perfection” and teaches that we are all perfect Buddhas already, or maybe more accurately we are once we realize it. In other words, the perfection of the Buddha is within us and ready to awaken as soon as we give up our struggle with life and allow ourselves, and our Buddha within, to wake up.

I am not an authorized teacher in any Buddhist tradition except my own eclectic version, so I’m giving you my own interpretation of Dzogchen Buddhism as I have learned it from my teacher, Lama Surya Das. If you want to be sure you’re getting it straight, read his books, watch his videos, and join me at his summer retreat July 16-22 in New York State.

One question that gets raised whenever I talk about the Great Perfection is, “If we’re perfect already, what happens to self-improvement and to working for a better world?” Like a lot in Buddhism, my answer lies in two levels:

  • At the ultimate level, the world without our illusions, we have a perfect core inside, like a crystal or a mirror, that is unblemished.
  • At the relative level, the everyday word, we walk around with our mirrors smeared and blemished by our illusions. We all do. And I’d suggest that we’re still perfect as we are. We are perfect in our imperfection.

What I mean by that second bullet is that the genes we inherited, the environments we grew up in and inhabit now, brought us to our current state. It may not be everything we want, and the world may not be everything we want it to be, but we have to accept it before we can change it.

So, yes, indeed, we are perfect without any self-improvement and without taking on ourselves the world’s challenges. But every moment of our lives involves a choice and a path. We can choose to grumble at our children or to embrace them. We can choose to spend our extra money for a solar panel or for a hot tub. We can choose to send our old shoes away for Syrian refugees or to put them in the trash. We don’t lose our perfection because we fail to be who we are not, but at every moment we have a choice about the next action or non-action. I submit that we’ll never make good choices if we’re at war with ourselves, if we see our own blemishes instead of our perfection.

And here’s where Carl and the Serenity Prayer come in. We all need to understand that we are still perfect if the puck gets past us. We will see another puck and have another chance. And if we can’t change enough to stop that next one, guess what! We are still perfect. Maybe if we can never stop a puck, we need another position or another game. But we are still perfect.

And when we all see our own perfection, we’ll see each other’s, too, and we will indeed have created a better world.

— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)

Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Peace Paul says:

    Aloha Mel,

    Congratulations to your son Carl! How wonderful that he has such innate wisdom at his age.

    Here are a few thoughts on the latter part of your blog. It is a little tricky when we start positing that Buddhahood or Buddha-nature is something we posses. Not to go all Zen on you, but who is it that posses the Buddha-nature? Where is that “I” that I think I am?

    Having said all of that, there is certainly the potential for all of us to awaken and we don’t really need to add anything to do so. Except, of course, we are obviously totally deluded most of the time, so it is tremendously beneficial to practice the Dharma, recite mantras, keep the precepts, make offerings, etc.

    I would be very interested to hear more of your thoughts on perfection, which is, I think, a word that can get us into a lot of trouble through misunderstanding.

    Peace, Paul

    Liked by 1 person

    1. melhpine says:

      Good morning, Paul. I sometimes tell people that, if you’re going to have a late-life child, Carl is the one to have. He is amazing in many ways.

      Thank you for your comments on the latter part. My understanding of Dzogchen is, of course, imperfect [insert wink here]. But I do think I’m grasping Lama Surya’s probably very liberal interpretation of it. So I think of Buddha-hood as something that’s both within and without this thing we perceive in the relative world, at least, as self. What Lama Surya seems to be saying is that it’s something like a stream we need to simply “let go and let be.” In my understanding, that doesn’t mean that we’re in a permanent state of Nirvana just by recognizing our Buddha-hood, but just by recognizing that’s it’s already here, we become what Tibetans call stream enterers. The chanting, meditation, Right View, Right Actions, etc. help us stay in the stream, or return to it, and the more we experience the stream, the more we reach Rigpa, which I understand as the permanent state in the Dzogchen tradition, or crossing the stream.

      I spent some time fascinated by Shin Buddhism and exploring it, although I don’t have priest of teacher that I know of within a drive of about an hour and a half. I see it as similar to Dzogchen in making Enlightenment/Pure Land available to all and in being more open than some Buddhist traditions to the teachings from other traditions. What kept me from deciding to make a regular 90-minute-each-way trek to the nearest Shin temple was, I think, what we’re now discussing. Although I love the Nembutsu, I have trouble seeing the (mystical?) aspect that does seem to personify the Amida Buddha into an entity that will decide when I’m grateful enough. I know I’m using shorthand and it’s not that simple, but I’m using words for what may not be expressible in words. I do feel as though I’ve finally found a spiritual home with my understanding of Lama Surya’s teachings. And I continue to love and respect any path that leads to true spiritual wholeness. (By “true” here, I’m making a judgment that real spiritual wholeness does not include violence.)

      As for perfection, that is indeed a loaded work. I think I’ll explore it further in my blog post today. Stay tuned!

      I didn’t want to use this as a salutation before I explained that I do have some understanding of it:

      Namo Amida Butsu,

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Peace Paul says:

    Aloha Mel,

    Thank you for sharing a bit of your understanding of Dzogchen.

    As for Shin Buddhism, living in Hawaii we are surrounded by Shin Buddhism of different flavors as well as Japanese Zen and Shingon. However, my connection is through the Order of Amida Buddha which is a “Western” Mahayana lineage that is centered around Amida Buddha and recitation of the Nembutsu. All of us are converts, so our take on Buddhism is quite different from the congregants one encounters at a traditional Shin Buddhist service. Like you, my connection to a particular tradition of Buddhism tends to be through an encounter with a teacher who I feel can show me a way to deepen my practice and understanding.

    Namo Amida Bu!


    Liked by 1 person

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