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Gampopa Biography

Like his teacher Milarepa, Gampopa’s pursuit of Dharma was fueled by direct experience of human suffering in its rawest form. Born in 1079 CE in Nyel in central Tibet, Gampopa was the eldest son in a family with a long and illustrious history. By all accounts, he was a bright and inquisitive youth. Recognizing his aptitude, his influential family provided him with a broad education, as well as training in the medical profession that many in his family practiced. At the age of 22, already acknowledged as a learned physician, Gampopa married and dedicated himself to the life of a householder. Soon thereafter, two children were born to Gampopa and his wife, one boy and one girl.

As such, Gampopa appeared to have laid the foundation for a successful life, both in terms of family and medical career. However, while his children were still small, an epidemic broke out, ravaging the area. As an eminent local physician, Gampopa attended patient after patient, yet even the fullest deployment of his medical knowledge was no match for the force of the illness. Gampopa found himself powerless to help as one patient after another suffered and then died, caught in the relentless grip of the disease.

As one who relied upon his knowledge to be able to control and combat illness, this experience alone could have sufficed to spark an existential crisis in the young physician. Yet Gampopa’s encounter with the inevitability of suffering and death would penetrate even more deeply into the core of his being, when the epidemic struck his own family.

First to contract the disease was his beloved son. All remedies failed, and Gampopa had thrust upon him the experience most feared by parents the world round: having to bury one’s own child. Grief-stricken, Gampopa carried the tiny corpse to the burial site himself, said prayers for his son there, and headed back home. As he entered the house, his heart already heavily burdened by the experience, he discovered his daughter now also lying ill, having contracted the same disease. Days later, she too succumbed. Once again Gampopa took up in his arms the child in whom he had placed so much love and hope, and carried her to the same site he had taken his son.

Upon his return home, he found his wife too presenting symptoms of the disease. Her condition deteriorated rapidly, and she swiftly reached the brink of death. As Gampopa looked on helpless, his wife hovered at the edge of life, battling for every breath and racked with pain, yet unable to let go. When it became clear to Gampopa that she was only postponing the inevitable and causing herself further torment in the process, Gampopa asked her what it was that kept her clinging to her failing body.

She replied, “I am not attached to possessions, nor wealth, nor faith, but I am very attached to you.” Gampopa understood that this was preventing her from peacefully preparing for her passage to the next life and asked her what he could do to help her. She replied by telling him her dying wish that he devote the remainder of his life to the practice of Dharma and become freed from the attachments that keep all human beings tethered. Gampopa replied that his only aim after she was gone was to spend his life in Dharma practice. His wife was pleased with his response, but sought further assurances and asked that he swear to his intentions before a witness. Once he had done so, she was able to rest in peace and Gampopa then buried the last remaining member of his fragile family.

She replied that it was her attachment to him, her husband, that prevented her from peacefully preparing for her passage to the next life. Her dying wish, she said, was that he devote the remainder of his life to the practice of Dharma and become freed from the attachments that keep us tethered. Gampopa replied that his only aim after she was gone was to spend his life in Dharma practice. His wife was pleased, but sought further assurances, and asked that he swear to his intentions before a witness. Once he had done so, she was able to rest in peace, and Gampopa buried the last remaining member of his fragile family.

About Sunday morning

Sunday Morning Contemplation is informed by Eastern and Western contemplative traditions. The first, lectio divina has its origins in 6th century Europe. It unfolds in four steps or stages: reading (lectio), reflecting (meditatio), responding (oratio), and silent abiding (contemplatio). Our Eastern inspiration come from the Indian Upanishads (800-200 BCE), where contemplative practice consists of three steps or stages: listening (śravana), reflecting (manana), and meditating (nididhyāsana or dhyāna). Our contemplative practice on Sundays embraces both approaches, and each contemplation will be based on a reading from either tradition.

The texts and teachers I have chosen played a significant role in my life and I believe have much to offer. I will read presellected texts, slowly, with pauses between verses or quotes. The readings will be accompanied by soothing background music. To lessen distraction, I suggest participants close their eyes and listen. However, the screen will display the text so that people can choose to read along or mute the sound and read on their own. If there is time remaining after the contemplative period, participants can choose to either leave or stay for a short discussion.

As a preface to the reading, I will provide a 10-15 minute introduction to the text. When relevant, I’ll review facts about the author/teacher’s life. I will also present a brief explanation of the terms and language encountered in the reading.

Finally, when the contemplation is over, all texts read will be available online to read and/or download at any time on the website.

What I mean by
The Symbolic Life

This website makes liberal use of classical Indian visual art and refers mostly to traditional Indian texts (for example, the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras) in the courses, seminars, and discussions on offer. However, I am not presenting lessons in Hinduism; in fact, teaching mainstream Hinduism is neither my area of interest nor expertise. Rather, my interest in Yoga and Tantra is grounded in the concrete situation in which we find ourselves, in the places where we arrive and from which we depart. Beginning in the here and now, we will explore the underlying meaning of the symbols, stories, images, philosophies, and techniques found in Indian philosophical texts and practice, in light of our world and our current circumstance. We will excavate the meaning of the aphorisms and teaching stories; the symbolic figures of gods, people, and nature; and the sometimes terse, sometimes poetic, philosophy of the texts. Thus, in referring to the Symbolic Life of Yoga and Tantra, I mean not just the symbols themselves, but the rich explication of life that the symbols represent.

Our lived, concrete situation is wonderfully captured in the Sanskrit word loka, whose ancient meaning is “the world.”  The root meaning of both the Sanskrit loka and the English locate (and local, locale, and location) is identical. In the ancient Indian mind, the world is where we are located, in our current circumstance. Thus, the meaning of the symbols of Yoga and Tantra can occur only in the now, in the places where we find ourselves, and not in any imagined ancient and/or foreign world.

To emphasize our place of origin and return, I use the terms “archetypal” and “symbolic” quite frequently. Archetypal meaning is associated with the universal and collective aspects of human experience—what we intimately share with all others regardless of culture or era or epoch—while symbolic language forms a bridge between the realms of the universal with the culturally specific and local. Symbols are the scaffolding upon which human beings build a world and imbue it with meaning.

Think for a moment of pain and pleasure, sorrow and joy, hatred and love, and greed and generosity—universal experiences that ancient Indian thinkers called the dvandva-s. This Sanskrit term is a combination of two words, or rather, one word spoken twice: the word dva (meaning the same as the English “two”) duplicated. Dvandva is commonly translated as “the pair of opposites” or literally “the two-twos” (dvadva). The ancients who coined this compact symbol gave voice to an archetypal human experience that can be further unpacked to reveal deep insights into the human condition. Once we gain an understanding of the various symbols of Yoga and Tantra, we can further excavate their meaning and the archetypes they convey, and thus gain access to, in a practical and meaningful way, the vision of life experienced by the sages. These insights are available to us and are still relevant today, as are the resilient and adaptable techniques and forms of practice that can help us lead richer and more fulfilling lives