The Four Dignities: Lessons from a Buddhist Preschool

A recent community night at Rowan’s preschool (which was founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master and lineage holder), reminded me how lucky I am to send my son to a school honoring the tradition of Shambhala Buddhism (the teachings of which are grounded in the premise that there is a basic human wisdom inherent in human experience, where bravery and fearlessness are cultivated and a ‘basic goodness’ in ourselves and one another is celebrated).

Rowan’s first year classroom at age 2 was called the Tiger classroom, and he now resides in the Snow Lion classroom – Tiger and Snow Lion pointing to two of four “dignities” Trungpa Rinpoche used as metaphors for stages on the path toward realizing our inherent goodness. Each ‘dignity’ points to certain characteristics a practitioner develops in order to bring wisdom and compassion into daily life. It strikes me that I too can journey this path with my son: him mirroring the lessons of each ‘dignity,’ and me practicing from the parenthood perspective. It also strikes me that it is never too early to begin instilling the human qualities of discernment, discipline, compassion and wisdom – which the four dignities point to. As a parent I want to impart these qualities to my children, and I know I can’t do it alone. Hence the need for models of education which attend to the whole person and which include practices aimed at cultivating a compassionate, thoughtful society. Within the Buddhist teachings of the Four Dignities I find a blueprint for living which can weave through my days and inform my outlook like silk resting in colorful dye.

The first dignity, the Tiger, points to contentment and discernment. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (the current head of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage) says “As we slow down and consider our thoughts, words, and actions with the question, “Will this bring happiness or pain?”, we become like tigers who carefully observe the landscape before pouncing. In looking at what to cultivate and what to discard, we are remembering our precious human life and deciding to use it well…” How often with our toddlers have we spoken of not hurting others’ feelings, being gentle, learning mindfulness of our bodies in space? If we can tie our constant feedback loops with our children to what causes happiness or pain (both for ourselves and others) perhaps we can begin to encourage the slow and steady cultivation of discernment and mindfulness of speech and action. We can encourage reflection, a slowing down, time for consideration. Beyond just ‘impulse control’ lies also the potential of cultivating a foundation of compassion, reflectiveness and empathy.

I’m now walking in the realm of the second dignity, the Snow Lion, with my son. He’s graduated from the Tiger Room (as it is called) and is one of 23 ‘snow lions.’ As a teacher wrote in a recent newsletter, “The Snow Lion is vibrant, energetic and youthful and delights in the sensory experiences of life. Trungpa Rinpoche uses the term “perky” to describe the Snow Lion’s joyful and artful synchronization of body and mind and the upliftedness of not being caught in the trap of doubt…” As parenting makes me often feel older and more brittle, here is an invitation to remember to also be perky, and to delight in the sensory experience of life (remember how enamored our young ones are when making so many first discoveries? Snow! Rain! Puddles! Tastes! Grass! Sand!). Routine, habit and responsibility can blind me at times from remembering the fresh, perky potential of each day. The Snow Lion is ultimately joyful, and joy arises from discipline. The snow lions thrive in routine (and we adults too can thrive in the structure of an intentional practice). The flow of each day is marked by intentional routine and ceremony; So too can I bring this sense of magic woven with order into my home. So too can I deepen in my commitment to discipline, spiritual and beyond. Sakyong Rinpoche says,”Using discipline to generate compassion, we leap beyond the fickleness of mood into the confidence of delight in helping others. The discernment of the tiger and the discipline of the lion take us toward the outrageousness of the garuda, a mythical bird with human arms that is hatched from space, ready to fly. What makes the garuda outrageous? No longer attached to the view of “me,” it has 360-degree perspective, a fresh mind that continually cuts through concept. This mind accommodates everything with the confidence of equanimity, an unbiased view that comes from having contemplated the landscape of life: the reality of impermanence and suffering.”

Rowan will graduate to become a Garuda next year – and the invitation to me is to accompany him on this fresh journey of education that he has undertaken. How outrageously joyful can I be in bouncing my 6 month old to sleep? How can I make a routine (well-known) trip to the playground an act of joy? How can I frame my happiness and contentment even further through the lens of compassion towards others, including my children (who seem to present the greatest opportunity for selflessness and extension of oneself often beyond what feels possible or tolerable)? How can I deepen in meaningful discipline? How can I continually reach beyond the fickleness of mood to live from a deeper place?

Then: my son and I will jump into the vast realm of the the fourth dignity, the Dragon: no longer a preschool classroom name with accompanying lessons imparted, but the vast territory of life beyond these first foundational steps of a basic, human education. The dragon knows more of how things are and thus possesses a deeper wisdom. Perhaps the dragon is not beyond but actually within and beneath: the ground of wisdom from which we can daily spring into action – 6am running of feet into bedroom, dawn barely peeking its purple face above the horizon. A deep breath and we are off and running. A deep breath and we are out of the dream and into the unstoppable flow of a day…

“The dragon knows we’re always trying to project a concrete world onto a fluid process, mistaking our ever-changing experience for a self. Like the elements, this kind of wisdom doesn’t need to be propped up. It is a direct experience of reality, empty and ungraspable.

As the wisdom of the dragon destroys our illusions, we begin to understand basic goodness, the unconditional purity and confidence of all. With this view, life itself becomes our source of energy, and the enlightened world begins to appear. The wish-fulfilling jewel of wisdom and compassion are liberated, and we can play in the blessing and magic of our everyday existence.”

-Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Divine Play

Rowan teaches me about sheer joy in the face of what many of us would call ‘ordinary.’ To witness such joyful presence in a given moment with no forward looking reminds me of the deeper spiritual qualities of Play…I often find myself witnessing his play as if from a distance – and suddenly I realize I don’t have to merely witness, I too can actively participate in this play, ultimately a dance of life, which lives more akin to spirals than lines.

So many of us are conditioned to linearity! And play defies this conditioning. I walk straight lines and think “here to there,” “this then that…” Rowan gallops in circles and serpentines. He loses himself to a moment when something interesting arises: bubbles in the waterfall, water splashing around rocks, an ant crossing the path…A piece of music can send him grooving a mile a minute in infinite directions, reminding me of the Hindu deity Nataraj himself, embodying all planes of movement, even faceplanting himself against the grass (meanwhile the rest of us have settled into various degrees of inhibition and choose the safer path of stillness).

Deepak Chopra comes to mind in his description of Lila, divine play or spontaneity. “Lila is the play of the goddess Shakti that creates the world out of sheer delight. Lila shocks Westerners because the purpose of the universe isn’t goodness or reverence for God but rather is a divine comedy. The universe is recreational, and the most devout believers are those who abandon care and live to join the cosmic dance.” In a simple moment playing with water, Rowan points towards an effortless and playful relationship with Life. He IS life living itself joyfully. Some say Lila springs from the abundance of Divine Bliss, which points to creation and creativity. Here lies the realm of no-agenda, spontaneous co-arising, surrendered presence into what just is. It is joyful, without effort, fun.

I just need to shift my frame of how I participate in Rowan’s spirals and serpentines. Often I am wanting to ‘move on,’ ‘move forward’ – and play becomes a diversion along the way. (“Really? We have to jump up and down here AGAIN?”) Children can point us the way towards transcending our conditioning. Many young children model an absorption in the present moment that spiritual practitioners move towards through years of practice. And it is so simple: Look at the bubbles! Look how they dance on my hands! Look how this water slips between my fingers! Feel the cool drops on your toes! Toss your head back in utter delight! Laugh along! Really, what else is there? The snack a la coffee shop on my agenda can wait (how often have I pulled Rowan out of his Divine Spirals into my linear agenda?).

And then, I spiral back to myself, to my own infinitely playful, divine nature. All I have to do is bask here. Play. Spiral. Twirl. Be curious. Explore. Marvel at the little things. Smile at water falling as if it is truly a miracle, because, well, it is.

The Indiscriminate Nature of Joy

A visit to the Doctor’s office was feeling mediocre at best, with a side trip to the office’s parking lot where Rowan wanted to romp amongst parked cars.  As I stepped outside to behold a vista of Honda and Subarus, I sighed at the landscape knowing today’s fresh air would be with the tires and asphalt.  As I trotted to keep up with Rowan a major difference between us struck me:  me = discriminating.  Rowan = non-discriminating.  Like a quick thud of realization descending upon my head, I flash awareness that really this parking lot too is sublime, or at least it can be in the heart of the beholder.

I began to muse about when the human conditioning for discrimination between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘interesting’ and ‘not interesting’ emerges in the spectrum of human development.  Right now the world is the proverbial oyster for Rowan, with almost everything inciting glee and wonder.  I’ve been subtly dragging my heels at his vast taste for trucks and car wheels of late, and his keen attention to such facets of reality as carbon polluted black snow on road sides while out for a walk, or shards of broken glass or ripped up paper in recycling bins.  He makes me look more closely at everything I’d otherwise gloss over with relative disinterest, my eyes conditioned to call some things beautiful and other things ordinary.

All of the sudden the parking lot becomes the vehicle for seeing the moon, sky and trees in the same light as that parked SUV with a crack in the window and rusted tailpipe.  Why differentiate?  How did the parking lot become sub par and cast off as a place to tune out, ignore?  Rowan brings his fresh, alive perspective just about anywhere, seeing the infinite possibilities for pleasure in unlikely places.  He reminds me that the sublime is everywhere to be found, as long as I cross the threshold of wonder into non-discriminating joy in each moment’s infinite expanse of possibility.