Land of Sunshine

The Shambhala teachings refer frequently to the vision of the Great Eastern Sun. Could this be the very same sun that shines nearly every day, all year, in Los Angeles? What is it like to approach Los Angeles with freshness, free from fixed mind? This post is one in an ongoing series called La La Land.

Pamela Bothwell was personally appointed by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in 2010 to serve as our Shastri, a “teacher learned in the texts and commentaries.” She is also a native Angeleno. Pamela offers a contemplation here on the resonance between Los Angeles sunshine and the vision of the Great Eastern Sun in the Shambhala teachings.

Yesterday I went across the street to my little grocery store to buy milk, and the cashier greeted me with “Some sun today, no?! Isn’t this L.A.!” I smiled, happy with his happiness, and responded with something corny like “Yes, isn’t this why we live here?!

I was born in L.A., and, except for two years in foggy London town, grew up here. The light in L.A. is my definition of light: warm and diffuse, clear, direct and expansive. Sometimes the light is an amazing yellow grey in the afternoon, sometimes it is clear as if invisible.

The ocean horizon provides a visual definition of the meeting of earth and sky, where sunlight reflections bounce on the water, and where the sun swallows the light and slips away in a sudden but gentle farewell each day. Sky embracing ocean, earth receiving heaven.

Buildings are lower here than in, say, New York or San Francisco, lower and flatter.

There is a distinct feel to the L.A. skyline grazed by marine layer or smog or purely brilliant sunshine or even the rare and precious rain, an openness and at the same time an immediate sense of the impermanence of the constructs of our city.

Whole neighborhoods arise on spots where bobcats and skunks used to roam, overnight, built like cardboard cutouts and doll houses.

Tract Housing

One of my earliest memories is the felt memory of sitting on a curb amidst volunteer alyssums popping through the sidewalk cracks in front of our Laurel Canyon home with my little sister, gazing into the late afternoon sunshine; that felt memory is awakened whenever I close my eyes and let the sun bathe my face here.

Young Pamela and sister

I grew up in that blissfully ignorant era when we slathered baby oil on our bodies and baked in the Southern California sunshine. I moved home from New York in order to be able to wear my nightgown in the backyard to drink my morning coffee, warmed and roused by the L.A. sun.

The Savage Eye PosterMy mother once had a bit part in a movie about L.A. in the 1950s called The Savage Eye (produced by Joseph Strick and written by Ben Maddow and Sidney Meyers). The film was originally a documentary about the ugliness of L.A.—the image factory where women got their hair bleached (my mom at the hair dresser) and went to exercise classes to change their body shape (my mom doing floor work), people struggling to survive, religious fanatics, and all the weirdness we know and love about our town. It was decided that such a bleak portrait of L.A. wouldn’t draw movie-goers, so they imposed a storyline, edited the movie, and added at the end a scene of beauty: two little girls running on the beach glowing in the Southern California sunshine.

Someone at an open house at the Shambhala Center recently asked, “Is the sun in L.A. the same thing as the Great Eastern Sun”? Of course not, it’s the great WESTERN sun, I thought to myself.

But I am not convinced that my experience of the sun here is really un-connected with the experience of Great Eastern Sun.

Trungpa Rinpoche wrote in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, “The vision of the Great Eastern Sun is based on celebrating life… [it] is based on appreciating ourselves and appreciating our world, so it is a very gentle approach.” Rinpoche went on to explain that “because we appreciate our world, we don’t make a mess in it. We take care of our bodies, we take care of our minds, we take care of our world.”

We certainly have ways to take care of our bodies and our minds here, but often there is a disconnect between the near-worship of the conceptual body (think body sculpting, make-up as a required aspect of being dressed, hard body training gyms, L.A. as the image-factory for the western world) and the very intimate and primordial experience of our embodied awareness. Much of what is sold as services and training for bodies (Get in shape! Build your stamina! Lose those pounds! Replace hair loss! Get a great haircut! Nip and tuck!) is an expression of what I see as an epidemic of self-aggression: we want to be different, we want to look like our fantasy image of who we think we are, we don’t like how we look or feel, we are uncomfortable / embarrassed / ashamed and on and on.

When we hear from our teachers the possibility that who we already are is inherently worthy, healthy, sane and wise, the response is mixed: skepticism, doubt and fear threaded with a recognition of the truth of our innate basic goodness.

“The way of the Great Eastern Sun is based on seeing what is needed and how things happen organically… seeing life as a natural process and tuning in to the uncontrived order that exists in the world… [It] is based on seeing that there is a natural source of radiance and brilliance in this world—which is the innate wakefulness of human beings.” The way to experience this radiant sun, our own inherent wakefulness, is through sitting down and feeling one’s own experience fully. When we can relax and open to the display of our own being (the beautiful AND the ugly), we can start to appreciate where we are, and, maybe for a moment, let go of the urge to fix it. When we flinch and squint away from the light of our own being, we miss the true beauty and magic of being alive.

When we can be present in the fullness of whatever we are feeling without fighting ourselves or others, we can make room for others to relax a little themselves. When we contribute that kind of comfort to our environment, the relief of non-struggle, it is the beginning of taking care of our world.

Shambhala Buddhism does not have a monopoly on the idea that the sun is the external power that mirrors our internal wakefulness, but it does provide a straightforward and readily accessible method of opening our hearts to the sacredness of the world in all its rich beauty, weirdness, sorrows and joy: meditation, the simple act of seeing things as they are, letting go of the struggle Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche describes as “wanting there to be another now.”

Today my friend at the grocery store greeted me with his delight in the greyness of the afternoon light—rejoicing in its beauty because even under the cloud cover his own nature is lit up in that moment of appreciation.

As I sit here and contemplate his joy, I realize that his appreciation touches me, and in this brief moment we experience the Great Eastern Sun.


Pamela BothwelShastri Pamela Bothwell first encountered the Dharma at Tail of the Tiger (Karmê Chöling Buddhist Contemplative Center) in Vermont in 1973. She has served as co-director of the New York Shambhala Center; Head of Practice and Study at Karmê Chöling; Head of Study at the San Francisco Shambhala Center; Ambassador to the Los Angeles Shambhala Center; and Co-Director of the Los Angeles Shambhala Center. In 2010, she was appointed by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche as Shastri for Los Angeles.

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