ACI LA Newsletter


n last month’s newsletter, Venerable Marut reminded us that the Western religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are complete and authentic spiritual traditions. What this means is that, like Buddhism and the other major Eastern traditions, they work; they deliver the goods. And the goal of all true religious traditions is the same: perfect (and ever-lasting) happiness.

But Venerable Marut pointed out that somewhere along the line in recent years many practitioners of the Western traditions seem to have lost a sense of daily practice. He said that a spiritual path cannot bring its rewards if practiced just once a week or only on religious holidays. He kindly reminded us that in order to achieve the happiness we seek from our religion we must recover and be conscientious in a discipline that extends throughout the whole day.

This month, Venerable Marut encourages us to rebel. He asks us to be willing to upset the cultural order of things and be willing to pursue radical happiness.

We hope this month’s newsletter supports you in getting really happy

  This Month
  A Message from Brian (Venerable Marut)
  Current ACI-LA Classes
  Dharma Flicks
  Dharma Website of the Month
  Retreat Reflections
  Student Contributions
  Thank You
  ACI LA Home


ACI LA Newsletter


A Message From Brian (Venerable Marut)


In June 1992, an article appeared in the Journal of Medical Ethics which claimed that “happiness meets all reasonable criteria for a psychiatric disorder,” including abnormal levels of mental activity, disruption of work routine, formation of beliefs unrelated to evidence, and distortion of expectations. The author of this tongue-in-cheek academic treatise wrote, “I will argue that there is a prima facie case for classifying happiness as a psychiatric disorder, suitable for inclusion in future revisions of diagnostic manuals.”

Happiness, it is true, is not a “normal” psychological condition. Our “normal” mental state, as we all find out when we actually check, is one of suffering, of dissatisfaction (low-level, vague, and nagging; or full-on, overwhelming, and inescapable).

If happiness is the spiritual goal – and if, consequently, one of the chief means or method to happiness is to practice being happy – then we must be prepared to be abnormal. In order to learn to be happy, we must first be willing to break away from societal expectations and personal habits, both of which inculcate in us a toleration of unhappiness.

A true spiritual practitioner must be a rebel, willing to upset the cultural order of things and be willing to pursue the “disorder” of happiness. A true spiritual practitioner must, necessarily, appear as and be a deviant.

Let’s take, for example, what in Mahayana Buddhism is put forward as the highest and most important method to cultivate in order to achieve the bliss of enlightenment, bodhicitta -- the “wish” or “mind-set” (citta) that desires enlightenment (bodhi) so that one can be of ultimate service to others. Too often bodhicitta is regarded as just “being nice,” as a fancy name for the state of mind that impels people to open doors for the elderly or to be kind to animals.

Bodhicitta is not a Sanskrit term for being polite. Real bodhicitta is a deviant mental state which totally reorients one’s whole being and completely reorganizes one’s actions in life. Real bodhicitta is what the mental health authorities might call an “obsessive-compulsive disorder” (OCD), because for a bodhisattva (a being who is motivated by bodhicitta) nothing else matters but getting enlightened as quickly as possible. He or she is has a “one track mind.” Everything is in the service of this goal; everything just becomes “logistical support” for the only thing in life that is important.

Furthermore, bodhicitta is not only a spiritual OCD. It is also infused with a messiah complex. For real bodhicitta – that obsessive-compulsive drive to achieve the real purpose of one’s life – also entails the complete anticipation that one will be the next Buddha. The bodhisattva fervently believes that he or she is Maitreya (the coming Buddha), that he or she will be the next Christ.

So this is definitely “crazy,” right? This is the sort of thing that we lock people up for believing. (We used to burn them at the stake for much the same kind of beliefs.) But this, according to Buddhism, is the true and only way to the totally aberrant condition of ultimate happiness.

Another component of the “mental illness” known as bodhicitta is learning how to be less and less selfish and more and more altruistic and other-oriented. . . even to the extent of eventually being willing to “exchange yourself for another,” that is, to lose your ego and become another person. Wonder how that would go down at the average psychiatrist’s office? Or how about the advice in Buddhism to completely eradicate anger – not to “manage” it, let alone to “express” it as some kind of perverted exercise in self-esteem, but to thoroughly abolish it? How many modern therapists would see this as a realistic or even desirable goal?

As spiritual practitioners we must get used to being different. We must embrace the abnormal. We must eschew a social and individual lifestyle where unhappiness is normal and true happiness (and the means to achieve it) could be categorized as a newly discovered mental illness.

Be crazy. Desire an alternative. Learn to be happy.

With all good wishes,






ACI LA Newsletter


Current ACI-LA Classes

ACI classes are free and open to the public.


Course 11: A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, Part II

Taught by Lauren Benjamin
Thursday evenings
Starting February 22nd
Venice, CA

Lam Rim Meditation

Taught by Stéphane Dreyfus
Ongoing Tuesday Evenings
Hill Street Center
237 Hill Street
Santa Monica, CA

Podcast of Teachings Now Available!
Make sure to subscribe!

Click on the subscription button at and/ or and enter your email address to receive podcast updates. You’ll receive an email announcement when new podcasts of teachings are uploaded to either site.




ACI LA Newsletter

  Dharma Flicks

Implicit Dharma – Tuck Everlasting

With a great cast that includes Sissy Spacek, Ben Kingsley, and William Hurt, Tuck Everlasting is a quiet and subtle meditation on the value of life and the need to ask the question, “Am I living to my highest potential?” On one level, the film is a sweet adolescent love story that begins as Winnie (Alexis Bledel) meets Jesse Tuck, a 17 year old member of the Tuck clan who, like the rest of his family has become immortal by drinking from a hidden spring. In Winnie’s story we see how the value of life comes from the fact that it will end and that although impermanence can be painful it can also be a great motivator on the path. 


Explicit Dharma – Into Great Silence

Nestled deep in the postcard-perfect French Alps, the Grande Chartreuse is considered one of the world's most ascetic monasteries. In 1984, German filmmaker Philip Gröning wrote to the Carthusian order for permission to make a documentary about them. They said they would get back to him. Sixteen years later, they were ready. Gröning, sans crew or artificial lighting, lived in the monks' quarters for six months—filming their daily prayers, tasks, rituals and rare outdoor excursions. This transcendent, closely observed film seeks to embody a monastery, rather than simply depict one—it has no score, no voiceover and no archival footage. What remains is stunningly elemental: time, space and light. (Playing at the Nuart March 9th – 15th).





ACI LA Newsletter

  Dharma Website of the Month

We thought it might be useful to bring to your attention a valuable dharma-oriented website each month. There are so many great dharma sites on the web…

Web Site of the month:


We are very pleased to feature as the website of the month! Please take some time to visit the site to learn more about this amazing World View organization.

The Asian Classics Input Project is dedicated to locating, cataloging, digitally preserving, and disseminating rapidly disappearing Tibetan and Sanskrit manuscripts that hold the philosophical, cultural, and religious heritage of endangered cultures dating back more than 2000 years. The Asian Classics Input Project works to preserve these texts containing the great ideas of the Eastern half of humanity and to make these books and ideas accessible to the world at large.

You can keep on their projects in South Asia, Russia, and Mongolia or learn how they are saving ancient yogic wisdom. You can also enjoy a text of the month and see cool videos about their projects. Check it out!




If you come across a site that you’d like others to know about, please email Shannon and contribute to this part of the newsletter.





News Project

  etreat Reflections

Tong Len Retreat Reflections #1: Thank you to the Lamas
Tong Len is a powerful tool that over time can bring you Bodhichitta, Enlightenment and everything that is Blissful.

Last weekend, our beautiful spiritual teacher, Lama Cliff Spencer took us to a peaceful cabin in the Idyllwild mountains, tucked behind the Palm Springs desert. In groups, we all arrived from Los Angeles, Monterrey, New York, and Tucson...fighting traffic, snow, and icy, windy study Tong Len for a weekend.

On the first night of the retreat, Lama Cliff Spencer outlined the purpose of the Tong Len. He explained that Tong Len is an ancient meditation practice that does nothing less than pave the roads for our Buddha paradise. We then participated in a traditional Buddhist opening retreat ceremony, including putting up boundary markers outside the cabin to ward off spiritual obstacles. No easy task considering there were 6 inches of snow surrounding the cabin, with freezing temperatures. But we managed though, and the markers seemed to work because the following 2 days were peaceful and undisturbed. With the completion of the opening ceremonies, the silent retreat began, and we went out to little sanctuaries to get some sleep.

The following day began with our first yoga practice, lead by our graceful Lama, Vanessa Hopkins. Vanessa joined us for the retreat and guided her students through a beautiful heart yoga series that expanded upon the Tong Len practice. Vanessa blessed us with two more yoga series before the retreat ended, and we were very grateful to have her teachings. Her Tibetan yoga was the perfect asana compliment to Cliff-hla’s Tong Len meditations.

After breakfast, Lama Cliff’s teachings began emphasizing the practice of Tong Len and exploring how this practice can bring us peace and equanimity. He explained how taking on other's pain and suffering is one of the ways on which we can understand one of the wings of Buddhism, compassion. Combining this ultimate compassion with an understanding of emptiness were the core of our teachings. There were four teachings in total, and each class ended with a Tong Len meditation guided by our Guru.

As a group, we were able to engage in powerful discussions of how Tong Len really functions in the face of pain and adversity. The group dynamics were exciting and encouraging, and this being our first retreat, we really enjoyed the power that a group can generate. Everyone was really kind and considerate of each other, which says a lot when you’re sharing tight cabin quarters.

Over the course of the retreat, we kept silence, we studied hard, we practiced yoga asanas, while having fun and eating yummy vege num nums! The weekend was a great opportunity to learn the powerful importance of Tong Len, while enjoying the company of our loving fellow dharma students. Reflecting on the retreat, I remember that the smile on people's faces were constant, and lovely.

Ersellia and Eric

Tong Len Retreat Reflections #2: Tong Len as a Way of Life
Tong Len, or "taking and giving" is not just a practice; it's a way of life. If you want to generate some serious bodhicitta, this ancient practice is the way to go.  If you want to break out of that tired old "me first" worldview, I know of no quicker or more effective remedy. After spending an entire weekend immersed in it, I feel myself forever changed... for the better.

I am so glad that I made the joyful effort to find my way up into the snow-covered mountains of Idyllwild, CA to share the experience of silence, meditation, and comradery with twenty or so of our ACI faithful. The weekend was rigorous, but so very worthwhile. The continuous cycle of Tong Len Meditation and Tibetan Heart Yoga was like a boot camp for the soul.  Yes, by Sunday I was tired and sore, but I left feeling as if both my mind and body had been thoroughly cleansed. Days later, as I write these words, I still feel somehow different, better, more full of loving-kindness and compassion for others.

It was both a privilege and an honor to be a part of this retreat.  I can think of no better way to spend a weekend than by turning off my cel phone, putting work out of my mind, and focusing all of my energy on the dharma.  As a result, I feel as if my wish for enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings has been turbocharged!  It is difficult to put these feelings into words, but suffice it to say, this was a life-changing experience for me and one that I will never forget.

I want to thank all of the wonderful, like-minded souls who participated in the retreat and helped to make it the amazing experience it was. Each one of you contributed in your own way and it would not have been the same without you. I also want to express my deep and sincere gratitude to Lama Cliff who continues to challenge and inspire me. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.  Please stay with me and never leave.  

With love,
Joshua Stern

Tong Len Retreat Reflections #3: Tong Len Joy in Being Awake
It was one of those Monday mornings when you know you are awake, but half of you is still asleep. Another part of you is beginning to think, another part of you is trying to get all the other parts back to sleep. But what prevails is a sliver of thought that starts to take over, and you begin to think of where you are and where you were. What was a dream and what was real. Or was what I thought real a dream, or what I thought was a dream real. But before I figured it out I found myself sitting at my kitchen table having my first cup of green tea getting ready to read my morning paper "The Blissful Times". Upon reading the headlines it all came back to me. The headlines read "WITH AN APPEARANCE OF THE BUDDHA HIMSELF, THE GATHERING OF ANGELS AT MOUNT WILL, HAILED AS A COMPLETE SUCCESS!!!!" I put the paper down and dove into my memories.......the teachings, the meditations, the silence, the meals, the yoga, the smiles, the eyes speaking, the altar, the snow, my very own mala, angels doing their "Books". I went over as much as I could recall two or three times, savoring some memories a little longer. Smiling when I remembered the mysterious rug being found almost at the last minute. Then realizing along with my cup of tea I had a tear in my eye, a lump in my throat, and JOY in my heart.
With Gratitude... Sal

Tong Len Retreat Reflections #4: Tong Len Continues
Josh, Eric, Ersellia, Cindy, Rene, Sal, Terese, Carmen, Vanessa, Shannon, Darin, Stephane, Rick, Cory, Cliff, Tom and I got together in Idyllwild this weekend. In a little cabin; which really shouldn't have held us but curiously enough it did, quite nicely really. We moved a lot of "chatchkey" from everywhere inside in order to have the space orderly enough and clear enough. And somehow that was just perfect karma it seemed; there's a lot of chatchkey in all our lives we know; and it's good to move it out of the way.

And that is how the weekend was. A perfect silent space with 17 great people in it. Can you imagine! If someone had described it to me I never could.
I can't imagine finding myself in a more caring, honorable, intentional space. The people there never made me feel crowded; to the contrary actually. I felt looked out for and peaceful and within a great focused light. The classes gave us all something beautiful to be looking at and contemplate. It had the effect of bringing my life forward and leaving me much the better. I really don't know how to express it. It may seem excessive but I have a new and renewed faith in my fellow man/woman and myself. I am refreshed and renewed, truly. I'd do it again in a second. And in fact, that is what we talked about on the way home.
I hope you are all reading this because Tom and I are putting together and planning to have a retreat up here in the Tahoe area sometime soon; Probably early summer. And we would very much love to see you all there. We haven't set the dates yet or the intention, though we did discuss Tibetan dream dharma as a possibility. Nothing is in stone yet and we want to accommodate you if we can so here is your chance to input yourself. I will be locating a suitable space in the Tahoe basin. Tom is going to contact the ACI community there and we are going to start by contacting them. We are very excited to see what we can create. And to continue.
So I guess you can say we got a lot out of our experience.
You live in an area that is so often a distraction
and pulls at you so everyway
                        and yet you cause your
community and such a fantastic space
an opportunity for potential to show up
A space for causing your highest evolution
 such grace
            such grace I have hardly seen.
You are truly rare, more than flowers in the desert more precious than rare jewels
I think you must be angels and unaware of it.
Hope we see you again. Feel free to write. We'll be in communication.





ACI LA Newsletter

  tudent Contributions

A Mexican Fable
By Irma Gomés Danel

Once upon a time, in a village not too far from Veracruz, Mexico, there was a small farmhouse where there lived an old farmer with his three sons. They had a couple of acres of land where they planted corn, and a few orange and banana trees in their orchard. With their corn, they would feed themselves and their animals in the barn by making corn bread and tortillas.

Every morning at daybreak the farmer would put on an old straw hat, his old denim overalls and went out to the fields to check on his corn, which was soon going to be ready for harvesting.

One day, as he was walking around the field, he saw some plants had been torn up, and the ripe cobs eaten. “Who has been around here during the night?” the father shouted, but there was nobody around. He and his sons looked everywhere to catch the thief but could not find footprints or any sign of the delinquent.

The farmer called his eldest son and said “tonight you must stay up and try to catch the robber”.

That evening the son packed his gun, a blanket and some corn bread, and set off for the milpa. He was thirsty and went to the well to fetch some water. Sitting by it was a toad, singing. “be quiet you, silly toad, don’t you see? I am trying to catch a thief”. The toad agreed to do so in exchange for a piece of his cornbread. “No, I am not going to give you my cornbread because I am going to eat it all. Go find some mosquitoes to eat”. “But I am vegetarian”-said the toad “well, tough luck!” Since the toad would not stop singing the boy dropped it into the well, and the he went of to catch the corn thief.

All night the boy sat and saw nothing. In the early morning he saw some more corn cobs had been eaten. He went home and told his father he had not been able to catch the thief.

“You are going tonight to try catch the burglar” the father said to his second son.

At sunset the second son grabbed his gun, a blanket and some corn bread for dinner. When he got thirsty he went to the well and found the toad, singing. “you make a terrible noise, please shut up!” The toad offered to stop singing in exchange for a piece of cornbread. “no, it is my dinner and I will eat it all”. The toad then carried on croacking until the boy got tired of it and he threw him into the well. Then he continued his walk around the milpa but he saw and heard nothing until he fell asleep. The second son woke up at dawn and to his surprise more corn had been eaten and he went home and told his dad he could not catch the thief.

The next day, the farmer sent his youngest son to guard the corn. The boy really thought he could not catch anybody.

He walked around the field until he got thirsty, and then he went to the well, where he saw the toad. “what a lovely voice you have” said the boy. “I am glad you like it” and the toad proudly sang louder. After the boy drank some water, he sat down to eat his corn bread. “will you give me a piece of your corn bread?” croaked the toad. “Sure!” Said the boy. “I really did not know toads liked bread” “well, that is because I am vegetarian” he explained. The boy gave it most of his bread, figuring it must be hard for vegetarian toads to survive.

After the toad had eaten, he croaked again: “you have been so kind to me, I am going to tell you a secret. When your brother threw me into the well I discovered a magic ruby. It lies in the bottom of the well and it may grant you three wishes”.

The boy then climbed down the well and fetched the ruby. It was a magnificent stone which sparkled radiantly under the soft moon rays.

The boy and the toad sat to figure out what the boy’s 3 wishes would be. “I think I would like a wife” said the boy. “ well, you’d better ask the jewel what qualities you want her to have” suggested Mr. Toad. “I would like her to be sweet, compassionate, with a good heart, she should take care of me and all others in need. She should tell right from wrong and follow a right livelihood. Lastly, she should bake the best corn bread in Mexico.”

“My second wish is that I have a fine home where I can live with my wife. It should have a well and a few hectares of land where I can plant corn”.

“My third wish is to find the thief who is stealing my father’s harvest”.

Having asked for his three wishes, the boy threw the ruby back into the well, picked up the toad and carried him on his shoulder. The toad croaked and the boy looked for the thief until they fell asleep.

The next morning, as the sun was rising behind the hills, a big multicolor bird appeared in the sky. It flew straight into the corn fields and ate the corn. The boy was amazed by the bird’s beauty, and instead of chasing it away, he whistled a soft song until the bird flew on to his other shoulder. The boy and his two new friends marched into his father’s home.

“Father I have found the corn thief” he announced proudly. The brothers wanted to kill both the annoying singing toad and the bird. But the boy said “no, they are my friends and I am going to keep them”.

At that moment the multi-color bird transformed into a beautiful girl. She said “A witch had cast a spell on me because I would not marry her evil son; but now your kindness has broken it and I shall ever be grateful to you”. The boy instantly fell in love with the girl and he knew she was all he had wished for.

Then the boy and his new girlfriend went to find a pond for the toad, and on their way they found a well, next to which was a beautiful new house, with a corn field that yielded perfectly ripe corn, enough for everybody to eat all year long.

The brothers were so jealous that they left to the city in search of a better job and were not seen again.

The young couple soon married, and the old farmer came to live with them. The toad lived next to the well, where he sang and was served a big portion of the most delicious corn bread every day, and they lived happily ever after.

Share your bread and you shall find a wish-fulfilling jewel!



ACI LA Newsletter

Thank You


Thank you to Venerable Marut for his kindness in coming to teach the Dharma here in Los Angeles and around the world. Thank you to Lauren Benjamin, Cliff Spencer, Rick Blue, Lindsay Crouse, Summer Moore, and Stéphane Dreyfus for their kindness in continuing to teach here in Los Angeles.

Thank you to Tony Bittick and Stéphane Dreyfus for maintaining the ACI-LA website. Shannon Parry will be producing the newsletters and would appreciate submissions. Please email your contributions to Shannon by the 25th of the month.