Lately I find myself reflecting on equivalence. Yet before I share my thoughts I would like to dedicate this blog post to Lizette, a hospice resident that I had visited who died yesterday. May her experience of the bardo be one of restful ease!
As a chaplain the notion of the possibility of equivalence helps to bridge the differences between myself and others- between what might be expressed, or needed, by someone other than myself. Ascertaining equivalence, a necessary act of juggling, forces us to examine our orthodoxies. It opens the door to the barn where we keep all of our sacred cows, our assumptions, and very often, all of the ways that we lazily forego really examining how we are with others, especially in relation to our larger belief systems, and all of the other spheres that we occupy. When I can find the points of connection that I share with people with whom one would assume there is no connection, I am usually left with an understanding of just how similar I am to others. Equivalence helps to reduce the promotion associated with self-elevation might make me say, “As a Buddhist, I am different from you in that I believe….”, or, “As a Vajrayana Buddhist I feel that my path is better because….”
The word equivalence has its root in the early 15th century middle French word equivalent, which is a conjunction of the prefix equi meaning equal, and valent (as in valence) and valiant, which at that time period referred to strength, bond, and a “combined power of an element“. I am reminded of the importance of valence electrons in chemistry and physics- specifically how the balance of electrical charges between atoms necessitate a sharing of electrons thus creating bonds between atoms. From these bonds everything around us arises; indeed, through the play of interdependence everything that we know can come into being.
I find this metaphor helpful as it involves stepping out of the traditional norms of Buddhist language. Of course, one might ask, “what language isn’t Buddhist?” In this question is a profound point. If our approach to Buddhist practice, whatever form that may take, or for example my chaplaincy informed by my practice of Buddhism, cannot interpenetrate other forms of language, other modalities of thought, or other creative models, it lacks the ability to maintain equivalency. In this manner it ends up lacking the ability to be itself while remaining fluid; it remains separated and isolated, at odds with whatever other it may encounter. In this way I know that I run the risk of falling into a discursive self vs. other perspective when I feel a lack of openness, fluidity, and ability to be at ease with whatever arises.
It can be easy to feel self-conscious within, and around, our belief system which if one is Buddhist, often undermines our very ability to be Buddhist. Indeed sometimes we try to be “Buddhist” as a way to distinguish oneself from others. This kind of separation is a terrible violence- an awful form of self-inflation and spiritual self-destruction that seems to miss the larger point.
And yet, if we explore the possibility that no language can be found that exists outside of the framework of Buddhism in its pure natural manner of expressing itself then it is easy to appreciate true natural arising equivalencies. We are no longer “Buddhist”, we just are, which I suspect was what Shakyamuni came to value within his spiritual quest.
Over the past two weeks I have had the fortune to visit two women who were actively dying at two different hospices in the New York City area. Two very different women, going through different experiences of similar processes: dying. Both of these women had strong spiritual paths- unique paths of self-taught wisdom borne through the constancy of the repeated trials and tribulations that only a full life can bring. In their own ways, as self-taught “outsiders” they were Christ-like, and Buddhistic, and spoke of pure a basic expansive being without necessarily referencing any particular Buddhist vocabulary. Indeed it appeared that the slow fading of the flickering flame of their life allowed them to rest in a peaceful alert awareness that was a real joy to experience. Here I was, a chaplain, asked to come visit these two women who in that moment expressed a depth of view that I could do nothing but rejoice in and admire. I left feeling very confident in their process- they were touching a nearly inexpressible beauty. The visits with both women were punctuated by long silences with much eye contact- with simply being together, with a basic human connection.
Language, with its structural intricacies, its variegated forms, and kaleidoscopic ability to transform, often acts as a buttress in relation to our habitual referential reactions. It allows for, and instills, comparison -creating an endless system of distinctions. A literary color wheel, language runs the risk of pinning everything around us down; leaving us with a sense of knowing. And yet I wonder, where and when, does knowing intersect with being- with the quiet awareness from just being? What is the nature of their relationship within us?
My experience with Lizette, one of the two hospice patients described above, was that whenever I tried to use language and vocabulary to capture what she told me that she was experiencing a clumsy formalism ensued. The beauty and power of her experience of being was made overly solid, overly distinct and “other” by trying to define it. The only thing that kept this feeling alive was to join with it; to sit with her; and to not “know” it, but to be it.
What is the difference between discerned knowledge and knowing borne from resting within the moment? Where, or perhaps more importantly, when, do our assumptions, our knowledge, or our better sense and logical mind of discernment (a deep and satisfying place of self-importance) get in the way of simple being? How does language and knowing try to contain the simple being that is needed to allow us to rest in all of the equivalencies around us?
I am currently working on establishing a Dharma center here in Brooklyn called New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center. This center is the only center of His Eminence the 12th Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Regent of the Kamtsang Kagyu Lineage. Just yesterday we received our 501 c 3 status as a church! It is a great honor and joy to co-Found and Co-Direct a Dharma center headed by a mahasiddha, and amidst all of the uncertainty and fears of failure, or that this will be a complete disaster, I keep coming back to memories of ngondro and the trials that Milarepa, our not so distant father, underwent.
Rob Preece, in his book Preparing for Tantra: Creating the Psychological Ground for Practice, offers a compelling argument for equivalency as it arises between aspects of the hardship and challenge created by undergoing ngondro and other hardships that may share a contextual similarity. Preece describes how all of the work and hard physical labor that he put into helping to build a center that Lama Yeshe was establishing was a prime ground for focusing the mind around dharma practice, planting aspirational seeds that would doubtlessly blossom into mature trees that provide support, shelter and benefit for others. Indeed, I know that as I challenged my body by carrying hundreds of pounds of building materials, the back pain and discomfort of refinishing the floors in 100 degree heat lead me to feel closer to Milarepa than I have felt in a long time. The practice of demolishing old structures, hanging sheetrock and cutting my hands while rewiring the shrine room allowed me to appreciate Preece’s point that ngondro was a creation meant to challenge, to purify, and to create gravity around dharma practice. My seemingly small daily endeavors, in reality, connect me to my spiritual lineage which allows me to feel close to Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa.
Ngondro is one thing- a practice that I value and feel is too often treated as just a preliminary that is to be rushed through, but how is chaplaincy different? Can it be any different? When we really look, can there even ever be a difference?
Milarepa never did ngondro, nor did Naropa- they had the benefit of having their teachers skillfully put them in difficult circumstances. At first glance it could be thought that it’s just hardship and difficulty that is implicit in these kinds of challenges; but when you look a little closer, it looks more like what is happening in through these experiences is that the view is being clarified.
What is being clarified, or purified? How is it really purified? These questions are both rhetorical and actual and beg to be asked. Blindly following through a ngondro pecha may be better than killing insects, but perhaps only in that it plants seeds that one day one may actually practice ngondro. And when we actually practice ngondro, where is there anything that exists outside of that practice? Refuge is everywhere. The experience of Vajrasattva’s non-dual purity of unmodulated mind is everywhere. The accumulation of merit arises with every breath. The lama is everywhere. Yet when we don’t “practice” ngondro what happens to refuge, the essence of purity, the accumulation of merit, and the blessings of the lama and the lineage?
I feel that there is a lot of wisdom in being able to rest into the awareness that accompanies being. It acts as a reset button of sorts that allows us the ability to see things more clearly, to appreciate the richness of whatever arises without creating conflict, and to meet others where they are without needing to change them. In this way, and with this perspective as a motivational factor, the world around us has infinite potential as a ground for practice. New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center becomes as meaningful as Bodh Gaya in India, Tsari in Tibet, and yet is no different from sitting on the subway of being surrounded by the overwhelming bustle of Times Square, as everywhere can be the center of the mandala of the experience of reality as it is. It’s impossible for everywhere and everything to no longer function as the ground for practice.
This is the wish-fulfilling jewel quality that can be associated with resting in being with all of the equivalencies that surround us. This is an expression of the multi-valent interconnected relationships that imbue our experience of reality with all of the qualities associated with pure appearance as described in dzogchen, mahamudra, the pure view or sacred outlook associated with yidam practice, and quite possibly the experience of grace in Christianity, or wadhat al-wujud, the unity-of-being as described by Sufi master Ibn ‘al Arabi.
So whether you are helping to renovate a place of dhrama practice, or simply liking it on Facebook, or enduring trials similar to those of Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa, or laying in a hospice bed in Queens, New York, who is to draw distinction between the type of, or depth of experience that we undergo?
Can we quiet our mind of endless comparisons? Or allow for the mind of analytic distinctions to settle itself?
In doing so, perhaps the simplicity of being that arises reveals a constant soft rain of blessings and opportunities for authentic clear being. May all beings taste this ambrosial nectar expressed by the blissful knowing glance of all of the mahasiddhas of all traditions in all world systems. Gewo!
Recently I have found myself returning to some of the amazingly pithy meditation instructions attributed to Sri Tilopa (988-1069), the well-known Indian Buddhist mahasiddha who was the forefather of the Kagyu lineage. His short, often poetic instructions, are something that help me in my personal meditation practice, as a ground for keeping myself feeling dynamic and internally connected as a chaplain, and in explaining to others the vajrayana perspective regarding what arises within the approach to death. An example of such an instruction is as follows:
If you sit, sit in the middle of the sky.
If you sleep, sleep on the point of a spear.
If you look, look upon the center of the sun.
I Tilopa, who saw the ultimate, am the one who is free of all effort.
The expansive clarity of this type of instruction, for me at least, is very resonant- it offers a way to feel my experience of mind blend into the wideness of space while also experiencing a sense of focus; a relaxed single-pointed experience of breath, sound, transparency of thoughts, and edgelessness. When this experience arises I feel very connected with Tilopa, as well as the other Indian mahasiddhas Naropa and Maitrepa. Sometimes however, I feel that I need a more graded approach to this experience of mind. When this occurs, I tend to lean on Jey Gampopa for support.
More specifically, I rely upon Gey Gampopa’s Precious Garland of the Supreme Path, and even more specifically I come back to the 5th chapter of this wonderful text: The ten things that you should not abandon. I had the wonderful fortune of receiving instruction on this text by the Venerable Khenpo Lodro Donyo, abbot of Bokar Ngedhon Chokhor Ling, in Bodh Gaya in the fall of 1998. This was during one of the many Mahamudra seminars that the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche held- truly magical times when we could all sit together under the bodhi tree to recite the 3rd Karmapa’s Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer, spend time in meditation- simultaneously touching our original nature- as well as physically touching the ground that supported the practice of all of the generations of Buddhists who had come before us in Bodh Gaya back all the way to Shakyamuni himself.
It was in that environment, and within that emotional frame of mind, that I came to learn of the ten things that one should not abandon. These ten things are: compassion, appearances, thought, mental afflictions, desirable objects, sickness (suffering and pain), enemies or those who obstruct our practice, methodical step-by-step progress, dharma practices involving physical movement, and the intention to benefit others. Gampopa’s list is very sensible, it is noble in the sense that it seems to be endorsed by Santideva himself; it is imbued with a heartfelt concern for the welfare of others as well as a methodical presentation of the training to see that appearances- be they attractive or not- are just mere appearance. The misapprehension of appearance, or appearance as taken as an independent entity separate from ourselves, is the very cause of our experience of suffering. As with all great dharma texts, it is heartening to see how just one small portion, in this case the 5th chapter of a 28 chapter text can offer the entire path to realizing one’s essential nature.
In looking back at the notebook that I have from the session when Khenpo Rinpoche taught this chapter, I can return to my exuberance not only for this chapter as a whole, but for Gampopa’s explanation of how one should approach the non-abandonment of mental afflictions. As a chaplain, when I am in the hospital, I very rarely meet people who desire to not abandon their experience of suffering: their fear, their psychic pain, their feelings of abandonment, of futility, of anger, or attachment to family- let alone attachment to ideas of how their life should or shouldn’t unfold. This experience isn’t unique to the hospital either- I and most of the people who I know spend a great deal of time fighting with these emotions. Perhaps this is why they are called mental afflictions.
Anger, attachment, pride, jealousy, ignorance. When we really sit quietly with these words they are not just words- they are worlds; worlds of suffering, worlds of feeling like we are right and others are wrong, that we don’t receive the credit or accolades that we deserve, that if only I had this, or was a that, then things would be the way that they should be. On and on and on…
Gampopa advises us to try three modalities with regard to facing and not abandoning our mental afflictions. We can avoid them- that is, avoid whatever causal conditions that might make them arise. We can transform them- or try to transform what these emotions unlock within us. Or finally, we can rest in them as they arise. Whichever modality we tend towards, there are two things to remain mindful of; how we habitually fall into one of these three modalities, and the degree to which we can honestly assess our relationship to that which we struggle with. Each of these ways of facing and not abandoning our mental afflictions can be techniques of liberation or techniques of seductive self-enslavement.
The process of avoidance is a very grounded, stable and well-meaning way of not abandoning our mental afflictions. It honors the way they arise- it honors their root- without forcing us to become affected. This way of approaching difficulties, painful habits, and stubborn aspects of our identities allows us some distance from the “heat” of the moment that comes with embodying our reaction to our mental afflictions. One could even go so far as to say that this modality is somewhat analytical in approach, it is disciplined and measured. The shadow aspect of avoidance is not acknowledging the mental afflictions that bring us pain and suffering. Not much good happens from simply ignoring things, or not letting aspects of ourselves have the light and air that they need to grow. Right now, the shadow of this modality comes to mind in the form of the image of a neglectful parent who doesn’t want to see who their children really are.
Transformation is a common methodology that one finds in the various levels of tantras. It involves playing with the way that we perceive our mental afflictions. This type of restated relationship allows us to meet head on those feelings that would normally make us want to run away. In this way the dross becomes pure; the dirty is seen as clean; and that which torments us achieves the possibility of bringing meaning and peace. True lighthearted transformation- transformation with ease- is hard to effect. Transformation has a terrible shadow side that involves the desire to fix; or more bluntly an inability to meet things as they appear without making them into something positive. As a chaplain, I witness many people struggle with maintaining a relationship with difficulty and pain, uncertainty and loss, and sickness and death without trying to “fix it”. The constancy of a “make-it-better-plan” can be exhausting and create untold suffering. It feels profoundly important to examine how this modality of maintaining a relationship with our matrix of painful emotions can relate to a desire to not allow honesty around what we are feeling and from where the roots of these emotions arise. (Here is a link to the related shadow of spiritually bypassing.)
Resting in whatever arises, the third modality presented by Gampopa, and the favorite of Khenpo Lodro Donyo while he was teaching, is an instruction that one commonly finds within the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions. It is profound- and it also very difficult to do honestly. As we saw earlier, anger, attachment, pride, jealousy and ignorance are powerful. To rest within rage for example- to feel one’s pulse quicken, and heart beat heavier and louder, while one becomes physically tight and flushed, as the explosive heat of anger and impatience engulfs us- is not a particularly comfortable feeling. (For a look at some of the difficulties involved with taking on these fierce emotions, you can read a previous post on Mahakala here.) Then there is the “resting” part. This term gets thrown around very often that I wonder if it doesn’t end up having a multitude of meanings nowadays. I know that I have met Buddhists of other traditions that take the term literally and assume that it is akin to taking a nap or “resting”.
Resting actually refers to maintaining a focused (often described as ‘single-pointed’) awareness of appearance as it arises in the moment. In this way, Tilopa’s instruction from the beginning of this post seems a wonderful way through which we can re-engage the term resting. One quality of resting is being at ease. In this sense when Tilopa refers to three different ways of being- siting, sleeping, and looking- he is referring to three ways that we can rest in what arises. We can do it formally, as in sitting practice. We can do it within the experience of sleep, mind appearances arise when we sleep just as when we are awake. Finally, in looking, perhaps a passive “every day” experience as well.
If you sit, sit in the middle of the sky.
Where is the middle of the sky? The true middle? Where are its edges? Where does the sky end and something else take over? As we sit and remain resting with a sense of ease can we feel the expansive qualities of our minds? Where is the edge of our mind? What does a thought look like? Does it have a source that you can identify? Where do thoughts go when they are no longer so magnetic?
If you sleep, sleep on the point of a spear.
When our thoughts feel sticky and magnetic, when it is hard to not feel drawn into them and let our inner film projector play, what happens when we remain concentrated? What does that “single-pointed” awareness feel like? When we can feel and notice our breath; when we can maintain focused awareness on the way the inner film projector plays; on how a particular thought will hold us within our inner gaze, what do we notice about our experience?
If you look, look upon the center of the sun.
When this focus can be maintained as we look out at the world as it goes by around us, where is the sense of stillness? From where does that arise? What happens to the way that you notice the way that things arise while maintaining a focused awareness upon the expansive quality of our minds? Is there ever not enough room for what arises within our field of reference?
I Tilopa, who saw the ultimate, am the one who is free of all effort.
What if removing all effort was all that you had to do? What would it be like to maintain that within your experience of life?
Instructions such as the ones that Tilopa left behind for us are rare and powerful. It has been roughly one thousand years since Tilopa passed away, and yet through these four lines it is amazing how much of a connection we can feel with him. Five generations after Tilopa, Gampopa further crystalized the importance of being someone who “is free of all effort”. And while there are may pitfalls around how we may feel that we are directly engaging what arises within the moment, there is much beauty in the journey. Perhaps, slowly moving through life, through the wonderous field of appearance, we can increase our sense of ease and relax into an experience of effortlessness. What an amazing thing to aspire towards.
As a chaplain, one thing that I frequently come to witness in the hospital is the relative personal theological certainty that the patients I meet have established throughout the course of their lives. Naturally the range of established belief is wide and varied; it includes a variety of orthodoxies (Greek, Russian, Jewish, Muslim), as well as the views of moderately liberal faiths such as followers of the Episcopal church, reform Jews, progressive catholics, as well as passionate Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ and Baptists. There are also Wiccans, New Age folks, and a whole host of individual prophets of the new age who I come across.
Just last week one man shared with me his belief that Jesus was more akin to Obi Wan Kanobe and Yoda than anyone else seems to realize. For this man, the essence of God is much more similar to the Force than the compilers of the Bible could understand. In fact, rather than feel with his “heart”, a common human metaphor for the seat of emotion, especially as the seat of love, he told me that he feels with his larynx. After all, in the beginning was the word….
The certainty that this patient expressed regarding his inner beliefs felt palpable, and lead me to wonder about certainty. I can only really speak for myself when I say that I can never really know how true or theologically sound the spiritual underpinning of any given person who I come to meet with may be. I have my own biases, my own stubbornness, and without doubt, I have plenty of blind spots. To have a full understanding, in an ultimate sense, of the beliefs of others- or in other words: to truly know how right or correct how full or effective a particular path that another person treads, for me, seems to be an impossible task. Just like trying to hold water in my cupped hand for any length of time, such definitive knowledge escapes me. In fact, I often wonder where the utility of trying to know such things may lay- it seems like trying to know if the person next to you sees the color blue in the same way that you do. Is there even a right blue? What is blue?
What is everything for that matter?
What is mind? What are thoughts? What are feelings? Are they different?
What is Buddha-nature? How do we recognize it?
What are our dreams? How are they different from waking life?
What is meditation? How is it different from hustle and bustle?
How are we suffering? What is the cessation of suffering? What does that mean for you?
How are we not shackled by discursiveness? What does that mean?
What is certainty?
This particular question seems to touch upon and lead us to something that we may be able to come to know, albeit with effort and focus. Certainty suggests a lack of doubt; a knowing born of experimentation; security from error. Ultimately, it may be that entry into the realm of certainty is an intensely personal process. Spiritually, I feel that the tent poles of certainty are planted, and firmly fastened through wrestling with instructions left behind by the traditions that we follow. Once we have come to appreciate these instructions, internalize them, digest them, and come to know with confidence what they mean, then we may fully know the secure and tender shelter that our tradition affords us. Only then do we see that the words found in our dusty books are in fact thick golden ambrosial nectar, and that the experience of life can become more of what it is: alive, fresh, and full of energy. Even as it wanes, this life of ours, subject to pains, worries, sorrows and regrets still holds the unique and ever profound richness of spontaneity and depth of meaning.
The work of distilling certainty from our experience of, and interaction with life asks us to try to see ourselves for who we really are. It asks us to understand our outer, inner and secret anatomy. It also leads us to a taxonomy of self- a clear reflective understanding of who we are- for it is only through knowing who we are and how we experience our life that we can understand how to enter into relationship with developing greater awareness of what being open and more free means. Openness and freedom, for me, tend to be something that I associate with the flexibility needed for solidifying these natural attributes, for providing ground, for being able to really see who we are.
Then there is who we are in relationship to our tradition. Tradition and lineage can take a number of forms, but in its most essence oriented function, tradition and lineage speak to how we become who we are in time and space. In this particular case it isn’t about adopting a particular set of beliefs or perspectives, but more how the integration of lineage perspectives cause us to individuate within our lineage; in essence how we become more ourselves- empowered and confident, free and self-assured. It may very well be that we come to find ourselves within the natural ebb and flow of our tradition or lineage without much to really do.
How this comes to be, of course, may be impossible to fully explain- except in relation to our own journey. Such inner-transformation is very personal and unique to each individual. This fact is easily gleaned from reading the lives of the eighty-four mahasiddhas. The story of their processes of liberation often involves embracing circumstances unique to each master’s life. Whether it be using a goiter as a focus for stabilizing the mind, or a fabulous jewel, trying to steal the essence of mind to ascertain its nature, or the use of conceit as a means for attaining siddhi in arising as the yidam, nothing was spared. No fear too mundane; no shadow too dark. In fact, in these stories we can easily see how structured aspects of practice lineages were transposed upon, or woven throughout, the experience of the lives of each mahasiddha. The result of such a skillful weaving, a blending, or circulation (circumabulation) of tradition within the experience of life is twofold- the experience of being becomes easily imbued with simplicity (an expression of simple appearance) and offers the possibility of complete fiery annihilation of obscurations.
Paradoxically, such seemingly simple self-styled practice requires not only a sense of openness with regard to exploring who we are, what we are, and how we function in the world- but also knowledge of our lineage, particularly certainty in its effect. The stories of the mahasiddhas are very approachable, and should be read by everyone. A few examples can be read here. These stories really capture the depth and simplicity of a well grounded and distilled practice and offer a kaleidoscopic expansion of experience that I have come to value. From the simple comes everything, the full richness of a practice lineage with all of its subtle distinctions.
The other day a friend of mine who also happens to be a chaplain and a rabbi reflected to me a growing concern, namely that religion and religiosity are increasingly something that people are distancing themselves from- and that even spirituality is something that is regarded with some suspicion. Her larger point focused around the need for a wider tool-kit for chaplains that allows for the inclusion of people for whom feelings of connectedness may not be centered around religion and spirituality. The tool-kit that she refered to invariably requires her, and anyone who wants to be able to be there with others in the exploration of their location within the axes of spirituality and religion, to know their location and the story of their journey (how they got there). If these aspects of ourselves are unexamined how can we help others? More broadly, without knowing where we are and how we function in relation to our individual traditions how can we hope to integrate them into our lives?
This point speaks well to the establishment of certainty within our spiritual practice as it invites us to wonder what we feel about religious thought. Do we consider ourselves religious, or, do we tend to think of ourselves as spiritual? Is there a difference? What about those two words hold intense reactions and why?
There is no right answer, only our own- which if it is an honest one, can hold up to a little inquiry, and also be allowed to change as we change.
I bring my friend’s point up because in many cases real training (study, receiving instruction, practice, and reflection) within our individual lineages is very important for gaining certainty in the path, as well as what is possible. Within the model of tantric buddhism this process is described as the Ground, Path and Fruit.
The Ground represents the larger theory, the teachings on the way the mind works, how suffering arises, how the dharma can eliminate our experience of suffering. The Path is primarily the method of putting this dharma into practice- really blending it with our experience of life. The Fruit is the true naked experience of mind- an experience of seeing, feeling, and really knowing the Ground to be alive within our experience of being. Certainty can be, and needs to be known in all three relational models of buddhist practice, or however many stages we experience within our own particular liberation story.
Certainty in Ground. Certainty in Path. Certainty in Fruit.
I wonder where the mahasiddhas Luiypa, Saraha, Ghantapa, Tilopa,Virupa, Aryadeva or Dhokaripa would end up without their experience of certainty upon their paths and within their experiences?
In what way do we need to attend to the development of certainty within our own experience? Can we allow ourselves the room to attend to these needs without regard to how we appear to others? Can we approach certainty with honesty? From a place of deep personal concern?
Some may feel the need for increased study- a real immersion in the Ground. Some may feel a need to develop more confidence/familiarity with the Path. Others may feel a need to open themselves to the possibility that they may indeed experience the Fruit.
Jey Gampopa (1079-1153), the first monastic lineage holder of the Kagyu lineage wrote in his famous work The Precious Garland of the Supreme Path, that we should protect our practice just as we would our eyes. Similarly, I wonder if we should regard the maintenance of certainty in our practice as we would not only our eyes, but the rest of our body. The distillation of certainty is a process that is subtle and mysterious. It is not necessarily obtained from taking classes or attending lectures, nor from reading books or studying, and yet it can sometimes be gleaned from those activities as well. Sometimes we may experience it in a flash of anger or humiliation, or as a sudden joy. Nevertheless, however it arises it arises from within- it is a fruit born from an inner journey that if deep and genuine leaves us naturally settled, grounded, and in harmony with the arising of phenomena. It is a mysterious inner-organic manifestation that like the morning mist is hard to pin-down and locate. Perhaps, only when we let our defences down, when we shed our firmly held ideas about things that certainty becomes a possibility. When that happens, the distinction between who we are in relation to our lineage is more a question of us just remaining who we are, not much else remains for us to do.
The other day I heard a story on the radio about the rise of the anti-hero in current television programing. Apparently there is a growing number of television shows for which the main character is an anti-hero; a figure whose moral equations and ethical concerns follow a personal arc that often falls outside of the norms of the larger group; sometimes walking the line between good and bad; sometimes navigating those places that we fear to go. One example of such a show takes place just after the American Civil War in the vague liminal space of the farthest frontiers of the Union Pacific Transnational Railroad- the very edge of civilization. It tells the story of a racist ex-confederate soldier and former slave owner who hunts down union soldiers (the historical good guys) for the crimes they have committed. Another example tells the story of a highschool chemistry teacher who after a diagnosis of lung cancer, decides to work with a former student, to “cook” methamphetamine, a terribly addictive and dangerous drug, to pay for his medical treatment in the short-term; and, being a realistic man, to provide financial support for his wife, teen-age son who has cerebral palsy, and his new-born daughter. He and his partner explore the dark world of methamphetamine and the shadow figures who are involved in its distribution. They are occasionally forced to kill the ruthless for being cruel, and are often driven by a clear sense of right and wrong in a world of darkness where such distinctions as right and wrong have been forgotten long ago. Sometimes that clear judgement seems to fall prey to the induced darkness that they frequently encounter. There are yet other similar television stories too, including the story of a serial killer (the anti-hero) who only kills other killers, and has a love for, and natural connection with, children.
For those who are interested, you can listen to the radio clip that I listened to here.
The presentation of these anti-heros as an archetypal “dark Hermes”, a guide for lost souls, or as a guide for well-oriented souls as they transition through, or are completely lost in, a place of darkness, leads me to reflect upon pawos, palmos, and the retinue of very important wrathful buddhas. I am reminded of those who protect, and those who serve in places and at moments where we seem weak and desperate, those who as part of their unique activity can serve compassionately through, for lack of a better term, dark means.
These beings, Mahakala in all of his overwhelmingly powerful manifestations, Throma with her army of dakinis, Vajrakilaya with his phurba of non-referential space, and Yamantaka (Vajrabairava) the destroyer of Yama (the lord of death), occupy an important place within the practice of all lineages of tantric buddhism. They have also been the most controversial. From the perspective of the academic study of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent and Himalayas, many early western scholars of Buddhism regarded tantric Buddhism as a corruption of the Buddha’s original message. Tantric Buddhism, and tantric Hinduism for that matter, from this early scholastic point of view, was seen as a distortion of the orthodoxy; a blend of Buddhism and Hinduism with gross superstition, animism, sex, magic and the more base drives that lead us poor humans hither and thither. Jacob P. Dalton, in his recent book The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism, offers a clear and well thought out description of how some of the language and imagery found in the tantras have come to occupy a place of simultaneous attraction and disgust in all of the cultures the tantras have come to visit. It appears that the reactions of Victorian British scholars did not arises as an emotional island unto itself when it comes to the tantras- in Indian as well as Tibetan culture they were embraced and feared, accepted and rejected, praised and cursed.
Ironically, the shivering disgust and ambivalence of early western scholars towards tantric Buddhism reveals the power of becoming intimate with these feelings and reactions as they exist within ourselves. Superstition, animism, sex, magic, and our “base drives” can be sources of great confusion, great pain, loss of control, and even our undoing. Perhaps then it is no wonder that these aspects of our experience of life end up proving to be very powerful fodder with which we can develop confidence in our practice of Buddhism. As a chaplain I have seen patients, their loved ones, and even colleagues, struggle around these hard feelings- this is a struggle that we all share. No one person owns, or is cursed, with difficulty of struggling with guilt, shame, fear, loss, pain, and loss of control.
Within my own experience of life, I know that I often feel the push and the pull around my own anger, or sense of aggression, my impatience, my jealousy and my frustrations. These feelings arise just as generosity, patience, connection, and ease arise. The only difference is that when these harder feelings begin to swell, how they will affect me, either destroy or help to push me further along the path, seems to depend upon just how comfortably I can relate to them- how I can see them as they arise and honestly witness them- not quickly ignore them in exchange for something good. In my own way, one that changes from moment to moment, I have come to learn just how much I can be with these feelings in myself and see them as beneficial arisings. Not just see, but experience them as beneficial arisings, or as the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, refers to these thoughts/feelings, to see them as “adventitious stains”. Stains that are adventitious as they help point out the one-taste in whatever arises.
Bokar Rinpoche once said during a series of teachings in Bodh Gaya that Tibetans complain to him the they don’t understand western practitioners as they are always seen sitting perfectly still and erect, like statues. Similarly he related the complaints of western students about their Tibetan counterparts who always appear to be doing prostrations and khora (circumambuting) the mahabodhi stupa. He went on to explain to the mixed group that both are useful forms of practice- and that we should learn to modulate between both. At one time one form of practice is more appropriate, and as that moment changes, so might the way we practice in that new moment. Sometimes one form of practice is more useful, more charged, and more fitting for one’s experiences of the moment. As the moment changes sometimes so does what is arising. I don’t think that we can recognize our stainless buddha-nature by practicing like robots. I suspect that engaging with our practice, and all the maras that arise, in an open honest manner is the way.
So what about us? Do we have a tendency to frame ourselves as hero or anti-hero. Are we all light and no darkness? Do we only benefit beings and never harm them? Do we have the capability to look at our practice with a fresh set of eyes and knowingly step into the unknown? Do we see ourselves as clean and pure, or as blended and pure? Can we allow ourselves to modulate? To mix our view of ourselves with a more realistic presentation of what really arises within our mental continuum?
While there is no real difference between Mahakala and Chenrezig on an ultimate level, the experience of their relative differences can be very important- if not instrumental- in knowing who we are, how thoughts and feelings arise within us, and what the powerful energetic force of Mahakala is like. How else can we know equanimity in the midst of roaring intensity? Sometimes we need this to cut through our bad practice habits, our over-softness, and a predilection towards the positive- especially in a way that it’s too bent on purity.
Can we rest in the nature of mind amidst vice, transgression, and fear?
Such was a profound learning for many great Indian Mahasiddhas including Virupa, Naropa, and Saraha as well as many great Tibetan siddhas. In fact it still remains a profound and seminal learning for us today. When to be “good” and when to be “bad”?
In fact, I sometimes wonder if Buddhism isn’t too often presented in such a warm and fuzzy light in which it becomes easy to see the wrathful compassion of pawos and palmos as something other than and not of ourselves; something to be invoked from afar and for only getting rid of problems. Anger and ferocity are hardly rare emotions, greed and jealousy more often than not are not endangered, and tending towards a self-cherishing attitude is certainly one of the greatest thing that we all have in common. They arise from nowhere else but from within.
So why do we become concerned or uncomfortable when the “strong medicine” of Vajrakilaya or Throma becomes the prescribed remedy for our suffering. As the demon armies of Palden Lhamo ride past fearlessly destroying all impediments to our practice, effectively closing the door to our own limitations, and as the flesh-eating dakinis gratefully pledge protection and siddhis as we offer our own transformed inner poisons to them, where is the room for squeamishness?
Similarly, I sometimes find that when some dharma practitioners reference entering into in wrathful activity, I wonder about the presence of a facile idiotic aspect of “wrathfulness” that simply seeks to justify laziness. I know that this is something that I look for in myself as I know how seductive the pull to break the rules in an elevated way can be. Sometimes through the desire to engage in “transgressing the rules” and working with how those difficult emotions of knowing that you are doing something wrong or impure, we may actually be soft with ourselves around actually feeling like the rules don’t apply to us. To bring whiskey and ribs to a tsok can be one thing if we can hold what alcohol and meat mean in the context of an offering to mahakala for example, or it can be an insulting self-aggrandizing slap in the face to what a mahakala tsok is all about. Herein lies the conundrum: How and when are we really acting from a place of authenticity as we decide to behave badly for the common good of other sentient beings?
Knowing when to be bad, or when to challenge conventions is never really an easy thing. Such behavior asks us to be confident in ourselves, confident in our abilities, and comfortable with growth that arises from difficulty. This too isn’t easy- the habits of disempowering and brutalizing ourselves are strong. And yet, at times we must step into this aspect of practice; we must challenge conventions, habits and assumptions; we must find our ground and relationship with the strong and the dark, the wrathful and the powerful. For this is another side of buddha activity. Despite its danger (just one act of poor judgement can have terrible consequences), and the trepidation that can arise with knowing willful transgression there is a lot of room for growth in becoming friends with these expressions of “being bad”.
That said, this kind of practice may not be for everyone- nor I suppose is it necessary for everyone. Although it helps to take an honest look at what comes alive for us when we look at the images that are included on this post before saying, “nah, I don’t have any need touching my dark-side. I don’t think I even have one”. If these images elicit fear and concern, or feel attractive and seductive, or if they feel disgusting and repulsive then perhaps that is something to look at. If they feel foreign and “definitely not part of me” well perhaps another deeper look may be warranted. It may be that these natural reactions, honest indicators of what we really feel, hold a good deal of explanation of our relationship to wrathful Buddhas- about finding freedom within our difficult emotions, and remaining spacious when the right or wrong associated with where we are or what we are feeling is called into question.
How are we really when it comes to visualizing lakes of hot sticky blood these buddhas traverse, the flayed human and elephant skins that they wear as adornments, and the steamy snorting of the demonic animals that they ride?
What is being good? What is it to be bad? Our relationship with being good and with being bad can be very difficult and complex. The fear of blame and the need for praise, or quite frankly the inability to accept praise and the need for self-blame often affect they way we relate to much of the world. This is something to look at within ourselves. It may be that within popular culture the dark anti-hero is an increasingly popular metaphor, or even an archetype for where we are and what we feel we need; especially as the gravity of the simple good and bad, light and dark, simplicity of the dualism of our group ethics seems less pertinent. Perhaps we long for more- for different models of being, differing conceptions of justice that may include the liberating nature of wrathful buddhas. If this is the case, all we need to do is look within, and we will find a rich world, an endless thanka painted upon the canvas of our psyche that captures a limitless retinue of wisdom beings. May it be so!
As 2011 dissolves away into another year I feel the need to offer a greeting to all of the dear readers of ganachakra. The wonderful support and warmth that you all offer me helps me to grow- it is a special relationship that we share; a relationship that I pray continues for many years to come.
With that said I pray that this “new” year is seen as just another momentary appearance; an expression of liberated mind.
May the mind be seen as beyond time.
May your practice be deep, and be intertwined with the blessings of your lineage masters.
May you effortlessly begin to empty the pit of samsara by benefiting all beings.
With respect and gratitude,
Karma Changchub Thinley (Repa Dorje Odzer)
An old dharma friend named Jonny wrote me the other day with a question that he had. We had first met in 1995 down by Mungod in south India where he was teaching English at Drepung Loseling, and I was studying with Geshe Wangchen, under the kind graces of Lelung Rinpoche who at the time was dividing his time between Drepung Loseling and Nechung Monastary in Dharamsala.
Over the years as I came to meet and study under the late Kyabje Dorje Chang Bokar Rinpoche, and my path crossed with Jonny’s and other dharma friends amidst the annual groundswell of dharma that occurs during the fall months in Bodh Gaya. It was there that I had the opportunity to introduce Jonny to this wonderful oceanic meditation master. From that point onwards that my relationship with Jonny changed to that of dharma brother, which is where we are in this moment.
After the tragic, unfortunate death of Kyabje Dorje Chang Bokar Rinpoche, most of his students were left in a place of loss and sadness. The confounding suddenness of his death created a barren confusion- I remember from my own experience that this was a terribly painful and confusing time. The loss of a teacher can be very painful. I had felt that there was an intimacy in my relationship with Bokar Rinpoche that made him feel like a father- it took a number of years to be able to return to his seat monastery in India without feeling a profound sense of loss and sadness.
Over time the, winds of karma, the great teacher that might be described as the impermanence of appearance, blew Jonny into the lap of Yangthang Rinpoche, and I into the lap of H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche. As our experiences arising from meditation practice change, and as we slowly try to blend whatever insights that arise from such experiences into our daily lives, we email from time to time- to check in and see where the other is.
In an email last month, Jonny wrote:
I was recently in Wilmington, North Carolina in late October for my wedding. It’s a very beautiful small town that hugs the Cape Fear river, which, like most early cities and towns, was dependent upon a waterway as a means of transportation, both out to the Atlantic Ocean, and also further inland. We spent a week down in Wilmington trying to add a few days of relaxation to the planning and organization of the wedding. While there I was able to spend a morning practicing chöd on the beach during sunrise. For a brooklynite, the ability to spend time in meditation facing the rising sun on a beautiful quiet beach is something of a luxury.
While I was aware of the fact that there had been an active slave trade in Wilmington, I had not realized the extent of Wilmington’s strategic location in the trade of slaves. Fortunately, or unfortunately, due to the danger of trying to moor ships on most of the islands that make up North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the Port of Wilmington, situated inland on the Cape Fear river was much safer, thereby providing a major point of forced disembarkation of slaves. In fact, the black slave population of Wilmington out numbered the white non-slave population by 2 to 1 by the mid 1800′s. The skills and knowledge of black slaves was vital for the growth, success and expansion of the town; it is quite probable that Wilmington’s survival as a vibrant economy due to its being rooted upon a firm economic base built upon the blistered and broken backs of its former slaves.
In this respect Wilmington is no different from a variety of other cities, towns, countries, and empires whose success, basic stability, infrastructure, and rich cultural growth has been secured and “enriched” by its slaves. Indeed, like it or not, the history of humanity can certainly provide a variety of such cases of how the enslavement of other humans “benefitted” the culture of their oppressor. Sadly, in many ways this dynamic continues into the present day.
With this in mind, and as a means of returning to the sacred geography that I explored in a blog post last year, I decided to spend time doing chöd on the beach not far from the inlet of the Cape Fear river; all the while trying to remain aware of my inner slaves and all the ways that I enslave different aspects of myself. I wanted to touch upon all of the ways that I enslave myself, enslave aspects of my personality, how I project rigid ideas upon myself, and like a coy and brutal slave-master, how I benefit from such suffering. That Wilmington can act as the support for my practice of chöd, that its rich history of being a place where the dreams of humans were crushed and suffocated by a racist ruling class can offer a ground and support for practice is important. Perhaps Wilmington, as a reminder- or symbol- offers us the potential for great inner growth.
Slavery, especially inner-slavery is an important thing to contemplate. Even more, the way that many people disassociate from the history of slavery and all of the ways in which it still haunts us is something that I find disturbing.
There is so much terrible violence that we commit towards ourselves in a unconscious manner out of fear, or a sense of insecurity, or of flat-out self- hatred. There are so many ways in which we subjugate aspects of ourselves, be they qualities, propensities, or habitual reactions, with the same control of a slave master.
And so, with the warm rising rays of the morning sun as a witness; a glorious bindu drop amidst the crashing of waves of the atlantic ocean, and with the wind whistling though tall beach grasses, I invoked the mandala of Machik Labron and Prajnaparamita. With qualities of edgelessness, and without specific orientation within time or space, I wanted to stretch myself , so that the tragic history associated with the slave trade and all of its ghostly remnants could be included within my practice, that all of the terror and the brutal subjugation of others could be heard.
I tend to feel that with any particular spiritual practice it is important to blend what tradition dictates, the transmitted instructions of one’s teacher/tradition, with what is alive within ourselves. At the end of the day it is our story, the story that we carry with us, the story that we have made for ourselves that we bring to our practice. The way that we construct this story, it’s highs and lows, it’s holy sanctified ideals and its skulking demonic shadow beings are what we bring. Our desire to do, and be, good, as well as our fear of failure and being seen as failure.
In exploring slavery as a metaphor for the way in which we fail to notice our full selves I am reminded of course I took in college on African Philosophy taught by a brilliant Kenyan philosopher, Dismas Masolo. Some of what was touched upon within the curricula of this class included an examination of the early historical affirmation that Africans were in many ways sub-human.
For example, Immanuel Kant, one of the giants of western philosophy writes in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View: “Humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race. The yellow Indians have a smaller amount of talent. The Negroes are lower, and the lowest are a part of the American peoples.” Martin Cohen, the editor of The Philosopher, wrote in a review of D.A. Masolo’s African philosophy in Search of an Identity, “…Kant, for example, had argued that the ‘original human species was white, appearing as dark brown’ only as a result of oppressive climatic conditions, whilst Hegel wrote similarly that ‘the characteristic feature of the Negroes is that their consciousness has not yet reached an awareness of any substantial objectivity’. In Africa, life was not a manifestation of dialectical reason but rather, as Hegel put it, ‘a succession of contingent happenings and surprises.’” The justification for subjugating others appears timeless- it is amazing how easily we demonize others, sometimes with shameless effortless ignorance.
Equally amazing is how we take credit for the fruits of the work of our inner-slaves. Just as the slave owner assumed ownership of what was tilled within, and born of his fields; or the madame at the brothel whose “hard-earned” wealth was collected upon the broken bodies and broken dreams of her two-bit whores (to quote Theodore Dreiser); it can be scary when we look at how much credit we take for the fruits of the parts of ourselves that we would rather ignore, the parts that we keep drugged, shackled, and subdued with cruelty.
While we assume our position at the head of the table, decked out in all of the fineries of our best projections of ourselves, dining upon the finest foods, receiving the accolades that deep down we feel we really deserve, entertaining our every whim and fancy- our self-hatred and inability to dynamically embrace the parts of ourselves that we may fear that others will come to know of often rules with the same tight fist as the cruelest slave owner. And just as such slave owners were known to rape their slaves, I wonder how we secretly rape the unintegrated parts of ourselves; secretly proclaiming love and acceptance of the parts of ourselves that we may indeed love, but fear, and perhaps secretly hate because we feel that we may know that they are integral parts of ourselves.
Ironically, it may just be that the most enslaved parts of our psyche may be the ones that we refuse to own; the ones of which we refuse to be conscious. They also may hold immense power and utility, if we could just be with them, just accept them…
As a chaplain I witness many people (patients, their friends or family, as well as staff) try to shackle their fears, to hide away their anger and sense of loss, to turn away from their sense of powerlessness, and to try to disguise their shame. I can see this in part because I try to explore these things within myself. It is not easy to notice things about ourselves that we are uncomfortable with- let alone loathe or fear. And yet in seeing this in myself and in others, I am often reminded of how naturally we create our own suffering.
I sometimes wonder about how as Buddhists it is possible to secretly hide away the slaves of aggression and anger, how easy it is to distract ourselves from truly knowing, exploring and interfacing with the way these feelings arise. That we might prefer studying the paramitas as a way of feeling good about ourselves but not really noticing, not taking stock, of how easy it can be to associate with a conceptual modality, a structural paradigm, rather than something that genuinely arises from our heart/mind complex. Even the idea of Buddhist practice offers a false sense of not being a slave owner. In this way, the overly friendly, overly compassionate Buddhist who is unaware of the horrors bubbling just under their surface can also become a slave owner by brutality repressing drives, emotional impulses and feelings. If not observed carefully, Buddhist practice affords wonderful ways of running away from oneself (if that is what you want to do).
In offering my steaming organs, the sun and moon of my eyes, the deep vital essence of my marrow, the mountain range of my fingers and toes, the ocean grasses of my hair, my flayed skin, the ground of the mandala offering, I contemplated what freeing a slave means. If I am to free my inner-slaves shouldn’t I do so in a way that allows for having a relationship with them in the future? Wouldn’t that presage deep growth and acceptance around just why I ghettoized an aspect of myself? And in having some sense of how and why I do this to myself, around my conception of myself, doesn’t this offer a wonderful means of connecting with others who find themselves with a whip in their hand, or fist raised in the air towards themselves?
In consciously releasing our slaves, with awareness, offering witness of how we maintained them for years, perhaps even a lifetime, I wonder if we can also allow them to remain part of us, in relationship with us, as liberated beings; liberated parts of ourselves? If this is the case, then the story of our aggression towards these ways of feeling is an important and powerful thing to honor. Knowing these stories around and within ourselves can create a natural sense of connection and intimacy with others in a way akin to the paramitayana. It may very well be that this awareness of our emotional history is central to honestly approaching the paramitas. Otherwise it can be very easy to inadvertently use the dharma as a tool to subjugate and maintain slaves. There may be the desire to release our slaves and “banish” them from our sight so that we never have to see our folly- this however prevents any honest growth and real witness of the story of our inner-ghetto beings.
I suspect that as we become more familiar with freeing our slaves and trying to maintain relationship with them, in accepting the hard truths which can become precious gifts, we can relax our grip around things specifically needing to be a particular way. In letting go, forgiving, and remaining in relationship, the dharma doesn’t become any one thing in particular; it becomes all things.
We, the creators of the new black generation,/ want to express our black personality/ without shame or fear/ If this will please the whites, much the better/ If not, it does not matter/ We know ourselves to be beautiful/ And also ugly/ The drums cry/ The drums laugh/ If this will please the whites, much the better/ If not, it does not matter/ It is for tomorrow that we are building our temples/ Solid temples we will ourselves know how to/ construct them/ And we will keep ourselves straight/ On top of the mountain/ Free in ourselves. -Langston Hughes