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on imaginal worlds and magical thinking…

I’m not sure why, but I feel that as of late I have had a great number of conversations with people who have referenced magical thinking.  In most cases the particular reference to magical thinking has been tentative, unsure, as if evoking distrust.  I’ve encountered this with people who I have met a the hospital as well with friends and acquaintances.  It makes me curious about just what they mean; the tone of their comments seem to suggest that magical thinking isn’t the best thing, nor is it a reliable way of seeking context within our world. There is a fascinating article that was published in the New York Times about magical thinking that you can read here which helps to explain the “phenomena” of magical thinking.  Overall, I feel that magical thinking is important, if not key to a healthy spiritual life (in some form), but I’m not so sure what is so magical about it.

Wikipedia describes magical thinking as:

[A] causal reasoning that looks for correlation between acts or utterances and certain events. In religion, folk religion and superstition, the correlation posited is between religious ritual, such as prayer, sacrifice or the observance of a taboo, and an expected benefit or recompense. In clinical psychology, magical thinking is a condition that causes the patient to experience irrational fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because they assume a correlation with their acts and threatening calamities.

“Quasi-magical thinking” describes “cases in which people act as if they erroneously believe that their action influences the outcome, even though they do not really hold that belief”.

This description (the rest of the Wikipedia entry can be found here) seems to suggest that magical thinking may be more of a problem than a boon; more of a crutch than a clear vision of how reality unfolds; perhaps even a disturbance in “normal” mental functioning.  I get a little scared when I read this definition, it seems to re-affirm that perhaps I am not-all-here.  Maybe I/we are not…

I am particularly drawn to the use of the word correlation in this description, especially given what it means in relation to Buddhism.  Correlation points to relationship and dependence: interdependence.  If we look at this same statement with interdependence in mind then we find that magical thinking is:

a causal reasoning that looks for interdependence between acts or utterances and certain events. In religion, folk religion and superstition, the interdependence posited is between religious ritual, such as prayer, sacrifice or the observance of a taboo, and an expected benefit or recompense. In clinical psychology, magical thinking is a condition that causes the patient to experience irrational fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because they assume an interdependence with their acts and threatening calamities.

In looking at it from this perspective, magical thinking appears a vital and inseparable way of finding meaning as we experience life; it doesn’t seem strange, or even less dependable that some kind of rational objectivity (something we are generally taught to desire).  In fact, we engage in magical thinking so often that perhaps it should just be called ordinary thinking.  Be that as it may, I am curious as to why some people don’t seem to trust this magical thinking with all of the shifty mysterious individual meaning that it weaves throughout our lives.

The great sufi saint shaykh Ibn al ‘Arabi (1165-1240) is an inspiring figure when it comes to the realm of the imaginal.  Driven by a series of ecstatic visions, Ibn al ‘Arabi made his was from Andalusia through Morocco, and across the Maghreb towards Mecca.  Along the way he met many people, teachers and fellow seekers, some were real humans, locatable within the nexus of shared time and space, others were not.  One of the greatest visions he had was while sailing to Tunisia whereupon he encountered Mohammed, Jesus and Abraham simultaneously.  Other visions were equally “magical” and “unreal”, yet they acted as a great furnace through which al ‘Arabi’s spiritual passion was refined and tempered allowing him to not only experience the presence of Allah, but to write with great detail about his experiences as well as guide others to this end.  His monumental impact on mystical Islam is still felt today and I would argue he could have never lived the life he had lived if he conceived of life as fixed in nature, lacking the subtlety and mutability to which magical thinking alludes.

Much of the material that I have found on the topic of magical thinking, especially from the perspective of clinical psychology, offers reasons for abandoning and avoiding magical thinking. Such reasons involve improving impaired decision-making, not being able to achieve our goals, and in the case of people with mood disorders or people suffering from psychosis, experiencing a break from reality.  In extreme cases, I acknowledge how magical thinking and spirituality inform and can reinforce a person’s break with reality.  Having spent ten months chaplaining patients on a psychiatric unit of a hospital in New York, I can certainly say that I have come to see first hand how such thinking exacerbates a person’s suffering.  This form of suffering can be terrible; to live with a variant point of orientation, in the midst of near-complete subjectivity is the cause of great horror.

As is the case with most things, when taken to an extreme magical thinking can be a great danger. But to eliminate it altogether?  That also sounds like a form of killing our natural tendency to be creative, to imagine and to experience inspiration.

Indeed in it’s most elevated forms magical thinking breaths vitality and meaning into the experiences found within sufism, the teachings of pure view (especially as it relates to yidam practice) within tantric Buddhism, as well as Jung’s notion of synchronicity and the collective unconscious, to name just a few jewels in the long garland of human experience.  In the face of death, and the suffering caused by illness, as a chaplain, I have found that magical thinking arises with such commonplace frequency that I regard it as a natural and important way though which we find connection and meaning in ways that can not often be explained rationally- and that’s okay.

In extending the Zen Buddhist approach of not knowing, to the larger Buddhist conception of the six realms of existence, we are in essence throwing open the doors towards direct relationship with hell realms, god realms, demi-god realms, buddha realms, ghost realms, animal realms and all various permutations of these.  We open oureslve up to the magical. We allow for varied relationship with appearance.   We develop the seed potential for a rich and layered experience of life.  Of course a great many western Buddhists may not believe in the six realms as “real” but as internal dimensions of our own behavioral habitual tendencies; while I appreciate and find great wealth in this view, I for one find great meaning in feeling that the immediacy of direct interface with Buddha-realms, lamas, yidams, dakas and dakinis, and protectors charges the moment with the potential for great insight and awakening.

It seems that as we tread our paths only we can really know how much we want to, or can, open ourselves up to the visionary realm of the imaginal.  While this is very individual, perhaps something we can all do is remain mindful of how we shut the magic out and why?  As well as, whether we use it as a crutch to avoid realizing where we need to change and grow?


on Karma Pakshi, Mikyö Dorje and empowerment…

In my post about Mahakala, and how the practice of Mahakala may relate to our lives on a daily basis as well as between and throughout meditation sessions, I related a short story around the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi.

A reader of this blog, and now friend, sent me a wonderful image of the siddha Karma Pakshi (pictured above) and an image of Mikyö Dorje, the eighth Karmapa (below).

In reflecting upon these images I am struck by how they convey so clearly the energy that these two realized masters embodied.   In the upper image, Karma Pakshi is shown empowered, present, and full of vitality.  He is shown sitting upon a chöjung, the source of dharma, above him is Guru Rinpoche, Rechungpa and the terton Mingyur Dorje, on his right is Hayagriva and on his left Dorje Phagmo, below him is Mahakala and then Damchen Garwa Ngagpo to his left and Palden Lhamo, or Sri Devi to his right.  Karma Pakshi’s right hand is raised holding a vajra, and his left holds a phurba.  This is not an image of passivity, or weakness.  On the contrary, this image shows how profoundly inspired, naturally empowered, and essence-oriented Karma Pakshi embodied his direct experience of the dharma.

The lower image, that of Mikyö Dorje, is also an image of empowerment.  Mikyö Dorje is famous as an endless wellspring of ability.  There is a definite feeling of  inexhaustability that his activity demonstrated.  When I consider that he only lived to the age of forty-seven I am even more humbled by the impact that his presence had upon the Kagyu lineage; he left behind a magnificent imprint of Buddha-like depth and sensitivity.  His works include commentaries upon many tantric texts including the Hevajra Tantra, as well as a variety of very important texts on buddhist philosophy.  His impact upon art was as concentrated and seminal as his writings on sutra, tantra and philosophy.

In this image Mikyö Dorje is shown surrounded by dakinis.  They bless him and empower him, provide immense spiritual strength as well as insight, thereby blending his mind with all that is.  Above him is the first Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, Tashi Paljor; his guru, a great siddha and important Kamstang Kagyu lineage holder.  A description of the line of Sangye Nyenpa tulkus can be found here.  Below Mikyö Dorje is Dorje Phagmo herself; one of the principle yidams of the Kagyu lineage.  She is much more than that though- somehow I feel that her power and wily energy gets lost when she is refered to as “one of the principle yidams” of the Kagyu lineage.  She is the source of untold blessing, insight, re-orientation and empowerment.  She is the mother of our enlightenment, she is blissful wakefulness in everything that we do, the high and the low, the sacred and the profane: for her it’s all the same.

These images have a profound effect.  They make me wonder how I can experience and embody the same sense of empowerment and clarity that Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje were able to express.  There are times when I feel this way; times when practice feels electric; when the present moment feels clear and imbued with luminous authenticity.   There are also of course those moments when I feel dull and very aware of my own selfishness and petty small mindedness.  I have come to learn that the latter is an all-too-common experience that most of us can own up to.  So, I have to ask: what is this empowerment and the quality of being “plugged-in” that both Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje express?

The late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche speaks to this effect in a talk on crazy wisdom.  Below are what I find to be the most salient point of his talk as it pertains to this post.  The entire talk can be found here.

Trungpa Rinpoche says:

The crazy wisdom vision is very crazy, too. It gives us a sense of direction, a sense of heroism, a sense of reality and a sense of compassion—and so forth down the line. It also includes our doubts as part of that crescendo. So the crazy wisdom form is related with the basic notion of enlightenment. As we say in the sadhana, “To the crazy wisdom form of the buddhas of the past, present, and future.” I think it goes something like that. Is that true? So crazy wisdom is part of the general scheme of enlightenment. The crazy wisdom guru is not some Rasputin of Buddhism gone wild who does crazy things, who sets up a crazy wisdom cult. You might say, “Padmasambhava went to Tibet and got drunk and went crazy. He hyperventilated in the mountain air after being in India.” “Karma Pakshi went to China and got turned on by being an imperial teacher. Because of that, he went crazy.”

But we are talking about a larger form of crazy wisdom, which is cosmic crazy wisdom. It is part of the enlightened attitude of the whole thing, which is already crazy, continuously crazy—and wise at the same time. Primordial wisdom is continuously taking place. That is a very crazy thing, in some sense.

We have two personality types in the sadhana: Dorje Trolö and Karma Pakshi. Dorje Trolö is Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava attained enlightenment at birth. He was an Indian Buddhist saint, a siddha, a vidyadhara and a great teacher who brought Buddhism to Tibet. There was already some element of Buddhism there, but Padmasambhava actually brought the full swing, the full force of Buddhism to Tibet.

He manifested as a crazy wisdom person particularly when he was meditating in Tibet, in a cave called Taktsang Seng-ge Samdrup, which is now in Bhutan. (In those days, Bhutan was part of Tibet, in the province of Mon.) In order to relate with the savageness of the Tibetans and their own little ethnic samurai mentality, he had to appear in that manifestation. So he manifested himself as an enlightened samurai, a savage person, a crazy wisdom person—known as Dorje Trolö.

According to the iconography, Dorje Trolö rides on a pregnant tigress. He wears the robes of a bhikshu, a Buddhist monk, and he wears a kimono-like garment underneath. He holds a vajra in his hand—like this one [holds up vajra]. And he holds a three-bladed dagger in his left hand. He represents the aspect that crazy wisdom doesn’t have to be related with gentleness in order to tame somebody. In order to tame someone, you can approach him abruptly and directly. You can connect with his neurosis, his insanity; you can project sanity on the spot. That’s the notion of crazy wisdom.

Karma Pakshi was the second Karmapa. The Karmapas are the heads of the Karma Kagyü lineage, to which we belong, the practicing lineage. Since he was recognized as a great master, he was invited to the Chinese court as part of the entourage of the Dalai Lama [head of the Sakya sect, who in those days was not known as the Dalai Lama]. Karma Pakshi was always very strange; and his style was not in keeping with the protocol expected of emissaries to the Chinese imperial court. During the journey to China, he played a lot of little tricks; everybody was concerned about his power and his naughtiness, so to speak. The Sakya abbot who was supposed to become the Chinese imperial teacher didn’t like Karma Pakshi’s tricks, and had him thrown in jail. By means of his miraculous powers, Karma Pakshi turned his prison into a palace. He was able to manifest himself as a real crazy wisdom person. He proved that politeness and diplomacy were not necessary in order to convert the Chinese emperor. He showed us that straight talk is more effective than gentle talk. He didn’t say, “Buddhism would be good for your imperial health.” He just wasn’t into being diplomatic. The rest of the party got very upset; they were afraid that he might blow the whole trip, so to speak. And apparently he did! [Laughter]

Towards the end of his visit, he became the real imperial teacher. The Chinese emperor supposedly said, “The Sakya guru is fine, but how about the other one with the beard? How about him? He seems to be a very threatening person.” The energy of crazy wisdom is continuously ongoing. Karma Pakshi was always an unreasonable person—all the time. When he went back to Tibet, his monastery was still unfinished, so he ordered it to be built on an emergency basis. In that way Tsurphu monastery was founded. It was the seat of the Karmapas before the Chinese invasion of Tibet. It is interesting that such energy goes on throughout the whole lineage.

If I may, I would like to inject a bit of our own vision in connection with crazy wisdom. For us it is like wanting to buy this building, which is out of the question, in some sense, but on the other hand, it is a possibility. And we are going to do it! That seems to be Karma Pakshi’s vision, actually. He would have done a similar thing. Suppose a fantastically rich person came along. All of us might try to be nice to this particular guy or this particular lady—we might blow his trip completely, to the extent that he would be completely— switched! Although his notion of sanity was at the wrong level, he might become a great student if we were willing to take such a chance. So far, we haven’t found such a person, who would be rich enough and crazy enough and bold enough to do such a thing. But that was the kind of role Karma Pakshi played with the emperor of China. Karma Pakshi was known for his abruptness and his dedication. He possessed the intelligence of primordial wakefulness.

Then we have another interesting person in the sadhana: Tüsum Khyenpa, who was the first Karmapa, before Karma Pakshi. He was an extraordinarily solid person, extraordinarily solid, sane, and contemplative. He spent his whole life teaching and negotiating between various warring factions. There was a lot of chaos at that time; all kinds of squabbles erupted among the Tibetan principalities. By his efforts, their fighting was finally subdued. He was basically a peacemaker and a very powerfully contemplative person.

Then we have Mikyö Dorje, who was the eighth Karmapa. He was a great scholar and a great teacher, and he was very wild in his approach to reality. Once he said, “If I can light fire to the rest of the cosmos, I will do so.” That kind of burning prajna was in him all the time.

Rangjung Dorje, the third Karmapa, was a key person: he brought together the higher and lower tantras. He was an extraordinarily spacious person, and one of the most powerful exponents of mahamudra, which is at a very high level of vajrayana enlightenment experience. He was a great exponent of the ati teachings, as well.

Trungpa Rinpoche’s description of how Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje embody direct primordial wakefulness is well said.  Trungpa Rinpoche was very well attuned to how the expression of this clarity cuts in a way that at times is pleasant and at other times unpleasant.  It is very natural to want to experience the cessation of suffering; indeed, time and again we see that this is something that all beings want, even when our choices appear to just cause more and more suffering.  But it’s hard to have the clarity to know, or to recognize and feel, how we can bring about the cessation of our own suffering, as well as that of others.  Knowing, seems bookish and scholastic.  Realizing and feeling is direct and pertains to what is going on during any given situation.

I was recently struck by the realization that my own knee-jerk tepid feelings towards Catholicism have little to do with me, but are inherited reactions from the unpleasant experiences had by my parents that I came to make my own as I grew up.  Upon reflecting on this I came to see that I haven’t really engaged in an authentic relationship with Catholicism.  I picked up the habits of my parents and made them mine.  But my knee-jerk reaction hasn’t been authentic; it hasn’t been based upon primordial wakefulness.  This realization arose around my chaplaincy training.  As a chaplain I encounter a great number of Catholic patients and I have found that I have tended to feel uneasy/other-than the Catholic patients, Catholic hospital staff, or family members for whom I try to provide spiritual care.  One moment of clarity helped me to come into more direct relationship with Catholicism- of course I could have ignored it and just gone on with my habitual way of relating.

It is amazing and humbling to see how easily we react to things around us in ways that are informed by our family histories, our communities, our culture (or blend of cultures and what that brings), our sense of history (or placement within history) as well our gender (and assumptions of what that means), race, and even as humans.  I’m not sure that this is such a bad thing when we are aware of it (the relative does offer us a ground); but it’s a little more problematic when we are unconscious of how these factors strengthen the nature of our habitual reactions.  This leads me to feel very curious as to how we would all embody wakefulness?  How we would individually, and collectively, express empowerment?  How can we cut through some of the rote habitual ways in which we do not meet the expression of the present moment with wakefulness?  How can we bring this blended specificity to the practice of lhaktong?

The Buddha said that his disciples should question and test out whether his presentation of the dharma held water- that critical purchase is probably what kept the dharma going.  Otherwise I think Buddhism would have ended up less contemplative; there wouldn’t be much to do except just adopt a particular belief system.  The question is, how do we make it our own?  In many ways every person in this world system is a distinct universe; we share a variety of points of intersection and the relationship that occurs as a result of that, but our own internal relative wakefulness appears varied.  How do we individuate and blend the dharma with our experiences of living?

I read somewhere of someone asking His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche in an interview when the West would produce its own mahasiddhas.  He responded that this would happen one day- it is a definite possibility, in fact, it is likely.  So, how will this happen?

It’s hard to know.  However, the answer may be right in front of us- these two thankas of Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje point us in the direction.  To help explain my point I want to share a marvelous blog post by the wonderful lama/lotsawa Sarah Harding that I found on the Tsadra Foundation blog entitled: “As for the blessing of Vajravarahi, Marpa Lhodrakpa does not have it.” WTF?.  I can’t recommend her post enough- it is long, detailed, and treats in great detail the controversy of whether the practice of Vajravarahi (Dorje Phagmo) is authentic, what the difference between her blessing and empowerment is, as well as the “empowerments” of Mahamudra.  In a nutshell, while translating the Pakmo Namshe (a detailed description and commentary of the Kamstang practice of Dorje Phagmo) written by the illustrious and erudite 2nd Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa Rinpoche (1504-1566) Harding came to recognize that the tonality of the text was more a polemic defense of the Kagyu practice of Vajravarahi rebutting the assertions by Sakya Pandita that as there is no specific unique Sanskrit Vajravarahi Tantra, there is no historical precedent for an authentic Vajravarahi/Dorje Phagmo practice, and further, that Marpa held a false Vajravarahi lineage.

While this subject is admittedly not for all (it can be a little dry), I find it exciting; especially what is later described as the difference between empowerment and blessing around Dorje Phagmo, Mahamudra, and even the practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa.  Consider the following portions of her post:

“…[T]he tantras teach both empowerment conferral (dbang bskur) and blessing (byin rlabs). In particular, in the Sampuṭa [Tantra] it says “Having obtained the empowerment and permission (bkas gnang)” and so on. So there are the authentic empowerment conferral and the blessing permission (byin rlabs bkas gnang). Of those two, the authentic empowerment conferral is a method to sow the seeds of fivefold awareness in the unimpaired vajra body. The basis of refinement and that which refines is unmistakably set up by means of the rites of outer, inner, and secret contingency…

As for blessing, once matured by the empowerment, in order to engender the qualities that have not [yet] arisen in those individuals possessed of the sacred pledges, or for the sake of maintaining and increasing [those qualities] that have already arisen, the method for imbuing the blessings of Body, Speech and Mind are done according to the rites of the individual lineages. In particular, in the Sarma tradition of the secret mantra of Tibet, there are many [cases] concerning the blessing of Vajravārāhı: the greater and lesser Don grub ma, great and lesser dBu bcad ma, Nāropa, Maitrī mkha’ spyod, the blessing of White Vārāhı and so forth.”


“A vajra master who has accomplished mahāmudrā will mature such a [disciple of highest acumen] through blessing and teaching the path of creation and completion. When they come to understand, then they will practice because of the desire to become enlightened in a short time for the sake of sentient beings. In the case of disciples who would [only] later become suitable recipients, who at present have many discursive thoughts, they should be given the extensive ripening empowerments and guided gradually according to the three guidance manuals (zin bris rnam gsum). In that way one won’t waste disciples.

As it is explained in such sayings as “the great medicine of the instantaneous [approach] is great poison for a gradualist,” disciples must be guided according to the measure of their being. Though [given] the maturing [empowerment], there are some with most excellent faculties who will [anyway] become matured and liberated in the same instant just by seeing the face of the master or by a blessing. Those of sharp faculties, in whom the awareness will be born just by the blessings of meditative absorption such that they will have complete confidence without any doubts—that’s what’s called maturing the being.

[Some] individuals are naturally characterized by great discursiveness or are [stuck] in the mire pit of various views in this life, a pool filled with the waters of sophistry. After pouring even the last droplet of the water that has washed a thousand times the vessel of the milk of secret mantra, [they will think] this is the so-called “ocean of milk of Vajrayāna” and will grasp on to this white, sweet essence as the milk. Those [people] spread this pile of ignorance and make their living as masters. There are many [such as these] in Tibet. [When those masters] guide people in that way, the disciples become disturbed. Maturing them through wordy rituals with many elaborations to perform makes them happy. Therefore, in the blessing from the oral instructions of Lord [Tongwa] Dönden, there is the generation of elaborations such as entering into the mandala and the empowerments of five families. It is to satisfy those self-proclaiming as dull or sharp faculties. The actual blessing which comes from the oral instructions is talking about maturing those of sharp faculties.”

So, while empowerment is needed to plant the seeds; as a means to offer all of us the keys to our natural basic pristine awareness, blessings cannot, and should not be over-looked.  Blessings are the life force of our practice, they make our practice pregnant with immense possibility; they are the very dakinis that surround Mikyö Dorje.   Indeed every time we blend the body (Om), speech (Ah), and Mind (Hung), of our gurus, yidams, and protectors, of pure appearance, perhaps we are in reality opening ourselves up to the direct experience of complete effortless empowerment.  It seems that this may be the way through which we may share the same primordial wakefulness, the essential blissful luminosity, and direct insight/power as demonstrated by Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje.

I suspect that once we blend our experience of our worlds with our practice this will happen very easily and perhaps even uneventfully.  As Trungpa Rinpoche points out, in becoming more sane nothing extraordinary happens, we become more wakeful, more clear, more present and more authentic.  When we can give ourselves permission to empower ourselves and realize that the blessings that we have received from our practice is enough, that in reality that’s all there is, then clouds of siddhas will arise around the world.  Perhaps the real question is, when will we put aside our sense of inadequacy and take our seats?

“If I can light fire to the rest of the cosmos, I will do so.”  – Karmapa Mikyö Dorje


Rangjung Dorje, the 3rd Karmapa, on Ordinary Awareness and Pristine Awareness…

I find this treatise by the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, very clear and expressive in its description of the view as it relates to the nature of the qualities of our awareness.  It is also an excellent example of the depth of experience that Rangjung Dorje established and familiarized within himself.

As is pointed out in the first footnote to the translation, this text presents the shengtong  view (emptiness of other) as it relates to the emptiness of mind/phenomena.  This view, while similar to aspects of the Yogachara approach as laid out by Asanga and Maitreya, is a Madhyamaka (middle way) view.  The central point of orientation of the shengtong view is that while the mind is empty of any inherent self-nature, there is a quality of luminosity, the infinite Bhuddha-nature quality that is innate to the mind.

Some claim that a view like this is eternalist, and therefore incorrect as it suggests that since there is some kind of quality that the mind has, it cannot therefore be empty of inherent self-nature. This is the rangtong view; it is a view in which the mind is found to lack any particular nature or inherent characteristics.

While there is currently, and has been in the past, a great deal of debate around this matter (to put it mildly), perhaps these two perspectives are two sides of the same coin.  The rangtong view, simple and bare bones, seems to suggest the general theory of the Madhyamaka school, for lack of a better word.  It might be posited that the shengtong view arose, and still has currency through and around the experience of meditation, especially buddhist tantric meditation.  Indeed, I wonder what Nagarjuna would have to say about this.  Perhaps they are appropriate, or more instructive at different times and in different ways.  These two brilliant experiences are rich and offer us a great deal.

While I am not very skilled in dialectical reasoning, I am happy to leave the debate as to who is correct, the shengtonpas or the rangtongpas, to others.  But, I would like to point out that I feel that it should be noted that while the shengtong view is of central primacy for the Jonang lineage, it is also of great importance within the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages.  In fact, there appears to be lot of symmetrical terminology between the shengtonpa view and the language that is used within the Kagyu tantric completion stage practices (Six yogas of Naropa/Niguma and Mahamudra) as well as that of the Nyingma lineage (as found in the practice of Dzogchen).  I think that there is something to this.  Perhaps this relates to the language of the shengtong position in relationship to the direct experience the mind’s essential nature.  It is a position of intimacy; a view that evokes the entirety of the range of the way that mind arises.  It is full, but not overly reductive, as the rangtong position sometimes feels.

Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye was instrumental in bringing much of the shengtong view back into the Kagyu lineage.  This continued through the previous Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche, and especially the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, who was a holder of the Jonangpa Kalachakra lineage, an important source of the shengtong view that was exemplified by the great Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361), the great meditator and teacher who is credited with founding the Jonangpa Lineage.  In fact Dolpopa and Rangjung Dorje were contemporaries and spent time together.

This particular text was translated by Michael R. Sheehy, Director of the Jonang Foundation, Senior Editor at the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, and Lecturer of Buddhism and Tibetan Language at the New School here in New York.

As today is Saga Dawa, I wholeheartedly invite you to explore this text, and I pray that it adds clarity, depth, and confidence to our practice.

May it bring you benefit!  And may you bring the pacification of others’ suffering!

Ordinary Awareness & Pristine Awareness:

A Treatise on the Distinction

Composed by the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339)

To all of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, I pay homage!1

Having thoroughly relied upon learning and reflecting,

I’ve resided in secluded places in order to apply the methods of meditation. In accord with these means, I’ll now describe my experience to you.

Some people think that the triple world and all living beings arose from itself, from others, from both, or without any cause.

Others say that one’s own self and the world are generated from a creator god such as Cha, Śiva, Brahmā or Viṣṇu, from an external particle, or from a truly existing hidden substance.2


As the sole omniscient one taught, the three worlds are merely the mind.3

They are not derived from themselves, from something else, from both of these, or without a cause—all phenomena arise interdependently.

They are by their own essence empty, devoid of features that are distinct or unique, and
free from features of truth or falsity—like a magical illusion, the moon in water, and so

Knowing this, the Buddha taught to sentient beings.

In this way, from what source does so-called “delusion” and “non-delusion” arise?  Having relied upon the nature of interdependent co-origination, I have come to know this like my own image in a mirror, like fire from smoke. Here, I’ll clearly describe to you my realization.

Ordinary conscious awareness of the five sense entrances,4  

By having accepted and rejected forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures have generated emotional upset.

So, what are these so-called “sensible objects?”

If the wise were to carefully examine, they would not be able to establish the existence of anything  external  such  as  atoms  and  so  forth,  as  other  than  one’s  own  discerning cognitive awareness.5


If  the  substances  of  sensible  objects  were  simultaneously  different  than  conscious awareness, then they would not have the same nature.

Because inert material substances do not arise from indivisible immaterial cognition, their arising is not related.

By accepting that sensible objects are different than awareness, it is illogical to think that sensible objects would appear from cognitive awareness.

Because of this, whatever appears is not a sensory object different than awareness.

The occurrence of these objects is similar to the experience of conscious self-reflection.6
In fact, even the appearances of minute indivisible particles and vast openness are mind.
Since their existence cannot be established externally or separately,
The realization is that creators such as Brahmā and other such creator gods do not exist.

Furthermore,  the  relationship  between  one’s  mental  awareness  and  phenomena  are similar to the experience of a dream.7

This is to say, this relationship is consumed by the mind fixating onto referents that have no true reality.

Likewise, the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness,8 the appearances of exterior referents  and  living  beings,  self-importance,  cognitive  discernment,  and  whatever manifestations appear,

Are not produced from anything else,

They are not produced from themselves,

They are not produced from both themselves and something else,

And they are not produced from the absence of themselves and something else.

In the same way, the victorious one taught that everything within saṃsāra and nirvāṇa is merely the mind.

Causes, conditions, and dependent co-origination were taught by the Buddha to be the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness, tainted mental awareness, and the universal ground as ordinary awareness.9


The six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness are reliant upon the objective conditions of the six sensible objects of form and so forth.

The predominant condition is the six sensory faculties. They are lucidity endowed with form.

Both sense faculties and their objects arise from the mind.

The total manifestation of sense faculties and their objects rely upon sense bases that are without an inception.

Although ordinary awareness perceives objective referents,

It is the conceptualizing mental factor that cognizes their distinctive qualities.10
Mental awareness relies upon both immediate and tainted mental awareness.11

Because immediate mental awareness is the condition for the generation and dissipation of the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness,

This is in congruence and accordance with the frequency of the instantaneous generation and dissipation of the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness.

This is known by a mind imbued with yoga, and through the teachings of the victor.

Within the mind itself, there is an aspect of this immediate mental awareness that is said to  be “mental  awareness  endowed  with  tainted  emotionality”  because,  due  to  the transitory nature of the constituents of embodied experience,

It fixates onto an egocentric attitude, conceitedness, and self-infatuation while infused with ignorance.

Immediate mental awareness dissipates the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness, and is the source from which consciousness arises.

Tainted mental awareness then becomes the source for emotional upset.

For these reasons, mental awareness has two facets: it possesses the capacity to both create and obscure.

To those with particularly refined intelligence, the Buddha taught the universal ground as ordinary awareness.

This is also referred to as the “foundation for ordinary awareness,” the  “source for ordinary awareness” and the “receptacle for ordinary awareness.”

Within  it,  all  of  the  latent  propensities  generated  by  the  seven  modes  of  ordinary
awareness are accumulated distinctively and neutrally—like rainwater flowing into the

This is why it is called, “ripening awareness.”

Because it generates everything, and is the ground from which all seeds emerge, it is referred to as the “causal condition.”

Nevertheless, since it is reversed when the seven modes of ordinary awareness are inverted, it is also known as “conditional ordinary awareness.”

This universal ground as ordinary awareness is the embodiment of everything external and internal, the source of all that is to be relinquished.

So, it is said that it can be subdued through “vajra-like meditative stabilization.”

When the universal ground as ordinary awareness along with its defilements is reversed, there is mirror-like pristine awareness.

Every mode of pristine awareness appears without identifying with a substantial self, they are continuous and utterly without interruption.

Because this realizes what can be known with a reference,

And because this is the reason for every type of pristine awareness,
This is referred to as the “ultimate dimension of phenomena.”12

The  emotionally  tainted  mental  awareness  is  totally  subjugated  by  the “meditative

stabilization of courageous movement.”

Disturbing emotions are entirely relinquished through insight and meditative cultivation.

Once upsetting emotions are absent, saṃsāric existence and nirvāṇic quiescence cease. This is the pristine awareness of equanimity.

Immediate mental awareness apprehends by seizing onto the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness.

Its discursive thinking is produced by conceptualization,

And its perfect discernment subdues through “illusion-like meditative stabilization.”

When great patience is acquired though transforming apprehensions and their objective references, pure realms are revealed.

Ever-pervasive  pristine  awareness  and  unimpeded  pervasive  activities  thoroughly transform the source of thoughts into the pristine awareness of discernment.

In this way, these two types of pristine awareness—equanimity & discernment—through
pure meditation, do not abide within saṃsāric existence and nirvāṇic quiescence.
Imbued with tranquility, love, and compassion while encompassed within the surrounds
of retinues and multifarious dimensions of enlightenment, they express the utterances of

The melodious maṇḍala of the magnificent teachings resounds within the treasury of every profound meditative absorption and mystical formulation.

This is referred to as the “dimension of complete resplendence.”13

The five sense entrances and mental awareness are a single quality.

Through perfect analysis, there arises the way of the four truths endowed with their differing aspects, the sixteen wisdoms of knowing, acceptance, and so forth.
Sensible objects are perceived directly and their actuality is realized.

The five sense faculties are transformed when there is engagement with all of their corresponding sensible objects, and the qualitative attributes of everything is magnified twelve-hundred-fold through the power of magnetizing.

This is the final accomplishment, all-accomplishing pristine awareness.

That which through innumerable and inconceivable manifestations of every variety, at all times, within every realm of existence, will accomplish benefit for every being is known as the magnificent “emanatory dimension.”14

Mind, mental awareness, and ordinary perceptual awareness are transformed into the three enlightened dimensions imbued with their activities;

Complete within the uncontrived maṇḍala of the ultimate sphere of phenomena.

All things reside without saṃsāra or nirvāṇa or their inceptions—free from singularity of diversity.

This is referred to as the “essential dimension.”15


In other scriptures by the victorious one, this is taught to be the “ultimate dimension.”
The mirror-like pristine awareness is regarded as the embodied dimension of pristine awareness, and the other types of pristine awareness are said to be the two enlightened form dimensions.16


Buddhahood is actualizing the nature of the five types of pristine awareness and the four enlightened dimensions.

What is embellished by the distortions of the mind, mental awareness, and ordinary perceptual awareness is the universal ground as ordinary awareness.
What is free from distortion is described as, “the essence of the victorious ones.”

The Buddha taught that the truth of the spiritual journey is seizing onto the capacity of the discerning wisdom of the exalted ones that arises from sublime conceptualization, and that quells profane conceptualizations.

By not understanding this way of the ultimate,

The delusional stray about within the ocean of saṃsāra.

By not understanding this Mahāyāna vessel, and without transforming yourself, How could you ever cross to the far-off shore?

May everyone realize the meaning of this treatise!

“Ordinary Awareness and Pristine Awareness: A Treatise on the Distinction” was composed on the 1st day of the 10th lunar month of the year of the swine (1323) in the mountain hermitage called, “Dechen Teng” [“The Aperture of Bliss”] by Rangjung Dorje.

Translated by Michael R. Sheehy, Ph.D.


1 This work by the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje is included here in Jonang Foundation’s Digital Library because it reflects a view that has been characterized as ”zhentong” (gzhan stong) by later Tibetan authors, most notably Jamgön Kongtul (1813-99), see Mathes (2004), 288-94. Rangjung Dorje was a contemporary of Dolpopa and they met to discuss such views on at least one occasion, see Stearns (1999), 17.
2 Cha (phyva) literally means “luck” or “fortune.” Here it refers to an ancient pre-Buddhist Bönpo belief about the creator of the world. In this conception, “Cha” is the reason for all eventual prosperity. These are references to the theistic tendency to rely on an external force. For a closer study of this text with Jamgön Kongtul’s commentary, see Sheehy (2005).

3 This is a reference to cittamātra (sems tsam).

4 The five sense entrances (sgo lnga) are: (1) eyes; (2) ears; (3) nose; (4) mouth; (5) body. 5 The term here is: rnam rig shes pa.

6 The term here is: rang rig. This is a term that denotes the capacity of awareness to know itself or be selfaware.

7 The term here is: yid (manas). This is referring to the conceptual or ideational operations of cognitive awareness.

8 The six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness (tshogs drug) are: (1) visual perceptual awareness; (2) auditory perceptual awareness; (3) olfactory perceptual awareness; (4) gustatory perceptual awareness; (5) tactile perceptual awareness.

9 The terms here are: nyon yid ki rnam shes and kun gzhi rnam shes

10 Here it reads, sems byung ‘du byed while an alternative reading is sems byung ‘du shes. See Rang byung (2002), n. 20.

11 The term here is: ma thag dang nyon yid. This refers to the four conditions (rkyen bzhi) that preserve the continuity (rang rgyud) of cognitive awareness through immediate subsequent experiential moments of conscious experience. The term: ‘jig tshogs here refers to a composite of many elements of the skandhas that is destroyed instant by instant. Skandhas are the psychophysical constituents that comprise ordinary embodied experience.

12 The term here is: dharmakāya, chos sku.

13 The term here is: sambhogakāya, longs spyod rdzogs sku. 14 The term here is: nirmāṇakāya, sprul sku.

15 The term here is: svabhāvakāya, ngo bo nyid sku

16 This is a reference to: nirmāṇakāya and sambhogakāya.

Tibetan Sources

Kong sprul Blo gros mtha’ yas, ‘Jam mgon. Rnam par shes pa dang ye shes ‘byed pa’i

bstan bcos kyi tshig don go gsal du ‘grel pa rang byung dgongs pa’i rgyan ces bya ba. Sikkim: Rum btegs, 1972.

Mkha’ khyab Rdo rje, The 15th Karmapa. Rnam par shes pa dang ye shes ‘byed pa’i

bstan bcos kyi mchan ‘grel rje btsun ‘jam pa’i dbyangs ki zhal lung nor bu ke ta ka dri ma med pa’i  ‘od. In Three Important Verse Treatises on Aspects of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism: By H.H. the 3rd Karma-pa Ran-byung-rdo-
rje, with Annotations Expanding the Text (mchan) by H.H. the 15th Karma-pa Mkha-khyab-rdo-rje. New Delhi: Delhi Karmapae Chodhey Gyalwae Sungrab Partun Khang, 1976.

Rang byung Rdo rje, The 3rd Karmapa. Rnam shes ye shes ‘byed pa’i bstan bcos. Sikkim:
Rum btegs, 1972.

__________. Rnam shes ye shes ‘byed pa dang de bzhin gshegs pa’i snying po bstan pai
bstan bcos zhes bya ba. Kathmandu, Boudha: Dharma Kara Publications, 2002.

Western Sources

Mathes, Klaus-Dieter. “Tāranātha’s ‘Twenty-one Differences with Regard to the

Profound Meaning’—Comparing the Views of the Two Gźan stoṅ Masters Dol po pa and Śākya Mchog ldan.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 27, 2, 285-328, 2004.

Sheehy, Michael R. “Rangjung Dorje’s Variegations of Mind: Ordinary Awareness and
Pristine  Awareness  in  Tibetan  Buddhist  Literature.”  In  D.K.  Nauriyal (ed.).

Routeledge Curzon’s Critical Series in Buddhism. Buddhist Thought & Applied
Psychological Research. London: Routledge Curzon Press, 2005.
Stearns, Cyrus R. The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the
Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsan. New York: State University of New
York Press, 1999.

© 2007 Michael R Sheehy.

Courtesy of the Ngedon Thartuk Translation Initiative


calling upon Mahakala….

Two weeks ago, I spent a sunny Saturday down on the Gowanus canal performing the general Kamstang Kagyu Mahakala sadhana.  I decided to also bring a vase full of water mixed with water blessed by the breath of his holiness the 17th Karmapa, water from the annual bumchan ritual at Tashiding Monastery in Sikkim, blessed nectar pills from the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche and H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche, and other substances that I’ve come to acquire over the years to bless the canal.
In my last post I wondered if the protector Shingkyong may be a powerful protector for those who wish to benefit others through the aid of Amitabha practice, specifically chaplains.  After further thought, I feel that it is true; Shingkyong is a protector of chaplains.
Or perhaps he and his retinue can be, if we let him.
What then of Mahakala?
Mahakala Bernakchen is the protector of the Karma Kagyu lineage.  Mahakala Chakdrupa,  a form of Mahakala with six-arms trampling Ganesha, is the main protector of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, and was also introduced as a protector within the Gelug lineage by Tsongkhapa.
Mahakala has even been approached as a geo-political weapon of international influence. Indeed, the Mongols during the 12th and 13th centuries were quick to adopt Mahakala as their patron deity.  Recognizing his power, Mahakala became a powerful symbol of spirituality amidst their larger militaristic expansion.  Mahakala both empowered and justified their growth. During the difficult struggle to maintain a favorable relationship with the Mongols by the Sakya and Kagyu lineages, there was a change of succession between Kubilai Khan and his Buddhist brother Munga who was a disciple of the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi.  Fearful of the powerful influence of Karma Pakshi, the new story goes, Kubilai Khan had Karma Pakshi confined to the Chinese Imperial Palace where he was tied by his beard and suffered other forms of mistreatment.

Several sources say that Karma Pakshi prayed to Mahakala Bernakchen, but Mahakala took so long putting on his boots, that by the time he got there, Karma Paskshi’s mistreatment had ended.  However, as he had been summoned, he was obliged to strike something with the hook-knife that he always holds ready to destroy obstacles. The Karmapa had him strike the palace.  Apparently, there is still a large gash in the Imperial Palace.

I think that the imputed meaning in this story is that Mahakala is extremely powerful, and that one should watch out when calling upon him.  Ronald M. Davidson in his wonderful book, Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture, describes in great detail some of the palpable terror that was known to have swept the Tibetan plateau as the political stage changed around this time period.  The fear of the roving Mongol armies and the seduction of the wealth and power of the Tangut empire attracted many towards the very destructive forces that acted like plagues, often destroying everything in sight.  This kind of political instability is something that many of us in the West have little experience with, but that Mahakala was relied upon when perhaps nothing else seemed to help speaks to the power of his commitment to benefit beings, not to mention his swift efficacious response.

Mahakala is the manifestation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.  Below is a description of the origin of Mahakala as presented by, the website for Thrangu Rinpoche’s monastery in Canada:

Origin of Mahakala:

The compassion of the red Buddha Amitabha manifested as Avalokiteshvara who took a vow to forgo his own enlightenment until all the realms of samsara had been emptied.

This vow required a renewal of determination, and so with Amitabha’s blessing, Avalokiteshvara next assumed a form with eleven heads and a thousand arms. Still he had been unable to benefit even a few beings.

Therefore after reflecting for one whole week, he determined that by assuming a wrathful form he would be able “to subdue the degenerate beings of this Age of Darkness.” Also he saw that even beings who practiced Dharma were unable to escape from the Bardo realms (time between rebirths where beings may face great anxiety and terrifying experiences) and he thought that in wrathful form he could also protect them in that way.  And lastly, he thought that the beings in this Dark Age were poor and needy, experiencing only suffering after suffering, and that in wrathful form he could provide them an antidote to that suffering so that by simply making the wish (for protection) their needs could be met.

These three motives made his determination even greater than before and so from the heart of Noble Avalokiteshvara emerged a dark blue HUNG syllable that immediately became the Instantaneous Protector of Wisdom, Mahakala.

The foundations of all the Pure Lands shook with six kinds of earthquakes, and the Conquering and Transcending One of Immeasurable Light (Amitabha) and all the other Tathagatas of the ten directions proclaimed with one voice:

“Son of the family, it is well that you have made this resolution. You shall have the empowerment of all the wisdom dakinis. You shall have the strength of the wrathful Yama, Lord of Death. You shall have the mountain spirits, the yakshas, the devils and the demonesses as your messengers. You shall embody the great wrathful empowerments of the Body, Speech, Mind, Qualities and Activity of all the Buddhas throughout the three times.”

Ever since, bodhisattva Mahakala is the Dharma (Buddha’s Doctrine) Protector of all Buddha fields

Lakes of blood, wild stallions, human hearts, flayed elephant and human skins, and ravens; Mahakala, the compassionate protector, is intense.  I am reminded of the protector shrine at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim where the ceilings and walls are adorned with weapons and animal skins, the room is thick with an atmosphere of  near viscous intensity.  I have also spent time in the protector shrines of Ralung Monastery and Bokar Rinpoche’s monastery; each one has a similar feeling.  They are seats of great power: pithas.  When in a place like these special shrine rooms it seems that at any moment Trakshe, one of the protectors in Mahakala’s entourage, will swoop down riding his demonic horse.  While he is oath-bound to protect us, he and the rest of Mahakala’s retinue is nevertheless terrifying in many ways.

The importance of these protectors is paramount.  As we wander throughout our lives, often blinded by our own presuppositions and assumed projections about what things mean and who we are, Mahakala and other dharma protectors help us to clear away these missapprehensions.  They tear away our blockages, and they are completely comfortable to bring a gun to a knife-fight.  There is no amount of force that they are afraid to bring.  As they approach, bringing tempestuous clouds and waves of powerful shock, they are also gentle, their hands are experienced, like those of a surgeon or artist.  They act so that we suffer less; so that we become ever more clear.
Mahakala is magnetizing.   Perhaps this is so because we find him, and other protectors like him, very representative of emotions that we are not so comfortable with as they arise within ourselves.  Wrathfulness and anger.  Most of the time we don’t want to own these emotions when they burn through us.  When our pulse quickens, as you can feel your veins and arteries constrict; when we redden in the face, and actually become hot with rage…  …what is there? What is happening right then?  What is that anger?  That rage?  Or the need to destroy?
In reality, in an ultimate sense, that feeling- that impulse- is just an appearance.  The arousal of feeling and emotion- a fleeting adventitious stain (to use a wonderful term from the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje’s Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer),a cloud no different from any other cloud that arises in the sky.
What happens when we sit with that hot rage, and just let is arise?  No repression.  No alchemical transmutation; just letting it arise with nothing to feed on other than itself.  What happens to it?  Does it go anywhere?
Sometimes I wonder why so many people are attracted to wrathful Buddhas.  In the spirit of critical inquiry I wonder if perhaps there is an element of seduction in seeing something that appears similar to our worst qualities (misapprehended anger and rage) personified and celebrated.  It almost lets us off the hook, right?   “Hey, why can’t I just get angry?  I’m like Mahakala!”  I hope that whenever I think this way Mahakala smacks me with smokey smoldering rage.  Mahakala doesn’t empower us to be emotional libertines; but he does raise us up through our power of clear direct action.  Sometimes this can be motivated by anger and rage, and that’s okay when it is known, when it is conscious, and when we are mindful of what the process is.
I don’t think that Mahakala is necessarily enlightened anger; but perhaps he is the underlying force that anger touches upon.  Somehow enlightened anger sounds too simplistic, Mahakala is a strong force of compassion, a need to act;  the level to which his compassion is expressed, it’s very strength and ferocity is easily mistaken for anger.
I have been told many times to offer tormas to my yidam and also to the dharma protectors. Bokar Rinpoche often stressed the importance of the Short Torma Offering for Chakdrupa, and I still remember my fist experiences making these offerings.  I shuddered with electrical excitement at the power that Chakdrupa is embodies.   The power of the act of honoring, supplicating, and maintaining samaya (pure relationship) with Chakdrupa was very moving.  This is an aspect of practice that is very important- not because someone who practices tantric Buddhism should just do this kind of thing  (in a religious kind of way)- but because it feels vital to have a relationship with the forces of great inner change, great protection, and great expansive growth.  In having a relationship with these things our relationship with Mahakala becomes intimate; this type of intimacy and reliance helps to make use more whole and more engaged.  Engaged open freedom.
So, I offered tormas to Mahakala and his retinue to bless the Gowanus Canal, the navel of Brooklyn and a sacred pitha, and all sentient beings throughout space, so that all obstacles would be dispelled; so that auspicious conditions for dharma practice may arise.  I tried to bring my awareness to the clouds of Mahakala’s entourage as it filled the space around me.  His cloud of intense blessings mixed with my smoke offerings, and the rain of his flaming amrita blessed the contents of the bumpa vase which in turn blessed the canal and the entire area.  In this way Mahakala arose to aid in removing all illness, all famine, untold unexpressed suffering, all injustice, and all  inner and outer pollution leaving behind the cool breeze of mahamudra-just-sitting-there-by-the-canal.  Somehow I feel that some benefit occurred…
…I pray that we may all know, feel, and be included within the canopy of activity of Mahakala in all of his forms, and that Palden Lhamo, Trakshe and all of the others ride swiftly by our sides as we glide through this wonder world.