on text, owning our language and the ghostly apparitions of self…
I have been somewhat remiss in writing over the summer- my primary excuse is the time consuming work that I have put into renovating the space that we will be using for New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center. My secondary excuse cuts a little closer to the bone; I was feeling uninspired and unsure about claiming the role as one of the two resident teachers at the dharma center.
Lately I have found myself struggling between feeling like a defender of vajrayana orthodoxy and a greater rebelliousness around how vajrayana is presented here in the United States. Or, more specifically, I have been struggling to make sense of the way that tantric Buddhism has come into being as we know it according to the latest historical research, versus the way that Tibetan common religious history describes it. A recent trip to India only helped to add more fuel to this struggle.
Right now I feel that I am swimming in text and coming to appreciate that the dharma is so fluid and hard to pin down that any attempt to understand it historically is very difficult. Tantric Buddhism is often a murky world where definitive meaning is less commonly found than one might like. Yet there is a great benefit in exploring the historical record; what better way to learn than through the experience of others? What better way to appreciate a sadhana than to see how it has come down to us from the 8th century to this moment? What better way to try an connect to a lineage than to see just how syncretic it has been up until recently?
Pulled in these two directions (the orthodox and the rebellious), I occasionally find myself desiring the room and time to distill and slowly mull-over, consider, and explore the rich complexities that surround the foggy notion that there is an objective definitive knowledge of tantric Buddhism. More appealing to me is when I feel able to dance between my connection to orthodoxy and rebelliousness, between the sneaky rebel, ready to shift identity and push through my own stogy norms, and a sense of connection to a definitive lineage, a member of a family of lineal descendents that ground, orient, and provide me with a feeling of connection to those who have come before me. Such a dance can be hard, even exhausting, other times it can be blissfully easy and infectious, like a warm breeze in the early spring, igniting a deep happiness that presages a sense of well-being. Indeed this is the well-spring that inspires me in planning the curriculum of classes that will be offered at New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center.
As previously mentioned, I recently returned from Palchen Chosling Monastery in Sikkim, India. I was there to attend the Kagyü Ngak Dzöd empowerments and the related oral transmission offered respectively by His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche and the retreat master at Palchen Chosling Monastery’s retreat center, Drubon Rinpoche. An astounding event, the Kawang ceremonies were elaborate and extensive. The chief recipient was His Holiness Taklung Shabdung Rinpoche Rangrig Dorjee Nyima, the head of the Taklung sub-lineage of the larger Kagyu lineage. There were also a variety of other tulkus and khenpos from all over the Himalayan area who came to receive this vital transmission. The Kagyü Ngak Dzöd is one of the “Five Treasuries” that was compiled in the 19th century by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye. Out of the five, this is a collection of all of the empowerment texts, sadhanas, commentaries, and pith instructions of the thirteen major tantric practices that Marpa Lotsawa received in India at the feet of Naropa, Maitrepa, Sri Santibhadra and others. Included are the major and minor practices of Vajrapani and the long life practice of Amitayus from Machik Drupai Gyalmo as received by Rechungpa from his teachers in India, Balachandra and Machik Drupai Gyalmo herself. Also added by Kongtrul are the empowerments of Chakshipa (four-arm Mahakala) and Dusulma (Vetali) and Tseringma.
Of all of Kongtrul’s five treasuries, the Kagyü Ngak Dzöd has always held a special place in my heart. I think that the main reason for this is that I have a strong interest in the early roots of the Kagyü lineage, especially the transfer/transplanting of the core lineage practices from 11th century India to Tibet. Even the very act of bringing the texts that comprise the Kagyü Ngak Dzöd from Ralang to Brooklyn felt like a way to connect to Marpa Lotsawa- in the right setting it could even be seen as a form of guru yoga.
When we read the biographies of Marpa and similar figures of that time period, most of which were composed centuries after their actual lives were lived, we read of the hardship experienced in travel, of the dangerousness of the water and roads, of the corruption of the custom agents, even the identity/racial tensions between the enlightened Indians and Nepalis and their otherwise dim-witted neighbors from the north. In short, it was not easy for Marpa- and when we look closely, and perhaps even more importantly, when we look honestly, most of these same factors still exist today for western students of dharma who travel to India to learn at the feet of great masters there. The only difference is that it is often the Tibetans now, and not the Indians, who assume that we are naturally dim-witted vessels capable of nothing more than confusing the dharma for which we have come to learn.
This sensibility is so powerfully present within our conception of who we are in relation to Tibetans, and it was demonstrated with great clarity during a break in the empowerments I attended in Sikkim. A western woman who was attending the Kawang ceremonies tried to convince me that English is inherently a violent language in comparison to Tibetan, a language which she said was naturally coded with self-arising compassion and enlightened activity. There was, she claimed, evidence proved by brain scans that showed that when one speaks English there is an activation of all of the centers of the brain associated with anger, and of course, when one speaks Tibetan, an activation of all of the brain centers associated with compassion. Tibetan history certainly stands as a witness, as it should, to prove that such views are overly facile and fairytale projections that I would love to see expanded upon. Nevertheless, I was saddened and curious as to why this otherwise intelligent and motivated person wanted to assume that she was inherently flawed by the language that she spoke, indeed, even gravely hindered by this language to the point where dharma practice seemed more of an aspiration than something she could actually allow herself access to. For her, the practice works better if you are Tibetan, or at least speak Tibetan. What then of the 11th and 12th century Tibetans who never knew Sanskrit, the language from which the tantras were translated?
I am beginning to wonder whether or not dharma practice can really take root and generate fruit in the West without a deep exploration of the way we blend it within ourselves to reveal our conceptual habits- especially those of language. I am by no means a linguist, nor am I sure that one needs to be a linguist in order to explore how we use language, how we appreciate language, and how we unconsciously express ourselves (especially our habits and frames of reference) through language. There seems to be a great deal of power and transformative value within examining, and perhaps even unraveling all of the assumptions that we create through rote linguistic responses to the events and circumstances around us. Language is, after all, a set of symbols. Words often have a variety of meanings, ephemeral like soft wispy smoke starting out in one form and transforming as if through an alchemical process, into something else. We craft dialectics out of these words, define stances, elucidate positions, hammer-out identities and create entire worlds out of these words. Often these worlds are created out of a dialectic that supports us in our self-oriented perspective of the world within which we find ourselves; a position that creates suffering.
These powerful words can take on such seemingly real and concrete meaning that a critical investigation of how we create our identities (and thereby reinforce them through language) is vital to ensure that we can blend dharma practice (whichever form it takes) into our experience of life. This contemplative practice of examining how we continue to bind ourselves to a samsaric dialectic is very important. The woman I described above is a great example of someone who while well-meaning, has placed herself in a position in which she can’t allow herself the fruition of dharma practice because of the identity that she has created for herself- an identity that is not Tibetan.
How we use language and whether or not we can gather the guts to claim our practice within our linguistic (and perhaps even cultural/genetic backgrounds) is thus very important and not something to be taken lightly.
During my recent time in Sikkim I was grateful (and lucky) to share a handful of evenings with a friend who is both a gifted lama and translator. He happens to be American, did a three-year retreat in Mirik at the seat of the late kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, Bokar Ngedhon Chökhor Ling, and is now very interested/concerned with how dharma practice appears in the West and what it will look like as it continues to be transferred from India, Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. Of the many topics that we discussed, one of the primary ones that we came back to was the translation of dharma texts from Tibetan to English. In his eyes this seemed to be vitally important (for him as a translator) and for me in the sense that I happen to be convinced that we may just be playing “buddhist” house until we pull our practice (including practice texts and all commentarial literature) into our experience of life. A real sustained and honest exegesis is important if we really want to honor the spirit demonstrated within the core existential frustration and soul-searching (for lack of a better term) engendered by the Buddha and countless later masters. It may be that in failing to do this, the galvanizing factors that lead us to practice risk being lost by the sedating power of scented candles, plush meditation cushions, expensive meditation clothing, and prohibitively expensive weekend retreats.
In a dharma world where people seem to vacillate between ‘sitting’ dharma and ‘service’ dharma, sometimes in a cycle of burnout where one replenishes the other, I don’t see dharma but a cycle of subtle suffering within the dharma. Such a dynamic seems to lack depth and a greater awareness of how to become the dharma, how to integrate it.
How humbling that even great bodhisattvas, before achieving the 8th bhumi known as Achala (or Immovable) are still susceptible to wrong view, mistaken perspectives and mistakes in guiding others. No wonder it is possible to misinterpret our surroundings, our direction and even our intentions. Perhaps for this reason a sustained exegesis may be central to spiritual growth; a way to bolster and reinforce personal meditative experience.
What does sustained exegesis mean, or what might it look like?
There is no one answer to this question. After a number of evenings of conversation that lasted several hours with my friend in Sikkim we retired feeling passionately about our individual interests, paths, and the fiery topics that inspire and create the conditions to re-double our effort and energy around practice. What we found was that our interests, and perhaps by extension, our paths are and will be different. They are unique to who we are, to our qualities, and the way that we manifest in relation to, and within the dharma.
Whether it be Karma Chakme’s commentary on Rangjung Dorje’s writings on Chöd contained within the Rinchen Trengwa, or Pawo Tsugklag Trengwa’s commentaries on Vajrayogini, or any number of practice texts and their supporting literature, it is important to blend ourselves into the text. It is important to examine how our habitual linguistic theories about ‘ourselves’ and the way we ‘are’ remain discordant from the paths laid before us. How do we achieve a sense of connection to lineage? What does it take to breathe our exegetic process? What would it look like to constantly occupy a sense of connection to the center of whatever mandala that we practice? How will we manifest that in a manner that honors our natural abilities?
Not only are these are profoundly important questions that need to be resolved on a personal level within the context of our individual practice as well as within our dharma communities, they are not new. Ronald M. Davidson touches on this topic in relation to the way in which Marpa Lotsawa achieved experience within his dharma practice as well that of Gampopa in his thought provoking book Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. Davidson relates that Marpa and his student Ngok Chödor, who was the central inheritor of his lineage of textual exegesis, especially with regard to the Hevajra Tantra, was a proponent of the earlier Indian tradition of textual exegesis through which Marpa was able to master the large amount of tantric textual material that he learned from Naropa and his other teachers. Of this he writes:
It may be strange to some readers to stress the difference between tantric study and tantric practice, but Marpa himself was said to have obtained Buddhahood without meditating, and Drokmi’s pandita Gayadhara was noted for seldom practicing contemplation. In fact, by the late eleventh and early twelfth century, tantric exegesis had become an important area of study and exercise, and Gampopa’s received writings seldom quoted the tantras and almost never made reference to the normative points of controversy in the tantric commentaries.
Davidson points out the value that was placed upon tantric exegesis which when fully engaged can offer a powerful compliment to contemplative practice. It may be that this aspect of ‘practice’, one which I like to think of as ‘breathing text’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘becoming text’, seems to fall by the wayside by our often simplistic modern romantic sensibilities that suggest that text and textual study is less important than meditation practice. To create this kind of dichotomy is unnecessary. In fact it doesn’t make sense. When our practice becomes so natural that we have memorized parts of our sadhanas, where does text end and where does the practice of meditation begin? The same goes for mantras; when we blend mantra recitation with resting in mind, how can you make a distinction between the two?
Another great consideration comes from the potential power of words. As I have mentioned in previous blog posts in reference to the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche’s wonderful condensed commentary on the ninth Karmapa’s Ocean of Definitive Meaning, the mind is pointed out as the lama, as is appearance, and by extension, text. In this regard I am reminded of reading a number of dharma texts that electrified me, gave me goosebumps, and seemed to shift my perspective so that I could see more clearly. In fact, the feeling created in those moments can be incredibly profound and if not always life-changing, perhaps practice-changing. Several pointing-out texts come to mind, as do certain sufi texts and a variety of chan Buddhist texts. It seems clear that no one spiritual tradition seems to have a monopoly on the power of well placed words (nor does any specific language).
The brilliance of Gampopa, one of the heart sons of Jetsun Milarepa, may lay in his synthetic approach to exegesis. He was known for many things, a gifted meditator, a focused monk,and a Tibetan doctor, as well as other attributes attested in his biographies. What is less emphasized is the uniquely ‘outsider’ approach that Gampopa took towards exegesis. Lacking the same traditional training emphasized by Marpa and Ngok Chödor, Gampopa created his own doctrinal line that blended Kagyu traditions with Kadampa traditions often using traditional Mahayana language to explain tantra, and vice versa. This fusion, was indeed new and kicked up quite a storm that lasted for centuries. His blending of the yogic tradition maintained by Milarepa, Marpa, Naropa and Tilopa with the primarily Mahayana monastic tradition that was represented by the Kadampa was in many ways unprecedented.
It took centuries for Buddhism to take root in Tibet from India in a way that was Tibetan. I tend to feel that it will take a similar amount of time in the West. In a sense, we are living in the midst of a very exciting time, a time not unlike that of Marpa. If this is the case, how can we take the dharma that has been brought to us and allow for it to take root and blend within our general culture? How can we do this within our individual cultures of language, or perception, and experience? Will we allow ourselves to empower ourselves to breath the texts that have been passed down over a thousand years and let authentic dharma arise? What does that look like for us right now?
When we look at how we practice in this light, as part of a continuum, in which we help to shape the future just as those who have come before us helped to shape us where we are now, these issues feel more alive and immediate than they are often presented. Our texts, our service, and our mediation seats beat with the life of dharma that is so full of vitality and unbelievable potential. I pray that we can allow ourselves to express this fully and thereby let the seeds of untold realization take root on these shores! May great fields of indigenous mahasiddhas arise in this moment! May we arise as buddhas!
Hi justin.. Great post. Thanks so much for asking these questions and posting your thoughts. I too have been chewing on some of this same material myself lately. I find myself saddened at times when I see what seems to be a choice to fetishize Tibetan culture at the expense of genuine personal connection. It almost seems at times that we prefer to keep dharma distant and separate, maybe as far as the himalayas, in an attempt to reinforce an idea that we are fundamentally incapable of realizing the profound meaning. It seems a tricky dance we are involved at this point in time… how do we sit up straight and believe in ourselves, so to speak, but at the same time maintain a sense of devotion and deep connection to lineage? I really appreciate your comments on the living text as practice and connecting with the text through our own experience. It seems as if the leap to trusting ourselves seems both so difficult but so close at the same time (at times). Anyway, great stuff! just my $0.02. Thanks.. hope you’re well!
Thanks Timothy. Warm greetings to you- it’s great to read your comments. As you must know well as a chaplain, when spirituality is kept distant and separate, one removes any real ability to hold a sense of meaning and connection that comforts, enriches or allows us a larger context for our experience of life. I suspect that there is a great deal of fear inherent in considering all of the ways that we fool ourselves individually, not to mention culturally as we inadvertently rob ourselves of the possibility of placing ourselves on an equal footing with many we might meet in the Himalayas. And yet, we really have so much at our fingertips here in the States- whole practice lineages are available for us. I have long felt that the determinate force with which Tilopa took from the dakinis in Uddiyana the secret instructions associated with Chakrasamvara practice, an act somewhat similar to Prometheus, arises as very salient and potentially profound symbol for us in our practice. How can we afford to be docile? If we allowed that then the warm breath of the dakinis would loose their warmth (and relevance) and become mere artifacts in history of religious thought. I’m not into letting that happen. Be well! J
I, too, enjoy your thoughtful reflections, Justin, which are themselves a direct contribution to the “solution” of the difficulties you outline, even if they don’t come to a final, decisive conclusion. They very much advance the process, which is more important (as the process never ends). You might find some value in my new book, _Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism_, due out any day now from Columbia University Press, which takes a semiological approach to understanding the Indian traditions (and has some relevance as well for the Tibetan). Take care!
Tashi Delek Christian!
I really appreciate your feedback- I must admit that I was just looking at your book on amazon, it looks like an important book; one which I look forward to reading.
As for definitive conclusions, I like to think that they will come to pass based upon how well (or don’t) we manage to authentically engage tantric Buddhism. It will doubtless be a grand experiment!
Great to hear from you. Stay in touch!
Hi there Justin. Happened upon this and really enjoyed reading it. Great to see where you are taking your practice and how you are taking part in shaping the experience others can have of the dharma. Really excited for you and for the questions you raised. I imagine you’ll have a wonderful time sorting through these cultural and linguistic challenges with those you meet and share your mind with. Like Christian said, your thoughtful reflections will help give rise to a greater awareness to these issues. As for those entering this stream of experience and wanting to gain a level of integrity and immediacy with Buddhist texts and history trust in the path of humility and inquiry and know that others will see their practice change and clarify, a sangha that has yet to articulate it’s own language but willing to explore how best to authenticate experience of trying. More will always be revealed!!!!
Many blessings to you, your growing community and your family!