on bustin’ up sacred cows like piñatas and re-envisioning our frames of reference…
A participant and fellow traveler on the journey created by the new class on Buddhist Tantra which recently set sail from New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center suggested that I write a blog post to explore and refute the analysis of how the Madhyamaka view arose in India as presented by Ronald M. Davidson in his book, Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. Davidson essentially posits that the middle-way position demonstrated by the Madhyamaka was borne out of dialectical necessity in response to the intellectual climate of the time, a possible influence by Greek Skepticism, as well as an environment of competition for support and patronage of various Hindu and Buddhist schools of thought. In all of its slippery middle-way dynamism the Madhyamaka won out for it’s virtually unknowable evenness, and for entering the realm of epistemology as a means of defending Buddhism from the attacks of Hindu philosophers. Socially and historically, Davidson’s position seems to make sense- he paints the picture of a time in which it seems very possible that at the very least the social dynamics at play in that moment helped the Madhyamaka position gain the favor that it did. Davidson’s book seeks to present the development of Indian Esoteric Buddhism through the lens of social history- as such it is not surprising that he would make this argument. That said, Davidson’s argument does stand at odds with the prevailing description of the rise of the Madhyamaka as presented within the standard histories found within the various lineages of Himalayan Tantric Buddhism as well as larger Mahayana literature. My friend’s discomfort and sense of irritation makes sense. I still remember sitting opposite the Buddhist scholar Christian Wedemeyer eighteen years ago when I was an idealistic twenty year old one morning for breakfast at the YWCA in Delhi when he told me for the first time that there we probably many Nagarjunas. Oh, the strange and irrational discomfort that coursed through my being during that meal.
Yet, when we look more closely, this kind of reaction is not so surprising. There appears to be a rich and wonderfully marbled lump of meat to be found between the bones of standard orthodoxy and those of deeper investigative analysis, meat that can sustain us, that we can offer up towards deeper practice, meat that we can offer to the yidams the dakas and dakinis as well as the dharmapalas and the members of their entourage.
The meat of fear, of anger and pride, made fatty and nutritious through the habits of wanting to be good, to succeed and not wanting to look at the inconsistencies that may exist within our own personal integration with our theology is delicious! What delicacy!
This still warm flesh, smelling of iron and mineral sustenance, salty and thus not unlike the tears remaining after a possible breakdown related to examining our sacred cows, our idolized notions and our addictions to squeaky clean reductive perfection is a nutritious meal. These salty tears and the wondrous tear-ducts that offer a seemingly endless supply are the source of vital ornamentation when we finally notice how much we have taken for granted our lineage, the patchwork of terms- the words and lines of thought- that we feel the need to project upon ourselves rather than looking to see if we can find them within ourselves.
Seldom do we take the time to dissect what we have within us as we explore the fantastic and wonderful structures that we seek to force upon everything around us. It is rare that we can hold the skin of our identity-within-our-practice pinned back, open, revealing all of that which drives us to want to transcend, or transform things, including aspects of ourselves that we cannot accept. Even more rare are the times when we can see how calcified our hearts have become by the thick hard fat of self-righteousness, how tired and inflamed our organs may have become through our stubborn dogmatism, our desire to make clouds solid, our attempts to etch history into titanium so as to make it last forever, or to try to crystallize the warm breath of the dakinis into objects we can own.
It isn’t often that we can remain in one place, to rest in being vulnerable and insecure, and to wonder about why it is that we believe what we do, or to even allow ourselves the room to wonder what it is that we believe. What of the frequency of how often we can explore the deep dark color of our faith in relation to our belief, vital and essential, like the gelatinous marrow within the bones we often neglect? What else do we neglect, or even worse, choose to neglect? How often do we shut down our curiosity with the logic that coming to some kind of certainty within our own practice isn’t possible without first achieving realization? What does the term realization really mean? What shape, color, or size does realization take?
What of the warm sticky blood of our own realization that courses through our vajra-body~ the essence of mantra, an ambrosial essence that is nothing but the bliss-heart of Vajrasattva, the stainless mind of expansive non-referential space? Can we acknowledge it as we move through the appearance of time and the appearance of space, or will we banish it to some point-yet-undetermined that we call ‘the future’?
I can’t say whether Davidson is right or wrong. I can’t say that there was only one Nagarjuna who lived for hundreds of years or many Nagarjunas who penned works in a continuum of growth and inquiry inspired by a previous personage. But I am coming to appreciate that somewhere between the truth of historical fact and the skillful means of magical story that inspires and kindles the flame of deep seated dharma practice, resides a powerful tension. Within this place of tension the friction of building ourselves up and letting ourselves fall to pieces, over and over again leaves us naked, exposed within a curious intimacy with what arises around and within us.
What may be most important is the blissfulness of the songs of birds, the kind compassion of the lama who appears as the people we meet in our lives, the breath that fill our lungs and the appreciation that there isn’t really anything to learn, memorize or integrate. Perhaps all we need to know is that Nagarjuna lives in us as much as he may have lived and breathed in the early days of Buddhist Tantra.
In an essay on Gods and Titans within the context of archetypal psychology, James Hillman wrote of the danger of the over interiorization that we have applied to the larger symbols that the Gods represent within the human psyche. He urges us to respect these Gods as real forces that are a part of us, just as we are expressions of them; when we only look at them in an overly deep, individual, supremely personal manner we commit acts of violence towards them as well as to our larger function within the outer world- perhaps we could call that world the world of appearance- the display of phenomena around us. His warning reminds us of the importance of simultaneously holding both the inner as well as the outer; the literal and the interpreted, the mythic and the ‘real’ (as in ordinary). To fall into one or the other is to lose our balance and inadvertently kill a god, to kill our ordinary selves as well-springs of wisdom, or our histories and the way that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas arise within us. It is a delicate dance, a dance of heart and mind, of wisdom and compassion, of inner flow and understanding.
It may very well be that the Madhyamaka arose as a revealed treasure through the wisdom and skill of Nagarjuna, and it arose in relation to competing view points. In this manner, perhaps it arose interdependently within the frame of reference of Nagarjuna and his spiritual practice as well as the intellectual/political/cultural milieu of the day. How can we separate the two, why do we need to, and when do suppress one at the expense of the other? Sometimes we try to de-emphasize the ordinary in exchange for the mythic, other times we neglect the expansive essence-oriented vastness for what we may feel is more pragmatic. Either way both views on their own miss the mark, both create terrible violence and suppression. A powerful question may remain: how can we hold both? How can we remain open to not knowing the answer, and rather remain as the answer? How can we let the sacred cows go to pasture and do what they will while resting into arising as natural expressions of timeless Buddha-nature, perhaps the essential form of the cow-heard?
Within us is a powerful source of origin of all of the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and dharmapalas, as well as all of the beings of the six realms of existence. We are the simultaneity of the action and the doer, the very continuum that we think that we need to effect to make clearer, more pure, and more tantric. I pray that we can know each one of these rich meaty bits within the context of a smiling awareness and settle into them in a way that reflects them in all of their vast perfect purity in the worlds that we find our-self passing through. In this way, may we seek new heights as well as new depths and understand that there may not be much difference between the two other than the labels that we assign to them.