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Posts from the ‘Buddhism’ Category

5
Jan

On a more pastoral vajrayana and haughty lamas…

Dalai Lama with cat

A few weeks ago I read an excellent article about Pope Francis shaking up the ecclesiastic leadership in the United States, and the subsequent reactions from more conservative Catholics. I found myself, despite my own sense of satisfaction in learning more about how the nuts and bolts of how Catholicism in America works, feeling sad and emotional around how far it seems that we as practitioners of Vajrayana have to go in the West before such conversations can occur around the quality of presence of our own spiritual leadership.  In a way, we Vajrayana Buddhists are lacking when it comes to real authentic pastoral presence.  When I say this I certainly don’t mean to imply that His Holiness Karmapa, or His Holiness Dalai Lama lack pastoral presence.  They don’t.  I have had the chance to be in their presence in very intimate settings and the degree to which they appear attuned to even the smallest concern of another person is astounding to witness.  I refer to the lamas and administrators that represent our gompas, our Buddhist Associations, as well as the general dharma center leadership across the western world.

As it turns out, Pope Francis recently appointed Cardinal Donald Wuerl as the new head of the Congregation of Bishops, replacing Cardinal Raymond L. Burke for his conservatism and lack of pastoral affect.  This change in leadership, while subtle in some respects, will hopefully produce long standing effects in how the church presents itself, to whom the church ministers and in what position it will take in relationship to the experience of the transcendent.  Pastoralism is something that we commonly find within Christendom; in it’s most basic form it presents a spiritual concern centered around giving spiritual instruction and guidance to others.  In this case, the parish priest who is intimately connected to the concerns and needs of his “flock”, needs spiritual, emotional and otherwise, comes to mind.  Someone who works tirelessly for the benefit of others- in real terms, not just an aspiration to perform this task but to actually roll ones sleeves up, and get into the mucky mess that comes with being.  Pastoralism also has applications that relate to music, art and philosophy, and a personal and ethical desire to return to the simple, the immediately real and what occurs naturally.  As a hospice chaplain who operates from within the Vajrayana tradition as an ordained Repa, I am comfortable with discussions around the importance of pastoral presence and what that means.  Yet I often find my Vajrayana contemporaries uncomfortable in challenging themselves in a way other than the way that tradition dictates.  That the lineage of Tilo, Naro, Marpa and Mila has gotten so rigid and insecure is unfortunate.

pastoral_1

I think that one could definitely say that Milarepa had mastered a pastoral presence, or pastoral affect.  In suggesting this I feel that it has less to do with the fact that he lived in retreat, in the pastoral wilds of Tibet as coincidence would have it, but that he could naturally -with simple immediate ease- sense the needs and suffering that others were consumed by because he could sit honestly with what arose within himself.  This sounds easy to do, but in actuality it is quite painful and heartbreaking.  It is difficult to see others stuck within their own experiences of themselves and even harder to see where we get stuck in similar ways.  We generally don’t want to recognize how compelling the hallucinations that we have created actually are and how we lead ourselves around and around in circles, let alone try to work through the baseless obsession with the fact that we are imperfect and need to get somewhere before we can stand on our own two feet.  Retreat is certainly a great way to develop spiritual insights, and it is very important, yet retreat does not necessarily produce compassion, and I am not so sure that it produces pastoral presence nearly as well and being fully engaged by what life brings our way.  In fact I would argue the latter: compassion arises more uniformly, with more stability outside of a comfortable retreat setting.  When living life in full one can easily get to the heart of difficult feelings that arise within the experience of pain and suffering, feel them and then let them flow into the next experience. Retreat can be helpful in this regard, however, I tend to feel that it is easier to seduce ourselves into a comfortable homeostasis in which we are never really forced to face our fears, never asked to consider the shadows, and never really asked to cut deep to the bone and feel that cold pain of the roots of our own suffering.  This is why Milarepa is considered semi-wrathful within the text of his guru-yoga; the only way that he could go deeper and deeper within his practice is to cut with skill, precision and power.  Cutting deep is important- it is hard and very uncomfortable.  Yet, at the end of the day, we are best served when we can access the pain and suffering that we hide from.  When we can do this pastoral presence is much more authentic.  There is no better model for Vajrayana Buddhists than Milarepa if we are looking to foster a more pastoral Vajrayana.

milarepa

Occasionally I fear that much of the way that the Vajrayana perspective is presented in the West is somewhat split between pedagogic models that either have students memorize terminology, acquaint oneself with logic, and years of study before they can say that we are Buddhists, and the other extreme that we can simply blend our curiosity of Buddhism with our practice of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.- that we don’t need to worry about to committing to any one tradition.  We are either definitely going to be born in one of the Hell Realms because we are terribly ignorant, or we are going to be just fine and we need not really worry about specifics- just show up say your prayers and do a bit of instruction without committing to a teacher or cogent path of practice. It is much easier to just follow the rules and sheepishly hide who we are in relationship to dharma than integrate the dharma into our experience of life.

We also seem to suffer from an overly Mahayana perspective around the long period of time through which we must practice before we become realized. We are very infrequently told (or shown) that liberation can come in this moment, on this very seat, in this very session.  We are given a practice and generally told that it will take an incalculable (or at least an unknowable) amount of time before enlightenment occurs.  We venerate past masters who were exemplary and also taught to believe that we are nothing in comparison to them- we are but just mere shadows.  But is this really so?  Why are we not taught to take greater responsibility for our realization?  Why are we not taught to be creative in our practice, to take our seat and settle into our own pastoral authority?  In fact, more often than not, the specific lineage that we are shown is presented more like a line which we shouldn’t deviate from, yet when one looks, most of the great masters struggled to challenge and confront such preconceived ways of being.  Eveny lineage has masters who did whatever they needed to do to effect realization- if it meant breaking the rules, so be it.

I fear that some of the leaders that one finds within the mainstream presentation of Vajrayana lack the natural ease that Milarepa brought to the tradition at large: no monasteries, no particular school of thought to tether oneself to, no institutional affiliations, no orthodoxies, no expectations, no roles, just the experience of pure experience.  Even though I say this, it should be noted that the growing interest by scholars in the development of the Milarepa’s hagiographical literature presents us with compelling evidence that the creation of the story of Milarepa morphed into what we know today from a wide variety of projections of what his life was thought to have been like by others centuries after his death.  Even still, despite the fact that we may only be able to interact with our own inner Milarepa, and the true Milarepa may never be known, there is some indescribable inspiration that he evokes, not unlike the feeling of an early warm Spring day that leaves one feeling naturally resolved and content and excited for whatever comes next.  For me part of the joy of Milarepa is that everything is okay, that within the experience of Mahamudra there is nothing to add, nothing to take away, nothing to do, and that we can rest in everything because it is all essentially one taste. This is a powerful root to a penetrating pastoral presence that is without fault.  I try in my own way to allow this to inform me as a chaplain and as a teacher at the dharma center rather than whatever ‘rules’ or traditional norms may exist; whether this is a benefit and serves me well in either role is certainly up for debate.  Lord knows, I am probably more of a hindrance than a benefit to anyone.

tibetan lamas

Instead many in the Vajrayana tradition here in the United States, especially those in positions of spiritual leadership seem to fall back upon textual dictates and scripture, the rules and maxims of form and function rather than engage directly, naturally, with how life, and thus, appearances arise.  Spiritual bypassing, or the use of spirituality to disengage from actually experiencing what arises and resting within it, appears to be as much the western Buddhist’s unique disease as much as diabetes and obesity are the illnesses that currently define Americans. This bypassing appears to be caused by the constant retelling of the same old story that we are imperfect, that we are not enough and that we are somehow not whole in this moment.  More than this, this type of undigested view lacks the rich fertility that provides us with the needed confidence, or escape velocity,  to no longer be hindered by the gravity of our habits and misguided constructions of the universe around and within us.  It is easier to build a fancy dharma center, easier to go into 3 year retreat, and easier to tell ourselves (and others) that we will never taste any of the fruit of the dharma as we are fundamentally obscured than it is to try to cut through our sad, sorry, slothful sense of being imperfect.  There is no better way to blind oneself (and build up one’s sense of importance) than with dogma.

I am reminded of a story I was told about a group of western monastics who criticized a flower offering that a student at a dharma center made one morning.  She had happened upon a field of wild flowers while during a morning walk and decided to pick a few to bring to the shrine as an offering.  New to the dharma she was motivated by fresh devotion.  By the following morning the offering was removed- I was told that the imperfections found upon the leaves of the flowers and the petals reflected the ignorance of the student.  The group of monastics were quick to point out that all offerings have to be perfect, the very best- as this is what texts explain.  Needless to say, I had a hard time hiding my mixture of disgust and sadness that the inner efforts of devotion made by someone new to the dharma was seen as a violation of protocol and a cause of negative karma due to ignorance.  The unbending parochialism of this argument is a constant source of amusement for me.  As a chaplain I often find myself having to operate from a place of creativity and skillful means to help provide others with a supportive environment even if it challenges the static spiritual dictates of a given person’s faith.  Such rigidity would do more harm for a person who is dying than good.

I wonder what Pope Francis would say of the Catholic version of this event? What do we do when we become overly dogmatic at the expense of killing the experience of another?  When do we let our religious dogma undermine our abilities to manifest the connection created by pastoral presence?  What makes us Buddhist puritans?

puritans

How we work towards achieving this reconnection to our essential wholeness, our naturally expansive and vast experience of all that arises is ultimately up to us.  This includes the specific techniques, degrees of effort, and the conceptual models that we temporarily use to get us to a place of spontaneous confidence and certainty.  Most important however is that we don’t concertize the path, that we don’t rigidly hold onto our techniques (lest we become cold chauvinists  regarding Buddhadharma), as well as a dialectical obsession with how much effort we must apply (we are tying to ease into the experience of Mahamudra, not train for a triathlon), or assign too much of an eternalist reality to the conceptual models we use (whether lay or ordained, male or female, well schooled or illiterate, whether we follow sutra or tantra, are logicians or ritual specialists or neither, we are working with the essence of mind; no one path is necessarily better than the other).  Otherwise, the very vows that we take to benefit others become the very cause of perverse haughty dogmatism that does more harm than good.  Before we know it we are no better than the demons that we thought we were feeding or coming to learn from and rather than spiritual friends become judges, applying dialectics gathered from scripture and commentarial literature rather than from the direct experience of mind. When does that shift occur?  When do we go from spiritual friend to tormentor and judge?  When does our fear prevent us from being with what arises and cause us to snuggle up within textual dictates to provide us with comfort and a defensive justification of laziness?

Sometimes rigid orthodoxy makes demons of us

In a way, Pope Francis offers us a wonderful reflection of the ways in which we can become rigid and overly concerned with outer appearance.  The conservatives in the church, those who apply the checks and balances of church dogma to the world around them as a way to orient themselves and assert meaning, often lack the same experience and sense of certainty than those who were parish priests and are familiar with the joys and sorrows of their congregations. This is obviously not unique to Catholics, in fact, this kind of separation feels much more prevalent in the Tibetan Buddhist world- and it also appears that we are too afraid to explore this lest we criticize the sangha (let alone cause a rift within it).  It may be that ordained sangha and the large dharma organizations that we have created in the west are the biggest sacred cows that we as Buddhists need to confront.

Captain America fights Buddhists

In a podcast on Mahamudra that I happened upon by Reggie Ray, Ray artfully suggests that the lineage doesn’t care about us. Perhaps more to the point, he reinforces the point that our practice of dharma isn’t about our identities in relation to the lineage.  The lineage doesn’t care if we become involved as teachers or administrators.  The lineage doesn’t care about gompas or lack of gompas.  It doesn’t care about dharma centers and their creation, maintenance and growth.  The lineage doesn’t care about anything other than our work to recognize our natural face: enlightened being.  Everything else is extra.  Lineage doesn’t do anything other than reflect our essential nature.  We do the rest.  We create the world of systems, we collate texts, we publish books, we create limitations and neurotic obsessions, often in the name of lineage.  If we are blessed with the chance to look back at our lineage and see how easy it is to get wrapped up in the peripheral details maybe we can return to the experience of simplicity: the experience of naked awareness.  When we can do this we don’t have to become anything, or wear anything, or observe any vow, or follow any textual dictate, because we become, in that moment, the Dharma.  There is nothing to add or take away from this basic reality.

Bodh_Gaya_1899

A close friend who was recently trying to determine where she should be in late December and the beginning portion of January told me, “I could go to Bodh Gaya to participate in the Kagyu Monlam for “Dharma” or I could go home to be with my family and actually live Dharma”.  Her time at home would be challenging and ordinary as time spent with family often is- in her case it would be more so as a relative had recently died and there was much support to be offered.  The Kagyu Monlam, replete with lavish offerings, is a sophisticated mechanism for making aspiration prayers, a place to see and be seen as a Karma Kagyu practitioner, a place to go from lama to lama for blessings and teachings, and is in many ways the ultimate place to go for generating merit.  Yet it is easy, it is obvious, somewhat predictable, and spiritually fattening; you can go there and haughtily throw your weight around feeling that you have unique karma and subtly build your ego.  After all, look at me, I’m in Bodh Gaya at monlam, how fortunate am I?  Going home to be with family, on the other hand, and all of the challenges that accompany providing support for the children and husband of the family member that recently passed away is a way to live all of what spiritual practice is about.  It is also hard, confusing and sometimes boring and not very much fun.

I am grateful for my friend’s distinction here, it was timely and very well put.  At the end of the day she answered the question for herself as to which one she decided to do. The question remains for us, which one would we prefer to and why? One is not necessarily better than the other, yet our decision says a lot about where we are right now and it is important to check-in and see where we are from time to time.  Where are you?

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14
Oct

On voices from the wilderness: “where we go from here…”

pirate map

We recently lost two very important Kagyu Rinpoches, Karma Chagme, the head of the Nyedo Kagyu and direct lineal descendent of the great mahasiddha Rāga Asya , the very emanation of Amitabha himself, and Kyabje Choje Akong Rinpoche, a great social activist, dharma teacher.   Along side Trungpa Rinpoche, Akong Rinpoche as one of the most important Kagyu Rinpoches in how he helped to plant the seeds of dharma in the West, but also create nurture Samye Ling and the system of Samye Dzongs throughout the UK, Scotland, Ireland, Europe and Africa.  He was also vital in helping to local the young 17th Karmapa.  As a lineage we have also recently lost Kyabje Traleg Rinpoche, Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche, and still feel the loss of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche.

As long as His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa is with us, no matter where he resides, I feel that we are in good hands, and as a student of His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, I feel that as long as his activities continue then the dharma will not only flourish but increase in concentration and power.  May their lives be long and may they completely destroy our ego-clinging through the power of their skillful means!  May their activities increase the depth and wisdom of the Kagyu lineage!

Karmapa

This said, there are some who express concern about where we as Karma Kagyu are going in the West, and I would like to throw my two cents into the ethereal debate.  Rather than make this a global argument, metaphorically as well as actually, maybe we should just focus on the Kagyu in America.  I do not presume to know much at all about this subject, and even more than that, I have no real qualifications to weigh-in on such a topic, but nevertheless, as one who has deep love for our lineage I am occasionally concerned about how we may be structuring ourselves here in the U.S.

As Karma Kagyu I feel that we can do more than we are doing.  We obviously benefit from the hard work and extreme diligence and patience of the masters of the early era: the late Kalu Rinpoche, the late Trungpa Rinpoche, ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Thrangu Rinpoche, Bardor Tulku, Ponlop Rinpoche, Lama Norlha, Lama Lordro, Lama Tsingtsang, Lama Rinchen, Lama Dorje, and of course, their guide His Holiness the Gyalwang 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rikpe Dorje.  We owe them a debt of gratitude.  Through these teachers we have the benefit of some very solid infrastructures for the study and practice of the dharma- we have a great number of translators, translation committees, places for extended as well as short retreat as well as the beginning of a sangha which while still young and tender might hopefully grow into a single unified family of victorious ones.  Yet right now the sangha may be our weakest link.

His Holiness 16th Karmapa

America is a unique place in that across the board we like to think of ourselves on the collective level as a unified group that share similar values, and yet we also very easily cleave along a variety of lines that include ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, race and political views.  The obvious benefit is that there is the potential for most anyone to find a niche within the American experience.  The fundamental flaw is that we are only part of the group until we don’t want to be, until our desire-lines of identity pull us into our sub-groups.  When we separate from the collective in this way, the American experience becomes very static and disjointed.  Likewise, when we try to singularly drop our histories, the various layers of culture that have helped to shape us as people, in favor of the collective identity, we lose the richness and the brilliance that we bring to the entire American organism.  There is something about the fundamental tension between the more idealized identity as Americans (which is a construction) and our identity as a member of a variety of sub-groups (also ultimately a construction) that allows us to question the values of both sides of our being that can allow us to grow into dynamic citizens.  That said, there is nothing preventing us from remaining stagnant within our identity on either side, either a stalwart “American” or member of a sub-group that doesn’t want to be part of the collective .  When this happens unity, connection and communication becomes impossible.

Similarly, the essential flaw that we as American Karma Kagyu face is the idea that we actually think that know what we are doing.  We feel that we are correct in projecting a particular meta-view upon ourselves as followers of the wisdom lineage of the Karma Kagyu, and that this view has to be expressed in a particular unified way.  We assume that we must all adhere to the values as a group that were most recently innovated by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye in 18th century Tibet, who while being an amazing genius and autodidact, has been used (perhaps unintentionally) to create a blanket meta-identity that may have been taken to the extreme.  At times I feel that ultimately this lack of balance has led many who feel connected to a wide variety of sub-groups to feel left out and as a result, not integrated into the larger view of what we may be as a lineage.  As if the notion of a unified Karma Kagyu lineage, or any lineage, has ever existed until the “modern” era.

I think that it is worth throwing into the mix that the lines of all four major schools of Tantric Buddhism might be more a product of modern academia than anything else.  It might even be that we have all contaminated one another through the cross-pollination of inter-lineage growth in the past than our projections and assumptions allow us to believe.  Our identities are more blended that we might like.  An example of this can be demonstrated by His Holiness Sakya Trizin when he recently gave the empowerment of Dudjom Lingpa’s Three Wrathful Ones in New York City.

Dudjom shechen 1236

I think that it was Trungpa Rinpoche who called the Kagyu lineage the ‘mishap lineage’, which I will loosely interpret to mean that at its best our lineage just happens; it is not the product of strategic planning.  Why is this?  Well, perhaps we are not the product of controlled strategic planning either; our mind/heart matrix of thought/emotion is a system of constant mishaps, all sorts of stuff arises, sometimes we can clearly rest in what arises, other times we get carried away by our hallucinations.  But one thing is certain, problems arise once we try to force a structure upon the way things should be.

In this way, I tend to wonder if we may have made the fundamental error of leaning too much upon the 18th/19th century classicism of monastic Karma Kagyu as a model for the entirety of American Karma Kagyu (the vast majority of whom are lay) in the 21st century. It sounds kind of absurd actually when I see it written out like that, and I don’t think that it is too much of a stretch to suggest that if this is the case, then perhaps we lose some of our credibility and accessibility with those who resonate with the sub-groups that feel at odds with the way the dharma is presented.  How are young people with little interest in India or Tibet, let alone their history, and who have little money to travel to India to feel connected?  What about some curious souls from the South Bronx, Brownsville, Oakland, Compton, or even large swathes of Suburbia who want to better understand their relationship to their experience of suffering to connect?

The dynamic energy of engaged being as is inherently expressed by a wide variety of groups of all imaginable ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, race and other points of orientation doesn’t seem to be held by the container of this kind of singular classical Tibetan approach.  Perhaps it is paternalism or some type of chauvinism, and perhaps it isn’t- lord knows the internet is full of such debates, and my point here is not to cast blame upon anyone other than our limited view.  That said, I tend to feel that what matters most here is that the essential tension between “self-identity” as a member of any particular group in relation to the experience of gaining certainty in our not having any particular “self” as taught through the dharma is being lost to an increasing number of Americans.  These sparks of tension allow the power of tantric Buddhism to blow up our ideas of who we think we are and how we tend to conceive of the world around and within ourselves.  To ‘inadvertently’ create the assumption that one can only experience this through assuming that we all need to be conversant in 18th/19th century Tibetan classical Buddhist thought only serves to disempower the vast majority of sentient beings in the United States.  It allows few people to come and be held as they expolre the sparky nature of what it means to familiarize oneself with the view.  Perhaps Europe is different, or Central and South America, and Aftrica, but I suspect not.

The way that much of the Karma Kagyu lineage is being presented these days in the United States appears to be more of a preservation of monasticism and the imposition of this structure upon the inner lives of the sangha, rather than a skilled blending, meeting people where the are, and creating the container that allows the safety and intimacy necessary to challenging the assumptions of who and what we are, and what the whole field of appearance might be.

spacious view

The result is that it is not uncommon to find that there are many gorgeous Karma Kagyu dharma dharma centers, stunning in beauty and immaculate in appearance, real museum quality reproductions of what one might have found in Tibet before the Chinese holocaust.  Yet, it is also possible to feel the cold clinical nature of many of these places.  In looking even closer, it is easy to see how tender and fragmented the sanghas appear.  This makes me feel sad.  After all, it is sangha that is vital for the continuation of the practice of dharma.  When I visit places that resemble these perfect visions of what dharma is supposed to look like visually, I think of Drukpa Kunley, Milarepa, Phadampa Sangye and Shabkar with great tenderness (and humor) and take delight in my meager identity as a so-called Repa.  These teachers (myself completely excluded) were vital commentators, alternatives and voices in the wilderness that dharma cannot be owned, trapped in books, and is not only to be delivered through the medium of classicism which often runs the risk of becoming overly dusty and theoretical.  There is a lot of wisdom in their path, and many teachings in their relationship with the institutions that presented dharma in a particular kind of way.

Repa Shiwa O

What we seem to fail to realize, or perhaps disassociate from, is that the Karma Kagyu lineage is best when it is a blended practice of fierce engaged practice activity mixed with the subtlety and discipline that one finds in Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye.  Just as we need the sun and the moon for there to be balance on Earth, perhaps we need both the paths of Rechungpa and Gampopa as symbols of who we are, who we might wish to become, and from which point we wish to engage the dharma.  We need to look at where we become too comfortable and lazy and bring our whole experience as people into our practice.  Good dharma practice has nothing to do with beautiful dharma centers, rich coffers, and exquisite elegance.  In fact, the best practice arises from confronting the entire hallucination of this “self” and the world around us.  We are often well served to this end in challenging our assumptions of how our dharma centers should appear, notice when our devotion becomes the habit obsession rather than a mixture of connection and gratitude, and when in trying to be “good”, how  we accidentally cause great harm to those we tell ourselves we are committed to benefiting.

Ultimately, everything that has been created by our foreparents within the Karma Kagyu in America is wonderful, and we should rejoice in the amazing progress.  It really is amazing what has come into being.  And yet, we might be getting a bit lazy and myopic and I pray that we can make things a bit more messy and sparky and dynamic for everyone who might be attracted to this vibrant and wonderful lineage.  I pray that our dharma teachers can strike a rich and engaged balance for their students!  I pray that our lineage can hold the experience of every person from every walk of life who approaches us!  I pray that we face mishaps every day and that the sparks of tension within our experience of being cause endless dakas and dakinis to bless us!

Karmapa Mikyo Dorje

10
Oct

On real time Buddhist pastoral care and the experience of loss when a lama dies

Early Kagyupa

The past week has been a tough one for the Kagyu lineage.  Recently the great Karma Chagme Rinpoche passed away in New Delhi, and one of the first trailblazers of dharma in the West, Akong Rinpoche, along with two travel companions was murdered in Eastern Tibet.  Needless to say, these two important lamas impacted the lives of many, many, people who practice dharma, and in the case of Akong Rinpoche many Tibetans who passed through the schools and hospitals that he was instrumental in building in Tibet.

karma chagme

I had the wonderful pleasure of receiving the transmission of Rāga Asya’s (the 1st Karma Chagme) The Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen in New York City when he was traveling through the United States in 1998/99.  Both Karma Chagme Rinpoche as well as his son Sangtrul Rinpoche took turns teaching the text line by line- it was an extraordinary privilege to be there for such a transmission.  Years later, in 2005, I visited Karma Chagme at his monastery in Pharping where I was fortunate enough to receive Namchö Amitabha from him, which in a way was like receiving it from Amitabha himself.  His Holiness, the Gyalwang Karmapa’s letter of condolence regarding Karma Chagme’s death can be seen here.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Akong Rinpoche, although I did visit Samye Ling during the summer of 1995.  Samye Ling was (and continues to be) a vital center for the preservation and teaching of the Kagyu lineage.  You can read His Holiness’ statement of condolence regarding Akong Rinpoche’s death here.

akong rinpoche

Without a doubt, my limited relationship to these masters pales in comparison to the stories of others, especially those who were direct disciples of these two great teachers, yet I thought that I would share the way in which I came to develop my own personal relationship with them.  Even if all we have seen is a photo of them, or read a text or teaching by them and not actually met them then we still have a connection with them.  In fact, physical proximity is not necessarily very important if you can hold the connection between yourself and a lama within your heart.  After all, where is the lama?  Where is the lama’s mind?  Is there an edge, or separation, that keeps us away from constantly being able to experience the wakeful luminosity of the lama?

There is a real sense of loss with the passing of these two Rinpoches that has stuck with me in a way that I am trying to better understand.  I rejoice in all of their activities and pray that their activities continue to flourish, and yet I am very aware of the temporary break in the immediate benefit that these teachers manifest.  Ultimately, it is okay to feel sad and upset, these feelings -all thoughts/feelings that arise in fact- are okay.  If we can hold whatever arises as pure appearance, as the arising of thought as-the-lama then there is no loss of intimate connection with the lama, no separation and no real loss other than the physical lama.

Karmapa and His Eminence

I was very moved to learn of the visit that His Holiness Karmapa and His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche made to Karma Chagme before his death.   An account of that visit can be seen here.  As a hospice chaplain, I felt that His Holiness and His Eminence were modelling a sense of spiritual care that I could identify with.  I find that there was a profound teaching in seeing two great masters going to be with another great master as he approached the end of life.  I saw a reflection of them in the work I do.  In my case it is one ordinary person going to be with other ordinary people who are in the process of dying or who have just died, yet the level of intimacy and connection that can occur between two people under these circumstances is much more profound than we often give credit.  What’s more, that level of caring, a natural compassionate resolve, in which two very busy lamas take time to visit one who is dying is something that we can all learn to blend into our own busy lives.  Perhaps we can also start to drop the enduring experience of ordinariness too, but that should be the topic of another blog post.

Death is often seen as a passing, as a separation, and as an ending.  Trying to see it otherwise, or trying to allow myself see death more clearly for what it is, is one of the things that keeps me refreshed and motivated in the work I do.  I also feel that there is a link to the way we see death, the way we relate to it, and the way that we see our own minds; the way that we relate to everything that appears. A mind full of fear of death is a mind plagued by duality and is therefore unable to rest in the natural vastness of it’s essential nature with ease.  As we begin to familiarize ourselves with the mind as deathless, as expansive luminosity, then we simultaneously seem to develop more equanimity around what death may be.  As a relative expression of death Karma Chagme’s death seems to reveal the power of his realization as he sat in thugdam for several days.  Akong Rinpoche’s death reminds me of many things, it was “ordinary” in a way that Milarepa’s death appeared.  It was also sudden and violent, two things that we often shy away from as practitioners of dharma- two things we often try to avoid.  There is a lot in this, a lot in dying in a manner that most Buddhists seem to want to shy away from.  Most of the time I think we see our deaths as knowable and slightly intentional in that we generally want to be prepared for it as it comes.  We cannot always do that; death is unavoidable.  Death is inevitable.  It comes when it does.

death cannot be avoided

As a lineage, we have lost two very important and influential masters.  The question now very well may be; “where do we go from here”?  At times like this, when experiencing moments of sadness and loss, it is nice to be told what we should do.  Yet this is the critical moment in which perhaps we can benefit the most in taking some quiet moments to reflect upon and review all that these masters have given us.  If we can spend time cultivating gratitude for each instruction, each display of teaching, each kind supportive glance, and bolster within ourselves the resolve to continue to practice what they have given us with the intent of resting in the display of appearance as no different than the lama, then we have touched upon something wonderfully profound.  If we can continue with what we committed to ourselves to and bring all that arises with loss onto the path rather than shut down, hibernate in a feeling of shock, and let all certainty fade, then we are practicing the ultimate guru yoga.

If we can do this it seems that many questions and fears naturally dissipate.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that we become naturally happy and that life turns around, but that we continue to remain in union with the essence of the lama, always open to their blessings, always part of their lineage.  This can lead to certainty in the dharma and the realizations that dawn from an engaged dharma practice.  This experience of certainty helps aide us in developing natural ease in our experience of mind so that we have definitive understanding, the experience of natural knowing or resting in the nature of our minds.  In this way, no matter where we happen to live, no matter what cultural mores we follow, or no matter what language we speak, no matter what gender or sexual orientation, no matter if we practice in a fancy dharma center, or a scrappy one, or our simple homes, we take a seat amongst Tilo, Naro, Marpa, Milarepa, the incomparable physician of Dakpo and everyone who passed the enduring nectar of dharma from vessel to vessel throughout time.

My thoughts and prayers go out to all students of Karma Chagme Rinpoche and Akong Rinpoche, may your practice deepen and may their activities continue throughout time and space!  May we all finally gain certainty in resting in the experience of lama-as-experience!  Gewo!

lord marpa

26
Mar

on bustin’ up sacred cows like piñatas and re-envisioning our frames of reference…

cow pinata

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!

Sherpa Butterfly Effect

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.

Worms

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?

blood emptiness

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.

nagarjuna

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.

Gewo!

citipati

6
Sep

on maintaining confidence in our emerging buddha nature…


I recently returned from a period of retreat and instruction with His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche, regent of the Karma Kagyu lineage.  I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to continue to spend time at his monastery- Palchen Chosling-in Sikkim and to receive precious guidance from him.  While at Palchen Chosling, His Eminence also empowered me as a repa; a tantric yogin following in the foot steps of Mila Shepa Dorje (Jetsun Milarepa)- I am profoundly grateful and moved by Rinpoche’s kindness in offering me the chance to follow this particular path.  I also am also curious as to how I can bring this experience to the people who I visit at the hospital (and everywhere else).

During my stay at Palchen Chosling, a few threads of thought wove themselves throughout my experience of the breaks between meditation sessions, while wandering the mountain roads down to Old Ralang monastery, Karma Rabten Ling, which was founded under the guidance of the 12th Karmapa, Changchub Dorje, and at various other points throughout the day.  These contemplations are something that I would like to share with you, as they brought some meaning for me, reinforcing a sense of wonder and awe surrounding spiritual practice.

There was a moment while His Eminence was teaching when I was struck by the power of the lineage teachings. In that moment their efficacy felt particularly potent, as did the enduring effect of the power of the single pointed application of the teachings by a number of past lineage holders as well hitherto unknown practitioners.  It felt as if I could easily connect with those who had gone before me, and that their presence, or perhaps their residual blessings remained for anyone to feel who treads the shared path.  I felt that there must be hundreds of practitioners who experienced awakening for every one who became well known- indeed, I suspect that perhaps more people than we know have derived great benefit from the practice of such liberating instructions.

Inspired in this way, I kept coming back to wondering about Dusum Khyenpa, the first Karmapa.  I wondered about the rich and full life of practice that he lived, and the wide range of emotions that he brought to his experience of the dharma.  His pain and jealousy, which at times was murderous seem so common, so ordinary, that they are very easy to identify with.  From these common emotional roots Dusum Khyenpa fully integrated the teachings presented by both Gampopa as well as Rechungpa.  To this end, as an indication of the clarity and depth of his experience, Dusum Khyenpa reappeared after his death in the form of Karma Pakshi, the second Karmapa, thus beginning the first and oldest established reincarnation lineage found anywhere in Tibetan Buddhism.

Karma Pakshi was a great mahasiddha.  His intensity and great spiritual abilities in many ways appear to be a natural result of the depth of the effort as well as the unique blessings of the Karma Kagyu dharma.  It makes sense that he arose after Dusum Khyenpa passed away; it seems that arising in the form of Karma Pakshi expressed the true nature of the activity of Dusum Khyenpa.  In reflecting upon this, I have been reminded of how it is said that from time to time within our practice it is possible to begin to traverse the bhumis, and yet not manifest all of the signs that indicate our awakening until we have died and take up our new Nirmanakya “form”- perhaps this is the case with Dusum Khyenpa and Karma Pakshi.

I was left to wonder, or perhaps return to, a very old question: Is the liberation expressed by Dusum Khyenpa a result of his already being a great being capable of more than most of us?  Or, is his liberation a result of the efficacy of the dharma when put into practice with all of our heart?

My intuitive reaction to the power of His Eminence’s teaching left me to feel that this dharma, imbued with the still-fresh warm breath of the dakinis, has an ability to completely change our experience of reality.  Certainly, one cannot remove or even separate the blessings of all of the great masters of the past who have held any given lineage of instructions we receive.  They have left their mark, imbuing the dharma with their particular seal, something that we can interact with centuries later. Indeed, it is often written that connecting with the blessings of this lineage is part of the power of the experience, a fundamental ground upon which realization may dawn.  Asking these kinds of questions help us to truly recognize the powerful nature of dharma. Such questions impact the way we frame our own potential; the way we allow ourselves to define the possibilities of our own enlightenment; they are clear illustrations of just what we will permit ourselves to do.  These questions are natural, but great care should be given in answering them- there is always a chance that we may undercut ourselves and cease to allow ourselves to mutually let the dharma sink into our experience of life while simultaneously letting ourselves sink into the dharma, thereby letting experiences arise naturally.   If we don’t allow ourselves to fully blend with the dharma and arise within it awakened within ourselves what is the point of taking great care in applying the dharma to our lives?

Wondering whether great masters are special beings- essentially separate from you and I, or whether they simply allowed themselves to rely upon and integrate the dharma in their own individual way, unique and appropriate to their perceptual matrix, and that in so doing, came to illustrate the power of the dharma, has gone on for centuries.  It is a meaningful subject of contemplation.  Such reflections not only figure largely within the namthar- or liberation story- of Jetsun Milarepa, but was a point of controversy within the composition, collation and dissemination of the numerous versions of his namthar between the 13th and 18th centuries.

Dr. Peter Alan Roberts’ The Biographies of Rechungpa: The evolution of a Tibetan hagiography, offers a wonderful description of the many existent biographies of Milarepa as well as a very compelling analysis of the evolution of Milarepa’s biography.  As one would expect, while there is a shared narrative between most of these biographies, there is a range of focus upon particular aspects of the life of Shepa Dorje.  Indeed, anyone with even a small interest in hermeneutics will recognize that what is really known of the life of Jetsun Milarepa is, and has been, open to much interpretation.  Such is also the case with the often over simplified polarized roles of Jey Gampopa (monk) and Rechungpa Dorje Drak (yogin), the two most well-regarded disciples of Milarepa.  To truly asses their exact nature historically is much like trying to ascertain the actual distinctive differences between Jesus’ disciples- no small feat!  And yet, despite the fact that nearly a millenia has passed since the time of Jey Milarepa we do have some idea as to who he was and what he embodied.

Roberts’ work opens up a lot of places for creative enquiry not only around the life of Milarepa and Rechungpa, but of the re-telling of the Kagyu story from the prevailing monastic perspective.  Related subjects also include what I would call the “cross-over” issues that faced tantric Buddhism as it became ensconced within a monastic setting; some of the questions around these topics continue to this day.  Many of the questions that arise from his work seem especially important to ask oneself as one treads the path of the Kagyu lineage in general.  It appears that through asking such questions we open ourselves to gaining greater certainty for ourselves as to how, and in what way, we want to relate not only to the transmission lineage of our practice, but also the essential embodiment uniquely expressed by each lineage master.

Apparently, in most of the collections of the life of Milarepa, he is described as an emanation of Manjusrimitra– an important early lineage holder of dzogchen practice.  This view was suggested as early as the 14th century in the work of as yet determined authorship entitled The Life and Songs of Shepa Dorje, the best known collection of Milarepa’s songs before Tsangnyon Heruka‘s Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa.  This view was supported by Kachö Wangpo, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye as well as Ngari Terton Dawa Gyaltsen.  The general view of Milarepa as an emanation is first known to be maintained by Gampopa, and is then supported by Lama Shang and Donmo Ripa.  In Tsangnyon Heruka’s biography of Milarepa, which in translation has become the singular source of the details of the life of Milarepa, we find a dramatic departure from the view expressed by these past masters: Milarepa is portrayed as a normal sentient being!

In the Lhalungpa translation of Tsangnyon Heruka’s biography of Milarepa, towards the end of the story there is a scene where Milarepa is surrounded by his students after it is known that he will soon die.  In a moment of sadness, and perhaps even desperation for final instructions, several questions are asked of Milarepa as to whom he is the reincarnation of as someone as exemplary as Milarepa could not possibly be “ordinary”.  This is what is presented:

“Then Bodhi Raja of Ngandzong asked:

‘Lama Rinpoche, it seems to me that you are either the incarnation of Vajradhara Buddha and that you engage in all these actions for the benefit of sentient beings, or you are a great Bodhisattva who has attained the state of “Non-returning” and who has accumulated immense merit for many aeons.  In you, I see all the characteristics of a true yogin who sacrifices his life for the Dharma practice.  We humans cannot even conceive the extent of your asceticism and your devotion to your lama, let alone practice it ourselves.  If we dared to practice in this way, our bodies could not bear such an ordeal.  That is why it is certain that you were a Buddha or Bodhisattva from the very beginning.  And so, although I am incapable of religion, I believe that we sentient beings will be led toward liberation from samsara through seeing your face and hearing your words.  Revered Master, I be you to tell us if you are the incarnation of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva.

‘The Master replied:

‘I never heard whose reincarnation I am.  Maybe I am the reincarnation of a being from the three lower realms, but if you see me as a Buddha you will receive his blessing by virtue of your faith.  Although this belief that I am an incarnation springs from your devotion to me, actually there is no greater impediment to your practice.  It is a distortion of the true Dharma.  The fault lies not in recognizing the true nature of the achievement of great yogins.  The Dharma is so effective that even a great sinner like myself has reached a stage not far from Enlightenment due to my own belief in karma, my subsequent renunciation of the aims of worldly life, and due especially to my single-minded devotion to meditation.

More particularly, if you receive initiation and the secret instruction which brings spontaneous awakening included by conceptualizations, and if you then meditate under the guidance of an enlightened lama, you will undoubtedly attain Enlightenment.”

Milarepa is incredibly clear: Although this belief that I am an incarnation springs from your devotion to me, actually there is no greater impediment to your practice.  It is a distortion of the true Dharma.  The fault lies not in recognizing the true nature of the achievement of great yogins.  He goes on to further stress the importance of contemplating impermanence, karma, and the development of renunciation towards worldly dharmas along with the importance of applying great effort in the practice of meditation.  This is his path, the way in which he expresses his practice: great simplicity.

Why do we tend to ask questions like the one offered by Bodhi Raja of Ngandzong?  Or maybe the better question is: what happens when we don’t ask whether or not we can fully express our infinite potential, and just let ourselves grow and change the way that we will?  What happens if we apply the essential instructions that clarify our understanding and relationship with our mind, placing special care to also apply such instructions to our expectations towards our potential, towards the ideas of progress, even time, or the notion of physical place?

A great example of such instructions are Tilopa’s six methods for maintaining the absorptive state, or his Six Nails of Key Points:

Let go of what has passed.

Let go of what may arise.

Let go of what is happening now.

Let go of modulating (examining).

Let go of trying to control (there is nothing to do).

Let the mind rest in its natural state.

When we consider where “we” are in relationship to time, to location, and to general appearance, in a genuine heartfelt way, our inner scaffolding, the need for support, and the gentle movement of our clouds of doubt and subtle obscuration begins to dissipate.  The rays of our natural light shines- the question of when, where, how and why lose imminence; they are answered with a silent knowing, and inner surety.  Might this be what liberated Milarepa?  Perhaps this is the achievement of great yogins to which Milarepa refers.

While these rays, innate representations of our stainless purity, our undeniable inheritance, an immovable storehouse of blessings, empowerment and transmission, are known and experienced at times in a way that might initially appear shaky and tentative, it is important to remember that our provenance, the nature of our core-being, is that very stainless purity.

The martial and strong-willed Lama Shang (of whom you can learn more here), a student of Gampopa and founder of the Tsalpa Kagyu writes:

Upon loosening mental consciousness through relaxation

Inner sensation and clarity of non-discrimination emerge like the expanse of the clear sky.

This represents the clarity of dharmakaya.

Similarly, one can find many passages that help to illustrate the mind’s essential nature, the way through which we can recognize with constancy the way the mind arises, and that this buddha-like essence is always here, we simply fail to recognize it.  These pithy instructions are often essential in nature; short and sweet, relaxed and expansive.

Tibet in the 15th century bore witness to a tremendous amount of spiritual distillation and passionate vigor that lead to a structuralism that allowed for the foundation of the Geluk lineage and the subsequent philosophical and scholastic discourse.  It was also a period that witnessed the rise of teachers like Tsangnyon Heruka, Drukpa Kunley and Thangtong Gyalpo, all of whom sought to laugh in the face of convention; for them the central loci of dharma was the authentic practice of dharma, where an atmosphere of iconoclasm and openness tempered by rigorous personal dedication to samaya and the stream of essence dharma was of prime importance.

I am captivated with a giddy curiosity around what it means to bring this spirit of free enquiry, of dedicated vision, and the certainty needed to abandon some of the heavy dead weight that accompanies our practice.  Can we apply the leaches of pure vision to the engorged stagnant well fattened body of our assumptions and dull fundamentalism so that the blood of heavy density is removed?  Can we allow ourselves to embrace siddhas, or complete madmen, like Tsangnyon Heruka and Thangtong Gyalpo in our conception of “practice”?  How do we add the rowdy passion and the complete assembly of the ganachakra to the steady perhaps overly controlled conception of how the middle way appears?  Can we embrace the full luminosity of mind? When does the structure of our spiritual path get in the way?  How do we defer to the structure rather than letting ourselves begin to walk?

The slight change in perspective that Tsangnyon Heruka offers us in his Life of Milarepa, through his suggesting that we may all achieve complete enlightenment by the power of the dharma blended with our own effort is a gift.  It allows all of us to assume a seat in the larger ganachakra of buddha-beings, to gain access to our true inheritance as the young Milarepa did, and to transcend the death blows that our inner tendencies towards the distancing aspects of philosophy and rationalism (perhaps represented by Geshe Tsakpuhwa, the one who poisoned Milarepa).  Thus freed, we are able to experience all that he has experienced; we are free to know that our practice can ascend to great heights; we are free to know that this  buddha nature of ours will naturally dawn.

27
Apr

hinayana of the mind

Recently I was reading the introduction to the recent translation of books nine and ten of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye’s Treasury of Knowledge, entitled Journey and Goal, by Richard Barron (Chokyi Nyima).  While reading, I came across a wonderful discussion of the topic of “paths and levels” (Tibetan: sa lam).

For whatever reason, be it cultural or philosophical, or a need to act as an extension of the phenom that was Indic scholasticism, many early Tibetan scholars/translators placed great energy into codifying all of the various routes taken by the three Buddhist vehicles.  Of equal interest to Tibetan scholars/translators were the various the road-maps provided by the lineages that comprised these vehicles. Indeed, lam rim (stages and paths) literature from Jey Gampopa onwards, for example, has functioned as a great cornerstone for the practice of dharma up to this very day.  Rest assured that if you are ever lost on the path to enlightenment, the Tibetans have all the various maps you may need neatly organized.

What was of great note for me was Richard Barron’s exploration of the term Hinayana in his introduction to the translation of Kongtrul’s text.

According to most descriptions, the three buddhist vehicles are delineated as: Theravada (Pali: थेरवाद), Mahayana (Sanskrit: महायान), and Vajrayana (Sanskrit: वज्रयान).  The histories and unique wealth that all three vehicles contain is obviously too vast for this blog, and therefore I enthusiastically encourage exploring the expansive richness that these buddhist traditions continue to offer the world.  For now, I would like to explore further hinayana of the mind.

The term Hinayana (हीनयान) translates a “deficient vehicle”, or “defective vehicle”.  It arose as a derogatory term after the development of the Mahayana view to denigrate and belittle self-centered practice of dharma, not necessarily as a criticism of the Theravada approach.  Indeed, that it arose post facto is significant in that it was used to distinguish Mahayana from some aspects of an earlier approach to Buddhist practice.  It should be noted that this earlier form or approach to practice that was being criticized was that of the Sarvastivada school (an eternalist belief that “all exists”) and similar groups.  Over time it became somewhat common to erroniously regard Theravada Buddhism as Hinayana.

That said, people are people are people, and Buddhists are no different; the chauvinism of some Mahayana practitioners towards practitioners of the Theravada approach resulted in harsh belittling of a legitimate and praiseworthy dharma.  Indeed, this shows how easily the kleshas of greed, hatred and delusion, the very roots of our suffering, can be used to debase and belittle others in such a way that we easily poison our internal well-spring of basic goodness.  Perhaps this is the intended meaning of hinayana; perhaps this is how we manifest the hinayana of our own minds.  How we become deficient or defective.

The late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said that even the most precious and extraordinary tantric practices can become hinayana practice if our motivation is confused.  If we become focused upon self-aggrandizing, self-enrichment, self-liberation, and pious aggression, what good is our practice?  How easy it is to become an inner Devadatta towards our own pure motivation; to become stricken with a tight and closed approach towards others.

The great yogin and Kagyu forefather, Jetsun Milarepa, once said that staying in the house of someone who practices with hinayana motivation is akin to accumulating seven lifetimes of misdeeds. Milarepa seems to be saying that even loose peripheral association with the hinayana perspective can lead to great downfall, I can’t imagine that he was referring to the ill effects of accepting the generosity of receiving shelter from a Theravadin buddhist.

How does this apply to our daily lives?  What impact does it have in chaplaincy?  What does pure motivation mean, and how do we allow the root kleshas of greed, hatred, and delusion (as well as the branch kleshas: conceit, wrong view, doubt, torpor, restlessness, shamelessness and recklessness) constellate with us?  How do these factors cause the growth of hinayana mind?

It is said that fire can be used as a tool; to bring warmth, to cook, and enlighten.  It can also be used to burn and destroy.  How we practice, and especially how we relate to others, as well as the environment, seems to be an especially powerful barometer with which we can measure the relative efficacy of our spiritual path.  To that end, and with that in mind, it seems of vital importance that we remain mindful of the occasional flashes of the hinayana of the mind; how it arises may be different for each of us in terms of specificity, however, I suspect that our inner Devadatta’s are cut from a similar cloth: ego-clinging or self-orientated thinking/separation from others.  Whether it take the form of high lamas causing a rift in the sangha, our own inability to recognize the suffering of others, or even the sometimes subtle belief that we are more unique or special than everyone else, it is easy to fall prey to hinayana mind.

May we totally dispel the neuroses of all beings (including ourselves)!

14
Apr

Mother Sentient beings

When my first teacher, and spiritual mother,  Ani Dechen Zangmo, taught the text for the prostrations and refuge part of the Karma Kagyu ngondro (Four Foundations practice) she spent a great deal of time talking about the different ways in which beings have been our mothers in the past.

In the most classical aspect of this practice, we make our prostrations to the wonderful field of refuge: our lineage forefathers and foremothers.  In this way we seek to enter and become part of a lineage. We join our lineage through repeatedly receiving the blessings of the lineage; in fact, we are instructed to help lead all sentient beings in the meritorious activity of supplicating and joining our specific lineage with us.  Why do we do this?  It is said that all beings have at one point in time been our mothers, having cared for us with selfless beauty and having made endless sacrifices, protected us, nurtured us, and also supported and enriched us.  Through time immemorial, through the various combinations and permutations of the manifestations of karma, all beings have been, at any given point in time, our mothers.  Indeed every person we meet has done this for us.  Every animal.  Every friend.  Every enemy.  Every being, seen and unseen, has done this for us- and in this way we are all inextricably linked.  What better way to repay these countless mother-beings than to act as a raft to lead them to the banks of spiritual realization?

And so, as is the case within the Kagyu lineage, when we visualize the field of refuge and as we make each prostration while reciting the refuge prayer, we doing so with each being who has been our mother.  We keep their desire for well-being and happiness in our heart.   In this way, in a manner similar to Indra’s Net, it becomes impossible to locate a source or an end with regard to our connection with others.

Where is the border between myself and another? Where are our points of overlap?

Indeed, in taking a moment to check in and notice this we can very naturally, perhaps effortlessly, find ourselves left with a deep feeling of connection and an awareness ornamented with the jewels of empathetic concern.

Suddenly the well-being and quality-of-experience of others becomes a natural concern.

That we are all interdependent is also driven home in the practice of Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.  There is a portion of this practice in which one imagines oneself moving throughout the six realms of existence (illustrated above).  In the practice we engage in helping to alleviate the suffering of beings in all six realms.

Within this practice, and in many others we make the vow to do this; to benefit all beings who have been our mothers as an expression of gratitude and gentle concern for all those who suffer and who have provided us with the selfless love and support that only parents could.  These beings who have loved us unconditionally, may be experiencing the anger and depression of the hot and cold hell realms, the dullness of the animal realms, the jealousy and infighting of demigod realms, or the perfect complacency of the gods’ realm.

How can we be there for them, how can we cool the anger, warm the depression, enlighten the dullness, sooth the jealousy and enliven and express the immediacy of the present moment to perfect eternalism?

In another sense, perhaps in a way that differs from the classical presentation of how all beings have been our mothers at one point in time, all beings are our mothers in another way: they give birth to our identities; the way we present and imagine ourselves to be.

It seems we cannot exist in a relative way without existing in relation to others.  The acceptance of our wonderful qualities and our faults, the very perception and even projection upon us of what we appear to be, is a birthing of an identity.  The quality of our being in a horizontal sense, as it pertains to our diverse qualities, is defined and experienced through others, through the way that they experience us. We are given context and we are given meaning. What we do with that and how we react to it is up to us.

While we like to think that we are the architects of our appearance, and in many ways we are the often unintentional archtect, it may be that we are only ever known through the experience of others. Perhaps this way of looking at the manner in which we have created our identities, the way that we are animated by, and get carried away with our experience of self, a fleeting momentary illusion, can be best seen reflected in the eyes of another.

I find that whether I am at the hospital acting the role of a chaplain, on the subway on my way to the hospital, or going about my daily activities as a parent or partner to another, I am always humbled when I have the chance to notice how I am engaged in an interpenetrating relationship with others. What an amazing thing to just meet and reflect the pure appearance of another, the fleeting transience, and the deep connection that we all share; and what a difficult thing to do.  I find it especially humbling when I catch myself caught in the midst of reacting and judging, of comparing and compartmentalizing the spontaneity of occurence.  But when I can rest in naturally meeting others, the sheer simplicity and profundity of that experience remindeds me of how extraneous our elaborations of dharma can become.

13
Mar

Chod, internal wastelands and the Gowanus Canal

At the end of my post on performing Chod at Greenwood Cemetery (which you can read here), I wondered about doing Chod at the Gowanus Canal; the recently designated superfund site that divides Carrol Gardens from Park Slope in Brooklyn.  This toxic body of water is an artery of death and decay that is both close to my home as well as my heart.  As a legendary repository of dead bodies (the detritus of organized crime), flood waste from higher elevations in Brooklyn, and just about every kind of heavy manufacture imaginable, the Gowanus canal seems a ghost-like symbol of where we put things that we want to forget.

Before I packed my bags with the things needed for the practice, I spent some time contemplating the Gowanus as a symbol.  It is a body of water, a canal specifically, connected to the larger harbor by Buttermilk channel.  The water in the canal stagnates as a result of a broken ventilating pump system at the far end of the canal.  It is a remnant of the larger heavy industry that once existed in this part of Brooklyn and received all of the shipments of brownstone from up the Hudson that made most of Park Slope’s beautiful brownstones.  The canal also became a dumping-ground; it is not uncommon to find all manner of  things floating in the water that at times resembles muddy anti-freeze.  It is a miraculous canal as well, several summers ago I came to notice that dozens of red jelly fish made the canal their home.

As I began the sadhana (ritual text) I felt that I wanted to offer myself to the inner-demon who most represents the Gowanus Canal.  In fact, I specifically tried to make this session an offering to the local gods associated with this area.  I imagine that the god-demon of this particular place is one of the lords of places that are ignored; places where we leave, or even dump things that we no longer want, places of stagnation, where oxygen is literally consumed by the waste that we store; of things unwanted yet unable to be fully let go of, a ghostly world of secrets.  For me, the god-demon of the Gowanus Canal is the lord of inner-wastelands.


The wonderful thing about Chod is the way in which we can access, face, and pacify all of our internal demons.  It is very powerful, if that is, you choose to try to really look for these painful and frightening demons.  It is also possible to do the practice while not particularly looking that hard; and then while you may make nice sounds with your bell and damaru, not much else happens.

The term “demon” is mostly taken to represent an internal neurosis or emotional focal point that distracts and provides an ability to obsess in a way that makes direct experience of the mind very difficult.  These demons, while self-creations, can feel so real that they tend to paralyze and create huge amounts of suffering, indeed they can be considered the agents of samsara.  They exert great power upon us in the form of fear, jealousy, hatred, pride, and in this case, secret internal toxicity.

Machik Lobdron, the female 12th century Tibetan founder of the Chod lineage, created a practice based in prajnaparamita literature as well as within tantric Buddhism.  Part of this practice involves offering a mandala offering of one’s body:

The trunk and head serve as Mt. Meru in the center, the four limbs serve as the four continents, the sun and moon are the right and left eyes, the ground is our freshly flayed skin, and the fingers and toes are arranged as a great mighty chain of iron mountains that encircle the whole mandala.

The more realistic the visualization the better- we are after all butchering this prized body of ours, ornamented with the pearls of ego fixation, self-nature, and pride.  But after the reluctance, and after the discomfort, what is there?  What remains?  In offering freely to the assembly of god-demons who terrify us most so that they may benefit, so that they may turn their minds to the dharma and become buddhas in their own right there is a chance to experience our original nature.  This is a way of experiencing prajnaparamita.

So how do we touch the inner demon of stagnation?  Where is the place within ourselves where we dump things that we don’t want, the place that holds our secrets, our inner wasteland?  This place exists. It is in all of us.  Like a black pearl made from an initial irritant that has  grown many protective layers meant to distract and soothe the oyster that is it’s container.  How can we bring this to light?  These fears are in reality great strengths- they are pearls…

So here I found myself, in a modern charnel ground surrounded by  condom wrappers, dead rats, crushed beer cans, and other things left behind.  While at first glance it may appear different from the charnel grounds of old, where bodies were burnt or left to decay, places frequented by wild animals, a place that elicits fear, but upon looking a little closer, this place is no different.  It is a place where illicit things are done, where illicit things have been done- it is a dangerous place.  It is a place of fear.  The canal is off the radar.  Once a place of great beauty it is now easily overlooked, as if we don’t want to have any personal relationship with it.

Perhaps the Gowanas Canal is one of the eight great charnel grounds of India reflected in our daily lives here.  In the New York area I am certain that it is.  In my post on sacred geography (here is a link), I mentioned the historical importance of internal and external geography as it relates to the practice of Buddhist tantra.  It seems that the Gowanus Canal occupies a place internally that can offer real growth and healing.  What does it feel like to make an offering to, and thereby appreciate the parts of us that we have very willingly forgotten, the parts of us that are stagnant?

As I performed the chod sadhana, made sang offerings (smoke offerings) to the beings that live in the canal and all the beings that the canal represents, and while I hung prayer flags, I found myself recalling all that I have tried to hide, the parts of me that lay stagnant internal dumping grounds; my own inner pollution.  I also recalled patients who I have met as a chaplain for whom these dynamics were in play, and prayed that we could all, every sentient being, bring honor and offerings to the inner demon that presides over this type of activity.  May they be satisfied.  May this offering pacify these demons.  There is a line at the end of the sadhana which speaks to chaplaining these demons:

The roots of virtue from this practice of freely offering my body, the roots from caring for god-demons with my bodhicitta, and further however many roots of virtue that have been accumulated throughout the three times-all of this I dedicate for the benefit of living beings in the three realms, malevolent god-demons, and others.

With this kind of caring in mind, our own inner chaplaincy, may we know our inner demons and plant the seeds of buddhahood in our own inner wastelands so that they become purelands!

May any merit from this blog post be dedicated to all beings, especially those who are suffering in Japan after the recent earthquake and tsunami.

Gewo.

3
Feb

ordinary everyday teachers


The other day I posted about the importance of the spiritual teacher in a general kind of way.  The three texts that I drew from, by the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, Milarepa, and Gampopa respectively, all highlight different approaches to how we benefit from out teachers.  These are our ‘ecstatic’ or extraordinary teachers.  What I would like to focus on today are the ordinary teachers, our everyday teachers.

Recently I met a patient in the hospital where I’m doing my clinical chaplaincy training.   He had undergone extensive surgery several months ago to remove cancerous tissue that was spreading throughout his abdomen.  He had also received radiation to help destroy any last bit of the cancer.  He was young, only forty years old, and had only recently had the chance to experience life outside of the hospital.  His cancer had gone into remission, he went home for the holidays and spent them with friends and family.  All of the sudden, quite recently, he had begun to feel pain in his abdomen and went to his doctor to have it checked out.  His doctor suggested that he come into the hospital for some tests.  This is where I met him.  He was laying in bed, his mother sitting by his side expectantly.  As we started talking he described all of the tests that had just been done on a variety of his organs all of which presented the possibility of cancer.  He was thin and animated despite being hooked up to a morphine drip to control his pain.  As our conversation continued he started to cry and describe how angry he was with god about his present situation.   As we spoke I asked him how not knowing, how the uncertainty of his present situation made him feel, and this lead to his anger with god or whatever force put him in his present situation.  I asked him if he could share with me all the ways in which he was pissed off, to which he offered a lengthy, articulate and powerful list of feelings that lead to his anger.  One of the feelings that he described involved his relative youth and what the reason for his being on earth actually was.  He was afraid that he would never truly help others, that his desire to be a positive force for change in the world would be cut short by his illness.  I was struck by his openness and the kindness with which he shared his fears, his pains, and also his joys, his hopes as well as his dreams.  I felt so included by him in his life and in his story that I told him that I found him to be a graceful, compassionate and caring teacher- someone who I will never forget, who has touched me with gentle simplicity.  I also mentioned that his mother may feel similarly, at which she started to cry as she said, “Yes, yes, he is wonderful.”

This patient has become a profound teacher for me.  Part of his impact may have come from his circumstances, his illness and vulnerability, as well as his clarity and honesty with which he could share his feelings with me; but I tend to feel that we connected.  His heart was open towards me, and mine towards him: we entered into relationship.  It was meaningful for both of us.  Towards the end of our meeting we seemed connected and full, we gave to, and supported one another.

There are an estimated 6,897,395,150 people on Earth, and the person who I just described above is just one of them.  How amazing it is that we feel transformed in connecting with just one person, and yet there are so many others that we don’t or can’t open up to.  I find this very humbling.  Perhaps this is what an open heart truly is.

I am reminded of a portion of a text on mahamudra that was composed by Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche; it was his distillation of a much larger text by the ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje,  entitled the Ocean of Certainty.  In his text (Opening the Door to Certainty) Bokar Rinpoche describes the different types of lamas, or teachers.  These are, the lama as a human being belonging to a lineage, the lama as awakened word, the lama as appearance, and the lama as ultimate nature.  The lama of appearance is described as appearance as teacher; that all that we see, hear, touch taste, and smell, all of our thoughts are all our teachers.  How do we react to them?  What do they cause to arise in us?  There is a beautiful simplicity in appearance as teacher; it is loose and freeing; it allows us to go out and interact with the world around us; it allows us to enter into relationship with everything around us.  This is wonderfully special.  We are constantly surrounded by countless ordinary, everyday teachers, all of whom offer us the possibility of connection and growth.

29
Jan

on the importance of the teacher

I recently spent time considering the importance of my teachers and how fortunate I feel to have received just a portion of the stream of their experience through instruction.  The importance of the teacher, whether we call him or her lama or guru, is central- for where would we be without their guidance, their compassion, and their wisdom?  Through the openness that we allow ourselves to have with our teachers, a connection of transmission occurs through which we can experience our own fullness and Buddha potential, just as they themselves have done.

I’ve found three passages that help illustrate this point:

This first one is entitled Hail to Manjushri, it was written by the third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339).

Hail to Manjushri!

All phenomena are like illusions,

though absent they appear to exist;

wise indeed are those who cognize them

within the ever-present unborn.

 

If you perceive the glorious guru

as a supremely enlightened being,

indivisible from your own mind,

you will receive blessings and strength.

 

If you, without ceasing, propel the flow

of channels, wind energies, and vital drops-

the nexus of interdependent factors-

the stains of self-love will be swiftly cleansed.

 

The manifold states of nonconception-

clarity and bliss- I place on the path

of nonapprehension, like patterns in water,

then the true mode of being will be definitely seen.[i]

 


This next song is from the larger section of the collected songs of Milarepa (1052-1135).  Milarepa, one of the greatest yogins tha Tibet saw was the heart student of Marpa Lotsawa.  Milarepa’s endurance in his practice, and the joy with which he taught is truly remarkable.  This song is a portion of the larger song-story called The Song of a Yogi’s Joy:

 

The Guru, the disciple, and the secret teachings;

Endurance, perseverance, and the faith;

Wisdom, compassion, and the human form;

All these are ever guides upon the Path.

 

Solitude with no commotion and disturbance

Is the guide protecting meditation.

The accomplished Guru, the Jetsun,

Is the guide dispelling ignorance and darkness.

Faith without sorrow and weariness

Is the guide which leads you safely to happiness.

 

The sensations of the five organs

Are the guides which lead you to freedom from “contact.”

The verbal teachings of the Lineage Gurus

Are the guides which illustrate the Three Bodies of the Buddha.

The protectors, the Three Precious Ones,

Are the guides with no faults or mistakes.

Led by these six guides,

One will reach the happy plane of Yoga-

Abiding in the realm of Non-differentiation

In which all views and sophisms are no more.

 

Remaining in the realm of self-knowledge and self-liberation

Is indeed happy and joyful;

Abiding in the valley where no men dwell,

With confidence and knowledge, one lives in his own way.

With a thundering voice,

He sings the happy song of Yoga.

Falling in the Ten Directions is the rain of fame;

Brought to blooming are the flowers and leaves of Compassion.

The enterprise of Bodhi encompasses the Universe;

The pure fruit of the Bodhi-Heart thus attains perfection.[ii]

 

 

The third passage is from Gampopa (1070-1153), one of the two main students of Milarepa, and the first to combine the ear-whispered teachings of Milarepa with the Kadampa monastic tradition, thus institutionalizing the Kagyu lineage as a generally monastic lineage.  This passage comes from Gampopa’s Precious Garland of the Supreme Path, a wonderful instruction manual of practical advice from this special master.  What follows is his description of the first thing that one should rely on as we tread the path, from the third portion of the text entitled, Ten Things Upon Which To Rely:

The first thing on which we must rely is a holy guru who possesses both realization and compassion.  The lama must possess realization because a teacher who has no realization or actual experience is like a painting of water, which cannot quench our thirst, or a painting of fire, which cannot warm us.  As well, a lama must possess compassion.  If the lama merely has realization but has no compassion, he or she cannot teach and will not help sentient beings develop virtuous qualities and relinquish defects.  Thus the first thing ton which we must rely is a lama who possesses both realization and compassion.[iii]

I hope that these passages contribute to a sense of connection and warmth with our teachers, and I hope that this connection helps foster inspiration.  May this inspiration translate into diligent practice, and through this practice may we fully realize the essence of our teachers’ instructions.  May we develop the same stainless conduct as our teachers!  May we too raise the victory banner in the citadel of enlightenment!

May the activities of his Holiness the 17th Karmapa flourish and may all obstacles naturally dissolve into emptiness.  May his life be long, and may the compassionate wisdom of his example be known to all beings!

 


[i] Jinpa, Thubten and Elsner, Jas, trans. Songs of Spiritual Experience. Shambala Publications, 2000. Pg. 157.

[ii] Chang, Garma CC.trans. The HUndered Thousand Songs of Milarepa. Shambala Publications,1999. Pg. 80-81.

[iii] Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche. The Instructions of Gampopa. Snow Lion, 1996. Pg. 22.