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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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)!
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.
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.
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.
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.