On a more pastoral vajrayana and haughty lamas…
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?
On resting with Tilopa…
Recently I have found myself returning to some of the amazingly pithy meditation instructions attributed to Sri Tilopa (988-1069), the well-known Indian Buddhist mahasiddha who was the forefather of the Kagyu lineage. His short, often poetic instructions, are something that help me in my personal meditation practice, as a ground for keeping myself feeling dynamic and internally connected as a chaplain, and in explaining to others the vajrayana perspective regarding what arises within the approach to death. An example of such an instruction is as follows:
If you sit, sit in the middle of the sky.
If you sleep, sleep on the point of a spear.
If you look, look upon the center of the sun.
I Tilopa, who saw the ultimate, am the one who is free of all effort.
The expansive clarity of this type of instruction, for me at least, is very resonant- it offers a way to feel my experience of mind blend into the wideness of space while also experiencing a sense of focus; a relaxed single-pointed experience of breath, sound, transparency of thoughts, and edgelessness. When this experience arises I feel very connected with Tilopa, as well as the other Indian mahasiddhas Naropa and Maitrepa. Sometimes however, I feel that I need a more graded approach to this experience of mind. When this occurs, I tend to lean on Jey Gampopa for support.
More specifically, I rely upon Gey Gampopa’s Precious Garland of the Supreme Path, and even more specifically I come back to the 5th chapter of this wonderful text: The ten things that you should not abandon. I had the wonderful fortune of receiving instruction on this text by the Venerable Khenpo Lodro Donyo, abbot of Bokar Ngedhon Chokhor Ling, in Bodh Gaya in the fall of 1998. This was during one of the many Mahamudra seminars that the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche held- truly magical times when we could all sit together under the bodhi tree to recite the 3rd Karmapa’s Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer, spend time in meditation- simultaneously touching our original nature- as well as physically touching the ground that supported the practice of all of the generations of Buddhists who had come before us in Bodh Gaya back all the way to Shakyamuni himself.
It was in that environment, and within that emotional frame of mind, that I came to learn of the ten things that one should not abandon. These ten things are: compassion, appearances, thought, mental afflictions, desirable objects, sickness (suffering and pain), enemies or those who obstruct our practice, methodical step-by-step progress, dharma practices involving physical movement, and the intention to benefit others. Gampopa’s list is very sensible, it is noble in the sense that it seems to be endorsed by Santideva himself; it is imbued with a heartfelt concern for the welfare of others as well as a methodical presentation of the training to see that appearances- be they attractive or not- are just mere appearance. The misapprehension of appearance, or appearance as taken as an independent entity separate from ourselves, is the very cause of our experience of suffering. As with all great dharma texts, it is heartening to see how just one small portion, in this case the 5th chapter of a 28 chapter text can offer the entire path to realizing one’s essential nature.
In looking back at the notebook that I have from the session when Khenpo Rinpoche taught this chapter, I can return to my exuberance not only for this chapter as a whole, but for Gampopa’s explanation of how one should approach the non-abandonment of mental afflictions. As a chaplain, when I am in the hospital, I very rarely meet people who desire to not abandon their experience of suffering: their fear, their psychic pain, their feelings of abandonment, of futility, of anger, or attachment to family- let alone attachment to ideas of how their life should or shouldn’t unfold. This experience isn’t unique to the hospital either- I and most of the people who I know spend a great deal of time fighting with these emotions. Perhaps this is why they are called mental afflictions.
Anger, attachment, pride, jealousy, ignorance. When we really sit quietly with these words they are not just words- they are worlds; worlds of suffering, worlds of feeling like we are right and others are wrong, that we don’t receive the credit or accolades that we deserve, that if only I had this, or was a that, then things would be the way that they should be. On and on and on…
Gampopa advises us to try three modalities with regard to facing and not abandoning our mental afflictions. We can avoid them- that is, avoid whatever causal conditions that might make them arise. We can transform them- or try to transform what these emotions unlock within us. Or finally, we can rest in them as they arise. Whichever modality we tend towards, there are two things to remain mindful of; how we habitually fall into one of these three modalities, and the degree to which we can honestly assess our relationship to that which we struggle with. Each of these ways of facing and not abandoning our mental afflictions can be techniques of liberation or techniques of seductive self-enslavement.
The process of avoidance is a very grounded, stable and well-meaning way of not abandoning our mental afflictions. It honors the way they arise- it honors their root- without forcing us to become affected. This way of approaching difficulties, painful habits, and stubborn aspects of our identities allows us some distance from the “heat” of the moment that comes with embodying our reaction to our mental afflictions. One could even go so far as to say that this modality is somewhat analytical in approach, it is disciplined and measured. The shadow aspect of avoidance is not acknowledging the mental afflictions that bring us pain and suffering. Not much good happens from simply ignoring things, or not letting aspects of ourselves have the light and air that they need to grow. Right now, the shadow of this modality comes to mind in the form of the image of a neglectful parent who doesn’t want to see who their children really are.
Transformation is a common methodology that one finds in the various levels of tantras. It involves playing with the way that we perceive our mental afflictions. This type of restated relationship allows us to meet head on those feelings that would normally make us want to run away. In this way the dross becomes pure; the dirty is seen as clean; and that which torments us achieves the possibility of bringing meaning and peace. True lighthearted transformation- transformation with ease- is hard to effect. Transformation has a terrible shadow side that involves the desire to fix; or more bluntly an inability to meet things as they appear without making them into something positive. As a chaplain, I witness many people struggle with maintaining a relationship with difficulty and pain, uncertainty and loss, and sickness and death without trying to “fix it”. The constancy of a “make-it-better-plan” can be exhausting and create untold suffering. It feels profoundly important to examine how this modality of maintaining a relationship with our matrix of painful emotions can relate to a desire to not allow honesty around what we are feeling and from where the roots of these emotions arise. (Here is a link to the related shadow of spiritually bypassing.)
Resting in whatever arises, the third modality presented by Gampopa, and the favorite of Khenpo Lodro Donyo while he was teaching, is an instruction that one commonly finds within the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions. It is profound- and it also very difficult to do honestly. As we saw earlier, anger, attachment, pride, jealousy and ignorance are powerful. To rest within rage for example- to feel one’s pulse quicken, and heart beat heavier and louder, while one becomes physically tight and flushed, as the explosive heat of anger and impatience engulfs us- is not a particularly comfortable feeling. (For a look at some of the difficulties involved with taking on these fierce emotions, you can read a previous post on Mahakala here.) Then there is the “resting” part. This term gets thrown around very often that I wonder if it doesn’t end up having a multitude of meanings nowadays. I know that I have met Buddhists of other traditions that take the term literally and assume that it is akin to taking a nap or “resting”.
Resting actually refers to maintaining a focused (often described as ‘single-pointed’) awareness of appearance as it arises in the moment. In this way, Tilopa’s instruction from the beginning of this post seems a wonderful way through which we can re-engage the term resting. One quality of resting is being at ease. In this sense when Tilopa refers to three different ways of being- siting, sleeping, and looking- he is referring to three ways that we can rest in what arises. We can do it formally, as in sitting practice. We can do it within the experience of sleep, mind appearances arise when we sleep just as when we are awake. Finally, in looking, perhaps a passive “every day” experience as well.
If you sit, sit in the middle of the sky.
Where is the middle of the sky? The true middle? Where are its edges? Where does the sky end and something else take over? As we sit and remain resting with a sense of ease can we feel the expansive qualities of our minds? Where is the edge of our mind? What does a thought look like? Does it have a source that you can identify? Where do thoughts go when they are no longer so magnetic?
If you sleep, sleep on the point of a spear.
When our thoughts feel sticky and magnetic, when it is hard to not feel drawn into them and let our inner film projector play, what happens when we remain concentrated? What does that “single-pointed” awareness feel like? When we can feel and notice our breath; when we can maintain focused awareness on the way the inner film projector plays; on how a particular thought will hold us within our inner gaze, what do we notice about our experience?
If you look, look upon the center of the sun.
When this focus can be maintained as we look out at the world as it goes by around us, where is the sense of stillness? From where does that arise? What happens to the way that you notice the way that things arise while maintaining a focused awareness upon the expansive quality of our minds? Is there ever not enough room for what arises within our field of reference?
I Tilopa, who saw the ultimate, am the one who is free of all effort.
What if removing all effort was all that you had to do? What would it be like to maintain that within your experience of life?
Instructions such as the ones that Tilopa left behind for us are rare and powerful. It has been roughly one thousand years since Tilopa passed away, and yet through these four lines it is amazing how much of a connection we can feel with him. Five generations after Tilopa, Gampopa further crystalized the importance of being someone who “is free of all effort”. And while there are may pitfalls around how we may feel that we are directly engaging what arises within the moment, there is much beauty in the journey. Perhaps, slowly moving through life, through the wonderous field of appearance, we can increase our sense of ease and relax into an experience of effortlessness. What an amazing thing to aspire towards.
On the importance of certainty…
As a chaplain, one thing that I frequently come to witness in the hospital is the relative personal theological certainty that the patients I meet have established throughout the course of their lives. Naturally the range of established belief is wide and varied; it includes a variety of orthodoxies (Greek, Russian, Jewish, Muslim), as well as the views of moderately liberal faiths such as followers of the Episcopal church, reform Jews, progressive catholics, as well as passionate Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ and Baptists. There are also Wiccans, New Age folks, and a whole host of individual prophets of the new age who I come across.
Just last week one man shared with me his belief that Jesus was more akin to Obi Wan Kanobe and Yoda than anyone else seems to realize. For this man, the essence of God is much more similar to the Force than the compilers of the Bible could understand. In fact, rather than feel with his “heart”, a common human metaphor for the seat of emotion, especially as the seat of love, he told me that he feels with his larynx. After all, in the beginning was the word….
The certainty that this patient expressed regarding his inner beliefs felt palpable, and lead me to wonder about certainty. I can only really speak for myself when I say that I can never really know how true or theologically sound the spiritual underpinning of any given person who I come to meet with may be. I have my own biases, my own stubbornness, and without doubt, I have plenty of blind spots. To have a full understanding, in an ultimate sense, of the beliefs of others- or in other words: to truly know how right or correct how full or effective a particular path that another person treads, for me, seems to be an impossible task. Just like trying to hold water in my cupped hand for any length of time, such definitive knowledge escapes me. In fact, I often wonder where the utility of trying to know such things may lay- it seems like trying to know if the person next to you sees the color blue in the same way that you do. Is there even a right blue? What is blue?
What is everything for that matter?
What is mind? What are thoughts? What are feelings? Are they different?
What is Buddha-nature? How do we recognize it?
What are our dreams? How are they different from waking life?
What is meditation? How is it different from hustle and bustle?
How are we suffering? What is the cessation of suffering? What does that mean for you?
How are we not shackled by discursiveness? What does that mean?
What is certainty?
This particular question seems to touch upon and lead us to something that we may be able to come to know, albeit with effort and focus. Certainty suggests a lack of doubt; a knowing born of experimentation; security from error. Ultimately, it may be that entry into the realm of certainty is an intensely personal process. Spiritually, I feel that the tent poles of certainty are planted, and firmly fastened through wrestling with instructions left behind by the traditions that we follow. Once we have come to appreciate these instructions, internalize them, digest them, and come to know with confidence what they mean, then we may fully know the secure and tender shelter that our tradition affords us. Only then do we see that the words found in our dusty books are in fact thick golden ambrosial nectar, and that the experience of life can become more of what it is: alive, fresh, and full of energy. Even as it wanes, this life of ours, subject to pains, worries, sorrows and regrets still holds the unique and ever profound richness of spontaneity and depth of meaning.
The work of distilling certainty from our experience of, and interaction with life asks us to try to see ourselves for who we really are. It asks us to understand our outer, inner and secret anatomy. It also leads us to a taxonomy of self- a clear reflective understanding of who we are- for it is only through knowing who we are and how we experience our life that we can understand how to enter into relationship with developing greater awareness of what being open and more free means. Openness and freedom, for me, tend to be something that I associate with the flexibility needed for solidifying these natural attributes, for providing ground, for being able to really see who we are.
Then there is who we are in relationship to our tradition. Tradition and lineage can take a number of forms, but in its most essence oriented function, tradition and lineage speak to how we become who we are in time and space. In this particular case it isn’t about adopting a particular set of beliefs or perspectives, but more how the integration of lineage perspectives cause us to individuate within our lineage; in essence how we become more ourselves- empowered and confident, free and self-assured. It may very well be that we come to find ourselves within the natural ebb and flow of our tradition or lineage without much to really do.
How this comes to be, of course, may be impossible to fully explain- except in relation to our own journey. Such inner-transformation is very personal and unique to each individual. This fact is easily gleaned from reading the lives of the eighty-four mahasiddhas. The story of their processes of liberation often involves embracing circumstances unique to each master’s life. Whether it be using a goiter as a focus for stabilizing the mind, or a fabulous jewel, trying to steal the essence of mind to ascertain its nature, or the use of conceit as a means for attaining siddhi in arising as the yidam, nothing was spared. No fear too mundane; no shadow too dark. In fact, in these stories we can easily see how structured aspects of practice lineages were transposed upon, or woven throughout, the experience of the lives of each mahasiddha. The result of such a skillful weaving, a blending, or circulation (circumabulation) of tradition within the experience of life is twofold- the experience of being becomes easily imbued with simplicity (an expression of simple appearance) and offers the possibility of complete fiery annihilation of obscurations.
Paradoxically, such seemingly simple self-styled practice requires not only a sense of openness with regard to exploring who we are, what we are, and how we function in the world- but also knowledge of our lineage, particularly certainty in its effect. The stories of the mahasiddhas are very approachable, and should be read by everyone. A few examples can be read here. These stories really capture the depth and simplicity of a well grounded and distilled practice and offer a kaleidoscopic expansion of experience that I have come to value. From the simple comes everything, the full richness of a practice lineage with all of its subtle distinctions.
The other day a friend of mine who also happens to be a chaplain and a rabbi reflected to me a growing concern, namely that religion and religiosity are increasingly something that people are distancing themselves from- and that even spirituality is something that is regarded with some suspicion. Her larger point focused around the need for a wider tool-kit for chaplains that allows for the inclusion of people for whom feelings of connectedness may not be centered around religion and spirituality. The tool-kit that she refered to invariably requires her, and anyone who wants to be able to be there with others in the exploration of their location within the axes of spirituality and religion, to know their location and the story of their journey (how they got there). If these aspects of ourselves are unexamined how can we help others? More broadly, without knowing where we are and how we function in relation to our individual traditions how can we hope to integrate them into our lives?
This point speaks well to the establishment of certainty within our spiritual practice as it invites us to wonder what we feel about religious thought. Do we consider ourselves religious, or, do we tend to think of ourselves as spiritual? Is there a difference? What about those two words hold intense reactions and why?
There is no right answer, only our own- which if it is an honest one, can hold up to a little inquiry, and also be allowed to change as we change.
I bring my friend’s point up because in many cases real training (study, receiving instruction, practice, and reflection) within our individual lineages is very important for gaining certainty in the path, as well as what is possible. Within the model of tantric buddhism this process is described as the Ground, Path and Fruit.
The Ground represents the larger theory, the teachings on the way the mind works, how suffering arises, how the dharma can eliminate our experience of suffering. The Path is primarily the method of putting this dharma into practice- really blending it with our experience of life. The Fruit is the true naked experience of mind- an experience of seeing, feeling, and really knowing the Ground to be alive within our experience of being. Certainty can be, and needs to be known in all three relational models of buddhist practice, or however many stages we experience within our own particular liberation story.
Certainty in Ground. Certainty in Path. Certainty in Fruit.
I wonder where the mahasiddhas Luiypa, Saraha, Ghantapa, Tilopa,Virupa, Aryadeva or Dhokaripa would end up without their experience of certainty upon their paths and within their experiences?
In what way do we need to attend to the development of certainty within our own experience? Can we allow ourselves the room to attend to these needs without regard to how we appear to others? Can we approach certainty with honesty? From a place of deep personal concern?
Some may feel the need for increased study- a real immersion in the Ground. Some may feel a need to develop more confidence/familiarity with the Path. Others may feel a need to open themselves to the possibility that they may indeed experience the Fruit.
Jey Gampopa (1079-1153), the first monastic lineage holder of the Kagyu lineage wrote in his famous work The Precious Garland of the Supreme Path, that we should protect our practice just as we would our eyes. Similarly, I wonder if we should regard the maintenance of certainty in our practice as we would not only our eyes, but the rest of our body. The distillation of certainty is a process that is subtle and mysterious. It is not necessarily obtained from taking classes or attending lectures, nor from reading books or studying, and yet it can sometimes be gleaned from those activities as well. Sometimes we may experience it in a flash of anger or humiliation, or as a sudden joy. Nevertheless, however it arises it arises from within- it is a fruit born from an inner journey that if deep and genuine leaves us naturally settled, grounded, and in harmony with the arising of phenomena. It is a mysterious inner-organic manifestation that like the morning mist is hard to pin-down and locate. Perhaps, only when we let our defences down, when we shed our firmly held ideas about things that certainty becomes a possibility. When that happens, the distinction between who we are in relation to our lineage is more a question of us just remaining who we are, not much else remains for us to do.
on taking things for granted, and how we spiritually bypass…
In re-examining The Biographies of Rechungpa by Peter Alan Roberts for an earlier post, I came across details surrounding the colophon from the Life and Songs of Milarepa that are quite illuminating. Roberts suggests that the 14th century collection of songs, known as the Life and Songs Shepay Dorje, the source for what is popularly known in translation as The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, was actually intended to be a secret text; a text with a limited readership- a special means through which one might receive instruction and inspiration from Jey Milarepa himself. I find it particularly fascinating that this book, which can commonly be found in any number of bookstores, was once intended to only be shared by repas who were undergoing training in a manner similar to that of Jetsun Milarepa and his cotton-clad disciples. This piece of information illustrates, for me, how easily I have taken this book for granted as well the height of regard for which this particular set of teaching songs has been held.
Of course this is common with many books that one finds in any section of a bookstore that offers a selection of books on Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana. One can easily purchase translations of The Six Yogas of Naropa, or texts on Mahamudra or Dzogchen, Yidam practice, Chöd and other topics whose surrounding lineages of practice are still kept secret and guarded out of respect for the efficacy of such practices. Very few Tibetan monks, and unfortunately even fewer nuns, had access to these same texts that we now throw in the back of the car, fail to re-shelve at the bookstore, or even just casually leave out on a coffee table or the floor for that matter. If we like, for not that much money, we can purchase a translation of the Chakrasamvara and Hevajra Tantras or commentaries of the Guhyasamaja Tantra. You say you want a copy of the Karnatantra; the Bodyless Dakini teachings that Rechungpa brought from India to Tibet? No problem- if you want, it can even be delivered right to your home.
It’s fair to say that the genesis of most of these works is unknown. By this, I mean that while there may be a known attribution and transmission lineage specific to each text; a world completely unto itself; it took an unknown process that lead to the spiritual experience which inspiried the composition/revelation of these texts. Truly understanding what rests at the source of these works, and what they point out is difficult. The experiences of Tilopa or Naropa, of Aryadeva, or Krishnacharya are difficult to fathom. Yet we have their works in translation- manuals of liberation techniques, pages blessed by the buddha qualities embodied by each master who revealed them. While the majority of tantric Buddhist texts haven’t been translated, those that have- core lineage texts- are readily available.
One might ask, “Well, if access to all of these wonderful meditation manuals is so easily obtained, this must truly be a boon for our practice, no?” Indeed, this is a wonderful thing, we are very lucky to not have to risk our life to obtain access to the dharma as many in the past have had to. And yet, every wonderful thing also has a potential shadow, and I wonder about how easy it is to become jaded by all this easy access. Occasionally, I worry about easily we take for granted just one book which may represent the entire life experience, the great inner struggles and blissful insights, the fears of mediocrity, and the sense of grounding of such great teachers like Milarepa, and Machig Labdron, to name just two. Just one book contains the realizations of an entire lifetime. It contains an entire world. Yet it is easy to find that one book is often replaced by another, consumed with an ease and sense of entitlement that may perhaps undermine the very sacred meaning behind the genesis of each book. It is quite possible that before we know it, we have a personal library of the translated oral instructions of a variety of wisdom traditions while our inner spiritual flame, our interior process, struggles to maintain itself. It’s easy to take all this wonderous access for granted; to become “spiritually engorged”.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche treats this problem within his classic work Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and Robert Augustus Masters offers a wonderful honest treatment of this within his work Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters. Spiritual bypassing a term for the way that we use our spirituality to separate us from honestly feeling our emotions and from using our spirituality to defend our own faults and shadows. It is amazing how little growth and self-exploration we can allow ourselves through justifying our habits, our easy reactions and our shadows by chalking them up to “wrathful activity” (You know, I’m angry and that’s why I practice Mahakala), through the nature of ultimate reality (It’s all just an illusion anyway), or by being overly nice and compassionate as a means to feel better about ourselves and (sometimes to make us feel better than others).
What happens when we become jaded? When we say things like, “yeah, I know about all of the aspects of completion stage meditation from all the books that I have read”, what are we really saying? It sounds to me as if we have cut ourselves off from intimately knowing ourselves. It sounds as if we are hiding behind knowledge and not allowing the often messy and painful process of insight and wisdom about ourselves to occur.
I have come across a number of very well read Buddhists who have read and memorized great quantities of Buddhist texts who also seemed to lack basic concern for others- who would snap at those with lesser learning, and even refuse to offer support for those around them who were struggling. As if hypnotized by the wonderful image of the inner cartography that they were studying, they had become separated from the awareness that in order to start a journey we must put the map down so that we can actually begin. If we try to read a map and walk simultaneously we easily lose our orientation.
I’ve also seen many folks shun basic bodhicitta practice for practices that deal in a more head-on way with emptiness; more secret practices, higher ones, implying that loving kindness is basic. Actually, it can be excruciating to try to be there for others. Kindness in the face of adversity, or aversion for that matter, is not as easy as reading a book about it. It can be much more convenient to rest in the thought that “my self-centeredness doesn’t exist, it’s empty of any self-nature”- therefore it’s unnecessary to really look at it in the face to see where it’s coming from.
There is also the phenomena where disciples of teachers maintain a sceptical eye and caustic attitude towards other fellow students, other dharma siblings, for whom being part of the inner-circle is something of an eddy that they become stuck in along the river of thier spiritual life. They fail to realize that we have all of the most wonderful inner-circles within us. Why exclude others?
In wondering about all of the ways that we fool ourselves as we take things for granted, my curiosity often moves towards my own spiritual bypassing; around my periodic naiveté, and the way I take for granted all of the easy access I have had to the Dharma over the past fifteen years. I can acknowledge my hard work, my own personal insights and feel gratitude for my inner growth, but it is very humbling to notice how all of these wonderful sides of the spiritual path can be forgotten when I fall out of connection with others, or when I do not maintain a certain critical eye regarding my practice, or when I shy away from difficulty with unconscious ease. I’m sure that many readers can identify with some aspect of my experience, we have all done these things and it often goes unnoticed. When we apply the rosy light of spirituality to our behaviour that is rooted in hiding from others, hiding from our pain, and retreating into separation, we can very easily find wonderful defenses, wonderful ways to support us in not growing, in not changing (which is what growth is), and with not experiencing pain- a profound impetus for, and perhaps symptom of, growth. Sometimes we take for granted that we know ourselves at all.
These days its possible to receive dozens of empowerments, many different specific instructions, meet with many different spiritual teachers, and read many books that in the past were kept concealed, hidden to be revealed at the right time for maximum effect in one’s spiritual practice. That’s a lot of stuff. It’s not all bad, but it also seems possible for one to inadvertently suffer from a form of “spiritual diabetes” for lack of a better term. We have so much. Need so much. Often, we want so much. Do all the extra things, the personal libraries of sutra and tantra, the mountains of blessed substances from our teachers, make our spirituality more honest, stronger, more humble? Does that make it better? Why do we need it?
In my own life, I know that when I am plagued by my feelings of inadequacy or lack, I sometimes think, “Hmm. Maybe I should go back to India. Maybe I should go see my lama and ask for a really wrathful practice to get rid of these feelings”. To get rid of these feelings. In essence to split with them, to create a subtle distinction between those hard feelings and what I have an idea about what I should be feeling. I’m sure that others can identify with the feelings behind this kind of thinking. It’s a form of running away, a way of not facing with what I am feeling right now, of not being with what is arising in the moment and trying to get to know what it means, to notice its origin, and it’s effect- of creating further duality. Where does my feeling of lack and inadequacy come from?
In the parlance of Chöd practice: can I let go of holding on to the demon of lack and inadequacy? Rather than go on pilgrimage somewhere to accumulate merit when we feel terrible, what if we went on pilgrimage with ourselves? Rather than hiding, or hoping that adding a new practice will solve our deeply rooted suffering, what if we stopped, and touched the earth, as the buddha did and experienced the torment, our maras, and begin to enter into relationship with them? What would happen if we stopped buying books for a while, stopped seeking out the next teaching, and really sat with what we have. I suspect that we would find that we are more full than we recognize at first glance- that we have all that we need already.
on Karma Pakshi, Mikyö Dorje and empowerment…
In my post about Mahakala, and how the practice of Mahakala may relate to our lives on a daily basis as well as between and throughout meditation sessions, I related a short story around the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi.
A reader of this blog, and now friend, sent me a wonderful image of the siddha Karma Pakshi (pictured above) and an image of Mikyö Dorje, the eighth Karmapa (below).
In reflecting upon these images I am struck by how they convey so clearly the energy that these two realized masters embodied. In the upper image, Karma Pakshi is shown empowered, present, and full of vitality. He is shown sitting upon a chöjung, the source of dharma, above him is Guru Rinpoche, Rechungpa and the terton Mingyur Dorje, on his right is Hayagriva and on his left Dorje Phagmo, below him is Mahakala and then Damchen Garwa Ngagpo to his left and Palden Lhamo, or Sri Devi to his right. Karma Pakshi’s right hand is raised holding a vajra, and his left holds a phurba. This is not an image of passivity, or weakness. On the contrary, this image shows how profoundly inspired, naturally empowered, and essence-oriented Karma Pakshi embodied his direct experience of the dharma.
The lower image, that of Mikyö Dorje, is also an image of empowerment. Mikyö Dorje is famous as an endless wellspring of ability. There is a definite feeling of inexhaustability that his activity demonstrated. When I consider that he only lived to the age of forty-seven I am even more humbled by the impact that his presence had upon the Kagyu lineage; he left behind a magnificent imprint of Buddha-like depth and sensitivity. His works include commentaries upon many tantric texts including the Hevajra Tantra, as well as a variety of very important texts on buddhist philosophy. His impact upon art was as concentrated and seminal as his writings on sutra, tantra and philosophy.
In this image Mikyö Dorje is shown surrounded by dakinis. They bless him and empower him, provide immense spiritual strength as well as insight, thereby blending his mind with all that is. Above him is the first Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, Tashi Paljor; his guru, a great siddha and important Kamstang Kagyu lineage holder. A description of the line of Sangye Nyenpa tulkus can be found here. Below Mikyö Dorje is Dorje Phagmo herself; one of the principle yidams of the Kagyu lineage. She is much more than that though- somehow I feel that her power and wily energy gets lost when she is refered to as “one of the principle yidams” of the Kagyu lineage. She is the source of untold blessing, insight, re-orientation and empowerment. She is the mother of our enlightenment, she is blissful wakefulness in everything that we do, the high and the low, the sacred and the profane: for her it’s all the same.
These images have a profound effect. They make me wonder how I can experience and embody the same sense of empowerment and clarity that Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje were able to express. There are times when I feel this way; times when practice feels electric; when the present moment feels clear and imbued with luminous authenticity. There are also of course those moments when I feel dull and very aware of my own selfishness and petty small mindedness. I have come to learn that the latter is an all-too-common experience that most of us can own up to. So, I have to ask: what is this empowerment and the quality of being “plugged-in” that both Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje express?
The late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche speaks to this effect in a talk on crazy wisdom. Below are what I find to be the most salient point of his talk as it pertains to this post. The entire talk can be found here.
Trungpa Rinpoche says:
The crazy wisdom vision is very crazy, too. It gives us a sense of direction, a sense of heroism, a sense of reality and a sense of compassion—and so forth down the line. It also includes our doubts as part of that crescendo. So the crazy wisdom form is related with the basic notion of enlightenment. As we say in the sadhana, “To the crazy wisdom form of the buddhas of the past, present, and future.” I think it goes something like that. Is that true? So crazy wisdom is part of the general scheme of enlightenment. The crazy wisdom guru is not some Rasputin of Buddhism gone wild who does crazy things, who sets up a crazy wisdom cult. You might say, “Padmasambhava went to Tibet and got drunk and went crazy. He hyperventilated in the mountain air after being in India.” “Karma Pakshi went to China and got turned on by being an imperial teacher. Because of that, he went crazy.”
But we are talking about a larger form of crazy wisdom, which is cosmic crazy wisdom. It is part of the enlightened attitude of the whole thing, which is already crazy, continuously crazy—and wise at the same time. Primordial wisdom is continuously taking place. That is a very crazy thing, in some sense.
We have two personality types in the sadhana: Dorje Trolö and Karma Pakshi. Dorje Trolö is Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava attained enlightenment at birth. He was an Indian Buddhist saint, a siddha, a vidyadhara and a great teacher who brought Buddhism to Tibet. There was already some element of Buddhism there, but Padmasambhava actually brought the full swing, the full force of Buddhism to Tibet.
He manifested as a crazy wisdom person particularly when he was meditating in Tibet, in a cave called Taktsang Seng-ge Samdrup, which is now in Bhutan. (In those days, Bhutan was part of Tibet, in the province of Mon.) In order to relate with the savageness of the Tibetans and their own little ethnic samurai mentality, he had to appear in that manifestation. So he manifested himself as an enlightened samurai, a savage person, a crazy wisdom person—known as Dorje Trolö.
According to the iconography, Dorje Trolö rides on a pregnant tigress. He wears the robes of a bhikshu, a Buddhist monk, and he wears a kimono-like garment underneath. He holds a vajra in his hand—like this one [holds up vajra]. And he holds a three-bladed dagger in his left hand. He represents the aspect that crazy wisdom doesn’t have to be related with gentleness in order to tame somebody. In order to tame someone, you can approach him abruptly and directly. You can connect with his neurosis, his insanity; you can project sanity on the spot. That’s the notion of crazy wisdom.
Karma Pakshi was the second Karmapa. The Karmapas are the heads of the Karma Kagyü lineage, to which we belong, the practicing lineage. Since he was recognized as a great master, he was invited to the Chinese court as part of the entourage of the Dalai Lama [head of the Sakya sect, who in those days was not known as the Dalai Lama]. Karma Pakshi was always very strange; and his style was not in keeping with the protocol expected of emissaries to the Chinese imperial court. During the journey to China, he played a lot of little tricks; everybody was concerned about his power and his naughtiness, so to speak. The Sakya abbot who was supposed to become the Chinese imperial teacher didn’t like Karma Pakshi’s tricks, and had him thrown in jail. By means of his miraculous powers, Karma Pakshi turned his prison into a palace. He was able to manifest himself as a real crazy wisdom person. He proved that politeness and diplomacy were not necessary in order to convert the Chinese emperor. He showed us that straight talk is more effective than gentle talk. He didn’t say, “Buddhism would be good for your imperial health.” He just wasn’t into being diplomatic. The rest of the party got very upset; they were afraid that he might blow the whole trip, so to speak. And apparently he did! [Laughter]
Towards the end of his visit, he became the real imperial teacher. The Chinese emperor supposedly said, “The Sakya guru is fine, but how about the other one with the beard? How about him? He seems to be a very threatening person.” The energy of crazy wisdom is continuously ongoing. Karma Pakshi was always an unreasonable person—all the time. When he went back to Tibet, his monastery was still unfinished, so he ordered it to be built on an emergency basis. In that way Tsurphu monastery was founded. It was the seat of the Karmapas before the Chinese invasion of Tibet. It is interesting that such energy goes on throughout the whole lineage.
If I may, I would like to inject a bit of our own vision in connection with crazy wisdom. For us it is like wanting to buy this building, which is out of the question, in some sense, but on the other hand, it is a possibility. And we are going to do it! That seems to be Karma Pakshi’s vision, actually. He would have done a similar thing. Suppose a fantastically rich person came along. All of us might try to be nice to this particular guy or this particular lady—we might blow his trip completely, to the extent that he would be completely— switched! Although his notion of sanity was at the wrong level, he might become a great student if we were willing to take such a chance. So far, we haven’t found such a person, who would be rich enough and crazy enough and bold enough to do such a thing. But that was the kind of role Karma Pakshi played with the emperor of China. Karma Pakshi was known for his abruptness and his dedication. He possessed the intelligence of primordial wakefulness.
Then we have another interesting person in the sadhana: Tüsum Khyenpa, who was the first Karmapa, before Karma Pakshi. He was an extraordinarily solid person, extraordinarily solid, sane, and contemplative. He spent his whole life teaching and negotiating between various warring factions. There was a lot of chaos at that time; all kinds of squabbles erupted among the Tibetan principalities. By his efforts, their fighting was finally subdued. He was basically a peacemaker and a very powerfully contemplative person.
Then we have Mikyö Dorje, who was the eighth Karmapa. He was a great scholar and a great teacher, and he was very wild in his approach to reality. Once he said, “If I can light fire to the rest of the cosmos, I will do so.” That kind of burning prajna was in him all the time.
Rangjung Dorje, the third Karmapa, was a key person: he brought together the higher and lower tantras. He was an extraordinarily spacious person, and one of the most powerful exponents of mahamudra, which is at a very high level of vajrayana enlightenment experience. He was a great exponent of the ati teachings, as well.
Trungpa Rinpoche’s description of how Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje embody direct primordial wakefulness is well said. Trungpa Rinpoche was very well attuned to how the expression of this clarity cuts in a way that at times is pleasant and at other times unpleasant. It is very natural to want to experience the cessation of suffering; indeed, time and again we see that this is something that all beings want, even when our choices appear to just cause more and more suffering. But it’s hard to have the clarity to know, or to recognize and feel, how we can bring about the cessation of our own suffering, as well as that of others. Knowing, seems bookish and scholastic. Realizing and feeling is direct and pertains to what is going on during any given situation.
I was recently struck by the realization that my own knee-jerk tepid feelings towards Catholicism have little to do with me, but are inherited reactions from the unpleasant experiences had by my parents that I came to make my own as I grew up. Upon reflecting on this I came to see that I haven’t really engaged in an authentic relationship with Catholicism. I picked up the habits of my parents and made them mine. But my knee-jerk reaction hasn’t been authentic; it hasn’t been based upon primordial wakefulness. This realization arose around my chaplaincy training. As a chaplain I encounter a great number of Catholic patients and I have found that I have tended to feel uneasy/other-than the Catholic patients, Catholic hospital staff, or family members for whom I try to provide spiritual care. One moment of clarity helped me to come into more direct relationship with Catholicism- of course I could have ignored it and just gone on with my habitual way of relating.
It is amazing and humbling to see how easily we react to things around us in ways that are informed by our family histories, our communities, our culture (or blend of cultures and what that brings), our sense of history (or placement within history) as well our gender (and assumptions of what that means), race, and even as humans. I’m not sure that this is such a bad thing when we are aware of it (the relative does offer us a ground); but it’s a little more problematic when we are unconscious of how these factors strengthen the nature of our habitual reactions. This leads me to feel very curious as to how we would all embody wakefulness? How we would individually, and collectively, express empowerment? How can we cut through some of the rote habitual ways in which we do not meet the expression of the present moment with wakefulness? How can we bring this blended specificity to the practice of lhaktong?
The Buddha said that his disciples should question and test out whether his presentation of the dharma held water- that critical purchase is probably what kept the dharma going. Otherwise I think Buddhism would have ended up less contemplative; there wouldn’t be much to do except just adopt a particular belief system. The question is, how do we make it our own? In many ways every person in this world system is a distinct universe; we share a variety of points of intersection and the relationship that occurs as a result of that, but our own internal relative wakefulness appears varied. How do we individuate and blend the dharma with our experiences of living?
I read somewhere of someone asking His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche in an interview when the West would produce its own mahasiddhas. He responded that this would happen one day- it is a definite possibility, in fact, it is likely. So, how will this happen?
It’s hard to know. However, the answer may be right in front of us- these two thankas of Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje point us in the direction. To help explain my point I want to share a marvelous blog post by the wonderful lama/lotsawa Sarah Harding that I found on the Tsadra Foundation blog entitled: “As for the blessing of Vajravarahi, Marpa Lhodrakpa does not have it.” WTF?. I can’t recommend her post enough- it is long, detailed, and treats in great detail the controversy of whether the practice of Vajravarahi (Dorje Phagmo) is authentic, what the difference between her blessing and empowerment is, as well as the “empowerments” of Mahamudra. In a nutshell, while translating the Pakmo Namshe (a detailed description and commentary of the Kamstang practice of Dorje Phagmo) written by the illustrious and erudite 2nd Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa Rinpoche (1504-1566) Harding came to recognize that the tonality of the text was more a polemic defense of the Kagyu practice of Vajravarahi rebutting the assertions by Sakya Pandita that as there is no specific unique Sanskrit Vajravarahi Tantra, there is no historical precedent for an authentic Vajravarahi/Dorje Phagmo practice, and further, that Marpa held a false Vajravarahi lineage.
While this subject is admittedly not for all (it can be a little dry), I find it exciting; especially what is later described as the difference between empowerment and blessing around Dorje Phagmo, Mahamudra, and even the practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa. Consider the following portions of her post:
“…[T]he tantras teach both empowerment conferral (dbang bskur) and blessing (byin rlabs). In particular, in the Sampuṭa [Tantra] it says “Having obtained the empowerment and permission (bkas gnang)” and so on. So there are the authentic empowerment conferral and the blessing permission (byin rlabs bkas gnang). Of those two, the authentic empowerment conferral is a method to sow the seeds of fivefold awareness in the unimpaired vajra body. The basis of refinement and that which refines is unmistakably set up by means of the rites of outer, inner, and secret contingency…
As for blessing, once matured by the empowerment, in order to engender the qualities that have not [yet] arisen in those individuals possessed of the sacred pledges, or for the sake of maintaining and increasing [those qualities] that have already arisen, the method for imbuing the blessings of Body, Speech and Mind are done according to the rites of the individual lineages. In particular, in the Sarma tradition of the secret mantra of Tibet, there are many [cases] concerning the blessing of Vajravārāhı: the greater and lesser Don grub ma, great and lesser dBu bcad ma, Nāropa, Maitrī mkha’ spyod, the blessing of White Vārāhı and so forth.”
“A vajra master who has accomplished mahāmudrā will mature such a [disciple of highest acumen] through blessing and teaching the path of creation and completion. When they come to understand, then they will practice because of the desire to become enlightened in a short time for the sake of sentient beings. In the case of disciples who would [only] later become suitable recipients, who at present have many discursive thoughts, they should be given the extensive ripening empowerments and guided gradually according to the three guidance manuals (zin bris rnam gsum). In that way one won’t waste disciples.
As it is explained in such sayings as “the great medicine of the instantaneous [approach] is great poison for a gradualist,” disciples must be guided according to the measure of their being. Though [given] the maturing [empowerment], there are some with most excellent faculties who will [anyway] become matured and liberated in the same instant just by seeing the face of the master or by a blessing. Those of sharp faculties, in whom the awareness will be born just by the blessings of meditative absorption such that they will have complete confidence without any doubts—that’s what’s called maturing the being.
[Some] individuals are naturally characterized by great discursiveness or are [stuck] in the mire pit of various views in this life, a pool filled with the waters of sophistry. After pouring even the last droplet of the water that has washed a thousand times the vessel of the milk of secret mantra, [they will think] this is the so-called “ocean of milk of Vajrayāna” and will grasp on to this white, sweet essence as the milk. Those [people] spread this pile of ignorance and make their living as masters. There are many [such as these] in Tibet. [When those masters] guide people in that way, the disciples become disturbed. Maturing them through wordy rituals with many elaborations to perform makes them happy. Therefore, in the blessing from the oral instructions of Lord [Tongwa] Dönden, there is the generation of elaborations such as entering into the mandala and the empowerments of five families. It is to satisfy those self-proclaiming as dull or sharp faculties. The actual blessing which comes from the oral instructions is talking about maturing those of sharp faculties.”
So, while empowerment is needed to plant the seeds; as a means to offer all of us the keys to our natural basic pristine awareness, blessings cannot, and should not be over-looked. Blessings are the life force of our practice, they make our practice pregnant with immense possibility; they are the very dakinis that surround Mikyö Dorje. Indeed every time we blend the body (Om), speech (Ah), and Mind (Hung), of our gurus, yidams, and protectors, of pure appearance, perhaps we are in reality opening ourselves up to the direct experience of complete effortless empowerment. It seems that this may be the way through which we may share the same primordial wakefulness, the essential blissful luminosity, and direct insight/power as demonstrated by Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje.
I suspect that once we blend our experience of our worlds with our practice this will happen very easily and perhaps even uneventfully. As Trungpa Rinpoche points out, in becoming more sane nothing extraordinary happens, we become more wakeful, more clear, more present and more authentic. When we can give ourselves permission to empower ourselves and realize that the blessings that we have received from our practice is enough, that in reality that’s all there is, then clouds of siddhas will arise around the world. Perhaps the real question is, when will we put aside our sense of inadequacy and take our seats?
“If I can light fire to the rest of the cosmos, I will do so.” – Karmapa Mikyö Dorje
on Namcho Amitabha, Karma Chakme and the protector Shingkyong: a possible protector of chaplains…
Yesterday I performed the Namcho Amitabha sadhana for the practice of the pure land of Dewachen for a friend whose father and brother are close to death, and to honor a number of people who have recently passed away.
Earlier in the week six patients who I worked with as a chaplain died, and I also dedicated the performance of this sadhana, and the offering of all the appropriate tormas for them as well.
The body of this text was revealed and composed by the first Karma Chakme, Raga Asey (1613-1678) and includes prayers by the terton Mingyur Dorje (1645-1667). It includes a longevity practice associated with Hayagriva and Amitabha by Nedo Sanje, an Amitabha tsok composed by the 14th Gyalwa Karmapa, and a selection of prayers, offerings, and supplications to Shingkyong and his consort: protectors of the practice of the pure land of Dewachen.
I was lucky enough to receive the transmission for this practice from the present 7th Karma Chakme (Karma Tenzin Trinley Kunchab Pal Zangpo, b. 1926) himself at his recently completed monastery in Pharphing, Nepal in 2008. Half way through the lung (reading transmission) he paused to enthusiastically say, “I wrote this, I wrote this!”.
It was a great honor to have had the chance to recieve this practice directly from the reincarnation of its originator. Perhaps it was the result of meeting Rinpoche in 2001 when he was giving the blessings of the transmission of Raga Asey’s The Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen: The Direct instructions of the Compassionate One, a seminal text written by the first Karma Chakme Rinpoche.
The dharma lineage of Karma Chakme is pithy, inspiring, and bare bones; it is essential in that it is oriented towards the essence, essence dharma, and not so much concerned with the trappings of form and institution. It is bare bones in that it is a root lineage, it is all that you need.
I have found much guidance in how Raga Asey modelled his path; there is so much beauty in his simplicity, his deep practice and his sense of personal empowerment creates life within me. This personal empowerment in particular reflects his heartfelt conviction in his innate buddha qualities, the essential spaciousness of his mind, and the presence of connection to his lineage, both physical and non. Raga Asey’s writings are a balm for me; a soothing reassurance that it’s all okay. Things are fine- they are what they are; rich and luminous (they are apparent) and they are empty of essence; no different in reality from anything else that occurs/appears.
Raga Asey was a great mahasiddha of both the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages, I pray that he inspires us in the west to take our seats and claim our own natural liberation and nurture its growth with sensitivity and creativity!
Namcho Amitabha is a wonderful practice. The intimate blessings of Amitabha feel woven throughout the text, as does the purity and power of practice demonstrated by Raga Asey, the 14th Karmapa Thegchock Dorje, as well as the prodigious Mingyur Dorje.
Personally, I felt happy to offer this practice to the patients whose lives I recently became part of in the hospital as they came to the end of their respective lives. As I made offerings to Amitabha I also offered my own tenderness, caring and concern for those whom I was performing this practice. As visualized ambrosial nectar descended from Amitabha to myself, and those whose presence I was holding in my mind, I felt that they were bathed with soothing awakening, heightened awareness, and self-empowerment.
The recitation of Amitabha’s mantra became their armor; melting any hinderance to rebirth with full clarity of mind; dissolving any lingering anger, hatred, jealousy and weariness; warming and massaging their hearts that compassion may arise with ease and joy.
As I performed the long-life practice, I offered the blessing of longevity of Hayagriva to everyone present, my patron and her daughter, and all of their family, as well as that of all the family and friends who I came to meet as we gathered around their dying loved ones.
During the practice of making offerings and supplications to Shingkyong and his consort the power of Namcho Amitabha practice became evident.
As Shingkyong approaches, his body black, and his face that of a black lion, he rushes forward upon an enraged black stallion armed in one hand with a banner, and red tormas in the other that he hurls at his enemies. Approaching with symmetrical wrathful power is his consort Dzakadza, red in color, upon a red demonic steed; she wields a trident and a human heart. Their power is both burning and haunting. Any and all distractions; the inner blockages of fear and attachment, lingering worry, ill-will, and impotence are completely destroyed. Through the commitment of Shingkyong and his retinue, the efficacy of Amitabha’s vow to benefit all beings in the buddha-realm of Sukhavati (Dewachen) is bolstered and becomes even more magnificent. You can read more about this vow as it is explained in the Sukavativhuya sutra here.
Indeed the commitment of Shingkyong and his retinue around the activity of transitioning from this life to the next, and perhaps by extension the commitment to those who aid others in their own transition from this life to the next, is clearly described within this practice. They will clear all obstacles that make the journey treacherous, bring those stuck in the background all the way to the fore: Dewachen. They will ride with, and accompany them with their terrible retinue.
The text is explicit in how all obstructions will be destroyed, that all who get in the way will be slain, their hearts removed, and their abodes destroyed by fire; that all spirits and ghosts, all who torment, will be subjugated, and that all curses and black magic will be reversed. Indeed when performing this part of the practice I can really feel their powerful presence!
As the session closed, I found myself feeling connected to Amitabha and confident that benefit was created for everyone who I was practicing on behalf of. They were protected in their transition from this life to the next, and seeds of auspiciousness were planted for their experience during the bardo and for the journey ahead of them…
Additionally, I have become very curious about how Shingkyong and Dzakadza and their retinue of bamros relate to chaplains. I feel connected to them, and I feel their ever-present watchful eye, and when skies darken, perhaps it is they who come to dispel fear, doubt and tentativeness in all we do.
May they guide us as we serve others!
On Chod and the demons of silent destitution and slave burial grounds…
In the quest to explore Chod sites in New York City, I came across a unique place; a site with a long varied history as a slave burial ground, the site of legendary street battles of the late 19th century gang The Bowery Boys, a crossroads for the homeless, and now the site of recent gentrification and the boutique galleries, nightclubs and restaurants that follow. Unknown to many, the very earth that supports Bowery Mission, The Salvation Army, the famous/infamous Sunshine Hotel and a variety of other SROs and temporary housing for the homeless once held the remains of hundreds of slaves. Indeed, during the excavation for the foundation of the New Museum, the remains of a number of these forgotten people, nameless and homeless, had been unearthed. This area is memorialized by the M’Finda Kalunga Community Garden (pictured above) in Sara D. Roosevelt Park which has been built on the eastern portion of the former burial ground.
I’ve wanted to practice Chod here for a while with the specific goal of dedicating the offering of my body to all of the local spirits and protectors of these specific four square blocks. Anyone who has spent anytime on Rivington or Stanton Streets between the Bowery and Forsyth Street can attest to the intensity of the place. People in various states of suffering wander across this area; they struggle with the demons of mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, domestic abuse and many other terrible sufferings. In a way these people resemble zombies; they are here, but they are living within another world, possessed by intense feelings that may keep them somewhere between the everyday world and one of pain and terror. Whats worse, these people are invisible to most who walk by them; they are disregarded and ignored, their suffering is easily explained away or rationalized by sophisticated social theories that diminish and abstract their pain, their suffering, and their deep-rooted desire to escape the pain they feel.
I cannot seem to separate the fact that these few square blocks have been so intense, home to so much destitution and violence (inner, outer and secret), and that this area was once a slave burial ground. It does make sense though. It’s easy for me to feel open to the anger and rage, the numbness and depression, and the chaotic reaction that qualitatively remains in this area; it feels powerful, and it feels very interwoven with the very brick and mortar, the cast iron and wood, and the glass and tar that make up all of the structures that have been constructed over this site.
When visualizing the local gods and demons approaching the offerings that I was to make; enemies hostile to us, obstructing spirits who harm, demons who create disruptive conditions, the mara of the Lord of Death, and demons of the body, I summoned my own inner demons of anger and rage, of numbness and depression, and especially chaotic reaction. All of the feelings of what it means to be endlessly disrespected, tortured, enslaved, made fun of, spit on, beaten, and then ignored and disregarded perhaps even abstracted. In my mind’s eye I visualized these demons and their attendant entourage rising above me, finally heard and seen, bringing the raw reality of what this place means, as well as it’s present constellation of past and present occurences, their interaction, and the momentum that has been created here.
As I sounded the kangling, a horn made of an old human femur bone, I invited these demons… …it felt as if they were truly there.
This burial ground came into use after the one near city hall was closed in the late 1700’s. That burial ground was re-discovered in 1991 during an excavation of a site that was going to be used for an office building for federal government offices; human remains were discovered and a larger study was done. All building was halted and the site was designated a national landmark known as African Burial Ground. I remember reading an article about some of what was found. Much of it included bodies found in coffins shorter than the individuals who were placed within them. Those who were buried there had their legs broken so that they would fit into more conveniently sized coffins. In a very real way, an act like this, seems like it would easily anger the consciousness of someone who had recently died. Indeed, in most Buddhist traditions, it is suggested that if possible, the body of someone who has just died should be left for three days (if that is possible). What happens if some people were to come and break your legs to fit you into a cheaper box? It seems like a final indignity; other than being completely forgotten, which subsequently happened. Perhaps the trajectory of such a hard life, the habitual mistreatment and pain, complete disrespect and deliberate torture can remain, a psycho-physical ruin, and crumbling landmark that can be felt by those a century later?
Last summer a Tibetan monk friend of mine was telling me of a place near to where he was raised in Tibet where a family was brutally murdered. The place, so he said, became a place where misfortune befell may other people. It became a place to avoid, a place to fear, a place of dread. Needless to say, he never went to that place, but in performing Chod, these are great places to visit. Places of fear and horror are ideal places to make offerings to the beings who reside there. It’s a way to touch those same beings with us.
There are many stories of chodpas (people who practice chod) who are able to completely pacify the local god or demons who live in such sites. Perhaps that can only be done by pacifying those same demons within ourselves; within the same psycho-physical matrix of our being.
It may be that the only way that we can pacify these demons, especially the ones encountered on Rivington and Stanton streets, is through knowing our own urine soaked alleys of destitution, our sense of deep emotional pain of addiction and neglect, of how it feels to be belittled and ignored, beaten and left behind, an insignificant ghost of anonymity. Perhaps it is only in making offerings of compassion and joy to these haggard aspects of ourselves, witnessing and honoring them, allowing them to come to the ganachakra of appearance, that we can bathe them, clothe them, and see that they are no different from any other aspect of the misapprehended notions of who we are.
With that said, I would like to close with a passage from a related text:
Until full awakening, I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the supreme assembly. To accomplish completely the benefit for myself and others, I give rise to the mind of awakening. Once this supreme bodhicitta has arisen, I invite all beings to be my guests. I will engage in the pleasing and supreme conduct of a bodhisattva. To benefit all living beings, may I attain awakening. Just as the protectors of the three times gave rise to unsurpassable bodhicitta, which surely brings about perfect awakening, I will generate genuine bodhicitta. All that is generated I will remember. All that is remembered, I will make vast.
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.