Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Buddhist Ritual’ Category

12
Dec

On the view: the false dichotomy between dzogchen and mahamudra…

An old dharma friend named Jonny wrote me the other day with a question that he had.  We had first met in 1995 down by Mungod in south India where he was teaching English at Drepung Loseling, and I was studying with Geshe Wangchen, under the kind graces of Lelung Rinpoche who at the time was dividing his time between Drepung Loseling and Nechung Monastary in Dharamsala.

Over the years as I came to meet and study under the late Kyabje Dorje Chang Bokar Rinpoche, and my path crossed with Jonny’s and other dharma friends amidst the annual groundswell of dharma that occurs during the fall months in Bodh Gaya. It was there that I had the opportunity to introduce Jonny to this wonderful oceanic meditation master.  From that point onwards that my relationship with Jonny changed to that of dharma brother, which is where we are in this moment.

After the tragic, unfortunate death of Kyabje Dorje Chang Bokar Rinpoche, most of his students were left in a place of loss and sadness.  The confounding suddenness of his death created a barren confusion- I remember from my own experience that this was a terribly painful and confusing time.  The loss of a teacher can be very painful.  I had felt that there was an intimacy in my relationship with Bokar Rinpoche that made him feel like a father- it took a number of years to be able to return to his seat monastery in India without feeling a profound sense of loss and sadness.

Over time the, winds of karma, the great teacher that might be described as the impermanence of appearance, blew Jonny into the lap of Yangthang Rinpoche, and I into the lap of H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche.  As our experiences arising from meditation practice change, and as we slowly try to blend whatever insights that arise from such experiences into our daily lives, we email from time to time- to check in and see where the other is.

In an email last month, Jonny wrote:

I have a question arising from the Tsele Natsok Rangdrol book I’ve just finished reading. He mentions the “traditions of practice of the different lineages – recognising the meditation from within the view or establishing the view from within the meditation”. This has provoked a lot of interest in my mind, and I keep coming back to it. As far as my very limited understanding is concerned, the first approach in this quote seems to be that of Dzogchen, and the second Mahamudra. The Kagyupas seem to talk more about meditation, while Nyingmapas focus more on the view. In mahamudra there seems to be more emphasis on shinay and then lhaktong in order to realise the view, while in Dzogchen it seems to be more about instantaneously, effortlessly seeing what is already there. And this seems to fit with what I said about the quotation above.
Am I on the right track here? Can you comment on the quotation for me? Or can you recommend a book which illuminates clearly m’mudra and dzogchen and the differences?
Upon reading this email, I put down what I was doing, and with a deep sense of joy and excitement, considered what he was asking.  What an important question- what wonderful subtlety implied in this question!
At first glance I tend to feel that there is a distinct “stylistic” difference between mahamudra and dzogchen in a way.  On an ultimate level, however, there is a false dichotomy between view and meditation. This is something that Tsele Natsok Rangdrol touches on in the book The Heart of the Matter.  Rangjung Dorje, the 3rd Karmapa, in his wonderfully succinct Mahamudra Aspiriation Prayer, and Karma Chakme, in The Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen support this perspective.
In the Tibetan tradition there is often a reference to the term definitive meaning (nges don) which generally translates as: ultimate meaning, ultimate truth, truth, objective meaning.  Definitive meaning exists separately from relative meaning.  Relative meaning refers to the comparing and contrasting between things, it is a means through which we can know and understand one thing from another.  The experience of definitive meaning- ultimate truth- occurs in some combination of gaining clarity of relative truth.  In the experience of resting within our mind as it arises, within our experience of the arising of phenomena/appearance, we are afforded glimpses of the definitive meaning.  It is a process of familiarization, and in some cases even described as a homecoming of sorts; the reunion of the mother and the child.
I sometimes gain some clarity in viewing both mahamudra and dzogchen as something akin to mathematical sets.  They are two ways to approach the realization of mind, the definitive meaning of its experience, and the various qualitative ways in which we experience “mind”.  These two unique sets, mahamudra and dzogchen, are distinctive incredibly rich paths that undoubtedly lead to the experience of a definitive meaning, an inner vocabulary, of our experience of mind.  This “mind” that we experience, is the same for both “systems”, and when we look at their differences, they often seem to drift into the misty edges of mind essence.
Both approaches recognize that experiencing the mind’s essential nature is an experience akin to a mother being reunited with their child; or something similar to realizing that we have been carrying a priceless jewel with us through out our life experience, but failed to notice it- until now.   That noticing, that knowing awareness, and the inner confidence which arises announcing awakening.  In fact, the mere suggestion of there being an awakening, or a change in our being, draws us out of relationship with the experience of mind in a definitive manner.
Both mahamudra and dzogchen describe the freshness and immediacy of our experiences- they are now.  Not something planned for the future, not based upon trying to recreate a past experience.  This experience is often described as clear, blissful, and empty.  These four words are translations from the Tibetan, and what they truly mean for us within our own experience, is unique to our own particular journeys.  Some experience more of the illusory aspect of mind, others experience the mind’s clarity, and still yet others experience the bliss associated with resting within definitive meaning.
Bliss can be very dangerous and seductive, not to mention hypnotic.  I have spent much time with patients who have been admitted to locked in-patient psychiatric facilities who struggle with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia; people who in the throes of their mania exert phenomenal enthusiastic energy in trying to convey the perfect experience that they feel.  Oh, how the bliss lit their soul ablaze in a way that nothing else could.  The feeling that I am often left with when with such patients is that of awe and respect- I find it very compelling to be allowed to witness the expression of their experience of blissfulness that often occurs within the experience of mania. I have often found myself hypnotized while in the presence of such people, dazzled by the passionate feeling of blissful unity- and yet I am left feeling a profound sadness that I experience while trying to chaplain patients who appear addicted to a sense of bliss that disconnects them from the rest of the world.
Bliss arises, and we are taught to not be attached to it- it is one of the many things that we may experience.
And yet, bliss is important.
Similar shadows exist around the experience of mind as illusory. Indeed, the profound experience of the emptiness of all phenomena as experienced through our interface with the illusory appearance of every moment- a joining with the totality of what arises as empty of all characteristics and the awareness of the interplay between ourselves and this field of experience- holds the danger of being overly reductive.  It’s shadow may be a depressive state.
Bliss, emptiness, and clarity/luminosity- these are three ways that we experience mind.
Yet, mind is mind is mind is mind…. and yes, just as there can be distinct aspects of the mind that we relate with, or experience, and just as there is a particular style, or even flavour, that is distinct regarding dzogchen and mahamudra, we must remember that these distinctions arise from mind.  We feel and think, and yet from where do these feelings and thoughts arise; these created worlds, what is their source?  We interface with different aspects of mind, but they are temporary appearances, waves lapping at the edge of a lake- no two are the same, and there is no end, they just happen.  To hold onto the distinction may be problematic.
I tend to wonder if we can say that these distinctions have more meaning outside of our personal experience of mind, than say, as opposed to within our individual experience of mind.  The three masters that I refered to above, Rangjung Dorje, Karma Chakme, and Tsele Natsok Rangdrol all occupied places within their practice traditions as Kagyu/Nyingma masters and the two former masters were recognized as tertons in their own right.  All three were able to hold both: mahamudra and dzogchen.  They were able to come into direct relationship with mind.  From this place, I wonder if all distinctions around how practice is described, or how mind appears/in experienced is secondary.  While I feel that it is safe to say that individually we may all exhibit a predilection towards experiencing glimpses of the definitive experience of mind somewhere within the traditional nomenclature of bliss, emptiness, or clarity, with one aspect perhaps feeling more “natural” than another, it seems important to recognize that our experiences change, and that it is possible to form an attachment to the way we experience mind-essence.
For example, usually our relationship with our yidam has something to do with the way in which we interface with the experience of awakening as each yidam offers a model/modality through which we can act seated within our experience of buddha-nature.  I marvel sometimes how much we really become our yidam (or they become us)- in many ways it seems that there is a profound transference of quality and of action within the modalities of expression through body, speech, mind, and essence.  At our best, there is an experience of natural simultaneity, a natural ease and effortlesness in which we are the yidam- in moments where practice feels forced and contrived, we get hung up on the details, on experiencing things only one way, that there is a specific way in which we have to practice, a way that we have to interface with appearance.  All of the sudden we are working to get some where, to be something, or to induce a particular experience.  In yidam practice there are handy “tricks” through which we return to focusing upon the implements or mandala of the buddha of our practice, or a quality, or the transparency of our visualization so that an antidote of sorts is applied to falling out of relationship with our experience of the yidam; that which is no other than us.
Similarly, in approaching mahamudra from the perspective of shinay, lhaktong, and their union, a structural path laid out by the polymath Jey Gampopa, and as passed on from him down to the 9th Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje in the Ocean of Definitive Meaning as well as Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche in his essentialized distillation of Wangchuk Dorje’s seminal work, entitled Opening the Door to Certainty, yes, there may be more emphasis placed upon “establishing” or perhaps “easing” into the view through meditation. This approach to mahamudra, sometimes termed the Path of Liberation, or sometimes refered to as sutra mahamudra, is methodical and graded- often a gradual path, but not always so.  And I feel that much thought must be inserted here.  As dharma practitioners, or anyone really who follows a particular spiritual tradition, textual exegesis is vital to the maintenance of tradition- it is what connects us to the group, to our lineage.  And yet, we must realize that the exegesis that we interface with surrounds the way we experience mind, which ultimately ends up being a relatively individual experience.  That the Path of Liberation can only be said to be a gradual path ignores the fact that the possibility of “instantaneous” realization is always a present- in fact instantaneous insights do occur.  Karma Chakme spends time treating this particular “problem” as it were.  For him  spontaneous realization is always a possibility, no matter what the practice may be.
Then there is the Path of Means, often refered to as mantra mahamudra, or the approach to mahamudra through the six yogas and or inner and secret yidam practice.  In these approaches there is often a more instantaneous type of resting in the view, something that I feel offers a similar feeling of sudden realization that dzogchen often refers to.  I guess you could say the Kagyupa have bridged both sudden and gradual; Gampopa introduced the first Lam rim literature into the Kagyu lineage and from that point in time it appears that Sutra and Mantra mahamudra was presented as separate approaches to realizing the mind’s essential nature.  Peter Alan Roberts in his recent book entitled Mahamudra and Related Instructions, describes just how distinct Gampopa’s work was in codifying the Kagyupa approach to mahamudra, and how often the delineation between gradual and instantaneous approaches, especially in the associated forms of sutra and mantra approaches was made along the lines of monastic and lay.  As the first person to translate much of the core essence of the early kagyu lineage into a monastic tradition, a split had to be made between some of the tantric practices that challenged the conduct maintained by the monastics and his lay followers.
I suppose what I am trying to stress is that I’m not so sure that looking for the difference between the View as described within the context of dzogchen and that of mahamudra is as helpful as modulating between both Views within our practice.  The View helps keep meditation fresh- it is necessary to be familiar with the View (how the mind arises).  Meditation, the process of developing familiarity with the View (putting it into practice and actualizing it)  prevents the View from becoming a concept that appears more real and rigid than perhaps it ought to be.  There is a binary relationship that we need to maintain, a relationship that shifts and eventually blends into a naturalness in which there is no longer any applied effort- we just are.  Some of us have been lucky enough to meet people who manifest being in this way- they are indeed buddhas.
The false dichotomy lies within the fact that there is no real difference between meditation from within the view and the view from within the meditation.  The View is mind-essence, the mind as it arises, as it appears, and how we relate to appearance.  Meditation is resting within that experience of mind.  Even the practice of shinay carries all of the aspects of mind.  What is the stillness?  What is it that we are we focus upon in a single pointed way?  Where is the stillness?  True, asking these questions is similar to lhaktong, and indeed may be, but that knowing, that awareness, is always there while we do shinay- it is not necessarily something that we add to the mix.  As far as literary exegesis is concerned there is a lineal distinction between the approach to mind as we find in mahamudra, dzogchen, lamdre, and other forms of practice, however when we look at the works of great realized siddhas we find descriptions that offer resounding clarity.  For example, Rangjung Dorje says:
Free from being mind-made, this is mahamudra;
free of all extremes, it is mahamadhyamaka;
this contains all, and so is “mahasamadhi” too.
Through knowing one, may I gain firm realization of the meaning of all.
Great bliss with no attachment is continuous.
Luminosity without grasping at characteristics is unobscured.
Nonconceptuality that goes beyond intellect is spontaneous.
May unsought experiences occur without interruption.
Preferential grasping at experiences is liberated on the spot.
The confusion of negative thoughts is purified in the natural expanse.
Natural cognizance adopts and discards nothing, has nothing added or removed.
May I realize what is beyond limiting constructs, the truth of dharmata.
And Tsele Natsok Rangdrol follows:
The Middle Way, the unity of the two truths beyond limitations,
Mahamudra, the basic wakefulness of the uncontrived natural state,
And the Great Perfection, the original Samantabhadra of primordial purity-
Are all in agreement on a single identical meaning.
This mind that is present in all beings
Is in essence an original emptiness, not made out of anything whatsoever.
By nature it is unimpeded experience, aware and cognizant.
Their unity, unfathomable by the intellect,
Defies such attributes as being present or absent, existent or nonexistent, permanent or nothingness.
Spontaneously present since the beginning, yet not created by anyone,
This self-existing and self-manifest natural awareness, your basic state,
Has a variety of names:
In the Prajnaparamita vehicle it is called innate truth.
The vehicle of Mantra calls it natural luminosity.
While a sentient being it is named sugatagarbha.
During the path it is given names which describe the view, meditation, and so forth.
At the point of fruition it is named dharmakaya of buddhahood.
All these different names and classifications
Are nothing other than this present ordinary mind.
With these words as a guide, we find our way, succeeding and failing to realize the nature of mind- working to familiarize ourselves through practice with mind and with phenomena.  As we settle into natural awareness, an effortlessness in being, I wonder where all the words go.  Perhaps they too, dissolve into the soft edges of graceful wakeful knowingness.
3
Jun

calling upon Mahakala….

Two weeks ago, I spent a sunny Saturday down on the Gowanus canal performing the general Kamstang Kagyu Mahakala sadhana.  I decided to also bring a vase full of water mixed with water blessed by the breath of his holiness the 17th Karmapa, water from the annual bumchan ritual at Tashiding Monastery in Sikkim, blessed nectar pills from the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche and H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche, and other substances that I’ve come to acquire over the years to bless the canal.
In my last post I wondered if the protector Shingkyong may be a powerful protector for those who wish to benefit others through the aid of Amitabha practice, specifically chaplains.  After further thought, I feel that it is true; Shingkyong is a protector of chaplains.
Or perhaps he and his retinue can be, if we let him.
What then of Mahakala?
Mahakala Bernakchen is the protector of the Karma Kagyu lineage.  Mahakala Chakdrupa,  a form of Mahakala with six-arms trampling Ganesha, is the main protector of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, and was also introduced as a protector within the Gelug lineage by Tsongkhapa.
Mahakala has even been approached as a geo-political weapon of international influence. Indeed, the Mongols during the 12th and 13th centuries were quick to adopt Mahakala as their patron deity.  Recognizing his power, Mahakala became a powerful symbol of spirituality amidst their larger militaristic expansion.  Mahakala both empowered and justified their growth. During the difficult struggle to maintain a favorable relationship with the Mongols by the Sakya and Kagyu lineages, there was a change of succession between Kubilai Khan and his Buddhist brother Munga who was a disciple of the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi.  Fearful of the powerful influence of Karma Pakshi, the new story goes, Kubilai Khan had Karma Pakshi confined to the Chinese Imperial Palace where he was tied by his beard and suffered other forms of mistreatment.

Several sources say that Karma Pakshi prayed to Mahakala Bernakchen, but Mahakala took so long putting on his boots, that by the time he got there, Karma Paskshi’s mistreatment had ended.  However, as he had been summoned, he was obliged to strike something with the hook-knife that he always holds ready to destroy obstacles. The Karmapa had him strike the palace.  Apparently, there is still a large gash in the Imperial Palace.

I think that the imputed meaning in this story is that Mahakala is extremely powerful, and that one should watch out when calling upon him.  Ronald M. Davidson in his wonderful book, Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture, describes in great detail some of the palpable terror that was known to have swept the Tibetan plateau as the political stage changed around this time period.  The fear of the roving Mongol armies and the seduction of the wealth and power of the Tangut empire attracted many towards the very destructive forces that acted like plagues, often destroying everything in sight.  This kind of political instability is something that many of us in the West have little experience with, but that Mahakala was relied upon when perhaps nothing else seemed to help speaks to the power of his commitment to benefit beings, not to mention his swift efficacious response.

Mahakala is the manifestation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.  Below is a description of the origin of Mahakala as presented by thrangumonastery.org, the website for Thrangu Rinpoche’s monastery in Canada:

Origin of Mahakala:

The compassion of the red Buddha Amitabha manifested as Avalokiteshvara who took a vow to forgo his own enlightenment until all the realms of samsara had been emptied.

This vow required a renewal of determination, and so with Amitabha’s blessing, Avalokiteshvara next assumed a form with eleven heads and a thousand arms. Still he had been unable to benefit even a few beings.

Therefore after reflecting for one whole week, he determined that by assuming a wrathful form he would be able “to subdue the degenerate beings of this Age of Darkness.” Also he saw that even beings who practiced Dharma were unable to escape from the Bardo realms (time between rebirths where beings may face great anxiety and terrifying experiences) and he thought that in wrathful form he could also protect them in that way.  And lastly, he thought that the beings in this Dark Age were poor and needy, experiencing only suffering after suffering, and that in wrathful form he could provide them an antidote to that suffering so that by simply making the wish (for protection) their needs could be met.

These three motives made his determination even greater than before and so from the heart of Noble Avalokiteshvara emerged a dark blue HUNG syllable that immediately became the Instantaneous Protector of Wisdom, Mahakala.

The foundations of all the Pure Lands shook with six kinds of earthquakes, and the Conquering and Transcending One of Immeasurable Light (Amitabha) and all the other Tathagatas of the ten directions proclaimed with one voice:

“Son of the family, it is well that you have made this resolution. You shall have the empowerment of all the wisdom dakinis. You shall have the strength of the wrathful Yama, Lord of Death. You shall have the mountain spirits, the yakshas, the devils and the demonesses as your messengers. You shall embody the great wrathful empowerments of the Body, Speech, Mind, Qualities and Activity of all the Buddhas throughout the three times.”

Ever since, bodhisattva Mahakala is the Dharma (Buddha’s Doctrine) Protector of all Buddha fields

Lakes of blood, wild stallions, human hearts, flayed elephant and human skins, and ravens; Mahakala, the compassionate protector, is intense.  I am reminded of the protector shrine at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim where the ceilings and walls are adorned with weapons and animal skins, the room is thick with an atmosphere of  near viscous intensity.  I have also spent time in the protector shrines of Ralung Monastery and Bokar Rinpoche’s monastery; each one has a similar feeling.  They are seats of great power: pithas.  When in a place like these special shrine rooms it seems that at any moment Trakshe, one of the protectors in Mahakala’s entourage, will swoop down riding his demonic horse.  While he is oath-bound to protect us, he and the rest of Mahakala’s retinue is nevertheless terrifying in many ways.

The importance of these protectors is paramount.  As we wander throughout our lives, often blinded by our own presuppositions and assumed projections about what things mean and who we are, Mahakala and other dharma protectors help us to clear away these missapprehensions.  They tear away our blockages, and they are completely comfortable to bring a gun to a knife-fight.  There is no amount of force that they are afraid to bring.  As they approach, bringing tempestuous clouds and waves of powerful shock, they are also gentle, their hands are experienced, like those of a surgeon or artist.  They act so that we suffer less; so that we become ever more clear.
Mahakala is magnetizing.   Perhaps this is so because we find him, and other protectors like him, very representative of emotions that we are not so comfortable with as they arise within ourselves.  Wrathfulness and anger.  Most of the time we don’t want to own these emotions when they burn through us.  When our pulse quickens, as you can feel your veins and arteries constrict; when we redden in the face, and actually become hot with rage…  …what is there? What is happening right then?  What is that anger?  That rage?  Or the need to destroy?
In reality, in an ultimate sense, that feeling- that impulse- is just an appearance.  The arousal of feeling and emotion- a fleeting adventitious stain (to use a wonderful term from the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje’s Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer),a cloud no different from any other cloud that arises in the sky.
What happens when we sit with that hot rage, and just let is arise?  No repression.  No alchemical transmutation; just letting it arise with nothing to feed on other than itself.  What happens to it?  Does it go anywhere?
Sometimes I wonder why so many people are attracted to wrathful Buddhas.  In the spirit of critical inquiry I wonder if perhaps there is an element of seduction in seeing something that appears similar to our worst qualities (misapprehended anger and rage) personified and celebrated.  It almost lets us off the hook, right?   “Hey, why can’t I just get angry?  I’m like Mahakala!”  I hope that whenever I think this way Mahakala smacks me with smokey smoldering rage.  Mahakala doesn’t empower us to be emotional libertines; but he does raise us up through our power of clear direct action.  Sometimes this can be motivated by anger and rage, and that’s okay when it is known, when it is conscious, and when we are mindful of what the process is.
I don’t think that Mahakala is necessarily enlightened anger; but perhaps he is the underlying force that anger touches upon.  Somehow enlightened anger sounds too simplistic, Mahakala is a strong force of compassion, a need to act;  the level to which his compassion is expressed, it’s very strength and ferocity is easily mistaken for anger.
I have been told many times to offer tormas to my yidam and also to the dharma protectors. Bokar Rinpoche often stressed the importance of the Short Torma Offering for Chakdrupa, and I still remember my fist experiences making these offerings.  I shuddered with electrical excitement at the power that Chakdrupa is embodies.   The power of the act of honoring, supplicating, and maintaining samaya (pure relationship) with Chakdrupa was very moving.  This is an aspect of practice that is very important- not because someone who practices tantric Buddhism should just do this kind of thing  (in a religious kind of way)- but because it feels vital to have a relationship with the forces of great inner change, great protection, and great expansive growth.  In having a relationship with these things our relationship with Mahakala becomes intimate; this type of intimacy and reliance helps to make use more whole and more engaged.  Engaged open freedom.
So, I offered tormas to Mahakala and his retinue to bless the Gowanus Canal, the navel of Brooklyn and a sacred pitha, and all sentient beings throughout space, so that all obstacles would be dispelled; so that auspicious conditions for dharma practice may arise.  I tried to bring my awareness to the clouds of Mahakala’s entourage as it filled the space around me.  His cloud of intense blessings mixed with my smoke offerings, and the rain of his flaming amrita blessed the contents of the bumpa vase which in turn blessed the canal and the entire area.  In this way Mahakala arose to aid in removing all illness, all famine, untold unexpressed suffering, all injustice, and all  inner and outer pollution leaving behind the cool breeze of mahamudra-just-sitting-there-by-the-canal.  Somehow I feel that some benefit occurred…
…I pray that we may all know, feel, and be included within the canopy of activity of Mahakala in all of his forms, and that Palden Lhamo, Trakshe and all of the others ride swiftly by our sides as we glide through this wonder world.
Gewo!
27
May

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!

12
May

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.

Emaho!

25
Jan

on pacifying, enriching, magnetizing and subjugating…

I recently attended a long weekend retreat on the Five Remembrances held by the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care.  It was wonderful to have time at the Garrison Institute to reflect upon these five essential points:

I am of the nature to experience old age, I cannot escape old age.

I am of the nature to experience illness, I cannot escape illness.

I am of the nature to experience death, I cannot escape death.

I am of the nature to experience loss of all that is dear to me, I cannot escape loss.

I am the owner of my actions.  They are the ground of my being, whatever actions I perform, for good or ill, I will become their heir.

The Five Remembrances come from the Upajjhatthana Sutra which could be translated as The Sutra of Subjects of Contemplation.  You can hear the teaching of the Five remembrances as found in the Upajjhatthana Sutta read by Kamala Masters here, or read a portion of the sutta translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu here.

The Buddha’s discourse on the Five Remembrances resembles the realization that young Prince Siddhartha had concerning his recognition that we are all subject to birth, sickness, old age, death, and all of the forms of suffering associated with each phase of our existence.  In the reading of the sutta by Kamala Masters, the Buddha points out that the first four Remembrances serve us well to return our focus onto the primacy of impermanence; doing so is a remedy towards arrogance, over-confidence, and conceit.

I will become sick.  I will become old.  I will experience loss.  I will die.  There is nothing that I can do to change this.  When that happens, as this whole existence plays out, my only companion who remains with me throughout is the collection of my actions.

The Fifth Remembrance, which relates to our actions, the quality of our actions, or karma, colors the experience of each facet of our being.  It can be the root of our liberation, or the hard kernel from which our suffering manifests.  I’d like to take a moment to explore the Fifth remembrance, our actions, in a general sense and then look a little more specifically at action from the Vajrayana buddhist perspective, especially as it relates to actions of pacifying, enriching, magnetizing and subjugating.

Action, movement, friction, trajectories, potential energies.  These can easily refer to different forces and dynamics involved within the study of physics, which at close glance looks like a wonderful symbolic structure parallel to aspects of Buddhism, and yet as qualities they easily also connect to our behavior.  Our behavior is composed of reactions or responses to the events around us, how we see the play of phenomena unfold before our very eyes.  The quality of our perspective acts to determine the flavor of our actions, and the quality of our actions affects the continuum of our perspective.  The more self-involved our perspective is, the more our actions involve the preservation and protection of self interests.  The more we act to preserve and protect self-interests, the more easily we may think that others or events may be hindering our self-interests.  Likewise, a more expansive perspective affords us the ability to act in a more expansive way.  When we act with a larger concern for others’ well being, our ability to see the interrelatedness of self and other allows more clarity and more peace.

As we pass through this life, a conditioned existence that has been flavored by past events, the habits of reacting to the display of phenomena around us (our daily lives) often become stronger and more ridgid.   The phrase goes: Actions speak louder than words.  This seems right, but it’s amazing how we use thousands of words to hide or cover up and beautify our actions.  Such elaborate verbal adornments so that we can feel okay about how we are right now.

The above image is that of Senge Dradrok, or Lion’s Roar, one of the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche.  Guru Rinpoche took this form in Bodh Gaya when he came to debate and challenge a group of five hundred non-Buddhist teachers who were trying to disprove the Buddha’s teachings.  Guru Rinpoche won the debate and “liberated” all of them with a bolt of lightening- most of the village where the non-buddhists were staying was destroyed, those who survived became converts to Buddhism.  This type of story is not so unique.  The life story of the Mahasiddha Virupa and many others contain descriptions of such events- they are powerful descriptions of activities that certainly appear to run counter to the typical notion of what buddhist behavior is thought to be.  This energy of wrathful subjugation, while not generally an everyday occurrence has it’s place- this hot humid searing energy is needed from time to time to remove impediments towards our spiritual growth.

How can we touch the quality of Senge Dradrok within ourselves?  What does it feel like to be him, or Mahakala, Vajrakilya, or Palden Lhamo?  What is the focus of these energies?  How can we completely liberate the hundreds on non-dharmic impulses within us like Senge Dradrok?

In another form, that of Nyima Ozer, or Radiant Sun, Guru Rinpoche displayed himself as Saraha, Dombi Heruka, Virupa, and Krishnacharya, some of the most well-known Indian proponents of tantric Buddhism.  While in this form Guru Rinpoche spent time in the eight great charnel grounds and taught Secret Mantra (tantric Buddhism) to the dakinis, while binding outer gods as protectors of his secret teachings.  This is an act of magnetizing, drawing towards him the dakinis and protectors of his treasured teachings, spreading the dharma in the form of may important masters.  In the form of a tantric master his intensity and use of whatever arises as a teaching tool captures the great energy deeply-seated within through which magnetizing activity becomes manifest.  It seems that essential to the quality of magnetizing is the general awareness of skillful means; knowing just when to act in a way to be of the most benefit in any given situation.

Yet another activity form of Guru Rinpoche appears as Pema Gyalpo, or Lotus King.  In the form of Pema Gyalpo, Guru Rinpoche taught the inhabitants Oddiyana the Dharma as he manifested as the chief spiritual advisor for the King of Oddiyana.  His selfless dedication and compassionate timely teaching activity enriched all who came into contact with Pema Gyalpo such that they became awareness-holders in their own right.  This enriching activity has untold benefits; the effects of the nurturing support that Pema Gyalpo displayed through his teaching activity caused an incredible expansion of the Dharma in Oddiyana.

This final image is of Guru Rinpoche as himself, who among most Himalayan Buddhists is considered the second Buddha in the sense that he is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet.  While he wasn’t technically the first, he was the first to introduce tantric Buddhism in a way that took hold, and is credited with helping to construct the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet.  A dynamic teacher, Guru Rinpoche embodied all of the qualities of his eight manifestations and countless others.  Through the expression of his life Guru Rinpoche was able to display pacification, enriching, magnetizing, and subjugation both in Oddiyana, India, Bhutan, Tibet, and even now.

Within tantric Buddhist literature we often find references to the importance of adopting the behavioral modalities of pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and subjugating as illustrated by the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche.  These activities were seen as extremely important as they pertain to embodying the qualities of a variety of tantric buddhas as well as the essence of Buddhahood in all emotions. Furthermore, they are utilitarian activities, they support and enrich and massage us as we travel the path of enlightenment.  References to these activities can be found in the translations of various tantric texts by a variety of outstanding Buddhist scholars such as David Snellgrove, David B. Gray, Christian K. Wedemeyer, and Vesna A. Wallace to name a few.  One can also rely upon the namthars (liberation stories) of many Indian and Himalayan Buddhist Siddhas to feel the range of possible human action on both inner and outer levels of being.  Finally, our practice sadhanas contain a wealth of wisdom and guidance- the words in sadhanas are not arbitrary- and they often capture with great clarity the essence of dharma being.

We are aging.  We will experience illness.  We will die.  We will experience loss.  Our actions are our ground and we are the owners of our actions.  That this is the case is undeniable.  We cannot change the first five certainties, but we can change our actions.  Our actions, and the related ability to perceive, directly determine how we relate qualitatively towards aging, illness, death, and impermanence.  Let’s apply the depth and range of possibilities as exemplified by Guru Rinpoche and other Buddhist Siddhas- lets refine, strengthen, expand, and deepen our relationships with ourselves, with the world around us and with our experience of mind.  We are completely capable of manifesting in this way- it doesn’t matter if we wish to embody Tilopa, Virupa, Tsongkhapa, Taranatha, Machik Labron, or Garab Dorje, we are all capable of touching their essential being.  No one can do this for us.  At the end, as we lay dying, who can really blame for our shortcomings?

1
Nov

Pointing out the Self with the Iron Hook of Mind

In the first post for Ganachakra I wrote a partial introduction to the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche.  I would like to return to Pathing Rinpoche, to share a teaching song he composed and shared with my dharma brother Erik Bloom and I.

If I had to be stranded on a deserted isle with one set of instructions, just one teaching, I would choose this one.  The title alone sets the tone, it is strong and direct.  Pathing Rinpoche is clear in his description of the view, the path (of cultivating the view), and the fruition (of familiarizing oneself with the view; how to blend it with your being).  The tantric imagery is rich and beautiful.  This is a truly precious a wonderful teaching.  If you have a moment, take a second to clear your mind, settle down, and have a read.  I’d love to hear what you feel after reading it.

Instructions on Pointing Out the Faults of Self with the Iron Hook of Mind

In general, everything in the universe, outer, inner and secret, I offer to satisfy and benefit the six classes of beings.

The whole field of accumulation, the three Jewels as well as the three kayas, the entire universe I offer to the inner and secret deities, may they be satisfied.

To the Male and female yogis and yoginis I offer vajra food and vajra water, may they be satisfied.

Primordial Awareness, the mandala of pure amrita, I offer so that those in the lower realms may be satisfied.

The body mandala deities who are the union of bliss and emptiness, who are primordial awareness, may they be satisfied.

Everyone, in an outer and inner sense, is a dakini; to them I offer this melodious song, may they be satisfied.

As a last resort to stop all filthy activities I offer this torma, may the six protectors and local deities be satisfied.

In this context sing this vajra song if you like.

Just as the many male and female deities, dress in the disguise of a heruka. When prostrating do so in accordance with our noble tradition.

First, make a humble request as follows:

Ho!

Please consider me.  Three times.

The lord of empowerments, Samantabhadra’s great mandala of perfection is good and noble.

As stated in The Pearl Necklace, the ocean of the supreme assembly, both outer and inner, come and join together in an excellent manner to make the offering complete.

Visualize that the offering assembly enters and confer empowerment into the mandala.  One should exert oneself in singing this song.  Thus I ask you to pay attention to the reality of the inconceivable power of the ocean-like display of this vajra song.

Karma and aspiration, dependent origination and the like appears as it does.

In this way, make offerings to the assembly when renouncing that is which to be abandoned.

Wholly let go of finding amusement in creating conflict.

Revile material things and so on, reproach that which is rough and coarse.

Just like Guru Rinpoche, the Lord of Uddiyana, one should arise with the power akin to a wolf when coming to the ganachakra.

Endowed with the three authentic perceptions, the female goddesses of the ganachakra should be visualized as nectar.  If you do not realize this you will be reborn as a preta.

In this regard, endowed with the three authentic perceptions, think of the Lama as  Heruka and the Buddhas with their consorts.

Think of the Vajra siblings, fellow practioners, as male and female deities.

Recognize the blessings of the Ganachakra.

Do not be separated from the three circumstances.

May we never be separate from the yidam; our ordinary body.

May we never be separate the mantra of speech.

May we never be separate from realizing the nature of mind.

May we be free from the three doubts.

May we be free from any doubt regarding the tantric textswhich are the enlightened speech of the Lama.

May we be free from any doubt as to whether ganachakra is clean or unclean.

May we be free from any doubt concerning secret conduct.

The three things that are not to be done.

One should abandon carelessness of conduct.

One should not allow aversion (hatred, anger) and envy consume the mind.

Conceptual thought (discursiveness) is not appropriate.

It is improper for Bhikshus to take meat and beer with fear, or based upon discursiveness.

It is improper to continually engage in Brahmanic pure expression out of conceptual thought.

It is improper to engage in actions and conduct which is upon worries of good or bad.

These are the three unwholesome actions not to accumulate.

For one who follows the path introduced by the Lama, do not accumulate unwholesome actions.

The path of the spiritual instructions is profound, do not accumulate unwholesome actions.

Do not accumulate unwholesome towards vajra brothers and sisters or phenomena in general!

These are the three things not to give freely.

Do not give secret blessed substances to others.

Do not give away the oral instructions.

Do not perform offerings when not suitable.

These are the three secrets.

Secretly, one should make offerings when the feast assembly gathers.

Secretly, one should manifest great numbers of deities.

Secretly, perform activities and deeds that lead towards liberation, this is the essence.

These are the three things not to practice!

Do not call upon the Lama without respect and devotion.

Do not call upon the feast gathering in an “ordinary” way.

Do not apply unwholesome forces [actions and thoughts] towards vajra sisters and brothers.

Thus, in knowing what to adopt and what to abandon, the magnificent blessings of this ganachakra will flood rotten karma everywhere and siddhis will arise.

Recognize this!

Sing this feast song if you like; through it you will realize the essence of dependent origination, karma, and so on.  May you receive inspiration from this vajra song.

In the sky of emptiness this sun dawns,

Appearing, but not remaining, it will proceed to cross over.

Similarly, according to books, precious human rebirth has happened in this lifetime, not an “ordinary” birth.

As soon as one is reborn, one does not remain, death arrives.

Over a long period of time one remains, not accounting for one’s actions.

One should approach the path with zeal and diligence while sowing the seeds of Dharma.

Keep Meditating!

In the marketplace people go this way and that, continually abiding in daily hustle and bustle.

At all times separate yourself from the company of others.

Create an example similar to past masters.

At all times do not remain separate from the master.

Right now, accompany the master.

Discuss the profound Dharma so that you may resolve for yourself its excellence.

Just as the honey bee gathers the sweet essence of flowers without regard for the honey gathered

by others, it is just so regarding material goods in the present lifetime.

Do not desire the accumulation of wealth gathered by others; attachments to the desire realm should not be great.

Whatever you have in terms of wealth, let it go!

Commonplace work and responsibilities, what?!

Due to sporadic effort one will miss the fruits of the autumn harvest.

Similarly, through sporadic effort and enthusiasm towards the practice of meditation over the length of a whole lifetime, one will not experience awakening.

Do not engage in practice which is either too tight or too loose.

Constantly, day and night, generate enthusiastic diligence, keep meditating!

Achieve the freedoms and advantages that this human birth can bring here and now!

In this and in later lives, accomplish the aspiration towards liberation.

In your free time guard that the frame of one’s mind does not let it become thin and weak.

Harmonize your mind with its experiences through the practice of meditation so that they dissolve together.

Through this ganachakra of liberated conditions, may we receive the esoteric revelation of this song of spiritual experience now in this very lifetime.

Here, at this ganachakra pervading the entire sky, may all sentient beings conquer the undying Dharmakaya citadel.

Gewo!

 

Written by the authentic Phul Chung Tulku, Known as Pathing Rinpoche, incarnation of the Mahasiddha Kukkuripa.

Translated by his student Karma Tenzin Changchub Thinley (Repa Dorje Odzer) in the western pure land of Brooklyn, with the gracious guidance from the venerable Khenpo Lodro Donyo.  All errors are mine.  Sarva Mangalam!

30
Sep

On the importance of Prayer

A friend and classmate in my chaplaincy training program recently alerted our class to a newly conducted study led by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University on the efficacy of prayer for people who are ill.  Dr. Benson is no stranger to the world of prayer and meditation, in fact he has built an entire career around studying the physiological effects of meditation and prayer.  His findings have generally supported the belief that beyond the spiritual benefits of meditation, the meditator experiences a whole host of benefits ranging from a decrease in stress levels, lower blood pressure, and a general slowing of the body’s metabolism.

In the past Dr. Benson studied a variety of Tibetan monks, including the meditation master Bokar Rinpoche, while they meditated.  Dr. Benson focused upon meditators who were practicing Tummo, a vajrayana completion stage yogic meditation that fuses a form of pranayama (breathing exercises) with visualizations of the body’s internal energy matrix. He relates in a documentary based upon his findings, that he could not believe what he discovered: breath and heart rates decreased dramatically, and measured brain activity appeared completely unlike that of a person in waking state.  Recent interest in exploring the relationship between meditation and neuroscience by the scientific community, especially in collaboration with H.H. the Dalai Lama and H. H. the 17th Karmapa will undoubtedly clarify the benefits of meditation, and thereby help many people who may become interested in including meditation within their daily lives.

Here is a link to a Harvard Gazette article on the subject:

www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2002/04.18/09-tummo.html.

Additionally, I would like to share a link to a short video clip of Dr. Herbert Benson’s research: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WajTafbG7II.

The efficacy of prayer seems much harder to measure than that of meditation.  The results of the study of meditation upon the physiology an individual meditator seem clear; they are easy to quantify, and allow for useful comparison of data recorded in studying a variety of meditators.  The study of prayer in this way seems immensely difficult by comparison.  Here is the link to the article that my friend emailed us last week:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html?scp=1&sq=long%20awaited%20medical%20study%20prayer%20is%20no%20good&st=cse.

Many salient points are raised by this study, and perhaps the most important one revolves around how such studies are structured.  Prayer is a mysterious subject and it seems that it will take a number of attempts to be able to skillfully measure it’s effects.  I do tend to agree with Dr. Richard Sloan’s warning in the New York Times article linked above that we must be careful not to destroy what prayer is about by deconstructing religion to “basic elements that can be easily quantified”.  It would be ideal if future studies could honor the place and importance of science as well that of religion and sensitively examine where and how they overlap.


The vajrayana perspective on prayer is fairly clear: prayer is vital.  Generally, ritual is included within prayer- often they are interwoven.  The performance of  prayer in this multi-dimensional way helps to form an active identification with the historical transmission lineage (from the Buddha directly to you), and allows you to rest in your basic-state as a particular buddha in body, speech, mind, as well as in essence.  All of these coalesce around acting to benefit others (based upon our pledge to liberate all sentient beings).  So important is this type of activity that most recensions of the Hevajra Tantra and Chakrsamvara Tantra, as well as most other root tantras, have chapters dedicated to engaging in the actions of Pacifying, Enriching, and Subduing.  These kinds of actions can be best described as psycho-spritual activities to alleviate suffering, promote peace, and plant the seeds of liberation for others; prayer in this context, I would suggest, is quite important.  Within the framework of Tantric Buddhism there is an active application of visualization, prayer, ritual and mantra recitation that help the individual to loosen up their conception of the ordinary identification of oneself as an independent being living in opposition to the external world with which they interact, so that one can glimpse the rich wealth of their buddha-nature which is deeply interconnected with the world around oneself.  The tools: meditation, prayer and ritual help to clarify the recognition of our basic-state.  In this context, prayer is a means to center oneself, to remain intimate with one’s teacher, a particular buddha or protector, or as a means to rest in the mind’s essential nature.  It  is also an offering; an act of generosity and kindness.  Prayer also focuses the mind, making it a support of meditation, it can function as a means of clarifying doubt, as well as a means to receive inspiration.  I am sure that this is not unique to vajrayana, or even Buddhism, but lies at the core of prayer regardless of one’s faith.

From the perspective of chaplaincy, specifically around the application of pastoral care in which prayer is requested, the exact physical result of prayer may not be the central goal as much as what the prayer does for the individual requesting it.  The relationship between the person conducting the prayer and the person receiving it is a sacred and intimate relationship.  Prayer may be directed towards aspects of the self that have little to do with the individual’s physical condition.  Prayer can help relieve fear, a sense of separation from others, or help reinforce the inner ground that provides greater support for dealing with one’s particular situation.  These factors, and a great many others may indeed lead towards an ability to heal more effectively, but it might have less to do with the actual prayer and more to do with the inner process that prayer energizes, relaxes, empowers, or clarifies.  Perhaps it is this inner process that contributes to recovery from illness.  Prayer and the use of ritual for a person who is actively dying may also help promote a greater sense of connection and meaning to a life that is transitioning into the experience of death- this can be profoundly important.  Ultimately, prayer may not be best approached from the perspective of what it can do with regards to only physical responses, for surely prayer is mysterious, and some of the beauty involved in prayer is how it can return deeper meaning to various moments in an individual’s journey through life, creating a point of orientation that is more imaginal, timeless, and transcendent.