On October 29th Modern Tantric Buddhism: Embodiment and Authenticity in Dharma Practice was released by North Atlantic Books!
This book is a distillation of much of my teaching and writing over the past few years focusing on how we can bring our practice into our lives in fresh and bold ways, and how we can simultaneously liberate ourselves from the ways in which we limit ourselves through spiritual bypassing, and unexamined dharma practice.
It is a guide for the practitioner of Buddhist Tantra as much as it is an experimental look into how the wisdom of this tradition can be experienced in our busy modern lives in the present era. Much of the inspiration from this book arose directly from the long conversations, the debates, and reflections that we have had together, and I want to be able to share this with you.
Tricycle Magazine was kind enough to publish an excerpt of an interview about the book which you can read here.
Praise for Modern Tantric Buddhism:
“Modern Tantric Buddhism reads like an extended late-night conversation, wherein Western Buddhists can discover the authentic essence of tantra and develop confidence in its relevance to their own lives and spiritual aspirations. Lama Justin exemplifies an urban yogi who embodies the creative blaze of tantra amidst the grit and turmoil of a great city.”
—CHAGDUD KHADRO, spiritual director of Chagdud Gonpa centers in South America
“Modern Tantric Buddhism steps into bold new territory, offering heartfelt accounts while presenting Buddhist reflections on the great issues of our time. Lama Justin invites readers into the brave exploration that has been his life. He offers a stirring presentation of teachings on death as seen through the eyes of a chaplain in hospice work. Captivating as it is instructive, this book is a potent contribution to the development of American Buddhism.”
—PEMA KHANDRO RINPOCHE, founder and spiritual director of Ngakpa International
“Lama Justin represents a younger generation of well-trained Buddhist teachers who encourage American Tantric Buddhists to trust the power of their practice, find their authentic voice, and express wisdom in the modern world. Modern Tantric Buddhism demonstrates that the wisdom of Tantric Buddhism is as relevant and powerful in the streets of Brooklyn as it was in the remote caves of Tibet. A must-read for the modern tantrika!”
—LAMA WILLA MILLER, founder of Natural Dharma Fellowship and coauthor of The Art of Contemplative Care: Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work
“Interweaving lived religious experience, tantric texts, and critical theorists, von Bujdoss shows how Western tantra can transform the structural afflictions of colonialism, whiteness, and patriarchy. For academics, he provides instructive and valuable primary data to theorize the multiple forms that Vajrayana Buddhism is taking after and beyond modernity.”
—ANN GLEIG, associate professor of Religion and Cultural Studies, University of Central Florida, and author of American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity
“Modern Tantric Buddhism realigns us with tantra’s original core values of integrity, authenticity, and true empowerment. Lama Justin von Bujdoss—scholar, yogi, householder, and chaplain—shows us what tantra is really all about and how to meet the immediacy of our everyday experiences with greater wisdom and compassion.
—DR. MILES NEALE, author of Gradual Awakening
“Lama Justin von Bujdoss offers us an introduction to Vajrayana Buddhism unlike any other of which I am aware. Arising from his courageous application of tantric insights to hospice work, prison ministry, and the task of ‘healing the earth,’ this book has a unique freshness of approach that will engage a broad spectrum of readers.
—REV. FRANCIS V. TISO, author of Rainbow Body and Resurrection
We recently lost two very important Kagyu Rinpoches, Karma Chagme, the head of the Nyedo Kagyu and direct lineal descendent of the great mahasiddha Rāga Asya , the very emanation of Amitabha himself, and Kyabje Choje Akong Rinpoche, a great social activist, dharma teacher. Along side Trungpa Rinpoche, Akong Rinpoche as one of the most important Kagyu Rinpoches in how he helped to plant the seeds of dharma in the West, but also create nurture Samye Ling and the system of Samye Dzongs throughout the UK, Scotland, Ireland, Europe and Africa. He was also vital in helping to local the young 17th Karmapa. As a lineage we have also recently lost Kyabje Traleg Rinpoche, Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche, and still feel the loss of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche.
As long as His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa is with us, no matter where he resides, I feel that we are in good hands, and as a student of His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, I feel that as long as his activities continue then the dharma will not only flourish but increase in concentration and power. May their lives be long and may they completely destroy our ego-clinging through the power of their skillful means! May their activities increase the depth and wisdom of the Kagyu lineage!
This said, there are some who express concern about where we as Karma Kagyu are going in the West, and I would like to throw my two cents into the ethereal debate. Rather than make this a global argument, metaphorically as well as actually, maybe we should just focus on the Kagyu in America. I do not presume to know much at all about this subject, and even more than that, I have no real qualifications to weigh-in on such a topic, but nevertheless, as one who has deep love for our lineage I am occasionally concerned about how we may be structuring ourselves here in the U.S.
As Karma Kagyu I feel that we can do more than we are doing. We obviously benefit from the hard work and extreme diligence and patience of the masters of the early era: the late Kalu Rinpoche, the late Trungpa Rinpoche, ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Thrangu Rinpoche, Bardor Tulku, Ponlop Rinpoche, Lama Norlha, Lama Lordro, Lama Tsingtsang, Lama Rinchen, Lama Dorje, and of course, their guide His Holiness the Gyalwang 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rikpe Dorje. We owe them a debt of gratitude. Through these teachers we have the benefit of some very solid infrastructures for the study and practice of the dharma- we have a great number of translators, translation committees, places for extended as well as short retreat as well as the beginning of a sangha which while still young and tender might hopefully grow into a single unified family of victorious ones. Yet right now the sangha may be our weakest link.
America is a unique place in that across the board we like to think of ourselves on the collective level as a unified group that share similar values, and yet we also very easily cleave along a variety of lines that include ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, race and political views. The obvious benefit is that there is the potential for most anyone to find a niche within the American experience. The fundamental flaw is that we are only part of the group until we don’t want to be, until our desire-lines of identity pull us into our sub-groups. When we separate from the collective in this way, the American experience becomes very static and disjointed. Likewise, when we try to singularly drop our histories, the various layers of culture that have helped to shape us as people, in favor of the collective identity, we lose the richness and the brilliance that we bring to the entire American organism. There is something about the fundamental tension between the more idealized identity as Americans (which is a construction) and our identity as a member of a variety of sub-groups (also ultimately a construction) that allows us to question the values of both sides of our being that can allow us to grow into dynamic citizens. That said, there is nothing preventing us from remaining stagnant within our identity on either side, either a stalwart “American” or member of a sub-group that doesn’t want to be part of the collective . When this happens unity, connection and communication becomes impossible.
Similarly, the essential flaw that we as American Karma Kagyu face is the idea that we actually think that know what we are doing. We feel that we are correct in projecting a particular meta-view upon ourselves as followers of the wisdom lineage of the Karma Kagyu, and that this view has to be expressed in a particular unified way. We assume that we must all adhere to the values as a group that were most recently innovated by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye in 18th century Tibet, who while being an amazing genius and autodidact, has been used (perhaps unintentionally) to create a blanket meta-identity that may have been taken to the extreme. At times I feel that ultimately this lack of balance has led many who feel connected to a wide variety of sub-groups to feel left out and as a result, not integrated into the larger view of what we may be as a lineage. As if the notion of a unified Karma Kagyu lineage, or any lineage, has ever existed until the “modern” era.
I think that it is worth throwing into the mix that the lines of all four major schools of Tantric Buddhism might be more a product of modern academia than anything else. It might even be that we have all contaminated one another through the cross-pollination of inter-lineage growth in the past than our projections and assumptions allow us to believe. Our identities are more blended that we might like. An example of this can be demonstrated by His Holiness Sakya Trizin when he recently gave the empowerment of Dudjom Lingpa’s Three Wrathful Ones in New York City.
I think that it was Trungpa Rinpoche who called the Kagyu lineage the ‘mishap lineage’, which I will loosely interpret to mean that at its best our lineage just happens; it is not the product of strategic planning. Why is this? Well, perhaps we are not the product of controlled strategic planning either; our mind/heart matrix of thought/emotion is a system of constant mishaps, all sorts of stuff arises, sometimes we can clearly rest in what arises, other times we get carried away by our hallucinations. But one thing is certain, problems arise once we try to force a structure upon the way things should be.
In this way, I tend to wonder if we may have made the fundamental error of leaning too much upon the 18th/19th century classicism of monastic Karma Kagyu as a model for the entirety of American Karma Kagyu (the vast majority of whom are lay) in the 21st century. It sounds kind of absurd actually when I see it written out like that, and I don’t think that it is too much of a stretch to suggest that if this is the case, then perhaps we lose some of our credibility and accessibility with those who resonate with the sub-groups that feel at odds with the way the dharma is presented. How are young people with little interest in India or Tibet, let alone their history, and who have little money to travel to India to feel connected? What about some curious souls from the South Bronx, Brownsville, Oakland, Compton, or even large swathes of Suburbia who want to better understand their relationship to their experience of suffering to connect?
The dynamic energy of engaged being as is inherently expressed by a wide variety of groups of all imaginable ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, race and other points of orientation doesn’t seem to be held by the container of this kind of singular classical Tibetan approach. Perhaps it is paternalism or some type of chauvinism, and perhaps it isn’t- lord knows the internet is full of such debates, and my point here is not to cast blame upon anyone other than our limited view. That said, I tend to feel that what matters most here is that the essential tension between “self-identity” as a member of any particular group in relation to the experience of gaining certainty in our not having any particular “self” as taught through the dharma is being lost to an increasing number of Americans. These sparks of tension allow the power of tantric Buddhism to blow up our ideas of who we think we are and how we tend to conceive of the world around and within ourselves. To ‘inadvertently’ create the assumption that one can only experience this through assuming that we all need to be conversant in 18th/19th century Tibetan classical Buddhist thought only serves to disempower the vast majority of sentient beings in the United States. It allows few people to come and be held as they expolre the sparky nature of what it means to familiarize oneself with the view. Perhaps Europe is different, or Central and South America, and Aftrica, but I suspect not.
The way that much of the Karma Kagyu lineage is being presented these days in the United States appears to be more of a preservation of monasticism and the imposition of this structure upon the inner lives of the sangha, rather than a skilled blending, meeting people where the are, and creating the container that allows the safety and intimacy necessary to challenging the assumptions of who and what we are, and what the whole field of appearance might be.
The result is that it is not uncommon to find that there are many gorgeous Karma Kagyu dharma dharma centers, stunning in beauty and immaculate in appearance, real museum quality reproductions of what one might have found in Tibet before the Chinese holocaust. Yet, it is also possible to feel the cold clinical nature of many of these places. In looking even closer, it is easy to see how tender and fragmented the sanghas appear. This makes me feel sad. After all, it is sangha that is vital for the continuation of the practice of dharma. When I visit places that resemble these perfect visions of what dharma is supposed to look like visually, I think of Drukpa Kunley, Milarepa, Phadampa Sangye and Shabkar with great tenderness (and humor) and take delight in my meager identity as a so-called Repa. These teachers (myself completely excluded) were vital commentators, alternatives and voices in the wilderness that dharma cannot be owned, trapped in books, and is not only to be delivered through the medium of classicism which often runs the risk of becoming overly dusty and theoretical. There is a lot of wisdom in their path, and many teachings in their relationship with the institutions that presented dharma in a particular kind of way.
What we seem to fail to realize, or perhaps disassociate from, is that the Karma Kagyu lineage is best when it is a blended practice of fierce engaged practice activity mixed with the subtlety and discipline that one finds in Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye. Just as we need the sun and the moon for there to be balance on Earth, perhaps we need both the paths of Rechungpa and Gampopa as symbols of who we are, who we might wish to become, and from which point we wish to engage the dharma. We need to look at where we become too comfortable and lazy and bring our whole experience as people into our practice. Good dharma practice has nothing to do with beautiful dharma centers, rich coffers, and exquisite elegance. In fact, the best practice arises from confronting the entire hallucination of this “self” and the world around us. We are often well served to this end in challenging our assumptions of how our dharma centers should appear, notice when our devotion becomes the habit obsession rather than a mixture of connection and gratitude, and when in trying to be “good”, how we accidentally cause great harm to those we tell ourselves we are committed to benefiting.
Ultimately, everything that has been created by our foreparents within the Karma Kagyu in America is wonderful, and we should rejoice in the amazing progress. It really is amazing what has come into being. And yet, we might be getting a bit lazy and myopic and I pray that we can make things a bit more messy and sparky and dynamic for everyone who might be attracted to this vibrant and wonderful lineage. I pray that our dharma teachers can strike a rich and engaged balance for their students! I pray that our lineage can hold the experience of every person from every walk of life who approaches us! I pray that we face mishaps every day and that the sparks of tension within our experience of being cause endless dakas and dakinis to bless us!
A reader recently reached out on facebook and asked me to write a blog post touching on how lineage inspires us and how transmission works in modern day terms. Needless to say, I was heartened by her request as I found it flattering, and because I have been playing around with this topic as it pertains to teaching Ngöndro at New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center. So, as an offering to this friend I write this post, warts and all, please feel free to correct it where I stray.
As Monday was Chotrul Düchen I went to Greenwood Cemetery to practice Chöd and Marpa guru yoga. It had been a while since I had practiced there and I have been trying to remain aware of all of the local spirits, gods, and other beings whenever we do Chöd at the center as well as when we do our daily offerings to the protectors as of late, why not add cemetery beings as well, no? Lest we forget, vajrayana brings with it a wide spectrum of beings, beings that we often risk denying existence by having an overly symbolic read of this particular vehicle. I tend to feel that the more one does Chöd, the more one can sense some of what may linger in places like cemeteries and other similar places. It is easy to say that our cemeteries are nothing the the charnel grounds of yesteryear- the terrifying haunted ones frequented by dakinis, tigers, jackals and other scavenging animals. At Greenwood you won’t find freshly dead bodies rotting in a forest- visceral reminders of impermanence that grab- but when you take the time to really feel and take-in the monuments left behind to memorialize the pain of death, the sad realization that “this too did pass”, somehow the quiet solitude of the cemetery becomes quickly filled with spectres of those who passed in all manners of ways. Whether poisoned, or burned to death, drowned, or left alone, most ways of having met death are preserved there. Indeed, it is probably safe to say that very few of those whose remains are slowly composting were okay with the process of dying.
There is something so amazing about getting out and doing Chöd and other practices in the world- its a poignant way to bring the world into one’s practice. Chöd has long been practiced “in the field”, so to speak, that is, in cemeteries, charnel grounds, places of fear and similar such locations. A reader once pointed out to me how civil war battlefields are excellent places for such practice; indeed they are, as are Superfund sites and industrial wastelands (the modern day charnel ground?). There are many. Taking one’s practice outside and into the world can be a powerful way of emulating the examples of those notable lineage holders that we direct our prayers towards. It may well be that the places in the sadhana where we take refuge in all of the siddhas in the Chöd lineage, the father lineage of method headed by Padampa Sangye, and the mother lineage of wisdom headed by Vajrayogini herself, when we are doing this practice in a cemetery, or a place that instills fear, a place of desolation, we create the conditions to reflect, the activities of Machik Labdron and all of the many facets of the lineage of Chöd that she inspired. In this way we are manifesting a matrix of blessings that constitute a transmission of blessings that can be more real than we think. This is very real and significant inner connection with the Chöd lineage, is something to hold dear and blend with one’s being. These moments of sustaining connection when we feel confidently grounded, when it feels as if we are carrying the lineage with us as we walk to the grocery store, as we awaken in the morning, as we practice in formal sessions and as we go about our lives in post-meditation are incredibly profound.
Seated next to the cold marble monument of the Hope family, amid the late winter/early spring afternoon light, as the sun peeked through the clouds revealing patches of rich blue, I invited Greenwood’s slumbering guests. I offered the mudras of body speech and mind; all that appears as form, all that is heard as sound, and all that is thought or conceived of by the mind to the supreme assembly of the Chöd lineage. These offerings, the entire ground of my experience of that particular moment became an offering to Machik Labdron, Padampa Sangye and his retinue, Vajrayogini and her retinue, Lord Buddha, Prajnaparamita and an array of Chödpas, as well as the eight classes of gods under oath, rakshas and rakshasis, mamos, demons of illness and karmic creditors.
That moment, spent in a vast cemetery in Brooklyn, surrounded by over five hundred thousand graves, a wonderful practice site that is also the location of the Battle of Long Island, the first and largest battle in the American Revolution, became a moment of connection, a moment where the possibility of intimacy with a particular practice arose and provided great meaning. Moments like these, when we can dissolve the notion of Self, fully adorned with our foibles and limitations, our fears and anxieties, ornamented by our feelings of inferiority and clumsiness, when this can recede into the dawn of resting within the experience of the simultaneity of the field of refuge and our experience of mind, we create the occasion of inner empowerment, of blessing, of relationship which connects us beyond time and space to our lineage. This is what keeps everything fresh and allows us to appreciate the illusion-like mirage of who we think we are.
I am always relieved (and grateful) whenever this experience occurs (sadly, it is not a very frequent occurrence) as these moments serve to remind me of just how much intention is part of the essential fuel of meaningful dharma practice. We are often taught the importance of developing bodhicitta- the mind of enlightenment. This is crucial. It is the way we frame and contextualize our practice; reflecting upon bodhicitta acts in a twofold manner: giving our practice meaning as well as bolstering it through the merit created by the generation of compassionate resolve (relative bodhicitta) and the wisdom of emptiness (ultimate bodhicitta). While this is really important- it seems like an additional intention is vital as well, a point that was instilled in me by my first teacher, the late Ani Dechen Zangmo. This is the intention that our practice brings fruit in a natural unimpeded way, that we open ourselves up to experiencing the possibility of fruition. If for example, we begin our practice sessions convinced that we are complete failures and that practice will only benefit us slowly over incalculable aeons, then there is a strong likelihood that this is how our experiences may arise. It doesn’t mean that just because we think we will get enlightened in one meditation session that we will, rather, her advice was to keep alive the possibility that our practice will bring fruit- because after all, one day it will. Whether it be Ngöndro, Chöd, Calm Abiding, or any other form of practice- when we disconnect ourselves from the inevitability of our recognition of our inherent Buddha nature we throw a rather large self-created stumbling block in our way.
I am reminded of an Irish woman who I befriended fifteen years ago in Bodh Gaya. We came to be friends over many shared breakfasts with a large group of western practitioners who stayed at the Burmese Vihar. At the time she was following a Gelukpa teacher- and for some reason that I fail to remember, was encountering doubt about her practice. I had suggested that she meet the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, a very dear teacher, who was leading the Kagyu Monlam, and helped to arrange a meeting. It proved to be meaningful to her as ten months later I ran into her at Bokar Rinpoche’s annual Mahamudra Seminar. At one point after lunch she and I met for tea and I asked what she thought of the seminar- she started to cry and then smiled and told me how amazed she was by the fact that Bokar Rinpoche suggested that our practice could bring the fruit of realization in this life-time. The very notion that realization wasn’t necessarily something that was to be experienced at some point in the distant future was so counter of the view that she had cultivated- she was now tasting the possibility, she was joyful, light, buoyant; she seemed to have had a profound realization that changed her. It was really amazing- recalling that afternoon conversation still brings great joy to me and leaves me feeling happy.
That the experience of deep realization need not be something that eludes us because of a particular conception of time, or because we think that we are unworthy, or unable, broken, far away from our teacher, or tiny is something that can run counter to the way we see the world around us and our experience of it. This is not to diminish these feelings. I realize just how easy it can be to feel distant, incapable and unworthy. Yet I have come to learn from my own experience that during those moments when I can naturally offer all appearance, all sound, all mental formulations; when I can just rest in the experience of mind; when everything seems to settle into ease; then I am reminded of the illusory nature of Self, and that it is not real. These moments of receptivity are powerful and they break the habit of feeling that we are deluded beings, they are moments of empowerment, and personal moments of inner transmission.
Along these lines, we find in the guru yogas of Milarepa, Gampopa and Marpa prayers that help us keep the possibility of the experience of direct awakening ever present:
Grant your blessings so that all obscurations of karma, klesha, knowledge and habitual tendencies may be purified at this very moment.
Grant your blessings so that they may be purified on this very seat.
Grant your blessings so that they may be purified during this very session.
Grant your blessings so that our very beings may be purified.
Grant your blessings so that our very beings may be liberated.
Grant your blessings so that they may be liberated at this very moment.
Grant your blessings so that may be liberated on this very seat.
Grant your blessings so that they may be liberated during this very session.
This very moment! This very seat! This very session! What say you? Does this fall within our frame of reference? I can only speak for myself, but I sincerely hope it does.
In a way this view is worth exploring when it comes to receiving empowerments, or the transmission of a particular dharma from a qualified lineage holder. Just as we explored above our relative receptivity towards actually being empowered within our practice, and what those experiences are like, it is worth looking at how we take empowerments, and when we do, what it is that we are receiving.
Before I go any further I would like to underscore my lack of qualifications for actually having any real worthy insights on this topic and to share the title of an excellent book that touches on a variety of aspects around empowerment, that is Tsele Natsok Rangdröl’s Empowerment and the Path of Liberation. I cannot recommend this book enough, and must warn that in comparison to the words of Tsele Natsok Rangdröl, my words are not much more than the dance of a puppet that is being used by a blind, deaf and mute crazed puppeteer. Nevertheless, I feel that the view instilled by Ani Zangmo and the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche are worth examining especially in regard to what is possible when we attend and receive empowerments.
It is generally said that in the past, especially when great masters were conferring empowerments, that the power of the blessings of the practices were so strong that there was the distinct possibility that the act of conferring empowerment had the effect of completely ripening the recipient thereby creating the circumstances for immediate enlightenment. These days this is very rare indeed. It is also worth noting that in the good old days of 5th through 12th century India the nature of conferring empowerments may have been somewhat different than what we have come to experience these days. The stories found in the Seven Instruction Lineages by Jonang Taranatha, capture some of the atmosphere of what things may have been like.
Generally speaking there are four empowerments: vase empowerment, secret empowerment, knowledge/wisdom empowerment, and the precious word empowerment. Each of these empowerments help to ripen us in differing ways so that we may actually achieve the experience of the particular deity for whom we are being empowered. The vase empowerment purifies all negative karma created by the body, blesses the vajra-body, empowers us to enter into creation stage practices, and allows one to achieve the nirmanakaya stage. The secret empowerment purifies all negative karma created through speech, empowers us to recite the mantra, allows us the possibility of achieving illusory-body as well as the sambhogakaya stage. The knowledge/wisdom empowerment purifies all negative karma created by mind, blesses the vajra mind, plants the seeds for the experience of fierce blazing, lays the ground for achieving the dharmakaya stage. The precious word empowerment purifies all negativities created by body, speech, mind and all obscurations, in the Nyingma tradition it plants the seeds for treckchö, and in the Kagyu lineage it plants the seeds for the experience of the state of Vajradhara, the experience of bliss-emptiness, supreme mahamudra, the svabhavikaya.
Again, as I am by no means an expert, I heartily refer those interested to explore Tsele Natsok Rangdröl’s work as well at Book Six/Part Four of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye’s masterpiece, The Treasury of Knowledge. Chapter 12 deals with Initiation- there is a wealth of knowledge to be found in this chapter. Each lineage has differences in the structure of empowerments, and one also finds diversity in the way that the empowerments are broken down or elaborated upon, Hevajra is different than Chakrasamvara, and Kalachakra is different still. Nevertheless, despite the wide range, there are tonal similarities that are clear and distinct, as it the central importance of empowerment and transmission in vajrayana.
Of the function and purificatory effects of empowerment, Kongtrul says:
Initiations purify the obscurations of body, speech, and mind, and the three equally,
Establish competencies for the four indestructible states, ripen one as a fit trainee
Of the generations stage, self-blessing, and example and actual pristine awareness,
And bring about the attainment of the rank of vajra master.
Kongtrul essentially says that empowerments plant the seeds for all of the subsequent practice related to the empowerment. From the permission to visualize oneself as the deity and begining to tread the path of the generation stage all the way through completion stage practices, through to the fruition activities of the vajra master. This view is held as central today amongst the vajrayana lineages today as it was during Kongtrul’s time in the 19th century.
When large transmission cycles are offered, as in the case of the Kagyu Ngak Dzöd which was recently given by the precious master His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche at his monastic seat, Densa Palchen Chosling Monastery, or when the Rinchen Terdzöd or Dam Ngak Dzöd are given these cycles of empowerments are often given to fulfill a few functions. These large cycles serve to offer to the next generation of young masters the transmissions that they will receive, maintain and propagate, thereby guaranteeing that the dharma continues through time. Some of these cycles have specific groupings so that disciples can receive a certain themed set of empowerments. Lastly these collections act as storehouses where some of the rarer empowerments are protected such as Buddhakapala and Chatuhpita.
There are many ways that people receive empowerments, in some cases we take them as we would a blessing, in other cases it might be to create a connection with a particular cycle of practice, or with a particular master of the past. Sometimes we specifically take them as we know that we will be taking these practices on in the future. From there we move on to obtain the reading transmission and instructions on perform the desired the practices.
Whichever the case may be, it might be worth considering that a great deal rests upon our intention as we receive these transmissions so that their intangible benefits are also transmitted: the blessings, the connection with the vajra master and with our fellow participants who we become karmically linked with, as well as all of the ripening effects of all of the articles of empowerment, vase, crown, vajra and so on. We should certainly engender the mind of awakening throughout the process, and we should keep in our mind that in receiving empowerment we also forge a connection with an entire transmission lineage throughout time. We become part of the lineage and it us: where is the difference between the lineage and our mind?
Can we allow the possibility of cultivating the ground which contains the seeds of the four empowerments? We never really know just how close those sprouts may be to pushing up the rich fertile soil of our being and fully manifesting.
In this way, in our own deeply personal way, we receive the lineage. It is a profound time of vast meaning. It may be that if we take empowerments with a focused resolve to actually receive the lineage, the connection, the blessings, the ripening and the not very easily communicable essential experience of the nature of mind, that what is conferred is the true lineage. Whether this is actually true or not is difficult to know (or prove), but it does stand to reason that even though the actual conferral of an empowerment contains many benefits that enrich us, there is a lot that we too can bring to the experience. Receptivity is one thing; if we can allow ourselves to stretch this sense receptivity through time and space then the transmission that we receive can be as complete as can be. In a moment we can recieve the transmission of a complete expression of enlightenment.
Whether we are mixing the body, speech and mind of Machik Labdron with ours, thereby receiving direct empowerment from her, or from Lord Marpa during a session of guru yoga on the anniversary of his parinirvana, or from our very own vajra master in flesh-and-blood, the degree to what we receive and how completely it blends with our being is up to us. May we all receive and hold the transmission of the wondrous buddha-dharma and may we manifest it completely and perfectly! May all of phenomena be a precious charnel ground where we can reach beyond the limitations of this illusory self and experience the expansive ground of awareness! As winter turns to spring, may the seeds of empowerment begin to sprout everywhere allowing for the complete expression of wisdom-mind like a rising sun!
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 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?
As part of my CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) training with the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care we have been exploring aspects of Jungian psychology especially as it relates to symbols and images. We recently finished a great week of classroom experience which included a conversation with Morgan Stebbins, the Director of Training of the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association, a faculty member of the C.G. Jung Foundation of New York, and a long time student of Buddhism. Stebbins’ presentation on Symbol and Image was dynamic and quite moving- he embodies a depth and conviction that I find compelling. In addition to this, Stebbin’s visit to our class came at a point when I’ve been playing around with writing a blog post about sacred geography. Very timely indeed.
“What does sacred geography have to do with me?” one might ask. I would answer, “Everything”.
Within the framework of Buddhism geography and therefore pilgrimage, has come to be something of an important phenomena. Certainly this is not anything unique to Buddhism; we have a tendency to want to return to places that are significant for us. Sometimes there is spiritual significance, sometimes it is societal, and most often it is interpersonal. An example of these would be making the Hajj if you were Muslim, perhaps visiting Washington D.C., or taking your children there so that they could appreciate the way that our nation governs itself, and perhaps the place where one’s parents were born, or where they died. Geography allows us to honor the meaning that we value in our lives. We live within time and space, and within the latitude and longitude that time and space afford us, we intentionally (and even unintentionally) plot the course of our lives and identities within their dynamics. How many times has a particular season or even date reminded us of an event that occurred in the past around the same time? My root teacher passed away on Christmas eve over a decade ago, and I am always reminded of that great loss whenever Christmas approaches. On the other hand, the Fall months feel like a time of rich growth for me- they always have, and for some reason these months continue to prove to be significant for me. These are two examples of how I plot meaning within my experience of time.
In most faiths pilgrimage has become something that one engages to touch the past; it is a means to feel the link of those who have come before us and charge the present moment with their power. It can be the Wailing Wall, St. Peters, the Kabba, Bodh Gaya, a sacred mountain, river, the ocean, a tree and it can also be imagined- something symbolic, a living pulsating image such as a mandala.
According to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha predicted that students of the path would visit the place of his birth, his enlightenment, where he first taught, and where he would die. He stressed that this may be something that one does if they want to, if it brings meaning, inspiration, and context to their path. It was a suggestion, not a directive, and ultimately a very insightful reading of how we relate to time and space.
Within Vajrayana, or tantric Buddhism, pilgrimage appears in a more visionary manner. In addition to the four major sites associated with the Buddha’s life, various pithas, or ‘seats’ (places of power and meaning associated with the dissemination of Buddhist tantra) became included into various lists of sacred places. For example, there are twenty-four pithas throughout the Indian sub-continent that are associated with the places where the Buddha revealed himself as Chakrasamvara and taught the cycle of Chakrasamvara and related practices. The pithas, while relating to actual places, also correspond to places within our bodies that have an internal energetic significance. The exact location of these pithas vary from tradition to tradition, but there is a relative constancy of the mirroring of external and internal meaning in relation to these sites. In some ways, and according to some teachers, pilgrimage can be done without ever leaving where you are as all of the major pithas exist within the matrix of our energetic body. This approach is touched upon by the Buddhist Mahasiddha Saraha who in once sang:
This is the River Yamuna,
This is the River Ganga,
Varanasi and Prayaga,
This is the moon and the sun.
Some speak of realization having traveled and seen all lands,
The major and minor places of pilgrimage.
Yet even in dreams I have no vision [of these].
There is no other boundary region like the body;
I, virtuous, have seen this for good and with certainty.
Stay in the mountain hermitage and practice self-restraint.[i]
In his book Sacred Ground, Ngawang Zangpo has addressed in a very detailed manner the thoughts of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye on the importance of sacred geography. Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye lived in Tibet from 1813 to 1899. He was a famous meditation master of the Kagyu, the Nyingma and Sakya Lineages. Through his wide and open attitude Kongtrul helped define and spread the Rime, or non-sectarian view of the dharma, in response to a general atmosphere of sectarianism amongst all schools of Buddhism in Tibet at the time. He was a compiler of termas (revealed treasure teachings) and was a terton (treasure discoverer) in his own right. A real renaissance man, Kongtrul not only helped shape and preserve the Kagyu lineage, but all forms of Dharma in Tibet.
Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye identified a variety of places in Tibet as reflections of the twenty-four pithas in India. This change in perspective had the effect of being quite dynamic in that it placed Tibetans directly in the center of their own world of sacred geography. Of course some brave souls still made the journey to the twenty-four pithas in India, but many visited the sites that Kongtrul and his dharma friends Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa and Jamyang Kheyntse Wongpo felt were equivalent. For some, this type of translation/re-orientation was too much; indeed the great Sakya patriarch Sakya Pandita took issue with the possibility that several pithas could be located in Tibet.
Sacred Ground is an excellent book for exploring the thoughts and teachings of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye on the subject of pilgrimage and inner spiritual geography. Ngawang Zangpo translates Kongtrul Rinpoche’s Pilgrimage Guide to Tsadra Rinchen Drak [or Pilgrimage Guide to Jewel Cliff that resembles Charitra (the union of everything)]- an amazing text that treats in great depth the nature of that particular pilgrimage location as well as it’s inner and secret significances as it relates to various energetic centers found throughout the body. Zangpo includes a chart listing the manner in which the pithas correspond to the body according to the Chakrasamvara tantra, an appendix that includes three fascinating texts one by Kongtrul and Khyentse Wongpo, one by Chokgyur Lingpa, and a compiled list of sacred sites in Tibet by Ngawang Zangpo. Of particular interest is a reference to a note found in Mattheiu Ricard’s translation of The Life of Shabkar:
It must be remembered that sacred geography does not follow the same criteria as ordinary geography. Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-91), for instance, said that within any single valley one can identify the entire set of the twenty-four sacred places. Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche (1903-87) also said that sacred places, such as Uddiyana, can shrink and even disappear when conditions are no longer conducive to spiritual practice. The twenty-four sacred places are also present in the innate vajrabody of each being. (p.442, n.1)
A similarly fascinating book on this subject is the collection of essays edited by Toni Huber entitled Sacred Spaces and Powerful Places in Tibetan Culture. These essays offer a rich exploration of issues surrounding pilgrimage sites, sacred geography and geomancy. Of particular interest is the essay by David Templeman entitled Internal and External Geography in Spiritual Biography in which he explores the relationship that the mahasiddha Krishnacharya with the twenty-four pithas, especially that of Devikotta. Templeman considers the importance of these sites as internal locii and suggests that while pilgrimage to these sites was indeed important, there is little evidence to support that many siddhas visited all of them. In fact, Templeman suggests that some sites more than others are of particular significance and have been over time, while others are dangerous, home to subtle harmful beings (wild flesh eating dakinis) that need to be appropriately tamed before one can occupy that particular location. In the case of the mahasiddha Krishnacharya, his untimely end occurred at the site of Devikotta, as this site had a reputation for incredible unpredictable volatility that was well known throughout India at the time.
I tend to wonder where this place of volatility, with beings that need to be subjugated, resides within me. A three paneled chart provided by Templeman in his article listing the twenty-four pithas according to the Chakrasamvara Tantra, the teacher Jonang Taranatha and the Sakya master Kunga Drolchok, indicates that Devikotta -this very powerful site- is located within my energetic body around both of my eyes. I wonder where it’s mirror locations are?
What I find most compelling about these books, and this subject in general is that it has a lot to do with how we relate to the world around us, how we import meaning to this world, and what we allow of ourselves in being in relation to time and space. The essays in Huber’s book and the work by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye describe both the Tibetan cultural, as well as the general vajrayana approach to sacred geography- these two are not by all means identical as Huber points out in his essay. Huber suggests that Tibetan culture influenced vajrayana making it distinct from the Tantric Buddhism that developed in India which then spread to Tibet. While the distinction is subtle, it speaks to how meaning is translated. It is arguable that there can never be a one-for-one translation of a text from one language to another, and perhaps, a one-to-one translation of a religion is similarly unlikely. That said, without straying into the soft edges of hermeneutics, I would like to wonder out loud, “How does Buddhist sacred geography translate to Buddhism in the ‘West’?” I think that a great response to such a question is, “That’s a silly question, Buddhist sacred geography is as present in the west as it is in Tibet or India”. I’d also add that we should map it, live within it in a more open way, and make it ours.
If Jalandhara is a site that corresponds to the crown of my head, Oddiyana a site that corresponds to my right ear, and Devikotta my two eyes, all the while representing sacred places reflected upon the Indian Sub-continent and or the Tibetan Plateau, where would they be reflected upon the geography of the United States for example? Or more playfully perhaps, Brooklyn? It seems that some of this has to do with fully owning and bringing vajrayana home. In so doing, I would love to see how this type of re-orientation occurs. Can we do for ourselves what Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye did for Tibetans?
As Buddhism takes root here in the U.S. and continues to flourish I would love to see all of the twenty-four pithas of the India subcontinent reflected here. Perhaps as we learn to slow down and notice our relationship with our surroundings this will be more evident. I’m very curious to see how this aspect of vajrayana in particular translates to western culture; it seems like there is great potential.
[i] Schaeffer, Kurtis R. Dreaming the Great Brahmin: Tibetan Traditions of the Buddhist Poet-Saint Saraha. Oxford University Press, 2005. Pg. 151.
From the nature of emptiness wind and fire arise.
I remember very clearly the cold late November afternoon in Gangtok, Sikkim, fifteen years ago when I was taught Milarepa guru yoga. It was one of those incredible experience of being shown something for the first time: electrifying, new and magical. One of the things that instantly spoke to me about the practice was the imagery of the inner offering of the five meats and five nectars that appears in the beginning of the text. Indeed, in looking back at it I think that the inner offering in Milarepa practice (as well as in many other tantric Buddhist practices) has been something that has held great meaning for me. Part of it may be the fact that this prelude to Milarepa practice is a wonderfully clear metaphor for Mahamudra; one of the central forms of meditation passed down through the Kagyu Lineage. The inner offering presents a different form for approaching the mind’s essence from other meditations- chod involves cutting and offering, samatha/vipassana is quiet and still, some practices involve fiery wrath, others still, a warm familiar tenderness. Each of these emotive backgrounds illustrate a modality, an emotion, a style, or an outlet through which we may we express and experience ourselves within the context of awakened activity; the union of clarity of being and luminosity of mind. Within the context of the inner offering, the metaphor is that of boiling and melting (not unlike the athanor which refines the prima materia in Alchemy). This burning and melting is so powerful that a sublime blissful nectar is produced, a non-dual nectar that confers the blessing of the Buddha. This part of Milarepa guru yoga came to be, and remains, an exciting fun part of my practice, instilling a sense of dynamic power that seems to illustrate the potential “atomic” nature of Vajrayana.
In a skull on a tripod of skulls GO KU DA HA NA become the five meats and BI MU MA RA SHU become the five nectars.
The inner offering is a product of medieval India (roughly between the 6th through 12th centuries), when both Tantric Buddhism and Tantric Hinduism were taking shape. This was a time of immense social upheaval throughout the Indian sub-continent. In both Hindu and Buddhist circles, groups of siddhas broke away from the orthodoxy of their respective majorities in order to develop, practice and teach tantric forms of Hinduism and Buddhism. One of the principal causes of such a move was a the adoption of an antinomian attitude towards the strictures of Indian society with its caste system, its brahmanic tendencies towards “purity”, and the establishment of Buddhist monasteries so large and wealthy that their leading teachers often lived very comfortable lives of scholastic celebrity. This shift was often exemplified by the lives of the 84 mahasiddhas, some of whom left their teaching positions at the famous monasteries of Nalanda, Somapuri, and Vikramashila to practice in jungles, others were kicked out for their outlandish behavior, while a few were kings or princes and princesses afraid to give up their wealth, and many were of low-caste status. Disregard for the religious and cultural status quo led to a shift towards the charnel grounds as gathering places, frightening “dirty” locations, where wild animals scavenged the remains of the recently dead. It was a time where meditation instruction was sung in vernacular so that the everyday person could be touched, not just those who were ordained or occupants of a higher social station. This time also marked a focal shift (as far as practice goes) towards cities where the concentrated hustle and bustle of everyday life revealed itself as a ripe field of opportunity, a place where one is faced to deal with a full range of emotions. For some it was also a shift into the seductive luxurious courts of both major and minor royalty. Human experience, in all of its forms was recognized as embryonic in nature allowing most anyone who exerted themselves in practice to become pregnant with realization. This became the birth right of all, not just those born into one caste, and certainly not just those who were literate or educated. Perhaps one could go so far as to say that this period was a time of spiritual anarchic-democratization.
One of the most interesting aspects of this time period was the apparent looseness of sectarian divisions between the then Saivite sub-sects that represented the forefront of Hindu tantra and the Buddhist equivalents who ushered in Chakrasamvara, Hevajra, Candamaharosana, Guhyasamaya and other early tantric deity practice. The shared iconography between Saivite Kapalika Hindu tantra and Buddhist tantra is clear evidence of some common direction and praxis orientations. Such symbolism makes use of skulls, flayed animal and human skins, invocations of the more wrathful nature of these deities, and sexual union with their consorts. Similarly, the dual identities of the siddhas Matsendryanath, Gorakanath, Jalandhara, and Kanhapa who are counted as four of the eighty-four Buddhist mahasiddhas as well as founders of the Hindu Nath lineages suggests that there was much more dialog between the more iconoclastic progenitors and practitioners of Hindu and Buddhist Tantra. These four siddhas are credited with the development of Hatha Yoga, which has many applications within Buddhism and Hinduism. David Templeman, in his fascinating paper Buddhaguptanatha and the Survival of the Late Siddha Tradition has suggested that the interaction between Buddhist and Hindu yogins was more common than most Tibetan scholars had assumed. This was a perplexing and fascinating subject for the erudite Tibetan scholar Taranatha, and according to Janet Gyatso, in her book Apparitions of the Self, the great Nyingma terton Jigme Lingpa was very curious about such points of contact. In some way it appears that the assumption of difference seems to be a convenient projected organizational tool used to try to clarify such a difficult topic of study. A way to try to define that which tries to defy definition. The Centre for Tantric Studies offers a forum for exploring the history and development of tantra in and around the Indian Sub-continent.
Much debate and uncertainty surrounds the issue of how tantra came into being, even more debate surrounds how we should approach understanding tantra. The works of scholars like Geoffrey Samuel, Roger Jackson, Ronald Davidson, David Gordon White, Elizabeth English and Christian Wedemeyer (to name a few) have helped to illustrate some of the more pertinent issues surrounding the subject of Buddhist tantra.
They are melted by wind and fire.
As a means of throwing open the gates of ultimate realization, the Pancamakara: madya (alcohol), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (edible foods) and maithuna (sexual intercourse) were included in Hindu tantric rituals as a means to effect a eucharistic understanding of non-duality. In essence, by consuming that which is culturally regarded as impure in ritual context, one undermines the very notion of the purity/impurity dualism that keeps us trapped in feeling fragmented and lacking expansiveness. These particular objects, when handled and offered by practitioners of this more radical form of Hindu Tantra were held with the left hand, the hand reserved for handling impure substances. In adopting an enthusiasm and greater equanimity towards these violations of cultural mores regarding cleanliness (spiritually as well as otherwise) one was directly contradicting the rules of conventional Hinduism. It should be noted that the use of the left hand in offerings is also prevalent in one form or another in Buddhist Tantra. This dynamic was central to the Kapalika sect whose influence upon the corpus of Yogini Tantas was considerable. While few scholars can agree who influenced who, the most important thing is that these traditions arose.
Light from the three seeds attracts wisdom nectar. Samaya and wisdom become inseparable and an ocean of nectar descends.
In Buddhist sadhanas the five meats and the five nectars share a certain equivalency to the Hindu Pancamakara. Rather than the transgressive five M’s (madya, mamsa, matsya, mudra and maithuna) we have the five meats: the flesh of cow, dog, horse, elephant and man, and the five nectars: semen, blood, flesh, urine, and feces. The five meats are representative of the five skandhas: form, feeling, discrimination, action, and consciousness. Likewise, the five elements: earth, water, fire, wind, correspond to the five nectars. Depending on the explanation lineage of the inner offering, these associations may vary, but generally the essence is the same. In this practice we join the five wisdoms with the five elements to produce a non-dual intoxicating ambrosia that has the capability of revealing the qualities of awakening and in that sense provides a powerful spring-board of potential realization. In other words we are joining our perceptions with the objects of our perceptions- entering into direct relationship with phenomena; uncontrived and expansive. We boil perceptions and the ability to perceive in a five dimensional way thereby naturally releasing our habitual confused samsaric reaction for a more aware equanimous relationship with the world around and within us. This is the very mechanism of samsara/nirvana! What’s more, as this mechanism unfolds, it reveals the don-dual vastness of Dharmakaya, a spring-board for sacred outlook. For a moment everything is okay, relaxed into ease.
These substances emanate from their specific syllables and are brought together to be mixed in a kapala (skull cap bowl), one then generates a flow of prana which strikes syllables for fire and wind underneath the kapala to make its contents boil and in a sense unify. This now ambrosial nectar (amrita) emits the syllables Om, Ah, Hung, dispersing the blessing of pure Buddha body, speech and mind. This simply radiates. It is used to bless torma offerings and nectar used in offerings, or in a more general way tsok offerings as well as the general environment.
Om Ah Hung Ha Ho Hri Hung Hung Phe Phe So Ha.
There is another side to this as well; it seems an importantly powerful thing to keep in mind at some level that the five meats and five nectars were intended to be transgressive repulsive substances. Shocking and caste destroying, they arose directly out of the charnel ground culture that figures so largely in Buddhist Tantra. There is power in our response to disgust, to fear, guilt, lust and all those emotions that lurk around the edges of our movement through the world; we all have our own relationships to purity and impurity, and they are a lot more complicated than we like to assume. Guilt, fear, self-righteousness, abandonment, woe, depression, anger, disgust- an army of emotions- are related to how and why we connect to/react to purity and impurity- we carry these reactions with us wherever we go as we label the things around us as clean and or unclean, desirable and undesirable.
A few years ago I was speaking with the abbot of a Buddhist monastery in India about the historical development of tantric applications of using impure substances. In his reply he said that things are so much more different today in trying to connect with these practices. It’s hard to see rotting corpses, scary wild animals feasting on human remains, lepers, one can’t go down to a charnel ground these days to do a puja around bodies in various states of decay. With the use of toilet paper, some of the stigma of the use of the left hand in India is less powerful, and in western countries there never really was the same kind of stigma in this regard. This he suggested that this is one of the reasons why we use/rely upon visualizations- they can be quite powerful.
However, I wonder where these places of fear are- we all have them- perhaps they are more individualized, or abstracted. Homelessness, illness, mental illness, terrorism, and death, perhaps these are some of the newer “untouchables” of our times. It is important to locate them for ourselves, touch the fear or terror that they bring, and then offer them up- the essence of fear and terror is mind, and mind’s essence is primordially pure. If we can take these sources of impurity and throw them in a pot and cook them with wind and fire, energy and exhaustive passion, they can be seen for what they are, not much different from the purity and wholesomeness that we so easily cling to. What then is the difference? And why to we always run from one towards the other?