It has been just a little over a year since I started ganachakra.com and changchub.com, the associated site through which one can sponsor prayer, puja, and recitation of texts for the benefit of oneself, for another, or for all beings. Both sites have proved to meet a specific need that exists not just for Buddhists, but for anyone who is experiencing suffering and would like spiritual support.
Shortly after beginning ganachakra.com last summer, I returned to India to see His Eminence the 12th Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche (vajra regent of the Karma Kagyu lineage), as well as Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche (heart son of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, and abbot of Bokar Ngedhon Chokhorling), for periods of instruction, retreat and pilgrimage. Upon returning I wrote two posts, one with instructions on how to place the mind at the point of death from H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche (which you can read here), the other on practicing for others by Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche (which you can read here).
I wish to return to the topic of practicing for the benefit of others; specifically the performance of ritual puja as this is a form of dharma activity that appears to be treated with less importance in non-buddhist countries. I’m not really sure why this is the case, but I suspect it has to do with complicated feelings surrounding magic, ritual, and prayer. It seems important to note that in most cases, western Buddhists have had the benefit of access to higher education and perhaps even a relatively high social class. These factors may or may not be important, but I wonder if they make the outward acceptance of magic, the power of ritual, and the benefit of prayer appear superstitious and regressive. Indeed, it should be noted that most of the public proponents of Buddhism seem to hold advanced degrees, and in the United States at least, on average, there is a rationalism and sense of grounded reality that goes hand in hand with such access to education and perhaps also the leisure time to devote towards practice. Culturally, this imprint exists, as to how real it is, and to how much of an absolute it has become, is something that I cannot say much about. Perhaps we only know for ourselves how loose and free we are of this and other cultural imprints. How do these imprints color our notion of Buddhism? These projected realities can only be indicated and fully understood individually. If anything it seems that approaching the surety of the rational mind with mindful awareness is wise; for such a cherished dialectic is as much an habitual fabrication as anything else.
Mindful of the potential impossibility and eternal contradictions that words allow for, I acknowledge that I may make a variety of mistakes in trying to address this topic. That said, I invite you to explore with me how practice for others is a vitally important dharma activity.
When we pray, what are we doing?
There are many different forms of prayer. Aspiration prayers, dedication prayers, supplication to a particular lineage, direct prayers of praise to a given Buddha, and prayers of request for empowerment, to name a few. Through personal prayer, in a very general sense, we make a connection with our distinct source of spirituality and the well-spring of spaciousness, interpenetrating connection, and personal empowerment that it offers. The specific directionality and aim of our prayers can be focused and refined by what kind of prayer one does.
A great example of an aspiration prayer is the Dewachen Prayer; it focuses the mind upon making the aspiration for either oneself or another to be reborn in Dewachen or Sukhavati, the pure-land of the Buddha Amitabha. This prayer plants the seeds of connection to the intention of experiencing the bliss of Amitabha’s face, the ability to connect with the dharma, to have the means to practice, and to experience the mind’s basic clarity. It allows Amitabha’s commitment to benefit us to come to fruition.
Dedication prayers connect us to others; they engender compassion, and reinforce our commitment to bodhisattva activity. The following is an example of a dedication prayer:
By this virtue may I quickly
Attain the state of a Guru-Buddha (Enlightenment),
And then may I lead every being,
without exception, into that state.
May the most precious and supreme bodhicitta
Which has not yet been generated now be generated.
And may the precious mind of bodhicitta which has
Never decline, but always increase.
Dedication prayers are a way in which we ground our intention. They help us to keep the general view of interconnection and offer a form of bearing witness. Any merit that we have created we dedicate to all beings, so that they may experience Buddhahood; this is a way of not forgetting and maintaining our heritage as both a potential buddha, but also as a participant in samsara. These prayers are easily over-looked, but they open us up to a sense of loving-kindness and appreciation of others no matter what form they take.
Lineage prayers, much like family trees, connect us with those who have come before us. In this case we have the Dorje Chang Thungma, or prayer to Dorje Chang (Vajradhara) the dharmakaya source of the Kagyu lineage. This prayer begins with a supplication of the early forefathers of the kagyu lineage and then moves on to plant the seeds for renunciation, devotion, and attention, and reflection, all of which are very helpful, if not required to gain an essence oriented realization of the mind’s qualities. This prayer serves to connect us with the Kagyu lineage, delivering the blessings of its founders, as well as the central blessing of the Kagyu approach to the practice of meditation. Lineage prayers like this one are a way of directly connecting with the essence of a lineage, and through that, experiencing deep inspiration and faith, the energy that bolsters us in our practice.
Dorje Chang Thungma
Great Vajradhara, Tilopa, Naropa
Marpa, Milarepa, and Lord of the Dharma, Gampopa
Knower of the three times, omniscient Karmapa
Lineage holders of the four great and eight lesser schools
Drikung, Taklung, Tsalpa, glorious Drukpa and others,
You who have thoroughly mastered the profound path of Mahamudra
Unrivaled protectors of beings, the Dakpo Kagyü
I pray to you, the Kagyü lamas
Grant your blessing that we may follow your tradition and example.
Detachment is the foot of meditation, it is taught.
Attachment to food and wealth disappears
To the meditator who gives up ties to this life,
Grant your blessing that attachment to ownership and honor cease.
Devotion is the head of meditation, it is taught.
The lama opens the door to the profound oral teachings
To the meditator who always turns to him,
Grant your blessing that uncontrived devotion be born within.
Unwavering attention is the body of meditation, it is taught.
Whatever arises, is the fresh nature of thought.
To the meditator who rests there in naturalness,
Grant your blessings that meditation is free from intellectualization.
The essence of thought is dharmakaya, it is taught.
They are nothing whatsoever, and yet they arise.
To the meditator who reflects upon the unobstructed play of the mind,
Grant your blessing that the inseparability of samsara and nirvana be realized.
Through all my births, may I not be separated
From the perfect Lama and so enjoy the glory of the dharma.
May I completely accomplish the qualities of the path and stages
And quickly attain the state of Vajradhara (awakened mind).
As far as prayers directed at a particular Buddha, I have included a prayer to the Buddha Prajnaparamita for the removal of obstacles. It comes from a booklet of collected prayers that was handed out during His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s annual teachings in Bodh Gaya in December of 1998. This prayer is a supplication to Parjnaparamita and the dakinis of the three places so that all obstacles and hindrances may be removed. This invocation of Prajnaparamita’s power for protection and removal of problems, as well as the dakinis that emanate from her body, speech and mind is a way of receiving her natural blessing and connecting in a direct way. The two mantras, the second of which is the mantra of prajnaparamita herself, clear away all and any perceived “reality” of obstacles, rendering them impossible, empty, and without gravity.
Prayer to remove obstacles based upon Prajnaparamita from the Gelug Lineage
I prostrate to the gathering of dakinis of the three places,
Coming from the supreme holy site of “Space-enjoying”,
Who have the powers of clairvoyance and magical emanation,
And regard practitioners as their offspring.
A KA SA MA RA TSA SHA DA RA SA MA RAY AH PHET
Tayatha gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi soha
Through the power of the great truth of the words of the Exalted Three Jewels
May all adverse conditions be overcome.
May they become non-existent.
May they be pacified.
May all the evils, such as enemies, obstacles, hindrances and adverse conditions be satisfied.
Shantim kuruye Soha
May the eighty thousand types of obstacles be pacified,
May we be separated from adverse harmful conditions,
May everything conducive be obtained and by the auspiciousness of everything good,
May there be excellent happiness here and now.
In these ways, we see that prayer can be focused and very specific. Each modality is a little different from the others, but can be easily blended into one another if one desires. I have come to find that as a chaplain, prayer is real. It effects significant change within me when I deliver it within my own practice, and when I perform prayer for others it changes the feeling of the room as well as the orientation of the person for whom it was delivered. I have even had the experience of a dying patient who held out until prayer could be delivered; as I finished the last word of the prayer the patient died. Prayer can be a vehicle, and a ladder, it is a bridge and an oasis in the face of difficulty.
I realize that personal prayer and ritual, as part of a regular spiritual practice makes a lot of sense- the effects are palpable. But what of prayer and ritual for others? This is something that I feel a greater number of people in the West may be more skittish about.
Lately I have been requested to perform pujas and prayers for a number of people who have recently passed away. Within the mix of specific practices that I do, I tend to focus on Chöd, Mahakala and Shingkygong, as supplementary practices to help ensure that the passage through the bardo is smooth, without the affliction of fear and anger, and so that when rebirth comes, it is peaceful and rich. The effect of Mahakala and Shingkyong, in my mind at least, is profound- there is little chance that as enlightened protectors they will forget to benefit beings; and so, when invoked and supplicated with heartfelt devotion and clarity, there is no reason as to why obstacles will arise.
Chöd allows me to experience intimacy with the consciousness of the person who has passed away. I enjoy offering the feasts of my freshly butchered body, my eyes, flayed skin, and skull to all of the demons of self-clinging and self-cherishing so that the person for whom this practice is dedicated will pass through the bardo aware of the illusory nature of their body. In inviting the recently deceased to the ganachakra of my body, an offering made so that all of their obstacles may be dissolved into the emptiness that characterizes their essential nature, we become connected. We form a bond; a shared experience of seeing things as they really are. The benefit of this kind of approach to being there for others who have recently passed away feels extraordinary- I take great joy in being able to have the chance to do this.
In a sense, practicing for others is more than bodhisattva activity, the indiscriminate non-referential care for the basic happiness of others, it is also strongly urged through many of the tantric commitments (samayas) associated with a variety of practices. It is quite common amongst the samayas associated with the practice of a number of tantric deities that the practitioner engage in the activities of performing pujas, offering tormas, and removing obstacles in the manner of the mahasiddhas of old. This is another application of skillful means; we can effect great change through our practice, the least of which is experience full realization. In this way we connect with the mahasiddhas of India- we seamlessly continue their lineage.
Why not be a benefit to others? Indeed, not being stingy with the dharma assets is one of the key precepts that is kept within the Zen tradition, and is commonly found in a variety of forms in all expressions of buddhadharma; one not look any further than the paramita of generosity.
Science even affirms the value of practice for others. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) conducted a study of the effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer, which as an outcome outlined that this type of prayer should be considered within clinical treatment. You read tha abstract here. An abstract from a study done by the National Institute of Health (NIH) on the effects of remote intercessory prayer and it’s recorded benefits in recovery from low self-esteem, depression and anxiety can be read here. In terms of the recovery of cardiac patients another NIH study suggests that remote intercessory prayer may be considered “an adjunct to standard medical care”. As a chaplain, my time assigned to a medical intensive care unit (MICU) offered a quick introduction to a variety of ways in which direct measurable benefit could be experienced from the performance of prayer and ritual.
Do all the studys support the efficacy of prayer? No. In fact many studies suggest that there is no correlative relationship between pray and recovery from illness. One on the reasons why many studies don’t seem to support the effects of prayer, I believe, is that the nature of the studies don’t take into full account all of the areas of benefit that prayer and spiritual practice for others provide. I have experienced that much of the initial benefit of my being there for others to do puja, deliver prayer, or even just be there to talk with patients in the hospital and private clients is internal; it helps to bolster or reinforce the individuals sense of ground, it clarifies their own spirituality. From this point, the benefits can sometimes manifest as relief from pain, reduction of stress and trauma, and these in turn can lead towards hastened recovery, or even meaningful recovery. It is important to note how varied the experience of illness is; it’s never the same experience. Illness changes from moment to moment, affecting us in a unique way each minute spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, as well as physically. Prayer is ellusive, and so is the experience of illness.
Through my experience of Buddhism I have come to experience first hand the importance of spiritual care in the face of illness and death. Being there for others in the midst of illness and death is to fundamentally share our experience of the four noble truths- through this we are reminded of our essential impermanence. I have spent time with two teachers of mine, the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche as well as Bhue Tulku, or Dekhung Gyalsey Rinpoche, while they performed many pujas in the homes of various families in Sikkim to provide tangible, very meaningful spiritual care. What I have come away with from my experiences with these teachers is that practice for others is a wonderful, joyous part of the path. It is an exemplary aspect of what it means to be there, openly and in direct relationship with another person; it is an expression of great natural spontaneous generosity, and it is something that is expected of us as we mature and come into deeper relationship with our practice of buddhadharma.
I pray that this form of dharma activity in the West takes root, multiplies and offers meaning and context for countless beings!
In my post about Mahakala, and how the practice of Mahakala may relate to our lives on a daily basis as well as between and throughout meditation sessions, I related a short story around the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi.
A reader of this blog, and now friend, sent me a wonderful image of the siddha Karma Pakshi (pictured above) and an image of Mikyö Dorje, the eighth Karmapa (below).
In reflecting upon these images I am struck by how they convey so clearly the energy that these two realized masters embodied. In the upper image, Karma Pakshi is shown empowered, present, and full of vitality. He is shown sitting upon a chöjung, the source of dharma, above him is Guru Rinpoche, Rechungpa and the terton Mingyur Dorje, on his right is Hayagriva and on his left Dorje Phagmo, below him is Mahakala and then Damchen Garwa Ngagpo to his left and Palden Lhamo, or Sri Devi to his right. Karma Pakshi’s right hand is raised holding a vajra, and his left holds a phurba. This is not an image of passivity, or weakness. On the contrary, this image shows how profoundly inspired, naturally empowered, and essence-oriented Karma Pakshi embodied his direct experience of the dharma.
The lower image, that of Mikyö Dorje, is also an image of empowerment. Mikyö Dorje is famous as an endless wellspring of ability. There is a definite feeling of inexhaustability that his activity demonstrated. When I consider that he only lived to the age of forty-seven I am even more humbled by the impact that his presence had upon the Kagyu lineage; he left behind a magnificent imprint of Buddha-like depth and sensitivity. His works include commentaries upon many tantric texts including the Hevajra Tantra, as well as a variety of very important texts on buddhist philosophy. His impact upon art was as concentrated and seminal as his writings on sutra, tantra and philosophy.
In this image Mikyö Dorje is shown surrounded by dakinis. They bless him and empower him, provide immense spiritual strength as well as insight, thereby blending his mind with all that is. Above him is the first Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, Tashi Paljor; his guru, a great siddha and important Kamstang Kagyu lineage holder. A description of the line of Sangye Nyenpa tulkus can be found here. Below Mikyö Dorje is Dorje Phagmo herself; one of the principle yidams of the Kagyu lineage. She is much more than that though- somehow I feel that her power and wily energy gets lost when she is refered to as “one of the principle yidams” of the Kagyu lineage. She is the source of untold blessing, insight, re-orientation and empowerment. She is the mother of our enlightenment, she is blissful wakefulness in everything that we do, the high and the low, the sacred and the profane: for her it’s all the same.
These images have a profound effect. They make me wonder how I can experience and embody the same sense of empowerment and clarity that Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje were able to express. There are times when I feel this way; times when practice feels electric; when the present moment feels clear and imbued with luminous authenticity. There are also of course those moments when I feel dull and very aware of my own selfishness and petty small mindedness. I have come to learn that the latter is an all-too-common experience that most of us can own up to. So, I have to ask: what is this empowerment and the quality of being “plugged-in” that both Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje express?
The late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche speaks to this effect in a talk on crazy wisdom. Below are what I find to be the most salient point of his talk as it pertains to this post. The entire talk can be found here.
Trungpa Rinpoche says:
The crazy wisdom vision is very crazy, too. It gives us a sense of direction, a sense of heroism, a sense of reality and a sense of compassion—and so forth down the line. It also includes our doubts as part of that crescendo. So the crazy wisdom form is related with the basic notion of enlightenment. As we say in the sadhana, “To the crazy wisdom form of the buddhas of the past, present, and future.” I think it goes something like that. Is that true? So crazy wisdom is part of the general scheme of enlightenment. The crazy wisdom guru is not some Rasputin of Buddhism gone wild who does crazy things, who sets up a crazy wisdom cult. You might say, “Padmasambhava went to Tibet and got drunk and went crazy. He hyperventilated in the mountain air after being in India.” “Karma Pakshi went to China and got turned on by being an imperial teacher. Because of that, he went crazy.”
But we are talking about a larger form of crazy wisdom, which is cosmic crazy wisdom. It is part of the enlightened attitude of the whole thing, which is already crazy, continuously crazy—and wise at the same time. Primordial wisdom is continuously taking place. That is a very crazy thing, in some sense.
We have two personality types in the sadhana: Dorje Trolö and Karma Pakshi. Dorje Trolö is Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava attained enlightenment at birth. He was an Indian Buddhist saint, a siddha, a vidyadhara and a great teacher who brought Buddhism to Tibet. There was already some element of Buddhism there, but Padmasambhava actually brought the full swing, the full force of Buddhism to Tibet.
He manifested as a crazy wisdom person particularly when he was meditating in Tibet, in a cave called Taktsang Seng-ge Samdrup, which is now in Bhutan. (In those days, Bhutan was part of Tibet, in the province of Mon.) In order to relate with the savageness of the Tibetans and their own little ethnic samurai mentality, he had to appear in that manifestation. So he manifested himself as an enlightened samurai, a savage person, a crazy wisdom person—known as Dorje Trolö.
According to the iconography, Dorje Trolö rides on a pregnant tigress. He wears the robes of a bhikshu, a Buddhist monk, and he wears a kimono-like garment underneath. He holds a vajra in his hand—like this one [holds up vajra]. And he holds a three-bladed dagger in his left hand. He represents the aspect that crazy wisdom doesn’t have to be related with gentleness in order to tame somebody. In order to tame someone, you can approach him abruptly and directly. You can connect with his neurosis, his insanity; you can project sanity on the spot. That’s the notion of crazy wisdom.
Karma Pakshi was the second Karmapa. The Karmapas are the heads of the Karma Kagyü lineage, to which we belong, the practicing lineage. Since he was recognized as a great master, he was invited to the Chinese court as part of the entourage of the Dalai Lama [head of the Sakya sect, who in those days was not known as the Dalai Lama]. Karma Pakshi was always very strange; and his style was not in keeping with the protocol expected of emissaries to the Chinese imperial court. During the journey to China, he played a lot of little tricks; everybody was concerned about his power and his naughtiness, so to speak. The Sakya abbot who was supposed to become the Chinese imperial teacher didn’t like Karma Pakshi’s tricks, and had him thrown in jail. By means of his miraculous powers, Karma Pakshi turned his prison into a palace. He was able to manifest himself as a real crazy wisdom person. He proved that politeness and diplomacy were not necessary in order to convert the Chinese emperor. He showed us that straight talk is more effective than gentle talk. He didn’t say, “Buddhism would be good for your imperial health.” He just wasn’t into being diplomatic. The rest of the party got very upset; they were afraid that he might blow the whole trip, so to speak. And apparently he did! [Laughter]
Towards the end of his visit, he became the real imperial teacher. The Chinese emperor supposedly said, “The Sakya guru is fine, but how about the other one with the beard? How about him? He seems to be a very threatening person.” The energy of crazy wisdom is continuously ongoing. Karma Pakshi was always an unreasonable person—all the time. When he went back to Tibet, his monastery was still unfinished, so he ordered it to be built on an emergency basis. In that way Tsurphu monastery was founded. It was the seat of the Karmapas before the Chinese invasion of Tibet. It is interesting that such energy goes on throughout the whole lineage.
If I may, I would like to inject a bit of our own vision in connection with crazy wisdom. For us it is like wanting to buy this building, which is out of the question, in some sense, but on the other hand, it is a possibility. And we are going to do it! That seems to be Karma Pakshi’s vision, actually. He would have done a similar thing. Suppose a fantastically rich person came along. All of us might try to be nice to this particular guy or this particular lady—we might blow his trip completely, to the extent that he would be completely— switched! Although his notion of sanity was at the wrong level, he might become a great student if we were willing to take such a chance. So far, we haven’t found such a person, who would be rich enough and crazy enough and bold enough to do such a thing. But that was the kind of role Karma Pakshi played with the emperor of China. Karma Pakshi was known for his abruptness and his dedication. He possessed the intelligence of primordial wakefulness.
Then we have another interesting person in the sadhana: Tüsum Khyenpa, who was the first Karmapa, before Karma Pakshi. He was an extraordinarily solid person, extraordinarily solid, sane, and contemplative. He spent his whole life teaching and negotiating between various warring factions. There was a lot of chaos at that time; all kinds of squabbles erupted among the Tibetan principalities. By his efforts, their fighting was finally subdued. He was basically a peacemaker and a very powerfully contemplative person.
Then we have Mikyö Dorje, who was the eighth Karmapa. He was a great scholar and a great teacher, and he was very wild in his approach to reality. Once he said, “If I can light fire to the rest of the cosmos, I will do so.” That kind of burning prajna was in him all the time.
Rangjung Dorje, the third Karmapa, was a key person: he brought together the higher and lower tantras. He was an extraordinarily spacious person, and one of the most powerful exponents of mahamudra, which is at a very high level of vajrayana enlightenment experience. He was a great exponent of the ati teachings, as well.
Trungpa Rinpoche’s description of how Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje embody direct primordial wakefulness is well said. Trungpa Rinpoche was very well attuned to how the expression of this clarity cuts in a way that at times is pleasant and at other times unpleasant. It is very natural to want to experience the cessation of suffering; indeed, time and again we see that this is something that all beings want, even when our choices appear to just cause more and more suffering. But it’s hard to have the clarity to know, or to recognize and feel, how we can bring about the cessation of our own suffering, as well as that of others. Knowing, seems bookish and scholastic. Realizing and feeling is direct and pertains to what is going on during any given situation.
I was recently struck by the realization that my own knee-jerk tepid feelings towards Catholicism have little to do with me, but are inherited reactions from the unpleasant experiences had by my parents that I came to make my own as I grew up. Upon reflecting on this I came to see that I haven’t really engaged in an authentic relationship with Catholicism. I picked up the habits of my parents and made them mine. But my knee-jerk reaction hasn’t been authentic; it hasn’t been based upon primordial wakefulness. This realization arose around my chaplaincy training. As a chaplain I encounter a great number of Catholic patients and I have found that I have tended to feel uneasy/other-than the Catholic patients, Catholic hospital staff, or family members for whom I try to provide spiritual care. One moment of clarity helped me to come into more direct relationship with Catholicism- of course I could have ignored it and just gone on with my habitual way of relating.
It is amazing and humbling to see how easily we react to things around us in ways that are informed by our family histories, our communities, our culture (or blend of cultures and what that brings), our sense of history (or placement within history) as well our gender (and assumptions of what that means), race, and even as humans. I’m not sure that this is such a bad thing when we are aware of it (the relative does offer us a ground); but it’s a little more problematic when we are unconscious of how these factors strengthen the nature of our habitual reactions. This leads me to feel very curious as to how we would all embody wakefulness? How we would individually, and collectively, express empowerment? How can we cut through some of the rote habitual ways in which we do not meet the expression of the present moment with wakefulness? How can we bring this blended specificity to the practice of lhaktong?
The Buddha said that his disciples should question and test out whether his presentation of the dharma held water- that critical purchase is probably what kept the dharma going. Otherwise I think Buddhism would have ended up less contemplative; there wouldn’t be much to do except just adopt a particular belief system. The question is, how do we make it our own? In many ways every person in this world system is a distinct universe; we share a variety of points of intersection and the relationship that occurs as a result of that, but our own internal relative wakefulness appears varied. How do we individuate and blend the dharma with our experiences of living?
I read somewhere of someone asking His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche in an interview when the West would produce its own mahasiddhas. He responded that this would happen one day- it is a definite possibility, in fact, it is likely. So, how will this happen?
It’s hard to know. However, the answer may be right in front of us- these two thankas of Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje point us in the direction. To help explain my point I want to share a marvelous blog post by the wonderful lama/lotsawa Sarah Harding that I found on the Tsadra Foundation blog entitled: “As for the blessing of Vajravarahi, Marpa Lhodrakpa does not have it.” WTF?. I can’t recommend her post enough- it is long, detailed, and treats in great detail the controversy of whether the practice of Vajravarahi (Dorje Phagmo) is authentic, what the difference between her blessing and empowerment is, as well as the “empowerments” of Mahamudra. In a nutshell, while translating the Pakmo Namshe (a detailed description and commentary of the Kamstang practice of Dorje Phagmo) written by the illustrious and erudite 2nd Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa Rinpoche (1504-1566) Harding came to recognize that the tonality of the text was more a polemic defense of the Kagyu practice of Vajravarahi rebutting the assertions by Sakya Pandita that as there is no specific unique Sanskrit Vajravarahi Tantra, there is no historical precedent for an authentic Vajravarahi/Dorje Phagmo practice, and further, that Marpa held a false Vajravarahi lineage.
While this subject is admittedly not for all (it can be a little dry), I find it exciting; especially what is later described as the difference between empowerment and blessing around Dorje Phagmo, Mahamudra, and even the practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa. Consider the following portions of her post:
“…[T]he tantras teach both empowerment conferral (dbang bskur) and blessing (byin rlabs). In particular, in the Sampuṭa [Tantra] it says “Having obtained the empowerment and permission (bkas gnang)” and so on. So there are the authentic empowerment conferral and the blessing permission (byin rlabs bkas gnang). Of those two, the authentic empowerment conferral is a method to sow the seeds of fivefold awareness in the unimpaired vajra body. The basis of refinement and that which refines is unmistakably set up by means of the rites of outer, inner, and secret contingency…
As for blessing, once matured by the empowerment, in order to engender the qualities that have not [yet] arisen in those individuals possessed of the sacred pledges, or for the sake of maintaining and increasing [those qualities] that have already arisen, the method for imbuing the blessings of Body, Speech and Mind are done according to the rites of the individual lineages. In particular, in the Sarma tradition of the secret mantra of Tibet, there are many [cases] concerning the blessing of Vajravārāhı: the greater and lesser Don grub ma, great and lesser dBu bcad ma, Nāropa, Maitrī mkha’ spyod, the blessing of White Vārāhı and so forth.”
“A vajra master who has accomplished mahāmudrā will mature such a [disciple of highest acumen] through blessing and teaching the path of creation and completion. When they come to understand, then they will practice because of the desire to become enlightened in a short time for the sake of sentient beings. In the case of disciples who would [only] later become suitable recipients, who at present have many discursive thoughts, they should be given the extensive ripening empowerments and guided gradually according to the three guidance manuals (zin bris rnam gsum). In that way one won’t waste disciples.
As it is explained in such sayings as “the great medicine of the instantaneous [approach] is great poison for a gradualist,” disciples must be guided according to the measure of their being. Though [given] the maturing [empowerment], there are some with most excellent faculties who will [anyway] become matured and liberated in the same instant just by seeing the face of the master or by a blessing. Those of sharp faculties, in whom the awareness will be born just by the blessings of meditative absorption such that they will have complete confidence without any doubts—that’s what’s called maturing the being.
[Some] individuals are naturally characterized by great discursiveness or are [stuck] in the mire pit of various views in this life, a pool filled with the waters of sophistry. After pouring even the last droplet of the water that has washed a thousand times the vessel of the milk of secret mantra, [they will think] this is the so-called “ocean of milk of Vajrayāna” and will grasp on to this white, sweet essence as the milk. Those [people] spread this pile of ignorance and make their living as masters. There are many [such as these] in Tibet. [When those masters] guide people in that way, the disciples become disturbed. Maturing them through wordy rituals with many elaborations to perform makes them happy. Therefore, in the blessing from the oral instructions of Lord [Tongwa] Dönden, there is the generation of elaborations such as entering into the mandala and the empowerments of five families. It is to satisfy those self-proclaiming as dull or sharp faculties. The actual blessing which comes from the oral instructions is talking about maturing those of sharp faculties.”
So, while empowerment is needed to plant the seeds; as a means to offer all of us the keys to our natural basic pristine awareness, blessings cannot, and should not be over-looked. Blessings are the life force of our practice, they make our practice pregnant with immense possibility; they are the very dakinis that surround Mikyö Dorje. Indeed every time we blend the body (Om), speech (Ah), and Mind (Hung), of our gurus, yidams, and protectors, of pure appearance, perhaps we are in reality opening ourselves up to the direct experience of complete effortless empowerment. It seems that this may be the way through which we may share the same primordial wakefulness, the essential blissful luminosity, and direct insight/power as demonstrated by Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje.
I suspect that once we blend our experience of our worlds with our practice this will happen very easily and perhaps even uneventfully. As Trungpa Rinpoche points out, in becoming more sane nothing extraordinary happens, we become more wakeful, more clear, more present and more authentic. When we can give ourselves permission to empower ourselves and realize that the blessings that we have received from our practice is enough, that in reality that’s all there is, then clouds of siddhas will arise around the world. Perhaps the real question is, when will we put aside our sense of inadequacy and take our seats?
“If I can light fire to the rest of the cosmos, I will do so.” – Karmapa Mikyö Dorje
I find this treatise by the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, very clear and expressive in its description of the view as it relates to the nature of the qualities of our awareness. It is also an excellent example of the depth of experience that Rangjung Dorje established and familiarized within himself.
As is pointed out in the first footnote to the translation, this text presents the shengtong view (emptiness of other) as it relates to the emptiness of mind/phenomena. This view, while similar to aspects of the Yogachara approach as laid out by Asanga and Maitreya, is a Madhyamaka (middle way) view. The central point of orientation of the shengtong view is that while the mind is empty of any inherent self-nature, there is a quality of luminosity, the infinite Bhuddha-nature quality that is innate to the mind.
Some claim that a view like this is eternalist, and therefore incorrect as it suggests that since there is some kind of quality that the mind has, it cannot therefore be empty of inherent self-nature. This is the rangtong view; it is a view in which the mind is found to lack any particular nature or inherent characteristics.
While there is currently, and has been in the past, a great deal of debate around this matter (to put it mildly), perhaps these two perspectives are two sides of the same coin. The rangtong view, simple and bare bones, seems to suggest the general theory of the Madhyamaka school, for lack of a better word. It might be posited that the shengtong view arose, and still has currency through and around the experience of meditation, especially buddhist tantric meditation. Indeed, I wonder what Nagarjuna would have to say about this. Perhaps they are appropriate, or more instructive at different times and in different ways. These two brilliant experiences are rich and offer us a great deal.
While I am not very skilled in dialectical reasoning, I am happy to leave the debate as to who is correct, the shengtonpas or the rangtongpas, to others. But, I would like to point out that I feel that it should be noted that while the shengtong view is of central primacy for the Jonang lineage, it is also of great importance within the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages. In fact, there appears to be lot of symmetrical terminology between the shengtonpa view and the language that is used within the Kagyu tantric completion stage practices (Six yogas of Naropa/Niguma and Mahamudra) as well as that of the Nyingma lineage (as found in the practice of Dzogchen). I think that there is something to this. Perhaps this relates to the language of the shengtong position in relationship to the direct experience the mind’s essential nature. It is a position of intimacy; a view that evokes the entirety of the range of the way that mind arises. It is full, but not overly reductive, as the rangtong position sometimes feels.
Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye was instrumental in bringing much of the shengtong view back into the Kagyu lineage. This continued through the previous Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche, and especially the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, who was a holder of the Jonangpa Kalachakra lineage, an important source of the shengtong view that was exemplified by the great Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361), the great meditator and teacher who is credited with founding the Jonangpa Lineage. In fact Dolpopa and Rangjung Dorje were contemporaries and spent time together.
This particular text was translated by Michael R. Sheehy, Director of the Jonang Foundation, Senior Editor at the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, and Lecturer of Buddhism and Tibetan Language at the New School here in New York.
As today is Saga Dawa, I wholeheartedly invite you to explore this text, and I pray that it adds clarity, depth, and confidence to our practice.
May it bring you benefit! And may you bring the pacification of others’ suffering!
Ordinary Awareness & Pristine Awareness:
A Treatise on the Distinction
Composed by the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339)
To all of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, I pay homage!1
Having thoroughly relied upon learning and reflecting,
I’ve resided in secluded places in order to apply the methods of meditation. In accord with these means, I’ll now describe my experience to you.
Some people think that the triple world and all living beings arose from itself, from others, from both, or without any cause.
Others say that one’s own self and the world are generated from a creator god such as Cha, Śiva, Brahmā or Viṣṇu, from an external particle, or from a truly existing hidden substance.2
As the sole omniscient one taught, the three worlds are merely the mind.3
They are not derived from themselves, from something else, from both of these, or without a cause—all phenomena arise interdependently.
They are by their own essence empty, devoid of features that are distinct or unique, and
free from features of truth or falsity—like a magical illusion, the moon in water, and so
Knowing this, the Buddha taught to sentient beings.
In this way, from what source does so-called “delusion” and “non-delusion” arise? Having relied upon the nature of interdependent co-origination, I have come to know this like my own image in a mirror, like fire from smoke. Here, I’ll clearly describe to you my realization.
Ordinary conscious awareness of the five sense entrances,4
By having accepted and rejected forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures have generated emotional upset.
So, what are these so-called “sensible objects?”
If the wise were to carefully examine, they would not be able to establish the existence of anything external such as atoms and so forth, as other than one’s own discerning cognitive awareness.5
If the substances of sensible objects were simultaneously different than conscious awareness, then they would not have the same nature.
Because inert material substances do not arise from indivisible immaterial cognition, their arising is not related.
By accepting that sensible objects are different than awareness, it is illogical to think that sensible objects would appear from cognitive awareness.
Because of this, whatever appears is not a sensory object different than awareness.
The occurrence of these objects is similar to the experience of conscious self-reflection.6
In fact, even the appearances of minute indivisible particles and vast openness are mind.
Since their existence cannot be established externally or separately,
The realization is that creators such as Brahmā and other such creator gods do not exist.
Furthermore, the relationship between one’s mental awareness and phenomena are similar to the experience of a dream.7
This is to say, this relationship is consumed by the mind fixating onto referents that have no true reality.
Likewise, the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness,8 the appearances of exterior referents and living beings, self-importance, cognitive discernment, and whatever manifestations appear,
Are not produced from anything else,
They are not produced from themselves,
They are not produced from both themselves and something else,
And they are not produced from the absence of themselves and something else.
In the same way, the victorious one taught that everything within saṃsāra and nirvāṇa is merely the mind.
Causes, conditions, and dependent co-origination were taught by the Buddha to be the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness, tainted mental awareness, and the universal ground as ordinary awareness.9
The six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness are reliant upon the objective conditions of the six sensible objects of form and so forth.
The predominant condition is the six sensory faculties. They are lucidity endowed with form.
Both sense faculties and their objects arise from the mind.
The total manifestation of sense faculties and their objects rely upon sense bases that are without an inception.
Although ordinary awareness perceives objective referents,
It is the conceptualizing mental factor that cognizes their distinctive qualities.10
Mental awareness relies upon both immediate and tainted mental awareness.11
Because immediate mental awareness is the condition for the generation and dissipation of the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness,
This is in congruence and accordance with the frequency of the instantaneous generation and dissipation of the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness.
This is known by a mind imbued with yoga, and through the teachings of the victor.
Within the mind itself, there is an aspect of this immediate mental awareness that is said to be “mental awareness endowed with tainted emotionality” because, due to the transitory nature of the constituents of embodied experience,
It fixates onto an egocentric attitude, conceitedness, and self-infatuation while infused with ignorance.
Immediate mental awareness dissipates the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness, and is the source from which consciousness arises.
Tainted mental awareness then becomes the source for emotional upset.
For these reasons, mental awareness has two facets: it possesses the capacity to both create and obscure.
To those with particularly refined intelligence, the Buddha taught the universal ground as ordinary awareness.
This is also referred to as the “foundation for ordinary awareness,” the “source for ordinary awareness” and the “receptacle for ordinary awareness.”
Within it, all of the latent propensities generated by the seven modes of ordinary
awareness are accumulated distinctively and neutrally—like rainwater flowing into the
This is why it is called, “ripening awareness.”
Because it generates everything, and is the ground from which all seeds emerge, it is referred to as the “causal condition.”
Nevertheless, since it is reversed when the seven modes of ordinary awareness are inverted, it is also known as “conditional ordinary awareness.”
This universal ground as ordinary awareness is the embodiment of everything external and internal, the source of all that is to be relinquished.
So, it is said that it can be subdued through “vajra-like meditative stabilization.”
When the universal ground as ordinary awareness along with its defilements is reversed, there is mirror-like pristine awareness.
Every mode of pristine awareness appears without identifying with a substantial self, they are continuous and utterly without interruption.
Because this realizes what can be known with a reference,
And because this is the reason for every type of pristine awareness,
This is referred to as the “ultimate dimension of phenomena.”12
The emotionally tainted mental awareness is totally subjugated by the “meditative
stabilization of courageous movement.”
Disturbing emotions are entirely relinquished through insight and meditative cultivation.
Once upsetting emotions are absent, saṃsāric existence and nirvāṇic quiescence cease. This is the pristine awareness of equanimity.
Immediate mental awareness apprehends by seizing onto the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness.
Its discursive thinking is produced by conceptualization,
And its perfect discernment subdues through “illusion-like meditative stabilization.”
When great patience is acquired though transforming apprehensions and their objective references, pure realms are revealed.
Ever-pervasive pristine awareness and unimpeded pervasive activities thoroughly transform the source of thoughts into the pristine awareness of discernment.
In this way, these two types of pristine awareness—equanimity & discernment—through
pure meditation, do not abide within saṃsāric existence and nirvāṇic quiescence.
Imbued with tranquility, love, and compassion while encompassed within the surrounds
of retinues and multifarious dimensions of enlightenment, they express the utterances of
The melodious maṇḍala of the magnificent teachings resounds within the treasury of every profound meditative absorption and mystical formulation.
This is referred to as the “dimension of complete resplendence.”13
The five sense entrances and mental awareness are a single quality.
Through perfect analysis, there arises the way of the four truths endowed with their differing aspects, the sixteen wisdoms of knowing, acceptance, and so forth.
Sensible objects are perceived directly and their actuality is realized.
The five sense faculties are transformed when there is engagement with all of their corresponding sensible objects, and the qualitative attributes of everything is magnified twelve-hundred-fold through the power of magnetizing.
This is the final accomplishment, all-accomplishing pristine awareness.
That which through innumerable and inconceivable manifestations of every variety, at all times, within every realm of existence, will accomplish benefit for every being is known as the magnificent “emanatory dimension.”14
Mind, mental awareness, and ordinary perceptual awareness are transformed into the three enlightened dimensions imbued with their activities;
Complete within the uncontrived maṇḍala of the ultimate sphere of phenomena.
All things reside without saṃsāra or nirvāṇa or their inceptions—free from singularity of diversity.
This is referred to as the “essential dimension.”15
In other scriptures by the victorious one, this is taught to be the “ultimate dimension.”
The mirror-like pristine awareness is regarded as the embodied dimension of pristine awareness, and the other types of pristine awareness are said to be the two enlightened form dimensions.16
Buddhahood is actualizing the nature of the five types of pristine awareness and the four enlightened dimensions.
What is embellished by the distortions of the mind, mental awareness, and ordinary perceptual awareness is the universal ground as ordinary awareness.
What is free from distortion is described as, “the essence of the victorious ones.”
The Buddha taught that the truth of the spiritual journey is seizing onto the capacity of the discerning wisdom of the exalted ones that arises from sublime conceptualization, and that quells profane conceptualizations.
By not understanding this way of the ultimate,
The delusional stray about within the ocean of saṃsāra.
By not understanding this Mahāyāna vessel, and without transforming yourself, How could you ever cross to the far-off shore?
May everyone realize the meaning of this treatise!
“Ordinary Awareness and Pristine Awareness: A Treatise on the Distinction” was composed on the 1st day of the 10th lunar month of the year of the swine (1323) in the mountain hermitage called, “Dechen Teng” [“The Aperture of Bliss”] by Rangjung Dorje.
Translated by Michael R. Sheehy, Ph.D.
1 This work by the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje is included here in Jonang Foundation’s Digital Library because it reflects a view that has been characterized as ”zhentong” (gzhan stong) by later Tibetan authors, most notably Jamgön Kongtul (1813-99), see Mathes (2004), 288-94. Rangjung Dorje was a contemporary of Dolpopa and they met to discuss such views on at least one occasion, see Stearns (1999), 17.
2 Cha (phyva) literally means “luck” or “fortune.” Here it refers to an ancient pre-Buddhist Bönpo belief about the creator of the world. In this conception, “Cha” is the reason for all eventual prosperity. These are references to the theistic tendency to rely on an external force. For a closer study of this text with Jamgön Kongtul’s commentary, see Sheehy (2005).
3 This is a reference to cittamātra (sems tsam).
4 The five sense entrances (sgo lnga) are: (1) eyes; (2) ears; (3) nose; (4) mouth; (5) body. 5 The term here is: rnam rig shes pa.
6 The term here is: rang rig. This is a term that denotes the capacity of awareness to know itself or be selfaware.
7 The term here is: yid (manas). This is referring to the conceptual or ideational operations of cognitive awareness.
8 The six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness (tshogs drug) are: (1) visual perceptual awareness; (2) auditory perceptual awareness; (3) olfactory perceptual awareness; (4) gustatory perceptual awareness; (5) tactile perceptual awareness.
9 The terms here are: nyon yid ki rnam shes and kun gzhi rnam shes
10 Here it reads, sems byung ‘du byed while an alternative reading is sems byung ‘du shes. See Rang byung (2002), n. 20.
11 The term here is: ma thag dang nyon yid. This refers to the four conditions (rkyen bzhi) that preserve the continuity (rang rgyud) of cognitive awareness through immediate subsequent experiential moments of conscious experience. The term: ‘jig tshogs here refers to a composite of many elements of the skandhas that is destroyed instant by instant. Skandhas are the psychophysical constituents that comprise ordinary embodied experience.
12 The term here is: dharmakāya, chos sku.
13 The term here is: sambhogakāya, longs spyod rdzogs sku. 14 The term here is: nirmāṇakāya, sprul sku.
15 The term here is: svabhāvakāya, ngo bo nyid sku
16 This is a reference to: nirmāṇakāya and sambhogakāya.
Kong sprul Blo gros mtha’ yas, ‘Jam mgon. Rnam par shes pa dang ye shes ‘byed pa’i
bstan bcos kyi tshig don go gsal du ‘grel pa rang byung dgongs pa’i rgyan ces bya ba. Sikkim: Rum btegs, 1972.
Mkha’ khyab Rdo rje, The 15th Karmapa. Rnam par shes pa dang ye shes ‘byed pa’i
bstan bcos kyi mchan ‘grel rje btsun ‘jam pa’i dbyangs ki zhal lung nor bu ke ta ka dri ma med pa’i ‘od. In Three Important Verse Treatises on Aspects of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism: By H.H. the 3rd Karma-pa Ran-byung-rdo-
rje, with Annotations Expanding the Text (mchan) by H.H. the 15th Karma-pa Mkha-khyab-rdo-rje. New Delhi: Delhi Karmapae Chodhey Gyalwae Sungrab Partun Khang, 1976.
Rang byung Rdo rje, The 3rd Karmapa. Rnam shes ye shes ‘byed pa’i bstan bcos. Sikkim:
Rum btegs, 1972.
__________. Rnam shes ye shes ‘byed pa dang de bzhin gshegs pa’i snying po bstan pai
bstan bcos zhes bya ba. Kathmandu, Boudha: Dharma Kara Publications, 2002.
Mathes, Klaus-Dieter. “Tāranātha’s ‘Twenty-one Differences with Regard to the
Profound Meaning’—Comparing the Views of the Two Gźan stoṅ Masters Dol po pa and Śākya Mchog ldan.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 27, 2, 285-328, 2004.
Sheehy, Michael R. “Rangjung Dorje’s Variegations of Mind: Ordinary Awareness and
Pristine Awareness in Tibetan Buddhist Literature.” In D.K. Nauriyal (ed.).
Routeledge Curzon’s Critical Series in Buddhism. Buddhist Thought & Applied
Psychological Research. London: Routledge Curzon Press, 2005.
Stearns, Cyrus R. The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the
Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsan. New York: State University of New
York Press, 1999.
© 2007 Michael R Sheehy.
Courtesy of the Ngedon Thartuk Translation Initiative
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.
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.
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!
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.
Recently I was reading the introduction to the recent translation of books nine and ten of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye’s Treasury of Knowledge, entitled Journey and Goal, by Richard Barron (Chokyi Nyima). While reading, I came across a wonderful discussion of the topic of “paths and levels” (Tibetan: sa lam).
For whatever reason, be it cultural or philosophical, or a need to act as an extension of the phenom that was Indic scholasticism, many early Tibetan scholars/translators placed great energy into codifying all of the various routes taken by the three Buddhist vehicles. Of equal interest to Tibetan scholars/translators were the various the road-maps provided by the lineages that comprised these vehicles. Indeed, lam rim (stages and paths) literature from Jey Gampopa onwards, for example, has functioned as a great cornerstone for the practice of dharma up to this very day. Rest assured that if you are ever lost on the path to enlightenment, the Tibetans have all the various maps you may need neatly organized.
What was of great note for me was Richard Barron’s exploration of the term Hinayana in his introduction to the translation of Kongtrul’s text.
According to most descriptions, the three buddhist vehicles are delineated as: Theravada (Pali: थेरवाद), Mahayana (Sanskrit: महायान), and Vajrayana (Sanskrit: वज्रयान). The histories and unique wealth that all three vehicles contain is obviously too vast for this blog, and therefore I enthusiastically encourage exploring the expansive richness that these buddhist traditions continue to offer the world. For now, I would like to explore further hinayana of the mind.
The term Hinayana (हीनयान) translates a “deficient vehicle”, or “defective vehicle”. It arose as a derogatory term after the development of the Mahayana view to denigrate and belittle self-centered practice of dharma, not necessarily as a criticism of the Theravada approach. Indeed, that it arose post facto is significant in that it was used to distinguish Mahayana from some aspects of an earlier approach to Buddhist practice. It should be noted that this earlier form or approach to practice that was being criticized was that of the Sarvastivada school (an eternalist belief that “all exists”) and similar groups. Over time it became somewhat common to erroniously regard Theravada Buddhism as Hinayana.
That said, people are people are people, and Buddhists are no different; the chauvinism of some Mahayana practitioners towards practitioners of the Theravada approach resulted in harsh belittling of a legitimate and praiseworthy dharma. Indeed, this shows how easily the kleshas of greed, hatred and delusion, the very roots of our suffering, can be used to debase and belittle others in such a way that we easily poison our internal well-spring of basic goodness. Perhaps this is the intended meaning of hinayana; perhaps this is how we manifest the hinayana of our own minds. How we become deficient or defective.
The late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said that even the most precious and extraordinary tantric practices can become hinayana practice if our motivation is confused. If we become focused upon self-aggrandizing, self-enrichment, self-liberation, and pious aggression, what good is our practice? How easy it is to become an inner Devadatta towards our own pure motivation; to become stricken with a tight and closed approach towards others.
The great yogin and Kagyu forefather, Jetsun Milarepa, once said that staying in the house of someone who practices with hinayana motivation is akin to accumulating seven lifetimes of misdeeds. Milarepa seems to be saying that even loose peripheral association with the hinayana perspective can lead to great downfall, I can’t imagine that he was referring to the ill effects of accepting the generosity of receiving shelter from a Theravadin buddhist.
How does this apply to our daily lives? What impact does it have in chaplaincy? What does pure motivation mean, and how do we allow the root kleshas of greed, hatred, and delusion (as well as the branch kleshas: conceit, wrong view, doubt, torpor, restlessness, shamelessness and recklessness) constellate with us? How do these factors cause the growth of hinayana mind?
It is said that fire can be used as a tool; to bring warmth, to cook, and enlighten. It can also be used to burn and destroy. How we practice, and especially how we relate to others, as well as the environment, seems to be an especially powerful barometer with which we can measure the relative efficacy of our spiritual path. To that end, and with that in mind, it seems of vital importance that we remain mindful of the occasional flashes of the hinayana of the mind; how it arises may be different for each of us in terms of specificity, however, I suspect that our inner Devadatta’s are cut from a similar cloth: ego-clinging or self-orientated thinking/separation from others. Whether it take the form of high lamas causing a rift in the sangha, our own inability to recognize the suffering of others, or even the sometimes subtle belief that we are more unique or special than everyone else, it is easy to fall prey to hinayana mind.
May we totally dispel the neuroses of all beings (including ourselves)!
When my first teacher, and spiritual mother, Ani Dechen Zangmo, taught the text for the prostrations and refuge part of the Karma Kagyu ngondro (Four Foundations practice) she spent a great deal of time talking about the different ways in which beings have been our mothers in the past.
In the most classical aspect of this practice, we make our prostrations to the wonderful field of refuge: our lineage forefathers and foremothers. In this way we seek to enter and become part of a lineage. We join our lineage through repeatedly receiving the blessings of the lineage; in fact, we are instructed to help lead all sentient beings in the meritorious activity of supplicating and joining our specific lineage with us. Why do we do this? It is said that all beings have at one point in time been our mothers, having cared for us with selfless beauty and having made endless sacrifices, protected us, nurtured us, and also supported and enriched us. Through time immemorial, through the various combinations and permutations of the manifestations of karma, all beings have been, at any given point in time, our mothers. Indeed every person we meet has done this for us. Every animal. Every friend. Every enemy. Every being, seen and unseen, has done this for us- and in this way we are all inextricably linked. What better way to repay these countless mother-beings than to act as a raft to lead them to the banks of spiritual realization?
And so, as is the case within the Kagyu lineage, when we visualize the field of refuge and as we make each prostration while reciting the refuge prayer, we doing so with each being who has been our mother. We keep their desire for well-being and happiness in our heart. In this way, in a manner similar to Indra’s Net, it becomes impossible to locate a source or an end with regard to our connection with others.
Where is the border between myself and another? Where are our points of overlap?
Indeed, in taking a moment to check in and notice this we can very naturally, perhaps effortlessly, find ourselves left with a deep feeling of connection and an awareness ornamented with the jewels of empathetic concern.
Suddenly the well-being and quality-of-experience of others becomes a natural concern.
That we are all interdependent is also driven home in the practice of Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. There is a portion of this practice in which one imagines oneself moving throughout the six realms of existence (illustrated above). In the practice we engage in helping to alleviate the suffering of beings in all six realms.
Within this practice, and in many others we make the vow to do this; to benefit all beings who have been our mothers as an expression of gratitude and gentle concern for all those who suffer and who have provided us with the selfless love and support that only parents could. These beings who have loved us unconditionally, may be experiencing the anger and depression of the hot and cold hell realms, the dullness of the animal realms, the jealousy and infighting of demigod realms, or the perfect complacency of the gods’ realm.
How can we be there for them, how can we cool the anger, warm the depression, enlighten the dullness, sooth the jealousy and enliven and express the immediacy of the present moment to perfect eternalism?
In another sense, perhaps in a way that differs from the classical presentation of how all beings have been our mothers at one point in time, all beings are our mothers in another way: they give birth to our identities; the way we present and imagine ourselves to be.
It seems we cannot exist in a relative way without existing in relation to others. The acceptance of our wonderful qualities and our faults, the very perception and even projection upon us of what we appear to be, is a birthing of an identity. The quality of our being in a horizontal sense, as it pertains to our diverse qualities, is defined and experienced through others, through the way that they experience us. We are given context and we are given meaning. What we do with that and how we react to it is up to us.
While we like to think that we are the architects of our appearance, and in many ways we are the often unintentional archtect, it may be that we are only ever known through the experience of others. Perhaps this way of looking at the manner in which we have created our identities, the way that we are animated by, and get carried away with our experience of self, a fleeting momentary illusion, can be best seen reflected in the eyes of another.
I find that whether I am at the hospital acting the role of a chaplain, on the subway on my way to the hospital, or going about my daily activities as a parent or partner to another, I am always humbled when I have the chance to notice how I am engaged in an interpenetrating relationship with others. What an amazing thing to just meet and reflect the pure appearance of another, the fleeting transience, and the deep connection that we all share; and what a difficult thing to do. I find it especially humbling when I catch myself caught in the midst of reacting and judging, of comparing and compartmentalizing the spontaneity of occurence. But when I can rest in naturally meeting others, the sheer simplicity and profundity of that experience remindeds me of how extraneous our elaborations of dharma can become.
At the end of my post on performing Chod at Greenwood Cemetery (which you can read here), I wondered about doing Chod at the Gowanus Canal; the recently designated superfund site that divides Carrol Gardens from Park Slope in Brooklyn. This toxic body of water is an artery of death and decay that is both close to my home as well as my heart. As a legendary repository of dead bodies (the detritus of organized crime), flood waste from higher elevations in Brooklyn, and just about every kind of heavy manufacture imaginable, the Gowanus canal seems a ghost-like symbol of where we put things that we want to forget.
Before I packed my bags with the things needed for the practice, I spent some time contemplating the Gowanus as a symbol. It is a body of water, a canal specifically, connected to the larger harbor by Buttermilk channel. The water in the canal stagnates as a result of a broken ventilating pump system at the far end of the canal. It is a remnant of the larger heavy industry that once existed in this part of Brooklyn and received all of the shipments of brownstone from up the Hudson that made most of Park Slope’s beautiful brownstones. The canal also became a dumping-ground; it is not uncommon to find all manner of things floating in the water that at times resembles muddy anti-freeze. It is a miraculous canal as well, several summers ago I came to notice that dozens of red jelly fish made the canal their home.
As I began the sadhana (ritual text) I felt that I wanted to offer myself to the inner-demon who most represents the Gowanus Canal. In fact, I specifically tried to make this session an offering to the local gods associated with this area. I imagine that the god-demon of this particular place is one of the lords of places that are ignored; places where we leave, or even dump things that we no longer want, places of stagnation, where oxygen is literally consumed by the waste that we store; of things unwanted yet unable to be fully let go of, a ghostly world of secrets. For me, the god-demon of the Gowanus Canal is the lord of inner-wastelands.
The wonderful thing about Chod is the way in which we can access, face, and pacify all of our internal demons. It is very powerful, if that is, you choose to try to really look for these painful and frightening demons. It is also possible to do the practice while not particularly looking that hard; and then while you may make nice sounds with your bell and damaru, not much else happens.
The term “demon” is mostly taken to represent an internal neurosis or emotional focal point that distracts and provides an ability to obsess in a way that makes direct experience of the mind very difficult. These demons, while self-creations, can feel so real that they tend to paralyze and create huge amounts of suffering, indeed they can be considered the agents of samsara. They exert great power upon us in the form of fear, jealousy, hatred, pride, and in this case, secret internal toxicity.
Machik Lobdron, the female 12th century Tibetan founder of the Chod lineage, created a practice based in prajnaparamita literature as well as within tantric Buddhism. Part of this practice involves offering a mandala offering of one’s body:
The trunk and head serve as Mt. Meru in the center, the four limbs serve as the four continents, the sun and moon are the right and left eyes, the ground is our freshly flayed skin, and the fingers and toes are arranged as a great mighty chain of iron mountains that encircle the whole mandala.
The more realistic the visualization the better- we are after all butchering this prized body of ours, ornamented with the pearls of ego fixation, self-nature, and pride. But after the reluctance, and after the discomfort, what is there? What remains? In offering freely to the assembly of god-demons who terrify us most so that they may benefit, so that they may turn their minds to the dharma and become buddhas in their own right there is a chance to experience our original nature. This is a way of experiencing prajnaparamita.
So how do we touch the inner demon of stagnation? Where is the place within ourselves where we dump things that we don’t want, the place that holds our secrets, our inner wasteland? This place exists. It is in all of us. Like a black pearl made from an initial irritant that has grown many protective layers meant to distract and soothe the oyster that is it’s container. How can we bring this to light? These fears are in reality great strengths- they are pearls…
So here I found myself, in a modern charnel ground surrounded by condom wrappers, dead rats, crushed beer cans, and other things left behind. While at first glance it may appear different from the charnel grounds of old, where bodies were burnt or left to decay, places frequented by wild animals, a place that elicits fear, but upon looking a little closer, this place is no different. It is a place where illicit things are done, where illicit things have been done- it is a dangerous place. It is a place of fear. The canal is off the radar. Once a place of great beauty it is now easily overlooked, as if we don’t want to have any personal relationship with it.
Perhaps the Gowanas Canal is one of the eight great charnel grounds of India reflected in our daily lives here. In the New York area I am certain that it is. In my post on sacred geography (here is a link), I mentioned the historical importance of internal and external geography as it relates to the practice of Buddhist tantra. It seems that the Gowanus Canal occupies a place internally that can offer real growth and healing. What does it feel like to make an offering to, and thereby appreciate the parts of us that we have very willingly forgotten, the parts of us that are stagnant?
As I performed the chod sadhana, made sang offerings (smoke offerings) to the beings that live in the canal and all the beings that the canal represents, and while I hung prayer flags, I found myself recalling all that I have tried to hide, the parts of me that lay stagnant internal dumping grounds; my own inner pollution. I also recalled patients who I have met as a chaplain for whom these dynamics were in play, and prayed that we could all, every sentient being, bring honor and offerings to the inner demon that presides over this type of activity. May they be satisfied. May this offering pacify these demons. There is a line at the end of the sadhana which speaks to chaplaining these demons:
The roots of virtue from this practice of freely offering my body, the roots from caring for god-demons with my bodhicitta, and further however many roots of virtue that have been accumulated throughout the three times-all of this I dedicate for the benefit of living beings in the three realms, malevolent god-demons, and others.
With this kind of caring in mind, our own inner chaplaincy, may we know our inner demons and plant the seeds of buddhahood in our own inner wastelands so that they become purelands!
May any merit from this blog post be dedicated to all beings, especially those who are suffering in Japan after the recent earthquake and tsunami.