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!
My last blog post touched a lot of nerves- in a good way, from what I can tell, and it also seemed to have displeased others who came away from it thinking that it was written to complain about laziness, ‘spiritual materialism’ and the existence of a spiritual marketplace which often become more of a self-help, soft-core spiritual path. While I understand the reaction, I don’t agree with such facile readings of the post- not that its difficile in the first place.
Whatever the case may be, whether these posts, and this blog, are worth the ether that allow them a fragile existence of any kind or not, leads me to a few deeper problems that have been something of a point of concern as well as curiosity for me lately, that is: language and time.
I would first like to avoid the immediate association with these terms any cosmic relationship with philosophy and loosey-goosey bedroom-eyed mysticism, while simultaneously acknowledging that language and time are obviously thematically treated in great depth in both the study of philosophy and mysticism. It may be that we are best served (for the purposes of this post) in allowing our analytical minds, the mind of blended comparisons and of discernment, to step aside as we examine for ourselves within the context of the personal meditation experience, how and what language and time mean, and how they appear. Let’s put aside the study philosophy and try to approach this from what unfolds naturally on the meditation cushion, or, as we walk, or dream, as we paint and dance through this life of ours- for meditation experiences are always different from philosophical investigations.
We define ourselves through the use of language. Outwardly we describe who we are physically, our characteristics and so forth, and then we fill in all of the details, our personalities, likes and dislikes, and all the rest. We further dabble in collaborative fiction through supporting the personal narratives of our friends and loved ones, and in offering counter-narrative of those we dislike. Soon, what may have begun as a relatively blank page (a debatable point indeed) has become filled with a testimony of who we would like be, who we envision ourselves as, and the way that we interpret the world around us. This language is a tapestry of meaning, one in which we both consciously and unconsciously weave together a living history, along with the plotted trajectories of the future events that have yet to be lived. In and of themselves these products of our individual relationship with language are amazing works of art that capture how we conceive, what we can allow to be, and what we must keep at bay. They are our hells and our anchors; perhaps they prevent us from flying off into a manic subconscious world; or perhaps they confine us to knowable modalities of being that provide us with the tools for the experience of life. Whichever the case may be, and I suspect that it is most likely a combination of the two (and many others) at differing points in time, language -in this context- acts, more often than not, like a prison; it is like a thief, and even more, language is like an unreliable friend whom we continue to trust even though she will continue to disappoint. For somehow we cannot describe away the pain of loss, the experience of death, the terrible bouts with illness, and the fact that one day we will be forced to say goodbye to all that we hold dear- no matter how much we may try.
The images we create with our internal literary drives have a hieroglyphic quality in the true sense of the word hieroglyphic, that is: a highly symbolic form of writing which is difficult to interpret/assign meaning. In the beginning was the word. From that word, an entire world was created, a veritable cosmos- our interwoven personal narratives develop with increasing complexity and nuance creating a web, a net, or systemic literary story-line in which we capture every detail. As I sit here, writing both this blog post as well as my experience of today, the soft beautiful light coming through the windows between the treas and fluttering prayer flags is captured as is the sweet smell of a yet uneaten pineapple offered in a recent Mahakala tsok that simultaneously soothes and excites.
Everything we do, all we experience, tends to be added to this net of meaning that is cast upon the phenomenal world.
There are times when we are able to put down our pens, or turn off whatever device we use to compose these narratives of distinctive being- one of the most common device in such work is our discursive mind. The mind of spacial relationships, of color schemes, the mind of philosophy and dualistic comparisons. Perhaps this is also the sociology mind, the mind of architecture, the mind of economics, and the mind of urban planning. That part of us which organizes, the desire to play with the economics of mind; the way we become hypnotized by the production, consumption, and transfer of phenomena.
When we can put this down- although we’re not really putting anything down- then what we were formerly engaging with becomes less of an object and more of an experience. There is almost a sense of relief in this, a wonderful supporting ease and perhaps the experience of a type of contentment.
In his very condensed version of the Ninth Karmapa’s The Ocean of Meaning, entitled Opening the Door to Certainty, the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche touched upon the enhancement practices of Mahamudra meditation. These are described as ‘enhancement through eliminating five false ideas’. The first of the five false ideas is that of objects. Of eliminating the false ideas about objects Bokar Rinpoche writes:
Without grasping something real in the notion of samsara that must be abandoned and nirvana that must be actualized, but placing ourselves in the infinite one-taste of primordial awareness [of knowing] the non-duality of all phenomena gathered by pairs such as virtue and non-virtue, we eliminate false ideas about objects.
This is a wonderfully powerful instruction, that while presented as an enhancement practice in the context of the Mahamudra system, is worthy of examining, especially in light of how easily we craft global narratives of everything within and without. I wonder how we can ‘place ourselves in the infinite one-taste of primordial awareness’ or settle ourselves in a position of quiet knowing in which we can allow ourselves to dissolve the need for narrative, comparisons, and allow the direct of experience of the world around us (and within us) to arise; a dancing array of inherently perfect appearance. Easier said than done? I’m not so sure about that- if we can playfully try to fold this into our everyday activities, I suspect that bit by bit we can massage the habits of stale knowing. If we can play around with the view we’re really practicing something profound.
The second of the five false ideas is that of time. Of eliminating the false ideas about time, Bokar Rinpoche continues:
Although there is no fundamental truth about the reality of the three times, we think within a mode obscured by the division into three times. Consequently, realizing equanimity which does not establish a distinction of the three times, we eliminate the false ideas about time.
This instruction is especially relevant in helping to loosen the grasping of the compelling reality of our narration as we constantly pin things down (including ourselves) to various points in time. Our past informs us in the present and helps determine the future; or so we tend to think. Ideas of time having particular characteristics is a lovely subtle subject- Buddhism is rife with them: the number of aeons, life times, or years that it will take before we fully awaken is just one example. Assuming that the past was a particular way, the notion of the golden days of long ago in relation to these degenerate times, is another poignant example. The very notion of systematic evolution (individual spiritual evolution) is a wonderful blended assumption rooted in the false ideas of objects and time. How many others do we hold on to?
What other unexamined aspects of our faith tradition do we just assume out of the habits of appearance and time? What would it be like if we crafted our own notions based upon our experiences?
Wangchuk Dorje reminds us: “The division of the three times (past, present, and future) are simply the imputations of ignorant fools.” More specifically, he warns us that included within this is the relationship that we may feel that we have with the past and future. He further continues, “yogins and yoginis who have manifested this [realization] are able to bless a great aeon into an instant and an instant into a great aeon… …if they were separate entities this would not be possible.” Yet it is possible, and, it is up to us to ease into allowing this possibility. This gets back to having set ideas about who we are, what we are capable of, and all of the other stories we have woven.
What happens when we wrestle with the solidity of time? Or loosen our belts so that time can slip away…
When will your liberation occur? Forget the texts, and all of the things you have heard, when will it be possible to truly ease into the mind’s essential nature? After ngondro? After you have mastered your yidam practice? After a three year retreat? After ordination? After you die, in the bardo? After you die seven times? One hundred thousand times? In the future? What about right now? Did you already do it in the past, but got all distracted?
When we can see words as playful birds, and time reflected in the way that clouds appear and disappear in the sky, and the the solidity of our identities as the smoke of incense floating through the the rays of a setting sun, then maybe we can experience mind a little more clearly. Not just the mind’s stillness, but by feeling out, as if expanding awareness to meet the bounds of space, without saying, doing, thinking, making notations, and without being Buddhist. In trying to do this over and over, the artifice of relative reality can be seen, a necessary strange place that allows us to communicate, to help others, to support ourselves in the process of familiarizing ourselves with the mind- but not ourselves, not our identities. Yet when we tighten our belts, we become men and women, Buddhists, with mass, height, characteristics, distinct identities that feel, want and need. We have a cannon to follow and refer to, we experiment less and assume that it will all work out in the future, a bunch of now moments later, but the very now we live in is never seen as the free open experience of whatever arises without characteristics.
Wangchuk Dorje reminds us that we cannot realize this through “merely listening and reflecting, examining and analyzing, being very knowledgeable, having a sharp intellect, being skilled in exposition, being an excellent teacher or logician, and the like.” He goes on to quote the Gandavyuhasutra:
The teachings of the perfect Buddha are not realized by simply hearing them. For example, someone may be helplessly carried away by a river but still die of thirst. Not to meditate on the dharma is like that.
Someone may stand at the cross roads and wish everyone prosperity, but they won’t receive any of it themselves. Not to meditate on the dharma is like that.
We can go around with ideas of this and that, with loads of empowerments, secret instructions and a plethora of practices to choose from but the real wisdom comes from practice, from trial and error. In fact, just one simple practice is more than enough- by sticking to it and blending it with our waking and sleeping moments great wonders are possible. We are very well served by examining how and why we hold these truths about ourselves, our paths, and time to be self-evident. In attempting to let the constancy of our personal narrative fall away like an unneeded belt, lets take these words and use them to unzip themselves so that our view is that of the experience of mind, fresh, free, naked and not of the three times.
The other day I heard a story on the radio about the rise of the anti-hero in current television programing. Apparently there is a growing number of television shows for which the main character is an anti-hero; a figure whose moral equations and ethical concerns follow a personal arc that often falls outside of the norms of the larger group; sometimes walking the line between good and bad; sometimes navigating those places that we fear to go. One example of such a show takes place just after the American Civil War in the vague liminal space of the farthest frontiers of the Union Pacific Transnational Railroad- the very edge of civilization. It tells the story of a racist ex-confederate soldier and former slave owner who hunts down union soldiers (the historical good guys) for the crimes they have committed. Another example tells the story of a highschool chemistry teacher who after a diagnosis of lung cancer, decides to work with a former student, to “cook” methamphetamine, a terribly addictive and dangerous drug, to pay for his medical treatment in the short-term; and, being a realistic man, to provide financial support for his wife, teen-age son who has cerebral palsy, and his new-born daughter. He and his partner explore the dark world of methamphetamine and the shadow figures who are involved in its distribution. They are occasionally forced to kill the ruthless for being cruel, and are often driven by a clear sense of right and wrong in a world of darkness where such distinctions as right and wrong have been forgotten long ago. Sometimes that clear judgement seems to fall prey to the induced darkness that they frequently encounter. There are yet other similar television stories too, including the story of a serial killer (the anti-hero) who only kills other killers, and has a love for, and natural connection with, children.
For those who are interested, you can listen to the radio clip that I listened to here.
The presentation of these anti-heros as an archetypal “dark Hermes”, a guide for lost souls, or as a guide for well-oriented souls as they transition through, or are completely lost in, a place of darkness, leads me to reflect upon pawos, palmos, and the retinue of very important wrathful buddhas. I am reminded of those who protect, and those who serve in places and at moments where we seem weak and desperate, those who as part of their unique activity can serve compassionately through, for lack of a better term, dark means.
These beings, Mahakala in all of his overwhelmingly powerful manifestations, Throma with her army of dakinis, Vajrakilaya with his phurba of non-referential space, and Yamantaka (Vajrabairava) the destroyer of Yama (the lord of death), occupy an important place within the practice of all lineages of tantric buddhism. They have also been the most controversial. From the perspective of the academic study of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent and Himalayas, many early western scholars of Buddhism regarded tantric Buddhism as a corruption of the Buddha’s original message. Tantric Buddhism, and tantric Hinduism for that matter, from this early scholastic point of view, was seen as a distortion of the orthodoxy; a blend of Buddhism and Hinduism with gross superstition, animism, sex, magic and the more base drives that lead us poor humans hither and thither. Jacob P. Dalton, in his recent book The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism, offers a clear and well thought out description of how some of the language and imagery found in the tantras have come to occupy a place of simultaneous attraction and disgust in all of the cultures the tantras have come to visit. It appears that the reactions of Victorian British scholars did not arises as an emotional island unto itself when it comes to the tantras- in Indian as well as Tibetan culture they were embraced and feared, accepted and rejected, praised and cursed.
Ironically, the shivering disgust and ambivalence of early western scholars towards tantric Buddhism reveals the power of becoming intimate with these feelings and reactions as they exist within ourselves. Superstition, animism, sex, magic, and our “base drives” can be sources of great confusion, great pain, loss of control, and even our undoing. Perhaps then it is no wonder that these aspects of our experience of life end up proving to be very powerful fodder with which we can develop confidence in our practice of Buddhism. As a chaplain I have seen patients, their loved ones, and even colleagues, struggle around these hard feelings- this is a struggle that we all share. No one person owns, or is cursed, with difficulty of struggling with guilt, shame, fear, loss, pain, and loss of control.
Within my own experience of life, I know that I often feel the push and the pull around my own anger, or sense of aggression, my impatience, my jealousy and my frustrations. These feelings arise just as generosity, patience, connection, and ease arise. The only difference is that when these harder feelings begin to swell, how they will affect me, either destroy or help to push me further along the path, seems to depend upon just how comfortably I can relate to them- how I can see them as they arise and honestly witness them- not quickly ignore them in exchange for something good. In my own way, one that changes from moment to moment, I have come to learn just how much I can be with these feelings in myself and see them as beneficial arisings. Not just see, but experience them as beneficial arisings, or as the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, refers to these thoughts/feelings, to see them as “adventitious stains”. Stains that are adventitious as they help point out the one-taste in whatever arises.
Bokar Rinpoche once said during a series of teachings in Bodh Gaya that Tibetans complain to him the they don’t understand western practitioners as they are always seen sitting perfectly still and erect, like statues. Similarly he related the complaints of western students about their Tibetan counterparts who always appear to be doing prostrations and khora (circumambuting) the mahabodhi stupa. He went on to explain to the mixed group that both are useful forms of practice- and that we should learn to modulate between both. At one time one form of practice is more appropriate, and as that moment changes, so might the way we practice in that new moment. Sometimes one form of practice is more useful, more charged, and more fitting for one’s experiences of the moment. As the moment changes sometimes so does what is arising. I don’t think that we can recognize our stainless buddha-nature by practicing like robots. I suspect that engaging with our practice, and all the maras that arise, in an open honest manner is the way.
So what about us? Do we have a tendency to frame ourselves as hero or anti-hero. Are we all light and no darkness? Do we only benefit beings and never harm them? Do we have the capability to look at our practice with a fresh set of eyes and knowingly step into the unknown? Do we see ourselves as clean and pure, or as blended and pure? Can we allow ourselves to modulate? To mix our view of ourselves with a more realistic presentation of what really arises within our mental continuum?
While there is no real difference between Mahakala and Chenrezig on an ultimate level, the experience of their relative differences can be very important- if not instrumental- in knowing who we are, how thoughts and feelings arise within us, and what the powerful energetic force of Mahakala is like. How else can we know equanimity in the midst of roaring intensity? Sometimes we need this to cut through our bad practice habits, our over-softness, and a predilection towards the positive- especially in a way that it’s too bent on purity.
Can we rest in the nature of mind amidst vice, transgression, and fear?
Such was a profound learning for many great Indian Mahasiddhas including Virupa, Naropa, and Saraha as well as many great Tibetan siddhas. In fact it still remains a profound and seminal learning for us today. When to be “good” and when to be “bad”?
In fact, I sometimes wonder if Buddhism isn’t too often presented in such a warm and fuzzy light in which it becomes easy to see the wrathful compassion of pawos and palmos as something other than and not of ourselves; something to be invoked from afar and for only getting rid of problems. Anger and ferocity are hardly rare emotions, greed and jealousy more often than not are not endangered, and tending towards a self-cherishing attitude is certainly one of the greatest thing that we all have in common. They arise from nowhere else but from within.
So why do we become concerned or uncomfortable when the “strong medicine” of Vajrakilaya or Throma becomes the prescribed remedy for our suffering. As the demon armies of Palden Lhamo ride past fearlessly destroying all impediments to our practice, effectively closing the door to our own limitations, and as the flesh-eating dakinis gratefully pledge protection and siddhis as we offer our own transformed inner poisons to them, where is the room for squeamishness?
Similarly, I sometimes find that when some dharma practitioners reference entering into in wrathful activity, I wonder about the presence of a facile idiotic aspect of “wrathfulness” that simply seeks to justify laziness. I know that this is something that I look for in myself as I know how seductive the pull to break the rules in an elevated way can be. Sometimes through the desire to engage in “transgressing the rules” and working with how those difficult emotions of knowing that you are doing something wrong or impure, we may actually be soft with ourselves around actually feeling like the rules don’t apply to us. To bring whiskey and ribs to a tsok can be one thing if we can hold what alcohol and meat mean in the context of an offering to mahakala for example, or it can be an insulting self-aggrandizing slap in the face to what a mahakala tsok is all about. Herein lies the conundrum: How and when are we really acting from a place of authenticity as we decide to behave badly for the common good of other sentient beings?
Knowing when to be bad, or when to challenge conventions is never really an easy thing. Such behavior asks us to be confident in ourselves, confident in our abilities, and comfortable with growth that arises from difficulty. This too isn’t easy- the habits of disempowering and brutalizing ourselves are strong. And yet, at times we must step into this aspect of practice; we must challenge conventions, habits and assumptions; we must find our ground and relationship with the strong and the dark, the wrathful and the powerful. For this is another side of buddha activity. Despite its danger (just one act of poor judgement can have terrible consequences), and the trepidation that can arise with knowing willful transgression there is a lot of room for growth in becoming friends with these expressions of “being bad”.
That said, this kind of practice may not be for everyone- nor I suppose is it necessary for everyone. Although it helps to take an honest look at what comes alive for us when we look at the images that are included on this post before saying, “nah, I don’t have any need touching my dark-side. I don’t think I even have one”. If these images elicit fear and concern, or feel attractive and seductive, or if they feel disgusting and repulsive then perhaps that is something to look at. If they feel foreign and “definitely not part of me” well perhaps another deeper look may be warranted. It may be that these natural reactions, honest indicators of what we really feel, hold a good deal of explanation of our relationship to wrathful Buddhas- about finding freedom within our difficult emotions, and remaining spacious when the right or wrong associated with where we are or what we are feeling is called into question.
How are we really when it comes to visualizing lakes of hot sticky blood these buddhas traverse, the flayed human and elephant skins that they wear as adornments, and the steamy snorting of the demonic animals that they ride?
What is being good? What is it to be bad? Our relationship with being good and with being bad can be very difficult and complex. The fear of blame and the need for praise, or quite frankly the inability to accept praise and the need for self-blame often affect they way we relate to much of the world. This is something to look at within ourselves. It may be that within popular culture the dark anti-hero is an increasingly popular metaphor, or even an archetype for where we are and what we feel we need; especially as the gravity of the simple good and bad, light and dark, simplicity of the dualism of our group ethics seems less pertinent. Perhaps we long for more- for different models of being, differing conceptions of justice that may include the liberating nature of wrathful buddhas. If this is the case, all we need to do is look within, and we will find a rich world, an endless thanka painted upon the canvas of our psyche that captures a limitless retinue of wisdom beings. May it be so!
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:
Recently, I decided to spend the early portion of a Saturday doing Chöd under the Pulaski Bridge that connects Brooklyn and Queens (connecting Kings county and Queens county), and crosses the infamous Newtown Creek. Newtown Creek, for those who are unaware, has the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted waterways in the United States, and is home to the second worst oil spill in America; an estimated 30 million gallons of oil flowed into the creek in the 1950’s, none of which has been removed. As a result of the oil spill, a century of raw sewage being dumped into the waterway, as well as the dumping of various wanted byproducts of heavy industry such as sulfuric acid, fertilizer and other chemical admixtures there is a layer of highly toxic sludge fifteen feet thick that blankets the floor of Newtown Creek.
In making the decision to head to the Pulaski Bridge and Newtown Creek three distinct criteria had to be addressed: there had to be a bridge, the place had to have some equivalence to a charnel ground, and it had to invoke fear/discomfort.
The latter two criteria speak to the nature of where chöd has historically been practiced: places that invoke fear and terror; places where there could be a direct mirroring of one’s own internal demons with the projected demons of haunted locales. Such sites have often included charnel grounds, and also places where terrible events have happened. A reader once commented on another post that I wrote about chöd that civil war battle sites seem to hold some relevance as chöd sites. This is a brilliant observation! Upon second glance, it is easy to notice a wide variety of places that invoke strong feelings of fear and terror. They surround us and yet we tend to drive or walk by them interacting with them in a way that lacks the direct depth of honest observation. Often we fail to interact with them at all. As I caught myself feeling slight dread in practicing under the Pulaski Bridge amongst the oil depots and industrial traffic that pulsates along the dead creek I realized that this was a great place to go practice. What better way to be curious about why I should feel discomfort in practicing there? What is the difference between practicing there and at home, or in a park, or even a cemetery?
That the site should have a bridge reflects a larger curiosity that I developed a few days before about bridges and trolls. In June I finished 2 units of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) with the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, which in addition to being oriented around Zen Buddhism, is heavily informed by Jungian psychology. Reflection upon the symbolic meanings presented by patients, or a given patient’s particular affect, as well as our own perceptual reactions to what arises at any given moment is encouraged. While walking in Prospect Park, and with this training still fresh in my mind, I found myself under a bridge and for the first time in many years I reflected that trolls are often associated with the space under bridges. They live under bridges, and hide under the cross-roads-like environment that we commonly find under bridges. Somehow this space elicits discomfort, such spaces seem secret, hidden, perhaps the place where illicit things happen. I wanted to explore this in chöd practice.
I packed my kyangling and damaru, my pecha and bell and dorje, and brought along a bumpa vase with water blessed with many sacred substances including special pills made by the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche for the express purpose of dispelling demons and “inner” hindrances. In addition to performing chöd, I wanted to offer these substances to Newtown Creek. With my bag packed, I headed to this industrial charnel ground, the site of an alchemical bridge that joins Kings County with Queens County (Male and Female, Salt and Sulfur) that crosses a body of water that deep under fifteen feet of unknown matter (unconscious mind) and may house inner trolls and local gods. Kye Ho!
Upon finding a suitable place for my practice, I considered how the place made me feel. What were its trolls going to be like? When I touched my “inner” trolls what would I find? I remember from childhood the story of the Three billy Goats Gruff; the story of three goats of ascending size who wish to cross a bridge so that they may feast on greener pastures, the only problem is that they must cross a bridge that is protected/owned, or the home of a nasty troll.
Bridges are places of vulnerability. Their structure is meant to carry us from one stable ground to another, in-between (a bardo), we are not standing on solid ground. Perhaps when we are experiencing the bardos of change; the invariable transition from one moment to another; one experience or feeling to another, we are vulnerable to being unseated in a more direct and profound manner. These bardos are bridges, and where there are bridges there are trolls.
In Norse mythology trolls are generally held to be large, slow, human-like beings. Trolls are not known for their intellects. They are impulsive, brutish, stubborn, earthy, and grounded. In a way, trolls seem to be a personification of the weight and anchoring qualities of the earth element, but in a self-defensive, perhaps self-protective manner or function. Indeed, the slow conservatism, the heavy reactive stubbornness that trolls are known for seem to be the prime emotions in opposition to the easy experience of transitioning across bardos; across our bridges from one moment to the next. They want to hold on. They try to exert the magnetism of discursiveness; the force of myopic focus that prevents us from seeing the larger picture. They want us off the bridge, they try to prevent us from making the transition; they will even try to kill us to this end.
It seems that trolls show their heads very frequently in my experience of everyday life; this stubborn stupidity, a dullness, and desire to not embrace change. I easily lose count in trying to reflect how often these trolls try to unseat me.
That Newtown Creek has a fifteen foot layer of toxic sludge separating it from the “real” earthy bottom seems particularly significant, if not essentially symbolic. What stagnation! It is as if the earth herself is being suffocated. Perhaps just as we suffocate ourselves when our inner-demononic-troll-like stubbornness, our hard-headed personification of gravity, our dull stupidity, and brutish reactivity arise, this poor creek-cum-canal is being suppressed and held down. Toxicity has many shades, and it’s easy to focus upon its generic staples: fear, anger, jealousy, greed, laziness. But what of toxicity in its more subtle and elusive forms?
How do we allow ourselves to stagnate? How do we dissempower ourselves? How do we allow ourselves to fail, to be imperfect? How do we let our trolls steal the vitality of our transitions (bardos)?
This is what I set upon to discover; these demons of Newtown Creek, the demons of stagnation and sedate subconsciousness as well as the army of trolls that seek refuge and feast underneath the Pulaski Bridge. They are not far, they arise from within ourselves…
In making an offering of myself to these beings, I feel that I was able to shed light upon them as they arise. It is a process of honoring and respecting the natural occurence of emotions as they arise. It lends itself to both a process of developing a greater awareness of the play of mind, as well as a means of offering deep witness to our unique inner constellations. Such constellations, wonderous displays, are already perfect- they arise with the same natural clarity and depth as the constellations that we see in clear night skies. There is nothing to add or to take away. The brilliance of their simple appearance is suggestive of immense wonderous beauty. Nothing to subjugate. Perhaps this is chöd-of-mahamudra: the offering of the suchness of our own minds as witness to it as it arises…
I visualized that the offering deities and the demons themselves came with great ferocity, like a howling wind, stealing portions of my torn flesh and warm organs. Those with more time and resources carefully selected prime sections, the liver and heart perhaps. Others still set up camps and carefully roasted various portions of the offering taking time to set up their own feasts. That these demons may be honored, and receive my offering helps to liberate them- my emotional habits, self-clinging and the like are allowed to loosen into non-referential emptiness.
As I was performing the chöd sadhana, on that day and at that location, the portion of the text that focuses upon offering the remains of the central ganachakra felt very salient and meaningful. I have come to try to allow myself to rest in sadhana practice while I am doing it, and in so doing, realizing that at different moments and for a whole host of possible reasons the pecha speaks with powerful clarity at different moments in different ways. There are so many secondary practices within each pecha that as our inner weather changes, there are many differing modalities of our practice that may be tailored to best suit ourselves at any given moment in time. If we can view the practice text as alive, full of endless vitality and imbued with the potential for constant unfolding compassion, then every time we sit down to recite a prayer or a particular sadhana we are really engaging directly with the text as a vehicle through time and space. Every time we read a pecha it can be as if we are reading it for the first time.
This is also another great place where trolls arise. They arise in our practice. Our mind can easily become the slow dense troll-mind where pechas feel boring and long, always the same and perhaps even a little dusty. The pecha becomes a thing, a book, a physical text, the warm humid breath of the dakinis, in this case of Machig Labdron herself dissipates. It is lost when we become dull. The full dynamic interpenetration of individuated hermenutic bliss fades; the electricity of the rich moment dies. The possibility for realizing “the lama-as-appearance” to use the wonderful term that the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche often used to describe the mind as lama (that appearance in all of its myriad display is the lama-as-appearance) becomes compromised.
In recognizing this, the offering of the remainder of the ganachakra felt timely, both within myself as well as within my immediate environment. So, as I sat under the bridge while trucks rumbled down Box Street I imagined that the slippery flesh of my ignorance, raw and painful, was mixing with a seemingly endless ocean of my own warm sticky blood, rich in iron: my desire; and my rattling bones, still moist and full of rich marrow: my hatred. I mixed these together and offered it in a vast torma vessel- my own skull. I offered this to the local gods, the local protectors, to the particular trolls that inhabit the Pulaski Bridge, as well as my own trolls. This ambrosial nectar, the very last remnants of my body, I offered to this particular place- this polluted earth, forgotten and ignored by many who speed by, is the same earth that supported the Buddha. Somewhere underneath that thick toxic sludge is the same earth that the Buddha touched, similarly, within ourselves is the same Buddha. The ability to recognize “the lama-as-appearance” is always part of us.
After the practice session I brought my bumpa vase filled with water blessed by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, blessing pills associated with Chenrezig, Amitabha, and Dorje Phagmo, as well as sacred medicinal substances, and pills specially made by the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche for averting the disturbances caused by ghosts, demons and the previously mentioned “inner” hindrances up onto the Pulaski Bridge. While reciting a variety of mantras I poured the amrita into Newtown Creek that there may be benefit. May the magic of this place be known! May the power of its local gods be appreciated, and may they, the local gods, the trolls and the great teachers of stagnation, of dullness and of forgetfulness never be forgotten!
Perhaps every place is imbued with wonderful symbolic representations- dynamic reminders- of our own strengths and our weaknesses. Whether it be Newtown Creek, the Gowanus Canal, or a former slave burial ground, if we look a little more loosely the lama-as-appearance is always present. It offers a constancy of potential liberating circumstances. The charnel ground of the chödpa is everywhere. I am reminded of something that I once read by the previous Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche in which he said that the mind is the essential charnel ground as it is here where thoughts come to die.
Perhaps then, we carry all of the eight great charnel grounds of India within our very experience of mind.
This being a possibility, I offer prayers that we all may realize the chöd-field of our own minds. May we be free of clinging to this body as real, may we recognize it as illusory. May the sound of Machig Labdron’s kyangling and damaru permeate the entire universe liberating all upon hearing!
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.
Today is the six-year anniversary of the parinirvana of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche. With that in mind I want to share a prayer for the return of Bokar Rinpoche by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. May there be no hindrances in his swift return!!
A Prayer for the Swift Return of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche
by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
From the empty, unimpeded play of dharmadhatu-awareness
The myriad objects of refuge abiding in oceans of pure realms
Perpetually radiate compassionate enlightened activity.
Grant your blessings that the intent of these aspirations is expediently fulfilled.
Treasury of the secret and profound teachings of the practice lineage,
Your wisdom having fully blossomed, with fearless confidence
You expound the essence of the dharma of definitive meaning.
Unrivaled supreme lama, please heed our call.
Upholder of the heart essence of the Victor’s teachings,
Benevolent nurturer of beings, we beseech you to continuously
Provide refuge to those endowed with faith and without protection.
Gazing upon us with compassion, may your incarnation swiftly appear!
By the potent waves of the authentic blessings of the peaceful and wrathful three roots,
Unencumbered by obstacles and unfavorable circumstances,
May the desired fruits of our intentions fully ripen and
May they continuously manifest in glorious abundance!
The illuminator of the practice lineage, Bokar Karma Ngedon Chokyi Lodro Rinpoche having quite suddenly entered the state of peace, his monastery and Khenpo Lodro Donyo with offerings have requested me to write a prayer for his swift return. Thus I, the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, a monk of Shakyamuni’s tradition, have written this on the 23rd day of the 7th month on the Wood Monkey year of the seventeenth cycle, September 7, 2004.