People are scared to empty their minds
fearing that they will be engulfed by the void.
What they don’t realize is that their own mind is the void.
Not too long ago, when a lama came to the dharma center to teach on the Dujom Tersar cycle of chöd, I came across a few references in a variety of writings, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist that describe the experience of panic that arises in the face of the experience of loosening the intensity of the grasp around a permanent self. These reminders have been timely teachers as I have found myself recalling moments of ‘self’ destruction for lack of a better term, as well as deep listening to my own experience of periodic panic that sometimes presages a feeling of a less real sense of self. I feel that this is an under-explored topic, namely the fear that accompanies the spiritual path. Over the years I sometimes wonder if this fear is the fear that our practice will be (or is) successful.
Confess your hidden faults.
Approach what you find repulsive.
Help those you think you cannot help.
Anything you are attached to, give that.
Go to the places that scare you.
Within the context of the practice of vajrayana, the practice of chöd, regardless of any particular lineage, offers a very compelling way through which we might help effectively confront this self that tries to hold together the matrix of identity that wants to know and control the world around us. A complex alignment of dynamics, chöd offers a powerful visualization that chips away the plaque of identity, it slowly releases the grip of the hand that tries to maintain a handle upon what we experience. As we loose our grip, finger by finger, and we feel ourselves slipping, we are easily reminded of the truth of impermanence of the castles of sand that we create and imbue with such power and reality that before we know it, we and everything around us feels real, important, and vitally essential. Whether the visualization emphasizes Prajnaparamita, Vajravarahi or Tröma, it is essential to remember that they all represent the complete luminosity of emptiness; the vividness with which we do not exist, and the bliss associated with realizing that everything around us is pure appearance. The counter-intuitive act of visualizing oneself thrown into a kapala made up of one’s own skull and transformed into an ambrosial offering for all beings, or piled up as a mandala offering upon one’s own flayed skin, these confounding visualizations and the profound sense of generosity required tug at our sense of permanence and our desire to belong constellated in relation to a fixed point within time and space. It is not uncommon to feel a sense of resistance to the practice, a sense of tentative reluctance, or attempts towards pulling back within ourselves.
There can be a lot of pain and suffering when we become aware of how we cling to this wanting to “be”. This alone could easily be regarded as ‘going to a place that scares you’ that so much chöd literature seems to refer to. Sometimes this suffering manifests physically, with a visceral painful feeling, a hollowness or sharp sense of discomfort, other times it arises as a sudden busyness in which all of the sudden there is something very important that we find we need to do- something that distracts us from our practice. Sometimes these new things we find ourselves needing to do seem so important and vital that we are seduced by their wonderful meaning and uniqueness. These of course are the arising of demons. They find us wherever we are and rather powerfully unweave some of the fabric of confidence in resting in the view that allows for chöd to be the powerful practice that it is.
Ordinary people look to their surroundings, while followers of the Way look to Mind, but the true Dharma is to forget them both. The former is easy enough, the latter very difficult. Men are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the Void with nothing to stay their fall. They do not know that the Void is not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma. – Huang Po
The experience of groundlessness, I was once told by a psychotherapist who happened to be Buddhist, was not something to be cultivated, but rather, an experience more grounded and tangible was deemed as more valuable, within the process of spiritual growth. I have come across a number of psychoanalysts who warn in their writings that unguided exploration and or cultivation of the experience of groundlessness can lead to a state of psychosis. These warnings are interesting. They are interesting in part because I often wonder about the utility of combining psychoanalysis with Buddhist practice, especially if one is going to fully embrace emptiness of self. In all likelihood the combination of both Buddhism and psychotherapy can be a very effective way with which one can effect a necessary change in one’s experience of life to reduce suffering. Yet I sometimes wonder how much we benefit from aligning our living and breathing practice of dharma with the structures of our intellect such as modalities that seek to measure and define our experience as we move along our path as found within the psychoanalytic model. Our intellect often arises in a manner that does not make sense; especially when the sense of self is threatened. Like sparks, or flashes of lightening in the night sky, the reverberation of the reactive ego- the sense of self-nature wrapped up with the demons that keep it preoccupied- obey no one person. They are messy, sometimes terrifying and often very powerful. Similarly, the fast arrival of vajrayogini with her retinue of dakinis arise in an unpredictable way; this is why they are so integral within this practice and this too is why chöd confounds approaches that seek to find a restorative refinement and distillation of the Self. After all, how can one distill that which is not there?
Those who realize the nature of their mind knows
That the mind itself is wisdom-awareness,
And no longer make the mistake of searching for enlightenment from other sources.
In fact, enlightenment cannot be found by searching.
So contemplate your own mind.
This is the highest meditation one can practice;
This very mind is the perfect awakened nature,
the birth place of all the enlightened ones.
What if we just stopped running? Stopped trying to make ourselves better, more qualified, more important, more knowable and “ourselves”? What if we stopped in our tracks and turned around to face the executioner of our ego-grasping and gave way to the fear that exists around that process? What if we let the associated pain and suffering come rather than defend ourselves and acclimatized ourselves to the gnashing teeth of the demons who come fast, or the methodical bone crushing of the demons who come slow? What if we stopped sublimating everything by actively using our minds to make everything seem like Dharma, and just rest so that things can simply arise as Dharma; ordinary and unaffected; unpatterned and free from artifice?
Perhaps this is the only way in which the strong grip of our fears and insecurities, our limitations and feelings of being unqualified, will burn off like a morning mist as the sun rises. Perhaps trusting in the process is part of this and putting down the willful need for change allows this sense of self- an illusory doer, be seen for what it is, an expression of empty luminosity.
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.
In re-examining The Biographies of Rechungpa by Peter Alan Roberts for an earlier post, I came across details surrounding the colophon from the Life and Songs of Milarepa that are quite illuminating. Roberts suggests that the 14th century collection of songs, known as the Life and Songs Shepay Dorje, the source for what is popularly known in translation as The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, was actually intended to be a secret text; a text with a limited readership- a special means through which one might receive instruction and inspiration from Jey Milarepa himself. I find it particularly fascinating that this book, which can commonly be found in any number of bookstores, was once intended to only be shared by repas who were undergoing training in a manner similar to that of Jetsun Milarepa and his cotton-clad disciples. This piece of information illustrates, for me, how easily I have taken this book for granted as well the height of regard for which this particular set of teaching songs has been held.
Of course this is common with many books that one finds in any section of a bookstore that offers a selection of books on Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana. One can easily purchase translations of The Six Yogas of Naropa, or texts on Mahamudra or Dzogchen, Yidam practice, Chöd and other topics whose surrounding lineages of practice are still kept secret and guarded out of respect for the efficacy of such practices. Very few Tibetan monks, and unfortunately even fewer nuns, had access to these same texts that we now throw in the back of the car, fail to re-shelve at the bookstore, or even just casually leave out on a coffee table or the floor for that matter. If we like, for not that much money, we can purchase a translation of the Chakrasamvara and Hevajra Tantras or commentaries of the Guhyasamaja Tantra. You say you want a copy of the Karnatantra; the Bodyless Dakini teachings that Rechungpa brought from India to Tibet? No problem- if you want, it can even be delivered right to your home.
It’s fair to say that the genesis of most of these works is unknown. By this, I mean that while there may be a known attribution and transmission lineage specific to each text; a world completely unto itself; it took an unknown process that lead to the spiritual experience which inspiried the composition/revelation of these texts. Truly understanding what rests at the source of these works, and what they point out is difficult. The experiences of Tilopa or Naropa, of Aryadeva, or Krishnacharya are difficult to fathom. Yet we have their works in translation- manuals of liberation techniques, pages blessed by the buddha qualities embodied by each master who revealed them. While the majority of tantric Buddhist texts haven’t been translated, those that have- core lineage texts- are readily available.
One might ask, “Well, if access to all of these wonderful meditation manuals is so easily obtained, this must truly be a boon for our practice, no?” Indeed, this is a wonderful thing, we are very lucky to not have to risk our life to obtain access to the dharma as many in the past have had to. And yet, every wonderful thing also has a potential shadow, and I wonder about how easy it is to become jaded by all this easy access. Occasionally, I worry about easily we take for granted just one book which may represent the entire life experience, the great inner struggles and blissful insights, the fears of mediocrity, and the sense of grounding of such great teachers like Milarepa, and Machig Labdron, to name just two. Just one book contains the realizations of an entire lifetime. It contains an entire world. Yet it is easy to find that one book is often replaced by another, consumed with an ease and sense of entitlement that may perhaps undermine the very sacred meaning behind the genesis of each book. It is quite possible that before we know it, we have a personal library of the translated oral instructions of a variety of wisdom traditions while our inner spiritual flame, our interior process, struggles to maintain itself. It’s easy to take all this wonderous access for granted; to become “spiritually engorged”.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche treats this problem within his classic work Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and Robert Augustus Masters offers a wonderful honest treatment of this within his work Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters. Spiritual bypassing a term for the way that we use our spirituality to separate us from honestly feeling our emotions and from using our spirituality to defend our own faults and shadows. It is amazing how little growth and self-exploration we can allow ourselves through justifying our habits, our easy reactions and our shadows by chalking them up to “wrathful activity” (You know, I’m angry and that’s why I practice Mahakala), through the nature of ultimate reality (It’s all just an illusion anyway), or by being overly nice and compassionate as a means to feel better about ourselves and (sometimes to make us feel better than others).
What happens when we become jaded? When we say things like, “yeah, I know about all of the aspects of completion stage meditation from all the books that I have read”, what are we really saying? It sounds to me as if we have cut ourselves off from intimately knowing ourselves. It sounds as if we are hiding behind knowledge and not allowing the often messy and painful process of insight and wisdom about ourselves to occur.
I have come across a number of very well read Buddhists who have read and memorized great quantities of Buddhist texts who also seemed to lack basic concern for others- who would snap at those with lesser learning, and even refuse to offer support for those around them who were struggling. As if hypnotized by the wonderful image of the inner cartography that they were studying, they had become separated from the awareness that in order to start a journey we must put the map down so that we can actually begin. If we try to read a map and walk simultaneously we easily lose our orientation.
I’ve also seen many folks shun basic bodhicitta practice for practices that deal in a more head-on way with emptiness; more secret practices, higher ones, implying that loving kindness is basic. Actually, it can be excruciating to try to be there for others. Kindness in the face of adversity, or aversion for that matter, is not as easy as reading a book about it. It can be much more convenient to rest in the thought that “my self-centeredness doesn’t exist, it’s empty of any self-nature”- therefore it’s unnecessary to really look at it in the face to see where it’s coming from.
There is also the phenomena where disciples of teachers maintain a sceptical eye and caustic attitude towards other fellow students, other dharma siblings, for whom being part of the inner-circle is something of an eddy that they become stuck in along the river of thier spiritual life. They fail to realize that we have all of the most wonderful inner-circles within us. Why exclude others?
In wondering about all of the ways that we fool ourselves as we take things for granted, my curiosity often moves towards my own spiritual bypassing; around my periodic naiveté, and the way I take for granted all of the easy access I have had to the Dharma over the past fifteen years. I can acknowledge my hard work, my own personal insights and feel gratitude for my inner growth, but it is very humbling to notice how all of these wonderful sides of the spiritual path can be forgotten when I fall out of connection with others, or when I do not maintain a certain critical eye regarding my practice, or when I shy away from difficulty with unconscious ease. I’m sure that many readers can identify with some aspect of my experience, we have all done these things and it often goes unnoticed. When we apply the rosy light of spirituality to our behaviour that is rooted in hiding from others, hiding from our pain, and retreating into separation, we can very easily find wonderful defenses, wonderful ways to support us in not growing, in not changing (which is what growth is), and with not experiencing pain- a profound impetus for, and perhaps symptom of, growth. Sometimes we take for granted that we know ourselves at all.
These days its possible to receive dozens of empowerments, many different specific instructions, meet with many different spiritual teachers, and read many books that in the past were kept concealed, hidden to be revealed at the right time for maximum effect in one’s spiritual practice. That’s a lot of stuff. It’s not all bad, but it also seems possible for one to inadvertently suffer from a form of “spiritual diabetes” for lack of a better term. We have so much. Need so much. Often, we want so much. Do all the extra things, the personal libraries of sutra and tantra, the mountains of blessed substances from our teachers, make our spirituality more honest, stronger, more humble? Does that make it better? Why do we need it?
In my own life, I know that when I am plagued by my feelings of inadequacy or lack, I sometimes think, “Hmm. Maybe I should go back to India. Maybe I should go see my lama and ask for a really wrathful practice to get rid of these feelings”. To get rid of these feelings. In essence to split with them, to create a subtle distinction between those hard feelings and what I have an idea about what I should be feeling. I’m sure that others can identify with the feelings behind this kind of thinking. It’s a form of running away, a way of not facing with what I am feeling right now, of not being with what is arising in the moment and trying to get to know what it means, to notice its origin, and it’s effect- of creating further duality. Where does my feeling of lack and inadequacy come from?
In the parlance of Chöd practice: can I let go of holding on to the demon of lack and inadequacy? Rather than go on pilgrimage somewhere to accumulate merit when we feel terrible, what if we went on pilgrimage with ourselves? Rather than hiding, or hoping that adding a new practice will solve our deeply rooted suffering, what if we stopped, and touched the earth, as the buddha did and experienced the torment, our maras, and begin to enter into relationship with them? What would happen if we stopped buying books for a while, stopped seeking out the next teaching, and really sat with what we have. I suspect that we would find that we are more full than we recognize at first glance- that we have all that we need already.