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Posts tagged ‘buddhist blogs’

15
Jan

On Buddhas behaving badly…

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!

31
Dec

A warm new year’s greeting…

As 2011 dissolves away into another year I feel the need to offer a greeting to all of the dear readers of ganachakra.  The wonderful support and warmth that you all offer me helps me to grow- it is a special relationship that we share; a relationship that I pray continues for many years to come.

With that said I pray that this “new” year is seen as just another momentary appearance; an expression of liberated mind.

May the mind be seen as beyond time.

May your practice be deep, and be intertwined with the blessings of your lineage masters.

May you effortlessly begin to empty the pit of samsara by benefiting all beings.

Gewo!

With respect and gratitude,

Karma Changchub Thinley (Repa Dorje Odzer)

12
Dec

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

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

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

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

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

In an email last month, Jonny wrote:

I have a question arising from the Tsele Natsok Rangdrol book I’ve just finished reading. He mentions the “traditions of practice of the different lineages – recognising the meditation from within the view or establishing the view from within the meditation”. This has provoked a lot of interest in my mind, and I keep coming back to it. As far as my very limited understanding is concerned, the first approach in this quote seems to be that of Dzogchen, and the second Mahamudra. The Kagyupas seem to talk more about meditation, while Nyingmapas focus more on the view. In mahamudra there seems to be more emphasis on shinay and then lhaktong in order to realise the view, while in Dzogchen it seems to be more about instantaneously, effortlessly seeing what is already there. And this seems to fit with what I said about the quotation above.
Am I on the right track here? Can you comment on the quotation for me? Or can you recommend a book which illuminates clearly m’mudra and dzogchen and the differences?
Upon reading this email, I put down what I was doing, and with a deep sense of joy and excitement, considered what he was asking.  What an important question- what wonderful subtlety implied in this question!
At first glance I tend to feel that there is a distinct “stylistic” difference between mahamudra and dzogchen in a way.  On an ultimate level, however, there is a false dichotomy between view and meditation. This is something that Tsele Natsok Rangdrol touches on in the book The Heart of the Matter.  Rangjung Dorje, the 3rd Karmapa, in his wonderfully succinct Mahamudra Aspiriation Prayer, and Karma Chakme, in The Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen support this perspective.
In the Tibetan tradition there is often a reference to the term definitive meaning (nges don) which generally translates as: ultimate meaning, ultimate truth, truth, objective meaning.  Definitive meaning exists separately from relative meaning.  Relative meaning refers to the comparing and contrasting between things, it is a means through which we can know and understand one thing from another.  The experience of definitive meaning- ultimate truth- occurs in some combination of gaining clarity of relative truth.  In the experience of resting within our mind as it arises, within our experience of the arising of phenomena/appearance, we are afforded glimpses of the definitive meaning.  It is a process of familiarization, and in some cases even described as a homecoming of sorts; the reunion of the mother and the child.
I sometimes gain some clarity in viewing both mahamudra and dzogchen as something akin to mathematical sets.  They are two ways to approach the realization of mind, the definitive meaning of its experience, and the various qualitative ways in which we experience “mind”.  These two unique sets, mahamudra and dzogchen, are distinctive incredibly rich paths that undoubtedly lead to the experience of a definitive meaning, an inner vocabulary, of our experience of mind.  This “mind” that we experience, is the same for both “systems”, and when we look at their differences, they often seem to drift into the misty edges of mind essence.
Both approaches recognize that experiencing the mind’s essential nature is an experience akin to a mother being reunited with their child; or something similar to realizing that we have been carrying a priceless jewel with us through out our life experience, but failed to notice it- until now.   That noticing, that knowing awareness, and the inner confidence which arises announcing awakening.  In fact, the mere suggestion of there being an awakening, or a change in our being, draws us out of relationship with the experience of mind in a definitive manner.
Both mahamudra and dzogchen describe the freshness and immediacy of our experiences- they are now.  Not something planned for the future, not based upon trying to recreate a past experience.  This experience is often described as clear, blissful, and empty.  These four words are translations from the Tibetan, and what they truly mean for us within our own experience, is unique to our own particular journeys.  Some experience more of the illusory aspect of mind, others experience the mind’s clarity, and still yet others experience the bliss associated with resting within definitive meaning.
Bliss can be very dangerous and seductive, not to mention hypnotic.  I have spent much time with patients who have been admitted to locked in-patient psychiatric facilities who struggle with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia; people who in the throes of their mania exert phenomenal enthusiastic energy in trying to convey the perfect experience that they feel.  Oh, how the bliss lit their soul ablaze in a way that nothing else could.  The feeling that I am often left with when with such patients is that of awe and respect- I find it very compelling to be allowed to witness the expression of their experience of blissfulness that often occurs within the experience of mania. I have often found myself hypnotized while in the presence of such people, dazzled by the passionate feeling of blissful unity- and yet I am left feeling a profound sadness that I experience while trying to chaplain patients who appear addicted to a sense of bliss that disconnects them from the rest of the world.
Bliss arises, and we are taught to not be attached to it- it is one of the many things that we may experience.
And yet, bliss is important.
Similar shadows exist around the experience of mind as illusory. Indeed, the profound experience of the emptiness of all phenomena as experienced through our interface with the illusory appearance of every moment- a joining with the totality of what arises as empty of all characteristics and the awareness of the interplay between ourselves and this field of experience- holds the danger of being overly reductive.  It’s shadow may be a depressive state.
Bliss, emptiness, and clarity/luminosity- these are three ways that we experience mind.
Yet, mind is mind is mind is mind…. and yes, just as there can be distinct aspects of the mind that we relate with, or experience, and just as there is a particular style, or even flavour, that is distinct regarding dzogchen and mahamudra, we must remember that these distinctions arise from mind.  We feel and think, and yet from where do these feelings and thoughts arise; these created worlds, what is their source?  We interface with different aspects of mind, but they are temporary appearances, waves lapping at the edge of a lake- no two are the same, and there is no end, they just happen.  To hold onto the distinction may be problematic.
I tend to wonder if we can say that these distinctions have more meaning outside of our personal experience of mind, than say, as opposed to within our individual experience of mind.  The three masters that I refered to above, Rangjung Dorje, Karma Chakme, and Tsele Natsok Rangdrol all occupied places within their practice traditions as Kagyu/Nyingma masters and the two former masters were recognized as tertons in their own right.  All three were able to hold both: mahamudra and dzogchen.  They were able to come into direct relationship with mind.  From this place, I wonder if all distinctions around how practice is described, or how mind appears/in experienced is secondary.  While I feel that it is safe to say that individually we may all exhibit a predilection towards experiencing glimpses of the definitive experience of mind somewhere within the traditional nomenclature of bliss, emptiness, or clarity, with one aspect perhaps feeling more “natural” than another, it seems important to recognize that our experiences change, and that it is possible to form an attachment to the way we experience mind-essence.
For example, usually our relationship with our yidam has something to do with the way in which we interface with the experience of awakening as each yidam offers a model/modality through which we can act seated within our experience of buddha-nature.  I marvel sometimes how much we really become our yidam (or they become us)- in many ways it seems that there is a profound transference of quality and of action within the modalities of expression through body, speech, mind, and essence.  At our best, there is an experience of natural simultaneity, a natural ease and effortlesness in which we are the yidam- in moments where practice feels forced and contrived, we get hung up on the details, on experiencing things only one way, that there is a specific way in which we have to practice, a way that we have to interface with appearance.  All of the sudden we are working to get some where, to be something, or to induce a particular experience.  In yidam practice there are handy “tricks” through which we return to focusing upon the implements or mandala of the buddha of our practice, or a quality, or the transparency of our visualization so that an antidote of sorts is applied to falling out of relationship with our experience of the yidam; that which is no other than us.
Similarly, in approaching mahamudra from the perspective of shinay, lhaktong, and their union, a structural path laid out by the polymath Jey Gampopa, and as passed on from him down to the 9th Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje in the Ocean of Definitive Meaning as well as Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche in his essentialized distillation of Wangchuk Dorje’s seminal work, entitled Opening the Door to Certainty, yes, there may be more emphasis placed upon “establishing” or perhaps “easing” into the view through meditation. This approach to mahamudra, sometimes termed the Path of Liberation, or sometimes refered to as sutra mahamudra, is methodical and graded- often a gradual path, but not always so.  And I feel that much thought must be inserted here.  As dharma practitioners, or anyone really who follows a particular spiritual tradition, textual exegesis is vital to the maintenance of tradition- it is what connects us to the group, to our lineage.  And yet, we must realize that the exegesis that we interface with surrounds the way we experience mind, which ultimately ends up being a relatively individual experience.  That the Path of Liberation can only be said to be a gradual path ignores the fact that the possibility of “instantaneous” realization is always a present- in fact instantaneous insights do occur.  Karma Chakme spends time treating this particular “problem” as it were.  For him  spontaneous realization is always a possibility, no matter what the practice may be.
Then there is the Path of Means, often refered to as mantra mahamudra, or the approach to mahamudra through the six yogas and or inner and secret yidam practice.  In these approaches there is often a more instantaneous type of resting in the view, something that I feel offers a similar feeling of sudden realization that dzogchen often refers to.  I guess you could say the Kagyupa have bridged both sudden and gradual; Gampopa introduced the first Lam rim literature into the Kagyu lineage and from that point in time it appears that Sutra and Mantra mahamudra was presented as separate approaches to realizing the mind’s essential nature.  Peter Alan Roberts in his recent book entitled Mahamudra and Related Instructions, describes just how distinct Gampopa’s work was in codifying the Kagyupa approach to mahamudra, and how often the delineation between gradual and instantaneous approaches, especially in the associated forms of sutra and mantra approaches was made along the lines of monastic and lay.  As the first person to translate much of the core essence of the early kagyu lineage into a monastic tradition, a split had to be made between some of the tantric practices that challenged the conduct maintained by the monastics and his lay followers.
I suppose what I am trying to stress is that I’m not so sure that looking for the difference between the View as described within the context of dzogchen and that of mahamudra is as helpful as modulating between both Views within our practice.  The View helps keep meditation fresh- it is necessary to be familiar with the View (how the mind arises).  Meditation, the process of developing familiarity with the View (putting it into practice and actualizing it)  prevents the View from becoming a concept that appears more real and rigid than perhaps it ought to be.  There is a binary relationship that we need to maintain, a relationship that shifts and eventually blends into a naturalness in which there is no longer any applied effort- we just are.  Some of us have been lucky enough to meet people who manifest being in this way- they are indeed buddhas.
The false dichotomy lies within the fact that there is no real difference between meditation from within the view and the view from within the meditation.  The View is mind-essence, the mind as it arises, as it appears, and how we relate to appearance.  Meditation is resting within that experience of mind.  Even the practice of shinay carries all of the aspects of mind.  What is the stillness?  What is it that we are we focus upon in a single pointed way?  Where is the stillness?  True, asking these questions is similar to lhaktong, and indeed may be, but that knowing, that awareness, is always there while we do shinay- it is not necessarily something that we add to the mix.  As far as literary exegesis is concerned there is a lineal distinction between the approach to mind as we find in mahamudra, dzogchen, lamdre, and other forms of practice, however when we look at the works of great realized siddhas we find descriptions that offer resounding clarity.  For example, Rangjung Dorje says:
Free from being mind-made, this is mahamudra;
free of all extremes, it is mahamadhyamaka;
this contains all, and so is “mahasamadhi” too.
Through knowing one, may I gain firm realization of the meaning of all.
Great bliss with no attachment is continuous.
Luminosity without grasping at characteristics is unobscured.
Nonconceptuality that goes beyond intellect is spontaneous.
May unsought experiences occur without interruption.
Preferential grasping at experiences is liberated on the spot.
The confusion of negative thoughts is purified in the natural expanse.
Natural cognizance adopts and discards nothing, has nothing added or removed.
May I realize what is beyond limiting constructs, the truth of dharmata.
And Tsele Natsok Rangdrol follows:
The Middle Way, the unity of the two truths beyond limitations,
Mahamudra, the basic wakefulness of the uncontrived natural state,
And the Great Perfection, the original Samantabhadra of primordial purity-
Are all in agreement on a single identical meaning.
This mind that is present in all beings
Is in essence an original emptiness, not made out of anything whatsoever.
By nature it is unimpeded experience, aware and cognizant.
Their unity, unfathomable by the intellect,
Defies such attributes as being present or absent, existent or nonexistent, permanent or nothingness.
Spontaneously present since the beginning, yet not created by anyone,
This self-existing and self-manifest natural awareness, your basic state,
Has a variety of names:
In the Prajnaparamita vehicle it is called innate truth.
The vehicle of Mantra calls it natural luminosity.
While a sentient being it is named sugatagarbha.
During the path it is given names which describe the view, meditation, and so forth.
At the point of fruition it is named dharmakaya of buddhahood.
All these different names and classifications
Are nothing other than this present ordinary mind.
With these words as a guide, we find our way, succeeding and failing to realize the nature of mind- working to familiarize ourselves through practice with mind and with phenomena.  As we settle into natural awareness, an effortlessness in being, I wonder where all the words go.  Perhaps they too, dissolve into the soft edges of graceful wakeful knowingness.
23
Nov

On how to get soul: chod and the practice of freeing ourselves from slavery…


I was recently in Wilmington, North Carolina in late October for my wedding.  It’s a very beautiful small town that hugs the Cape Fear river, which, like most early cities and towns, was dependent upon a waterway as a means of transportation, both out to the Atlantic Ocean, and also further inland.  We spent a week down in Wilmington trying to add a few days of relaxation to the planning and organization of the wedding.  While there I was able to spend a morning practicing chöd on the beach during sunrise.  For a brooklynite, the ability to spend time in meditation facing the rising sun on a beautiful quiet beach is something of a luxury.

While I was aware of the fact that there had been an active slave trade in Wilmington, I had not realized the extent of Wilmington’s strategic location in the trade of slaves.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, due to the danger of trying to moor ships on most of the islands that make up North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the Port of Wilmington, situated inland on the Cape Fear river was much safer, thereby providing a major point of forced disembarkation of slaves.  In fact, the black slave population of Wilmington out numbered the white non-slave population by 2 to 1 by the mid 1800’s.  The skills and knowledge of black slaves was vital for the growth, success and expansion of the town; it is quite probable that Wilmington’s survival as a vibrant economy due to its being rooted upon a firm economic base built upon the blistered and broken backs of its former slaves.

In this respect Wilmington is no different from a variety of other cities, towns, countries, and empires whose success, basic stability, infrastructure, and rich cultural growth has been secured and “enriched” by its slaves.  Indeed, like it or not, the history of humanity can certainly provide a variety of such cases of how the enslavement of other humans “benefitted” the culture of their oppressor.  Sadly, in many ways this dynamic continues into the present day.

With this in mind, and as a means of returning to the sacred geography that I explored in a blog post last year, I decided to spend time doing chöd on the beach not far from the inlet of the Cape Fear river; all the while trying to remain aware of my inner slaves and all the ways that I enslave different aspects of myself.  I wanted to touch upon all of the ways that I enslave myself, enslave aspects of my personality, how I project rigid ideas upon myself, and like a coy and brutal slave-master, how I benefit from such suffering.  That Wilmington can act as the support for my practice of chöd, that its rich history of being a place where the dreams of humans were crushed and suffocated by a racist ruling class can offer a ground and support for practice is important.  Perhaps Wilmington, as a reminder- or symbol- offers us the potential for great inner growth.

Slavery, especially inner-slavery is an important thing to contemplate.   Even more, the way that many people disassociate from the history of slavery and all of the ways in which it still haunts us is something that I find disturbing.

There is so much terrible violence that we commit towards ourselves in a unconscious manner out of fear, or a sense of insecurity, or of flat-out self- hatred.  There are so many ways in which we subjugate aspects of ourselves, be they qualities, propensities, or habitual reactions, with the same control of a slave master.

And so, with the warm rising rays of the morning sun as a witness; a glorious bindu drop amidst the crashing of waves of the atlantic ocean, and with the wind whistling though tall beach grasses, I invoked the mandala of Machik Labron and Prajnaparamita. With qualities of edgelessness, and without specific orientation within time or space, I wanted to stretch myself , so that the tragic history associated with the slave trade and all of its ghostly remnants could be included within my practice, that all of the terror and the brutal subjugation of others could be heard.

I tend to feel that with any particular spiritual practice it is important to blend what tradition dictates, the transmitted instructions of one’s teacher/tradition, with what is alive within ourselves.  At the end of the day it is our story, the story that we carry with us, the story that we have made for ourselves that we bring to our practice.  The way that we construct this story, it’s highs and lows, it’s holy sanctified ideals and its skulking demonic shadow beings are what we bring.  Our desire to do, and be, good, as well as our fear of failure and being seen as failure.

In exploring slavery as a metaphor for the way in which we fail to notice our full selves I am reminded of course I took in college on African Philosophy taught by a brilliant Kenyan philosopher, Dismas Masolo.  Some of what was touched upon within the curricula of this class included an examination of the early historical affirmation that Africans were in many ways sub-human.

For example, Immanuel Kant, one of the giants of western philosophy writes in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View: “Humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race.  The yellow Indians have a smaller amount of talent.  The Negroes are lower, and the lowest are a part of the American peoples.”  Martin Cohen, the editor of The Philosopher, wrote in a review of D.A. Masolo’s African philosophy in Search of an Identity, “…Kant, for example, had argued that the ‘original human species was white, appearing as dark brown’ only as a result of oppressive climatic conditions, whilst Hegel wrote similarly that ‘the characteristic feature of the Negroes is that their consciousness has not yet reached an awareness of any substantial objectivity’. In Africa, life was not a manifestation of dialectical reason but rather, as Hegel put it, ‘a succession of contingent happenings and surprises.'”  The justification for subjugating others appears timeless- it is amazing how easily we demonize others, sometimes with shameless effortless ignorance.

Equally amazing is how we take credit for the fruits of the work of our inner-slaves.  Just as the slave owner assumed ownership of what was tilled within, and born of his fields; or the madame at the brothel whose “hard-earned” wealth was collected upon the broken bodies and broken dreams of her two-bit whores (to quote Theodore Dreiser); it can be scary when we look at how much credit we take for the fruits of the parts of ourselves that we would rather ignore, the parts that we keep drugged, shackled, and subdued with cruelty.

While we assume our position at the head of the table, decked out in all of the fineries of our best projections of ourselves, dining upon the finest foods, receiving the accolades that deep down we feel we really deserve, entertaining our every whim and fancy- our self-hatred and inability to dynamically embrace the parts of ourselves that we may fear that others will come to know of often rules with the same tight fist as the cruelest slave owner.  And just as such slave owners were known to rape their slaves, I wonder how we secretly rape the unintegrated parts of ourselves; secretly proclaiming love and acceptance of the parts of ourselves that we may indeed love, but fear, and perhaps secretly hate because we feel that we may know that they are integral parts of ourselves.

Ironically, it may just be that the most enslaved parts of our psyche may be the ones that we refuse to own; the ones of which we refuse to be conscious.  They also may hold immense power and utility, if we could just be with them, just accept them…

As a chaplain I witness many people (patients, their friends or family, as well as staff) try to shackle their fears, to hide away their anger and sense of loss, to turn away from their sense of powerlessness, and to try to disguise their shame.  I can see this in part because I try to explore these things within myself.  It is not easy to notice things about ourselves that we are uncomfortable with- let alone loathe or fear.  And yet in seeing this in myself and in others, I am often reminded of how naturally we create our own suffering.

I sometimes wonder about how as Buddhists it is possible to secretly hide away the slaves of aggression and anger, how easy it is to distract ourselves from truly knowing, exploring and interfacing with the way these feelings arise.  That we might prefer studying the paramitas as a way of feeling good about ourselves but not really noticing, not taking stock, of how easy it can be to associate with a conceptual modality, a structural paradigm, rather than something that genuinely arises from our heart/mind complex. Even the idea of Buddhist practice offers a false sense of not being a slave owner.  In this way, the overly friendly, overly compassionate Buddhist who is unaware of the horrors bubbling just under their surface can also become a slave owner by brutality repressing drives, emotional impulses and feelings.  If not observed carefully, Buddhist practice affords wonderful ways of running away from oneself (if that is what you want to do).

In offering my steaming organs, the sun and moon of my eyes, the deep vital essence of my marrow, the mountain range of my fingers and toes, the ocean grasses of my hair, my flayed skin, the ground of the mandala offering, I contemplated what freeing a slave means.  If I am to free my inner-slaves shouldn’t I do so in a way that allows for having a relationship with them in the future?  Wouldn’t that presage deep growth and acceptance around just why I ghettoized an aspect of myself?  And in having some sense of how and why I do this to myself, around my conception of myself, doesn’t this offer a wonderful means of connecting with others who find themselves with a whip in their hand, or fist raised in the air towards themselves?

In consciously releasing our slaves, with awareness, offering witness of how we maintained them for years, perhaps even a lifetime, I wonder if we can also allow them to remain part of us, in relationship with us, as liberated beings; liberated parts of ourselves?  If this is the case, then the story of our aggression towards these ways of feeling is an important and powerful thing to honor.  Knowing these stories around and within ourselves can create a natural sense of connection and intimacy with others in a way akin to the paramitayana.  It may very well be that this awareness of our emotional history is central to honestly approaching the paramitas.  Otherwise it can be very easy to inadvertently use the dharma as a tool to subjugate and maintain slaves.  There may be the desire to release our slaves and “banish” them from our sight so that we never have to see our folly- this however prevents any honest growth and real witness of the story of our inner-ghetto beings.

I suspect that as we become more familiar with freeing our slaves and trying to maintain relationship with them, in accepting the hard truths which can become precious gifts, we can relax our grip around things specifically needing to be a particular way.  In letting go, forgiving, and remaining in relationship, the dharma doesn’t become any one thing in particular; it becomes all things.

We, the creators of the new black generation,/ want to express our black personality/ without shame or fear/ If this will please the whites, much the better/ If not, it does not matter/ We know ourselves to be beautiful/ And also ugly/ The drums cry/ The drums laugh/ If this will please the whites, much the better/ If not, it does not matter/ It is for tomorrow that we are building our temples/ Solid temples we will ourselves know how to/ construct them/ And we will keep ourselves straight/ On top of the mountain/ Free in ourselves.      -Langston Hughes


6
Sep

on maintaining confidence in our emerging buddha nature…


I recently returned from a period of retreat and instruction with His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche, regent of the Karma Kagyu lineage.  I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to continue to spend time at his monastery- Palchen Chosling-in Sikkim and to receive precious guidance from him.  While at Palchen Chosling, His Eminence also empowered me as a repa; a tantric yogin following in the foot steps of Mila Shepa Dorje (Jetsun Milarepa)- I am profoundly grateful and moved by Rinpoche’s kindness in offering me the chance to follow this particular path.  I also am also curious as to how I can bring this experience to the people who I visit at the hospital (and everywhere else).

During my stay at Palchen Chosling, a few threads of thought wove themselves throughout my experience of the breaks between meditation sessions, while wandering the mountain roads down to Old Ralang monastery, Karma Rabten Ling, which was founded under the guidance of the 12th Karmapa, Changchub Dorje, and at various other points throughout the day.  These contemplations are something that I would like to share with you, as they brought some meaning for me, reinforcing a sense of wonder and awe surrounding spiritual practice.

There was a moment while His Eminence was teaching when I was struck by the power of the lineage teachings. In that moment their efficacy felt particularly potent, as did the enduring effect of the power of the single pointed application of the teachings by a number of past lineage holders as well hitherto unknown practitioners.  It felt as if I could easily connect with those who had gone before me, and that their presence, or perhaps their residual blessings remained for anyone to feel who treads the shared path.  I felt that there must be hundreds of practitioners who experienced awakening for every one who became well known- indeed, I suspect that perhaps more people than we know have derived great benefit from the practice of such liberating instructions.

Inspired in this way, I kept coming back to wondering about Dusum Khyenpa, the first Karmapa.  I wondered about the rich and full life of practice that he lived, and the wide range of emotions that he brought to his experience of the dharma.  His pain and jealousy, which at times was murderous seem so common, so ordinary, that they are very easy to identify with.  From these common emotional roots Dusum Khyenpa fully integrated the teachings presented by both Gampopa as well as Rechungpa.  To this end, as an indication of the clarity and depth of his experience, Dusum Khyenpa reappeared after his death in the form of Karma Pakshi, the second Karmapa, thus beginning the first and oldest established reincarnation lineage found anywhere in Tibetan Buddhism.

Karma Pakshi was a great mahasiddha.  His intensity and great spiritual abilities in many ways appear to be a natural result of the depth of the effort as well as the unique blessings of the Karma Kagyu dharma.  It makes sense that he arose after Dusum Khyenpa passed away; it seems that arising in the form of Karma Pakshi expressed the true nature of the activity of Dusum Khyenpa.  In reflecting upon this, I have been reminded of how it is said that from time to time within our practice it is possible to begin to traverse the bhumis, and yet not manifest all of the signs that indicate our awakening until we have died and take up our new Nirmanakya “form”- perhaps this is the case with Dusum Khyenpa and Karma Pakshi.

I was left to wonder, or perhaps return to, a very old question: Is the liberation expressed by Dusum Khyenpa a result of his already being a great being capable of more than most of us?  Or, is his liberation a result of the efficacy of the dharma when put into practice with all of our heart?

My intuitive reaction to the power of His Eminence’s teaching left me to feel that this dharma, imbued with the still-fresh warm breath of the dakinis, has an ability to completely change our experience of reality.  Certainly, one cannot remove or even separate the blessings of all of the great masters of the past who have held any given lineage of instructions we receive.  They have left their mark, imbuing the dharma with their particular seal, something that we can interact with centuries later. Indeed, it is often written that connecting with the blessings of this lineage is part of the power of the experience, a fundamental ground upon which realization may dawn.  Asking these kinds of questions help us to truly recognize the powerful nature of dharma. Such questions impact the way we frame our own potential; the way we allow ourselves to define the possibilities of our own enlightenment; they are clear illustrations of just what we will permit ourselves to do.  These questions are natural, but great care should be given in answering them- there is always a chance that we may undercut ourselves and cease to allow ourselves to mutually let the dharma sink into our experience of life while simultaneously letting ourselves sink into the dharma, thereby letting experiences arise naturally.   If we don’t allow ourselves to fully blend with the dharma and arise within it awakened within ourselves what is the point of taking great care in applying the dharma to our lives?

Wondering whether great masters are special beings- essentially separate from you and I, or whether they simply allowed themselves to rely upon and integrate the dharma in their own individual way, unique and appropriate to their perceptual matrix, and that in so doing, came to illustrate the power of the dharma, has gone on for centuries.  It is a meaningful subject of contemplation.  Such reflections not only figure largely within the namthar- or liberation story- of Jetsun Milarepa, but was a point of controversy within the composition, collation and dissemination of the numerous versions of his namthar between the 13th and 18th centuries.

Dr. Peter Alan Roberts’ The Biographies of Rechungpa: The evolution of a Tibetan hagiography, offers a wonderful description of the many existent biographies of Milarepa as well as a very compelling analysis of the evolution of Milarepa’s biography.  As one would expect, while there is a shared narrative between most of these biographies, there is a range of focus upon particular aspects of the life of Shepa Dorje.  Indeed, anyone with even a small interest in hermeneutics will recognize that what is really known of the life of Jetsun Milarepa is, and has been, open to much interpretation.  Such is also the case with the often over simplified polarized roles of Jey Gampopa (monk) and Rechungpa Dorje Drak (yogin), the two most well-regarded disciples of Milarepa.  To truly asses their exact nature historically is much like trying to ascertain the actual distinctive differences between Jesus’ disciples- no small feat!  And yet, despite the fact that nearly a millenia has passed since the time of Jey Milarepa we do have some idea as to who he was and what he embodied.

Roberts’ work opens up a lot of places for creative enquiry not only around the life of Milarepa and Rechungpa, but of the re-telling of the Kagyu story from the prevailing monastic perspective.  Related subjects also include what I would call the “cross-over” issues that faced tantric Buddhism as it became ensconced within a monastic setting; some of the questions around these topics continue to this day.  Many of the questions that arise from his work seem especially important to ask oneself as one treads the path of the Kagyu lineage in general.  It appears that through asking such questions we open ourselves to gaining greater certainty for ourselves as to how, and in what way, we want to relate not only to the transmission lineage of our practice, but also the essential embodiment uniquely expressed by each lineage master.

Apparently, in most of the collections of the life of Milarepa, he is described as an emanation of Manjusrimitra– an important early lineage holder of dzogchen practice.  This view was suggested as early as the 14th century in the work of as yet determined authorship entitled The Life and Songs of Shepa Dorje, the best known collection of Milarepa’s songs before Tsangnyon Heruka‘s Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa.  This view was supported by Kachö Wangpo, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye as well as Ngari Terton Dawa Gyaltsen.  The general view of Milarepa as an emanation is first known to be maintained by Gampopa, and is then supported by Lama Shang and Donmo Ripa.  In Tsangnyon Heruka’s biography of Milarepa, which in translation has become the singular source of the details of the life of Milarepa, we find a dramatic departure from the view expressed by these past masters: Milarepa is portrayed as a normal sentient being!

In the Lhalungpa translation of Tsangnyon Heruka’s biography of Milarepa, towards the end of the story there is a scene where Milarepa is surrounded by his students after it is known that he will soon die.  In a moment of sadness, and perhaps even desperation for final instructions, several questions are asked of Milarepa as to whom he is the reincarnation of as someone as exemplary as Milarepa could not possibly be “ordinary”.  This is what is presented:

“Then Bodhi Raja of Ngandzong asked:

‘Lama Rinpoche, it seems to me that you are either the incarnation of Vajradhara Buddha and that you engage in all these actions for the benefit of sentient beings, or you are a great Bodhisattva who has attained the state of “Non-returning” and who has accumulated immense merit for many aeons.  In you, I see all the characteristics of a true yogin who sacrifices his life for the Dharma practice.  We humans cannot even conceive the extent of your asceticism and your devotion to your lama, let alone practice it ourselves.  If we dared to practice in this way, our bodies could not bear such an ordeal.  That is why it is certain that you were a Buddha or Bodhisattva from the very beginning.  And so, although I am incapable of religion, I believe that we sentient beings will be led toward liberation from samsara through seeing your face and hearing your words.  Revered Master, I be you to tell us if you are the incarnation of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva.

‘The Master replied:

‘I never heard whose reincarnation I am.  Maybe I am the reincarnation of a being from the three lower realms, but if you see me as a Buddha you will receive his blessing by virtue of your faith.  Although this belief that I am an incarnation springs from your devotion to me, actually there is no greater impediment to your practice.  It is a distortion of the true Dharma.  The fault lies not in recognizing the true nature of the achievement of great yogins.  The Dharma is so effective that even a great sinner like myself has reached a stage not far from Enlightenment due to my own belief in karma, my subsequent renunciation of the aims of worldly life, and due especially to my single-minded devotion to meditation.

More particularly, if you receive initiation and the secret instruction which brings spontaneous awakening included by conceptualizations, and if you then meditate under the guidance of an enlightened lama, you will undoubtedly attain Enlightenment.”

Milarepa is incredibly clear: Although this belief that I am an incarnation springs from your devotion to me, actually there is no greater impediment to your practice.  It is a distortion of the true Dharma.  The fault lies not in recognizing the true nature of the achievement of great yogins.  He goes on to further stress the importance of contemplating impermanence, karma, and the development of renunciation towards worldly dharmas along with the importance of applying great effort in the practice of meditation.  This is his path, the way in which he expresses his practice: great simplicity.

Why do we tend to ask questions like the one offered by Bodhi Raja of Ngandzong?  Or maybe the better question is: what happens when we don’t ask whether or not we can fully express our infinite potential, and just let ourselves grow and change the way that we will?  What happens if we apply the essential instructions that clarify our understanding and relationship with our mind, placing special care to also apply such instructions to our expectations towards our potential, towards the ideas of progress, even time, or the notion of physical place?

A great example of such instructions are Tilopa’s six methods for maintaining the absorptive state, or his Six Nails of Key Points:

Let go of what has passed.

Let go of what may arise.

Let go of what is happening now.

Let go of modulating (examining).

Let go of trying to control (there is nothing to do).

Let the mind rest in its natural state.

When we consider where “we” are in relationship to time, to location, and to general appearance, in a genuine heartfelt way, our inner scaffolding, the need for support, and the gentle movement of our clouds of doubt and subtle obscuration begins to dissipate.  The rays of our natural light shines- the question of when, where, how and why lose imminence; they are answered with a silent knowing, and inner surety.  Might this be what liberated Milarepa?  Perhaps this is the achievement of great yogins to which Milarepa refers.

While these rays, innate representations of our stainless purity, our undeniable inheritance, an immovable storehouse of blessings, empowerment and transmission, are known and experienced at times in a way that might initially appear shaky and tentative, it is important to remember that our provenance, the nature of our core-being, is that very stainless purity.

The martial and strong-willed Lama Shang (of whom you can learn more here), a student of Gampopa and founder of the Tsalpa Kagyu writes:

Upon loosening mental consciousness through relaxation

Inner sensation and clarity of non-discrimination emerge like the expanse of the clear sky.

This represents the clarity of dharmakaya.

Similarly, one can find many passages that help to illustrate the mind’s essential nature, the way through which we can recognize with constancy the way the mind arises, and that this buddha-like essence is always here, we simply fail to recognize it.  These pithy instructions are often essential in nature; short and sweet, relaxed and expansive.

Tibet in the 15th century bore witness to a tremendous amount of spiritual distillation and passionate vigor that lead to a structuralism that allowed for the foundation of the Geluk lineage and the subsequent philosophical and scholastic discourse.  It was also a period that witnessed the rise of teachers like Tsangnyon Heruka, Drukpa Kunley and Thangtong Gyalpo, all of whom sought to laugh in the face of convention; for them the central loci of dharma was the authentic practice of dharma, where an atmosphere of iconoclasm and openness tempered by rigorous personal dedication to samaya and the stream of essence dharma was of prime importance.

I am captivated with a giddy curiosity around what it means to bring this spirit of free enquiry, of dedicated vision, and the certainty needed to abandon some of the heavy dead weight that accompanies our practice.  Can we apply the leaches of pure vision to the engorged stagnant well fattened body of our assumptions and dull fundamentalism so that the blood of heavy density is removed?  Can we allow ourselves to embrace siddhas, or complete madmen, like Tsangnyon Heruka and Thangtong Gyalpo in our conception of “practice”?  How do we add the rowdy passion and the complete assembly of the ganachakra to the steady perhaps overly controlled conception of how the middle way appears?  Can we embrace the full luminosity of mind? When does the structure of our spiritual path get in the way?  How do we defer to the structure rather than letting ourselves begin to walk?

The slight change in perspective that Tsangnyon Heruka offers us in his Life of Milarepa, through his suggesting that we may all achieve complete enlightenment by the power of the dharma blended with our own effort is a gift.  It allows all of us to assume a seat in the larger ganachakra of buddha-beings, to gain access to our true inheritance as the young Milarepa did, and to transcend the death blows that our inner tendencies towards the distancing aspects of philosophy and rationalism (perhaps represented by Geshe Tsakpuhwa, the one who poisoned Milarepa).  Thus freed, we are able to experience all that he has experienced; we are free to know that our practice can ascend to great heights; we are free to know that this  buddha nature of ours will naturally dawn.

22
Jul

Chöd, inner trolls, brigdes and inner stagnation…

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!

5
Jul

on practice for others, and taking our seats in our own practice…

It has been just a little over a year since I started ganachakra.com and changchub.com, the associated site through which one can sponsor prayer, puja, and recitation of texts for the benefit of oneself, for another, or for all beings.  Both sites have proved to meet a specific need that exists not just for Buddhists, but for anyone who is experiencing suffering and would like spiritual support.

Shortly after beginning ganachakra.com last summer, I returned to India to see His Eminence the 12th Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche (vajra regent of the Karma Kagyu lineage), as well as Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche (heart son of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, and abbot of Bokar Ngedhon Chokhorling), for periods of instruction, retreat and pilgrimage.  Upon returning I wrote two posts, one with instructions on how to place the mind at the point of death from H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche (which you can read here), the other on practicing for others by Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche (which you can read here).

I wish to return to the topic of practicing for the benefit of others; specifically the performance of ritual puja as this is a form of dharma activity that appears to be treated with less importance in non-buddhist countries.  I’m not really sure why this is the case, but I suspect it has to do with complicated feelings surrounding magic, ritual, and prayer.  It seems important to note that in most cases, western Buddhists have had the benefit of access to higher education and perhaps even a relatively high social class.  These factors may or may not be important, but I wonder if they make the outward acceptance of magic, the power of ritual, and the benefit of prayer appear superstitious and regressive.  Indeed, it should be noted that most of the public proponents of Buddhism seem to hold advanced degrees, and in the United States at least, on average, there is a rationalism and sense of grounded reality that goes hand in hand with such access to education and perhaps also the leisure time to devote towards practice.  Culturally, this imprint exists, as to how real it is, and to how much of an absolute it has become, is something that I cannot say much about.  Perhaps we only know for ourselves how loose and free we are of this and other cultural imprints.  How do these imprints color our notion of Buddhism?  These projected realities can only be indicated and fully understood individually.  If anything it seems that approaching the surety of the rational mind with mindful awareness is wise; for such a cherished dialectic is as much an habitual fabrication as anything else.

Mindful of the potential impossibility and eternal contradictions that words allow for, I acknowledge that I may make a variety of mistakes in trying to address this topic.  That said, I invite you to explore with me how practice for others is a vitally important dharma activity.

When we pray, what are we doing?

There are many different forms of prayer.  Aspiration prayers, dedication prayers, supplication to a particular lineage, direct prayers of praise to a given Buddha, and prayers of request for empowerment, to name a few.  Through personal prayer, in a very general sense, we make a connection with our distinct source of spirituality and the well-spring of spaciousness, interpenetrating connection, and personal empowerment that it offers.  The specific directionality and aim of our prayers can be focused and refined by what kind of prayer one does.

A great example of an aspiration prayer is the Dewachen Prayer; it focuses the mind upon making the aspiration for either oneself or another to be reborn in Dewachen or Sukhavati, the pure-land of the Buddha Amitabha.  This prayer plants the seeds of connection to the intention of experiencing the bliss of Amitabha’s face, the ability to connect with the dharma, to have the means to practice, and to experience the mind’s basic clarity.  It allows Amitabha’s commitment to benefit us to come to fruition.

Dedication prayers connect us to others; they engender compassion, and reinforce our commitment to bodhisattva activity.  The following is an example of a dedication prayer:

By this virtue may I quickly
Attain the state of a Guru-Buddha (Enlightenment),
And then may I lead every being,
without exception, into that state.
May the most precious and supreme bodhicitta
awakening mind
Which has not yet been generated now be generated.
And may the precious mind of bodhicitta which has
been generated
Never decline, but always increase.

Dedication prayers are a way in which we ground our intention.  They help us to keep the general view of interconnection and offer a form of bearing witness.  Any merit that we have created we dedicate to all beings, so that they may experience Buddhahood; this is a way of not forgetting and maintaining our heritage as both a potential buddha, but also as a participant in samsara.  These prayers are easily over-looked, but they open us up to a sense of loving-kindness and appreciation of others no matter what form they take.

Lineage prayers, much like family trees, connect us with those who have come before us.  In this case we have the Dorje Chang Thungma, or prayer to Dorje Chang (Vajradhara) the dharmakaya source of the Kagyu lineage.  This prayer begins with a supplication of the early forefathers of the kagyu lineage and then moves on to plant the seeds for renunciation, devotion, and attention, and reflection, all of which are very helpful, if not required to gain an essence oriented realization of the mind’s qualities.  This prayer serves to connect us with the Kagyu lineage, delivering the blessings of its founders, as well as the central blessing of the Kagyu approach to the practice of meditation.  Lineage prayers like this one are a way of directly connecting with the essence of a lineage, and through that, experiencing deep inspiration and faith, the energy that bolsters us in our practice.

Dorje Chang Thungma

OM

Great Vajradhara, Tilopa, Naropa

Marpa, Milarepa, and Lord of the Dharma, Gampopa

Knower of the three times, omniscient Karmapa

Lineage holders of the four great and eight lesser schools

Drikung, Taklung, Tsalpa, glorious Drukpa and others,

You who have thoroughly mastered the profound path of Mahamudra

Unrivaled protectors of beings, the Dakpo Kagyü

I pray to you, the Kagyü lamas

Grant your blessing that we may follow your tradition and example.

Detachment is the foot of meditation, it is taught.

Attachment to food and wealth disappears

To the meditator who gives up ties to this life,

Grant your blessing that attachment to ownership and honor cease.

Devotion is the head of meditation, it is taught.

The lama opens the door to the profound oral teachings

To the meditator who always turns to him,

Grant your blessing that uncontrived devotion be born within.

Unwavering attention is the body of meditation, it is taught.

Whatever arises, is the fresh nature of thought.

To the meditator who rests there in naturalness,

Grant your blessings that meditation is free from intellectualization.

The essence of thought is dharmakaya, it is taught.

They are nothing whatsoever, and yet they arise.

To the meditator who reflects upon the unobstructed play of the mind,

Grant your blessing that the inseparability of samsara and nirvana be realized.

Through all my births, may I not be separated

From the perfect Lama and so enjoy the glory of the dharma.

May I completely accomplish the qualities of the path and stages

And quickly attain the state of Vajradhara (awakened mind).

As far as prayers directed at a particular Buddha, I have included a prayer to the Buddha Prajnaparamita for the removal of obstacles.  It comes from a booklet of collected prayers that was handed out during His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s annual teachings in Bodh Gaya in December of 1998.  This prayer is a supplication to Parjnaparamita and the dakinis of the three places so that all obstacles and hindrances may be removed.  This invocation of Prajnaparamita’s power for protection and removal of problems, as well as the dakinis that emanate from her body, speech and mind is a way of receiving her natural blessing and connecting in a direct way. The two mantras, the second of which is the mantra of prajnaparamita herself,  clear away all and any perceived “reality” of obstacles, rendering them impossible, empty, and without gravity.

Prayer to remove obstacles based upon Prajnaparamita from the Gelug Lineage

I prostrate to the gathering of dakinis of the three places,

Coming from the supreme holy site of “Space-enjoying”,

Who have the powers of clairvoyance and magical emanation,

And regard practitioners as their offspring.

A KA SA MA RA TSA SHA DA RA SA MA RAY AH PHET

Tayatha gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi soha

Through the power of the great truth of the words of the Exalted Three Jewels

May all adverse conditions be overcome.

May they become non-existent.

May they be pacified.

May all the evils, such as enemies, obstacles, hindrances and adverse conditions be satisfied.

Shantim kuruye Soha

May the eighty thousand types of obstacles be pacified,

May we be separated from adverse harmful conditions,

May everything conducive be obtained and by the auspiciousness of everything good,

May there be excellent happiness here and now.

In these ways, we see that prayer can be focused and very specific.  Each modality is a little different from the others, but can be easily blended into one another if one desires.  I have come to find that as a chaplain, prayer is real.  It effects significant change within me when I deliver it within my own practice, and when I perform prayer for others it changes the feeling of the room as well as the orientation of the person for whom it was delivered.  I have even had the experience of a dying patient who held out until prayer could be delivered; as I finished the last word of the prayer the patient died.  Prayer can be a vehicle, and a ladder, it is a bridge and an oasis in the face of difficulty.

I realize that personal prayer and ritual, as part of a regular spiritual practice makes a lot of sense- the effects are palpable. But what of prayer and ritual for others?  This is something that I feel a greater number of people in the West may be more skittish about.

Lately I have been requested to perform pujas and prayers for a number of people who have recently passed away.  Within the mix of specific practices that I do, I tend to focus on Chöd, Mahakala and Shingkygong, as supplementary practices to help ensure that the passage through the bardo is smooth, without the affliction of fear and anger, and so that when rebirth comes, it is peaceful and rich.  The effect of Mahakala and Shingkyong, in my mind at least, is profound- there is little chance that as enlightened protectors they will forget to benefit beings; and so, when invoked and supplicated with heartfelt devotion and clarity, there is no reason as to why obstacles will arise.

Chöd allows me to experience intimacy with the consciousness of the person who has passed away.  I enjoy offering the feasts of my freshly butchered body, my eyes, flayed skin, and skull to all of the demons of self-clinging and self-cherishing so that the person for whom this practice is dedicated will pass through the bardo aware of the illusory nature of their body.  In inviting the recently deceased to the ganachakra of my body, an offering made so that all of their obstacles may be dissolved into the emptiness that characterizes their essential nature, we become connected.  We form a bond; a shared experience of seeing things as they really are.  The benefit of this kind of approach to being there for others who have recently passed away feels extraordinary- I take great joy in being able to have the chance to do this.

In a sense, practicing for others is more than bodhisattva activity, the indiscriminate non-referential care for the basic happiness of others, it is also strongly urged through many of the tantric commitments (samayas) associated with a variety of practices.  It is quite common amongst the samayas associated with the practice of a number of tantric deities that the practitioner engage in the activities of performing pujas, offering tormas, and removing obstacles in the manner of the mahasiddhas of old.  This is another application of skillful means; we can effect great change through our practice, the least of which is experience full realization.  In this way we connect with the mahasiddhas of India- we seamlessly continue their lineage.

Why not be a benefit to others?  Indeed, not being stingy with the dharma assets is one of the key precepts that is kept within the Zen tradition, and is commonly found in a variety of forms in all expressions of buddhadharma; one not look any further than the paramita of generosity.

Science even affirms the value of practice for others.  The British Medical Journal (BMJ) conducted a study of the effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer, which as an outcome outlined that this type of prayer should be considered within clinical treatment.  You read tha abstract here.  An abstract from a study done by the National Institute of Health (NIH) on the effects of remote intercessory prayer and it’s recorded benefits in recovery from low self-esteem, depression  and anxiety can be read here.    In terms of the recovery of cardiac patients another NIH study suggests that remote intercessory prayer may be considered “an adjunct to standard medical care”.  As a chaplain, my time assigned to a medical intensive care unit (MICU) offered a quick introduction to a variety of ways in which direct measurable benefit could be experienced from the performance of prayer and ritual.

Do all the studys support the efficacy of prayer?  No.  In fact many studies suggest that there is no correlative relationship between pray and recovery from illness.  One on the reasons why many studies don’t seem to support the effects of prayer, I believe, is that the nature of the studies don’t take into full account all of the areas of benefit that prayer and spiritual practice for others provide.  I have experienced that much of the initial benefit of my being there for others to do puja, deliver prayer, or even just be there to talk with patients in the hospital and private clients is internal; it helps to bolster or reinforce the individuals sense of ground, it clarifies their own spirituality.  From this point, the benefits can sometimes manifest as relief from pain, reduction of stress and trauma, and these in turn can lead towards hastened recovery, or even meaningful recovery.  It is important to note how varied the experience of illness is; it’s never the same experience.   Illness changes from moment to moment, affecting us in a unique way each minute spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, as well as physically.  Prayer is ellusive, and so is the experience of illness.

Through my experience of Buddhism I have come to experience first hand the importance of spiritual care in the face of illness and death.  Being there for others in the midst of illness and death is to fundamentally share our experience of the four noble truths- through this we are reminded of our essential impermanence.  I have spent time with two teachers of mine, the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche as well as Bhue Tulku, or Dekhung Gyalsey Rinpoche, while they performed many pujas in the homes of various families in Sikkim to provide tangible, very meaningful spiritual care.  What I have come away with from my experiences with these teachers is that practice for others is a wonderful, joyous part of the path.  It is an exemplary aspect of what it means to be there, openly and in direct relationship with another person; it is an expression of great natural spontaneous generosity, and it is something that is expected of us as we mature and come into deeper relationship with our practice of buddhadharma.

I pray that this form of dharma activity in the West takes root, multiplies and offers meaning and context for countless beings!

24
Jun

on imaginal worlds and magical thinking…

I’m not sure why, but I feel that as of late I have had a great number of conversations with people who have referenced magical thinking.  In most cases the particular reference to magical thinking has been tentative, unsure, as if evoking distrust.  I’ve encountered this with people who I have met a the hospital as well with friends and acquaintances.  It makes me curious about just what they mean; the tone of their comments seem to suggest that magical thinking isn’t the best thing, nor is it a reliable way of seeking context within our world. There is a fascinating article that was published in the New York Times about magical thinking that you can read here which helps to explain the “phenomena” of magical thinking.  Overall, I feel that magical thinking is important, if not key to a healthy spiritual life (in some form), but I’m not so sure what is so magical about it.

Wikipedia describes magical thinking as:

[A] causal reasoning that looks for correlation between acts or utterances and certain events. In religion, folk religion and superstition, the correlation posited is between religious ritual, such as prayer, sacrifice or the observance of a taboo, and an expected benefit or recompense. In clinical psychology, magical thinking is a condition that causes the patient to experience irrational fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because they assume a correlation with their acts and threatening calamities.

“Quasi-magical thinking” describes “cases in which people act as if they erroneously believe that their action influences the outcome, even though they do not really hold that belief”.

This description (the rest of the Wikipedia entry can be found here) seems to suggest that magical thinking may be more of a problem than a boon; more of a crutch than a clear vision of how reality unfolds; perhaps even a disturbance in “normal” mental functioning.  I get a little scared when I read this definition, it seems to re-affirm that perhaps I am not-all-here.  Maybe I/we are not…

I am particularly drawn to the use of the word correlation in this description, especially given what it means in relation to Buddhism.  Correlation points to relationship and dependence: interdependence.  If we look at this same statement with interdependence in mind then we find that magical thinking is:

a causal reasoning that looks for interdependence between acts or utterances and certain events. In religion, folk religion and superstition, the interdependence posited is between religious ritual, such as prayer, sacrifice or the observance of a taboo, and an expected benefit or recompense. In clinical psychology, magical thinking is a condition that causes the patient to experience irrational fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because they assume an interdependence with their acts and threatening calamities.

In looking at it from this perspective, magical thinking appears a vital and inseparable way of finding meaning as we experience life; it doesn’t seem strange, or even less dependable that some kind of rational objectivity (something we are generally taught to desire).  In fact, we engage in magical thinking so often that perhaps it should just be called ordinary thinking.  Be that as it may, I am curious as to why some people don’t seem to trust this magical thinking with all of the shifty mysterious individual meaning that it weaves throughout our lives.

The great sufi saint shaykh Ibn al ‘Arabi (1165-1240) is an inspiring figure when it comes to the realm of the imaginal.  Driven by a series of ecstatic visions, Ibn al ‘Arabi made his was from Andalusia through Morocco, and across the Maghreb towards Mecca.  Along the way he met many people, teachers and fellow seekers, some were real humans, locatable within the nexus of shared time and space, others were not.  One of the greatest visions he had was while sailing to Tunisia whereupon he encountered Mohammed, Jesus and Abraham simultaneously.  Other visions were equally “magical” and “unreal”, yet they acted as a great furnace through which al ‘Arabi’s spiritual passion was refined and tempered allowing him to not only experience the presence of Allah, but to write with great detail about his experiences as well as guide others to this end.  His monumental impact on mystical Islam is still felt today and I would argue he could have never lived the life he had lived if he conceived of life as fixed in nature, lacking the subtlety and mutability to which magical thinking alludes.

Much of the material that I have found on the topic of magical thinking, especially from the perspective of clinical psychology, offers reasons for abandoning and avoiding magical thinking. Such reasons involve improving impaired decision-making, not being able to achieve our goals, and in the case of people with mood disorders or people suffering from psychosis, experiencing a break from reality.  In extreme cases, I acknowledge how magical thinking and spirituality inform and can reinforce a person’s break with reality.  Having spent ten months chaplaining patients on a psychiatric unit of a hospital in New York, I can certainly say that I have come to see first hand how such thinking exacerbates a person’s suffering.  This form of suffering can be terrible; to live with a variant point of orientation, in the midst of near-complete subjectivity is the cause of great horror.

As is the case with most things, when taken to an extreme magical thinking can be a great danger. But to eliminate it altogether?  That also sounds like a form of killing our natural tendency to be creative, to imagine and to experience inspiration.

Indeed in it’s most elevated forms magical thinking breaths vitality and meaning into the experiences found within sufism, the teachings of pure view (especially as it relates to yidam practice) within tantric Buddhism, as well as Jung’s notion of synchronicity and the collective unconscious, to name just a few jewels in the long garland of human experience.  In the face of death, and the suffering caused by illness, as a chaplain, I have found that magical thinking arises with such commonplace frequency that I regard it as a natural and important way though which we find connection and meaning in ways that can not often be explained rationally- and that’s okay.

In extending the Zen Buddhist approach of not knowing, to the larger Buddhist conception of the six realms of existence, we are in essence throwing open the doors towards direct relationship with hell realms, god realms, demi-god realms, buddha realms, ghost realms, animal realms and all various permutations of these.  We open oureslve up to the magical. We allow for varied relationship with appearance.   We develop the seed potential for a rich and layered experience of life.  Of course a great many western Buddhists may not believe in the six realms as “real” but as internal dimensions of our own behavioral habitual tendencies; while I appreciate and find great wealth in this view, I for one find great meaning in feeling that the immediacy of direct interface with Buddha-realms, lamas, yidams, dakas and dakinis, and protectors charges the moment with the potential for great insight and awakening.

It seems that as we tread our paths only we can really know how much we want to, or can, open ourselves up to the visionary realm of the imaginal.  While this is very individual, perhaps something we can all do is remain mindful of how we shut the magic out and why?  As well as, whether we use it as a crutch to avoid realizing where we need to change and grow?

22
Jun

on Karma Pakshi, Mikyö Dorje and empowerment…


In my post about Mahakala, and how the practice of Mahakala may relate to our lives on a daily basis as well as between and throughout meditation sessions, I related a short story around the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi.

A reader of this blog, and now friend, sent me a wonderful image of the siddha Karma Pakshi (pictured above) and an image of Mikyö Dorje, the eighth Karmapa (below).

In reflecting upon these images I am struck by how they convey so clearly the energy that these two realized masters embodied.   In the upper image, Karma Pakshi is shown empowered, present, and full of vitality.  He is shown sitting upon a chöjung, the source of dharma, above him is Guru Rinpoche, Rechungpa and the terton Mingyur Dorje, on his right is Hayagriva and on his left Dorje Phagmo, below him is Mahakala and then Damchen Garwa Ngagpo to his left and Palden Lhamo, or Sri Devi to his right.  Karma Pakshi’s right hand is raised holding a vajra, and his left holds a phurba.  This is not an image of passivity, or weakness.  On the contrary, this image shows how profoundly inspired, naturally empowered, and essence-oriented Karma Pakshi embodied his direct experience of the dharma.

The lower image, that of Mikyö Dorje, is also an image of empowerment.  Mikyö Dorje is famous as an endless wellspring of ability.  There is a definite feeling of  inexhaustability that his activity demonstrated.  When I consider that he only lived to the age of forty-seven I am even more humbled by the impact that his presence had upon the Kagyu lineage; he left behind a magnificent imprint of Buddha-like depth and sensitivity.  His works include commentaries upon many tantric texts including the Hevajra Tantra, as well as a variety of very important texts on buddhist philosophy.  His impact upon art was as concentrated and seminal as his writings on sutra, tantra and philosophy.

In this image Mikyö Dorje is shown surrounded by dakinis.  They bless him and empower him, provide immense spiritual strength as well as insight, thereby blending his mind with all that is.  Above him is the first Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, Tashi Paljor; his guru, a great siddha and important Kamstang Kagyu lineage holder.  A description of the line of Sangye Nyenpa tulkus can be found here.  Below Mikyö Dorje is Dorje Phagmo herself; one of the principle yidams of the Kagyu lineage.  She is much more than that though- somehow I feel that her power and wily energy gets lost when she is refered to as “one of the principle yidams” of the Kagyu lineage.  She is the source of untold blessing, insight, re-orientation and empowerment.  She is the mother of our enlightenment, she is blissful wakefulness in everything that we do, the high and the low, the sacred and the profane: for her it’s all the same.

These images have a profound effect.  They make me wonder how I can experience and embody the same sense of empowerment and clarity that Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje were able to express.  There are times when I feel this way; times when practice feels electric; when the present moment feels clear and imbued with luminous authenticity.   There are also of course those moments when I feel dull and very aware of my own selfishness and petty small mindedness.  I have come to learn that the latter is an all-too-common experience that most of us can own up to.  So, I have to ask: what is this empowerment and the quality of being “plugged-in” that both Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje express?

The late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche speaks to this effect in a talk on crazy wisdom.  Below are what I find to be the most salient point of his talk as it pertains to this post.  The entire talk can be found here.

Trungpa Rinpoche says:

The crazy wisdom vision is very crazy, too. It gives us a sense of direction, a sense of heroism, a sense of reality and a sense of compassion—and so forth down the line. It also includes our doubts as part of that crescendo. So the crazy wisdom form is related with the basic notion of enlightenment. As we say in the sadhana, “To the crazy wisdom form of the buddhas of the past, present, and future.” I think it goes something like that. Is that true? So crazy wisdom is part of the general scheme of enlightenment. The crazy wisdom guru is not some Rasputin of Buddhism gone wild who does crazy things, who sets up a crazy wisdom cult. You might say, “Padmasambhava went to Tibet and got drunk and went crazy. He hyperventilated in the mountain air after being in India.” “Karma Pakshi went to China and got turned on by being an imperial teacher. Because of that, he went crazy.”

But we are talking about a larger form of crazy wisdom, which is cosmic crazy wisdom. It is part of the enlightened attitude of the whole thing, which is already crazy, continuously crazy—and wise at the same time. Primordial wisdom is continuously taking place. That is a very crazy thing, in some sense.

We have two personality types in the sadhana: Dorje Trolö and Karma Pakshi. Dorje Trolö is Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava attained enlightenment at birth. He was an Indian Buddhist saint, a siddha, a vidyadhara and a great teacher who brought Buddhism to Tibet. There was already some element of Buddhism there, but Padmasambhava actually brought the full swing, the full force of Buddhism to Tibet.

He manifested as a crazy wisdom person particularly when he was meditating in Tibet, in a cave called Taktsang Seng-ge Samdrup, which is now in Bhutan. (In those days, Bhutan was part of Tibet, in the province of Mon.) In order to relate with the savageness of the Tibetans and their own little ethnic samurai mentality, he had to appear in that manifestation. So he manifested himself as an enlightened samurai, a savage person, a crazy wisdom person—known as Dorje Trolö.

According to the iconography, Dorje Trolö rides on a pregnant tigress. He wears the robes of a bhikshu, a Buddhist monk, and he wears a kimono-like garment underneath. He holds a vajra in his hand—like this one [holds up vajra]. And he holds a three-bladed dagger in his left hand. He represents the aspect that crazy wisdom doesn’t have to be related with gentleness in order to tame somebody. In order to tame someone, you can approach him abruptly and directly. You can connect with his neurosis, his insanity; you can project sanity on the spot. That’s the notion of crazy wisdom.

Karma Pakshi was the second Karmapa. The Karmapas are the heads of the Karma Kagyü lineage, to which we belong, the practicing lineage. Since he was recognized as a great master, he was invited to the Chinese court as part of the entourage of the Dalai Lama [head of the Sakya sect, who in those days was not known as the Dalai Lama]. Karma Pakshi was always very strange; and his style was not in keeping with the protocol expected of emissaries to the Chinese imperial court. During the journey to China, he played a lot of little tricks; everybody was concerned about his power and his naughtiness, so to speak. The Sakya abbot who was supposed to become the Chinese imperial teacher didn’t like Karma Pakshi’s tricks, and had him thrown in jail. By means of his miraculous powers, Karma Pakshi turned his prison into a palace. He was able to manifest himself as a real crazy wisdom person. He proved that politeness and diplomacy were not necessary in order to convert the Chinese emperor. He showed us that straight talk is more effective than gentle talk. He didn’t say, “Buddhism would be good for your imperial health.” He just wasn’t into being diplomatic. The rest of the party got very upset; they were afraid that he might blow the whole trip, so to speak. And apparently he did! [Laughter]

Towards the end of his visit, he became the real imperial teacher. The Chinese emperor supposedly said, “The Sakya guru is fine, but how about the other one with the beard? How about him? He seems to be a very threatening person.” The energy of crazy wisdom is continuously ongoing. Karma Pakshi was always an unreasonable person—all the time. When he went back to Tibet, his monastery was still unfinished, so he ordered it to be built on an emergency basis. In that way Tsurphu monastery was founded. It was the seat of the Karmapas before the Chinese invasion of Tibet. It is interesting that such energy goes on throughout the whole lineage.

If I may, I would like to inject a bit of our own vision in connection with crazy wisdom. For us it is like wanting to buy this building, which is out of the question, in some sense, but on the other hand, it is a possibility. And we are going to do it! That seems to be Karma Pakshi’s vision, actually. He would have done a similar thing. Suppose a fantastically rich person came along. All of us might try to be nice to this particular guy or this particular lady—we might blow his trip completely, to the extent that he would be completely— switched! Although his notion of sanity was at the wrong level, he might become a great student if we were willing to take such a chance. So far, we haven’t found such a person, who would be rich enough and crazy enough and bold enough to do such a thing. But that was the kind of role Karma Pakshi played with the emperor of China. Karma Pakshi was known for his abruptness and his dedication. He possessed the intelligence of primordial wakefulness.

Then we have another interesting person in the sadhana: Tüsum Khyenpa, who was the first Karmapa, before Karma Pakshi. He was an extraordinarily solid person, extraordinarily solid, sane, and contemplative. He spent his whole life teaching and negotiating between various warring factions. There was a lot of chaos at that time; all kinds of squabbles erupted among the Tibetan principalities. By his efforts, their fighting was finally subdued. He was basically a peacemaker and a very powerfully contemplative person.

Then we have Mikyö Dorje, who was the eighth Karmapa. He was a great scholar and a great teacher, and he was very wild in his approach to reality. Once he said, “If I can light fire to the rest of the cosmos, I will do so.” That kind of burning prajna was in him all the time.

Rangjung Dorje, the third Karmapa, was a key person: he brought together the higher and lower tantras. He was an extraordinarily spacious person, and one of the most powerful exponents of mahamudra, which is at a very high level of vajrayana enlightenment experience. He was a great exponent of the ati teachings, as well.

Trungpa Rinpoche’s description of how Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje embody direct primordial wakefulness is well said.  Trungpa Rinpoche was very well attuned to how the expression of this clarity cuts in a way that at times is pleasant and at other times unpleasant.  It is very natural to want to experience the cessation of suffering; indeed, time and again we see that this is something that all beings want, even when our choices appear to just cause more and more suffering.  But it’s hard to have the clarity to know, or to recognize and feel, how we can bring about the cessation of our own suffering, as well as that of others.  Knowing, seems bookish and scholastic.  Realizing and feeling is direct and pertains to what is going on during any given situation.

I was recently struck by the realization that my own knee-jerk tepid feelings towards Catholicism have little to do with me, but are inherited reactions from the unpleasant experiences had by my parents that I came to make my own as I grew up.  Upon reflecting on this I came to see that I haven’t really engaged in an authentic relationship with Catholicism.  I picked up the habits of my parents and made them mine.  But my knee-jerk reaction hasn’t been authentic; it hasn’t been based upon primordial wakefulness.  This realization arose around my chaplaincy training.  As a chaplain I encounter a great number of Catholic patients and I have found that I have tended to feel uneasy/other-than the Catholic patients, Catholic hospital staff, or family members for whom I try to provide spiritual care.  One moment of clarity helped me to come into more direct relationship with Catholicism- of course I could have ignored it and just gone on with my habitual way of relating.

It is amazing and humbling to see how easily we react to things around us in ways that are informed by our family histories, our communities, our culture (or blend of cultures and what that brings), our sense of history (or placement within history) as well our gender (and assumptions of what that means), race, and even as humans.  I’m not sure that this is such a bad thing when we are aware of it (the relative does offer us a ground); but it’s a little more problematic when we are unconscious of how these factors strengthen the nature of our habitual reactions.  This leads me to feel very curious as to how we would all embody wakefulness?  How we would individually, and collectively, express empowerment?  How can we cut through some of the rote habitual ways in which we do not meet the expression of the present moment with wakefulness?  How can we bring this blended specificity to the practice of lhaktong?

The Buddha said that his disciples should question and test out whether his presentation of the dharma held water- that critical purchase is probably what kept the dharma going.  Otherwise I think Buddhism would have ended up less contemplative; there wouldn’t be much to do except just adopt a particular belief system.  The question is, how do we make it our own?  In many ways every person in this world system is a distinct universe; we share a variety of points of intersection and the relationship that occurs as a result of that, but our own internal relative wakefulness appears varied.  How do we individuate and blend the dharma with our experiences of living?

I read somewhere of someone asking His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche in an interview when the West would produce its own mahasiddhas.  He responded that this would happen one day- it is a definite possibility, in fact, it is likely.  So, how will this happen?

It’s hard to know.  However, the answer may be right in front of us- these two thankas of Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje point us in the direction.  To help explain my point I want to share a marvelous blog post by the wonderful lama/lotsawa Sarah Harding that I found on the Tsadra Foundation blog entitled: “As for the blessing of Vajravarahi, Marpa Lhodrakpa does not have it.” WTF?.  I can’t recommend her post enough- it is long, detailed, and treats in great detail the controversy of whether the practice of Vajravarahi (Dorje Phagmo) is authentic, what the difference between her blessing and empowerment is, as well as the “empowerments” of Mahamudra.  In a nutshell, while translating the Pakmo Namshe (a detailed description and commentary of the Kamstang practice of Dorje Phagmo) written by the illustrious and erudite 2nd Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa Rinpoche (1504-1566) Harding came to recognize that the tonality of the text was more a polemic defense of the Kagyu practice of Vajravarahi rebutting the assertions by Sakya Pandita that as there is no specific unique Sanskrit Vajravarahi Tantra, there is no historical precedent for an authentic Vajravarahi/Dorje Phagmo practice, and further, that Marpa held a false Vajravarahi lineage.

While this subject is admittedly not for all (it can be a little dry), I find it exciting; especially what is later described as the difference between empowerment and blessing around Dorje Phagmo, Mahamudra, and even the practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa.  Consider the following portions of her post:

“…[T]he tantras teach both empowerment conferral (dbang bskur) and blessing (byin rlabs). In particular, in the Sampuṭa [Tantra] it says “Having obtained the empowerment and permission (bkas gnang)” and so on. So there are the authentic empowerment conferral and the blessing permission (byin rlabs bkas gnang). Of those two, the authentic empowerment conferral is a method to sow the seeds of fivefold awareness in the unimpaired vajra body. The basis of refinement and that which refines is unmistakably set up by means of the rites of outer, inner, and secret contingency…

As for blessing, once matured by the empowerment, in order to engender the qualities that have not [yet] arisen in those individuals possessed of the sacred pledges, or for the sake of maintaining and increasing [those qualities] that have already arisen, the method for imbuing the blessings of Body, Speech and Mind are done according to the rites of the individual lineages. In particular, in the Sarma tradition of the secret mantra of Tibet, there are many [cases] concerning the blessing of Vajravārāhı: the greater and lesser Don grub ma, great and lesser dBu bcad ma, Nāropa, Maitrī mkha’ spyod, the blessing of White Vārāhı and so forth.”

and:

“A vajra master who has accomplished mahāmudrā will mature such a [disciple of highest acumen] through blessing and teaching the path of creation and completion. When they come to understand, then they will practice because of the desire to become enlightened in a short time for the sake of sentient beings. In the case of disciples who would [only] later become suitable recipients, who at present have many discursive thoughts, they should be given the extensive ripening empowerments and guided gradually according to the three guidance manuals (zin bris rnam gsum). In that way one won’t waste disciples.

As it is explained in such sayings as “the great medicine of the instantaneous [approach] is great poison for a gradualist,” disciples must be guided according to the measure of their being. Though [given] the maturing [empowerment], there are some with most excellent faculties who will [anyway] become matured and liberated in the same instant just by seeing the face of the master or by a blessing. Those of sharp faculties, in whom the awareness will be born just by the blessings of meditative absorption such that they will have complete confidence without any doubts—that’s what’s called maturing the being.

[Some] individuals are naturally characterized by great discursiveness or are [stuck] in the mire pit of various views in this life, a pool filled with the waters of sophistry. After pouring even the last droplet of the water that has washed a thousand times the vessel of the milk of secret mantra, [they will think] this is the so-called “ocean of milk of Vajrayāna” and will grasp on to this white, sweet essence as the milk. Those [people] spread this pile of ignorance and make their living as masters. There are many [such as these] in Tibet. [When those masters] guide people in that way, the disciples become disturbed. Maturing them through wordy rituals with many elaborations to perform makes them happy. Therefore, in the blessing from the oral instructions of Lord [Tongwa] Dönden, there is the generation of elaborations such as entering into the mandala and the empowerments of five families. It is to satisfy those self-proclaiming as dull or sharp faculties. The actual blessing which comes from the oral instructions is talking about maturing those of sharp faculties.”

So, while empowerment is needed to plant the seeds; as a means to offer all of us the keys to our natural basic pristine awareness, blessings cannot, and should not be over-looked.  Blessings are the life force of our practice, they make our practice pregnant with immense possibility; they are the very dakinis that surround Mikyö Dorje.   Indeed every time we blend the body (Om), speech (Ah), and Mind (Hung), of our gurus, yidams, and protectors, of pure appearance, perhaps we are in reality opening ourselves up to the direct experience of complete effortless empowerment.  It seems that this may be the way through which we may share the same primordial wakefulness, the essential blissful luminosity, and direct insight/power as demonstrated by Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje.

I suspect that once we blend our experience of our worlds with our practice this will happen very easily and perhaps even uneventfully.  As Trungpa Rinpoche points out, in becoming more sane nothing extraordinary happens, we become more wakeful, more clear, more present and more authentic.  When we can give ourselves permission to empower ourselves and realize that the blessings that we have received from our practice is enough, that in reality that’s all there is, then clouds of siddhas will arise around the world.  Perhaps the real question is, when will we put aside our sense of inadequacy and take our seats?

“If I can light fire to the rest of the cosmos, I will do so.”  – Karmapa Mikyö Dorje

14
Apr

Mother Sentient beings

When my first teacher, and spiritual mother,  Ani Dechen Zangmo, taught the text for the prostrations and refuge part of the Karma Kagyu ngondro (Four Foundations practice) she spent a great deal of time talking about the different ways in which beings have been our mothers in the past.

In the most classical aspect of this practice, we make our prostrations to the wonderful field of refuge: our lineage forefathers and foremothers.  In this way we seek to enter and become part of a lineage. We join our lineage through repeatedly receiving the blessings of the lineage; in fact, we are instructed to help lead all sentient beings in the meritorious activity of supplicating and joining our specific lineage with us.  Why do we do this?  It is said that all beings have at one point in time been our mothers, having cared for us with selfless beauty and having made endless sacrifices, protected us, nurtured us, and also supported and enriched us.  Through time immemorial, through the various combinations and permutations of the manifestations of karma, all beings have been, at any given point in time, our mothers.  Indeed every person we meet has done this for us.  Every animal.  Every friend.  Every enemy.  Every being, seen and unseen, has done this for us- and in this way we are all inextricably linked.  What better way to repay these countless mother-beings than to act as a raft to lead them to the banks of spiritual realization?

And so, as is the case within the Kagyu lineage, when we visualize the field of refuge and as we make each prostration while reciting the refuge prayer, we doing so with each being who has been our mother.  We keep their desire for well-being and happiness in our heart.   In this way, in a manner similar to Indra’s Net, it becomes impossible to locate a source or an end with regard to our connection with others.

Where is the border between myself and another? Where are our points of overlap?

Indeed, in taking a moment to check in and notice this we can very naturally, perhaps effortlessly, find ourselves left with a deep feeling of connection and an awareness ornamented with the jewels of empathetic concern.

Suddenly the well-being and quality-of-experience of others becomes a natural concern.

That we are all interdependent is also driven home in the practice of Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.  There is a portion of this practice in which one imagines oneself moving throughout the six realms of existence (illustrated above).  In the practice we engage in helping to alleviate the suffering of beings in all six realms.

Within this practice, and in many others we make the vow to do this; to benefit all beings who have been our mothers as an expression of gratitude and gentle concern for all those who suffer and who have provided us with the selfless love and support that only parents could.  These beings who have loved us unconditionally, may be experiencing the anger and depression of the hot and cold hell realms, the dullness of the animal realms, the jealousy and infighting of demigod realms, or the perfect complacency of the gods’ realm.

How can we be there for them, how can we cool the anger, warm the depression, enlighten the dullness, sooth the jealousy and enliven and express the immediacy of the present moment to perfect eternalism?

In another sense, perhaps in a way that differs from the classical presentation of how all beings have been our mothers at one point in time, all beings are our mothers in another way: they give birth to our identities; the way we present and imagine ourselves to be.

It seems we cannot exist in a relative way without existing in relation to others.  The acceptance of our wonderful qualities and our faults, the very perception and even projection upon us of what we appear to be, is a birthing of an identity.  The quality of our being in a horizontal sense, as it pertains to our diverse qualities, is defined and experienced through others, through the way that they experience us. We are given context and we are given meaning. What we do with that and how we react to it is up to us.

While we like to think that we are the architects of our appearance, and in many ways we are the often unintentional archtect, it may be that we are only ever known through the experience of others. Perhaps this way of looking at the manner in which we have created our identities, the way that we are animated by, and get carried away with our experience of self, a fleeting momentary illusion, can be best seen reflected in the eyes of another.

I find that whether I am at the hospital acting the role of a chaplain, on the subway on my way to the hospital, or going about my daily activities as a parent or partner to another, I am always humbled when I have the chance to notice how I am engaged in an interpenetrating relationship with others. What an amazing thing to just meet and reflect the pure appearance of another, the fleeting transience, and the deep connection that we all share; and what a difficult thing to do.  I find it especially humbling when I catch myself caught in the midst of reacting and judging, of comparing and compartmentalizing the spontaneity of occurence.  But when I can rest in naturally meeting others, the sheer simplicity and profundity of that experience remindeds me of how extraneous our elaborations of dharma can become.