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Posts tagged ‘Buddhist chaplaincy’

28
Sep

Meditation Facilitator Training

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15
Oct

On the panic that accompanies that which goes bump in the night…

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People are scared to empty their minds

fearing that they will be engulfed by the void.

What they don’t realize is that their own mind is the void.

Huang Po

Not too long ago, when a lama came to the dharma center to teach on the Dujom Tersar cycle of chöd, I came across a few references in a variety of writings, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist that describe the experience of panic that arises in the face of the experience of loosening the intensity of the grasp around a permanent self.  These reminders have been timely teachers as I have found myself recalling moments of ‘self’ destruction for lack of a better term,  as well as deep listening to my own experience of periodic panic that sometimes presages a feeling of a less real sense of self.  I feel that this is an under-explored topic, namely the fear that accompanies the spiritual path.  Over the years I sometimes wonder if this fear is the fear that our practice will be (or is) successful.

dakshin kali

Confess your hidden faults.

Approach what you find repulsive.

Help those you think you cannot help.

Anything you are attached to, give that.

Go to the places that scare you.

Machig Labdrön

Within the context of the practice of vajrayana, the practice of chöd, regardless of any particular lineage, offers a very compelling way through which we might help effectively confront this self that tries to hold together the matrix of identity that wants to know and control the world around us.  A complex alignment of dynamics, chöd offers a powerful visualization that chips away the plaque of identity, it slowly releases the grip of the hand that tries to maintain a handle upon what we experience.  As we loose our grip, finger by finger, and we feel ourselves slipping, we are easily reminded of the truth of impermanence of the castles of sand that we create and imbue with such power and reality that before we know it, we and everything around us feels real, important, and vitally essential.  Whether the visualization emphasizes Prajnaparamita, Vajravarahi or Tröma, it is essential to remember that they all represent the complete luminosity of emptiness; the vividness with which we do not exist, and the bliss associated with realizing that everything around us is pure appearance.  The counter-intuitive act of visualizing oneself thrown into a kapala made up of one’s own skull and transformed into an ambrosial offering for all beings, or piled up as a mandala offering upon one’s own flayed skin, these confounding visualizations and the profound sense of generosity required tug at our sense of permanence and our desire to belong constellated in relation to a fixed point within time and space.  It is not uncommon to feel a sense of resistance to the practice, a sense of tentative reluctance, or attempts towards pulling back within ourselves.

There can be a lot of pain and suffering when we become aware of how we cling to this wanting to “be”.  This alone could easily be regarded as ‘going to a place that scares you’ that so much chöd literature seems to refer to.  Sometimes this suffering manifests physically, with a visceral painful feeling, a hollowness or sharp sense of discomfort, other times it arises as a sudden busyness in which all of the sudden there is something very important that we find we need to do- something that distracts us from our practice.  Sometimes these new things we find ourselves needing to do seem so important and vital that we are seduced by their wonderful meaning and uniqueness.  These of course are the arising of demons.  They find us wherever we are and rather powerfully unweave some of the fabric of confidence in resting in the view that allows for chöd to be the powerful practice that it is.

Sankhu Vajrayogini

Ordinary people look to their surroundings, while followers of the Way look to Mind, but the true Dharma is to forget them both. The former is easy enough, the latter very difficult. Men are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the Void with nothing to stay their fall. They do not know that the Void is not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma.  – Huang Po

The experience of groundlessness, I was once told by a psychotherapist who happened to be Buddhist, was not something to be cultivated, but rather,  an experience more grounded and tangible was deemed as more valuable, within the process of spiritual growth.  I have come across a number of psychoanalysts who warn in their writings that unguided exploration and or cultivation of the experience of groundlessness can lead to a state of psychosis.  These warnings are interesting.  They are interesting in part because I often wonder about the utility of combining psychoanalysis with Buddhist practice, especially if one is going to fully embrace emptiness of self.  In all likelihood the combination of both Buddhism and psychotherapy can be a very effective way with which one can effect a necessary change in one’s experience of life to reduce suffering.    Yet I sometimes wonder how much we benefit from aligning our living and breathing practice of dharma with the structures of our intellect such as modalities that seek to measure and define our experience as we move along our path as found within the psychoanalytic model.  Our intellect often arises in a manner that does not make sense; especially when the sense of self is threatened.  Like sparks, or flashes of lightening in the night sky, the reverberation of the reactive ego- the sense of self-nature wrapped up with the demons that keep it preoccupied- obey no one person.  They are messy, sometimes terrifying and often very powerful.  Similarly, the fast arrival of vajrayogini with her retinue of dakinis arise in an unpredictable way; this is why they are so integral within this practice and this too is why chöd confounds approaches that seek to find a restorative refinement and distillation of the Self.  After all, how can one distill that which is not there?

Sadhu-Dressed-as-Shiva

Those who realize the nature of their mind knows
That the mind itself is wisdom-awareness,
And no longer make the mistake of searching for enlightenment from other sources.
In fact, enlightenment cannot be found by searching.
So contemplate your own mind.
This is the highest meditation one can practice;
This very mind is the perfect awakened nature,
the birth place of all the enlightened ones.

Jetsun Milarepa

What if we just stopped running?  Stopped trying to make ourselves better, more qualified, more important, more knowable and “ourselves”?  What if we stopped in our tracks and turned around to face the executioner of our ego-grasping and gave way to the fear that exists around that process?  What if we let the associated pain and suffering come rather than defend ourselves and acclimatized ourselves to the gnashing teeth of the demons who come fast, or the methodical bone crushing of the demons who come slow?  What if we stopped sublimating everything by actively using our minds to make everything seem like Dharma, and just rest so that things can simply arise as Dharma; ordinary and unaffected; unpatterned and free from artifice?

Perhaps this is the only way in which the strong grip of our fears and insecurities, our limitations and feelings of being unqualified, will burn off like a morning mist as the sun rises.  Perhaps trusting in the process is part of this and putting down the willful need for change allows this sense of self- an illusory doer, be seen for what it is, an expression of empty luminosity.

Sankhu Valley

5
Jan

On a more pastoral vajrayana and haughty lamas…

Dalai Lama with cat

A few weeks ago I read an excellent article about Pope Francis shaking up the ecclesiastic leadership in the United States, and the subsequent reactions from more conservative Catholics. I found myself, despite my own sense of satisfaction in learning more about how the nuts and bolts of how Catholicism in America works, feeling sad and emotional around how far it seems that we as practitioners of Vajrayana have to go in the West before such conversations can occur around the quality of presence of our own spiritual leadership.  In a way, we Vajrayana Buddhists are lacking when it comes to real authentic pastoral presence.  When I say this I certainly don’t mean to imply that His Holiness Karmapa, or His Holiness Dalai Lama lack pastoral presence.  They don’t.  I have had the chance to be in their presence in very intimate settings and the degree to which they appear attuned to even the smallest concern of another person is astounding to witness.  I refer to the lamas and administrators that represent our gompas, our Buddhist Associations, as well as the general dharma center leadership across the western world.

As it turns out, Pope Francis recently appointed Cardinal Donald Wuerl as the new head of the Congregation of Bishops, replacing Cardinal Raymond L. Burke for his conservatism and lack of pastoral affect.  This change in leadership, while subtle in some respects, will hopefully produce long standing effects in how the church presents itself, to whom the church ministers and in what position it will take in relationship to the experience of the transcendent.  Pastoralism is something that we commonly find within Christendom; in it’s most basic form it presents a spiritual concern centered around giving spiritual instruction and guidance to others.  In this case, the parish priest who is intimately connected to the concerns and needs of his “flock”, needs spiritual, emotional and otherwise, comes to mind.  Someone who works tirelessly for the benefit of others- in real terms, not just an aspiration to perform this task but to actually roll ones sleeves up, and get into the mucky mess that comes with being.  Pastoralism also has applications that relate to music, art and philosophy, and a personal and ethical desire to return to the simple, the immediately real and what occurs naturally.  As a hospice chaplain who operates from within the Vajrayana tradition as an ordained Repa, I am comfortable with discussions around the importance of pastoral presence and what that means.  Yet I often find my Vajrayana contemporaries uncomfortable in challenging themselves in a way other than the way that tradition dictates.  That the lineage of Tilo, Naro, Marpa and Mila has gotten so rigid and insecure is unfortunate.

pastoral_1

I think that one could definitely say that Milarepa had mastered a pastoral presence, or pastoral affect.  In suggesting this I feel that it has less to do with the fact that he lived in retreat, in the pastoral wilds of Tibet as coincidence would have it, but that he could naturally -with simple immediate ease- sense the needs and suffering that others were consumed by because he could sit honestly with what arose within himself.  This sounds easy to do, but in actuality it is quite painful and heartbreaking.  It is difficult to see others stuck within their own experiences of themselves and even harder to see where we get stuck in similar ways.  We generally don’t want to recognize how compelling the hallucinations that we have created actually are and how we lead ourselves around and around in circles, let alone try to work through the baseless obsession with the fact that we are imperfect and need to get somewhere before we can stand on our own two feet.  Retreat is certainly a great way to develop spiritual insights, and it is very important, yet retreat does not necessarily produce compassion, and I am not so sure that it produces pastoral presence nearly as well and being fully engaged by what life brings our way.  In fact I would argue the latter: compassion arises more uniformly, with more stability outside of a comfortable retreat setting.  When living life in full one can easily get to the heart of difficult feelings that arise within the experience of pain and suffering, feel them and then let them flow into the next experience. Retreat can be helpful in this regard, however, I tend to feel that it is easier to seduce ourselves into a comfortable homeostasis in which we are never really forced to face our fears, never asked to consider the shadows, and never really asked to cut deep to the bone and feel that cold pain of the roots of our own suffering.  This is why Milarepa is considered semi-wrathful within the text of his guru-yoga; the only way that he could go deeper and deeper within his practice is to cut with skill, precision and power.  Cutting deep is important- it is hard and very uncomfortable.  Yet, at the end of the day, we are best served when we can access the pain and suffering that we hide from.  When we can do this pastoral presence is much more authentic.  There is no better model for Vajrayana Buddhists than Milarepa if we are looking to foster a more pastoral Vajrayana.

milarepa

Occasionally I fear that much of the way that the Vajrayana perspective is presented in the West is somewhat split between pedagogic models that either have students memorize terminology, acquaint oneself with logic, and years of study before they can say that we are Buddhists, and the other extreme that we can simply blend our curiosity of Buddhism with our practice of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.- that we don’t need to worry about to committing to any one tradition.  We are either definitely going to be born in one of the Hell Realms because we are terribly ignorant, or we are going to be just fine and we need not really worry about specifics- just show up say your prayers and do a bit of instruction without committing to a teacher or cogent path of practice. It is much easier to just follow the rules and sheepishly hide who we are in relationship to dharma than integrate the dharma into our experience of life.

We also seem to suffer from an overly Mahayana perspective around the long period of time through which we must practice before we become realized. We are very infrequently told (or shown) that liberation can come in this moment, on this very seat, in this very session.  We are given a practice and generally told that it will take an incalculable (or at least an unknowable) amount of time before enlightenment occurs.  We venerate past masters who were exemplary and also taught to believe that we are nothing in comparison to them- we are but just mere shadows.  But is this really so?  Why are we not taught to take greater responsibility for our realization?  Why are we not taught to be creative in our practice, to take our seat and settle into our own pastoral authority?  In fact, more often than not, the specific lineage that we are shown is presented more like a line which we shouldn’t deviate from, yet when one looks, most of the great masters struggled to challenge and confront such preconceived ways of being.  Eveny lineage has masters who did whatever they needed to do to effect realization- if it meant breaking the rules, so be it.

I fear that some of the leaders that one finds within the mainstream presentation of Vajrayana lack the natural ease that Milarepa brought to the tradition at large: no monasteries, no particular school of thought to tether oneself to, no institutional affiliations, no orthodoxies, no expectations, no roles, just the experience of pure experience.  Even though I say this, it should be noted that the growing interest by scholars in the development of the Milarepa’s hagiographical literature presents us with compelling evidence that the creation of the story of Milarepa morphed into what we know today from a wide variety of projections of what his life was thought to have been like by others centuries after his death.  Even still, despite the fact that we may only be able to interact with our own inner Milarepa, and the true Milarepa may never be known, there is some indescribable inspiration that he evokes, not unlike the feeling of an early warm Spring day that leaves one feeling naturally resolved and content and excited for whatever comes next.  For me part of the joy of Milarepa is that everything is okay, that within the experience of Mahamudra there is nothing to add, nothing to take away, nothing to do, and that we can rest in everything because it is all essentially one taste. This is a powerful root to a penetrating pastoral presence that is without fault.  I try in my own way to allow this to inform me as a chaplain and as a teacher at the dharma center rather than whatever ‘rules’ or traditional norms may exist; whether this is a benefit and serves me well in either role is certainly up for debate.  Lord knows, I am probably more of a hindrance than a benefit to anyone.

tibetan lamas

Instead many in the Vajrayana tradition here in the United States, especially those in positions of spiritual leadership seem to fall back upon textual dictates and scripture, the rules and maxims of form and function rather than engage directly, naturally, with how life, and thus, appearances arise.  Spiritual bypassing, or the use of spirituality to disengage from actually experiencing what arises and resting within it, appears to be as much the western Buddhist’s unique disease as much as diabetes and obesity are the illnesses that currently define Americans. This bypassing appears to be caused by the constant retelling of the same old story that we are imperfect, that we are not enough and that we are somehow not whole in this moment.  More than this, this type of undigested view lacks the rich fertility that provides us with the needed confidence, or escape velocity,  to no longer be hindered by the gravity of our habits and misguided constructions of the universe around and within us.  It is easier to build a fancy dharma center, easier to go into 3 year retreat, and easier to tell ourselves (and others) that we will never taste any of the fruit of the dharma as we are fundamentally obscured than it is to try to cut through our sad, sorry, slothful sense of being imperfect.  There is no better way to blind oneself (and build up one’s sense of importance) than with dogma.

I am reminded of a story I was told about a group of western monastics who criticized a flower offering that a student at a dharma center made one morning.  She had happened upon a field of wild flowers while during a morning walk and decided to pick a few to bring to the shrine as an offering.  New to the dharma she was motivated by fresh devotion.  By the following morning the offering was removed- I was told that the imperfections found upon the leaves of the flowers and the petals reflected the ignorance of the student.  The group of monastics were quick to point out that all offerings have to be perfect, the very best- as this is what texts explain.  Needless to say, I had a hard time hiding my mixture of disgust and sadness that the inner efforts of devotion made by someone new to the dharma was seen as a violation of protocol and a cause of negative karma due to ignorance.  The unbending parochialism of this argument is a constant source of amusement for me.  As a chaplain I often find myself having to operate from a place of creativity and skillful means to help provide others with a supportive environment even if it challenges the static spiritual dictates of a given person’s faith.  Such rigidity would do more harm for a person who is dying than good.

I wonder what Pope Francis would say of the Catholic version of this event? What do we do when we become overly dogmatic at the expense of killing the experience of another?  When do we let our religious dogma undermine our abilities to manifest the connection created by pastoral presence?  What makes us Buddhist puritans?

puritans

How we work towards achieving this reconnection to our essential wholeness, our naturally expansive and vast experience of all that arises is ultimately up to us.  This includes the specific techniques, degrees of effort, and the conceptual models that we temporarily use to get us to a place of spontaneous confidence and certainty.  Most important however is that we don’t concertize the path, that we don’t rigidly hold onto our techniques (lest we become cold chauvinists  regarding Buddhadharma), as well as a dialectical obsession with how much effort we must apply (we are tying to ease into the experience of Mahamudra, not train for a triathlon), or assign too much of an eternalist reality to the conceptual models we use (whether lay or ordained, male or female, well schooled or illiterate, whether we follow sutra or tantra, are logicians or ritual specialists or neither, we are working with the essence of mind; no one path is necessarily better than the other).  Otherwise, the very vows that we take to benefit others become the very cause of perverse haughty dogmatism that does more harm than good.  Before we know it we are no better than the demons that we thought we were feeding or coming to learn from and rather than spiritual friends become judges, applying dialectics gathered from scripture and commentarial literature rather than from the direct experience of mind. When does that shift occur?  When do we go from spiritual friend to tormentor and judge?  When does our fear prevent us from being with what arises and cause us to snuggle up within textual dictates to provide us with comfort and a defensive justification of laziness?

Sometimes rigid orthodoxy makes demons of us

In a way, Pope Francis offers us a wonderful reflection of the ways in which we can become rigid and overly concerned with outer appearance.  The conservatives in the church, those who apply the checks and balances of church dogma to the world around them as a way to orient themselves and assert meaning, often lack the same experience and sense of certainty than those who were parish priests and are familiar with the joys and sorrows of their congregations. This is obviously not unique to Catholics, in fact, this kind of separation feels much more prevalent in the Tibetan Buddhist world- and it also appears that we are too afraid to explore this lest we criticize the sangha (let alone cause a rift within it).  It may be that ordained sangha and the large dharma organizations that we have created in the west are the biggest sacred cows that we as Buddhists need to confront.

Captain America fights Buddhists

In a podcast on Mahamudra that I happened upon by Reggie Ray, Ray artfully suggests that the lineage doesn’t care about us. Perhaps more to the point, he reinforces the point that our practice of dharma isn’t about our identities in relation to the lineage.  The lineage doesn’t care if we become involved as teachers or administrators.  The lineage doesn’t care about gompas or lack of gompas.  It doesn’t care about dharma centers and their creation, maintenance and growth.  The lineage doesn’t care about anything other than our work to recognize our natural face: enlightened being.  Everything else is extra.  Lineage doesn’t do anything other than reflect our essential nature.  We do the rest.  We create the world of systems, we collate texts, we publish books, we create limitations and neurotic obsessions, often in the name of lineage.  If we are blessed with the chance to look back at our lineage and see how easy it is to get wrapped up in the peripheral details maybe we can return to the experience of simplicity: the experience of naked awareness.  When we can do this we don’t have to become anything, or wear anything, or observe any vow, or follow any textual dictate, because we become, in that moment, the Dharma.  There is nothing to add or take away from this basic reality.

Bodh_Gaya_1899

A close friend who was recently trying to determine where she should be in late December and the beginning portion of January told me, “I could go to Bodh Gaya to participate in the Kagyu Monlam for “Dharma” or I could go home to be with my family and actually live Dharma”.  Her time at home would be challenging and ordinary as time spent with family often is- in her case it would be more so as a relative had recently died and there was much support to be offered.  The Kagyu Monlam, replete with lavish offerings, is a sophisticated mechanism for making aspiration prayers, a place to see and be seen as a Karma Kagyu practitioner, a place to go from lama to lama for blessings and teachings, and is in many ways the ultimate place to go for generating merit.  Yet it is easy, it is obvious, somewhat predictable, and spiritually fattening; you can go there and haughtily throw your weight around feeling that you have unique karma and subtly build your ego.  After all, look at me, I’m in Bodh Gaya at monlam, how fortunate am I?  Going home to be with family, on the other hand, and all of the challenges that accompany providing support for the children and husband of the family member that recently passed away is a way to live all of what spiritual practice is about.  It is also hard, confusing and sometimes boring and not very much fun.

I am grateful for my friend’s distinction here, it was timely and very well put.  At the end of the day she answered the question for herself as to which one she decided to do. The question remains for us, which one would we prefer to and why? One is not necessarily better than the other, yet our decision says a lot about where we are right now and it is important to check-in and see where we are from time to time.  Where are you?

24
Jan

on the shakedown, being a contender and the tantric rub…

for a few dollars more

In my training as a chaplain there was a fair amount of emphasis on learning how to connect and remain with difficult feelings that others were in the midst of negotiating.  Sickness, old age and death certainly shake up a lot of feelings- add depression, psychosis, loss, and physical/emotional/spiritual pain and you really have a lot to learn to become familiar with.  We were encouraged to sit in, remain with, and thoroughly explore what these feelings bring up within us.  Something always arises, we don’t have to look deep, as the game of thought/feeling association is something that the mind/heart just seems to naturally play.  I’m not sure that you can, or want to, change that.  What we can do is become more aware of these associations, and in so doing, get some room within this process that normally, on an average day has the effect of being like a big heavy ring in our noses that lead us this way and that without our knowing what is going on.

Lately I have been mulling over an uncomfortable notion that leaves me often feeling grumpy, pessimistic and a little exhausted: Buddhism in America is doomed to fail.  Or, we really run the risk of mucking-up the whole affair.  I don’t really feel this way all of the time, but I do feel this way from time to time.  It’s good to to sit with this discomfort and not whitewash it with the quick spiritual bypass of an investigated pure view.  Besides, when I look around I find plenty of reason to feel this way.

In a recent blog post on Tricycle.com, one which I found profoundly disjointed and dissatisfying seemed to help confirm these speculative worries.   Check it out here.  It seems that we as Americans have a hard time approaching Buddhism outside of a self-help, therapy-related arena.  It’s not really very surprising I suppose, given the huge publishing and marketing machine that has arisen around the self-help-industrial-complex and that of therapy.  Millions of dollars are invested every year and many millions more are reaped from soft, happy, easy to read, and even easier to hear books that promise some kind of feeling of connection and meaning in a life that can be quite challenging.  Yet, these new hybrids of Buddhism lacks most of what makes Buddhism, Buddhism.  In reading some of the comments, one person suggested that people want to learn about Buddhist meditation but not follow any religious path. I suppose this person is referring to Buddhism as an adjective and not a noun, it’s hard for me to not feel like I’m standing in quicksand in reading the comments- there appears to be little solid ground.

Snake Oil anyone?

I occasionally vacillate between the ‘standard’ Buddhist compassionate response to this dilemma by saying: “Well, at least the dharma is making it into people’s lives in some way- albeit in drips and drabs”, and a more militant feeling of disgust rooted in the sense that these little candy coated titles, prosaic presentations of the perfection of wisdom, are peddled more like Prozac than anything else.  Where is the gnosis?  How is the seemingly real and hard-fast rule of reality poked at and re-examined by these titles and ‘Buddhist’ forms of meditation? How does Buddhist therapy, psychotherapy in particular, negotiate the fundamental paradox that the Self that we seek to free and know better doesn’t exist? Is shining a light on the Psyche, bringing it into the realm of conscious mind, the same as enlightenment?

These are no small equations to balance.

In fact, I still find it bizarre that many of today’s western Buddhist dharma teachers are psychotherapists. Why is this necessary?  Does it lend more credence to the Buddhadharma? I appreciate the desire to integrate psychology into Buddhism from time to time, but I don’t see the value of a permanent amalgam of the two.  I also can see the value of presenting a parallel structure in order to help present Buddhism, yet I feel the need to remind myself at the very least, that parallel doesn’t mean the same. There is a real risk of creating hybrid Frankenstein-like equivalencies in which the experience of familiarization of mind (and by extension, reality itself- apparent and otherwise) is the same as having an integrated-Self.

19th century pusher-man...

When in meditation it’s pretty clear that trying to describe the way we subtly grasp after time, or after having an experience and then trying to quantify it, that words fail us.  This is nothing new, but it is startling when we settle ourselves into meditation and just rest our minds and then let ourselves notice the grasping that we are prone to.

Try and describe a remedy to grasping.

Already the use of the word ‘remedy’ creates a dynamic that is problematic- and before you know it meditation easily feels like a mess.  Yet when we let go into a natural awareness (and can truly see that there is nothing to take away or add), somehow we gain the clarity to ‘see’ again.  Words in their relative function are amazing.  They are magical jewels that ornament, they provide meaning and bless us with the ability to express ourselves, and yet they have limitations as well;  so to for concepts, notions, ideas, and other components that buttress meaning within our experience of the universe.  When we hold on and let our habitual grasping go it seems like the structures that we like to use to help explore Buddhism gain a sense of permanence and then what do we have?  How easy it can be to subtly miss the mark and assign permanence to the ideas that we use towards our own liberation.

And yet, for some reason we fail to spend our precious time in these investigations.  We fail to massage the heart and sit with whatever arises and learn how to experience it as an expression of enlightenment, and instead we opt for the self-help and therapy structuralism that seems rife with hypnotic distractions which may, at the end of the day, not serve us well if we want to follow the Buddhist path.

Oh, man, but to charge $150 an hour to teach ngondrö or shamatha, that ain’t gonna happen.

But, $150 an hour is reasonable for a jog on the never-ending treadmill of analysis, that’s some good shit!  Snake oil never felt so luxurious!

So is hitting a home-run with a best-selling book on finding the everyday wisdom of Buddhism in five minutes.  You’ll definitely have plenty of jonesing people lost in the foggy mist of the American dream lined up to buy your sequel or pay obscene prices for retreats complete with yoga.  Don’t forget to wear the latest DKNY dharma inspired sweatpants!  That way everyone will know how serious you are about Buddhism.  If you are finding it hard to stabilize your energies in the central channel, don’t worry, you can buy jeweler that does it for you.  Wow, I can just imagine how jealous King Indrabhuti might be- this makes Guyasamaja seem so pedantic.  We can all relax, the NY Times says that Glam is the new Om!  Oh, for a few dollars more…

Modern day pawo?

I finally wrapped up Christian Wedemeyer’s Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism: History, Semiology and Transgression in the India Traditions. Its a real masterwork in many ways.  Christian’s writing is lucid, evocative and filled with well pointed wit.  He brilliantly describes the varying academic “approaches” to the point of origin, development, audience, and practitioners of Buddhist Tantra in haunting detail; haunting in how easy it is to miss the mark and get caught up in one’s own academic back-story while attempting to treat a topic as complex and elusive as Tantra.  That part of the Buddhakapala Tantra is translated and included as an appendix is a special gift.  All in all, Christian’s delivery feels like the smooth cut of Manjusri’s sword, cutting through all of the ways that we feel the need to add more to things as they are.  In fact, one of the most profound take-away from the work is how we as Buddhists bring our own back-stories to our Buddhism, or that as humans rather, this is a very automatic thing- as Buddhists we are no different.  The way the events of our lives, the pains and joys, the highs and the lows, the limitations of our scope of vision (inner and outer) as well as our limited understanding of time all make us see what we see when we approach the dharma.  It’s difficult to see clearly.  Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book, so much so that I’m using it in a year-long course on exploring Buddhist Tantra at New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center– if you haven’t become familiar with the work of the good Dr. Wedemeyer, I encourage you to do so.

I savor the sense of discomfort that I am left with from reading this book in seeing just how easily we miss the mark in thinking that we know how things are, how comfortable we get in our places of ‘knowing’, and how in order to get close to definitive meaning, perhaps we have to become comfortable with the discomfort of wandering, solitary, a hero- or vira/pawo, not unlike the symbol of a cowboy.

lawman_japanese_poster

Somehow when we get a Buddhism that is comfortable, cozy and full of the humorous wisdom of smiling Asian men- the Buddhism of cups of afternoon herbal tea- of the slow spiritual by-pass that separates us from the aspects of ourselves that are blood-thirsty, that are impatient, that can be uncomfortable we begin to fool ourselves.  At moments like these our spiritual path becomes a re-living of our back-story, what we want to believe (often out of convenience), and we are lead by that same thick metal nose-ring along our stupid spiritual path.  All the while the times of sand pass (as they naturally do) and we fail to head the silent whispers of the possibility of death.  Yet when we can see these dynamics more clearly, it is easier to wake up to the freshness and clarity of all that arises- it is as if we remove the Vaseline on a camera lens that gives everything that soft hazy, lazy, comfy, lack of urgency.  With clarity comes the ability to act- something which great cowboys like Hevajra, Chakrasamvara and Buddhakapala do with great effect.

once upon a time in the west

Maybe there’s not enough room in town for the both of us after-all.  Maybe there’s not enough room for the dualistic discursive ground that informs us in our spiritual paths when we use our path to run away from discomfort, inadequacy, complacency, homogeneity, and fear of truly addressing our needs.

Like Chakrasamvara or Hevajra, or Vajrayogini and Palden Lhamo, the solitary hero, the lonely cowboy often does what she needs because it is what needs to be done.  Ungrateful work, no doubt, but vital.  Facing the demons of bandits, posses of violent drunken thugs, the cowboy negotiates the law, killing as she needs, reluctantly at times, and at other times becoming the very law that she seeks to uphold.

Can we take hold of our practice in a way that makes it real and authentic, that honors/connects it to it’s roots without welding it to facile sub-structures that may speak more to our own inability to make our own origami shapes out of the never-ending supply of dharma?

Can we shed our soft assumptions, see our back-story, and our addictions to reality being a particular way for what they are?

We all know that sooner or later the hangman’s noose will tighten around this neck of ours, and that Yama’s posse is hot on our trail.  Time to roll up that blanket, cowboy and act.  You know what to do.  Tantra is unrepentantly non-dual, be careful of how you approach it.  If you can see the lama in appearance you’ll be alright.  If you don’t, there are other gunslingers out there- try one out, learn from them…

solitary hero

So, as I redouble my efforts to remain hopeful that our impatience and childish desire to run away from scary monsters is just an adventitious temporary stain (to reference Rangjung Dorje’s Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer), and rest in my feelings of grumpiness, futility and desperation I wonder: can you connect with the pimp and the pusher? With the snake oil salesman who rolls into town with a bottle and a bunch of promises? With the soft pastel clothes of a self-help guru? What about the lone hero who just wants a fist full of dollars?  Could you have been a contender?  What part of you wants to look hot on your cushion, with sexy mudras, and a bedroom-eyes meditation gaze?  From where do these impulses arise?  To where do they go?

These seductive subtle demons are tricky in that they are comfortable.  They speak to us in just the way we want to be spoken to, they look good (like us), and they just want us to be comfortable.  In fact, they may appear less like demons and more like attractive young gods and goddesses that urge us to bring some of accoutrements of the long-life gods’ realm into our lives, but beware of comfort- look deeply at what you are grasping after- I wonder what it is…

3
Jul

On equivalencies and a new dharma center…

Lately I find myself reflecting on equivalence.  Yet before I share my thoughts I would like to dedicate this blog post to Lizette, a hospice resident that I had visited who died yesterday.  May her experience of the bardo be one of restful ease!

As a chaplain the notion of the possibility of equivalence helps to bridge the differences between myself and others- between what might be expressed, or needed, by someone other than myself.  Ascertaining equivalence, a necessary act of juggling, forces us to examine our orthodoxies.  It opens the door to the barn where we keep all of our sacred cows, our assumptions, and very often, all of the ways that we lazily forego really examining how we are with others, especially in relation to our larger belief systems, and all of the other spheres that we occupy.  When I can find the points of connection that I share with people with whom one would assume there is no connection, I am usually left with an understanding of just how similar I am to others.  Equivalence helps to reduce the promotion associated with self-elevation might make me say, “As a Buddhist, I am different from you in that I believe….”, or, “As a Vajrayana Buddhist I feel that my path is better because….”

The word equivalence has its root in the early 15th century middle French word equivalent, which is a conjunction of the prefix equi meaning equal, and valent (as in valence) and valiant, which at that time period referred to strength, bond, and a “combined power of an element“.  I am reminded of the importance of valence electrons in chemistry and physics- specifically how the balance of electrical charges between atoms necessitate a sharing of electrons thus creating bonds between atoms.  From these bonds everything around us arises; indeed, through the play of interdependence everything that we know can come into being.

I find this metaphor helpful as it involves stepping out of the traditional norms of Buddhist language.  Of course, one might ask, “what language isn’t Buddhist?” In this question is a profound point.  If our approach to Buddhist practice, whatever form that may take, or for example my chaplaincy informed by my practice of Buddhism, cannot interpenetrate other forms of language, other modalities of thought,  or other creative models, it lacks the ability to maintain equivalency.  In this manner it ends up lacking the ability to be itself while remaining fluid;  it remains separated and isolated, at odds with whatever other it may encounter.  In this way I know that I run the risk of  falling into a discursive self vs. other perspective  when I feel a lack of openness, fluidity, and ability to be at ease with whatever arises.

It can be easy to feel self-conscious within, and around, our belief system which if one is Buddhist, often undermines our very ability to be Buddhist.  Indeed sometimes we try to be “Buddhist” as a way to distinguish oneself from others.  This kind of separation is a terrible violence- an awful form of self-inflation and spiritual self-destruction that seems to miss the larger point.

And yet, if we explore the possibility that no language can be found that exists outside of the framework of Buddhism in its pure natural manner of expressing itself then it is easy to appreciate true natural arising equivalencies.  We are no longer “Buddhist”, we just are, which I suspect was what Shakyamuni came to value within his spiritual quest.

Over the past two weeks I have had the fortune to visit two women who were actively dying at two different hospices in the New York City area.  Two very different women, going through different experiences of similar processes: dying.  Both of these women had strong spiritual paths- unique paths of self-taught wisdom borne through the constancy of the repeated trials and tribulations that only a full life can bring.  In their own ways, as self-taught “outsiders” they were Christ-like, and Buddhistic, and spoke of pure a basic expansive being without necessarily referencing any particular Buddhist vocabulary.  Indeed it appeared that the slow fading of the flickering flame of their life allowed them to rest in a peaceful alert awareness that was a real joy to experience.  Here I was, a chaplain, asked to come visit these two women who in that moment expressed a depth of view that I could do nothing but rejoice in and admire.  I left feeling very confident in their process- they were touching a nearly inexpressible beauty.  The visits with both women were punctuated by long silences with much eye contact- with simply being together, with a basic human connection.

Language, with its structural intricacies, its variegated forms, and kaleidoscopic ability to transform, often acts as a buttress in relation to our habitual referential reactions.  It allows for, and instills, comparison -creating an endless system of distinctions.  A literary color wheel, language runs the risk of pinning everything around us down; leaving us with a sense of knowing.  And yet I wonder, where and when, does knowing intersect with being- with the quiet awareness from just being?  What is the nature of their relationship within us?

My experience with Lizette, one of the two hospice patients described above, was that whenever I tried to use language and vocabulary to capture what she told me that she was experiencing a clumsy formalism ensued.  The beauty and power of her experience of being was made overly solid, overly distinct and “other” by trying to define it.  The only thing that kept this feeling alive was to join with it; to sit with her; and to not “know” it, but to be it.

What is the difference between discerned knowledge and knowing borne from resting within the moment?  Where, or perhaps more importantly, when, do our assumptions, our knowledge, or our better sense and logical mind of discernment (a deep and satisfying place of self-importance) get in the way of simple being?  How does language and knowing try to contain the simple being that is needed to allow us to rest in all of the equivalencies around us?

I am currently working on establishing a Dharma center here in Brooklyn called New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center.  This center is the only center of His Eminence the 12th Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Regent of the Kamtsang Kagyu Lineage.  Just yesterday we received our 501 c 3 status as a church!  It is a great honor and joy to co-Found and Co-Direct a Dharma center headed by a mahasiddha, and amidst all of the uncertainty and fears of failure, or that this will be a complete disaster, I keep coming back to memories of ngondro and the trials that Milarepa, our not so distant father, underwent.

Rob Preece, in his book Preparing for Tantra: Creating the Psychological Ground for Practice, offers a compelling argument for equivalency as it arises between aspects of the hardship and challenge created by undergoing ngondro and other hardships that may share a contextual similarity.  Preece describes how all of the work and hard physical labor that he put into helping to build a center that Lama Yeshe was establishing was a prime ground for focusing the mind around dharma practice, planting aspirational seeds that would doubtlessly blossom into mature trees that provide support, shelter and benefit for others.  Indeed, I know that as I challenged my body by carrying hundreds of pounds of building materials, the back pain and discomfort of refinishing the floors in 100 degree heat lead me to feel closer to Milarepa than I have felt in a long time.  The practice of demolishing old structures, hanging sheetrock and cutting my hands while rewiring the shrine room allowed me to appreciate Preece’s point that ngondro was a creation meant to challenge, to purify, and to create gravity around dharma practice.  My seemingly small daily endeavors, in reality, connect me to my spiritual lineage which allows me to feel close to Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa.

Ngondro is one thing- a practice that I value and feel is too often treated as just a preliminary that is to be rushed through, but how is chaplaincy different?  Can it be any different? When we really look, can there even ever be a difference?

Milarepa never did ngondro, nor did Naropa- they had the benefit of having their teachers skillfully put them in difficult circumstances.  At first glance it could be thought that it’s just hardship and difficulty that is implicit in these kinds of challenges; but when you look a little closer, it looks more like what is happening in through these experiences is that the view is being clarified.

What is being clarified, or purified?  How is it really purified?  These questions are both rhetorical and actual and beg to be asked.  Blindly following through a ngondro pecha may be better than killing insects, but perhaps only in that it plants seeds that one day one may actually practice ngondro.  And when we actually practice ngondro, where is there anything that exists outside of that practice?  Refuge is everywhere.  The experience of Vajrasattva’s non-dual purity of unmodulated mind is everywhere.  The accumulation of merit arises with every breath.  The lama is everywhere.  Yet when we don’t “practice” ngondro what happens to refuge, the essence of purity, the accumulation of merit, and the blessings of the lama and the lineage?

I feel that there is a lot of wisdom in being able to rest into the awareness that accompanies being.  It acts as a reset button of sorts that allows us the ability to see things more clearly, to appreciate the richness of whatever arises without creating conflict, and to meet others where they are without needing to change them.  In this way, and with this perspective as a motivational factor, the world around us has infinite potential as a ground for practice.  New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center becomes as meaningful as Bodh Gaya in India, Tsari in Tibet, and yet is no different from sitting on the subway of being surrounded by the overwhelming bustle of Times Square, as everywhere can be the center of the mandala of the experience of reality as it is.  It’s impossible for everywhere and everything to no longer function as the ground for practice.

This is the wish-fulfilling jewel quality that can be associated with resting in being with all of the equivalencies that surround us.  This is an expression of the multi-valent interconnected relationships that imbue our experience of reality with all of the qualities associated with pure appearance as described in dzogchen, mahamudra, the pure view or sacred outlook associated with yidam practice, and quite possibly the experience of grace in Christianity, or wadhat al-wujud, the unity-of-being as described by Sufi master Ibn ‘al Arabi.

So whether you are helping to renovate a place of dhrama practice, or simply liking it on Facebook, or enduring trials similar to those of Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa, or laying in a hospice bed in Queens, New York, who is to draw distinction between the type of, or depth of experience that we undergo?

Can we quiet our mind of endless comparisons?  Or allow for the mind of analytic distinctions to settle itself?

In doing so, perhaps the simplicity of being that arises reveals a constant soft rain of blessings and opportunities for authentic clear being.    May all beings taste this ambrosial nectar expressed by the blissful knowing glance of all of the mahasiddhas of all traditions in all world systems. Gewo!

12
May

On resting with Tilopa…

Recently I have found myself returning to some of the amazingly pithy meditation instructions attributed to Sri Tilopa (988-1069), the well-known Indian Buddhist mahasiddha who was the forefather of the Kagyu lineage.  His short, often poetic instructions, are something that help me in my personal meditation practice, as a ground for keeping myself feeling dynamic and internally connected as a chaplain, and in explaining to others the vajrayana perspective regarding what arises within the approach to death.  An example of such an instruction is as follows:

If you sit, sit in the middle of the sky.

If you sleep, sleep on the point of a spear.

If you look, look upon the center of the sun.

I Tilopa, who saw the ultimate, am the one who is free of all effort.

The expansive clarity of this type of instruction, for me at least, is very resonant- it offers a way to feel my experience of mind blend into the wideness of space while also experiencing a sense of focus; a relaxed single-pointed experience of breath, sound, transparency of thoughts, and edgelessness.  When this experience arises I feel very connected with Tilopa, as well as the other Indian mahasiddhas Naropa and Maitrepa.  Sometimes however, I feel that I need a more graded approach to this experience of mind. When this occurs, I tend to lean on Jey Gampopa for support.

More specifically, I rely upon Gey Gampopa’s Precious Garland of the Supreme Path, and even more specifically I come back to the 5th chapter of this wonderful text: The ten things that you should not abandon.  I had the wonderful fortune of receiving instruction on this text by the Venerable Khenpo Lodro Donyo, abbot of Bokar Ngedhon Chokhor Ling, in Bodh Gaya in the fall of 1998.  This was during one of the many Mahamudra seminars that the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche held- truly magical times when we could all sit together under the bodhi tree to recite the 3rd Karmapa’s Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer, spend time in meditation- simultaneously touching our original nature- as well as physically touching the ground that supported the practice of all of the generations of Buddhists who had come before us in Bodh Gaya back all the way to Shakyamuni himself.

It was in that environment, and within that emotional frame of mind, that I came to learn of the ten things that one should not abandon.  These ten things are: compassion, appearances, thought, mental afflictions, desirable objects, sickness (suffering and pain), enemies or those who obstruct our practice, methodical step-by-step progress, dharma practices involving physical movement, and the intention to benefit others. Gampopa’s list is very sensible, it is noble in the sense that it seems to be endorsed by Santideva himself; it is imbued with a heartfelt concern for the welfare of others as well as a methodical presentation of the training to see that appearances- be they attractive or not- are just mere appearance.  The misapprehension of appearance, or appearance as taken as an independent entity separate from ourselves, is the very cause of our experience of suffering.  As with all great dharma texts, it is heartening to see how just one small portion, in this case the 5th chapter of a 28 chapter text can offer the entire path to realizing one’s essential nature.

In looking back at the notebook that I have from the session when Khenpo Rinpoche taught this chapter, I can return to my exuberance not only for this chapter as a whole, but for Gampopa’s explanation of how one should approach the non-abandonment of mental afflictions.  As a chaplain, when I am in the hospital, I very rarely meet people who desire to not abandon their experience of suffering: their fear, their psychic pain, their feelings of abandonment, of futility, of anger, or attachment to family- let alone attachment to ideas of how their life should or shouldn’t unfold.  This experience isn’t unique to the hospital either- I and most of the people who I know spend a great deal of time fighting with these emotions.  Perhaps this is why they are called mental afflictions.

Anger, attachment, pride, jealousy, ignorance.  When we really sit quietly with these words they are not just words- they are worlds; worlds of suffering, worlds of feeling like we are right and others are wrong, that we don’t receive the credit or accolades that we deserve, that if only I had this, or was a that, then things would be the way that they should be.  On and on and on…

Gampopa advises us to try three modalities with regard to facing and not abandoning our mental afflictions.  We can avoid them- that is, avoid whatever causal conditions that might make them arise.  We can transform them- or try to transform what these emotions unlock within us.  Or finally, we can rest in them as they arise.  Whichever modality we tend towards, there are two things to remain mindful of; how we habitually fall into one of these three modalities, and the degree to which we can honestly assess our relationship to that which we struggle with.  Each of these ways of facing and not abandoning our mental afflictions can be techniques of liberation or techniques of seductive self-enslavement.

The process of avoidance is a very grounded, stable and well-meaning way of not abandoning our mental afflictions.  It honors the way they arise- it honors their root- without forcing us to become affected.  This way of approaching difficulties, painful habits, and stubborn aspects of our identities allows us some distance from the “heat” of the moment that comes with embodying our reaction to our mental afflictions.  One could even go so far as to say that this modality is somewhat analytical in approach, it is disciplined and measured.  The shadow aspect of avoidance is not acknowledging the mental afflictions that bring us pain and suffering.  Not much good happens from simply ignoring things, or not letting aspects of ourselves have the light and air that they need to grow.  Right now, the shadow of this modality comes to mind in the form of the image of a neglectful parent who doesn’t want to see who their children really are.

Transformation is a common methodology that one finds in the various levels of tantras.  It involves playing with the way that we perceive our mental afflictions.  This type of restated relationship allows us to meet head on those feelings that would normally make us want to run away.  In this way the dross becomes pure; the dirty is seen as clean; and that which torments us achieves the possibility of bringing meaning and peace.  True lighthearted transformation- transformation with ease- is hard to effect.  Transformation has a terrible shadow side that involves the desire to fix; or more bluntly an inability to meet things as they appear without making them into something positive.  As a chaplain, I witness many people struggle with maintaining a relationship with difficulty and pain, uncertainty and loss, and sickness and death without trying to “fix it”.  The constancy of a “make-it-better-plan” can be exhausting and create untold suffering.  It feels profoundly important to examine how this modality of maintaining a relationship with our matrix of painful emotions can relate to a desire to not allow honesty around what we are feeling and from where the roots of these emotions arise.  (Here is a link to the related shadow of spiritually bypassing.)

Resting in whatever arises, the third modality presented by Gampopa, and the favorite of Khenpo Lodro Donyo while he was teaching, is an instruction that one commonly finds within the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions.  It is profound- and it also very difficult to do honestly.  As we saw earlier, anger, attachment, pride, jealousy and ignorance are powerful.  To rest within rage for example- to feel one’s pulse quicken, and heart beat heavier and louder, while one becomes physically tight and flushed, as the explosive heat of anger and impatience engulfs us- is not a particularly comfortable feeling. (For a look at some of the difficulties involved with taking on these fierce emotions, you can read a previous post on Mahakala here.) Then there is the “resting” part.  This term gets thrown around very often that I wonder if it doesn’t end up having a multitude of meanings nowadays.  I know that I have met Buddhists of other traditions that take the term literally and assume that it is akin to taking a nap or “resting”.

Resting actually refers to maintaining a focused (often described as ‘single-pointed’) awareness of appearance as it arises in the moment.  In this way, Tilopa’s instruction from the beginning of this post seems a wonderful way through which we can re-engage the term resting.  One quality of resting is being at ease.  In this sense when Tilopa refers to three different ways of being- siting, sleeping, and looking- he is referring to three ways that we can rest in what arises.  We can do it formally, as in sitting practice. We can do it within the experience of sleep, mind appearances arise when we sleep just as when we are awake. Finally, in looking, perhaps a passive “every day” experience as well.

If you sit, sit in the middle of the sky.

Where is the middle of the sky?  The true middle?  Where are its edges?  Where does the sky end and something else take over?  As we sit and remain resting with a sense of ease can we feel the expansive qualities of our minds?  Where is the edge of our mind?  What does a thought look like?  Does it have a source that you can identify?  Where do thoughts go when they are no longer so magnetic?

If you sleep, sleep on the point of a spear.

When our thoughts feel sticky and magnetic, when it is hard to not feel drawn into them and let our inner film projector play, what happens when we remain concentrated?  What does that “single-pointed” awareness feel like?  When we can feel and notice our breath; when we can maintain focused awareness on the way the inner film projector plays; on how a particular thought will hold us within our inner gaze, what do we notice about our experience?

If you look, look upon the center of the sun.

When this focus can be maintained as we look out at the world as it goes by around us, where is the sense of stillness?  From where does that arise?  What happens to the way that you notice the way that things arise while maintaining a focused awareness upon the expansive quality of our minds?  Is there ever not enough room for what arises within our field of reference?

I Tilopa, who saw the ultimate, am the one who is free of all effort.

What if removing all effort was all that you had to do?  What would it be like to maintain that within your experience of life?

Instructions such as the ones that Tilopa left behind for us are rare and powerful.  It has been roughly one thousand years since Tilopa passed away, and yet through these four lines it is amazing how much of a connection we can feel with him.  Five generations after Tilopa, Gampopa further crystalized the importance of being someone who “is free of all effort”.  And while there are may pitfalls around how we may feel that we are directly engaging what arises within the moment, there is much beauty in the journey.  Perhaps, slowly moving through life, through the wonderous field of appearance, we can increase our sense of ease and relax into an experience of effortlessness.  What an amazing thing to aspire towards.

11
Feb

On the importance of certainty…

As a chaplain, one thing that I frequently come to witness in the hospital is the relative personal theological certainty that the patients I meet have established throughout the course of their lives. Naturally the range of established belief is wide and varied; it includes a variety of orthodoxies (Greek, Russian, Jewish, Muslim), as well as the views of moderately liberal faiths such as followers of the Episcopal church, reform Jews, progressive catholics, as well as passionate Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ and Baptists. There are also Wiccans, New Age folks, and a whole host of individual prophets of the new age who I come across.

Just last week one man shared with me his belief that Jesus was more akin to Obi Wan Kanobe and Yoda than anyone else seems to realize.  For this man, the essence of God is much more similar to the Force than the compilers of the Bible could understand.  In fact, rather than feel with his “heart”, a common human metaphor for the seat of emotion, especially as the seat of love, he told me that he feels with his larynx.  After all, in the beginning was the word….

The certainty that this patient expressed regarding his inner beliefs felt palpable, and lead me to wonder about certainty. I can only really speak for myself when I say that I can never really know how true or theologically sound the spiritual underpinning of any given person who I come to meet with may be.   I have my own biases, my own stubbornness, and without doubt, I have plenty of blind spots.  To have a full understanding, in an ultimate sense, of the beliefs of others- or in other words: to truly know how right or correct how full or effective a particular path that another person treads, for me, seems to be an impossible task.  Just like trying to hold water in my cupped hand for any length of time, such definitive knowledge escapes me.  In fact, I often wonder where the utility of trying to know such things may lay- it seems like trying to know if the person next to you sees the color blue in the same way that you do.  Is there even a right blue?  What is blue?

What is everything for that matter?

What is mind?  What are thoughts?  What are feelings?  Are they different?

What is Buddha-nature?  How do we recognize it?

What are our dreams?  How are they different from waking life?

What is meditation?  How is it different from hustle and bustle?

How are we suffering?  What is the cessation of suffering?  What does that mean for you?

How are we not shackled by discursiveness?  What does that mean?

What is certainty?

This particular question seems to touch upon and lead us to something that we may be able to come to know, albeit with effort and focus.  Certainty suggests a lack of doubt; a knowing born of experimentation; security from error.  Ultimately, it may be that entry into the realm of certainty is an intensely personal process.  Spiritually, I feel that the tent poles of certainty are planted, and firmly fastened through wrestling with instructions left behind by the traditions that we follow. Once we have come to appreciate these instructions, internalize them, digest them, and come to know with confidence what they mean, then we may fully know the secure and tender shelter that our tradition affords us.  Only then do we see that the words found in our dusty books are in fact thick golden ambrosial nectar, and that the experience of life can become more of what it is: alive, fresh, and full of energy.  Even as it wanes, this life of ours, subject to pains, worries, sorrows and regrets still holds the unique and ever profound richness of spontaneity and depth of meaning.

The work of distilling certainty from our experience of, and interaction with life asks us to try to see ourselves for who we really are. It asks us to understand our outer, inner and secret anatomy.  It also leads us to a taxonomy of self- a clear reflective understanding of who we are- for it is only through knowing who we are and how we experience our life that we can understand how to enter into relationship with developing greater awareness of what being open and more free means.  Openness and freedom, for me, tend to be something that I associate with the flexibility needed for solidifying these natural attributes, for providing ground, for being able to really see who we are.

Then there is who we are in relationship to our tradition.  Tradition and lineage can take a number of forms, but in its most essence oriented function, tradition and lineage speak to how we become who we are in time and space.  In this particular case it isn’t about adopting a particular set of beliefs or perspectives, but more how the integration of lineage perspectives cause us to individuate within our lineage; in essence how we become more ourselves- empowered and confident, free and self-assured.  It may very well be that we come to find ourselves within the natural ebb and flow of  our tradition or lineage without much to really do.

How this comes to be, of course, may be impossible to fully explain- except in relation to our own journey. Such inner-transformation is very personal and unique to each individual.  This fact is easily gleaned from reading the lives of the eighty-four mahasiddhas.  The story of their processes of liberation often involves embracing circumstances unique to each master’s life.  Whether it be using a goiter as a focus for stabilizing the mind, or a fabulous jewel, trying to steal the essence of mind to ascertain its nature, or the use of conceit as a means for attaining siddhi in arising as the yidam, nothing was spared. No fear too mundane; no shadow too dark.  In fact, in these stories we can easily see how structured aspects of practice lineages were transposed upon, or woven throughout, the experience of the lives of each mahasiddha.  The result of such a skillful weaving, a blending, or circulation (circumabulation) of tradition within the experience of life is twofold- the experience of being becomes easily imbued with simplicity (an expression of simple appearance) and offers the possibility of complete fiery annihilation of obscurations.

Paradoxically, such seemingly simple self-styled practice requires not only a sense of openness with regard to exploring who we are, what we are, and how we function in the world- but also knowledge of our lineage, particularly certainty in its effect.  The stories of the mahasiddhas are very approachable, and should be read by everyone.   A few examples can be read here. These stories really capture the depth and simplicity of a well grounded and distilled practice and offer a kaleidoscopic expansion of experience that I have come to value. From the simple comes everything, the full richness of a practice lineage with all of its subtle distinctions.

The other day a friend of mine who also happens to be a chaplain and a rabbi reflected to me a growing concern, namely that religion and religiosity are increasingly something that people are distancing themselves from- and that even spirituality is something that is regarded with some suspicion.  Her larger point focused around the need for a wider tool-kit for chaplains that allows for the inclusion of people for whom feelings of connectedness may not be centered around religion and spirituality.  The tool-kit that she refered to invariably requires her, and anyone who wants to be able to be there with others in the exploration of their location within the axes of spirituality and religion, to know their location and the story of their journey (how they got there).  If these aspects of ourselves are unexamined how can we help others? More broadly, without knowing where we are and how we function in relation to our individual traditions how can we hope to integrate them into our lives?

This point speaks well to the establishment of certainty within our spiritual practice as it invites us to wonder what we feel about religious thought.  Do we consider ourselves religious, or, do we tend to think of ourselves as spiritual?  Is there a difference?  What about those two words hold intense reactions and why?

There is no right answer, only our own- which if it is an honest one, can hold up to a little inquiry, and also be allowed to change as we change.

I bring my friend’s point up because in many cases real training (study, receiving instruction, practice, and reflection) within our individual lineages is very important for gaining certainty in the path, as well as what is possible.  Within the model of tantric buddhism this process is described as the Ground, Path and Fruit.

The Ground represents the larger theory, the teachings on the way the mind works, how suffering arises, how the dharma can eliminate our experience of suffering.  The Path is primarily the method of putting this dharma into practice- really blending it with our experience of life.  The Fruit is the true naked experience of mind- an experience of seeing, feeling, and really knowing the Ground to be alive within our experience of being. Certainty can be, and needs to be known in all three relational models of buddhist practice, or however many stages we experience within our own particular liberation story.

Certainty in Ground.  Certainty in Path.  Certainty in Fruit.

I wonder where the mahasiddhas Luiypa, Saraha, Ghantapa, Tilopa,Virupa, Aryadeva or Dhokaripa would end up without their experience of certainty upon their paths and within their experiences?

In what way do we need to attend to the development of certainty within our own experience?  Can we allow ourselves the room to attend to these needs without regard to how we appear to others?  Can we approach certainty with honesty?  From a place of deep personal concern?

Some may feel the need for increased study- a real immersion in the Ground.  Some may feel a need to develop more confidence/familiarity with the Path.  Others may feel a need to open themselves to the possibility that they may indeed experience the Fruit.

Jey Gampopa (1079-1153), the first monastic lineage holder of the Kagyu lineage wrote in his famous work The Precious Garland of the Supreme Path, that we should protect our practice just as we would our eyes.  Similarly, I wonder if we should regard the maintenance of certainty in our practice as we would not only our eyes, but the rest of our body.  The distillation of certainty is a process that is subtle and mysterious.  It is not necessarily obtained from taking classes or attending lectures, nor from reading books or studying, and yet it can sometimes be gleaned from those activities as well.  Sometimes we may experience it in a flash of anger or humiliation, or as a sudden joy.  Nevertheless, however it arises it arises from within- it is a fruit born from an inner journey that if deep and genuine leaves us naturally settled, grounded, and in harmony with the arising of phenomena.  It is a mysterious inner-organic manifestation that like the morning mist is hard to pin-down and locate. Perhaps, only when we let our defences down, when we shed our firmly held ideas about things that certainty becomes a possibility.  When that happens, the distinction between who we are in relation to our lineage is more a question of us just remaining who we are, not much else remains for us to do.

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