A participant and fellow traveler on the journey created by the new class on Buddhist Tantra which recently set sail from New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center suggested that I write a blog post to explore and refute the analysis of how the Madhyamaka view arose in India as presented by Ronald M. Davidson in his book, Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. Davidson essentially posits that the middle-way position demonstrated by the Madhyamaka was borne out of dialectical necessity in response to the intellectual climate of the time, a possible influence by Greek Skepticism, as well as an environment of competition for support and patronage of various Hindu and Buddhist schools of thought. In all of its slippery middle-way dynamism the Madhyamaka won out for it’s virtually unknowable evenness, and for entering the realm of epistemology as a means of defending Buddhism from the attacks of Hindu philosophers. Socially and historically, Davidson’s position seems to make sense- he paints the picture of a time in which it seems very possible that at the very least the social dynamics at play in that moment helped the Madhyamaka position gain the favor that it did. Davidson’s book seeks to present the development of Indian Esoteric Buddhism through the lens of social history- as such it is not surprising that he would make this argument. That said, Davidson’s argument does stand at odds with the prevailing description of the rise of the Madhyamaka as presented within the standard histories found within the various lineages of Himalayan Tantric Buddhism as well as larger Mahayana literature. My friend’s discomfort and sense of irritation makes sense. I still remember sitting opposite the Buddhist scholar Christian Wedemeyer eighteen years ago when I was an idealistic twenty year old one morning for breakfast at the YWCA in Delhi when he told me for the first time that there we probably many Nagarjunas. Oh, the strange and irrational discomfort that coursed through my being during that meal.
Yet, when we look more closely, this kind of reaction is not so surprising. There appears to be a rich and wonderfully marbled lump of meat to be found between the bones of standard orthodoxy and those of deeper investigative analysis, meat that can sustain us, that we can offer up towards deeper practice, meat that we can offer to the yidams the dakas and dakinis as well as the dharmapalas and the members of their entourage.
The meat of fear, of anger and pride, made fatty and nutritious through the habits of wanting to be good, to succeed and not wanting to look at the inconsistencies that may exist within our own personal integration with our theology is delicious! What delicacy!
This still warm flesh, smelling of iron and mineral sustenance, salty and thus not unlike the tears remaining after a possible breakdown related to examining our sacred cows, our idolized notions and our addictions to squeaky clean reductive perfection is a nutritious meal. These salty tears and the wondrous tear-ducts that offer a seemingly endless supply are the source of vital ornamentation when we finally notice how much we have taken for granted our lineage, the patchwork of terms- the words and lines of thought- that we feel the need to project upon ourselves rather than looking to see if we can find them within ourselves.
Seldom do we take the time to dissect what we have within us as we explore the fantastic and wonderful structures that we seek to force upon everything around us. It is rare that we can hold the skin of our identity-within-our-practice pinned back, open, revealing all of that which drives us to want to transcend, or transform things, including aspects of ourselves that we cannot accept. Even more rare are the times when we can see how calcified our hearts have become by the thick hard fat of self-righteousness, how tired and inflamed our organs may have become through our stubborn dogmatism, our desire to make clouds solid, our attempts to etch history into titanium so as to make it last forever, or to try to crystallize the warm breath of the dakinis into objects we can own.
It isn’t often that we can remain in one place, to rest in being vulnerable and insecure, and to wonder about why it is that we believe what we do, or to even allow ourselves the room to wonder what it is that we believe. What of the frequency of how often we can explore the deep dark color of our faith in relation to our belief, vital and essential, like the gelatinous marrow within the bones we often neglect? What else do we neglect, or even worse, choose to neglect? How often do we shut down our curiosity with the logic that coming to some kind of certainty within our own practice isn’t possible without first achieving realization? What does the term realization really mean? What shape, color, or size does realization take?
What of the warm sticky blood of our own realization that courses through our vajra-body~ the essence of mantra, an ambrosial essence that is nothing but the bliss-heart of Vajrasattva, the stainless mind of expansive non-referential space? Can we acknowledge it as we move through the appearance of time and the appearance of space, or will we banish it to some point-yet-undetermined that we call ‘the future’?
I can’t say whether Davidson is right or wrong. I can’t say that there was only one Nagarjuna who lived for hundreds of years or many Nagarjunas who penned works in a continuum of growth and inquiry inspired by a previous personage. But I am coming to appreciate that somewhere between the truth of historical fact and the skillful means of magical story that inspires and kindles the flame of deep seated dharma practice, resides a powerful tension. Within this place of tension the friction of building ourselves up and letting ourselves fall to pieces, over and over again leaves us naked, exposed within a curious intimacy with what arises around and within us.
What may be most important is the blissfulness of the songs of birds, the kind compassion of the lama who appears as the people we meet in our lives, the breath that fill our lungs and the appreciation that there isn’t really anything to learn, memorize or integrate. Perhaps all we need to know is that Nagarjuna lives in us as much as he may have lived and breathed in the early days of Buddhist Tantra.
In an essay on Gods and Titans within the context of archetypal psychology, James Hillman wrote of the danger of the over interiorization that we have applied to the larger symbols that the Gods represent within the human psyche. He urges us to respect these Gods as real forces that are a part of us, just as we are expressions of them; when we only look at them in an overly deep, individual, supremely personal manner we commit acts of violence towards them as well as to our larger function within the outer world- perhaps we could call that world the world of appearance- the display of phenomena around us. His warning reminds us of the importance of simultaneously holding both the inner as well as the outer; the literal and the interpreted, the mythic and the ‘real’ (as in ordinary). To fall into one or the other is to lose our balance and inadvertently kill a god, to kill our ordinary selves as well-springs of wisdom, or our histories and the way that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas arise within us. It is a delicate dance, a dance of heart and mind, of wisdom and compassion, of inner flow and understanding.
It may very well be that the Madhyamaka arose as a revealed treasure through the wisdom and skill of Nagarjuna, and it arose in relation to competing view points. In this manner, perhaps it arose interdependently within the frame of reference of Nagarjuna and his spiritual practice as well as the intellectual/political/cultural milieu of the day. How can we separate the two, why do we need to, and when do suppress one at the expense of the other? Sometimes we try to de-emphasize the ordinary in exchange for the mythic, other times we neglect the expansive essence-oriented vastness for what we may feel is more pragmatic. Either way both views on their own miss the mark, both create terrible violence and suppression. A powerful question may remain: how can we hold both? How can we remain open to not knowing the answer, and rather remain as the answer? How can we let the sacred cows go to pasture and do what they will while resting into arising as natural expressions of timeless Buddha-nature, perhaps the essential form of the cow-heard?
Within us is a powerful source of origin of all of the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and dharmapalas, as well as all of the beings of the six realms of existence. We are the simultaneity of the action and the doer, the very continuum that we think that we need to effect to make clearer, more pure, and more tantric. I pray that we can know each one of these rich meaty bits within the context of a smiling awareness and settle into them in a way that reflects them in all of their vast perfect purity in the worlds that we find our-self passing through. In this way, may we seek new heights as well as new depths and understand that there may not be much difference between the two other than the labels that we assign to them.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
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…
I have been somewhat remiss in writing over the summer- my primary excuse is the time consuming work that I have put into renovating the space that we will be using for New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center. My secondary excuse cuts a little closer to the bone; I was feeling uninspired and unsure about claiming the role as one of the two resident teachers at the dharma center.
Lately I have found myself struggling between feeling like a defender of vajrayana orthodoxy and a greater rebelliousness around how vajrayana is presented here in the United States. Or, more specifically, I have been struggling to make sense of the way that tantric Buddhism has come into being as we know it according to the latest historical research, versus the way that Tibetan common religious history describes it. A recent trip to India only helped to add more fuel to this struggle.
Right now I feel that I am swimming in text and coming to appreciate that the dharma is so fluid and hard to pin down that any attempt to understand it historically is very difficult. Tantric Buddhism is often a murky world where definitive meaning is less commonly found than one might like. Yet there is a great benefit in exploring the historical record; what better way to learn than through the experience of others? What better way to appreciate a sadhana than to see how it has come down to us from the 8th century to this moment? What better way to try an connect to a lineage than to see just how syncretic it has been up until recently?
Pulled in these two directions (the orthodox and the rebellious), I occasionally find myself desiring the room and time to distill and slowly mull-over, consider, and explore the rich complexities that surround the foggy notion that there is an objective definitive knowledge of tantric Buddhism. More appealing to me is when I feel able to dance between my connection to orthodoxy and rebelliousness, between the sneaky rebel, ready to shift identity and push through my own stogy norms, and a sense of connection to a definitive lineage, a member of a family of lineal descendents that ground, orient, and provide me with a feeling of connection to those who have come before me. Such a dance can be hard, even exhausting, other times it can be blissfully easy and infectious, like a warm breeze in the early spring, igniting a deep happiness that presages a sense of well-being. Indeed this is the well-spring that inspires me in planning the curriculum of classes that will be offered at New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center.
As previously mentioned, I recently returned from Palchen Chosling Monastery in Sikkim, India. I was there to attend the Kagyü Ngak Dzöd empowerments and the related oral transmission offered respectively by His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche and the retreat master at Palchen Chosling Monastery’s retreat center, Drubon Rinpoche. An astounding event, the Kawang ceremonies were elaborate and extensive. The chief recipient was His Holiness Taklung Shabdung Rinpoche Rangrig Dorjee Nyima, the head of the Taklung sub-lineage of the larger Kagyu lineage. There were also a variety of other tulkus and khenpos from all over the Himalayan area who came to receive this vital transmission. The Kagyü Ngak Dzöd is one of the “Five Treasuries” that was compiled in the 19th century by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye. Out of the five, this is a collection of all of the empowerment texts, sadhanas, commentaries, and pith instructions of the thirteen major tantric practices that Marpa Lotsawa received in India at the feet of Naropa, Maitrepa, Sri Santibhadra and others. Included are the major and minor practices of Vajrapani and the long life practice of Amitayus from Machik Drupai Gyalmo as received by Rechungpa from his teachers in India, Balachandra and Machik Drupai Gyalmo herself. Also added by Kongtrul are the empowerments of Chakshipa (four-arm Mahakala) and Dusulma (Vetali) and Tseringma.
Of all of Kongtrul’s five treasuries, the Kagyü Ngak Dzöd has always held a special place in my heart. I think that the main reason for this is that I have a strong interest in the early roots of the Kagyü lineage, especially the transfer/transplanting of the core lineage practices from 11th century India to Tibet. Even the very act of bringing the texts that comprise the Kagyü Ngak Dzöd from Ralang to Brooklyn felt like a way to connect to Marpa Lotsawa- in the right setting it could even be seen as a form of guru yoga.
When we read the biographies of Marpa and similar figures of that time period, most of which were composed centuries after their actual lives were lived, we read of the hardship experienced in travel, of the dangerousness of the water and roads, of the corruption of the custom agents, even the identity/racial tensions between the enlightened Indians and Nepalis and their otherwise dim-witted neighbors from the north. In short, it was not easy for Marpa- and when we look closely, and perhaps even more importantly, when we look honestly, most of these same factors still exist today for western students of dharma who travel to India to learn at the feet of great masters there. The only difference is that it is often the Tibetans now, and not the Indians, who assume that we are naturally dim-witted vessels capable of nothing more than confusing the dharma for which we have come to learn.
This sensibility is so powerfully present within our conception of who we are in relation to Tibetans, and it was demonstrated with great clarity during a break in the empowerments I attended in Sikkim. A western woman who was attending the Kawang ceremonies tried to convince me that English is inherently a violent language in comparison to Tibetan, a language which she said was naturally coded with self-arising compassion and enlightened activity. There was, she claimed, evidence proved by brain scans that showed that when one speaks English there is an activation of all of the centers of the brain associated with anger, and of course, when one speaks Tibetan, an activation of all of the brain centers associated with compassion. Tibetan history certainly stands as a witness, as it should, to prove that such views are overly facile and fairytale projections that I would love to see expanded upon. Nevertheless, I was saddened and curious as to why this otherwise intelligent and motivated person wanted to assume that she was inherently flawed by the language that she spoke, indeed, even gravely hindered by this language to the point where dharma practice seemed more of an aspiration than something she could actually allow herself access to. For her, the practice works better if you are Tibetan, or at least speak Tibetan. What then of the 11th and 12th century Tibetans who never knew Sanskrit, the language from which the tantras were translated?
I am beginning to wonder whether or not dharma practice can really take root and generate fruit in the West without a deep exploration of the way we blend it within ourselves to reveal our conceptual habits- especially those of language. I am by no means a linguist, nor am I sure that one needs to be a linguist in order to explore how we use language, how we appreciate language, and how we unconsciously express ourselves (especially our habits and frames of reference) through language. There seems to be a great deal of power and transformative value within examining, and perhaps even unraveling all of the assumptions that we create through rote linguistic responses to the events and circumstances around us. Language is, after all, a set of symbols. Words often have a variety of meanings, ephemeral like soft wispy smoke starting out in one form and transforming as if through an alchemical process, into something else. We craft dialectics out of these words, define stances, elucidate positions, hammer-out identities and create entire worlds out of these words. Often these worlds are created out of a dialectic that supports us in our self-oriented perspective of the world within which we find ourselves; a position that creates suffering.
These powerful words can take on such seemingly real and concrete meaning that a critical investigation of how we create our identities (and thereby reinforce them through language) is vital to ensure that we can blend dharma practice (whichever form it takes) into our experience of life. This contemplative practice of examining how we continue to bind ourselves to a samsaric dialectic is very important. The woman I described above is a great example of someone who while well-meaning, has placed herself in a position in which she can’t allow herself the fruition of dharma practice because of the identity that she has created for herself- an identity that is not Tibetan.
How we use language and whether or not we can gather the guts to claim our practice within our linguistic (and perhaps even cultural/genetic backgrounds) is thus very important and not something to be taken lightly.
During my recent time in Sikkim I was grateful (and lucky) to share a handful of evenings with a friend who is both a gifted lama and translator. He happens to be American, did a three-year retreat in Mirik at the seat of the late kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, Bokar Ngedhon Chökhor Ling, and is now very interested/concerned with how dharma practice appears in the West and what it will look like as it continues to be transferred from India, Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. Of the many topics that we discussed, one of the primary ones that we came back to was the translation of dharma texts from Tibetan to English. In his eyes this seemed to be vitally important (for him as a translator) and for me in the sense that I happen to be convinced that we may just be playing “buddhist” house until we pull our practice (including practice texts and all commentarial literature) into our experience of life. A real sustained and honest exegesis is important if we really want to honor the spirit demonstrated within the core existential frustration and soul-searching (for lack of a better term) engendered by the Buddha and countless later masters. It may be that in failing to do this, the galvanizing factors that lead us to practice risk being lost by the sedating power of scented candles, plush meditation cushions, expensive meditation clothing, and prohibitively expensive weekend retreats.
In a dharma world where people seem to vacillate between ‘sitting’ dharma and ‘service’ dharma, sometimes in a cycle of burnout where one replenishes the other, I don’t see dharma but a cycle of subtle suffering within the dharma. Such a dynamic seems to lack depth and a greater awareness of how to become the dharma, how to integrate it.
How humbling that even great bodhisattvas, before achieving the 8th bhumi known as Achala (or Immovable) are still susceptible to wrong view, mistaken perspectives and mistakes in guiding others. No wonder it is possible to misinterpret our surroundings, our direction and even our intentions. Perhaps for this reason a sustained exegesis may be central to spiritual growth; a way to bolster and reinforce personal meditative experience.
What does sustained exegesis mean, or what might it look like?
There is no one answer to this question. After a number of evenings of conversation that lasted several hours with my friend in Sikkim we retired feeling passionately about our individual interests, paths, and the fiery topics that inspire and create the conditions to re-double our effort and energy around practice. What we found was that our interests, and perhaps by extension, our paths are and will be different. They are unique to who we are, to our qualities, and the way that we manifest in relation to, and within the dharma.
Whether it be Karma Chakme’s commentary on Rangjung Dorje’s writings on Chöd contained within the Rinchen Trengwa, or Pawo Tsugklag Trengwa’s commentaries on Vajrayogini, or any number of practice texts and their supporting literature, it is important to blend ourselves into the text. It is important to examine how our habitual linguistic theories about ‘ourselves’ and the way we ‘are’ remain discordant from the paths laid before us. How do we achieve a sense of connection to lineage? What does it take to breathe our exegetic process? What would it look like to constantly occupy a sense of connection to the center of whatever mandala that we practice? How will we manifest that in a manner that honors our natural abilities?
Not only are these are profoundly important questions that need to be resolved on a personal level within the context of our individual practice as well as within our dharma communities, they are not new. Ronald M. Davidson touches on this topic in relation to the way in which Marpa Lotsawa achieved experience within his dharma practice as well that of Gampopa in his thought provoking book Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. Davidson relates that Marpa and his student Ngok Chödor, who was the central inheritor of his lineage of textual exegesis, especially with regard to the Hevajra Tantra, was a proponent of the earlier Indian tradition of textual exegesis through which Marpa was able to master the large amount of tantric textual material that he learned from Naropa and his other teachers. Of this he writes:
It may be strange to some readers to stress the difference between tantric study and tantric practice, but Marpa himself was said to have obtained Buddhahood without meditating, and Drokmi’s pandita Gayadhara was noted for seldom practicing contemplation. In fact, by the late eleventh and early twelfth century, tantric exegesis had become an important area of study and exercise, and Gampopa’s received writings seldom quoted the tantras and almost never made reference to the normative points of controversy in the tantric commentaries.
Davidson points out the value that was placed upon tantric exegesis which when fully engaged can offer a powerful compliment to contemplative practice. It may be that this aspect of ‘practice’, one which I like to think of as ‘breathing text’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘becoming text’, seems to fall by the wayside by our often simplistic modern romantic sensibilities that suggest that text and textual study is less important than meditation practice. To create this kind of dichotomy is unnecessary. In fact it doesn’t make sense. When our practice becomes so natural that we have memorized parts of our sadhanas, where does text end and where does the practice of meditation begin? The same goes for mantras; when we blend mantra recitation with resting in mind, how can you make a distinction between the two?
Another great consideration comes from the potential power of words. As I have mentioned in previous blog posts in reference to the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche’s wonderful condensed commentary on the ninth Karmapa’s Ocean of Definitive Meaning, the mind is pointed out as the lama, as is appearance, and by extension, text. In this regard I am reminded of reading a number of dharma texts that electrified me, gave me goosebumps, and seemed to shift my perspective so that I could see more clearly. In fact, the feeling created in those moments can be incredibly profound and if not always life-changing, perhaps practice-changing. Several pointing-out texts come to mind, as do certain sufi texts and a variety of chan Buddhist texts. It seems clear that no one spiritual tradition seems to have a monopoly on the power of well placed words (nor does any specific language).
The brilliance of Gampopa, one of the heart sons of Jetsun Milarepa, may lay in his synthetic approach to exegesis. He was known for many things, a gifted meditator, a focused monk,and a Tibetan doctor, as well as other attributes attested in his biographies. What is less emphasized is the uniquely ‘outsider’ approach that Gampopa took towards exegesis. Lacking the same traditional training emphasized by Marpa and Ngok Chödor, Gampopa created his own doctrinal line that blended Kagyu traditions with Kadampa traditions often using traditional Mahayana language to explain tantra, and vice versa. This fusion, was indeed new and kicked up quite a storm that lasted for centuries. His blending of the yogic tradition maintained by Milarepa, Marpa, Naropa and Tilopa with the primarily Mahayana monastic tradition that was represented by the Kadampa was in many ways unprecedented.
It took centuries for Buddhism to take root in Tibet from India in a way that was Tibetan. I tend to feel that it will take a similar amount of time in the West. In a sense, we are living in the midst of a very exciting time, a time not unlike that of Marpa. If this is the case, how can we take the dharma that has been brought to us and allow for it to take root and blend within our general culture? How can we do this within our individual cultures of language, or perception, and experience? Will we allow ourselves to empower ourselves to breath the texts that have been passed down over a thousand years and let authentic dharma arise? What does that look like for us right now?
When we look at how we practice in this light, as part of a continuum, in which we help to shape the future just as those who have come before us helped to shape us where we are now, these issues feel more alive and immediate than they are often presented. Our texts, our service, and our mediation seats beat with the life of dharma that is so full of vitality and unbelievable potential. I pray that we can allow ourselves to express this fully and thereby let the seeds of untold realization take root on these shores! May great fields of indigenous mahasiddhas arise in this moment! May we arise as buddhas!
I recently returned from a period of retreat and instruction with His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche, regent of the Karma Kagyu lineage. I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to continue to spend time at his monastery- Palchen Chosling-in Sikkim and to receive precious guidance from him. While at Palchen Chosling, His Eminence also empowered me as a repa; a tantric yogin following in the foot steps of Mila Shepa Dorje (Jetsun Milarepa)- I am profoundly grateful and moved by Rinpoche’s kindness in offering me the chance to follow this particular path. I also am also curious as to how I can bring this experience to the people who I visit at the hospital (and everywhere else).
During my stay at Palchen Chosling, a few threads of thought wove themselves throughout my experience of the breaks between meditation sessions, while wandering the mountain roads down to Old Ralang monastery, Karma Rabten Ling, which was founded under the guidance of the 12th Karmapa, Changchub Dorje, and at various other points throughout the day. These contemplations are something that I would like to share with you, as they brought some meaning for me, reinforcing a sense of wonder and awe surrounding spiritual practice.
There was a moment while His Eminence was teaching when I was struck by the power of the lineage teachings. In that moment their efficacy felt particularly potent, as did the enduring effect of the power of the single pointed application of the teachings by a number of past lineage holders as well hitherto unknown practitioners. It felt as if I could easily connect with those who had gone before me, and that their presence, or perhaps their residual blessings remained for anyone to feel who treads the shared path. I felt that there must be hundreds of practitioners who experienced awakening for every one who became well known- indeed, I suspect that perhaps more people than we know have derived great benefit from the practice of such liberating instructions.
Inspired in this way, I kept coming back to wondering about Dusum Khyenpa, the first Karmapa. I wondered about the rich and full life of practice that he lived, and the wide range of emotions that he brought to his experience of the dharma. His pain and jealousy, which at times was murderous seem so common, so ordinary, that they are very easy to identify with. From these common emotional roots Dusum Khyenpa fully integrated the teachings presented by both Gampopa as well as Rechungpa. To this end, as an indication of the clarity and depth of his experience, Dusum Khyenpa reappeared after his death in the form of Karma Pakshi, the second Karmapa, thus beginning the first and oldest established reincarnation lineage found anywhere in Tibetan Buddhism.
Karma Pakshi was a great mahasiddha. His intensity and great spiritual abilities in many ways appear to be a natural result of the depth of the effort as well as the unique blessings of the Karma Kagyu dharma. It makes sense that he arose after Dusum Khyenpa passed away; it seems that arising in the form of Karma Pakshi expressed the true nature of the activity of Dusum Khyenpa. In reflecting upon this, I have been reminded of how it is said that from time to time within our practice it is possible to begin to traverse the bhumis, and yet not manifest all of the signs that indicate our awakening until we have died and take up our new Nirmanakya “form”- perhaps this is the case with Dusum Khyenpa and Karma Pakshi.
I was left to wonder, or perhaps return to, a very old question: Is the liberation expressed by Dusum Khyenpa a result of his already being a great being capable of more than most of us? Or, is his liberation a result of the efficacy of the dharma when put into practice with all of our heart?
My intuitive reaction to the power of His Eminence’s teaching left me to feel that this dharma, imbued with the still-fresh warm breath of the dakinis, has an ability to completely change our experience of reality. Certainly, one cannot remove or even separate the blessings of all of the great masters of the past who have held any given lineage of instructions we receive. They have left their mark, imbuing the dharma with their particular seal, something that we can interact with centuries later. Indeed, it is often written that connecting with the blessings of this lineage is part of the power of the experience, a fundamental ground upon which realization may dawn. Asking these kinds of questions help us to truly recognize the powerful nature of dharma. Such questions impact the way we frame our own potential; the way we allow ourselves to define the possibilities of our own enlightenment; they are clear illustrations of just what we will permit ourselves to do. These questions are natural, but great care should be given in answering them- there is always a chance that we may undercut ourselves and cease to allow ourselves to mutually let the dharma sink into our experience of life while simultaneously letting ourselves sink into the dharma, thereby letting experiences arise naturally. If we don’t allow ourselves to fully blend with the dharma and arise within it awakened within ourselves what is the point of taking great care in applying the dharma to our lives?
Wondering whether great masters are special beings- essentially separate from you and I, or whether they simply allowed themselves to rely upon and integrate the dharma in their own individual way, unique and appropriate to their perceptual matrix, and that in so doing, came to illustrate the power of the dharma, has gone on for centuries. It is a meaningful subject of contemplation. Such reflections not only figure largely within the namthar- or liberation story- of Jetsun Milarepa, but was a point of controversy within the composition, collation and dissemination of the numerous versions of his namthar between the 13th and 18th centuries.
Dr. Peter Alan Roberts’ The Biographies of Rechungpa: The evolution of a Tibetan hagiography, offers a wonderful description of the many existent biographies of Milarepa as well as a very compelling analysis of the evolution of Milarepa’s biography. As one would expect, while there is a shared narrative between most of these biographies, there is a range of focus upon particular aspects of the life of Shepa Dorje. Indeed, anyone with even a small interest in hermeneutics will recognize that what is really known of the life of Jetsun Milarepa is, and has been, open to much interpretation. Such is also the case with the often over simplified polarized roles of Jey Gampopa (monk) and Rechungpa Dorje Drak (yogin), the two most well-regarded disciples of Milarepa. To truly asses their exact nature historically is much like trying to ascertain the actual distinctive differences between Jesus’ disciples- no small feat! And yet, despite the fact that nearly a millenia has passed since the time of Jey Milarepa we do have some idea as to who he was and what he embodied.
Roberts’ work opens up a lot of places for creative enquiry not only around the life of Milarepa and Rechungpa, but of the re-telling of the Kagyu story from the prevailing monastic perspective. Related subjects also include what I would call the “cross-over” issues that faced tantric Buddhism as it became ensconced within a monastic setting; some of the questions around these topics continue to this day. Many of the questions that arise from his work seem especially important to ask oneself as one treads the path of the Kagyu lineage in general. It appears that through asking such questions we open ourselves to gaining greater certainty for ourselves as to how, and in what way, we want to relate not only to the transmission lineage of our practice, but also the essential embodiment uniquely expressed by each lineage master.
Apparently, in most of the collections of the life of Milarepa, he is described as an emanation of Manjusrimitra– an important early lineage holder of dzogchen practice. This view was suggested as early as the 14th century in the work of as yet determined authorship entitled The Life and Songs of Shepa Dorje, the best known collection of Milarepa’s songs before Tsangnyon Heruka‘s Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa. This view was supported by Kachö Wangpo, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye as well as Ngari Terton Dawa Gyaltsen. The general view of Milarepa as an emanation is first known to be maintained by Gampopa, and is then supported by Lama Shang and Donmo Ripa. In Tsangnyon Heruka’s biography of Milarepa, which in translation has become the singular source of the details of the life of Milarepa, we find a dramatic departure from the view expressed by these past masters: Milarepa is portrayed as a normal sentient being!
In the Lhalungpa translation of Tsangnyon Heruka’s biography of Milarepa, towards the end of the story there is a scene where Milarepa is surrounded by his students after it is known that he will soon die. In a moment of sadness, and perhaps even desperation for final instructions, several questions are asked of Milarepa as to whom he is the reincarnation of as someone as exemplary as Milarepa could not possibly be “ordinary”. This is what is presented:
“Then Bodhi Raja of Ngandzong asked:
‘Lama Rinpoche, it seems to me that you are either the incarnation of Vajradhara Buddha and that you engage in all these actions for the benefit of sentient beings, or you are a great Bodhisattva who has attained the state of “Non-returning” and who has accumulated immense merit for many aeons. In you, I see all the characteristics of a true yogin who sacrifices his life for the Dharma practice. We humans cannot even conceive the extent of your asceticism and your devotion to your lama, let alone practice it ourselves. If we dared to practice in this way, our bodies could not bear such an ordeal. That is why it is certain that you were a Buddha or Bodhisattva from the very beginning. And so, although I am incapable of religion, I believe that we sentient beings will be led toward liberation from samsara through seeing your face and hearing your words. Revered Master, I be you to tell us if you are the incarnation of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva.
‘The Master replied:
‘I never heard whose reincarnation I am. Maybe I am the reincarnation of a being from the three lower realms, but if you see me as a Buddha you will receive his blessing by virtue of your faith. Although this belief that I am an incarnation springs from your devotion to me, actually there is no greater impediment to your practice. It is a distortion of the true Dharma. The fault lies not in recognizing the true nature of the achievement of great yogins. The Dharma is so effective that even a great sinner like myself has reached a stage not far from Enlightenment due to my own belief in karma, my subsequent renunciation of the aims of worldly life, and due especially to my single-minded devotion to meditation.
More particularly, if you receive initiation and the secret instruction which brings spontaneous awakening included by conceptualizations, and if you then meditate under the guidance of an enlightened lama, you will undoubtedly attain Enlightenment.”
Milarepa is incredibly clear: Although this belief that I am an incarnation springs from your devotion to me, actually there is no greater impediment to your practice. It is a distortion of the true Dharma. The fault lies not in recognizing the true nature of the achievement of great yogins. He goes on to further stress the importance of contemplating impermanence, karma, and the development of renunciation towards worldly dharmas along with the importance of applying great effort in the practice of meditation. This is his path, the way in which he expresses his practice: great simplicity.
Why do we tend to ask questions like the one offered by Bodhi Raja of Ngandzong? Or maybe the better question is: what happens when we don’t ask whether or not we can fully express our infinite potential, and just let ourselves grow and change the way that we will? What happens if we apply the essential instructions that clarify our understanding and relationship with our mind, placing special care to also apply such instructions to our expectations towards our potential, towards the ideas of progress, even time, or the notion of physical place?
A great example of such instructions are Tilopa’s six methods for maintaining the absorptive state, or his Six Nails of Key Points:
Let go of what has passed.
Let go of what may arise.
Let go of what is happening now.
Let go of modulating (examining).
Let go of trying to control (there is nothing to do).
Let the mind rest in its natural state.
When we consider where “we” are in relationship to time, to location, and to general appearance, in a genuine heartfelt way, our inner scaffolding, the need for support, and the gentle movement of our clouds of doubt and subtle obscuration begins to dissipate. The rays of our natural light shines- the question of when, where, how and why lose imminence; they are answered with a silent knowing, and inner surety. Might this be what liberated Milarepa? Perhaps this is the achievement of great yogins to which Milarepa refers.
While these rays, innate representations of our stainless purity, our undeniable inheritance, an immovable storehouse of blessings, empowerment and transmission, are known and experienced at times in a way that might initially appear shaky and tentative, it is important to remember that our provenance, the nature of our core-being, is that very stainless purity.
The martial and strong-willed Lama Shang (of whom you can learn more here), a student of Gampopa and founder of the Tsalpa Kagyu writes:
Upon loosening mental consciousness through relaxation
Inner sensation and clarity of non-discrimination emerge like the expanse of the clear sky.
This represents the clarity of dharmakaya.
Similarly, one can find many passages that help to illustrate the mind’s essential nature, the way through which we can recognize with constancy the way the mind arises, and that this buddha-like essence is always here, we simply fail to recognize it. These pithy instructions are often essential in nature; short and sweet, relaxed and expansive.
Tibet in the 15th century bore witness to a tremendous amount of spiritual distillation and passionate vigor that lead to a structuralism that allowed for the foundation of the Geluk lineage and the subsequent philosophical and scholastic discourse. It was also a period that witnessed the rise of teachers like Tsangnyon Heruka, Drukpa Kunley and Thangtong Gyalpo, all of whom sought to laugh in the face of convention; for them the central loci of dharma was the authentic practice of dharma, where an atmosphere of iconoclasm and openness tempered by rigorous personal dedication to samaya and the stream of essence dharma was of prime importance.
I am captivated with a giddy curiosity around what it means to bring this spirit of free enquiry, of dedicated vision, and the certainty needed to abandon some of the heavy dead weight that accompanies our practice. Can we apply the leaches of pure vision to the engorged stagnant well fattened body of our assumptions and dull fundamentalism so that the blood of heavy density is removed? Can we allow ourselves to embrace siddhas, or complete madmen, like Tsangnyon Heruka and Thangtong Gyalpo in our conception of “practice”? How do we add the rowdy passion and the complete assembly of the ganachakra to the steady perhaps overly controlled conception of how the middle way appears? Can we embrace the full luminosity of mind? When does the structure of our spiritual path get in the way? How do we defer to the structure rather than letting ourselves begin to walk?
The slight change in perspective that Tsangnyon Heruka offers us in his Life of Milarepa, through his suggesting that we may all achieve complete enlightenment by the power of the dharma blended with our own effort is a gift. It allows all of us to assume a seat in the larger ganachakra of buddha-beings, to gain access to our true inheritance as the young Milarepa did, and to transcend the death blows that our inner tendencies towards the distancing aspects of philosophy and rationalism (perhaps represented by Geshe Tsakpuhwa, the one who poisoned Milarepa). Thus freed, we are able to experience all that he has experienced; we are free to know that our practice can ascend to great heights; we are free to know that this buddha nature of ours will naturally dawn.