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!
Recently, I decided to spend the early portion of a Saturday doing Chöd under the Pulaski Bridge that connects Brooklyn and Queens (connecting Kings county and Queens county), and crosses the infamous Newtown Creek. Newtown Creek, for those who are unaware, has the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted waterways in the United States, and is home to the second worst oil spill in America; an estimated 30 million gallons of oil flowed into the creek in the 1950’s, none of which has been removed. As a result of the oil spill, a century of raw sewage being dumped into the waterway, as well as the dumping of various wanted byproducts of heavy industry such as sulfuric acid, fertilizer and other chemical admixtures there is a layer of highly toxic sludge fifteen feet thick that blankets the floor of Newtown Creek.
In making the decision to head to the Pulaski Bridge and Newtown Creek three distinct criteria had to be addressed: there had to be a bridge, the place had to have some equivalence to a charnel ground, and it had to invoke fear/discomfort.
The latter two criteria speak to the nature of where chöd has historically been practiced: places that invoke fear and terror; places where there could be a direct mirroring of one’s own internal demons with the projected demons of haunted locales. Such sites have often included charnel grounds, and also places where terrible events have happened. A reader once commented on another post that I wrote about chöd that civil war battle sites seem to hold some relevance as chöd sites. This is a brilliant observation! Upon second glance, it is easy to notice a wide variety of places that invoke strong feelings of fear and terror. They surround us and yet we tend to drive or walk by them interacting with them in a way that lacks the direct depth of honest observation. Often we fail to interact with them at all. As I caught myself feeling slight dread in practicing under the Pulaski Bridge amongst the oil depots and industrial traffic that pulsates along the dead creek I realized that this was a great place to go practice. What better way to be curious about why I should feel discomfort in practicing there? What is the difference between practicing there and at home, or in a park, or even a cemetery?
That the site should have a bridge reflects a larger curiosity that I developed a few days before about bridges and trolls. In June I finished 2 units of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) with the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, which in addition to being oriented around Zen Buddhism, is heavily informed by Jungian psychology. Reflection upon the symbolic meanings presented by patients, or a given patient’s particular affect, as well as our own perceptual reactions to what arises at any given moment is encouraged. While walking in Prospect Park, and with this training still fresh in my mind, I found myself under a bridge and for the first time in many years I reflected that trolls are often associated with the space under bridges. They live under bridges, and hide under the cross-roads-like environment that we commonly find under bridges. Somehow this space elicits discomfort, such spaces seem secret, hidden, perhaps the place where illicit things happen. I wanted to explore this in chöd practice.
I packed my kyangling and damaru, my pecha and bell and dorje, and brought along a bumpa vase with water blessed with many sacred substances including special pills made by the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche for the express purpose of dispelling demons and “inner” hindrances. In addition to performing chöd, I wanted to offer these substances to Newtown Creek. With my bag packed, I headed to this industrial charnel ground, the site of an alchemical bridge that joins Kings County with Queens County (Male and Female, Salt and Sulfur) that crosses a body of water that deep under fifteen feet of unknown matter (unconscious mind) and may house inner trolls and local gods. Kye Ho!
Upon finding a suitable place for my practice, I considered how the place made me feel. What were its trolls going to be like? When I touched my “inner” trolls what would I find? I remember from childhood the story of the Three billy Goats Gruff; the story of three goats of ascending size who wish to cross a bridge so that they may feast on greener pastures, the only problem is that they must cross a bridge that is protected/owned, or the home of a nasty troll.
Bridges are places of vulnerability. Their structure is meant to carry us from one stable ground to another, in-between (a bardo), we are not standing on solid ground. Perhaps when we are experiencing the bardos of change; the invariable transition from one moment to another; one experience or feeling to another, we are vulnerable to being unseated in a more direct and profound manner. These bardos are bridges, and where there are bridges there are trolls.
In Norse mythology trolls are generally held to be large, slow, human-like beings. Trolls are not known for their intellects. They are impulsive, brutish, stubborn, earthy, and grounded. In a way, trolls seem to be a personification of the weight and anchoring qualities of the earth element, but in a self-defensive, perhaps self-protective manner or function. Indeed, the slow conservatism, the heavy reactive stubbornness that trolls are known for seem to be the prime emotions in opposition to the easy experience of transitioning across bardos; across our bridges from one moment to the next. They want to hold on. They try to exert the magnetism of discursiveness; the force of myopic focus that prevents us from seeing the larger picture. They want us off the bridge, they try to prevent us from making the transition; they will even try to kill us to this end.
It seems that trolls show their heads very frequently in my experience of everyday life; this stubborn stupidity, a dullness, and desire to not embrace change. I easily lose count in trying to reflect how often these trolls try to unseat me.
That Newtown Creek has a fifteen foot layer of toxic sludge separating it from the “real” earthy bottom seems particularly significant, if not essentially symbolic. What stagnation! It is as if the earth herself is being suffocated. Perhaps just as we suffocate ourselves when our inner-demononic-troll-like stubbornness, our hard-headed personification of gravity, our dull stupidity, and brutish reactivity arise, this poor creek-cum-canal is being suppressed and held down. Toxicity has many shades, and it’s easy to focus upon its generic staples: fear, anger, jealousy, greed, laziness. But what of toxicity in its more subtle and elusive forms?
How do we allow ourselves to stagnate? How do we dissempower ourselves? How do we allow ourselves to fail, to be imperfect? How do we let our trolls steal the vitality of our transitions (bardos)?
This is what I set upon to discover; these demons of Newtown Creek, the demons of stagnation and sedate subconsciousness as well as the army of trolls that seek refuge and feast underneath the Pulaski Bridge. They are not far, they arise from within ourselves…
In making an offering of myself to these beings, I feel that I was able to shed light upon them as they arise. It is a process of honoring and respecting the natural occurence of emotions as they arise. It lends itself to both a process of developing a greater awareness of the play of mind, as well as a means of offering deep witness to our unique inner constellations. Such constellations, wonderous displays, are already perfect- they arise with the same natural clarity and depth as the constellations that we see in clear night skies. There is nothing to add or to take away. The brilliance of their simple appearance is suggestive of immense wonderous beauty. Nothing to subjugate. Perhaps this is chöd-of-mahamudra: the offering of the suchness of our own minds as witness to it as it arises…
I visualized that the offering deities and the demons themselves came with great ferocity, like a howling wind, stealing portions of my torn flesh and warm organs. Those with more time and resources carefully selected prime sections, the liver and heart perhaps. Others still set up camps and carefully roasted various portions of the offering taking time to set up their own feasts. That these demons may be honored, and receive my offering helps to liberate them- my emotional habits, self-clinging and the like are allowed to loosen into non-referential emptiness.
As I was performing the chöd sadhana, on that day and at that location, the portion of the text that focuses upon offering the remains of the central ganachakra felt very salient and meaningful. I have come to try to allow myself to rest in sadhana practice while I am doing it, and in so doing, realizing that at different moments and for a whole host of possible reasons the pecha speaks with powerful clarity at different moments in different ways. There are so many secondary practices within each pecha that as our inner weather changes, there are many differing modalities of our practice that may be tailored to best suit ourselves at any given moment in time. If we can view the practice text as alive, full of endless vitality and imbued with the potential for constant unfolding compassion, then every time we sit down to recite a prayer or a particular sadhana we are really engaging directly with the text as a vehicle through time and space. Every time we read a pecha it can be as if we are reading it for the first time.
This is also another great place where trolls arise. They arise in our practice. Our mind can easily become the slow dense troll-mind where pechas feel boring and long, always the same and perhaps even a little dusty. The pecha becomes a thing, a book, a physical text, the warm humid breath of the dakinis, in this case of Machig Labdron herself dissipates. It is lost when we become dull. The full dynamic interpenetration of individuated hermenutic bliss fades; the electricity of the rich moment dies. The possibility for realizing “the lama-as-appearance” to use the wonderful term that the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche often used to describe the mind as lama (that appearance in all of its myriad display is the lama-as-appearance) becomes compromised.
In recognizing this, the offering of the remainder of the ganachakra felt timely, both within myself as well as within my immediate environment. So, as I sat under the bridge while trucks rumbled down Box Street I imagined that the slippery flesh of my ignorance, raw and painful, was mixing with a seemingly endless ocean of my own warm sticky blood, rich in iron: my desire; and my rattling bones, still moist and full of rich marrow: my hatred. I mixed these together and offered it in a vast torma vessel- my own skull. I offered this to the local gods, the local protectors, to the particular trolls that inhabit the Pulaski Bridge, as well as my own trolls. This ambrosial nectar, the very last remnants of my body, I offered to this particular place- this polluted earth, forgotten and ignored by many who speed by, is the same earth that supported the Buddha. Somewhere underneath that thick toxic sludge is the same earth that the Buddha touched, similarly, within ourselves is the same Buddha. The ability to recognize “the lama-as-appearance” is always part of us.
After the practice session I brought my bumpa vase filled with water blessed by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, blessing pills associated with Chenrezig, Amitabha, and Dorje Phagmo, as well as sacred medicinal substances, and pills specially made by the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche for averting the disturbances caused by ghosts, demons and the previously mentioned “inner” hindrances up onto the Pulaski Bridge. While reciting a variety of mantras I poured the amrita into Newtown Creek that there may be benefit. May the magic of this place be known! May the power of its local gods be appreciated, and may they, the local gods, the trolls and the great teachers of stagnation, of dullness and of forgetfulness never be forgotten!
Perhaps every place is imbued with wonderful symbolic representations- dynamic reminders- of our own strengths and our weaknesses. Whether it be Newtown Creek, the Gowanus Canal, or a former slave burial ground, if we look a little more loosely the lama-as-appearance is always present. It offers a constancy of potential liberating circumstances. The charnel ground of the chödpa is everywhere. I am reminded of something that I once read by the previous Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche in which he said that the mind is the essential charnel ground as it is here where thoughts come to die.
Perhaps then, we carry all of the eight great charnel grounds of India within our very experience of mind.
This being a possibility, I offer prayers that we all may realize the chöd-field of our own minds. May we be free of clinging to this body as real, may we recognize it as illusory. May the sound of Machig Labdron’s kyangling and damaru permeate the entire universe liberating all upon hearing!
It has been just a little over a year since I started ganachakra.com and changchub.com, the associated site through which one can sponsor prayer, puja, and recitation of texts for the benefit of oneself, for another, or for all beings. Both sites have proved to meet a specific need that exists not just for Buddhists, but for anyone who is experiencing suffering and would like spiritual support.
Shortly after beginning ganachakra.com last summer, I returned to India to see His Eminence the 12th Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche (vajra regent of the Karma Kagyu lineage), as well as Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche (heart son of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, and abbot of Bokar Ngedhon Chokhorling), for periods of instruction, retreat and pilgrimage. Upon returning I wrote two posts, one with instructions on how to place the mind at the point of death from H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche (which you can read here), the other on practicing for others by Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche (which you can read here).
I wish to return to the topic of practicing for the benefit of others; specifically the performance of ritual puja as this is a form of dharma activity that appears to be treated with less importance in non-buddhist countries. I’m not really sure why this is the case, but I suspect it has to do with complicated feelings surrounding magic, ritual, and prayer. It seems important to note that in most cases, western Buddhists have had the benefit of access to higher education and perhaps even a relatively high social class. These factors may or may not be important, but I wonder if they make the outward acceptance of magic, the power of ritual, and the benefit of prayer appear superstitious and regressive. Indeed, it should be noted that most of the public proponents of Buddhism seem to hold advanced degrees, and in the United States at least, on average, there is a rationalism and sense of grounded reality that goes hand in hand with such access to education and perhaps also the leisure time to devote towards practice. Culturally, this imprint exists, as to how real it is, and to how much of an absolute it has become, is something that I cannot say much about. Perhaps we only know for ourselves how loose and free we are of this and other cultural imprints. How do these imprints color our notion of Buddhism? These projected realities can only be indicated and fully understood individually. If anything it seems that approaching the surety of the rational mind with mindful awareness is wise; for such a cherished dialectic is as much an habitual fabrication as anything else.
Mindful of the potential impossibility and eternal contradictions that words allow for, I acknowledge that I may make a variety of mistakes in trying to address this topic. That said, I invite you to explore with me how practice for others is a vitally important dharma activity.
When we pray, what are we doing?
There are many different forms of prayer. Aspiration prayers, dedication prayers, supplication to a particular lineage, direct prayers of praise to a given Buddha, and prayers of request for empowerment, to name a few. Through personal prayer, in a very general sense, we make a connection with our distinct source of spirituality and the well-spring of spaciousness, interpenetrating connection, and personal empowerment that it offers. The specific directionality and aim of our prayers can be focused and refined by what kind of prayer one does.
A great example of an aspiration prayer is the Dewachen Prayer; it focuses the mind upon making the aspiration for either oneself or another to be reborn in Dewachen or Sukhavati, the pure-land of the Buddha Amitabha. This prayer plants the seeds of connection to the intention of experiencing the bliss of Amitabha’s face, the ability to connect with the dharma, to have the means to practice, and to experience the mind’s basic clarity. It allows Amitabha’s commitment to benefit us to come to fruition.
Dedication prayers connect us to others; they engender compassion, and reinforce our commitment to bodhisattva activity. The following is an example of a dedication prayer:
By this virtue may I quickly
Attain the state of a Guru-Buddha (Enlightenment),
And then may I lead every being,
without exception, into that state.
May the most precious and supreme bodhicitta
Which has not yet been generated now be generated.
And may the precious mind of bodhicitta which has
Never decline, but always increase.
Dedication prayers are a way in which we ground our intention. They help us to keep the general view of interconnection and offer a form of bearing witness. Any merit that we have created we dedicate to all beings, so that they may experience Buddhahood; this is a way of not forgetting and maintaining our heritage as both a potential buddha, but also as a participant in samsara. These prayers are easily over-looked, but they open us up to a sense of loving-kindness and appreciation of others no matter what form they take.
Lineage prayers, much like family trees, connect us with those who have come before us. In this case we have the Dorje Chang Thungma, or prayer to Dorje Chang (Vajradhara) the dharmakaya source of the Kagyu lineage. This prayer begins with a supplication of the early forefathers of the kagyu lineage and then moves on to plant the seeds for renunciation, devotion, and attention, and reflection, all of which are very helpful, if not required to gain an essence oriented realization of the mind’s qualities. This prayer serves to connect us with the Kagyu lineage, delivering the blessings of its founders, as well as the central blessing of the Kagyu approach to the practice of meditation. Lineage prayers like this one are a way of directly connecting with the essence of a lineage, and through that, experiencing deep inspiration and faith, the energy that bolsters us in our practice.
Dorje Chang Thungma
Great Vajradhara, Tilopa, Naropa
Marpa, Milarepa, and Lord of the Dharma, Gampopa
Knower of the three times, omniscient Karmapa
Lineage holders of the four great and eight lesser schools
Drikung, Taklung, Tsalpa, glorious Drukpa and others,
You who have thoroughly mastered the profound path of Mahamudra
Unrivaled protectors of beings, the Dakpo Kagyü
I pray to you, the Kagyü lamas
Grant your blessing that we may follow your tradition and example.
Detachment is the foot of meditation, it is taught.
Attachment to food and wealth disappears
To the meditator who gives up ties to this life,
Grant your blessing that attachment to ownership and honor cease.
Devotion is the head of meditation, it is taught.
The lama opens the door to the profound oral teachings
To the meditator who always turns to him,
Grant your blessing that uncontrived devotion be born within.
Unwavering attention is the body of meditation, it is taught.
Whatever arises, is the fresh nature of thought.
To the meditator who rests there in naturalness,
Grant your blessings that meditation is free from intellectualization.
The essence of thought is dharmakaya, it is taught.
They are nothing whatsoever, and yet they arise.
To the meditator who reflects upon the unobstructed play of the mind,
Grant your blessing that the inseparability of samsara and nirvana be realized.
Through all my births, may I not be separated
From the perfect Lama and so enjoy the glory of the dharma.
May I completely accomplish the qualities of the path and stages
And quickly attain the state of Vajradhara (awakened mind).
As far as prayers directed at a particular Buddha, I have included a prayer to the Buddha Prajnaparamita for the removal of obstacles. It comes from a booklet of collected prayers that was handed out during His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s annual teachings in Bodh Gaya in December of 1998. This prayer is a supplication to Parjnaparamita and the dakinis of the three places so that all obstacles and hindrances may be removed. This invocation of Prajnaparamita’s power for protection and removal of problems, as well as the dakinis that emanate from her body, speech and mind is a way of receiving her natural blessing and connecting in a direct way. The two mantras, the second of which is the mantra of prajnaparamita herself, clear away all and any perceived “reality” of obstacles, rendering them impossible, empty, and without gravity.
Prayer to remove obstacles based upon Prajnaparamita from the Gelug Lineage
I prostrate to the gathering of dakinis of the three places,
Coming from the supreme holy site of “Space-enjoying”,
Who have the powers of clairvoyance and magical emanation,
And regard practitioners as their offspring.
A KA SA MA RA TSA SHA DA RA SA MA RAY AH PHET
Tayatha gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi soha
Through the power of the great truth of the words of the Exalted Three Jewels
May all adverse conditions be overcome.
May they become non-existent.
May they be pacified.
May all the evils, such as enemies, obstacles, hindrances and adverse conditions be satisfied.
Shantim kuruye Soha
May the eighty thousand types of obstacles be pacified,
May we be separated from adverse harmful conditions,
May everything conducive be obtained and by the auspiciousness of everything good,
May there be excellent happiness here and now.
In these ways, we see that prayer can be focused and very specific. Each modality is a little different from the others, but can be easily blended into one another if one desires. I have come to find that as a chaplain, prayer is real. It effects significant change within me when I deliver it within my own practice, and when I perform prayer for others it changes the feeling of the room as well as the orientation of the person for whom it was delivered. I have even had the experience of a dying patient who held out until prayer could be delivered; as I finished the last word of the prayer the patient died. Prayer can be a vehicle, and a ladder, it is a bridge and an oasis in the face of difficulty.
I realize that personal prayer and ritual, as part of a regular spiritual practice makes a lot of sense- the effects are palpable. But what of prayer and ritual for others? This is something that I feel a greater number of people in the West may be more skittish about.
Lately I have been requested to perform pujas and prayers for a number of people who have recently passed away. Within the mix of specific practices that I do, I tend to focus on Chöd, Mahakala and Shingkygong, as supplementary practices to help ensure that the passage through the bardo is smooth, without the affliction of fear and anger, and so that when rebirth comes, it is peaceful and rich. The effect of Mahakala and Shingkyong, in my mind at least, is profound- there is little chance that as enlightened protectors they will forget to benefit beings; and so, when invoked and supplicated with heartfelt devotion and clarity, there is no reason as to why obstacles will arise.
Chöd allows me to experience intimacy with the consciousness of the person who has passed away. I enjoy offering the feasts of my freshly butchered body, my eyes, flayed skin, and skull to all of the demons of self-clinging and self-cherishing so that the person for whom this practice is dedicated will pass through the bardo aware of the illusory nature of their body. In inviting the recently deceased to the ganachakra of my body, an offering made so that all of their obstacles may be dissolved into the emptiness that characterizes their essential nature, we become connected. We form a bond; a shared experience of seeing things as they really are. The benefit of this kind of approach to being there for others who have recently passed away feels extraordinary- I take great joy in being able to have the chance to do this.
In a sense, practicing for others is more than bodhisattva activity, the indiscriminate non-referential care for the basic happiness of others, it is also strongly urged through many of the tantric commitments (samayas) associated with a variety of practices. It is quite common amongst the samayas associated with the practice of a number of tantric deities that the practitioner engage in the activities of performing pujas, offering tormas, and removing obstacles in the manner of the mahasiddhas of old. This is another application of skillful means; we can effect great change through our practice, the least of which is experience full realization. In this way we connect with the mahasiddhas of India- we seamlessly continue their lineage.
Why not be a benefit to others? Indeed, not being stingy with the dharma assets is one of the key precepts that is kept within the Zen tradition, and is commonly found in a variety of forms in all expressions of buddhadharma; one not look any further than the paramita of generosity.
Science even affirms the value of practice for others. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) conducted a study of the effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer, which as an outcome outlined that this type of prayer should be considered within clinical treatment. You read tha abstract here. An abstract from a study done by the National Institute of Health (NIH) on the effects of remote intercessory prayer and it’s recorded benefits in recovery from low self-esteem, depression and anxiety can be read here. In terms of the recovery of cardiac patients another NIH study suggests that remote intercessory prayer may be considered “an adjunct to standard medical care”. As a chaplain, my time assigned to a medical intensive care unit (MICU) offered a quick introduction to a variety of ways in which direct measurable benefit could be experienced from the performance of prayer and ritual.
Do all the studys support the efficacy of prayer? No. In fact many studies suggest that there is no correlative relationship between pray and recovery from illness. One on the reasons why many studies don’t seem to support the effects of prayer, I believe, is that the nature of the studies don’t take into full account all of the areas of benefit that prayer and spiritual practice for others provide. I have experienced that much of the initial benefit of my being there for others to do puja, deliver prayer, or even just be there to talk with patients in the hospital and private clients is internal; it helps to bolster or reinforce the individuals sense of ground, it clarifies their own spirituality. From this point, the benefits can sometimes manifest as relief from pain, reduction of stress and trauma, and these in turn can lead towards hastened recovery, or even meaningful recovery. It is important to note how varied the experience of illness is; it’s never the same experience. Illness changes from moment to moment, affecting us in a unique way each minute spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, as well as physically. Prayer is ellusive, and so is the experience of illness.
Through my experience of Buddhism I have come to experience first hand the importance of spiritual care in the face of illness and death. Being there for others in the midst of illness and death is to fundamentally share our experience of the four noble truths- through this we are reminded of our essential impermanence. I have spent time with two teachers of mine, the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche as well as Bhue Tulku, or Dekhung Gyalsey Rinpoche, while they performed many pujas in the homes of various families in Sikkim to provide tangible, very meaningful spiritual care. What I have come away with from my experiences with these teachers is that practice for others is a wonderful, joyous part of the path. It is an exemplary aspect of what it means to be there, openly and in direct relationship with another person; it is an expression of great natural spontaneous generosity, and it is something that is expected of us as we mature and come into deeper relationship with our practice of buddhadharma.
I pray that this form of dharma activity in the West takes root, multiplies and offers meaning and context for countless beings!
At the end of my post on performing Chod at Greenwood Cemetery (which you can read here), I wondered about doing Chod at the Gowanus Canal; the recently designated superfund site that divides Carrol Gardens from Park Slope in Brooklyn. This toxic body of water is an artery of death and decay that is both close to my home as well as my heart. As a legendary repository of dead bodies (the detritus of organized crime), flood waste from higher elevations in Brooklyn, and just about every kind of heavy manufacture imaginable, the Gowanus canal seems a ghost-like symbol of where we put things that we want to forget.
Before I packed my bags with the things needed for the practice, I spent some time contemplating the Gowanus as a symbol. It is a body of water, a canal specifically, connected to the larger harbor by Buttermilk channel. The water in the canal stagnates as a result of a broken ventilating pump system at the far end of the canal. It is a remnant of the larger heavy industry that once existed in this part of Brooklyn and received all of the shipments of brownstone from up the Hudson that made most of Park Slope’s beautiful brownstones. The canal also became a dumping-ground; it is not uncommon to find all manner of things floating in the water that at times resembles muddy anti-freeze. It is a miraculous canal as well, several summers ago I came to notice that dozens of red jelly fish made the canal their home.
As I began the sadhana (ritual text) I felt that I wanted to offer myself to the inner-demon who most represents the Gowanus Canal. In fact, I specifically tried to make this session an offering to the local gods associated with this area. I imagine that the god-demon of this particular place is one of the lords of places that are ignored; places where we leave, or even dump things that we no longer want, places of stagnation, where oxygen is literally consumed by the waste that we store; of things unwanted yet unable to be fully let go of, a ghostly world of secrets. For me, the god-demon of the Gowanus Canal is the lord of inner-wastelands.
The wonderful thing about Chod is the way in which we can access, face, and pacify all of our internal demons. It is very powerful, if that is, you choose to try to really look for these painful and frightening demons. It is also possible to do the practice while not particularly looking that hard; and then while you may make nice sounds with your bell and damaru, not much else happens.
The term “demon” is mostly taken to represent an internal neurosis or emotional focal point that distracts and provides an ability to obsess in a way that makes direct experience of the mind very difficult. These demons, while self-creations, can feel so real that they tend to paralyze and create huge amounts of suffering, indeed they can be considered the agents of samsara. They exert great power upon us in the form of fear, jealousy, hatred, pride, and in this case, secret internal toxicity.
Machik Lobdron, the female 12th century Tibetan founder of the Chod lineage, created a practice based in prajnaparamita literature as well as within tantric Buddhism. Part of this practice involves offering a mandala offering of one’s body:
The trunk and head serve as Mt. Meru in the center, the four limbs serve as the four continents, the sun and moon are the right and left eyes, the ground is our freshly flayed skin, and the fingers and toes are arranged as a great mighty chain of iron mountains that encircle the whole mandala.
The more realistic the visualization the better- we are after all butchering this prized body of ours, ornamented with the pearls of ego fixation, self-nature, and pride. But after the reluctance, and after the discomfort, what is there? What remains? In offering freely to the assembly of god-demons who terrify us most so that they may benefit, so that they may turn their minds to the dharma and become buddhas in their own right there is a chance to experience our original nature. This is a way of experiencing prajnaparamita.
So how do we touch the inner demon of stagnation? Where is the place within ourselves where we dump things that we don’t want, the place that holds our secrets, our inner wasteland? This place exists. It is in all of us. Like a black pearl made from an initial irritant that has grown many protective layers meant to distract and soothe the oyster that is it’s container. How can we bring this to light? These fears are in reality great strengths- they are pearls…
So here I found myself, in a modern charnel ground surrounded by condom wrappers, dead rats, crushed beer cans, and other things left behind. While at first glance it may appear different from the charnel grounds of old, where bodies were burnt or left to decay, places frequented by wild animals, a place that elicits fear, but upon looking a little closer, this place is no different. It is a place where illicit things are done, where illicit things have been done- it is a dangerous place. It is a place of fear. The canal is off the radar. Once a place of great beauty it is now easily overlooked, as if we don’t want to have any personal relationship with it.
Perhaps the Gowanas Canal is one of the eight great charnel grounds of India reflected in our daily lives here. In the New York area I am certain that it is. In my post on sacred geography (here is a link), I mentioned the historical importance of internal and external geography as it relates to the practice of Buddhist tantra. It seems that the Gowanus Canal occupies a place internally that can offer real growth and healing. What does it feel like to make an offering to, and thereby appreciate the parts of us that we have very willingly forgotten, the parts of us that are stagnant?
As I performed the chod sadhana, made sang offerings (smoke offerings) to the beings that live in the canal and all the beings that the canal represents, and while I hung prayer flags, I found myself recalling all that I have tried to hide, the parts of me that lay stagnant internal dumping grounds; my own inner pollution. I also recalled patients who I have met as a chaplain for whom these dynamics were in play, and prayed that we could all, every sentient being, bring honor and offerings to the inner demon that presides over this type of activity. May they be satisfied. May this offering pacify these demons. There is a line at the end of the sadhana which speaks to chaplaining these demons:
The roots of virtue from this practice of freely offering my body, the roots from caring for god-demons with my bodhicitta, and further however many roots of virtue that have been accumulated throughout the three times-all of this I dedicate for the benefit of living beings in the three realms, malevolent god-demons, and others.
With this kind of caring in mind, our own inner chaplaincy, may we know our inner demons and plant the seeds of buddhahood in our own inner wastelands so that they become purelands!
May any merit from this blog post be dedicated to all beings, especially those who are suffering in Japan after the recent earthquake and tsunami.
I recently spent time considering the importance of my teachers and how fortunate I feel to have received just a portion of the stream of their experience through instruction. The importance of the teacher, whether we call him or her lama or guru, is central- for where would we be without their guidance, their compassion, and their wisdom? Through the openness that we allow ourselves to have with our teachers, a connection of transmission occurs through which we can experience our own fullness and Buddha potential, just as they themselves have done.
I’ve found three passages that help illustrate this point:
This first one is entitled Hail to Manjushri, it was written by the third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339).
Hail to Manjushri!
All phenomena are like illusions,
though absent they appear to exist;
wise indeed are those who cognize them
within the ever-present unborn.
If you perceive the glorious guru
as a supremely enlightened being,
indivisible from your own mind,
you will receive blessings and strength.
If you, without ceasing, propel the flow
of channels, wind energies, and vital drops-
the nexus of interdependent factors-
the stains of self-love will be swiftly cleansed.
The manifold states of nonconception-
clarity and bliss- I place on the path
of nonapprehension, like patterns in water,
then the true mode of being will be definitely seen.[i]
This next song is from the larger section of the collected songs of Milarepa (1052-1135). Milarepa, one of the greatest yogins tha Tibet saw was the heart student of Marpa Lotsawa. Milarepa’s endurance in his practice, and the joy with which he taught is truly remarkable. This song is a portion of the larger song-story called The Song of a Yogi’s Joy:
The Guru, the disciple, and the secret teachings;
Endurance, perseverance, and the faith;
Wisdom, compassion, and the human form;
All these are ever guides upon the Path.
Solitude with no commotion and disturbance
Is the guide protecting meditation.
The accomplished Guru, the Jetsun,
Is the guide dispelling ignorance and darkness.
Faith without sorrow and weariness
Is the guide which leads you safely to happiness.
The sensations of the five organs
Are the guides which lead you to freedom from “contact.”
The verbal teachings of the Lineage Gurus
Are the guides which illustrate the Three Bodies of the Buddha.
The protectors, the Three Precious Ones,
Are the guides with no faults or mistakes.
Led by these six guides,
One will reach the happy plane of Yoga-
Abiding in the realm of Non-differentiation
In which all views and sophisms are no more.
Remaining in the realm of self-knowledge and self-liberation
Is indeed happy and joyful;
Abiding in the valley where no men dwell,
With confidence and knowledge, one lives in his own way.
With a thundering voice,
He sings the happy song of Yoga.
Falling in the Ten Directions is the rain of fame;
Brought to blooming are the flowers and leaves of Compassion.
The enterprise of Bodhi encompasses the Universe;
The pure fruit of the Bodhi-Heart thus attains perfection.[ii]
The third passage is from Gampopa (1070-1153), one of the two main students of Milarepa, and the first to combine the ear-whispered teachings of Milarepa with the Kadampa monastic tradition, thus institutionalizing the Kagyu lineage as a generally monastic lineage. This passage comes from Gampopa’s Precious Garland of the Supreme Path, a wonderful instruction manual of practical advice from this special master. What follows is his description of the first thing that one should rely on as we tread the path, from the third portion of the text entitled, Ten Things Upon Which To Rely:
The first thing on which we must rely is a holy guru who possesses both realization and compassion. The lama must possess realization because a teacher who has no realization or actual experience is like a painting of water, which cannot quench our thirst, or a painting of fire, which cannot warm us. As well, a lama must possess compassion. If the lama merely has realization but has no compassion, he or she cannot teach and will not help sentient beings develop virtuous qualities and relinquish defects. Thus the first thing ton which we must rely is a lama who possesses both realization and compassion.[iii]
I hope that these passages contribute to a sense of connection and warmth with our teachers, and I hope that this connection helps foster inspiration. May this inspiration translate into diligent practice, and through this practice may we fully realize the essence of our teachers’ instructions. May we develop the same stainless conduct as our teachers! May we too raise the victory banner in the citadel of enlightenment!
May the activities of his Holiness the 17th Karmapa flourish and may all obstacles naturally dissolve into emptiness. May his life be long, and may the compassionate wisdom of his example be known to all beings!
[i] Jinpa, Thubten and Elsner, Jas, trans. Songs of Spiritual Experience. Shambala Publications, 2000. Pg. 157.
[ii] Chang, Garma CC.trans. The HUndered Thousand Songs of Milarepa. Shambala Publications,1999. Pg. 80-81.
[iii] Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche. The Instructions of Gampopa. Snow Lion, 1996. Pg. 22.
A friend and classmate in my chaplaincy training program recently alerted our class to a newly conducted study led by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University on the efficacy of prayer for people who are ill. Dr. Benson is no stranger to the world of prayer and meditation, in fact he has built an entire career around studying the physiological effects of meditation and prayer. His findings have generally supported the belief that beyond the spiritual benefits of meditation, the meditator experiences a whole host of benefits ranging from a decrease in stress levels, lower blood pressure, and a general slowing of the body’s metabolism.
In the past Dr. Benson studied a variety of Tibetan monks, including the meditation master Bokar Rinpoche, while they meditated. Dr. Benson focused upon meditators who were practicing Tummo, a vajrayana completion stage yogic meditation that fuses a form of pranayama (breathing exercises) with visualizations of the body’s internal energy matrix. He relates in a documentary based upon his findings, that he could not believe what he discovered: breath and heart rates decreased dramatically, and measured brain activity appeared completely unlike that of a person in waking state. Recent interest in exploring the relationship between meditation and neuroscience by the scientific community, especially in collaboration with H.H. the Dalai Lama and H. H. the 17th Karmapa will undoubtedly clarify the benefits of meditation, and thereby help many people who may become interested in including meditation within their daily lives.
Here is a link to a Harvard Gazette article on the subject:
Additionally, I would like to share a link to a short video clip of Dr. Herbert Benson’s research: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WajTafbG7II.
The efficacy of prayer seems much harder to measure than that of meditation. The results of the study of meditation upon the physiology an individual meditator seem clear; they are easy to quantify, and allow for useful comparison of data recorded in studying a variety of meditators. The study of prayer in this way seems immensely difficult by comparison. Here is the link to the article that my friend emailed us last week:
Many salient points are raised by this study, and perhaps the most important one revolves around how such studies are structured. Prayer is a mysterious subject and it seems that it will take a number of attempts to be able to skillfully measure it’s effects. I do tend to agree with Dr. Richard Sloan’s warning in the New York Times article linked above that we must be careful not to destroy what prayer is about by deconstructing religion to “basic elements that can be easily quantified”. It would be ideal if future studies could honor the place and importance of science as well that of religion and sensitively examine where and how they overlap.
The vajrayana perspective on prayer is fairly clear: prayer is vital. Generally, ritual is included within prayer- often they are interwoven. The performance of prayer in this multi-dimensional way helps to form an active identification with the historical transmission lineage (from the Buddha directly to you), and allows you to rest in your basic-state as a particular buddha in body, speech, mind, as well as in essence. All of these coalesce around acting to benefit others (based upon our pledge to liberate all sentient beings). So important is this type of activity that most recensions of the Hevajra Tantra and Chakrsamvara Tantra, as well as most other root tantras, have chapters dedicated to engaging in the actions of Pacifying, Enriching, and Subduing. These kinds of actions can be best described as psycho-spritual activities to alleviate suffering, promote peace, and plant the seeds of liberation for others; prayer in this context, I would suggest, is quite important. Within the framework of Tantric Buddhism there is an active application of visualization, prayer, ritual and mantra recitation that help the individual to loosen up their conception of the ordinary identification of oneself as an independent being living in opposition to the external world with which they interact, so that one can glimpse the rich wealth of their buddha-nature which is deeply interconnected with the world around oneself. The tools: meditation, prayer and ritual help to clarify the recognition of our basic-state. In this context, prayer is a means to center oneself, to remain intimate with one’s teacher, a particular buddha or protector, or as a means to rest in the mind’s essential nature. It is also an offering; an act of generosity and kindness. Prayer also focuses the mind, making it a support of meditation, it can function as a means of clarifying doubt, as well as a means to receive inspiration. I am sure that this is not unique to vajrayana, or even Buddhism, but lies at the core of prayer regardless of one’s faith.
From the perspective of chaplaincy, specifically around the application of pastoral care in which prayer is requested, the exact physical result of prayer may not be the central goal as much as what the prayer does for the individual requesting it. The relationship between the person conducting the prayer and the person receiving it is a sacred and intimate relationship. Prayer may be directed towards aspects of the self that have little to do with the individual’s physical condition. Prayer can help relieve fear, a sense of separation from others, or help reinforce the inner ground that provides greater support for dealing with one’s particular situation. These factors, and a great many others may indeed lead towards an ability to heal more effectively, but it might have less to do with the actual prayer and more to do with the inner process that prayer energizes, relaxes, empowers, or clarifies. Perhaps it is this inner process that contributes to recovery from illness. Prayer and the use of ritual for a person who is actively dying may also help promote a greater sense of connection and meaning to a life that is transitioning into the experience of death- this can be profoundly important. Ultimately, prayer may not be best approached from the perspective of what it can do with regards to only physical responses, for surely prayer is mysterious, and some of the beauty involved in prayer is how it can return deeper meaning to various moments in an individual’s journey through life, creating a point of orientation that is more imaginal, timeless, and transcendent.
Greetings! In keeping with the last post, I would like to continue along in a manner that accords with the way my recent trip to the Darjeeling and Sikkim areas unfolded. From the seat of the excellent Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche in Mirik, I journeyed to Palchen Choeling Monastic Institute, the seat of His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche, in Ralang, Sikkim.
Nestled between the wonderful mountains of Tibet to the north, Nepal to the west, and Bhutan to the east, the site of the monastery is magnificent, inspiring and embued with peaceful beauty. To the south of the monastery is the retreat center, the largest in Sikkim, home to seventy-five retreatants engaged in the Karma Kagyu three-year retreat focusing on the Six yogas of Naropa. Behind the retreat center is a mountain upon which was the hermitage of a lama named Drubthob Karpo, known for his ability to fly. Nearby are the monasteries of Tashiding (built in the 16th century) and Pemayangtse, and many sites visted by Guru Rinpoche.
I had come to Ralang for an annual period of retreat and to continue to receive a little bit of instruction from His Eminence. He had just returned from Gyuto where he had spent the previous month or so with His Holiness the 17th Karmapa. Fortunately, a few days after my arrival Rinpoche told me that he would be bestowing the complete series of empowerments for the traditional three-year retreat to a group of monks from Mirik and Phodong; he said that I could sit in with the monks and recieve the empowerments as well. This seemed particularly auspicious to me as I would be with monks from Bokar Rinpoche’s monastery (my extended dharma family) and Phodong (a small rural gompa founded during the lifetime of the ninth Karmapa by the Chogyal of Sikkim who then offered it to the ninth Karmapa). Phodong gompa was a favorite of Ani Zangmo, Pathing Rinpoche and Bhue Rinpoche, and through them Phodong came to occupy a special place in my heart. I couldn’t think of any better company to have for such an endeavor.
Towards the end of my month-long stay at Palchen Choeling Monastic Institute I had the good fortune to ask Rinpoche about placing the mind at the point of death, as well as issues surrounding lay people offering prayer and ritual for others. I’ve included Rinpoche’s teaching regarding the placement of the mind at the point of death towards the end of this post following two descriptions of the Gyaltsab Rinpoche incarnation lineage.
As for the issue of lay people conducting prayers and for rituals for others, Rinpoche reiterated the position held by Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche, specifically that it is fine for lay people to engage in such activities, and that one should do whatever practices they know and or are qualified to practice. To be frank, this question was generally met with incredulous glances- it seems a little strange to ask “is it okay if I do something with the intention of benefitting another being?”. In any case, Rinpoche was both supportive and interested, as well as quite curious as to what the response was like to changchub.com.
So, here’s some history of His Eminence the 12th Goshri Gyaltsab Rinpoche…
The reincarnation lineage of the Goshri Gyaltsab Tulkus:
The website for Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, the North American seat of His Holiness the 17th Karmapa (http://www.kagyu.org/) describes the reincarnation lineage of the Gyaltsab Rinpoches as follows:
The twelfth Gyaltsab Rinpoche was born in Central Tibet in Nyimo, near Lhasa. From generation to generation his family was well-known for giving rise to highly developed yogis who achieved their attainments through the recitation of mantras and through Tantric practices. Gyaltsab Rinpoche was one such offspring who was actually recognized by His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa before he was born.
In 1959, Gyaltsab Rinpoche made the journey to Sikkim with His Holiness. He remained for a while with His Holiness’ settlement group in the old Karma Kagyu monastery, which had been built at Rumtek during the time of the ninth Karmapa. In the early 1960’s, Rinpoche received several very important initiations from His Holiness.
After these initiations, his father felt that his child should receive a modern education in English, so he took him to the town of Gangtok to study. However, with his extraordinary vision of what would be truly beneficial, the young Rinpoche chose to study Dharma in His Holiness’ monastery instead of remaining at the school. Just after midnight one night he left his residence in Gangtok and walked the ten miles to Rumtek alone. At sunrise he arrived at the new Rumtek monastery. When he first appeared, all the monks who saw him were surprised at his courage, and most respectfully received him in the main temple, where His Holiness welcomed him. Despite the conflict of ideas between his father and the monks about his education, he began to study the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings of the lineage with three other high Rinpoches.
In Rumtek these four Rinpoches studied basic ritual rites and texts with private tutors. They also studied Mahayana philosophy through investigating numerous commentaries by early well-known Tibetan teachers and scholars, and teachings by masters of Indian Buddhism whose texts had been translated into the language of Tibet many centuries ago.
In previous lifetimes all four of these Rinpoches have been great teachers and lineage holders. In each of their lifetimes, one complete and unique example had been set up, beginning from a childhood learning reading and writing and going through the whole process of study, with a youth spent in discipline leading to a fully ripened human being.
Since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, we are taught that we each must become a truly complete human being. For us as human beings the truth is that we develop the fruit of both good and evil by virtue of our own view, practice, and habitual reactions. This fruit of our own actions on both the physical and mental levels can be either positive or negative. As long as we are ordinary human beings we must deal with the truth of that experience.
Great teachers like Gyaltsab Rinpoche show a perfect example to human beings and especially to those who can relate to the idea that one is responsible for oneself and for others as well, and that no one else is responsible for how we spend our lives, whether we build for ourselves experiences of happiness or suffering. They show us that the difference between an enlightened and an ordinary human being is not one of wealth, title or position, but only one of seeing the present reality of mind experienced at this moment.
The history of the lineage of Gyaltsab Rinpoches:
The Gyaltsab Rinpoches have always been the Vajra Regents of the Karmapas and caretakers of the Karmapa’s monasteries.
Gyaltsab Rinpoche, through his long line of incarnations, has been known for being an expert in meditation.
Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche is the emanation of the Bodhisattva Vajrapani. In the past, Rinpoche incarnated as Ananda, the disciple of the Buddha Shakyamuni who had perfect memory and was responsible for reciting all of the sutras (teachings) of the Buddha before the assembly. Therefore Ananda was responsible for keeping all the words of the Buddha perfectly intact.
Gyaltsab Rinpoche also incarnated as one of the main ministers of the Dharma King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet. He was also Palju Wangchuk, one of the twenty-five principle disciples of Guru Padmasambhava. During Milarepa’s lifetime, Rinpoche appeared as Repa-zhiwa U.
The 1st Gyaltsab Rinpoche Paljor Dondrub (1427-1489) received the glorious title Goshir from the Emperor of China. He took birth in Nyemo Yakteng. His Eminence, who was cared since childhood by the Karmapa, was appointed as the Karmapa’s secretary and regent at fourteen years old. He received the complete transmission of the lineage from the Karmapa, Jampal Zangpo, and the 3rd Shamar Rinpoche. He became the main teacher to the next Karmapa.
The 2nd Gyaltsab Rinpoche Tashi Namgyal (1490 – 1518) received the Red Crown which liberates on sight from the Karmapa. This Red Crown indicates the inseparability of the Karmapa and Gyaltsab Rinpoche, and also indicates that their enlightened minds are equal in nature. Rinpoche recognized the 8th Karmapa and was responsible for his education.
The 3rd Gyaltsab Rinpoche Drakpo Paljor (1519-1549) took birth south of Lhasa and was appointed as the Karmapa’s main regent.
The 4th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Dragpa Dundrub (1550-1617) was also born near Lhasa and received the transmission of the lineage from the Karmapa and the 5th Shamarpa. He was renown for his commentaries and attracted hundreds of disciples.
The 5th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Dragpa Choyang (1618-1658) was enthroned by the 6th Shamar Rinpoche. He spent the majority of his life in meditation. He was also very close to His Holiness the 5th Dalai Lama, as they were strongly connected spiritual friends. Before the 10th Gyalwa Karmapa fled Tibet due to the Mongol invasion, the Karmapa handed over the mantel of the lineage to Gyaltsab Rinpoche.
The 6th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Norbu Zangpo (1660-1698) was enthroned by the 10th Karmapa, after taking birth in Eastern Tibet. He meditated very deeply and wrote numerous commentaries.
The 7th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Konchog Ozer (1699-1765) took birth near Lhasa and was enthroned by the 12th Karmapa. He became one of the main root gurus of the 13th Karmapa, and transmitted to the Gyalwa Karmapa the lineage.
The 8th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Chophal Zangpo (1766-1817) had the 13th Gyalwa Karmapa and the 8th Situ Rinpoche as his main teachers. He became a renown master of meditation and accomplish high states of realization.
The 9th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Yeshe Zangpo (1821-1876) and the 10th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Tenpe Nyima (1877 – 1901) closely guarded the precious transmissions of the Kagyu lineage: receiving them and passing them onto the other lineage masters. Both spent their lives in deep meditation.
The 11th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Dragpa Gyatso (1902-1949) was recognized by the 15th Gyalwa Karmapa and transmitted the lineage.
The 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje recognized the present and 12th Gyaltsab Rinpoche while He was still in his mother’s womb. His parents were from Nyimo, near Lhasa. Soon after his recognition in 1959, His Eminence fled into exile with the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa.
The Gyalwa Karmapa carried Rinpoche on his back while traveling across the Himalayas into exile. He soon settled at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim and received the necessary transmissions.
His Eminence learned the dharma with the other heart sons of the Karmapa such as Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Tai Situ Rinpoche. Like most of his incarnations, he spends his life in meditation and taking care of the seat of the Karmapa. He currently in Sikkim and is the Regent there representing the lineage. He oversees the activities and functions of Rumtek and at his own monasteries, such as Ralang, in Sikkim.
In 1992, Gyaltsabpa and Tai Situpa enthroned the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa in Tibet. The Karmapa has since fled to India and Gyaltsab Rinpoche will help prepare for His Holiness the Karmapa’s return to Rumtek.
Like Situ Rinpoche, Gyaltsab Rinpoche is one of the main teachers of HH the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa and already has bestowed transmissions (from the Rinchen Terdzo, among others) to His Holiness.
As mentioned earlier, I had the opportunity to ask His Eminence about how we should place our minds at the time of death. It seemed to me that this would be a good topic to be able to transmit on Ganachakra as it is both personally relevant (we will all eventually die, and we generally do not know when that will occur), and a very worthy teaching to transmit to others. From the standpoint of chaplaincy, I feel that this instruction is very useful. As is true with most profound meditation instructions, this instruction is beautifully simple, and quite short, but upon reflection on the meaning implied in Rinpoche’s instruction, it captures the natural ease with which resolution at the point of death has the ability to transform the tonality of one’s entire life.
With that said, it is with great pleasure and enthusiasm that I share with you Rinpoche’s thoughts on what one can do as they are dying, or faced with their impending death; how can one place the mind in the face of such an experience?
His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche on Placing the Mind at the time of Death
When one is dying, or about to die, and, they are Buddhist, it is best to practice whatever practices they know. It is important in this manner to reinforce a dharmic outlook- to experience dharma as best as one can.
If one is not Buddhist, then it is of immense benefit to contemplate loving kindness or compassion. In doing this, one opens themselves up to the direct experience of others. In developing a compassionate outlook at the point of death it is possible to transform the habitual tendencies of self-centered outlook that creates the causes of suffering, into the potential for great spiritual gain. In fact one can eliminate great amounts of negative karma through such meditation or contemplation.
There is a story from the life of the Buddha, in which the Buddha was standing by the side of a river. In this river was a great alligator- this alligator when he looked up towards the Buddha, was transfixed by the radiant appearance of the Buddha’s face and kept staring at it. For a very long time, the alligator kept looking at the Buddha’s face, amazed at how peaceful he appeared. After some time the alligator died- but as a result of the peaceful calm feelings it experienced as a result of staring at the Buddha’s face for such a long time, the alligator was born in one of the heaven realms as a god, with all of the faculties and conditions to practice the dharma.
In this way, the moment of death is quite a powerful and meaningful period where one can make quite a difference in the quality of their habitual perceptions up to that time.
I recently arrived home from a wonderful and highly recharging six-week period in India. While there, I split my time between Mirik, near Darjeeling, where Bokar Ngedhon Chokhorling (Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche’s seat in India) is located, Ralang, Sikkim, where His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche’s seat-in-exile is located, and in Varanasi/Sarnath.
As I posted before I left, I had intended in requesting the ven. Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche, the dharma brother and direct heart-son of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, for some thoughts regarding the way we may be of benefit for people through the practice of ritual and the recitation of prayers and mantras for those who are sick, dying or who have passed away. While I was in Mirik, an old friend and former professor emailed me regarding the launch of changchub.com. He was quick to offer compliments regarding the structure of the site, and also expressed: “offering prayers on the behalf of others is something deeply established in the monastic tradition of the Himalayas; however, it is quite new to our culture.” Then he posed an excellent question: is it time for this in the west, and may such prayers be offered by lay people as well as monks?
This question is a good one. Thank you for bringing it up Robert!
For me, it raises questions in terms of what the true difference between the lay practitioner and the ordained practitioner may actually be- it reminds me of both the Vimalakirti Sutra and also the spirit of enquiry expressed in Vipassana (Tib. Lhaktong) meditation.
So, what is the difference between lay and ordained? Additionally, the question can be extended to what is the difference between “eastern” and “western” cultures?
Clearly, the goal of reflecting on these questions in an open way is not to carelessly toss the relative differences aside, as wonderful beauty exists in both lay practice with its endless possibilities for practice, as well as that of the cloistered support of the ordained sangha member. Then there is the natural beauty of the difference between being from Brooklyn and Darjeeling, for example.
However, perhaps it is possible to see that despite the apparent differences the same dharma is shared; the nun and the householder share the same essence- the root of the essential sameness is the point. At least that’s the way I came to formulate my answer to the question posed. We bring the tone and flavor to our own actions- a monk or nun with a busy distracted mind is the same as a layperson with a similarly distracted mind. Likewise, a layperson with clear penetrating recognition of the suchness of their mind is no different from a nun or monk with a similar view. That said, the ordained sangha performs the vital role of preserving the actual lineage- but it should not be forgotten that as lay-people, when we receive instructions and practice them, we too are preserving a practice lineage.
As for offering prayers or performing ritual practice for others; making such offerings and dedicating the merit of practice for others is of immense benefit to the recipient. It helps to create the conditions of peace and the alleviation of suffering; it is an act of kindness, a reminder of our interconnectedness, and an act of skillful-means. It seems to me to be the fresh-faced other-side-of-the-coin that is meditation practice; something that is often seen as solitary, often aimed at individual personal spiritual development, and perhaps in the West presented in an all too myopic fashion. Maybe we could benefit from being shaken up a bit and made to exercise more of the compassion side of the wisdom/compassion relationship…
I would like to return to this subject in the near future, as I feel that it’s an important one, but for now, I’d like to share Khenpo Rinpoche’s wonderful instructions.
As I had previously intended on asking Khenpo Rinpoche what should be done to benefit those who are sick, dying, or have passed away, on July 5th, I happily took this extra question to him as well. There’s a great bio of Khenpo Rinpoche at the gompa’s website: http://www.bokarmonastery.org, if you’d like more information about him, the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, and Bokar Ngedhon Chokhorling.
Ven. Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche on Practice for Others
When one is going to die, you should try your best to pacify the dying person’s mind. Try to bring peace. If the person is Buddhist then you can recite the lineage masters’ names, or for example “Karmapa Chenno” (Karmapa think of me), as well as one’s own root master’s name. If the person has died, you can whisper these in the person’s ear in a pleasing voice. You can also recite the names of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, for example, Amitabha (mantra: Om Ami Dhewa Hri), or Chenrezig (mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum), or some other mantra; whatever you know.
These are very important. You see, when one is dying as well as for the person who has passed away, after their death, while in the Bardo state hearing the names of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and lineage masters makes one recall the Dharma; it is like a positive habit where one remembers the dharma and then can easily be liberated. This is very important.
If the person is non-Buddhist you can see if the person likes hearing the names and mantras of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas or not. If one likes to hear the names and mantras of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and they are not Buddhist that’s fine.
If one dislikes hearing such names or mantras then you shouldn’t say them, but mentally you can visualize or recite the names and mantras of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to help the person who is either sick, dying, or has died. You should also visualize yourself as Chenrezig or Amitabha while your mind and the mind of the deceased person are merged, and then meditate. Also, you should do tonglen. You see, you should send your happiness, your virtuousness, your peace, to the person who has passed away- expelling their sorrows, fear, and unhappiness. This is an excellent time to do tonglen practice.
Without saying anything, you can also mix your mind with the mind of the person who has died and rest in the Mahamudra state.
These things, along with meditation on love and compassion are the best things that you can do.
When one is sick you can do Sangye Menla (Medicine Buddha), Lojong, and others, Guru Yoga, Dorje Sempa (Vajrasattva)- anything that purifies. You should try your best to examine what is best for the particular person- check the situation.
Basically, any practice can be done for the person who has died. Often though, it is good to do Amitabha so that the person may be reborn in Amitabha’s pure land. You can do the Dewachen Monlam many times, for forty-nine days, or three weeks, or one week even- or alternatively you should do the longer Amitabha practice if you know it and have the time.
All of these things will help.
[Note: While Rinpoche and I were talking, I specifically brought up to him the fact that for some in the West the dedication of prayer or ritual offerings for the benefit of those who are sick, dying or have died, may seem new as it tends to be less emphasized when one normally thinks of Dharma practice, and I asked if it is okay to perform such activities. Khenpo Rinpoche was very enthusiastic in his response, saying that indeed anyone can do practice for others. One can do whatever practices that they know. The most important thing is that one is trained in the practices that they are doing for others- this means that if the practice requires an empowerment and reading transmission, then these must be obtained, as well as whatever subsequent instructions are necessary to perform the practice. Practicing for others should not be seen as limited to ordained sangha members. He was very definitive in expressing this.]
May this be of benefit!
Later today I am leaving for a six week trip to India. I will be heading out to see His Eminence Gyaltsap Rinpoche, at either Rumtek or Ralang monasteries.
There may be the opportunity to also meet with Bhue Rinpoche. In addition to receiving further instruction, spending time in retreat, and pilgrimage, I look forward to discussing changchub.com (http://www.changchub.com) with Gyaltsab Rinpoche. Hopefully I will be able to secure an interview with His Eminence for the blog. Additionally, I’d like to see if I can add Akshobya practice to the list of practices that are offered through changchub.com. The practice of the Buddha Akshobya is one of the most well known means for purification of those who have passed away; it’s particularly effective in resolving the occurrence of anger at the point of death, and allows for a peaceful solid passing through the bardo. I had the wonderful opportunity to receive instruction on the practice from His Eminence in Bodh Gaya in 2007- and hope to see it added to the website.
There will also be some time spent in Mirik, the small town that’s home to Bokar Rinpoche’s seat, Bokar Ngedon Chokhor Ling. I hope to spend some time practicing in the presence to the stupa that holds the remains of Bokar Rinpoche, as well as meeting with Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche- the abbot of Bokar Ngedon Chokhor Ling, and close dharma brother to the late Bokar Rinpoche. There may be the opportunity to interview Khenpo Rinpoche for the website as well.
During this six week period, I’ll also be thinking of a variety of ways to open up the blog a bit- about ways to include other voices and other perspectives. I friend of mine recently got in touch with me and suggested that we create a council of blog contributors. I’ll spend some time in rainy monsoon Sikkim considering how best to make that happen.
It will be nice to have the opportunity to engage in slowing down, taking time to quiet the mind, and deepen practice. It is such a good thing to break the habits of daily business and preoccupations to remind ourselves of everything else, of all of the “ordinary” things that we tend to over-look as we zoom from here to there like busy bees.
Until the beginning of August, I wish you all the best.