People are scared to empty their minds
fearing that they will be engulfed by the void.
What they don’t realize is that their own mind is the void.
Not too long ago, when a lama came to the dharma center to teach on the Dujom Tersar cycle of chöd, I came across a few references in a variety of writings, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist that describe the experience of panic that arises in the face of the experience of loosening the intensity of the grasp around a permanent self. These reminders have been timely teachers as I have found myself recalling moments of ‘self’ destruction for lack of a better term, as well as deep listening to my own experience of periodic panic that sometimes presages a feeling of a less real sense of self. I feel that this is an under-explored topic, namely the fear that accompanies the spiritual path. Over the years I sometimes wonder if this fear is the fear that our practice will be (or is) successful.
Confess your hidden faults.
Approach what you find repulsive.
Help those you think you cannot help.
Anything you are attached to, give that.
Go to the places that scare you.
Within the context of the practice of vajrayana, the practice of chöd, regardless of any particular lineage, offers a very compelling way through which we might help effectively confront this self that tries to hold together the matrix of identity that wants to know and control the world around us. A complex alignment of dynamics, chöd offers a powerful visualization that chips away the plaque of identity, it slowly releases the grip of the hand that tries to maintain a handle upon what we experience. As we loose our grip, finger by finger, and we feel ourselves slipping, we are easily reminded of the truth of impermanence of the castles of sand that we create and imbue with such power and reality that before we know it, we and everything around us feels real, important, and vitally essential. Whether the visualization emphasizes Prajnaparamita, Vajravarahi or Tröma, it is essential to remember that they all represent the complete luminosity of emptiness; the vividness with which we do not exist, and the bliss associated with realizing that everything around us is pure appearance. The counter-intuitive act of visualizing oneself thrown into a kapala made up of one’s own skull and transformed into an ambrosial offering for all beings, or piled up as a mandala offering upon one’s own flayed skin, these confounding visualizations and the profound sense of generosity required tug at our sense of permanence and our desire to belong constellated in relation to a fixed point within time and space. It is not uncommon to feel a sense of resistance to the practice, a sense of tentative reluctance, or attempts towards pulling back within ourselves.
There can be a lot of pain and suffering when we become aware of how we cling to this wanting to “be”. This alone could easily be regarded as ‘going to a place that scares you’ that so much chöd literature seems to refer to. Sometimes this suffering manifests physically, with a visceral painful feeling, a hollowness or sharp sense of discomfort, other times it arises as a sudden busyness in which all of the sudden there is something very important that we find we need to do- something that distracts us from our practice. Sometimes these new things we find ourselves needing to do seem so important and vital that we are seduced by their wonderful meaning and uniqueness. These of course are the arising of demons. They find us wherever we are and rather powerfully unweave some of the fabric of confidence in resting in the view that allows for chöd to be the powerful practice that it is.
Ordinary people look to their surroundings, while followers of the Way look to Mind, but the true Dharma is to forget them both. The former is easy enough, the latter very difficult. Men are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the Void with nothing to stay their fall. They do not know that the Void is not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma. – Huang Po
The experience of groundlessness, I was once told by a psychotherapist who happened to be Buddhist, was not something to be cultivated, but rather, an experience more grounded and tangible was deemed as more valuable, within the process of spiritual growth. I have come across a number of psychoanalysts who warn in their writings that unguided exploration and or cultivation of the experience of groundlessness can lead to a state of psychosis. These warnings are interesting. They are interesting in part because I often wonder about the utility of combining psychoanalysis with Buddhist practice, especially if one is going to fully embrace emptiness of self. In all likelihood the combination of both Buddhism and psychotherapy can be a very effective way with which one can effect a necessary change in one’s experience of life to reduce suffering. Yet I sometimes wonder how much we benefit from aligning our living and breathing practice of dharma with the structures of our intellect such as modalities that seek to measure and define our experience as we move along our path as found within the psychoanalytic model. Our intellect often arises in a manner that does not make sense; especially when the sense of self is threatened. Like sparks, or flashes of lightening in the night sky, the reverberation of the reactive ego- the sense of self-nature wrapped up with the demons that keep it preoccupied- obey no one person. They are messy, sometimes terrifying and often very powerful. Similarly, the fast arrival of vajrayogini with her retinue of dakinis arise in an unpredictable way; this is why they are so integral within this practice and this too is why chöd confounds approaches that seek to find a restorative refinement and distillation of the Self. After all, how can one distill that which is not there?
Those who realize the nature of their mind knows
That the mind itself is wisdom-awareness,
And no longer make the mistake of searching for enlightenment from other sources.
In fact, enlightenment cannot be found by searching.
So contemplate your own mind.
This is the highest meditation one can practice;
This very mind is the perfect awakened nature,
the birth place of all the enlightened ones.
What if we just stopped running? Stopped trying to make ourselves better, more qualified, more important, more knowable and “ourselves”? What if we stopped in our tracks and turned around to face the executioner of our ego-grasping and gave way to the fear that exists around that process? What if we let the associated pain and suffering come rather than defend ourselves and acclimatized ourselves to the gnashing teeth of the demons who come fast, or the methodical bone crushing of the demons who come slow? What if we stopped sublimating everything by actively using our minds to make everything seem like Dharma, and just rest so that things can simply arise as Dharma; ordinary and unaffected; unpatterned and free from artifice?
Perhaps this is the only way in which the strong grip of our fears and insecurities, our limitations and feelings of being unqualified, will burn off like a morning mist as the sun rises. Perhaps trusting in the process is part of this and putting down the willful need for change allows this sense of self- an illusory doer, be seen for what it is, an expression of empty luminosity.
A reader recently reached out on facebook and asked me to write a blog post touching on how lineage inspires us and how transmission works in modern day terms. Needless to say, I was heartened by her request as I found it flattering, and because I have been playing around with this topic as it pertains to teaching Ngöndro at New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center. So, as an offering to this friend I write this post, warts and all, please feel free to correct it where I stray.
As Monday was Chotrul Düchen I went to Greenwood Cemetery to practice Chöd and Marpa guru yoga. It had been a while since I had practiced there and I have been trying to remain aware of all of the local spirits, gods, and other beings whenever we do Chöd at the center as well as when we do our daily offerings to the protectors as of late, why not add cemetery beings as well, no? Lest we forget, vajrayana brings with it a wide spectrum of beings, beings that we often risk denying existence by having an overly symbolic read of this particular vehicle. I tend to feel that the more one does Chöd, the more one can sense some of what may linger in places like cemeteries and other similar places. It is easy to say that our cemeteries are nothing the the charnel grounds of yesteryear- the terrifying haunted ones frequented by dakinis, tigers, jackals and other scavenging animals. At Greenwood you won’t find freshly dead bodies rotting in a forest- visceral reminders of impermanence that grab- but when you take the time to really feel and take-in the monuments left behind to memorialize the pain of death, the sad realization that “this too did pass”, somehow the quiet solitude of the cemetery becomes quickly filled with spectres of those who passed in all manners of ways. Whether poisoned, or burned to death, drowned, or left alone, most ways of having met death are preserved there. Indeed, it is probably safe to say that very few of those whose remains are slowly composting were okay with the process of dying.
There is something so amazing about getting out and doing Chöd and other practices in the world- its a poignant way to bring the world into one’s practice. Chöd has long been practiced “in the field”, so to speak, that is, in cemeteries, charnel grounds, places of fear and similar such locations. A reader once pointed out to me how civil war battlefields are excellent places for such practice; indeed they are, as are Superfund sites and industrial wastelands (the modern day charnel ground?). There are many. Taking one’s practice outside and into the world can be a powerful way of emulating the examples of those notable lineage holders that we direct our prayers towards. It may well be that the places in the sadhana where we take refuge in all of the siddhas in the Chöd lineage, the father lineage of method headed by Padampa Sangye, and the mother lineage of wisdom headed by Vajrayogini herself, when we are doing this practice in a cemetery, or a place that instills fear, a place of desolation, we create the conditions to reflect, the activities of Machik Labdron and all of the many facets of the lineage of Chöd that she inspired. In this way we are manifesting a matrix of blessings that constitute a transmission of blessings that can be more real than we think. This is very real and significant inner connection with the Chöd lineage, is something to hold dear and blend with one’s being. These moments of sustaining connection when we feel confidently grounded, when it feels as if we are carrying the lineage with us as we walk to the grocery store, as we awaken in the morning, as we practice in formal sessions and as we go about our lives in post-meditation are incredibly profound.
Seated next to the cold marble monument of the Hope family, amid the late winter/early spring afternoon light, as the sun peeked through the clouds revealing patches of rich blue, I invited Greenwood’s slumbering guests. I offered the mudras of body speech and mind; all that appears as form, all that is heard as sound, and all that is thought or conceived of by the mind to the supreme assembly of the Chöd lineage. These offerings, the entire ground of my experience of that particular moment became an offering to Machik Labdron, Padampa Sangye and his retinue, Vajrayogini and her retinue, Lord Buddha, Prajnaparamita and an array of Chödpas, as well as the eight classes of gods under oath, rakshas and rakshasis, mamos, demons of illness and karmic creditors.
That moment, spent in a vast cemetery in Brooklyn, surrounded by over five hundred thousand graves, a wonderful practice site that is also the location of the Battle of Long Island, the first and largest battle in the American Revolution, became a moment of connection, a moment where the possibility of intimacy with a particular practice arose and provided great meaning. Moments like these, when we can dissolve the notion of Self, fully adorned with our foibles and limitations, our fears and anxieties, ornamented by our feelings of inferiority and clumsiness, when this can recede into the dawn of resting within the experience of the simultaneity of the field of refuge and our experience of mind, we create the occasion of inner empowerment, of blessing, of relationship which connects us beyond time and space to our lineage. This is what keeps everything fresh and allows us to appreciate the illusion-like mirage of who we think we are.
I am always relieved (and grateful) whenever this experience occurs (sadly, it is not a very frequent occurrence) as these moments serve to remind me of just how much intention is part of the essential fuel of meaningful dharma practice. We are often taught the importance of developing bodhicitta- the mind of enlightenment. This is crucial. It is the way we frame and contextualize our practice; reflecting upon bodhicitta acts in a twofold manner: giving our practice meaning as well as bolstering it through the merit created by the generation of compassionate resolve (relative bodhicitta) and the wisdom of emptiness (ultimate bodhicitta). While this is really important- it seems like an additional intention is vital as well, a point that was instilled in me by my first teacher, the late Ani Dechen Zangmo. This is the intention that our practice brings fruit in a natural unimpeded way, that we open ourselves up to experiencing the possibility of fruition. If for example, we begin our practice sessions convinced that we are complete failures and that practice will only benefit us slowly over incalculable aeons, then there is a strong likelihood that this is how our experiences may arise. It doesn’t mean that just because we think we will get enlightened in one meditation session that we will, rather, her advice was to keep alive the possibility that our practice will bring fruit- because after all, one day it will. Whether it be Ngöndro, Chöd, Calm Abiding, or any other form of practice- when we disconnect ourselves from the inevitability of our recognition of our inherent Buddha nature we throw a rather large self-created stumbling block in our way.
I am reminded of an Irish woman who I befriended fifteen years ago in Bodh Gaya. We came to be friends over many shared breakfasts with a large group of western practitioners who stayed at the Burmese Vihar. At the time she was following a Gelukpa teacher- and for some reason that I fail to remember, was encountering doubt about her practice. I had suggested that she meet the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, a very dear teacher, who was leading the Kagyu Monlam, and helped to arrange a meeting. It proved to be meaningful to her as ten months later I ran into her at Bokar Rinpoche’s annual Mahamudra Seminar. At one point after lunch she and I met for tea and I asked what she thought of the seminar- she started to cry and then smiled and told me how amazed she was by the fact that Bokar Rinpoche suggested that our practice could bring the fruit of realization in this life-time. The very notion that realization wasn’t necessarily something that was to be experienced at some point in the distant future was so counter of the view that she had cultivated- she was now tasting the possibility, she was joyful, light, buoyant; she seemed to have had a profound realization that changed her. It was really amazing- recalling that afternoon conversation still brings great joy to me and leaves me feeling happy.
That the experience of deep realization need not be something that eludes us because of a particular conception of time, or because we think that we are unworthy, or unable, broken, far away from our teacher, or tiny is something that can run counter to the way we see the world around us and our experience of it. This is not to diminish these feelings. I realize just how easy it can be to feel distant, incapable and unworthy. Yet I have come to learn from my own experience that during those moments when I can naturally offer all appearance, all sound, all mental formulations; when I can just rest in the experience of mind; when everything seems to settle into ease; then I am reminded of the illusory nature of Self, and that it is not real. These moments of receptivity are powerful and they break the habit of feeling that we are deluded beings, they are moments of empowerment, and personal moments of inner transmission.
Along these lines, we find in the guru yogas of Milarepa, Gampopa and Marpa prayers that help us keep the possibility of the experience of direct awakening ever present:
Grant your blessings so that all obscurations of karma, klesha, knowledge and habitual tendencies may be purified at this very moment.
Grant your blessings so that they may be purified on this very seat.
Grant your blessings so that they may be purified during this very session.
Grant your blessings so that our very beings may be purified.
Grant your blessings so that our very beings may be liberated.
Grant your blessings so that they may be liberated at this very moment.
Grant your blessings so that may be liberated on this very seat.
Grant your blessings so that they may be liberated during this very session.
This very moment! This very seat! This very session! What say you? Does this fall within our frame of reference? I can only speak for myself, but I sincerely hope it does.
In a way this view is worth exploring when it comes to receiving empowerments, or the transmission of a particular dharma from a qualified lineage holder. Just as we explored above our relative receptivity towards actually being empowered within our practice, and what those experiences are like, it is worth looking at how we take empowerments, and when we do, what it is that we are receiving.
Before I go any further I would like to underscore my lack of qualifications for actually having any real worthy insights on this topic and to share the title of an excellent book that touches on a variety of aspects around empowerment, that is Tsele Natsok Rangdröl’s Empowerment and the Path of Liberation. I cannot recommend this book enough, and must warn that in comparison to the words of Tsele Natsok Rangdröl, my words are not much more than the dance of a puppet that is being used by a blind, deaf and mute crazed puppeteer. Nevertheless, I feel that the view instilled by Ani Zangmo and the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche are worth examining especially in regard to what is possible when we attend and receive empowerments.
It is generally said that in the past, especially when great masters were conferring empowerments, that the power of the blessings of the practices were so strong that there was the distinct possibility that the act of conferring empowerment had the effect of completely ripening the recipient thereby creating the circumstances for immediate enlightenment. These days this is very rare indeed. It is also worth noting that in the good old days of 5th through 12th century India the nature of conferring empowerments may have been somewhat different than what we have come to experience these days. The stories found in the Seven Instruction Lineages by Jonang Taranatha, capture some of the atmosphere of what things may have been like.
Generally speaking there are four empowerments: vase empowerment, secret empowerment, knowledge/wisdom empowerment, and the precious word empowerment. Each of these empowerments help to ripen us in differing ways so that we may actually achieve the experience of the particular deity for whom we are being empowered. The vase empowerment purifies all negative karma created by the body, blesses the vajra-body, empowers us to enter into creation stage practices, and allows one to achieve the nirmanakaya stage. The secret empowerment purifies all negative karma created through speech, empowers us to recite the mantra, allows us the possibility of achieving illusory-body as well as the sambhogakaya stage. The knowledge/wisdom empowerment purifies all negative karma created by mind, blesses the vajra mind, plants the seeds for the experience of fierce blazing, lays the ground for achieving the dharmakaya stage. The precious word empowerment purifies all negativities created by body, speech, mind and all obscurations, in the Nyingma tradition it plants the seeds for treckchö, and in the Kagyu lineage it plants the seeds for the experience of the state of Vajradhara, the experience of bliss-emptiness, supreme mahamudra, the svabhavikaya.
Again, as I am by no means an expert, I heartily refer those interested to explore Tsele Natsok Rangdröl’s work as well at Book Six/Part Four of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye’s masterpiece, The Treasury of Knowledge. Chapter 12 deals with Initiation- there is a wealth of knowledge to be found in this chapter. Each lineage has differences in the structure of empowerments, and one also finds diversity in the way that the empowerments are broken down or elaborated upon, Hevajra is different than Chakrasamvara, and Kalachakra is different still. Nevertheless, despite the wide range, there are tonal similarities that are clear and distinct, as it the central importance of empowerment and transmission in vajrayana.
Of the function and purificatory effects of empowerment, Kongtrul says:
Initiations purify the obscurations of body, speech, and mind, and the three equally,
Establish competencies for the four indestructible states, ripen one as a fit trainee
Of the generations stage, self-blessing, and example and actual pristine awareness,
And bring about the attainment of the rank of vajra master.
Kongtrul essentially says that empowerments plant the seeds for all of the subsequent practice related to the empowerment. From the permission to visualize oneself as the deity and begining to tread the path of the generation stage all the way through completion stage practices, through to the fruition activities of the vajra master. This view is held as central today amongst the vajrayana lineages today as it was during Kongtrul’s time in the 19th century.
When large transmission cycles are offered, as in the case of the Kagyu Ngak Dzöd which was recently given by the precious master His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche at his monastic seat, Densa Palchen Chosling Monastery, or when the Rinchen Terdzöd or Dam Ngak Dzöd are given these cycles of empowerments are often given to fulfill a few functions. These large cycles serve to offer to the next generation of young masters the transmissions that they will receive, maintain and propagate, thereby guaranteeing that the dharma continues through time. Some of these cycles have specific groupings so that disciples can receive a certain themed set of empowerments. Lastly these collections act as storehouses where some of the rarer empowerments are protected such as Buddhakapala and Chatuhpita.
There are many ways that people receive empowerments, in some cases we take them as we would a blessing, in other cases it might be to create a connection with a particular cycle of practice, or with a particular master of the past. Sometimes we specifically take them as we know that we will be taking these practices on in the future. From there we move on to obtain the reading transmission and instructions on perform the desired the practices.
Whichever the case may be, it might be worth considering that a great deal rests upon our intention as we receive these transmissions so that their intangible benefits are also transmitted: the blessings, the connection with the vajra master and with our fellow participants who we become karmically linked with, as well as all of the ripening effects of all of the articles of empowerment, vase, crown, vajra and so on. We should certainly engender the mind of awakening throughout the process, and we should keep in our mind that in receiving empowerment we also forge a connection with an entire transmission lineage throughout time. We become part of the lineage and it us: where is the difference between the lineage and our mind?
Can we allow the possibility of cultivating the ground which contains the seeds of the four empowerments? We never really know just how close those sprouts may be to pushing up the rich fertile soil of our being and fully manifesting.
In this way, in our own deeply personal way, we receive the lineage. It is a profound time of vast meaning. It may be that if we take empowerments with a focused resolve to actually receive the lineage, the connection, the blessings, the ripening and the not very easily communicable essential experience of the nature of mind, that what is conferred is the true lineage. Whether this is actually true or not is difficult to know (or prove), but it does stand to reason that even though the actual conferral of an empowerment contains many benefits that enrich us, there is a lot that we too can bring to the experience. Receptivity is one thing; if we can allow ourselves to stretch this sense receptivity through time and space then the transmission that we receive can be as complete as can be. In a moment we can recieve the transmission of a complete expression of enlightenment.
Whether we are mixing the body, speech and mind of Machik Labdron with ours, thereby receiving direct empowerment from her, or from Lord Marpa during a session of guru yoga on the anniversary of his parinirvana, or from our very own vajra master in flesh-and-blood, the degree to what we receive and how completely it blends with our being is up to us. May we all receive and hold the transmission of the wondrous buddha-dharma and may we manifest it completely and perfectly! May all of phenomena be a precious charnel ground where we can reach beyond the limitations of this illusory self and experience the expansive ground of awareness! As winter turns to spring, may the seeds of empowerment begin to sprout everywhere allowing for the complete expression of wisdom-mind like a rising sun!
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!
Yesterday I performed the Namcho Amitabha sadhana for the practice of the pure land of Dewachen for a friend whose father and brother are close to death, and to honor a number of people who have recently passed away.
Earlier in the week six patients who I worked with as a chaplain died, and I also dedicated the performance of this sadhana, and the offering of all the appropriate tormas for them as well.
The body of this text was revealed and composed by the first Karma Chakme, Raga Asey (1613-1678) and includes prayers by the terton Mingyur Dorje (1645-1667). It includes a longevity practice associated with Hayagriva and Amitabha by Nedo Sanje, an Amitabha tsok composed by the 14th Gyalwa Karmapa, and a selection of prayers, offerings, and supplications to Shingkyong and his consort: protectors of the practice of the pure land of Dewachen.
I was lucky enough to receive the transmission for this practice from the present 7th Karma Chakme (Karma Tenzin Trinley Kunchab Pal Zangpo, b. 1926) himself at his recently completed monastery in Pharphing, Nepal in 2008. Half way through the lung (reading transmission) he paused to enthusiastically say, “I wrote this, I wrote this!”.
It was a great honor to have had the chance to recieve this practice directly from the reincarnation of its originator. Perhaps it was the result of meeting Rinpoche in 2001 when he was giving the blessings of the transmission of Raga Asey’s The Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen: The Direct instructions of the Compassionate One, a seminal text written by the first Karma Chakme Rinpoche.
The dharma lineage of Karma Chakme is pithy, inspiring, and bare bones; it is essential in that it is oriented towards the essence, essence dharma, and not so much concerned with the trappings of form and institution. It is bare bones in that it is a root lineage, it is all that you need.
I have found much guidance in how Raga Asey modelled his path; there is so much beauty in his simplicity, his deep practice and his sense of personal empowerment creates life within me. This personal empowerment in particular reflects his heartfelt conviction in his innate buddha qualities, the essential spaciousness of his mind, and the presence of connection to his lineage, both physical and non. Raga Asey’s writings are a balm for me; a soothing reassurance that it’s all okay. Things are fine- they are what they are; rich and luminous (they are apparent) and they are empty of essence; no different in reality from anything else that occurs/appears.
Raga Asey was a great mahasiddha of both the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages, I pray that he inspires us in the west to take our seats and claim our own natural liberation and nurture its growth with sensitivity and creativity!
Namcho Amitabha is a wonderful practice. The intimate blessings of Amitabha feel woven throughout the text, as does the purity and power of practice demonstrated by Raga Asey, the 14th Karmapa Thegchock Dorje, as well as the prodigious Mingyur Dorje.
Personally, I felt happy to offer this practice to the patients whose lives I recently became part of in the hospital as they came to the end of their respective lives. As I made offerings to Amitabha I also offered my own tenderness, caring and concern for those whom I was performing this practice. As visualized ambrosial nectar descended from Amitabha to myself, and those whose presence I was holding in my mind, I felt that they were bathed with soothing awakening, heightened awareness, and self-empowerment.
The recitation of Amitabha’s mantra became their armor; melting any hinderance to rebirth with full clarity of mind; dissolving any lingering anger, hatred, jealousy and weariness; warming and massaging their hearts that compassion may arise with ease and joy.
As I performed the long-life practice, I offered the blessing of longevity of Hayagriva to everyone present, my patron and her daughter, and all of their family, as well as that of all the family and friends who I came to meet as we gathered around their dying loved ones.
During the practice of making offerings and supplications to Shingkyong and his consort the power of Namcho Amitabha practice became evident.
As Shingkyong approaches, his body black, and his face that of a black lion, he rushes forward upon an enraged black stallion armed in one hand with a banner, and red tormas in the other that he hurls at his enemies. Approaching with symmetrical wrathful power is his consort Dzakadza, red in color, upon a red demonic steed; she wields a trident and a human heart. Their power is both burning and haunting. Any and all distractions; the inner blockages of fear and attachment, lingering worry, ill-will, and impotence are completely destroyed. Through the commitment of Shingkyong and his retinue, the efficacy of Amitabha’s vow to benefit all beings in the buddha-realm of Sukhavati (Dewachen) is bolstered and becomes even more magnificent. You can read more about this vow as it is explained in the Sukavativhuya sutra here.
Indeed the commitment of Shingkyong and his retinue around the activity of transitioning from this life to the next, and perhaps by extension the commitment to those who aid others in their own transition from this life to the next, is clearly described within this practice. They will clear all obstacles that make the journey treacherous, bring those stuck in the background all the way to the fore: Dewachen. They will ride with, and accompany them with their terrible retinue.
The text is explicit in how all obstructions will be destroyed, that all who get in the way will be slain, their hearts removed, and their abodes destroyed by fire; that all spirits and ghosts, all who torment, will be subjugated, and that all curses and black magic will be reversed. Indeed when performing this part of the practice I can really feel their powerful presence!
As the session closed, I found myself feeling connected to Amitabha and confident that benefit was created for everyone who I was practicing on behalf of. They were protected in their transition from this life to the next, and seeds of auspiciousness were planted for their experience during the bardo and for the journey ahead of them…
Additionally, I have become very curious about how Shingkyong and Dzakadza and their retinue of bamros relate to chaplains. I feel connected to them, and I feel their ever-present watchful eye, and when skies darken, perhaps it is they who come to dispel fear, doubt and tentativeness in all we do.
May they guide us as we serve others!
A couple of days ago I learned that in 1860 Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn attracted 500,000 visitors, rivaling Niagara Falls as America’s greatest tourist destination. This monumental 478 acre cemetery is home to 560,000 graves including that of Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Boss Tweed and many other illustrious artists, politicians and inventors. It’s also an amazing place to practice Chod.
Over the years we have very effectively averted our eyes from death; we love to avoid the topic of death as well as that of illness and old age. Perhaps there is convenience in this as it allows ourselves to feel ever young and invincible. However a visit to Green-Wood (or any cemetery) helps to shake loose the taboo nature that death occupies, effectively reeling it in from the periphery of our experience of daily life. On a recent trip with my son and girlfriend we meandered through the beautiful grounds of Green-Wood observing the memorialized names of those who are no more. The comparatively young age at which many of Green-Wood’s residents passed away- at least a third of the grave we saw that day were those of young children or young women who died in child-birth, is particularly striking. As one would expect to find, there is a wide variety of ages and cultural back grounds represented, further demonstrating with basic simplicity the fact that death does not discriminate.
It is easy to gloss over the recognition of impermanence that the Buddha came to recognize so early in his spiritual quest. The realization that all beings are subject to birth, sickness, old-age and death serve as the core existential foundation-stone upon which the rest of Buddhism in all of its forms is based. Perhaps over time this can seem to feel a little stale, as just as in his day when the Buddha was still Prince Siddhartha, we are so adept at hiding sickness, old age and death from our immediate view; death and even illness for that matter has become somewhat abstracted, and aging is something that we are told by media to avoid as best as possible. Talk about suffering! Nevertheless, we are born, we will experience illness, most of us will experience old age, and all of us will experience death- there’s no real hiding this fact. However there is joy to be had, and this joy can be found when coming to terms that these profound events affect everyone, that we are all linked together by these similar existential events, and there is a certain beauty in knowing that not only are we not alone, but we are surrounded by countless other beings who share similar existential circumstances.
Earlier today I went to Green-Wood cemetery to practice Chod. I went because I had the day off and it felt like a personally meaningful means through which I could resolve a certain anxiety that I felt regarding my upcoming clinical placement at New York Presbyterian Cornell-Weill as a chaplain-intern. It’s a new beginning for me- one that I would like to approach in a thoughtful and centered manner. Chod is an amazing form of meditation that was developed by Machig Labdron, a female Tibetan Buddhist master who lived in twelfth century Tibet. As a child she was precocious, and grew up to become an accomplished yogini who, in formulating the meditation practice known as Chod, yoked prajnaparamita literature with elements of tantric Buddhism into a system of meditation that has the unique reputation as the only dharma that was formulated in Tibet and then spread southwards into India. As the inspiration behind the synthesis of Chod lays within both the Mahayana tradition (through the prajnaparamita sutra, or the perfection of wisdom sutra) and aspects of Vajrayana (tantric Buddhist practice, most notably the practice of Vajravarahi), it is a very well balanced and multifaceted practice. Indeed, Chod can be approached as a complete path.
Traditionally Chod was practiced in charnel grounds and other fear inducing sites. Such sites were common in India and Tibet as many mountain passes, cross-roads, trees, and other sites were thought to be inhabited by malevolent spirit beings. Charnel grounds in particular were regarded as frightful not only because one commonly found bodies in various states of decay and decomposition, but because wild scavenging animals were easily found feasting on human remains. They are excellent places to face your fears. In fact, it is said that the Buddha had instructed many of his students to go to charnel grounds in order to contemplate impermanence amidst the decaying bodies of other humans.
Needless to say, such places aren’t really easy to find here in 21st century America- so, one has to be creative. Some of the beauty of Green-Wood lies in the fact that many of the grave markers are themselves quite old. Marble doesn’t hold up to elements as well as granite and other masonry material- it is soft and as it ages it slowly wastes away leaving eerie images behind. Some marble grave markers become hard to read thereby reinforcing the point that this is a place where people are left with very few to continue to witness the fact that they were ever there. Even the stone memorial markers are subject to impermanence.
One of the central features of Chod is the practice of visualizing that one chops oneself into pieces that then form an offering. We slice off our skin and chop up our body, remove the organs, cut out the eyes, perhaps smash the skull, and allow the marrow to slowly flow. In varying configurations we offer this mandala offering to all of the Buddhas, our lineage masters, dakinis and the wisdom protectors as well as to our own personal demons that represent our fears, our attachments, our insecurities, as well as to local gods, demons and spirits, as they too need care. In essence, we offer every aspect of the matrix of our being to all other beings that we can conceive of, what remains is liberated Buddha-essence: non-referential and timeless. It is a means of dramatically looking at where and what the “me” that we constantly tend to self identify with actually is. It’s also a means of facing the attachment that we all too naturally tend to develop towards our bodies, our personalities, and other ways in which we self-identify as independently existing entities.
What was striking today after having made a certain ruckus in the cemetery with my chod drum, bell and thigh-bone horn as any good chodpa is willing to do, is that just sitting in a state of open reflection of the impermanence of life while at Green-Wood is particularly profound. It became evident that one need not only do Chod to necessarily feel the supportive reminder of how fragile and relatively short this life of ours may be. The contemplation of impermanence as well as the Four Noble Truths in a cemetery is a wonderful way to find freshness in the joyously simple truths-by-extension that flow effortlessly from such meditations. In fact, I was left with the feeling that we need more cemetery practice- more excitement. There are many places that tend to be avoided or simply glossed over that occupy great seats of power as places through which we can challenge and confront those things that are inconvenient.
It seems important to make the time to do such practices. It seems even more important to find powerful places to do such practices; it’s apparent to me that in the heart of Brooklyn such a powerful place exists- I look forward to finding other such sites. Gowanus canal?
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 am very pleased and excited to announce the arrival of the Ganachakra Blog and www.changchub.com!
Ganachakra is a traditional ritual-feast gathering held as an offering towards a particular Buddha, or in some cases, a dharma lineage holder. In the context of this blog, it is a gathering of like minded people dedicated to exploring Buddhism in its practice, as well as death, dying, and related topics. With that said, I welcome you to this ganachakra.
The inspiration behind changchub.com and this blog is rooted in the activities of an amazing lama from Sikkim, named Pathing Rinpoche. I initially met Rinpoche in 1997 when I was returning to India with my dharma brother Erik Bloom to study with our root lama the venerable Ani Dechen Zangmo, an inspiring and unique Sikkimese Tibetan Buddhist nun. At the time, Ani Zangmo was dying from complications of having had tuberculosis earlier in life and Pathing Rinpoche had been called in to offer prayers and to do ritual practice (puja) for her. During that painful period of time I came to meet Pathing Rinpoche and became his student.
Over the year that we were in India (spent mainly between Sikkim and the Darjeeling area), I was fortunate enough to spend some time in retreat with Pathing Rinpoche at his retreat site on the borders of Bhutan and Tibet. I also experienced the passing of Ani Dechen Zangmo, learning from her what living in the face of death means; and how we are constantly doing this even though we often, and with great convenience, choose to not notice this. Finally, and very fortunately, I had the opportunity to become a student of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, retreat master for the Karma Kagyu lineage, and lineage holder of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage.
During that trip, and over many fairly long periods of practice and study in India under the kind and warm guidance of Bokar Rinpoche in India, I came to know Pathing Rinpoche more intimately.
He had lived an extraordinary life, which I will share with you from notes taken over the ten years that we knew one another. When I first met Rinpoche he told me that he no longer knew how old he was, but knew that he was in his eighties. He was incredibly mischievous, loved to joke around, but could also cut deeply with his penetrating questions, and could vacillate between being funny and quite serious; all in the same breath.
Rinpoche came to Sikkim from Tibet some time during the 1930’s and settled in Barapathing, hence his name: Pathing Rinpoche. His original title is Phul Chung Rinpoche. He was born close to Shigatse, Tibet. When he was born his amniotic sack was intact; afraid that this was a bad omen, his parents left him to die. He was left outside for long enough for crows to come and pick at the amniotic sack, thus freeing him, and a cousin ran to his defense and ended up caring for him. As a young child while the Panchen Lama and his entourage were passing through Shigatse, Panchen Rinpoche stopped and remarked on what a special child he was and instructed his cousin to take good care of him.
Pathing Rinpoche became a student of Jetsun Shukseb Lochen Zangmo (1865-1953), an incarnation of Machik Labdron (the founder of chod practice), and lineage holder of the Longchen Nyingthig transmission. He spent a great deal of time with her, receiving her instructions, and putting them into practice.
Rinpoche came to be recognized as the 19th incarnation of the mahasiddha Kukkuripa (a teacher of Marpa Lotsawa), an emanation of the terton Chogyur Dechen Lingpa, and exemplar of a perfect kadam monk (fulfilling the requirements of the vinaya). Pathing Rinpoche spent over forty years in retreat, wandering here and there, with no cares as to his safety, eventually settling in Sikkim. His retreat cabin is located about one hundred yards from a cave used by Guru Rinpoche on his way to Tibet, which contains two springs, both of which represent the blessed bodily fluids of the female Buddha Vajrayogini.
Rinpoche was unique in so many ways, but the thing that stood out very clearly was his activity. He spent most of the latter portion of his life travelling from home to home doing ritual practice and performing prayer service for anyone who needed it. He would often stay in any given home for no more than two days, tirelessly pushing on to the next person or family that requested his care. Sometimes he stayed for longer if the need was expressed. Wherever he went, his energy and dedication to quelling the sffering of others was truly admirable. Notoriously hard to locate, once he arrived at someone’s home he focused all of his care and attention to those who requested his presence, soothing the fears and uncertainties of all with his application of prayer, ritual and instruction, his stories, and his humor.
The day before he passed away (he died on March 4th 2007), he was more concerned about my dharma brother and I, giving us tsampa, blessings, and jinlab (blessed substances)- appearing to be unconcerned with the deterioration of his physical frame- and the intense pain brought on by his stomach cancer.
Pathing Rinpoche represents the swift and gentle compassion of a wonderful chaplain, ritual and meditation master, and great Buddhist teacher. It is in the spirit of his memory and that of Ani Dechen Zangmo- a yogini of natural ease, and Kyabje Dorjechang Bokar Rinpoche- the essence of patient ocean-like- compassion that I would like to dedicate the activities of changchub.com and the ganachakra blog.
I would like to take a moment to thank some of the people who helped me in creating this project. First off, I owe a great deal of gratitude to my present teacher His Eminence Goshri Gyaltsab Rinpoche for his encouragement in pursuing the chaplaincy training that I have recently begun and for his ambrosial instructions. My dharma siblings Erik Bloom and Dekyla Chungyalpa (Ani Zangmo’s daughter) have been so kind and supportive, thank you. I wish to also thank the venerable Ani Karma Lekshe Tsomo, whose enthusiastic support and suggestions in the creation of changchub.com, was extremely helpful, thank you. The instructors at NYZCC ( http://zencare.org/) have helped open my eyes to what contemplative care really means, thank you for your support over the past year, specifically Koshin Paley Ellison, thank you. Finally, none of this could have been made without the skill of my sister, Andrea von Bujdoss of superfreshdesign.com (http://superfreshdesign.com/) who used her exquisite knowledge of visual dharma in translating my ideas into something that others can see, thank you.
May it be virtuous! May all beings’ suffering be pacified! May we gather here at the ganachakra- or ritual feast- of those who are living in the face of death!