On October 29th Modern Tantric Buddhism: Embodiment and Authenticity in Dharma Practice was released by North Atlantic Books!
This book is a distillation of much of my teaching and writing over the past few years focusing on how we can bring our practice into our lives in fresh and bold ways, and how we can simultaneously liberate ourselves from the ways in which we limit ourselves through spiritual bypassing, and unexamined dharma practice.
It is a guide for the practitioner of Buddhist Tantra as much as it is an experimental look into how the wisdom of this tradition can be experienced in our busy modern lives in the present era. Much of the inspiration from this book arose directly from the long conversations, the debates, and reflections that we have had together, and I want to be able to share this with you.
Tricycle Magazine was kind enough to publish an excerpt of an interview about the book which you can read here.
Praise for Modern Tantric Buddhism:
“Modern Tantric Buddhism reads like an extended late-night conversation, wherein Western Buddhists can discover the authentic essence of tantra and develop confidence in its relevance to their own lives and spiritual aspirations. Lama Justin exemplifies an urban yogi who embodies the creative blaze of tantra amidst the grit and turmoil of a great city.”
—CHAGDUD KHADRO, spiritual director of Chagdud Gonpa centers in South America
“Modern Tantric Buddhism steps into bold new territory, offering heartfelt accounts while presenting Buddhist reflections on the great issues of our time. Lama Justin invites readers into the brave exploration that has been his life. He offers a stirring presentation of teachings on death as seen through the eyes of a chaplain in hospice work. Captivating as it is instructive, this book is a potent contribution to the development of American Buddhism.”
—PEMA KHANDRO RINPOCHE, founder and spiritual director of Ngakpa International
“Lama Justin represents a younger generation of well-trained Buddhist teachers who encourage American Tantric Buddhists to trust the power of their practice, find their authentic voice, and express wisdom in the modern world. Modern Tantric Buddhism demonstrates that the wisdom of Tantric Buddhism is as relevant and powerful in the streets of Brooklyn as it was in the remote caves of Tibet. A must-read for the modern tantrika!”
—LAMA WILLA MILLER, founder of Natural Dharma Fellowship and coauthor of The Art of Contemplative Care: Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work
“Interweaving lived religious experience, tantric texts, and critical theorists, von Bujdoss shows how Western tantra can transform the structural afflictions of colonialism, whiteness, and patriarchy. For academics, he provides instructive and valuable primary data to theorize the multiple forms that Vajrayana Buddhism is taking after and beyond modernity.”
—ANN GLEIG, associate professor of Religion and Cultural Studies, University of Central Florida, and author of American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity
“Modern Tantric Buddhism realigns us with tantra’s original core values of integrity, authenticity, and true empowerment. Lama Justin von Bujdoss—scholar, yogi, householder, and chaplain—shows us what tantra is really all about and how to meet the immediacy of our everyday experiences with greater wisdom and compassion.
—DR. MILES NEALE, author of Gradual Awakening
“Lama Justin von Bujdoss offers us an introduction to Vajrayana Buddhism unlike any other of which I am aware. Arising from his courageous application of tantric insights to hospice work, prison ministry, and the task of ‘healing the earth,’ this book has a unique freshness of approach that will engage a broad spectrum of readers.
—REV. FRANCIS V. TISO, author of Rainbow Body and Resurrection
A few weeks ago I read an excellent article about Pope Francis shaking up the ecclesiastic leadership in the United States, and the subsequent reactions from more conservative Catholics. I found myself, despite my own sense of satisfaction in learning more about how the nuts and bolts of how Catholicism in America works, feeling sad and emotional around how far it seems that we as practitioners of Vajrayana have to go in the West before such conversations can occur around the quality of presence of our own spiritual leadership. In a way, we Vajrayana Buddhists are lacking when it comes to real authentic pastoral presence. When I say this I certainly don’t mean to imply that His Holiness Karmapa, or His Holiness Dalai Lama lack pastoral presence. They don’t. I have had the chance to be in their presence in very intimate settings and the degree to which they appear attuned to even the smallest concern of another person is astounding to witness. I refer to the lamas and administrators that represent our gompas, our Buddhist Associations, as well as the general dharma center leadership across the western world.
As it turns out, Pope Francis recently appointed Cardinal Donald Wuerl as the new head of the Congregation of Bishops, replacing Cardinal Raymond L. Burke for his conservatism and lack of pastoral affect. This change in leadership, while subtle in some respects, will hopefully produce long standing effects in how the church presents itself, to whom the church ministers and in what position it will take in relationship to the experience of the transcendent. Pastoralism is something that we commonly find within Christendom; in it’s most basic form it presents a spiritual concern centered around giving spiritual instruction and guidance to others. In this case, the parish priest who is intimately connected to the concerns and needs of his “flock”, needs spiritual, emotional and otherwise, comes to mind. Someone who works tirelessly for the benefit of others- in real terms, not just an aspiration to perform this task but to actually roll ones sleeves up, and get into the mucky mess that comes with being. Pastoralism also has applications that relate to music, art and philosophy, and a personal and ethical desire to return to the simple, the immediately real and what occurs naturally. As a hospice chaplain who operates from within the Vajrayana tradition as an ordained Repa, I am comfortable with discussions around the importance of pastoral presence and what that means. Yet I often find my Vajrayana contemporaries uncomfortable in challenging themselves in a way other than the way that tradition dictates. That the lineage of Tilo, Naro, Marpa and Mila has gotten so rigid and insecure is unfortunate.
I think that one could definitely say that Milarepa had mastered a pastoral presence, or pastoral affect. In suggesting this I feel that it has less to do with the fact that he lived in retreat, in the pastoral wilds of Tibet as coincidence would have it, but that he could naturally -with simple immediate ease- sense the needs and suffering that others were consumed by because he could sit honestly with what arose within himself. This sounds easy to do, but in actuality it is quite painful and heartbreaking. It is difficult to see others stuck within their own experiences of themselves and even harder to see where we get stuck in similar ways. We generally don’t want to recognize how compelling the hallucinations that we have created actually are and how we lead ourselves around and around in circles, let alone try to work through the baseless obsession with the fact that we are imperfect and need to get somewhere before we can stand on our own two feet. Retreat is certainly a great way to develop spiritual insights, and it is very important, yet retreat does not necessarily produce compassion, and I am not so sure that it produces pastoral presence nearly as well and being fully engaged by what life brings our way. In fact I would argue the latter: compassion arises more uniformly, with more stability outside of a comfortable retreat setting. When living life in full one can easily get to the heart of difficult feelings that arise within the experience of pain and suffering, feel them and then let them flow into the next experience. Retreat can be helpful in this regard, however, I tend to feel that it is easier to seduce ourselves into a comfortable homeostasis in which we are never really forced to face our fears, never asked to consider the shadows, and never really asked to cut deep to the bone and feel that cold pain of the roots of our own suffering. This is why Milarepa is considered semi-wrathful within the text of his guru-yoga; the only way that he could go deeper and deeper within his practice is to cut with skill, precision and power. Cutting deep is important- it is hard and very uncomfortable. Yet, at the end of the day, we are best served when we can access the pain and suffering that we hide from. When we can do this pastoral presence is much more authentic. There is no better model for Vajrayana Buddhists than Milarepa if we are looking to foster a more pastoral Vajrayana.
Occasionally I fear that much of the way that the Vajrayana perspective is presented in the West is somewhat split between pedagogic models that either have students memorize terminology, acquaint oneself with logic, and years of study before they can say that we are Buddhists, and the other extreme that we can simply blend our curiosity of Buddhism with our practice of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.- that we don’t need to worry about to committing to any one tradition. We are either definitely going to be born in one of the Hell Realms because we are terribly ignorant, or we are going to be just fine and we need not really worry about specifics- just show up say your prayers and do a bit of instruction without committing to a teacher or cogent path of practice. It is much easier to just follow the rules and sheepishly hide who we are in relationship to dharma than integrate the dharma into our experience of life.
We also seem to suffer from an overly Mahayana perspective around the long period of time through which we must practice before we become realized. We are very infrequently told (or shown) that liberation can come in this moment, on this very seat, in this very session. We are given a practice and generally told that it will take an incalculable (or at least an unknowable) amount of time before enlightenment occurs. We venerate past masters who were exemplary and also taught to believe that we are nothing in comparison to them- we are but just mere shadows. But is this really so? Why are we not taught to take greater responsibility for our realization? Why are we not taught to be creative in our practice, to take our seat and settle into our own pastoral authority? In fact, more often than not, the specific lineage that we are shown is presented more like a line which we shouldn’t deviate from, yet when one looks, most of the great masters struggled to challenge and confront such preconceived ways of being. Eveny lineage has masters who did whatever they needed to do to effect realization- if it meant breaking the rules, so be it.
I fear that some of the leaders that one finds within the mainstream presentation of Vajrayana lack the natural ease that Milarepa brought to the tradition at large: no monasteries, no particular school of thought to tether oneself to, no institutional affiliations, no orthodoxies, no expectations, no roles, just the experience of pure experience. Even though I say this, it should be noted that the growing interest by scholars in the development of the Milarepa’s hagiographical literature presents us with compelling evidence that the creation of the story of Milarepa morphed into what we know today from a wide variety of projections of what his life was thought to have been like by others centuries after his death. Even still, despite the fact that we may only be able to interact with our own inner Milarepa, and the true Milarepa may never be known, there is some indescribable inspiration that he evokes, not unlike the feeling of an early warm Spring day that leaves one feeling naturally resolved and content and excited for whatever comes next. For me part of the joy of Milarepa is that everything is okay, that within the experience of Mahamudra there is nothing to add, nothing to take away, nothing to do, and that we can rest in everything because it is all essentially one taste. This is a powerful root to a penetrating pastoral presence that is without fault. I try in my own way to allow this to inform me as a chaplain and as a teacher at the dharma center rather than whatever ‘rules’ or traditional norms may exist; whether this is a benefit and serves me well in either role is certainly up for debate. Lord knows, I am probably more of a hindrance than a benefit to anyone.
Instead many in the Vajrayana tradition here in the United States, especially those in positions of spiritual leadership seem to fall back upon textual dictates and scripture, the rules and maxims of form and function rather than engage directly, naturally, with how life, and thus, appearances arise. Spiritual bypassing, or the use of spirituality to disengage from actually experiencing what arises and resting within it, appears to be as much the western Buddhist’s unique disease as much as diabetes and obesity are the illnesses that currently define Americans. This bypassing appears to be caused by the constant retelling of the same old story that we are imperfect, that we are not enough and that we are somehow not whole in this moment. More than this, this type of undigested view lacks the rich fertility that provides us with the needed confidence, or escape velocity, to no longer be hindered by the gravity of our habits and misguided constructions of the universe around and within us. It is easier to build a fancy dharma center, easier to go into 3 year retreat, and easier to tell ourselves (and others) that we will never taste any of the fruit of the dharma as we are fundamentally obscured than it is to try to cut through our sad, sorry, slothful sense of being imperfect. There is no better way to blind oneself (and build up one’s sense of importance) than with dogma.
I am reminded of a story I was told about a group of western monastics who criticized a flower offering that a student at a dharma center made one morning. She had happened upon a field of wild flowers while during a morning walk and decided to pick a few to bring to the shrine as an offering. New to the dharma she was motivated by fresh devotion. By the following morning the offering was removed- I was told that the imperfections found upon the leaves of the flowers and the petals reflected the ignorance of the student. The group of monastics were quick to point out that all offerings have to be perfect, the very best- as this is what texts explain. Needless to say, I had a hard time hiding my mixture of disgust and sadness that the inner efforts of devotion made by someone new to the dharma was seen as a violation of protocol and a cause of negative karma due to ignorance. The unbending parochialism of this argument is a constant source of amusement for me. As a chaplain I often find myself having to operate from a place of creativity and skillful means to help provide others with a supportive environment even if it challenges the static spiritual dictates of a given person’s faith. Such rigidity would do more harm for a person who is dying than good.
I wonder what Pope Francis would say of the Catholic version of this event? What do we do when we become overly dogmatic at the expense of killing the experience of another? When do we let our religious dogma undermine our abilities to manifest the connection created by pastoral presence? What makes us Buddhist puritans?
How we work towards achieving this reconnection to our essential wholeness, our naturally expansive and vast experience of all that arises is ultimately up to us. This includes the specific techniques, degrees of effort, and the conceptual models that we temporarily use to get us to a place of spontaneous confidence and certainty. Most important however is that we don’t concertize the path, that we don’t rigidly hold onto our techniques (lest we become cold chauvinists regarding Buddhadharma), as well as a dialectical obsession with how much effort we must apply (we are tying to ease into the experience of Mahamudra, not train for a triathlon), or assign too much of an eternalist reality to the conceptual models we use (whether lay or ordained, male or female, well schooled or illiterate, whether we follow sutra or tantra, are logicians or ritual specialists or neither, we are working with the essence of mind; no one path is necessarily better than the other). Otherwise, the very vows that we take to benefit others become the very cause of perverse haughty dogmatism that does more harm than good. Before we know it we are no better than the demons that we thought we were feeding or coming to learn from and rather than spiritual friends become judges, applying dialectics gathered from scripture and commentarial literature rather than from the direct experience of mind. When does that shift occur? When do we go from spiritual friend to tormentor and judge? When does our fear prevent us from being with what arises and cause us to snuggle up within textual dictates to provide us with comfort and a defensive justification of laziness?
In a way, Pope Francis offers us a wonderful reflection of the ways in which we can become rigid and overly concerned with outer appearance. The conservatives in the church, those who apply the checks and balances of church dogma to the world around them as a way to orient themselves and assert meaning, often lack the same experience and sense of certainty than those who were parish priests and are familiar with the joys and sorrows of their congregations. This is obviously not unique to Catholics, in fact, this kind of separation feels much more prevalent in the Tibetan Buddhist world- and it also appears that we are too afraid to explore this lest we criticize the sangha (let alone cause a rift within it). It may be that ordained sangha and the large dharma organizations that we have created in the west are the biggest sacred cows that we as Buddhists need to confront.
In a podcast on Mahamudra that I happened upon by Reggie Ray, Ray artfully suggests that the lineage doesn’t care about us. Perhaps more to the point, he reinforces the point that our practice of dharma isn’t about our identities in relation to the lineage. The lineage doesn’t care if we become involved as teachers or administrators. The lineage doesn’t care about gompas or lack of gompas. It doesn’t care about dharma centers and their creation, maintenance and growth. The lineage doesn’t care about anything other than our work to recognize our natural face: enlightened being. Everything else is extra. Lineage doesn’t do anything other than reflect our essential nature. We do the rest. We create the world of systems, we collate texts, we publish books, we create limitations and neurotic obsessions, often in the name of lineage. If we are blessed with the chance to look back at our lineage and see how easy it is to get wrapped up in the peripheral details maybe we can return to the experience of simplicity: the experience of naked awareness. When we can do this we don’t have to become anything, or wear anything, or observe any vow, or follow any textual dictate, because we become, in that moment, the Dharma. There is nothing to add or take away from this basic reality.
A close friend who was recently trying to determine where she should be in late December and the beginning portion of January told me, “I could go to Bodh Gaya to participate in the Kagyu Monlam for “Dharma” or I could go home to be with my family and actually live Dharma”. Her time at home would be challenging and ordinary as time spent with family often is- in her case it would be more so as a relative had recently died and there was much support to be offered. The Kagyu Monlam, replete with lavish offerings, is a sophisticated mechanism for making aspiration prayers, a place to see and be seen as a Karma Kagyu practitioner, a place to go from lama to lama for blessings and teachings, and is in many ways the ultimate place to go for generating merit. Yet it is easy, it is obvious, somewhat predictable, and spiritually fattening; you can go there and haughtily throw your weight around feeling that you have unique karma and subtly build your ego. After all, look at me, I’m in Bodh Gaya at monlam, how fortunate am I? Going home to be with family, on the other hand, and all of the challenges that accompany providing support for the children and husband of the family member that recently passed away is a way to live all of what spiritual practice is about. It is also hard, confusing and sometimes boring and not very much fun.
I am grateful for my friend’s distinction here, it was timely and very well put. At the end of the day she answered the question for herself as to which one she decided to do. The question remains for us, which one would we prefer to and why? One is not necessarily better than the other, yet our decision says a lot about where we are right now and it is important to check-in and see where we are from time to time. Where are you?
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 have found myself returning to some of the amazingly pithy meditation instructions attributed to Sri Tilopa (988-1069), the well-known Indian Buddhist mahasiddha who was the forefather of the Kagyu lineage. His short, often poetic instructions, are something that help me in my personal meditation practice, as a ground for keeping myself feeling dynamic and internally connected as a chaplain, and in explaining to others the vajrayana perspective regarding what arises within the approach to death. An example of such an instruction is as follows:
If you sit, sit in the middle of the sky.
If you sleep, sleep on the point of a spear.
If you look, look upon the center of the sun.
I Tilopa, who saw the ultimate, am the one who is free of all effort.
The expansive clarity of this type of instruction, for me at least, is very resonant- it offers a way to feel my experience of mind blend into the wideness of space while also experiencing a sense of focus; a relaxed single-pointed experience of breath, sound, transparency of thoughts, and edgelessness. When this experience arises I feel very connected with Tilopa, as well as the other Indian mahasiddhas Naropa and Maitrepa. Sometimes however, I feel that I need a more graded approach to this experience of mind. When this occurs, I tend to lean on Jey Gampopa for support.
More specifically, I rely upon Gey Gampopa’s Precious Garland of the Supreme Path, and even more specifically I come back to the 5th chapter of this wonderful text: The ten things that you should not abandon. I had the wonderful fortune of receiving instruction on this text by the Venerable Khenpo Lodro Donyo, abbot of Bokar Ngedhon Chokhor Ling, in Bodh Gaya in the fall of 1998. This was during one of the many Mahamudra seminars that the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche held- truly magical times when we could all sit together under the bodhi tree to recite the 3rd Karmapa’s Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer, spend time in meditation- simultaneously touching our original nature- as well as physically touching the ground that supported the practice of all of the generations of Buddhists who had come before us in Bodh Gaya back all the way to Shakyamuni himself.
It was in that environment, and within that emotional frame of mind, that I came to learn of the ten things that one should not abandon. These ten things are: compassion, appearances, thought, mental afflictions, desirable objects, sickness (suffering and pain), enemies or those who obstruct our practice, methodical step-by-step progress, dharma practices involving physical movement, and the intention to benefit others. Gampopa’s list is very sensible, it is noble in the sense that it seems to be endorsed by Santideva himself; it is imbued with a heartfelt concern for the welfare of others as well as a methodical presentation of the training to see that appearances- be they attractive or not- are just mere appearance. The misapprehension of appearance, or appearance as taken as an independent entity separate from ourselves, is the very cause of our experience of suffering. As with all great dharma texts, it is heartening to see how just one small portion, in this case the 5th chapter of a 28 chapter text can offer the entire path to realizing one’s essential nature.
In looking back at the notebook that I have from the session when Khenpo Rinpoche taught this chapter, I can return to my exuberance not only for this chapter as a whole, but for Gampopa’s explanation of how one should approach the non-abandonment of mental afflictions. As a chaplain, when I am in the hospital, I very rarely meet people who desire to not abandon their experience of suffering: their fear, their psychic pain, their feelings of abandonment, of futility, of anger, or attachment to family- let alone attachment to ideas of how their life should or shouldn’t unfold. This experience isn’t unique to the hospital either- I and most of the people who I know spend a great deal of time fighting with these emotions. Perhaps this is why they are called mental afflictions.
Anger, attachment, pride, jealousy, ignorance. When we really sit quietly with these words they are not just words- they are worlds; worlds of suffering, worlds of feeling like we are right and others are wrong, that we don’t receive the credit or accolades that we deserve, that if only I had this, or was a that, then things would be the way that they should be. On and on and on…
Gampopa advises us to try three modalities with regard to facing and not abandoning our mental afflictions. We can avoid them- that is, avoid whatever causal conditions that might make them arise. We can transform them- or try to transform what these emotions unlock within us. Or finally, we can rest in them as they arise. Whichever modality we tend towards, there are two things to remain mindful of; how we habitually fall into one of these three modalities, and the degree to which we can honestly assess our relationship to that which we struggle with. Each of these ways of facing and not abandoning our mental afflictions can be techniques of liberation or techniques of seductive self-enslavement.
The process of avoidance is a very grounded, stable and well-meaning way of not abandoning our mental afflictions. It honors the way they arise- it honors their root- without forcing us to become affected. This way of approaching difficulties, painful habits, and stubborn aspects of our identities allows us some distance from the “heat” of the moment that comes with embodying our reaction to our mental afflictions. One could even go so far as to say that this modality is somewhat analytical in approach, it is disciplined and measured. The shadow aspect of avoidance is not acknowledging the mental afflictions that bring us pain and suffering. Not much good happens from simply ignoring things, or not letting aspects of ourselves have the light and air that they need to grow. Right now, the shadow of this modality comes to mind in the form of the image of a neglectful parent who doesn’t want to see who their children really are.
Transformation is a common methodology that one finds in the various levels of tantras. It involves playing with the way that we perceive our mental afflictions. This type of restated relationship allows us to meet head on those feelings that would normally make us want to run away. In this way the dross becomes pure; the dirty is seen as clean; and that which torments us achieves the possibility of bringing meaning and peace. True lighthearted transformation- transformation with ease- is hard to effect. Transformation has a terrible shadow side that involves the desire to fix; or more bluntly an inability to meet things as they appear without making them into something positive. As a chaplain, I witness many people struggle with maintaining a relationship with difficulty and pain, uncertainty and loss, and sickness and death without trying to “fix it”. The constancy of a “make-it-better-plan” can be exhausting and create untold suffering. It feels profoundly important to examine how this modality of maintaining a relationship with our matrix of painful emotions can relate to a desire to not allow honesty around what we are feeling and from where the roots of these emotions arise. (Here is a link to the related shadow of spiritually bypassing.)
Resting in whatever arises, the third modality presented by Gampopa, and the favorite of Khenpo Lodro Donyo while he was teaching, is an instruction that one commonly finds within the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions. It is profound- and it also very difficult to do honestly. As we saw earlier, anger, attachment, pride, jealousy and ignorance are powerful. To rest within rage for example- to feel one’s pulse quicken, and heart beat heavier and louder, while one becomes physically tight and flushed, as the explosive heat of anger and impatience engulfs us- is not a particularly comfortable feeling. (For a look at some of the difficulties involved with taking on these fierce emotions, you can read a previous post on Mahakala here.) Then there is the “resting” part. This term gets thrown around very often that I wonder if it doesn’t end up having a multitude of meanings nowadays. I know that I have met Buddhists of other traditions that take the term literally and assume that it is akin to taking a nap or “resting”.
Resting actually refers to maintaining a focused (often described as ‘single-pointed’) awareness of appearance as it arises in the moment. In this way, Tilopa’s instruction from the beginning of this post seems a wonderful way through which we can re-engage the term resting. One quality of resting is being at ease. In this sense when Tilopa refers to three different ways of being- siting, sleeping, and looking- he is referring to three ways that we can rest in what arises. We can do it formally, as in sitting practice. We can do it within the experience of sleep, mind appearances arise when we sleep just as when we are awake. Finally, in looking, perhaps a passive “every day” experience as well.
If you sit, sit in the middle of the sky.
Where is the middle of the sky? The true middle? Where are its edges? Where does the sky end and something else take over? As we sit and remain resting with a sense of ease can we feel the expansive qualities of our minds? Where is the edge of our mind? What does a thought look like? Does it have a source that you can identify? Where do thoughts go when they are no longer so magnetic?
If you sleep, sleep on the point of a spear.
When our thoughts feel sticky and magnetic, when it is hard to not feel drawn into them and let our inner film projector play, what happens when we remain concentrated? What does that “single-pointed” awareness feel like? When we can feel and notice our breath; when we can maintain focused awareness on the way the inner film projector plays; on how a particular thought will hold us within our inner gaze, what do we notice about our experience?
If you look, look upon the center of the sun.
When this focus can be maintained as we look out at the world as it goes by around us, where is the sense of stillness? From where does that arise? What happens to the way that you notice the way that things arise while maintaining a focused awareness upon the expansive quality of our minds? Is there ever not enough room for what arises within our field of reference?
I Tilopa, who saw the ultimate, am the one who is free of all effort.
What if removing all effort was all that you had to do? What would it be like to maintain that within your experience of life?
Instructions such as the ones that Tilopa left behind for us are rare and powerful. It has been roughly one thousand years since Tilopa passed away, and yet through these four lines it is amazing how much of a connection we can feel with him. Five generations after Tilopa, Gampopa further crystalized the importance of being someone who “is free of all effort”. And while there are may pitfalls around how we may feel that we are directly engaging what arises within the moment, there is much beauty in the journey. Perhaps, slowly moving through life, through the wonderous field of appearance, we can increase our sense of ease and relax into an experience of effortlessness. What an amazing thing to aspire towards.
The other day I heard a story on the radio about the rise of the anti-hero in current television programing. Apparently there is a growing number of television shows for which the main character is an anti-hero; a figure whose moral equations and ethical concerns follow a personal arc that often falls outside of the norms of the larger group; sometimes walking the line between good and bad; sometimes navigating those places that we fear to go. One example of such a show takes place just after the American Civil War in the vague liminal space of the farthest frontiers of the Union Pacific Transnational Railroad- the very edge of civilization. It tells the story of a racist ex-confederate soldier and former slave owner who hunts down union soldiers (the historical good guys) for the crimes they have committed. Another example tells the story of a highschool chemistry teacher who after a diagnosis of lung cancer, decides to work with a former student, to “cook” methamphetamine, a terribly addictive and dangerous drug, to pay for his medical treatment in the short-term; and, being a realistic man, to provide financial support for his wife, teen-age son who has cerebral palsy, and his new-born daughter. He and his partner explore the dark world of methamphetamine and the shadow figures who are involved in its distribution. They are occasionally forced to kill the ruthless for being cruel, and are often driven by a clear sense of right and wrong in a world of darkness where such distinctions as right and wrong have been forgotten long ago. Sometimes that clear judgement seems to fall prey to the induced darkness that they frequently encounter. There are yet other similar television stories too, including the story of a serial killer (the anti-hero) who only kills other killers, and has a love for, and natural connection with, children.
For those who are interested, you can listen to the radio clip that I listened to here.
The presentation of these anti-heros as an archetypal “dark Hermes”, a guide for lost souls, or as a guide for well-oriented souls as they transition through, or are completely lost in, a place of darkness, leads me to reflect upon pawos, palmos, and the retinue of very important wrathful buddhas. I am reminded of those who protect, and those who serve in places and at moments where we seem weak and desperate, those who as part of their unique activity can serve compassionately through, for lack of a better term, dark means.
These beings, Mahakala in all of his overwhelmingly powerful manifestations, Throma with her army of dakinis, Vajrakilaya with his phurba of non-referential space, and Yamantaka (Vajrabairava) the destroyer of Yama (the lord of death), occupy an important place within the practice of all lineages of tantric buddhism. They have also been the most controversial. From the perspective of the academic study of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent and Himalayas, many early western scholars of Buddhism regarded tantric Buddhism as a corruption of the Buddha’s original message. Tantric Buddhism, and tantric Hinduism for that matter, from this early scholastic point of view, was seen as a distortion of the orthodoxy; a blend of Buddhism and Hinduism with gross superstition, animism, sex, magic and the more base drives that lead us poor humans hither and thither. Jacob P. Dalton, in his recent book The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism, offers a clear and well thought out description of how some of the language and imagery found in the tantras have come to occupy a place of simultaneous attraction and disgust in all of the cultures the tantras have come to visit. It appears that the reactions of Victorian British scholars did not arises as an emotional island unto itself when it comes to the tantras- in Indian as well as Tibetan culture they were embraced and feared, accepted and rejected, praised and cursed.
Ironically, the shivering disgust and ambivalence of early western scholars towards tantric Buddhism reveals the power of becoming intimate with these feelings and reactions as they exist within ourselves. Superstition, animism, sex, magic, and our “base drives” can be sources of great confusion, great pain, loss of control, and even our undoing. Perhaps then it is no wonder that these aspects of our experience of life end up proving to be very powerful fodder with which we can develop confidence in our practice of Buddhism. As a chaplain I have seen patients, their loved ones, and even colleagues, struggle around these hard feelings- this is a struggle that we all share. No one person owns, or is cursed, with difficulty of struggling with guilt, shame, fear, loss, pain, and loss of control.
Within my own experience of life, I know that I often feel the push and the pull around my own anger, or sense of aggression, my impatience, my jealousy and my frustrations. These feelings arise just as generosity, patience, connection, and ease arise. The only difference is that when these harder feelings begin to swell, how they will affect me, either destroy or help to push me further along the path, seems to depend upon just how comfortably I can relate to them- how I can see them as they arise and honestly witness them- not quickly ignore them in exchange for something good. In my own way, one that changes from moment to moment, I have come to learn just how much I can be with these feelings in myself and see them as beneficial arisings. Not just see, but experience them as beneficial arisings, or as the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, refers to these thoughts/feelings, to see them as “adventitious stains”. Stains that are adventitious as they help point out the one-taste in whatever arises.
Bokar Rinpoche once said during a series of teachings in Bodh Gaya that Tibetans complain to him the they don’t understand western practitioners as they are always seen sitting perfectly still and erect, like statues. Similarly he related the complaints of western students about their Tibetan counterparts who always appear to be doing prostrations and khora (circumambuting) the mahabodhi stupa. He went on to explain to the mixed group that both are useful forms of practice- and that we should learn to modulate between both. At one time one form of practice is more appropriate, and as that moment changes, so might the way we practice in that new moment. Sometimes one form of practice is more useful, more charged, and more fitting for one’s experiences of the moment. As the moment changes sometimes so does what is arising. I don’t think that we can recognize our stainless buddha-nature by practicing like robots. I suspect that engaging with our practice, and all the maras that arise, in an open honest manner is the way.
So what about us? Do we have a tendency to frame ourselves as hero or anti-hero. Are we all light and no darkness? Do we only benefit beings and never harm them? Do we have the capability to look at our practice with a fresh set of eyes and knowingly step into the unknown? Do we see ourselves as clean and pure, or as blended and pure? Can we allow ourselves to modulate? To mix our view of ourselves with a more realistic presentation of what really arises within our mental continuum?
While there is no real difference between Mahakala and Chenrezig on an ultimate level, the experience of their relative differences can be very important- if not instrumental- in knowing who we are, how thoughts and feelings arise within us, and what the powerful energetic force of Mahakala is like. How else can we know equanimity in the midst of roaring intensity? Sometimes we need this to cut through our bad practice habits, our over-softness, and a predilection towards the positive- especially in a way that it’s too bent on purity.
Can we rest in the nature of mind amidst vice, transgression, and fear?
Such was a profound learning for many great Indian Mahasiddhas including Virupa, Naropa, and Saraha as well as many great Tibetan siddhas. In fact it still remains a profound and seminal learning for us today. When to be “good” and when to be “bad”?
In fact, I sometimes wonder if Buddhism isn’t too often presented in such a warm and fuzzy light in which it becomes easy to see the wrathful compassion of pawos and palmos as something other than and not of ourselves; something to be invoked from afar and for only getting rid of problems. Anger and ferocity are hardly rare emotions, greed and jealousy more often than not are not endangered, and tending towards a self-cherishing attitude is certainly one of the greatest thing that we all have in common. They arise from nowhere else but from within.
So why do we become concerned or uncomfortable when the “strong medicine” of Vajrakilaya or Throma becomes the prescribed remedy for our suffering. As the demon armies of Palden Lhamo ride past fearlessly destroying all impediments to our practice, effectively closing the door to our own limitations, and as the flesh-eating dakinis gratefully pledge protection and siddhis as we offer our own transformed inner poisons to them, where is the room for squeamishness?
Similarly, I sometimes find that when some dharma practitioners reference entering into in wrathful activity, I wonder about the presence of a facile idiotic aspect of “wrathfulness” that simply seeks to justify laziness. I know that this is something that I look for in myself as I know how seductive the pull to break the rules in an elevated way can be. Sometimes through the desire to engage in “transgressing the rules” and working with how those difficult emotions of knowing that you are doing something wrong or impure, we may actually be soft with ourselves around actually feeling like the rules don’t apply to us. To bring whiskey and ribs to a tsok can be one thing if we can hold what alcohol and meat mean in the context of an offering to mahakala for example, or it can be an insulting self-aggrandizing slap in the face to what a mahakala tsok is all about. Herein lies the conundrum: How and when are we really acting from a place of authenticity as we decide to behave badly for the common good of other sentient beings?
Knowing when to be bad, or when to challenge conventions is never really an easy thing. Such behavior asks us to be confident in ourselves, confident in our abilities, and comfortable with growth that arises from difficulty. This too isn’t easy- the habits of disempowering and brutalizing ourselves are strong. And yet, at times we must step into this aspect of practice; we must challenge conventions, habits and assumptions; we must find our ground and relationship with the strong and the dark, the wrathful and the powerful. For this is another side of buddha activity. Despite its danger (just one act of poor judgement can have terrible consequences), and the trepidation that can arise with knowing willful transgression there is a lot of room for growth in becoming friends with these expressions of “being bad”.
That said, this kind of practice may not be for everyone- nor I suppose is it necessary for everyone. Although it helps to take an honest look at what comes alive for us when we look at the images that are included on this post before saying, “nah, I don’t have any need touching my dark-side. I don’t think I even have one”. If these images elicit fear and concern, or feel attractive and seductive, or if they feel disgusting and repulsive then perhaps that is something to look at. If they feel foreign and “definitely not part of me” well perhaps another deeper look may be warranted. It may be that these natural reactions, honest indicators of what we really feel, hold a good deal of explanation of our relationship to wrathful Buddhas- about finding freedom within our difficult emotions, and remaining spacious when the right or wrong associated with where we are or what we are feeling is called into question.
How are we really when it comes to visualizing lakes of hot sticky blood these buddhas traverse, the flayed human and elephant skins that they wear as adornments, and the steamy snorting of the demonic animals that they ride?
What is being good? What is it to be bad? Our relationship with being good and with being bad can be very difficult and complex. The fear of blame and the need for praise, or quite frankly the inability to accept praise and the need for self-blame often affect they way we relate to much of the world. This is something to look at within ourselves. It may be that within popular culture the dark anti-hero is an increasingly popular metaphor, or even an archetype for where we are and what we feel we need; especially as the gravity of the simple good and bad, light and dark, simplicity of the dualism of our group ethics seems less pertinent. Perhaps we long for more- for different models of being, differing conceptions of justice that may include the liberating nature of wrathful buddhas. If this is the case, all we need to do is look within, and we will find a rich world, an endless thanka painted upon the canvas of our psyche that captures a limitless retinue of wisdom beings. May it be so!