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Posts tagged ‘Gyaltsab Rinpoche’

8
Aug

on compassion and dharma in jail and a request for your support

Prajnaparamita2

If with kind generosity
One merely has the wish to sooth
The aching heads of other beings,
Such merit has no bounds.
-Shantideva

Within the Buddhist tradition, regardless of which tradition one follows, the development or cultivation of a compassionate perspective towards others is a common form of both practice and training.  As practicing Buddhists we often recite prayers in which we aspire to develop greater compassion for others and or dedicate all of the merit created by all of the positive transformative actions we might be engaged in for the sake of alleviating the suffering of others.  This is part of a larger push to train the mind, and the desire to gain greater insight as to how we create the sense of suffering that we encounter from day to day, and how we might actively work to transform the mind, thereby planting seeds for the cessation of the experience of suffering.

ralang_shakyamuni_final

May I be like a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road.
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

-Shantideva

The recitation of such prayers as well as the general cultivation of compassionate activity help us to change our minds. The way in which our mind, or perhaps more to the point, the way our perspective, informs our relationship to the world is really up to us.  We hold the keys towards cultivating a greater sense of ease and release from our experience of suffering. Usually (and Buddhist teachings highlight this) we suffer more when our perspective is focused more on ourselves than others.  Similarly, when our perspective, or mental point of orientation, is rooted in a concern for the welfare of others and is not so myopically concerned with our own needs, we become aware of the vastness of collective human experience.  The more expansive and wider our reference point, the less rooted in our own problems and concerns we become.

rikers

All the joy the world contains has come through wishing happiness for others

All the misery the world contains has come from wishing pleasure for oneself.
-Shantideva

About a year and a half ago I created a program that offers the benefits of meditation instruction and practice sessions to incarcerated women at Rikers Island Correctional Facility in New York City.  This program has expanded to include incarcerated adolescents, young adults, Corrections Officers, as well as the most violent inmates at this large jail facility.  The program has been very well received and offers a profound way to help those who have never had the chance to stop and examine their minds, assess their perspective in the moment, and to make room for the possibility of change.  Our program has just launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds of that this compassionate activity can continue.

We can’t do this alone, and without your support, the support of other similarly minded people our own efficacy dwindles.  I ask you to take a moment to look at what we are doing, and to invite you to become part of this very beneficial change for those who have no access to changing their minds, or who seldom encounter others who feel compassion towards them, and for whom the chance of a change of perspective through meditation training would be impossible.

You can see what we do here.  We have until October 2nd to meet this deadline, please help us to help others in whatever way you can.

As long as space endures
And for as long as the world abides,
Until then may I, too, abide,
To dispel the sufferings of the world.
-Shantideva

GoshirWeb

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15
Oct

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

People are scared to empty their minds

fearing that they will be engulfed by the void.

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

Huang Po

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

dakshin kali

Confess your hidden faults.

Approach what you find repulsive.

Help those you think you cannot help.

Anything you are attached to, give that.

Go to the places that scare you.

Machig Labdrön

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

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

Sankhu Vajrayogini

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

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

Sadhu-Dressed-as-Shiva

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

Jetsun Milarepa

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

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

Sankhu Valley

14
Oct

On voices from the wilderness: “where we go from here…”

pirate map

We recently lost two very important Kagyu Rinpoches, Karma Chagme, the head of the Nyedo Kagyu and direct lineal descendent of the great mahasiddha Rāga Asya , the very emanation of Amitabha himself, and Kyabje Choje Akong Rinpoche, a great social activist, dharma teacher.   Along side Trungpa Rinpoche, Akong Rinpoche as one of the most important Kagyu Rinpoches in how he helped to plant the seeds of dharma in the West, but also create nurture Samye Ling and the system of Samye Dzongs throughout the UK, Scotland, Ireland, Europe and Africa.  He was also vital in helping to local the young 17th Karmapa.  As a lineage we have also recently lost Kyabje Traleg Rinpoche, Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche, and still feel the loss of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche.

As long as His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa is with us, no matter where he resides, I feel that we are in good hands, and as a student of His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, I feel that as long as his activities continue then the dharma will not only flourish but increase in concentration and power.  May their lives be long and may they completely destroy our ego-clinging through the power of their skillful means!  May their activities increase the depth and wisdom of the Kagyu lineage!

Karmapa

This said, there are some who express concern about where we as Karma Kagyu are going in the West, and I would like to throw my two cents into the ethereal debate.  Rather than make this a global argument, metaphorically as well as actually, maybe we should just focus on the Kagyu in America.  I do not presume to know much at all about this subject, and even more than that, I have no real qualifications to weigh-in on such a topic, but nevertheless, as one who has deep love for our lineage I am occasionally concerned about how we may be structuring ourselves here in the U.S.

As Karma Kagyu I feel that we can do more than we are doing.  We obviously benefit from the hard work and extreme diligence and patience of the masters of the early era: the late Kalu Rinpoche, the late Trungpa Rinpoche, ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Thrangu Rinpoche, Bardor Tulku, Ponlop Rinpoche, Lama Norlha, Lama Lordro, Lama Tsingtsang, Lama Rinchen, Lama Dorje, and of course, their guide His Holiness the Gyalwang 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rikpe Dorje.  We owe them a debt of gratitude.  Through these teachers we have the benefit of some very solid infrastructures for the study and practice of the dharma- we have a great number of translators, translation committees, places for extended as well as short retreat as well as the beginning of a sangha which while still young and tender might hopefully grow into a single unified family of victorious ones.  Yet right now the sangha may be our weakest link.

His Holiness 16th Karmapa

America is a unique place in that across the board we like to think of ourselves on the collective level as a unified group that share similar values, and yet we also very easily cleave along a variety of lines that include ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, race and political views.  The obvious benefit is that there is the potential for most anyone to find a niche within the American experience.  The fundamental flaw is that we are only part of the group until we don’t want to be, until our desire-lines of identity pull us into our sub-groups.  When we separate from the collective in this way, the American experience becomes very static and disjointed.  Likewise, when we try to singularly drop our histories, the various layers of culture that have helped to shape us as people, in favor of the collective identity, we lose the richness and the brilliance that we bring to the entire American organism.  There is something about the fundamental tension between the more idealized identity as Americans (which is a construction) and our identity as a member of a variety of sub-groups (also ultimately a construction) that allows us to question the values of both sides of our being that can allow us to grow into dynamic citizens.  That said, there is nothing preventing us from remaining stagnant within our identity on either side, either a stalwart “American” or member of a sub-group that doesn’t want to be part of the collective .  When this happens unity, connection and communication becomes impossible.

Similarly, the essential flaw that we as American Karma Kagyu face is the idea that we actually think that know what we are doing.  We feel that we are correct in projecting a particular meta-view upon ourselves as followers of the wisdom lineage of the Karma Kagyu, and that this view has to be expressed in a particular unified way.  We assume that we must all adhere to the values as a group that were most recently innovated by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye in 18th century Tibet, who while being an amazing genius and autodidact, has been used (perhaps unintentionally) to create a blanket meta-identity that may have been taken to the extreme.  At times I feel that ultimately this lack of balance has led many who feel connected to a wide variety of sub-groups to feel left out and as a result, not integrated into the larger view of what we may be as a lineage.  As if the notion of a unified Karma Kagyu lineage, or any lineage, has ever existed until the “modern” era.

I think that it is worth throwing into the mix that the lines of all four major schools of Tantric Buddhism might be more a product of modern academia than anything else.  It might even be that we have all contaminated one another through the cross-pollination of inter-lineage growth in the past than our projections and assumptions allow us to believe.  Our identities are more blended that we might like.  An example of this can be demonstrated by His Holiness Sakya Trizin when he recently gave the empowerment of Dudjom Lingpa’s Three Wrathful Ones in New York City.

Dudjom shechen 1236

I think that it was Trungpa Rinpoche who called the Kagyu lineage the ‘mishap lineage’, which I will loosely interpret to mean that at its best our lineage just happens; it is not the product of strategic planning.  Why is this?  Well, perhaps we are not the product of controlled strategic planning either; our mind/heart matrix of thought/emotion is a system of constant mishaps, all sorts of stuff arises, sometimes we can clearly rest in what arises, other times we get carried away by our hallucinations.  But one thing is certain, problems arise once we try to force a structure upon the way things should be.

In this way, I tend to wonder if we may have made the fundamental error of leaning too much upon the 18th/19th century classicism of monastic Karma Kagyu as a model for the entirety of American Karma Kagyu (the vast majority of whom are lay) in the 21st century. It sounds kind of absurd actually when I see it written out like that, and I don’t think that it is too much of a stretch to suggest that if this is the case, then perhaps we lose some of our credibility and accessibility with those who resonate with the sub-groups that feel at odds with the way the dharma is presented.  How are young people with little interest in India or Tibet, let alone their history, and who have little money to travel to India to feel connected?  What about some curious souls from the South Bronx, Brownsville, Oakland, Compton, or even large swathes of Suburbia who want to better understand their relationship to their experience of suffering to connect?

The dynamic energy of engaged being as is inherently expressed by a wide variety of groups of all imaginable ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, race and other points of orientation doesn’t seem to be held by the container of this kind of singular classical Tibetan approach.  Perhaps it is paternalism or some type of chauvinism, and perhaps it isn’t- lord knows the internet is full of such debates, and my point here is not to cast blame upon anyone other than our limited view.  That said, I tend to feel that what matters most here is that the essential tension between “self-identity” as a member of any particular group in relation to the experience of gaining certainty in our not having any particular “self” as taught through the dharma is being lost to an increasing number of Americans.  These sparks of tension allow the power of tantric Buddhism to blow up our ideas of who we think we are and how we tend to conceive of the world around and within ourselves.  To ‘inadvertently’ create the assumption that one can only experience this through assuming that we all need to be conversant in 18th/19th century Tibetan classical Buddhist thought only serves to disempower the vast majority of sentient beings in the United States.  It allows few people to come and be held as they expolre the sparky nature of what it means to familiarize oneself with the view.  Perhaps Europe is different, or Central and South America, and Aftrica, but I suspect not.

The way that much of the Karma Kagyu lineage is being presented these days in the United States appears to be more of a preservation of monasticism and the imposition of this structure upon the inner lives of the sangha, rather than a skilled blending, meeting people where the are, and creating the container that allows the safety and intimacy necessary to challenging the assumptions of who and what we are, and what the whole field of appearance might be.

spacious view

The result is that it is not uncommon to find that there are many gorgeous Karma Kagyu dharma dharma centers, stunning in beauty and immaculate in appearance, real museum quality reproductions of what one might have found in Tibet before the Chinese holocaust.  Yet, it is also possible to feel the cold clinical nature of many of these places.  In looking even closer, it is easy to see how tender and fragmented the sanghas appear.  This makes me feel sad.  After all, it is sangha that is vital for the continuation of the practice of dharma.  When I visit places that resemble these perfect visions of what dharma is supposed to look like visually, I think of Drukpa Kunley, Milarepa, Phadampa Sangye and Shabkar with great tenderness (and humor) and take delight in my meager identity as a so-called Repa.  These teachers (myself completely excluded) were vital commentators, alternatives and voices in the wilderness that dharma cannot be owned, trapped in books, and is not only to be delivered through the medium of classicism which often runs the risk of becoming overly dusty and theoretical.  There is a lot of wisdom in their path, and many teachings in their relationship with the institutions that presented dharma in a particular kind of way.

Repa Shiwa O

What we seem to fail to realize, or perhaps disassociate from, is that the Karma Kagyu lineage is best when it is a blended practice of fierce engaged practice activity mixed with the subtlety and discipline that one finds in Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye.  Just as we need the sun and the moon for there to be balance on Earth, perhaps we need both the paths of Rechungpa and Gampopa as symbols of who we are, who we might wish to become, and from which point we wish to engage the dharma.  We need to look at where we become too comfortable and lazy and bring our whole experience as people into our practice.  Good dharma practice has nothing to do with beautiful dharma centers, rich coffers, and exquisite elegance.  In fact, the best practice arises from confronting the entire hallucination of this “self” and the world around us.  We are often well served to this end in challenging our assumptions of how our dharma centers should appear, notice when our devotion becomes the habit obsession rather than a mixture of connection and gratitude, and when in trying to be “good”, how  we accidentally cause great harm to those we tell ourselves we are committed to benefiting.

Ultimately, everything that has been created by our foreparents within the Karma Kagyu in America is wonderful, and we should rejoice in the amazing progress.  It really is amazing what has come into being.  And yet, we might be getting a bit lazy and myopic and I pray that we can make things a bit more messy and sparky and dynamic for everyone who might be attracted to this vibrant and wonderful lineage.  I pray that our dharma teachers can strike a rich and engaged balance for their students!  I pray that our lineage can hold the experience of every person from every walk of life who approaches us!  I pray that we face mishaps every day and that the sparks of tension within our experience of being cause endless dakas and dakinis to bless us!

Karmapa Mikyo Dorje

10
Oct

On real time Buddhist pastoral care and the experience of loss when a lama dies

Early Kagyupa

The past week has been a tough one for the Kagyu lineage.  Recently the great Karma Chagme Rinpoche passed away in New Delhi, and one of the first trailblazers of dharma in the West, Akong Rinpoche, along with two travel companions was murdered in Eastern Tibet.  Needless to say, these two important lamas impacted the lives of many, many, people who practice dharma, and in the case of Akong Rinpoche many Tibetans who passed through the schools and hospitals that he was instrumental in building in Tibet.

karma chagme

I had the wonderful pleasure of receiving the transmission of Rāga Asya’s (the 1st Karma Chagme) The Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen in New York City when he was traveling through the United States in 1998/99.  Both Karma Chagme Rinpoche as well as his son Sangtrul Rinpoche took turns teaching the text line by line- it was an extraordinary privilege to be there for such a transmission.  Years later, in 2005, I visited Karma Chagme at his monastery in Pharping where I was fortunate enough to receive Namchö Amitabha from him, which in a way was like receiving it from Amitabha himself.  His Holiness, the Gyalwang Karmapa’s letter of condolence regarding Karma Chagme’s death can be seen here.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Akong Rinpoche, although I did visit Samye Ling during the summer of 1995.  Samye Ling was (and continues to be) a vital center for the preservation and teaching of the Kagyu lineage.  You can read His Holiness’ statement of condolence regarding Akong Rinpoche’s death here.

akong rinpoche

Without a doubt, my limited relationship to these masters pales in comparison to the stories of others, especially those who were direct disciples of these two great teachers, yet I thought that I would share the way in which I came to develop my own personal relationship with them.  Even if all we have seen is a photo of them, or read a text or teaching by them and not actually met them then we still have a connection with them.  In fact, physical proximity is not necessarily very important if you can hold the connection between yourself and a lama within your heart.  After all, where is the lama?  Where is the lama’s mind?  Is there an edge, or separation, that keeps us away from constantly being able to experience the wakeful luminosity of the lama?

There is a real sense of loss with the passing of these two Rinpoches that has stuck with me in a way that I am trying to better understand.  I rejoice in all of their activities and pray that their activities continue to flourish, and yet I am very aware of the temporary break in the immediate benefit that these teachers manifest.  Ultimately, it is okay to feel sad and upset, these feelings -all thoughts/feelings that arise in fact- are okay.  If we can hold whatever arises as pure appearance, as the arising of thought as-the-lama then there is no loss of intimate connection with the lama, no separation and no real loss other than the physical lama.

Karmapa and His Eminence

I was very moved to learn of the visit that His Holiness Karmapa and His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche made to Karma Chagme before his death.   An account of that visit can be seen here.  As a hospice chaplain, I felt that His Holiness and His Eminence were modelling a sense of spiritual care that I could identify with.  I find that there was a profound teaching in seeing two great masters going to be with another great master as he approached the end of life.  I saw a reflection of them in the work I do.  In my case it is one ordinary person going to be with other ordinary people who are in the process of dying or who have just died, yet the level of intimacy and connection that can occur between two people under these circumstances is much more profound than we often give credit.  What’s more, that level of caring, a natural compassionate resolve, in which two very busy lamas take time to visit one who is dying is something that we can all learn to blend into our own busy lives.  Perhaps we can also start to drop the enduring experience of ordinariness too, but that should be the topic of another blog post.

Death is often seen as a passing, as a separation, and as an ending.  Trying to see it otherwise, or trying to allow myself see death more clearly for what it is, is one of the things that keeps me refreshed and motivated in the work I do.  I also feel that there is a link to the way we see death, the way we relate to it, and the way that we see our own minds; the way that we relate to everything that appears. A mind full of fear of death is a mind plagued by duality and is therefore unable to rest in the natural vastness of it’s essential nature with ease.  As we begin to familiarize ourselves with the mind as deathless, as expansive luminosity, then we simultaneously seem to develop more equanimity around what death may be.  As a relative expression of death Karma Chagme’s death seems to reveal the power of his realization as he sat in thugdam for several days.  Akong Rinpoche’s death reminds me of many things, it was “ordinary” in a way that Milarepa’s death appeared.  It was also sudden and violent, two things that we often shy away from as practitioners of dharma- two things we often try to avoid.  There is a lot in this, a lot in dying in a manner that most Buddhists seem to want to shy away from.  Most of the time I think we see our deaths as knowable and slightly intentional in that we generally want to be prepared for it as it comes.  We cannot always do that; death is unavoidable.  Death is inevitable.  It comes when it does.

death cannot be avoided

As a lineage, we have lost two very important and influential masters.  The question now very well may be; “where do we go from here”?  At times like this, when experiencing moments of sadness and loss, it is nice to be told what we should do.  Yet this is the critical moment in which perhaps we can benefit the most in taking some quiet moments to reflect upon and review all that these masters have given us.  If we can spend time cultivating gratitude for each instruction, each display of teaching, each kind supportive glance, and bolster within ourselves the resolve to continue to practice what they have given us with the intent of resting in the display of appearance as no different than the lama, then we have touched upon something wonderfully profound.  If we can continue with what we committed to ourselves to and bring all that arises with loss onto the path rather than shut down, hibernate in a feeling of shock, and let all certainty fade, then we are practicing the ultimate guru yoga.

If we can do this it seems that many questions and fears naturally dissipate.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that we become naturally happy and that life turns around, but that we continue to remain in union with the essence of the lama, always open to their blessings, always part of their lineage.  This can lead to certainty in the dharma and the realizations that dawn from an engaged dharma practice.  This experience of certainty helps aide us in developing natural ease in our experience of mind so that we have definitive understanding, the experience of natural knowing or resting in the nature of our minds.  In this way, no matter where we happen to live, no matter what cultural mores we follow, or no matter what language we speak, no matter what gender or sexual orientation, no matter if we practice in a fancy dharma center, or a scrappy one, or our simple homes, we take a seat amongst Tilo, Naro, Marpa, Milarepa, the incomparable physician of Dakpo and everyone who passed the enduring nectar of dharma from vessel to vessel throughout time.

My thoughts and prayers go out to all students of Karma Chagme Rinpoche and Akong Rinpoche, may your practice deepen and may their activities continue throughout time and space!  May we all finally gain certainty in resting in the experience of lama-as-experience!  Gewo!

lord marpa

4
Nov

on text, owning our language and the ghostly apparitions of self…

I have been somewhat remiss in writing over the summer- my primary excuse is the time consuming work that I have put into renovating the space that we will be using for New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center. My secondary excuse cuts a little closer to the bone; I was feeling uninspired and unsure about claiming the role as one of the two resident teachers at the dharma center.

Lately I have found myself struggling between feeling like a defender of vajrayana orthodoxy and a greater rebelliousness around how vajrayana is presented here in the United States.  Or, more specifically, I have been struggling to make sense of the way that tantric Buddhism has come into being as we know it according to the latest historical research, versus the way that Tibetan common religious history describes it.  A recent trip to India only helped to add more fuel to this struggle.

Right now I feel that I am swimming in text and coming to appreciate that the dharma is so fluid and hard to pin down that any attempt to understand it historically is very difficult.  Tantric Buddhism is often a murky world where definitive meaning is less commonly found than one might like.  Yet there is a great benefit in exploring the historical record; what better way to learn than through the experience of others?  What better way to appreciate a sadhana than to see how it has come down to us from the 8th century to this moment? What better way to try an connect to a lineage than to see just how syncretic it has been up until recently?

Pulled in these two directions (the orthodox and the rebellious), I occasionally find myself desiring the room and time to distill and slowly mull-over, consider, and explore the rich complexities that surround the foggy notion that there is an objective definitive knowledge of tantric Buddhism.  More appealing to me is when I feel able to dance between my connection to orthodoxy and rebelliousness, between the sneaky rebel, ready to shift identity and push through my own stogy norms, and a sense of connection to a definitive lineage, a member of a family of lineal descendents that ground, orient, and provide me with a feeling of connection to those who have come before me. Such a dance can be hard, even exhausting, other times it can be blissfully easy and infectious, like a warm breeze in the early spring, igniting a deep happiness that presages a sense of well-being.  Indeed this is the well-spring that inspires me in planning the curriculum of classes that will be offered at New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center.

As previously mentioned, I recently returned from Palchen Chosling Monastery in Sikkim, India.  I was there to attend the Kagyü Ngak Dzöd empowerments and the related oral transmission offered respectively by His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche and the retreat master at Palchen Chosling Monastery’s retreat center, Drubon Rinpoche.  An astounding event, the Kawang ceremonies were elaborate and extensive. The chief recipient was His Holiness Taklung Shabdung Rinpoche Rangrig Dorjee Nyima, the head of the Taklung sub-lineage of the larger Kagyu lineage.  There were also a variety of other tulkus and khenpos from all over the Himalayan area who came to receive this vital transmission.  The Kagyü Ngak Dzöd is one of the “Five Treasuries” that was compiled in the 19th century by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye.  Out of the five, this is a collection of all of the empowerment texts, sadhanas, commentaries, and pith instructions of the thirteen major tantric practices  that Marpa Lotsawa received in India at the feet of Naropa, Maitrepa, Sri Santibhadra and others.  Included are the major and minor practices of Vajrapani and the long life practice of Amitayus from Machik Drupai Gyalmo as received by Rechungpa from his teachers in India, Balachandra and Machik Drupai Gyalmo herself.  Also added by Kongtrul are the empowerments of Chakshipa (four-arm Mahakala) and Dusulma (Vetali) and Tseringma.

Of all of Kongtrul’s five treasuries, the Kagyü Ngak Dzöd has always held a special place in my heart.  I think that the main reason for this is that I have a strong interest in the early roots of the Kagyü lineage, especially the transfer/transplanting of the core lineage practices from 11th century India to Tibet.  Even the very act of bringing the texts that comprise the Kagyü Ngak Dzöd from Ralang to Brooklyn felt like a way to connect to Marpa Lotsawa- in the right setting it could even be seen as a form of guru yoga.

When we read the biographies of Marpa and similar figures of that time period, most of which were composed centuries after their actual lives were lived, we read of the hardship experienced in travel, of the dangerousness of the water and roads, of the corruption of the custom agents, even the identity/racial tensions between the enlightened Indians and Nepalis and their otherwise dim-witted neighbors from the north.  In short, it was not easy for Marpa- and when we look closely, and perhaps even more importantly, when we look honestly, most of these same factors still exist today for western students of dharma who travel to India to learn at the feet of great masters there. The only difference is that it is often the Tibetans now, and not the Indians,  who assume that we are naturally dim-witted vessels capable of nothing more than confusing the dharma for which we have come to learn.

This sensibility is so powerfully present within our conception of who we are in relation to Tibetans, and it was demonstrated with great clarity during a break in the empowerments I attended in Sikkim.   A western woman who was attending the Kawang ceremonies tried to convince me that English is inherently a violent language in comparison to Tibetan, a language which she said was naturally coded with self-arising compassion and enlightened activity.  There was, she claimed, evidence proved by brain scans that showed that when one speaks English there is an activation of all of the centers of the brain associated with anger, and of course, when one speaks Tibetan, an activation of all of the brain centers associated with compassion.  Tibetan history certainly stands as a witness, as it should, to prove that such views are overly facile and fairytale projections that I would love to see expanded upon.  Nevertheless, I was saddened and curious as to why this otherwise intelligent and motivated person wanted to assume that she was inherently flawed by the language that she spoke, indeed, even gravely hindered by this language to the point where dharma practice seemed more of an aspiration than something she could actually allow herself access to.  For her, the practice works better if you are Tibetan, or at least speak Tibetan.  What then of the 11th and 12th century Tibetans who never knew Sanskrit, the language from which the tantras were translated?

I am beginning to wonder whether or not dharma practice can really take root and generate fruit in the West without a deep exploration of the way we blend it within ourselves to reveal our conceptual habits- especially those of language.  I am by no means a linguist, nor am I sure that one needs to be a linguist in order to explore how we use language, how we appreciate language, and how we unconsciously express ourselves (especially our habits and frames of reference) through language.  There seems to be a great deal of power and transformative value within examining, and perhaps even unraveling all of the assumptions that we create through rote linguistic responses to the events and circumstances around us.  Language is, after all, a set of symbols.  Words often have a variety of meanings, ephemeral like soft wispy smoke starting out in one form and transforming as if through an alchemical process, into something else.  We craft dialectics out of these words, define stances, elucidate positions, hammer-out identities and create entire worlds out of these words.  Often these worlds are created out of a dialectic that supports us in our self-oriented perspective of the world within which we find ourselves; a position that creates suffering.

These powerful words can take on such seemingly real and concrete meaning that a critical investigation of how we create our identities (and thereby reinforce them through language) is vital to ensure that we can blend dharma practice (whichever form it takes) into our experience of life.  This contemplative practice of examining how we continue to bind ourselves to a samsaric dialectic is very important.  The woman I described above is a great example of someone who while well-meaning, has placed herself in a position in which she can’t allow herself the fruition of dharma practice because of the identity that she has created for herself- an identity that is not Tibetan.

How we use language and whether or not we can gather the guts to claim our practice within our linguistic (and perhaps even cultural/genetic backgrounds) is thus very important and not something to be taken lightly.

During my recent time in Sikkim I was grateful (and lucky) to share a handful of evenings with a friend who is both a gifted lama and translator.  He happens to be American, did a three-year retreat in Mirik at the seat of the late kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, Bokar Ngedhon Chökhor Ling, and is now very interested/concerned with how dharma practice appears in the West and what it will look like as it continues to be transferred from India, Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan.  Of the many topics that we discussed, one of the primary ones that we came back to was the translation of dharma texts from Tibetan to English.  In his eyes this seemed to be vitally important (for him as a translator) and for me in the sense that I happen to be convinced that we may just be playing “buddhist” house until we pull our practice (including practice texts and all commentarial literature) into our experience of life.  A real sustained and honest exegesis is important if we really want to honor the spirit demonstrated within the core existential frustration and soul-searching (for lack of a better term) engendered by the Buddha and countless later masters.  It may be that in failing to do this, the galvanizing factors that lead us to practice risk being lost by the sedating power of scented candles, plush meditation cushions, expensive meditation clothing, and prohibitively expensive weekend retreats.

In a dharma world where people seem to vacillate between ‘sitting’ dharma and ‘service’ dharma, sometimes in a cycle of burnout where one replenishes the other, I don’t see dharma but a cycle of subtle suffering within the dharma. Such a dynamic seems to lack depth and a greater awareness of how to become the dharma, how to integrate it.

How humbling that even great bodhisattvas, before achieving the 8th bhumi known as Achala (or Immovable) are still susceptible to wrong view, mistaken perspectives and mistakes in guiding others.  No wonder it is possible to misinterpret our surroundings, our direction and even our intentions.  Perhaps for this reason a sustained exegesis may be central to spiritual growth; a way to bolster and reinforce personal meditative experience.

What does sustained exegesis mean, or what might it look like?

There is no one answer to this question.  After a number of evenings of conversation that lasted several hours with my friend in Sikkim we retired feeling passionately about our individual interests, paths, and the fiery topics that inspire and create the conditions to re-double our effort and energy around practice.  What we found was that our interests, and perhaps by extension, our paths are and will be different.  They are unique to who we are, to our qualities, and the way that we manifest in relation to, and within the dharma.

Whether it be Karma Chakme’s commentary on Rangjung Dorje’s writings on Chöd contained within the Rinchen Trengwa, or Pawo Tsugklag Trengwa’s commentaries on Vajrayogini, or any number of practice texts and their supporting literature, it is important to blend ourselves into the text.  It is important to examine how our habitual linguistic theories about ‘ourselves’ and the way we ‘are’ remain discordant from the paths laid before us.  How do we achieve a sense of connection to lineage?  What does it take to breathe our exegetic process? What would it look like to constantly occupy a sense of connection to the center of whatever mandala that we practice?  How will we manifest that in a manner that honors our natural abilities?

Not only are these are profoundly important questions that need to be resolved on a personal level within the context of our  individual practice as well as within our dharma communities, they are not new. Ronald M. Davidson touches on this topic in relation to the way in which Marpa Lotsawa achieved experience within his dharma practice as well that of Gampopa in his thought provoking book Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture.  Davidson relates that Marpa and his student Ngok Chödor, who was the central inheritor of his lineage of textual exegesis, especially with regard to the Hevajra Tantra, was a proponent of the earlier Indian tradition of textual exegesis through which Marpa was able to master the large amount of tantric textual material that he learned from Naropa and his other teachers.  Of this he writes:

It may be strange to some readers to stress the difference between tantric study and tantric practice, but Marpa himself was said to have obtained Buddhahood without meditating, and Drokmi’s pandita Gayadhara was noted for seldom practicing contemplation. In fact, by the late eleventh and early twelfth century, tantric exegesis had become an important area of study and exercise, and Gampopa’s received writings seldom quoted the tantras and almost never made reference to the normative points of controversy in the tantric commentaries.

Davidson points out the value that was placed upon tantric exegesis which when fully engaged can offer a powerful compliment to contemplative practice.  It may be that this aspect of ‘practice’, one which I like to think of as ‘breathing text’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘becoming text’, seems to fall by the wayside by our often simplistic modern romantic sensibilities that suggest that text and textual study is less important than meditation practice.  To create this kind of dichotomy is unnecessary. In fact it doesn’t make sense.  When our practice becomes so natural that we have memorized parts of our sadhanas, where does text end and where does the practice of meditation begin? The same goes for mantras; when we blend mantra recitation with resting in mind, how can you make a distinction between the two?

Another great consideration comes from the potential power of words.  As I have mentioned in previous blog posts in reference to the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche’s wonderful condensed commentary on the ninth Karmapa’s Ocean of Definitive Meaning, the mind is pointed out as the lama, as is appearance, and by extension, text.  In this regard I am reminded of reading a number of dharma texts that electrified me, gave me goosebumps, and seemed to shift my perspective so that I could see more clearly.  In fact, the feeling created in those moments can be incredibly profound and if not always life-changing, perhaps practice-changing.  Several pointing-out texts come to mind, as do certain sufi texts and a variety of chan Buddhist texts.  It seems clear that no one spiritual tradition seems to have a monopoly on the power of well placed words (nor does any specific language).

The brilliance of Gampopa, one of the heart sons of Jetsun Milarepa, may lay in his synthetic approach to exegesis.  He was known for many things, a gifted meditator, a focused monk,and a Tibetan doctor, as well as other attributes attested in his biographies.  What is less emphasized is the uniquely ‘outsider’ approach that Gampopa took towards exegesis.  Lacking the same traditional training emphasized by Marpa and Ngok Chödor, Gampopa created his own doctrinal line that blended Kagyu traditions with Kadampa traditions often using traditional Mahayana language to explain tantra, and vice versa.  This fusion, was indeed new and kicked up quite a storm that lasted for centuries.  His blending of the yogic tradition maintained by Milarepa, Marpa, Naropa and Tilopa with the primarily Mahayana monastic tradition that was represented by the Kadampa was in many ways unprecedented.

It took centuries for Buddhism to take root in Tibet from India in a way that was Tibetan.  I tend to feel that it will take a similar amount of time in the West.  In a sense, we are living in the midst of a very exciting time, a time not unlike that of Marpa.  If this is the case, how can we take the dharma that has been brought to us and allow for it to take root and blend within our general culture?  How can we do this within our individual cultures of language, or perception, and experience?  Will we allow ourselves to empower ourselves to breath the texts that have been passed down over a thousand years and let authentic dharma arise? What does that look like for us right now?

When we look at how we practice in this light, as part of a continuum, in which we help to shape the future just as those who have come before us helped to shape us where we are now, these issues feel more alive and immediate than they are often presented.  Our texts, our service, and our mediation seats beat with the life of dharma that is so full of vitality and unbelievable potential.  I pray that we can allow ourselves to express this fully and thereby let the seeds of untold realization take root on these shores!  May great fields of indigenous mahasiddhas arise in this moment!  May we arise as buddhas!