on Chöd, bodies of illusion, and transmission of the blessings of lineage…
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!
On equivalencies and a new dharma center…
Lately I find myself reflecting on equivalence. Yet before I share my thoughts I would like to dedicate this blog post to Lizette, a hospice resident that I had visited who died yesterday. May her experience of the bardo be one of restful ease!
As a chaplain the notion of the possibility of equivalence helps to bridge the differences between myself and others- between what might be expressed, or needed, by someone other than myself. Ascertaining equivalence, a necessary act of juggling, forces us to examine our orthodoxies. It opens the door to the barn where we keep all of our sacred cows, our assumptions, and very often, all of the ways that we lazily forego really examining how we are with others, especially in relation to our larger belief systems, and all of the other spheres that we occupy. When I can find the points of connection that I share with people with whom one would assume there is no connection, I am usually left with an understanding of just how similar I am to others. Equivalence helps to reduce the promotion associated with self-elevation might make me say, “As a Buddhist, I am different from you in that I believe….”, or, “As a Vajrayana Buddhist I feel that my path is better because….”
The word equivalence has its root in the early 15th century middle French word equivalent, which is a conjunction of the prefix equi meaning equal, and valent (as in valence) and valiant, which at that time period referred to strength, bond, and a “combined power of an element“. I am reminded of the importance of valence electrons in chemistry and physics- specifically how the balance of electrical charges between atoms necessitate a sharing of electrons thus creating bonds between atoms. From these bonds everything around us arises; indeed, through the play of interdependence everything that we know can come into being.
I find this metaphor helpful as it involves stepping out of the traditional norms of Buddhist language. Of course, one might ask, “what language isn’t Buddhist?” In this question is a profound point. If our approach to Buddhist practice, whatever form that may take, or for example my chaplaincy informed by my practice of Buddhism, cannot interpenetrate other forms of language, other modalities of thought, or other creative models, it lacks the ability to maintain equivalency. In this manner it ends up lacking the ability to be itself while remaining fluid; it remains separated and isolated, at odds with whatever other it may encounter. In this way I know that I run the risk of falling into a discursive self vs. other perspective when I feel a lack of openness, fluidity, and ability to be at ease with whatever arises.
It can be easy to feel self-conscious within, and around, our belief system which if one is Buddhist, often undermines our very ability to be Buddhist. Indeed sometimes we try to be “Buddhist” as a way to distinguish oneself from others. This kind of separation is a terrible violence- an awful form of self-inflation and spiritual self-destruction that seems to miss the larger point.
And yet, if we explore the possibility that no language can be found that exists outside of the framework of Buddhism in its pure natural manner of expressing itself then it is easy to appreciate true natural arising equivalencies. We are no longer “Buddhist”, we just are, which I suspect was what Shakyamuni came to value within his spiritual quest.
Over the past two weeks I have had the fortune to visit two women who were actively dying at two different hospices in the New York City area. Two very different women, going through different experiences of similar processes: dying. Both of these women had strong spiritual paths- unique paths of self-taught wisdom borne through the constancy of the repeated trials and tribulations that only a full life can bring. In their own ways, as self-taught “outsiders” they were Christ-like, and Buddhistic, and spoke of pure a basic expansive being without necessarily referencing any particular Buddhist vocabulary. Indeed it appeared that the slow fading of the flickering flame of their life allowed them to rest in a peaceful alert awareness that was a real joy to experience. Here I was, a chaplain, asked to come visit these two women who in that moment expressed a depth of view that I could do nothing but rejoice in and admire. I left feeling very confident in their process- they were touching a nearly inexpressible beauty. The visits with both women were punctuated by long silences with much eye contact- with simply being together, with a basic human connection.
Language, with its structural intricacies, its variegated forms, and kaleidoscopic ability to transform, often acts as a buttress in relation to our habitual referential reactions. It allows for, and instills, comparison -creating an endless system of distinctions. A literary color wheel, language runs the risk of pinning everything around us down; leaving us with a sense of knowing. And yet I wonder, where and when, does knowing intersect with being- with the quiet awareness from just being? What is the nature of their relationship within us?
My experience with Lizette, one of the two hospice patients described above, was that whenever I tried to use language and vocabulary to capture what she told me that she was experiencing a clumsy formalism ensued. The beauty and power of her experience of being was made overly solid, overly distinct and “other” by trying to define it. The only thing that kept this feeling alive was to join with it; to sit with her; and to not “know” it, but to be it.
What is the difference between discerned knowledge and knowing borne from resting within the moment? Where, or perhaps more importantly, when, do our assumptions, our knowledge, or our better sense and logical mind of discernment (a deep and satisfying place of self-importance) get in the way of simple being? How does language and knowing try to contain the simple being that is needed to allow us to rest in all of the equivalencies around us?
I am currently working on establishing a Dharma center here in Brooklyn called New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center. This center is the only center of His Eminence the 12th Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Regent of the Kamtsang Kagyu Lineage. Just yesterday we received our 501 c 3 status as a church! It is a great honor and joy to co-Found and Co-Direct a Dharma center headed by a mahasiddha, and amidst all of the uncertainty and fears of failure, or that this will be a complete disaster, I keep coming back to memories of ngondro and the trials that Milarepa, our not so distant father, underwent.
Rob Preece, in his book Preparing for Tantra: Creating the Psychological Ground for Practice, offers a compelling argument for equivalency as it arises between aspects of the hardship and challenge created by undergoing ngondro and other hardships that may share a contextual similarity. Preece describes how all of the work and hard physical labor that he put into helping to build a center that Lama Yeshe was establishing was a prime ground for focusing the mind around dharma practice, planting aspirational seeds that would doubtlessly blossom into mature trees that provide support, shelter and benefit for others. Indeed, I know that as I challenged my body by carrying hundreds of pounds of building materials, the back pain and discomfort of refinishing the floors in 100 degree heat lead me to feel closer to Milarepa than I have felt in a long time. The practice of demolishing old structures, hanging sheetrock and cutting my hands while rewiring the shrine room allowed me to appreciate Preece’s point that ngondro was a creation meant to challenge, to purify, and to create gravity around dharma practice. My seemingly small daily endeavors, in reality, connect me to my spiritual lineage which allows me to feel close to Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa.
Ngondro is one thing- a practice that I value and feel is too often treated as just a preliminary that is to be rushed through, but how is chaplaincy different? Can it be any different? When we really look, can there even ever be a difference?
Milarepa never did ngondro, nor did Naropa- they had the benefit of having their teachers skillfully put them in difficult circumstances. At first glance it could be thought that it’s just hardship and difficulty that is implicit in these kinds of challenges; but when you look a little closer, it looks more like what is happening in through these experiences is that the view is being clarified.
What is being clarified, or purified? How is it really purified? These questions are both rhetorical and actual and beg to be asked. Blindly following through a ngondro pecha may be better than killing insects, but perhaps only in that it plants seeds that one day one may actually practice ngondro. And when we actually practice ngondro, where is there anything that exists outside of that practice? Refuge is everywhere. The experience of Vajrasattva’s non-dual purity of unmodulated mind is everywhere. The accumulation of merit arises with every breath. The lama is everywhere. Yet when we don’t “practice” ngondro what happens to refuge, the essence of purity, the accumulation of merit, and the blessings of the lama and the lineage?
I feel that there is a lot of wisdom in being able to rest into the awareness that accompanies being. It acts as a reset button of sorts that allows us the ability to see things more clearly, to appreciate the richness of whatever arises without creating conflict, and to meet others where they are without needing to change them. In this way, and with this perspective as a motivational factor, the world around us has infinite potential as a ground for practice. New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center becomes as meaningful as Bodh Gaya in India, Tsari in Tibet, and yet is no different from sitting on the subway of being surrounded by the overwhelming bustle of Times Square, as everywhere can be the center of the mandala of the experience of reality as it is. It’s impossible for everywhere and everything to no longer function as the ground for practice.
This is the wish-fulfilling jewel quality that can be associated with resting in being with all of the equivalencies that surround us. This is an expression of the multi-valent interconnected relationships that imbue our experience of reality with all of the qualities associated with pure appearance as described in dzogchen, mahamudra, the pure view or sacred outlook associated with yidam practice, and quite possibly the experience of grace in Christianity, or wadhat al-wujud, the unity-of-being as described by Sufi master Ibn ‘al Arabi.
So whether you are helping to renovate a place of dhrama practice, or simply liking it on Facebook, or enduring trials similar to those of Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa, or laying in a hospice bed in Queens, New York, who is to draw distinction between the type of, or depth of experience that we undergo?
Can we quiet our mind of endless comparisons? Or allow for the mind of analytic distinctions to settle itself?
In doing so, perhaps the simplicity of being that arises reveals a constant soft rain of blessings and opportunities for authentic clear being. May all beings taste this ambrosial nectar expressed by the blissful knowing glance of all of the mahasiddhas of all traditions in all world systems. Gewo!
On resting with Tilopa…
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.
on practice for others, and taking our seats in our own practice…
It has been just a little over a year since I started ganachakra.com and changchub.com, the associated site through which one can sponsor prayer, puja, and recitation of texts for the benefit of oneself, for another, or for all beings. Both sites have proved to meet a specific need that exists not just for Buddhists, but for anyone who is experiencing suffering and would like spiritual support.
Shortly after beginning ganachakra.com last summer, I returned to India to see His Eminence the 12th Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche (vajra regent of the Karma Kagyu lineage), as well as Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche (heart son of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, and abbot of Bokar Ngedhon Chokhorling), for periods of instruction, retreat and pilgrimage. Upon returning I wrote two posts, one with instructions on how to place the mind at the point of death from H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche (which you can read here), the other on practicing for others by Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche (which you can read here).
I wish to return to the topic of practicing for the benefit of others; specifically the performance of ritual puja as this is a form of dharma activity that appears to be treated with less importance in non-buddhist countries. I’m not really sure why this is the case, but I suspect it has to do with complicated feelings surrounding magic, ritual, and prayer. It seems important to note that in most cases, western Buddhists have had the benefit of access to higher education and perhaps even a relatively high social class. These factors may or may not be important, but I wonder if they make the outward acceptance of magic, the power of ritual, and the benefit of prayer appear superstitious and regressive. Indeed, it should be noted that most of the public proponents of Buddhism seem to hold advanced degrees, and in the United States at least, on average, there is a rationalism and sense of grounded reality that goes hand in hand with such access to education and perhaps also the leisure time to devote towards practice. Culturally, this imprint exists, as to how real it is, and to how much of an absolute it has become, is something that I cannot say much about. Perhaps we only know for ourselves how loose and free we are of this and other cultural imprints. How do these imprints color our notion of Buddhism? These projected realities can only be indicated and fully understood individually. If anything it seems that approaching the surety of the rational mind with mindful awareness is wise; for such a cherished dialectic is as much an habitual fabrication as anything else.
Mindful of the potential impossibility and eternal contradictions that words allow for, I acknowledge that I may make a variety of mistakes in trying to address this topic. That said, I invite you to explore with me how practice for others is a vitally important dharma activity.
When we pray, what are we doing?
There are many different forms of prayer. Aspiration prayers, dedication prayers, supplication to a particular lineage, direct prayers of praise to a given Buddha, and prayers of request for empowerment, to name a few. Through personal prayer, in a very general sense, we make a connection with our distinct source of spirituality and the well-spring of spaciousness, interpenetrating connection, and personal empowerment that it offers. The specific directionality and aim of our prayers can be focused and refined by what kind of prayer one does.
A great example of an aspiration prayer is the Dewachen Prayer; it focuses the mind upon making the aspiration for either oneself or another to be reborn in Dewachen or Sukhavati, the pure-land of the Buddha Amitabha. This prayer plants the seeds of connection to the intention of experiencing the bliss of Amitabha’s face, the ability to connect with the dharma, to have the means to practice, and to experience the mind’s basic clarity. It allows Amitabha’s commitment to benefit us to come to fruition.
Dedication prayers connect us to others; they engender compassion, and reinforce our commitment to bodhisattva activity. The following is an example of a dedication prayer:
By this virtue may I quickly
Attain the state of a Guru-Buddha (Enlightenment),
And then may I lead every being,
without exception, into that state.
May the most precious and supreme bodhicitta
Which has not yet been generated now be generated.
And may the precious mind of bodhicitta which has
Never decline, but always increase.
Dedication prayers are a way in which we ground our intention. They help us to keep the general view of interconnection and offer a form of bearing witness. Any merit that we have created we dedicate to all beings, so that they may experience Buddhahood; this is a way of not forgetting and maintaining our heritage as both a potential buddha, but also as a participant in samsara. These prayers are easily over-looked, but they open us up to a sense of loving-kindness and appreciation of others no matter what form they take.
Lineage prayers, much like family trees, connect us with those who have come before us. In this case we have the Dorje Chang Thungma, or prayer to Dorje Chang (Vajradhara) the dharmakaya source of the Kagyu lineage. This prayer begins with a supplication of the early forefathers of the kagyu lineage and then moves on to plant the seeds for renunciation, devotion, and attention, and reflection, all of which are very helpful, if not required to gain an essence oriented realization of the mind’s qualities. This prayer serves to connect us with the Kagyu lineage, delivering the blessings of its founders, as well as the central blessing of the Kagyu approach to the practice of meditation. Lineage prayers like this one are a way of directly connecting with the essence of a lineage, and through that, experiencing deep inspiration and faith, the energy that bolsters us in our practice.
Dorje Chang Thungma
Great Vajradhara, Tilopa, Naropa
Marpa, Milarepa, and Lord of the Dharma, Gampopa
Knower of the three times, omniscient Karmapa
Lineage holders of the four great and eight lesser schools
Drikung, Taklung, Tsalpa, glorious Drukpa and others,
You who have thoroughly mastered the profound path of Mahamudra
Unrivaled protectors of beings, the Dakpo Kagyü
I pray to you, the Kagyü lamas
Grant your blessing that we may follow your tradition and example.
Detachment is the foot of meditation, it is taught.
Attachment to food and wealth disappears
To the meditator who gives up ties to this life,
Grant your blessing that attachment to ownership and honor cease.
Devotion is the head of meditation, it is taught.
The lama opens the door to the profound oral teachings
To the meditator who always turns to him,
Grant your blessing that uncontrived devotion be born within.
Unwavering attention is the body of meditation, it is taught.
Whatever arises, is the fresh nature of thought.
To the meditator who rests there in naturalness,
Grant your blessings that meditation is free from intellectualization.
The essence of thought is dharmakaya, it is taught.
They are nothing whatsoever, and yet they arise.
To the meditator who reflects upon the unobstructed play of the mind,
Grant your blessing that the inseparability of samsara and nirvana be realized.
Through all my births, may I not be separated
From the perfect Lama and so enjoy the glory of the dharma.
May I completely accomplish the qualities of the path and stages
And quickly attain the state of Vajradhara (awakened mind).
As far as prayers directed at a particular Buddha, I have included a prayer to the Buddha Prajnaparamita for the removal of obstacles. It comes from a booklet of collected prayers that was handed out during His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s annual teachings in Bodh Gaya in December of 1998. This prayer is a supplication to Parjnaparamita and the dakinis of the three places so that all obstacles and hindrances may be removed. This invocation of Prajnaparamita’s power for protection and removal of problems, as well as the dakinis that emanate from her body, speech and mind is a way of receiving her natural blessing and connecting in a direct way. The two mantras, the second of which is the mantra of prajnaparamita herself, clear away all and any perceived “reality” of obstacles, rendering them impossible, empty, and without gravity.
Prayer to remove obstacles based upon Prajnaparamita from the Gelug Lineage
I prostrate to the gathering of dakinis of the three places,
Coming from the supreme holy site of “Space-enjoying”,
Who have the powers of clairvoyance and magical emanation,
And regard practitioners as their offspring.
A KA SA MA RA TSA SHA DA RA SA MA RAY AH PHET
Tayatha gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi soha
Through the power of the great truth of the words of the Exalted Three Jewels
May all adverse conditions be overcome.
May they become non-existent.
May they be pacified.
May all the evils, such as enemies, obstacles, hindrances and adverse conditions be satisfied.
Shantim kuruye Soha
May the eighty thousand types of obstacles be pacified,
May we be separated from adverse harmful conditions,
May everything conducive be obtained and by the auspiciousness of everything good,
May there be excellent happiness here and now.
In these ways, we see that prayer can be focused and very specific. Each modality is a little different from the others, but can be easily blended into one another if one desires. I have come to find that as a chaplain, prayer is real. It effects significant change within me when I deliver it within my own practice, and when I perform prayer for others it changes the feeling of the room as well as the orientation of the person for whom it was delivered. I have even had the experience of a dying patient who held out until prayer could be delivered; as I finished the last word of the prayer the patient died. Prayer can be a vehicle, and a ladder, it is a bridge and an oasis in the face of difficulty.
I realize that personal prayer and ritual, as part of a regular spiritual practice makes a lot of sense- the effects are palpable. But what of prayer and ritual for others? This is something that I feel a greater number of people in the West may be more skittish about.
Lately I have been requested to perform pujas and prayers for a number of people who have recently passed away. Within the mix of specific practices that I do, I tend to focus on Chöd, Mahakala and Shingkygong, as supplementary practices to help ensure that the passage through the bardo is smooth, without the affliction of fear and anger, and so that when rebirth comes, it is peaceful and rich. The effect of Mahakala and Shingkyong, in my mind at least, is profound- there is little chance that as enlightened protectors they will forget to benefit beings; and so, when invoked and supplicated with heartfelt devotion and clarity, there is no reason as to why obstacles will arise.
Chöd allows me to experience intimacy with the consciousness of the person who has passed away. I enjoy offering the feasts of my freshly butchered body, my eyes, flayed skin, and skull to all of the demons of self-clinging and self-cherishing so that the person for whom this practice is dedicated will pass through the bardo aware of the illusory nature of their body. In inviting the recently deceased to the ganachakra of my body, an offering made so that all of their obstacles may be dissolved into the emptiness that characterizes their essential nature, we become connected. We form a bond; a shared experience of seeing things as they really are. The benefit of this kind of approach to being there for others who have recently passed away feels extraordinary- I take great joy in being able to have the chance to do this.
In a sense, practicing for others is more than bodhisattva activity, the indiscriminate non-referential care for the basic happiness of others, it is also strongly urged through many of the tantric commitments (samayas) associated with a variety of practices. It is quite common amongst the samayas associated with the practice of a number of tantric deities that the practitioner engage in the activities of performing pujas, offering tormas, and removing obstacles in the manner of the mahasiddhas of old. This is another application of skillful means; we can effect great change through our practice, the least of which is experience full realization. In this way we connect with the mahasiddhas of India- we seamlessly continue their lineage.
Why not be a benefit to others? Indeed, not being stingy with the dharma assets is one of the key precepts that is kept within the Zen tradition, and is commonly found in a variety of forms in all expressions of buddhadharma; one not look any further than the paramita of generosity.
Science even affirms the value of practice for others. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) conducted a study of the effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer, which as an outcome outlined that this type of prayer should be considered within clinical treatment. You read tha abstract here. An abstract from a study done by the National Institute of Health (NIH) on the effects of remote intercessory prayer and it’s recorded benefits in recovery from low self-esteem, depression and anxiety can be read here. In terms of the recovery of cardiac patients another NIH study suggests that remote intercessory prayer may be considered “an adjunct to standard medical care”. As a chaplain, my time assigned to a medical intensive care unit (MICU) offered a quick introduction to a variety of ways in which direct measurable benefit could be experienced from the performance of prayer and ritual.
Do all the studys support the efficacy of prayer? No. In fact many studies suggest that there is no correlative relationship between pray and recovery from illness. One on the reasons why many studies don’t seem to support the effects of prayer, I believe, is that the nature of the studies don’t take into full account all of the areas of benefit that prayer and spiritual practice for others provide. I have experienced that much of the initial benefit of my being there for others to do puja, deliver prayer, or even just be there to talk with patients in the hospital and private clients is internal; it helps to bolster or reinforce the individuals sense of ground, it clarifies their own spirituality. From this point, the benefits can sometimes manifest as relief from pain, reduction of stress and trauma, and these in turn can lead towards hastened recovery, or even meaningful recovery. It is important to note how varied the experience of illness is; it’s never the same experience. Illness changes from moment to moment, affecting us in a unique way each minute spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, as well as physically. Prayer is ellusive, and so is the experience of illness.
Through my experience of Buddhism I have come to experience first hand the importance of spiritual care in the face of illness and death. Being there for others in the midst of illness and death is to fundamentally share our experience of the four noble truths- through this we are reminded of our essential impermanence. I have spent time with two teachers of mine, the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche as well as Bhue Tulku, or Dekhung Gyalsey Rinpoche, while they performed many pujas in the homes of various families in Sikkim to provide tangible, very meaningful spiritual care. What I have come away with from my experiences with these teachers is that practice for others is a wonderful, joyous part of the path. It is an exemplary aspect of what it means to be there, openly and in direct relationship with another person; it is an expression of great natural spontaneous generosity, and it is something that is expected of us as we mature and come into deeper relationship with our practice of buddhadharma.
I pray that this form of dharma activity in the West takes root, multiplies and offers meaning and context for countless beings!
Buddhism, Islam, and appearance
This post is intended to address the disturbing reactions to the Islamic cultural center that is proposed to be built near the world trade center site. The anger and “islamaphobia” that has arisen as a result of the proposal to build the center acts as a direct challenge to the ideals that America as a nation ideally represents. That some New Yorkers are participating in the protests and exhibitions of intolerance seems provincial and pedestrian given the fact that they live in what is an international city, home to people from countries all over the globe, who in turn represent and practice a wide variety of the world’s faiths. Needless to say, the intensity of these reactions seem to be based upon fear of difference and or fear of the unknown.
Despite my own personal feelings on this issue, I thought that this is the perfect time to share a picture I took at an exhibition of Indian Sufi art titled Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam that was held at the Brooklyn Museum of Art from June to September of 2009.
The painting depicts three sufi mendicants and one Buddhist yogin (practicing what I would assume is a Vajrayana completion-stage yoga based upon his asana as well as the use of the meditation belt). Even though the exhibition gave very little information regarding the subject of the painting, the moment I saw the portly yogin I was convinced that an interfaith meeting of some sort was underway.
I brought this image with me to India to show H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche as he has a passionate interest in history, especially regarding the overlap between Buddhism and Islam. By most accounts Vajrayana (tantric Buddhism) was born somewhere in or around the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan. Other portions of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and northern Central Asia figure largely in the development and dissemination of tantric Buddhism. Many great buddhist teachers spent time in this region- generally refered to as Uddiyana. Such illustrious figures include the Mahasiddhas Tilopa and Kambala, and more recently Orgyen Rinchen Pal (1230-1309 CE) who brought to Tibet a unique system of meditation based upon the Kalachakra Tantra. It is also said that Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) was said to be born somewhere within the Swat valley- the same valley that over the past year has seen terrible devastation in relation to the war in Afghanistan.
In response to the photo of the painting that I brought, H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche told me the story of a Buddhist teacher who was described in a historical treatise by Gendun Chophel. There was once a yogin (Rinpoche never gave the name) who wandered through Afghanistan and some of what is now Iran, and after some time started to teach. According to Rinpoche, this very realized teacher interchanged Buddhist philosophical terms such as Dharmakaya and nature-of-mind with Allah when he taught as a means to appeal to his audience. The sensitivity and depth of his teachings were eventually recognized by an elder Sufi teacher who came to name this Buddhist as his successor. When the elder teacher passed away, this Buddhist teacher took over teaching the sufi congregation and when he in turn passed away was eventually recognized as a great Muslim saint. It seems that the attachment to Buddhist dharma or Islamic dharma wasn’t an issue for this great and now unfortunately relatively forgotten teacher; the play of appearance was a means to express something beyond any particular cultural reference.
I am reminded of the story of Taranatha and one of his teachers named Buddhaguptanatha. Buddhaguptanatha (1514-1610? CE) was an Indian Buddhist yogin who also held and practiced several Hindu yogic traditions. Taranatha apparently discovered this fact while Buddhaguptanatha was in the midst of bestowing a series of empowerments that he himself had received from his guru, Shantigupta. Taranatha was particularly challenged by the idea that his teacher also practiced Hinduism. Sensing his student’s sectarian reaction Buddhaguptanatha became upset and abruptly left Tibet leaving the series of empowerments incomplete. It is humbling that even for a teacher as great as Taranatha, the notion of “pure” Buddhism being mixed with Hinduism was a challenge- that on some level his own sense of distinction got the better of him. It seems that as Buddhists we must be willing to let go of the “Buddhism” in the Dharma- relaxing into appearance as it comes. However, maybe this isn’t something that just Buddhists should try to do- what if we just let appearances arise and not be too concerned with their comparative characteristics?
From the standpoint of meditation I am particularly fascinated by how we naturally fall back into habits based upon the conception of time and definitions. There is a certain convenience to viewing the world in terms of borders, of ideas as separate and in contrast to one another, and of faiths as distinct and at odds with one another. However, when we really look, especially at ourselves and the way we interact with things around us, the sense of separation isn’t as distinct. When we allow ourselves to slip out of the me/mine self/other dynamic, things blend together in a way where perhaps all the distinctions become unnecessary and overly unimportant- or at the very least, less distinct. Appearance just is, and need not be elaborated upon.
Now might be a good time to examine just how and why we react so strongly against the things that disturb us; the things that cause fear are often not fully seen for what they truly are.
His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche on Placing the Mind at the time of Death
Greetings! In keeping with the last post, I would like to continue along in a manner that accords with the way my recent trip to the Darjeeling and Sikkim areas unfolded. From the seat of the excellent Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche in Mirik, I journeyed to Palchen Choeling Monastic Institute, the seat of His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche, in Ralang, Sikkim.
Nestled between the wonderful mountains of Tibet to the north, Nepal to the west, and Bhutan to the east, the site of the monastery is magnificent, inspiring and embued with peaceful beauty. To the south of the monastery is the retreat center, the largest in Sikkim, home to seventy-five retreatants engaged in the Karma Kagyu three-year retreat focusing on the Six yogas of Naropa. Behind the retreat center is a mountain upon which was the hermitage of a lama named Drubthob Karpo, known for his ability to fly. Nearby are the monasteries of Tashiding (built in the 16th century) and Pemayangtse, and many sites visted by Guru Rinpoche.
I had come to Ralang for an annual period of retreat and to continue to receive a little bit of instruction from His Eminence. He had just returned from Gyuto where he had spent the previous month or so with His Holiness the 17th Karmapa. Fortunately, a few days after my arrival Rinpoche told me that he would be bestowing the complete series of empowerments for the traditional three-year retreat to a group of monks from Mirik and Phodong; he said that I could sit in with the monks and recieve the empowerments as well. This seemed particularly auspicious to me as I would be with monks from Bokar Rinpoche’s monastery (my extended dharma family) and Phodong (a small rural gompa founded during the lifetime of the ninth Karmapa by the Chogyal of Sikkim who then offered it to the ninth Karmapa). Phodong gompa was a favorite of Ani Zangmo, Pathing Rinpoche and Bhue Rinpoche, and through them Phodong came to occupy a special place in my heart. I couldn’t think of any better company to have for such an endeavor.
Towards the end of my month-long stay at Palchen Choeling Monastic Institute I had the good fortune to ask Rinpoche about placing the mind at the point of death, as well as issues surrounding lay people offering prayer and ritual for others. I’ve included Rinpoche’s teaching regarding the placement of the mind at the point of death towards the end of this post following two descriptions of the Gyaltsab Rinpoche incarnation lineage.
As for the issue of lay people conducting prayers and for rituals for others, Rinpoche reiterated the position held by Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche, specifically that it is fine for lay people to engage in such activities, and that one should do whatever practices they know and or are qualified to practice. To be frank, this question was generally met with incredulous glances- it seems a little strange to ask “is it okay if I do something with the intention of benefitting another being?”. In any case, Rinpoche was both supportive and interested, as well as quite curious as to what the response was like to changchub.com.
So, here’s some history of His Eminence the 12th Goshri Gyaltsab Rinpoche…
The reincarnation lineage of the Goshri Gyaltsab Tulkus:
The website for Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, the North American seat of His Holiness the 17th Karmapa (http://www.kagyu.org/) describes the reincarnation lineage of the Gyaltsab Rinpoches as follows:
The twelfth Gyaltsab Rinpoche was born in Central Tibet in Nyimo, near Lhasa. From generation to generation his family was well-known for giving rise to highly developed yogis who achieved their attainments through the recitation of mantras and through Tantric practices. Gyaltsab Rinpoche was one such offspring who was actually recognized by His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa before he was born.
In 1959, Gyaltsab Rinpoche made the journey to Sikkim with His Holiness. He remained for a while with His Holiness’ settlement group in the old Karma Kagyu monastery, which had been built at Rumtek during the time of the ninth Karmapa. In the early 1960’s, Rinpoche received several very important initiations from His Holiness.
After these initiations, his father felt that his child should receive a modern education in English, so he took him to the town of Gangtok to study. However, with his extraordinary vision of what would be truly beneficial, the young Rinpoche chose to study Dharma in His Holiness’ monastery instead of remaining at the school. Just after midnight one night he left his residence in Gangtok and walked the ten miles to Rumtek alone. At sunrise he arrived at the new Rumtek monastery. When he first appeared, all the monks who saw him were surprised at his courage, and most respectfully received him in the main temple, where His Holiness welcomed him. Despite the conflict of ideas between his father and the monks about his education, he began to study the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings of the lineage with three other high Rinpoches.
In Rumtek these four Rinpoches studied basic ritual rites and texts with private tutors. They also studied Mahayana philosophy through investigating numerous commentaries by early well-known Tibetan teachers and scholars, and teachings by masters of Indian Buddhism whose texts had been translated into the language of Tibet many centuries ago.
In previous lifetimes all four of these Rinpoches have been great teachers and lineage holders. In each of their lifetimes, one complete and unique example had been set up, beginning from a childhood learning reading and writing and going through the whole process of study, with a youth spent in discipline leading to a fully ripened human being.
Since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, we are taught that we each must become a truly complete human being. For us as human beings the truth is that we develop the fruit of both good and evil by virtue of our own view, practice, and habitual reactions. This fruit of our own actions on both the physical and mental levels can be either positive or negative. As long as we are ordinary human beings we must deal with the truth of that experience.
Great teachers like Gyaltsab Rinpoche show a perfect example to human beings and especially to those who can relate to the idea that one is responsible for oneself and for others as well, and that no one else is responsible for how we spend our lives, whether we build for ourselves experiences of happiness or suffering. They show us that the difference between an enlightened and an ordinary human being is not one of wealth, title or position, but only one of seeing the present reality of mind experienced at this moment.
The history of the lineage of Gyaltsab Rinpoches:
The Gyaltsab Rinpoches have always been the Vajra Regents of the Karmapas and caretakers of the Karmapa’s monasteries.
Gyaltsab Rinpoche, through his long line of incarnations, has been known for being an expert in meditation.
Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche is the emanation of the Bodhisattva Vajrapani. In the past, Rinpoche incarnated as Ananda, the disciple of the Buddha Shakyamuni who had perfect memory and was responsible for reciting all of the sutras (teachings) of the Buddha before the assembly. Therefore Ananda was responsible for keeping all the words of the Buddha perfectly intact.
Gyaltsab Rinpoche also incarnated as one of the main ministers of the Dharma King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet. He was also Palju Wangchuk, one of the twenty-five principle disciples of Guru Padmasambhava. During Milarepa’s lifetime, Rinpoche appeared as Repa-zhiwa U.
The 1st Gyaltsab Rinpoche Paljor Dondrub (1427-1489) received the glorious title Goshir from the Emperor of China. He took birth in Nyemo Yakteng. His Eminence, who was cared since childhood by the Karmapa, was appointed as the Karmapa’s secretary and regent at fourteen years old. He received the complete transmission of the lineage from the Karmapa, Jampal Zangpo, and the 3rd Shamar Rinpoche. He became the main teacher to the next Karmapa.
The 2nd Gyaltsab Rinpoche Tashi Namgyal (1490 – 1518) received the Red Crown which liberates on sight from the Karmapa. This Red Crown indicates the inseparability of the Karmapa and Gyaltsab Rinpoche, and also indicates that their enlightened minds are equal in nature. Rinpoche recognized the 8th Karmapa and was responsible for his education.
The 3rd Gyaltsab Rinpoche Drakpo Paljor (1519-1549) took birth south of Lhasa and was appointed as the Karmapa’s main regent.
The 4th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Dragpa Dundrub (1550-1617) was also born near Lhasa and received the transmission of the lineage from the Karmapa and the 5th Shamarpa. He was renown for his commentaries and attracted hundreds of disciples.
The 5th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Dragpa Choyang (1618-1658) was enthroned by the 6th Shamar Rinpoche. He spent the majority of his life in meditation. He was also very close to His Holiness the 5th Dalai Lama, as they were strongly connected spiritual friends. Before the 10th Gyalwa Karmapa fled Tibet due to the Mongol invasion, the Karmapa handed over the mantel of the lineage to Gyaltsab Rinpoche.
The 6th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Norbu Zangpo (1660-1698) was enthroned by the 10th Karmapa, after taking birth in Eastern Tibet. He meditated very deeply and wrote numerous commentaries.
The 7th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Konchog Ozer (1699-1765) took birth near Lhasa and was enthroned by the 12th Karmapa. He became one of the main root gurus of the 13th Karmapa, and transmitted to the Gyalwa Karmapa the lineage.
The 8th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Chophal Zangpo (1766-1817) had the 13th Gyalwa Karmapa and the 8th Situ Rinpoche as his main teachers. He became a renown master of meditation and accomplish high states of realization.
The 9th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Yeshe Zangpo (1821-1876) and the 10th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Tenpe Nyima (1877 – 1901) closely guarded the precious transmissions of the Kagyu lineage: receiving them and passing them onto the other lineage masters. Both spent their lives in deep meditation.
The 11th Gyaltsab Rinpoche Dragpa Gyatso (1902-1949) was recognized by the 15th Gyalwa Karmapa and transmitted the lineage.
The 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje recognized the present and 12th Gyaltsab Rinpoche while He was still in his mother’s womb. His parents were from Nyimo, near Lhasa. Soon after his recognition in 1959, His Eminence fled into exile with the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa.
The Gyalwa Karmapa carried Rinpoche on his back while traveling across the Himalayas into exile. He soon settled at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim and received the necessary transmissions.
His Eminence learned the dharma with the other heart sons of the Karmapa such as Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Tai Situ Rinpoche. Like most of his incarnations, he spends his life in meditation and taking care of the seat of the Karmapa. He currently in Sikkim and is the Regent there representing the lineage. He oversees the activities and functions of Rumtek and at his own monasteries, such as Ralang, in Sikkim.
In 1992, Gyaltsabpa and Tai Situpa enthroned the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa in Tibet. The Karmapa has since fled to India and Gyaltsab Rinpoche will help prepare for His Holiness the Karmapa’s return to Rumtek.
Like Situ Rinpoche, Gyaltsab Rinpoche is one of the main teachers of HH the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa and already has bestowed transmissions (from the Rinchen Terdzo, among others) to His Holiness.
As mentioned earlier, I had the opportunity to ask His Eminence about how we should place our minds at the time of death. It seemed to me that this would be a good topic to be able to transmit on Ganachakra as it is both personally relevant (we will all eventually die, and we generally do not know when that will occur), and a very worthy teaching to transmit to others. From the standpoint of chaplaincy, I feel that this instruction is very useful. As is true with most profound meditation instructions, this instruction is beautifully simple, and quite short, but upon reflection on the meaning implied in Rinpoche’s instruction, it captures the natural ease with which resolution at the point of death has the ability to transform the tonality of one’s entire life.
With that said, it is with great pleasure and enthusiasm that I share with you Rinpoche’s thoughts on what one can do as they are dying, or faced with their impending death; how can one place the mind in the face of such an experience?
His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche on Placing the Mind at the time of Death
When one is dying, or about to die, and, they are Buddhist, it is best to practice whatever practices they know. It is important in this manner to reinforce a dharmic outlook- to experience dharma as best as one can.
If one is not Buddhist, then it is of immense benefit to contemplate loving kindness or compassion. In doing this, one opens themselves up to the direct experience of others. In developing a compassionate outlook at the point of death it is possible to transform the habitual tendencies of self-centered outlook that creates the causes of suffering, into the potential for great spiritual gain. In fact one can eliminate great amounts of negative karma through such meditation or contemplation.
There is a story from the life of the Buddha, in which the Buddha was standing by the side of a river. In this river was a great alligator- this alligator when he looked up towards the Buddha, was transfixed by the radiant appearance of the Buddha’s face and kept staring at it. For a very long time, the alligator kept looking at the Buddha’s face, amazed at how peaceful he appeared. After some time the alligator died- but as a result of the peaceful calm feelings it experienced as a result of staring at the Buddha’s face for such a long time, the alligator was born in one of the heaven realms as a god, with all of the faculties and conditions to practice the dharma.
In this way, the moment of death is quite a powerful and meaningful period where one can make quite a difference in the quality of their habitual perceptions up to that time.
gone fishing… …in India!
Later today I am leaving for a six week trip to India. I will be heading out to see His Eminence Gyaltsap Rinpoche, at either Rumtek or Ralang monasteries.
There may be the opportunity to also meet with Bhue Rinpoche. In addition to receiving further instruction, spending time in retreat, and pilgrimage, I look forward to discussing changchub.com (http://www.changchub.com) with Gyaltsab Rinpoche. Hopefully I will be able to secure an interview with His Eminence for the blog. Additionally, I’d like to see if I can add Akshobya practice to the list of practices that are offered through changchub.com. The practice of the Buddha Akshobya is one of the most well known means for purification of those who have passed away; it’s particularly effective in resolving the occurrence of anger at the point of death, and allows for a peaceful solid passing through the bardo. I had the wonderful opportunity to receive instruction on the practice from His Eminence in Bodh Gaya in 2007- and hope to see it added to the website.
There will also be some time spent in Mirik, the small town that’s home to Bokar Rinpoche’s seat, Bokar Ngedon Chokhor Ling. I hope to spend some time practicing in the presence to the stupa that holds the remains of Bokar Rinpoche, as well as meeting with Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche- the abbot of Bokar Ngedon Chokhor Ling, and close dharma brother to the late Bokar Rinpoche. There may be the opportunity to interview Khenpo Rinpoche for the website as well.
During this six week period, I’ll also be thinking of a variety of ways to open up the blog a bit- about ways to include other voices and other perspectives. I friend of mine recently got in touch with me and suggested that we create a council of blog contributors. I’ll spend some time in rainy monsoon Sikkim considering how best to make that happen.
It will be nice to have the opportunity to engage in slowing down, taking time to quiet the mind, and deepen practice. It is such a good thing to break the habits of daily business and preoccupations to remind ourselves of everything else, of all of the “ordinary” things that we tend to over-look as we zoom from here to there like busy bees.
Until the beginning of August, I wish you all the best.