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Posts tagged ‘kagyu ngak dzod’

28
Feb

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.

Om Ah Hum

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.

Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche and Khen Rinpoche

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.

Empowerment mandala from the Kagyu Ngak Dzod

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.

H.H. Dalai Lama w/ Kalachakra mandala

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!

Gewo!

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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!