People are scared to empty their minds
fearing that they will be engulfed by the void.
What they don’t realize is that their own mind is the void.
Not too long ago, when a lama came to the dharma center to teach on the Dujom Tersar cycle of chöd, I came across a few references in a variety of writings, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist that describe the experience of panic that arises in the face of the experience of loosening the intensity of the grasp around a permanent self. These reminders have been timely teachers as I have found myself recalling moments of ‘self’ destruction for lack of a better term, as well as deep listening to my own experience of periodic panic that sometimes presages a feeling of a less real sense of self. I feel that this is an under-explored topic, namely the fear that accompanies the spiritual path. Over the years I sometimes wonder if this fear is the fear that our practice will be (or is) successful.
Confess your hidden faults.
Approach what you find repulsive.
Help those you think you cannot help.
Anything you are attached to, give that.
Go to the places that scare you.
Within the context of the practice of vajrayana, the practice of chöd, regardless of any particular lineage, offers a very compelling way through which we might help effectively confront this self that tries to hold together the matrix of identity that wants to know and control the world around us. A complex alignment of dynamics, chöd offers a powerful visualization that chips away the plaque of identity, it slowly releases the grip of the hand that tries to maintain a handle upon what we experience. As we loose our grip, finger by finger, and we feel ourselves slipping, we are easily reminded of the truth of impermanence of the castles of sand that we create and imbue with such power and reality that before we know it, we and everything around us feels real, important, and vitally essential. Whether the visualization emphasizes Prajnaparamita, Vajravarahi or Tröma, it is essential to remember that they all represent the complete luminosity of emptiness; the vividness with which we do not exist, and the bliss associated with realizing that everything around us is pure appearance. The counter-intuitive act of visualizing oneself thrown into a kapala made up of one’s own skull and transformed into an ambrosial offering for all beings, or piled up as a mandala offering upon one’s own flayed skin, these confounding visualizations and the profound sense of generosity required tug at our sense of permanence and our desire to belong constellated in relation to a fixed point within time and space. It is not uncommon to feel a sense of resistance to the practice, a sense of tentative reluctance, or attempts towards pulling back within ourselves.
There can be a lot of pain and suffering when we become aware of how we cling to this wanting to “be”. This alone could easily be regarded as ‘going to a place that scares you’ that so much chöd literature seems to refer to. Sometimes this suffering manifests physically, with a visceral painful feeling, a hollowness or sharp sense of discomfort, other times it arises as a sudden busyness in which all of the sudden there is something very important that we find we need to do- something that distracts us from our practice. Sometimes these new things we find ourselves needing to do seem so important and vital that we are seduced by their wonderful meaning and uniqueness. These of course are the arising of demons. They find us wherever we are and rather powerfully unweave some of the fabric of confidence in resting in the view that allows for chöd to be the powerful practice that it is.
Ordinary people look to their surroundings, while followers of the Way look to Mind, but the true Dharma is to forget them both. The former is easy enough, the latter very difficult. Men are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the Void with nothing to stay their fall. They do not know that the Void is not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma. – Huang Po
The experience of groundlessness, I was once told by a psychotherapist who happened to be Buddhist, was not something to be cultivated, but rather, an experience more grounded and tangible was deemed as more valuable, within the process of spiritual growth. I have come across a number of psychoanalysts who warn in their writings that unguided exploration and or cultivation of the experience of groundlessness can lead to a state of psychosis. These warnings are interesting. They are interesting in part because I often wonder about the utility of combining psychoanalysis with Buddhist practice, especially if one is going to fully embrace emptiness of self. In all likelihood the combination of both Buddhism and psychotherapy can be a very effective way with which one can effect a necessary change in one’s experience of life to reduce suffering. Yet I sometimes wonder how much we benefit from aligning our living and breathing practice of dharma with the structures of our intellect such as modalities that seek to measure and define our experience as we move along our path as found within the psychoanalytic model. Our intellect often arises in a manner that does not make sense; especially when the sense of self is threatened. Like sparks, or flashes of lightening in the night sky, the reverberation of the reactive ego- the sense of self-nature wrapped up with the demons that keep it preoccupied- obey no one person. They are messy, sometimes terrifying and often very powerful. Similarly, the fast arrival of vajrayogini with her retinue of dakinis arise in an unpredictable way; this is why they are so integral within this practice and this too is why chöd confounds approaches that seek to find a restorative refinement and distillation of the Self. After all, how can one distill that which is not there?
Those who realize the nature of their mind knows
That the mind itself is wisdom-awareness,
And no longer make the mistake of searching for enlightenment from other sources.
In fact, enlightenment cannot be found by searching.
So contemplate your own mind.
This is the highest meditation one can practice;
This very mind is the perfect awakened nature,
the birth place of all the enlightened ones.
What if we just stopped running? Stopped trying to make ourselves better, more qualified, more important, more knowable and “ourselves”? What if we stopped in our tracks and turned around to face the executioner of our ego-grasping and gave way to the fear that exists around that process? What if we let the associated pain and suffering come rather than defend ourselves and acclimatized ourselves to the gnashing teeth of the demons who come fast, or the methodical bone crushing of the demons who come slow? What if we stopped sublimating everything by actively using our minds to make everything seem like Dharma, and just rest so that things can simply arise as Dharma; ordinary and unaffected; unpatterned and free from artifice?
Perhaps this is the only way in which the strong grip of our fears and insecurities, our limitations and feelings of being unqualified, will burn off like a morning mist as the sun rises. Perhaps trusting in the process is part of this and putting down the willful need for change allows this sense of self- an illusory doer, be seen for what it is, an expression of empty luminosity.
We recently lost two very important Kagyu Rinpoches, Karma Chagme, the head of the Nyedo Kagyu and direct lineal descendent of the great mahasiddha Rāga Asya , the very emanation of Amitabha himself, and Kyabje Choje Akong Rinpoche, a great social activist, dharma teacher. Along side Trungpa Rinpoche, Akong Rinpoche as one of the most important Kagyu Rinpoches in how he helped to plant the seeds of dharma in the West, but also create nurture Samye Ling and the system of Samye Dzongs throughout the UK, Scotland, Ireland, Europe and Africa. He was also vital in helping to local the young 17th Karmapa. As a lineage we have also recently lost Kyabje Traleg Rinpoche, Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche, and still feel the loss of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche.
As long as His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa is with us, no matter where he resides, I feel that we are in good hands, and as a student of His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, I feel that as long as his activities continue then the dharma will not only flourish but increase in concentration and power. May their lives be long and may they completely destroy our ego-clinging through the power of their skillful means! May their activities increase the depth and wisdom of the Kagyu lineage!
This said, there are some who express concern about where we as Karma Kagyu are going in the West, and I would like to throw my two cents into the ethereal debate. Rather than make this a global argument, metaphorically as well as actually, maybe we should just focus on the Kagyu in America. I do not presume to know much at all about this subject, and even more than that, I have no real qualifications to weigh-in on such a topic, but nevertheless, as one who has deep love for our lineage I am occasionally concerned about how we may be structuring ourselves here in the U.S.
As Karma Kagyu I feel that we can do more than we are doing. We obviously benefit from the hard work and extreme diligence and patience of the masters of the early era: the late Kalu Rinpoche, the late Trungpa Rinpoche, ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Thrangu Rinpoche, Bardor Tulku, Ponlop Rinpoche, Lama Norlha, Lama Lordro, Lama Tsingtsang, Lama Rinchen, Lama Dorje, and of course, their guide His Holiness the Gyalwang 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rikpe Dorje. We owe them a debt of gratitude. Through these teachers we have the benefit of some very solid infrastructures for the study and practice of the dharma- we have a great number of translators, translation committees, places for extended as well as short retreat as well as the beginning of a sangha which while still young and tender might hopefully grow into a single unified family of victorious ones. Yet right now the sangha may be our weakest link.
America is a unique place in that across the board we like to think of ourselves on the collective level as a unified group that share similar values, and yet we also very easily cleave along a variety of lines that include ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, race and political views. The obvious benefit is that there is the potential for most anyone to find a niche within the American experience. The fundamental flaw is that we are only part of the group until we don’t want to be, until our desire-lines of identity pull us into our sub-groups. When we separate from the collective in this way, the American experience becomes very static and disjointed. Likewise, when we try to singularly drop our histories, the various layers of culture that have helped to shape us as people, in favor of the collective identity, we lose the richness and the brilliance that we bring to the entire American organism. There is something about the fundamental tension between the more idealized identity as Americans (which is a construction) and our identity as a member of a variety of sub-groups (also ultimately a construction) that allows us to question the values of both sides of our being that can allow us to grow into dynamic citizens. That said, there is nothing preventing us from remaining stagnant within our identity on either side, either a stalwart “American” or member of a sub-group that doesn’t want to be part of the collective . When this happens unity, connection and communication becomes impossible.
Similarly, the essential flaw that we as American Karma Kagyu face is the idea that we actually think that know what we are doing. We feel that we are correct in projecting a particular meta-view upon ourselves as followers of the wisdom lineage of the Karma Kagyu, and that this view has to be expressed in a particular unified way. We assume that we must all adhere to the values as a group that were most recently innovated by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye in 18th century Tibet, who while being an amazing genius and autodidact, has been used (perhaps unintentionally) to create a blanket meta-identity that may have been taken to the extreme. At times I feel that ultimately this lack of balance has led many who feel connected to a wide variety of sub-groups to feel left out and as a result, not integrated into the larger view of what we may be as a lineage. As if the notion of a unified Karma Kagyu lineage, or any lineage, has ever existed until the “modern” era.
I think that it is worth throwing into the mix that the lines of all four major schools of Tantric Buddhism might be more a product of modern academia than anything else. It might even be that we have all contaminated one another through the cross-pollination of inter-lineage growth in the past than our projections and assumptions allow us to believe. Our identities are more blended that we might like. An example of this can be demonstrated by His Holiness Sakya Trizin when he recently gave the empowerment of Dudjom Lingpa’s Three Wrathful Ones in New York City.
I think that it was Trungpa Rinpoche who called the Kagyu lineage the ‘mishap lineage’, which I will loosely interpret to mean that at its best our lineage just happens; it is not the product of strategic planning. Why is this? Well, perhaps we are not the product of controlled strategic planning either; our mind/heart matrix of thought/emotion is a system of constant mishaps, all sorts of stuff arises, sometimes we can clearly rest in what arises, other times we get carried away by our hallucinations. But one thing is certain, problems arise once we try to force a structure upon the way things should be.
In this way, I tend to wonder if we may have made the fundamental error of leaning too much upon the 18th/19th century classicism of monastic Karma Kagyu as a model for the entirety of American Karma Kagyu (the vast majority of whom are lay) in the 21st century. It sounds kind of absurd actually when I see it written out like that, and I don’t think that it is too much of a stretch to suggest that if this is the case, then perhaps we lose some of our credibility and accessibility with those who resonate with the sub-groups that feel at odds with the way the dharma is presented. How are young people with little interest in India or Tibet, let alone their history, and who have little money to travel to India to feel connected? What about some curious souls from the South Bronx, Brownsville, Oakland, Compton, or even large swathes of Suburbia who want to better understand their relationship to their experience of suffering to connect?
The dynamic energy of engaged being as is inherently expressed by a wide variety of groups of all imaginable ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, race and other points of orientation doesn’t seem to be held by the container of this kind of singular classical Tibetan approach. Perhaps it is paternalism or some type of chauvinism, and perhaps it isn’t- lord knows the internet is full of such debates, and my point here is not to cast blame upon anyone other than our limited view. That said, I tend to feel that what matters most here is that the essential tension between “self-identity” as a member of any particular group in relation to the experience of gaining certainty in our not having any particular “self” as taught through the dharma is being lost to an increasing number of Americans. These sparks of tension allow the power of tantric Buddhism to blow up our ideas of who we think we are and how we tend to conceive of the world around and within ourselves. To ‘inadvertently’ create the assumption that one can only experience this through assuming that we all need to be conversant in 18th/19th century Tibetan classical Buddhist thought only serves to disempower the vast majority of sentient beings in the United States. It allows few people to come and be held as they expolre the sparky nature of what it means to familiarize oneself with the view. Perhaps Europe is different, or Central and South America, and Aftrica, but I suspect not.
The way that much of the Karma Kagyu lineage is being presented these days in the United States appears to be more of a preservation of monasticism and the imposition of this structure upon the inner lives of the sangha, rather than a skilled blending, meeting people where the are, and creating the container that allows the safety and intimacy necessary to challenging the assumptions of who and what we are, and what the whole field of appearance might be.
The result is that it is not uncommon to find that there are many gorgeous Karma Kagyu dharma dharma centers, stunning in beauty and immaculate in appearance, real museum quality reproductions of what one might have found in Tibet before the Chinese holocaust. Yet, it is also possible to feel the cold clinical nature of many of these places. In looking even closer, it is easy to see how tender and fragmented the sanghas appear. This makes me feel sad. After all, it is sangha that is vital for the continuation of the practice of dharma. When I visit places that resemble these perfect visions of what dharma is supposed to look like visually, I think of Drukpa Kunley, Milarepa, Phadampa Sangye and Shabkar with great tenderness (and humor) and take delight in my meager identity as a so-called Repa. These teachers (myself completely excluded) were vital commentators, alternatives and voices in the wilderness that dharma cannot be owned, trapped in books, and is not only to be delivered through the medium of classicism which often runs the risk of becoming overly dusty and theoretical. There is a lot of wisdom in their path, and many teachings in their relationship with the institutions that presented dharma in a particular kind of way.
What we seem to fail to realize, or perhaps disassociate from, is that the Karma Kagyu lineage is best when it is a blended practice of fierce engaged practice activity mixed with the subtlety and discipline that one finds in Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye. Just as we need the sun and the moon for there to be balance on Earth, perhaps we need both the paths of Rechungpa and Gampopa as symbols of who we are, who we might wish to become, and from which point we wish to engage the dharma. We need to look at where we become too comfortable and lazy and bring our whole experience as people into our practice. Good dharma practice has nothing to do with beautiful dharma centers, rich coffers, and exquisite elegance. In fact, the best practice arises from confronting the entire hallucination of this “self” and the world around us. We are often well served to this end in challenging our assumptions of how our dharma centers should appear, notice when our devotion becomes the habit obsession rather than a mixture of connection and gratitude, and when in trying to be “good”, how we accidentally cause great harm to those we tell ourselves we are committed to benefiting.
Ultimately, everything that has been created by our foreparents within the Karma Kagyu in America is wonderful, and we should rejoice in the amazing progress. It really is amazing what has come into being. And yet, we might be getting a bit lazy and myopic and I pray that we can make things a bit more messy and sparky and dynamic for everyone who might be attracted to this vibrant and wonderful lineage. I pray that our dharma teachers can strike a rich and engaged balance for their students! I pray that our lineage can hold the experience of every person from every walk of life who approaches us! I pray that we face mishaps every day and that the sparks of tension within our experience of being cause endless dakas and dakinis to bless us!
My last blog post touched a lot of nerves- in a good way, from what I can tell, and it also seemed to have displeased others who came away from it thinking that it was written to complain about laziness, ‘spiritual materialism’ and the existence of a spiritual marketplace which often become more of a self-help, soft-core spiritual path. While I understand the reaction, I don’t agree with such facile readings of the post- not that its difficile in the first place.
Whatever the case may be, whether these posts, and this blog, are worth the ether that allow them a fragile existence of any kind or not, leads me to a few deeper problems that have been something of a point of concern as well as curiosity for me lately, that is: language and time.
I would first like to avoid the immediate association with these terms any cosmic relationship with philosophy and loosey-goosey bedroom-eyed mysticism, while simultaneously acknowledging that language and time are obviously thematically treated in great depth in both the study of philosophy and mysticism. It may be that we are best served (for the purposes of this post) in allowing our analytical minds, the mind of blended comparisons and of discernment, to step aside as we examine for ourselves within the context of the personal meditation experience, how and what language and time mean, and how they appear. Let’s put aside the study philosophy and try to approach this from what unfolds naturally on the meditation cushion, or, as we walk, or dream, as we paint and dance through this life of ours- for meditation experiences are always different from philosophical investigations.
We define ourselves through the use of language. Outwardly we describe who we are physically, our characteristics and so forth, and then we fill in all of the details, our personalities, likes and dislikes, and all the rest. We further dabble in collaborative fiction through supporting the personal narratives of our friends and loved ones, and in offering counter-narrative of those we dislike. Soon, what may have begun as a relatively blank page (a debatable point indeed) has become filled with a testimony of who we would like be, who we envision ourselves as, and the way that we interpret the world around us. This language is a tapestry of meaning, one in which we both consciously and unconsciously weave together a living history, along with the plotted trajectories of the future events that have yet to be lived. In and of themselves these products of our individual relationship with language are amazing works of art that capture how we conceive, what we can allow to be, and what we must keep at bay. They are our hells and our anchors; perhaps they prevent us from flying off into a manic subconscious world; or perhaps they confine us to knowable modalities of being that provide us with the tools for the experience of life. Whichever the case may be, and I suspect that it is most likely a combination of the two (and many others) at differing points in time, language -in this context- acts, more often than not, like a prison; it is like a thief, and even more, language is like an unreliable friend whom we continue to trust even though she will continue to disappoint. For somehow we cannot describe away the pain of loss, the experience of death, the terrible bouts with illness, and the fact that one day we will be forced to say goodbye to all that we hold dear- no matter how much we may try.
The images we create with our internal literary drives have a hieroglyphic quality in the true sense of the word hieroglyphic, that is: a highly symbolic form of writing which is difficult to interpret/assign meaning. In the beginning was the word. From that word, an entire world was created, a veritable cosmos- our interwoven personal narratives develop with increasing complexity and nuance creating a web, a net, or systemic literary story-line in which we capture every detail. As I sit here, writing both this blog post as well as my experience of today, the soft beautiful light coming through the windows between the treas and fluttering prayer flags is captured as is the sweet smell of a yet uneaten pineapple offered in a recent Mahakala tsok that simultaneously soothes and excites.
Everything we do, all we experience, tends to be added to this net of meaning that is cast upon the phenomenal world.
There are times when we are able to put down our pens, or turn off whatever device we use to compose these narratives of distinctive being- one of the most common device in such work is our discursive mind. The mind of spacial relationships, of color schemes, the mind of philosophy and dualistic comparisons. Perhaps this is also the sociology mind, the mind of architecture, the mind of economics, and the mind of urban planning. That part of us which organizes, the desire to play with the economics of mind; the way we become hypnotized by the production, consumption, and transfer of phenomena.
When we can put this down- although we’re not really putting anything down- then what we were formerly engaging with becomes less of an object and more of an experience. There is almost a sense of relief in this, a wonderful supporting ease and perhaps the experience of a type of contentment.
In his very condensed version of the Ninth Karmapa’s The Ocean of Meaning, entitled Opening the Door to Certainty, the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche touched upon the enhancement practices of Mahamudra meditation. These are described as ‘enhancement through eliminating five false ideas’. The first of the five false ideas is that of objects. Of eliminating the false ideas about objects Bokar Rinpoche writes:
Without grasping something real in the notion of samsara that must be abandoned and nirvana that must be actualized, but placing ourselves in the infinite one-taste of primordial awareness [of knowing] the non-duality of all phenomena gathered by pairs such as virtue and non-virtue, we eliminate false ideas about objects.
This is a wonderfully powerful instruction, that while presented as an enhancement practice in the context of the Mahamudra system, is worthy of examining, especially in light of how easily we craft global narratives of everything within and without. I wonder how we can ‘place ourselves in the infinite one-taste of primordial awareness’ or settle ourselves in a position of quiet knowing in which we can allow ourselves to dissolve the need for narrative, comparisons, and allow the direct of experience of the world around us (and within us) to arise; a dancing array of inherently perfect appearance. Easier said than done? I’m not so sure about that- if we can playfully try to fold this into our everyday activities, I suspect that bit by bit we can massage the habits of stale knowing. If we can play around with the view we’re really practicing something profound.
The second of the five false ideas is that of time. Of eliminating the false ideas about time, Bokar Rinpoche continues:
Although there is no fundamental truth about the reality of the three times, we think within a mode obscured by the division into three times. Consequently, realizing equanimity which does not establish a distinction of the three times, we eliminate the false ideas about time.
This instruction is especially relevant in helping to loosen the grasping of the compelling reality of our narration as we constantly pin things down (including ourselves) to various points in time. Our past informs us in the present and helps determine the future; or so we tend to think. Ideas of time having particular characteristics is a lovely subtle subject- Buddhism is rife with them: the number of aeons, life times, or years that it will take before we fully awaken is just one example. Assuming that the past was a particular way, the notion of the golden days of long ago in relation to these degenerate times, is another poignant example. The very notion of systematic evolution (individual spiritual evolution) is a wonderful blended assumption rooted in the false ideas of objects and time. How many others do we hold on to?
What other unexamined aspects of our faith tradition do we just assume out of the habits of appearance and time? What would it be like if we crafted our own notions based upon our experiences?
Wangchuk Dorje reminds us: “The division of the three times (past, present, and future) are simply the imputations of ignorant fools.” More specifically, he warns us that included within this is the relationship that we may feel that we have with the past and future. He further continues, “yogins and yoginis who have manifested this [realization] are able to bless a great aeon into an instant and an instant into a great aeon… …if they were separate entities this would not be possible.” Yet it is possible, and, it is up to us to ease into allowing this possibility. This gets back to having set ideas about who we are, what we are capable of, and all of the other stories we have woven.
What happens when we wrestle with the solidity of time? Or loosen our belts so that time can slip away…
When will your liberation occur? Forget the texts, and all of the things you have heard, when will it be possible to truly ease into the mind’s essential nature? After ngondro? After you have mastered your yidam practice? After a three year retreat? After ordination? After you die, in the bardo? After you die seven times? One hundred thousand times? In the future? What about right now? Did you already do it in the past, but got all distracted?
When we can see words as playful birds, and time reflected in the way that clouds appear and disappear in the sky, and the the solidity of our identities as the smoke of incense floating through the the rays of a setting sun, then maybe we can experience mind a little more clearly. Not just the mind’s stillness, but by feeling out, as if expanding awareness to meet the bounds of space, without saying, doing, thinking, making notations, and without being Buddhist. In trying to do this over and over, the artifice of relative reality can be seen, a necessary strange place that allows us to communicate, to help others, to support ourselves in the process of familiarizing ourselves with the mind- but not ourselves, not our identities. Yet when we tighten our belts, we become men and women, Buddhists, with mass, height, characteristics, distinct identities that feel, want and need. We have a cannon to follow and refer to, we experiment less and assume that it will all work out in the future, a bunch of now moments later, but the very now we live in is never seen as the free open experience of whatever arises without characteristics.
Wangchuk Dorje reminds us that we cannot realize this through “merely listening and reflecting, examining and analyzing, being very knowledgeable, having a sharp intellect, being skilled in exposition, being an excellent teacher or logician, and the like.” He goes on to quote the Gandavyuhasutra:
The teachings of the perfect Buddha are not realized by simply hearing them. For example, someone may be helplessly carried away by a river but still die of thirst. Not to meditate on the dharma is like that.
Someone may stand at the cross roads and wish everyone prosperity, but they won’t receive any of it themselves. Not to meditate on the dharma is like that.
We can go around with ideas of this and that, with loads of empowerments, secret instructions and a plethora of practices to choose from but the real wisdom comes from practice, from trial and error. In fact, just one simple practice is more than enough- by sticking to it and blending it with our waking and sleeping moments great wonders are possible. We are very well served by examining how and why we hold these truths about ourselves, our paths, and time to be self-evident. In attempting to let the constancy of our personal narrative fall away like an unneeded belt, lets take these words and use them to unzip themselves so that our view is that of the experience of mind, fresh, free, naked and not of the three times.
Recently, I decided to spend the early portion of a Saturday doing Chöd under the Pulaski Bridge that connects Brooklyn and Queens (connecting Kings county and Queens county), and crosses the infamous Newtown Creek. Newtown Creek, for those who are unaware, has the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted waterways in the United States, and is home to the second worst oil spill in America; an estimated 30 million gallons of oil flowed into the creek in the 1950’s, none of which has been removed. As a result of the oil spill, a century of raw sewage being dumped into the waterway, as well as the dumping of various wanted byproducts of heavy industry such as sulfuric acid, fertilizer and other chemical admixtures there is a layer of highly toxic sludge fifteen feet thick that blankets the floor of Newtown Creek.
In making the decision to head to the Pulaski Bridge and Newtown Creek three distinct criteria had to be addressed: there had to be a bridge, the place had to have some equivalence to a charnel ground, and it had to invoke fear/discomfort.
The latter two criteria speak to the nature of where chöd has historically been practiced: places that invoke fear and terror; places where there could be a direct mirroring of one’s own internal demons with the projected demons of haunted locales. Such sites have often included charnel grounds, and also places where terrible events have happened. A reader once commented on another post that I wrote about chöd that civil war battle sites seem to hold some relevance as chöd sites. This is a brilliant observation! Upon second glance, it is easy to notice a wide variety of places that invoke strong feelings of fear and terror. They surround us and yet we tend to drive or walk by them interacting with them in a way that lacks the direct depth of honest observation. Often we fail to interact with them at all. As I caught myself feeling slight dread in practicing under the Pulaski Bridge amongst the oil depots and industrial traffic that pulsates along the dead creek I realized that this was a great place to go practice. What better way to be curious about why I should feel discomfort in practicing there? What is the difference between practicing there and at home, or in a park, or even a cemetery?
That the site should have a bridge reflects a larger curiosity that I developed a few days before about bridges and trolls. In June I finished 2 units of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) with the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, which in addition to being oriented around Zen Buddhism, is heavily informed by Jungian psychology. Reflection upon the symbolic meanings presented by patients, or a given patient’s particular affect, as well as our own perceptual reactions to what arises at any given moment is encouraged. While walking in Prospect Park, and with this training still fresh in my mind, I found myself under a bridge and for the first time in many years I reflected that trolls are often associated with the space under bridges. They live under bridges, and hide under the cross-roads-like environment that we commonly find under bridges. Somehow this space elicits discomfort, such spaces seem secret, hidden, perhaps the place where illicit things happen. I wanted to explore this in chöd practice.
I packed my kyangling and damaru, my pecha and bell and dorje, and brought along a bumpa vase with water blessed with many sacred substances including special pills made by the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche for the express purpose of dispelling demons and “inner” hindrances. In addition to performing chöd, I wanted to offer these substances to Newtown Creek. With my bag packed, I headed to this industrial charnel ground, the site of an alchemical bridge that joins Kings County with Queens County (Male and Female, Salt and Sulfur) that crosses a body of water that deep under fifteen feet of unknown matter (unconscious mind) and may house inner trolls and local gods. Kye Ho!
Upon finding a suitable place for my practice, I considered how the place made me feel. What were its trolls going to be like? When I touched my “inner” trolls what would I find? I remember from childhood the story of the Three billy Goats Gruff; the story of three goats of ascending size who wish to cross a bridge so that they may feast on greener pastures, the only problem is that they must cross a bridge that is protected/owned, or the home of a nasty troll.
Bridges are places of vulnerability. Their structure is meant to carry us from one stable ground to another, in-between (a bardo), we are not standing on solid ground. Perhaps when we are experiencing the bardos of change; the invariable transition from one moment to another; one experience or feeling to another, we are vulnerable to being unseated in a more direct and profound manner. These bardos are bridges, and where there are bridges there are trolls.
In Norse mythology trolls are generally held to be large, slow, human-like beings. Trolls are not known for their intellects. They are impulsive, brutish, stubborn, earthy, and grounded. In a way, trolls seem to be a personification of the weight and anchoring qualities of the earth element, but in a self-defensive, perhaps self-protective manner or function. Indeed, the slow conservatism, the heavy reactive stubbornness that trolls are known for seem to be the prime emotions in opposition to the easy experience of transitioning across bardos; across our bridges from one moment to the next. They want to hold on. They try to exert the magnetism of discursiveness; the force of myopic focus that prevents us from seeing the larger picture. They want us off the bridge, they try to prevent us from making the transition; they will even try to kill us to this end.
It seems that trolls show their heads very frequently in my experience of everyday life; this stubborn stupidity, a dullness, and desire to not embrace change. I easily lose count in trying to reflect how often these trolls try to unseat me.
That Newtown Creek has a fifteen foot layer of toxic sludge separating it from the “real” earthy bottom seems particularly significant, if not essentially symbolic. What stagnation! It is as if the earth herself is being suffocated. Perhaps just as we suffocate ourselves when our inner-demononic-troll-like stubbornness, our hard-headed personification of gravity, our dull stupidity, and brutish reactivity arise, this poor creek-cum-canal is being suppressed and held down. Toxicity has many shades, and it’s easy to focus upon its generic staples: fear, anger, jealousy, greed, laziness. But what of toxicity in its more subtle and elusive forms?
How do we allow ourselves to stagnate? How do we dissempower ourselves? How do we allow ourselves to fail, to be imperfect? How do we let our trolls steal the vitality of our transitions (bardos)?
This is what I set upon to discover; these demons of Newtown Creek, the demons of stagnation and sedate subconsciousness as well as the army of trolls that seek refuge and feast underneath the Pulaski Bridge. They are not far, they arise from within ourselves…
In making an offering of myself to these beings, I feel that I was able to shed light upon them as they arise. It is a process of honoring and respecting the natural occurence of emotions as they arise. It lends itself to both a process of developing a greater awareness of the play of mind, as well as a means of offering deep witness to our unique inner constellations. Such constellations, wonderous displays, are already perfect- they arise with the same natural clarity and depth as the constellations that we see in clear night skies. There is nothing to add or to take away. The brilliance of their simple appearance is suggestive of immense wonderous beauty. Nothing to subjugate. Perhaps this is chöd-of-mahamudra: the offering of the suchness of our own minds as witness to it as it arises…
I visualized that the offering deities and the demons themselves came with great ferocity, like a howling wind, stealing portions of my torn flesh and warm organs. Those with more time and resources carefully selected prime sections, the liver and heart perhaps. Others still set up camps and carefully roasted various portions of the offering taking time to set up their own feasts. That these demons may be honored, and receive my offering helps to liberate them- my emotional habits, self-clinging and the like are allowed to loosen into non-referential emptiness.
As I was performing the chöd sadhana, on that day and at that location, the portion of the text that focuses upon offering the remains of the central ganachakra felt very salient and meaningful. I have come to try to allow myself to rest in sadhana practice while I am doing it, and in so doing, realizing that at different moments and for a whole host of possible reasons the pecha speaks with powerful clarity at different moments in different ways. There are so many secondary practices within each pecha that as our inner weather changes, there are many differing modalities of our practice that may be tailored to best suit ourselves at any given moment in time. If we can view the practice text as alive, full of endless vitality and imbued with the potential for constant unfolding compassion, then every time we sit down to recite a prayer or a particular sadhana we are really engaging directly with the text as a vehicle through time and space. Every time we read a pecha it can be as if we are reading it for the first time.
This is also another great place where trolls arise. They arise in our practice. Our mind can easily become the slow dense troll-mind where pechas feel boring and long, always the same and perhaps even a little dusty. The pecha becomes a thing, a book, a physical text, the warm humid breath of the dakinis, in this case of Machig Labdron herself dissipates. It is lost when we become dull. The full dynamic interpenetration of individuated hermenutic bliss fades; the electricity of the rich moment dies. The possibility for realizing “the lama-as-appearance” to use the wonderful term that the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche often used to describe the mind as lama (that appearance in all of its myriad display is the lama-as-appearance) becomes compromised.
In recognizing this, the offering of the remainder of the ganachakra felt timely, both within myself as well as within my immediate environment. So, as I sat under the bridge while trucks rumbled down Box Street I imagined that the slippery flesh of my ignorance, raw and painful, was mixing with a seemingly endless ocean of my own warm sticky blood, rich in iron: my desire; and my rattling bones, still moist and full of rich marrow: my hatred. I mixed these together and offered it in a vast torma vessel- my own skull. I offered this to the local gods, the local protectors, to the particular trolls that inhabit the Pulaski Bridge, as well as my own trolls. This ambrosial nectar, the very last remnants of my body, I offered to this particular place- this polluted earth, forgotten and ignored by many who speed by, is the same earth that supported the Buddha. Somewhere underneath that thick toxic sludge is the same earth that the Buddha touched, similarly, within ourselves is the same Buddha. The ability to recognize “the lama-as-appearance” is always part of us.
After the practice session I brought my bumpa vase filled with water blessed by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, blessing pills associated with Chenrezig, Amitabha, and Dorje Phagmo, as well as sacred medicinal substances, and pills specially made by the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche for averting the disturbances caused by ghosts, demons and the previously mentioned “inner” hindrances up onto the Pulaski Bridge. While reciting a variety of mantras I poured the amrita into Newtown Creek that there may be benefit. May the magic of this place be known! May the power of its local gods be appreciated, and may they, the local gods, the trolls and the great teachers of stagnation, of dullness and of forgetfulness never be forgotten!
Perhaps every place is imbued with wonderful symbolic representations- dynamic reminders- of our own strengths and our weaknesses. Whether it be Newtown Creek, the Gowanus Canal, or a former slave burial ground, if we look a little more loosely the lama-as-appearance is always present. It offers a constancy of potential liberating circumstances. The charnel ground of the chödpa is everywhere. I am reminded of something that I once read by the previous Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche in which he said that the mind is the essential charnel ground as it is here where thoughts come to die.
Perhaps then, we carry all of the eight great charnel grounds of India within our very experience of mind.
This being a possibility, I offer prayers that we all may realize the chöd-field of our own minds. May we be free of clinging to this body as real, may we recognize it as illusory. May the sound of Machig Labdron’s kyangling and damaru permeate the entire universe liberating all upon hearing!
It has been just a little over a year since I started ganachakra.com and changchub.com, the associated site through which one can sponsor prayer, puja, and recitation of texts for the benefit of oneself, for another, or for all beings. Both sites have proved to meet a specific need that exists not just for Buddhists, but for anyone who is experiencing suffering and would like spiritual support.
Shortly after beginning ganachakra.com last summer, I returned to India to see His Eminence the 12th Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche (vajra regent of the Karma Kagyu lineage), as well as Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche (heart son of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, and abbot of Bokar Ngedhon Chokhorling), for periods of instruction, retreat and pilgrimage. Upon returning I wrote two posts, one with instructions on how to place the mind at the point of death from H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche (which you can read here), the other on practicing for others by Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche (which you can read here).
I wish to return to the topic of practicing for the benefit of others; specifically the performance of ritual puja as this is a form of dharma activity that appears to be treated with less importance in non-buddhist countries. I’m not really sure why this is the case, but I suspect it has to do with complicated feelings surrounding magic, ritual, and prayer. It seems important to note that in most cases, western Buddhists have had the benefit of access to higher education and perhaps even a relatively high social class. These factors may or may not be important, but I wonder if they make the outward acceptance of magic, the power of ritual, and the benefit of prayer appear superstitious and regressive. Indeed, it should be noted that most of the public proponents of Buddhism seem to hold advanced degrees, and in the United States at least, on average, there is a rationalism and sense of grounded reality that goes hand in hand with such access to education and perhaps also the leisure time to devote towards practice. Culturally, this imprint exists, as to how real it is, and to how much of an absolute it has become, is something that I cannot say much about. Perhaps we only know for ourselves how loose and free we are of this and other cultural imprints. How do these imprints color our notion of Buddhism? These projected realities can only be indicated and fully understood individually. If anything it seems that approaching the surety of the rational mind with mindful awareness is wise; for such a cherished dialectic is as much an habitual fabrication as anything else.
Mindful of the potential impossibility and eternal contradictions that words allow for, I acknowledge that I may make a variety of mistakes in trying to address this topic. That said, I invite you to explore with me how practice for others is a vitally important dharma activity.
When we pray, what are we doing?
There are many different forms of prayer. Aspiration prayers, dedication prayers, supplication to a particular lineage, direct prayers of praise to a given Buddha, and prayers of request for empowerment, to name a few. Through personal prayer, in a very general sense, we make a connection with our distinct source of spirituality and the well-spring of spaciousness, interpenetrating connection, and personal empowerment that it offers. The specific directionality and aim of our prayers can be focused and refined by what kind of prayer one does.
A great example of an aspiration prayer is the Dewachen Prayer; it focuses the mind upon making the aspiration for either oneself or another to be reborn in Dewachen or Sukhavati, the pure-land of the Buddha Amitabha. This prayer plants the seeds of connection to the intention of experiencing the bliss of Amitabha’s face, the ability to connect with the dharma, to have the means to practice, and to experience the mind’s basic clarity. It allows Amitabha’s commitment to benefit us to come to fruition.
Dedication prayers connect us to others; they engender compassion, and reinforce our commitment to bodhisattva activity. The following is an example of a dedication prayer:
By this virtue may I quickly
Attain the state of a Guru-Buddha (Enlightenment),
And then may I lead every being,
without exception, into that state.
May the most precious and supreme bodhicitta
Which has not yet been generated now be generated.
And may the precious mind of bodhicitta which has
Never decline, but always increase.
Dedication prayers are a way in which we ground our intention. They help us to keep the general view of interconnection and offer a form of bearing witness. Any merit that we have created we dedicate to all beings, so that they may experience Buddhahood; this is a way of not forgetting and maintaining our heritage as both a potential buddha, but also as a participant in samsara. These prayers are easily over-looked, but they open us up to a sense of loving-kindness and appreciation of others no matter what form they take.
Lineage prayers, much like family trees, connect us with those who have come before us. In this case we have the Dorje Chang Thungma, or prayer to Dorje Chang (Vajradhara) the dharmakaya source of the Kagyu lineage. This prayer begins with a supplication of the early forefathers of the kagyu lineage and then moves on to plant the seeds for renunciation, devotion, and attention, and reflection, all of which are very helpful, if not required to gain an essence oriented realization of the mind’s qualities. This prayer serves to connect us with the Kagyu lineage, delivering the blessings of its founders, as well as the central blessing of the Kagyu approach to the practice of meditation. Lineage prayers like this one are a way of directly connecting with the essence of a lineage, and through that, experiencing deep inspiration and faith, the energy that bolsters us in our practice.
Dorje Chang Thungma
Great Vajradhara, Tilopa, Naropa
Marpa, Milarepa, and Lord of the Dharma, Gampopa
Knower of the three times, omniscient Karmapa
Lineage holders of the four great and eight lesser schools
Drikung, Taklung, Tsalpa, glorious Drukpa and others,
You who have thoroughly mastered the profound path of Mahamudra
Unrivaled protectors of beings, the Dakpo Kagyü
I pray to you, the Kagyü lamas
Grant your blessing that we may follow your tradition and example.
Detachment is the foot of meditation, it is taught.
Attachment to food and wealth disappears
To the meditator who gives up ties to this life,
Grant your blessing that attachment to ownership and honor cease.
Devotion is the head of meditation, it is taught.
The lama opens the door to the profound oral teachings
To the meditator who always turns to him,
Grant your blessing that uncontrived devotion be born within.
Unwavering attention is the body of meditation, it is taught.
Whatever arises, is the fresh nature of thought.
To the meditator who rests there in naturalness,
Grant your blessings that meditation is free from intellectualization.
The essence of thought is dharmakaya, it is taught.
They are nothing whatsoever, and yet they arise.
To the meditator who reflects upon the unobstructed play of the mind,
Grant your blessing that the inseparability of samsara and nirvana be realized.
Through all my births, may I not be separated
From the perfect Lama and so enjoy the glory of the dharma.
May I completely accomplish the qualities of the path and stages
And quickly attain the state of Vajradhara (awakened mind).
As far as prayers directed at a particular Buddha, I have included a prayer to the Buddha Prajnaparamita for the removal of obstacles. It comes from a booklet of collected prayers that was handed out during His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s annual teachings in Bodh Gaya in December of 1998. This prayer is a supplication to Parjnaparamita and the dakinis of the three places so that all obstacles and hindrances may be removed. This invocation of Prajnaparamita’s power for protection and removal of problems, as well as the dakinis that emanate from her body, speech and mind is a way of receiving her natural blessing and connecting in a direct way. The two mantras, the second of which is the mantra of prajnaparamita herself, clear away all and any perceived “reality” of obstacles, rendering them impossible, empty, and without gravity.
Prayer to remove obstacles based upon Prajnaparamita from the Gelug Lineage
I prostrate to the gathering of dakinis of the three places,
Coming from the supreme holy site of “Space-enjoying”,
Who have the powers of clairvoyance and magical emanation,
And regard practitioners as their offspring.
A KA SA MA RA TSA SHA DA RA SA MA RAY AH PHET
Tayatha gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi soha
Through the power of the great truth of the words of the Exalted Three Jewels
May all adverse conditions be overcome.
May they become non-existent.
May they be pacified.
May all the evils, such as enemies, obstacles, hindrances and adverse conditions be satisfied.
Shantim kuruye Soha
May the eighty thousand types of obstacles be pacified,
May we be separated from adverse harmful conditions,
May everything conducive be obtained and by the auspiciousness of everything good,
May there be excellent happiness here and now.
In these ways, we see that prayer can be focused and very specific. Each modality is a little different from the others, but can be easily blended into one another if one desires. I have come to find that as a chaplain, prayer is real. It effects significant change within me when I deliver it within my own practice, and when I perform prayer for others it changes the feeling of the room as well as the orientation of the person for whom it was delivered. I have even had the experience of a dying patient who held out until prayer could be delivered; as I finished the last word of the prayer the patient died. Prayer can be a vehicle, and a ladder, it is a bridge and an oasis in the face of difficulty.
I realize that personal prayer and ritual, as part of a regular spiritual practice makes a lot of sense- the effects are palpable. But what of prayer and ritual for others? This is something that I feel a greater number of people in the West may be more skittish about.
Lately I have been requested to perform pujas and prayers for a number of people who have recently passed away. Within the mix of specific practices that I do, I tend to focus on Chöd, Mahakala and Shingkygong, as supplementary practices to help ensure that the passage through the bardo is smooth, without the affliction of fear and anger, and so that when rebirth comes, it is peaceful and rich. The effect of Mahakala and Shingkyong, in my mind at least, is profound- there is little chance that as enlightened protectors they will forget to benefit beings; and so, when invoked and supplicated with heartfelt devotion and clarity, there is no reason as to why obstacles will arise.
Chöd allows me to experience intimacy with the consciousness of the person who has passed away. I enjoy offering the feasts of my freshly butchered body, my eyes, flayed skin, and skull to all of the demons of self-clinging and self-cherishing so that the person for whom this practice is dedicated will pass through the bardo aware of the illusory nature of their body. In inviting the recently deceased to the ganachakra of my body, an offering made so that all of their obstacles may be dissolved into the emptiness that characterizes their essential nature, we become connected. We form a bond; a shared experience of seeing things as they really are. The benefit of this kind of approach to being there for others who have recently passed away feels extraordinary- I take great joy in being able to have the chance to do this.
In a sense, practicing for others is more than bodhisattva activity, the indiscriminate non-referential care for the basic happiness of others, it is also strongly urged through many of the tantric commitments (samayas) associated with a variety of practices. It is quite common amongst the samayas associated with the practice of a number of tantric deities that the practitioner engage in the activities of performing pujas, offering tormas, and removing obstacles in the manner of the mahasiddhas of old. This is another application of skillful means; we can effect great change through our practice, the least of which is experience full realization. In this way we connect with the mahasiddhas of India- we seamlessly continue their lineage.
Why not be a benefit to others? Indeed, not being stingy with the dharma assets is one of the key precepts that is kept within the Zen tradition, and is commonly found in a variety of forms in all expressions of buddhadharma; one not look any further than the paramita of generosity.
Science even affirms the value of practice for others. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) conducted a study of the effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer, which as an outcome outlined that this type of prayer should be considered within clinical treatment. You read tha abstract here. An abstract from a study done by the National Institute of Health (NIH) on the effects of remote intercessory prayer and it’s recorded benefits in recovery from low self-esteem, depression and anxiety can be read here. In terms of the recovery of cardiac patients another NIH study suggests that remote intercessory prayer may be considered “an adjunct to standard medical care”. As a chaplain, my time assigned to a medical intensive care unit (MICU) offered a quick introduction to a variety of ways in which direct measurable benefit could be experienced from the performance of prayer and ritual.
Do all the studys support the efficacy of prayer? No. In fact many studies suggest that there is no correlative relationship between pray and recovery from illness. One on the reasons why many studies don’t seem to support the effects of prayer, I believe, is that the nature of the studies don’t take into full account all of the areas of benefit that prayer and spiritual practice for others provide. I have experienced that much of the initial benefit of my being there for others to do puja, deliver prayer, or even just be there to talk with patients in the hospital and private clients is internal; it helps to bolster or reinforce the individuals sense of ground, it clarifies their own spirituality. From this point, the benefits can sometimes manifest as relief from pain, reduction of stress and trauma, and these in turn can lead towards hastened recovery, or even meaningful recovery. It is important to note how varied the experience of illness is; it’s never the same experience. Illness changes from moment to moment, affecting us in a unique way each minute spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, as well as physically. Prayer is ellusive, and so is the experience of illness.
Through my experience of Buddhism I have come to experience first hand the importance of spiritual care in the face of illness and death. Being there for others in the midst of illness and death is to fundamentally share our experience of the four noble truths- through this we are reminded of our essential impermanence. I have spent time with two teachers of mine, the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche as well as Bhue Tulku, or Dekhung Gyalsey Rinpoche, while they performed many pujas in the homes of various families in Sikkim to provide tangible, very meaningful spiritual care. What I have come away with from my experiences with these teachers is that practice for others is a wonderful, joyous part of the path. It is an exemplary aspect of what it means to be there, openly and in direct relationship with another person; it is an expression of great natural spontaneous generosity, and it is something that is expected of us as we mature and come into deeper relationship with our practice of buddhadharma.
I pray that this form of dharma activity in the West takes root, multiplies and offers meaning and context for countless beings!
When my first teacher, and spiritual mother, Ani Dechen Zangmo, taught the text for the prostrations and refuge part of the Karma Kagyu ngondro (Four Foundations practice) she spent a great deal of time talking about the different ways in which beings have been our mothers in the past.
In the most classical aspect of this practice, we make our prostrations to the wonderful field of refuge: our lineage forefathers and foremothers. In this way we seek to enter and become part of a lineage. We join our lineage through repeatedly receiving the blessings of the lineage; in fact, we are instructed to help lead all sentient beings in the meritorious activity of supplicating and joining our specific lineage with us. Why do we do this? It is said that all beings have at one point in time been our mothers, having cared for us with selfless beauty and having made endless sacrifices, protected us, nurtured us, and also supported and enriched us. Through time immemorial, through the various combinations and permutations of the manifestations of karma, all beings have been, at any given point in time, our mothers. Indeed every person we meet has done this for us. Every animal. Every friend. Every enemy. Every being, seen and unseen, has done this for us- and in this way we are all inextricably linked. What better way to repay these countless mother-beings than to act as a raft to lead them to the banks of spiritual realization?
And so, as is the case within the Kagyu lineage, when we visualize the field of refuge and as we make each prostration while reciting the refuge prayer, we doing so with each being who has been our mother. We keep their desire for well-being and happiness in our heart. In this way, in a manner similar to Indra’s Net, it becomes impossible to locate a source or an end with regard to our connection with others.
Where is the border between myself and another? Where are our points of overlap?
Indeed, in taking a moment to check in and notice this we can very naturally, perhaps effortlessly, find ourselves left with a deep feeling of connection and an awareness ornamented with the jewels of empathetic concern.
Suddenly the well-being and quality-of-experience of others becomes a natural concern.
That we are all interdependent is also driven home in the practice of Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. There is a portion of this practice in which one imagines oneself moving throughout the six realms of existence (illustrated above). In the practice we engage in helping to alleviate the suffering of beings in all six realms.
Within this practice, and in many others we make the vow to do this; to benefit all beings who have been our mothers as an expression of gratitude and gentle concern for all those who suffer and who have provided us with the selfless love and support that only parents could. These beings who have loved us unconditionally, may be experiencing the anger and depression of the hot and cold hell realms, the dullness of the animal realms, the jealousy and infighting of demigod realms, or the perfect complacency of the gods’ realm.
How can we be there for them, how can we cool the anger, warm the depression, enlighten the dullness, sooth the jealousy and enliven and express the immediacy of the present moment to perfect eternalism?
In another sense, perhaps in a way that differs from the classical presentation of how all beings have been our mothers at one point in time, all beings are our mothers in another way: they give birth to our identities; the way we present and imagine ourselves to be.
It seems we cannot exist in a relative way without existing in relation to others. The acceptance of our wonderful qualities and our faults, the very perception and even projection upon us of what we appear to be, is a birthing of an identity. The quality of our being in a horizontal sense, as it pertains to our diverse qualities, is defined and experienced through others, through the way that they experience us. We are given context and we are given meaning. What we do with that and how we react to it is up to us.
While we like to think that we are the architects of our appearance, and in many ways we are the often unintentional archtect, it may be that we are only ever known through the experience of others. Perhaps this way of looking at the manner in which we have created our identities, the way that we are animated by, and get carried away with our experience of self, a fleeting momentary illusion, can be best seen reflected in the eyes of another.
I find that whether I am at the hospital acting the role of a chaplain, on the subway on my way to the hospital, or going about my daily activities as a parent or partner to another, I am always humbled when I have the chance to notice how I am engaged in an interpenetrating relationship with others. What an amazing thing to just meet and reflect the pure appearance of another, the fleeting transience, and the deep connection that we all share; and what a difficult thing to do. I find it especially humbling when I catch myself caught in the midst of reacting and judging, of comparing and compartmentalizing the spontaneity of occurence. But when I can rest in naturally meeting others, the sheer simplicity and profundity of that experience remindeds me of how extraneous our elaborations of dharma can become.
The recent events surrounding His Holiness Orgyen Trinley Dorje have been extremely painful to watch. I realize that I am not the only person who has strong feelings about the present situation. Right now it feels important to bring these feelings inward and let those who are much more skillful and experienced with the complexities of these issues remain at the forefront. Perhaps directing all of the emotions that arise from the present situation towards practice, and using this present moment to reflect upon the Kagyu lineage can be a powerful tool for connection and empowerment. Rather than add to the frenzy of internet activity through discussing what has been going on, I would like to respectfully let the Office of His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa with its advisors lead the way, they are wise, capable and have my complete confidence.
So let’s go deeper. What does it mean to be Kagyupa?
Practice. Devotion. These qualities are certainly not solely owned by the Kagyu lineage, or even vajrayana buddhism for that matter, but they are the special signature of this precious ear-whispered lineage.
What does that mean?
The relationship that the great Pandit Naropa had with his radical, skillful and essential guru Tilopa was one of great intimacy and tenderness. It was a relationship of sharing, where a master tested and took great care in exhausting the neuroses and misapprehensions of his student, who through his own dedication and drive, applied the special instructions and worked hard to guard and tend to the experience of enlightenment. Master and student lived side by side so that any ordinary experience could be used as a tool for revealing the dharma. In creating the a relationship of close intimacy Tilopa challenged Naropa, he knew what buttons to push, he chided Naropa’s intellectualism, and ultimately empowered him to experience buddhahood.
Marpa the indomitable angry Tibetan farmer- stuborn and hard-headed- decided to leave Drogmi Lotsawa to find and experience dharma on his own, for himself. Undergoing a series of journeys through out Nepal and India he eventually found his guru, Naropa. Marpa had to bear the brunt of being Tibetan in 11th century India, not an easy task Tibetans were generally regarded as rough and not that intelligent by their Nepali and Indian contemporaries. Indeed, the mahasiddha Sri Santibhadra (aka Kukkuripa) to whom Marpa was directed to initially receive the transmission of the Mahamaya Tantra asked why he should give the empowerment of the Mahamaya Tantra and subsequent explanations to a “stupid flat nosed Tibetan?” That must have really pushed the buttons of this precocious, driven seeker who was known for having a short fuse! The relationship between Naro and Marpa, like that of Tilopa and Naropa, was also intimate and close- Marpa spent years actualizing the paths that were offered to him from his primary guru, Naropa. Marpa also maintained close relationships with the mahasiddhas Maitripa, Kukkuripa, as well as Saraha (in the dream-state). Marpa brought the instructions of these great masters back to Tibet and firmly placed the victory banner of the kagyu ear-whispered lineage upon the Tibetan Plateau.
Milarepa, the repentant magician suffered great loss early on in his life. Imagine the loss of everything you know as one of your parents die, imagine that all you have every owned, or all that has ever been promised to you has been taken by family that you trusted. Imagine the shame and guilt, the remorse and regret that Milarepa must have felt growing up- imagine those feelings distilling into the deep focus to harm others. Marpa, the farmer lama, with his liberating presence, took the time to be there for Milarepa as a teacher in the best way possible. He had the skill to know that forcing Milarepa to perform nearly impossible tasks of physical labor to ripen his karma, to help push the reset button, and to reveal wholeness where previously there was just suffering, was appropriate. After all, Milarepa had been to a teacher before Marpa who was much looser in his teaching style which didn’t fit with Milarepa’s attitude. As a result not much occurred between Milarepa and this other teacher. Marpa, ever the farmer, planted the seeds of dharma within Mila’s being and carefully, tenderly raked, weeded and fed these seeds until the grew into a rich crop.
Rechungpa and Gampopa, the left and right hands of Mila Laughing Vajra, expressed the wisdom, instruction and blessings of their father-like lama. Gampopa did this through codifying and merging the ear-whispered lineage of experience with his experience as a Kadampa monk thus providing a monastic base for the Kagyu lineage; his famous Jewel Ornament of Liberation is a classic lamrim (stages of the path) presentation of the dharma. Rechungpa, a repa or cotten-clad yogi, continued more within the activity tradition of Marpa Lotsawa, returning to India to procure the empowerments and instruction for the practice of the Formless Dakini, a lineage that is still maintained within the Drikung Kagyu lineage. Both Rechungpa and Jey Gampopa were cared for by Milarepa- they had very close and different relationships with Milarepa. The devotion and sadness that Rechungpa expressed upon learning of Milarepa’s death is a beautiful reminder of the internal connection that they had. It also feels important to note that the last thing that Milarepa shared with Gampopa was showing him his calloused buttocks- a final testament that practice is essential, that the experience of liberation is supported by practice.
The Kagyu lineage, and all of its branches, is often refered to as a practice lineage. And indeed, if one took a look at the lives of the lineage holders, one can see that great care has always been applied to the maintainance of the purity of the lineage, as well as experiencing or tasting its essential essence. When we look at the lineage of the Karmapas, Tai Situpas, the Gyaltsabpas, the lineage of Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Traleg Rinpoche, Thrangu Rinpoche, Tenga Rinpoche, Sangye Nyepa Rinpoche, Trungpa Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche, Bokar Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche, Chokgyur Lingpa, Karma Chagme Rinpoche, Khamtrul Rinpoche, and many other great Rinpoches, and unknown practitioners, it is amazing how alive and energetic the Kagyu lineage is.
I sometimes feel that people believe that being Buddhist involves shunning the world and keeping ourself calm and without emotion. In the hospital I am often asked by patients how I have the strength to not feel or to remove myself from the world. I don’t have that strength, I’m not even sure if that is a strength, and even if I did, I wouldn’t want to remove myself from the world. There are worlds upon worlds within us, physical isolation or separateness alone doesn’t change that. The freedom we seek is found in embracing what is right infront of us. Buddhism is in the midst of being translated to the western idiom. It has firmly taken root in many respects, however I feel that a significant point of focus may need to be how we as Buddhists (perhaps more so for vajrayana Buddhists, although maybe not) can maintain sacred-outlook as well as a realistic understanding of the world around ourselves. How can we connect to the visionary nature of our lineages, create real connection, feel that we are part of them, recieve the blessings of their transmission history without having an overly utopian notion of how everything constellates with the world that we live in?
A few years ago I read a translation of a text by Raga Asay, the first Karma Chagme Rinpoche in which a story was related about Raga Asay who after recieving instruction from the 10th Karmapa Choying Dorje, prefered to live far away from Tsurphu. When asked by a friend why he would choose to live far away and not be able to attend public events (empowerments, reading transmissions, teachings, etc.) Raga Asay replied,” when I am in retreat the lama on the top of his head is near and I always feel his blessings. When I am at Tsurphu my mind is plagued by insecurity, jealousy and gossip.” Karma Chagme found the balance; his balance, a confidence in his relationship with His Holiness as well as with the larger lineage. At the same time Karma Chagme seems to be suggesting “people are people are people”- we gossip, brag, and in all our enthusiasm during special religious functions often inadvertantly act unskillfully.
In terms of the present situation, it is easy to pick up on and focus on the politics, the gossip, and the intrigue and forget that this is all appearance. By all means we should support His Holiness, but as his children perhaps we should bring what arises within us to the path. This is what Gampopa refers to when he lists the ways to deal with obstacles to practice, we can try to abandon obstacles, or we can transform them, or we can rest within them as they arise. Gampopa suggests that transforming obstacles is good, but that resting in them may be better- it is a way to bring direct experience of the present moment to our practice. In facing our fears, our insecurities, our rage, our frustration, and being able to be aware of this as none other than the play of our mind, we are able to be clear and free.
When His Holiness came to Mirik to consecrate and install the kudung stupa of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, His Holiness told the large group of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche’s students that our greatest offering to Bokar Rinpoche is our practice. That to put into practice his instructions, and to aspire to completely master master them, we are connecting in a profound manner to Kaybje Bokar Rinpoche. This sounds like timely advice for the present moment, but also something to keep in mind at all moments. While we can not always serve our lama in an everyday setting, we can serve our lama by holding dear and practicing the instructions that she or he offers us.
The office of His Holiness recently offered a statement of thanks to everyone who has supported His Holiness and his labrang and suggested that we offer our practice towards the removal of all obstacles towards the problems that His Holiness has faced. You can read it here. This is wonderful! I cannot think of a better way to maintain a connection with such an amazing teacher. In practicing for him, we are generously offering our time, our effort, our spirituality as well as our connection with the lineage from which the instructions that we follow flowed from. This is an offering beyond time and space; an essence offering which when fused with the intention of benefiting His Holiness and his labrang- doubtless, this is a powerful way of maintaining connection, it’s a way through which we can feel the heartbeat of Tilo, Naro, Marpa, Mila within our very being.
Although all practitioners have a lineage,
If one has the Dakini lineage, one has everything.
Although all practitioners have a grandfather,
If one has Tilo, one has everything.
Although practitioners have a lama,
If one has Naro, one has everything.
Although practitioners have teachings,
If one has the hearing lineage, one has everything.
All attain the Buddha through meditation,
But if one attains Buddhahood without meditation,
There is definite enlightenment.
There is no amazing achievement without practice,
But there is amazing achievement without practice.
By searching, all will find enlightenment,
But to find without searching is the greatest find.