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Posts tagged ‘mahasiddhas’

26
Mar

on bustin’ up sacred cows like piñatas and re-envisioning our frames of reference…

cow pinata

A participant and fellow traveler on the journey created by the new class on Buddhist Tantra which recently set sail from New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center suggested that I write a blog post to explore and refute the analysis of how the Madhyamaka view arose in India as presented by Ronald M. Davidson in his book, Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement.  Davidson essentially posits that the middle-way position demonstrated by the Madhyamaka was borne out of dialectical necessity in response to the intellectual climate of the time, a possible influence by Greek Skepticism, as well as an environment of competition for support and patronage of various Hindu and Buddhist schools of thought.  In all of its slippery middle-way dynamism the Madhyamaka won out for it’s virtually unknowable evenness, and for entering the realm of epistemology as a means of defending Buddhism from the attacks of Hindu philosophers.  Socially and historically, Davidson’s position seems to make sense- he paints the picture of a time in which it seems very possible that at the very least the social dynamics at play in that moment helped the Madhyamaka position gain the favor that it did.  Davidson’s book seeks to present the development of Indian Esoteric Buddhism through the lens of social history- as such it is not surprising that he would make this argument.  That said, Davidson’s argument does stand at odds with the prevailing description of the rise of the Madhyamaka as presented within the standard histories found within the various lineages of Himalayan Tantric Buddhism as well as larger Mahayana literature.  My friend’s discomfort and sense of irritation makes sense.  I still remember sitting opposite the Buddhist scholar Christian Wedemeyer eighteen years ago when I was an idealistic twenty year old one morning for breakfast at the YWCA in Delhi when he told me for the first time that there we probably many Nagarjunas. Oh, the strange and irrational discomfort that coursed through my being during that meal.

Yet, when we look more closely, this kind of reaction is not so surprising.  There appears to be a rich and wonderfully marbled lump of meat to be found between the bones of standard orthodoxy and those of deeper investigative analysis, meat that can sustain us, that we can offer up towards deeper practice, meat that we can offer to the yidams the dakas and dakinis as well as the dharmapalas and the members of their entourage.

The meat of fear, of anger and pride, made fatty and nutritious through the habits of wanting to be good, to succeed and not wanting to look at the inconsistencies that may exist within our own personal integration with our theology is delicious!  What delicacy!

Sherpa Butterfly Effect

This still warm flesh, smelling of iron and mineral sustenance, salty and thus not unlike the tears remaining after a possible breakdown related to examining our sacred cows, our idolized notions and our addictions to squeaky clean reductive perfection is a nutritious meal.  These salty tears and the wondrous tear-ducts that offer a seemingly endless supply are the source of vital ornamentation when we finally notice how much we have taken for granted our lineage, the patchwork of terms- the words and lines of thought- that we feel the need to project upon ourselves rather than looking to see if we can find them within ourselves.

Seldom do we take the time to dissect what we have within us as we explore the fantastic and wonderful structures that we seek to force upon everything around us.  It is rare that we can hold the skin of our identity-within-our-practice pinned back, open, revealing all of that which drives us to want to transcend, or transform things, including aspects of ourselves that we cannot accept.  Even more rare are the times when we can see how calcified our hearts have become by the thick hard fat of self-righteousness, how tired and inflamed our organs may have become through our stubborn dogmatism, our desire to make clouds solid, our attempts to etch history into titanium so as to make it last forever, or to try to crystallize the warm breath of the dakinis into objects we can own.

Worms

It isn’t often that we can remain in one place, to rest in being vulnerable and insecure, and to wonder about why it is that we believe what we do, or to even allow ourselves the room to wonder what it is that we believe.  What of the frequency of how often we can explore the deep dark color of our faith in relation to our belief, vital and essential, like the gelatinous marrow within the bones we often neglect?  What else do we neglect, or even worse, choose to neglect?  How often do we shut down our curiosity with the logic that coming to some kind of certainty within our own practice isn’t possible without first achieving realization?  What does the term realization really mean?  What shape, color, or size does realization take?

blood emptiness

What of the warm sticky blood of our own realization that courses through our vajra-body~ the essence of mantra, an ambrosial essence that is nothing but the bliss-heart of Vajrasattva, the stainless mind of expansive non-referential space?  Can we acknowledge it as we move through the appearance of time and the appearance of space, or will we banish it to some point-yet-undetermined that we call ‘the future’?

I can’t say whether Davidson is right or wrong.  I can’t say that there was only one Nagarjuna who lived for hundreds of years or many Nagarjunas who penned works in a continuum of growth and inquiry inspired by a previous personage.  But I am coming to appreciate that somewhere between the truth of historical fact and the skillful means of magical story that inspires and kindles the flame of deep seated dharma practice, resides a powerful tension.  Within this place of tension the friction of building ourselves up and letting ourselves fall to pieces, over and over again leaves us naked, exposed within a curious intimacy with what arises around and within us.

What may be most important is the blissfulness of the songs of birds, the kind compassion of the lama who appears as the people we meet in our lives, the breath that fill our lungs and the appreciation that there isn’t really anything to learn, memorize or integrate.  Perhaps all we need to know is that Nagarjuna lives in us as much as he may have lived and breathed in the early days of Buddhist Tantra.

In an essay on Gods and Titans within the context of archetypal psychology, James Hillman wrote of the danger of the over interiorization that we have applied to the larger symbols that the Gods represent within the human psyche.  He urges us to respect these Gods as real forces that are a part of us, just as we are expressions of them; when we only look at them in an overly deep, individual, supremely personal manner we commit acts of violence towards them as well as to our larger function within the outer world- perhaps we could call that world the world of appearance- the display of phenomena around us.  His warning reminds us of the importance of simultaneously holding both the inner as well as the outer; the literal and the interpreted, the mythic and the ‘real’ (as in ordinary).  To fall into one or the other is to lose our balance and inadvertently kill a god, to kill our ordinary selves as well-springs of wisdom, or our histories and the way that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas arise within us.  It is a delicate dance, a dance of heart and mind, of wisdom and compassion, of inner flow and understanding.

nagarjuna

It may very well be that the Madhyamaka arose as a revealed treasure through the wisdom and skill of Nagarjuna, and it arose in relation to competing view points.  In this manner, perhaps it arose interdependently within the frame of reference of Nagarjuna and his spiritual practice as well as the intellectual/political/cultural milieu of the day.  How can we separate the two, why do we need to, and when do suppress one at the expense of the other?  Sometimes we try to de-emphasize the ordinary in exchange for the mythic, other times we neglect the expansive essence-oriented vastness for what we may feel is more pragmatic.  Either way both views on their own miss the mark, both create terrible violence and suppression.  A powerful question may remain: how can we hold both?  How can we remain open to not knowing the answer, and rather remain as the answer?  How can we let the sacred cows go to pasture and do what they will while resting into arising as natural expressions of timeless Buddha-nature, perhaps the essential form of the cow-heard?

Within us is a powerful source of origin of all of the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and dharmapalas, as well as all of the beings of the six realms of existence.  We are the simultaneity of the action and the doer, the very continuum that we think that we need to effect to make clearer, more pure, and more tantric.  I pray that we can know each one of these rich meaty bits within the context of a smiling awareness and settle into them in a way that reflects them in all of their vast perfect purity in the worlds that we find our-self passing through.  In this way, may we seek new heights as well as new depths and understand that there may not be much difference between the two other than the labels that we assign to them.

Gewo!

citipati

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3
Jul

On equivalencies and a new dharma center…

Lately I find myself reflecting on equivalence.  Yet before I share my thoughts I would like to dedicate this blog post to Lizette, a hospice resident that I had visited who died yesterday.  May her experience of the bardo be one of restful ease!

As a chaplain the notion of the possibility of equivalence helps to bridge the differences between myself and others- between what might be expressed, or needed, by someone other than myself.  Ascertaining equivalence, a necessary act of juggling, forces us to examine our orthodoxies.  It opens the door to the barn where we keep all of our sacred cows, our assumptions, and very often, all of the ways that we lazily forego really examining how we are with others, especially in relation to our larger belief systems, and all of the other spheres that we occupy.  When I can find the points of connection that I share with people with whom one would assume there is no connection, I am usually left with an understanding of just how similar I am to others.  Equivalence helps to reduce the promotion associated with self-elevation might make me say, “As a Buddhist, I am different from you in that I believe….”, or, “As a Vajrayana Buddhist I feel that my path is better because….”

The word equivalence has its root in the early 15th century middle French word equivalent, which is a conjunction of the prefix equi meaning equal, and valent (as in valence) and valiant, which at that time period referred to strength, bond, and a “combined power of an element“.  I am reminded of the importance of valence electrons in chemistry and physics- specifically how the balance of electrical charges between atoms necessitate a sharing of electrons thus creating bonds between atoms.  From these bonds everything around us arises; indeed, through the play of interdependence everything that we know can come into being.

I find this metaphor helpful as it involves stepping out of the traditional norms of Buddhist language.  Of course, one might ask, “what language isn’t Buddhist?” In this question is a profound point.  If our approach to Buddhist practice, whatever form that may take, or for example my chaplaincy informed by my practice of Buddhism, cannot interpenetrate other forms of language, other modalities of thought,  or other creative models, it lacks the ability to maintain equivalency.  In this manner it ends up lacking the ability to be itself while remaining fluid;  it remains separated and isolated, at odds with whatever other it may encounter.  In this way I know that I run the risk of  falling into a discursive self vs. other perspective  when I feel a lack of openness, fluidity, and ability to be at ease with whatever arises.

It can be easy to feel self-conscious within, and around, our belief system which if one is Buddhist, often undermines our very ability to be Buddhist.  Indeed sometimes we try to be “Buddhist” as a way to distinguish oneself from others.  This kind of separation is a terrible violence- an awful form of self-inflation and spiritual self-destruction that seems to miss the larger point.

And yet, if we explore the possibility that no language can be found that exists outside of the framework of Buddhism in its pure natural manner of expressing itself then it is easy to appreciate true natural arising equivalencies.  We are no longer “Buddhist”, we just are, which I suspect was what Shakyamuni came to value within his spiritual quest.

Over the past two weeks I have had the fortune to visit two women who were actively dying at two different hospices in the New York City area.  Two very different women, going through different experiences of similar processes: dying.  Both of these women had strong spiritual paths- unique paths of self-taught wisdom borne through the constancy of the repeated trials and tribulations that only a full life can bring.  In their own ways, as self-taught “outsiders” they were Christ-like, and Buddhistic, and spoke of pure a basic expansive being without necessarily referencing any particular Buddhist vocabulary.  Indeed it appeared that the slow fading of the flickering flame of their life allowed them to rest in a peaceful alert awareness that was a real joy to experience.  Here I was, a chaplain, asked to come visit these two women who in that moment expressed a depth of view that I could do nothing but rejoice in and admire.  I left feeling very confident in their process- they were touching a nearly inexpressible beauty.  The visits with both women were punctuated by long silences with much eye contact- with simply being together, with a basic human connection.

Language, with its structural intricacies, its variegated forms, and kaleidoscopic ability to transform, often acts as a buttress in relation to our habitual referential reactions.  It allows for, and instills, comparison -creating an endless system of distinctions.  A literary color wheel, language runs the risk of pinning everything around us down; leaving us with a sense of knowing.  And yet I wonder, where and when, does knowing intersect with being- with the quiet awareness from just being?  What is the nature of their relationship within us?

My experience with Lizette, one of the two hospice patients described above, was that whenever I tried to use language and vocabulary to capture what she told me that she was experiencing a clumsy formalism ensued.  The beauty and power of her experience of being was made overly solid, overly distinct and “other” by trying to define it.  The only thing that kept this feeling alive was to join with it; to sit with her; and to not “know” it, but to be it.

What is the difference between discerned knowledge and knowing borne from resting within the moment?  Where, or perhaps more importantly, when, do our assumptions, our knowledge, or our better sense and logical mind of discernment (a deep and satisfying place of self-importance) get in the way of simple being?  How does language and knowing try to contain the simple being that is needed to allow us to rest in all of the equivalencies around us?

I am currently working on establishing a Dharma center here in Brooklyn called New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center.  This center is the only center of His Eminence the 12th Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Regent of the Kamtsang Kagyu Lineage.  Just yesterday we received our 501 c 3 status as a church!  It is a great honor and joy to co-Found and Co-Direct a Dharma center headed by a mahasiddha, and amidst all of the uncertainty and fears of failure, or that this will be a complete disaster, I keep coming back to memories of ngondro and the trials that Milarepa, our not so distant father, underwent.

Rob Preece, in his book Preparing for Tantra: Creating the Psychological Ground for Practice, offers a compelling argument for equivalency as it arises between aspects of the hardship and challenge created by undergoing ngondro and other hardships that may share a contextual similarity.  Preece describes how all of the work and hard physical labor that he put into helping to build a center that Lama Yeshe was establishing was a prime ground for focusing the mind around dharma practice, planting aspirational seeds that would doubtlessly blossom into mature trees that provide support, shelter and benefit for others.  Indeed, I know that as I challenged my body by carrying hundreds of pounds of building materials, the back pain and discomfort of refinishing the floors in 100 degree heat lead me to feel closer to Milarepa than I have felt in a long time.  The practice of demolishing old structures, hanging sheetrock and cutting my hands while rewiring the shrine room allowed me to appreciate Preece’s point that ngondro was a creation meant to challenge, to purify, and to create gravity around dharma practice.  My seemingly small daily endeavors, in reality, connect me to my spiritual lineage which allows me to feel close to Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa.

Ngondro is one thing- a practice that I value and feel is too often treated as just a preliminary that is to be rushed through, but how is chaplaincy different?  Can it be any different? When we really look, can there even ever be a difference?

Milarepa never did ngondro, nor did Naropa- they had the benefit of having their teachers skillfully put them in difficult circumstances.  At first glance it could be thought that it’s just hardship and difficulty that is implicit in these kinds of challenges; but when you look a little closer, it looks more like what is happening in through these experiences is that the view is being clarified.

What is being clarified, or purified?  How is it really purified?  These questions are both rhetorical and actual and beg to be asked.  Blindly following through a ngondro pecha may be better than killing insects, but perhaps only in that it plants seeds that one day one may actually practice ngondro.  And when we actually practice ngondro, where is there anything that exists outside of that practice?  Refuge is everywhere.  The experience of Vajrasattva’s non-dual purity of unmodulated mind is everywhere.  The accumulation of merit arises with every breath.  The lama is everywhere.  Yet when we don’t “practice” ngondro what happens to refuge, the essence of purity, the accumulation of merit, and the blessings of the lama and the lineage?

I feel that there is a lot of wisdom in being able to rest into the awareness that accompanies being.  It acts as a reset button of sorts that allows us the ability to see things more clearly, to appreciate the richness of whatever arises without creating conflict, and to meet others where they are without needing to change them.  In this way, and with this perspective as a motivational factor, the world around us has infinite potential as a ground for practice.  New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center becomes as meaningful as Bodh Gaya in India, Tsari in Tibet, and yet is no different from sitting on the subway of being surrounded by the overwhelming bustle of Times Square, as everywhere can be the center of the mandala of the experience of reality as it is.  It’s impossible for everywhere and everything to no longer function as the ground for practice.

This is the wish-fulfilling jewel quality that can be associated with resting in being with all of the equivalencies that surround us.  This is an expression of the multi-valent interconnected relationships that imbue our experience of reality with all of the qualities associated with pure appearance as described in dzogchen, mahamudra, the pure view or sacred outlook associated with yidam practice, and quite possibly the experience of grace in Christianity, or wadhat al-wujud, the unity-of-being as described by Sufi master Ibn ‘al Arabi.

So whether you are helping to renovate a place of dhrama practice, or simply liking it on Facebook, or enduring trials similar to those of Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa, or laying in a hospice bed in Queens, New York, who is to draw distinction between the type of, or depth of experience that we undergo?

Can we quiet our mind of endless comparisons?  Or allow for the mind of analytic distinctions to settle itself?

In doing so, perhaps the simplicity of being that arises reveals a constant soft rain of blessings and opportunities for authentic clear being.    May all beings taste this ambrosial nectar expressed by the blissful knowing glance of all of the mahasiddhas of all traditions in all world systems. Gewo!

12
May

On resting with Tilopa…

Recently I have found myself returning to some of the amazingly pithy meditation instructions attributed to Sri Tilopa (988-1069), the well-known Indian Buddhist mahasiddha who was the forefather of the Kagyu lineage.  His short, often poetic instructions, are something that help me in my personal meditation practice, as a ground for keeping myself feeling dynamic and internally connected as a chaplain, and in explaining to others the vajrayana perspective regarding what arises within the approach to death.  An example of such an instruction is as follows:

If you sit, sit in the middle of the sky.

If you sleep, sleep on the point of a spear.

If you look, look upon the center of the sun.

I Tilopa, who saw the ultimate, am the one who is free of all effort.

The expansive clarity of this type of instruction, for me at least, is very resonant- it offers a way to feel my experience of mind blend into the wideness of space while also experiencing a sense of focus; a relaxed single-pointed experience of breath, sound, transparency of thoughts, and edgelessness.  When this experience arises I feel very connected with Tilopa, as well as the other Indian mahasiddhas Naropa and Maitrepa.  Sometimes however, I feel that I need a more graded approach to this experience of mind. When this occurs, I tend to lean on Jey Gampopa for support.

More specifically, I rely upon Gey Gampopa’s Precious Garland of the Supreme Path, and even more specifically I come back to the 5th chapter of this wonderful text: The ten things that you should not abandon.  I had the wonderful fortune of receiving instruction on this text by the Venerable Khenpo Lodro Donyo, abbot of Bokar Ngedhon Chokhor Ling, in Bodh Gaya in the fall of 1998.  This was during one of the many Mahamudra seminars that the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche held- truly magical times when we could all sit together under the bodhi tree to recite the 3rd Karmapa’s Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer, spend time in meditation- simultaneously touching our original nature- as well as physically touching the ground that supported the practice of all of the generations of Buddhists who had come before us in Bodh Gaya back all the way to Shakyamuni himself.

It was in that environment, and within that emotional frame of mind, that I came to learn of the ten things that one should not abandon.  These ten things are: compassion, appearances, thought, mental afflictions, desirable objects, sickness (suffering and pain), enemies or those who obstruct our practice, methodical step-by-step progress, dharma practices involving physical movement, and the intention to benefit others. Gampopa’s list is very sensible, it is noble in the sense that it seems to be endorsed by Santideva himself; it is imbued with a heartfelt concern for the welfare of others as well as a methodical presentation of the training to see that appearances- be they attractive or not- are just mere appearance.  The misapprehension of appearance, or appearance as taken as an independent entity separate from ourselves, is the very cause of our experience of suffering.  As with all great dharma texts, it is heartening to see how just one small portion, in this case the 5th chapter of a 28 chapter text can offer the entire path to realizing one’s essential nature.

In looking back at the notebook that I have from the session when Khenpo Rinpoche taught this chapter, I can return to my exuberance not only for this chapter as a whole, but for Gampopa’s explanation of how one should approach the non-abandonment of mental afflictions.  As a chaplain, when I am in the hospital, I very rarely meet people who desire to not abandon their experience of suffering: their fear, their psychic pain, their feelings of abandonment, of futility, of anger, or attachment to family- let alone attachment to ideas of how their life should or shouldn’t unfold.  This experience isn’t unique to the hospital either- I and most of the people who I know spend a great deal of time fighting with these emotions.  Perhaps this is why they are called mental afflictions.

Anger, attachment, pride, jealousy, ignorance.  When we really sit quietly with these words they are not just words- they are worlds; worlds of suffering, worlds of feeling like we are right and others are wrong, that we don’t receive the credit or accolades that we deserve, that if only I had this, or was a that, then things would be the way that they should be.  On and on and on…

Gampopa advises us to try three modalities with regard to facing and not abandoning our mental afflictions.  We can avoid them- that is, avoid whatever causal conditions that might make them arise.  We can transform them- or try to transform what these emotions unlock within us.  Or finally, we can rest in them as they arise.  Whichever modality we tend towards, there are two things to remain mindful of; how we habitually fall into one of these three modalities, and the degree to which we can honestly assess our relationship to that which we struggle with.  Each of these ways of facing and not abandoning our mental afflictions can be techniques of liberation or techniques of seductive self-enslavement.

The process of avoidance is a very grounded, stable and well-meaning way of not abandoning our mental afflictions.  It honors the way they arise- it honors their root- without forcing us to become affected.  This way of approaching difficulties, painful habits, and stubborn aspects of our identities allows us some distance from the “heat” of the moment that comes with embodying our reaction to our mental afflictions.  One could even go so far as to say that this modality is somewhat analytical in approach, it is disciplined and measured.  The shadow aspect of avoidance is not acknowledging the mental afflictions that bring us pain and suffering.  Not much good happens from simply ignoring things, or not letting aspects of ourselves have the light and air that they need to grow.  Right now, the shadow of this modality comes to mind in the form of the image of a neglectful parent who doesn’t want to see who their children really are.

Transformation is a common methodology that one finds in the various levels of tantras.  It involves playing with the way that we perceive our mental afflictions.  This type of restated relationship allows us to meet head on those feelings that would normally make us want to run away.  In this way the dross becomes pure; the dirty is seen as clean; and that which torments us achieves the possibility of bringing meaning and peace.  True lighthearted transformation- transformation with ease- is hard to effect.  Transformation has a terrible shadow side that involves the desire to fix; or more bluntly an inability to meet things as they appear without making them into something positive.  As a chaplain, I witness many people struggle with maintaining a relationship with difficulty and pain, uncertainty and loss, and sickness and death without trying to “fix it”.  The constancy of a “make-it-better-plan” can be exhausting and create untold suffering.  It feels profoundly important to examine how this modality of maintaining a relationship with our matrix of painful emotions can relate to a desire to not allow honesty around what we are feeling and from where the roots of these emotions arise.  (Here is a link to the related shadow of spiritually bypassing.)

Resting in whatever arises, the third modality presented by Gampopa, and the favorite of Khenpo Lodro Donyo while he was teaching, is an instruction that one commonly finds within the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions.  It is profound- and it also very difficult to do honestly.  As we saw earlier, anger, attachment, pride, jealousy and ignorance are powerful.  To rest within rage for example- to feel one’s pulse quicken, and heart beat heavier and louder, while one becomes physically tight and flushed, as the explosive heat of anger and impatience engulfs us- is not a particularly comfortable feeling. (For a look at some of the difficulties involved with taking on these fierce emotions, you can read a previous post on Mahakala here.) Then there is the “resting” part.  This term gets thrown around very often that I wonder if it doesn’t end up having a multitude of meanings nowadays.  I know that I have met Buddhists of other traditions that take the term literally and assume that it is akin to taking a nap or “resting”.

Resting actually refers to maintaining a focused (often described as ‘single-pointed’) awareness of appearance as it arises in the moment.  In this way, Tilopa’s instruction from the beginning of this post seems a wonderful way through which we can re-engage the term resting.  One quality of resting is being at ease.  In this sense when Tilopa refers to three different ways of being- siting, sleeping, and looking- he is referring to three ways that we can rest in what arises.  We can do it formally, as in sitting practice. We can do it within the experience of sleep, mind appearances arise when we sleep just as when we are awake. Finally, in looking, perhaps a passive “every day” experience as well.

If you sit, sit in the middle of the sky.

Where is the middle of the sky?  The true middle?  Where are its edges?  Where does the sky end and something else take over?  As we sit and remain resting with a sense of ease can we feel the expansive qualities of our minds?  Where is the edge of our mind?  What does a thought look like?  Does it have a source that you can identify?  Where do thoughts go when they are no longer so magnetic?

If you sleep, sleep on the point of a spear.

When our thoughts feel sticky and magnetic, when it is hard to not feel drawn into them and let our inner film projector play, what happens when we remain concentrated?  What does that “single-pointed” awareness feel like?  When we can feel and notice our breath; when we can maintain focused awareness on the way the inner film projector plays; on how a particular thought will hold us within our inner gaze, what do we notice about our experience?

If you look, look upon the center of the sun.

When this focus can be maintained as we look out at the world as it goes by around us, where is the sense of stillness?  From where does that arise?  What happens to the way that you notice the way that things arise while maintaining a focused awareness upon the expansive quality of our minds?  Is there ever not enough room for what arises within our field of reference?

I Tilopa, who saw the ultimate, am the one who is free of all effort.

What if removing all effort was all that you had to do?  What would it be like to maintain that within your experience of life?

Instructions such as the ones that Tilopa left behind for us are rare and powerful.  It has been roughly one thousand years since Tilopa passed away, and yet through these four lines it is amazing how much of a connection we can feel with him.  Five generations after Tilopa, Gampopa further crystalized the importance of being someone who “is free of all effort”.  And while there are may pitfalls around how we may feel that we are directly engaging what arises within the moment, there is much beauty in the journey.  Perhaps, slowly moving through life, through the wonderous field of appearance, we can increase our sense of ease and relax into an experience of effortlessness.  What an amazing thing to aspire towards.

11
Feb

On the importance of certainty…

As a chaplain, one thing that I frequently come to witness in the hospital is the relative personal theological certainty that the patients I meet have established throughout the course of their lives. Naturally the range of established belief is wide and varied; it includes a variety of orthodoxies (Greek, Russian, Jewish, Muslim), as well as the views of moderately liberal faiths such as followers of the Episcopal church, reform Jews, progressive catholics, as well as passionate Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ and Baptists. There are also Wiccans, New Age folks, and a whole host of individual prophets of the new age who I come across.

Just last week one man shared with me his belief that Jesus was more akin to Obi Wan Kanobe and Yoda than anyone else seems to realize.  For this man, the essence of God is much more similar to the Force than the compilers of the Bible could understand.  In fact, rather than feel with his “heart”, a common human metaphor for the seat of emotion, especially as the seat of love, he told me that he feels with his larynx.  After all, in the beginning was the word….

The certainty that this patient expressed regarding his inner beliefs felt palpable, and lead me to wonder about certainty. I can only really speak for myself when I say that I can never really know how true or theologically sound the spiritual underpinning of any given person who I come to meet with may be.   I have my own biases, my own stubbornness, and without doubt, I have plenty of blind spots.  To have a full understanding, in an ultimate sense, of the beliefs of others- or in other words: to truly know how right or correct how full or effective a particular path that another person treads, for me, seems to be an impossible task.  Just like trying to hold water in my cupped hand for any length of time, such definitive knowledge escapes me.  In fact, I often wonder where the utility of trying to know such things may lay- it seems like trying to know if the person next to you sees the color blue in the same way that you do.  Is there even a right blue?  What is blue?

What is everything for that matter?

What is mind?  What are thoughts?  What are feelings?  Are they different?

What is Buddha-nature?  How do we recognize it?

What are our dreams?  How are they different from waking life?

What is meditation?  How is it different from hustle and bustle?

How are we suffering?  What is the cessation of suffering?  What does that mean for you?

How are we not shackled by discursiveness?  What does that mean?

What is certainty?

This particular question seems to touch upon and lead us to something that we may be able to come to know, albeit with effort and focus.  Certainty suggests a lack of doubt; a knowing born of experimentation; security from error.  Ultimately, it may be that entry into the realm of certainty is an intensely personal process.  Spiritually, I feel that the tent poles of certainty are planted, and firmly fastened through wrestling with instructions left behind by the traditions that we follow. Once we have come to appreciate these instructions, internalize them, digest them, and come to know with confidence what they mean, then we may fully know the secure and tender shelter that our tradition affords us.  Only then do we see that the words found in our dusty books are in fact thick golden ambrosial nectar, and that the experience of life can become more of what it is: alive, fresh, and full of energy.  Even as it wanes, this life of ours, subject to pains, worries, sorrows and regrets still holds the unique and ever profound richness of spontaneity and depth of meaning.

The work of distilling certainty from our experience of, and interaction with life asks us to try to see ourselves for who we really are. It asks us to understand our outer, inner and secret anatomy.  It also leads us to a taxonomy of self- a clear reflective understanding of who we are- for it is only through knowing who we are and how we experience our life that we can understand how to enter into relationship with developing greater awareness of what being open and more free means.  Openness and freedom, for me, tend to be something that I associate with the flexibility needed for solidifying these natural attributes, for providing ground, for being able to really see who we are.

Then there is who we are in relationship to our tradition.  Tradition and lineage can take a number of forms, but in its most essence oriented function, tradition and lineage speak to how we become who we are in time and space.  In this particular case it isn’t about adopting a particular set of beliefs or perspectives, but more how the integration of lineage perspectives cause us to individuate within our lineage; in essence how we become more ourselves- empowered and confident, free and self-assured.  It may very well be that we come to find ourselves within the natural ebb and flow of  our tradition or lineage without much to really do.

How this comes to be, of course, may be impossible to fully explain- except in relation to our own journey. Such inner-transformation is very personal and unique to each individual.  This fact is easily gleaned from reading the lives of the eighty-four mahasiddhas.  The story of their processes of liberation often involves embracing circumstances unique to each master’s life.  Whether it be using a goiter as a focus for stabilizing the mind, or a fabulous jewel, trying to steal the essence of mind to ascertain its nature, or the use of conceit as a means for attaining siddhi in arising as the yidam, nothing was spared. No fear too mundane; no shadow too dark.  In fact, in these stories we can easily see how structured aspects of practice lineages were transposed upon, or woven throughout, the experience of the lives of each mahasiddha.  The result of such a skillful weaving, a blending, or circulation (circumabulation) of tradition within the experience of life is twofold- the experience of being becomes easily imbued with simplicity (an expression of simple appearance) and offers the possibility of complete fiery annihilation of obscurations.

Paradoxically, such seemingly simple self-styled practice requires not only a sense of openness with regard to exploring who we are, what we are, and how we function in the world- but also knowledge of our lineage, particularly certainty in its effect.  The stories of the mahasiddhas are very approachable, and should be read by everyone.   A few examples can be read here. These stories really capture the depth and simplicity of a well grounded and distilled practice and offer a kaleidoscopic expansion of experience that I have come to value. From the simple comes everything, the full richness of a practice lineage with all of its subtle distinctions.

The other day a friend of mine who also happens to be a chaplain and a rabbi reflected to me a growing concern, namely that religion and religiosity are increasingly something that people are distancing themselves from- and that even spirituality is something that is regarded with some suspicion.  Her larger point focused around the need for a wider tool-kit for chaplains that allows for the inclusion of people for whom feelings of connectedness may not be centered around religion and spirituality.  The tool-kit that she refered to invariably requires her, and anyone who wants to be able to be there with others in the exploration of their location within the axes of spirituality and religion, to know their location and the story of their journey (how they got there).  If these aspects of ourselves are unexamined how can we help others? More broadly, without knowing where we are and how we function in relation to our individual traditions how can we hope to integrate them into our lives?

This point speaks well to the establishment of certainty within our spiritual practice as it invites us to wonder what we feel about religious thought.  Do we consider ourselves religious, or, do we tend to think of ourselves as spiritual?  Is there a difference?  What about those two words hold intense reactions and why?

There is no right answer, only our own- which if it is an honest one, can hold up to a little inquiry, and also be allowed to change as we change.

I bring my friend’s point up because in many cases real training (study, receiving instruction, practice, and reflection) within our individual lineages is very important for gaining certainty in the path, as well as what is possible.  Within the model of tantric buddhism this process is described as the Ground, Path and Fruit.

The Ground represents the larger theory, the teachings on the way the mind works, how suffering arises, how the dharma can eliminate our experience of suffering.  The Path is primarily the method of putting this dharma into practice- really blending it with our experience of life.  The Fruit is the true naked experience of mind- an experience of seeing, feeling, and really knowing the Ground to be alive within our experience of being. Certainty can be, and needs to be known in all three relational models of buddhist practice, or however many stages we experience within our own particular liberation story.

Certainty in Ground.  Certainty in Path.  Certainty in Fruit.

I wonder where the mahasiddhas Luiypa, Saraha, Ghantapa, Tilopa,Virupa, Aryadeva or Dhokaripa would end up without their experience of certainty upon their paths and within their experiences?

In what way do we need to attend to the development of certainty within our own experience?  Can we allow ourselves the room to attend to these needs without regard to how we appear to others?  Can we approach certainty with honesty?  From a place of deep personal concern?

Some may feel the need for increased study- a real immersion in the Ground.  Some may feel a need to develop more confidence/familiarity with the Path.  Others may feel a need to open themselves to the possibility that they may indeed experience the Fruit.

Jey Gampopa (1079-1153), the first monastic lineage holder of the Kagyu lineage wrote in his famous work The Precious Garland of the Supreme Path, that we should protect our practice just as we would our eyes.  Similarly, I wonder if we should regard the maintenance of certainty in our practice as we would not only our eyes, but the rest of our body.  The distillation of certainty is a process that is subtle and mysterious.  It is not necessarily obtained from taking classes or attending lectures, nor from reading books or studying, and yet it can sometimes be gleaned from those activities as well.  Sometimes we may experience it in a flash of anger or humiliation, or as a sudden joy.  Nevertheless, however it arises it arises from within- it is a fruit born from an inner journey that if deep and genuine leaves us naturally settled, grounded, and in harmony with the arising of phenomena.  It is a mysterious inner-organic manifestation that like the morning mist is hard to pin-down and locate. Perhaps, only when we let our defences down, when we shed our firmly held ideas about things that certainty becomes a possibility.  When that happens, the distinction between who we are in relation to our lineage is more a question of us just remaining who we are, not much else remains for us to do.