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!
In re-examining The Biographies of Rechungpa by Peter Alan Roberts for an earlier post, I came across details surrounding the colophon from the Life and Songs of Milarepa that are quite illuminating. Roberts suggests that the 14th century collection of songs, known as the Life and Songs Shepay Dorje, the source for what is popularly known in translation as The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, was actually intended to be a secret text; a text with a limited readership- a special means through which one might receive instruction and inspiration from Jey Milarepa himself. I find it particularly fascinating that this book, which can commonly be found in any number of bookstores, was once intended to only be shared by repas who were undergoing training in a manner similar to that of Jetsun Milarepa and his cotton-clad disciples. This piece of information illustrates, for me, how easily I have taken this book for granted as well the height of regard for which this particular set of teaching songs has been held.
Of course this is common with many books that one finds in any section of a bookstore that offers a selection of books on Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana. One can easily purchase translations of The Six Yogas of Naropa, or texts on Mahamudra or Dzogchen, Yidam practice, Chöd and other topics whose surrounding lineages of practice are still kept secret and guarded out of respect for the efficacy of such practices. Very few Tibetan monks, and unfortunately even fewer nuns, had access to these same texts that we now throw in the back of the car, fail to re-shelve at the bookstore, or even just casually leave out on a coffee table or the floor for that matter. If we like, for not that much money, we can purchase a translation of the Chakrasamvara and Hevajra Tantras or commentaries of the Guhyasamaja Tantra. You say you want a copy of the Karnatantra; the Bodyless Dakini teachings that Rechungpa brought from India to Tibet? No problem- if you want, it can even be delivered right to your home.
It’s fair to say that the genesis of most of these works is unknown. By this, I mean that while there may be a known attribution and transmission lineage specific to each text; a world completely unto itself; it took an unknown process that lead to the spiritual experience which inspiried the composition/revelation of these texts. Truly understanding what rests at the source of these works, and what they point out is difficult. The experiences of Tilopa or Naropa, of Aryadeva, or Krishnacharya are difficult to fathom. Yet we have their works in translation- manuals of liberation techniques, pages blessed by the buddha qualities embodied by each master who revealed them. While the majority of tantric Buddhist texts haven’t been translated, those that have- core lineage texts- are readily available.
One might ask, “Well, if access to all of these wonderful meditation manuals is so easily obtained, this must truly be a boon for our practice, no?” Indeed, this is a wonderful thing, we are very lucky to not have to risk our life to obtain access to the dharma as many in the past have had to. And yet, every wonderful thing also has a potential shadow, and I wonder about how easy it is to become jaded by all this easy access. Occasionally, I worry about easily we take for granted just one book which may represent the entire life experience, the great inner struggles and blissful insights, the fears of mediocrity, and the sense of grounding of such great teachers like Milarepa, and Machig Labdron, to name just two. Just one book contains the realizations of an entire lifetime. It contains an entire world. Yet it is easy to find that one book is often replaced by another, consumed with an ease and sense of entitlement that may perhaps undermine the very sacred meaning behind the genesis of each book. It is quite possible that before we know it, we have a personal library of the translated oral instructions of a variety of wisdom traditions while our inner spiritual flame, our interior process, struggles to maintain itself. It’s easy to take all this wonderous access for granted; to become “spiritually engorged”.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche treats this problem within his classic work Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and Robert Augustus Masters offers a wonderful honest treatment of this within his work Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters. Spiritual bypassing a term for the way that we use our spirituality to separate us from honestly feeling our emotions and from using our spirituality to defend our own faults and shadows. It is amazing how little growth and self-exploration we can allow ourselves through justifying our habits, our easy reactions and our shadows by chalking them up to “wrathful activity” (You know, I’m angry and that’s why I practice Mahakala), through the nature of ultimate reality (It’s all just an illusion anyway), or by being overly nice and compassionate as a means to feel better about ourselves and (sometimes to make us feel better than others).
What happens when we become jaded? When we say things like, “yeah, I know about all of the aspects of completion stage meditation from all the books that I have read”, what are we really saying? It sounds to me as if we have cut ourselves off from intimately knowing ourselves. It sounds as if we are hiding behind knowledge and not allowing the often messy and painful process of insight and wisdom about ourselves to occur.
I have come across a number of very well read Buddhists who have read and memorized great quantities of Buddhist texts who also seemed to lack basic concern for others- who would snap at those with lesser learning, and even refuse to offer support for those around them who were struggling. As if hypnotized by the wonderful image of the inner cartography that they were studying, they had become separated from the awareness that in order to start a journey we must put the map down so that we can actually begin. If we try to read a map and walk simultaneously we easily lose our orientation.
I’ve also seen many folks shun basic bodhicitta practice for practices that deal in a more head-on way with emptiness; more secret practices, higher ones, implying that loving kindness is basic. Actually, it can be excruciating to try to be there for others. Kindness in the face of adversity, or aversion for that matter, is not as easy as reading a book about it. It can be much more convenient to rest in the thought that “my self-centeredness doesn’t exist, it’s empty of any self-nature”- therefore it’s unnecessary to really look at it in the face to see where it’s coming from.
There is also the phenomena where disciples of teachers maintain a sceptical eye and caustic attitude towards other fellow students, other dharma siblings, for whom being part of the inner-circle is something of an eddy that they become stuck in along the river of thier spiritual life. They fail to realize that we have all of the most wonderful inner-circles within us. Why exclude others?
In wondering about all of the ways that we fool ourselves as we take things for granted, my curiosity often moves towards my own spiritual bypassing; around my periodic naiveté, and the way I take for granted all of the easy access I have had to the Dharma over the past fifteen years. I can acknowledge my hard work, my own personal insights and feel gratitude for my inner growth, but it is very humbling to notice how all of these wonderful sides of the spiritual path can be forgotten when I fall out of connection with others, or when I do not maintain a certain critical eye regarding my practice, or when I shy away from difficulty with unconscious ease. I’m sure that many readers can identify with some aspect of my experience, we have all done these things and it often goes unnoticed. When we apply the rosy light of spirituality to our behaviour that is rooted in hiding from others, hiding from our pain, and retreating into separation, we can very easily find wonderful defenses, wonderful ways to support us in not growing, in not changing (which is what growth is), and with not experiencing pain- a profound impetus for, and perhaps symptom of, growth. Sometimes we take for granted that we know ourselves at all.
These days its possible to receive dozens of empowerments, many different specific instructions, meet with many different spiritual teachers, and read many books that in the past were kept concealed, hidden to be revealed at the right time for maximum effect in one’s spiritual practice. That’s a lot of stuff. It’s not all bad, but it also seems possible for one to inadvertently suffer from a form of “spiritual diabetes” for lack of a better term. We have so much. Need so much. Often, we want so much. Do all the extra things, the personal libraries of sutra and tantra, the mountains of blessed substances from our teachers, make our spirituality more honest, stronger, more humble? Does that make it better? Why do we need it?
In my own life, I know that when I am plagued by my feelings of inadequacy or lack, I sometimes think, “Hmm. Maybe I should go back to India. Maybe I should go see my lama and ask for a really wrathful practice to get rid of these feelings”. To get rid of these feelings. In essence to split with them, to create a subtle distinction between those hard feelings and what I have an idea about what I should be feeling. I’m sure that others can identify with the feelings behind this kind of thinking. It’s a form of running away, a way of not facing with what I am feeling right now, of not being with what is arising in the moment and trying to get to know what it means, to notice its origin, and it’s effect- of creating further duality. Where does my feeling of lack and inadequacy come from?
In the parlance of Chöd practice: can I let go of holding on to the demon of lack and inadequacy? Rather than go on pilgrimage somewhere to accumulate merit when we feel terrible, what if we went on pilgrimage with ourselves? Rather than hiding, or hoping that adding a new practice will solve our deeply rooted suffering, what if we stopped, and touched the earth, as the buddha did and experienced the torment, our maras, and begin to enter into relationship with them? What would happen if we stopped buying books for a while, stopped seeking out the next teaching, and really sat with what we have. I suspect that we would find that we are more full than we recognize at first glance- that we have all that we need already.