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Posts tagged ‘vajrayana chaplaincy’

5
Jan

On a more pastoral vajrayana and haughty lamas…

Dalai Lama with cat

A few weeks ago I read an excellent article about Pope Francis shaking up the ecclesiastic leadership in the United States, and the subsequent reactions from more conservative Catholics. I found myself, despite my own sense of satisfaction in learning more about how the nuts and bolts of how Catholicism in America works, feeling sad and emotional around how far it seems that we as practitioners of Vajrayana have to go in the West before such conversations can occur around the quality of presence of our own spiritual leadership.  In a way, we Vajrayana Buddhists are lacking when it comes to real authentic pastoral presence.  When I say this I certainly don’t mean to imply that His Holiness Karmapa, or His Holiness Dalai Lama lack pastoral presence.  They don’t.  I have had the chance to be in their presence in very intimate settings and the degree to which they appear attuned to even the smallest concern of another person is astounding to witness.  I refer to the lamas and administrators that represent our gompas, our Buddhist Associations, as well as the general dharma center leadership across the western world.

As it turns out, Pope Francis recently appointed Cardinal Donald Wuerl as the new head of the Congregation of Bishops, replacing Cardinal Raymond L. Burke for his conservatism and lack of pastoral affect.  This change in leadership, while subtle in some respects, will hopefully produce long standing effects in how the church presents itself, to whom the church ministers and in what position it will take in relationship to the experience of the transcendent.  Pastoralism is something that we commonly find within Christendom; in it’s most basic form it presents a spiritual concern centered around giving spiritual instruction and guidance to others.  In this case, the parish priest who is intimately connected to the concerns and needs of his “flock”, needs spiritual, emotional and otherwise, comes to mind.  Someone who works tirelessly for the benefit of others- in real terms, not just an aspiration to perform this task but to actually roll ones sleeves up, and get into the mucky mess that comes with being.  Pastoralism also has applications that relate to music, art and philosophy, and a personal and ethical desire to return to the simple, the immediately real and what occurs naturally.  As a hospice chaplain who operates from within the Vajrayana tradition as an ordained Repa, I am comfortable with discussions around the importance of pastoral presence and what that means.  Yet I often find my Vajrayana contemporaries uncomfortable in challenging themselves in a way other than the way that tradition dictates.  That the lineage of Tilo, Naro, Marpa and Mila has gotten so rigid and insecure is unfortunate.

pastoral_1

I think that one could definitely say that Milarepa had mastered a pastoral presence, or pastoral affect.  In suggesting this I feel that it has less to do with the fact that he lived in retreat, in the pastoral wilds of Tibet as coincidence would have it, but that he could naturally -with simple immediate ease- sense the needs and suffering that others were consumed by because he could sit honestly with what arose within himself.  This sounds easy to do, but in actuality it is quite painful and heartbreaking.  It is difficult to see others stuck within their own experiences of themselves and even harder to see where we get stuck in similar ways.  We generally don’t want to recognize how compelling the hallucinations that we have created actually are and how we lead ourselves around and around in circles, let alone try to work through the baseless obsession with the fact that we are imperfect and need to get somewhere before we can stand on our own two feet.  Retreat is certainly a great way to develop spiritual insights, and it is very important, yet retreat does not necessarily produce compassion, and I am not so sure that it produces pastoral presence nearly as well and being fully engaged by what life brings our way.  In fact I would argue the latter: compassion arises more uniformly, with more stability outside of a comfortable retreat setting.  When living life in full one can easily get to the heart of difficult feelings that arise within the experience of pain and suffering, feel them and then let them flow into the next experience. Retreat can be helpful in this regard, however, I tend to feel that it is easier to seduce ourselves into a comfortable homeostasis in which we are never really forced to face our fears, never asked to consider the shadows, and never really asked to cut deep to the bone and feel that cold pain of the roots of our own suffering.  This is why Milarepa is considered semi-wrathful within the text of his guru-yoga; the only way that he could go deeper and deeper within his practice is to cut with skill, precision and power.  Cutting deep is important- it is hard and very uncomfortable.  Yet, at the end of the day, we are best served when we can access the pain and suffering that we hide from.  When we can do this pastoral presence is much more authentic.  There is no better model for Vajrayana Buddhists than Milarepa if we are looking to foster a more pastoral Vajrayana.

milarepa

Occasionally I fear that much of the way that the Vajrayana perspective is presented in the West is somewhat split between pedagogic models that either have students memorize terminology, acquaint oneself with logic, and years of study before they can say that we are Buddhists, and the other extreme that we can simply blend our curiosity of Buddhism with our practice of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.- that we don’t need to worry about to committing to any one tradition.  We are either definitely going to be born in one of the Hell Realms because we are terribly ignorant, or we are going to be just fine and we need not really worry about specifics- just show up say your prayers and do a bit of instruction without committing to a teacher or cogent path of practice. It is much easier to just follow the rules and sheepishly hide who we are in relationship to dharma than integrate the dharma into our experience of life.

We also seem to suffer from an overly Mahayana perspective around the long period of time through which we must practice before we become realized. We are very infrequently told (or shown) that liberation can come in this moment, on this very seat, in this very session.  We are given a practice and generally told that it will take an incalculable (or at least an unknowable) amount of time before enlightenment occurs.  We venerate past masters who were exemplary and also taught to believe that we are nothing in comparison to them- we are but just mere shadows.  But is this really so?  Why are we not taught to take greater responsibility for our realization?  Why are we not taught to be creative in our practice, to take our seat and settle into our own pastoral authority?  In fact, more often than not, the specific lineage that we are shown is presented more like a line which we shouldn’t deviate from, yet when one looks, most of the great masters struggled to challenge and confront such preconceived ways of being.  Eveny lineage has masters who did whatever they needed to do to effect realization- if it meant breaking the rules, so be it.

I fear that some of the leaders that one finds within the mainstream presentation of Vajrayana lack the natural ease that Milarepa brought to the tradition at large: no monasteries, no particular school of thought to tether oneself to, no institutional affiliations, no orthodoxies, no expectations, no roles, just the experience of pure experience.  Even though I say this, it should be noted that the growing interest by scholars in the development of the Milarepa’s hagiographical literature presents us with compelling evidence that the creation of the story of Milarepa morphed into what we know today from a wide variety of projections of what his life was thought to have been like by others centuries after his death.  Even still, despite the fact that we may only be able to interact with our own inner Milarepa, and the true Milarepa may never be known, there is some indescribable inspiration that he evokes, not unlike the feeling of an early warm Spring day that leaves one feeling naturally resolved and content and excited for whatever comes next.  For me part of the joy of Milarepa is that everything is okay, that within the experience of Mahamudra there is nothing to add, nothing to take away, nothing to do, and that we can rest in everything because it is all essentially one taste. This is a powerful root to a penetrating pastoral presence that is without fault.  I try in my own way to allow this to inform me as a chaplain and as a teacher at the dharma center rather than whatever ‘rules’ or traditional norms may exist; whether this is a benefit and serves me well in either role is certainly up for debate.  Lord knows, I am probably more of a hindrance than a benefit to anyone.

tibetan lamas

Instead many in the Vajrayana tradition here in the United States, especially those in positions of spiritual leadership seem to fall back upon textual dictates and scripture, the rules and maxims of form and function rather than engage directly, naturally, with how life, and thus, appearances arise.  Spiritual bypassing, or the use of spirituality to disengage from actually experiencing what arises and resting within it, appears to be as much the western Buddhist’s unique disease as much as diabetes and obesity are the illnesses that currently define Americans. This bypassing appears to be caused by the constant retelling of the same old story that we are imperfect, that we are not enough and that we are somehow not whole in this moment.  More than this, this type of undigested view lacks the rich fertility that provides us with the needed confidence, or escape velocity,  to no longer be hindered by the gravity of our habits and misguided constructions of the universe around and within us.  It is easier to build a fancy dharma center, easier to go into 3 year retreat, and easier to tell ourselves (and others) that we will never taste any of the fruit of the dharma as we are fundamentally obscured than it is to try to cut through our sad, sorry, slothful sense of being imperfect.  There is no better way to blind oneself (and build up one’s sense of importance) than with dogma.

I am reminded of a story I was told about a group of western monastics who criticized a flower offering that a student at a dharma center made one morning.  She had happened upon a field of wild flowers while during a morning walk and decided to pick a few to bring to the shrine as an offering.  New to the dharma she was motivated by fresh devotion.  By the following morning the offering was removed- I was told that the imperfections found upon the leaves of the flowers and the petals reflected the ignorance of the student.  The group of monastics were quick to point out that all offerings have to be perfect, the very best- as this is what texts explain.  Needless to say, I had a hard time hiding my mixture of disgust and sadness that the inner efforts of devotion made by someone new to the dharma was seen as a violation of protocol and a cause of negative karma due to ignorance.  The unbending parochialism of this argument is a constant source of amusement for me.  As a chaplain I often find myself having to operate from a place of creativity and skillful means to help provide others with a supportive environment even if it challenges the static spiritual dictates of a given person’s faith.  Such rigidity would do more harm for a person who is dying than good.

I wonder what Pope Francis would say of the Catholic version of this event? What do we do when we become overly dogmatic at the expense of killing the experience of another?  When do we let our religious dogma undermine our abilities to manifest the connection created by pastoral presence?  What makes us Buddhist puritans?

puritans

How we work towards achieving this reconnection to our essential wholeness, our naturally expansive and vast experience of all that arises is ultimately up to us.  This includes the specific techniques, degrees of effort, and the conceptual models that we temporarily use to get us to a place of spontaneous confidence and certainty.  Most important however is that we don’t concertize the path, that we don’t rigidly hold onto our techniques (lest we become cold chauvinists  regarding Buddhadharma), as well as a dialectical obsession with how much effort we must apply (we are tying to ease into the experience of Mahamudra, not train for a triathlon), or assign too much of an eternalist reality to the conceptual models we use (whether lay or ordained, male or female, well schooled or illiterate, whether we follow sutra or tantra, are logicians or ritual specialists or neither, we are working with the essence of mind; no one path is necessarily better than the other).  Otherwise, the very vows that we take to benefit others become the very cause of perverse haughty dogmatism that does more harm than good.  Before we know it we are no better than the demons that we thought we were feeding or coming to learn from and rather than spiritual friends become judges, applying dialectics gathered from scripture and commentarial literature rather than from the direct experience of mind. When does that shift occur?  When do we go from spiritual friend to tormentor and judge?  When does our fear prevent us from being with what arises and cause us to snuggle up within textual dictates to provide us with comfort and a defensive justification of laziness?

Sometimes rigid orthodoxy makes demons of us

In a way, Pope Francis offers us a wonderful reflection of the ways in which we can become rigid and overly concerned with outer appearance.  The conservatives in the church, those who apply the checks and balances of church dogma to the world around them as a way to orient themselves and assert meaning, often lack the same experience and sense of certainty than those who were parish priests and are familiar with the joys and sorrows of their congregations. This is obviously not unique to Catholics, in fact, this kind of separation feels much more prevalent in the Tibetan Buddhist world- and it also appears that we are too afraid to explore this lest we criticize the sangha (let alone cause a rift within it).  It may be that ordained sangha and the large dharma organizations that we have created in the west are the biggest sacred cows that we as Buddhists need to confront.

Captain America fights Buddhists

In a podcast on Mahamudra that I happened upon by Reggie Ray, Ray artfully suggests that the lineage doesn’t care about us. Perhaps more to the point, he reinforces the point that our practice of dharma isn’t about our identities in relation to the lineage.  The lineage doesn’t care if we become involved as teachers or administrators.  The lineage doesn’t care about gompas or lack of gompas.  It doesn’t care about dharma centers and their creation, maintenance and growth.  The lineage doesn’t care about anything other than our work to recognize our natural face: enlightened being.  Everything else is extra.  Lineage doesn’t do anything other than reflect our essential nature.  We do the rest.  We create the world of systems, we collate texts, we publish books, we create limitations and neurotic obsessions, often in the name of lineage.  If we are blessed with the chance to look back at our lineage and see how easy it is to get wrapped up in the peripheral details maybe we can return to the experience of simplicity: the experience of naked awareness.  When we can do this we don’t have to become anything, or wear anything, or observe any vow, or follow any textual dictate, because we become, in that moment, the Dharma.  There is nothing to add or take away from this basic reality.

Bodh_Gaya_1899

A close friend who was recently trying to determine where she should be in late December and the beginning portion of January told me, “I could go to Bodh Gaya to participate in the Kagyu Monlam for “Dharma” or I could go home to be with my family and actually live Dharma”.  Her time at home would be challenging and ordinary as time spent with family often is- in her case it would be more so as a relative had recently died and there was much support to be offered.  The Kagyu Monlam, replete with lavish offerings, is a sophisticated mechanism for making aspiration prayers, a place to see and be seen as a Karma Kagyu practitioner, a place to go from lama to lama for blessings and teachings, and is in many ways the ultimate place to go for generating merit.  Yet it is easy, it is obvious, somewhat predictable, and spiritually fattening; you can go there and haughtily throw your weight around feeling that you have unique karma and subtly build your ego.  After all, look at me, I’m in Bodh Gaya at monlam, how fortunate am I?  Going home to be with family, on the other hand, and all of the challenges that accompany providing support for the children and husband of the family member that recently passed away is a way to live all of what spiritual practice is about.  It is also hard, confusing and sometimes boring and not very much fun.

I am grateful for my friend’s distinction here, it was timely and very well put.  At the end of the day she answered the question for herself as to which one she decided to do. The question remains for us, which one would we prefer to and why? One is not necessarily better than the other, yet our decision says a lot about where we are right now and it is important to check-in and see where we are from time to time.  Where are you?

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24
Jan

on the shakedown, being a contender and the tantric rub…

for a few dollars more

In my training as a chaplain there was a fair amount of emphasis on learning how to connect and remain with difficult feelings that others were in the midst of negotiating.  Sickness, old age and death certainly shake up a lot of feelings- add depression, psychosis, loss, and physical/emotional/spiritual pain and you really have a lot to learn to become familiar with.  We were encouraged to sit in, remain with, and thoroughly explore what these feelings bring up within us.  Something always arises, we don’t have to look deep, as the game of thought/feeling association is something that the mind/heart just seems to naturally play.  I’m not sure that you can, or want to, change that.  What we can do is become more aware of these associations, and in so doing, get some room within this process that normally, on an average day has the effect of being like a big heavy ring in our noses that lead us this way and that without our knowing what is going on.

Lately I have been mulling over an uncomfortable notion that leaves me often feeling grumpy, pessimistic and a little exhausted: Buddhism in America is doomed to fail.  Or, we really run the risk of mucking-up the whole affair.  I don’t really feel this way all of the time, but I do feel this way from time to time.  It’s good to to sit with this discomfort and not whitewash it with the quick spiritual bypass of an investigated pure view.  Besides, when I look around I find plenty of reason to feel this way.

In a recent blog post on Tricycle.com, one which I found profoundly disjointed and dissatisfying seemed to help confirm these speculative worries.   Check it out here.  It seems that we as Americans have a hard time approaching Buddhism outside of a self-help, therapy-related arena.  It’s not really very surprising I suppose, given the huge publishing and marketing machine that has arisen around the self-help-industrial-complex and that of therapy.  Millions of dollars are invested every year and many millions more are reaped from soft, happy, easy to read, and even easier to hear books that promise some kind of feeling of connection and meaning in a life that can be quite challenging.  Yet, these new hybrids of Buddhism lacks most of what makes Buddhism, Buddhism.  In reading some of the comments, one person suggested that people want to learn about Buddhist meditation but not follow any religious path. I suppose this person is referring to Buddhism as an adjective and not a noun, it’s hard for me to not feel like I’m standing in quicksand in reading the comments- there appears to be little solid ground.

Snake Oil anyone?

I occasionally vacillate between the ‘standard’ Buddhist compassionate response to this dilemma by saying: “Well, at least the dharma is making it into people’s lives in some way- albeit in drips and drabs”, and a more militant feeling of disgust rooted in the sense that these little candy coated titles, prosaic presentations of the perfection of wisdom, are peddled more like Prozac than anything else.  Where is the gnosis?  How is the seemingly real and hard-fast rule of reality poked at and re-examined by these titles and ‘Buddhist’ forms of meditation? How does Buddhist therapy, psychotherapy in particular, negotiate the fundamental paradox that the Self that we seek to free and know better doesn’t exist? Is shining a light on the Psyche, bringing it into the realm of conscious mind, the same as enlightenment?

These are no small equations to balance.

In fact, I still find it bizarre that many of today’s western Buddhist dharma teachers are psychotherapists. Why is this necessary?  Does it lend more credence to the Buddhadharma? I appreciate the desire to integrate psychology into Buddhism from time to time, but I don’t see the value of a permanent amalgam of the two.  I also can see the value of presenting a parallel structure in order to help present Buddhism, yet I feel the need to remind myself at the very least, that parallel doesn’t mean the same. There is a real risk of creating hybrid Frankenstein-like equivalencies in which the experience of familiarization of mind (and by extension, reality itself- apparent and otherwise) is the same as having an integrated-Self.

19th century pusher-man...

When in meditation it’s pretty clear that trying to describe the way we subtly grasp after time, or after having an experience and then trying to quantify it, that words fail us.  This is nothing new, but it is startling when we settle ourselves into meditation and just rest our minds and then let ourselves notice the grasping that we are prone to.

Try and describe a remedy to grasping.

Already the use of the word ‘remedy’ creates a dynamic that is problematic- and before you know it meditation easily feels like a mess.  Yet when we let go into a natural awareness (and can truly see that there is nothing to take away or add), somehow we gain the clarity to ‘see’ again.  Words in their relative function are amazing.  They are magical jewels that ornament, they provide meaning and bless us with the ability to express ourselves, and yet they have limitations as well;  so to for concepts, notions, ideas, and other components that buttress meaning within our experience of the universe.  When we hold on and let our habitual grasping go it seems like the structures that we like to use to help explore Buddhism gain a sense of permanence and then what do we have?  How easy it can be to subtly miss the mark and assign permanence to the ideas that we use towards our own liberation.

And yet, for some reason we fail to spend our precious time in these investigations.  We fail to massage the heart and sit with whatever arises and learn how to experience it as an expression of enlightenment, and instead we opt for the self-help and therapy structuralism that seems rife with hypnotic distractions which may, at the end of the day, not serve us well if we want to follow the Buddhist path.

Oh, man, but to charge $150 an hour to teach ngondrö or shamatha, that ain’t gonna happen.

But, $150 an hour is reasonable for a jog on the never-ending treadmill of analysis, that’s some good shit!  Snake oil never felt so luxurious!

So is hitting a home-run with a best-selling book on finding the everyday wisdom of Buddhism in five minutes.  You’ll definitely have plenty of jonesing people lost in the foggy mist of the American dream lined up to buy your sequel or pay obscene prices for retreats complete with yoga.  Don’t forget to wear the latest DKNY dharma inspired sweatpants!  That way everyone will know how serious you are about Buddhism.  If you are finding it hard to stabilize your energies in the central channel, don’t worry, you can buy jeweler that does it for you.  Wow, I can just imagine how jealous King Indrabhuti might be- this makes Guyasamaja seem so pedantic.  We can all relax, the NY Times says that Glam is the new Om!  Oh, for a few dollars more…

Modern day pawo?

I finally wrapped up Christian Wedemeyer’s Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism: History, Semiology and Transgression in the India Traditions. Its a real masterwork in many ways.  Christian’s writing is lucid, evocative and filled with well pointed wit.  He brilliantly describes the varying academic “approaches” to the point of origin, development, audience, and practitioners of Buddhist Tantra in haunting detail; haunting in how easy it is to miss the mark and get caught up in one’s own academic back-story while attempting to treat a topic as complex and elusive as Tantra.  That part of the Buddhakapala Tantra is translated and included as an appendix is a special gift.  All in all, Christian’s delivery feels like the smooth cut of Manjusri’s sword, cutting through all of the ways that we feel the need to add more to things as they are.  In fact, one of the most profound take-away from the work is how we as Buddhists bring our own back-stories to our Buddhism, or that as humans rather, this is a very automatic thing- as Buddhists we are no different.  The way the events of our lives, the pains and joys, the highs and the lows, the limitations of our scope of vision (inner and outer) as well as our limited understanding of time all make us see what we see when we approach the dharma.  It’s difficult to see clearly.  Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book, so much so that I’m using it in a year-long course on exploring Buddhist Tantra at New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center– if you haven’t become familiar with the work of the good Dr. Wedemeyer, I encourage you to do so.

I savor the sense of discomfort that I am left with from reading this book in seeing just how easily we miss the mark in thinking that we know how things are, how comfortable we get in our places of ‘knowing’, and how in order to get close to definitive meaning, perhaps we have to become comfortable with the discomfort of wandering, solitary, a hero- or vira/pawo, not unlike the symbol of a cowboy.

lawman_japanese_poster

Somehow when we get a Buddhism that is comfortable, cozy and full of the humorous wisdom of smiling Asian men- the Buddhism of cups of afternoon herbal tea- of the slow spiritual by-pass that separates us from the aspects of ourselves that are blood-thirsty, that are impatient, that can be uncomfortable we begin to fool ourselves.  At moments like these our spiritual path becomes a re-living of our back-story, what we want to believe (often out of convenience), and we are lead by that same thick metal nose-ring along our stupid spiritual path.  All the while the times of sand pass (as they naturally do) and we fail to head the silent whispers of the possibility of death.  Yet when we can see these dynamics more clearly, it is easier to wake up to the freshness and clarity of all that arises- it is as if we remove the Vaseline on a camera lens that gives everything that soft hazy, lazy, comfy, lack of urgency.  With clarity comes the ability to act- something which great cowboys like Hevajra, Chakrasamvara and Buddhakapala do with great effect.

once upon a time in the west

Maybe there’s not enough room in town for the both of us after-all.  Maybe there’s not enough room for the dualistic discursive ground that informs us in our spiritual paths when we use our path to run away from discomfort, inadequacy, complacency, homogeneity, and fear of truly addressing our needs.

Like Chakrasamvara or Hevajra, or Vajrayogini and Palden Lhamo, the solitary hero, the lonely cowboy often does what she needs because it is what needs to be done.  Ungrateful work, no doubt, but vital.  Facing the demons of bandits, posses of violent drunken thugs, the cowboy negotiates the law, killing as she needs, reluctantly at times, and at other times becoming the very law that she seeks to uphold.

Can we take hold of our practice in a way that makes it real and authentic, that honors/connects it to it’s roots without welding it to facile sub-structures that may speak more to our own inability to make our own origami shapes out of the never-ending supply of dharma?

Can we shed our soft assumptions, see our back-story, and our addictions to reality being a particular way for what they are?

We all know that sooner or later the hangman’s noose will tighten around this neck of ours, and that Yama’s posse is hot on our trail.  Time to roll up that blanket, cowboy and act.  You know what to do.  Tantra is unrepentantly non-dual, be careful of how you approach it.  If you can see the lama in appearance you’ll be alright.  If you don’t, there are other gunslingers out there- try one out, learn from them…

solitary hero

So, as I redouble my efforts to remain hopeful that our impatience and childish desire to run away from scary monsters is just an adventitious temporary stain (to reference Rangjung Dorje’s Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer), and rest in my feelings of grumpiness, futility and desperation I wonder: can you connect with the pimp and the pusher? With the snake oil salesman who rolls into town with a bottle and a bunch of promises? With the soft pastel clothes of a self-help guru? What about the lone hero who just wants a fist full of dollars?  Could you have been a contender?  What part of you wants to look hot on your cushion, with sexy mudras, and a bedroom-eyes meditation gaze?  From where do these impulses arise?  To where do they go?

These seductive subtle demons are tricky in that they are comfortable.  They speak to us in just the way we want to be spoken to, they look good (like us), and they just want us to be comfortable.  In fact, they may appear less like demons and more like attractive young gods and goddesses that urge us to bring some of accoutrements of the long-life gods’ realm into our lives, but beware of comfort- look deeply at what you are grasping after- I wonder what it is…

4
Nov

on text, owning our language and the ghostly apparitions of self…

I have been somewhat remiss in writing over the summer- my primary excuse is the time consuming work that I have put into renovating the space that we will be using for New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center. My secondary excuse cuts a little closer to the bone; I was feeling uninspired and unsure about claiming the role as one of the two resident teachers at the dharma center.

Lately I have found myself struggling between feeling like a defender of vajrayana orthodoxy and a greater rebelliousness around how vajrayana is presented here in the United States.  Or, more specifically, I have been struggling to make sense of the way that tantric Buddhism has come into being as we know it according to the latest historical research, versus the way that Tibetan common religious history describes it.  A recent trip to India only helped to add more fuel to this struggle.

Right now I feel that I am swimming in text and coming to appreciate that the dharma is so fluid and hard to pin down that any attempt to understand it historically is very difficult.  Tantric Buddhism is often a murky world where definitive meaning is less commonly found than one might like.  Yet there is a great benefit in exploring the historical record; what better way to learn than through the experience of others?  What better way to appreciate a sadhana than to see how it has come down to us from the 8th century to this moment? What better way to try an connect to a lineage than to see just how syncretic it has been up until recently?

Pulled in these two directions (the orthodox and the rebellious), I occasionally find myself desiring the room and time to distill and slowly mull-over, consider, and explore the rich complexities that surround the foggy notion that there is an objective definitive knowledge of tantric Buddhism.  More appealing to me is when I feel able to dance between my connection to orthodoxy and rebelliousness, between the sneaky rebel, ready to shift identity and push through my own stogy norms, and a sense of connection to a definitive lineage, a member of a family of lineal descendents that ground, orient, and provide me with a feeling of connection to those who have come before me. Such a dance can be hard, even exhausting, other times it can be blissfully easy and infectious, like a warm breeze in the early spring, igniting a deep happiness that presages a sense of well-being.  Indeed this is the well-spring that inspires me in planning the curriculum of classes that will be offered at New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center.

As previously mentioned, I recently returned from Palchen Chosling Monastery in Sikkim, India.  I was there to attend the Kagyü Ngak Dzöd empowerments and the related oral transmission offered respectively by His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche and the retreat master at Palchen Chosling Monastery’s retreat center, Drubon Rinpoche.  An astounding event, the Kawang ceremonies were elaborate and extensive. The chief recipient was His Holiness Taklung Shabdung Rinpoche Rangrig Dorjee Nyima, the head of the Taklung sub-lineage of the larger Kagyu lineage.  There were also a variety of other tulkus and khenpos from all over the Himalayan area who came to receive this vital transmission.  The Kagyü Ngak Dzöd is one of the “Five Treasuries” that was compiled in the 19th century by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye.  Out of the five, this is a collection of all of the empowerment texts, sadhanas, commentaries, and pith instructions of the thirteen major tantric practices  that Marpa Lotsawa received in India at the feet of Naropa, Maitrepa, Sri Santibhadra and others.  Included are the major and minor practices of Vajrapani and the long life practice of Amitayus from Machik Drupai Gyalmo as received by Rechungpa from his teachers in India, Balachandra and Machik Drupai Gyalmo herself.  Also added by Kongtrul are the empowerments of Chakshipa (four-arm Mahakala) and Dusulma (Vetali) and Tseringma.

Of all of Kongtrul’s five treasuries, the Kagyü Ngak Dzöd has always held a special place in my heart.  I think that the main reason for this is that I have a strong interest in the early roots of the Kagyü lineage, especially the transfer/transplanting of the core lineage practices from 11th century India to Tibet.  Even the very act of bringing the texts that comprise the Kagyü Ngak Dzöd from Ralang to Brooklyn felt like a way to connect to Marpa Lotsawa- in the right setting it could even be seen as a form of guru yoga.

When we read the biographies of Marpa and similar figures of that time period, most of which were composed centuries after their actual lives were lived, we read of the hardship experienced in travel, of the dangerousness of the water and roads, of the corruption of the custom agents, even the identity/racial tensions between the enlightened Indians and Nepalis and their otherwise dim-witted neighbors from the north.  In short, it was not easy for Marpa- and when we look closely, and perhaps even more importantly, when we look honestly, most of these same factors still exist today for western students of dharma who travel to India to learn at the feet of great masters there. The only difference is that it is often the Tibetans now, and not the Indians,  who assume that we are naturally dim-witted vessels capable of nothing more than confusing the dharma for which we have come to learn.

This sensibility is so powerfully present within our conception of who we are in relation to Tibetans, and it was demonstrated with great clarity during a break in the empowerments I attended in Sikkim.   A western woman who was attending the Kawang ceremonies tried to convince me that English is inherently a violent language in comparison to Tibetan, a language which she said was naturally coded with self-arising compassion and enlightened activity.  There was, she claimed, evidence proved by brain scans that showed that when one speaks English there is an activation of all of the centers of the brain associated with anger, and of course, when one speaks Tibetan, an activation of all of the brain centers associated with compassion.  Tibetan history certainly stands as a witness, as it should, to prove that such views are overly facile and fairytale projections that I would love to see expanded upon.  Nevertheless, I was saddened and curious as to why this otherwise intelligent and motivated person wanted to assume that she was inherently flawed by the language that she spoke, indeed, even gravely hindered by this language to the point where dharma practice seemed more of an aspiration than something she could actually allow herself access to.  For her, the practice works better if you are Tibetan, or at least speak Tibetan.  What then of the 11th and 12th century Tibetans who never knew Sanskrit, the language from which the tantras were translated?

I am beginning to wonder whether or not dharma practice can really take root and generate fruit in the West without a deep exploration of the way we blend it within ourselves to reveal our conceptual habits- especially those of language.  I am by no means a linguist, nor am I sure that one needs to be a linguist in order to explore how we use language, how we appreciate language, and how we unconsciously express ourselves (especially our habits and frames of reference) through language.  There seems to be a great deal of power and transformative value within examining, and perhaps even unraveling all of the assumptions that we create through rote linguistic responses to the events and circumstances around us.  Language is, after all, a set of symbols.  Words often have a variety of meanings, ephemeral like soft wispy smoke starting out in one form and transforming as if through an alchemical process, into something else.  We craft dialectics out of these words, define stances, elucidate positions, hammer-out identities and create entire worlds out of these words.  Often these worlds are created out of a dialectic that supports us in our self-oriented perspective of the world within which we find ourselves; a position that creates suffering.

These powerful words can take on such seemingly real and concrete meaning that a critical investigation of how we create our identities (and thereby reinforce them through language) is vital to ensure that we can blend dharma practice (whichever form it takes) into our experience of life.  This contemplative practice of examining how we continue to bind ourselves to a samsaric dialectic is very important.  The woman I described above is a great example of someone who while well-meaning, has placed herself in a position in which she can’t allow herself the fruition of dharma practice because of the identity that she has created for herself- an identity that is not Tibetan.

How we use language and whether or not we can gather the guts to claim our practice within our linguistic (and perhaps even cultural/genetic backgrounds) is thus very important and not something to be taken lightly.

During my recent time in Sikkim I was grateful (and lucky) to share a handful of evenings with a friend who is both a gifted lama and translator.  He happens to be American, did a three-year retreat in Mirik at the seat of the late kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, Bokar Ngedhon Chökhor Ling, and is now very interested/concerned with how dharma practice appears in the West and what it will look like as it continues to be transferred from India, Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan.  Of the many topics that we discussed, one of the primary ones that we came back to was the translation of dharma texts from Tibetan to English.  In his eyes this seemed to be vitally important (for him as a translator) and for me in the sense that I happen to be convinced that we may just be playing “buddhist” house until we pull our practice (including practice texts and all commentarial literature) into our experience of life.  A real sustained and honest exegesis is important if we really want to honor the spirit demonstrated within the core existential frustration and soul-searching (for lack of a better term) engendered by the Buddha and countless later masters.  It may be that in failing to do this, the galvanizing factors that lead us to practice risk being lost by the sedating power of scented candles, plush meditation cushions, expensive meditation clothing, and prohibitively expensive weekend retreats.

In a dharma world where people seem to vacillate between ‘sitting’ dharma and ‘service’ dharma, sometimes in a cycle of burnout where one replenishes the other, I don’t see dharma but a cycle of subtle suffering within the dharma. Such a dynamic seems to lack depth and a greater awareness of how to become the dharma, how to integrate it.

How humbling that even great bodhisattvas, before achieving the 8th bhumi known as Achala (or Immovable) are still susceptible to wrong view, mistaken perspectives and mistakes in guiding others.  No wonder it is possible to misinterpret our surroundings, our direction and even our intentions.  Perhaps for this reason a sustained exegesis may be central to spiritual growth; a way to bolster and reinforce personal meditative experience.

What does sustained exegesis mean, or what might it look like?

There is no one answer to this question.  After a number of evenings of conversation that lasted several hours with my friend in Sikkim we retired feeling passionately about our individual interests, paths, and the fiery topics that inspire and create the conditions to re-double our effort and energy around practice.  What we found was that our interests, and perhaps by extension, our paths are and will be different.  They are unique to who we are, to our qualities, and the way that we manifest in relation to, and within the dharma.

Whether it be Karma Chakme’s commentary on Rangjung Dorje’s writings on Chöd contained within the Rinchen Trengwa, or Pawo Tsugklag Trengwa’s commentaries on Vajrayogini, or any number of practice texts and their supporting literature, it is important to blend ourselves into the text.  It is important to examine how our habitual linguistic theories about ‘ourselves’ and the way we ‘are’ remain discordant from the paths laid before us.  How do we achieve a sense of connection to lineage?  What does it take to breathe our exegetic process? What would it look like to constantly occupy a sense of connection to the center of whatever mandala that we practice?  How will we manifest that in a manner that honors our natural abilities?

Not only are these are profoundly important questions that need to be resolved on a personal level within the context of our  individual practice as well as within our dharma communities, they are not new. Ronald M. Davidson touches on this topic in relation to the way in which Marpa Lotsawa achieved experience within his dharma practice as well that of Gampopa in his thought provoking book Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture.  Davidson relates that Marpa and his student Ngok Chödor, who was the central inheritor of his lineage of textual exegesis, especially with regard to the Hevajra Tantra, was a proponent of the earlier Indian tradition of textual exegesis through which Marpa was able to master the large amount of tantric textual material that he learned from Naropa and his other teachers.  Of this he writes:

It may be strange to some readers to stress the difference between tantric study and tantric practice, but Marpa himself was said to have obtained Buddhahood without meditating, and Drokmi’s pandita Gayadhara was noted for seldom practicing contemplation. In fact, by the late eleventh and early twelfth century, tantric exegesis had become an important area of study and exercise, and Gampopa’s received writings seldom quoted the tantras and almost never made reference to the normative points of controversy in the tantric commentaries.

Davidson points out the value that was placed upon tantric exegesis which when fully engaged can offer a powerful compliment to contemplative practice.  It may be that this aspect of ‘practice’, one which I like to think of as ‘breathing text’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘becoming text’, seems to fall by the wayside by our often simplistic modern romantic sensibilities that suggest that text and textual study is less important than meditation practice.  To create this kind of dichotomy is unnecessary. In fact it doesn’t make sense.  When our practice becomes so natural that we have memorized parts of our sadhanas, where does text end and where does the practice of meditation begin? The same goes for mantras; when we blend mantra recitation with resting in mind, how can you make a distinction between the two?

Another great consideration comes from the potential power of words.  As I have mentioned in previous blog posts in reference to the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche’s wonderful condensed commentary on the ninth Karmapa’s Ocean of Definitive Meaning, the mind is pointed out as the lama, as is appearance, and by extension, text.  In this regard I am reminded of reading a number of dharma texts that electrified me, gave me goosebumps, and seemed to shift my perspective so that I could see more clearly.  In fact, the feeling created in those moments can be incredibly profound and if not always life-changing, perhaps practice-changing.  Several pointing-out texts come to mind, as do certain sufi texts and a variety of chan Buddhist texts.  It seems clear that no one spiritual tradition seems to have a monopoly on the power of well placed words (nor does any specific language).

The brilliance of Gampopa, one of the heart sons of Jetsun Milarepa, may lay in his synthetic approach to exegesis.  He was known for many things, a gifted meditator, a focused monk,and a Tibetan doctor, as well as other attributes attested in his biographies.  What is less emphasized is the uniquely ‘outsider’ approach that Gampopa took towards exegesis.  Lacking the same traditional training emphasized by Marpa and Ngok Chödor, Gampopa created his own doctrinal line that blended Kagyu traditions with Kadampa traditions often using traditional Mahayana language to explain tantra, and vice versa.  This fusion, was indeed new and kicked up quite a storm that lasted for centuries.  His blending of the yogic tradition maintained by Milarepa, Marpa, Naropa and Tilopa with the primarily Mahayana monastic tradition that was represented by the Kadampa was in many ways unprecedented.

It took centuries for Buddhism to take root in Tibet from India in a way that was Tibetan.  I tend to feel that it will take a similar amount of time in the West.  In a sense, we are living in the midst of a very exciting time, a time not unlike that of Marpa.  If this is the case, how can we take the dharma that has been brought to us and allow for it to take root and blend within our general culture?  How can we do this within our individual cultures of language, or perception, and experience?  Will we allow ourselves to empower ourselves to breath the texts that have been passed down over a thousand years and let authentic dharma arise? What does that look like for us right now?

When we look at how we practice in this light, as part of a continuum, in which we help to shape the future just as those who have come before us helped to shape us where we are now, these issues feel more alive and immediate than they are often presented.  Our texts, our service, and our mediation seats beat with the life of dharma that is so full of vitality and unbelievable potential.  I pray that we can allow ourselves to express this fully and thereby let the seeds of untold realization take root on these shores!  May great fields of indigenous mahasiddhas arise in this moment!  May we arise as buddhas!

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!

15
Jan

On Buddhas behaving badly…

The other day I heard a story on the radio about the rise of the anti-hero in current television programing. Apparently there is a growing number of television shows for which the main character is an anti-hero; a figure whose moral equations and ethical concerns follow a personal arc that often falls outside of the norms of the larger group; sometimes walking the line between good and bad; sometimes navigating those places that we fear to go.  One example of such a show takes place just after the American Civil War in the vague liminal space of the farthest frontiers of the Union Pacific Transnational Railroad- the very edge of civilization.  It tells the story of a racist ex-confederate soldier and former slave owner who hunts down union soldiers (the historical good guys) for the crimes they have committed.  Another example tells the story of a highschool chemistry teacher who after a diagnosis of lung cancer, decides to work with a former student, to “cook” methamphetamine, a terribly addictive and dangerous drug, to pay for his medical treatment in the short-term; and, being a realistic man, to provide financial support for his wife, teen-age son who has cerebral palsy, and his new-born daughter.  He and his partner explore the dark world of methamphetamine and the shadow figures who are involved in its distribution. They are occasionally forced to kill the ruthless for being cruel, and are often driven by a clear sense of right and wrong in a world of darkness where such distinctions as right and wrong have been forgotten long ago.  Sometimes that clear judgement seems to fall prey to the induced darkness that they frequently encounter.  There are yet other similar television stories too, including the story of a serial killer (the anti-hero) who only kills other killers, and has a love for, and natural connection with, children.

For those who are interested, you can listen to the radio clip that I listened to here.

The presentation of these anti-heros as an archetypal “dark Hermes”, a guide for lost souls, or as a guide for well-oriented souls as they transition through, or are completely lost in, a place of darkness, leads me to reflect upon pawos, palmos, and the retinue of very important wrathful buddhas. I am reminded of those who protect, and those who serve in places and at moments where we seem weak and desperate, those who as part of their unique activity can serve compassionately through, for lack of a better term, dark means.

These beings, Mahakala in all of his overwhelmingly powerful manifestations, Throma with her army of dakinis, Vajrakilaya with his phurba of non-referential space, and Yamantaka (Vajrabairava) the destroyer of Yama (the lord of death), occupy an important place within the practice of all lineages of tantric buddhism.  They have also been the most controversial.  From the perspective of the academic study of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent and Himalayas, many early western scholars of Buddhism regarded tantric Buddhism as a corruption of the Buddha’s original message.  Tantric Buddhism, and tantric Hinduism for that matter, from this early scholastic point of view, was seen as a distortion of the orthodoxy; a blend of Buddhism and Hinduism with gross superstition, animism, sex, magic and the more base drives that lead us poor humans hither and thither.  Jacob P. Dalton, in his recent book The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism, offers a clear and well thought out description of how some of the language and imagery found in the tantras have come to occupy a place of simultaneous attraction and disgust in all of the cultures the tantras have come to visit. It appears that the reactions of Victorian British scholars did not arises as an emotional island unto itself when it comes to the tantras- in Indian as well as Tibetan culture they were embraced and feared, accepted and rejected, praised and cursed.

Ironically, the shivering disgust and ambivalence of early western scholars towards tantric Buddhism reveals the power of becoming intimate with these feelings and reactions as they exist within ourselves. Superstition, animism, sex, magic, and our “base drives” can be sources of great confusion, great pain, loss of control, and even our undoing. Perhaps then it is no wonder that these aspects of our experience of life end up proving to be very powerful fodder with which we can develop confidence in our practice of Buddhism.  As a chaplain I have seen patients, their loved ones, and even colleagues, struggle around these hard feelings- this is a struggle that we all share. No one person owns, or is cursed, with difficulty of struggling with guilt, shame, fear, loss, pain, and loss of control.

Within my own experience of life, I know that I often feel the push and the pull around my own anger, or sense of aggression, my impatience, my jealousy and my frustrations.  These feelings arise just as generosity, patience, connection, and ease arise.  The only difference is that when these harder feelings begin to swell, how they will affect me, either destroy or help to push me further along the path, seems to depend upon just how comfortably I can relate to them- how I can see them as they arise and honestly witness them- not quickly ignore them in exchange for something good.  In my own way, one that changes from moment to moment, I have come to learn just how much I can be with these feelings in myself and see them as beneficial arisings.  Not just see, but experience them as beneficial arisings, or as the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, refers to these thoughts/feelings, to see them as “adventitious stains”.  Stains that are adventitious as they help point out the one-taste in whatever arises.

Bokar Rinpoche once said during a series of teachings in Bodh Gaya that Tibetans complain to him the they don’t understand western practitioners as they are always seen sitting perfectly still and erect, like statues.  Similarly he related the complaints of western students about their Tibetan counterparts who always appear to be doing prostrations and khora (circumambuting) the mahabodhi stupa.  He went on to explain to the mixed group that both are useful forms of practice- and that we should learn to modulate between both. At one time one form of practice is more appropriate, and as that moment changes, so might the way we practice in that new moment.  Sometimes one form of practice is more useful, more charged, and more fitting for one’s experiences of the moment.  As the moment changes sometimes so does what is arising.  I don’t think that we can recognize our stainless buddha-nature by practicing like robots.  I suspect that engaging with our practice, and all the maras that arise, in an open honest manner is the way.

So what about us?  Do we have a tendency to frame ourselves as hero or anti-hero.  Are we all light and no darkness?  Do we only benefit beings and never harm them?  Do we have the capability to look at our practice with a fresh set of eyes and knowingly step into the unknown? Do we see ourselves as clean and pure, or as blended and pure?  Can we allow ourselves to modulate?  To mix our view of ourselves with a more realistic presentation of what really arises within our mental continuum?

While there is no real difference between Mahakala and Chenrezig on an ultimate level, the experience of their relative differences can be very important- if not instrumental- in knowing who we are, how thoughts and feelings arise within us, and what the powerful energetic force of Mahakala is like.  How else can we know equanimity in the midst of roaring intensity?  Sometimes we need this to cut through our bad practice habits, our over-softness, and a predilection towards the positive- especially in a way that it’s too bent on purity.

Can we rest in the nature of mind amidst vice, transgression, and fear?

Such was a profound learning for many great Indian Mahasiddhas including Virupa, Naropa, and Saraha as well as many great Tibetan siddhas.  In fact it still remains a profound and seminal learning for us today.  When to be “good” and when to be “bad”?

In fact, I sometimes wonder if Buddhism isn’t too often presented in such a warm and fuzzy light in which it becomes easy to see the wrathful compassion of pawos and palmos as something other than and not of ourselves; something to be invoked from afar and for only getting rid of problems.  Anger and ferocity are hardly rare emotions, greed and jealousy more often than not are not endangered, and tending towards a self-cherishing attitude is certainly one of the greatest thing that we all have in common.  They arise from nowhere else but from within.

So why do we become concerned or uncomfortable when the “strong medicine” of Vajrakilaya or Throma becomes the prescribed remedy for our suffering.   As the demon armies of Palden Lhamo ride past fearlessly destroying all impediments to our practice, effectively closing the door to our own limitations, and as the flesh-eating dakinis gratefully pledge protection and siddhis as we offer our own transformed inner poisons to them, where is the room for squeamishness?

Similarly, I sometimes find that when some dharma practitioners reference entering into in wrathful activity, I wonder about the presence of a facile idiotic aspect of “wrathfulness” that simply seeks to justify laziness.  I know that this is something that I look for in myself as I know how seductive the pull to break the rules in an elevated way can be.  Sometimes through the desire to engage in “transgressing the rules” and working with how those difficult emotions of knowing that you are doing something wrong or impure, we may actually be soft with ourselves around actually feeling like the rules don’t apply to us.  To bring whiskey and ribs to a tsok can be one thing if we can hold what alcohol and meat mean in the context of an offering to mahakala for example, or it can be an insulting self-aggrandizing slap in the face to what a mahakala tsok is all about.  Herein lies the conundrum: How and when are we really acting from a place of authenticity as we decide to behave badly for the common good of other sentient beings?

Knowing when to be bad, or when to challenge conventions is never really an easy thing.  Such behavior asks us to be confident in ourselves, confident in our abilities, and comfortable with growth that arises from difficulty.  This too isn’t easy- the habits of disempowering and brutalizing ourselves are strong.   And yet, at times we must step into this aspect of practice; we must challenge conventions, habits and assumptions; we must find our ground and relationship with the strong and the dark, the wrathful and the powerful.  For this is another side of buddha activity.  Despite its danger (just one act of poor judgement can have terrible consequences), and the trepidation that can arise with knowing willful transgression there is a lot of room for growth in becoming friends with these expressions of “being bad”.

That said, this kind of practice may not be for everyone- nor I suppose is it necessary for everyone.  Although it helps to take an honest look at what comes alive for us when we look at the images that are included on this post before saying, “nah, I don’t have any need touching my dark-side.  I don’t think I even have one”.  If these images elicit fear and concern, or feel attractive and seductive, or if they feel disgusting and repulsive then perhaps that is something to look at.  If they feel foreign and “definitely not part of me” well perhaps another deeper look may be warranted.  It may be that these natural reactions, honest indicators of what we really feel, hold a good deal of explanation of our relationship to wrathful Buddhas- about finding freedom within our difficult emotions, and remaining spacious when the right or wrong associated with where we are or what we are feeling is called into question.

How are we really when it comes to visualizing lakes of hot sticky blood these buddhas traverse, the flayed human and elephant skins that they wear as adornments, and the steamy snorting of the demonic animals that they ride?

What is being good? What is it to be bad?  Our relationship with being good and with being bad can be very difficult and complex.  The fear of blame and the need for praise, or quite frankly the inability to accept praise and the need for self-blame often affect they way we relate to much of the world.  This is something to look at within ourselves.  It may be that within popular culture the dark anti-hero is an increasingly popular metaphor, or even an archetype for where we are and what we feel we need; especially as the gravity of the simple good and bad, light and dark, simplicity of the dualism of our group ethics seems less pertinent.  Perhaps we long for more- for different models of being, differing conceptions of justice that may include the liberating nature of wrathful buddhas.  If this is the case, all we need to do is look within, and we will find a rich world, an endless thanka painted upon the canvas of our psyche that captures a limitless retinue of wisdom beings.  May it be so!

31
Dec

A warm new year’s greeting…

As 2011 dissolves away into another year I feel the need to offer a greeting to all of the dear readers of ganachakra.  The wonderful support and warmth that you all offer me helps me to grow- it is a special relationship that we share; a relationship that I pray continues for many years to come.

With that said I pray that this “new” year is seen as just another momentary appearance; an expression of liberated mind.

May the mind be seen as beyond time.

May your practice be deep, and be intertwined with the blessings of your lineage masters.

May you effortlessly begin to empty the pit of samsara by benefiting all beings.

Gewo!

With respect and gratitude,

Karma Changchub Thinley (Repa Dorje Odzer)

23
Nov

On how to get soul: chod and the practice of freeing ourselves from slavery…


I was recently in Wilmington, North Carolina in late October for my wedding.  It’s a very beautiful small town that hugs the Cape Fear river, which, like most early cities and towns, was dependent upon a waterway as a means of transportation, both out to the Atlantic Ocean, and also further inland.  We spent a week down in Wilmington trying to add a few days of relaxation to the planning and organization of the wedding.  While there I was able to spend a morning practicing chöd on the beach during sunrise.  For a brooklynite, the ability to spend time in meditation facing the rising sun on a beautiful quiet beach is something of a luxury.

While I was aware of the fact that there had been an active slave trade in Wilmington, I had not realized the extent of Wilmington’s strategic location in the trade of slaves.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, due to the danger of trying to moor ships on most of the islands that make up North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the Port of Wilmington, situated inland on the Cape Fear river was much safer, thereby providing a major point of forced disembarkation of slaves.  In fact, the black slave population of Wilmington out numbered the white non-slave population by 2 to 1 by the mid 1800’s.  The skills and knowledge of black slaves was vital for the growth, success and expansion of the town; it is quite probable that Wilmington’s survival as a vibrant economy due to its being rooted upon a firm economic base built upon the blistered and broken backs of its former slaves.

In this respect Wilmington is no different from a variety of other cities, towns, countries, and empires whose success, basic stability, infrastructure, and rich cultural growth has been secured and “enriched” by its slaves.  Indeed, like it or not, the history of humanity can certainly provide a variety of such cases of how the enslavement of other humans “benefitted” the culture of their oppressor.  Sadly, in many ways this dynamic continues into the present day.

With this in mind, and as a means of returning to the sacred geography that I explored in a blog post last year, I decided to spend time doing chöd on the beach not far from the inlet of the Cape Fear river; all the while trying to remain aware of my inner slaves and all the ways that I enslave different aspects of myself.  I wanted to touch upon all of the ways that I enslave myself, enslave aspects of my personality, how I project rigid ideas upon myself, and like a coy and brutal slave-master, how I benefit from such suffering.  That Wilmington can act as the support for my practice of chöd, that its rich history of being a place where the dreams of humans were crushed and suffocated by a racist ruling class can offer a ground and support for practice is important.  Perhaps Wilmington, as a reminder- or symbol- offers us the potential for great inner growth.

Slavery, especially inner-slavery is an important thing to contemplate.   Even more, the way that many people disassociate from the history of slavery and all of the ways in which it still haunts us is something that I find disturbing.

There is so much terrible violence that we commit towards ourselves in a unconscious manner out of fear, or a sense of insecurity, or of flat-out self- hatred.  There are so many ways in which we subjugate aspects of ourselves, be they qualities, propensities, or habitual reactions, with the same control of a slave master.

And so, with the warm rising rays of the morning sun as a witness; a glorious bindu drop amidst the crashing of waves of the atlantic ocean, and with the wind whistling though tall beach grasses, I invoked the mandala of Machik Labron and Prajnaparamita. With qualities of edgelessness, and without specific orientation within time or space, I wanted to stretch myself , so that the tragic history associated with the slave trade and all of its ghostly remnants could be included within my practice, that all of the terror and the brutal subjugation of others could be heard.

I tend to feel that with any particular spiritual practice it is important to blend what tradition dictates, the transmitted instructions of one’s teacher/tradition, with what is alive within ourselves.  At the end of the day it is our story, the story that we carry with us, the story that we have made for ourselves that we bring to our practice.  The way that we construct this story, it’s highs and lows, it’s holy sanctified ideals and its skulking demonic shadow beings are what we bring.  Our desire to do, and be, good, as well as our fear of failure and being seen as failure.

In exploring slavery as a metaphor for the way in which we fail to notice our full selves I am reminded of course I took in college on African Philosophy taught by a brilliant Kenyan philosopher, Dismas Masolo.  Some of what was touched upon within the curricula of this class included an examination of the early historical affirmation that Africans were in many ways sub-human.

For example, Immanuel Kant, one of the giants of western philosophy writes in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View: “Humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race.  The yellow Indians have a smaller amount of talent.  The Negroes are lower, and the lowest are a part of the American peoples.”  Martin Cohen, the editor of The Philosopher, wrote in a review of D.A. Masolo’s African philosophy in Search of an Identity, “…Kant, for example, had argued that the ‘original human species was white, appearing as dark brown’ only as a result of oppressive climatic conditions, whilst Hegel wrote similarly that ‘the characteristic feature of the Negroes is that their consciousness has not yet reached an awareness of any substantial objectivity’. In Africa, life was not a manifestation of dialectical reason but rather, as Hegel put it, ‘a succession of contingent happenings and surprises.'”  The justification for subjugating others appears timeless- it is amazing how easily we demonize others, sometimes with shameless effortless ignorance.

Equally amazing is how we take credit for the fruits of the work of our inner-slaves.  Just as the slave owner assumed ownership of what was tilled within, and born of his fields; or the madame at the brothel whose “hard-earned” wealth was collected upon the broken bodies and broken dreams of her two-bit whores (to quote Theodore Dreiser); it can be scary when we look at how much credit we take for the fruits of the parts of ourselves that we would rather ignore, the parts that we keep drugged, shackled, and subdued with cruelty.

While we assume our position at the head of the table, decked out in all of the fineries of our best projections of ourselves, dining upon the finest foods, receiving the accolades that deep down we feel we really deserve, entertaining our every whim and fancy- our self-hatred and inability to dynamically embrace the parts of ourselves that we may fear that others will come to know of often rules with the same tight fist as the cruelest slave owner.  And just as such slave owners were known to rape their slaves, I wonder how we secretly rape the unintegrated parts of ourselves; secretly proclaiming love and acceptance of the parts of ourselves that we may indeed love, but fear, and perhaps secretly hate because we feel that we may know that they are integral parts of ourselves.

Ironically, it may just be that the most enslaved parts of our psyche may be the ones that we refuse to own; the ones of which we refuse to be conscious.  They also may hold immense power and utility, if we could just be with them, just accept them…

As a chaplain I witness many people (patients, their friends or family, as well as staff) try to shackle their fears, to hide away their anger and sense of loss, to turn away from their sense of powerlessness, and to try to disguise their shame.  I can see this in part because I try to explore these things within myself.  It is not easy to notice things about ourselves that we are uncomfortable with- let alone loathe or fear.  And yet in seeing this in myself and in others, I am often reminded of how naturally we create our own suffering.

I sometimes wonder about how as Buddhists it is possible to secretly hide away the slaves of aggression and anger, how easy it is to distract ourselves from truly knowing, exploring and interfacing with the way these feelings arise.  That we might prefer studying the paramitas as a way of feeling good about ourselves but not really noticing, not taking stock, of how easy it can be to associate with a conceptual modality, a structural paradigm, rather than something that genuinely arises from our heart/mind complex. Even the idea of Buddhist practice offers a false sense of not being a slave owner.  In this way, the overly friendly, overly compassionate Buddhist who is unaware of the horrors bubbling just under their surface can also become a slave owner by brutality repressing drives, emotional impulses and feelings.  If not observed carefully, Buddhist practice affords wonderful ways of running away from oneself (if that is what you want to do).

In offering my steaming organs, the sun and moon of my eyes, the deep vital essence of my marrow, the mountain range of my fingers and toes, the ocean grasses of my hair, my flayed skin, the ground of the mandala offering, I contemplated what freeing a slave means.  If I am to free my inner-slaves shouldn’t I do so in a way that allows for having a relationship with them in the future?  Wouldn’t that presage deep growth and acceptance around just why I ghettoized an aspect of myself?  And in having some sense of how and why I do this to myself, around my conception of myself, doesn’t this offer a wonderful means of connecting with others who find themselves with a whip in their hand, or fist raised in the air towards themselves?

In consciously releasing our slaves, with awareness, offering witness of how we maintained them for years, perhaps even a lifetime, I wonder if we can also allow them to remain part of us, in relationship with us, as liberated beings; liberated parts of ourselves?  If this is the case, then the story of our aggression towards these ways of feeling is an important and powerful thing to honor.  Knowing these stories around and within ourselves can create a natural sense of connection and intimacy with others in a way akin to the paramitayana.  It may very well be that this awareness of our emotional history is central to honestly approaching the paramitas.  Otherwise it can be very easy to inadvertently use the dharma as a tool to subjugate and maintain slaves.  There may be the desire to release our slaves and “banish” them from our sight so that we never have to see our folly- this however prevents any honest growth and real witness of the story of our inner-ghetto beings.

I suspect that as we become more familiar with freeing our slaves and trying to maintain relationship with them, in accepting the hard truths which can become precious gifts, we can relax our grip around things specifically needing to be a particular way.  In letting go, forgiving, and remaining in relationship, the dharma doesn’t become any one thing in particular; it becomes all things.

We, the creators of the new black generation,/ want to express our black personality/ without shame or fear/ If this will please the whites, much the better/ If not, it does not matter/ We know ourselves to be beautiful/ And also ugly/ The drums cry/ The drums laugh/ If this will please the whites, much the better/ If not, it does not matter/ It is for tomorrow that we are building our temples/ Solid temples we will ourselves know how to/ construct them/ And we will keep ourselves straight/ On top of the mountain/ Free in ourselves.      -Langston Hughes


6
Sep

on maintaining confidence in our emerging buddha nature…


I recently returned from a period of retreat and instruction with His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche, regent of the Karma Kagyu lineage.  I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to continue to spend time at his monastery- Palchen Chosling-in Sikkim and to receive precious guidance from him.  While at Palchen Chosling, His Eminence also empowered me as a repa; a tantric yogin following in the foot steps of Mila Shepa Dorje (Jetsun Milarepa)- I am profoundly grateful and moved by Rinpoche’s kindness in offering me the chance to follow this particular path.  I also am also curious as to how I can bring this experience to the people who I visit at the hospital (and everywhere else).

During my stay at Palchen Chosling, a few threads of thought wove themselves throughout my experience of the breaks between meditation sessions, while wandering the mountain roads down to Old Ralang monastery, Karma Rabten Ling, which was founded under the guidance of the 12th Karmapa, Changchub Dorje, and at various other points throughout the day.  These contemplations are something that I would like to share with you, as they brought some meaning for me, reinforcing a sense of wonder and awe surrounding spiritual practice.

There was a moment while His Eminence was teaching when I was struck by the power of the lineage teachings. In that moment their efficacy felt particularly potent, as did the enduring effect of the power of the single pointed application of the teachings by a number of past lineage holders as well hitherto unknown practitioners.  It felt as if I could easily connect with those who had gone before me, and that their presence, or perhaps their residual blessings remained for anyone to feel who treads the shared path.  I felt that there must be hundreds of practitioners who experienced awakening for every one who became well known- indeed, I suspect that perhaps more people than we know have derived great benefit from the practice of such liberating instructions.

Inspired in this way, I kept coming back to wondering about Dusum Khyenpa, the first Karmapa.  I wondered about the rich and full life of practice that he lived, and the wide range of emotions that he brought to his experience of the dharma.  His pain and jealousy, which at times was murderous seem so common, so ordinary, that they are very easy to identify with.  From these common emotional roots Dusum Khyenpa fully integrated the teachings presented by both Gampopa as well as Rechungpa.  To this end, as an indication of the clarity and depth of his experience, Dusum Khyenpa reappeared after his death in the form of Karma Pakshi, the second Karmapa, thus beginning the first and oldest established reincarnation lineage found anywhere in Tibetan Buddhism.

Karma Pakshi was a great mahasiddha.  His intensity and great spiritual abilities in many ways appear to be a natural result of the depth of the effort as well as the unique blessings of the Karma Kagyu dharma.  It makes sense that he arose after Dusum Khyenpa passed away; it seems that arising in the form of Karma Pakshi expressed the true nature of the activity of Dusum Khyenpa.  In reflecting upon this, I have been reminded of how it is said that from time to time within our practice it is possible to begin to traverse the bhumis, and yet not manifest all of the signs that indicate our awakening until we have died and take up our new Nirmanakya “form”- perhaps this is the case with Dusum Khyenpa and Karma Pakshi.

I was left to wonder, or perhaps return to, a very old question: Is the liberation expressed by Dusum Khyenpa a result of his already being a great being capable of more than most of us?  Or, is his liberation a result of the efficacy of the dharma when put into practice with all of our heart?

My intuitive reaction to the power of His Eminence’s teaching left me to feel that this dharma, imbued with the still-fresh warm breath of the dakinis, has an ability to completely change our experience of reality.  Certainly, one cannot remove or even separate the blessings of all of the great masters of the past who have held any given lineage of instructions we receive.  They have left their mark, imbuing the dharma with their particular seal, something that we can interact with centuries later. Indeed, it is often written that connecting with the blessings of this lineage is part of the power of the experience, a fundamental ground upon which realization may dawn.  Asking these kinds of questions help us to truly recognize the powerful nature of dharma. Such questions impact the way we frame our own potential; the way we allow ourselves to define the possibilities of our own enlightenment; they are clear illustrations of just what we will permit ourselves to do.  These questions are natural, but great care should be given in answering them- there is always a chance that we may undercut ourselves and cease to allow ourselves to mutually let the dharma sink into our experience of life while simultaneously letting ourselves sink into the dharma, thereby letting experiences arise naturally.   If we don’t allow ourselves to fully blend with the dharma and arise within it awakened within ourselves what is the point of taking great care in applying the dharma to our lives?

Wondering whether great masters are special beings- essentially separate from you and I, or whether they simply allowed themselves to rely upon and integrate the dharma in their own individual way, unique and appropriate to their perceptual matrix, and that in so doing, came to illustrate the power of the dharma, has gone on for centuries.  It is a meaningful subject of contemplation.  Such reflections not only figure largely within the namthar- or liberation story- of Jetsun Milarepa, but was a point of controversy within the composition, collation and dissemination of the numerous versions of his namthar between the 13th and 18th centuries.

Dr. Peter Alan Roberts’ The Biographies of Rechungpa: The evolution of a Tibetan hagiography, offers a wonderful description of the many existent biographies of Milarepa as well as a very compelling analysis of the evolution of Milarepa’s biography.  As one would expect, while there is a shared narrative between most of these biographies, there is a range of focus upon particular aspects of the life of Shepa Dorje.  Indeed, anyone with even a small interest in hermeneutics will recognize that what is really known of the life of Jetsun Milarepa is, and has been, open to much interpretation.  Such is also the case with the often over simplified polarized roles of Jey Gampopa (monk) and Rechungpa Dorje Drak (yogin), the two most well-regarded disciples of Milarepa.  To truly asses their exact nature historically is much like trying to ascertain the actual distinctive differences between Jesus’ disciples- no small feat!  And yet, despite the fact that nearly a millenia has passed since the time of Jey Milarepa we do have some idea as to who he was and what he embodied.

Roberts’ work opens up a lot of places for creative enquiry not only around the life of Milarepa and Rechungpa, but of the re-telling of the Kagyu story from the prevailing monastic perspective.  Related subjects also include what I would call the “cross-over” issues that faced tantric Buddhism as it became ensconced within a monastic setting; some of the questions around these topics continue to this day.  Many of the questions that arise from his work seem especially important to ask oneself as one treads the path of the Kagyu lineage in general.  It appears that through asking such questions we open ourselves to gaining greater certainty for ourselves as to how, and in what way, we want to relate not only to the transmission lineage of our practice, but also the essential embodiment uniquely expressed by each lineage master.

Apparently, in most of the collections of the life of Milarepa, he is described as an emanation of Manjusrimitra– an important early lineage holder of dzogchen practice.  This view was suggested as early as the 14th century in the work of as yet determined authorship entitled The Life and Songs of Shepa Dorje, the best known collection of Milarepa’s songs before Tsangnyon Heruka‘s Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa.  This view was supported by Kachö Wangpo, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye as well as Ngari Terton Dawa Gyaltsen.  The general view of Milarepa as an emanation is first known to be maintained by Gampopa, and is then supported by Lama Shang and Donmo Ripa.  In Tsangnyon Heruka’s biography of Milarepa, which in translation has become the singular source of the details of the life of Milarepa, we find a dramatic departure from the view expressed by these past masters: Milarepa is portrayed as a normal sentient being!

In the Lhalungpa translation of Tsangnyon Heruka’s biography of Milarepa, towards the end of the story there is a scene where Milarepa is surrounded by his students after it is known that he will soon die.  In a moment of sadness, and perhaps even desperation for final instructions, several questions are asked of Milarepa as to whom he is the reincarnation of as someone as exemplary as Milarepa could not possibly be “ordinary”.  This is what is presented:

“Then Bodhi Raja of Ngandzong asked:

‘Lama Rinpoche, it seems to me that you are either the incarnation of Vajradhara Buddha and that you engage in all these actions for the benefit of sentient beings, or you are a great Bodhisattva who has attained the state of “Non-returning” and who has accumulated immense merit for many aeons.  In you, I see all the characteristics of a true yogin who sacrifices his life for the Dharma practice.  We humans cannot even conceive the extent of your asceticism and your devotion to your lama, let alone practice it ourselves.  If we dared to practice in this way, our bodies could not bear such an ordeal.  That is why it is certain that you were a Buddha or Bodhisattva from the very beginning.  And so, although I am incapable of religion, I believe that we sentient beings will be led toward liberation from samsara through seeing your face and hearing your words.  Revered Master, I be you to tell us if you are the incarnation of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva.

‘The Master replied:

‘I never heard whose reincarnation I am.  Maybe I am the reincarnation of a being from the three lower realms, but if you see me as a Buddha you will receive his blessing by virtue of your faith.  Although this belief that I am an incarnation springs from your devotion to me, actually there is no greater impediment to your practice.  It is a distortion of the true Dharma.  The fault lies not in recognizing the true nature of the achievement of great yogins.  The Dharma is so effective that even a great sinner like myself has reached a stage not far from Enlightenment due to my own belief in karma, my subsequent renunciation of the aims of worldly life, and due especially to my single-minded devotion to meditation.

More particularly, if you receive initiation and the secret instruction which brings spontaneous awakening included by conceptualizations, and if you then meditate under the guidance of an enlightened lama, you will undoubtedly attain Enlightenment.”

Milarepa is incredibly clear: Although this belief that I am an incarnation springs from your devotion to me, actually there is no greater impediment to your practice.  It is a distortion of the true Dharma.  The fault lies not in recognizing the true nature of the achievement of great yogins.  He goes on to further stress the importance of contemplating impermanence, karma, and the development of renunciation towards worldly dharmas along with the importance of applying great effort in the practice of meditation.  This is his path, the way in which he expresses his practice: great simplicity.

Why do we tend to ask questions like the one offered by Bodhi Raja of Ngandzong?  Or maybe the better question is: what happens when we don’t ask whether or not we can fully express our infinite potential, and just let ourselves grow and change the way that we will?  What happens if we apply the essential instructions that clarify our understanding and relationship with our mind, placing special care to also apply such instructions to our expectations towards our potential, towards the ideas of progress, even time, or the notion of physical place?

A great example of such instructions are Tilopa’s six methods for maintaining the absorptive state, or his Six Nails of Key Points:

Let go of what has passed.

Let go of what may arise.

Let go of what is happening now.

Let go of modulating (examining).

Let go of trying to control (there is nothing to do).

Let the mind rest in its natural state.

When we consider where “we” are in relationship to time, to location, and to general appearance, in a genuine heartfelt way, our inner scaffolding, the need for support, and the gentle movement of our clouds of doubt and subtle obscuration begins to dissipate.  The rays of our natural light shines- the question of when, where, how and why lose imminence; they are answered with a silent knowing, and inner surety.  Might this be what liberated Milarepa?  Perhaps this is the achievement of great yogins to which Milarepa refers.

While these rays, innate representations of our stainless purity, our undeniable inheritance, an immovable storehouse of blessings, empowerment and transmission, are known and experienced at times in a way that might initially appear shaky and tentative, it is important to remember that our provenance, the nature of our core-being, is that very stainless purity.

The martial and strong-willed Lama Shang (of whom you can learn more here), a student of Gampopa and founder of the Tsalpa Kagyu writes:

Upon loosening mental consciousness through relaxation

Inner sensation and clarity of non-discrimination emerge like the expanse of the clear sky.

This represents the clarity of dharmakaya.

Similarly, one can find many passages that help to illustrate the mind’s essential nature, the way through which we can recognize with constancy the way the mind arises, and that this buddha-like essence is always here, we simply fail to recognize it.  These pithy instructions are often essential in nature; short and sweet, relaxed and expansive.

Tibet in the 15th century bore witness to a tremendous amount of spiritual distillation and passionate vigor that lead to a structuralism that allowed for the foundation of the Geluk lineage and the subsequent philosophical and scholastic discourse.  It was also a period that witnessed the rise of teachers like Tsangnyon Heruka, Drukpa Kunley and Thangtong Gyalpo, all of whom sought to laugh in the face of convention; for them the central loci of dharma was the authentic practice of dharma, where an atmosphere of iconoclasm and openness tempered by rigorous personal dedication to samaya and the stream of essence dharma was of prime importance.

I am captivated with a giddy curiosity around what it means to bring this spirit of free enquiry, of dedicated vision, and the certainty needed to abandon some of the heavy dead weight that accompanies our practice.  Can we apply the leaches of pure vision to the engorged stagnant well fattened body of our assumptions and dull fundamentalism so that the blood of heavy density is removed?  Can we allow ourselves to embrace siddhas, or complete madmen, like Tsangnyon Heruka and Thangtong Gyalpo in our conception of “practice”?  How do we add the rowdy passion and the complete assembly of the ganachakra to the steady perhaps overly controlled conception of how the middle way appears?  Can we embrace the full luminosity of mind? When does the structure of our spiritual path get in the way?  How do we defer to the structure rather than letting ourselves begin to walk?

The slight change in perspective that Tsangnyon Heruka offers us in his Life of Milarepa, through his suggesting that we may all achieve complete enlightenment by the power of the dharma blended with our own effort is a gift.  It allows all of us to assume a seat in the larger ganachakra of buddha-beings, to gain access to our true inheritance as the young Milarepa did, and to transcend the death blows that our inner tendencies towards the distancing aspects of philosophy and rationalism (perhaps represented by Geshe Tsakpuhwa, the one who poisoned Milarepa).  Thus freed, we are able to experience all that he has experienced; we are free to know that our practice can ascend to great heights; we are free to know that this  buddha nature of ours will naturally dawn.

5
Jul

on practice for others, and taking our seats in our own practice…

It has been just a little over a year since I started ganachakra.com and changchub.com, the associated site through which one can sponsor prayer, puja, and recitation of texts for the benefit of oneself, for another, or for all beings.  Both sites have proved to meet a specific need that exists not just for Buddhists, but for anyone who is experiencing suffering and would like spiritual support.

Shortly after beginning ganachakra.com last summer, I returned to India to see His Eminence the 12th Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche (vajra regent of the Karma Kagyu lineage), as well as Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche (heart son of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, and abbot of Bokar Ngedhon Chokhorling), for periods of instruction, retreat and pilgrimage.  Upon returning I wrote two posts, one with instructions on how to place the mind at the point of death from H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche (which you can read here), the other on practicing for others by Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche (which you can read here).

I wish to return to the topic of practicing for the benefit of others; specifically the performance of ritual puja as this is a form of dharma activity that appears to be treated with less importance in non-buddhist countries.  I’m not really sure why this is the case, but I suspect it has to do with complicated feelings surrounding magic, ritual, and prayer.  It seems important to note that in most cases, western Buddhists have had the benefit of access to higher education and perhaps even a relatively high social class.  These factors may or may not be important, but I wonder if they make the outward acceptance of magic, the power of ritual, and the benefit of prayer appear superstitious and regressive.  Indeed, it should be noted that most of the public proponents of Buddhism seem to hold advanced degrees, and in the United States at least, on average, there is a rationalism and sense of grounded reality that goes hand in hand with such access to education and perhaps also the leisure time to devote towards practice.  Culturally, this imprint exists, as to how real it is, and to how much of an absolute it has become, is something that I cannot say much about.  Perhaps we only know for ourselves how loose and free we are of this and other cultural imprints.  How do these imprints color our notion of Buddhism?  These projected realities can only be indicated and fully understood individually.  If anything it seems that approaching the surety of the rational mind with mindful awareness is wise; for such a cherished dialectic is as much an habitual fabrication as anything else.

Mindful of the potential impossibility and eternal contradictions that words allow for, I acknowledge that I may make a variety of mistakes in trying to address this topic.  That said, I invite you to explore with me how practice for others is a vitally important dharma activity.

When we pray, what are we doing?

There are many different forms of prayer.  Aspiration prayers, dedication prayers, supplication to a particular lineage, direct prayers of praise to a given Buddha, and prayers of request for empowerment, to name a few.  Through personal prayer, in a very general sense, we make a connection with our distinct source of spirituality and the well-spring of spaciousness, interpenetrating connection, and personal empowerment that it offers.  The specific directionality and aim of our prayers can be focused and refined by what kind of prayer one does.

A great example of an aspiration prayer is the Dewachen Prayer; it focuses the mind upon making the aspiration for either oneself or another to be reborn in Dewachen or Sukhavati, the pure-land of the Buddha Amitabha.  This prayer plants the seeds of connection to the intention of experiencing the bliss of Amitabha’s face, the ability to connect with the dharma, to have the means to practice, and to experience the mind’s basic clarity.  It allows Amitabha’s commitment to benefit us to come to fruition.

Dedication prayers connect us to others; they engender compassion, and reinforce our commitment to bodhisattva activity.  The following is an example of a dedication prayer:

By this virtue may I quickly
Attain the state of a Guru-Buddha (Enlightenment),
And then may I lead every being,
without exception, into that state.
May the most precious and supreme bodhicitta
awakening mind
Which has not yet been generated now be generated.
And may the precious mind of bodhicitta which has
been generated
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

OM

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!

24
Jun

on imaginal worlds and magical thinking…

I’m not sure why, but I feel that as of late I have had a great number of conversations with people who have referenced magical thinking.  In most cases the particular reference to magical thinking has been tentative, unsure, as if evoking distrust.  I’ve encountered this with people who I have met a the hospital as well with friends and acquaintances.  It makes me curious about just what they mean; the tone of their comments seem to suggest that magical thinking isn’t the best thing, nor is it a reliable way of seeking context within our world. There is a fascinating article that was published in the New York Times about magical thinking that you can read here which helps to explain the “phenomena” of magical thinking.  Overall, I feel that magical thinking is important, if not key to a healthy spiritual life (in some form), but I’m not so sure what is so magical about it.

Wikipedia describes magical thinking as:

[A] causal reasoning that looks for correlation between acts or utterances and certain events. In religion, folk religion and superstition, the correlation posited is between religious ritual, such as prayer, sacrifice or the observance of a taboo, and an expected benefit or recompense. In clinical psychology, magical thinking is a condition that causes the patient to experience irrational fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because they assume a correlation with their acts and threatening calamities.

“Quasi-magical thinking” describes “cases in which people act as if they erroneously believe that their action influences the outcome, even though they do not really hold that belief”.

This description (the rest of the Wikipedia entry can be found here) seems to suggest that magical thinking may be more of a problem than a boon; more of a crutch than a clear vision of how reality unfolds; perhaps even a disturbance in “normal” mental functioning.  I get a little scared when I read this definition, it seems to re-affirm that perhaps I am not-all-here.  Maybe I/we are not…

I am particularly drawn to the use of the word correlation in this description, especially given what it means in relation to Buddhism.  Correlation points to relationship and dependence: interdependence.  If we look at this same statement with interdependence in mind then we find that magical thinking is:

a causal reasoning that looks for interdependence between acts or utterances and certain events. In religion, folk religion and superstition, the interdependence posited is between religious ritual, such as prayer, sacrifice or the observance of a taboo, and an expected benefit or recompense. In clinical psychology, magical thinking is a condition that causes the patient to experience irrational fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because they assume an interdependence with their acts and threatening calamities.

In looking at it from this perspective, magical thinking appears a vital and inseparable way of finding meaning as we experience life; it doesn’t seem strange, or even less dependable that some kind of rational objectivity (something we are generally taught to desire).  In fact, we engage in magical thinking so often that perhaps it should just be called ordinary thinking.  Be that as it may, I am curious as to why some people don’t seem to trust this magical thinking with all of the shifty mysterious individual meaning that it weaves throughout our lives.

The great sufi saint shaykh Ibn al ‘Arabi (1165-1240) is an inspiring figure when it comes to the realm of the imaginal.  Driven by a series of ecstatic visions, Ibn al ‘Arabi made his was from Andalusia through Morocco, and across the Maghreb towards Mecca.  Along the way he met many people, teachers and fellow seekers, some were real humans, locatable within the nexus of shared time and space, others were not.  One of the greatest visions he had was while sailing to Tunisia whereupon he encountered Mohammed, Jesus and Abraham simultaneously.  Other visions were equally “magical” and “unreal”, yet they acted as a great furnace through which al ‘Arabi’s spiritual passion was refined and tempered allowing him to not only experience the presence of Allah, but to write with great detail about his experiences as well as guide others to this end.  His monumental impact on mystical Islam is still felt today and I would argue he could have never lived the life he had lived if he conceived of life as fixed in nature, lacking the subtlety and mutability to which magical thinking alludes.

Much of the material that I have found on the topic of magical thinking, especially from the perspective of clinical psychology, offers reasons for abandoning and avoiding magical thinking. Such reasons involve improving impaired decision-making, not being able to achieve our goals, and in the case of people with mood disorders or people suffering from psychosis, experiencing a break from reality.  In extreme cases, I acknowledge how magical thinking and spirituality inform and can reinforce a person’s break with reality.  Having spent ten months chaplaining patients on a psychiatric unit of a hospital in New York, I can certainly say that I have come to see first hand how such thinking exacerbates a person’s suffering.  This form of suffering can be terrible; to live with a variant point of orientation, in the midst of near-complete subjectivity is the cause of great horror.

As is the case with most things, when taken to an extreme magical thinking can be a great danger. But to eliminate it altogether?  That also sounds like a form of killing our natural tendency to be creative, to imagine and to experience inspiration.

Indeed in it’s most elevated forms magical thinking breaths vitality and meaning into the experiences found within sufism, the teachings of pure view (especially as it relates to yidam practice) within tantric Buddhism, as well as Jung’s notion of synchronicity and the collective unconscious, to name just a few jewels in the long garland of human experience.  In the face of death, and the suffering caused by illness, as a chaplain, I have found that magical thinking arises with such commonplace frequency that I regard it as a natural and important way though which we find connection and meaning in ways that can not often be explained rationally- and that’s okay.

In extending the Zen Buddhist approach of not knowing, to the larger Buddhist conception of the six realms of existence, we are in essence throwing open the doors towards direct relationship with hell realms, god realms, demi-god realms, buddha realms, ghost realms, animal realms and all various permutations of these.  We open oureslve up to the magical. We allow for varied relationship with appearance.   We develop the seed potential for a rich and layered experience of life.  Of course a great many western Buddhists may not believe in the six realms as “real” but as internal dimensions of our own behavioral habitual tendencies; while I appreciate and find great wealth in this view, I for one find great meaning in feeling that the immediacy of direct interface with Buddha-realms, lamas, yidams, dakas and dakinis, and protectors charges the moment with the potential for great insight and awakening.

It seems that as we tread our paths only we can really know how much we want to, or can, open ourselves up to the visionary realm of the imaginal.  While this is very individual, perhaps something we can all do is remain mindful of how we shut the magic out and why?  As well as, whether we use it as a crutch to avoid realizing where we need to change and grow?