Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘vajrayana’

15
Oct

On the panic that accompanies that which goes bump in the night…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

People are scared to empty their minds

fearing that they will be engulfed by the void.

What they don’t realize is that their own mind is the void.

Huang Po

Not too long ago, when a lama came to the dharma center to teach on the Dujom Tersar cycle of chöd, I came across a few references in a variety of writings, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist that describe the experience of panic that arises in the face of the experience of loosening the intensity of the grasp around a permanent self.  These reminders have been timely teachers as I have found myself recalling moments of ‘self’ destruction for lack of a better term,  as well as deep listening to my own experience of periodic panic that sometimes presages a feeling of a less real sense of self.  I feel that this is an under-explored topic, namely the fear that accompanies the spiritual path.  Over the years I sometimes wonder if this fear is the fear that our practice will be (or is) successful.

dakshin kali

Confess your hidden faults.

Approach what you find repulsive.

Help those you think you cannot help.

Anything you are attached to, give that.

Go to the places that scare you.

Machig Labdrön

Within the context of the practice of vajrayana, the practice of chöd, regardless of any particular lineage, offers a very compelling way through which we might help effectively confront this self that tries to hold together the matrix of identity that wants to know and control the world around us.  A complex alignment of dynamics, chöd offers a powerful visualization that chips away the plaque of identity, it slowly releases the grip of the hand that tries to maintain a handle upon what we experience.  As we loose our grip, finger by finger, and we feel ourselves slipping, we are easily reminded of the truth of impermanence of the castles of sand that we create and imbue with such power and reality that before we know it, we and everything around us feels real, important, and vitally essential.  Whether the visualization emphasizes Prajnaparamita, Vajravarahi or Tröma, it is essential to remember that they all represent the complete luminosity of emptiness; the vividness with which we do not exist, and the bliss associated with realizing that everything around us is pure appearance.  The counter-intuitive act of visualizing oneself thrown into a kapala made up of one’s own skull and transformed into an ambrosial offering for all beings, or piled up as a mandala offering upon one’s own flayed skin, these confounding visualizations and the profound sense of generosity required tug at our sense of permanence and our desire to belong constellated in relation to a fixed point within time and space.  It is not uncommon to feel a sense of resistance to the practice, a sense of tentative reluctance, or attempts towards pulling back within ourselves.

There can be a lot of pain and suffering when we become aware of how we cling to this wanting to “be”.  This alone could easily be regarded as ‘going to a place that scares you’ that so much chöd literature seems to refer to.  Sometimes this suffering manifests physically, with a visceral painful feeling, a hollowness or sharp sense of discomfort, other times it arises as a sudden busyness in which all of the sudden there is something very important that we find we need to do- something that distracts us from our practice.  Sometimes these new things we find ourselves needing to do seem so important and vital that we are seduced by their wonderful meaning and uniqueness.  These of course are the arising of demons.  They find us wherever we are and rather powerfully unweave some of the fabric of confidence in resting in the view that allows for chöd to be the powerful practice that it is.

Sankhu Vajrayogini

Ordinary people look to their surroundings, while followers of the Way look to Mind, but the true Dharma is to forget them both. The former is easy enough, the latter very difficult. Men are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the Void with nothing to stay their fall. They do not know that the Void is not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma.  – Huang Po

The experience of groundlessness, I was once told by a psychotherapist who happened to be Buddhist, was not something to be cultivated, but rather,  an experience more grounded and tangible was deemed as more valuable, within the process of spiritual growth.  I have come across a number of psychoanalysts who warn in their writings that unguided exploration and or cultivation of the experience of groundlessness can lead to a state of psychosis.  These warnings are interesting.  They are interesting in part because I often wonder about the utility of combining psychoanalysis with Buddhist practice, especially if one is going to fully embrace emptiness of self.  In all likelihood the combination of both Buddhism and psychotherapy can be a very effective way with which one can effect a necessary change in one’s experience of life to reduce suffering.    Yet I sometimes wonder how much we benefit from aligning our living and breathing practice of dharma with the structures of our intellect such as modalities that seek to measure and define our experience as we move along our path as found within the psychoanalytic model.  Our intellect often arises in a manner that does not make sense; especially when the sense of self is threatened.  Like sparks, or flashes of lightening in the night sky, the reverberation of the reactive ego- the sense of self-nature wrapped up with the demons that keep it preoccupied- obey no one person.  They are messy, sometimes terrifying and often very powerful.  Similarly, the fast arrival of vajrayogini with her retinue of dakinis arise in an unpredictable way; this is why they are so integral within this practice and this too is why chöd confounds approaches that seek to find a restorative refinement and distillation of the Self.  After all, how can one distill that which is not there?

Sadhu-Dressed-as-Shiva

Those who realize the nature of their mind knows
That the mind itself is wisdom-awareness,
And no longer make the mistake of searching for enlightenment from other sources.
In fact, enlightenment cannot be found by searching.
So contemplate your own mind.
This is the highest meditation one can practice;
This very mind is the perfect awakened nature,
the birth place of all the enlightened ones.

Jetsun Milarepa

What if we just stopped running?  Stopped trying to make ourselves better, more qualified, more important, more knowable and “ourselves”?  What if we stopped in our tracks and turned around to face the executioner of our ego-grasping and gave way to the fear that exists around that process?  What if we let the associated pain and suffering come rather than defend ourselves and acclimatized ourselves to the gnashing teeth of the demons who come fast, or the methodical bone crushing of the demons who come slow?  What if we stopped sublimating everything by actively using our minds to make everything seem like Dharma, and just rest so that things can simply arise as Dharma; ordinary and unaffected; unpatterned and free from artifice?

Perhaps this is the only way in which the strong grip of our fears and insecurities, our limitations and feelings of being unqualified, will burn off like a morning mist as the sun rises.  Perhaps trusting in the process is part of this and putting down the willful need for change allows this sense of self- an illusory doer, be seen for what it is, an expression of empty luminosity.

Sankhu Valley

Advertisements
14
Oct

On voices from the wilderness: “where we go from here…”

pirate map

We recently lost two very important Kagyu Rinpoches, Karma Chagme, the head of the Nyedo Kagyu and direct lineal descendent of the great mahasiddha Rāga Asya , the very emanation of Amitabha himself, and Kyabje Choje Akong Rinpoche, a great social activist, dharma teacher.   Along side Trungpa Rinpoche, Akong Rinpoche as one of the most important Kagyu Rinpoches in how he helped to plant the seeds of dharma in the West, but also create nurture Samye Ling and the system of Samye Dzongs throughout the UK, Scotland, Ireland, Europe and Africa.  He was also vital in helping to local the young 17th Karmapa.  As a lineage we have also recently lost Kyabje Traleg Rinpoche, Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche, and still feel the loss of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche.

As long as His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa is with us, no matter where he resides, I feel that we are in good hands, and as a student of His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, I feel that as long as his activities continue then the dharma will not only flourish but increase in concentration and power.  May their lives be long and may they completely destroy our ego-clinging through the power of their skillful means!  May their activities increase the depth and wisdom of the Kagyu lineage!

Karmapa

This said, there are some who express concern about where we as Karma Kagyu are going in the West, and I would like to throw my two cents into the ethereal debate.  Rather than make this a global argument, metaphorically as well as actually, maybe we should just focus on the Kagyu in America.  I do not presume to know much at all about this subject, and even more than that, I have no real qualifications to weigh-in on such a topic, but nevertheless, as one who has deep love for our lineage I am occasionally concerned about how we may be structuring ourselves here in the U.S.

As Karma Kagyu I feel that we can do more than we are doing.  We obviously benefit from the hard work and extreme diligence and patience of the masters of the early era: the late Kalu Rinpoche, the late Trungpa Rinpoche, ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Thrangu Rinpoche, Bardor Tulku, Ponlop Rinpoche, Lama Norlha, Lama Lordro, Lama Tsingtsang, Lama Rinchen, Lama Dorje, and of course, their guide His Holiness the Gyalwang 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rikpe Dorje.  We owe them a debt of gratitude.  Through these teachers we have the benefit of some very solid infrastructures for the study and practice of the dharma- we have a great number of translators, translation committees, places for extended as well as short retreat as well as the beginning of a sangha which while still young and tender might hopefully grow into a single unified family of victorious ones.  Yet right now the sangha may be our weakest link.

His Holiness 16th Karmapa

America is a unique place in that across the board we like to think of ourselves on the collective level as a unified group that share similar values, and yet we also very easily cleave along a variety of lines that include ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, race and political views.  The obvious benefit is that there is the potential for most anyone to find a niche within the American experience.  The fundamental flaw is that we are only part of the group until we don’t want to be, until our desire-lines of identity pull us into our sub-groups.  When we separate from the collective in this way, the American experience becomes very static and disjointed.  Likewise, when we try to singularly drop our histories, the various layers of culture that have helped to shape us as people, in favor of the collective identity, we lose the richness and the brilliance that we bring to the entire American organism.  There is something about the fundamental tension between the more idealized identity as Americans (which is a construction) and our identity as a member of a variety of sub-groups (also ultimately a construction) that allows us to question the values of both sides of our being that can allow us to grow into dynamic citizens.  That said, there is nothing preventing us from remaining stagnant within our identity on either side, either a stalwart “American” or member of a sub-group that doesn’t want to be part of the collective .  When this happens unity, connection and communication becomes impossible.

Similarly, the essential flaw that we as American Karma Kagyu face is the idea that we actually think that know what we are doing.  We feel that we are correct in projecting a particular meta-view upon ourselves as followers of the wisdom lineage of the Karma Kagyu, and that this view has to be expressed in a particular unified way.  We assume that we must all adhere to the values as a group that were most recently innovated by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye in 18th century Tibet, who while being an amazing genius and autodidact, has been used (perhaps unintentionally) to create a blanket meta-identity that may have been taken to the extreme.  At times I feel that ultimately this lack of balance has led many who feel connected to a wide variety of sub-groups to feel left out and as a result, not integrated into the larger view of what we may be as a lineage.  As if the notion of a unified Karma Kagyu lineage, or any lineage, has ever existed until the “modern” era.

I think that it is worth throwing into the mix that the lines of all four major schools of Tantric Buddhism might be more a product of modern academia than anything else.  It might even be that we have all contaminated one another through the cross-pollination of inter-lineage growth in the past than our projections and assumptions allow us to believe.  Our identities are more blended that we might like.  An example of this can be demonstrated by His Holiness Sakya Trizin when he recently gave the empowerment of Dudjom Lingpa’s Three Wrathful Ones in New York City.

Dudjom shechen 1236

I think that it was Trungpa Rinpoche who called the Kagyu lineage the ‘mishap lineage’, which I will loosely interpret to mean that at its best our lineage just happens; it is not the product of strategic planning.  Why is this?  Well, perhaps we are not the product of controlled strategic planning either; our mind/heart matrix of thought/emotion is a system of constant mishaps, all sorts of stuff arises, sometimes we can clearly rest in what arises, other times we get carried away by our hallucinations.  But one thing is certain, problems arise once we try to force a structure upon the way things should be.

In this way, I tend to wonder if we may have made the fundamental error of leaning too much upon the 18th/19th century classicism of monastic Karma Kagyu as a model for the entirety of American Karma Kagyu (the vast majority of whom are lay) in the 21st century. It sounds kind of absurd actually when I see it written out like that, and I don’t think that it is too much of a stretch to suggest that if this is the case, then perhaps we lose some of our credibility and accessibility with those who resonate with the sub-groups that feel at odds with the way the dharma is presented.  How are young people with little interest in India or Tibet, let alone their history, and who have little money to travel to India to feel connected?  What about some curious souls from the South Bronx, Brownsville, Oakland, Compton, or even large swathes of Suburbia who want to better understand their relationship to their experience of suffering to connect?

The dynamic energy of engaged being as is inherently expressed by a wide variety of groups of all imaginable ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, race and other points of orientation doesn’t seem to be held by the container of this kind of singular classical Tibetan approach.  Perhaps it is paternalism or some type of chauvinism, and perhaps it isn’t- lord knows the internet is full of such debates, and my point here is not to cast blame upon anyone other than our limited view.  That said, I tend to feel that what matters most here is that the essential tension between “self-identity” as a member of any particular group in relation to the experience of gaining certainty in our not having any particular “self” as taught through the dharma is being lost to an increasing number of Americans.  These sparks of tension allow the power of tantric Buddhism to blow up our ideas of who we think we are and how we tend to conceive of the world around and within ourselves.  To ‘inadvertently’ create the assumption that one can only experience this through assuming that we all need to be conversant in 18th/19th century Tibetan classical Buddhist thought only serves to disempower the vast majority of sentient beings in the United States.  It allows few people to come and be held as they expolre the sparky nature of what it means to familiarize oneself with the view.  Perhaps Europe is different, or Central and South America, and Aftrica, but I suspect not.

The way that much of the Karma Kagyu lineage is being presented these days in the United States appears to be more of a preservation of monasticism and the imposition of this structure upon the inner lives of the sangha, rather than a skilled blending, meeting people where the are, and creating the container that allows the safety and intimacy necessary to challenging the assumptions of who and what we are, and what the whole field of appearance might be.

spacious view

The result is that it is not uncommon to find that there are many gorgeous Karma Kagyu dharma dharma centers, stunning in beauty and immaculate in appearance, real museum quality reproductions of what one might have found in Tibet before the Chinese holocaust.  Yet, it is also possible to feel the cold clinical nature of many of these places.  In looking even closer, it is easy to see how tender and fragmented the sanghas appear.  This makes me feel sad.  After all, it is sangha that is vital for the continuation of the practice of dharma.  When I visit places that resemble these perfect visions of what dharma is supposed to look like visually, I think of Drukpa Kunley, Milarepa, Phadampa Sangye and Shabkar with great tenderness (and humor) and take delight in my meager identity as a so-called Repa.  These teachers (myself completely excluded) were vital commentators, alternatives and voices in the wilderness that dharma cannot be owned, trapped in books, and is not only to be delivered through the medium of classicism which often runs the risk of becoming overly dusty and theoretical.  There is a lot of wisdom in their path, and many teachings in their relationship with the institutions that presented dharma in a particular kind of way.

Repa Shiwa O

What we seem to fail to realize, or perhaps disassociate from, is that the Karma Kagyu lineage is best when it is a blended practice of fierce engaged practice activity mixed with the subtlety and discipline that one finds in Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye.  Just as we need the sun and the moon for there to be balance on Earth, perhaps we need both the paths of Rechungpa and Gampopa as symbols of who we are, who we might wish to become, and from which point we wish to engage the dharma.  We need to look at where we become too comfortable and lazy and bring our whole experience as people into our practice.  Good dharma practice has nothing to do with beautiful dharma centers, rich coffers, and exquisite elegance.  In fact, the best practice arises from confronting the entire hallucination of this “self” and the world around us.  We are often well served to this end in challenging our assumptions of how our dharma centers should appear, notice when our devotion becomes the habit obsession rather than a mixture of connection and gratitude, and when in trying to be “good”, how  we accidentally cause great harm to those we tell ourselves we are committed to benefiting.

Ultimately, everything that has been created by our foreparents within the Karma Kagyu in America is wonderful, and we should rejoice in the amazing progress.  It really is amazing what has come into being.  And yet, we might be getting a bit lazy and myopic and I pray that we can make things a bit more messy and sparky and dynamic for everyone who might be attracted to this vibrant and wonderful lineage.  I pray that our dharma teachers can strike a rich and engaged balance for their students!  I pray that our lineage can hold the experience of every person from every walk of life who approaches us!  I pray that we face mishaps every day and that the sparks of tension within our experience of being cause endless dakas and dakinis to bless us!

Karmapa Mikyo Dorje

26
Mar

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

cow pinata

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

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

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

Sherpa Butterfly Effect

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

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

Worms

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

blood emptiness

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

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

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

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

nagarjuna

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

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

Gewo!

citipati

15
Feb

on time machines, weaving words and loosening our belt so that our minds can expand…

The Time Machine (1960) 3

My last blog post touched a lot of nerves- in a good way, from what I can tell, and it also seemed to have displeased others who came away from it thinking that it was written to complain about laziness, ‘spiritual materialism’ and the existence of a spiritual marketplace which often become more of a self-help, soft-core spiritual path.  While I understand the reaction, I don’t agree with such facile readings of the post- not that its difficile in the first place.

Whatever the case may be, whether these posts, and this blog, are worth the ether that allow them a fragile existence of any kind or not, leads me to a few deeper problems that have been something of a point of concern as well as curiosity for me lately, that is:  language and time.

I would first like to avoid the immediate association with these terms any cosmic relationship with philosophy and loosey-goosey bedroom-eyed mysticism, while simultaneously acknowledging that language and time are obviously thematically treated in great depth in both the study of philosophy and mysticism.  It may be that we are best served (for the purposes of this post) in allowing our analytical minds, the mind of blended comparisons and of discernment, to step aside as we examine for ourselves within the context of the personal meditation experience, how and what language and time mean, and how they appear.  Let’s put aside the study philosophy and try to approach this from what unfolds naturally on the meditation cushion, or, as we walk, or dream, as we paint and dance through this life of ours- for meditation experiences are always different from philosophical investigations.

magical calendars

We define ourselves through the use of language.  Outwardly we describe who we are physically, our characteristics and so forth, and then we fill in all of the details, our personalities, likes and dislikes, and all the rest.  We further dabble in collaborative fiction through supporting the personal narratives of our friends and loved ones, and in offering counter-narrative of those we dislike.  Soon, what may have begun as a relatively blank page (a debatable point indeed) has become filled with a testimony of who we would like be, who we envision ourselves as, and the way that we interpret the world around us.  This language is a tapestry of meaning, one in which we both consciously and unconsciously weave together a living history, along with the plotted trajectories of the future events that have yet to be lived.  In and of themselves these products of our individual relationship with language are amazing works of art that capture how we conceive, what we can allow to be, and what we must keep at bay.  They are our hells and our anchors; perhaps they prevent us from flying off into a manic subconscious world; or perhaps they confine us to knowable modalities of being that provide us with the tools for the experience of life.  Whichever the case may be, and I suspect that it is most likely a combination of the two (and many others) at differing points in time, language -in this context- acts, more often than not, like a prison; it is like a thief, and even more, language is like an unreliable friend whom we continue to trust even though she will continue to disappoint.  For somehow we cannot describe away the pain of loss, the experience of death, the terrible bouts with illness, and the fact that one day we will be forced to say goodbye to all that we hold dear- no matter how much we may try.

language

The images we create with our internal literary drives have a hieroglyphic quality in the true sense of the word hieroglyphic, that is: a highly symbolic form of writing which is difficult to interpret/assign meaning.  In the beginning was the word.  From that word, an entire world was created, a veritable cosmos- our interwoven personal narratives develop with increasing complexity and nuance creating a web, a net, or systemic literary story-line in which we capture every detail.  As I sit here, writing both this blog post as well as my experience of today, the soft beautiful light coming through the windows between the treas and fluttering prayer flags is captured as is the sweet smell of a yet uneaten pineapple offered in a recent Mahakala tsok that simultaneously soothes and excites.

Everything we do, all we experience, tends to be added to this net of meaning that is cast upon the phenomenal world.

There are times when we are able to put down our pens, or turn off whatever device we use to compose these narratives of distinctive being- one of the most common device in such work is our discursive mind.  The mind of spacial relationships, of color schemes, the mind of philosophy and dualistic comparisons.  Perhaps this is also the sociology mind, the mind of architecture, the mind of economics, and the mind of urban planning.  That part of us which organizes, the desire to play with the economics of mind; the way we become hypnotized by the production, consumption, and transfer of phenomena.

When we can put this down- although we’re not really putting anything down- then what we were formerly engaging with becomes less of an object and more of an experience.  There is almost a sense of relief in this, a wonderful supporting ease and perhaps the experience of a type of contentment.

the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

In his very condensed version of the Ninth Karmapa’s The Ocean of Meaning, entitled Opening the Door to Certainty, the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche touched upon the enhancement practices of Mahamudra meditation.  These are described as ‘enhancement through eliminating five false ideas’.   The first of the five false ideas is that of objects.  Of eliminating the false ideas about objects Bokar Rinpoche writes:

Without grasping something real in the notion of samsara that must be abandoned and nirvana that must be actualized, but placing ourselves in the infinite one-taste of primordial awareness [of knowing] the non-duality of all phenomena gathered by pairs such as virtue and non-virtue, we eliminate false ideas about objects.

This is a wonderfully powerful instruction, that while presented as an enhancement practice in the context of the Mahamudra system, is worthy of examining, especially in light of how easily we craft global narratives of everything within and without.  I wonder how we can ‘place ourselves in the infinite one-taste of primordial awareness’ or settle ourselves in a position of quiet knowing in which we can allow ourselves to dissolve the need for narrative, comparisons, and allow the direct of experience of the world around us (and within us) to arise; a dancing array of inherently perfect appearance.  Easier said than done?  I’m not so sure about that- if we can playfully try to fold this into our everyday activities, I suspect that bit by bit we can massage the habits of stale knowing.  If we can play around with the view we’re really practicing something profound.

9th Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje

The second of the five false ideas is that of time.  Of eliminating the false ideas about time, Bokar Rinpoche continues:

Although there is no fundamental truth about the reality of the three times, we think within a mode obscured by the division into three times.  Consequently, realizing equanimity which does not establish a distinction of the three times, we eliminate the false ideas about time.

This instruction is especially relevant in helping to loosen the grasping of the compelling reality of our narration as we constantly pin things down (including ourselves) to various points in time.  Our past informs us in the present and helps determine the future; or so we tend to think.  Ideas of time having particular characteristics is a lovely subtle subject- Buddhism is rife with them: the number of aeons, life times, or years that it will take before we fully awaken is just one example.  Assuming that the past was a particular way, the notion of the golden days of long ago in relation to these degenerate times, is another poignant example.  The very notion of systematic evolution (individual spiritual evolution) is a wonderful blended assumption rooted in the false ideas of objects and time.  How many others do we hold on to?

What other unexamined aspects of our faith tradition do we just assume out of the habits of appearance and time?  What would it be like if we crafted our own notions based upon our experiences?

Wangchuk Dorje reminds us: “The division of the three times (past, present, and future) are simply the imputations of ignorant fools.”  More specifically, he warns us that included within this is the relationship that we may feel that we have with the past and future.  He further continues, “yogins and yoginis who have manifested this [realization] are able to bless a great aeon into an instant and an instant into a great aeon…  …if they were separate entities this would not be possible.”  Yet it is possible, and, it is up to us to ease into allowing this possibility.  This gets back to having set ideas about who we are, what we are capable of, and all of the other stories we have woven.

What happens when we wrestle with the solidity of time?  Or loosen our belts so that time can slip away…

Time Travel

When will your liberation occur?  Forget the texts, and all of the things you have heard, when will it be possible to truly ease into the mind’s essential nature?  After ngondro?  After you have mastered your yidam practice?  After a three year retreat?  After ordination?  After you die, in the bardo?  After you die seven times?  One hundred thousand times?  In the future? What about right now?  Did you already do it in the past, but got all distracted?

When we can see words as playful birds, and time reflected in the way that clouds appear and disappear in the sky, and the the solidity of our identities as the smoke of incense floating through the the rays of a setting sun, then maybe we can experience mind a little more clearly.  Not just the mind’s stillness, but by feeling out, as if expanding awareness to meet the bounds of space, without saying, doing, thinking, making notations, and without being Buddhist.  In trying to do this over and over, the artifice of relative reality can be seen, a necessary strange place that allows us to communicate, to help others, to support ourselves in the process of familiarizing ourselves with the mind- but not ourselves, not our identities.  Yet when we tighten our belts, we become men and women, Buddhists, with mass, height, characteristics, distinct identities that feel, want and need.  We have a cannon to follow and refer to, we experiment less and assume that it will all work out in the future, a bunch of now moments later, but the very now we live in is never seen as the free open experience of whatever arises without characteristics.

The wheel of life

Wangchuk Dorje reminds us that we cannot realize this through “merely listening and reflecting, examining and analyzing, being very knowledgeable, having a sharp intellect, being skilled in exposition, being an excellent teacher or logician, and the like.”  He goes on to quote the Gandavyuhasutra:

The teachings of the perfect Buddha are not realized by simply hearing them.  For example, someone may be helplessly carried away by a river but still die of thirst. Not to meditate on the dharma is like that.

And:

Someone may stand at the cross roads and wish everyone prosperity, but they won’t receive any of it themselves.  Not to meditate on the dharma is like that.

We can go around with ideas of this and that, with loads of empowerments, secret instructions and a plethora of practices to choose from but the real wisdom comes from practice, from trial and error.  In fact, just one simple practice is more than enough- by sticking to it and blending it with our waking and sleeping moments great wonders are possible.  We are very well served by examining how and why we hold these truths about ourselves, our paths, and time to be self-evident. In attempting to let the constancy of our personal narrative fall away like an unneeded belt, lets take these words and use them to unzip themselves so that our view is that of the experience of mind, fresh, free, naked and not of the three times.

12
May

On resting with Tilopa…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

12
Dec

On the view: the false dichotomy between dzogchen and mahamudra…

An old dharma friend named Jonny wrote me the other day with a question that he had.  We had first met in 1995 down by Mungod in south India where he was teaching English at Drepung Loseling, and I was studying with Geshe Wangchen, under the kind graces of Lelung Rinpoche who at the time was dividing his time between Drepung Loseling and Nechung Monastary in Dharamsala.

Over the years as I came to meet and study under the late Kyabje Dorje Chang Bokar Rinpoche, and my path crossed with Jonny’s and other dharma friends amidst the annual groundswell of dharma that occurs during the fall months in Bodh Gaya. It was there that I had the opportunity to introduce Jonny to this wonderful oceanic meditation master.  From that point onwards that my relationship with Jonny changed to that of dharma brother, which is where we are in this moment.

After the tragic, unfortunate death of Kyabje Dorje Chang Bokar Rinpoche, most of his students were left in a place of loss and sadness.  The confounding suddenness of his death created a barren confusion- I remember from my own experience that this was a terribly painful and confusing time.  The loss of a teacher can be very painful.  I had felt that there was an intimacy in my relationship with Bokar Rinpoche that made him feel like a father- it took a number of years to be able to return to his seat monastery in India without feeling a profound sense of loss and sadness.

Over time the, winds of karma, the great teacher that might be described as the impermanence of appearance, blew Jonny into the lap of Yangthang Rinpoche, and I into the lap of H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche.  As our experiences arising from meditation practice change, and as we slowly try to blend whatever insights that arise from such experiences into our daily lives, we email from time to time- to check in and see where the other is.

In an email last month, Jonny wrote:

I have a question arising from the Tsele Natsok Rangdrol book I’ve just finished reading. He mentions the “traditions of practice of the different lineages – recognising the meditation from within the view or establishing the view from within the meditation”. This has provoked a lot of interest in my mind, and I keep coming back to it. As far as my very limited understanding is concerned, the first approach in this quote seems to be that of Dzogchen, and the second Mahamudra. The Kagyupas seem to talk more about meditation, while Nyingmapas focus more on the view. In mahamudra there seems to be more emphasis on shinay and then lhaktong in order to realise the view, while in Dzogchen it seems to be more about instantaneously, effortlessly seeing what is already there. And this seems to fit with what I said about the quotation above.
Am I on the right track here? Can you comment on the quotation for me? Or can you recommend a book which illuminates clearly m’mudra and dzogchen and the differences?
Upon reading this email, I put down what I was doing, and with a deep sense of joy and excitement, considered what he was asking.  What an important question- what wonderful subtlety implied in this question!
At first glance I tend to feel that there is a distinct “stylistic” difference between mahamudra and dzogchen in a way.  On an ultimate level, however, there is a false dichotomy between view and meditation. This is something that Tsele Natsok Rangdrol touches on in the book The Heart of the Matter.  Rangjung Dorje, the 3rd Karmapa, in his wonderfully succinct Mahamudra Aspiriation Prayer, and Karma Chakme, in The Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen support this perspective.
In the Tibetan tradition there is often a reference to the term definitive meaning (nges don) which generally translates as: ultimate meaning, ultimate truth, truth, objective meaning.  Definitive meaning exists separately from relative meaning.  Relative meaning refers to the comparing and contrasting between things, it is a means through which we can know and understand one thing from another.  The experience of definitive meaning- ultimate truth- occurs in some combination of gaining clarity of relative truth.  In the experience of resting within our mind as it arises, within our experience of the arising of phenomena/appearance, we are afforded glimpses of the definitive meaning.  It is a process of familiarization, and in some cases even described as a homecoming of sorts; the reunion of the mother and the child.
I sometimes gain some clarity in viewing both mahamudra and dzogchen as something akin to mathematical sets.  They are two ways to approach the realization of mind, the definitive meaning of its experience, and the various qualitative ways in which we experience “mind”.  These two unique sets, mahamudra and dzogchen, are distinctive incredibly rich paths that undoubtedly lead to the experience of a definitive meaning, an inner vocabulary, of our experience of mind.  This “mind” that we experience, is the same for both “systems”, and when we look at their differences, they often seem to drift into the misty edges of mind essence.
Both approaches recognize that experiencing the mind’s essential nature is an experience akin to a mother being reunited with their child; or something similar to realizing that we have been carrying a priceless jewel with us through out our life experience, but failed to notice it- until now.   That noticing, that knowing awareness, and the inner confidence which arises announcing awakening.  In fact, the mere suggestion of there being an awakening, or a change in our being, draws us out of relationship with the experience of mind in a definitive manner.
Both mahamudra and dzogchen describe the freshness and immediacy of our experiences- they are now.  Not something planned for the future, not based upon trying to recreate a past experience.  This experience is often described as clear, blissful, and empty.  These four words are translations from the Tibetan, and what they truly mean for us within our own experience, is unique to our own particular journeys.  Some experience more of the illusory aspect of mind, others experience the mind’s clarity, and still yet others experience the bliss associated with resting within definitive meaning.
Bliss can be very dangerous and seductive, not to mention hypnotic.  I have spent much time with patients who have been admitted to locked in-patient psychiatric facilities who struggle with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia; people who in the throes of their mania exert phenomenal enthusiastic energy in trying to convey the perfect experience that they feel.  Oh, how the bliss lit their soul ablaze in a way that nothing else could.  The feeling that I am often left with when with such patients is that of awe and respect- I find it very compelling to be allowed to witness the expression of their experience of blissfulness that often occurs within the experience of mania. I have often found myself hypnotized while in the presence of such people, dazzled by the passionate feeling of blissful unity- and yet I am left feeling a profound sadness that I experience while trying to chaplain patients who appear addicted to a sense of bliss that disconnects them from the rest of the world.
Bliss arises, and we are taught to not be attached to it- it is one of the many things that we may experience.
And yet, bliss is important.
Similar shadows exist around the experience of mind as illusory. Indeed, the profound experience of the emptiness of all phenomena as experienced through our interface with the illusory appearance of every moment- a joining with the totality of what arises as empty of all characteristics and the awareness of the interplay between ourselves and this field of experience- holds the danger of being overly reductive.  It’s shadow may be a depressive state.
Bliss, emptiness, and clarity/luminosity- these are three ways that we experience mind.
Yet, mind is mind is mind is mind…. and yes, just as there can be distinct aspects of the mind that we relate with, or experience, and just as there is a particular style, or even flavour, that is distinct regarding dzogchen and mahamudra, we must remember that these distinctions arise from mind.  We feel and think, and yet from where do these feelings and thoughts arise; these created worlds, what is their source?  We interface with different aspects of mind, but they are temporary appearances, waves lapping at the edge of a lake- no two are the same, and there is no end, they just happen.  To hold onto the distinction may be problematic.
I tend to wonder if we can say that these distinctions have more meaning outside of our personal experience of mind, than say, as opposed to within our individual experience of mind.  The three masters that I refered to above, Rangjung Dorje, Karma Chakme, and Tsele Natsok Rangdrol all occupied places within their practice traditions as Kagyu/Nyingma masters and the two former masters were recognized as tertons in their own right.  All three were able to hold both: mahamudra and dzogchen.  They were able to come into direct relationship with mind.  From this place, I wonder if all distinctions around how practice is described, or how mind appears/in experienced is secondary.  While I feel that it is safe to say that individually we may all exhibit a predilection towards experiencing glimpses of the definitive experience of mind somewhere within the traditional nomenclature of bliss, emptiness, or clarity, with one aspect perhaps feeling more “natural” than another, it seems important to recognize that our experiences change, and that it is possible to form an attachment to the way we experience mind-essence.
For example, usually our relationship with our yidam has something to do with the way in which we interface with the experience of awakening as each yidam offers a model/modality through which we can act seated within our experience of buddha-nature.  I marvel sometimes how much we really become our yidam (or they become us)- in many ways it seems that there is a profound transference of quality and of action within the modalities of expression through body, speech, mind, and essence.  At our best, there is an experience of natural simultaneity, a natural ease and effortlesness in which we are the yidam- in moments where practice feels forced and contrived, we get hung up on the details, on experiencing things only one way, that there is a specific way in which we have to practice, a way that we have to interface with appearance.  All of the sudden we are working to get some where, to be something, or to induce a particular experience.  In yidam practice there are handy “tricks” through which we return to focusing upon the implements or mandala of the buddha of our practice, or a quality, or the transparency of our visualization so that an antidote of sorts is applied to falling out of relationship with our experience of the yidam; that which is no other than us.
Similarly, in approaching mahamudra from the perspective of shinay, lhaktong, and their union, a structural path laid out by the polymath Jey Gampopa, and as passed on from him down to the 9th Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje in the Ocean of Definitive Meaning as well as Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche in his essentialized distillation of Wangchuk Dorje’s seminal work, entitled Opening the Door to Certainty, yes, there may be more emphasis placed upon “establishing” or perhaps “easing” into the view through meditation. This approach to mahamudra, sometimes termed the Path of Liberation, or sometimes refered to as sutra mahamudra, is methodical and graded- often a gradual path, but not always so.  And I feel that much thought must be inserted here.  As dharma practitioners, or anyone really who follows a particular spiritual tradition, textual exegesis is vital to the maintenance of tradition- it is what connects us to the group, to our lineage.  And yet, we must realize that the exegesis that we interface with surrounds the way we experience mind, which ultimately ends up being a relatively individual experience.  That the Path of Liberation can only be said to be a gradual path ignores the fact that the possibility of “instantaneous” realization is always a present- in fact instantaneous insights do occur.  Karma Chakme spends time treating this particular “problem” as it were.  For him  spontaneous realization is always a possibility, no matter what the practice may be.
Then there is the Path of Means, often refered to as mantra mahamudra, or the approach to mahamudra through the six yogas and or inner and secret yidam practice.  In these approaches there is often a more instantaneous type of resting in the view, something that I feel offers a similar feeling of sudden realization that dzogchen often refers to.  I guess you could say the Kagyupa have bridged both sudden and gradual; Gampopa introduced the first Lam rim literature into the Kagyu lineage and from that point in time it appears that Sutra and Mantra mahamudra was presented as separate approaches to realizing the mind’s essential nature.  Peter Alan Roberts in his recent book entitled Mahamudra and Related Instructions, describes just how distinct Gampopa’s work was in codifying the Kagyupa approach to mahamudra, and how often the delineation between gradual and instantaneous approaches, especially in the associated forms of sutra and mantra approaches was made along the lines of monastic and lay.  As the first person to translate much of the core essence of the early kagyu lineage into a monastic tradition, a split had to be made between some of the tantric practices that challenged the conduct maintained by the monastics and his lay followers.
I suppose what I am trying to stress is that I’m not so sure that looking for the difference between the View as described within the context of dzogchen and that of mahamudra is as helpful as modulating between both Views within our practice.  The View helps keep meditation fresh- it is necessary to be familiar with the View (how the mind arises).  Meditation, the process of developing familiarity with the View (putting it into practice and actualizing it)  prevents the View from becoming a concept that appears more real and rigid than perhaps it ought to be.  There is a binary relationship that we need to maintain, a relationship that shifts and eventually blends into a naturalness in which there is no longer any applied effort- we just are.  Some of us have been lucky enough to meet people who manifest being in this way- they are indeed buddhas.
The false dichotomy lies within the fact that there is no real difference between meditation from within the view and the view from within the meditation.  The View is mind-essence, the mind as it arises, as it appears, and how we relate to appearance.  Meditation is resting within that experience of mind.  Even the practice of shinay carries all of the aspects of mind.  What is the stillness?  What is it that we are we focus upon in a single pointed way?  Where is the stillness?  True, asking these questions is similar to lhaktong, and indeed may be, but that knowing, that awareness, is always there while we do shinay- it is not necessarily something that we add to the mix.  As far as literary exegesis is concerned there is a lineal distinction between the approach to mind as we find in mahamudra, dzogchen, lamdre, and other forms of practice, however when we look at the works of great realized siddhas we find descriptions that offer resounding clarity.  For example, Rangjung Dorje says:
Free from being mind-made, this is mahamudra;
free of all extremes, it is mahamadhyamaka;
this contains all, and so is “mahasamadhi” too.
Through knowing one, may I gain firm realization of the meaning of all.
Great bliss with no attachment is continuous.
Luminosity without grasping at characteristics is unobscured.
Nonconceptuality that goes beyond intellect is spontaneous.
May unsought experiences occur without interruption.
Preferential grasping at experiences is liberated on the spot.
The confusion of negative thoughts is purified in the natural expanse.
Natural cognizance adopts and discards nothing, has nothing added or removed.
May I realize what is beyond limiting constructs, the truth of dharmata.
And Tsele Natsok Rangdrol follows:
The Middle Way, the unity of the two truths beyond limitations,
Mahamudra, the basic wakefulness of the uncontrived natural state,
And the Great Perfection, the original Samantabhadra of primordial purity-
Are all in agreement on a single identical meaning.
This mind that is present in all beings
Is in essence an original emptiness, not made out of anything whatsoever.
By nature it is unimpeded experience, aware and cognizant.
Their unity, unfathomable by the intellect,
Defies such attributes as being present or absent, existent or nonexistent, permanent or nothingness.
Spontaneously present since the beginning, yet not created by anyone,
This self-existing and self-manifest natural awareness, your basic state,
Has a variety of names:
In the Prajnaparamita vehicle it is called innate truth.
The vehicle of Mantra calls it natural luminosity.
While a sentient being it is named sugatagarbha.
During the path it is given names which describe the view, meditation, and so forth.
At the point of fruition it is named dharmakaya of buddhahood.
All these different names and classifications
Are nothing other than this present ordinary mind.
With these words as a guide, we find our way, succeeding and failing to realize the nature of mind- working to familiarize ourselves through practice with mind and with phenomena.  As we settle into natural awareness, an effortlessness in being, I wonder where all the words go.  Perhaps they too, dissolve into the soft edges of graceful wakeful knowingness.
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.

22
Jul

Chöd, inner trolls, brigdes and inner stagnation…

Recently, I decided to spend the early portion of a Saturday doing Chöd under the Pulaski Bridge that connects Brooklyn and Queens (connecting Kings county and Queens county), and crosses the infamous Newtown Creek.  Newtown Creek, for those who are unaware, has the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted waterways in the United States, and is home to the second worst oil spill in America; an estimated 30 million gallons of oil flowed into the creek in the 1950’s, none of which has been removed.  As a result of the oil spill, a century of raw sewage being dumped into the waterway, as well as the dumping of various wanted byproducts of heavy industry such as sulfuric acid, fertilizer and other chemical admixtures there is a layer of highly toxic sludge fifteen feet thick that blankets the floor of Newtown Creek.

In making the decision to head to the Pulaski Bridge and Newtown Creek three distinct criteria had to be addressed:  there had to be a bridge, the place had to have some equivalence to a charnel ground, and it had to invoke fear/discomfort.

The latter two criteria speak to the nature of where chöd has historically been practiced: places that invoke fear and terror; places where there could be a direct mirroring of one’s own internal demons with the projected demons of haunted locales.  Such sites have often included charnel grounds, and also places where terrible events have happened.  A reader once commented on another post that I wrote about chöd that civil war battle sites seem to hold some relevance as chöd sites.  This is a brilliant observation!  Upon second glance, it is easy to notice a wide variety of places that invoke strong feelings of fear and terror.  They surround us and yet we tend to drive or walk by them interacting with them in a way that lacks the direct depth of honest observation.  Often we fail to  interact with them at all.  As I caught myself feeling slight dread in practicing under the Pulaski Bridge amongst the oil depots and industrial traffic that pulsates along the dead creek I realized that this was a great place to go practice.  What better way to be curious about why I should feel discomfort in practicing there?  What is the difference between practicing there and at home, or in a park, or even a cemetery?

That the site should have a bridge reflects a larger curiosity that I developed a few days before about bridges and trolls.  In June I finished 2 units of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) with the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, which in addition to being oriented around Zen Buddhism, is heavily informed by Jungian psychology.  Reflection upon the symbolic meanings presented by patients, or a given patient’s particular affect, as well as our own perceptual reactions to what arises at any given moment is encouraged. While walking in Prospect Park, and with this training still fresh in my mind, I found myself under a bridge and for the first time in many years I reflected that trolls are often associated with the space under bridges.  They live under bridges, and hide under the cross-roads-like environment that we commonly find under bridges.  Somehow this space elicits discomfort, such spaces seem secret, hidden, perhaps the place where illicit things happen.  I wanted to explore this in chöd practice.

I packed my kyangling and damaru, my pecha and bell and dorje, and brought along a bumpa vase with water blessed with many sacred substances including special pills made by the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche for the express purpose of dispelling demons and “inner” hindrances.  In addition to performing chöd, I wanted to offer these substances to Newtown Creek.  With my bag packed, I headed to this industrial charnel ground, the site of an alchemical bridge that joins Kings County with Queens County (Male and Female, Salt and Sulfur) that crosses a body of water that deep under fifteen feet of unknown matter (unconscious mind) and may house inner trolls and local gods.  Kye Ho!

Upon finding a suitable place for my practice, I considered how the place made me feel.  What were its trolls going to be like? When I touched my “inner” trolls what would I find?  I remember from childhood the story of the Three billy Goats Gruff; the story of three goats of ascending size who wish to cross a bridge so that they may feast on greener pastures, the only problem is that they must cross a bridge that is protected/owned, or the home of a nasty troll.

Bridges are places of vulnerability.  Their structure is meant to carry us from one stable ground to another, in-between (a bardo), we are not standing on solid ground.  Perhaps when we are experiencing the bardos of change; the invariable transition from one moment to another; one experience or feeling to another, we are vulnerable to being unseated in a more direct and profound manner.  These bardos are bridges, and where there are bridges there are trolls.

In Norse mythology trolls are generally held to be large, slow, human-like beings.  Trolls are not known for their intellects. They are impulsive, brutish, stubborn, earthy, and grounded.  In a way,  trolls seem to be a personification of the weight and anchoring qualities of the earth element, but in a self-defensive, perhaps self-protective manner or function.  Indeed, the slow conservatism, the heavy reactive stubbornness that trolls are known for seem to be the prime emotions in opposition to the easy experience of transitioning across bardos; across our bridges from one moment to the next.  They want to hold on.  They try to exert the magnetism of discursiveness; the force of myopic focus that prevents us from seeing the larger picture.  They want us off the bridge, they try to prevent us from making the transition; they will even try to kill us to this end.

It seems that trolls show their heads very frequently in my experience of everyday life; this stubborn stupidity, a dullness, and desire to not embrace change.  I easily lose count in trying to reflect how often these trolls try to unseat me.

That Newtown Creek has a fifteen foot layer of toxic sludge separating it from the “real” earthy bottom seems particularly significant, if not essentially symbolic.  What stagnation!  It is as if the earth herself is being suffocated.  Perhaps just as we suffocate ourselves when our inner-demononic-troll-like stubbornness, our hard-headed personification of gravity, our dull stupidity, and brutish reactivity arise, this poor creek-cum-canal is being suppressed and held down.  Toxicity has many shades, and it’s easy to focus upon its generic staples: fear, anger, jealousy, greed, laziness.  But what of toxicity in its more subtle and elusive forms?

How do we allow ourselves to stagnate?  How do we dissempower ourselves?  How do we allow ourselves to fail, to be imperfect? How do we let our trolls steal the vitality of our transitions (bardos)?

This is what I set upon to discover; these demons of Newtown Creek, the demons of stagnation and sedate subconsciousness as well as the army of trolls that seek refuge and feast underneath the Pulaski Bridge.  They are not far, they arise from within ourselves…

In making an offering of myself to these beings, I feel that I was able to shed light upon them as they arise.  It is a process of honoring and respecting the natural occurence of emotions as they arise.  It lends itself to both a process of developing a greater awareness of the play of mind, as well as a means of offering deep witness to our unique inner constellations.  Such constellations, wonderous displays, are already perfect- they arise with the same natural clarity and depth as the constellations that we see in clear night skies.  There is nothing to add or to take away.  The brilliance of their simple appearance is suggestive of immense wonderous beauty.  Nothing to subjugate. Perhaps this is chöd-of-mahamudra: the offering of the suchness of our own minds as witness to it as it arises…

I visualized that  the offering deities and the demons themselves came with great ferocity, like a howling wind, stealing portions of my torn flesh and warm organs.  Those with more time and resources carefully selected prime sections, the liver and heart perhaps.  Others still set up camps and carefully roasted various portions of the offering taking time to set up their own feasts.  That these demons may be honored, and receive my offering helps to liberate them- my emotional habits, self-clinging and the like are allowed to loosen into non-referential emptiness.

As I was performing the chöd sadhana, on that day and at that location, the portion of the text that focuses upon offering the remains of the central ganachakra felt very salient and meaningful.  I have come to try to allow myself to rest in sadhana practice while I am doing it, and in so doing, realizing that at different moments and for a whole host of possible reasons the pecha speaks with powerful clarity at different moments in different ways.  There are so many secondary practices within each pecha that as our inner weather changes, there are many differing modalities of our practice that may be tailored to best suit ourselves at any given moment in time.  If we can view the practice text as alive, full of endless vitality and imbued with the potential for constant unfolding compassion, then every time we sit down to recite a prayer or a particular sadhana we are really engaging directly with the text as a vehicle through time and space.  Every time we read a pecha it can be as if we are reading it for the first time.

This is also another great place where trolls arise.  They arise in our practice.  Our mind can easily become the slow dense troll-mind where pechas feel boring and long, always the same and perhaps even a little dusty.  The pecha becomes a thing, a book, a physical text, the warm humid breath of the dakinis, in this case of Machig Labdron herself dissipates.  It is lost when we become dull.  The full dynamic interpenetration of individuated hermenutic bliss fades; the electricity of the rich moment dies.   The possibility for realizing “the lama-as-appearance” to use the wonderful term that the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche often used to describe the mind as lama (that appearance in all of its myriad display is the lama-as-appearance) becomes compromised.

In recognizing this, the offering of the remainder of the ganachakra felt timely, both within myself as well as within my immediate environment.  So, as I sat under the bridge while trucks rumbled down Box Street I imagined that the slippery flesh of my ignorance,  raw and painful, was mixing with a seemingly endless ocean of my own warm sticky blood, rich in iron: my desire; and my rattling bones, still moist and full of rich marrow: my hatred.  I mixed these together and offered it in a vast torma vessel- my own skull.  I offered this to the local gods, the local protectors, to the particular trolls that inhabit the Pulaski Bridge, as well as my own trolls.  This ambrosial nectar, the very last remnants of my body, I offered to this particular place- this polluted earth, forgotten and ignored by many who speed by, is the same earth that supported the Buddha.  Somewhere underneath that thick toxic sludge is the same earth that the Buddha touched, similarly, within ourselves is the same Buddha. The ability to recognize “the lama-as-appearance” is always part of us.

After the practice session I brought my bumpa vase filled with water blessed by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, blessing pills associated with Chenrezig, Amitabha, and Dorje Phagmo, as well as sacred medicinal substances, and pills specially made by the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche for averting the disturbances caused by ghosts, demons and the previously mentioned “inner” hindrances up onto the Pulaski Bridge.  While reciting a variety of mantras I poured the amrita into Newtown Creek that there may be benefit.  May the magic of this place be known!  May the power of its local gods be appreciated, and may they, the local gods, the trolls and the great teachers of stagnation, of dullness and of forgetfulness never be forgotten!

Perhaps every place is imbued with wonderful symbolic representations- dynamic reminders- of our own strengths and our weaknesses. Whether it be Newtown Creek, the Gowanus Canal, or a former slave burial ground, if we look a little more loosely the lama-as-appearance is always present.  It offers a constancy of potential liberating circumstances.  The charnel ground of the chödpa is everywhere.  I am reminded of something that I once read by the previous Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche in which he said that the mind is the essential charnel ground as it is here where thoughts come to die.

Perhaps then, we carry all of the eight great charnel grounds of India within our very experience of mind.

This being a possibility, I offer prayers that we all may realize the chöd-field of our own minds.  May we be free of clinging to this body as real, may we recognize it as illusory.  May the sound of Machig Labdron’s kyangling and damaru permeate the entire universe liberating all upon hearing!

22
Jun

on Karma Pakshi, Mikyö Dorje and empowerment…


In my post about Mahakala, and how the practice of Mahakala may relate to our lives on a daily basis as well as between and throughout meditation sessions, I related a short story around the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi.

A reader of this blog, and now friend, sent me a wonderful image of the siddha Karma Pakshi (pictured above) and an image of Mikyö Dorje, the eighth Karmapa (below).

In reflecting upon these images I am struck by how they convey so clearly the energy that these two realized masters embodied.   In the upper image, Karma Pakshi is shown empowered, present, and full of vitality.  He is shown sitting upon a chöjung, the source of dharma, above him is Guru Rinpoche, Rechungpa and the terton Mingyur Dorje, on his right is Hayagriva and on his left Dorje Phagmo, below him is Mahakala and then Damchen Garwa Ngagpo to his left and Palden Lhamo, or Sri Devi to his right.  Karma Pakshi’s right hand is raised holding a vajra, and his left holds a phurba.  This is not an image of passivity, or weakness.  On the contrary, this image shows how profoundly inspired, naturally empowered, and essence-oriented Karma Pakshi embodied his direct experience of the dharma.

The lower image, that of Mikyö Dorje, is also an image of empowerment.  Mikyö Dorje is famous as an endless wellspring of ability.  There is a definite feeling of  inexhaustability that his activity demonstrated.  When I consider that he only lived to the age of forty-seven I am even more humbled by the impact that his presence had upon the Kagyu lineage; he left behind a magnificent imprint of Buddha-like depth and sensitivity.  His works include commentaries upon many tantric texts including the Hevajra Tantra, as well as a variety of very important texts on buddhist philosophy.  His impact upon art was as concentrated and seminal as his writings on sutra, tantra and philosophy.

In this image Mikyö Dorje is shown surrounded by dakinis.  They bless him and empower him, provide immense spiritual strength as well as insight, thereby blending his mind with all that is.  Above him is the first Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, Tashi Paljor; his guru, a great siddha and important Kamstang Kagyu lineage holder.  A description of the line of Sangye Nyenpa tulkus can be found here.  Below Mikyö Dorje is Dorje Phagmo herself; one of the principle yidams of the Kagyu lineage.  She is much more than that though- somehow I feel that her power and wily energy gets lost when she is refered to as “one of the principle yidams” of the Kagyu lineage.  She is the source of untold blessing, insight, re-orientation and empowerment.  She is the mother of our enlightenment, she is blissful wakefulness in everything that we do, the high and the low, the sacred and the profane: for her it’s all the same.

These images have a profound effect.  They make me wonder how I can experience and embody the same sense of empowerment and clarity that Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje were able to express.  There are times when I feel this way; times when practice feels electric; when the present moment feels clear and imbued with luminous authenticity.   There are also of course those moments when I feel dull and very aware of my own selfishness and petty small mindedness.  I have come to learn that the latter is an all-too-common experience that most of us can own up to.  So, I have to ask: what is this empowerment and the quality of being “plugged-in” that both Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje express?

The late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche speaks to this effect in a talk on crazy wisdom.  Below are what I find to be the most salient point of his talk as it pertains to this post.  The entire talk can be found here.

Trungpa Rinpoche says:

The crazy wisdom vision is very crazy, too. It gives us a sense of direction, a sense of heroism, a sense of reality and a sense of compassion—and so forth down the line. It also includes our doubts as part of that crescendo. So the crazy wisdom form is related with the basic notion of enlightenment. As we say in the sadhana, “To the crazy wisdom form of the buddhas of the past, present, and future.” I think it goes something like that. Is that true? So crazy wisdom is part of the general scheme of enlightenment. The crazy wisdom guru is not some Rasputin of Buddhism gone wild who does crazy things, who sets up a crazy wisdom cult. You might say, “Padmasambhava went to Tibet and got drunk and went crazy. He hyperventilated in the mountain air after being in India.” “Karma Pakshi went to China and got turned on by being an imperial teacher. Because of that, he went crazy.”

But we are talking about a larger form of crazy wisdom, which is cosmic crazy wisdom. It is part of the enlightened attitude of the whole thing, which is already crazy, continuously crazy—and wise at the same time. Primordial wisdom is continuously taking place. That is a very crazy thing, in some sense.

We have two personality types in the sadhana: Dorje Trolö and Karma Pakshi. Dorje Trolö is Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava attained enlightenment at birth. He was an Indian Buddhist saint, a siddha, a vidyadhara and a great teacher who brought Buddhism to Tibet. There was already some element of Buddhism there, but Padmasambhava actually brought the full swing, the full force of Buddhism to Tibet.

He manifested as a crazy wisdom person particularly when he was meditating in Tibet, in a cave called Taktsang Seng-ge Samdrup, which is now in Bhutan. (In those days, Bhutan was part of Tibet, in the province of Mon.) In order to relate with the savageness of the Tibetans and their own little ethnic samurai mentality, he had to appear in that manifestation. So he manifested himself as an enlightened samurai, a savage person, a crazy wisdom person—known as Dorje Trolö.

According to the iconography, Dorje Trolö rides on a pregnant tigress. He wears the robes of a bhikshu, a Buddhist monk, and he wears a kimono-like garment underneath. He holds a vajra in his hand—like this one [holds up vajra]. And he holds a three-bladed dagger in his left hand. He represents the aspect that crazy wisdom doesn’t have to be related with gentleness in order to tame somebody. In order to tame someone, you can approach him abruptly and directly. You can connect with his neurosis, his insanity; you can project sanity on the spot. That’s the notion of crazy wisdom.

Karma Pakshi was the second Karmapa. The Karmapas are the heads of the Karma Kagyü lineage, to which we belong, the practicing lineage. Since he was recognized as a great master, he was invited to the Chinese court as part of the entourage of the Dalai Lama [head of the Sakya sect, who in those days was not known as the Dalai Lama]. Karma Pakshi was always very strange; and his style was not in keeping with the protocol expected of emissaries to the Chinese imperial court. During the journey to China, he played a lot of little tricks; everybody was concerned about his power and his naughtiness, so to speak. The Sakya abbot who was supposed to become the Chinese imperial teacher didn’t like Karma Pakshi’s tricks, and had him thrown in jail. By means of his miraculous powers, Karma Pakshi turned his prison into a palace. He was able to manifest himself as a real crazy wisdom person. He proved that politeness and diplomacy were not necessary in order to convert the Chinese emperor. He showed us that straight talk is more effective than gentle talk. He didn’t say, “Buddhism would be good for your imperial health.” He just wasn’t into being diplomatic. The rest of the party got very upset; they were afraid that he might blow the whole trip, so to speak. And apparently he did! [Laughter]

Towards the end of his visit, he became the real imperial teacher. The Chinese emperor supposedly said, “The Sakya guru is fine, but how about the other one with the beard? How about him? He seems to be a very threatening person.” The energy of crazy wisdom is continuously ongoing. Karma Pakshi was always an unreasonable person—all the time. When he went back to Tibet, his monastery was still unfinished, so he ordered it to be built on an emergency basis. In that way Tsurphu monastery was founded. It was the seat of the Karmapas before the Chinese invasion of Tibet. It is interesting that such energy goes on throughout the whole lineage.

If I may, I would like to inject a bit of our own vision in connection with crazy wisdom. For us it is like wanting to buy this building, which is out of the question, in some sense, but on the other hand, it is a possibility. And we are going to do it! That seems to be Karma Pakshi’s vision, actually. He would have done a similar thing. Suppose a fantastically rich person came along. All of us might try to be nice to this particular guy or this particular lady—we might blow his trip completely, to the extent that he would be completely— switched! Although his notion of sanity was at the wrong level, he might become a great student if we were willing to take such a chance. So far, we haven’t found such a person, who would be rich enough and crazy enough and bold enough to do such a thing. But that was the kind of role Karma Pakshi played with the emperor of China. Karma Pakshi was known for his abruptness and his dedication. He possessed the intelligence of primordial wakefulness.

Then we have another interesting person in the sadhana: Tüsum Khyenpa, who was the first Karmapa, before Karma Pakshi. He was an extraordinarily solid person, extraordinarily solid, sane, and contemplative. He spent his whole life teaching and negotiating between various warring factions. There was a lot of chaos at that time; all kinds of squabbles erupted among the Tibetan principalities. By his efforts, their fighting was finally subdued. He was basically a peacemaker and a very powerfully contemplative person.

Then we have Mikyö Dorje, who was the eighth Karmapa. He was a great scholar and a great teacher, and he was very wild in his approach to reality. Once he said, “If I can light fire to the rest of the cosmos, I will do so.” That kind of burning prajna was in him all the time.

Rangjung Dorje, the third Karmapa, was a key person: he brought together the higher and lower tantras. He was an extraordinarily spacious person, and one of the most powerful exponents of mahamudra, which is at a very high level of vajrayana enlightenment experience. He was a great exponent of the ati teachings, as well.

Trungpa Rinpoche’s description of how Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje embody direct primordial wakefulness is well said.  Trungpa Rinpoche was very well attuned to how the expression of this clarity cuts in a way that at times is pleasant and at other times unpleasant.  It is very natural to want to experience the cessation of suffering; indeed, time and again we see that this is something that all beings want, even when our choices appear to just cause more and more suffering.  But it’s hard to have the clarity to know, or to recognize and feel, how we can bring about the cessation of our own suffering, as well as that of others.  Knowing, seems bookish and scholastic.  Realizing and feeling is direct and pertains to what is going on during any given situation.

I was recently struck by the realization that my own knee-jerk tepid feelings towards Catholicism have little to do with me, but are inherited reactions from the unpleasant experiences had by my parents that I came to make my own as I grew up.  Upon reflecting on this I came to see that I haven’t really engaged in an authentic relationship with Catholicism.  I picked up the habits of my parents and made them mine.  But my knee-jerk reaction hasn’t been authentic; it hasn’t been based upon primordial wakefulness.  This realization arose around my chaplaincy training.  As a chaplain I encounter a great number of Catholic patients and I have found that I have tended to feel uneasy/other-than the Catholic patients, Catholic hospital staff, or family members for whom I try to provide spiritual care.  One moment of clarity helped me to come into more direct relationship with Catholicism- of course I could have ignored it and just gone on with my habitual way of relating.

It is amazing and humbling to see how easily we react to things around us in ways that are informed by our family histories, our communities, our culture (or blend of cultures and what that brings), our sense of history (or placement within history) as well our gender (and assumptions of what that means), race, and even as humans.  I’m not sure that this is such a bad thing when we are aware of it (the relative does offer us a ground); but it’s a little more problematic when we are unconscious of how these factors strengthen the nature of our habitual reactions.  This leads me to feel very curious as to how we would all embody wakefulness?  How we would individually, and collectively, express empowerment?  How can we cut through some of the rote habitual ways in which we do not meet the expression of the present moment with wakefulness?  How can we bring this blended specificity to the practice of lhaktong?

The Buddha said that his disciples should question and test out whether his presentation of the dharma held water- that critical purchase is probably what kept the dharma going.  Otherwise I think Buddhism would have ended up less contemplative; there wouldn’t be much to do except just adopt a particular belief system.  The question is, how do we make it our own?  In many ways every person in this world system is a distinct universe; we share a variety of points of intersection and the relationship that occurs as a result of that, but our own internal relative wakefulness appears varied.  How do we individuate and blend the dharma with our experiences of living?

I read somewhere of someone asking His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche in an interview when the West would produce its own mahasiddhas.  He responded that this would happen one day- it is a definite possibility, in fact, it is likely.  So, how will this happen?

It’s hard to know.  However, the answer may be right in front of us- these two thankas of Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje point us in the direction.  To help explain my point I want to share a marvelous blog post by the wonderful lama/lotsawa Sarah Harding that I found on the Tsadra Foundation blog entitled: “As for the blessing of Vajravarahi, Marpa Lhodrakpa does not have it.” WTF?.  I can’t recommend her post enough- it is long, detailed, and treats in great detail the controversy of whether the practice of Vajravarahi (Dorje Phagmo) is authentic, what the difference between her blessing and empowerment is, as well as the “empowerments” of Mahamudra.  In a nutshell, while translating the Pakmo Namshe (a detailed description and commentary of the Kamstang practice of Dorje Phagmo) written by the illustrious and erudite 2nd Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa Rinpoche (1504-1566) Harding came to recognize that the tonality of the text was more a polemic defense of the Kagyu practice of Vajravarahi rebutting the assertions by Sakya Pandita that as there is no specific unique Sanskrit Vajravarahi Tantra, there is no historical precedent for an authentic Vajravarahi/Dorje Phagmo practice, and further, that Marpa held a false Vajravarahi lineage.

While this subject is admittedly not for all (it can be a little dry), I find it exciting; especially what is later described as the difference between empowerment and blessing around Dorje Phagmo, Mahamudra, and even the practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa.  Consider the following portions of her post:

“…[T]he tantras teach both empowerment conferral (dbang bskur) and blessing (byin rlabs). In particular, in the Sampuṭa [Tantra] it says “Having obtained the empowerment and permission (bkas gnang)” and so on. So there are the authentic empowerment conferral and the blessing permission (byin rlabs bkas gnang). Of those two, the authentic empowerment conferral is a method to sow the seeds of fivefold awareness in the unimpaired vajra body. The basis of refinement and that which refines is unmistakably set up by means of the rites of outer, inner, and secret contingency…

As for blessing, once matured by the empowerment, in order to engender the qualities that have not [yet] arisen in those individuals possessed of the sacred pledges, or for the sake of maintaining and increasing [those qualities] that have already arisen, the method for imbuing the blessings of Body, Speech and Mind are done according to the rites of the individual lineages. In particular, in the Sarma tradition of the secret mantra of Tibet, there are many [cases] concerning the blessing of Vajravārāhı: the greater and lesser Don grub ma, great and lesser dBu bcad ma, Nāropa, Maitrī mkha’ spyod, the blessing of White Vārāhı and so forth.”

and:

“A vajra master who has accomplished mahāmudrā will mature such a [disciple of highest acumen] through blessing and teaching the path of creation and completion. When they come to understand, then they will practice because of the desire to become enlightened in a short time for the sake of sentient beings. In the case of disciples who would [only] later become suitable recipients, who at present have many discursive thoughts, they should be given the extensive ripening empowerments and guided gradually according to the three guidance manuals (zin bris rnam gsum). In that way one won’t waste disciples.

As it is explained in such sayings as “the great medicine of the instantaneous [approach] is great poison for a gradualist,” disciples must be guided according to the measure of their being. Though [given] the maturing [empowerment], there are some with most excellent faculties who will [anyway] become matured and liberated in the same instant just by seeing the face of the master or by a blessing. Those of sharp faculties, in whom the awareness will be born just by the blessings of meditative absorption such that they will have complete confidence without any doubts—that’s what’s called maturing the being.

[Some] individuals are naturally characterized by great discursiveness or are [stuck] in the mire pit of various views in this life, a pool filled with the waters of sophistry. After pouring even the last droplet of the water that has washed a thousand times the vessel of the milk of secret mantra, [they will think] this is the so-called “ocean of milk of Vajrayāna” and will grasp on to this white, sweet essence as the milk. Those [people] spread this pile of ignorance and make their living as masters. There are many [such as these] in Tibet. [When those masters] guide people in that way, the disciples become disturbed. Maturing them through wordy rituals with many elaborations to perform makes them happy. Therefore, in the blessing from the oral instructions of Lord [Tongwa] Dönden, there is the generation of elaborations such as entering into the mandala and the empowerments of five families. It is to satisfy those self-proclaiming as dull or sharp faculties. The actual blessing which comes from the oral instructions is talking about maturing those of sharp faculties.”

So, while empowerment is needed to plant the seeds; as a means to offer all of us the keys to our natural basic pristine awareness, blessings cannot, and should not be over-looked.  Blessings are the life force of our practice, they make our practice pregnant with immense possibility; they are the very dakinis that surround Mikyö Dorje.   Indeed every time we blend the body (Om), speech (Ah), and Mind (Hung), of our gurus, yidams, and protectors, of pure appearance, perhaps we are in reality opening ourselves up to the direct experience of complete effortless empowerment.  It seems that this may be the way through which we may share the same primordial wakefulness, the essential blissful luminosity, and direct insight/power as demonstrated by Karma Pakshi and Mikyö Dorje.

I suspect that once we blend our experience of our worlds with our practice this will happen very easily and perhaps even uneventfully.  As Trungpa Rinpoche points out, in becoming more sane nothing extraordinary happens, we become more wakeful, more clear, more present and more authentic.  When we can give ourselves permission to empower ourselves and realize that the blessings that we have received from our practice is enough, that in reality that’s all there is, then clouds of siddhas will arise around the world.  Perhaps the real question is, when will we put aside our sense of inadequacy and take our seats?

“If I can light fire to the rest of the cosmos, I will do so.”  – Karmapa Mikyö Dorje