Thursday, April 4, 2019

Empowerment and Initiation


Empowerment arises in the context of deity or yidam practice, which in turn has its roots in magic, in the sorcery cults of medieval India. Perhaps the first question to consider is "What is a yidam or deity in the context of Vajrayana in Tibetan Buddhism?"

Is a deity an actual spirit that we can invoke to act in our interests or evoke to enhance our abilities? Is a deity a nexus of energy that we can draw on in spiritual practice to transform how we experience life? Is a deity a symbol or archetype that we can connect with to put us in touch with spiritual or mystical aspects of the human psyche? Or is a deity all three, an immersion in the mystery of being? In Vajrayana, which in large measure is the application of sorcery and magic to mystical pursuits, the answer is all three.

In the ancient sorcery cults of India, some form of initiation was used to introduce the novitiate to the spirit or deity he or she intended to invoke and to connect them with each other. The word "yidam" for instance, is the elision of the words for mind (yid) and connection or bond (dam). As the experience of the novitiate matured, he or she would be introduced to deeper and more powerful methods of transforming how he or she experienced the world, but all of these would usually be based on his or her relationship with a deity.

What happens in an initiation, or what is meant to happen, is often shrouded in secrecy, but the essence of the matter is transmission. The teacher who is giving the initiation invokes the spirit of the deity. The power of the teacher's practice creates a field of energy. In that field, the teacher introduces the student to the deity's body, speech and mind and presents symbols that represent each of these aspects of the deity. The energy field suffuses the student, infusing the student with the spirit of the deity and a seed of experience is planted in the student. This is magic, pure and simple: the creation of an experience through a combination of energy, intention and ritual. In medieval India, people who had the power to create such experiences for others were called sorcerers.

We say we take an empowerment, or receive an empowerment, or a teacher gives an empowerment. Properly speaking, we are referring to initiation rituals. The empowerment itself is a shift in experience and the shift in experience is often referred to as "receiving the empowerment" or "attaining the empowerment." The shift in experience is what is important. The ritual is a means to that end. Yet when someone asks, "Have you received such and such an empowerment?" they are often referring to the ritual, not the experience. Tibetan uses the same word for both. To avoid confusion, I will use the word initiation for the ritual and empowerment for the shift in experience.

Over time, these sorcery methods evolved into mystical disciplines and these initiations were formalized and elaborated. In the Tibetan tradition, there are four principal empowerments: the vase empowerment, the secret empowerment, the wisdom-awareness empowerment and the fourth empowerment. They are sequential, leading the practitioner to deeper levels of experience. Each has an associated ritual in which the student is initiated into that particular aspect of the mystery.

The purpose of the initiation ritual is to plant a seed of experience that opens a door in the recipient to the corresponding shift in experience. Sometimes, depending on the teacher, the student, and their connection, the shift happens during the initiation ritual. More often the shift happens sometime later, through the accumulated momentum of practice. And sometimes it may have already happened and an initiation provides context and understanding for the shift.

As to the associated shifts in experience, the first empowerment, the vase empowerment, takes its name from the ritual of anointment, which is simultaneously a purification, an infusion of energy, and a transmission of power. You have received this empowerment when the spell of sensory experience is broken, that is, you no longer see yourself only as an independent entity that experiences and acts in the world. The second empowerment, the secret empowerment might more accurately be translated as the mystical empowerment because it reveals the mystical possibilities in ordinary experience. You have received this empowerment when the spell of emotions is broken and you are able to touch into and experience their mystical and transformative possibilities, both in emotional reactions such as anger, greed or pride and in such emotions as loving kindness and compassion. The third empowerment, the empowerment of timeless awareness that depends on a consort, takes its name from the transformation of sexual energy to induce similitudes of awakening. You have received this empowerment when the spell of such spiritual ideals as universal selfhood, purity, eternal life, and bliss is broken and you know that all experience, good or bad, patterned or free, is mind. And the fourth empowerment, also called the word empowerment, is often encapsulated in a single phrase that points to the nature and mystery of being. You have received this empowerment when the spell of practice is broken and you know, again experientially, that there is no doer and there is nothing to be done -- the same understanding that Buddha signaled when he touched the earth with his right hand as he sat under the bodhi tree.

As a translator, I have thought about how the initiation rituals associated with the four principal empowerments might look in today's world. How, for instance, might a student be connected with the spirit of a deity such as Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of awakened compassion, or Green Tara, the embodiment of compassion in action, or Hayagriva, the embodiment of the power that annihilates emotional reactions? What ritual or process would connect him or her with the energy of these deities? What ritual or process would give the student a taste of the compassion of Avalokiteshvara or the power of Green Tara?

Because empowerment is such a central element of Vajrayana, such questions have to be considered if these methods are going to be practiced and transmitted by Western practitioners. My purpose in this article has been to provide a context in which these questions can be raised.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Avoiding the Road to Hell


Practice Tip: avoiding the road to hell

This practice tip was motivated by people have written or spoken to me over the last year or so to express their concern and frustration about what they perceive as a shift in focus in many Buddhist teachers and many Buddhist centers. One person, who gave me permission to quote their email, asked, "How is it that I see around me so many Buddhists who don't seem to be nearly as serious about practicing and studying Buddhism as they are serious about pushing liberalism, social justice, intersectionalism and so forth?"
This question points in may directions. One is the cultural changes that are taking place in our society, changes that some feel are long overdue while others feel they are problematic and misdirected. More than a few feel disoriented and uncertain about how to respond to these changes even though they recognize and often concur with the good intentions motivating them.
An old proverb says that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I've devoted my life to helping people. Arguably that is a good intention, so for me, one of the most important questions has always been how do I avoid taking the road to hell?

Don't do what you know does not work.
My own variation on the well-known definition of insanity, i.e., doing the same thing but expecting to get a different result. I adopted this principle when I first came to Los Angeles and it served me well. Residential centers do not work. Doing a practice when you don't know the intention does not work. Poor translations don't work. Adopting another culture's way of doing things does not work. Etc., etc., etc.
The world we live in is not designed to reward the life most worth living.
This wonderful sentence comes from a blog post in which the author compares Chinese and American cultureIt's good to keep in mind in case you fall into the delusion that you can actually change how the world functions. 
Among other gems from this post: "Degraded and disgraceful as American culture may be, it is still possible to live a life of integrity within it."
Don't try to make the world a better place. Instead, address imbalances in the world you experience. 
The bodhisattva ideal is not about making the world a better place. It is about helping others find peace and clarity in the circumstances of their lives, whatever they may be. If you hold a utopian ideal, you are lost in belief. As noted below, belief blinds. You are trying to make the world conform to what you hold inside. This is always a recipe for disaster. Among the hells this idea has generated are The Inquisition, The Gulag, The Cultural Revolution, any number of wars and any number of cults (Buddhism, unfortunately, is not immune to cults). 
Instead, take a look at your life and see what is out of balance, internal or external. Take steps to address that imbalance. Your life will never be in balance, but you can keep moving in the direction of balance. Note, however, that as soon as you take steps to address one imbalance, everything changes. Now look for the next imbalance to address.
Belief blinds. 
James Carse explores this theme in depth in The Religious Case Against Belief.Perhaps best encapsulated by his characterization that belief is the point at which thinking stops, but not in the good way. It's amazing to see how people's thinking stops at a certain point. Almost always, it's because a belief has been engaged. To avoid the road to hell, take note where you stop being able to think, to question, to entertain a different perspective. 
Morality binds and blinds.
This observation comes from Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind. Morality is how a group determines who does or does not belong. In doing so, morality blinds us to the values of other groups. The moral of the story, for the aspiring mystic? Forget morality and focus on ethics. in You Must Change Your Life, Peter Sloterdijk defines ethics as how you live your life to support and give expression to your practice.
Footnote: there is no morality in Buddhism. Only ethics.
If you have to use force or coercion, the results you want to achieve are not possible at this time.
A conclusion that I came to from working with the four approaches to conflict (calm, enrich, magnetize, sever). This principle applies in a wide range of contexts: international affairs, political and cultural changes, organizations, and families as well as internal change. If you have to magnetize or sever (i.e., coercion or force), you inevitably create imbalances. The results of those imbalances are unpredictable. You just don't know what they will set in motion or how they will come back to you. Frequently, those imbalances negate exactly what you are trying to achieve and you quickly end up in an escalating vicious cycle. This is one reason why Sun Tzu says in The Art of War that the military is an ill-omened tool. Instead, focus on creating the conditions in which the results you are seeking arise naturally. This principle applies both to change in the world and internal change.
Control is an illusion.
You can only see to the limit of your perception. You can only do what you can. The world is a complex place, and you cannot know everything and you cannot do everything. While you may be able to take many factors into account, you simply don't know what you don't know, you don't know what other people hear and you don't know what other people will do with what they hear. Thus, the only way to proceed is to address the imbalances you are able to see, receive whatever the result is, and then take the next step.

For a more philosophical approach to similar ideas, this video of Karl Popper's work is worth watching: https://aeon.co/videos/a-doctrine-against-doctrinaires-the-enduring-radical-modesty-of-karl-popper

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Post-election: a crooked tree in changing times

Before the election, I posted a short piece about a Buddhist response to Trump, namely, to forget about being Buddhist and focus instead on being human. In particular, I wrote that our responsibility is to use the skills and capabilities we develop through practice to step out of our own reactivity. Then we have the possibility of seeing clearly and and responding appropriately, whatever that may mean in the particular circumstances of our lives. In a follow-up piece, I described how to be present with difficulty feelings, without trying to change or control what we experience, and how that opened up the possibility of finding peace and clarity in the midst of our reactivity and confusion.

Since then, a few people have written to me to say that this is not enough, that something has to be done right away.

Most people react only to the breaking of a wave. They fail to see the wave beginning to form, or if they do see it, they ignore it. Only when the wave is breaking over them do they realize that something bad is happening. What do you do then? Ask any surfer: you ride it out as best you can.

Thus, in the Book of Leadership and Strategy:

When society is orderly, a fool alone cannot disturb it; when society is chaotic, a sage alone cannot bring it to order.

Even wise leaders must await appropriate circumstances. Appropriate circumstances can only be found at the right time and cannot be fulfilled through being sought by knowledge.

One reading of the Brexit vote in Britain and the Trump victory in the US is that both results were a kind of peasants' revolt, a revolt against policies that advanced the agendas of multinational corporations at the expense of the working class in the Western industrialized countries. With the entry of China and India into the global economy, the price of labor was effectively cut in half. With the demise of the Soviet Union, capitalism could function unchecked. With the development of the internet, democracy as we know it is being undermined by social media. It is quite possible that 2016 will be regarded as the end of the Age of Enlightenment.

The time for action was in the '90s, if not earlier. During the '90s, when the US and Western Europe were riding a wave of jubilation at the demise of the Soviet Union and the threat of communism, Tony Blair in England and Bill Clinton in the US aligned their parties with globalism and the global elite. In the US Clinton repealed Glass-Steagall, pushed through NAFTA and signed the welfare reform bill. The effect of this legislation was to run roughshod over the concerns of the working class, create the conditions for the 2008 financial crisis and undermine the safety net for millions of people should they encounter hardship. In other words, the Democratic party, traditionally and historically the left-leaning party of the working class, abandoned the working class. That was the beginning of the wave. When the inevitable crunch came, the working class had nowhere to turn but the right, and that's where they went.

What is a Buddhist response? Some see a Buddhist response as the taking of some kind of political or social action — engaged Buddhism. For these people, Buddhism is a religion. Many centers now have established participants and teachers who function in ways that are similar to the congregations, priests, ministers or rabbis in Christianity and Judaism. While the resources in these Buddhist congregations are not on the same order of those in Christianity or Judaism, they are probably sufficient to exercise serious influence. However, there are dangers in such an approach, as Peter Drucker points out:

Very few strategies have even been as successful as that of the American Protestant churches when around 1900 they focused their tremendous resources on the social needs of a rapidly industrializing urban society. The doctrine of "Social Christianity" was a major reason why the churches in America did not become marginal, as the churches in Europe did. Yet social action is not the mission of a Christian Church. That is to save souls. Because Social Christianity was so successful, the churches, especially since World War II, have dedicated themselves more and more wholeheartedly to social causes. Ultimately, liberal Protestantism used the trappings of Christianity to further social reform and to promote actual social legislation. Churches became social agencies. They became politicized — and as a result they rapidly lost cohesion, appeal, and members. [1]

[1] Peter Drucker, Post Capitalist Society, pg. 54

My own training was more about how to use whatever circumstances we encounter as a way of waking up in our lives. I was never taught that the practice of Buddhism was about making the world a better place. It is was always about coming to and giving expression to a different relationship with life — essentially a mystical path. My teacher was a mystic  and followed the examples of such mystics as Milarepa and Khyungpo Naljor.

One way to articulate the essence of mystical knowledge in Tibetan Buddhism is that we forget the self, the felt sense of "I" that permeates our perception of life and confines us to a life of reactivity and confusion.

All of us know those magical moments when we are so engaged with life that we forget ourselves and we even forget our selves and become, if only for a moment or two, an ongoing response to what the world presents to us. We may experience this level of engagement in moments of intense athletic or artistic endeavor, or when a friend or someone close to us is in pain, or when we are out in nature, or when we are engaged in a craft such as pottery, carpentry or gardening. In the intensity of what we are doing or experiencing, the sense of "I" drops away. From these experiences, we can draw the conclusion that the "I" is not actually necessary for functioning in our lives. On the basis of that insight, some people are inspired to devote their lives to freeing themselves from the tyranny of emotional reactions associated with the sense of self. It is no easy task, unless one is endowed with a special talent for such pursuits. For most of us, it requires years of effort, and a complete retraining of the mind-body system and how it functions.

Given the serious problems in the world today, some people regard such an approach as self-centered, if not selfish. I'm not sure about the selfish part, if only because most people who engage in this pursuit are not selfish people. Self-centered, or self-involved? Possibly, but no more so than an artist, a musician or a dancer. Artists devote themselves to years of arduous training for the sake of their art. Why are those who devote themselves full-time to practice considered differently from those who pursue art?

There have always been problems in the world. Granted, the problems now facing humanity are different in scale and in kind, but the idea that one has to be engaged with the problems of the world to be a real Buddhist is a very recent notion. It negates the lives of many of the great masters that inspire us and whose teachings we study and practice.

Obviously there are personal choices to be made here. But I think it is reckless and presumptuous to tell others how they should live their lives. Chuang Tzu describes a crooked, twisted tree that grows near a road. It is so crooked that no woodworker would ever think of cutting it down. It is just there. It may be that one day, a traveler stops beneath it to find shelter from the rain or shade from the sun. Or maybe it just stands there, because that is what trees do.


The day after the election: difficult feelings in a changing world


I've spoken to more than a few people who say that the results of the election have brought up difficult feelings of a kind they have not encountered before. That's understandable. It's not every day that we experience the world we have known crumbling and collapsing around us. 

After the election, it became very clear that here, in one of the more progressive counties of one of the more progressive states in the US, I am living in a bubble. In fact, if we step back a bit, we can see that many of us have lived in a series of both nested and overlapping bubbles and they are all popping. Here are a few I've been able to identify. Anyone care to add to the list?
  • the bubble of Anglo-American domination of the globe (several hundred years) with China and India poised to resume their historical dominance
  • the Age of Enlightenment bubble (300 years, and it was a good run), 
  • the bubble of growth based on technological innovation (basically, we've been riding on the innovations of the last 100 years)
  • the bubble of liberalism in the US that was capitalism's defense against the threat of communism (granted, that bubble popped in 1989, but the effects of unchecked capitalism are really being felt now), 
  • the bubble of affluence in the US that followed WW2 that left the US as the only country with an intact industrial base 
  • the bubble of environmental and climate security (human predations on both have now reached the critical point, though some would argue that we reached the critical point some time ago)
  • the bubble of the assumed inevitability and stability of democracy (markers for the strength in democracy are dropping in all industrialized nations)
Yes, the world we have known is changing in very fundamental ways and those changes do evoke unsettling feelings.

Practice tip: working with difficult feelings
For me, the real value of Buddhist practice is that, whatever I may be experiencing, however difficult or painful, it gives me a way of touching the peace, freedom, clarity, presence -- whatever you want to call it -- that is the essence of our being human. 

At this point in my life, I feel very fortunate. It wasn't always this way, but here in Northern California I have a good home, my health is good, and I have the time to focus on what matters to me. Pretty well every day, feelings of gratitude and appreciation well up. How long this phase of life will last, I don't know, but I'm making use of it to work on my next book, on vajrayana. 

Even though everything is good, from time to time difficult feelings arise -- unprompted and unbidden. I could attribute them to various frustrations and inconveniences in my life, and probably would have at another stage of life. But I like to think I know better now, and I suspect that these eruptions have more to do with work on this book, which is presenting a set of challenges I have not faced before. 

Be that as it may, the genesis of the feelings is often not all that important. While understanding where certain feelings come from can and does help in some cases, we are still left with the not so small matter of meeting them when they do arise, whatever their provenance. 
How to meet them, how to experience them, without blocking them or being consumed by them? When I block, suppress or repress feelings, it's as if I'm cutting out a part of my own being. At best it's a short term solution. The feelings usually comes back with a power and seeming vengeance all their own, and they tend to cause rather more havoc second time around. On the other hand, when I'm consumed by a feeling, I lose touch with the world around me and everything I say, do or feel is based on the world projected by that feeling and not the world that I actually inhabit.

My usual approach these days is to rely on the methods of mahamudra and dzogchen. I sit and do nothing -- whatever I'm feeling, whatever is happening in my body or in the world around me. I wouldn't even say that I sit in awareness, though some may choose to use such a phrase. Basically, I just sit there. A pithy teaching from Mipam, one of the great 19th century teachers in Eastern Tibet, describes one way to just sit and do nothing.

In doing so, I am not waiting for the feelings to dissipate. Nor am I seeking to transform the feelings into their corresponding manifestations of awakening. 
Traditional vajrayana teachings describe how anger is transformed into a mirror-like timeless awareness, pride is transformed into a timeless awareness of balance, etc. Many people misinterpret these descriptions of results as instructions and try to transform their emotions into experiences of timeless awareness. 

If I'm waiting to let the feelings dissipate, I'm doing something. If I try to transform the feelings into something else, I am also trying to do something. No, I do nothing, to the extent that I am able. There is nothing outside me that can resolve these feelings. The often overlooked corollary is that there is nothing inside that can resolve them, either.
What I am left with is the feeling itself, naked, red and raw. It manifests in sensory sensations in my body, surges of emotion and, not infrequently, a Pandora's box of stories, sayings, images, or scenarios. Such difficult feelings are usually connected with difficult bodily sensations: pain, tension, agitation, and other forms of discomfort. The stories, too, tend to be unpleasant, negative and catastrophic. Invariably, I am the hero of the story, or the victim, which is another way of being the hero. (In the stories generated by patterns to dissipate attention, one is always the hero or victim, a characteristic that makes it easy to identify that a pattern has taken over.) I am often caught by one or other of these movements in mind and I fall into confusion, which is kind of bad daydream. When I wake up, I come back to the naked raw feeling and return to doing nothing. 

That's all method, what to do.


And then something strange happens. This is result, what happens, not what you do. It doesn't happen all the time, and it doesn't happen according to any identifiable timetable. But it happens often enough and it happens consistently enough that I have come to trust it, even though I cannot say what "it" is. 

A clarity and peace are present and manifest in the very midst of whatever turmoil I'm experiencing. Forget Parmenides' law of the excluded middle. It is a cognitive construct and it doesn't apply to this kind of experience. The feelings, along with their body sensations and cognitive ravings, are still present and at the same time there is an absolute complete peace and clarity. 

The blue expanse of the sky 
does not obstruct 
the floating white cloud.

The floating white cloud 
does not obstruct 
the blue expanse of the sky. 

The thoughts, feelings and sensations do not disturb the peace. They do not dim the clarity. And the peace and clarity do not block the thoughts and feeling and physical sensations. And as long as the clarity is there, they do not take over, either. 

Back to method. Sometimes, however, the turmoil of what is arising in me is just too intense. I am just not able to sit and do nothing. At such times, I turn to an old friend, taking and sending. We've known each other for many, many years now, so the practice comes easily. Whatever turmoil I'm experiencing, I take it in, taking it away from all beings. Every time I  breath in, I take the noisome, boiling, toxic black brew in through my right nostril and into my heart and adding it to the pain, fear and turmoil I am already experiencing. And every time I breath out, I send out the good fortune I experience in my life today, my home, my health, my friends, the support I receive from many different sources, along with all the understanding, compassion, patience, joy, and peace I have experienced in my life, in short, everything that I value and hold dear. All that goes out from my heart through my left nostril, filling the world with the magical silvery light of a full moon in a clear sky, bringing peace and joy to all who are touched by it.

It doesn't help with the feelings. They still rage. Taking and sending practice isn't meant to make the feelings go away. It isn't meant make me to feel better. Any effort to use taking and sending that way is exactly the kind of subtle (or not so subtle) manipulation of experience that Chekawa Yeshe Dorje warned against when he wrote, "Don't make practice a sham." It's also the same kind of manipulation that Kongtrül the Great denounced in his commentary on the practice of Chö. 

In the case of taking and sending, the instruction is quite clear. Again, from Chekawa Yeshe Dorje, "When misfortune fills the world and its inhabitants/Make adversity the path of awakening." This instruction doesn't mean working to remake the world in such a way that I feel good. It means that by engaging this exchange, by using it to experience deeply whatever is arising, I may discover an awakening, a peace, a clarity -- again, whatever you want to call it -- in the experience of the adversity itself. In the process, those difficulty feelings may change. They may dissipate, they may transform or something else may happen. None of that is my business. My business is very simple: experience what is arising and experience it as completely as possible without getting lost in it. 

Do I do anything to address the adversity? Well, as long as the reactive patterns are running, it's generally better not to. If, in the process of practice, my relationship with the emotional reactions shift, that I'll be able to see more clearly what can or cannot be done. But I have learned that if I sit down with the intention of "working through these feelings," then I am doing something -- I am trying to control my experience and the feelings just laugh at me.

This is not a process I control. On more than one occasion, what seemed to be a relatively innocuous feeling has proven to be remarkably persistent. "Oh, I can deal with this, no problem!" I think, but there it is, quietly (or not so quietly) impervious to every effort I make. That is how I discover how I am trying to manipulate or control my experience once again. And it is how I discovered, and continue to discover, the importance of yet another mind training instruction: give up any hope for results.

This instruction is important enough in mahayana mind training as it helps to mitigate the subtle attempts to manipulate and control experience. In mahamudra and dzogchen, it is even more important. In A Trackless Path, the whole first section of Jigmé Lingpa's Revelations of Ever Present Good is about how practice goes astray when we have fixed ideas about what the results should be and try to control what arises to conform to those ideas. In fact, any effort to control our experience reflects a lack of faith and confidence in what Suzuki Roshi calls our fundamental nature, in what it is to be human. Suzuki Roshi is not postulating that we have a fundamental nature (a misinterpretation that philosophers, particularly ontologists, are prone to). He is describing a certain attitude to practice, an attitude of just letting things be, of just letting things sort themselves out, without any attempt to control, much less dictate, the process or the result.

Significant amounts of what are called Buddhist teachings are really descriptions of the results of years of practice by great masters in the past. As I've written before, time and again, people take these results and try to use them as methods of practice. It's a bit like listening to a master musician describe how playing a piece of music moves her and then trying to duplicate the same experience on one's own.

Get clear about the methods of practice, what efforts to make and how to make them. Grill your teacher on these points if you need to. Once you are clear about how to practice, that is, you understand how to do the practice and you have a taste, however fleeting of how it works, then practice without any concern for results. Realistically, you will probably end up letting go of your concern for results over and over again, as you would any other form of thinking. 

Trust your own experience. Use your the methods of practice that work for you to plumb your experience to its depths so that you know for yourself, without any need for corroboration or reinforcement, that there is nothing that prevents you from being clear and awake and free right now, whatever is happening around you, whatever is arising in you.

Before the election: forget about being Buddhist; be human

This election, with all its hyperbole and vitriol, combined with the high degree of polarization in this country, has brought out powerful emotional reactions in many of us. Those emotional reactions are reactions, and the path of Buddhism is about developing the skill and capacity (through emptiness, compassion, right speech, etc.) to step out of reaction into response. How we respond in our lives, however, is very much an individual matter and depends on many factors. 

Many people see Buddhism as a religion, and as such, as a social institution that can and should take stands on economic, political and social issues. This has never been my view. I've never felt that Buddhism had anything to say about historical, political or social issues. I guess I feel that Buddhism doesn't have anything to say about anything, really. For me, Buddhism is a path of spiritual practice. In particular, this path of practice is about letting go of identity, letting go of being this or that, to the extent that that is possible. As such, it is a mystical path, a path to a mystical relationship with experience, where I define mysticism as a way of experiencing life free from the limitations of the conceptual mind. That shift may well lead to stands on various issues, but those stands are personal choices, not Buddhist positions.

Consequently, I'm always uncomfortable when someone says, "Oh, you're a Buddhist." I feel that I've been pigeon-holed and identified with a set of beliefs and assumptions that the speaker holds and that I probably don't. The irony is not lost on me that my reaction to the statement also points to a sense of self operating in me. Identity formation is tenacious.
What is the point of letting go of identity? Freedom from identity is what allows, indeed enables, us to be truly human -- to be an ongoing response to the challenges, demands and needs of life, a constant movement in the direction of balance, addressing wherever possible the imbalances that create tension and struggle in the lives of those around us and in the world at large.

Thus, in the context of the 2016 election, or in the context of the myriad social, economic and political challenges we face, I do not look for a characteristically Buddhist response. I seek a response which is both human and humane.

Trump has done American a couple of favors. He has demonstrated that politics as we know it today is entertainment and it is exploited as such by the media conglomerates. He has pulled back the curtain on the economic cabal that dominates American politics today and revealed that the Southern strategy used to advance the politics of economic exploitation is at its core a white supremacist ideology.

The cost of Trump's candidacy, however, has been high, particularly because, even today, it seems that the political and media establishments are not able to own their role in making it possible. Wittingly or unwittingly, Trump has called into question some of the most basic principles of American democracy, including the peaceful transition of power and freedom from retaliation for losing. What this bodes for America's future, I don't know, but it concerns me.

As for Trump's supporters, that is a more complex question. The anger many of them are expressing is legitimate. The working class has been short-changed for the last three decades and not just in this country. There are similar problems in Europe and elsewhere. Large numbers of people have been left behind by the economic policies that see all human activity only through the lens of transactions and take the market as the ultimate arbiter of human relations. Whole ways of life have been destroyed. We see this here in this country and we also see it Afghanistan, China, India and many other places in the world. Modernism, pluralism, democracy, etc., are some of the greatest developments of the Age of Enlightenment, but when they are imposed on a population (instead of being allowed to evolve within the population), the results are fear, anger, resentment and violence.

direction
Many of Trump's supporters just want to see change in the political system and the Washington establishment. They are willing to take the risk on an unsuitable candidate in the hope that he will bring about change. The costs of that change or the likely results are of less concern. For them, any change will be a change for the better.

Dilgo Khyentse, one of the great Tibetan masters of the 20th century was once asked, "Why do we practice?" His response was "To make the best of a bad situation." I find this response wonderfully fascinating and extraordinarily deep. Some people may take issue with the characterization of life as we know it as a bad situation, but all of us know that, however fortunate we are, we still end up struggling in and with our lives. Those struggles arise out of the natural course of life, imbalances generated by wanting to be with those we love and avoiding those we don't, with getting what we need and keeping what we have. How do we know which imbalances or struggles to address, which way to turn, or where to direct our attention and energy? 

This question takes us beyond the domain of Buddhist practice to the notion of practice in general. Peter Sloterdijk's response is that in the modern age, we have to develop a life of practice, of consistent repetition and refinement. But what practice? What, in our lives, he asks, is really worthy of practice, worthy of repetition and refinement?

One of the most important understandings that has come to me through my own practice, is to see, if only in a small way, how the world may appear through the eyes of others. To do so, I have had to let go of part of my own identity and imagine myself in others' shoes, and that is always a challenge. With respect to Black Lives Matter, for instance, African-Americans frequently experience the police not as a source of safety, but as a source of danger. The resentment of the white working class in many places in the country is readily understandable is you consider that you have to work two or even three jobs to keep food on the table while government or corporate bureaucrats impose their agendas and values on you. 

So, with Trump's supporters, while I disagree with them deeply on their support of an unsuitable candidate, their anger, fear and desire for change is part of my world, too.

Where do we go from here? I don't know. I think the best thing many of us can do is to use our skills to reach out and talk with those with whom we disagree. Bridges have to be built, not barricades. In order to resolve conflict and polarization, each party has to recognize the legitimacy of the vital interests of the other parties. You cannot expect anyone to compromise on what is vitally important to them. Human connection is everything, and without it, society falls into Darwinian chaos.

For me, at least, Buddhism doesn't tell us how to address these issues per se. Buddhist practice can and does provide the tools to develop the intention, skills and capacities to engage them, but how we respond depends on many factors, including the circumstances of our lives. It is up to me to figure out how to respond to the challenges of the 2016 election, not as a Buddhist but as a human being.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

taking care of your relationship with your teacher

It's always a little humbling when you discover that something you have held as more or less sacrosanct isn't quite what you held it to be.

To be specific, I have long held that the teacher-student relationship, particularly in the Tibetan tradition, was an aspect of practice that had to be protected and maintained at all costs. I had originally intended to write a short newsletter about the sanctity of the student-teacher relationship, but when I did a bit more research, I failed to unearth any references that unambiguously supported this view. After I talked with a few colleagues, it became clear that this was just my view on the matter.

What led me to this view? I grew up, spiritually speaking, in the Tibetan tradition, where the student-teacher relationship is taken very seriously. The culture regards it as sacrosanct, even continuing from one life to the next, so it was easy to feel that there was something sacred about it. That view was also reinforced again and again by any number of comments and readings. Here are two that were particularly important to me.

First, in Mind-Training in Seven Points, Chekawa writes: 

Take care to prevent three kinds of damage.

In his commentary, Kongtrül explains that the first kind of damage is damage to your relationship with your teacher and this is to be avoided because "All the fine qualities of the mahayana depend on your teacher."

The second was a conversation with Kalu Rinpoche. He was telling me how happy he had been earlier in his in an isolated mountain retreat, living on roasted barley and tea and meditating the live-long day. After a few years had passed, he received a series of letters from the hierarchs at Palpung Monastery asking, and then demanding, that he return to the monastery to teach the three-year retreat. He told me that he ignored these letters. But then a letter arrived from his teacher:

"You can stay in the mountains if you want to, but if you don't come down and teach the three-year retreat, never come to see me again."

"What could I do?" Rinpoche sighed. "I had to leave the mountains and start teaching."

From what he said, Rinpoche had been compelled to give up his life's calling in order to maintain his relationship with his teacher. The story, especially the wistful tone in his voice, left a deep impression.

What Kongtrül says is true, at least within the latitude of poetic license. For most of us, whatever spiritual understanding we develop begins with our teacher's example and instructions. Like any meaningful and valued relationship, the student-teacher relationship requires attention and care. How this is done in today's world is not always clear. We are caught between two models, as Peter Sloterdijk points out in You Must Change Your Life

In the Indian world, the license to teach is dependent on the master's own complete realization. In Greek and Christian traditions, you have the imperfect teacher, who overrides his or her weaknesses by incorporating them into what he or she teaches.

In the Indian model, your teacher is never regarded or treated as a peer and the primary way in which you take care of the relationship is through service, reverence and obedience. In the Western model, it is more a peer-relationship, though obviously, you regard the teacher as someone who can teach and guide you in your spiritual practice. Here, it seems to me, the primary way you take care of the relationship is through making use of what you receive from your teacher.

simple buddha with vases
We live in a changing world. What were once generally life-long engagements -- marriage, career and spiritual practice, for instance -- are subject to change in ways that they weren't in traditional societies. Because your relationship with your teacher is an important relationship, if it has to change, make the change in such a way that you avoid unnecessary rupture and that leaves you feeling as whole and complete as possible. 

For this, I draw on a traditional model, that of Atisha. Early in his spiritual practice, he studied with a red-hot yogin (a loose translation, but it expresses the point) who was skilled in vajrayana, energy transformation and debate (debate being a necessary skill in Indian monasticism). After several years, Atisha had a number of visions that called him to pursue instruction in bodhicitta (awakening mind) and he realized that he needed to take leave of his teacher. His teacher was a bad tempered person and did not know anything about bodhicitta. Atisha went to him, presented him with generous offerings, thanked him for all that he received and took his leave. The teacher, from what Atisha writes, was not at all happy at losing a capable and talented student and he got quite angry. However, Atisha had taken leave of him in such a way that there was nothing he could do.

I have seen too many people who, for one reason or another, were not able to change their relationship with their teacher in a good way, and the rupture left its mark. I've also worked with a number of people who did want to change their relationship with their teacher, in some cases to study with someone else, in others because they felt they could no longer learn from this particular person. For various reasons, they felt trapped and did not know how to proceed and they came to me for advice. My role was to help them find a way of expressing where they were in a way that honored their teacher and the relationship, but also made it clear that the relationship was changing, or had already changed. Once they were clear about where they stood and how to put it into words, they were able to meet with their teacher and say what they needed to say. In each of these cases, the teacher responded positively and the relationship changed without rupture.

The teacher-student relationship is important. It may be one of the most important relationships in your life. But it is not necessarily sacrosanct. As in any relationship, it has its ups and downs. Differences emerge, some of which are reconcilable and others that are not. And, like all relationships, it will come to an end, due to death of the student or teacher or for other reasons. Take care of this relationship, as it begins, as it lasts, as it changes, and as it comes to an end.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

faith or blind faith?

In 1971, I met the Sixteenth Karmapa for the first time, at his monastery near Rumtek in Sikkim. He was a person of tremendous presence, yet he alternated between laughter and seriousness with bewildering speed. At one point, he looked directly at me and said, "Your faith in Kalu Rinpoche must be the same whether you see him fly in the sky or kill a dog."

The look in his eyes as he said these words has never left me and I remember it clearly to this day. I was taken aback by this directive, and it made a deep impact on me. Was he talking about blind faith, to accept unquestioningly whatever my teacher did? Or was he pointing to something else?

Blind faith is essentially belief, belief in a fixed idea. Belief is based in reactive emotion and usually centers around identity. It takes whatever happens and explains it in a way that conforms to fixed ideas that are already held inside. We see this process play out in fundamentalism, whether political, economic or religious. Blind faith has an explanation for everything. It does away with mystery. No matter the evidence presented, the evidence is always interpreted to reinforce the belief. As James Carse writes in The Religious Case Against Belief, it marks the point at which thinking stops.

It made no sense to me that Karmapa was advocating blind faith. By this point, I had met several teachers and their depth of thought and learning, their responsiveness and compassion, and their humility and lack of pride just didn't point in the direction of the rigidity or forcefulness one encounters with blind faith. He meant something else, I was sure, but what?

I've come back to this directive many times, and though I feel I know what Karmapa was pointing to, I have never been able to put it into words. A few weeks ago, I discussed the incident with a good friend, and asked him what he thought. His response was succinct. "It means that your faith has to be unchanging and to come from a place that doesn't involve reason or judgment."

Blind faith, again? I didn't think so. This friend is about the last person on earth to advocate blind faith, so he, too, was pointing to something else. 


When I reflected on his response, I found that it fit very well with my experience. The faith that I have in my teacher is definitely not conceptual. It is not rational, either, but neither is it irrational. I cannot give an explanation or a reason for it. It is just there. It comes from a place in me that does not use or need to use reason, so rational and irrational just don't apply.

"Was it always there?" you might ask. And my response would be, "No, it wasn't." When I started to study with Rinpoche in India, I had been told only that he was a highly respected meditation teacher and one of the few that was willing to teach Westerners at that time. Nothing magical or earth-shattering happened when I first met him. I simply attended his class, studied Tibetan and practiced as best I could. Over the years, a relationship formed, partially through practice, partially through my serving as his translator and seeing how he responded to people's questions and challenges. But I would be hard put to say at what point faith reached the point of commitment and I let go of a conventional life or career in Western society.

Nor does this faith involve judgement. I was never very interested in the supposed miracles and signs that meant so much to other people. Much more moving, I found, was when Rinpoche described his struggles with sleep in the the three-year retreat and how he slept leaning against the door so he would be woken up when it was kicked open in the morning. 

Nor did I judge Rinpoche's actions and decisions. On a number of occasions, I disagreed deeply with how he saw things or what he wanted me to do. When that happened, two principles were of primary and equal importance to me. First, I had to find a way to proceed that did not lead to a break in my relationship with Rinpoche (not always easy given the differences between our cultures). Second, I had to find a way that did not compromise my own sense of what felt right to me. When you hold two seemingly contradictory principles in place, you are forced to go deeper. In each case, by holding those two principles firmly in mind, I found something else that I could let go. In one case, it was my cultural biases. In another case, it was my status and position as a teacher. In a third case, it was what people people might think of me. And so on. Difficult as each of those situations were, I am grateful for them as they led me to aspects of freedom I might not have had to consider otherwise.

Karmapa's directive was in a way oddly prophetic. Once they matured, my faith and confidence in Rinpoche never did change. Even though there were periodic tensions in our relationship, when he died in 1989 I didn't feel any separation and never have.

It seems to me that there is a profound connection between faith that does not rely on reason and judgment and direct awareness practices, such as mahamudra and dzogchen. In direct awareness practice, reason can lead you to the door, as it does in the Great Middle Way, for instance. Likewise, pointing out instructions, such as you find in the Shangpa tradition (see Wake Up to Your Life, Chapter 9) or in the Nyingma tradition (see Buddhahood Without Meditation), can and do undermine the operation of reason and fixed ideas, but they don't take you over the threshold, or, to use a Tibetan phrase, across the pass. For that, something else is needed: a willingness to enter what is completely unknown and unknowable to the conceptual mind. That is exactly what the kind of faith I'm describing here does.

That faith has to come from a place that does not rely on reason. Reason and logic keep the conceptual mind in place. They can be used to negate the conceptual mind, but that is all. Many Zen teachers, for instance, place great reliance on "don't know mind" and are skilled in the use of koans and other methods to bring the student to that point. But then what? What makes it possible to arrive at the point of not knowing, and take another step?

Similarly, that faith has to come from a place that is free from judgment. This freedom from judgment is much more than equanimity, though equanimity is a good starting point. Like the "don't know mind", equanimity brings you to the threshold. Again, something else is required to step through. The opening lines of Hsin Hsin Ming's "On Trust in the Heart" apply here:

The Perfect Way is only difficult for those who pick and choose; 
Do not like, do not dislike; all will then be clear. 
Make a hairbreadth difference, and Heaven and Earth are set apart; 
If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. 

How do you find your way here? I wish I could tell you. This is, perhaps, the principal challenge of spiritual and mystical practice. It is a way that cannot be described in words. Each of us have to find our own way. For some, that way can be guided, if not illuminated, by faith, but not the blind reactive faith that won't brook any contradiction. To the contrary, faith must be awake, alive and responsive. Above all, it must enable the trust that allows you to step into the unknown.