Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Mind the Gap

How do you practice Vajrayana in today’s world? 
Many teachers and most students seem to think it is simply a matter of learning and practicing the methods and rituals of Vajrayana as they were practiced in Tibet, even though the cultural contexts are very different. People seem to ignore the fact that what works in one cultural context may not work in another. A date palm is probably not going to fair well in an alpine meadow and the gap between a modern world view and the cultural context of Vajrayana has claimed more than a few seekers, their spiritual quests ending in disillusionment, despair, derangement or even death.

Here, I focus on three aspects of this gap. How do we regard the sacred? What is the place of practice in our lives? How do we live our practice? My intention is doing so is to lay out enough of a map that you don’t fall into the gap.

Most of us grew up in a culture steeped in two of the Abrahamic traditions, Judaism and Christianity. These traditions define our culture, including the foundations of our political and legal systems. The collection of religions that belong to the Abrahamic tradition evolved out of a religion that originally inspired a semi-nomadic desert tribe in the Middle East struggling to survive famine, floods, wars and enslavement. By contrast, the collection of religions that belong to the Buddhist tradition evolved out of the experience of a single renunciate, the heir to a small kingdom in Northern India who abandoned a life in society and sought a way to be at peace in the face of the challenges every individual faces—old age, illness and death.

Another way to look at this difference is to consider three questions that any spiritual tradition must answer:

  • How do I relate to the sacred?
  • How does the sacred take expression in life?
  • How do I live in a way that embraces the sacred?

The Abrahamic traditions regard the sacred as something that is other, not human. How do I relate to it? The answer is “Obey,” as we can see from the accounts of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, to Jesus, Paul, and on to the Koran and the writings of Mohammed. Because the answer is to obey, a lot of attention and energy goes into the interpretation of the law, that is, exactly what constitutes obeying.

The second question is about the way the sacred takes expression in our lives. Christ’s life, for instance, is an account of what happens when the sacred takes expression in the world. It is killed, or, more accurately, the person is killed. Because God is regarded as other, those who experience God in themselves are generally regarded with suspicion and in more than a few instances died at the hands of the society in which they lived. In other words, if the sacred is present and active in you, it is not safe to live in conventional society. Thus, the answer here is “Outside of conventional society.”

This tension between the sacred and society leads to the third question, “How do I live in a way that embraces the sacred?” In the Abrahamic traditions, the answer to this question has often been, “We have to create a new society, one which embraces the sacred.” Such societies are necessarily theocracies. The priests hold the power. Historically, they have been authoritarian, if not totalitarian, and we see these tendencies today in the more fundamentalist branches of the Abrahamic traditions on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.

In Tibetan Vajrayana we find quite different answers to these three questions because the sacred is not regarded as other. It is regarded, for lack of a better term, as our own nature, as what we are. Our experience of being that is distorted and obscured by biological, emotional and cultural conditioning (what is traditionally referred to as karma). Thus, the answer to the first question “How do I relate to the sacred?” is “Recognize it as your own nature.” For the second question, “How does the sacred take expression in my life?” the Vajrayana answer is “Nothing else matters.” In other words, your life is oriented around what you are. The conventions of society have to be taken into account, of course, but the center of your life is about being what you are, a non-conceptual knowing that is not based in the conventional. Finally, for the third question “How do I live in a way that embraces the sacred?” the answer is “I trust it, and let it unfold.” You do not try to create a new society. Instead, you have complete confidence that your nature is such that whatever arises in your experience will release itself, just as clouds appear and disappear in the sky.

Those of you who are familiar with Vajrayana, particularly the Nyingma tradition of Dzogchen, may recognize that these answers are exactly Garab Dorje’s Three Lines that Hit the Nail on the Head. They are usually translated something like:

Recognize your own true nature.
Choose the state of presence. (or Be absolute about one point.)
Continue in the state with confidence in liberation.

However, I recently tried to work out a rendering that conveys the energy and directness of the Tibetan:

There! This is what you are.
There! Nothing else matters.
There! Just go—it unfolds. 

Some may argue that my comparison is unfair, as it compares the exoteric schools of the Abrahamic tradition with an esoteric school (Tibetan Vajrayana) belonging to the Buddhist tradition. My reason for making this particular comparison is that it reflects the gap most of us have had to negotiate. We started from our conventional lives, not from prior mystical training. The way we think and reason is based on exoteric spirituality, or on its secular expression. Yet we are drawn to or are already engaged in the highly esoteric practices of Vajrayana. Granted, in the mystical schools of the Abrahamic traditions, we find more common ground, but the sense of the sacred as other is still prevalent and what we call our own nature in Buddhism is usually regarded as a gift from God.

If you try to practice Vajrayana with the view that the sacred is something other, you will resist or deny the validity of experiences in which there is no other. If you try to practice Vajrayana using methods intended to disrupt reactive patterns, yet your try to hold onto your relationship with conventional society, you will at best dance around the edges and at worst end up in serious trouble. As the energy developed in practice disrupts the reactive patterns with which you relate to life, if you are not clear about what is important to you, your health and sanity will be threatened. If you try to practice Vajrayana to make a better conventional society or to make your own life better, you are not trusting the natural clarity of your own mind.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Three Instructions

Recently, I read Tracing Back the Radiance, a book about Chinul, the 12th century Korean Son (Zen) master. He was deeply influenced by the early Chan masters in China, and frequently quotes a 7th century master, Yung-Chia, who is probably best known for a poem called Song of Enlightenment.

Here is one quotation that caught my attention:

The alertness of calmness is correct; the alertness of deluded thoughts is wrong.
The calmness of alertness is correct; the calmness of blankness is wrong.

Wow! So much in so few words. For most of us, they are probably all we need in the beginning. Read them slowly again and note what happens in you.

The alertness of calmness is correct; the alertness of deluded thoughts is wrong.
The calmness of alertness is correct; the calmness of blankness is wrong.

In other words, when your mind is calm or stable, you can cultivate the clarity aspect by emphasizing the being aware quality, or alertness. Here, the clarity is not based in thought or thinking. On the other hand, when you are thinking, any effort you make to be clear and awake is conceptually based. That is why the alertness of deluded thoughts is wrong.

In the same way, when your mind is clear and alert, you can cultivate calmness or stability. You can do this by just resting in whatever you are experiencing without trying to change it. When you do this, you are joining the clarity aspect of attention with stability. It's a different kind of resting, very different from sleep or ordinary relaxation. If your mind is not clear and alert, but just blank, even though there may be little thinking going on, resting in that blankness will only reinforce the dullness. That is why the calmness of blankness is wrong.

This practice brings stability and clarity together.

With these two instructions, you can cultivate stable, active attention. At some point, you will probably become curious about your experience. What is this mind? What rests? What moves, What knows?

Now a second pair of instructions come into play. These are from Clarifying the Natural State, by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal:

Look in the resting.
Rest in the looking.

They parallel Yung-Chia's pair, but go a step further. There are no answers to these questions, but the questions do take you deeper. 

Pick one of these questions. What rests?, for example. When you pose the question, there is usually an immediate shift into looking. (Don't try to analyze or figure out answers. That will just put you back in the conceptual mind. Just look.)

Strictly speaking, as I wrote in a previous newsletter, looking is a metaphor for a certain effort. You could try listening, too, but with this set of questions, looking words better for most people. 

Again, let yourself settle and then pose one of the questions. You will probably experience a shift. That shift is what is meant by looking. You are looking while resting. In doing so, you are not separating mind function (the active looking quality) and mind nature (the resting quality). In a sense, it is like the sun (mind essence) and sunlight (mind function).

You won't see anything, of course, because there is nothing to see. Mind is not a thing. There is nothing there. But, as you become familiar with looking, you can then practice resting in the looking. This means that once the question has elicited a shift in knowing, you don't push it. You just rest right there.

Through this practice, you bring together resting and seeing.

Finally, a third set of instructions comes from The Demon's Sermon on Martial Arts, one of the more insightful books I've read on how understanding manifests in life:

Rest without resting.
Move without moving.

The function of mind is movement. The nature of mind is rest.

To rest without resting means to rest in mind nature without trying to control the natural function of mind and body. For instance, something may happen in your life that is extremely upsetting. You rest in that upset so deeply that you are at peace, even though you feel hurt, anger and confusion raging and ricocheting in your mind and body. This is what it means to rest without resting. Do note that this is not the same as observing the anger and confusion. Observing is a form of detachment that reinforces a sense of "I".

As for "move without moving," this refers to training that has been instilled so deeply that the response just happens when the situation arises. We see this in the arts, particularly in music, and also in martial arts. When you are well trained in a discipline, you do whatever is appropriate and necessary, and your mind doesn't move at all. There is just the response, so you move without moving. In the context of spiritual practice, your training is so deep that thoughts and feelings arise and release themselves -- movement without movement.

Needless to say, you can only do this if you have previously trained in that particular discipline, be it playing a musical instrument, cooking a meal, meditation practice, responding to an attack (in the case of martial arts) or facilitating a group conversation. Such abilities don't simply appear just because you have experienced an awakening.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Bodhicitta Explained

Every mystical tradition has one or more ways to transform emotional energy into attention. The most common method is devotion, which plays a central role in traditions as diverse as Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Pure Land Buddhism, and Vajrayana Buddhism. In many of the Theravada traditions of Southeast Asia, lovingkindness is used to generate the emotional energy needed to power attention. Likewise, in many of the Mahayana traditions, compassion is the emotion of choice.

In Mahayana practice, compassion is both a practice and a result. Compassion is used to transform emotional reactivity into attention, and that attention in turn is used to awaken to the nature of mind—emptiness. But then that same emptiness becomes the basis for a different kind of compassion. This interweaving of emptiness and compassion is expressed in the Sanskrit word bodhicitta, for which an accepted and widely used English translation is “awakening mind.”

The role of compassion in Mahayana practice has led to more than a few misunderstandings in today’s world. In many traditions compassion is the stepping-stone into bodhicitta (awakening mind), the central theme of Mahayana. Many people regard bodhicitta as simply a form of altruism. (It is that, but also much more.) Others are of the opinion that the practice of compassion is primarily about doing good in the world, and that the ethics of bodhicitta require engagement with social or environmental issues and the advancement of specific social and cultural agendas, including identity politics, diversity, and related matters.

This social and political orientation is very much at odds with my own training in the Tibetan tradition. None of my teachers ever presented bodhicitta as a method or basis for social action, let alone political advocacy. Quite the contrary; they presented it as a way to make use of whatever we encounter in life to deepen or enhance our experience of awakening. The awakening they taught led to an essentially mystical relationship with life—a way of experiencing life directly, unmediated by the conceptual mind, a way of life based on the union of compassion and emptiness. What one actually did with one’s life was left open.

If compassion is the wish that others not suffer, one approach, certainly, is to address material and emotional needs—struggles with poverty, hunger, illness, and fear in all of their innumerable combinations, as well as the many ways in which people are treated as less than human. This form of compassion seeks to alleviate suffering and pain as much as possible and takes expression in society as kindness, care, and justice.

To bring an actual end to suffering is another matter entirely. Suffering comes to an end only when a person is so in touch with life that he or she is completely at peace, regardless of physical or emotional circumstances. The wish to help others find that kind of peace is a very different form of compassion.

Bodhicitta evolves out of this second kind of compassion. Bodhicitta, as awakening mind, is the intention to awaken to life in order to help others awaken to life. It is not simply a feeling or an emotion or a sentiment. It has a vertical dimension that runs at right angles to our social conditioning and embraces a knowing, a seeing, into the nature of experience itself. It may grow out of the compassion that seeks to alleviate suffering, but it is qualitatively different.

Bodhicitta permeates every aspect of Mahayana teaching and practice. Broadly speaking, it is a quality (many might say it is the quality) that moves us in the direction of awakening. But what is it?

For some teachers bodhicitta is an intention. The 4th-century Indian master Asanga regarded it as the intention to wake up in order to free all beings from samsara. Here, samsara means the way that we experience life when we are confused by emotional reactions and blinded by a lack of experiential understanding of what we are. For other teachers, such as the 8th-century scholar-monk Shantideva, it is primarily a commitment to engage in the practice of awakening, which is actively motivated by the wish to help others be free. For yet others, it is the experience of awakening itself—those moments when we experience a unity of compassion and emptiness that goes beyond any conceptual understanding. In such moments, emotional reactivity and ignorance relinquish their hold on us, and our relationship with life fundamentally and irrevocably changes. And for still others, notably the 14th-century Tibetan master Longchenpa, it is freedom from the confusion of blindness and reactivity—a freedom in which all choice disappears and we simply respond to the struggles and needs of others according to the circumstances of our lives.

Bodhicitta has been the subject of many large and weighty tomes. The Four Great Vows in the Zen tradition provide a wonderfully succinct, pragmatic, and profound articulation of bodhicitta:

Beings are numberless: may I free them all.
Reactions are endless: may I release them all.
Doors to experience are infinite: may I enter them all.
Ways of awakening are limitless: may I know them all.

The first of the four vows says Beings are numberless: may I free them all. It speaks to a heartfelt wish that others not suffer. In the practice of bodhicitta, we actively cultivate a wish that others be free of pain and struggle. As an example of such a wish, consider the 19th-century Tibetan master Jamgon Kongtrul the Great. Kongtrul himself was an extraordinarily humble person who devoted his life to practice and teaching. Nevertheless, he was so highly regarded that in the reincarnation tradition of Tibetan Buddhism he was regarded as a bodhisattva who would become the thousandth buddha of this age (Buddha Shakyamuni is said to be the fourth). Legend has it that the intention of the thousandth buddha is to do for sentient beings as much as all the previous 999 buddhas have done. Now that is a big wish! Its time frame alone boggles the imagination.

You might pause here and take a few moments to formulate a comparable wish. Make it big—really big. Make it as big as you can possibly imagine, and then push it a bit further. Do not worry about whether it is practical or even possible. When you have it, hold it in your heart for a few minutes. If you experience a shift, just rest there for a few minutes and consider what it would be like to live your life from that shift. From the perspective of bodhicitta practice, that shift is everything.

We soon find out that helping others to find peace in themselves is far from easy. We quickly discover that far from being able to help others, we are locked up in our own worlds of emotional reaction—the fiery hells and icy wastes of anger and hate, the barren deserts of greed where nothing is ever enough, the never-ending rat race of envy and competition, and so on. Our whole life consists of flitting from one such world to another. No matter where we land, we do not see things clearly and we are unable to provide any meaningful help to others. Thus the second of the great vows is Reactions are endless: may I release them all.

In today’s world, where we have been brought up in the myth that we can actually control our lives and control what we experience, it is important to remember that we cannot and do not actually release emotional reactions. All we can do is create the conditions in which emotional reactions let go on their own. Those conditions are a generosity of spirit; as much honesty with ourselves as we can muster; patience to endure our own confusion; steady and consistent effort; an ability to rest in attention without distraction; and a knowing that enables us to see through our own confusion. These qualities are known in Mahayana teachings as the six perfections—generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, meditative stability and wisdom. They create the conditions that make it possible for us to experience emotional reactions in open attention without succumbing to, suppressing, or controlling them. Then, as the texts say, emotional reactions arise and subside on their own, like clouds in the sky.

Here bodhicitta changes from a wish to a commitment: we are going to use whatever life throws at us to wake up. We may engage in political or social action if we feel called to do so, but our intention is subtly different. We use those settings or whatever our situation is in life to see our own emotional reactivity and work through it as best we can. The main point is that with the commitment of bodhicitta we no longer have the luxury of indulging our own confusion and reactivity.

You may notice that this way of approaching life does not necessarily make life better. In fact, often it makes things more difficult, precisely because we cannot indulge our reactivity. We cannot ignore or avoid the pain and struggles of others, whether the other is a surly store clerk or a difficult boss or a homeless person on the street. You may also begin to appreciate that bodhicitta is not a sort of super-altruism or compassion. Rather, it is a practice that changes how we experience life itself. Conventional notions of happiness, gain, fame, and respect begin to lose their hold, and we come to value peace, equanimity, and compassion as qualities worth striving for in their own right.

We make good on our commitment to awakening not by doing good but by using whatever arises in our lives to wake up. To do so, we have to let go of our emotional reactions, again and again and again. Every reaction that does let go opens a door to a different way of experiencing life, and that brings us to the third vow: Doors to experience are infinite: may I enter them all.

This line in Japanese contains a double entendre that is difficult to replicate in English. The phrase “doors to experience” also means “doors to the dharma,” as the word dharma means both what arises in experience and spiritual teaching.

An example of one such door is found at the beginning of The Diamond Sutra. The Buddha returns from his daily rounds begging for food in the town of Shravasti. He sits down and takes his meal. He then puts away his bowl and folds his robes. Subhuti is so awed by the naturalness of these simple actions that he is moved to ask the Buddha, “How does a bodhisattva sit? How does a bodhisattva act? How does a bodhisattva take hold of mind?”

The Buddha begins his response with the last question. In the third chapter of The Diamond Sutra he says, essentially, “To take hold of mind, a bodhisattva sets the intention to lead every being into nirvana—wherever they may be, however they have come into this world, however mundane or transcendent their experience. And in doing so, the bodhisattva knows that no being is freed.”

The first time I read this passage, everything just stopped. Thoughts vanished. My mind was completely clear, and at the same time there was nothing there. “Oh,” I said to myself, “that is how you take hold of mind!” Many of the sutras are to be read this way, not as philosophical teachings but as elicitations of specific experiences.

How is it that no being is freed? As the Buddha goes on to say in the sutra, no being is freed because in the moment of taking hold of mind, there is no perception of an other, no perception of a being, a soul, a life, or a person.

When something like this happens, we drop to our knees in awe that such an experience is humanly possible. We had no idea that we were capable of feeling such far-reaching care and compassion while experiencing such depth of peace and presence. Shantideva’s magnificent work The Way of the Bodhisattva arose out of the wonder and awe he felt when he discovered this possibility. This is bodhicitta, or awakening mind. Small wonder, then, that we feel we have discovered something profoundly, ultimately, and absolutely true.

Right there is where the notion of ultimate or absolute truth is born. The term “absolute truth” does not refer to a truth in the sense of philosophical, mathematical, or scientific truth. It is truth more in the sense of a poem that rings true or a sword that cuts true. It is experientially true in a way that goes right to the core of our being and beyond. By contrast, everything else seems superficial, misleading, and mundane, and is seen as “relative truth.” In short, the two truths of Mahayana Buddhism are not truths as such, but descriptions of how we experience life when the conceptual mind lets go.

This contrast is well described by a poem in the anonymously published collection Full On Arrival:

Until we experience it,
Emptiness sounds so
Once experienced,
All is empty by comparison.

This is one example of a door to experience, or a door to the dharma. The irony is that every emotional reaction is also a door to this way of experiencing life. We can use our commitment to bodhicitta to meet any emotional reaction, open to it, see what it is, and let it release on its own. When we do these steps, we usually experience a shift. That shift is a glimpse of a different way of experiencing life, a way that does not depend on the conceptual mind, a way in which words, thoughts, and emotional reactions have no hold. Bodhicitta here is not a wish. Nor is it an ongoing commitment. It is an experience of awakening. In any such glimpse of bodhicitta, you immediately recognize the two themes of Mahayana Buddhism, emptiness and compassion. On the one hand, when the mind stops, there is nothing there, just the peace of empty clarity. On the other, in that peace you are intensely and deeply aware of the pain of the world, and compassion naturally arises.

Now we move into the realm of the fourth vow: Ways of awakening are limitless: may I know them all. As we go through these doors again and again, our efforts build momentum. The inexpressible peace and freedom we experience when emotional reactions let go begins to pervade our life. Probably the most eloquent description of bodhicitta at this level is found in Longchenpa’s important work The Basic Space of Phenomena [Tib., chos dbyings mdzod]. In this truly epic work, Longchenpa sees awakening mind as the basis of life:

Awakening mind is the basis of all experience.
It is unrestricted, arising as anything whatsoever.
Its natural clarity shines in the vastness of pure experience:
Nothing whatsoever to identify, it is just the way unfettered awareness carries itself.

Longchenpa presents awakening mind as the constant unfolding of awareness or experience in an inconceivable vastness that can only be described as unrestricted empty clarity. This is a deeply mystical knowing, and at this point there is virtually nothing left of us. We are free. But what form does this freedom take?

We have all the freedom of the sun: we radiate light and warmth to the world without any thought of who deserves to be nurtured and who does not. We have all the freedom of the rain: we provide the moisture of understanding and everyone partakes of it, regardless of how they live their lives. We have all the freedom of the wind, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, touching every form of life with the breath of life. We have all the freedom of the earth: we provide support and nourishment for all who live and breathe in the world without any say as to what they do with their lives. Such thoughts never arise. Instead, we are completely and utterly at peace, and at the same time we respond naturally and spontaneously to the pains of the world and the needs of others.


Compassion, the wish that others not suffer, arises in different ways. One is the simple, straightforward feeling that comes quite naturally when we see others struggling. We just want them to be at peace. A second is when we have come to terms with an aspect of life that everyone finds difficult—aging and mortality, for instance. In coming to terms with our own mortality, we see that we are all in the same boat, so to speak, and, again, we naturally feel compassion for others struggling with the same issue. Compassion arises in yet a third way when we come to know experientially that the sense of “I” we hold so dear is simply a movement of mind—there really is nothing there. Then we see that others are not different from us and their struggles are no different from ours.

In classical Indian Buddhism, the first way, the straightforward wish, leads to king- or queen-like bodhicitta. It is a wish to help others, a wish we realize through the power of our own virtue and understanding. The understanding and acceptance of mortality gives rise to boatman-like bodhicitta, helping others to accept this experience we call life just as it is and to be free and at peace with it. The third kind of compassion, the direct knowing of non-self, gives rise to shepherd-like bodhicitta. Here there is no comparison, not even the conceit of equality—just the intention to guide others as best we can to the peace and understanding of freedom, with little, if any, concern for ourselves.

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:

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.