by Repa Dorje Odzer
In my training as a chaplain there was a fair amount of emphasis on learning how to connect and remain with difficult feelings that others were in the midst of negotiating. Sickness, old age and death certainly shake up a lot of feelings- add depression, psychosis, loss, and physical/emotional/spiritual pain and you really have a lot to learn to become familiar with. We were encouraged to sit in, remain with, and thoroughly explore what these feelings bring up within us. Something always arises, we don’t have to look deep, as the game of thought/feeling association is something that the mind/heart just seems to naturally play. I’m not sure that you can, or want to, change that. What we can do is become more aware of these associations, and in so doing, get some room within this process that normally, on an average day has the effect of being like a big heavy ring in our noses that lead us this way and that without our knowing what is going on.
Lately I have been mulling over an uncomfortable notion that leaves me often feeling grumpy, pessimistic and a little exhausted: Buddhism in America is doomed to fail. Or, we really run the risk of mucking-up the whole affair. I don’t really feel this way all of the time, but I do feel this way from time to time. It’s good to to sit with this discomfort and not whitewash it with the quick spiritual bypass of an investigated pure view. Besides, when I look around I find plenty of reason to feel this way.
In a recent blog post on Tricycle.com, one which I found profoundly disjointed and dissatisfying seemed to help confirm these speculative worries. Check it out here. It seems that we as Americans have a hard time approaching Buddhism outside of a self-help, therapy-related arena. It’s not really very surprising I suppose, given the huge publishing and marketing machine that has arisen around the self-help-industrial-complex and that of therapy. Millions of dollars are invested every year and many millions more are reaped from soft, happy, easy to read, and even easier to hear books that promise some kind of feeling of connection and meaning in a life that can be quite challenging. Yet, these new hybrids of Buddhism lacks most of what makes Buddhism, Buddhism. In reading some of the comments, one person suggested that people want to learn about Buddhist meditation but not follow any religious path. I suppose this person is referring to Buddhism as an adjective and not a noun, it’s hard for me to not feel like I’m standing in quicksand in reading the comments- there appears to be little solid ground.
I occasionally vacillate between the ‘standard’ Buddhist compassionate response to this dilemma by saying: “Well, at least the dharma is making it into people’s lives in some way- albeit in drips and drabs”, and a more militant feeling of disgust rooted in the sense that these little candy coated titles, prosaic presentations of the perfection of wisdom, are peddled more like Prozac than anything else. Where is the gnosis? How is the seemingly real and hard-fast rule of reality poked at and re-examined by these titles and ‘Buddhist’ forms of meditation? How does Buddhist therapy, psychotherapy in particular, negotiate the fundamental paradox that the Self that we seek to free and know better doesn’t exist? Is shining a light on the Psyche, bringing it into the realm of conscious mind, the same as enlightenment?
In fact, I still find it bizarre that many of today’s western Buddhist dharma teachers are psychotherapists. Why is this necessary? Does it lend more credence to the Buddhadharma? I appreciate the desire to integrate psychology into Buddhism from time to time, but I don’t see the value of a permanent amalgam of the two. I also can see the value of presenting a parallel structure in order to help present Buddhism, yet I feel the need to remind myself at the very least, that parallel doesn’t mean the same. There is a real risk of creating hybrid Frankenstein-like equivalencies in which the experience of familiarization of mind (and by extension, reality itself- apparent and otherwise) is the same as having an integrated-Self.
When in meditation it’s pretty clear that trying to describe the way we subtly grasp after time, or after having an experience and then trying to quantify it, that words fail us. This is nothing new, but it is startling when we settle ourselves into meditation and just rest our minds and then let ourselves notice the grasping that we are prone to.
Try and describe a remedy to grasping.
Already the use of the word ‘remedy’ creates a dynamic that is problematic- and before you know it meditation easily feels like a mess. Yet when we let go into a natural awareness (and can truly see that there is nothing to take away or add), somehow we gain the clarity to ‘see’ again. Words in their relative function are amazing. They are magical jewels that ornament, they provide meaning and bless us with the ability to express ourselves, and yet they have limitations as well; so to for concepts, notions, ideas, and other components that buttress meaning within our experience of the universe. When we hold on and let our habitual grasping go it seems like the structures that we like to use to help explore Buddhism gain a sense of permanence and then what do we have? How easy it can be to subtly miss the mark and assign permanence to the ideas that we use towards our own liberation.
And yet, for some reason we fail to spend our precious time in these investigations. We fail to massage the heart and sit with whatever arises and learn how to experience it as an expression of enlightenment, and instead we opt for the self-help and therapy structuralism that seems rife with hypnotic distractions which may, at the end of the day, not serve us well if we want to follow the Buddhist path.
Oh, man, but to charge $150 an hour to teach ngondrö or shamatha, that ain’t gonna happen.
But, $150 an hour is reasonable for a jog on the never-ending treadmill of analysis, that’s some good shit! Snake oil never felt so luxurious!
So is hitting a home-run with a best-selling book on finding the everyday wisdom of Buddhism in five minutes. You’ll definitely have plenty of jonesing people lost in the foggy mist of the American dream lined up to buy your sequel or pay obscene prices for retreats complete with yoga. Don’t forget to wear the latest DKNY dharma inspired sweatpants! That way everyone will know how serious you are about Buddhism. If you are finding it hard to stabilize your energies in the central channel, don’t worry, you can buy jeweler that does it for you. Wow, I can just imagine how jealous King Indrabhuti might be- this makes Guyasamaja seem so pedantic. We can all relax, the NY Times says that Glam is the new Om! Oh, for a few dollars more…
I finally wrapped up Christian Wedemeyer’s Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism: History, Semiology and Transgression in the India Traditions. Its a real masterwork in many ways. Christian’s writing is lucid, evocative and filled with well pointed wit. He brilliantly describes the varying academic “approaches” to the point of origin, development, audience, and practitioners of Buddhist Tantra in haunting detail; haunting in how easy it is to miss the mark and get caught up in one’s own academic back-story while attempting to treat a topic as complex and elusive as Tantra. That part of the Buddhakapala Tantra is translated and included as an appendix is a special gift. All in all, Christian’s delivery feels like the smooth cut of Manjusri’s sword, cutting through all of the ways that we feel the need to add more to things as they are. In fact, one of the most profound take-away from the work is how we as Buddhists bring our own back-stories to our Buddhism, or that as humans rather, this is a very automatic thing- as Buddhists we are no different. The way the events of our lives, the pains and joys, the highs and the lows, the limitations of our scope of vision (inner and outer) as well as our limited understanding of time all make us see what we see when we approach the dharma. It’s difficult to see clearly. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book, so much so that I’m using it in a year-long course on exploring Buddhist Tantra at New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center- if you haven’t become familiar with the work of the good Dr. Wedemeyer, I encourage you to do so.
I savor the sense of discomfort that I am left with from reading this book in seeing just how easily we miss the mark in thinking that we know how things are, how comfortable we get in our places of ‘knowing’, and how in order to get close to definitive meaning, perhaps we have to become comfortable with the discomfort of wandering, solitary, a hero- or vira/pawo, not unlike the symbol of a cowboy.
Somehow when we get a Buddhism that is comfortable, cozy and full of the humorous wisdom of smiling Asian men- the Buddhism of cups of afternoon herbal tea- of the slow spiritual by-pass that separates us from the aspects of ourselves that are blood-thirsty, that are impatient, that can be uncomfortable we begin to fool ourselves. At moments like these our spiritual path becomes a re-living of our back-story, what we want to believe (often out of convenience), and we are lead by that same thick metal nose-ring along our stupid spiritual path. All the while the times of sand pass (as they naturally do) and we fail to head the silent whispers of the possibility of death. Yet when we can see these dynamics more clearly, it is easier to wake up to the freshness and clarity of all that arises- it is as if we remove the Vaseline on a camera lens that gives everything that soft hazy, lazy, comfy, lack of urgency. With clarity comes the ability to act- something which great cowboys like Hevajra, Chakrasamvara and Buddhakapala do with great effect.
Maybe there’s not enough room in town for the both of us after-all. Maybe there’s not enough room for the dualistic discursive ground that informs us in our spiritual paths when we use our path to run away from discomfort, inadequacy, complacency, homogeneity, and fear of truly addressing our needs.
Like Chakrasamvara or Hevajra, or Vajrayogini and Palden Lhamo, the solitary hero, the lonely cowboy often does what she needs because it is what needs to be done. Ungrateful work, no doubt, but vital. Facing the demons of bandits, posses of violent drunken thugs, the cowboy negotiates the law, killing as she needs, reluctantly at times, and at other times becoming the very law that she seeks to uphold.
Can we take hold of our practice in a way that makes it real and authentic, that honors/connects it to it’s roots without welding it to facile sub-structures that may speak more to our own inability to make our own origami shapes out of the never-ending supply of dharma?
Can we shed our soft assumptions, see our back-story, and our addictions to reality being a particular way for what they are?
We all know that sooner or later the hangman’s noose will tighten around this neck of ours, and that Yama’s posse is hot on our trail. Time to roll up that blanket, cowboy and act. You know what to do. Tantra is unrepentantly non-dual, be careful of how you approach it. If you can see the lama in appearance you’ll be alright. If you don’t, there are other gunslingers out there- try one out, learn from them…
So, as I redouble my efforts to remain hopeful that our impatience and childish desire to run away from scary monsters is just an adventitious temporary stain (to reference Rangjung Dorje’s Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer), and rest in my feelings of grumpiness, futility and desperation I wonder: can you connect with the pimp and the pusher? With the snake oil salesman who rolls into town with a bottle and a bunch of promises? With the soft pastel clothes of a self-help guru? What about the lone hero who just wants a fist full of dollars? Could you have been a contender? What part of you wants to look hot on your cushion, with sexy mudras, and a bedroom-eyes meditation gaze? From where do these impulses arise? To where do they go?
These seductive subtle demons are tricky in that they are comfortable. They speak to us in just the way we want to be spoken to, they look good (like us), and they just want us to be comfortable. In fact, they may appear less like demons and more like attractive young gods and goddesses that urge us to bring some of accoutrements of the long-life gods’ realm into our lives, but beware of comfort- look deeply at what you are grasping after- I wonder what it is…