On a more pastoral vajrayana and haughty lamas…
by Repa Dorje Odzer
A few weeks ago I read an excellent article about Pope Francis shaking up the ecclesiastic leadership in the United States, and the subsequent reactions from more conservative Catholics. I found myself, despite my own sense of satisfaction in learning more about how the nuts and bolts of how Catholicism in America works, feeling sad and emotional around how far it seems that we as practitioners of Vajrayana have to go in the West before such conversations can occur around the quality of presence of our own spiritual leadership. In a way, we Vajrayana Buddhists are lacking when it comes to real authentic pastoral presence. When I say this I certainly don’t mean to imply that His Holiness Karmapa, or His Holiness Dalai Lama lack pastoral presence. They don’t. I have had the chance to be in their presence in very intimate settings and the degree to which they appear attuned to even the smallest concern of another person is astounding to witness. I refer to the lamas and administrators that represent our gompas, our Buddhist Associations, as well as the general dharma center leadership across the western world.
As it turns out, Pope Francis recently appointed Cardinal Donald Wuerl as the new head of the Congregation of Bishops, replacing Cardinal Raymond L. Burke for his conservatism and lack of pastoral affect. This change in leadership, while subtle in some respects, will hopefully produce long standing effects in how the church presents itself, to whom the church ministers and in what position it will take in relationship to the experience of the transcendent. Pastoralism is something that we commonly find within Christendom; in it’s most basic form it presents a spiritual concern centered around giving spiritual instruction and guidance to others. In this case, the parish priest who is intimately connected to the concerns and needs of his “flock”, needs spiritual, emotional and otherwise, comes to mind. Someone who works tirelessly for the benefit of others- in real terms, not just an aspiration to perform this task but to actually roll ones sleeves up, and get into the mucky mess that comes with being. Pastoralism also has applications that relate to music, art and philosophy, and a personal and ethical desire to return to the simple, the immediately real and what occurs naturally. As a hospice chaplain who operates from within the Vajrayana tradition as an ordained Repa, I am comfortable with discussions around the importance of pastoral presence and what that means. Yet I often find my Vajrayana contemporaries uncomfortable in challenging themselves in a way other than the way that tradition dictates. That the lineage of Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa and Mila has gotten so rigid and insecure is unfortunate.
I think that one could definitely say that Milarepa had mastered a pastoral presence, or pastoral affect. In suggesting this I feel that it has less to do with the fact that he lived in retreat, in the pastoral wilds of Tibet as coincidence would have it, but that he could naturally -with simple immediate ease- sense the needs and suffering that others were consumed by because he could sit honestly with what arose within himself. This sounds easy to do, but in actuality it is quite painful and heartbreaking. It is difficult to see others stuck within their own experiences of themselves and even harder to see where we get stuck in similar ways. We generally don’t want to recognize how compelling the hallucinations that we have created actually are and how we lead ourselves around and around in circles, let alone try to work through the baseless obsession with the fact that we are imperfect and need to get somewhere before we can stand on our own two feet. Retreat is certainly a great way to develop spiritual insights, and it is very important, yet retreat does not necessarily produce compassion, and I am not so sure that it produces pastoral presence nearly as well and being fully engaged by what life brings our way. In fact I would argue the latter: compassion arises more uniformly, with more stability outside of a comfortable retreat setting. When living life in full one can easily get to the heart of difficult feelings that arise within the experience of pain and suffering, feel them and then let them flow into the next experience. Retreat can be helpful in this regard, however, I tend to feel that it is easier to seduce ourselves into a comfortable homeostasis in which we are never really forced to face our fears, never asked to consider the shadows, and never really asked to cut deep to the bone and feel that cold pain of the roots of our own suffering. This is why Milarepa is considered semi-wrathful within the text of his guru-yoga; the only way that he could go deeper and deeper within his practice is to cut with skill, precision and power. Cutting deep is important- it is hard and very uncomfortable. Yet, at the end of the day, we are best served when we can access the pain and suffering that we hide from. When we can do this pastoral presence is much more authentic. There is no better model for Vajrayana Buddhists than Milarepa if we are looking to foster a more pastoral Vajrayana.
Occasionally I fear that much of the way that the Vajrayana perspective is presented in the West is somewhat split between pedagogic models that either have students memorize terminology, acquaint oneself with logic, and years of study before they can say that we are Buddhists, and the other extreme that we can simply blend our curiosity of Buddhism with our practice of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.- that we don’t need to worry about to committing to any one tradition. We are either definitely going to be born in one of the Hell Realms because we are terribly ignorant, or we are going to be just fine and we need not really worry about specifics- just show up say your prayers and do a bit of instruction without committing to a teacher or cogent path of practice. It is much easier to just follow the rules and sheepishly hide who we are in relationship to dharma than integrate the dharma into our experience of life.
We also seem to suffer from an overly Mahayana perspective around the long period of time through which we must practice before we become realized. We are very infrequently told (or shown) that liberation can come in this moment, on this very seat, in this very session. We are given a practice and generally told that it will take an incalculable (or at least an unknowable) amount of time before enlightenment occurs. We venerate past masters who were exemplary and also taught to believe that we are nothing in comparison to them- we are but just mere shadows. But is this really so? Why are we not taught to take greater responsibility for our realization? Why are we not taught to be creative in our practice, to take our seat and settle into our own pastoral authority? In fact, more often than not, the specific lineage that we are shown is presented more like a line which we shouldn’t deviate from, yet when one looks, most of the great masters struggled to challenge and confront such preconceived ways of being. Eveny lineage has masters who did whatever they needed to do to effect realization- if it meant breaking the rules, so be it.
I fear that some of the leaders that one finds within the mainstream presentation of Vajrayana lack the natural ease that Milarepa brought to the tradition at large: no monasteries, no particular school of thought to tether oneself to, no institutional affiliations, no orthodoxies, no expectations, no roles, just the experience of pure experience. Even though I say this, it should be noted that the growing interest by scholars in the development of the Milarepa’s hagiographical literature presents us with compelling evidence that the creation of the story of Milarepa morphed into what we know today from a wide variety of projections of what his life was thought to have been like by others centuries after his death. Even still, despite the fact that we may only be able to interact with our own inner Milarepa, and the true Milarepa may never be known, there is some indescribable inspiration that he evokes, not unlike the feeling of an early warm Spring day that leaves one feeling naturally resolved and content and excited for whatever comes next. For me part of the joy of Milarepa is that everything is okay, that within the experience of Mahamudra there is nothing to add, nothing to take away, nothing to do, and that we can rest in everything because it is all essentially one taste. This is a powerful root to a penetrating pastoral presence that is without fault. I try in my own way to allow this to inform me as a chaplain and as a teacher at the dharma center rather than whatever ‘rules’ or traditional norms may exist; whether this is a benefit and serves me well in either role is certainly up for debate. Lord knows, I am probably more of a hindrance than a benefit to anyone.
Instead many in the Vajrayana tradition here in the United States, especially those in positions of spiritual leadership seem to fall back upon textual dictates and scripture, the rules and maxims of form and function rather than engage directly, naturally, with how life, and thus, appearances arise. Spiritual bypassing, or the use of spirituality to disengage from actually experiencing what arises and resting within it, appears to be as much the western Buddhist’s unique disease as much as diabetes and obesity are the illnesses that currently define Americans. This bypassing appears to be caused by the constant retelling of the same old story that we are imperfect, that we are not enough and that we are somehow not whole in this moment. More than this, this type of undigested view lacks the rich fertility that provides us with the needed confidence, or escape velocity, to no longer be hindered by the gravity of our habits and misguided constructions of the universe around and within us. It is easier to build a fancy dharma center, easier to go into 3 year retreat, and easier to tell ourselves (and others) that we will never taste any of the fruit of the dharma as we are fundamentally obscured than it is to try to cut through our sad, sorry, slothful sense of being imperfect. There is no better way to blind oneself (and build up one’s sense of importance) than with dogma.
I am reminded of a story I was told about a group of western monastics who criticized a flower offering that a student at a dharma center made one morning. She had happened upon a field of wild flowers while during a morning walk and decided to pick a few to bring to the shrine as an offering. New to the dharma she was motivated by fresh devotion. By the following morning the offering was removed- I was told that the imperfections found upon the leaves of the flowers and the petals reflected the ignorance of the student. The group of monastics were quick to point out that all offerings have to be perfect, the very best- as this is what texts explain. Needless to say, I had a hard time hiding my mixture of disgust and sadness that the inner efforts of devotion made by someone new to the dharma was seen as a violation of protocol and a cause of negative karma due to ignorance. The unbending parochialism of this argument is a constant source of amusement for me. As a chaplain I often find myself having to operate from a place of creativity and skillful means to help provide others with a supportive environment even if it challenges the static spiritual dictates of a given person’s faith. Such rigidity would do more harm for a person who is dying than good.
I wonder what Pope Francis would say of the Catholic version of this event? What do we do when we become overly dogmatic at the expense of killing the experience of another? When do we let our religious dogma undermine our abilities to manifest the connection created by pastoral presence? What makes us Buddhist puritans?
How we work towards achieving this reconnection to our essential wholeness, our naturally expansive and vast experience of all that arises is ultimately up to us. This includes the specific techniques, degrees of effort, and the conceptual models that we temporarily use to get us to a place of spontaneous confidence and certainty. Most important however is that we don’t concertize the path, that we don’t rigidly hold onto our techniques (lest we become cold chauvinists regarding Buddhadharma), as well as a dialectical obsession with how much effort we must apply (we are tying to ease into the experience of Mahamudra, not train for a triathlon), or assign too much of an eternalist reality to the conceptual models we use (whether lay or ordained, male or female, well schooled or illiterate, whether we follow sutra or tantra, are logicians or ritual specialists or neither, we are working with the essence of mind; no one path is necessarily better than the other). Otherwise, the very vows that we take to benefit others become the very cause of perverse haughty dogmatism that does more harm than good. Before we know it we are no better than the demons that we thought we were feeding or coming to learn from and rather than spiritual friends become judges, applying dialectics gathered from scripture and commentarial literature rather than from the direct experience of mind. When does that shift occur? When do we go from spiritual friend to tormentor and judge? When does our fear prevent us from being with what arises and cause us to snuggle up within textual dictates to provide us with comfort and a defensive justification of laziness?
In a way, Pope Francis offers us a wonderful reflection of the ways in which we can become rigid and overly concerned with outer appearance. The conservatives in the church, those who apply the checks and balances of church dogma to the world around them as a way to orient themselves and assert meaning, often lack the same experience and sense of certainty than those who were parish priests and are familiar with the joys and sorrows of their congregations. This is obviously not unique to Catholics, in fact, this kind of separation feels much more prevalent in the Tibetan Buddhist world- and it also appears that we are too afraid to explore this lest we criticize the sangha (let alone cause a rift within it). It may be that ordained sangha and the large dharma organizations that we have created in the west are the biggest sacred cows that we as Buddhists need to confront
In a podcast on Mahamudra that I happened upon by Reggie Ray, Ray artfully suggests that the lineage doesn’t care about us. Perhaps more to the point, he reinforces the point that our practice of dharma isn’t about our identities in relation to the lineage. The lineage doesn’t care if we become involved as teachers or administrators. The lineage doesn’t care about gompas or lack of gompas. It doesn’t care about dharma centers and their creation, maintenance and growth. The lineage doesn’t care about anything other than our work to recognize our natural face: enlightened being. Everything else is extra. Lineage doesn’t do anything other than reflect our essential nature. We do the rest. We create the world of systems, we collate texts, we publish books, we create limitations and neurotic obsessions, often in the name of lineage. If we are blessed with the chance to look back at our lineage and see how easy it is to get wrapped up in the peripheral details maybe we can return to the experience of simplicity: the experience of naked awareness. When we can do this we don’t have to become anything, or wear anything, or observe any vow, or follow any textual dictate, because we become, in that moment, the Dharma. There is nothing to add or take away from this basic reality.
A close friend who was recently trying to determine where she should be in late December and the beginning portion of January told me, “I could go to Bodh Gaya to participate in the Kagyu Monlam for “Dharma” or I could go home to be with my family and actually live Dharma”. Her time at home would be challenging and ordinary as time spent with family often is- in her case it would be more so as a relative had recently died and there was much support to be offered. The Kagyu Monlam, replete with lavish offerings, is a sophisticated mechanism for making aspiration prayers, a place to see and be seen as a Karma Kagyu practitioner, a place to go from lama to lama for blessings and teachings, and is in many ways the ultimate place to go for generating merit. Yet it is easy, it is obvious, somewhat predictable, and spiritually fattening; you can go there and haughtily throw your weight around feeling that you have unique karma and subtly build your ego. After all, look at me, I’m in Bodh Gaya at monlam, how fortunate am I? Going home to be with family, on the other hand, and all of the challenges that accompany providing support for the children and husband of the family member that recently passed away is a way to live all of what spiritual practice is about. It is also hard, confusing and sometimes boring and not very much fun.
I am grateful for my friend’s distinction here, it was timely and very well put. At the end of the day she answered the question for herself as to which one she decided to do. The question remains for us, which one would we prefer to and why? One is not necessarily better than the other, yet our decision says a lot about where we are right now and it is important to check-in and see where we are from time to time. Where are you?