On voices from the wilderness: ''where we go from here…''
We recently lost two very important Kagyu Rinpoches, Karma Chagme, the head of the Nyedo Kagyu and direct lineal descendent of the great mahasiddha Rāga Asya , the very emanation of Amitabha himself, and Kyabje Choje Akong Rinpoche, a great social activist, dharma teacher. Along side Trungpa Rinpoche, Akong Rinpoche as one of the most important Kagyu Rinpoches in how he helped to plant the seeds of dharma in the West, but also create nurture Samye Ling and the system of Samye Dzongs throughout the UK, Scotland, Ireland, Europe and Africa. He was also vital in helping to local the young 17th Karmapa. As a lineage we have also recently lost Kyabje Traleg Rinpoche, Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche, and still feel the loss of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche.
As long as His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa is with us, no matter where he resides, I feel that we are in good hands, and as a student of His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, I feel that as long as his activities continue then the dharma will not only flourish but increase in concentration and power. May their lives be long and may they completely destroy our ego-clinging through the power of their skillful means! May their activities increase the depth and wisdom of the Kagyu lineage!
This said, there are some who express concern about where we as Karma Kagyu are going in the West, and I would like to throw my two cents into the ethereal debate. Rather than make this a global argument, metaphorically as well as actually, maybe we should just focus on the Kagyu in America. I do not presume to know much at all about this subject, and even more than that, I have no real qualifications to weigh-in on such a topic, but nevertheless, as one who has deep love for our lineage I am occasionally concerned about how we may be structuring ourselves here in the U.S.
As Karma Kagyu I feel that we can do more than we are doing. We obviously benefit from the hard work and extreme diligence and patience of the masters of the early era: the late Kalu Rinpoche, the late Trungpa Rinpoche, ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Thrangu Rinpoche, Bardor Tulku, Ponlop Rinpoche, Lama Norlha, Lama Lordro, Lama Tsingtsang, Lama Rinchen, Lama Dorje, and of course, their guide His Holiness theGyalwang 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rikpe Dorje. We owe them a debt of gratitude. Through these teachers we have the benefit of some very solid infrastructures for the study and practice of the dharma- we have a great number of translators, translation committees, places for extended as well as short retreat as well as the beginning of a sangha which while still young and tender might hopefully grow into a single unified family of victorious ones. Yet right now the sangha may be our weakest link.
America is a unique place in that across the board we like to think of ourselves on the collective level as a unified group that share similar values, and yet we also very easily cleave along a variety of lines that include ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, race and political views. The obvious benefit is that there is the potential for most anyone to find a niche within the American experience. The fundamental flaw is that we are only part of the group until we don’t want to be, until our desire-lines of identity pull us into our sub-groups. When we separate from the collective in this way, the American experience becomes very static and disjointed. Likewise, when we try to singularly drop our histories, the various layers of culture that have helped to shape us as people, in favor of the collective identity, we lose the richness and the brilliance that we bring to the entire American organism. There is something about the fundamental tension between the more idealized identity as Americans (which is a construction) and our identity as a member of a variety of sub-groups (also ultimately a construction) that allows us to question the values of both sides of our being that can allow us to grow into dynamic citizens. That said, there is nothing preventing us from remaining stagnant within our identity on either side, either a stalwart “American” or member of a sub-group that doesn’t want to be part of the collective . When this happens unity, connection and communication becomes impossible.
Similarly, the essential flaw that we as American Karma Kagyu face is the idea that we actually think that know what we are doing. We feel that we are correct in projecting a particular meta-view upon ourselves as followers of the wisdom lineage of the Karma Kagyu, and that this view has to be expressed in a particular unified way. We assume that we must all adhere to the values as a group that were most recently innovated by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye in 18th century Tibet, who while being an amazing genius and autodidact, has been used (perhaps unintentionally) to create a blanket meta-identity that may have been taken to the extreme. At times I feel that ultimately this lack of balance has led many who feel connected to a wide variety of sub-groups to feel left out and as a result, not integrated into the larger view of what we may be as a lineage. As if the notion of a unified Karma Kagyu lineage, or any lineage, has ever existed until the “modern” era.
I think that it is worth throwing into the mix that the lines of all four major schools of Tantric Buddhism might be more a product of modern academia than anything else. It might even be that we have all contaminated one another through the cross-pollination of inter-lineage growth in the past than our projections and assumptions allow us to believe. Our identities are more blended that we might like. An example of this can be demonstrated by His Holiness Sakya Trizin when he recently gave the empowerment of Dudjom Lingpa’s Three Wrathful Ones in New York City.
I think that it was Trungpa Rinpoche who called the Kagyu lineage the ‘mishap lineage’, which I will loosely interpret to mean that at its best our lineage just happens; it is not the product of strategic planning. Why is this? Well, perhaps we are not the product of controlled strategic planning either; our mind/heart matrix of thought/emotion is a system of constant mishaps, all sorts of stuff arises, sometimes we can clearly rest in what arises, other times we get carried away by our hallucinations. But one thing is certain, problems arise once we try to force a structure upon the way things should be.
In this way, I tend to wonder if we may have made the fundamental error of leaning too much upon the 18th/19th century classicism of monastic Karma Kagyu as a model for the entirety of American Karma Kagyu (the vast majority of whom are lay) in the 21st century. It sounds kind of absurd actually when I see it written out like that, and I don’t think that it is too much of a stretch to suggest that if this is the case, then perhaps we lose some of our credibility and accessibility with those who resonate with the sub-groups that feel at odds with the way the dharma is presented. How are young people with little interest in India or Tibet, let alone their history, and who have little money to travel to India to feel connected? What about some curious souls from the South Bronx, Brownsville, Oakland, Compton, or even large swathes of Suburbia who want to better understand their relationship to their experience of suffering to connect?
The dynamic energy of engaged being as is inherently expressed by a wide variety of groups of all imaginable ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, race and other points of orientation doesn’t seem to be held by the container of this kind of singular classical Tibetan approach. Perhaps it is paternalism or some type of chauvinism, and perhaps it isn’t- lord knows the internet is full of such debates, and my point here is not to cast blame upon anyone other than our limited view. That said, I tend to feel that what matters most here is that the essential tension between “self-identity” as a member of any particular group in relation to the experience of gaining certainty in our not having any particular “self” as taught through the dharma is being lost to an increasing number of Americans. These sparks of tension allow the power of tantric Buddhism to blow up our ideas of who we think we are and how we tend to conceive of the world around and within ourselves. To ‘inadvertently’ create the assumption that one can only experience this through assuming that we all need to be conversant in 18th/19th century Tibetan classical Buddhist thought only serves to disempower the vast majority of sentient beings in the United States. It allows few people to come and be held as they expolre the sparky nature of what it means to familiarize oneself with the view. Perhaps Europe is different, or Central and South America, and Aftrica, but I suspect not.
The way that much of the Karma Kagyu lineage is being presented these days in the United States appears to be more of a preservation of monasticism and the imposition of this structure upon the inner lives of the sangha, rather than a skilled blending, meeting people where the are, and creating the container that allows the safety and intimacy necessary to challenging the assumptions of who and what we are, and what the whole field of appearance might be.
The result is that it is not uncommon to find that there are many gorgeous Karma Kagyu dharma centers, stunning in beauty and immaculate in appearance, real museum quality reproductions of what one might have found in Tibet before the Chinese holocaust. Yet, it is also possible to feel the cold clinical nature of many of these places. In looking even closer, it is easy to see how tender and fragmented the sanghas appear. This makes me feel sad. After all, it is sangha that is vital for the continuation of the practice of dharma. When I visit places that resemble these perfect visions of what dharma is supposed to look like visually, I think of Drukpa Kunley, Milarepa, Phadampa Sangye and Shabkar with great tenderness (and humor) and take delight in my meager identity as a so-called Repa. These teachers (myself completely excluded) were vital commentators, alternatives and voices in the wilderness that dharma cannot be owned, trapped in books, and is not only to be delivered through the medium of classicism which often runs the risk of becoming overly dusty and theoretical. There is a lot of wisdom in their path, and many teachings in their relationship with the institutions that presented dharma in a particular kind of way.
What we seem to fail to realize, or perhaps disassociate from, is that the Karma Kagyu lineage is best when it is a blended practice of fierce engaged practice activity mixed with the subtlety and discipline that one finds in Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye. Just as we need the sun and the moon for there to be balance on Earth, perhaps we need both the paths of Rechungpa and Gampopa as symbols of who we are, who we might wish to become, and from which point we wish to engage the dharma. We need to look at where we become too comfortable and lazy and bring our whole experience as people into our practice. Good dharma practice has nothing to do with beautiful dharma centers, rich coffers, and exquisite elegance. In fact, the best practice arises from confronting the entire hallucination of this “self” and the world around us. We are often well served to this end in challenging our assumptions of how our dharma centers should appear, notice when our devotion becomes the habit obsession rather than a mixture of connection and gratitude, and when in trying to be “good”, how we accidentally cause great harm to those we tell ourselves we are committed to benefiting.
Ultimately, everything that has been created by our foreparents within the Karma Kagyu in America is wonderful, and we should rejoice in the amazing progress. It really is amazing what has come into being. And yet, we might be getting a bit lazy and myopic and I pray that we can make things a bit more messy and sparky and dynamic for everyone who might be attracted to this vibrant and wonderful lineage. I pray that our dharma teachers can strike a rich and engaged balance for their students! I pray that our lineage can hold the experience of every person from every walk of life who approaches us! I pray that we face mishaps every day and that the sparks of tension within our experience of being cause endless dakas and dakinis to bless us!
On real time Buddhist pastoral care and the experience of loss when a lama dies
The past week has been a tough one for the Kagyu lineage. Recently the great Karma Chagme Rinpoche passed away in New Delhi, and one of the first trailblazers of dharma in the West, Akong Rinpoche, along with two travel companions was murdered in Eastern Tibet. Needless to say, these two important lamas impacted the lives of many, many, people who practice dharma, and in the case of Akong Rinpoche many Tibetans who passed through the schools and hospitals that he was instrumental in building in Tibet.
I had the wonderful pleasure of receiving the transmission of Rāga Asya’s (the 1st Karma Chagme) The Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen in New York City when he was traveling through the United States in 1998/99. Both Karma Chagme Rinpoche as well as his son Sangtrul Rinpoche took turns teaching the text line by line- it was an extraordinary privilege to be there for such a transmission. Years later, in 2005, I visited Karma Chagme at his monastery in Pharping where I was fortunate enough to receive Namchö Amitabha from him, which in a way was like receiving it from Amitabha himself. His Holiness, the Gyalwang Karmapa’s letter of condolence regarding Karma Chagme’s death can be seen here.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Akong Rinpoche, although I did visit Samye Ling during the summer of 1995. Samye Ling was (and continues to be) a vital center for the preservation and teaching of the Kagyu lineage. You can read His Holiness’ statement of condolence regarding Akong Rinpoche’s death here.
Without a doubt, my limited relationship to these masters pales in comparison to the stories of others, especially those who were direct disciples of these two great teachers, yet I thought that I would share the way in which I came to develop my own personal relationship with them. Even if all we have seen is a photo of them, or read a text or teaching by them and not actually met them then we still have a connection with them. In fact, physical proximity is not necessarily very important if you can hold the connection between yourself and a lama within your heart. After all, where is the lama? Where is the lama’s mind? Is there an edge, or separation, that keeps us away from constantly being able to experience the wakeful luminosity of the lama?
There is a real sense of loss with the passing of these two Rinpoches that has stuck with me in a way that I am trying to better understand. I rejoice in all of their activities and pray that their activities continue to flourish, and yet I am very aware of the temporary break in the immediate benefit that these teachers manifest. Ultimately, it is okay to feel sad and upset, these feelings -all thoughts/feelings that arise in fact- are okay. If we can hold whatever arises as pure appearance, as the arising of thought as-the-lama then there is no loss of intimate connection with the lama, no separation and no real loss other than the physical lama.
I was very moved to learn of the visit that His Holiness Karmapa and His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche made to Karma Chagme before his death. An account of that visit can be seen here. As a hospice chaplain, I felt that His Holiness and His Eminence were modelling a sense of spiritual care that I could identify with. I find that there was a profound teaching in seeing two great masters going to be with another great master as he approached the end of life. I saw a reflection of them in the work I do. In my case it is one ordinary person going to be with other ordinary people who are in the process of dying or who have just died, yet the level of intimacy and connection that can occur between two people under these circumstances is much more profound than we often give credit. What’s more, that level of caring, a natural compassionate resolve, in which two very busy lamas take time to visit one who is dying is something that we can all learn to blend into our own busy lives. Perhaps we can also start to drop the enduring experience of ordinariness too, but that should be the topic of another blog post.
Death is often seen as a passing, as a separation, and as an ending. Trying to see it otherwise, or trying to allow myself see death more clearly for what it is, is one of the things that keeps me refreshed and motivated in the work I do. I also feel that there is a link to the way we see death, the way we relate to it, and the way that we see our own minds; the way that we relate to everything that appears. A mind full of fear of death is a mind plagued by duality and is therefore unable to rest in the natural vastness of it’s essential nature with ease. As we begin to familiarize ourselves with the mind as deathless, as expansive luminosity, then we simultaneously seem to develop more equanimity around what death may be. As a relative expression of death Karma Chagme’s death seems to reveal the power of his realization as he sat in thugdam for several days. Akong Rinpoche’s death reminds me of many things, it was “ordinary” in a way that Milarepa’s death appeared. It was also sudden and violent, two things that we often shy away from as practitioners of dharma- two things we often try to avoid. There is a lot in this, a lot in dying in a manner that most Buddhists seem to want to shy away from. Most of the time I think we see our deaths as knowable and slightly intentional in that we generally want to be prepared for it as it comes. We cannot always do that; death is unavoidable. Death is inevitable. It comes when it does.
As a lineage, we have lost two very important and influential masters. The question now very well may be; “where do we go from here”? At times like this, when experiencing moments of sadness and loss, it is nice to be told what we should do. Yet this is the critical moment in which perhaps we can benefit the most in taking some quiet moments to reflect upon and review all that these masters have given us. If we can spend time cultivating gratitude for each instruction, each display of teaching, each kind supportive glance, and bolster within ourselves the resolve to continue to practice what they have given us with the intent of resting in the display of appearance as no different than the lama, then we have touched upon something wonderfully profound. If we can continue with what we committed to ourselves to and bring all that arises with loss onto the path rather than shut down, hibernate in a feeling of shock, and let all certainty fade, then we are practicing the ultimate guru yoga.
If we can do this it seems that many questions and fears naturally dissipate. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we become naturally happy and that life turns around, but that we continue to remain in union with the essence of the lama, always open to their blessings, always part of their lineage. This can lead to certainty in the dharma and the realizations that dawn from an engaged dharma practice. This experience of certainty helps aide us in developing natural ease in our experience of mind so that we have definitive understanding, the experience of natural knowing or resting in the nature of our minds. In this way, no matter where we happen to live, no matter what cultural mores we follow, or no matter what language we speak, no matter what gender or sexual orientation, no matter if we practice in a fancy dharma center, or a scrappy one, or our simple homes, we take a seat amongst Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, the incomparable physician of Dakpo and everyone who passed the enduring nectar of dharma from vessel to vessel throughout time.
My thoughts and prayers go out to all students of Karma Chagme Rinpoche and Akong Rinpoche, may your practice deepen and may their activities continue throughout time and space! May we all finally gain certainty in resting in the experience of lama-as-experience! Gewo!