Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Advanced Course(?)

Some of you may remember when Geshe-la came to visit us in Yalaha a while back, and offered refuge to those who were ready to take it.

In preparing for this event, I asked his attendant Lois about the vows he expected those taking refuge to accept; it is fairly common practice for one to take all (or some, depending on the lama) of the five lay vows: vows to protect our minds against intentions and actions of killing, stealing, lying, taking intoxicants and engaging in unwise (i.e., harmful to anyone) sexual activity.

Lois indicated that Geshe-la would include these vows as part of each person’s taking of refuge

So, it was surprising when Geshe-la not only didn’t offer the vows, but said quite clearly that he wouldn’t accept the vows from anyone there for a period of years, that it would take that long for the vows to manifest the intended meaning in the mind, and therefore be beneficial.

This came to mind early this morning during Tara sadhana, and I found myself (perhaps) gaining an insight into Geshe-la’s intentions.

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Many of you know of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who is, more than just about anyone, recognized as the individual who shaped the face of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. He was a brilliant and innovative teacher who was unique among his generation of Tibetans in his understanding of Western culture and his ability to adapt traditional teachings to the needs and experiences of his Western students.

Despite his enormous success and unquestionable spiritual abilities, Trungpa Rinpoche, who passed in 1987 the age of forty-nine, remains a controversial figure. A husband and father, Trungpa openly had sex with his students, smoked and drank heavily enough to be classified as an alcoholic by many who knew him.

To most of his students, Trungpa’s unconventional behavior was as much a part of his teachings as his dharma talks. But for others with more conventional Western expectations about the way a spiritual teacher should behave, Trungpa remains a puzzle that will almost certainly never be unravelled.

Trungpa would traditionally start off new American students with a stern warning about the dangers and pitfalls of the spiritual path, and especially about what he called spiritual materialism – a term that soon became part of the vocabulary of Western Buddhists of all traditions:

Walking the spiritual path properly is a very subtle process; it is not something to jump into naively. There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality, we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. This fundamental distortion may be referred to as spiritual materialism.

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This is, to my mind, the advanced course. Teachings, visualizations, sadhanas, realizations, meditations, insights, refuge, dharma, sangha, are all so beautiful and wonderful, but it is so very important to at all times watch that they are ultimately tearing down “me” structures rather than building new ones. Not building, in Trungpa's words, "spiritual materialism." The end result is to get TO our Buddha-nature, not build our own individual version of it.

Tricky stuff, and I am working on how to maneuver my way through it.

I remember Ram Dass saying something along the lines that “you have to be something before you can flip it into becoming nothing.”

Well, maybe that’s the path – to learn and grow and build our spiritual self, and then, when it becomes who and what we are, that then becomes the target of transformation. Perhaps that is the intermediate step between being asleep and awake.

This implies a mindful working with the ego, allowing it to grow somewhat, but keeping it under watchful eye . . . kind of how we fill a bicycle tire with air . . . carefully . . . just enough to get it to where it works most efficiently to get us where we are going, but not so much that it over-inflates, bubbles and pops.

And once properly inflated but not overly so, we use it, in fact we ride it hard over a very rough and prickly path, being mindful to make sure, as Trungpa says, to avoid the sidetracks that the arrogance of over-inflation will lead us toward.

And then, when we arrive at our destination, we no longer need the bicycle.

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I believe this is what Geshe-la was aware of when he refused to inflate our ego(s) – people he did not know -- with the high-mindedness of refuge vows. A teaching in its own right, as most everything is if you just see it that way.

So it is on a retreat; time and space to plumb, and (hopefully) see where our work really lies . . . so many fantastic questions . . . am stopping my finger now, thanks for reading.