on inspiration

The Chronicle Project site, a tribute to the life and teachings of the extraordinary Tibetan Buddhist lama Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, has a “quote at random” feature, and the other day when I visited this one came up (from “One Stroke” in Dharma Art, page 100):

Genuine inspiration is not particularly dramatic. It’s very ordinary. It comes from settling down in your environment and accepting situations as natural. Out of that you begin to realize that you can dance with them. So inspiration comes from acceptance rather than from having a sudden flash of a good gimmick coming up in your mind….Inspiration has two parts: openness and clear vision, or in Sanskrit, shunyata and prajna. Both are based on the notion of original mind, traditionally known as buddha mind, which is blank, nonterritorial, noncompetitive, and open.

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America’s culture of fear – in a photo (1)

sign

I took this photo last summer. The sign appears in the window of a service station/convenience store in upstate New York and provides, I think, an especially compact illustration of an entire story that can be told about our collective psyche these days.

Before telling it in my next post, a few words as introduction:

It’s not hard to see that fears have a kind of self-propagating or self-aggrandizing power. They are ravenous, ever-expanding, until we can begin to examine them. This is so because fear designates precisely that which is beyond the pale, unencounterable, for what cannot be faced becomes to that extent inescapable. Ordinarily we see this most clearly in nightmares, when we are at the mercy of our mind’s projections. Within the nightmare we are bodiless and so running away doesn’t – can’t – succeed: we are attempting, impossibly, to flee ourselves.

The Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa taught that becoming a “warrior” (in the sense of a spiritual warrior) does not mean being free of fear or cultivating a tough exterior. Rather, it arises out of a very different quality, which is the capacity to open fully to the world, to allow the world with all its phenomena in, so that we can actually be touched by it. He suggested that when we do so its effect is to soften us, and that out of this “tender heart of sadness,” as he called it, our long-cultivated dualities of Self and Other can begin to soften too. The Berlin Walls in our minds become more permeable.

A glimpse of genuine fearlessness can arise out of this experience because in that moment we are not trying to protect ourselves and our territory in quite the same way. Ultimately, we fear anything which threatens our belief in a separate, independent, unchanging Self. It naturally follows that allowing our habitual defences to soften, “letting the world tickle our raw and beautiful heart,” as Trungpa so wonderfully put it, fosters the birth of true warriorship.

(From this standpoint an American president once said something truly profound – who’d have thought?!: “the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself.”)

Returning to nightmares in this context, I’ve been told by more than one person that if, when confronted by a monster in a dream, we can stay with it, face it, ideally even take a step in its direction, it will lose its power over us, even dissolve or turn into a harmless- or sad-looking cartoon character. Best of all is when the dreamer is able to feel a sense of compassion towards it.

So then, what happens when we do the opposite, when instead of trying to take a step forward, even a tiny one, or at least not running away, we … slowly back up, in rising panic. Or just turn round and run for the hills. Does the fear go away?

Well, how can it? We’ve only shored it up, made it even more solid. From this standpoint “fear itself” is nothing other than the duality we continuously strengthen. It resides in and arises from precisely that ultimately non-existent gap between self and projection. But the more powerful we allow it to become, the more layers of protection we will find ourselves creating. The whole thing becomes tighter and tighter. And more and more demons have to be invented too – scapegoats we sacrifice to keep the nature of reality at bay.

A metaphor that comes to me often in thinking about this is that of an onion. If the core of the onion represents a fear we cannot even look at, we create a layer around it as opaque as possible. But if for various reasons the fear is so strong that one layer isn’t enough, we add a second – we put something in place which protects us from our initial barrier that we realize is not 100% strong enough. And then sometimes we need a third layer if we sense the second itself may be a bit fragile. So that when something becomes so taboo that we are incapable of looking at it at all, incapable of any kind of reasoned response, the end result is hysteria – and loss of humanity.

In the next two posts I try and deconstruct, fairly thoroughly, the quite numerous layers of that onion of fear which are embedded in the photo above. And suggest that in America today this approach has become our routine, automatic, indeed pathological response to insecurity and uncertainty of all kinds.

the most radical word

My candidate is interdependence.

The Beatles, in tune with the later 1960s as a whole, sang that all we need is love, but what “love” are we talking about? Clearly not that espoused by, say, the Westboro Baptist Church, or other fundamentalist groups. The trouble is that it’s been a highly amorphous word for a long, long time. We could say we mean something like “selfless, unconditional, universal compassion,” but most of the time in our culture the word is tied to the realm of romantic relationship, which itself tends to manifest in a definitely un-radical, however desirable, direction (cf. D.H. Lawrence calling the cult of the Couple “égoïsme à deux”). In any case, it’s simply not going to wash calling the subject of one of the silliest major holidays of the year – ie Valentine’s Day – the “most radical word!” We must try again.

Others might opt for justice, but I think we’re moving even further away here. For one thing, the concept is still so steeped in a retributive mindset, and the notion of punishment seems precisely one of the most literally reactionary impulses we have. Even were we able to move more fully in the direction of a restorative approach, I believe by that stage the word “justice” itself would probably have dropped off. In fact, this is already occurring within the field, which has been evolving into the more expansive notion of “restorative practices” – see here, here, and here for further information on one of the most enlightened developments going on today. (And take a look at this wonderful interview with the founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg, which fully complements these approaches.)

Still others might say freedom is the most radical word. I have a little more sympathy with this choice, because it is said of the fully realized state that it’s one of complete freedom: no sense of compulsion, no anxiety, no personal concerns, no agonizing over decisions, no regret or fear. But again, in our culture the dominant meanings of “freedom” are nowhere near so radical, tending to be confined to the political realm. And here we see the same lack of clarity and degree of contestation too: both “left” and “right” employ the word often and centrally, but in some exceptionally divergent ways.

Shifting gears, I can imagine that some of those who are religiously identified might claim God for the most radical word. Or perhaps a buddhist might nominate the dharma, meaning roughly “the way it all is/the nature of reality itself.” A taoist might prefer the tao, meaning the same thing although emphasizing the notion and practice of “nature’s way” specifically. But it doesn’t take more than a moment of gazing at our world to realize that the word “God” in its various translations has also helped bring about an awful lot of disharmony and violence. The God of Pat Robertson or of his counterparts in the Jewish and Muslim worlds bears almost no resemblance to the God of Rumi or Hafiz, say, or Thomas Merton, or Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

shapeimage_2Photo credit: “Reb Zalman greeting the Dalai Lama at the Naropa Institute” (Foto di Vita, 1997) – from The Yesod Foundation’s Reb Zalman Legacy Project

Interdependence has a number of things in its favor as a nominee for “most radical word.” For one, it is both a “wisdom” word (pointing to the nature of reality) and a “practice” word (directly indicating how we might actually see and live our lives). It’s also an inherently non-sectarian word, one which anyone can use. Most especially – as would befit a truly radical word – as we delve more and more deeply into it, it affects our relationship with everything. With:

our bodies and understanding of health
our minds, each other, animals, and the natural world
business and the economy
technology
all the institutions we create
the building of community
the communal/political process
situations of conflict and harm
other cultures
climate change and other urgent global challenges

“My Reincarnation” (documentary)

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This one took me by surprise. It’s a film documenting the relationship between the Dzogchen teacher Namkhai Norbu and his son, now known as Khyentse Yeshe (Dzogchen is a term indicating the pinnacle and most direct path within the ancient Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.) Filmed over the course of 20 years by Jennifer Fox, it surely must represent the most intimate visual portrait of a Tibetan lama to date. At times watching it, in fact, it’s hard to fathom how a family would put up with that degree of intrusion for so long: we see them at the dinner table, preparing for teaching events, and discussing all kinds of personal matters. It caused me to remember a comment in one of Trungpa Rinpoche’s books, to the effect that a bodhisattva has no room for privacy in their life at all, is completely open to the demands of the world.

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Namkhai Norbu, like a number of eminent teachers but unlike so terribly many more, managed to escape over the mountains from Tibet in 1959, during the Chinese invasion. He ended up in Italy, where he still lives, and married an Italian woman. At the beginning of the film his son Yeshi – as he was then called – is about 17, deeply respectful of his father but not all that connected to the practice of buddhism. We hear him lament the relationship he has with his father, which lacks the kind of ordinary, Italian familial warmth he wishes for.

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But that relationship contains an added wrinkle, because Yeshi, when still in his mother’s womb, was “recognized” as a tulku, the rebirth of a lama – in this case Namkhai Norbu’s own uncle, Khyentse Rinpoche (not the most famous such with this name, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, but a lama who died in Tibet at the hands of the Chinese). Without pressuring his son either to take up his vocation or even to practice, he nonetheless has made it clear how important a responsibility he feels is on Yeshi’s shoulders. And many others around him, too, have high expectations and await the time when he will begin to manifest as a teacher. Yeshi himself remembers many dreams he had at a young age of particular places in Tibet he had of course never seen. However, he chooses a job in the business world, marries, and begins raising a family.

The film moves leisurely through the years, giving us glimpses of Namkhai Norbu teaching and relating to his students.

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We see him, very ill, in a hospital bed, and then well again and out in the world (having decided, he says, that he needed to stay alive and continue teaching). And we also see – a highlight of the film – wonderful and equally up-close footage of the Dalai Lama during a visit to Italy (in the stills below Yeshi at about 17 is in the foreground).

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At a certain point I realized the film had crept up on me in a remarkable way. Yeshi begins involving himself more and more in Dzogchen practice and helping his father during teachings and empowerments. And then one day, without particular fanfare, he decides finally to visit Tibet, where he has been awaited by students of the previous Khyentse Rinpoche for over 40 years…

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Those for whom the entire tulku system is alien and maybe even suspect might not know what to make of this portion of the film. I place myself somewhat in the middle between such a group and those who have strong faith in that system – though probably a little closer to the former – yet I found these scenes very moving.

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The film ends with Yeshi beginning to teach as a lama himself – in a casual, 21st-century-style. He comes across as very genuine and open throughout the film, and in a scene between him and his father at the end there is a greater ease between them that is lovely to see. Here, Namkhai Norbu is playing the flute and joking that it would have been “much easier” if he’d chosen to be a musician instead of a teacher…

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In fact, I liked this so much I ended up watching it again a couple of days later… All in all, quite a beautiful look into the life of a beloved Tibetan lama, the pressures and difficulties of being a son of whom very much is expected, and the journey which the latter takes to come fully into his own.

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Pseudo-Dionysius and the Heart Sutra

In an insightful reading by Don Adams (in Hyperion) of the James Purdy novel In a Shallow Grave, discussing the book as an allegory of the via negativa, I discovered this quotation from “Pseudo-Dionysius,” a theologian who wrote most likely around 500 CE:

The “Divine Cause of all,” says Dionysius:

…is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness…. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it.

This cannot help but remind me of the famous language of the buddhist Heart Sutra:

Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness…. There are no characteristics. There is no birth and no cessation. There is no purity and no impurity. There is no decrease and no increase. Therefore, Shāriputra, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no dharmas; no eye dhātu up to no mind dhātu, no dhātu of dharmas, no mind consciousness dhātu; no ignorance, no end of ignorance up to no old age and death, no end of old age and death; no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering; no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no nonattainment. [translation by the Nalanda Translation Committee]

It has long struck me that genuine wisdom traditions tend to have – and need, in order to be in a healthy state – both a “positive” and “negative” View, in balance with one another. By these terms are meant, respectively, a View which aims through language to reach – as near as possible – to a description of the nature of reality itself, and one which frustrates, which leads the inquirer explicitly away from, such an attempt.

Christianity seems to me largely to have lost the latter, leading to certain long-standing imbalances. Without a via negativa, the basic View of a spiritual tradition has a tendency towards reification and indeed, potentially, ossification. The approach of negation continually opens perception up and out, aerates it, maintains freshness and clarity. It reminds the practitioner of the fundamental ungraspability of truth. Indeed the negative way might, it seems to me, even be thought of as the approach of spaciousness.

Interestingly, buddhism more often suffers from the opposite problem to Christianity…

In the buddhist tradition, broadly speaking two ancient philosophical approaches predominate, again one “positive,” the other “negative.” The positive approach can be seen in the Cittamatra or “mind-only” school, the latter in the Madhyamaka. Madhyamaka – “deconstruction” some 2000 years avant la lettre – makes no positive assertions whatsoever about the nature of reality. Rather, it is purely a technique for revealing the inescapably relative nature of all such statements – both positive and negative! We seem to need both perspectives. A purely “positive” philosophy has a tendency towards “eternalism,” the denial of thoroughgoing interdependence, while a purely “negative” approach might lead to nihilism, its counterpart. Or – as sometimes happens within buddhist communities – to a certain coldness or harshness, or worse.

More generally, in the ravings of fundamentalism we see most clearly what happens when (in the old Zen parable) the pointing finger is mistaken for the moon, when the inherent relativity of all language, all concept, is forgotten.

A bit more on James Purdy in the next post.

the Karmapa on gender (2)

Continuing on from the preceding post, two more exhilarating moments from The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out:

As for myself, I am a Khampa, but I do not like to take an aggressive stance or oppose others at all. People who watch out for my interests sometimes advise me to be less earnest and to go on the offensive more. They caution me against being so open and trusting. They warn me that people can have all sorts of different motivations and ulterior motives, and may be out to deceive me or use my name for their own ends. Even though I have heard this advice clearly, I cannot change. Actually, I don’t want to.

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In this era of global communication and weapons of mass destruction, rather than impose our will on others by force, we urgently need to find ways to accommodate divergent wills. It has been a long and gradual process, but I believe the world is slowly coming to realize that what we need now is not the ability to make assertions, but the ability to listen. Especially with the unthinkably destructive power of the weapons we have at our disposal, it seems clear that we need to sit down to dialogue, and not stand up to fight.

The times call on us to look at others with the attentive and loving eyes of a mother, rather than with the hostile eyes of a warrior in battle. If we are going to divide up qualities as masculine or feminine, I think we have to say that the qualities we need today are qualities more often described as feminine. We need communication and sensitive listening to others’ needs – qualities that are likelier to be identified as feminine than masculine in most societies.

It is time we truly recognize that the era of the hunter is past. This should be a more “feminine” era…

the Karmapa on gender

The previous post here talked a bit about the Karmapa’s new book The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out. The chapter I find the most remarkable of all has to be the one on gender – “Gender Identities: It’s All in the Mind.” This is so because Tibetan culture, as is true of traditional cultures in general all over the world, has maintained a strongly gendered view of psychology and society.

Nothing in this chapter hasn’t been said by various western teachers of buddhism, and stray remarks can be found – increasingly so in recent decades – coming from other Tibetans, but this chapter surely represents the most direct and sustained presentation of the emptiness of gender from within the Tibetan world. As such I feel it to be a genuinely epochal moment.

A couple of examples:

Gender identities permeate so much of our experience that it is easy to forget that they are just ideas – ideas created to categorize human beings. Nevertheless, the categories of masculine and feminine are often treated as if they were eternal truths. But they are not. They have no objective reality. Because gender is a concept, it is a product of our mind – and has no absolute existence that is separate from the mind that conceives of it.

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(©bodhiimages — Tim Buckley)

Societies take the distinction between masculine and feminine qualities very seriously indeed. Whole industries reinforce gender ideals, such as, for example, boys should be brave and girls should be sensitive. Society promotes the idea that people with Y chromosomes should exhibit only “masculine qualities,” and people with X chromosomes should exhibit “feminine qualities.” This holds us back, limiting men and women to socially constructed boxes, and causing a great deal of suffering for everyone [my emphasis].

In my own personal case, I do not always feel clear about this distinction between masculine and feminine qualities. People have told me that I have more feminine qualities than masculine. I do not know quite what that means. I have a sense of what these qualities feel like, but I have no labels of “feminine” or “masculine” to go with the feelings. I simply experience them.

For me personally, knowing how to define and categorize such things is not important. What matters to me is being able to connect with others heart to heart, with real feeling. What I value is the ability to speak from my heart, and to be tender and caring. I hope I have some of these qualities. Certainly these are the qualities I aspire to have. It does not strike me as at all relevant whether they are categorized as feminine or masculine.