Sunday, January 06, 2008

Lost Comments

I turned on the "comments" feature of this web log so I could get to know everybody a bit better. While not wishing to degenerate to the level of e-monkey, there doesn't seem to be much harm in fostering a certain amount of unmoderated give-and-take.

One reader started up a dialogue, but when the ball bounced, went back and deleted all of their comments, leaving my responses high, dry, and out of context. The matter began with a comment in re "UR@1ness," and then spilled over to "Dear Frustrated Buddhist."

So, here are the missing original comments and my responses, in full, and in context:

Original Comment to UR@1ness:
I'm in between these two groups, being 36. That said, I've found it very frustrating as a married Buddhist that options are very limited if you want to be involved in Tantric Buddhism beyond a cursory level.

You want to find a teacher? Good luck. If there is one in your area, he probably has 200 students already (like Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche) but, more likely, there is no one taking students in your area. If you can afford (requiring money and time off), you can go to where some teachers are but you can't really study with them if you are married or have a job...

Don't even get me started on the fact that you have to learn Tibetan (taught where, exactly?) in order to do any lengthy retreats, even if you could leave your family responsibilities for years.

In many ways, Tibetan Buddhism (and even the Japanese esoteric Buddhism that I've been attached to more recently) seems to be a game for those either young enough not to have gotten enmeshed in life or those willing to either never marry or start a career or those willing to end their marriages and familial responsibilities in order to go to India or Nepal for five or ten years in order to really study.

Perhaps that is just the way it is but it does explain the level of superficiality that I have seen in many Tibetan groups here in the United States in a variety of places. Most don't have a resident teacher. Most of the people there don't have a strong personal relationship with anyone to teach them and most probably have a family or job (or other factors) that make telling them to drop everything to go to Asia to be a "real" Buddhist or to get any real training is unreasonable.

In that circumstance, I think a lot of the attitude from these "second wave" Buddhists makes a bit of sense. How do we have Buddhism here in America that addresses our lives and which speaks to us in our language. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is doing better than most there but he's so wildly popular that, if you're lucky, you might shake his hand and get to prostrate before him at a retreat but that will be the limit of your contact. Do you get to say he's your teacher then?

I responded with "Dear Frustrated Buddhist," and received the following in reply:

Actually, I only moved to the Bay Area recently. I used to live in Seattle so this is not a uniquely Bay Area problem nor an outgrowth of the Bay Area cost of living. :-)

As to Tarthang Rinpoche, I am not going to speak ill of him but perhaps you are unaware of the controversies that surround him and his business (I mean "Dharma") activities. Needless to say, I'm not really interested in creating samaya bonds there. Perhaps this appears as a self-fulfilling prophecy. In any case, the last I heard, he wasn't actually down in the Bay Area anymore but lived in his secluded retreat with chosen followers.

Leaving this aside, you miss my main point.

The main issue is that most people interested in Buddhism can find no qualified teacher in their area with which they can study. There are either no teachers or those teachers are already surrounded by students (often dozens or even hundreds) and there is no way to make a real connection with them. This then means that people join "Dharma Centers" and then wait for the annual Wandering of the Lamas which brings teachers, briefly, to their center. This may be for a weekend for a teaching or two and an empowerment or it may be for a few weeks. Then the teachers move on and people are left behind to carry on with little guidance. The nastiest politics that I've seen in my life has been in a Dharma Center with no teacher present.

If you REALLY wish to study the Dharma, you need to learn the foreign language of choice for your tradition (Tibetan), which requires you to find a place to teach it. I know of one friend who is almost ready for his three year retreat...except that he hasn't found a way to learn Tibetan well enough to go. Two years later, he's still trying to solve this problem.

So, for householders in America, what is the solution to the lack of teachers? If you have no one to learn from, what do you do? You can read a few books but you don't learn the Dharma from books. You can meditate or practice but...wait for it... you have to be shown how by the teacher that you don't have. The tradition is full of admonitions that you cannot learn to practice without a teacher nor practice without a sangha. Lacking the first of these, what is the solution?

For myself, I was fortunate enough to have the means to fly across the country to go on retreat with a teacher on a few occasions. None of those blossomed into any kind of relationship but it gave me the beginnings of a practice. I'm male, white and work in engineering so I have the money to do these things. What does the person who does not have resources do?

Since this time, I've connected with Japanese esoteric Buddhism. Why? Well, as much as anything else, because I can actually find a teacher to work with for it. That has allowed me to practice with actual hands on guidance, at least occasionally, and a real relationship with someone. This is something I could not find in Tibetan Buddhism, even though I spent years looking for it. I don't think that I am that unique either. I think a lot of people eventually just give up or simply start sitting with a group in a Dharma Center and engage in the limited possibilities there (without a teacher present).

Unless Tibetan Buddhism is going to be a Buddhism of non-tantric practitioners (aka laity), something must be done to address this. I suggest that it is the training and empowerment of non-Tibetans to teach but, so far, few lamas have engaged in a program of doing this. In fact, you quite often see the opposite where people who have done three year retreats and studied for 20 years are allowed to teach on Sutra topics but the freshest 20 year old Tibetan straight out of shedra and retreat can give every empowerment and is allowed to teach on any topic. (This is just the men too...). If you've been around for as long as you seem to have been, I'm sure that you've seen all of this as well.

Tenpa's Response:
I first met Kyabje Tarthang Rinpoche in 1967, so by now I suppose I have heard all of the "controversies," which are in fact the product of others' delusions. Tarthang Rinpoche is, quite simply and factually, a direct manifestation of Padmasambhava. Have you heard of the controversies surrounding Padmasambhava? He ran off with Princess Mandarava! Things like that can really burn you up!

I do take your main point, and am preparing a lengthy response. I hear this same question, posed in various ways, at least ten times each week.

I do want to note in passing that not everybody can give an empowerment -- no matter how long you have studied, no matter if your name is "rinpoche," and no matter if you went to shedra or not. One can only properly give an empowerment if one has actually accomplished the associated practice. There are teenagers who can bring the deity right there in front of you, and there are 60 year old lamas who cannot. Anybody who tells you differently is deceiving you-- and since the advent of Empowerments, Incorporated, there is a whole lot of 'splainin' to do.

I agree with you that "Dharma Centers" are not conducive to practice, but then again, neither is the cave if you take your worldly mind. You can accomplish very advanced practices in the middle of Times Square if you truly understand them. Where you are is not particularly important in many ways. In a few ways it is. This depends on you, and on your practice.

I disagree with you on the language issue. To REALLY study the Dharma you only have to learn the nature of your own mind.

I take interest in your comments because they mirror the experience of the Tibetans when Padmasambhava came to town.

I will write more about this, later.

Reader's Comment:
I'll bow to your superior knowledge of the Rinpoche in question.

The language is still an issue if you want to study texts or commentaries. Otherwise, you have a long and rich tradition in which you don't understand the depth of it. Of course, this would be less of an issue if teachers were available.

This is also leaving aside the fact that most three year retreats (all?) require Tibetan skills.

I am well aware that not everyone is capable of passing on an empowerment for a variety of reasons but, not to pull punches, a certain amount of racism or sexism seems to have influence with some teachers or groups. There are plenty of people where it is very clear that if they had been born Tibetan (and male), they would have authorization from teachers that is lacking because they are white or female (or both). I've heard lamas acknowledge this even in candid moments.

Tenpa's Response:
This is just my perspective, O.K.? Maybe somebody else will have a different view, but here goes:

Nobody can "authorize" anybody to give empowerments lest it is the deity in question. The deity either arrives or doesn't arrive. It is that simple.

Without going into it, I have attended empowerments by highly regarded tulkus where it was evident to everyone that things weren't going as well as the officiant would've liked. So "who" you are doesn't really matter, and this extends to race and gender issues.

The only thing that matters is can the deity arrive or not. It isn't Joe Rinpoche who "gives" you the empowerment, it is the deity. If Joe or Josephine Rinpoche is accomplished, he or she can get it on and you will know it and there's the end to it.

This is one of those things that simply cannot be faked.

Now, does xenophobic racism exist within the context of Tibetan Buddhism? You bet it does. Does sexism exist within the context of Tibetan Buddhism? To a lesser extent, yes. All things being equal, it is hard to dis' the distaff when you're calling upon the dakinis. Do either xenophobic racism or sexism exist within the context of truly understanding the Dharma? No, they do not.

Part of the trouble arises in the expectations of Westerners who believe that Tibetan Buddhism is a "process," like going to university, in which you get your little ticket punched and then you get your prize.

The ability to teach others, and the ability to perform empowerments, begins, exists, and ends in actual accomplishment.

The other part of the trouble arises in cultural specificity. People tend to confuse "Tibetan," with "Buddhism." There is Buddhism, and then there is Buddhism as it was practiced in Tibet, and then there is Buddhism as it practices itself in places where the word "Buddhism" has never been uttered.

If you want to study Buddhism as it was practiced in Tibet---because it is a living tradition---then of course you will need to learn the language. This is just the way Tibetans had to learn Sanskrit, when they were trying to learn Buddhism as it was practiced in India.

Any study of the politics and/or social aspects of Tibetan Buddhism in the West is an utter, total, and complete waste of time. What is not a waste of time is to embrace the beneficial and sever the counterproductive aspects of one's involvement with Dharma -- and just follow your heart once you get it cleaned and polished.

Reader's Comment:
I understand, at least to some extent, what you are saying.

I just want to practice. I want to learn the tradition and its practices to the extent that I can become enlightened and help others to become the same. The tradition and teachings are tools to that end.

So, what do I need to do in order to do so? Reading books isn't it. Doing a bunch of prostrations (while possibly helpful for other reasons) isn't it. Even finding a teacher isn't it but finding the right teacher will help push towards that goal.

So, how does one with an intense wish to practice and achieve enough realization to see things as they are, go about doing so in America today?

Tenpa's Response:
The same way it has always been done: start where you are right this minute.

Reader's Comment:
No offense but that is a cop out for a problem that I've struggled with for years since I took refuge.

Why not simply say "When your karma is good, a teacher will appear" if you want to hand-wave at the problem? Giving platitudes solves nothing.

I struggled for years to find a teacher to work with and obviously my negative karma is keeping me from doing so. I suppose I will continue to muddle along, as always, like most Americans wanting to be involved with Vajrayana but unable to effectively do so.

Tenpa's Response:
Maybe the issue isn't your karma per se but your view. This isn't rocket science... it doesn't need to be made more difficult than it deserves. You start precisely where you are this moment, and you work from this with as much honesty as you can muster. Actions have results no matter what identity is involved... so stop worrying or thinking about "most Americans," and just worry about one American, and what it is he or she wants to validate. If its a sense of self that you're seeking to validate by references to others, then examine how appropriate that is or isn't. Just start right there... and be kind. I think it was Patrul Rinpoche who said you can leave all the fancy stuff until one minute before you die, because you'll be meditating then anyway.

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4 reader comments:

sburris said...

Thanks for reposting those comments. I suspect many Americans share these frustrations. No easy solutions, of course. Teachers, I've discovered, come in many shapes and forms, and most of them don't have on maroon robes. That's the good news. The bad news is that without those robes, they're much harder to recognize. My feeling is that when our intentions are lined up right, teachers start to pop up everywhere. At least that's been my experience.

Mike said...

I read daily with great interest in your perspective and I found these lost comments very humorous. Being from a state where the dharma is practically unheard of,(Rhode Island) it is funny to hear people complaining about what is right in front of them.
So as I too await the return of my teacher for the whole two days he may spend in the area for the year, I find it best to practice seeing reality as a dream all day every day and into the night. This makes it hard to complain. Thanks for writing your mind.

peartree said...

i keep coming to this altar, i think because, your view cleares my I-sight.

While confusion arised i heartily laughed & then it wasn't even confusion any more.

Thank you! and thank you for this created space where i feel free to be open, at least right now when its just me and the computer...

Anonymous said...

This is an important thread, though not necessarily because it is "helpful". I've been very fortunate to have heard teachings from and served many great teachers, most of whom have ceased manifestation in this limited realm of ordinary perception, most sadly. Along the way I've managed to master Tibetan language and thus gain a measure of independence since I can always peruse my favorite manuals of advice if I feel the need for a teacher. Still, there is no substitute for a genuine teacher, and sometimes I feel the lack intensely. Moreover, to meet and serve so many teachers, hear many teachings and become capable of reading anything I want, I had to forgo the opportunity to do three-year retreat. Twenty-eight years and two marriages later, I still wish I could do retreat. Every precious moment I'm willing and able to practice means (paradoxically) a bit less stability, financial and otherwise, in my strained householder's life. To put it simply, to all appearances and in reality, I am most fortunate. On the other hand, I'm not finished yet and even with all the resources at my disposal, the end challenges and disappointments is nowhere in sight. It is really disappointing, and frustrating. Maybe this is enlightenment after all? Trungpa said "Enlightenment is the biggest disappointment of all". Whatever...the best anyone can do is have Bodhicitta, to study and practice whatever works best, and keep an open mind, because that always seems to attract the best possiblities, including precious opportunities to be a student.

In Tibet most ordinary people, and even many Ngagpas, did not have a chance to study closely with a qualified teacher, and there were many qualified teachers in traditional Tibet, far more than there are now. One can surmise this from Mipham Rinpoche's meditation manual, "Advice for old Yogis", which is addressed to lay practitioners and old practitioners or Ngagpas. In this text Mipham makes a simple point, that even after many years of meditation, one can still be confused about the nature of mind. What matters is availing oneself of a timely opportunity to clarify one's understanding, as often as possible. That doesn't mean one must study closely with a teacher. On the contrary, the more one studies on one's own, and practices, the more one is rendered prime for receiving a great teacher's instruction...

Good luck to all of us who cannot study with great Lamas as much as we would like.