Tuesday, December 21, 2010


"You told your tales with pictures,
I tried to make it seem good:
I borrowed the heart of a preacher,
And believed as hard as I could.
You don't know how much I worked there,
You don't know the risk I took;
You hardly, hardly saw me,
With the mirror 'round my neck."
                         Sophie Hunger

Individually, we die from a myriad of causes. We fall off horses, or smash up motorcycles. We eat something we should not eat, or kiss somebody we should not kiss. We develop heart disease, we develop cancer, and we have strokes. We become so emotionally distressed that we kill ourselves. Somebody stops a bullet; somebody else meets a knife. All lessons of history unlearned, we seem doomed to repeat the sterile equation of kill or be killed. Sometimes you hear that man has no natural enemies, but that is not true. Man's natural enemy is himself.
If you want to have some good, clean, Buddhist fun, read  actuarial tables, and you will see how much longer, on national average, you are expected to last. Mind you, this is only a statistical approximation. Tomorrow is guaranteed to nobody.
Collectively, on a systemic, or species-wide basis -- setting aside war and misadventure -- precious human existence is cut short by imbalances in the five elements. When the reaper swings the sickle, cutting us down like cornstalks in autumn, the agents are five elements in uproar. We die by the thousands in earthquakes, fires, floods, storms, and the inner, epidemic imbalances of moisture, cold, and heat that manifest as disease.
Thinley Norbu Rinpoche wrote an entire book on the subject, dissecting it in great detail. The book, entitled Magic Dance: The Display of the Self-Nature of the Five Wisdom Dakinis, should be regarded as definitive.
Regardless, somewhere along the line, surrounded by death, we invented symbolic death as a means to understand actual death.

Shamans have been deconstructing this for thousands of years, everywhere on this earth shamans have ever danced their remarkably similar dances. In all times and places, shamans are beating the drum, and disintegrating. They are no longer accepting or rejecting fluent membership in basic spaciousness. They are flying past the glowing lights, through the passages in the net. They are carrying no compass but the fearless need to find, and pacify, an ultimate cause; using mind to restore a necessary balance.

So, of course, a very long time ago, there were shamans in Tibet. They drummed themselves to atoms, and recognized atoms as emptiness. Their sounds were vibrant sounds. Their colors were vibrant colors. Their winds were gross, subtle, and infinite in number. Their flames burnt brightly.

In 1055, the flame took human form in a woman known as Machig Lapdron: her name means "Unique Mother Torch of Lap." Her normally expected iconography is as you see immediately above. She appears less frequently as you see in the photograph with which we begin this post. I thought you should see her both ways. Thangkas and so forth are not wanted posters, you know? They are more like composite drawings, taking clues from several different witnesses. Sometimes they are crazy dangerous, like cartoons. If you expect things to look the way you expect them to look, you will miss the point that things look the way they arise.

Machig Labdron is of course famous for synthesizing the practice of Mahamudra gChod, or "annihilating the concept of 'I'." According to some authorities -- notably Chogyal Namkhai Norbu -- her gChod was developed by combining shamanism with Dzogchen. His idea makes sense, and you can see why he would think that way. Shamans regularly disintegrate themselves to empty pieces, so it seems a very small step to cooking, and offering these pieces. Really, maybe the only difference might be the context in which one offers these pieces -- the spiritual framework is otherwise actually quite similar.
"I think social equality between men and women is less important than realizing the equality between samsara and nirvana which, after all, is the only true way to engender a genuine understanding of equality." -- Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
In recent years, there has been a tendency to regard Machig Labdron as some sort of feminist, and to regard gChod as a singularly feminist practice. Such ideas do an enormous disservice to both Machig Labdron's spiritual stature, and the practice with which she is credited:
  • As a historical figure, she was a direct emanation of Yeshe Tsogyal. 
  • The very essence of Mahamudra gChod is to do away with notions such as gender identity. 
By dropping all pretenses, and to tame beings, Machig Labdron was able to display liberation in one lifetime, in one body, and to thereafter continuously incarnate and emanate at will. Indeed, one such emanation has even quite legitimately been recognized in a Westerner: Joan Ewing, better known as Lama Tsultrim Allione.

The historical Machig Labdron's principal social achievement had nothing to do with her imputed status as a woman; rather, it had to do with her status as a Tibetan. After the institutional Buddhists tormented the indigenous shamans into submission -- thereby indelibly marking Bon with Buddhism, and (depending on who is telling the story) generating the karma for eventual eradication of Tibetan culture -- tribunals came into being for determining what was and was not "authentic" Buddhist practice. During her lifetime, only those teachings that originated in India were considered authentic Buddhism. The idea that there could be such a thing as indigenous Buddhist teachings originating in Tibet was quite controversial.

Indeed, when Machig Labdron began to teach, she was so controversial that a delegation was sent from India. Over a period of time, she was tested and examined. According to one source:
"Word of the widespread practice of Mahāmudra Chö in Tibet and Nepal was first viewed in India with great scepticism. A delegation of ācāryas was sent from Bodh Gayā to Tibet to test Machig Labrön and her teaching resulted in the acceptance of Mahāmudrā Chö as a valid and authentic Mahāyāna tradition. Thereafter its practice spread even to India."
So, in a way -- if you wanted to engage in flashy oversimplification -- you could call Machig Labdron the "Mother of Tibetan Buddhism," in the sense that it is she who comes up with the first Buddhist teachings to originate in Tibet.

In general, every gChod practitioner understands that the practice proceeds on three levels: outer, inner, and secret. The outer, or external aspect consists of going to remote, or otherwise frightening places, alone. This is usually described with reference to charnel grounds, but it can really be any place that is inhabited with spirits. The internal aspect is to heat and offer one's own body as food to the spirits -- demons, actually -- and the transformation of this offering into a state of non-conceptual awareness. It is not the offering alone that is transformed; rather, it is you, the offering, and the recipients -- all three transform into non-conceptual awareness. The secret aspect is simply cutting through dualistic clinging to the concept of an "I," or ego, and exorcising the demons this ego produces.

Contrast this with the elements of shamanism, as seen everywhere. These consist of symbolic death, dispersal and resurrection; an ability to fly to, and then fluently empathize with, the spirit world, whether in descent or ascent; a special relationship with fire, inclusive of autothermy; the ability to enlist the animal realm, either by assuming or usurping animal form, and the power of invisibility, i.e. mastery of the covert and clandestine.
"If we do not practice Dharma but only talk continuously without faith about our teacher, his teachings, his empowerments, our practice, our retreats, making a Dharma shopping list, then our impure minds become constipated and we get dharmarhoids which is disrespectful to the true Dharma practitioner and to pure Dharma." -- Thinley Norbu Rinpoche

So, there are are some parallels, and these parallels lend credence to Chogyal Namkhai Norbu's assertions, but these parallels are not what I find interesting. What I find interesting is that Machig Labdron's practice comes to fore some two centuries after Padmasambhava arrived in Tibet. The scale of the thing invites comparison.

In the West -- where we are perpetually in a ridiculous hurry -- there is always all sorts of agony surrounding the transplantation of Buddhism as it was practiced in Tibet, and what we might expect in terms of precisely when that process will be complete. Some of us seem to be interested in this notion of completion because we want to launch something peculiarly Western. In America, you get slapped with this meme all the time.

I have always felt that the answer to the question of "when," is "not in your lifetime." So many of us suffer from impatience that we forget our lives are ephemeral. As it stands, this whole escapade with Tibetan Buddhism is only about fifty years old, and those of us who came in at the beginning of the scene are now exiting the theater. I do not know that we should be expecting anything at all. Well, maybe one thing...

In some respects, our time resonates with the interval between Padmasambhava's departure and Machig Labdron's flourish. We have our little tribunals and inquisitions, but even those are beginning to quiver. The generation of lamas educated in pre-1959 Tibet is disappearing like breath on a mirror. I do not know who it is that might be able to summon the same authority they are able to summon.

Like gChod, Tibetan Buddhism has been cut asunder, and is being cooked and offered up in pieces.

In a very few more years, those educated in Tibet will be gone, and one imagines there will be some who feel themselves thus at liberty to make up any sort of nonsense that pops into their heads. They will call it "American Buddhism." Who will stop them? We already see some of this happening.

When we consider such events, we often miss the point that we have no underlying, sympathetic spiritual tradition -- beyond a dim and imperfect memory of the Native American tradition -- upon which to found any sort of meaningful assimilation. Is New Age hocus-pocus and blathering on about crystals and power vortexes a suitable matrix? Is there anything present that can support liberation, and if so, what evidence do we have?

You know, at my old house, I had a rather splendid orchard in the backyard. This orchard was about twenty years old, and I spent a great deal of time studying its ways. I had a plum tree there, and through the years, it became the subject of numerous experiments. The cuttings of many different sorts of plum trees were grafted on to the trunk, and I had purple plums, and white plums, and so forth, all growing on the same tree. But, the thing of it was -- this is the lesson I learned, and the point I want to make -- you could not predict the outcome of any given season. This tree gave up its hybrid fruit in eccentric fashion.

The neighboring trees, which were not grafted and were thus true to their species, gave predictable results.

As time goes by, Machig Lapdron's story, and the practice identified with her story, will become  increasingly more important to the West. Hopefully, we will begin to see her not as some romanticized figure, distorted in the mirror where we preen ourselves, but we will see her as she actually was. Maybe we will understand that every aspect of her activity flowed naturally, from her accomplishment -- not some abstract status that somebody gave her, but real accomplishment -- and thus informed by spontaneously arising, timeless awareness, she was able to pass along the clues illuminating pervasive wisdom to which we now rather childishly aspire.

Genuine efficacy is a fundamental measure of value.

Like they say, show beats tell every time.
"Caught in your headlights
I had to close my eyes
Caught in your headlights
I had so little time
Caught in your headlights
I couldn't turn back
I was never myself
I was you
I forgot."
Sophie Hunger

To this point, we have examined similarities, but it is equally important to consider differences. The difference between shamanism and pure Dharma occurs in the areas of (1) view, (2) function, and (3) underlying intention:

"The Bon-po's view of existence considered that the boundaries between the heavens, the intermediate world, and the lower world of the demons -- between men and gods and between men and the dead -- could be broached by shaman priests." -- Tarthang Tulku
So, plainly, this view does not conceive gods and demons are projections; rather, it deals with them as concrete realities. Boundaries are broached, but they are not collapsed. This is done in service to kings, and patrons, so the underlying intention to benefit beings is case specific.

Bodhicitta is not a philosophical construct, or a mere idea, but an absolutely natural and universally present fact of human existence. Where Bodhicitta is acknowledged and accounted for, there you can witness pure Dharma.Where Bodhicitta is not acknowledged, and we are at the same time divorced from space -- considering, for example, heaven's artificial boundaries as actual boundaries to be manipulated -- then we have shut the gate on pure Dharma and driven away.

Conceiving of Buddhist spiritual practice as a struggle between dialectic opposites shuts the gate on pure Dharma and drives away. Grafting wisdom's all-encompassing insights onto a holographic tree, hoping for instant fruit salad, shuts the gate on pure Dharma and drives away.

Drive away. Put the top down, and turn on the radio. Turn it up loud. Step on the accelerator.

Tearing around the countryside with the radio blasting frightens the birds and beasts so terribly that they begin to show their wrathful aspect. When you see these aspects, it is suddenly you who becomes frightened. Maybe you call to mind something like Hitchcock's The Birds. Maybe your pet suddenly bites your hand. Maybe you dream of a huge garuda, snatching you up in talons of meteorite iron, tearing you to shreds with his meteorite beak.

It is suddenly you who desperately questions the subtle darkness you secretly inhabit -- the smokey world where you secretly hide.

So, you stop the car, turn off the radio, get out, and begin to walk toward whatever light you think you see.

Caught in the headlights, every demon is hungry. Every demon wants fast food, and here you are... well and truly arrived at the drive-in.

How to feed them is still under discussion, but what to feed them.... this, I think, is already on the menu.

The Unhappy Meal.


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3 reader comments:

Padma Kadag said...

here in America the "sacred feminine" is the thing.these days. Robert Graves back in the '30s and '40's wrote automatically about it. Now the adherents of the sacred feminine remove images of Guru Rinpoche from their shrine rooms in order to teach confusion.

Ales said...

Thank you for your post on gChod practice.
I would like to react on what you said about the synthesis of shamanism and dzogchen in Machig's gChod regarding to Namkhai Norbu's explanation.
I remember that NN explained her gChod as a synthesis of prajnaparamita sutras with tantra.
Moreover it seems that Namkhai Norbu's gChod gTerma could be the first that is actually combining gChod with Dzogchen.


Diamond Meth said...

The ending analogy,is particularly potent. The quality of your writing is appreciated.