“Never Turn Away: The Buddhist Path Beyond Hope and Fear” by Rigdzin Shikpo
Title: “Never Turn Away – The Buddhist Path Beyond Hope and Fear.”
Author: Rigdzin Shikpo
Publisher: Wisdom Publications, Boston (2007).
Available from: Amazon.com.
Tejananda, Buddhist practitioner, meditation teacher, and author of The Buddhist Path to Awakening, gives an overview of a new, fresh approach to translating the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism into a western idiom.
Rigdzin Shikpo (Michael Hookham) was one of the earliest Western students of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
Trungpa, who died in 1987, was a brilliant yet controversial figure. But whatever his flaws, he was undoubtedly one of the key figures in transmitting and translating Tibetan Buddhism for the western world: not so much translating in the linguistic sense as being prepared to take risks in creating new forms and expressions out of the 1000-year-old Kagyu tradition in which he was reared from early childhood, in “honest collision” with western culture and values.
Trungpa was also trained in the older Nyingma tradition, the heart of which is the Maha-Ati or Great Perfection (Dzogchen) teachings, and it was these in particular that he transmitted to Rigdzin Shikpo during his period in the UK between 1963 and 1970. Trungpa Rinpoche is still very much Rigdzin Shikpo’s root guru, a fact clearly reflected in Rigdzin Shikpo’s deep devotion to his teacher.
It also is clear in the content of this book, which frequently makes reference to Trungpa’s Dharma teachings. At the same time, it’s obvious that Rigdzin Shikpo has assimilated these teachings deeply, and they come across in his own voice and manner.
The book expounds the four Truths, traditionally the Buddha’s first, and certainly his most fundamental, teaching: suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path or way (which enables the cessation of suffering). The book is more concerned with practice than with doctrinal exposition, with Rigdzin Shikpo discussing each Truth in relation to a significant area of practice.
The first and the underlying theme of the whole book, is openness, in relation to the truth of suffering (duhkha). According to Rigdzin Shikpo, Trungpa Rinpoche “always emphasized direct experience and mostly had students work with the single instruction of openness.” This “provides the basis for greater awareness in meditation and everyday life … it is the combination of openness and awareness that lays the ground for seeing significance in our experience.”
The fundamental attitude of Dharma practice is always “turning toward” whatever life presents to us…
But significance can’t be learned from words, even words about Dharma. Its the qualities they “point” to that have to “affect our guts … hit us in the deepest part of what we are.” This is the import of the book’s title: “Never Turn Away.” In other words, the fundamental attitude of Dharma practice is always “turning towards” whatever life presents to us. Not going into denial, not blanking out with intoxication –- any kind of intoxication –- but simply being open to life, just as it is.
Of course, what we want to “blank out” is pain and suffering. Bearing with pleasure is not a problem for most of us! But always to be shying away from pain and attempting to prolong pleasure amounts to our manufacturing a “reality” which is itself painful and unsatisfactory. This “seeming reality” in which most of us live “is fundamentally false.”
The first step towards seeing through this delusion is — never turn away. “Openness is a way of learning about the world that enables us to relate to things properly and act skilfully.”
In practice, learning the “skill” of openness is best served by meditation. What kind of meditation? Rigdzin Shikpo notes that “meditation, by itself, is not necessarily helpful” and can even be harmful, because it “can powerfully reinforce our world view.” So, it’s vital that meditation is done on the basis of right view.
The practice of openness is a natural gateway into the area of wisdom…
“View, in this sense, is a way of seeing that leads to a deeper understanding of the nature of experience, rather than holding a particular dogma or set of beliefs.” This view is nothing other than “an attitude of complete openness to whatever arises in our minds and daily lives.”
Much more than “calm” or “peace of mind” (a common motivation for taking up meditation), the practice of openness is a natural gateway into the area of prajna or wisdom, and helps us to “develop a robustness of mind that can work with any circumstances that arise” and “to develop as truly human beings.” In the next several chapters, Rigdzin Shikpo goes into a lot of useful detail on the basics of this approach to meditation practice.
The second Truth, the cause of suffering, is expounded in the context of “mandala principle.” Mandalas are often identified with colorful Tibetan thangka paintings of elaborate circular diagrams. But the mandala principle on which they are based is universal: “every aspect of our experience, both internal and external, can be understood in terms of mandala … everything in the universe expresses itself in terms of mandala and interlocking mandalas within mandalas.”
Every mandala has a center and a periphery, and “at the center is the basic organizing principle, which is something active and powerful.” Emanating from this “are various related subprinciples” forming the body of the mandala. These are often depicted as a sphere, with a boundary. “Whenever mandalas have to do with people and their concerns, the boundary is a very emotional place.”
What has this got to do with the second Truth, the origin of suffering? The answer lies in ego, or self-view, “which narrows our world and creates a closed and sometimes crushing mandala.” This “ego mandala” gives rise to suffering because of our “continually projecting expectations onto our experience,” especially in the relation between the conceptual structures we create, and our emotions. Consequently, exploration of and penetration into the significance of this relation is a vitally important element of meditation practice.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, Trungpa Rinpoche taught that negative emotions like anger or desire were not themselves really a problem: “Emotions arise in our bodies, but they don’t have to be expressed in external activity.” The problem lies not in the basic emotion but in the “negativity of the negativity” which refers “to the ideas we have about our emotions, the reasons we give to justify their presence and continuance.”
Ego, or self-view, narrows our world and creates a closed and sometimes crushing mandala.
So, it’s important to recognize the conceptual link between emotion and response. “Negative” emotions only grow because we dwell on them with thoughts. “We use concepts to narrow our vision and drive our hatred and desire toward some ego-centred goal.” To open and expand our vision through meditation, Rigdzin Shikpo recommends “treating thoughts, feelings and emotions as guests.” That is, you “greet” them by allowing yourself to experience them as clearly as possible, then “let them go and return to the breath.”
Importantly, “you never need to think of them as interruptions. They are all part of the meditation practice, part of the dance of your mind.” This advice seems particularly apposite to those developing a meditation practice, as it’s often assumed that “thoughts are the enemy” and somehow have to be got rid of.
There is a good deal of further meditation advice in this section of the book. What is particularly useful is the emphasis on principles and views informing meditation practice, more than details of technique. This is true of much of the book, which means that it will probably be of more relevance to those who have been meditating for some time than those who are just setting up their practice.
The third section, The Collapse of Confusion, corresponds to the Truth of the cessation of suffering. Confusion, the deluded view of the “ego mandala,” collapses when we see “the falseness of our old vision of the world” through meditative investigation. For example, all our basic assumptions about time, space and “objects” –- including “self” or “me here” and “other” or “things out there” -– can be investigated in direct experience and discovered to be just that -– assumptions that don’t stand up to investigation.
Rigdzin Shikpo stresses that when our assumptions do actually collapse, this can be “emotionally shocking” and even feel like “death.” But what “dies” is only the confused ego-mandala, or at least some aspect of clinging to the notion of “self,” and its collapse means liberation from suffering. However, this is unlikely to happen until our basic wrong assumptions are investigated, and this section offers some simple yet potentially far-reaching meditative investigations.
Most of us might well prefer a familiar pain to an unfamiliar kind of bliss…
As Rigdzin Shikpo writes, these can lead to “a real sense of emptiness, a state beyond concepts” which may sound “high and wonderful and difficult to accomplish,” but in fact, given dedicated application, confidence, is “difficult but not that difficult.” Encouraging words.
The final section examines the fourth Truth, the Path, as “The Pursuit of Truth.” Of course, the previous sections have been concerned with elements of the path too; this one is largely about deepening these insights. “Our biggest job … is to work with that fundamental emotional grasping itself: that grasping at things as real, and grasping at some solid ground to stand on.” This is why, for example “most of us might well prefer a familiar pain to an unfamiliar kind of bliss.”
From the point of view of the delusional ego, the unsatisfactory world that nevertheless confirms its “reality” is preferable to freedom. Hence, although freedom is directly available, we really, really don’t want to go there. One take on the path, then, is that it’s whatever is necessary to get us to the point of embracing this always-available freedom.
There’s a very useful discussion here around “form” and “formless” practice. In terms of the “inner tantras,” there is a “generation” or “form” stage (kye-rim) and “completion” or “formless” stage (dzog-rim) to any system of practice. Practice with form helps us “establish the sense of the presence of awakening and a strong sense of going for refuge, taking the Bodhisattva vow, or making offerings.” Formless practice allows “a vivid sense of formlessness which is not vagueness, but a kind of clarity beyond appearances.”
Eventually, as he points out, form practice can reach a point where “it seems to be getting in the way” of the actual experiences that it initially enabled us to contact. When this point is reached, we can “link directly into those experiences in a completely formless way,” and here they are “even more powerful, not less so” than they had been in the form stage of practice. However, he cautions “…we can’t approach this powerful level of genuine formlessness without first working extensively with form.”
I found it interesting to note the parallel with Sangharakshita’s system of meditation here, in which “practice” (e.g. mindfulness of breathing, metta bhavana, etc.) is always followed by “non-practice” (just sitting) – clearly the same underlying principle is reflected. It’s noticeable that many people working within this system of practice tend to find increasing “formlessness” tending to emerge spontaneously, over the years and decades of practice.
Every section of the book goes into far more areas of practice than could be mentioned here, all very interesting and useful. Though clearly written to be suitable for those relatively new to meditation and Buddhism, the subtleties of what’s being discussed would probably, as mentioned above, be more helpful to more experienced practitioners. So, while the book can be warmly recommended to anyone who is interested in this approach to practice, if you are new to Rigdzin Shikpo’s writings, it would be better to start with his previous book “Openness, Clarity, Sensitivity.”