Chogyam Trungpa

Ebola: the Buddhist connection

mukpoThere’s an unusual connection between Ebola and Buddhism.

Ashoka Mukpo, one of a handful of Americans who have contracted Ebola, was identified soon after his birth as a reincarnated lama, or Tulku.

Mukpo is the son of Diana Mukpo, who married Tibetan lama Chogyam Tungpa in Scotland. Ashoka is not Trungpa’s biological son, but was raised as his child after his mother became pregnant while romantically involved with another of Trungpa’s followers, Dr. Mitchell Levy.

As a child, Ashoka was identified as the reincarnation of Khamyon Rinpoche, and he was enthroned as a tulku in Tibet.

Although Mukpo regards himself as a practicing Buddhist, he decided not to pursue a monastic life, and he works in the U.S. division of Human Rights Watch. He has also worked as a freelance cameraman for Vice News, NBC News and other media outlets. He spent two years working in Liberia, doing research for the Sustainable Development Institute, a nonprofit that highlights the concerns of workers in mining camps outside the west African country’s capital, Monrovia.

It was in Liberia that he was diagnosed with Ebola. Soon after he was moved to Nebraska Medical Center for treatment, where he is recovering.

NBC News reports that his parents say he “would likely rather the attention be paid to the West African countries that have been ravaged by the disease.”

Although many people in the west are anxious about Ebola, we should remember that the vast bulk of the suffering that’s taking place is in Africa, where thousands have been infected, and where its possible that a million people could contract the disease.

This article on Forbes suggests ways that individuals can contribute to fighting Ebola in Africa.

Sources: NBC, ABC.

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The trance of fear

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

All of us live with fear. Whenever fear takes over, we’re caught in what I call the trance of fear. As we tense in anticipation of what may go wrong, our heart and mind contract. We forget that there are people who care about us, and about our own ability to feel spacious and openhearted. Trapped in the trance, we can experience life through the filter of fear, and when we do, the emotion becomes the core of our identity, constricting our capacity to live fully.

This trance usually begins in childhood, when we experience fear in relating to our significant others. Perhaps as an infant our crying late at night may have frustrated our exhausted mother. When we saw her frowning face and heard her shrill tone, suddenly we felt unsafe with the person we most counted on for safety. Our arms and fists tightened, our throat contracted, our heartbeat raced.

This physical reaction of fear in response to disapproval may have happened repeatedly through our early years. We might have tried out something new—putting on our clothes all by ourselves and gotten them backwards. We might have poured a cup of grape juice—but spilled it on the living room carpet. Each time our mother’s disapproving look and tone of frustration were directed at us, we felt the same chain reaction of fear in our body.

While the bodies of young children are usually relaxed and flexible, if experiences of fear are continuous over the years, chronic tightening happens. Our shoulders may become permanently knotted and raised, our head thrust forward, our back hunched, our chest sunken.

Rather than a temporary reaction to danger, we develop a permanent suit of armor. We become, as Chogyam Trungpa puts it, “a bundle of tense muscles defending our existence.” We often don’t even recognize this armor because it feels like such a familiar part of who we are. But we can see it in others. And when we are meditating, we can feel it in ourselves—the tightness, the areas where we feel nothing.

This trance of fear not only creates habitual contraction in our body. Our mind too becomes trapped in rigid patterns. The one-pointedness that served us in responding to real threats becomes obsession. Our mind, making associations with past experiences, produces endless stories reminding us of what bad things might happen and strategizing how to avoid them.

Through I-ing and My-ing, the self takes center stage in these stories: Something terrible is about to happen to me; I am powerless; I am alone; I need to do something to save myself. Our mind urgently seeks to control the situation by finding the cause of the problem, and we either point the finger at others or at ourselves.

Feelings and stories of unworthiness and shame are perhaps the most binding element in the trance of fear. When we believe something is wrong with us, we’re convinced that we’re somehow in danger. Our shame fuels ongoing fear, and our fear fuels more shame. The very fact that we feel fear seems to prove that we are broken or incapable. When we’re trapped in trance, being fearful and bad seem to define who we are. The anxiety in our body, the stories, the ways we make excuses, withdraw or lash out—these become to us the self that is most real.

Whenever we’re in this trance, the rest of the world fades into the background. Like the lens on a camera, our attention narrows to focus exclusively on the foreground of our fearful stories and our efforts to feel more secure.

The key to transforming this trance is by becoming aware of it—mindful of all our strategies, stories, physical reactions and bodily sensations—and allowing ourselves to be present to all of it without added constriction and judgment. If we can stay honestly and courageously awake to our fear, it can enable us to recognize and fully experience whatever is arising in the present moment, and keep us from falling into the trance.

Especially with intense or traumatic fear, a full mindful presence is often not advised or even possible as a first step. Rather, we need to take some time to cultivate inner resources of safety, strength and loving connection. In time, these inner strengths will allow us to stay present when fear arises, and meet the experience with interest and care.

For all of us, whether traumatized or not, there is deep conditioning to reflexively pull away from contacting the rawness of fear. Yet this avoidance is exactly what solidifies trance. As we cultivate our willingness, mindfulness and compassion, we can learn to face and transform our fear. We discover that we can awaken from the trance of fear even in the midst of the most challenging circumstances.

Whenever we can relate to fear rather than from fear, our sense of who we are begins to shift and enlarge. Instead of constructing a tense and embattled self, we can reconnect with our naturally spacious awareness. Instead of being trapped in and defined by our experiences, we can recognize them as a changing stream of thoughts and feelings. In these moments we have awakened from trance. We are inhabiting a wholeness of being that is peaceful and free.

Adapted from Radical Acceptance (2003)

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How not to practice “idiot compassion” (Day 33)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Chogyam Trungpa borrowed from Gurdjieff the very useful notion of “idiot compassion.” Gurdjieff, a rather fascinating spiritual teacher of the early to mid-20th century, had said that we are all idiots of one kind or another, and his extensive lists of the various types of idiots included “the compassionate idiot.”

Compassion is wishing that beings be free from suffering. Idiot compassion is avoiding conflict, letting people walk all over you, not giving people a hard time when actually they need to be given a hard time. It’s “being nice,” or “being good.”

It’s not compassion at all. It ends up causing us pain, and it ends up causing others pain.

The more someone self-consciously thinks of themselves as compassionate, the more likely it is that they’re a compassionate idiot.

Idiot compassion lacks both courage and intelligence.

Idiot compassion lacks courage because “being nice” and “being good” are held to be the most important qualities we can manifest, and so we’re afraid to do anything that might make us unpopular. It’s not uncommon to see a related phenomenon, “idiot kindness,” in parents’ interactions with their children. Some parents want to be their children’s best friends, and don’t want to be unpopular. And so they indulge their children, giving them what they want and never disciplining them, or using very inconsistent discipline. But it’s not a parent’s job to be a BFF for their children. It’s their job to help bring their children up to be responsible adults.

Idiot compassion lacks intelligence, because it doesn’t lead to happiness or to freedom from suffering. If someone cheats you, and you immediately decide to trust them again, you’re not helping either them or you. The person who cheats you is unlikely to have a sudden conversion to being conscientious. Any easy promise they make to change their ways is likely to be just another form of cheating. And so by letting them off the hook you don’t help them. In fact you become an enabler of their dysfunctional behavior, and thus you’re helping them to suffer more in the future, when their unskillful behavior catches up with them. And you end up suffering as well. At some point either resentment against the cheat, or against themselves, is going to kick in.

True compassion does not shy away from causing pain when necessary. Causing pain is not the same as causing harm, by the way. The Buddha talked about this in relation to speech, in an interesting dialogue with a prince named Abhaya.

Abhaya was the follower of a rival teacher, and he was sent to try to entrap the Buddha. He was to ask whether the Buddha would say words that were disagreeable to others. If the Buddha were to say he would say things that were disagreeable, then he would be accused of acting just like ordinary, unenlightened people. If he were to say he wouldn’t, then it would be pointed out that his words had in fact caused others to be upset. This was described as a “two-pronged question.” “When Gotama the contemplative is asked this two-pronged question by you,” Abhaya is told, “he won’t be able to swallow it down or spit it up.”

Of course the Buddha has no difficulty in avoiding this trap, and he turns the “two-pronged” metaphor to his advantage.

Now at that time a baby boy was lying face-up on the prince’s lap. So the Blessed One said to the prince, “What do you think, prince: If this young boy, through your own negligence or that of the nurse, were to take a stick or a piece of gravel into its mouth, what would you do?”

“I would take it out, lord. If I couldn’t get it out right away, then holding its head in my left hand and crooking a finger of my right, I would take it out, even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have sympathy for the young boy.”

So the Buddha leads Abhaya to recognize that it’s acceptable to cause pain in the short term if you want to save someone from long-yerm harm. And he goes on to say that:

In the case of words that the Tathagata [i.e. the Buddha] knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

And those are the only circumstances under which the Buddha would say something that he knew to be disagreeable.

So this is quite a tough order. What you say has to be true — not just your opinion, but actually true. This requires a great deal of mental clarity. What you say has to be beneficial — which implies that you have a good understanding of psychology and of the spiritual path, otherwise how can you know what it helpful? And you have to have an awareness of what’s the right time to say what needs to be said. This requires some empathy.

I don’t think it’s wise to say, though, that honest but critical communication should be avoided until we’ve attained some kind of near-superhuman state of wisdom. How do we learn when it’s beneficial and timely to tell the truth? How do we clarify whether we’re actually in possession of the truth? We learn by speaking, with as much courage, honesty, kindness, and wisdom as we can muster, and by reflecting on the consequences.

So ask yourself, “Am I avoiding conflict and calling it compassion? Am I afraid to be honest because I might end up being disliked? Am I letting people off the hook too easily? Am I setting myself up for resentment?” And if any of these is the case, muster your courage, and speak up, even if you make mistakes. The spiritual path is, as I like to say, the fine art of making mistakes.

Eventually this all becomes spontaneous. And in fact when the Buddha has done explaining the circumstances under which it’s skillful to say something disagreeable, he goes on to talk about the spontaneous nature of his communication. Those who are most genuinely compassionate don’t think in terms of “being compassionate.” Expressing themselves honestly and with empathy is just what they do.

So be wary of trying to be compassionate in a self-conscious way. The more you do this, the more likely it is that you’re being a compassionate idiot.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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The backward step: resting in pure being

Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa once opened a class by drawing a V on a large white sheet of poster paper. He then asked those present what he had drawn. Most responded that it was a bird. “No,” he told them. “It’s the sky with a bird flying through it.”

How we pay attention determines our experience. When we’re in doing or controlling mode, our attention narrows and we perceive objects in the foreground—the bird, a thought, a strong feeling. In these moments we don’t perceive the sky—the background of experience, the ocean of awareness. The good news is that through practice, we can intentionally incline our minds toward not controlling and toward an open attention.

My formal introduction to what is often called “open awareness” was through dzogchen—a Tibetan Buddhist practice. Until then, I’d trained in concentration and mindfulness, always focusing on an object (or changing objects) of attention. In dzogchen, as taught by my teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche, we repeatedly let go of whatever our attention fixates on and turn toward the awareness that is attending. The invitation is to recognize the skylike quality of the mind—the empty, open, wakefulness of awareness—and be that.

My first retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche loosened my moorings in a wonderful way. The more I became familiar with the presence of awareness, the weaker the foothold was for the feelings and stories that sustained my sense of self. Tensions in my body and mind untangled themselves, and my heart responded tenderly to whoever or whatever came to mind. I left that retreat, and later dzogchen retreats, feeling quite spacious and free.

I more recently learned of the work of Les Fehmi, a psychologist and researcher who for decades has been clinically documenting the profound healing that arises from resting in open awareness. In the 1960s researchers began to correlate synchronous alpha brain waves with profound states of well-being, peace, and happiness.

Fehmi, an early and groundbreaking leader in this research, sought strategies that might deepen and amplify alpha waves. Experimenting with student volunteers, he tracked their EEG readings as they visualized peaceful landscapes, listened to music, watched colored lights, or inhaled various scents. But it was only after he posed the question, “Can you imagine the space between your eyes?” that their alpha wave levels truly soared. (note-I’m offering a link to a guided meditation that I’ve adapted from Fehmi’s work.)

He posed another: “Can you imagine the space between your ears?” The subjects’ alpha waves spiked again. Further experimentation confirmed the effects of what Fehmi termed “open focused attention.” The key was inviting attention to space (or stillness or silence or timelessness) and shifting to a nonobjective focus.

Narrowly focused attention affects our entire body-mind. Whenever we fixate on making plans, on our next meal, on judgments, on a looming deadline, our narrowed focus produces faster (beta) waves in the brain. Our muscles tense, and the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released. While necessary for certain tasks, as an ongoing state this stress constellation keeps us from full health, openheartedness, and mental clarity.

In contrast, open-focused attention rests the brain. With a sustained pause from processing information—from memories, plans, thoughts about self—brain waves slow down into synchronous alpha. Our muscles relax, stress hormone levels are lowered, blood flow is redistributed. No longer in fight-or-flight reactivity, our body and mind become wakeful, sensitive, open, and at ease.

You may have noticed the effect of open awareness when looking at the night sky and sensing its immensity. Or during the silence in the early morning before sunrise. Or when the world is still after a snowfall. We resonate with such moments because they connect us with the most intimate sense of what we are. We sense the depth of our being in the night sky, the mystery of what we are in the silence, the stillness. In these moments of objectless awareness there’s a wordless homecoming, a realization of pure being.

In practicing open awareness, I’ve found it helpful to think of existence—the entire play of sounds and thoughts and bodies and trees—as the foreground of life, and awareness as the background. In the Zen tradition, the shift from focusing on the foreground of experience to resting in pure being is called “the backward step.” Whenever we step out of thought or emotional reactivity and remember the presence that’s here, we’re taking the backward step.

If we wake up out of a confining story of who we are and reconnect with our essential awareness, we’re taking the backward step. When our attention shifts from a narrow fixation on any object—sound, sensation, thought—and recognizes the awake space that holds everything, we’re taking the backward step. We come to this realization when there is nowhere else to step. No anything. We’ve relaxed back into the immensity and silence of awareness itself.

You might pause for a moment and receive this living world. Let your senses be awake and wide open, taking everything in evenly, allowing life to be just as it is. As you notice the changing sounds and sensations, also notice the undercurrent of awareness—be conscious of your own presence.

Allow the experience of life to continue to unfold in the foreground as you sense this alert inner stillness in the background. Then simply be this space of awareness, this wakeful openness. Can you sense how the experiences of this world continues to play through you, without in any way capturing or confining the inherent spaciousness of awareness? You are the sky with the bird flying through; you are, as a traditional Tibetan saying teaches:

Utterly awake, senses wide open.

Utterly open, nonfixating awareness.

Adapted from True Refuge (2013)

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“The Five Keys to Mindful Communication,” by Susan Gillis Chapman

“The Five Keys to Mindful Communication,” by Susan Gillis Chapman

I first started reading The Five Keys to Mindful Communication while waiting for my daughter at the airport. At the same time, a text came in from a young friend, announcing that he was probably going to be indicted by the FBI. It was difficult to keep my mind on the reading at this point, and yet I found solace there too, as one of the main themes in the book is working with fear. Even though most of the advice regarding fear centered around communication with others, I found it very helpful when communicating with myself that evening.

The author, Susan Gillis Chapman, is a marriage and family therapist, who has been teaching mindfulness meditation for over thirty years. She has an MA in Buddhist and Western Psychology and studied under Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Pema Chodron. Students of the Dharma will recognize many foundational concepts throughout the book, such as the illusion of the false self and the pitfalls of craving, which are clearly incorporated in her Five Keys:

  1. The Key to Mindful Presence: Awake Body, Tender Heart, Open Mind
  2. The Key to Mindful Listening: Encouragement
  3. The Key to Mindful Speech: Gentleness
  4. The Key to Mindful Relationships: Unconditional Friendliness
  5. The Key to Mindful Responses: Playfulness

These chapter headings seemed very promising to me, and indeed, there were some inspiring passages and engaging anecdotal stories. At times, though, I found the book to be repetitive and somewhat unorganized. Throughout the book, Chapman uses slogans and metaphors to convey her message: Green, Yellow and Red light communication patterns, having a ‘we-first’ versus ‘me-first’ mentality, and open/closed communication. After a while, I became mildly annoyed by the slogans and frequent use of ‘we-first’ as a label for how to communicate; and yet, outside of my reading I did find myself reflecting that I should ‘be careful, because the light is yellow’ when feeling irritated by a friend’s comments.

Title: The Five Keys to Mindful Communication
Author: Susan Gillis Chapman
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 9781590309414
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Another theme is the practice of staying open in communication and not putting up barriers or becoming defensive. For me, this is the essence of mindful communication; staying open and gentle, even in conflict. Chapman provides strategies to accomplish this throughout the book, but they all basically come down to maintaining mindfulness and unconditional positive regard. I appreciated her reminder that these barriers not only cut us off from each other, but from ourselves.

Early on I found the repetition to be reinforcing, because it is sometimes so difficult to remain open and mindful in communication. But I have to admit that, toward the end of the book I was skimming much of the content. Luckily, I did catch a real gem toward the end of the book that lists four progressive steps to compassionate activity when faced with a person who is truly contemptuous, angry, and regards us as the enemy.

Other features of the book include journal exercises (which are embedded in the chapters), a self-reflection guide, a glossary and a section called “Stepping Stones”. This last section was one of my favorite parts of the book, and the one I will most likely return to again. “Stepping Stones” is an overview of the main concepts of the book, structured into seven steps to help the reader avoid mindless communication patterns.

Chapman states in her closing that she is convinced that these keys to mindful communication have the power to restore peace and harmony in our society. Though keeping an awake body, tender heart, and open mind are, in many situations, overwhelmingly challenging, I think she is absolutely right, if only we are able to, “transform fear into love, and to bring that love into our lives for the benefit of others.”

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“Fully Alive: A Retreat with Pema Chodron On Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change”

Fully Alive: A Retreat with Pema Chodron

Pema Chodron was the first North American born woman to become an ordained Bhikkhuni. She teaches in the Shambhala tradition begun by her mentor and teacher Chogyam Trungpa. Meg Wheatley, who assists her teaching on this retreat, has a Ph.D. from Harvard and has long been interested in system dynamics. She is a prolific author and has traveled to every continent to learn and teach about how human systems function properly or fail. Both women have sound instruction to offer concerning how to navigate beautifully in life — this life that can only be impermanent.

The focus of the retreat is a modern-day Hopi prophecy. Ani Pema indicated that the prophecy was requested from Hopi elders. The prophecy describes the way that all beings should expect to live for the future. My heart and mind opened to receive it, as it was read, first by Ani Pema and then by Meg Wheatly.

Here is a river, flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid;
willing to cling to the shore.
They are being torn apart and will suffer greatly.
Know, that the river has its’ destination.’
The elders say, ‘Let go of the shore.
Push our way into the middle and keep our heads above water.’
They also say, ‘See who is there with you and celebrate.
At this time in history, the time of the lone wolf is over.
Gather yourselves.
Banish the word struggle from your vocabulary.
All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration;
for we are the ones we have been waiting for.

Ms. Wheatley tell us that old ways of thinking are simply outdated. Culturally, we tend to hold rigid ideas about how we should or should not react to stimuli. She discusses the differences in how we think of things. She suggests that our thinking should be be like flowing water. Our expectations often remain fixed and rigid in culturally accepted patterns, what she calls ‘rock logic’. We as humans should learn to let our patterns of thinking flow, change and adapt to circumstance. That, to her, is how we stay in the middle of the stream.

Title: Fully Alive: A Retreat with Pema Chodron.
Author: Pema Chödrön and Meg Wheatley.
Publisher: Shambhala
Format: DVD or Audio CD
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk (4 CD set only), and Amazon.com as a 2 DVD set or as a 4 CD set.

The first thing one notices when Ani Pema speaks is the quiet joy with which she relates her message. While listening to her teaching, which I welcomed as dry soil welcomes a kind rain. My meta mind, my observer/narrator, was simply absorbing that calm joy at being where she was. Her desire to be of benefit to the world is inspiring.

It was a challenge to take in all of this teaching. The weekend was broken up into separate lessons, every one of them at once simple and complex. Once I had seen the entire recording I realized that every teaching was about the same thing from a fresh perspective. The ways to approach this prophecy are many. There are so many paths one can take to live beautifully. All who witness this will have something to take away from it depending on the experience of the practitioner. On a cautionary note, I feel some of these concepts might be overwhelming for beginners.

The most difficult lesson for me in this retreat was the charnel grounds teaching. I have read about Tibetan burial practices. The idea of meditating in the charnel ground; the place where the human remains are and where there may be ghosts and scavengers, is potentially terrifying. The viewer is asked to mentally view themselves in the most fearful place they can imagine. It is not an easy lesson. Living beautifully requires us to stay aware and open in the most challenging situations. It teaches that we must be peaceful warriors, ready to accept the suffering of the world and change it if we can, in any way we can.

The notion of remaining open and non-reactive to the things that trigger the most fear in us … well let me just say that I did well to be aware of my reaction. My first response was to wonder, Haven’t I just spent six years learning to create compassionate distance to those reactions? I believe that If I had heard this when I had just entered the beginning stages of practice, my fear response might have hindered me.

The layers of redundancy between the sessions also convey the many approaches there are to take from the core of this compelling study into our daily lives. It took me a week to watch this five hours of the retreat. I would watch an hour and simply absorb. I meditated on every section of the lesson. It simply took time and compassionate focus.

This teaching suggests that we must be open to the suffering of the world, and remain particularly aware of how difficult it can be. With the love and compassion we have learned, we are charged to do what we can to ease the suffering of the world. We must be ‘warriors’. By definition a warrior is not a reactionary. A warrior is calm, even-minded and able to love all beings while still being aware of suffering. That is the strength of the warrior.

So many teachings are about the damage done to the eternal self by continuously reacting, and getting hooked, to use Meg Wheatly’s terminology. When we fuel the embers of those alarming events or situations that trigger us it is easy to let old habits take over. We react with fear, craving or isolation. We let the ember of suffering in what ever form it presents itself, turn into conflagration by feeding it through our old patterns of response.

All of our old patterns were where we were, once; we, I, you, started somewhere. Hopefully, we can learn to love everything about what led us to now. At every point on any path that we may be, we can choose to love all beings. There seem to be only a few ways to get to that place and they all involve being fearless. They all seem to require that we learn ourselves very well. Then, when we are self-strong and loving, we must gather together as a single monolithic “us” and celebrate. We can beautifully accept, without reacting, that everything changes.

There comes a time where we must trust in our practice. We must walk or swim into the middle of the river and be available to the rest of the needy suffering world. We may share as much as we will, to let all beings know that this alternative path is available and potentially so pleasant. Once we own our suffering we can let it move through us as if we are not even here.

More than anything else, we must learn to understand that open acceptance and genial love is the thoughtful response. This is the skillful way to respond. The more we patiently and beautifully practice living always in the now, the more we encounter every moment with the understanding that it is unique and new. Compassion is the authentic response.

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“Work, Sex, Money: Real Life on the Path of Mindfulness” by Chogyam Trungpa

work sex money chogyam trungpa

As a long-standing Western Buddhist, my curiosity was piqued by this book. Work, sex and money are crucial issues to all of us, so I was interested to hear what Trungpa said.

Chogyam Trungpa was a major figure in the establishment of Buddhism in the West – particularly in North America. He was the founder of Vajradhatu and the Naropa Institute, two major achievements in themselves. But he did more than this.

Born in Tibet in 1940, and recognised as an infant as a major Kagyu tulku, he intensively trained in monasteries with Jamgon Kongtrul and other eminent teachers, later receiving full ordination. After dramatically escaping Tibet in 1959, he eventually arrived in Oxford University in 1963. Together with the spiritual movements he founded, he also wrote many Buddhist classics: Meditation in Action (1969), Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (1973), and The Myth of Freedom (1976), among many others.

Title: Work, Sex, Money: Real Life on the Path of Mindfulness
Author: Chogyam Trungpa
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-596-6
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, UK Kindle Store, US Kindle Store, and Amazon.com.

In addition to his Dharma teaching, he was a poet, artist and playwright. He was also experimental and controversial. He was outspoken at a time of cultural change in the West, and was widely criticised for his seeming alcoholism and promiscuity. He died in 1987.

This volume is published by Shambala and edited by two disciples, Carolyn Gimien and Sherab Chodzin Kohn, and brought out in 2011 by Diana J. Mukpo, Trungpa’s widow.

The book is a compilation of seminars and talks on work, sex and money given in the early 1970s, but with some additional material from as late as 1981. His audience ranged from hippies though to businesspeople.

Trungpa’s book is divided into seventeen chapters. There are seven chapters addressing work, four dealing with sex, and the remaining six chapters devoted to money.

I found this a ‘curate’s egg’ compilation – good in parts. Some of the chapters are rather hard going, while others seemed insightful and rich. With the hard-going parts, I longed for more examples of his Dharma points, and cultural context. This is not a beginner’s book. But the lectures on work make useful reading, even forty years on.

In the seven chapters on work, Trungpa covers many themes, such as the sacredness of society, and our need as practitioners to be open to it – a radical idea at the time. The first three chapters don’t really address work per se, but really give a critique of modern society, and how self-centred and ego-based its individuals are. This is ground that is covered more fully in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Real spirituality, he asserts, is an acceptance of the world as already spiritual. He emphasises the centrality of meditation practice for Buddhists in modern life, if we are to grow. Buddhists get it wrong in two ways, he says: Firstly, leading packed lives where we have no space for creativity, and secondly, being too afraid of the creative process, so that we don’t try.

Trungpa unpacks these two flawed approaches in Chapter Four, explaining that they are both manifestations of the ego and of materialism. He warns against materialism, pointing to the underlying psychological materialism that underpins them. Heaviness, fascination, meanness and possessiveness are hallmarks of this kind of mind, he observes. He outlines ways forward, such as guarding against laziness, ‘earthing’ yourself at work, simplifying your life, and being in the present moment. Our primary tool for working with the materialistic mindset is Meditation in Action.

In the chapters on work, Trungpa stands back and observes the modern world from the eyes of a traditionally trained tulku, yet he himself knows the modern world intimately. It is a broad Dharmic overview he’s giving us, applied to our working lives, and some of it isn’t nice at all. Writing this review in 2012 – the Digital Age, it seems that Trungpa’s outlook is as relevant as ever.

Yet Trungpa sees this materialistic world as fruitful for Dharma practice, particularly through the developments of areas like discipline, work relationships, ethical practice, awareness and creativity. In Chapter Five, ‘Overcoming Obstacles to Work’, he explores ways of working with frivolity, daydreaming and interpersonal conflicts. Despite his good perspectives, there are no worked-out practices here, After all, this is the 1970s, and Buddhism is still new in the West.

The chapters covering sex, I found the least interesting, and at times, hard to stay with. After overviewing sex from a traditional Buddhist take on the dhyanas (blissful meditative states), Trungpa asserts that our Western approach to sex is too frivolous and guilt-ridden. We fail to see that sex is really about a deeper, sacred communication between people, which is imbued with respect. It should be more like an offering than an act. Our approach imprisons us, he claims.

Love, he sees as ego-based, delusional and even animalistic. He peppers the chapter with stories, which I found were of mixed value. He goes on to explore sexuality from the viewpoint of the traditional monastic practice of celibacy, as a way to skilfully deal with desire — examining the source of our desire in the mind, rather than suppressing it.

These explorations are interesting, but I think don’t offer much concrete guidance for disciples. There is no teaching of sexual ethics, or of skilful ways forward. He seems to be suggesting that we acknowledge our primal desires, and then transform it into vajra passion, an ego-less bliss of the transcendental. But it isn’t clear how we might do this, should we want to.

Trungpa also explores family relationships and karma. Amongst what can appear as gross generalisations regarding family life, there are a few little pearls of wisdom, e.g. the need for parents to not see their children as property – an extension of their egos.

He also touches on marriage, but says nothing especially original or instructive for the modern practitioner.

Trungpa makes more useful points around the subject of money. The six chapters cover many themes; e.g. money karma, business ethics, and panoramic awareness. Despite some unproductive sidetracks he is stimulating, and gives his observations and experience of the subject. For instance, he explores the relationship between spiritual institutions and money and how this so easily leads to power games. Trungpa isn’t approving or disapproving of money in itself, he simply says that if you have some, then it is nice to spend it on something creative.

He also looks at business ethics and warns against secrecy, double-dealing and poor integrity. Buddhist businesspeople need to be exemplars of business ethics. Moneymaking can lead to good or bad karma. The choice is ours.

Trungpa’s final lectures cover karma and what he terms ‘panoramic awareness’. Work, sex and money all create karma, and we should see that. Awareness is his central point, and that if we want to be happy, then there are no short cuts; we need to act skilfully. Finally, he asks who the ‘I’ is that wants to be happy? He then explores shunyata and non-duality, and concludes by emphasising that by working creatively with work, sex and money we can realise it.

Throughout this all, he constantly strives to raise our awareness and give us a deeper perspective on our financial outlooks. Personally, I wanted more practical emphasis on simplicity, and how to make your money-earning a useful means to spiritual development. I would also have liked an exploration of dana, or giving.

But then, perhaps, that’s not the point of this book. Trungpa taught in depth on these subjects in other contexts. This book, as you would expect from the title, is an exploration of work, money, and sex, and although the quality of that exploration is variable and sometimes incomplete, Trungpa is insightful and stimulating at times. Despite the book’s shortcomings, Western practitioners will find food for thought here.

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“A Little Book of Love” by Moh Hardin

A Little Book of Love

This is the first book by Moh Hardin, an acarya, or senior teacher, in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and teaches classes on Buddhism and meditation in Canada and the U.S.

Hardin tells us that A Little Book of Love is written for anyone who is interested in exploring wisdom from the Buddhist tradition for awakening, deepening and expanding love in our lives and in the world. Unfortunately, Hardin gives only tiny snippets of Buddhist wisdom and neglects to describe how this wisdom relates to his suggestions for deepening and expanding love.

Hardin begins by telling us we should be our own best friend, that our friendship with ourselves should not be based on conditions or a certain image we have of ourselves, not as we would like to be, but as we are. Making friends with ourselves is accepting ourselves just as we are, unconditionally in the same way we accept our children. While this is good advice, it is not an easy mission to accomplish. Buddhist wisdom teaches us that we are a product of our conditions including our upbringing, our relationships, our family interactions, our education, our work environments etc. To say we should love ourselves unconditionally without exploring how to do this falls short.

Title: A Little Book of Love: Heart Advice on Bringing Happiness to Ourselves and Our World
Author: Moh Hardin
Publisher: Shambhala (Dec, 2011)
ISBN: 978-1-59030-900-1
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Kindle Store (US), and Kindle Store (UK).

According to Buddhism, Hardin tells us, our basic nature is awake, enlightened, basic goodness, independent of conditions, naturally loving, compassionate, gentle, intelligent and wise. Confusion and suffering come when we are separate from this natural goodness and feel the need to protect ourselves and feel anger or jealousy. I agree with this premise, however, it is one thing to understand an idea and another thing to have the tools and time to integrate it. This would be a perfect place for Hardin to describe how meditation can help us to come to that basic nature.

Hardin tells how to love our partners. He states the most important ingredient for a good, healthy and long-lasting relationship is giving each other the gift of space by stopping habitual reactions and patterns and keeping things in perspective. He cites Chogyam Trungpa who said, “Being in love does not mean possessing the other person; it simply means appreciate the other person” and recommends giving a “flash” of generosity to our partner by looking at them as if for the first time and being receptive. I would have loved to have read examples of partners working on their relationships in the way Hardin suggests. Examples of people who have gone through difficulties and have used the tool of “flashes of generosity” would have brought this book to life.

Regarding loving our children, Hardin states, “We want to create situations to nurture children’s basic goodness and encourage their inherent curiosity and give them space for self-expression. He encourages us to ask ourselves “How do we manifest our love for our children in day-to-day life?” and to allow children to become our guides in teaching us how to perfect our love rather than seeking to perfect them. He also recommends spending time giving our children focused attention, thus enjoying genuine encounters. There is one example of Hardin doing this with his child, and more personal examples or examples from other parents would have been appreciated.

Hardin discusses the connection between our wishes, thoughts and motivation. What we wish for, according to Hardin, has a powerful motivating force in our lives and gives rise to our thoughts and our thought motivate us to action. Bringing love to ourselves, our partners, our children and the world is Bodhisattva (“awake being”) activity. The Bodhisattva path is based on: equanimity (a sense of balance and inner peace), love (desire for the happiness of others), compassion (a wish for freedom from suffering of others) and joy (a flow of free energy). Bodhisattva activity is a concept that deserves much more attention and discussion than was offered here.

As potential Bodhisattvas, according to Hardin, we begin to see through our own opinions and projections of who we think others are and develop “the mind of an awakened heart”. We begin to understand the interconnection of our worlds and gain confidence and trust in basic goodness (our own and that of other people). I wish that Hardin, as an acarya, would have taken the opportunity to share some of his experiences in this realm and also described how he has witnessed others develop Bodhisattva activity.

The ideas of unconditional love for ourselves, our partners and our children; generosity towards those we love and all people; skillful communication that comes from a place of open-heartedness and an open mind and Bodhisattva activity (including equanimity, loving kindness, compassion, and joy), are certainly important components of accepting and loving ourselves and others. They are inspired ideas, ideas I believe in and yet I finished the book feeling disappointed and uninspired due to the lack of depth of the exploration.

These ideas, these basic tenets of Buddhism, could have been explained in more depth and illustrated with examples from the author’s experience to provide inspiration and guidelines for increasing our understanding of and capacity for what we think of and know of love and Bodhisattva activity and offer a richer experience for the reader.

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A pioneering American Buddhist’s life amid strife

Peggy Fletcher Stack (Salt Lake Tribune): Charles Prebish’s path through American Buddhism has taken him to cities and universities, libraries and seminars, academic tugs of war, Zen centers, meditation retreats and global online communities. It put him in the presence of the nation’s most influential Buddhist teachers and at the forefront of a burgeoning field.

Most unexpectedly, Prebish’s decades as a Buddhist scholar-practitioner even set him down at the end of his career in, as he put it, Mormonland.

Now in an eye-opening autobiography, An American Buddhist Life: Memoirs of a Modern Dharma Pioneer, Prebish spells out the spiritual and…

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Film review: Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Unique perspective on controversial Tibetan lama’s life and teachings skews toward the reverential.

Well before American Buddhists and New Age acolytes began flocking to the feet of Tibet’s Dalai Lama, hippies and spiritual seekers were following in the footsteps of Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan lama who took up residence in the U.S. during the 1970s.

A provocative account of Trungpa’s global odyssey, Crazy Wisdom offers a perceptive, if one-sided, perspective on Trungpa’s impact on American spirituality and the arts, but is probably too rarified for the uninitiated — film fests, DVD and VOD will provide the best refuge.

Born in Tibet in 1939, Trungpa was identified as a reincarnate lama (“rinpoche”) before he was two years old and completed ecclesiastical studies within the Kagyu branch of Tibetan Buddhism before escaping his homeland in 1959 and resettling in India following China’s invasion of Tibet. A move to London to study at Oxford University eventually led him to Scotland to cofound the first Tibetan Buddhist center in the West and the decision to give up his monastic robes to become a lay teacher and marry Diana Pybus, a 16-year-old follower.

In 1970, Trungpa and Pybus moved to the U.S., where they settled…

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rather incongruously in Vermont, establishing a rural meditation center. Trungpa began teaching a growing following of lay meditation practitioners, many of them counter-culture refugees seeking spiritual inspiration, and expanding his interest in the arts. Wherever he traveled around North America, however — eventually settling for a time in Boulder, Colo., where he founded the renowned Naropa University — Trungpa provoked controversy and intense curiosity, as well as devotion.

He freely slept with other women besides Pybus — many of them his students — and smoked and drank openly. Trungpa’s spiritual methods were often as divisive as his lifestyle, prompting followers to identify him as an embodiment of “crazy wisdom,” a traditional teaching style involving unconventional ideas and practices that shock students into new realizations of Buddhist principles.

Whether a lifestyle or a religious choice, Trungpa’s excesses led to his death in 1987 from cirrhosis of the liver at age 48, after he had established a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, a network of Shambala meditation centers and published dozens of English-language books on Buddhism.

As a former acquaintance of Trungpa, veteran documentary director and editor Johanna Demetrakas presents a fairly straightforward, chronological account of Trungpa’s life and teachings, employing historical photos, archival footage and contemporary interviews with relatives, friends and followers. Aside from some mild criticism of Trungpa’s practices from American Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, the doc is overwhelmingly hagiographic, extolling the lama’s legacy as teacher and spiritual guide, despite the debate that surrounds his methods even today.

Insightful and often entertaining, Crazy Wisdom is content to leave critical analysis to more objective, if perhaps less inspired, filmmakers.

Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Production company: Crazy Wisdom Productions
Director: Johanna Demetrakas
Producers: Lisa Leeman, Johanna Demetrakas
Director of photography: Pablo Bryant
Music: Sean Callery
Editors: Kate Amend, Johanna Demetrakas
No rating, 86 minutes

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