Pema Chodron

“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 Wheatley tell us that old ways of thinking are simply outdated.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, (4 CD set only), and 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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The second reminder: Death and impermanence

Dead, withered rose

‘One day I will die. I can not escape it. Death comes to everyone, including me.’

As I write this I have goose bumps. It enlivens me as well as scares me. There are many days I don’t want to die, and yet I know this is the cycle of life. Once I am born I am old enough to die. I remember speaking with one of my friends when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She wanted to know how long she had? Little did she know she only had seven weeks. Reflecting on this question, I realized she had 49 years to live, it took 49 years for her to die. How long did she have? She had now.

And yet so many of us, including myself live life as is we are immortal as if we are immune to death, as if it will not happen to us. As if our first terminal diagnosis is the first warning that we get that we will die.

The Four Reminders

I remember once saying to a friend who was diagnosed with cancer three years ago: “Hold on, hold on I could die before you. Your husband could die before you. Some of your friends could die before you. There is no guarantee you will die first.” Life is immediate for all of us, our death is immediate to all of us, if we wake up to that reality. I know that to be so true. I have woken up in the morning, felt on top of the world, had a great day at work, jumped on my bicycle and been knocked down by a car, more than once. Life is fragile, we do not know when it will end, but we know it will end. The uncertainty of not knowing can be more stressful than the actual dying.

A dear friend of mine died at age 44, from ovarian cancer. Initially she was given five years to live. But during surgery to remove her ovaries the surgeon punctured her bowel. This accelerated her living. She was terrified of dying, and her partner asked her: ‘What is so awful about dying?’. She couldn’t answer, but after this question her life changed. She accepted her dying process, to the extent that we gave her a living funeral. I remember telling her we wanted to celebrate her before she died. She lit up, and then proceeded to tell me what food she wanted, which people she wanted to attend. She said: “I want this celebration to help me pass over.” Her mom, brother, extended family and friends came to say goodbye to her. We all rejoiced in her life, told her we loved her, and said goodbye to her. She sat through every single bit of it, present and alert. Two days later she died. My friend taught me not to fear death.

Detox Your Heart, Vimalasara

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One of my best friends has just died. Was it a shock? Was it sudden? I know that my friends, family and i will die. And yet it still comes as a shock. I realize I still do not accept impermanence. I am in resistance to the change, that my dear friend will no longer share long talks with me, no longer laugh with me no longer support me. My selfish mind continues to cause me suffering. I have multiplied my pain by resisting it. I want Georgina to still be here, so I can here her call me V, so she can tell me everything that is going on back home in England.
I am more prepared for my own demise than the demise of those I love and know in my life.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers this practise. When we part with people we love – we hold each other – and look at each other with loving kindness and say: “I love you and one day you will die”

I leave you with this quote from Pema Chodron – “It’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we’re going to die, that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for that is freedom—freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human.

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“The Three Commitments: Walking the Path of Liberation,” by Pema Chödrön

The Three Commitments

It has taken me an age to write this, and I have only just realized why.

Pema delivers such ‘big’ ideas and concepts – and often all in the same breath! It has taken quite a few listens. Also, the opportunity to review The Three Commitments arrived when I was creating an event called ‘White Night – What is Enlightenment?’ for Brighton Buddhist Centre, tending to an allotment (community garden), and producing a BBC documentary series, as well as a short stint at Buddhafield. Listening to Pema became a multitasking affair – either while driving or whilst making decorations with my friends for White Night, while it really should have been a pen-and-paper, full-attention type of affair and is probably something I will revisit.

Title: The Three Commitments: Walking the Path of Liberation
Author: Pema Chödrön
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 978-1-59179-775-3
Format: 7 CDs (7 hours, 45 minutes), 1 Study guide (14 pages)
Available from: Sounds True,, and

Pema Chödrön is an American born Tibetan Buddhist nun, who has authored several books including The Places That Scare You and The Wisdom of No Escape. She is resident teacher at Gampo Abbey monastery in Nova Scotia.

The Three Commitments consists of 7 CDs (7 hours, 45 minutes) and 1 Study guide (14 pages). With The Three Commitments, Pema Chödrön brings her unique blend of authentic insight with informal and accessible instruction to guide the listener through each of these vows.

  • The Pratimoksha vows–how we can find personal liberation through the inner work of letting go
  • The Bodhisattva vows–the way of genuine and compassionate service to others
  • The Tantric vows–how to accept impermanence with true equanimity and touch the underlying stillness from which all worldly forms arise

As Pema explains, suffering arises when we resist the law of impermanence—the fact that everything we know, including ourselves, will one day die. Here she provides teachings and practices for fully embracing life’s ephemeral nature using these three traditional monastic vows, or “commitments.”

She makes it all sound so easy, but in a good way! She talks from first hand experience; her authentic voice helps listeners discover how each of these sacred vows is not a burden or restriction but a guiding beacon on the path of liberation. The dharma can easily overwhelm me, but Pema keeps it real with humour and personal stories.

So what have I taken from listening to The Three Commitments and this search for ‘What is Enlightenment?’ Well, the question as to whether I ‘believe’ in “Enlightenment” plays on my mind, but I do want to ‘let go’ and accept that being human is ambiguous, uncertain and groundless and I know I will find peace. A starting point is, as Pema states “When you take a vow, it sows a seed in the mind and heart that never goes away.”

As much as this sounds quite simple, there is much work to do on this path, Pema says “It’s like someone played a joke on us, and programmed us the wrong way,” we have a huge task on our hands, but as Pema states “Life is dynamic and fresh…so enjoy it!”

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“The Heart of the Buddha,” by Chogyam Trungpa

heart of the buddha trungpa

Trungpa Rinpoche was a deeply flawed man, but an inspiring teacher. A new book gives Suriyavamsa a chance to reflect on Trungpa’s genius, and on the visceral and striking teaching it gave rise to.

I remember studying with my teacher Sangharakshita in a group of Triratna Buddhist centre teachers a couple of years ago. He expressed his admiration for Chogyam Trungpa and, using Gurdjieff’s distinction between the narrow saint and the broad genius, considered Trungpa to be a flawed genius of intelligence, flair and imagination. Sangharakshita went on to encourage us all to become ‘geniuses’ – to be broad and other regarding, and to develop the many diverse talents necessary to spread the Buddha’s teachings.

Title: The Heart of the Buddha
Author: Chogyam Trungpa
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-0-87773-592-2
Available from: Shambhala and

This memory returns to me on reading The Heart of the Buddha, a recently re-released collection of Chogyam Trungpa’s articles. Trungpa was certainly broad. He had the genius, the flair and talent necessary to inspire many people to take up the Buddha’s teachings and he has had an enormous impact on Buddhism in the modern world. Many of the famous Buddhists teaching today such as Pema Chodron, Sherab Chodzin Kohn, Judith Zimmer Brown and Reginald Ray owe their foundation in the Dharma to Trungpa Rinpoche.

Trungpa has had an enormous impact on Buddhism in the modern world.

It pays to watch some of the YouTube videos of his lectures and get a sense of the author before reading this book. On these we see him sitting calmly, holding court before hundreds of people. He is immaculately dressed in a suit and tie and is carefully emphasizing each sentence with an impeccable elocution acquired during his stay at Oxford University in England. This is not a traditional Tibetan teacher fresh out of the Himalayas with trumpets and robes but someone deeply immersing himself in Western expressions. Someone out alone in a foreign culture determined to communicate the heart of the Buddhas teachings in a language accessible to the people before him. Trungpa’s presentations combined a thorough training in traditional Tibetan Buddhism with a radical re-visioning of what it means to practice the Dharma today. He tapped into a broad range of sources from Erich Fromm and psychology to Zen flower arranging and military discipline, and was keen to avoid the distracting allure of exotic Tibetan cultural trappings.

The articles in The Heart of the Buddha were chosen to represent “as complete a range of Rinpoche’s teachings as possible,” according to the introduction. There are edited introductory talks with questions and answers as well as more scholarly essays. In the first section we have a more experiential evocation of what is involved in meditation practice, in devotion and in the integration of intellect and intuition. Here is a taster from the article on mindfulness:

‘It (mindfulness) is a worldwide approach that relates to all experience, it is tuning into life. We do not tune in as part of trying to live further […] Rather we just see the sense of survival as it is taking place in us already. You are here, you are living: let it be that way – that is mindfulness. Your heart pulsates and you breathe. Let mindfulness work with that, let that be mindfulness, let every beat of your heart, every breath, be mindfulness itself. You do not have to breathe specially; your breath is an expression of mindfulness. If you approach meditation in this way, it becomes very personal and very direct.’

I’ve never found a clear overview in a Chogyam Trungpa book. He never wrote a 101 of Buddhism. I have thoroughly enjoyed my wanderings through these articles, but have been glad of my studies in my own tradition for an underlying framework to help hang it all together. For this reason I wouldn’t recommend even this broad compendium as an introduction to Buddhism. What you do get with Trungpa Rinpoche is something at least as important – vivid evocations of spiritual experience and a living sense of the scale and detail of the Buddhist perspective. He uses unexpected and surprising imagery which is often visceral and always striking. Reading his books is like making out the Buddha’s Dharma by flashes of lightning – you are left with memorable impressions and a stack of vivid quotes. Here are a few:

‘People have difficulty beginning a spiritual practice because they put a lot of energy into finding the best and easiest way to get into it. We might have to change our attitude and give up looking for the best and easiest way. Actually, there is no choice. Whatever approach we take, we will have to deal with what we are already.’

‘True admiration has clarity and bite. It is like breathing mountain air in winter which is so cold and clear that we are afraid that it may freeze our lungs. Between breaths we may want to run into the cabin and throw a blanket over our heads lest we catch cold – but in true admiration we do not do that.’

‘Spiritual shoppers are looking for entertainment from spiritual teachings. In such a project devotion is nonexistent. Of course if such shoppers visit a store where the salesman has a tremendous personality and his merchandise is also fantastically good, they might momentarily feel overwhelming trust of some kind. But their basic attitude is not desperate enough. Their desperation has been concealed or patched over, so they make no real connection with the teaching.’

The second section of the book contains three articles chosen to represent the three phases of the Tibetan Buddhist path –  taking refuge, the self transcendence of compassion, and the tantric path of ‘Sacred Outlook’.

The chapter on “Sacred Outlook” is the longest article at just under forty pages. Originally written for the catalog of an exhibition of ancient Buddhist Silk Route art, it is one of the best introductions to Tantric Buddhist practice I have come across, both in the thoroughness of its description and in its simplicity.

I found reading these articles induced an experience not unlike that of digging out old rock music and being struck by its fresh energy and imagination…

The final section is a bit of a mixture with articles on relationships, death, poetry, money, Buddhist/Christian dialogue and a piece on drinking alcohol. This is where Trungpa’s dangerous side comes out. He writes on the limitations of a moralistic attitude to pleasure and on the difference between alcohol being poison or medicine lying in the level of one’s awareness. A meditator undertakes ‘conscious drinking’ as a means to keep connected to others. It is difficult to read this as anything but naive in the light of his early demise at forty seven from cirrhosis of the liver and the chaos of his community after his death.

Nevertheless, I found reading these articles induced an experience not unlike that of digging out old rock music and being struck by its fresh energy and imagination in contrast to the formulaic, safe and commercial nature of so much of today’s music. These articles come from a time when Buddhism in America was more radically alive. Their vitality, originality and indeed danger, as well as their deep rootedness in the Buddhist tradition contrast strongly with so much of what passes for Dharma today. Amidst the mountain of secular Buddhism, domestic Buddhism for couples, therapeutic Buddhism for stress management and a strange fixation on our everyday, commonplace laundry, this book stands out for its ability to inspire and stir us from our complacency. Cold, clear mountain air indeed.

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“Unconditional Confidence,” by Pema Chödrön

Unconditional Confidence, by Pema ChodronIs unconditional confidence possible? Famed meditation and dharma teacher Pema Chödrön argues that it is, says Vicky Matthews, and that the secret is a surprising one: unconditional confidence comes from being gentle with oneself.

Title: Unconditional Confidence: Instructions for Meeting Any Experience With Trust and Courage
Author: Pema Chödrön
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 1-59179-746-2
Format: 2 CDs (2 hours)
Available from: Sounds True and

The opportunity to review ‘Unconditional Confidence’ arrived at a time that couldn’t have been more pertinent. It had been the finale of a project I had been involved in, with a final pitch. The whole event had been a high-pressured affair, and the final fruits seemed non-existent.  Fear, in the form of blame, was abundant, and my confidence had plummeted. A week later the CDs arrive. Hallelujah!

Pema Chödrön is an American-born Tibetan Buddhist nun, who has authored several books including The places That Scare You and The Wisdom of No Escape. She is resident teacher at Gampo Abbey monastery in Nova Scotia.

The 120 min two CD audiobook offers practical tools for cultivating “tender-hearted bravery” in time of challenge and change, and a three-step method for overcoming fear and uncertainty. 

“The root of true confidence,” teaches Pema, “grows from our ability to be in unconditional friendship with ourselves, to train in gentleness, and to trust in our natural intelligence to navigate life.”

The book covers how to move in the direction of freedom through discovering “shaky tenderness,” why being right or wrong doesn’t affect true confidence, steps for learning to “leap into, smile at, and experience all of life” even when fear is present, and how to be kind to yourself, even when you don’t feel kind and keep the root of confidence growing strong.

I appreciated the informal, conversational style and the warm and inspiring insights from her own life. She offers clear and concise instructions.
As I’m listening, I can feel a hard shell of protection around me. It feels like a scary prospect not to be surrounded by this hard shell; to run away and avoid the experience seems like the obvious plan, but what we need to do is be receptive to the experience, tap into the well of tenderness and get to know the nature of fear intimately. Pema explains how meditation is the key: “touch what’s coming up, then let it go.” 
I take from “Unconditional Confidence” instructions of what do when fear arises. I am furnishing myself with useful skills to enable me to become a ‘Spiritual Warrior’ and approach fear with the ‘tenderhearted bravery’ she describes.

Chödrön describes situations that are all too familiar, such our culture of distracting oneself from our “ubiquitous nervousness” (or being slightly panicked at all times) so easily with music, drugs, and general distractions. She explains that the root of confidence is gentleness to oneself. Be brave enough to stick with the self through think and thin.

What to do when you panic? Chödrön advises to surround it with loving kindness and an attitude of gentleness.

What wonderful tools to have! I shall be practicing turning towards my fear with a huge open heart, which will hopefully allow confidence to flow into my life!

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Top 10 Buddhist teachers living in America

Coffee-stain ensoWaylon Lewis at the Huffington Post has compiled a list of what he considers to the the top ten teachers “you can study with,” excluding “charlatans,” “promising youngsters,” “those who you can’t really study with because they’re too famous,” or “in private meditation retreat all the time.”

1. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche ~ he’s young but not too young, experienced, thoroughly Westernized (though exotically Tibetan, heritage-wise), a great teacher and frequently accessible at programs around the US, Europe, Canada, even South America. But because he’s a rising star, you’ve got to make an effort if you want personal training.

2. Pema Chodron ~ though Pema is a best selling, accessible, wise, safe teacher, and Oprah loves her…I nearly disqualified her because she’s no longer frequently accessible. But she’s just too good to overlook. So check out her teaching schedule, and connect with her before she retires or goes into retreat.

3. Sharon Salzberg ~ like Pema, she’s a best-selling author, beloved by Oprah, and an immediately accessible teacher to Buddhists and never-gonna-be-Buddhists alike. While less feisty than Pema, she‘s deeply experienced and warm-hearted. With her partners-in-crime Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, she teaches mostly out of the Insight Meditation Centre in Barre, Mass.

4. Ponlop Rinpoche ~ like Mipham Rinpoche and Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche (below), a young, well-trained teacher who belongs to the first generation of Tibetan Buddhist raised and trained in the West. He’s got an avid, small-but-fast-growing community–perfect if you want personal attention and training.

5. Joan Halifax Roshi ~ a strikingly-lovely, wise and venerable American Zen teacher, she‘s based out of her Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico, and works with the yoga community extensively. A superstar.

6. Dr. Reggie Ray ~ while he’s been caught in that “I’m American yet folks treat me like a guru vortex” that’s chewed up and spit out Osel Tendzin and Richard Baker Roshi before him, Reggie is like Pema a magnetic, accessible teacher. Unlike Pema, he’s got a small community with whom he works closely. Perfect if you want personal attention and training.

7. Columbia professor, Free Tibet activist and co-founder of The Tibet House, righthand man to the Dalai Lama, one of TIME’s most Influential People and father of Uma, Robert Thurman is charismatic, wild and wise–perfect for those who want to connect with the Dalai Lama’s teachings.

8. Norman Fischer ~ I don’t know him at all, being mostly a Tibetan Buddhist trained boy myself, but he’s got a stellar reputation for integrity.

9. Dr. Judith Simmer-Brown, Dale Asrael, Frank Berliner ~ alright, I’m cheating–combining three in one–but if you’re college-age, you can find ’em all (and other gems, too) at little Naropa University. Dr. Simmer-Brown is an expert in feminism, or the feminine principle in Buddhism, Ms. Asrael is wise and kind, Mr. Berliner is deeply serious, knowledgeable, caring, and impossibly good looking–the Marlboro man of Buddhism.

10. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche ~ like Ponlop Rinpoche, if you’re looking for a small community, personal attention and deep study, he’s perfect for you. Same goes for the remarkable, crazy-wisdomish Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche–an artist, filmmaker and incredible teacher–who has a strong, committed community. If however, you’re looking to simply inject a little mindfulness and awake-ness and peace and sanity into your daily life, you may want to stick with the superstars listed above.

Lewis insists that the list isn’t final and invites comments.

BodhipaksaBodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.

As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at or join him on Facebook.

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“Warrior King of Shambhala: Remembering Chogyam Trungpa,” by Jeremy Hayward

warrior king of shambhalaChogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a charismatic, brilliant teacher whose drinking and sexual dalliances left a problematic legacy. Suriyavamsa reviews a new book that appreciates Trungpa’s monumental contribution to western Buddhism but doesn’t shy away from describing his shortcomings.

The Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche stands out among the pioneers of Western Buddhism as a colorful and dangerous force making a huge impact on the Buddhism we find here today.

His short life was characterized by a tension between his thorough engagement with traditional Buddhist practice and his breaking with this traditional form in an often outrageous way. Both facets were part of his traditional Tibetan upbringing — a meticulous monastic training in Buddhist practice and theory and an inheritance of the spirit of the crazy yogi.

The encounter between his Tibetan “crazy wisdom” approach and the wild world of early seventies post-hippy America resembles the serious car crash he survived in the late sixties when he ran his powerful vehicle into, of all things, a joke shop.

 We get an insight into the tenderness and depth of Hayward’s personal relationship with his teacher  

Despite his notoriety — his drinking which eventually killed him, his promiscuity, the outrageous way he sometimes treated people and the acrimonious chaos, after his death, of the movement he founded — he left a formidable legacy. He trained many of today’s eminent Buddhists such as Pema Chodron, Reginald Ray, Judith Simmer Brown, Francesca Freemantle and Sherab Chodzin Kohn. Due to Trungpa there exist Shambhala Books, the Shambhala Meditation and Retreat Centers and an accredited university in Boulder, Colorado.

How many of us reading this had our interest in the Dharma kick-started with the thrills of one of his many books? Meditation in Action and Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism in particular have been an introduction to Buddhism for thousands of people.

There are now a number of books appearing that allow us a fresh re-appraisal of Trungpa. We have his wife Diana Mukpo’s Dragon Thunder and Fabrice Midal’s two works, Chogyam Trungpa, His Life and Vision and Recalling Chogyam Trungpa. All go much deeper than either sordid exposure or the fawning lama worship so often found with Western presentations of Tibetan Buddhism. Added to these is the book I am reviewing here — Jeremy Hayward’s Warrior King of Shambala, Remembering Chogyam Trungpa.

 Trungpa was trying to establish the Kingdom of Shambhala, a society with traditional values of etiquette and respect  

Jeremy Hayward is an Oxford trained physicist who first met Trungpa shortly after the Rinpoche arrived in the United States in 1970. Hayward writes from personal experience, giving an account of the years he spent practicing and working with Trungpa. It is good reading; you feel for him as he describes his own awkwardness and English reserve amongst the antics of Trungpa and his followers.

We get an insight into the tenderness and depth of his personal relationship with his teacher — a strong emotional bond akin to a love affair, with all the joy and pain this brings. Trungpa spoke of devotion to one’s guru as being one of longing, an unrequited love. There is valuable personal testimony here to be added to the debate around the matter of teachers, hierarchy and boundaries that has been raging in Western Buddhism over the past two decades.

Hayward writes about the struggles of managing a rapidly growing sangha as it moved from being a commune living in one house to a complex network of institutions holding seminars for up to 1,500 people and conducting courses across the US in everything from meditation and Buddhism to the social experiment of the Shambala program to flower arranging. There are tales of rivalry and resolution and of egos restrained and unrestrained. As someone involved on a humbler scale in another Buddhist institution I found valuable lessons in this shop-talk. I particularly cherish the advice given by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (a teacher of both Trungpa and my own teacher, Sangharakshita) to the staff of the early Naropa Institute as it struggled with low enrollments, canceled classes and missed payrolls. His response was, “If you let the roots go deep enough, the tree will blossom abundantly.”

 Trungpa’s drinking and multiple partners are described in an unsensational, matter of fact way.  

Then there’s the “crazy” stuff. The book contains pictures of men in suits marching with flags, Trungpa in military uniform looking like a banana republic dictator on horseback and with uniformed bodyguards, and holding court on a throne in tails and sash and with his wife in a ball-gown, both bedecked with insignia. Senior members of the sangha were made sirs, lords and ladies and formal dinners were laid on with detailed rules of how to hold a fork. Trungpa was trying to establish the Kingdom of Shambhala, a society with traditional values of etiquette and respect for oneself, others and the natural world and a way of life leading to egoless behavior; the result appears a little bizarre.

Hayward points to something completely “other” in Trungpa’s behavior. He meets with Nova Scotia’s agricultural department officials, holds an informed and detailed discussion on farming methods and impresses the experts; yet all the time he is wearing an admiral’s uniform, having been introduced as a Prince of Tibet, a country with no coastline. Hayward also tells of Trungpa’s ability to see and describe ghosts and other denizens of a world beyond the sight of most of us, and also his ability to really see the people he met, time and time again penetrating to the deeper situation of the person and responding with just what was required.

 Hayward invokes the challenge, the danger and complexity of living with Trungpa and his vision  

Trungpa’s drinking and multiple partners are described in an unsensational, matter of fact way. All the same I couldn’t square the ideals these people were establishing with this man at the center of it all, killing himself with alcohol. People are complex.

The strangest part of the book is Hayward’s time as an “attaché” caring for Trungpa on a retreat he termed “Fortress Free From Concept.” This was solitary apart from an entourage of attendants and consorts, and as it progressed Trungpa’s behavior became increasingly bizarre, free of convention if not concepts. He would be awake for days on end, not want to begin a meal until Shantarakshita (an 8th century teacher) turned up, battle an unseen green woman sent by some anti-dharmic lama and go on “journeys” back to India and England where his attendants had to act as if they were in Bengal or London. All this time Hayward was being constantly stretched mentally and physically and yet when Trungpa slept… “Then my mind could rest in a brilliant space that was extremely peaceful… The whole atmosphere of the house seemed to be filled with luminous warmth and peaceful radiation.”

Most importantly, this book gives us a window into what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was trying to do and how he went about doing it. He attempted a more radical reappraisal of the Dharma for the West than almost all other teachers before or since, whether Asian or Western born. He was trying to create a Buddhist practice for Western culture unencumbered by the historical and cultural adornments of Tibetan Buddhism without betraying the profundity and authenticity of the Dharma he was taught. He was also attempting to build the sane society he had read of in Erich Fromm’s book of that title in the form of his Kingdom of Shambhala. By doing so he was stressing the importance of thinking in a cultural and social perspective bigger than one’s own isolated experience. It is too early yet to know if he succeeded — that will take a century or two!

This book and those by Diane Mukpo and Fabrice Midal help counter Trungpa’s message being simplified and reduced to a comfortable therapy or palliative consumable. Trungpa strongly argued against this acquisitive approach to the Dharma in his Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Hayward invokes the challenge, the danger and complexity of living with Trungpa and his vision in a detailed and personal way and in that he is to be congratulated.

Warrior King of Shambala: Remembering Chogyam Trungpa
by Jeremy Hayward
Wisdom Publications
ISBN 0-86171-546-2

Suriyavamsa Suriyavamsa lives in Glasgow, Scotland, and works as a Dharma teacher and class coordinator at the Glasgow Buddhist Centre. He was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order in 1993, on the same four month retreat as Bodhipaksa. He has developed a love of traveling in India, and likes books, curries, heavy metal and matters esoteric.

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The art of friendship

Spiritual friendship comes highly praised in Buddhist practice. But why are spiritual friends considered to be so crucial? What are the qualities of a spiritual friend? And do we have to leave our existing friends behind? Guest blogger Justin Whitaker investigates.

“But due to the fragility and perishability of human things, we should always be on the search for someone to love and by whom to be loved; indeed if affection and kindliness are lost from our life, we lose all that gives it charm…”

Sed quoniam res humanae fragiles caducaeque sunt, semper aliqui anquirendi sunt quos diligamus et a quibus diligamur; caritate enim benevolentiaque sublata omnis est e vita sublata iucunditas.

Cicero, Laelius de Amicitia

Friendship, and our human relationships in general, can at times be one of the most difficult aspects of our lives while at other times the most helpful. In Buddhism, friendship is an extremely important factor, perhaps even more so than you might expect. The most famous statement on friendship in Buddhism comes when the Buddha’s cousin Ananda is said to have approached the Buddha and remarked “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.” And the Buddha replied, “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.”

Monks, a friend endowed with seven qualities is worth associating with. Which seven? He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you. When you’re down & out, he doesn’t look down on you.

So despite the common image of the Buddhist as the ultimate solitary wanderer, we see from this and several other verses throughout Buddhism the central importance of admirable friendship. Here I would like to discuss two sides of admirable friendship. The first is finding and cultivating admirable friendships, as opposed to our ordinary, everyday friends. The second side is in how we, as friends, may best support one another on the path.

The first thing to note in finding and cultivating admirable friendships is that we don’t have to dump our old set of friends and replace them with so-called “spiritual” people. Our current friendships, even with people who have no affiliation with Buddhism, can serve as fertile ground for admirable friendship. In the very short Mitta Sutta, or discourse on friends, the Buddha tells his monks to seek out friends with seven qualities: “He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you. When you’re down & out, he doesn’t look down on you. A friend endowed with these seven qualities is worth associating with.” Notice there is no mention of being well-versed in the dharma, mastery of meditation, or possessing great wisdom. Friendship, the Buddha knew, is far more foundational, far more simple.

I once sat before a great teacher and asked him, “why then do we feel extraordinary synchronicity around certain people [supposedly our spiritual friends] and then not with others?” “Delusion!” he exclaimed. Once we get the idea that so-and-so is a spiritual person and so-and-so is not, we are on the wrong path. Seek out the simpler qualities in others such as their service, kindness, discretion, fortitude, and generosity. In some esoteric Buddhist texts it is said that the Buddha may appear to us as a stone, as a dog, as a beggar, and so on, so that we should always be alert to the teachings that may come from such “ordinary” beings and objects. Similarly, admirable friendships may arise from a wide variety of situations. Meditating on Dōgen’s verses on the mountains and rivers of Eastern China, one can feel the sense of genuine friendship that this great master developed with the land.

Finding these qualities in the world brings us naturally to practice, to a sense of presence and awareness. Similarly, in good friendships these qualities are at the forefront. For example, if you were to get a raise in your job, a good friend would share in your joy, while an ordinary friend might reactively leap to comparisons and judgments: “Why didn’t I ever get a raise? Maybe the company is going to fail,” etc. That admirable friend might also kindly impart the teachings of impermanence, “don’t get attached to that job or promotion” and non-self, “a lot of people helped you along they way, haven’t they?” But the tenor is such that you are brought to a deepened sense of calm, connection, and joy, free of clinging, free of worry.

…each of us is deeply interconnected and this is no more apparent than in our friendships

Pema Chödrön puts it well when she writes, “The support that we give each other as practitioners is not the usual kind of samsaric support in which we all join the same team and complain about someone else. It’s more that you’re on your own, completely alone, but it’s helpful to know that there are forty other people who are also going through this all by themselves. That’s very supportive and encouraging. Fundamentally, even though other people can give you support, you do it yourself, and that’s how you grow up in this process, rather than becoming more dependent.”

Through this it appears that Buddhist views of friendship comprise a form of Virtue Ethics. The central theme is one’s personal development, the cultivation of skillful qualities and the abandoning of unskillful ones. But it is not forgotten that each of us is deeply interconnected and this is no more apparent than in our friendships. If our friendships are not in alignment with our practice, that practice will be ever more difficult to sustain. Quite often I have seen others and myself forgetting this, diving head-first into meditation and philosophical studies, only to see our practice crumble in the midst of unhealthy relationships.

So let friendship be a central part of your practice. Meditate on the relationships in your life to see how they bring you toward or away from awareness, toward or away from skillful and unskillful mental states and activities. As you become more aware of the friendships in your life that are indeed admirable, these relationships will naturally grow and deepen, while ordinary friendships will either fall away — the Buddha is also quite clear that solitude is far preferable to being in the company of those disinterested in cultivating positive qualities — or these friendships will begin to change for the better. The process is what western philosophers would call a dialectic, from the meditation cushion to the world, and from the world to the meditation cushion, a process of interrelationship and building toward awakening.

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“Healing Breath: Zen for Christians and Buddhists in a Wounded World,” by Rubin Habito

healing breathZen and Christianity may have much to offer each other and to learn from each other. But is it possible to be both a Christian and a Zen Buddhist? Author Ruben Habito seems to think so. Reviewer Samayadevi is more skeptical.

Ruben L F Habito was for many years a Jesuit priest serving in Japan. He studied with both Father Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, a spiritual pioneer in inter-religious dialog and with Koun Yamada, a renowned Zen teacher. He thus brings a fascinating perspective on the interplay of Christianity, as experienced in Catholicism, and the practice of Zen.

Healing Breath is aimed at those seeking a healing spirituality in their own lives and guidelines for a practice that integrates the personal, social and ecological dimensions of life. He assumes a familiarity with Christian concepts, beliefs and traditions and an unfamiliarity with Zen practice. These are fortuitous assumptions on his part as they allow Habito to explain and teach the four characteristics of Zen and the three fruits of that practice.

The overarching thesis of Healing Breath is that the Zen practice of being still, listening to the breath, and calming the mind all conduce to an experience of the interconnectedness of all life, to “seeing things are they really are.” The healing begins with a (radical) change in how we see the world, a “shift not of strategy but of cosmology”.

In this “right view” the spiritual path is “one with the path of active socio-ecological engagement,” and “healing the world is not unrelated to healing our personal woundedness.” Zen is presented as a practice that resonates with a Christian belief system and is compatible with a Christian faith commitment. “Christian expressions and symbols and practices point to transformative and healing perspectives and experiences opened to on in Zen practice.”

There are many lovely gems in this little tome. In writing about the second mark of Zen practice, not being limited by words or concepts, he writes: “The human capacity to name things takes its toll on our mode of awareness.” The implication is that Zen practice leads to the limitless spaciousness of the Heart Sutra. What an invitation to go beyond our analytical mind (our comfort zone), and, to go deeper into pure unfettered awareness!

Habito sees the violence and destruction in the world being caused by the illusion of “I” and “other”, and Zen sitting, following the breath and calming the mind, as leading to the dissolution of that false dichotomy. “The fruit of concentration is that the separation between subject and object is overcome and we can see our true nature.” It is from that dissolution that compassion for all beings flows.

The “art of living in attunement with the breath” is how Zen is described. These are all appealing insights and pretty much propel me to my cushion, or to my breath, as I sit here writing. On my first reading I was not so taken with the invitation to sit zazen (I tried that first in 1970), but on a second reading I could not help but be inspired. Especially in the midst of Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the image of quiet sitting to quietly realize an innate connection with all beings is pretty irresistible. It can even color and perhaps guide the potential frenzy of gift giving celebrations.

In discussing the Six Point Recovery to healing, Habito lists “integrating the shadow side.” Pema Chodron also often writes of befriending what scares us, what we want to hide, deny, or push away. It is an essential element in healing, in claiming our wholeness, and it cannot be said often enough.

In the section on Rekindling After the Burnout, Habito suggests that the very sense of “I” doing “good” to achieve good “results” is that cause of burnout! Again, we are reminded of the Heart Sutra: “Not even wisdom to attain, Attainment too is emptiness.” The practice is not to distinguish between the giver and the gift and the receiver. That is a high calling and a description of freedom.

So far, so good. However, I should admit that I was once a deeply committed Christian. I have a Master’s of Divinity degree from Weston Jesuit School of Theology. I am intimately familiar with Christian symbols and concepts. I am also a committed, practicing, ordained Buddhist. As Habito explains, the Christian corollary of “living in attunement with the breath” is found in Genesis, in the Hebrew word “ruah,” meaning “the divine breath that is at the base of all being and all life.” This breath inspired the prophets to speak the word of God. Christian spirituality is literally a life led in the Spirit or Breath, of Jesus Christ.” Zen practice is then (seemingly) used to access this Breath of Christ, to allow us to “…become an instrument of this Breath.” I clearly have trouble with this. I find a quantum difference between realizing I am not a discrete, inherently existing entity but rather deeply one in “interbeing” (Thich Nhat Hahn’s neologism) with all life, and believing that my ultimate truth is to be an instrument of the Breath of Christ.

Habito suggests that the koan practice of Zen is a means to “dissolve the opposition between subject and object.” The task of the practice is to remove obstacles to that realization. But this is followed by the suggestion that that realization is similar to glimpsing “the universe from the eyes of God; the one who hears is inseparable from the Word that is heard.” The concept of a creator God is so discordant with my Buddhist insights, I find it almost disturbing to try to mesh them together.

The implication throughout is that Zen practice and Christian commitment are not only compatible, but mutually beneficial. My own experience is that while Zen practice gives me the tools of sitting, following the breath, and calming the mind, the fruits of that experience exist in their own right without the need of a Christian world view. For a Christian, Zen may be beneficial in facilitating and fostering centering prayer, and a stillness of the heart.

Buddhists and Christians have so very much to learn from one another. Habito mentions at the beginning, that ‘Placing ourselves within differing religious traditions to discover mutual resonance, (leads) not only to inner healing, but to global healing.” I wish and hope that might be so. I just have trouble finding the resonance.

Samayadevi is a 65-year-old mother of six, step-mother of four, and step-grandmother of eight. She discovered meditation when she was thirteen and has been practicing (erratically) ever since. Her spiritual path has led her through Catholicism to the Episcopal church and finally into Buddhism. She was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order this summer on a three month retreat in Spain.

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Sitting Meditation (Boston Globe)

1. Sit upright on a cushion on the floor or in a firm chair, with your eyes open, hands resting on your thighs.

2. Relax your body. In a downward sweep, let go of physical tension.

3. Bring your awareness to your breath as it goes out. Keep it light and be open, “letting the breath mix with the space of the room.”

4. When your mind wanders off, notice it without judgment, label it as “thinking,” and “do that with honesty and gentleness.” And return to your breath.

SOURCE: Shamatha-Vipashyana (“tranquillity-insight”) Meditation, adapted from “Start Where You Are,” by Pema Chodron.


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