tantra

“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 Amazon.com.

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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Chairgasm in the basement: My intro to tantric meditation

Neal Pollack: Faster Times

When I went to my first San Francisco Yoga Journal conference in 2009, I mostly found myself wandering around the Hyatt confused, frustrated, physically exhausted, and waiting for lunch. This year, I returned with a strategy, a curriculum of sorts. I’d barely do any physical yoga at all; with that, I’ve become all too familiar. Instead, I’d begin my journey into yoga’s subtler aspects, its deeper mysteries. It was time for an introduction to Tantra.

Most people, if they’ve heard of Tantra at all, would say, “Oh, yeah, that’s that thing Sting and his wife do before they fuck.” Until pretty recently, I’d have said the exact same thing. And now, though I know far less about Tantra than I do about, say, the mechanics of the NBA Draft Lottery, I’ve begun to acquaint myself with some basic facts.

Essentially, Tantrism is a school of yoga that began to emerge around 800 A.D. in reaction to certain facets of Vedic orthodoxy. Yoga at that time had grown quite practical, rigid, and exclusionary, and Tantrism brought a mystical element to the proceedings, the possibility that yoga could be practiced by anyone, including, shockingly, women. Tantric practitioners saw yoga as a way to tap into the “divine energy” of the universe. Sometimes this was achieved through identification with traditional Hindu deities, but, since many of its practitioners were Buddhist, that pantheon didn’t always apply. Alternate paths to the divine included meditation, scholarship, mantra (either recited privately or sung with a group), and other, more complex “secret practices” that probably cost a lot of money.

The popular Western yoga form that most closely resembles traditional Tantric practice is kundalini, what with its chanting and its coiled-snake energies and all. But Tantra is actually a complex, variegated body of spiritual work that has only really begun to leach its way into contemporary yogic study. You’re more likely to find a class about paganism than one about Tantric yoga.

But at the Yoga Journal conference, which caters largely to extreme yoga weirdoes like me, Tantra can carry the day, as it seemed to this year. There were lectures in Tantric philosophy, courses on Tantric history, and intimations of larger things to come. I tuned in to some of those, and also took a class called The Art Of Tantric Meditation.

The class leader, Sally Kempton, was (and is) an extremely advanced meditation teacher, which either made it totally ironic or completely appropriate that the class took place in a thin-walled basement conference room in the middle of the convention’s noisy and crowded Yoga Marketplace. From the crackling walkie-talkies and guys who occasionally walked through the room whistling and wearing beige work shirts, I gauged that we were also directly adjacent to some sort of maintenance closet. It was noisy in there. We sat in straight-backed conference chairs, the color and consistency of old puke, and attempted to connect with the divine.

As any master teacher worth his or her cushion would, Sally Kempton told us to ignore the sounds. More accurately, she asked us to let the sounds penetrate our consciousness, notice them, meditate on them, and then let them go. The sounds were, like our breath, or bodies, our thoughts, and everything around us, part of a greater cosmic energy. I found myself somewhat distracted by the extraordinarily hot woman sitting to my left, so close that our knees were almost touching, though the distraction had less to do with the fact of her extraordinary hotness than with the fact that she kept fidgeting with her cell phone by pulling it in and out of a plastic Bakugan backpack. Why, I wondered, did this woman have such a backpack, and how could I incorporate the backpack into the Tantric idea that all physical things are really just a condensed form of “divine light”, or sound vibration? This was a difficult question that our teacher wouldn’t be able to answer, because there was no way in hell I would ask.

In any case, we did many different meditations over the course of two hours, including one where Kempton taught us an interesting technique to intensify and then expel negative emotions. Then arrived the moment of truth, the money shot, so to speak. The teacher announced that we would now do a sexual energy meditation.

In traditional Tantrism, sexual-energy rites were practiced by obscure sects as a kind of clan initiation, and had very little to do with mainstream belief. In contemporary interpretations, they’re a way for middle-aged hipsters to blend their Shiva and Shakti energies together into a series of million-dollar orgasms. What we did in that basement conference room was neither obscure nor wealth generating, but it definitely felt good.

The teacher said: Imagine something extremely sexually arousing. I initially thought of Lynda Carter, circa 1976, but that seemed like kind of a cliché, so instead I concocted a few other scenarios that I won’t share with you right now. Regardless, as she instructed, a warm feeling, almost like intense light, began to emanate from my genital center. No, it wasn’t a boner. Don’t be perverted. This was a higher sensation that transcended mere sexual pleasure.

Then she told us to take that divine feeling and move it through our bodies, starting in our toes, and then into our ankles, and then our calves, and then our legs, and then our thighs, and traveling upward through various meridians and chakras. Getting to such a place wasn’t so hard, really. I’d been meditating all morning, even all weekend, and my mind was primed. As I sat there in that shitty chair in that shitty room with its shitty carpet, a strange kind of semi-ecstasy permeated my every pore. My body began to involuntarily shudder with pleasure.

Next to me, the hot woman with the Bakugan backpack went “OHHHHHHHHHH!” Then the woman sitting next to me on the other side, in a slightly lower tone, went, “MMMMMMMMM!” Not wanting to be left out, I murmured a deep, low, “AHHHHHHHH!” The room had reached a state of Samadhi, where our individual selves had dissolved into a greater cosmic consciousness, probably fueled (though not in my case, I swear), by fantasies of having sex with George Clooney.

Then it was over, and our teacher released us into a room where entrepreneurs were selling stretchy pants and massage balls. A few hours later, after I’d gone to The Ferry Building to quite wisely invest $3.50 on a mixed “meat cone” from Boccalone, I returned to the conference to attend a lecture on the future of Tantra in the West. On the way there, I ran into the woman who’d been seated to my left.

“So, that workshop…” I said.

“Yeah, that was kinda weird,” she said, without looking me in the eye. “What’s up?”

And then she walked away, spastically and hurriedly, carrying the secrets of the Tantra in her Bakugan backpack.

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Vajrapani: Breaking free

VajrapaniWrathful Vajrapani, the bold blue Buddha of energy, is helping Vajradevi to transform her demons.

A few years ago I was sitting in a London office one winter day as the rain came down in slick sheets. Lightning flashed across the low sky and, as the thunder suddenly crescendoed, a half-dozen car alarms shrieked out to the surprise of pedestrians. No-one had touched the vehicles. The unseen power of the thunder had set the alarms off. It seemed a mischievous reminder from nature of the power at her disposal.

It also brought to my mind Wrathful Vajrapani, the Bodhisattva of energy or power. This is the figure I took on as a focus of my visualization meditation practice when I was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order. Vajrapani means “bearer or holder of the vajra” and one translation of the word vajra is thunderbolt. In Indian mythology the thunderbolt was the weapon of Indra, the chief of the gods, who used it to destroy spells or charms. Vajra can also be defined as: “denunciation in strong language – compared to thunder.”

It is easy to see how associations with thunder and with nature in general come to be associated with Vajrapani. When I try to sense the Transcendental that he embodies, all sorts of physical comparisons come to mind. I think of wild cyclones sucking up the earth and throwing down everything in their way: volcanoes vomiting boulders and liquid heat and submerging whole islands in their fiery spew; roaring waterfalls that are terrifying and beautiful in equal measure. These images make me aware of my smallness and insignificance, but something inside me is also thrilled at the possibility of meeting that power and eventually becoming it. In An Introduction to Tantra Lama Yeshe writes: “the West has discovered how to tap many powerful sources of energy in nature, but still remains largely unaware of the tremendous force, even more powerful than nuclear energy, contained within each of us. As long as this powerful internal energy lies undiscovered, our life is doomed to remain fragmented and purposeless, and we will continue to fall victim to the mental and emotional pressures so characteristic of our age.”

Vajrapani’s energy is not mere force, nor even power in a neutral sense. It is what the Buddhist tradition calls virya: “energy in pursuit of the good.” This means energy that is directed towards the goal of Enlightenment for all beings. It is energy that sees things as they really are rather than through the lens of the ego.

My connection with Wrathful Vajrapani started soon after I had begun to meditate, on a week-long retreat dedicated to him. I found Vajrapani visually intriguing. His body is heavy-set and he is deep blue. With his angry bulging eyes, matted brown hair and aura of flames, he was hardly beautiful but he was compelling. I remember being particularly fascinated by his huge blue belly.

Up to this point my knowledge of Bodhisattvas was limited to beautiful and refined peaceful deities, such as Tara and Amitabha. Vajrapani seemed unconventional to say the least. He wore a tiger skin (or sometimes an elephant hide) around his body. A live snake coiled around his neck. He held a vajra high above his head ready to use as a weapon. Vajrapani seemed to be “the Bodhisattva as Transcendental Thug” and I did not know what to make of him. His companions were a bunch of unlikely-sounding goddesses — Vajra-Hook, Vajra-Chain, Strong-Armed and Vajra-Army. He seemed more likely to have been at home in a heavymetal band or riding a 1,000 cc motorbike than residing in the sky, waiting to be visualized!

But the stories about him from various Buddhist scriptures caught my imagination. Through them come a sense of Vajrapani’s personal history. Unlike most Bodhisattvas his beginnings are humble. In his first canonical appearance (in the Pali Sutta Nipata) he starts out as a lowly yaksa (a kind of coarse sprite). In later texts he has been promoted to “the great general of the yaksas.” And later still he becomes one of the bodily forms of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. Eventually he emerges as a Bodhisattva in his own right and in some scriptures he is also referred to as a fully Enlightened Buddha.

I like the progression of Vajrapani’s “life story.” As well as his associations with power, Vajrapani, like Vajrasattva, is connected with purity But while Vajrasattva represents purity achieved, or the essence of purity, Vajrapani is “the process of becoming pure.” The fallibility and humility in the stories about Vajrapani appeal greatly to me. He makes occasional mistakes, bears the consequences, and then continues his quest in service of “the good.”

According to one story, at one point Vajrapani was pure white. But while guarding the elixir of life for the peaceful Buddhas he became unmindful for a second, and the demons stole it. He wrestled back the elixir but the demons had defiled it by urinating in it. As a punishment Vajrapani was made by the Buddhas to drink the now poisonous liquid, and this turned him dark blue. Hence also his mudra (hand gesture) of “warding off demons.”

The first tale I ever heard about Vajrapani comes from The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava. Vajrapani’s role is comparatively minor but he manages to make a strong impression.

Tarpa Nagpo (or Black Salvation) was a monk who was full of pride and arrogance. He used the Dharma to his own advantage, deliberately miscommunicating the teachings to amass power for himself. After he was found out and stripped of his robes, he joined his friends (ogres, brigands and demons of the twilight) and travelled around Tibet causing wars, famines and other calamities.

By doing all this, he created terrible karmic consequences for himself, and suffered highly unfavorable rebirths. These included 500 rebirth as, respectively, a nimble worm, a wandering mastiff, a sucker of toes and an eater of vomit! Finally he was reborn “with neck and shoulders rotten” as a “pus ghost” named “Eager to make inquiry.” He took rebirth again as Rudra (or “He who devoured his mother”) and, not in the least deterred by his three-headed vile form, he continued spreading chaos and devastation throughout the world

The peaceful deities were at a loss to know what to do. Rudra was beyond their reach. They decided that Rudra needed to be dealt with by “force and restrain” so Vajrapani and Hayagriva (also known as Horsehead and Swine-face) were called up. Vajrapani climbed up Rudra’s urethra and Hayagriva into his anus. They met somewhere in the middle, and Rudra, the force of negativity and destruction, was subjugated and brought under the power of the good.

In his lecture Breaking through to Buddhahood (MP3 or PDF), Sangharakshita comments that the spiritual life may involve inner forcefulness. This idea, he suggests, is not a popular one. But if we are to break through to the Unconditioned, sometimes violence towards recalcitrant aspects of ourselves is necessary. At these times, love is just not enough. This is where Vajrapani comes in. He is not going to seduce us into the spiritual life with his beauty. He is there to help us to force our way through intractable bad habits and psychological traps. Whatever demons we have within us, Vajrapani is equal to them all. He presents a fierce, raw face of reality, and something deep within me resonates with that. He often shocks me — sometimes into laughter that opens me up to seeing myself a little more clearly.

In another text Vajrapani’s unconventional methods are described in a teaching to Tsong Khapa and Karmavajra. He gives a long discourse on dealing with hindrances to meditation, which ends with a vivid and unexpected tip. “If you want to avoid the pitfalls (of distraction) whack the pig on the snout with a club!”

Vajrapani’s mantra — om vajrapani ah hum — is deep, untuneful and resolute. It has a mysterious sound. Sometimes when I chant it, I imagine that the mantra is hurtling along the corridors of the universe, revealing glimpses of his immeasurable power. Perhaps, I feel, I can hear an echo of his heartbeat, or see a faint blue light that will pass within light years of his huge, golden vajra. When meditating on his figure, I listen for the sound of the dust that is moved by his magnificent footsteps.

Vajrapani is unpredictable. You never know what he might do, because he is associated with the wisdom that goes beyond the rational mind. He is also associated with the Tantra. Tantra means both the movement of energy and direct experience. The tantric tradition of spiritual practice is concerned with looking beyond the realm of the conceptual to the non-rational. Through the non-rational we can experience ourselves directly as pure energy or pure awareness that is unmediated by concepts.

Most of our energy is unconscious. We are like icebergs — largely submerged, with just a visible tip. In opening up to Vajrapani we look to make the remainder conscious, awake, and working in support of our desire to grow and change.

Vajrapani is sometimes portrayed as the Buddha’s protector — or the protective aspect of the Buddha. Some sutras recount people arguing with the Buddha, or insulting him. Vajrapani can be found hovering in the air above the Buddha, his vajra raised threateningly, just waiting to split open the person’s head.

Vajrapani mourningEven Vajrapani’s tenderness is frequently portrayed in terms of his might. When the Buddha died, it is said that: “letting fall his vajra in despair, Vajrapani rolled himself in the dust.” It is as if the earth shuddered from the weight of the fallen vajra — and from Vajrapani’s grief.

Sometimes I find things that help me to deepen my connection with Vajrapani in unexpected places. Recently I was in Barcelona and was introduced to some buildings designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi. The spontaneity, creativity and freedom in the buildings brought Vajrapani to my mind. The exultant playfulness in Gaudi’s placing of a bunch of grapes or an ice-cream cone in marble perched on top of a fish-scaled roof is reminiscent of Vajrapani’s willingness to go anywhere or do anything in pursuit of the good.

A friend, who was formerly a Quaker and is now a Buddhist, told me of a label that was given to her by Quaker friends: Holy Boldness. I immediately thought of Vajrapani. It is him to a tee. I love the contradiction in the words and their suggestion of irreverence. Holy Boldness is vigorous, brave and pure. I want to develop Holy Boldness. I want to be like Vajrapani.

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