Sunday, November 27, 2011

Review: A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom by Dudjom Rinpoche


 This is a monumental work of over 350 pages. It is not its length that makes it monumental, however, but rather the depth and scope of its author's knowledge on the subjects contained within it. It is subtitled 'Complete Instructions on the Preliminary Practices,' and is a primer for practitioners of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism.

Its author, His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-1987), also known as Jigrel Yeshe Dorje, was considered to be a tulku (reincarnated master) of a previous teacher also called Dudjom Rinpoche. Born in Central Tibet, after fleeing to India in the wake of the communist Chinese invasion, he was made head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism by H.H. the Dalai lama. He wrote copious amounts on Buddhist teachings and travelled widely to share his wisdom, spending his final years establishing a Buddhist centre in France. The book itself was translated from the Tibetan by the Padmakara Translation Group, who have also done a really good job.

The book itself is a commentary on the preliminary practices (ngondro in Tibetan) that Dudjom Rinpoche considered indispensable to the realization of the Great Perfection (Dzogchen: the primordial state of mind that leads to enlightenment). It is divided into two parts, the first of which instructs the reader on how to identify and relate to a teacher, or guru. It states that, "teachers should be individuals who have perfectly tamed their minds by means of the three superior trainings - the training in discipline, the training in concentration, and the training in wisdom. They should have great learning as a result of having extensively studied the three baskets - the Vinaya, Sutra-pitaka, and Abhidharma-pitaka - which expound the essential points of these three trainings. They should have seen the way things truly are unmistakably and be eloquent in conveying their own experience of it to their disciples, combining scriptural authority and reasoning." ('A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom,' p.10)

These are high standards by which to judge a teacher of Dharma, but on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it is of paramount importance as the guru will guide the disciple to their own spiritual awakening, and such a teacher should indeed have excellent levels of morality, meditative states, and wisdom. Moreover, Dudjom Rinpoche states that the teacher should be viewed as, "the embodiment of all the Buddhas" (Ibid. p.32) and that they should be shown immense respect, as illustrated in the next extract:

"For this reason, simply stepping into their shadow has negative consequences as serious as demolishing a stupa. Stepping over their belongings - their shoes, seat, clothes, horse, eating bowl, and other everyday articles, their umbrella, canopy, and so forth - is just as bad, so always be careful to avoid such things."
(ibid. p.33)

The second part of the book, which forms the majority of its pages, describes the preliminary stages of the path towards enlightenment, elucidating various Buddhist teachings along the way. It starts by advising the student on how to begin each session of meditative practice with a visualization and recital of a text to support the visualization process. This practice ends with the following verse:

"The strength of my devotion inspires and delights the teacher,
And with a show of unbearable happiness,
he comes above the crown of my head, and as a cloud of bodhicitta,
Confers the empowerment of the enthronement of wisdom:
In the state of simultaneous realization and liberation I am Blessed."

(Ibid. p.53)

The next section of the book reminds the reader how fortunate they are to have had a human birth in an age when the Buddha's teachings are accessible. This serves as an impetus to the practitioner to have heedfulness and diligence in their application of the teachings to their life. A common practice in many schools of Buddhism is reflecting on death and impermanence. Dudjom Rinpoche next introduces such reflections, which not only lead to understanding of the way things are, but also give extra impetus to one's practice, being aware that death is waiting in the wings.

"The whole of the three worlds of existence is impermanent, moving and dissolving like clouds in Autumn that mass together are moment and disperse the next. Beings are born and die under the fickle control control of their good and bad deeds, manifesting in all kinds of ways like the choreographic movements of a skilled dancer. People's lives race by, swift and brief, like a flash of lightning in the sky that vanishes in an instant, or like a stream cascading down a mountainside."
(Ibid. p.74)

In Chapter 7, the book focuses on suffering in relation to cyclic existence and the six classes of beings that suffer. Dudjom Rinpoche refelcts upon the wheel of existence and states that his reader has had countless previous births and lived in every place that there is. He writes that throughout these births all kinds of sufferings have been endured.

The reader is directed to reflect upon those inhabiting the six lower realms, which include four kinds of hellish beings, hungry spirits, and animals. After this, he skillfully leads us through the sufferings in the higher realms, which include those of humans, demigods, and gods. Dudjom Rinpoche next relates the three kinds of suffering, using the classic descriptions found in the Pali Canon. He states:

"So whatever kind of rebirth we take - high or low - in these three worlds of cyclic existence, we suffer as if ill and unceasingly wracked by pain. There is no chance of being happy even for a second. We should therefore feel deeply disillusioned with cyclic existence, thinking, "From now on, I must seek definite freedom, as if I were escaping from a dark dungeon." As the Great Master says,
However much effort you put into worldly activities, they are never finished;
Put your efforts into the Dharma and the job will be quickly done.
Activities concerned with cyclic existence, however good, bring ruin in the end;
The result of practicing the sublime Dharma can never be spoiled."

(Ibid. pp.114/115)

By the Great Master, Dudjom Rinpoche makes reference to Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, and is traditionally credited with taking Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet. He is constantly referred to in this present work, being quoted on numerous occasions, as are other great figures from Tibetan Buddhism. This is an essential part of the structure of the book, in which quotations are either used to illustrate Dudjom Rinpoche's remarks, or are commented on by him.

Further chapters in this book comprise of the following topics: cause and effect, taking refuge, arousing the mind to enlightenment, purifying negative actions, gathering the accumulations, and training in guru yoga. All are awarded the same meticulous attention as the earlier chapters decried above, and form a solid base on which to set one's application of the preliminary practices.

In the current review, it must be born in mind that the reviewer is not a Tibetan Buddhist, and has only a basic understanding of that great and lofty spiritual tradition. His Buddhist practice and studies have primarily derived from the Theravada & Zen traditions, and therefore whatever he writes here should be read with that understanding.

So, as to the (illusory?) appearance of the book, it's beautiful. Its durable hardback edition is in cream and amber with a typically stylish dust jacket by Shambhala Publications. There are numerous illustrations throughout, which are no doubt helpful when trying to do the visualizations that Dudjom Rinpoche teaches. The flow of the narrative is nice 'n' smooth, for which the Padmakara Translaion Group much take much credit, as well the author himself, who composed the work in his native Tibetan.

As to the teachings in the book, they too are presented with clarity, and even someone like this reviewer can follow the gist (if not the fine detail) of this work. here is one point to note, however: For those dedicated Tibetan Buddhists interested in the preliminary practices that it focuses on, it is surely an indispensable aid, but for the rest of us, it gives an interesting and inspiring insight into this aspect of the Tibetan tradition, but is apt to be somewhat confusing in places, if not actually superfluous to our needs.

For me, this is a book I will no doubt refer to from time-to-time for said inspiration, but it will not be forming the heart of my Buddhist practice henceforth. This said, there is a special quality to it which may be called 'the scent of enlightenment.' For, although it makes little direct reference to the awakened state, it does have the feel of a document born from the wisdom of an enlightened being.

 The above book by Dudjom Rinpoche is published by Shambhala Publications, and is available from their website at A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Awkward Fact & Anattā

Douglas Edison Harding: The Man With No Head

One of the biggest influences on my Buddhist practice was not a Buddhist, but he knew a lot about Buddhism, especially the Zen variety. His name was Douglas Harding, and I had the pleasure of meeting him quite a few times during the 1990s. Douglas was a warm, humorous, intelligent, articulate, generous, open man - the last quality of which is most immediately relevant here. You see, Douglas was, by his own admission, headless. Furthermore, this condition resulted in him being blown wide open to the world, not separated off from it by being encased in a head.

Now, you may protest that if the photograph above is indeed of the said Mr. Harding, then he most certainly did posses a head. And, Douglas would not have argued with you, as long as it was understood that it was from your perspective that he had a pinkish meatball plonked atop his body; for, he claimed that from his own experience, he did not. Douglas was so passionate about his decapitated state that he not only wrote a dozen major works on the subject but also travelled the world sharing his vision with anyone that cared to listen (or look).

In the extract below, Douglas does not discuss being headless, but rather focuses on the Nothingness that is seen where a head would be expected to be found. He refers it as "our Absence, our Void Nature or Emptiness," as well by other names, all of which he admits fall well short of the mark in describing exactly what this condition is like, which is the "awkward fact" of enlightenment. And, as he spent decades emphasizing, it is to be experienced rather than believed in or philosophized about. This experience can pointed at with words, as well as a finger, and Douglas was extremely adept at this, as shown below.

"Three words cover it—seeing our Nothingness. It's that simple. Or, to drive the point home, turning our attention round 180° and looking into What we are looking out of, into our Absence, our Void Nature or Emptiness or Speckless Clarity, into our lack of characteristics, distinguishing marks, attainments, you-name-it. It is not—emphatically not—knowing all about Natureless Nature, or understanding it profoundly, or believing in it sincerely, or even feeling it acutely, but seeing it with such finality and such intimacy that we see this Absence which we are and are this Absence which we see. But alas, how liable even the most apt words are to complicate what is, after all, simplicity itself!

The awkward fact is that this Experience, which is none other than the substratum of all experience, is impossible to describe. It's as ineffable and incommunicable as the redness of red or the sweetness of honey or the smell of wild violets. Try telling a man colour-blind from birth what purple is. Well, telling him about his Empty Core is even more futile. Somehow you must get him to look in for himself at himself by himself instead of just out at you. Then and only then nothing could be easier or plainer, more blazingly self-evident to him, than his Nothingness, his disappearance in your favour.

However, three things can be said, and need to be said here, about this essential in-seeing.

First, precisely because it's void of all qualities of its own, because there's Nothing to it, it is for all beings of all grades and of all worlds one and the same. There are no angles or perspectives on This, no variations. There are no preliminary or private views or privileged showings, no more enlightened or less enlightened versions of This, no heights to mount to or fall away from, and certainly no religious or spiritual or aesthetic qualities to cultivate.

Second, (and for the same reason) one's "first fleeting glimpse" of one's Nature doesn't differ at all from one's "latest and clearest and most sustained seeing" of that Nature. No matter how brief or how sustained it may be, this Experience is unique among all experiences in that it has no degrees of clarity or intensity or familiarity. It's as if every time it happens happens to be the first time. Like it or not, there's no encouraging upturn, never any progress to plot on one's spiritual progress chart. Either you see This or you don't. Here's the one skill you can't get better at, but only exercise more frequently and for longer periods.

Third, it follows that, whoever and wherever and whenever you may be, your Inside Story is the plainest of all plain tales, and identical with the Inside Story of all creatures. So that to see What you really are is not only to see What they really are but to be What they really are. Beyond all doubt you are me and him and her and it, and all the rest. And at once you have hit on the answer to all the loneliness and alienation in the world. You rest on the Ground of Being and of all loving and caring. Secretly you are healing, along with your own wounds, the wounds of this wounded world."
(Douglas Harding, 'The Experience and the Meaning.')

Now, this "Absence" can be experienced, it is at the very core of our being, and it reveals the complete interconnectedness of life. Is this not, in Buddhist parlance, anatta, or 'not-self?' The Buddha taught that everything we take to be the self is in truth not. Buddhist meditation is designed in part to reveal this profound realization step-by-step, aggregate-by-aggregate. (The aggregates are the five 'heaps' that the Buddha divided the human condition into: body, feeling, perception, mental formations, & consciousness.) When this is fully seen, there is nothing of the ego-self left, only No-thing, full of the world.

Moreover, just as many great Zen masters have claimed, such as two of my favourites, Huang Po & Bankei, "Nature" is immediately realizable if only we dare to look within with honesty & awareness. (After an initial glimpse, we may need to cultivate this "in-seeing" if we wish to fully benefit from it, however.) Another parallel Douglas' experience has with Buddhism is his encouragement that we look for ourselves, and that we are our own authorities on what's going on where we are, not Douglas. This echoes the Buddha's declaration that the teaching (the expression of No-thing) is to investigated & decided on by each of us, not to be blindly followed.

With the above advise fresh in mind, let's explore the three things that Douglas was so keen to be said (and heard). Firstly, that this No-thing is for all to be discovered and lived from. This is clearly in line with the Buddhist attitude that all beings can be led to enlightenment. Indeed, looking back and seeing this Emptiness, it is evident that it is full of the world with all its suffering. It is capacity for all to be, and also is aware of how unenlightened state causes so much anguish, and reaches out to help those in the slough of despond.

Douglas' second important point was that the first glimpse of No-thing does not differ in the least to more "sustained seeing." This statement appears to be more problematic than the first one, for in Buddhist traditions there are stages of enlightenment described. In the Theravada tradition, for example, there are four levels of awakened beings described, with only the highest (arahant) being considered completely enlightened. In the Zen tradition, there are degrees of awakening from initial glimpses called kensho to the fuller, more complete experience known as satori. It is the experience of this author that the stages of enlightenment described in Buddhism are real, and yet at the same time the essential experience itself does not alter. Rather, it is the demise of the delusion of self within this experience that changes, eventually (and this part is taken on faith for now) dying away utterly. So, on this point, there are differences between Buddhism and Douglas' description of the Void, but the central realization appears the same.

Douglas' third important thing to be noted seems to have no conflict with the Buddha's teachings. Here, he says that the No-thing at my centre is the same as that which lies at yours, and all other creatures. This is identical with the view taken in Buddhism; the Buddha's Emptiness is the same as that of anyone else; it is the same No-thing that is at your core, my core, and all beings. This can be confirmed by looking within and checking with how Douglas sees his "Absence" and comparing it with one's own. (We can also do this with anyone that has awakened to this experience, for as Douglas so often said, we are all equal authorities on the vacuity at the heart of being.

Now, this article was deliberately entitled 'The Awkward Fact & Anatta' because the author wished to bring to the reader's attention to two issues: the incommunicable nature of our "Natureless Nature," and its similarity to the Buddhist understanding of anatta, or not-self. With reference to the former, it might be born in mind by the reader to take what they read with a pinch of salt, and of the latter to explore in experience (and not belief) to see if it is so or not.

The full article can be read on the Headless Way website here: The Experience and the Meaning.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dr. Walpola Rahula on Anattā

Venerable Dr. Walpola Rahula

"In the Dhammapada, there are three verses which are extremely important and essential in the Buddha’s Teaching. They are verses 277, 278, and 279 in Chapter 20:

277. All compound things are impermanent; those who realize this through insight- wisdom are freed from suffering. This is the path that leads to purity.
278. All compound things have suffering as their nature; those who realize this through insight-wisdom are freed from suffering. This is the path that leads to purity.
279. All states are without self; those who realize this through insight-wisdom are freed from suffering. This is the path that leads to purity.

The first two verses say: “All compound things (saṁkhārā) are impermanent” (sabbe saṁkhārā aniccā) and “All compound things have suffering as their nature” (sabbe saṁkhārā dukkhā). But the third verse says: “All states (dhammā) are without self” (sabbe dhammā anattā).

Here, it should be carefully observed that, in the first two verses, the word saṁkhārā “conditioned things, compound things” is used. But in its place in the third verse, the word dhammā “states” is used. Why does the third verse not use the word saṁkhārā “conditioned things, compound things” as in the previous two verses, and why does it use the term dhammā instead? Here lies the crux of the whole matter.

In the first two verses, the term saṁkhāra denotes the Five Aggregates, that is, all conditioned, interdependent, relative things and states, both physical and mental. If the third verse had said: “All saṁkhārā (“conditioned things, compound things”) are without self”, then, one might think that, although conditioned things are without Self, yet there may be a Self outside conditioned things, outside the Five Aggregates. It is in order to avoid misunderstanding that the term dhammā is used in the third verse.

The term “dhamma” is much wider than saṁkhāra. There is no term in Buddhist terminology wider than dhamma. It includes not only the conditioned things and states, but also the unconditioned, the Absolute, nibbāna. There is nothing in the universe or outside of it, good or bad, conditioned or unconditioned, relative or absolute, which is not included in this term. Therefore, it is quite clear that, according to this statement: “All states (dhammā) are without self”, there is no Self, no ātman, not only in the Five Aggregates, but nowhere else either outside them or apart from them.

This means, according to the Theravādin teaching, that there is no Self either in the individual (puggala) or in dhammas. The Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy maintains exactly the same position, without the slightest difference, on this point, putting emphasis on dharma-nairātmya as well as on pudgala-nairātmya."

Note: As with many Westerners, my first exposure to the Buddha's teaching came through reading the Venerable Dr. Walpola Rahula's wonderful little book 'What the Buddha Taught.' The above is a section from the chapter entitled The Doctrine of No-Soul, and had a profound effect on me. (In fact, it still does today!) The entire book can be downloaded free of charge in PDF format from the kind people of the Charleston Buddhist Fellowship at the link below:

What the Buddha Taught