Tuesday, March 31, 2015

My Teachers: Tara Tulku (2)

Tara Rinpoche left Amherst at the end of the winter of 1984. All that academic year I had been trying to find a full time teaching position, but without any success. I had only come to New England because of Holly's internship and I began to wonder why I was staying. I never felt comfortable in the eastern USA -- circumstances simply kept me there. Without finding success in what I wanted to do, I thought, why not just "roll the dice" and go back to San Francisco, which is where I had always wanted to be anyway.

Naturally, as soon as I made that decision, my karma intervened. Walking across a street one evening I more or less bumped into Jan Willis, a Buddhist scholar who was teaching at Wesleyan University, just down the Connecticut River Valley. We chatted about what we were doing and she asked if I wanted to be her sabbatical replacement in the coming year. Ah, I thought, a year of teaching at Wesleyan might help me land the tenure track position I was seeking, and even if it didn't, the job would provide me an opportunity to finish writing the introductory chapters for the Seventy Stanzas.  By then I had a contract for publication, and this was a clear opportunity to finish what had turned into several years of labor. San Francisco would have to wait for a year.

My luck finding a teaching position did not improve during my year at Wesleyan so I took off for San Francisco in June. I quickly found an administrative position at Stanford. It was not the sort of position I really wanted, but it paid the bills while I searched for the sort of job I did want. By then I had given up on becoming a professor. I wanted a life and I wanted a wife, and it was clear that if I wanted those things I was going to have to give up on being a professor and commit to being an administrator.

Once again, as soon as I gave up, my karma intervened, though what it brought was a complete surprise. John F. Kennedy University, located on the east side of the Berkeley hills, recruited me to be the Dean of its Graduate School of Consciousness Studies.The post went with a faculty appointment. My experience in academic administration, Counseling Psychology and Religious Studies had made me a perfect fit for a really unusual job. It would be packed with financial and personnel challenges, but it also would put me in touch with many of the leading thinkers who were working at the intersections of Psychology and spiritual life. And, as it turned out, it would give me tremendous control over my time.

A month or so before taking up this new post, I was looking at the notices on a bulletin board of a Buddhist center in Berkeley and saw a poster advertising lectures that Tara Rinpoche would be offering at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm, which is located on the coast north of the city. In fact, he was lecturing at the time I saw the poster. Breaking every speed limit, and miraculously avoiding the police, I arrived at his talk just as it was winding up. Rinpoche took one look at me and lit up in a huge smile. I embraced him, he pulled my beard with affection and we headed off to his room to catch up with each other. I was completely unaware of a blond woman in monastic robes sitting in the audience -- Kay, my wife to be.

The next day I met with Rinpoche, which was his last day at Green Gulch. He told me that although he was about to leave for India, he would return to the USA in a couple of years, and that at that time he would teach me to meditate. 

In the coming month I prepared to be a dean, and fate began to stir the pot. The blond woman in monastic robes had had her own meeting with Tara Rinpoche, had become his disciple and had received his blessing to do the meditation practice of White Tara, a female form of the Buddha. Recently widowed, she was spending a year at Green Gulch trying to get her life sorted out. During that time she had the opportunity to take instruction from many visiting teachers but none of them touched her as deeply as did Tara Rinpoche. He was, as Yvonne Rand had said, "impeccable" and she wanted him to be her spiritual mentor.

It took about six months before a mutual friend introduced me to Kay. She had been looking for a partner who shared her commitment to Buddhism. I was looking for a spiritual partner as well. A psychic had told Kay that she would meet someone who glowed and who was a leader in the community. When we met I had been drinking beer with our mutual friend and though Kay claims she recognized my spiritual glow as soon as we met, I have always suspected it was merely the beer. Whatever the case, we were immediately interested in each other. Things moved quickly and within a few months we were sharing a house in San Francisco with an expansive view of the Pacific. In a year we were married. I had almost everything I had been seeking. The missing piece was a fruitful spiritual practice that Kay and I could share.

Even that was soon to appear. Bob Thurman requested my assistance in sponsoring Tara Tulku's next visit to the USA. The American consulate was balking at giving Rinpoche a visa, and an invitation from my university would help pave the way. I was more than glad to assist and began to prepare for his visit.

The first part of Rinpoche's 1988 tour to the USA was to be a month long retreat in Bob's attic temple. Kay and I flew out to Amherst, not really knowing what to expect beyond the fact that Rinpoche would be teaching a fierce form of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. In fact it did not matter too much to me just what form of meditation he would be teaching. The five years I had known him had ripened my devotion and faith in him. Perhaps the need for that ripening had been the reason he had refused to teach me when I made my first request. Kay's devotion had been immediate, and he had given her the Tara initiation and taught her the Tara meditation on the day she requested a practice. I suppose I was a tougher nut to crack. It took me twenty years from the time of the Amherst retreat to understand that ripening process morefully. During those years I was often requested to teach meditation and refused. But eventually, after some resistance, I agreed and have since found that the level of commitment required for successful meditation practice is quite hard for my students to achieve.The demands of life and the vagaries of the mind make commitment quite difficult, and inner impediments are hard to overcome. Faith in the directions of a teacher make progress possible, and I have seen that without this faith deep practice is hard to achieve. I was fortunate that Tara Rinpoche had had the wisdom to understand how to generate my faith in him. Without it I doubt that I could have maintained the effort for cultivating the practice he first gave me in Amherst. Finding a teacher with such wisdom is rare and perhaps that is why few students can dive really deeply into spiritual life. I of course do not have his level of realization and cannot inspire students with faith as he could.

In fact, even with faith and devotion it was hard enough to even make it through the retreat. It was structured as a traditional "accumulation retreat", which means that we had to learn a long litany (Sanskrit: sadhana) for the fierce Manjushri and in the midst of reciting the litany with its associated visualizations, repeat (ie, accumulate) 111,000 mantras. If we did not accumulate the requisite number we would not have completed the retreat and would not actually be authorized to do the meditation practice. We sat three sessions a day for 21 days, reciting the complete sadhana each time, and accumulating mantras in the midst of the sadhana.  A fourth session was devoted to Rinpoche explaining how to do the practice, the symbolism of the visualizations and so forth. This all took place in the windowless attic temple during a humid and sweltering Massachusetts summer with aching knees and backs as constant companions. 

The retreat established the basis for our ongoing practice, but engaging in the practice on a daily basis would be a challenge when Kay and I returned to San Francisco. We were encouraged in our practice when Rinpoche stayed with us later in the summer. His visit to Kennedy University for a public lecture was part of the deal which had gotten him into the country, and I also used the opportunity to have him meet with the administrators of my graduate school in hopes he could help us sort out some interpersonal and structural issues. He was, after all, a retired abbot. He had been the leader of an ancient monastery and my own school was founded on the principle that spiritual values should inform both teaching and administration.
Tara Tulku with Kunga, his attendant, Kay and I. San Francisco 1988.

After a week with us, he left to complete his teaching tour. But before leaving he invited Kay and I to come and do a second accumulation retreat at his monastery in Bodh Gaya the following January. I could not believe I could have such good fortune not only to have the opportunity to do retreat with my lama at the site of Buddha's enlightenment, but to have a job which would give me the freedom to travel. And when we came to do the retreat, circumstances were even more remarkable than we might have imagined, for there were only four students doing retreat, and Rinpoche sat with us for the four sessions each day. Between sessions we stretched our legs by doing circumambulations of the Buddha's enlightenment stupa. But as wonderful as it was, the retreat had its share of challenges and impediments, as we eventually learned, do all retreats. I was sick for the first several days in India, and in the midst of the retreat Kay became so sick she almost died. Yvonne Rand was the third retreatant, and it was our good fortune that the fourth was a medical doctor who could treat Kay from the store of medications he had brought along, as well as intravenously re-hydrate her in our hotel room. When the retreat ended Rinpoche took us on a day-long pilgrimage to some of the area's holy places, including Vulture Peak, Mahakala's cave and the ruins of Nalanda monastery.

In the next couple of years we were able to do two more accumulation retreats with Rinpoche, one at Yvonne's home next to Green Gulch Zen Center and the second, which began a week later at Wood Valley Tibetan temple in Hawai'i. The retreat at Yvonne's had a real intimacy, as we all shared a single house.This gave us an opportunity to see elements of the maturity of Rinpoche's practice we had not witnessed before. Between meditation sessions we would sit in the garden together or take walks. As he would stroll along he would constantly reach out and touch the leaves of the shrubs. He would also snap his fingers every few minutes. When we asked why he was snapping his fingers he replied that "It is to help me remember emptiness." Perhaps the touching of the leaves was a way of remembering his interconnectedness to all things, the dependent arising of everything.

During the Hawai'i retreat I asked Rinpoche how we could best learn more about the Manjushri meditation practice in his absence. "The practice itself will teach you what you need to know." I have found this to be true, but also to be slow. It has taken years for elements of the practice to explain themselves to me, and even now the process continues.

At the end of the retreat at Yvonne's home Kayla and I met with Rinpoche for some advice, during which he made a comment that mystified us: "Now the suffering begins." We continued to wonder about this in Hawai'i. At first we thought it might be a comment about the mosquitoes that plagued us there. Then Kay received the news that her father was in the hospital. Then we heard that he was dying of cancer. She was thrown into profound conflict: stay on retreat with her spiritual father or leave to be with her biological father? That was certainly suffering. She stayed, and her father died. But her commitment to practice had an unexpected benefit when Rinpoche performed a special ceremony to assist her father's transition to a new life. The end of the retreat coincided with the launching of the first war with Iraq. We wondered if he had had a premonition about that and all the suffering the war generated. Less than a year later Yvonne called us to say that she had heard from Rinpoche's attendant that he had inoperable stomach cancer and would not live much longer. Now we knew what the suffering was about.

Circumstances at the university prevented me from going to India to see him a last time, but Kay had a dream that she should go. It fired her motivation to overcome all the obstacles and uncertainties of a sudden trip to India. And perhaps it was good that I stayed behind and made her travel arrangements while she was in motion, because she arrived in Dharamsala and was able to see Rinpoche on the last day he took visitors. Rinpoche had been one of those large Tibetans that the Kham region produced, but now he was all skin stretched over bones. But he was luminous at the same time. In Tibet he had been known as a fierce and formidable debater, but now only his sensitive compassion shown forth, even through his suffering. "Why have you come?" he asked Kay. "To see you one last time and tell you of my gratitude for your teachings." Conserving his voice, he smiled and gave her a thumbs up sign. "You should see the Dalai Lama to find out what you and David should do next for your practice." Through all his sickness his concern for his students never ceased.

The next day he would take no visitors, and the following evening he died. It seemed that most of Dharamsala attended his cremation ceremony; he was deeply beloved by the community.

Kay tried to follow his directions and meet with His Holiness, but just did not know how to arrange it, and after a couple of weeks returned home. The meeting would occur a year later.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

My Teachers: Tara Tulku (1)

Tara Tulku, Green Gulch Zen Center, 1986

The ending of my second trip to Dharamsala was memorable for many reasons. The Seventy Stanzas had been re-translated and I had collected Geshe Sonam Rinchen's oral commentry on it.  I would return to Amherst to edit Geshe-la's commentry as well as the transcripts of my interviews with the Dalai Lama. I would also come to realize that my marriage to Holly was over, as was my relationship to Swami Pranananda. But as one door closes, another opens, for something else had occurred at the end of my visit to Dharamsala which was to have profound consequences for me. I had met Tara Tulku.

Bob Thurman had asked the Dalai Lama for a teacher of Ghuyasamaja Tantra. His Holiness had selected the retired abbot of Gyuto Tantric College: Tara Tulku Rinpoche. In rather typical Thurman fashion Bob organized the opportunity for their tutorial by arranging for Tara Tulku to be the Luce Visiting Professor of Religion at Amherst College, thus funding his travel and residence in Amherst for six months.

Prior to this trip to the USA, Tara Rinpoche visited with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. This visit coincided with the end of my own residence there, and knowing of Bob’s plans, I decided to pay Rinpoche a visit and offer my assistance in case he might have some difficulties with travel, the American embassy, or whatever. Rinpoche was staying in the home of His Holiness' tailor when I visited him. When we met he offered me a yellow scarf, which had been given to him by his previous visitor. He was simply passing it along, but never the less, he said that “it is very auspicious for you to receive it.” As usual with such things I had no idea what he meant. In no obvious way did our meeting seem significant to me. We parted in a friendly fashion and I went back to my translating work with Geshe-la.

Reflecting on my difficulties with the translation project I asked Geshe-la if he would teach me to meditate on Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. I figured that practice would help me with the editing of the oral commentary which awaited me over the coming year. "No" he would not, he replied, without any particular explanation as to why. Only much later did I learn that because his own teacher was in residence at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, protocol required that I request the initiation from him instead. But at the time I was merely mystified.

My return to Amherst was difficult for multiple reasons. Holly and I separated, and she moved to Manhattan. My discipleship to Swami Pranananda ended as well. To a significant degree it had been founded on my desire to share a spiritual life with my wife, and at the time I became his student I’d been less concerned with the character of the practice than with the richness I wanted to add to our marriage. But my disconnect with the Swami was not simply due to the fact that Holly and I had separated, but also due to changes in my relationship to him. 

Holly and I had been paying almost monthly visits to him at his residence south of Albany, NY. During one visit he and I were discussing my work and my life in Amherst, and he told me “You have bungled your life.” I was shocked beyond any ability to respond. Though I was deeply involved in trying to create a university teaching career by developing a research portfolio and publications and was teaching as much as possible, not to mention cultivating administrative skills in the Dean’s office, Holly and I were deeply impoverished and lived in a funky basement apartment. She did not have any income, and mine was inadequate. To say that we lived a stressful life would be a monumental understatement, but I felt was doing my best to create a fruitful and fulfilling future. What I needed was support from my guru, not to be told that my life was a mess and was probably not going to improve. As it turned out, in an important respect he was correct, and it would take a few years for my life to improve both materially and emotionally, but at the time I was not capable of sustaining such a critique. I stopped visiting Swami and stopped meditating in the manner in which he had taught.

So when Tara Rinpoche came to Amherst my life was a shambles on a personal level, although it was inching forward on an academic level. I began to spend as much time as possible with Rinpoche. That turned out to be more or less daily, because I attended all the classes he taught at the College, as well as the teachings he gave at the temple in the attic of Bob’s house.

About a month into his visit I approached him and asked if he would teach me to meditate on Manjushri. He replied “No” without further comment, just as had Geshe Sonam Rinchen. Again I was mystified. My relationship with Swami Pranananda was finished, so that was not an impediment. Recalling the spiritual lore of television in the form of the 1960s series Kung fu I thought that I needed to ask three times to get a favorable answer, but instead I got another “No” and then yet another “No.” That made my sense of unworthiness complete and I descended ever more deeply into the darkness as the loss of my marriage, spiritual teacher, poverty, loneliness and the Massachusetts winter coincided. It really did look like I might have “bungled” it all. I began spending so much time at Delano’s Pub that in typical Irish pub style, I began receiving messages there.

But as I wrote above, when one door closes another opens.

Rinpoche had said that he would not teach me to meditate on Manjushri, but unbeknownst to me, he simply was the embodiment of Manjushri if only I could have seen it, though I could not at the time. One winter night a number of us were gathered in Bob’s attic temple listening to Rinpoche talk about the Buddhist theory of emptiness (shunyata) and dependent origination, which were two sides of a single coin, as it were. Of course I thought I knew a lot about that, as I’d been working through Nagarjuna’s teachings on the subject with Helmut Hoffman and Geshe Sonam Rinchen. But when Rinpoche talked about the snow storm raging outside, about the kindness of the workers who were clearing the streets for us so we could walk or drive home and how our ability to conduct our lives was totally and in every moment dependent on others in just such a way I had an insight into the actuality of dependent origination which had utterly eluded me until that moment. Professor Hoffman’s and Gen-la’s teachings had been intellectual in character, and had ripened my mind, but in that moment in Rinpoche’s presence a sprout had emerged from those seeds. I saw what I had only understood. As I would learn, the blessing of the teachings of a lama who has realized what he teaches is far beyond anything merely intellectual. Though it would take me years to realize this, Tara Rinpoche had taught me to meditate on Manjushri by ripening the seeds of Manjushri within me. But realizing this would require that first I leave New England for San Francisco for a new life and a new wife, and then return to Rinpoche and Bob’s attic.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

My Teachers: The Dalai Lama (1)

In Bloomington, while I was still a graduate student, my friend John used to say that he could feel the Dalai Lama "floating around, above the campus." He attributed the presence to out-of-body visits to Thubten Norbu, the Dalai Lama's elder brother, who taught in my graduate program. I never had such an experience, but I am not a visionary. John is. He has told me repeatedly that he had dreamed about my arrival in Bloomington before my body actually got there, and recognized me the minute he saw me outside his dorm.

My first encounter with the Dalai Lama, at least in the body, was in Amherst in 1979.  Accepting Bob Thurman's invitation, he spoke in the Amherst College field house. As he was making his way into the building I felt a shower of flowers on my head; a sure sign of being in the presence of a bodhisattva. And a presence he surely is. In fact, that is how Tibetans refer to him, "The Presence."

In 1982 and 1983, while in Dharamsala, I arranged to meet with him for some conversations about the intersection of Buddhism and psychotherapy. As I later wrote in the published transcript, I had been wondering if there really was much of an intersection between the art/science of psychotherapy and Buddhist meditation. To have a fruitful conversation there were a number of problems to deal with because our technical languages were so different. Partially due to these problems our discussions never really resolved the questions I posed, but nonetheless, the opportunity of spending a few hours with him one-to-one was worth it to me irrespective of any specific outcome. I hoped that he had gained something as well.

Beyond the language problems which plagued us, there was an even more fundamental problem. It was his very "presence." It was overwhelming. I'd begun to feel his presence through the wall of the reception room while I waited for our meetings and found myself almost swooning in the bliss I felt. To sit across from him and attempt to carry on a fairly sophisticated conversation was almost impossible. To look him in the eyes was even more difficult -- they were bright and intelligent and present in a way I have never experienced with any other person. In fact, looking directly into his eyes just a few feet across from me was pretty much paralyzing. Somehow I managed to keep to the interviewing job at hand, but it was remarkably difficult. 

Fortunately his sense of humor and genial kindness softened all the difficult facets of the experience. In fact our first meeting began with his uproarious laughter. Not as yet familiar with protocol I had stepped into the audience room holding an offering scarf in outstretched hands only to have it whisked out of my hands by the door handle upon which the fringe of the scarf had caught. I can only imagine the astonishment on my face as I looked down at empty hands, and then over my shoulder to see the scarf dangling from the door handle. I retrieved it and handed it to him with profound embarrassment. He laughed through it all in a most friendly fashion.

When our first meeting ended he took my forearm, held it before me in his own and walked me to the door, all the while pulling on the hairs on my forearm and laughing. I was so overwhelmed by the whole meeting that I had to take a seat in the reception room to compose myself. My very sense of time and space seemed altered, just as one might feel when on the verge of an accident, when time telescopes and events seem to unfold in slow motion. The walls of the reception room no longer seemed to contain me. Rather than by walls, I felt bounded by the cries of the hawks that were circling in the air currents several hundred feet above me.

In those days Dharamsala was much smaller and more undeveloped than currently. In 2001, when I last visited the community, there were actually traffic jams. But in the early 1980s there were only a handful of vehicles in the town. Small size breeds intimacy and by the end of the day of our first meeting everyone I knew had become aware of my audience, though I had not said a thing either before or after.

When Alex Berzin asked me how things had gone, I summarized our discussions, and then took an opportunity to ask him a question. He had been in Dharamsala for years and knew the ins and outs of meetings with important lamas. So I asked, "Had I been receiving some special blessing when His Holiness had been pulling on the hairs on my forearm?" "No," he answered. "Tibetans are fairly hairless and find the body hair of Caucasians pretty amusing." More embarrassment --- mixed with some deflation.

But some mystery also remained. I'd taken a small tape recorder to our meeting so that I would not have to take notes. That evening I listened to the recordings and began to reflect on the problems we had tackled. Just after I rewound the tape and shut off the machine there was a knock on the door. Several friends stood outside, wanting to talk to me about the meeting. Personal audiences were extremely rare, and everyone was curious. I invited them in to talk. One of them saw the recorder on my table and learning that I had recorded the meeting asked if she and the others could listen to the tape. "Of course," I replied, and switched on the machine. No sound at all. We looked at each other with curiosity. I rewound it to the beginning, and tried a second time. Silence. I began to sweat, fearing that somehow I had erased the tape when listening to it before their arrival. "I guess we are not supposed to hear it," she suggested a bit archly. Shortly thereafter my friends left. With deep nervousness I started the tape recorder again. His Holiness' voice came through loud and clear.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Liberal and Conservative Religion

Modernity, as we call it, has been presenting spiritually inclined people with some real challenges.Those of us with a liberal leaning tend to look with a bit of disdain at conservative American Christians who are made uncomfortable with some aspects of the modern world. A recent Pew survey found that one third of Americans believe that the world was created in six days. We might shake our heads at what we consider such nonsense, but then again, since such views are deeply entrenched in the minds of numbers of our local, state and federal officials and direct many of their decisions about policy and the allocation of resources, nonsense hardly seems the right word.

We wonder, how can these people look back to scriptures compiled by archaic peoples and view such books as inerrant and literal truths about anything? We are mystified and shocked by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and its reintroduction of Quranic punishments and social arrangements. What do we make of a revolutionary movement which claims to draw its legitimacy as a government from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi being the Caliph?

Is something shared in what drives all these people to look to the past for their values? I suspect it is in a recognition that modernity, as a pattern of social arrangements and values, lacks any direction beyond self-satisfaction, and that such a life is arid in some way. Conservatives respond to this aridity by turning to the values and authorities of the past. To we liberals, those past values and authorities seems archaic and we reject their authoritarian certitudes. For similar reasons, we reject modern religion. So if we have some "spiritual" inclination and seek freedom from the aridity of modernity, though not from the blessings of modernity, we find ourselves trying to reach for the Holy in a manner unconstrained by authority or dogma.

In my lifetime I have sought an alternative to this aridity, or alienation as psychologists used to say in the 1950s, by embracing Buddhist and Hindu traditions. It is not that I have rejected modernity -- I accept the views of Physics, Evolutionary Biology, etc., and the Enlightenment traditions upon which the USA was founded  -- but find that another dimension is needed to make my life fulfilling and meaningful. I am not alone in this stance. 

Recently I have come to see that those of us who pursue this path run the risk of a conservatism or fundamentalism in disguise. We might reject the literal Muslim or Christian readings of their scriptures, but might consider the Buddhist sutras to be the literal word of Buddha and try to follow those teachings. If so, in what way are we any different from those fundamentalists that concern me? Do we seek authority to assist us in understanding the point of life, because it is just such a mystery? Or perhaps we don't even want assistance, we just want some insight, and perhaps this is what distinguishes us from each other?

At one time modern scholars of Buddhism looked at the history of Buddhist scriptures, commentaries and cultural practices and tried to figure out just what had the Buddha actually taught; as if the development of the religion over time might have included some sort of error or misdirection. Could we call this enterprise a sort of scholarly fundamentalist Buddhism?  

The alternative to any religious fundamentalism is to recognize that cultures and people develop over time, and that authentic religious or spiritual messages change to suit those times. Final truth is not locked in old scriptures. In fact truths might have a "shelf life", and what was true for preliterate or tribal peoples may not be true for us at all. Of course this leaves us having to interpret these teachings, to pick and choose what seems right for us, and in the end, depend on our own discrimination. And of course this is a problem as well, because if our discrimination was so wise we probably would not be looking for some spiritual path to compliment our modern lives! Fundamentalists, if they think about it at all, recognize their own proclivity to error, which is one reason they look to archaic authority. We liberal moderns run a grave risk when we depend on our own discrimination, but perhaps ultimately it is less of a risk than dependence on an archaic and tribal level of authority.

While I was in Dharamsala studying Nagarjuna's middle way philosophy with Geshe Sonam Rinchen, I had a unique opportunity to engage with this problem. I knew from scholarly friends such as Bob Thurman, who at the time was teaching at Amherst College, that the Dalai Lama was quite interested in western sciences. Here was an authority, a head of a religious lineage, who was quite interested in science, the quintessential aspect of modernity. He is in fact quite open minded, and in time would be known to say that if science and Buddhism were in conflict, and the scientific view on some subject could be proven beyond doubt, that the Buddhist teaching on the subject should be dropped.

But that would be later.This was 1982 and 1983. Being a bit bold, I tried to arrange a meeting with him on a subject close to my heart: the intersection of Buddhism and Psychotherapy. It turned out he also was interested in such a conversation, and agreed to met with me several times. I recorded the conversations and they were published as two articles in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology.

1981 (source: CNN)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

"I am the Way"

As I reflect on the ending of the winter term at EOU, I also find myself thinking about the students in two of my courses, one on world religions and the other an introduction to the study of religion. For some students the courses are mind opening, but for others the courses are a significant challenge to their conservative Christian faith. I try to open those conservative minds without simultaneously challenging that faith, but naturally for some students that is simply not possible.  Their Christianity is exclusivist – all other faiths are simply wrong.  It makes me wonder why they even take a university level course on religion.

The repeated sticking point is their literal reading of John 14:6:

Thomas said to Him, "Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. "If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him."

Salvation (ie, knowing the Father) comes through Jesus and from no other source or person.  Period. They just cannot imagine that this message could have a deeper meaning, that some interpretation can be applied.  That the divinity in Jesus is making that statement, not the personality. That only the Holy can lead a person to the Holy and that the Holy is unlimited by nature. From my point of view the rigid, conservative Christian interpretation is actually a significant limiting of the divinity of Jesus. But of course they are incapable of understanding that perspective, and with such minds they will go through life convinced that all non-Christians will go to hell.

As a scholar I know that in Jesus’ time the Buddhists of India were transforming their bodhisattva doctrine.  Now bodhisattvas were not simply persons who were significantly advanced on the path to Buddhahood, they were expressions of the Holy Buddha-mind in human form.  Ultimately this view took the form of guru-yoga, that the spiritually advanced teacher is an expression of the Buddha-mind. 

The power of this view, and the meditation practice which cultivates it, is that one can develop a relationship with a person/mind in one’s immediate environment, and not have just an abstract relationship with a Buddha who entered Nirvana some centuries ago; a Buddha whose (continuing?) existence cannot be comprehended because the categories of is and is-not do not apply to the Buddha after his death.  For the Buddhist, many teachers can be the Way and the Truth and the Life which leads to Buddhahood (ie, the Father), and not just one person in the distant past.

How do I equate Buddhahood with the Father?  I am reminded that Geshe Rabten wrote that while voidness/emptiness is nothing special, as it is simply the character of everything that exists, the wisdom mind which knows voidness/emptiness is quite special -- indeed is Holy. The Father is all Holiness.

Even non-Buddhists in India recognized the power of devotion to human manifestations of Divine Reality, and around the same period developed the notion of the avatar.  Rama and Krishna were understood to be human manifestations of Vishnu. Through devotion to them one could cultivate a relationship with a personality that was divine, but also had a human face.  This personal relationship of course is the power of Christian devotion as well, but for Hindus, there is not only one human manifestation of the divine.  

Perhaps these are reasons why Hindus and Buddhists have been more comfortable with other religions than have Christians.
I fear for a future in which so many people are utterly irreligious and attach all their devotion to family or the idols of materialism or state, etc. But I may fear even more for a future in which “I am the Way” means everyone else is going the wrong way, and is in need of rectification.  We know how this plays out in the Islamic world

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

My Teachers: Geshe Sonam Rinchen

For several years I had the good fortune to have two teachers at the same time. Helmut Hoffman was cultivating my mind and Swami Pranananda was cultivating my spirit. My personal task was to integrate what I was learning from them with what I had learned from Rudi. It was a real challenge. At one level, was I fish or foul?, as the saying goes. There was a Buddhist pull from Hoffmann and Thich Thien-An and a yogic pull from Rudi and Swami Prananda. There were also the time and energy demands of simultaneously earning a living as a counselor, being a doctoral student, and practicing meditation.  

Shortly after we married I encouraged Holly to complete her B.A. degree. She then began work on an M.S. in College Student Personnel Administration, but to complete the degree she needed an internship. An opportunity presented itself at Mount Holyoke College, in Massachusetts, which would put us a couple of hours drive from Swami Pranananda's residence outside of Albany, New York. We relocated to the College and it was during that time that I finished my Ph.D. dissertation.

Mount Holyoke was part of a consortium of four private colleges and the University of Massachusetts, all located in close proximity in the Connecticut River Valley. The consortium arrangements between the schools offered many unique opportunities and I began teaching part time at the University and counseling full time at Mount Holyoke . One day, while commuting by bus between Mount Holyoke and U.Mass, I found myself sitting next to one of the deans from the College. During the course of our conversation she told me about a colleague who had just been appointed Dean of the Faculty at Amherst College and was in the process of hiring her staff. Her name was Mary Catherine Bateson, a brilliant anthropologist with an equally brilliant lineage: she was the daughter and granddaughter of famous academics on both sides of her family. I thought I'd give her a call and check out the job.

Catherine and I met, discussed our mutual needs and interests and struck a deal. I would continue to teach part time at U.Mass while I worked half time at Amherst as Assistant Dean of the Faculty, she would mentor me in the art and science of academic deanships and give me summers off so I could continue my research on Nagarjuna by traveling to the Himalayas to consult with Tibetan scholars. The pay she offered was abysmal, but the learning opportunity was stellar, so I grabbed what I imagined was the brass ring.

The following summer I set off for to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, in Dharmsala, in the western Himalayas. I asked Swami Pranananda for travel advice, and he suggested I contact a student of his for assistance when I reached New Delhi. That is exactly what I did. His student was a telephone operator who conveniently worked near the hotel where I was staying and dropped by after work that day. She asked about my plans. "A train to Dharamsala, as soon as I can obtain a ticket." She immediately realized that I was a complete fool and would need her care. "This is the pre-Monsoon, hot season and everyone who can leave the city is taking a train to one of the hill stations. You will not be able to get a ticket.  But I will see what I can do." This was the early 1980s and at that time telephone operators ran India, because to talk to anyone on the phone you needed their assistance. She was owed a lot of favors, and cashed one in to obtain me a second class air conditioned compartment. At noon two days later her husband and older son put me on the train, explained the ticketing system to me, told me where to get off, and left me in the hands of the railroad gods.

Clearly the gods were smiling, because just before the train pulled out of the station two Tibetan monks entered my compartment, followed by a colonel in the Indian Air Force. The elder monk situated himself in a lower bunk, while his young attendant did the same in the bunk across from him. That left me with one of two choices and I made the wrong one, because I got into the bunk above the elder monk. I spent the night above him barely able to sleep because of the immense amount of shakti-energy he was radiating. By the time the monks and I got off the train the next day it was obvious that the elder monk was very special and I had had no business being "above" him. I pressed my luck and asked if we might share a taxi for the 50 km drive from the train stop to Dharamsala. He agreed, and we headed off toward the wall of mountains in the distance.  Half way there he asked the driver to stop so he could go into a cave by the side of the road. "Come with me and I will introduce you to the Naga who lives here." This required that we leave our shoes at the entrance to the cave, and being afraid that my only shoes would be stolen I waited outside. Mistake number two.

When we arrived in the Tibetan village above Dharamsala about 20 monks descended on the taxi, grabbed everything in sight, including my suitcase, and ushered my monk companions into a small monastery. Retrieving my suitcase I asked about the senior monk. His name was Geshe Rabten and I learned that he was one of the Dalai Lama's spiritual advisers.  I'd arrived in good company, to say the least.

The taxi then headed down a very steep road to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. I immediately went up to see the Director of the Library who was rather surprised to see me. That worried me. "This is the date I set for my arrival when I wrote you," to which he replied, "No one arrives here when they say they are going to arrive." Never the less, he introduced me to one of the senior scholars at the Library, Geshe Sonam Rinchen, who had been chosen to work with me. The main reason for my coming to the Library was that there had been an unresolved problem of interpretation in the Nagarjuna text I had translated for my dissertation and I wanted to ask the Tibetan scholars about it. None of my colleagues in the USA could resolve it, but when I asked Geshe-la about it he asked me which answer I wanted. He said that there were three answers to my question because there were three ways to interpret the problem. I knew I was in the right place and with the right person.  

Our discussions lead to a decision to completely re-translate the text, following the perspective of one of those interpretations. This would take a second summer at the Library and volumes of correspondence between Amherst and Dharamsala. Eventually our translation was published as Nagarjuna's "Seventy Stanzas": A Buddhist Psychology of Emptiness.

Dharamsala, 1983, with Geshe Sonam Rinchen (center) and Tenzin Dorjee.  I had just recovered from a couple of weeks of serious illness.

During both summers I spent my days hiking down to the Library from my hotel in the upper village to work on re-translating the text with Geshe-la and his assistant Tenzin Dorjee, and to take notes on his oral commentary. Then, waiting until late afternoon to avoid the monsoon rains, I would hike back up to my hotel for dinner and a night of editing. The next day I would show my work to Geshe-la who would refine what I had written and we would move on to another verse.

Buddhists describe Nagarjuna's philosophy as "middle way." This has several meanings, but one is that it stakes a position between absolutism and nihilism in the way in which it asserts that all phenomena are empty of their apparent identities, their autonomy or any inherent existence. Of course all this requires interpretation, and that is what all the commentary work was about. Unfortunately, midway through the second summer of work I began drifting toward the nihilistic view. This drift was not just intellectual, but personal, existential. I got depressed, and although I knew I was falling into nihilism, and discussed this with Geshe-la, I could not climb out of the ever darkening hole I was in. The emptiness of phenomena around me was looking like their nothingness. Very bad and very dangerous. A friend suggested I go see Ling Rinpoche for help.

Ling Rinpoche

Ling Rinpoche was the Dalai Lama's senior tutor and generally rumored to be enlightened. Tibetans apparently never say anyone is enlightened, but the community was of that opinion, and that was good enough for me. My friend and I trekked up to his small cottage above the Tibetan community, to be met at the gate of the compound by two huge and ferociously barking mastiffs. Catholic cathedrals might put stone gargoyles by the doors, but Tibetans are a bit more practical. An attendant came out and we explained our purpose. He checked with Rinpoche, returned to chain up the dogs and accompanied us within. We found Ling Rinpoche sitting on a cot reading letters. He was quite elderly, a bit overweight and wrinkled. But he glowed with the light of a newborn child. He never stopped reading while I explained my problem, though he glanced up at me occasionally. He eventually put down the letter he was reading, looked at me and began to answer my questions, finally telling me something like "there is a subtle part of a person which passes from life to life." I did not understand anything he told me, and certainly had no idea what he meant by a "subtle part of a person." We expressed our gratitude and left. We walked down the hill and talked about his answers, but my confusion remained. However, the next day my depression had lifted, and my mind had returned to equanimity. No more nihilism. I still did not understand what he had told me, but clearly he had resolved my problem at a level other than at that of my conceptual mind. 

In retrospect I came to understand that irrespective of my not understanding his answers, he had taught me something that I had never considered. For the student's growth, the spiritual evolution of the teacher is even more important than what the teacher teaches. This truth would show itself again when I became Tara Tulku Khensur Rinpoche's student. I met Tara Rinpoche briefly just before I left Dharamsala, but we did not connect deeply until somewhat later. For that I had to return to Massachusetts, and disconnect from Holly.

The disconnect became apparent when I walked out of customs at Logan Airport in Boston and Holly was not waiting for me. She showed up an hour later. Her lack of interest in meeting me reflected the state of our marriage. Over the last couple of years things had been getting more and more strained between us as I concentrated on my academic life and research and she tried to sort out her own future. After a couple of years of student personnel work at Mount Holyoke she had decided that her professional life lay elsewhere, though she did not know where. She did know, as now did I, that her life was not going to include me and that she wanted to live in Manhattan. By then I also felt that separation was the best thing. Through my connections at Amherst College I was able to find her a cheap living situation at Rockefeller University so she could launch her new life. She left in the fall, around the same time Tara Tulku arrived at Amherst. My life had rounded a corner and was headed off in a new direction.

Monday, March 2, 2015

My Teachers: Swami Pranananda

After leaving the ashram my spiritual life remained rooted in Kundalini Yoga, my academic life focused on India and Tibet, and my social life expanded out into the community. I reconnected with old friends and made new friends. But deep down inside I yearned for the emotional connections I had found in the intensity of ashram life. Put simply, I felt lonely on my own, and began to seek a partner. But finding someone who could share all the facets of my life - and particularly my spiritual life - was a challenge.  In time I settled in with a woman friend from pre-ashram days. Holly was a local girl with a deep longing for a spiritual life. It was a place where we connected and what had begun as friendship grew into love, and in time we married. It seemed a natural progression when we lived it, but in retrospect I am not at all sure what really brought us together or kept us together. We were both pretty far out at the extreme end of the eccentricity scale, so perhaps what kept us together was merely mutual empathy and a desire to avoid isolation rather than actual love. Or perhaps it was karma.

Though I had moved out of the ashram, I continued to study with Rudi when he came to town. A little over half a year into my new life I received shocking news. Rudi had died in a small plane crash, commuting between his townhouse in Manhattan and his ashram in upstate New York. Apparently the pilot, who was a student of Rudi's, had gotten lost and crashed the plane while trying to determine his location. Of the four yogis in the plane, only Rudi died. Apparently he was dictating a journal entry at the time of the crash and his last words were "... a deeper sense of surrender ..." 

It took some time to recover from my shock and grief, and to begin to process what had happened. I'd had a guru, and now I didn't.  Now what?  I continued to practice what Rudi had taught for several years before an answer presented itself.

One of Holly's friends was a Hatha Yoga teacher, who introduced Holly and me to her own teacher, Swami Pranananda.  He was a monk in the Ramakrishna tradition of Vedanta and in time, as I attended his lectures, I began to find ever deepening connections between the Kundalini Yoga I was practicing and the monistic philosophy of Vedanta. Even as an undergraduate at UCLA I'd been inspired by the Upanishads, and in this swami I found a man who could open layer upon layer of their meanings. He once spent an entire hour explaining the significance of the first word in one of the Upanishads.  I was enraptured the whole time.

While I connected with the swami on an intellectual level, Holly made an emotional connection with him and we saw an opportunity for a marriage enriched by a shared spiritual practice. Moreover, I was craving a guru who would help me develop spiritually. With all this in mind, we began to attend not just his lectures, but his retreats, first in Bloomington and then around the Northeastern USA, finally establishing a formal discipleship with him.
Swami Pranananda of the Ramakrishna Order

Swami Pranananda's instruction in meditation was in the tradition of Ramakrishna himself. Though outwardly a priest in a Kali temple on the outskirts of Calcutta, in fact Ramakrishna was a remarkable adept at many forms of meditation, but he recommended Bhakti Yoga, the Yoga of Devotion, as the best practice for the people of this age.  As he said, love comes naturally to us, and if we can turn this natural sentiment toward God, the outcome will be rich and satisfying. Swami Pranananda taught specific techniques for this Yoga of Devotion, and in time I committed myself to it in combination with my Kundalini Yoga. There was no conflict there, as Ramakrishna himself had practiced in the tantric tradition of Kundalini Yoga.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

My Teachers: Helmut Hoffmann

I returned to graduate school at Indiana University, in Bloomington, not just because I had begun a Psychology program there several years earlier, but because I had recruited to New York half a dozen locals who had wanted to study Kundalini Yoga with Rudi. Swami Muktananda had directed him to start ashrams in the USA and I suggested Bloomington as fertile ground. I was right. Within a year of our return there were about 50 budding yogis living in a four bedroom house, its basement and a few tents outside when weather permitted. Although we were violating every fire code in town the authorities left us alone because most residents were former hippies or dealers who had given up drugs for yoga. I imagine that the police and fire department considered any fire or health risk we posed to be more than compensated for by the mass of drugs that were now off the street.

Every couple of months Rudi would come out to teach meditation classes and with each visit our community of yogis would grow.

We built bunk beds out of two-by-fours and slept six to a room, men in two bedrooms and women in the other two. Romance required finding a (temporarily) empty room or a tent. I got fairly good at determining when my roommates would be working.  Food was simple, and there was enough of it, though I can't recall how the kitchen managed to keep up.  Every night residents were joined by hippies from town, all of us sitting knee-to-knee for meditation classes in the former living room. Rudi had empowered Michael, Strats and I to teach. We took turns leading the meditation practice, which consisted of facing the community and passing the shakti-energy back and forth between ourselves and our students. By the time each session was over everyone was high. I would feel outright intoxicated by the end of a half hour of this practice. But I also began to notice the imbalanced power relationships which the practice engendered. It seemed that the structure of the group practice could create a sort of spiritual pyramid scheme (with the teacher at the top) if everyone was not cautious. I could not resolve the concern, and no matter how much I would give back when teaching, it never seemed like I could level the pyramid and restore a balance.

Parallel to my life in the ashram, I began work on an M.A. in Religious Studies and at the same time set out to complete my M.S. in Counseling Psychology. Though it was not our plan, the ashram had turned out to be a booming success at helping drug users recover. In addition to the police, the local mental health establishment took notice, concluded I had valuable skills and offered me work in community mental health agencies, which eventually proved a handy way to finance my Ph.D. studies. 

Though the ashram flourished and still exists (though now located in Portland, Oregon), after a year I left to live the life of a graduate student and practice yoga on my own. I wanted some privacy and what might pass for a normal life, but more importantly, I had not been able to resolve the student-teacher power problem to my own satisfaction and determined that I would not teach meditation again until I had found a resolution.

My academic study of religion naturally focused on India because that was what interested me and also because I felt that my meditation practice had given me extra insight into the ancient Indian scriptures. I was probably correct. The way I had gained admission into the Religious Studies department was through an interview with the resident Indologist.  He was dubious about my qualifications, and created an impromptu admission exam -- he pulled a text off his shelf and quizzed me about the meaning of a variety of passages.  I answered all his questions correctly and he promptly admitted me to the M.A. program.

But in time I was drawn into the orbit of a German professor in the Tibetan department by the name of Helmut Hoffmann. Even among the remarkable professors at the university he stood out for his extraordinary erudition. A 1938 graduate of the University of Berlin, he had survived the war and reconstruction of Germany with great difficulty, converting his suffering into a deep concern for his students. He once told us that his digestion had been ruined after the war because he was forced to subsist on oats. That was probably the reason that he fed the students who came to his apartment for advanced textual studies. I could not keep track of all the languages he knew, and he worked with the original texts as he tracked symbols, such as the lotus, over the centuries and across the cultures of Eurasia.  His brilliance was seductive and in time I shifted my academic focus from Indology to Tibetan Studies so I could be his student. But yoga continued as my spiritual practice.
Helmut Hoffmann

Hoffmann was the sort of mentor most graduate students can only dream of. When I told him that I was thinking of translating one of Nagarjuna's middle way Buddhist philosophy texts for my doctoral dissertation he responded by telling me that he was no expert on the subject, but considered it an opportunity for us to learn together. For a couple of years we met weekly in his book-filled apartment to work through difficult points in Buddhist philosophy and history. When we would hit roadblocks he would try to solve the problems by scouring his library, which filled the living room and second bedroom of the apartment. Usually he would find the answers in books I had never heard of written in languages I could not read. In time I realized that I was probably his weakest student and when we talked about it he cryptically assured me that it was important for me to obtain a Ph.D. and that he would assist me to complete it because I had valuable work to do . Though one of the most prominent European orientalists of his generation, he also had a prophetic sense of things, and he made it clear that his view of me was seated in that domain. But what he saw about the work I was to do he would not share.

Our final meeting, in the late summer of 1979, was dramatic. As my doctoral dissertation defense concluded and I was congratulated as a newly minted member of the Ph.D. guild he suggested that the entire committee go out for rounds of beer to celebrate. Just then there was a clap of thunder so loud that the building shook and it began to rain like an Indian monsoon. We all looked at each other, decided that a celebration would be anti-climactic, and headed out on our own ways.

Within the year Professor Hoffmann had retired and returned to Germany. I still consider myself fortunate beyond words to have had the opportunity to be his student.  When we began our work together I was a shakti-crazed yogi in a hippy ashram, and by the end I was a scholar who had been polished by a brilliant stone.