Skip to content

Monthly Archives: July 2018

The Philosopher and the Magus

Last week, if you remember, I was at a Buddhist seminar in the Colorado mountains, taught by a Tibetan Buddhist lama called Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. This was quite different to other Buddhist retreats I’ve been on. There wasn’t much meditation, instead there was four hours of teaching every day, over nine days.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche first came over to the US to work as a philosophy lecturer at Naropa University, the Buddhist university founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Boulder in 1974. His talks were mind-blowing. I’ve never actually been to a philosophy lecture before, and it’s a head-trip, trying to follow subtle arguments about the non-existence of the phenomenal world, in real time, for two hours.

Rinpoche said: ‘People like dharma teachings to be like opera [ie very emotional]. They’re lazy, and don’t want to grapple with philosophical arguments. In Buddhism there are two kinds of people. Those who are faith-orientated, and those who use discriminating intelligence. The Buddha encouraged the second kind of path.’

This immersion in Buddhist philosophy made me think about the difference between studying philosophy in western academia, and studying it in a Tibetan monastery.

The main difference is there is a specific goal for the student of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy to reach: enlightenment, for you, and for all beings. Philosophy is not something to be studied for the sake of a degree, a PhD, or tenure, it’s meant to be studied as part of the total transformation of the student’s mind and heart. It’s never just theory, it’s always tied to contemplation and to how one lives. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: ‘you may be fluent in the lecture-room, but out in the street you’re miserably shipwrecked.’

In Buddhism, as in the philosophy of Pythagoras and Plato, the journey to enlightenment happens over many lifetimes. Rinpoche taught within this context – he said we may not fully understand Nagarjuna’s teachings on emptiness in this life but ‘if you get it in 10 lifetimes, or 50 lifetimes, I will be happy’. So there’s a longer time-perspective than the traditional three-year PhD. The Guru is your supervisor over countless lifetimes (tough if you don’t like him).

Imagine your university lecturer saying, as Rinpoche did, ‘I am confident you will all reach enlightenment!’ Yet this model of philosophy has a lot in common with ancient Greek philosophy. There’s the idea of philosophy as a medicine for the soul. There’s the idea of philosophy as a way of life. There’s the idea of philosophy as a training for death – and books of philosophy as guides for the afterlife (as in the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Plato’s Phaedo, which Cato read as he died).

There’s the idea that emotional disturbance comes from misperception, or inaccurate seeing – tsul min yiche in Tibetan. Epictetus famously said: ‘Men are disturbed not by events, but by their opinion about events.’ Likewise, the Indian Buddhist philosopher Tilopa told his student Naropa: ‘It’s not appearances that bind you, it’s your attachment to appearances.’

In Stoicism, and in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, we heal ourselves by realizing how our opinions cause our emotions, and how the opinions may be wrong. The example I use in talks is that you walk into your office, and see Jennifer frowning, and you immediately feel offended and angry. The Stoic philosopher would get you to realize how your opinion caused your emotion – you thought something like ‘Jennifer is frowning at me, she doesn’t like me, what a bitch’ etc. Your view may be inaccurate – she may not be frowning at you, she may not hate you. And it may be unwise – even if she is frowning at you, so what? Is it wise or helpful to hate her back?

Buddhism likewise suggests that everything depends on the view you take of it. Machib Ladrong, the 12th century Tibetan teacher, told her students: ‘You may think that Gods are the ones who give you benefits, and Demons cause damage; but it may be the other way round. Those who cause pain teach you to be patient, and those who give you presents may keep you from practising the Dharma.’ As Marcus Aurelius put it, ‘Life itself is but what you deem it.’

But the Buddhist goes even deeper in dissolving the opinion ‘she offended me’. Jennifer doesn’t really exist, as a separate, independent, permanent self. She is a bundle of a trillion constantly changing conditions – her genes, her ancestors, her beliefs and culture, her body, how she slept last night, and so on. You don’t really exist either, not as a separate, independent, permanent self. There is no separate ‘she’ nor a separate ‘me’.

For three days, we dug into the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness, or sunyata, as developed by the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who lived in the second century AD in the south of India. He took the Buddha’s idea of dependent origination – nothing exists independently, everything arises and passes based on causes, including samsara and nirvana – and developed it into a rigorous systematic philosophy of emptiness.

All theories of the phenomenal world can be undermined through his ‘tetralemma’ (like a dilemma, but four possibilities rather than two):

The phenomenal world is not born from itself.

The phenomenal world is not born from something else.

The phenomenal world is not born from itself and something else.

The phenomenal world is not born without cause.

For each of these positions he gives various philosophical arguments (I won’t go into them here, as I don’t fully get them yet!) In general, his ‘Madhyamaka’ school of philosophy tries to undermine both the essentialist or eternalist school of philosophy, which argues that things can be reduced to some eternal and indestructible essence such as God or atoms; and the nihilist school, which argues nothing really exists. It tries to find a middle way – things don’t exist in the way we think of them at the gross or relative level, but they do exist in a relative sense.

A rainbow does not exist in a permanent or independent sense. It arises from certain conditions, from a certain perspective. However, it’s still there, in a relative sense. It’s still beautiful, in a relative sense. The problem is, we grasp at things as solid, real and permanent – we particularly grasp at the self as real, permanent and eternal. We chase the rainbow and try and find the pot of gold (ie to ground the self in permanent security, pleasure and contentment and to defend it from all threats). This chasing rainbows is what leads to grasping, which leads to negative emotions, which leads to samsara.

It’s a very radical view. All theories are empty. They all depend on polarities like ‘high/low’ or ‘good/bad’, which depend on each other and don’t really exist as independent terms. There is no God, no Platonic One, no ultimate and permanent Good. Nor is there an ultimate Zero – you mustn’t get attached to nihilism either. You could say, as Heraclitus did, ‘everything flows’, and what we call the self is really a bundle of continuums – continuum of the body, emotions, mind etc. But even the continuums don’t really exist in a permanent or absolute sense.

The theory of emptiness is also empty, as are all Buddhist teachings. They’re not the truth itself, they’re a raft to the truth, which is inexpressible. Over-attachment to any philosophical theory causes suffering – this reminds me of the ancient Greek school of Scepticism.

As the famous heart sutra teaches, revealing the dharma itself to be empty:

There is no suffering, no cause of suffering,
no end to suffering, no path to follow.
There is no attainment of wisdom,
and no wisdom to attain.

The heart sutra, by the by, was supposedly taught in the Buddha’s time, and then hidden by underwater serpents until humanity was ready to receive it. One legend has it that Nagarjuna – a magician as well as a philosopher – travelled to the underwater kingdom and was presented with it. Hence his name, which means something like ‘lord of the water-snakes’. He also taught that external reality should be seen as a dream or a magic show – it’s beautiful, but don’t get hypnotized into thinking it’s real.

‘You see the moon reflected in a pond’, said Rinpoche. ‘You know it has no reality, so you don’t try to grasp it. Wouldn’t it be great if we could relate to our life in that way, without churning emotions?’

So, I had a glimpse of an alternative conception of philosophy, an alternative path to the one taken by western academic philosophy, without the Reformation or Descartes or Kant or the Positivists. Wouldn’t it be great to study at a Tibetan monastery?

Well…yes and no. Sometimes Tibetan Buddhist philosophy reminds me of boring Aristotelian scholasticism – endless lists which the student is expected to memorize, like the 18 dhatus or the 37 limbs of enlightenment. Monastic philosophy also seems rather authoritarian and static – how could a young monk disagree with a supposedly enlightened Rinpoche? Ideas did change in western scholastic philosophy, but they changed extremely slowly. And of course, western monasteries often became corrupted, as many apparently still are in Asia. Imagine if tenure was granted not through achievement, but inheritance!

Still, I’m glad that the ascetic or practical or eudaimonic model of philosophy is gradually returning to the west, via Buddhism and Stoicism.

There is another side to Tibetan Buddhism, which I’ll end by discussing briefly, and that is its love of magic ritual. The last two days of the seminar were spent on a Tara empowerment ritual, which took ten hours, all in all, of chanting, ritual cleansing, visualizing and various other ritual actions – including visualizing Tara in various forms, with a flower on our heads, standing on a magic bicycle (no, really) and taking some grass back home to put under our beds, to inspire prophetic dreams.

This obviously felt quite alien to me – not least because the chanting was in Tibetan, most of which I didn’t quite catch, so God knows what I actually said. I’m all for using imaginative visualizations in meditation, but I’m not familiar with imagery of Tara, so abruptly summoning up an image of a white girl with seven eyes led to rather monstrous results.

I also found it off-putting because it seemed like operational magic to me. By operational magic, I mean rituals designed to create effects in the world. The Tara ritual, like all tantra rituals, supposedly grants great powers, or sidhis – such as longevity, magnetism and enrichment. Other tantra rituals supposedly grant powers like the destruction of enemies. We’re told Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism is the ultimate Buddhist teachings – the most secret, the most exclusive, the fastest way to enlightenment. But, to be totally frank, this aspect of it reminds me more of folk Catholicism, prosperity theology, or even the Law of Attraction. It risks becoming a grasping after power – at least, that’s how it struck me, as a novice outsider.

And with that grasping after power comes spiritual pride and hierarchy: we’re the special ones, specially empowered in a rare and exclusive ritual. The front-row of the tent were extra-special – his closest students were called up for special direct empowerments by the Rinpoche. This included his dog.

I was piqued that his dog got preferential empowerments. And I was also put off by the divination rituals to discover what sidhis Tara would grant us. Would we have lesser or supreme accomplishments? We cast a stick onto a mandala to discover. I got the lesser power of magnetism. Doh! Can I try again?

I also had a dream, after I put the magic grass under my bed. In the dream I was with friends, and we came across a party, where everyone was wearing white. We weren’t wearing white, but we tried to blag our way into the party. ‘Is this a…vajra party?’ I asked. ‘We’re into vajra too.’ Sorry, we were told, you’re not on the list. I don’t know if that was Tara telling me I’m not called to Vajrayana Buddhism, or my subconscious telling me that spiritual hierarchies always make me afraid of being left out. And esoteric magic always has hierarchies – you’re a ‘level 7 wizard’ or whatever.

Anyway, I’m not so into the magic side of Tibetan Buddhism (there was plenty of operational magic in Platonism, Stoicism and Renaissance Neo-Platonism, by the way). But the teachings of emptiness? I haven’t totally understood them yet. It’s OK, I have another 49 lifetimes before my essay deadline.

Ain’t nuthin’ but a vajra party, y’all

Pema Chodron on staying open when things fall apart

Pema Chodron with Sakyong Rinpoche, who resigned as leader of Shambhala last week

I’ve come to Boulder in Colorado, to hear a talk by the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. As I’ve previously written, I picked up Chodron’s book, The Places That Scare You, while on an ayahuasca retreat, in between two rather scary ceremonies. It was hugely helpful to me, and when I returned to my jungle hut that night, I looked at the book, and the photo of this small smiling shaven-headed nun, and literally cried tears of gratitude. I vowed to try and study with her.

It turns out that’s not so easy. I realized yesterday that thousands of people have similar stories, and feel their life was transformed, saved even, by Pema’s teachings. Pema is 81, and in huge demand as a teacher and speaker. She only accepts people on six-month retreats, after they have completed other initial courses. However, she does occasionally do public talks, such as the one I attended yesterday. It was at the summer seminar of a sangha called Mangala Shri Bhuti, where the head teacher is Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Pema’s teacher.

The seminar is a ten-day course in Buddhist philosophy, taught by Rinpoche, his wife Elizabeth (they met in India when they were both very young), and their son. They moved to Colorado in the 1980s, and set up this community high up in the hills outside Boulder. It is so extraordinary to be able to study advanced Buddhist philosophy with a Tibetan lama, then cross the road to the national park and see moose, and then drive down to Boulder, this mountain town full of gurus and poets and hippies. It’s like Lhasa with better Wi-Fi.

Boulder has been a centre for Eastern wisdom ever since a famous Tibetan teacher called Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche moved here in the 1970s. He set up Naropa Institute, which is the only Buddhist university in the West. He also set up a sangha (community) called Shambhala, which is one of the biggest Buddhist sanghas in the West.

Chogyam was charismatic, funny and highly intelligent, and he attracted devoted students, including the poet Allen Ginsberg, the scientist Francisco Varela (who set up the Mind & Life Institute), and a young woman called Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, who came across an article by Trungpa when she felt like her world was falling apart after two divorces. She travelled to Oxford to be taught by him, then followed him to Boulder and threw herself into the dharma,  eventually being ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun called Pema Chodron.

Alas, something is rotten in the state of Colorado. Last week, Shambhala’s leader – Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Chogyam’s son – stepped back from his leadership position after facing allegations of the sexual abuse of students. The investigation, by a former student of Chogyam’s, uncovered countless incidents of sexual violence within the sangha going back decades, by several men. The board of Shambhala has resigned and the Boulder Buddhist community is in turmoil.

This is by no means the first western Buddhist community to go through such trauma. The other most prominent Tibetan sangha in the West is Rigpa, set up by Sogyal Rinpoche. He was also forced to resign, last year, after several allegations of abuse and sexual violence. And there have been many other incidents of sexual and spiritual abuse uncovered in western Buddhist communities over the last few years, including by the British founder of the London Buddhist Centre, Dennis Lingwood.

It’s dispiriting. It undermines one’s faith in the dharma when teachers – who are meant to be advanced practitioners of compassionate wisdom – turn out to be egomaniac sex abusers. What is the cause, what the remedy?

The problem is partly power. Spiritual communities often give too much power and veneration to priests or gurus, who then abuse that power. We are desperate for enlightenment, desperate for approval, and we think the teacher can grant us celestial approval like a god. People channel so much uncritical longing and authority to the teacher – I saw this at the Pema talk, where people wept as they spoke to her. This adulation creates a situation ripe for corruption. Secondly, spiritual traditions are often highly patriarchal. This is true across the world, in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Shamanism, Hinduism and Buddhism. It’s a time of great change in many of these traditions, as women challenge millennia of patriarchy and find their voice.

Thirdly, Tibetan Buddhism has two particular issues.  One is how lineages are passed on – successors are recognized as reincarnations of previous leaders when they’re children, and treated as semi-deities. This sometimes works (as with the Dalai Lama, a shepherd boy recognized as a lineage leader when he was a child), and sometimes doesn’t. Chogram’s other son, who makes hip-hop, made a great documentary about this tradition and how it goes wrong.

The other issue is that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition places a lot of emphasis on the guru-student relationship. Tibetan Buddhism, like Zen, is full of stories of gurus acting crazily and abusively – hitting their students, demanding ridiculous things of them. The student is expected to see their guru as the Buddha and accept whatever they do as perfect. The guru may also pursue Tantric sexual practices with their students. So you can see how this could go wrong.

Chogyam Trungpa

The seeds of Shambala’s present problems are arguably found in Chogyam’s behaviour. He was an alcoholic, who died of liver failure in his fifties. He slept with many students, and encouraged a culture of eccentric living and wild partying ruled over by his own monarchical authority. He then appointed a successor who had HIV and passed it on to other students. And he was succeeded by Chogyam’s son, the heir apparent, who is also a violent alcoholic womanizer. Yet no student ever criticizes Chogyam – he is still considered an enlightened being. His son must wonder why he, behaving so similarly, is getting such grief.

Various Tibetan Buddhist teachers have responded to these latest problems. The Dalai Lama, in response to the Sogyal Rinpoche controversy, said that ‘crazy wisdom’ behaviour is only acceptable in totally-enlightened gurus, and these beings are exceptionally rare and probably living in caves. In normal instances, the students should retain their agency and ability to say no. Tenzin Palmo, a British lady who became a Tibetan Buddhist nun and spent 12 years meditating in a cave, said last week this is an opportunity to ‘set some boundaries, and rethink the whole situation of the commitment between the student and the teacher’.

Up to this point, Pema Chodron had not commented on what must be a painful situation for her – Shambhala is her community, Sakyong is the son of her beloved teacher. But she was asked about it during her talk, and gave an interesting response. She replied:

This is the time of #metoo. How could I not support that – I’m a woman. Women should take a stand, what’s been dysfunctional should be addressed. When things fall apart, it impacts you, even at a subconscious level. At the same time, it’s an opportunity for something freeing to emerge. I have no preconceptions of what that will be. I have no idea what will happen with the United States, or with the planet – they’re not doing great either. But I’m an advocate for keeping your heart and mind open. Don’t get polarised into fixed, militant or fundamentalist views.

It’s characteristic of this time. Everything is blown wide open. That makes us all insecure. Our knees shake and our stomach is in turmoil. We don’t like that as a species. But the training of the bodhisattva is to become slowly able to hold that falling-apartness, with eyes wide open, with heart wide open. What we do – that’s the future.

She talked about many other things, particularly around the idea of bodhisattva warrior training. She used several examples from Christian missions, such as an organization called Homeboy Industries, which gives rival gang-members jobs and community, challenging the idea of Us and Them. She spoke about how painful it is to try and be a compassionate warrior – how sometimes, it simply overloads one’s nervous system and you have to take a break (she suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for several years). She spoke refreshingly about the balance between inner work and outer work – someone in the audience asked: ‘how can I be at this seminar, when I feel I should be at the border protesting?’ She replied instantly: ‘Why don’t you go afterwards?’

She spoke about taking seriously the bodhisattva vow to help and love anyone – including failed, abusive leaders: ‘Nothing will work if there’s no compassion. With a teacher it’s particularly heart-breaking. You’ve seen someone grow up and you love them dearly, then they do something that’s so painful to hear about. But how can you reject them? You can not condone their behaviour and still love someone, and know they can change.’

What I find most inspiring in her teachings is the idea of opening to the anxiety, shame and insecurity we all feel so often, seeing it as the juicy ground for practice rather than something to shut down. She said: ‘Your life is your training, not some time in the future when it’s more pleasant. The bad stuff that happens to you is what allows you to understand other people. We can practice kindness to our own stuff, our own stuckness. The part we’re ashamed of is what allows us to have compassion.’ This is so true.

She concluded: ‘The bodhisattva training has two big challenges. First, to grow in the capacity to live with nothing to hold on to, so when you die, and there’s nothing to hold on to, you’re trained.’ This, in fact, is what we’ve been studying all week – Nagarjuna’s teachings on emptiness, which I’ll write about next week. ‘Secondly, invite all sentient beings as your guests. There’s no guest list. All of them.’

I find her teachings profoundly helpful, but as always there are questions the critical student could ask: should Pema herself take responsibility as a leader of the community for supporting people, structures and practices that have been harmful? Is she rationalizing the abusive behaviour of her teacher? If we say ‘well, that’s the nature of samsara, everything falls apart and at the ultimate level no one has actually been harmed’, does this let Tibetan Buddhist teachers off the hook for errors and vices? What is the balance between inner work on fixing one’s mind and outer work on trying to heal the world? These are not easy questions.

Speaking personally, I still find the Buddhist path a very rich and rewarding one, and I recognize that I need teachers and I need community – but I no longer expect either of them to be perfect. I agree with Dzigar Rinpoche’s wife, Elizabeth, that ‘we need to retain our agency and critical reason on this path’. No guru can fix us and no teacher I’ve met is flawless, not even Pema Chodron.