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Tenzin Palmo on escaping the prison of the ego

This week I saw Tenzin Palmo speak at the Rigpa centre in London. She’s a remarkable woman, the daughter of a fishmonger from East London, who left Bethnal Green at the age of 20 to learn about the dharma in northern India. She became a Tibetan Buddhist nun – the second Western woman ever to do that – and then spent 12 years meditating in a Himalayan cave. She now runs a  Buddhist nunnery in northern India. She has devoted her life to breaking through the ‘glass ceiling’ of the male-dominated sangha and making the dharma available to everyone, especially women. As an exercise in remembering, I’ve written down what I remember of her talk. What follows is paraphrasing from memory, not direct quotes. For direct teachings I suggest you watch one of her video talks or read one of her books

The good news is that our nature is basically sane.

Our basic nature is Buddha nature – luminous lucid wise and flexible mind-heart.

The bad news is we have forgotten our true nature. We don’t know who we are. We identify with the ego – with the ‘monkey-mind’.

Anyone who has been to India knows what monkeys are like in the wild. They are always restless, never still or content. They jump onto a fruit tree, and take one bite of a fruit before dropping it and reaching for the next one. They spend most of their time fighting, eating or copulating. Sound familiar?

Our monkey mind is like that – restless, grasping, filled with likes and dislikes.

The Buddha’s great insight was to realize egolessness. He realized the ego is an illusion and it’s this illusion which causes us suffering.

So we don’t know our own nature, our own minds. We put a lot of effort in taking care of our homes and making them nice and comfortable. We put a lot of effort into taking care of our bodies, eating well, going to the gym and so on. But we don’t take care of our minds.

And it’s crucial to take care of our minds, because we always live in our minds. Our mental state determines our entire reality.

We don’t know how to take care of our minds, and are pretty messed up. There’s so much depression in our culture. We blame all our problems on the external world and on other people.

But the Buddha taught that our suffering and our happiness comes from within, from our own minds. And we can change our minds. Rather than trying to change everyone else, which is impossible.

Sometimes we get glimpses of our true limitless nature, it’s quite common to have such glimpses. But that doesn’t mean you’re enlightened.  You have to stabilize that insight.

There are steps you need to take to stabilize that insight. Sometimes, after an early realization, people skip the steps, and then they get in trouble.

It’s like if you put a cake in the oven, and when the cake begins to rise you say ‘it’s ready!’ and take it out. The cake then collapses in on itself and tastes disgusting.

So how can we practice to realize our true nature? How can we practice in daily life, not just in a cave on a mountain?

First, meditation. We can practice to stabilize our focus. The Buddha taught a very simple method – mindfulness of breathing. Breathe in and be aware. Breathe out and be aware. How wonderfully simple.

The word for mindfulness in Pali and Sanskrit literally means  ‘remembering’. We remember what is happening here and now, rather than being drawn into the ego’s movies about the past and the future. In the present moment the ego does not exist. There is just knowing, just lucidity.

We also develop discrimination. When pleasant feelings arise, we just observe it. When difficult thoughts or feelings arise, we just observe it. Without judgement, but with compassion. One monk has introduced the word ‘kindfulness’ – isn’t that a great word?

Secondly, in our daily life, we can strive to cultivate wholesome qualities within us – the paramitas – generosity, loving-kindness, persistence and so on. And we can strive to weed out the unwholesome qualities – craving, anger, and pride.

When we meet difficult people, can we practice to resist anger and intolerance? It is easy to be loving towards loveable people, but that’s not helping you grow.

I was once in the queue at the visa office in India. In front of me was a western monk, trying to get his visa renewed. And the visa official was very rude to him – he shouted that he’d filled in the form wrong, and had to fill out a new one, and he ripped it up and threw it in the monk’s face. And the monk just said ‘I see, thank you very much!’ As he turned around, he winked at me. And I thought, ‘well done!’

Obnoxious people are wonderful teachers.

As for pride, that is really ignorance, thinking the ego is real, ignorance of who we really are. When we’re ignorant of who we really are and identify with the ego, we’re in a prison of our own making.

We can escape that prison through a shift in consciousness. You stop identifying with your thoughts, or your likes and dislikes, or your body, or your gender, or your nationality, or anything.

But first you need to make friends with your ego. You can’t just say ‘the ego doesn’t exist’, because the ego comes along with you on your spiritual journey. It thinks ‘how great to be egoless!’. You need to know yourself, make friends with your ego. You need a healthy and happy ego to come on the spiritual journey with you, like a good, quiet monkey. The ego is a vehicle. There is a sort of good pride you need as well – a feeling of ‘I can do this! I can become realized.’

So the first step is meditation, the second step is cultivating wholesome qualities and weeding out unwholesome qualities. Then, when the mind has started to become transformed, you can go deeper, and look at the nature of mind itself. What is mind?  What is a thought? What is this camera projecting out the world? Really look. When you look, initially there is a cascade of thoughts. But that raging torrent gradually slows and thins into a river. And then into a stream. And then a trickle. And then there is just vast empty awareness.

You can reach a state of the mind meditating on mind, like an eagle soaring on air currents.

We need to make the best use of this auspicious circumstance – a human incarnation, and an awareness of the dharma. We must practice diligently, no excuses!

That’s what I remember of her talk. It was simple and clear, but I was struck by the depth of the illusion of ego within me and within our culture. For the last 40 years I have identified with ‘me’ , and put basically all my energy into trying to further the project of ‘me’ as best I could – trying to find pleasure, trying to find success, trying to find love and happiness and security. Everyone else I know is involved in the same constant struggle. And we’re all commenting on each other’s progress. And it’s an illusion? It’s the source of all our suffering? Truly, what a prison of our own making! What a mad-house we’re in! How tragic, how absurd. We think we understand egolessness but if we do we understand it intellectually and still live the same old life devoted to ‘project me’. How would we live if we really understood the depth of the illusion we’re stuck in?

There were then some questions from the audience. What struck me about them was that they were mainly about healing negative emotions. Westerners very much approach Buddhism as a form of psychotherapy – the risk of that is it becomes another way of bolstering the ego I guess. One person asked about coping with persistent negative thoughts, another about overcoming trauma.

If it’s really bad you should go and see a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. Meditation is not the same as psychotherapy, it requires a healthy happy ego to go far on the journey. But you can try and look at your thoughts, really look at them, and see they’re not solid or permanent. They’re like clouds, that can totally cover the sky but only briefly. The sky is always there. Don’t identify with the thoughts, don’t say ‘me’ or ‘mine’. You can make friends with difficult thoughts, without identifying with them, like Milarepa befriending the demons who came to pester him when he was meditating in a cave. When he welcomed them and offered them tea, they transformed into local deities and became his allies and helpers. We transform negative thoughts and energies when we observe them with compassionate attention.

At the same time, if you’re constantly being dragged back into the movie of past traumas, you can choose simply not to go there. Don’t constantly watch those old re-runs of misery. Stay in the present. The ego loves you to go over your miserable past. It loves to be miserable. It’s like a cat licking up cream. Poor poor me.

With skilful practice, we can soften and see through that which seems very solid and permanent.

She was also asked what is consciousness in Buddhist philosophy. She said it was different to the materialist conception of consciousness. Buddhism thinks all matter actually emerges from mind, that mind is the foundation of all things – all things have intelligence within them, the universe itself is intelligent. Humans have [if I remember right] six or eight types of consciousness, depending on different schools of thought. Each sensory awareness is a type of consciousness, and then there is ‘storehouse consciousness’ – a sort of subconscious where memories and karma are stored, and then there’s an intermediate consciousness between the store consciousness and ordinary consciousness, which is the ego – the ego stretches between the subconscious and the conscious, and is a bridge. When we die, our body dies, but some basic awareness survives and is reincarnated, along with the traces of our past karma.  

I left the talk feeling joyful and optimistic. There is a path to freedom. How lucky to have come across this path. And look – that lady has got a long way down that path, that daughter of a fishmonger from Bethnal Green. If she can, maybe I can too!

The lazy mysticism of Alan Watts

Alan Watts, cartoon guru

The only thinker whose popularity on YouTube comes close to prophet-of-rage Jordan Peterson is Alan Watts, the British popularizer of Eastern wisdom. Watts’ talks from the 50s, 60s and early 70s have millions of views on YouTube, and are often edited to the accompaniment of orchestral or ‘chillstep’ soundtracks and jazzy collages of modern life. He’s the favourite guru of Jarvis Cocker, Spike Jonze and Jonny Depp, and – pinnacle of pinnacles – even made the intro to Cheryl Cole’s last album. He’s become a guiding voice for the internet age – indeed, in Jonze’s film Her, Watts has been resurrected as a hyper-intelligent operating system.

It’s poignant that a restless nomad who never found a home in traditional institutions should find digital immortality on the Net. Watts was the only child of a suburban English couple. He won a scholarship to the oldest boarding school in the country – Kings Canterbury – and there announced his conversion to Buddhism aged 13. At 16, Watts became secretary of the Buddhist Lodge, then the leading (or only) Buddhist organization in the UK. At 20 he published his first book on Zen. He struck adults, back then, as an angelic prodigy, like the child Jesus lecturing in the temple.

He then moved to the US in the 1930s, and surprised everyone by becoming an Episcopalian priest (his daughter suggests he may have done this to avoid the draft). Like the other ‘mystical expatriates’ (Huxley, Heard and Isherwood), he was really a perennialist, a prophet of contemporary pick n’ mix spirituality. He wrote in his autobiography: ‘If I am asked to define my personal tastes in religion I must say that they lie between Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, with a certain leaning toward Vedanta and Catholicism, or rather the Orthodox Church of Eastern Europe.’

He foresaw, in the 1930s, that Western Christianity could do with a contemplative and mystical revival,  but split from the church when facing ejection for his unconventional views and lifestyle – he lived in a threesome, preached free love, and was finally divorced by his wife for being a ‘sexual pervert’ (boarding school had apparently given him a taste for flogging).

He moved to California, and helped to set up the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, which introduced Zen to the 50s beats and the 60s hippies. It was a new type of higher education institution –participatory, open to the mystical, seeking consciousness-transformation rather than abstract knowledge. In this, it was a forerunner of alternative colleges like Schumacher, the Garrison Institute and Esalen. Watts later wrote: ‘The Academy of Asian Studies was a transitional institution emerging from the failure of universities and churches to satisfy important spiritual needs.’ How wonderful to think of university in terms of ‘spiritual needs’.

But eventually he left there too, and became a freelance ‘philosopher-entertainer’, living in the Bay area, writing books and giving talks to rapt college audiences. He could talk for hours, without notes, weaving in arcane references with hip terms like ‘grooving on the Eternal Now’, all delivered with a slightly-plummy musicality and skilful use of the dramatic pause. I personally find his lectures a bit pompous and repetitive – as I do the YouTube sermons of Jordan Peterson – but the kids love it. Like Peterson, he speaks with such authority and drama that one can switch off the critical mind and let it all wash over you, and still feel a hell of a lot wiser by the end. It’s not analysis so much as rhapsody. That’s why his talks goes so well with ‘chillstep’ soundtracks and collages of images. Light a joint and drop the Watts!



But what does Watts actually have to say? What is the What, Watts?

Like the other ‘mystical expatriates’, Watts was a prophet of the perennial philosophy, and the idea we can – and even should – seek our spiritual fulfilment outside of traditional religious commitments and communities. He said of himself: ‘since the age of forty-two I have been a freelance, a rolling stone, and a shaman, as distinct from an apostolically-successed priest’. He preached the ‘wisdom of insecurity’ – not clinging to any particular religion. Like the other expats, he was a nomad-prophet for our uprooted age.  Like them, he preached the wisdom of the body, the spirituality of sex, the validity of psychedelics as a spiritual technique, the superiority of Asian wisdom to Christianity, and the possibility of escaping history by focusing on ‘the Eternal Now’.

But his main message, which he repeated over and over throughout his career, was that there is no separate self, that there is just IT, the Tao, the Brahman, and you are inescapably part of it, so relax and let go, rather than trying to pull yourself up by your spiritual boot-straps. Over-strenuous spiritual practice will actually just reinforce your ego. You are already perfect, already enlightened, you don’t need to do or change anything. There is no ‘you’, just IT.

He expressed this radical Zen view when he met Huxley, Heard and Isherwood in the company of their guru, Swami Prabhavananda:

‘But this is ridiculous,’ the Swami objected. ‘That amounts to saying that an ordinary ignorant and deluded person is just as good, or just as realized, as an advanced yogi.’ ‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘And what advanced yogi would deny it? Doesn’t he see the Brahman everywhere, and in all people, all beings?’ ‘You are saying,’ said the Swami, ‘that you yourself, or just any other person, can realize that you are the Brahman just as you are, without any spiritual effort or discipline at all!’ ‘Just so. After all, one’s very not realizing is, in its turn, also the Brahman. According to your own doctrine, what else is there, what else is real other than the Brahman?’

The Swami retorted that if Watts was really enlightened, he would feel no suffering, not even a pinch. Watts, resisting the urge to pinch the Swami, fell silent. But this remained his central idea, and it had a big influence on the ‘beat Zen’ of Jack Kerouac and others, and then on the antinomian flower children of the 1960s. Go with it, follow the law of your nature, be true to who you are, you’re beautiful.

What is the value of this idea?

It’s true that Buddhism, and particularly Zen Buddhism, teaches that we are perfect just as we are, we have merely forgotten our true nature. We find this joyful teaching in many mystical traditions – in Plato, in Thomas Traherne, in Rumi. One often finds it expressed through the metaphor of a prince or heir who forgets their natural inheritance and goes begging for pennies outside his palace, as in the Zen song of Hakuin:

From the beginning all beings are Buddha.
Like water and ice, without water no ice, outside us no Buddhas.
How near the truth, yet how far we seek.
Like one in water crying, “I thirst!”
Like the son of a rich man wand’ring poor on this earth we endlessly circle the six worlds…

Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes.
This earth where we stand is the pure lotus land!
And this very body, the body of Buddha.

The intuition that we have an indestructible and priceless jewel of loving wisdom within us, which is also the nature of the universe, can be incredibly inspiring and healing, particularly if we’re prone to anxious low self-esteem. It is precisely what I felt during and after my near-death experience – I woke up from a nightmare of my ego’s brokenness and rottenness, and realized how blessed we all naturally are. I felt an incredible lightness and pleasure at existence. I would repeat to myself a mantra: ‘nothing to change, nothing to improve, no-one to impress, nothing to win, nothing to lose, nowhere to go’, and so on. Just resting in the garden within.

However, it is difficult to stay in that realization, without practice. In my own case, the spiritual high lasted a few weeks, then the old neurotic habits came back with a vengeance. I realized I needed to practice, systematically, to weed out the old habits and let my heart open. That’s why I got into CBT, ancient Greek philosophy, and Buddhism.

Tenzin Palmo, a British Buddhist nun

Last night I saw the Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo speak. A remarkable lady, who moved from Bethnal Green to spend 12 years meditating in a Himalayan cave. She said:  ‘The good news is your true nature is sane. And it’s quite easy to get a glimpse of that true nature. But that doesn’t mean you’re enlightened. You still need to practice, otherwise it’s like taking a cake out of the oven after it’s started to rise – it will just collapse, and taste disgusting.’

The risk of Watts’ philosophy is it leads to a lazy and complacent egotism: ‘I am what I am, I’m part of the Brahman, we’re all perfect, so why bother trying to change?’ He wrote: ‘every willful effort to improve the world or oneself is futile’:

self-improvement is a dangerous form of vanity. By the age of thirty-five one’s character is firmly formed, and has to be regarded as an instrument to be used rather than changed…To avoid being a serious disappointment to others you must accept and respect your own limitations…As a Zen master has said, ‘Act as you will. Go on as you feel. This is the incomparable way’…I am aware of the futility of myself trying not to be selfish, of the contradiction of myself even desiring or asking not to be selfish…

The problem is, you can be a perfect Buddha on the ultimate level, and still suffer a lot and cause a lot of suffering to others on the relative plain, where most of us are most of the time. And this is what happened to Watts. His friend, the Zen poet Gary Snyder, remarked: ‘He was one who sowed trouble wherever he went.’

He failed as a husband, marrying three times, and driving his third wife to the bottle with his philandering – he would pick up a different college girl after most talks (‘I don’t like to sleep alone’). He failed as a father to his seven children: ‘By all the standards of this society I have been a terrible father’, although some of his children still remember him fondly as a kind man, a weaver of magic, who initiated each of his children into LSD on their 18th birthday. He was vain and boastful, ‘immoderately infatuated with the sound of my own voice’ – although, like Ram Dass, he wasn’t a hypocrite, and did try to constantly warn his young audience he wasn’t a saint – not that they listened.

By the end of his life he was having to do several talks a week to make enough money to pay his alimony and child support. And he was drinking a bottle of vodka a day to be able to do that. He died, exhausted, at 58. Snyder remembers:

he had to keep working, and as you keep working, you know, you got to play these roles, and you also keep drinking ’cause there’s always these parties and so forth, so that doesn’t help you slow it down. So he just wore himself out. It was out of his control, that was my feeling. The dynamics of his life had gotten beyond his control, and he didn’t know what to do about it.

One of his lovers, the therapist June Singer, visited him in hospital when he was admitted with delirium tremens. Why didn’t he stop drinking, she asked. ‘That’s how I am,’ he said to her sadly. ‘I can’t change.’

Ultimately, it is not fair to say that Watts was lazy – he seems to have worked incredibly hard. But he worked incredibly hard at his career, at his public profile, at the endless talks he gave on campuses, on radio and on TV. And he worked very little on himself – psychotherapy bored him, while he felt too much meditation ‘is apt to turn one into a stone Buddha’.

Still, you could hardly call his life a tragedy. It sounds incredibly interesting, and often incredibly fun. And the consequence of his egoistical drive to self-promote was the flowering of Asian wisdom in western culture, albeit in a rather bastardized form. That more than balances out his personal failings, and no doubt he will be all the wiser in his next incarnation. Near the end of his life, he told his daughter Joan: ‘After I’m dead, I’m coming back as your child. Next time round I’m going to be a beautiful red-haired woman.’ Sure enough, after he died, his daughter gave birth to a red-headed girl, called Laura. We await your teachings Laura. No pressure.