Sunday, January 29, 2012

'SAMAYA HO!' exclaimed the Guru. `The bond is formed.'

'SAMAYASTVAM!' I replied. `You are the bond!'

'SAMAYA HRI!' exclaimed the Guru. `The bond is all!'

'SAMAYA TISHTHA!' I replied. `The bond is strong!'

'RAMO HAM!' exclaimed the Guru. `Let the fire burn!'

'RAGAYAMI!' I concluded. `We are burning together!'

~ The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel

The transmission of teachings in Buddhism is different from intellectual learning. It cannot be learned from books. As Buddha said in his famous Flower Sermon “the subtle Dharma Gate does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures”. This is why it is sometimes called mind-to-mind transmission.

In most Buddhist sects, once you receive transmission, you become part of the unbroken thread that began with Shakyamuni. You become your teacher’s dharma heir and belong to his lineage.

The 14th Dalai Lama describes the Buddhist lineage as a veritable “sacred trust”. He says that “the vital link through which the spiritual tradition is nourished and maintained is the profound connection between an enlightened master and perfectly devoted disciple.”(foreword to Karmapa: The Sacred Prophecy) In the Vajrayana tradition, the “devoted disciple” enters into a lifelong bond with his master called Samaya. This bond is considered sacred and the price of breaking it is no less than being plunged into “vajra hell”.

Buddhism is a blessedly Godless religion that does not adhere to any religious dogma or creed. One Zen phrase that I hold dear is Bodhidharma’s “Nothing Holy”, for it reminds us that Buddhism does not worship anything, not even Buddha. So when Buddhist students are expected to trust their teachers unconditionally; when, moreover, they are encouraged to formulate this as a vow to which they are held upon pain of punishment. Well, then the whole thing starts to wreak of... holy.

This is not to say that one should not cultivate religious feelings like faith and devotion. These encourage us to surrender the need for control that is so often the source of strain and struggle in our lives. The mistake is to transfer these feelings onto another person who is just as flawed as ourselves, which is not relinquishing your need for control. It is empowering another human being.

To take the dharma literally is to profane its mystery. As Buddha said, “the subtle Dharma Gate does not rest on words”. But can Buddhism be spared the literalism of vows and rituals, can dharma transmission be spared Lineage Delusions-- without completely evacuating its poetry?

That is the challenge.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Even if someone broadcasts to the whole universe slanderous and ugly rumors about you,
In return, with an open and caring heart, praise his or her abilities — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

~ 37 Practices of the Bodhisattva, verse 14

Our first reaction to pain is usually a defensive one, acting from within the closed system of a self-centered narrative. This separates you (the offender) and me (the offended) in a literal way, limiting my action as a self-protective “response” to something you have “done” to me. Whether I act out this response (e.g. by retaliating or by withdrawing from you) or “act it in” (e.g. by repressing my desire to defend myself in these or other ways), I am caught up in the turmoil of the world projected by experience.

In this way, taking refuge in a morality or an institution, conforming to guidelines or precepts (such as 'the dharma') as a way to deal with someone else harming me, is no less reactive than adopting a punitive attitude to the offender. Why? Because it is just another way of reifying subjective reactions (for example, trying to be good) into codes and systems that look like they are third person objective when in fact they are first person projections transposed to the level of an impersonal organization and ethics.

So, what exactly are the possibilities that open up when one transcends the closed system of a self-centered narrative; when, for example, instead of seeing myself as the victim of slander and gossip, I see perhaps that I have made myself the star of the show, distorted others' motives and relegated them to a supporting role in my personal drama?

By owning my projections, I can see the role I play, I can know that “all the world is a stage” and that I am a mere player in it. With this insight, I become a little bit freer, ceasing to identify completely with my role. This might enable me to face my offender with an “open and caring heart”. But it might not. I might, after all, remain “the same old asshole” (Jeff Shore; Empty Trash, Empty Self; an autobiographical sketch). If that is my part in the play, insight isn't going to change that.

So I might not become a bodhisattva but I might take myself a little less seriously, becoming more playful and creative in my humble role. I might improvise rather than stick to the script, I might flip the tragedy on its head and turn the whole thing into a farce, or I might just drift along, opening to and savouring all of the ambiguities while slipping in and out of character as into a dream I cannot control. Maybe I will develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of others facing the same challenges in their own roles and from there feel empathy for their dilemmas without it being such an effort to overcome myself.

But maybe not.