Vajrayana: A Fully Integrated Spiritual Technology – Part 1

Vajrayana:  A Fully Integrated Spiritual Technology

Part 1
Feet on the Ground, Head in the Clouds

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In my introductory post I hinted at a “flat, post-modern scientism” that peppered my earliest forays into Buddhism.  This, as I remarked, manifested as a trademark skepticism (of the unhealthy variety) in regards to anything foreign to the mindset I had fostered in the face of growing up in a well-to-do Western society freeing itself with increasing rapidity from the yoke of medieval Christian institutions that dominated it’s past.   This move towards secularism, punctuated by massive leaps in technological achievement, proved an apt backdrop for an arrogance I entertained like many of the so called progressives that I admired.  Our feet were firmly on the ground and we liked it that way.  Neuroscience was throwing out the mind with the lab water and consciousness -that equally abstract, airy fairy notion- was increasingly explained away by quantum mechanics; the “something from nothing” occasionally visible in the disappearance and reappearance of subatomic particles.  Snap.  Crackle…

…POP!  And here I am being sued by the cereal people.

Despite though my obsession with the objective I was not without want for greater knowledge of the subject.  I could, with dedication and training, observe the universe in its majesty …but that want, snowballing within and ringing like a bell in the dark of my dreams… That required something more.

Whom was doing the observing?

Chemistry, Physics and Psychology, enter stage right.  A sounding line that could plumb the depths without worrying about the interference of angels.  A means of understanding the self without the need for a rosary.  I signed up for various academic programs and added another chain or two to my ego’s ammunition belt.

Many hours could be given to that person I was back then.  This personal blog, however, I wish to use as a means to explore the person that I am now.  All this background I mention only for the sake of foundation to much of what I hope to say about Vajrayana Buddhism and it’s place in my life – hoping as a bonus that it may prove of some use to others.

The thunderbolt that is Vajrayana struck me out of the desert blue on a road trip through Arizona in the earlier half of the last decade.  I had stepped onto the Dharma path having been inspired by a Zen Buddhist practitioner and his explanations of his seemingly non-religious faith; his expounding of the fruits of Zazen and Kinhin spoke to me with a voice that sounded very much like that of the cognitive psychology and psychoanalysis that I was listening to as a guide toward self-improvement.  There was finally available to me a means -meditation- by which I could actively engage in the science eluded to in text books.  From the outside it was simple.  No bells and whistles.  Mere sitting and nothing more.

Zen meditation no doubt loosened and made soft the wax of my arrogance but on encountering the Diamond Vehicle there was clearly -in hindsight- much work to be done.  Mantra I laughed at (all be it quietly, to myself, out of respect for those who deployed it) and the likes of prayer wheels…  Probably best not to get me started on those elaborate spinning tops that seemed to me then no more than the stress relief toys kept in the desks of corporate CEO’s.  I had encountered a form of Buddhism that for all intents and purposes appeared to consist solely of those bells (quite literally) and whistles (well…big trumpets in fact) that I had avoided like some prehistoric plague.

I was confusing of course the tools of Vajrayana’s Dharma (or Truth) with the Dharma itself.  To the me that once scoffed at rosaries a personal praise of the Vajrayana’s spiritual technology, such as this, would be the cause of hysterical mockery.  These days I am rarely without my mala.  As my teacher Garchen Rinpoche requested:

A mala should always be warm from being close to your body.

Science and religion continue to clash in the Western hemisphere and destructive forces produced by these two opposing camps have created for society a fragmented existence.  It’s all very well to have our feet fast on the ground but I feel that we need also to have our heads in the clouds.  A partial world view is not really a view (at least not a panoramic one) and much of the experience available to us -whilst fortunate enough to have been born in a world where the teachings and practices of mystical traditions are available to us; blessed with a body suited to learning them and put them into practice- is ultimately neglected if we close ourselves down to any part of the objective / subjective, outer / inner realms.  I strongly resonate with the words of His Holiness Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje, head of the Karma Kagyu tradition when he says:

Bringing our inner world to bear on the things that we do in our outer world can be very transformative.

Those elements of Vajrayana Buddhism that I once looked upon as mere cultural tinsel are in fact tools designed to bring our inner world to bear on our outer world.  They are examples of a well-honed and highly accurate spiritual technology that when utilised with the correct attitude have a profoundly transforming effect.

To be continued?

Originally published on 20/02/2003

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A Faint Recollection

A Faint Recollection

Recalling My First Meeting With Garchen Triptrul Rinpoche

Garchen Rinpoche - Prayer Wheel - All Rights Reserved to the Original Photographer

The first time I saw Garchen Rinpoche  -the result of a travelers whim; a Scottish seeker coasting unfamiliar American highways chancing upon a signpost to a Buddhist center- I fainted.  I was not close to him physically.  My eyesight has never been terrific.  Nevertheless, I fainted.  The small figure, making its way around an outcrop of buildings washed in desert sun, could have been any older man.  The figure should have been any older man, for I arrived at the Garchen Institute in Arizona with no preconceived notions of what was taught there or by whom.  Yet there it was.  A love at first sight.  So surreal, yet so sure in its attraction.  It was as if walking into an oasis and being hit by the scent of fresh water, when all you had expected was a mirage and the stench of disappointment.

For I was frequently disappointed in those days.  The skepticism of my late teens had fertilised my early twenties and helped nurture in me a pseudo-scientific mindset that was quick to dismiss all and anything not readily explained; to reject that which was not observable, repeatable and open to some medium of communicable expression or another.  It was such a system of analysis that initially attracted me to Buddhism in its basic form – the “don’t believe it just because I said it, see for yourself” approach expounded by Shakyamuni Buddha himself:

Do not accept any of my words on faith,
Believing them just because I said them.
Be like an analyst buying gold, who cuts, burns,
And critically examines his product for authenticity.
Only accept what passes the test
By proving useful and beneficial in your life.

Though beyond such refreshing sentiments there was much of Buddhism in its various forms that I could not so easily enter into and embrace.  In hindsight, these were the cultural elements of the various lineages, schools and traditions of Buddhism to have developed over a considerable time in considerably different East Asian countries that, as a Westerner in “white lab coat” mode, I regarded as quaint at best and backwardly primitive at worse.  I was game for meditation as a means to become less stressed; less angry or less jealous or less OCD …but as a means of one day being reincarnated as a healthy human rather than a tortured walrus in some mysterious hell realm?  No.  Such metaphysical aspirations did not weather the storms of my state of the art arrogance.

With a chuckle I admit now that on parking my borrowed truck at the Garchen Institute I cringed to discover that it was a center practicing in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition.  Prayer flags, prayer wheels and the magic spells mantra said to blossom forth therein I equated with backwater shamanism and all the superstitious bone rattling that came with it.  I remember vaguely turning about and retracing those fifty or so yards back to my temporary vehicle…but more powerfully, my inability to slide the key into the lock; the cold sweat that split across my forehead and the near-physical-cramp that developed in my arm.  The sheer sensation that I was making a terrible mistake I recall vividly to this day.

Just how happy I am to have fought the urge to leave that Buddhist center and instead collect myself and explore further I can not rejoice in enough.  Had I not opened the trunk -or the “boot” as we call that traveling compartment here in Scotland- and not taken a drink of mineral water and changed my shirt, I would not have had the presence of mind to again walk towards the various structures of the Garchen Institute complex and encounter Garchen Rinpoche himself; to choke on the recently swallowed mineral water and throw up over my clean shirt, fainting, at my first sight of His Eminence.

The root of Vajrayana Buddhist practice is Samaya.  As Garchen Rinpoche says:

The actual samaya, is love, and that love is a bond that keeps us connected throughout many lifetimes.

Experiencing, without a doubt, a love for Garchen Rinpoche that day – a love that I had in this life no time to build upon, up until that point, was the defining moment for me; the initial turning point from the flat, post-modern scientism that had coloured even my spiritual convictions throughout my teens and very early twenties, to a rich inner life that was now open to the unseen and the unutterable.

To His Eminence Garchen Triptrul Rinpoche I hold inexpressible thanks – a gratitude I now feel certain to have rejoiced in throughout many lifetimes.

This post serves then as a description of the true beginning of my  journey along the Buddhist path.  Much happened afterwards and indeed, as a shallow wanderer in samsara I did wander off into the wilderness on occasion, but future posts shall pick up in the present, where I am now; my relationship with my root guru and what it means to maintain that bond in this life.

Originally published on 19/02/2003