Gendun Chöpel was brilliant. As a student he beat all his teachers at debating points of dharma. In his first monastery he specialised in taking positions that could not be won in traditional dharma debates – and winning them. His greatest was to take the non-Buddhist view of the Jains, who contrary to Buddhists believe that plants have consciousness, and leave his fellow students unable to gainsay him!
As a result he was kicked out.
Alas! After I had gone elsewhere,
Some lamas who can explain nothing,
Said that Nechung, king of deeds,
Did not permit me to stay due to my excessive pride.
Arriving at the famous Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, one of the three important Gelug monasteries, he signed on with a tutor famous for his defense of Tsongkhapa. The two did not get on! Often they were heard having shouting matches with each other over dharma points.
Chöpel went to India for twelve years where he learnt the arts of love, and like the sixth Dalai Lama became known for his poetry. He regretted his countrymen’s use of Sanskrit texts as amulets rather than translating them into their own language. When he returned he tried to teach them the ideas from outside their land, such as the world not being flat.
I have written facts,
Unheard of in the Land of Snows.
Because of my poor and ragged appearance,
No one is there to heed my words.
At one point he was put in prison and all his writings taken.
Today you can read some of these works as well as his life story.
Source: Gendun Chophel
Film: Angry Monk
Life Story: The Madman’s Middle Way
A new book has just been published: Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World. Having purchased it myself and read chunks of it, I can safely say that it is a throroughly readable and utterly compelling study of some of the many intentional communities around the world, a study that is nevertheless academically rigorous and backed by copious and meticulously detailed footnotes and references. Readers of this blog would be fascinated by this book as it contains a chapter about someone’s experience within the NKT. Yes, folks, you read that right: there is a book out there now that contains an account of life within the NKT, “warts ‘n all”! That alone makes this book ground-breaking and worth reading just for that.
I wrote a review for the book, which is now on the amazon.co.uk website:
I must admit to being biased about this book: I have personal experience of INFORM, the independent charity that collects and disseminates accurate, balanced and up-to-date information about minority religious and spiritual movements, and which has organised the bringing together of the collection of essays that constitutes this book. I have had reason to be very grateful for the balanced, sensitive help and advice INFORM gave me when I experienced the trauma of becoming involved in a bitter dispute within the New Kadampa Tradition, one of the movements written about in this book. The subtitle of this book – Out to Save the World – indicates what is common to all the intentional communities that feature in this book, these communities being just a small sample of the many thousands of such communities around the world. These communities originally start off with the best of intentions, in this case the intention to help save the world in some way. But so often these communities, because they involve some radical experimentation or innovation in communal living, or represent a radical break with a spiritual tradition, or cultural norm, have crises and disputes to deal with which threaten their very existence. How these communities deal with these crises determines, amongst other things, whether the original intention of these communities survives or changes significantly, sometimes so much so that it becomes unrecognisable to the community’s original founders or members. These communities, when they function harmoniously, often help their members to experience the height of spiritual inspiration, even ecstasy, in ways not available in the ‘normal’ world, sometimes creating the feeling of having been ‘saved’ and thereby empowered to help save others. But when they go wrong, the fall-out can be toxic to all involved, especially given the deep emotional, financial and social investment members of these communities often have to make in order to gain entry to them, or at least feel like they belong within them. Exit from these communities, voluntary or enforced, is often deeply traumatic and destabilising for both the people leaving and for some of those left behind.
I will only mention one essay in this book, the chapter written by Carol McQuire about her time as a Buddhist nun within the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), which is deeply controversial within the world of Buddhism generally. I, like Carol, was once a devout member of the NKT and I was deeply moved by Carol’s searing honesty about her experiences, and about her complex and evolving feelings towards the teachers, teachings and organisational practices of the NKT both during her time as a nun and after her traumatic exit from the NKT. I could relate to many of her experiences and feelings and recognised how difficult it is to retain one’s idealism and devotion in the midst of turbulent, confusing and often disturbing change within an organisation like the NKT, which tries so hard to preserve what it perceives to be a ‘pure’ Buddhism whilst at the same time trying to put clear blue water between itself and the rest of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that it originally evolved from and which often itself criticises the NKT as being less than a ‘pure’ Buddhist sangha. Carol’s essay was somewhat cathartic for me and helped me with my present journey towards understanding and integrating my past within the NKT. I suspect many of the other essays in the book will serve a similar function for others who have had contact with either the NKT or the other intentional communities explored in this book.
All the essays in this book are meticulously backed up with copious footnotes and references to academic research and documentary material, and the introductory overview by Timothy Miller of the broad history of intentional communities is extremely useful in putting the essays that follow into context. The stories in this book are about powerful, often bizarre, always deeply felt experiences by real life people within the intentional communities they belonged to, and show a side of spiritual life that very rarely makes the headlines, especially as many communities have fraught relationships with the media and society in general, sometimes preferring not to engage openly with them at all, in order to maintain their ‘purity’ or so as to maintain their freedom to operate in the way they wish to, or simply because they despair of ever getting the wider world to understand or accept them. This book is an invaluable contribution to the study of intentional communities and their often fraught histories, complex social relationships and organisational psychologies. It is also very readable and compelling into the bargain. Truth is often stranger than fiction and this book certainly illustrates that.
- Putting the NKT into perspective (maitreyabuddhistcentre.wordpress.com)
- The ultimate heresy? (maitreyabuddhistcentre.wordpress.com)
We can consider compassion from three points of view. Each of these points of view is a more subtle understanding of compassion, and hence harder to understand, or to see. They correspond to Atisha’s three scopes.
This is the suffering that most people understand, and the compassion that arises from it. People are in pain from illness, wounding, hunger, destitution. We know this suffering and we choose to do what we can, according to our compassion and our resources. General dharma seeks to increase our ability to feel compassion, and to spread it no matter the cause, fault, or relationship. This is seen sometimes as the heart of the Mahayana, and the zenith of the Hinayana.
Release from the Cycle
The intermediate scope relates to release from the cycle of suffering. We have to understand that suffering is now understood as the second of Buddha’s noble truths. In the first practice we use Buddha’s first noble truth as the basis for our compassion. Now we must understand the second truth – how suffering arises. Without this understanding of the teaching we cannot practise the second compassion for we have no basis on which to separate it from the first compassion. A Bodhisattva practising the second compassion must understand the causes of suffering according to Buddha’s instruction, and focus upon them to the exclusion of the first.
What are the causes of suffering? They are karma and delusion. Knowing this the bodhisattva of the intermediate scope practices the abhidharma to understand delusions, and examines patterns to find the meaning of karma. Our perception of karma increases as we practise this meditation on karma and the arising of delusions. Eventually we can begin to see the patterns in ourselves, which is the basis for renunciation, and the patterns within others, which is the basis of the second compassion.
It is possible to alter our own patterns of karma through effort, and our own delusion through conscientiousness. But it is not possible to change the patterns of others. So our compassion appears deceptive. We experience the suffering of others upon their causes more than they do, but we are unable to help. Our reduction of ignorance allowing us to see the suffering produced by the causes of karma and delusion in others arise from our own attempts to reduce our own causes for suffering. And this growing wisdom, allowing us to see karma in others, allows us to begin to formulate methods to help them based on wisdom, example, patience and love. We begin to practise the six perfections, and others, for the sake of helping others release themselves from karma.
We have become a bodhisattva helping others release themselves from samsara through practising renunciation.
Compassion for the path means that a Bodhisattva looks to see other buddhists practising a path that does not lead directly to Buddhahood, and develops compassion. What practices do not lead to buddhahood? All the practices of the first, and third doors to Liberation, do not lead directly to buddhahood. Bodhisattvas are born from the second door to liberation. Only the practise of love and compassion lead to bodhicitta, and only bodhicitta can lead to buddhahood. So, a bodhisattva contemplates the paths and actions of other buddhist, or spiritual practitioners, and develops compassion for them. This compassion is practical in that it guides practitioners to bodhicitta. Enlightenment occurs from the supreme path, and all practitioners, even bodhisattvas, must reach this.
A book I have just finished reading , The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, by Rob Preece, has been so compelling that I felt I had to share a few thoughts of mine about it. I have not read a book that so successfully helped me to start putting Buddhist Tantra into some sort of overall context, especially within the cultural context that we have here in the West. Preece concentrates on comparing Buddhist Tantra with the psychology of the Jungian tradition of psychotherapy, and he does that very successfully, although I think it would also help greatly if Buddhist tantra were also put within the context of the wider world of Western psychology generally, especially within the emerging discipline of positive psychology, whose research findings in recent years are rapidly influencing the Western view of what facilitates the most positive mental states. Jung does not get as much publicity, I feel, as he deserves, which is a shame as his view of the mind is very subtle and nuanced, but he had, as Preece explains, a blind spot when it came to his view on Westerners’ ability to use meditation effectively. He was overly pessimistic on this, which is ironic as his psychological views are actually an asset in helping westerners to get an intellectual grasp on the deeper significance of tantric symbolism and how it can be integrated with the symbolism we are familiar with through our Western cultural heritage, which influences us greatly even if we are not consciously aware of that influence. Jung does a great job in exploring the archetypal images that come up time and again within Western culture and which reveal the unconscious drives and energies that influence our conscious thinking. Preece usefully links up some of the archetypes Jung explores with the archetypes that lie behind tantric symbolism. For example, Preece makes the interesting point that Heruka Chakrasambara is very similar to the roles played by Dionysus and Kernunnos in Western culture, and that the Western language of alchemical transformation is analogous to the symbolism of ‘generation stage’ tantra, especially with regards to the ‘inner offering’.
Preece makes the very valid point that Westerners practising Tantra may actually create problems for themselves if they do not have the necessary degree of psychological stability and that Western psychotherapy has much to contribute to help Westerners achieve this, especially as Eastern teachers of Tantra, according to Preece, often display a lack of understanding of the psychological complexes and problems that are familiar in Western societies. Tibetans may be very concerned about ‘spirits’ and ‘demons’ interfering with tantric practice, but Westerners are usually more concerned with dealing with memories of traumatic events or dealing with emotional issues arising in childhood, especially in their relationships with their parents.
I particularly liked Preece’s point about tantric practice having to be integrated into a deliberately cultivated sensitivity to the natural environment in which the practice is done. Tibetans certainly had a very keen sensitivity to how the energy forces within their local environment influenced, and were influenced, by the energy-winds within the human body, and that keeping the body in harmony with nature as it is experienced is a crucial part of successful tantric practice as well as ensuring that the individual feels an integral part of the surrounding world. Preece links this need for heightened nature sensitivity with a fascinating explanation of how mandalas work from a psychological perspective.
Anyway, Preece convinced me that making tantric practice come truly alive is very difficult unless it can be translated within one’s own understanding of how one’s psychological life, especially one’s emotional experience, works. And that understanding perhaps depends crucially upon cultivating an increasing sensitivity towards how tantric symbolism needs to be interpreted through ones’ own understanding and experience of the symbolism and archetypes of one’s own culture. It also needs, I think, a growing understanding of how one’s own experience of one’s immediate natural environment can be integrated with that tantric symbolism so that the mandala becomes a living manifestation within one’s life experience. Just jumping in and trying to impose an alien Tibetan tantric symbolism upon one’s mind without any kind of awareness of how one’s Shadow side could be dangerously and uncontrollably unleashed into conscious awareness seems to me now like reckless folly. And with that provocative claim, I take my leave – for now!
sitting here, just sitting,
waiting to die,
life springs from my lacking.
If you wish to study the evolution of the New Kadampa Tradition in the wider context of Tibetan Buddhism in general and within the cultural context of Buddhist adaptation generally within the modern West, you may find the academically rigorous analysis by Dr. David Kay in his “Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain – Transplantation, development and adaptation” to be essential reading. This is exactly the sort of wider context that makes so much of what the NKT does more understandable. It is the sort of context that would probably never be supplied from within the NKT itself but which needs to be supplied from outside the NKT if any kind of balanced perspective upon the activities of the NKT is to be even possible. I’m not going to quote from the essay, because it is such a long one and I really think it needs careful reading all the way through to get a real understanding of the full historical background to the NKT. In the process, I think one gets a much better understanding of Tibetan Buddhism in general and of the ongoing challenges Buddhism faces in its transmission to the West. It also gives one some insight into how much the NKT itself has changed already and is likely to change even more as it tries to deal with its own turbulent past and the fast-changing dynamics of its present situation. Without reading this essay, one would probably never know – unless one has been a long-time ‘insider’ – just how much, and why, the NKT has changed, as the NKT is very good at rewriting its own history in order to promote the impression of it having an untroubled, stable and secure identity that has endured over time, free from challenge by internal conflicts or external disputes. I heartily recommend that Kay’s work be studied, especially as he bends over backward to be as fair and objective as he can. Happy reading!
One of my favourite walks, which I make often, is to walk from my front door along the oldest route through my village, a route that takes me down Gallows Lane to the crossroads where the gallows stood, gallows where those sentenced to death at the courthouse in Pevensey ended up, as a public warning of the ultimate consequence of crime. From the crossroads I take the lane that leads to Pevensey itself, a lane that is still – just – a country lane, lined on one side by an ancient hedgerow containing mighty oak trees as well as myriads of wild flowers and herbs, and through the gaps in the hedgerow my eye can roam over the many miles of manicured fields and the hills beyond. The lane was the main Roman road to Revensey Castle, straddling the only ridge leading over the marshes towards what was then a tiny peninsula sticking out into a vast tidal bay. The Roman legions came this way, then over the centuries it was the main drovers road as cattle and sheep were driven to the market at Pevensey. The lane was also the main smuggler’s route for foreign contraband being run out of Pevensey to divers places inland. Then the lane peters out into Westham high street and I pass the Victorian and Edwardian townhouses, the few still surviving Tudor houses, and the Norman church, until I finally reach the West Gate of Pevensey Castle itself and pass through its Roman walls, walking on until I pass the Norman fort inside, from which I can gaze out across the English Channel nearby and see some of the Martello Towers on the beach which were built to repel an invasion from Napoleon that never came. Finally I pass through the East Gate of Pevensey Castle into Pevensey itself, with its own panoply of old buildings. Yes, the past is all around us, but never more apparent to me than on a walk like this, which connects me to centuries of history-making and landscape-making. On walks like this, I am reminded of T.S.Eliot‘s own walk through a historic landscape, in which he proclaimed “History is now and England”. All the while on my walk I am usually surrounded by a profusion of bird life, especially the sea-gulls ever patrolling for scraps, and the wonderful salty smell of the sea-breeze that whips off the Channel, bringing refreshing air which, through my breathing, connects me – I now realise – with all the life of the present presencing itself, not just here but everywhere. Sometimes, on such walks, I feel as if I were Walt Whitman when he throws himself on the green grass – just as I sometimes lie down on the green sward inside Pevensey Castle itself – and sings:
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.
Powerful Dharma, in my ever so ‘umble opinion…