the psychology of tantric practice

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!

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a meditation haiku

sitting here, just sitting,

waiting to die,

life springs from my lacking.


Putting the NKT into perspective

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!


The Dharma of walking with Whitman…

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…


reflections upon a day of Dharma retreat

I had the great good fortune of engaging in another retreat day today, with a great company of fellow retreaters, and under the expert guidance of a true Kadampa practitioner, one who is, for me, infinitely more authentic, and with far greater integrity and compassion, than the vast majority of so-called Kadampa teachers within the tradition that I was once so recently part of. Once again, as on the previous retreat day I attended, I was able to engage in plenty of meditation and share my feelings about it afterwards with others in the group in a totally egalitarian, compassionate, and non-judgemental atmosphere. It felt like being in a  perfect Dharma centre, one that was open, tolerant, and free from any hierarchical  boundaries. There was no need for deference, no need for submission to authoritative definitions of exactly what should be done and how, only a willingness to submit to normal rules of care and consideration for others within the group in the same way as we should anywhere else in society. There was no organisation to subscribe to, no pressure on people to do anything other than participate in any way they felt comfortable with. Any volunteering that needed doing happened spontaneously and enthusiastically without any need for people-management. The warmth and kindness in the room was palpable and the conversation very focussed on the Dharma. If only it could always be like this! But, on reflection, that it was like this today is enough. For every day like today is a confirmation of what is possible, of what a Buddhist sangha can be like, of how one can feel totally at home in a community freely coming together to study and practice Dharma without trying to impose limits on one another’s expression of that Dharma. It was very liberating to be with the band of Dharma practitioners I was part of today, a band which was quietly getting on with the business of enlightenment one meditation at a time. I am rejoicing in today for all it is worth, for the memory of such a day as today will be added to all those other positive memories I have that will help to ignite and sustain the bliss of loving-kindness within my heart that will one day hopefully blaze into the full radiance of spontaneous bodhichitta. I have nothing but gratitude for all those who helped make today such a special day of refuge in the Dharma.


The ultimate heresy?

Perhaps my time in the New Kadampa Tradition was all a complete waste of time? Sometimes this question comes up, leading to a complex mix of thoughts and feelings within my mind. Sometimes that mix used to be too disturbing for me to cope with and I would shut all the turbulence down and distract myself toward something else. But now the turbulence has subsided and I can look at the question and its subsequent though-train more calmly and with more interest. In one sense, yes, my time in the New Kadampa Tradition was a  waste of time to the degree that I consciously or subconsciously developed an over-reliance upon the NKT as being the organisation that would lead me to enlightenment. Ironically, the more I practised NKT Dharma the more I realised the truth of what Geshe Kelsang Gyatso was saying, albeit often only the lines, that only my own inner Spiritual Guide could lead me to enlightenment, that only the wisdom inside my own mind could liberate me from suffering. As Geshe-la himself says: “if you realise your own mind you will become a Buddha; do not look for Buddhahood elsewhere”. And only I can do the actual realising of my own mind; the responsibility is totally mine,a nd my reliance upon Geshe-la is a reliance only on sincerely meditating and contemplating upon the pointers he gives, pointers which I still have to understand within the terms of my own experience, using my own intuition, reasoning, interpretations, etc. In that sense, none of my time within the NKT was wasted, as just putting Geshe-la’s advice into practice gradually empowered me to take ever more responsibility for my own spiritual progress.

But the NKT, an organisation Geshe-la created, and sanctioned, is what it is: an organisation. And arguably, spirituality cannot be ‘organised’, and no organisation can develop a definitive way for a teacher’s, any teacher’s, guidance to be understood and followed, precisely because no organisation can take on the responsibility of an individual to work out his or her own ‘salvation’. Organisations inevitably develop their own dynamic, their own purposes and agendas, which eventually deviate either partially or wholly from the spiritual goals of the individuals who owe some degree of allegiance to the organisation, and then those individuals have to cope with varying degrees of cognitive dissonance as they struggle to combine their spiritual path with the often purely worldly demands of an organisation bent only upon perpetuating and promoting itself regardless of what damage it may do to the integrity of the teacher and the teachings the organisation ostensibly supports. Krishnamurti understood this only too well, and he had the courage to dissolve the very organisation that was set up to promote his teachings and to gather disciples for him. Just read his dissolution speech! Now that is integrity! Perhaps Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, for the sake of  his own teachings and the wisdom they contain, should dissolve the NKT and just tell all his disciples to get on with practising the Dharma without being diverted by the need to satisfy the demands of any ‘Dharma organisation’? Now there’s a thought!  Enough to make an NKT groupie choke on his breakfast muesli! Just as well a ‘heretic’ like me does not feel the need to apply for re-entry into the ranks of the ‘pure ones’…


carry on breathing…

Following on from my previous post about the breath, I would like to suggest that the breath meditation in Buddhist practice can take on a far greater significance than if we restrict ourselves to just a contemplation of simply its effects upon mindfulness. We can go on to contemplate the ways in which the breath illustrates in a very sensuous, immediate form, our utter dependence upon, and interdependence with, all other living beings and with the very landscape within which we breathe. Our breath is the living interaction we have with all of life, the literal connecting of ‘outer’ with ‘inner’ in a continuous two-way process that constitutes the most basic and essential rhythm of not only life but our awareness, our mindfulness, and our speech and language, and all the other forms of communication that comes from speech. David Abrams, in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world, talking about the air we breathe, says that it is:

…this unseen enigma is the very mystery that enables life to live. It unites our breathing bodies not only with the under-the-ground (with the rich microbial life of the soil, with fossil and mineral deposits deep in the bedrock), and not only with the beyond-the-horizon (with distant forests and oceans), but also with the interior life of all that we perceive in the open field of the living present – the grasses and the aspen leaves, the ravens, the buzzing insects and the drifting clouds. What the plants are quietly breathing out, we animals are breathing in; what we breathe out, the plants are breathing in. The air, we might say, is the soul of the visible landscape, the secret realm from whence all beings draw their nourishment. As the very mystery of the living present, it is that most intimate absence from whence the present presences, and thus a key to the forgotten presence of the earth.

This is just wonderful! The key to reconnecting ourselves in a deep way with nature and therefore to developing a respect for the natural limits we must work within for a sustainable future, which is the key to solving the greatest challenge mankind has ever had to face – namely, the threat of catastrophic climate change due to runaway global warming – is literally right under our noses! By perceiving our breath as our sacred reminder of our embodiment within all of nature and with all living beings, we are therefore empowered to recognise that we are, all of us, nature itself, that all of nature breathes through us and that to care for nature is to care for ourselves and all other living beings at the same time. As Abrams says:

For it is the air that most directly envelops us; the air, in other words, is that element that we are most intimately in. As long as we experience the invisible depths that surround us as empty space, we will be able to deny, or repress, our thorough interdependence with the other animals, the plants, and the living land that sustains us. We may acknowledge, intellectually, our body’s reliance upon those plants and animals that we consume as nourishment, yet the civilized mind still feels itself somehow separate, autonomous, independent of the body and of bodily nature in general. Only as we begin to notice and experience, one again, our immersion in the invisible air do we start to recall what it is to be fully a part of this world.

After having read this, my breathing meditation will never be the same again. It will take on a depth and meaning even greater than it already does, and it will hopefully not only increase my mindfulness but also help to deepen and strengthen that compassionate wish to help all living beings that is at the basis of any bodhisattva path.