Dear Fellow Practitioners,
I want to continue reflecting with you on the principal factors at play in the dissolution of the Dharma Ocean container. One of the primary ones, in my view, is the power and uncompromising integrity of the lineage that has come down to us from Trungpa Rinpoche. In this letter, let’s explore this interesting but paradoxical notion that it is the very nature of the lineage itself that is ultimately responsible for scattering its own container to the four winds.
In addressing this topic, I have two purposes in mind. First, of course, is to help us understand our current situation. Second, though, I am taking this as an opportunity to clarify what this lineage is and what it isn’t, what you can expect and what you can’t. Frankly, about the only expectation that won’t be dashed on this journey is that we will all find ourselves increasingly groundless, without reference points, and with a diminishing sense of who we are in any definitive or solid sense. Some of us will find in this the most unfortunate and the worst of all situations; others, the best and most fortunate.
I. Teachings of the Practicing Lineage
As you know, the meditation lineage that Trungpa Rinpoche taught and that I am transmitting to you is, to say the least, a most uncommon one. It derives from the Indian Vajrayana tradition of fifteen hundred years ago, as that was passed to Tibet, sustained in East Tibet down to Trungpa Rinpoche, and then offered to me and his other early students. As I often repeat, from the beginning he said, “I am here to teach you meditation; that is my sole purpose for being here.” That has also been my sole purpose since I first began working as a meditation instructor for other people in the early 1970’s.
The essence of this lineage is to work directly with our egos, to expose them, call them into question, constantly disconfirm them, and over time through meditation, to free us from their prison. Rinpoche says, “As ego’s patches are destroyed, there comes a point where relating with the teaching means the continual death of ego…there is a continual need for death.” (The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, Vol. 2, 494) “In the Buddhist approach to spirituality, unmasking is the only way.” (ibid., 495)
Working with ego in a way that is often fierce and direct is the special and unique approach of Vajrayana. As Rinpoche says, “stripping away ego’s mask” is what makes the Vajrayana different from the lower yanas (Milarepa, 6). Teacher and student alike are all on this journey, continuously. This is the great gift of our lineage. But the process of receiving this gift can admittedly be extraordinarily challenging, threatening, exposing, and painful. As Rinpoche says, it can feel like open heart surgery without anesthetic.
I feel that it is so important for all of us to truly realize exactly how difficult and challenging this journey is. How impossible it can sometimes feel. Although I know this and teach about it all the time, I myself am always surprised at some of the spaces I find myself in—“this is not doable;” “I am a terrible practitioner;” “I feel completely trapped in my own sordid ego;” “after all these years of practice how come I am feeling so absolutely horrible right now?” And then all the doubts and self-doubts that those extreme states give rise to. I can’t speak for others, but I often find this lineage and its journey completely beyond my capacity. I can sometimes feel so destroyed. My question to myself and to you is, “can we give in to the fact that this is how it is and, more than that, say ‘yes’ to it?”
In our Vajrayana lineage, the teacher, the teachings, the space the teacher creates, and our sangha siblings—and the unseen lineage at work—all seem to conspire to “out” our egos and this can evoke all kinds of strong reactions in us. My own experience with Rinpoche in the early years left me generally afraid and anxious when I was in his space; I was quite fearful my little tricks and strategies would be exposed. I felt, as I know many of you have also, naked, vulnerable, embarrassed, ashamed of myself, and sometimes humiliated at what I saw, what I suspected he saw, and what I felt everyone else must be seeing about me too. This sense of feeling naked, vulnerable, and exposed, and the embarrassment and being ashamed of oneself were things we all experienced. And Rinpoche told us these were the very same things he experienced with his teacher, Jamgon Kongtrul of Sechen.
As painful as these experiences were, I came to see them as blessings and great acts of kindness on the part of Rinpoche and this lineage of his. In retrospect, I feel he was amazingly courageous and constantly put himself at risk to engage us with as much integrity as he did. He knew and said he knew, that we were not going to like a lot of the non-confirming feedback we got from him and that we would sometimes be very angry with him about it. And so it was. And we expressed it, as you are. However, I found, as others did, that when I accepted what I saw about myself and did not blame him when I did not fight back, I changed. And, over time, not in small ways.
In the early days, many people who encountered this ego-demolishing lineage and teacher ran away, ran for their lives, once they realized what was going on. Even then, some people accused him of being an abusive monster and portrayed him as a demon undermining and exploiting his students. However, as Rinpoche said so often, without directly working with ego—unmasking and disempowering it—there can be no true spirituality.
Fortunately, as you know, in our lineage we are given extraordinarily powerful tools. If we stay close to the practice of meditation, then through the painful initial stages of the journey, we do find something changing in our basic self-absorbed and narcissistic approach. We begin to relax, and some of the arrogance of our ego does begin to soften and become more transparent and malleable. The changes and transformations do occur and they inspire us to keep going on the path.
So often when I was working with Rinpoche, I would get to the point where I felt I couldn’t tolerate the constant exposing, couldn’t endure any more fear; I was sick and tired of being afraid around him all the time. But if I stayed with it, then there would be some breakthrough. However, today, sometimes when we find ourselves at that breakpoint, instead of giving in and trusting our own journey, we freak out, pull back, and push away this hugely important moment. Admittedly, that is a terribly painful and freaky moment, feeling we are really losing it or something terrible is wrong. But in pulling back into the world of our habitual ego and turning away from our own experience, we lose the most important opportunity of our life journey.
As you know, the role of the Vajrayana teacher is not just to teach us and train us, but importantly, constantly to hold up the mirror and to be testing us, helping us to stay faithful to the journey and not lose our way. I always found this relentless testing on the part of Rinpoche really difficult and frustrating, really exhausting. Couldn’t he confirm me, just once in a while? Rinpoche: [The] testing of students seems to be necessary. If there is not any testing of a person’s honesty and if there are not disappointments, one after another, there is the possibility of a person getting too much of a royal treatment. Without those things, if there is too much hospitality, students begin to relax, and in the process of relaxation they begin to lose the essentials, the main point of the teaching…one’s enlightened mind has to be burned, beaten, and shaped like pure gold. (M, 47) No wonder some people decide they have had enough and don’t want any more. No wonder I myself have felt this way over and over, since I met Rinpoche fifty years ago. Let’s be kind to ourselves and admit what we have gotten ourselves into. This is really, really difficult. The payoff may be worth every pain and more, but does it really help much to know that? As Rinpoche said, this whole thing really is beyond us. In an interview I shall never forget, he told me that it was beyond him.
The training that the teacher in this lineage offers us is very much like that of the teacher of a world-class concert pianist or of a principal in an elite dance corps. It is and must be uncompromising. Some times that teacher is going to affirm you, enrich you, and encourage you; other times that teacher will offer you “points,” as they say in ballet, in other words, critique and disconfirm you. In an interview in the 1970s, Rinpoche was asked, “what is your job?” He replied, “my job is I come into the office, I meet with people, and I say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as needed.” Over the seventeen years I knew Rinpoche, I myself experienced this over and over. When he said ‘yes,’ it was just when you most needed it, and you could feel on top of the world, reborn, really. And when he said ‘no,’ it was often just when you most wanted personal, ego confirmation, and then the “no” could be so terribly painful and even devastating. However, as he said, that was his role, his responsibility, and his job. And it is mine.
Complaining because your teacher is sometimes encouraging and other times quite cutting misses the point. Falling into an ill-temper because you cannot pin your teacher down, that your teacher can’t be pinned down—well, you can do that, but it is somewhat pointless. You came to me not to be your friend, in the ordinary sense, but to be your spiritual teacher. And it was on that basis and on that basis alone that I accepted you and agreed we could work together.
All of this is to remind all of us that the standard here is not just a gold standard, it is a diamond standard. It is to acknowledge just how really, really difficult and demanding this journey is for all of us, for you and also for me. And to say again, it cannot and must not be any other way. At the same time, let’s also be clear that, in our discomfort on the path, if we turn away from our practice then we are turning our back on the dharma itself. We are losing something of priceless value. Quite a few people have told me that after reading the Open Letter, roaming the internet, and talking with their friends, feeling the poisonous doubts seep in and take hold, suddenly they no longer trusted their teacher, the teachings, or the lineage, and they completely stopped practicing.
I certainly appreciate how this can happen. The nature of this journey is that we are always on the edge about it, ready to doubt and run away at any moment. Some times when we get pushed from behind, such as with the internet attacks on our teacher, the teachings, or the lineage, it suddenly becomes too much. I can fully understand how this could happen and I am sympathetic. However, as I say so often, without practice our only default in working with our pain is to double down on our egoistic approach, project our pain outwards, and blame other people. So, I suppose we don’t really have any easy options. Stay with it all and be in this intense fire of the journey with all its freaky uncertainty and pain, or run away and be tormented that maybe we are missing the most important opportunity of our lives.
* * * * *
It has been my good fortune to work with many good and inspired people over the years. For the teacher, though, this involves much difficult, painful, and never-ending work on oneself. It requires that one submit to the lineage, first being trained by one’s own teacher, and then continuing that training on one’s own, through study, practice, and teaching. And so it has been with me; my entire adult life has been built around that training and then passing the lineage on to others.
Each of you, each of my students over the years, will have to decide for yourselves to what extent this teaching has been helpful to you in your lives. But for myself, I can say this—fundamentally, my existence has been about trying to make available the water of life, what these teachings are, to you and other people. This I have done to the best of my ability. And, although I feel I have missed many things and would do many things differently today if I were starting over, I feel that my commitment has been unwavering all the way along.
In our present-day world, as you know, for the vast majority of students of meditation and also teachers, meditation is presented as a lifestyle choice. The claim is that it will make you feel better about yourself, enhance your ego image, help resolve your self-esteem issues, make you more functional, powerful, and successful in fulfilling your personal agendas and ambitions, and on and on. There may be nothing wrong with trying to use meditation in these ways, but this is not what Rinpoche was doing and it is not what I am doing.
I do not teach meditation as a lifestyle choice and when my committed Vajrayana students take their training in that direction, I give them a hard time. I acknowledge that sometimes I have been insensitive in giving them a really hard time. However, that is my duty and this is my job. This has made quite a few people upset with me and even caused some to leave the community.
To emphasize, Rinpoche was offering deep and rigorous training in meditation. He continually called out us and others for trying to exploit meditation for ego ends—as you know, he called it “spiritual materialism.” His message was often not appreciated, and he was criticized for it. Today, in a world where the ego has become a sacred value, that same message can provoke even more extreme responses. And we in our sangha and we as tantrikas are not immune. The problem is, in defending our egos to the death, we are keeping ourselves locked up in a tiny world. And this is not what you came to me for.
We have lately been seeing this larger pattern of trying to use meditation as a palliative, as spiritual materialism, also in Dharma Ocean. You and I have worked together over the years in many ways, in interviews, in programs, in correspondence, and in more subtle ways through our practice connection. I have tried and you have tried to work on the really important core issues, not just in your lives, but also in our relationship. While difficult and often painful on both sides, most of you have expressed an understanding and deep appreciation for the process. Many have said, “this is why I came; this is why I am here.”
Recently, however, particularly after all the internet negativity, some folks seem to be looking at things differently. Now, they are criticizing me for the very same things they thanked me for even quite recently and said helped them so much. If even Vajrayana students of many years can turn so easily against the teachings and the training I am offering, and against me as their teacher, what then? To tell you the truth, my question is whether this lineage can even be taught in this cultural environment, given the widespread hostility to the teachings of non-ego? In our situation, my question is, must the authentic dharma now go silent, given the willingness of some unscrupulous people, not just to ignore these teachings, but to openly attack them and people like me who present them? And for many of us to be so vulnerable to those attacks?
II. Some History of the Practicing Lineage in Dharma Ocean
Here is some history that many of you may not know. At the explicit direction of Trungpa Rinpoche, I have been teaching Vajrayana since the fall of 1981. It was on November 5 of that year that the 16th Karmapa died. Rinpoche was scheduled at that time to teach an advanced, Vajrayana program, a Vajra Assembly, to his tantrikas at Tail of the Tiger (now Karme Choling). As he needed to go to the cremation in Sikkim, this raised the question of the Vajra Assembly, who would teach it and should it even occur. Many people had signed up and Rinpoche asked me to teach in his place. And he said not to downgrade the program, but I should teach a Vajra Assembly. Me? Yikes! Terrorsville. What could I say? I went. Almost no one canceled; the shrine room was packed; not for me, but for something; for His Holiness; it felt like fate had finally caught up with me.
Something completely unanticipated happened in the program; I understood for the first time what it means to be a vehicle, an empty conduit for the Vajrayana, because, actually, I was trapped into it; I had no other choice. At the end of the program, the director of Karme Choling walked me to the front door, gifted me with a large, glorious picture of His Holiness, and said, “it feels like a lineage holder has been here.” I got it—I got that being a lineage holder is not some kind of big ego trip. Rather it was, and is, much scarier—it means for starters that you have to get completely out of the way and make yourself a pure conduit for the lineage. I learned then and subsequently, once you find yourself in this role, if you try to do anything with it from an ego point of view, you get yourself killed. And it not only can be but has been quite literal in the past.
From then on, with Rinpoche’s, and later the Sakyong’s, encouragement, I led Vajrayana programs at Rocky Mountain Dharma Center at every level, Mahamudra, Vajrayogini, many of the advanced Fire Puja retreats. As part of my Mahamudra teaching, I gave pointing out to the tantrikas all the time. I mention this history because it feels important for you to understand that I have been focused on teaching Vajrayana for nearly forty years, some twenty-five years before our first VTI in 2005. Following my teacher’s direction and with his guidance, I am and have been for a long time, a Vajrayana teacher. Some people have expressed the wish that I could be something different, just teach meditation without the ego-disconfirming thing, but I feel that that is just not realistic.
As many of you know, I gave my inheritance from my mother’s death to the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center (later renamed the Shambhala Mountain Center), built a house, and moved there in 1997. My inspiration was to live there for the rest of my life, teaching what I had learned from Trungpa Rinpoche and working with students. However, by the early 2000s, this had become increasingly difficult and, at the end of 2004, we felt forced out of our house and off “the land.”
Miraculously, we landed in Crestone. Excruciating and difficult as this period was, finally I found myself free to teach Vajrayana openly, finally being able to give pointing out to aspiring tantrikas and explicitly having Vajrayana students, transmitting everything I had learned and experienced with Rinpoche. And so I did, beginning in the summer of 2005, giving transmission and heart to heart Vajrayana instruction to a small group of students. Our first location, the White Eagle, was literally falling down around our ears, bursting pipes, flooding rooms, many people felt it was haunted, and still, amazingly, the lineage showed up with shocking power and clarity.
As many of you know, from then on, I taught a VTI, including giving Vajrayana transmission, every year, except for 2010 when I took a break. In those programs, I offered you something extraordinarily precious and I asked—required really—something back from you in return. What I offered was to open the treasure trove of this lineage fully and completely to you, giving you the very teachings that enabled many of our forefathers and foremothers to attain full realization in this life.
And, as you will remember, I asked some things from you, as a requirement for me giving you transmission and teaching you so openly; and I explained why the commitment I was requiring of you was so important. First, I asked that you make an unalterable and unconditional commitment to your Vajrayana practice, to do it every day or almost every day, and to do longer periods including retreats. I explained and you understood that to fulfill this commitment was going to require major personal sacrifices and rearranging of life priorities. Second, I asked for your commitment to hold your experience, sit with whatever came up, and I said the intensity of our own negativity was going to increase. I asked you to respect it as part of your sacred journey and to process it in your practice. I also said that not taking full responsibility for your experience was literally the only thing that could derail you in your journey. I explained that if any of us fails to do this then, again, our only default will be to project our negativity outward, onto others, primarily our own teacher. And, finally, I told you that in taking transmission, our relationship was going to change. Now I was making a commitment to hold you accountable to your own vows to practice and to contain your own experience, and I asked your commitment to hang in there with me and not separate and run away when things became difficult. I said, “before the lineage of awakened ones, are you willing to make these commitments.” And you said “yes.” You all made these commitments and most of you have remained faithful to them, in spite of occasional lapses; but when these occurred, you came back. Making and keeping these commitments is what is called “samaya”, in Vajrayana; samaya is how we remain in connection. In this sense, keeping our samaya is our refuge, our guide, and our protection. If we turn away and do not come back, then all we are left with is ego.
In the first few years of Dharma Ocean in Crestone, everyone understood and accepted that meditation was our one and only focus. It was our sole reason for being together. At that time, the people who wanted to make the journey of this lineage came to many programs, not just VTIs but Meditating with the Body, Dathuns, Mahamudra programs, and other intensives we had. One outcome of all this study, practice, teaching, and training was the creation of a small community of tantrikas who had been through a lot together, who had bonded, and who had formed authentic sangha relationships with one another. And they and I had warm, sometimes dicey, sometimes painful, but always real human relationships with one another. And this small tantrika cohort exuded warmth, inspiration, trust, intimacy, devotion, and genuine love for each other. Some say, difficult as this time was, those were the “golden days.”
To recap, in becoming a student in this lineage you were offered, from the day we met, a truly rare opportunity to pursue your own deepest spiritual aspirations, to grow and mature, to find intimacy with your fellow practitioners, and to experience the joy of dawning realization. The teachings of this lineage are quite real and quite true, and I think all of you, in the beginning, saw that. At the same time, also from the beginning, was the catch: the only way to make the journey, the only way, is to commit oneself fully into it. Halfway doesn’t work. This means not allowing ourselves to be side-tracked from our practice, not finding a million reasons to not practice, but taking full responsibility for ourselves, and not allowing our commitment or our devotion to decay. And maintaining vajra pride: knowing that the power is always with us—not giving our power away to any teacher or community, or the wider culture, or anything else—and that success or otherwise lies completely in our own hands and within our own reach.
I believe that a major contributing factor, perhaps the most important one, to quite a few tantrikas turning from the Vajrayana journey is that, over time, they decided that this was just no longer right for them; it was not something they wanted to do anymore. Given the rigors of the journey in this lineage, I certainly understand and appreciate how that could happen. From what I know, their reasons were generally understandable, well-founded, and legitimate. These things happen; everything is impermanent; people come and go; when we reach a certain point it is actually important to move on. Some felt they wanted to continue studying with me; some felt they did not. In our sangha, as in many others I know about, this feels to me to be part of a natural process. Of course, there are unresolved feelings in all of us when that occurs; but isn’t that just how it is with us humans? In my view, there is no reason why all the coming and going cannot be accepted with an open and tranquil mind, without judgment, guilt, or blame, just with great appreciation on both sides.
In my next letter, we’ll take a look at the development of the Dharma Ocean community over the past many years as a second contributing cause leading to our present situation.
In the practicing lineage,
February 14, 2020