Transcending Madness

September 30, 2008

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche will be teaching a program on Chögyam Trungpa’s book Transcending Madness in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the last weekend in November, 2008. The event is co-sponsored by the Chögyam Trungpa Legacy Project and by the Halifax Shambhala Centre.

I think this is a milestone event, and sets a great precedent for how to proceed. Presenting a commentary on a root text is a traditional form for buddhist teachers. This may not be the first time a notable Rinpoche is doing this with a text by Chögyam Trungpa, but it’s the first such I’m aware of. It pays homage to Trungpa Rinpoche, acknowledges his direct sangha, and uses him as a source of fresh teaching and practice. As Dzongsar Khyentse says,

I have chosen to say a few things about one of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s books, ‘Transcending Madness’.  Besides the subject matter being very important, more importantly, I offer this in gratitude and appreciation towards Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s legacy of courage and wisdom.

As well, this form, taking a text and commenting on it, seems like a good one to adopt on this site and others. There are many key terms, concepts, and instructions as presented in Chögyam Trungpa’s Buddhadharma and Shambhala teachings that are worth identifying, discussing, and applying. Radio Free Shambhala has started doing this with its short article on Spiritual Materialism (included under the Practice menu). Such posts and articles can then be used as references by other sites (such as Wikipedia).

On my personal blog site I recently wrote a post on Our Lady of the Ayatanas, about a song by Jill Barber, the ayatanas, and the notion of drala. I had a hard time finding good, concise links to the notion of the ayatanas as used by CTR, as well as to drala

What topics would you like to see addressed and discussed on this or on related sites?

PS You might be interested in Dzongsar Khyentse’s Reflections on Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

What Has Changed

September 26, 2008

To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the way to control him. - Ven. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi


As a meditation instructor at my Shambhala Center between 1995 and 2004, I had no choice but to be aware of the changes in the introductory presentation of sitting meditation that occurred during that time. I learned new forms and practiced them regularly in order to be able to help other people learn them. In light of that fact, the hardest to understand  of the standard “talking points” from Shambhala about these changes was the assertion that while there may be superficial differences, nothing had really changed.

There are a number of variations in terms of how this is expressed. Here is a fairly easy one:

“The Vidyadhara himself gave changing instructions in the particulars of how to practice, based on his witnessing the changing needs of his students…and because of his changing understanding of how to serve his students best.”[1]

This version does at least acknowledge that there are changes. It implies, however, that there is a continuum between the changes made by Trungpa Rinpoche and the continuing changes made by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, that they are all closely related. In point of fact the two approaches are quite different in their fundamental view. As an MI working with students trained in one and then shifting to the other, this was very obvious to me.

I never met the Vidyadhara, so you would have to get someone else to talk about how they experienced the Vidyadhara’s famous and endless rug-pulling. But I have studied the Shambhala teachings and read most of the restricted vajrayana teachings. Throughout the shape-shifting, and from the beginning to the most advanced teachings, I see a consistency in view.

One aspect of the view is the assertion that we do not practice meditation to get rid of thoughts. I was taught meditation from the view of basic goodness, where the assumption is that the mind is primordially enlightened and the practice is to relax and allow space, first, and then to apply discipline in order to further that process.[2] I have practiced this way through my whole life as a practitioner. I cannot count how many times I have told new and not-so-new practitioners this radical assertion, which my teachers made to me and which made it possible for me to meditate. The arising of thoughts is part of the natural process of mind and the training is to “neither lead nor follow.” I cannot count how many times I have as gently as possible pointed out that a verb like “control” is not useful in relation to meditation.

Now, beginners are being taught to “tame” the mind, that the mind is a wild animal that must be controlled by the application of the practice of meditation. They are being taught that it is the goal of meditation to have no thoughts arise.[3] The Six-Class Sourcebook for Shambhala Instructors, p. 29, states categorically, “All public and open house instruction (except Level 1) will present working with the precise technique as a beginning place. The emphasis is on taming the wildness of mind.”

I do not presume to say that there is something wrong with this view, since it has a long and illustrious history. But I had never practiced that way, and would probably have never become a practitioner at all if that was what I was presented with when I started out. I found when I attempted to talk with people that I could not make the words come out of my mouth to present that view. So I retired as an M.I. That is no great loss. But I think the loss of this style of meditation, which Trungpa Rinpoche brought to the West from Tibet, at such great personal cost, would be considerable.

Trungpa Rinpoche’s metaphor, which I think he borrowed from Suzuki Roshi, for the mind in meditation was of giving a cow a large luscious meadow. At first it might run around, but after a while it settles down, relaxes, and enjoys. He said, “Meditation practice is not a matter of trying to produce a hypnotic state of mind or create a state for restfulness. Trying to achieve a restful state reflects a mentality of poverty.”

The Sakyong’s metaphor for the mind is a wild horse. He said you could put that horse in a large meadow and wait there all day, but it would never come to you. So it has to be captured and tamed. “In the beginning, you could meditate for eternity, thinking, ‘The mind will naturally come back.’ It’ll never come back. [Laughter] Just like the horse. If you lie in the meadow thinking, ‘This horse is intrinsically tame,’[laughter] you could wait and wish as much as you want, but the horse is never going to come back. It’s just going to get old and die. [Laughter]”[4]

Different methods work for different people. The cow-in-a-big-meadow style didn’t work for some people, and they felt bad about that. Unfortunately, the Sakyong’s adoption of the taming-the-wild-horse method has selected for all the people from all the various generations and subgroups who never got or liked the cow method. And that comes with a certain amount of backlash. Think about all the laughter in the previous paragraph. There is relief there, and there is also pay-back from people who felt left out.

I have felt odd being caught in the middle of this dichotomy. People assume because of things that I say that I am an “old student,” but I never met Trungpa Rinpoche. I learned from Trungpa Rinoche’s students. But the way I started out was immensely helpful to me. Since I am an ordinary person, not unique or special, I think it would help others out there as well. It is less commonly available as a beginner’s practice than the “taming” view, and I am very sad to think it may no longer be available at that level.

 “The Sakyong was raised and trained closely by the Vidyadhara.  To my thinking, he is introducing a far more systematic training process than VCTR was able to introduce in his lifetime, both in practice and study. . .  The Vidyadhara was a pioneer, he was plowing a field of solid stone.  As a result of his efforts, the Sakyong is now plowing a softer field, and he is bringing in new equipment to make the soil even finer.  He’s looking at what VCTR did, seeing what worked and what didn’t, and making changes accordingly.”[5]

Thought experiment: spend a moment imagining the area of practice and/or the Buddhist or Shambhala teachings that most inspires you, the thing you love and practice the most. Now imagine that someone directed the remarks above at that very area of the teachings, dismissing those practices you love as “what didn’t work,” and describing you and others like you as a field of stone. If you can imagine that, then maybe you have an answer to the question of why old students drop out of the lives of their centers.

From one hunk of rock to all the others,

Ngakma Zér-mé Dri’mèd



Photo by Chögyam Trungpa, from Garuda (Spring 1972), p. 29.

[1] Sangha-talk, 2004.

[2] Myth of Freedom, p. 48-49

[3] Turning the Mind into an Ally, p. 53-56; the graphic on p. 59 and the chapter about it, p. 58-75, especially p. 74-75; and the chapter on the nine stages,p. 114-126, especially p. 126 on the ninth stage.

[4] 1999 Seminary Transcripts, Book 1, p 39-40

[5] Sangha-talk, 2004

Echoes from the 1988 Seminary

September 23, 2008

I realized recently that it has been twenty years since the 1988 Seminary. This was a surprise to me. Wow. And almost twenty years since the parinirvana of the Vajra Regent. And coming soon will be the twenty year anniversary for His Holiness Jamgon Kongtrul. 

There have been so many changes in my life during the last twenty years. I was a terribly devoted student of the Regent, in love and in horror of the Los Angeles sangha at the time. For some reason I distrusted any urge to seek out the Vidyadhara. I think his writings struck me too personally. I remember feeling that he was quite literally talking to me when reading “Cutting Through” and “The Myth of Freedom” for the first time. Also, I suppose the sangha members who displayed the most realization were rather circumspect about the Vidyadhara’s state and his willingness to communicate, so it seemed like I was better off to focus on more accessible situations. 

Connecting with the Los Angeles Dharmadhatu and the overall Vajradhatu mandala was really great for me. I was of two minds, though. On the one side, I sensed a wonderful fearlessness and vitality within many practitioners. These were people who had been liberated from a sense of continual apology for themselves, while still their kleshas were not hidden, nor was their devotion to the Vidyadhara hidden. Simultaneously, though, I felt that many people were missing some very basic truth. They still sought a kind of idealization of their path or being, which seemed to be a horribly grotesque form of spiritual materialism. It is hard to find the words to describe this, but it was a kind of unnecessary concretization or attribution of their wisdom, an automatic rationalization or credentialling process which was the seed for all sorts of lies and deceptions. 

Now I sometimes reminisce over such a spontaneous sense of revulsion. But, of course, what we are attracted to and repelled by mostly relfects our own psychology, and some of that has changed over twenty years. I guess the revulsion hasn’t passed, but I am now much less in denial regarding my enmeshment in samsara, that web of interdependent and endlessly rehearsed dysfunction. 

Twenty years ago I believed that the Regent acknowledged both my wisdom and my confusion, without any fear or sense of project. It was very inspiring, and seemingly very real. But I had an overwhelming sense of failure, which manifested as guilt and regret that I didn’t “live up” to the sense of awake I felt was the core of buddhadharma and the Regent’s way of being. Sadly, this feeling was my constant companion for many years, and it came to largely embody the Regent’s presence in my life. Finally, a few years ago I visited the Satdharma sangha in Ojai and had a short interview with Patrick Sweeney. He remarked quite simply, “there is no reason for regret.” Since then, I think of the Regent less; it seems that my obsession was just another symptom of not being enlightened. 

What strikes me after these years is a recurring sense of “Man, how could I have been such an idiot!” and “Why was I so stuck on that?” Did the Buddha look back and marvel at his ignorance? Did he see all the unintended consequences of his actions? Could he laugh and cry over these things? 

One question that is often asked in the various sangha forums is, “How are the senior students going to carry this on?” etc. etc. You have heard the refrain. Well, the short answer is: they won’t. Sure, there will be many good deeds accomplished by the vast and wonderful sangha. There might be a few exceptionally eloquent and erudite teachers and scholars. This is surely nothing to speak against, but it is more like brewing and selling yogurt, rather than being a vidyadhara.

It seems that many of these discussions of the future of the Vidyadhara’s legacy fail to acknowledge the outrageous narcissism of our buddhist practice. We actually believe that we have direct access to the truth. So we spend years and years in meditation to uncover this so-called truth; meditating on our intentionally created forms, meditating on our karmas, meditating on our post-meditation, meditating on so-called space. All of this for the benefit of others. This is what is taught, no? But also the Buddha, the mahasiddhas and so forth taught about letting go. Nonattachment. Really letting go. And then letting go again. 

I think the message will continue as it always has, when the desperate person forms a relationship with the realized person. Whether you happen to be the desperate or the realized person, the possibility of communication is what exists. This is how the lineage will continue. Was it any different for Naropa and Tilopa? Was it any different for you and your teacher? As much as I might secretly want God to exist in the form of the Buddha ministering to my homunculus, I must acknowledge that the situation really is nontheistic. It is much more spontaneous. How can we possibly compete with the Vidyadhara? We can’t. 

Twenty years post-seminary, I have to ask: what has it all done for me? What has it done for you? I am much more pragmatic and less principled. I have failed, deeply, in so many ways. I have accumulated debts and responsibilities, liabilities and contingencies. Looking at my mind, all I can say is that it is quite vivid. Is this apparent mind any better or worse, any duller or sharper? Not really, with the possible exception of brain damage caused by alcohol use. Or is that just the natural process of aging? I have not escaped from impermanence or death. 

What use is it then? Well, I understand things better. There is the notion of insight, “Oh! I see.” And there is always more to see; profundity and vastness are the two qualities of the dharma taught by the Buddha. There is more ignorance to uncover; there is more subtlety to discover; and there are endless possibilities of encouragement and growth. 

So these are my thoughts, some twenty years post-seminary.


A short poem 

namo gurubuddhaya       


Don’t look near. Don’t look far.

Your gaze cannot manifest the Buddha. 

Don’t be a fake. 


Whether it is real 

or unreal 

It is a complete unknown, 

and it has not particular consequences 

in any case. 


Ed, you sought a guru. 

You found the Regent. 

You studied and practiced. 

But you must admit the sensation 

of subjectivity has not disappeared, 

the thought of a self is more vivid. 


Or is it, really? 

A little introspection goes a long way, 

especially in this day and age. 


There actually was no thought 

of a self. It was 

just a thought. 

Not a self. 

That has neither come nor gone, 

Made bigger or smaller. 


But there is lots of reactivity and 


Fear of penetration. Fear of 


Killing and giving birth, 

or contributing the sperm, in 

any case.


Getting hung up — 

it is my lifestyle. 


I love the Regent 

and I miss him so. 


First thought best thought 

Is this only for friends? 

It is just a phrase. 

Don’t get hung up on it. 

Let it be. 



Tingdzin Nyima 

Sherap Dashon 

Not About Happiness

September 21, 2008

Since Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche died in 1987, the Internet has revolutionized the way we communicate. The Sakyong is taking full advantage of this medium at

A review of this web site brought to light, for this writer, some of the key differences between the teachings of the Sakyong and those of Trungpa Rinpoche.

Firstly, the Sakyong is described as:

  • “one of Tibet’s highest and most respected incarnate lamas”
  • “King of Shambhala”
  • “the eldest son of the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche”
  • “the incarnation of Mipham the Great, who is revered in Tibet as an  emanation of Manjushri, the buddha of wisdom”
  • “descends from the Tibetan warrior-king Gesar of Ling”
  • “holds the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism”
  • “head of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage and is spiritual director of Shambhala, a borderless kingdom of meditation practitioners committed to realizing enlightenment and social harmony through daily life”
  • “the lineage holder of Naropa University”
  • “has studied with the great masters His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche–teacher of the HH Dalai Lama and the king of Bhutan–and HH Penor Rinpoche”
  • “is married to Princess Tseyang Palmo, daughter of His Eminence Namkha Drimed Rabjam Rinpoche, head of the Ripa lineage”
  • “has written two books, the national bestseller Turning the Mind Into an Ally, and the prize-winning Ruling Your World”
  • “is a poet and an artist”
  • “runs marathoms to raise money for Tibet through the Konchok Foundation”
  • “in September 2006 he offered the first Living Peace Award to HH the Dalai Lama at the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya in Colorado”.

The Sakyong’s bio brings to mind Trungpa Rinpoche’s phrase “Buddhadharma Without Credentials”…only here, it’s With Credentials. One gets the impression that some effort is going into crafting his on-line persona.

One of the credentials is that he is the incarnation of Mipham the Great. I don’t recall hearing anything about this before the Sakyong Enthronement in 1995. It is noteworthy that neither of the great tertons/mahasiddhas, Trungpa Rinpoche and His Holiness Khyentse Rinpoche, recognized the Sakyong (who was the Sawang then) as the incarnation of Mipham the Great during their lifetimes. It seems odd that such an important fact would have eluded these great visionaries.

The audio, video, and text files in the Archive section of the site reflect a recurring theme about Happiness. In the video “What About Me”, the Sakyong says, “You know what? When you’re happy, I’m happy. That’s the formula.”

Putting other before self is what Buddhism is about, but it’s the “I’m happy” part that adds a new twist to the teachings we received from Trungpa Rinpoche.

In the audio clip “If You Want to Be Happy” the Sakyong talks about using a type of contemplation to switch one’s thought patterns from focusing on oneself to focusing on compassion and love. The title implies that adopting this approach will make you happy.

While this approach is well-intentioned, there is a danger that students might conclude that there are “good thoughts” and “bad thoughts.” It also gives the impression that discursiveness can be harnessed to achieve a desired result. Even if this type of contemplation is, to some degree, successful in developing compassion, the danger is that, by fiddling with discursiveness in this way, the practitioner–unbeknownst to himself/herself–is sacrificing the development of prajna in the process.

In another audio file, “Chicago Public Talk” (August 2007), the Sakyong talks about karma and interdependence. “Every action we’re engaged in is the result of many things coming together, and they say [this is also true of] our emotions, and whatever happens to us. We say: ‘I’m sitting here feeling sad. How do I feel happy?’ [There is a] way to be able to shift the energy of our karmic situation. We need to orient our karmic situation so that we’re developing the seed, so that has a possibility.”

Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings on the life of Naropa provide a useful context for considering this view. In the talk titled “Meeting Reality” (New York, January 1972), he said, “Naropa’s experience of discovering Tilopa is connected with finally giving up hope. We have to give up the hope of getting what we want to get; the search for an ultimate answer has to be given up.” He further explained that we have a love-hate relationship with ourselves. “That’s precisely why the samsaric mind and samsaric point of view of trying to gain happiness is regarded as holding the wrong end of the stick.”

In the talk about Naropa’s life titled “Continuity” (Karme Choling, December, 1975), he said, “The role of the guru, at this point, is to tell you you’re hopeless…or that you will never solve your problem.”

However, explained Trungpa Rinpoche, hopelessness here is different from despair. He equated despair with laziness and lack of intellect, and hopelessness with intelligence, inspiration, and challenge.

The divergence of these views on happiness and hopelessness hinges on egolessness. In Trungpa Rinpoche’s dharma teachings, there is no shortcut around egolessness, and nothing trumps it–not happiness, not power, not fame, not a 12-gun salute, nothing. “The great symbol (Mahamudra) which does not involve any metaphors,” he said, “relates to things directly and completely and allows no compromises.” According to what he taught, rather than bettering oneself, the path is about giving up ground. Becoming less, not more.

The Vidyadhara’s students are proud inheritors of the lineage of the Takpo Kagyu. In our morning chant, we recite: “Great Vajradhara, Telo, Naro, Marpa, Mila, Lord of Dharma Gampopa…” In this one line, we invoke the lineage of the ones who realized Mahamudra, attained enlightenment, and benefitted sentient beings immeasurably.

When we study the lives of these great teachers, we see that their paths were arduous, to say the least!. The effort they expended is difficult to fathom.

Naropa’s experiences are particularly instructive. After a distinguished career as a learned one, he struck out on his own in search of a qualified teacher—Tilopa. Along the way, he met up with all kinds of disturbing situations. One man was washing the insides of another man’s stomach. Two old people were killing and eating the insects they found in the furrows they were plowing. Naropa then saw one-eyed people, a blind man who could see, a man with no ear who could hear, another without a tongue who could speak, another who was lame, running, and a corpse fanning itself. These were just some of his encounters along the way. When these people called out to him for help he refused because his sights were set on finding the guru. Eventually he learned that they were inseparable from the guru, but his attachment to habitual patterns and conceptual mind prevented him from seeing this.

After Tilopa agrees to take him under his wing, Naropa’s life doesn’t get any easier. At one-year intervals, Tilopa says to him: “If I had had a disciple he would… build a bridge over a pool of leeches. (Naropa does and is eaten by leeches and other vermin); bring fire, reeds and fat, if he wants instruction. (Naropa does and Tilopa dips the ends into the fat which had been heated on the fire, and held them against Naropa’s body; the pain became unbearable); throw the queen down and drag her about. (Naropa does and the king and his followers beat him to within an inch of his life). These are just a few of the trials Naropa went through.

Although very different, Milarepa’s trials were every bit as arduous as Naropa’s. Marpa told Milarepa to build a stone and mud house. Then when it was built, he had him tear it down and put the stones back where he found them. Then Marpa told him to build another house, and another, etc. After that, Milarepa had to build a nine-storey tower for his guru’s son before he could receive teachings.

Such was the nature of the guru-student relationship back then. It has been said that the traditional ngondro practice was developed as a way to approximate the dynamics of this intense and personal relationship in modern times when this close way of working together is no longer possible (for example, Tilopa worked with Naropa for 12 years).

But now that the Sakyong has introduced the Rigden Ngondro, these practices can be accomplished in less time and with less effort. Where will the Milarepas and Naropas of the future come from if this abbreviated form of training becomes the norm?

There is another element of the web site that suggests an entirely different teacher-student relationship in the age of the Internet: the fundraising appeal. It reads: 

For generations in Tibet and other Buddhist countries, it has been the tradition for students to offer what they feel is appropriate for receiving the teachings from an authentic teacher. This creates a situation where we become personally motivated to give back in acknowledgment of the gift we have received and in recognition for the years of training and understanding the teacher has cultivated. Please think about what gift you would like to give in return. Please know that all gifts will be put back into the further development of this site as well as support the Sakyong’s activities world wide. Thank you for your generosity.

Giving a teaching gift is a traditional way for the student to express his/her appreciation to the teacher for conferring a particular teaching. Within the Shambhala community, typically, the teaching gift also helps the teacher to defray expenses associated with travelling from his/her home. 

In the case of this fundraising appeal, there is no reference to a particular teaching that is being given. It appears that the donation is meant to support the Sakyong’s activities, so the use of the phrase “teaching gift” is confusing. After visiting other sections of the web site, one can interpolate that perhaps the teaching referred to is that which is contained within the audio, video, and text files in the Archive section, but this is not at all clear.

As the first lineage holder of Shambhala Buddhism, the Sakyong has broken out of a mold and is charting a new course, one which involves extensive use of the Internet, via web sites and e-mails (Shambhala News Service, etc.) sent to members of his organization.  It seems that the Internet is now mediating between the Sakyong and his students/public, which suggests that it is no longer necessary to meet the teacher in person or be in his/her presence to hear the teachings. The teacher-student relationship has become easy and convenient, but what is being lost in the process? 

The more the Sakyong articulates his view and teachings, the more apparent it becomes to this writer that both his medium and his message are markedly different from what Trungpa Rinpoche taught.

As the Talking Heads song goes, “This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!”

Just Sitting

September 11, 2008


What’s emerging for me is that it may be time to collect and point to, as well as study and practice, the classic teachings and meditation instructions of Chögyam Trungpa, and make them available in a clean, simple, accessible manner.

For example, to start with:

  • how to sit (shamatha/vipashyana)
  • how to do a short sitting practice 
  • how to do a day-long sitting practice (nyin-thun)
  • how to do a week-long or month-long practice (I think that Bill Karelis has done this for his “Just Sitting” week-thuns)

This also implies:

  • how to find a meditation instructor
  • how to find others to practice and study with
What do you think?

Shambhala Training Working with Father Sarducci

September 10, 2008

Father Guido Sarducci now offers a Five Minute University. He also hopes to offer a law degree, that will add an extra minute to the process. Rumor has it that Shambhala International is in negotiation with Father Sarducci to adapt his plan for delivering Shambhala Training. Under the new plan, Levels One through Five can be completed in less than  thirty seconds.


One thing has changed. Since Father Sarducci  first introduced his plan, he’s realized that he was shortchanging  himself by only charging $20 for the college degree. So, for Shambhala Training, you will pay $1,000.00 but you’ll be a graduate  in no time!

Experts fear illumination of dark matter

September 10, 2008


Project leaders say the machine will also let them probe so-called Dark Matter – the invisible matter that makes up 80 percent of the universe and that has been one of science’s great mysteries.

Some European and American scientists have filed a lawsuit to stop the experiment, saying it may create microscopic black holes that could swallow the Earth.

Project leaders call these fears “ridiculous.”

King of Swaziland Comics

September 9, 2008

Life of the rulers and the ruled in a place unencumbered by time, space or cashflow:

King of Swaziland Comics (PDF) (right-click to save)

Cry the Beloved Kingdom

September 5, 2008

Self-snug in our tidy and superior world

We celebrate our polished finances

As our bloodlines dry up.

We watch the lions and tigers at happy play

But miss our soaring garuda,

Our glittering dragon.

We see the trees standing soft and tall under a warm drizzle

But thirst for the thunderbolts and deluges,

The mountain of sunyata.

We see the tents, the flags and the parade ground

But long for cut water-pipes, dead-of-night drills,

The joyous panic.

We glimpse the central kingdom cloistered in its leafy glade

Where once it sang from rocks and dust,

Roared to us from a ravenous sky.