Self-Improvement, Windhorse, and Spiritual Materialism

January 2, 2009

Commentary by Andrew Safer

It’s normal to have ambitions, goals, and expectations when one enters the spiritual path. At 15, I was fortunate to go on a family vacation with my mother and sister to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center where I met Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. I was immediately struck by him. Whatever he had–composure, equanimity, fathomlessness, big mind–I wanted it. Later, when I was in university, I sat zazen with Kobun Chino Sensei and Jiyu Kennett Roshi.

Zen training was uncompromising. I soon found out that what I was hoping to achieve was beside the point. What kept coming back was: just sit! When I started studying with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the practice environment was less severe, but the message was the same. The sitting practice of meditation was always paramount. What I was striving for—my version of enlightenment—was, well, hardly the point. Over time, I started to learn that there was a great distance between what I wanted, and reality.

My sense is that the same is true of any authentic spiritual path: it’s not about what the practitioner wants. It’s about the practice itself, contacting a bigger world, and dedicating oneself to others.  

When I recently read Ruling Your World by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche I found much of the book instructive, but I was also concerned because there are many instances where the four dignities and the practices are spoken about in terms of the result: if you do A, then B will happen. While this approach will interest the beginner who is achievement-oriented, I’m concerned that it is sending the wrong message to that same person who rereads the book once they’ve entered the path, and to everyone else who reads it.   

My reference points are my early teachers and my root guru, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki Roshi says (emphasis mine):

Especially for young people, it is necessary to try very hard to achieve something. You must stretch out your arms and legs as wide as they will go. Form is form. You must be true to your own way until at last you actually come to the point where you see it is necessary to forget all about yourself. Until you come to this point, it is completely mistaken to think that whatever you do is Zen or that it does not matter whether you practice or not. But if you make your best effort just to continue your practice with your whole mind and body, without gaining ideas, then whatever you do will be true practice. Just to continue should be your purpose. [p 43]

It is therefore a bit jarring to read, in the chapter in Ruling Your World on “The Confidence of Equanimity”: “We realize in an outrageous moment that if we approach all beings with kindness, appreciation and love, we can be happy anytime, anywhere.” [p 138]

As Suzuki Roshi said, “just to continue should be your purpose.” When one’s own happiness is brought about by an act of kindness, this seems to be a different kettle of fish entirely. (This theme was also explored in Not About Happiness.)

When we take the bodhisattva vow, we vow to liberate all sentient beings before ourself. Even though it’s impossible, we vow to do so. This is not only the height of magnanimity, it’s also pragmatic, because it sidetracks the practitioner from thinking of himself. Pragmatic, because this way, he doesn’t waste any time thinking about, or catering to,  his ego—which, as we eventually discover, in fact, doesn’t exist.

The theme of killing two birds with one stone—serving oneself while serving others—reappears throughout the book.  In the chapter on “The Confidence of Delight in Helping Others”:

We may be sitting there contemplating others, and in the back of our mind thinking: “I need to do more for myself.” By thinking of others, we are doing more for ourselves. Generating joy by helping others is a secret way—and the best way—of helping ourselves. Every time we think of someone else’s happiness, we are taking a vacation from the “me” plan. It’s like getting physically fit by helping our neighbour shovel the snow from the driveway. [p 116]

In the era of new-age this and new-age that, perhaps it’s fitting that the Buddhadharma and Shambhala teachings have been repackaged in a way that appeals to “the marketplace.” One could argue that this represents a skillful means, that in this way, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is making the teachings accessible to many more people. This may indeed be the case, but at what cost?

On the topic of self-improvement and the achievement of goals, Trungpa Rinpoche said (emphasis mine):

Trust and compassion for oneself bring inspiration to dance with life, to communicate with the energies of the world. Lacking this kind of inspiration and openness, the spiritual path becomes the samsaric path of desire. One remains trapped in the desire to improve onself, the desire to achieve imagined goals. [Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism: p 98]

Windhorse (lungta in Tibetan)—the self-existing energy of basic goodness that has been described as “the breeze of delight”—is an important theme in Ruling Your World.  Once again, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche breaks new ground in the way he discusses this key Shambhalian principle. “We are not afraid of the power of windhorse, which brings worldly and spiritual success.” [p 179]

Clearly, this is a description that will appeal to the self-improvement types. But even in the context of a new-age version of windhorse which is all about “what’s in it for me?”, this description is one-sided. Consider this passage by Trungpa Rinpoche from Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior:

The warrior who experiences windhorse feels the joy and sorrow of love in everything he does. He feels hot and cold, sweet and sour simultaneously. Whether things go well or things go badly, whether there is success or failure, he feels sad and delighted at once. [p 85]

In the last pages of Ruling Your World, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche expands on the outcomes of windhorse:

Windhorse brings spiritual and worldly success—personal power, harmony with others, strong life force, and material prosperity. [pp 192-193]

The notion that spirituality can be used to attain one’s personal goals was anathema to Trungpa Rinpoche. He made this quite clear in his ground-breaking book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, which was published in 1973.

It would be foolish to study more advanced subjects before we are familiar with the starting point, the nature of ego. Speculations about the goal become mere fantasy. These speculations may take the form of advanced ideas and descriptions of spiritual experiences, but they only exploit the weaker aspects of human nature, our expectations and desires to see and hear something colorful, something extraordinary. If we begin our study with these dreams of extraordinary, “enlightening”, and dramatic experiences, then we will build up our expectations and preconceptions so that later, when we are actually working on the path, our minds will be occupied largely with what will be rather than with what is. It is destructive and not fair to people to play on their weaknesses, their expectations and dreams, rather than to present the realistic starting point of what they are. It is necessary, therefore, to start on what we are and why we are searching. [pp 121-122] 

The results-based orientation of the Sakyong’s teachings and his appeal to the self-help market are key characteristics that distinguish him from Trungpa Rinpoche. 

Having coined the phrase “spiritual materialism,” Trungpa Rinpoche defined it in this way:

There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. [p 3]

He was particularly diligent in pointing out the pitfall of self-deception so that the practitioner can be aware of it and recognize it when it rears its ugly head.

Ego is very professional, overwhelmingly efficient in its own way. When we think that we are working on the forward-moving process of attempting to empty ourselves out, we find ourselves going backwards, trying to secure ourselves, filling ourselves up. [p 56]

 “Self-deception is a constant problem as we progress along a spiritual path,” continues Trungpa Rinpoche. “Ego is always trying to achieve spirituality. It is rather like wanting to witness your own funeral.” [p 63]

Reading further in Ruling Your World, in addition to happiness, personal power, and worldy and spiritual success, luck is also identified as an outcome for those who practice the path of virtue. This is articulated in the following two passages:

As the golfer Ben Hogan once said, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” In Tibet, this luck is known as tashi tendrel—auspicious coincidence.  [pp 158-159] 

By acting virtuously, exerting ourselves in service to others, we are blessed in return by harmony and good luck. [p 160]

From a conventional point of view, there’s no argument here! But is it dharma?

Again, in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Trungpa Rinpoche comments on this orientation towards results (emphasis mine).

So the point we come back to is that some kind of real gift or sacrifice is needed if we are to open ourselves completely. This gift may take any form. But in order for it to be meaningful, it must entail giving up our hope of getting something in return. It does not matter how many titles we have, nor how many suits of exotic clothes we have worn through, nor how many philosophies, commitments and sacramental ceremonies we have participated in. We must give up our ambition to get something in return for our gift. That is the really hard way. [p 80]

This passage echoes a well-known line in Trungpa Rinpoche’s Sadhana of Mahamudra : “I make these offerings without expecting anything in return, and without hope of gaining merit.”

The contrast between the teachings of father and son is extreme. Of course, it is Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s prerogative to teach as he sees fit. But the fact that the apple has fallen so far from the tree is worth noting, in the interests of helping to preserve the legacy of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche for both present and future generations.


Photograph of Lohan by Robert Newman. The Karme-Chöling shrine room has a series of Lohan images.

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 www.mipham.com.

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 mipham.com 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!”