Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chögyam Trungpa's "The Heart of the Buddha": Book Review

Trungpa Rinpoche's controversial "crazy wisdom" methods of cutting through "spiritual materialism" to penetrate the superficially captivated, shopping-mall mentality of his Western audiences with the essence of Tibetan Buddhism aroused much attention before his early death in 1987. However, the calmer moods of his philosophical and doctrinal instructions, addressing both those practicing and those unfamiliar with the stages on the path, may have been overlooked by those not his patient followers. Fifteen talks and essays, compiled from previously published articles and edited by Judith L. Lief, present an accessible overview of the relevance of the diamond-hard Vajrayana "vehicle" of Tibetan practice that follows the "Hinayana" approach to one's own transformation and the "Mahayana" expansion from one's self to the concerns of other sentient beings.

Edited along the model of these three varieties of Buddhism, the division of these talks and articles begins with those oriented towards the individual. The "Hinayana" aspect expresses the "heart of the Buddha." That is, an intrinsic nature of goodness that humans are automatically born with. New wisdom does not enter by revelation from above or imposition by dogma; Chögyam Trungpa insists that awakening to one's own freedom is how humans discover their own inner "buddha-nature."

He compares this liberation into possibility to a gifted child, whose genius found itself constantly undermined by a society bent on reducing young talent to mediocrity. Parents embarrassed by a prodigy might shut down the expression of a little one's unconventionality. Trungpa tells his listeners that they are like these parents, and then the cowed child, who suppresses innate capabilities. Buddhism urges people to break out of habits and to seek mindfulness that connects one to the larger world, to ease suffering of all beings, and to contribute to the development of one's equanimity, with precision, compassion, and joy.

Such mindfulness shatters the feeling of suffering and dissatisfaction that appears so natural: "Life has the quality of a game of ours that has trapped us." Trungpa by teaching the "Vajrayana" path draws the seeker out of one's self, once the necessity of awareness of the liberating potential of Buddhism has been accepted. The "sharpness" that is at the root of the "vajra" term cuts through illusion. It forces the meditator to face reality not as projected from one's own mistaken perceptions of solidity, but reality as transitory.

A wide-ranging chapter on devotion, to a guru, to a discipline, to a commitment to change one's attitude through the guidance of a spiritual friend, conveys the reaching out from self to others on a level that Tibetan Buddhism exemplifies. The transmission of dharma began orally, from master to disciple, and over generations, this chain of how the historical Buddha's words have been shared thus connects those two-and-a-half thousand years apart. Trungpa's spoken words, here recorded, continue this ancient and durable form of how the dharma in Tibet and Asia has been preserved in face-to-face discussions.

He notes how these dharma teachings have been channeled, expanded, and tested between practitioners for thousands of years. If the Buddha, born mortal, could gain enlightenment by his own willpower, so, Trungpa reasons, can any human. While books accumulate these sayings, intellectuals may put texts aside. Scholars may seek out beggars to understand how the dharma evolves into everyday practice. The example of such a skilled teacher helps the new student.

Trungpa makes the analogy of a spiritual friend to a fine baker from a long line of bakers. The secrets for good bread get passed on over many years. The baker today continues the tradition. "The loaf he gives us to sample was not preserved throughout the generations as an antique; it is not a museum piece. This loaf has been baked fresh and is now hot, wholesome, and nourishing. It is an example of what freshness can be."

Buddhism therefore is both venerable and lively. Later, in a discussion of "taking refuge" in accepting dharma, Trungpa imagines this advanced vow taken to follow Buddha's example, and to practice the precepts while part of the community, as indicative of the resources of which a newcomer can partake. The supportive fellowship extended to the "refugee" resembles yeast "put into a batch of hundreds of grains of barley. Each grain begins to fill up with yeast, until finally there is a huge, beautiful, gigantic vat of beer. Everything is yeasted completely; each one of the grains has become powerful individually--so the whole thing becomes a real world."

These wholesome metaphors enrich presentation of daunting concepts. When Trungpa expounds on "taking refuge," he warns of the loneliness that this entails. No savior, no help from above awaits. Yet this existential honesty, this non-theistic confrontation with the fear and reality of non-existence rather than eternity, impels the practitioner to "get on a train that is without reverse and without brakes." One boards the moving train, one that has been set in motion centuries ago. From now on, redemption and salvation, damnation and condemnation fade away. On the horizon? Facing confusion, and overcoming it. The path is there, the spiritual friend directs, and the journey continues along the same rugged but direct route laid out 2500 years ago.

Essays stretch out from here into higher realms. The boddhisattva vow of taking on the liberation of all other beings before one enters enlightenment pulls the "refugee" away from self-concern to the care for the wellbeing of everyone else. Trungpa warns of this demanding challenge, for one's privacy vanishes, and one's personal concerns give way to an uncertain, unending openness to the needs of others. Vajrayogini practices of the tantra, often misunderstood by Westerners, are here explained as symbolic.

This material precedes the third section of this anthology. Intriguingly, the more relevant to daily life the later talks turn, the more they may unsettle the worldly reader. Relationships, in Trungpa's iconoclastic outlook, deserve to fall apart. Good manners and dignity themselves get undermined as humanistic convention and mind-games; eternity in a theistic sense also dissolves. Death must be acknowledged without hope for our personal survival; sickness can be blamed on a lack of caring for ourselves, whether being hit by a car or catching a cold. Trungpa blames "some kind of loss of interest and attention" for those who become ill or injured. He claims a "psychological responsibility" by the sufferer who lets the appeal of the body go unheeded. "Illness brings us down to earth, making things seem much more direct and immediate."

Trungpa died at forty-seven, his end hastened by drinking. His reflection "Alcohol as Medicine or Poison" fifteen years previous, therefore, takes on significance. He refers to Gurdjieff's "conscious drinking" advice as a model. A yogi, Trungpa suggests, might need to be brought down from a trance about nonduality back into the mundane via a stiff libation. The world demands that he pay attention to it, so drinking may ease communication. Rather than stick to the Buddhist prohibition against intoxicants as a blanket ban, Trungpa perceives the attraction and temptation one has towards alcohol as the wrong; the effects, he conjectures, may prove more ameliorative as they ease pain and heighten pleasure. They may give the "conscious drinker" using "skillful means" a way to lose attachment to one's self, and hasten freedom--and perhaps glean a glimpse of "the cosmic orgasm of mahasukha," or ultimate delight.

Other talks discuss money's lure; dharma poetics; enlightenment and "first thought, best thought”; the Bön way of life in this pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion, and the intricacies of the Vajrayogini shrine's construction and elements. For a beginner, most of this material will be too advanced. While Trungpa surveys the essentials of Buddhism, he assumes for thirteen of these entries that his audience is well on their way along the path of the dharma teachings. An address to children lightens the tone with his good-natured questions and answers; a brief talk to Christian monastics offers a relaxed conversation with his contemplative counterparts.

No glossary is appended, but the index parenthetically (if tersely) defines terms. Lief's brief forward notes the inclusion of both introductory and technical essays but without elaboration. For instance, background on the context of Trungpa's two compositions on 1972 retreat, about alcohol and relationships, might explain their gnomic, enigmatic mood, which differs from more straightforward entries as spoken to audiences. Still, despite the scanty editorial apparatus, this collection succeeds in how Trungpa's entries "embody the living quality of oral transmission and the importance of discussion and dialogue between student and teacher."(Published Nov. 23, 2010 in the New York Journal of Books; posted to Amazon US in briefer form Nov. 30, 2010 & Lunch.com Dec. 5, 2010.)

2 comments:

alanindyfed said...

Thank you for this. I was impressed with his "Meditation in Action" and "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" many years ago. He was then at Samye Ling in Scotland with Akong Rimoche, where visitors did 1,000 grand prostrations before breakfast!
This would no doubt cure many ills...

Fionnchú said...

I always wondered how long those prostrations take, 1,000 let alone the required 100,000. I guess they had to wake up early to get them in. Surely you'd be either limber or wiped out afterwards.

I touched on Samye Ling in my article on "Celtic Buddhism" forthcoming; they also founded a house in Kilmainham, Dublin in 1977. That Scottish idyll did not last long-- I got the impression from CT's wife's autobiography "Dragon Thunder" that the community kept getting intrusions by looky-loos and hippies cadging grub! Akong & Chogyam apparently split early on, leading to CT's decampment by early '70 to America and Naropa and then Nova Scotia and the fame that ensued.

Best wishes to you down in chilly Cork. I bet you have been to Dzogchen Beara, or will soon? I'd love to see it someday myself.