Theravada and Vajrayana

Simple is better than Great when you are all over the place.
An expression of need for the preservation of Buddhism in all its forms.

When I stay in the USA in what has now become my primary residence, I look around me and am bombarded with a most insane proposition of what reality is.  
We are in a country which has become the most sarcastic parody of itself, a playground for lawlessness, ethical degradation and chaos on a mass scale.
Probably every single one of our esteemed institutions ranging from the government and war to the medical world, or from the legal system (law enforcement and incarceration ) to energy and food sources, to the media, everything has been brought into a kind of criminal mayhem.  We are just like a person who has sat next to a pathological liar in order to embark on a sane and meaningful conversation.  We are led to believe that this is all real.  That what the media shows us is some sort of reality.  In truth, we have entered a period on our planet where just about everything is false and where anything truthful is shunned because it must be false if it is in such a world.

In short, we are in a time when a simple sanity pill would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars even for one dose.  And yes, that is what it would cost even if it only cost $1 to make it. There has never been a time when the practice of meditation and internal examination of the mind has been more desperately needed.  At the same time, there has never been a time when such pure practice have been in as much danger of extinction as they are now.
People often ask me if I am Buddhist.  As a Lama, of course my answer should be easy.  I could without much reflection just say: “Yes, I am a Buddhist.”
But I am self-trained to reflect on where I am, who I am talking to and what I am communicating.  If I am in Asia, I normally just take the easy way out and say “Yes I am a Buddhist.”  But in the western world I first need to have a sense of what that simplistic response would imply to the person who asked.  
Sometimes I respond by saying:  “Yes, that it was people say”  or“I’m doing my best” or “among other things”.  They could also ask me, “Are you a Lama?” To which I sometimes reply: “So I am told”  or "Are you a Vajrayana practitioner?”  which could elicit a simple “yes” response.
This is my way of creating doubt.  In other words, my deepest tendency is to force people to question what they are talking about.
My default commitment is to force people to reconsider enough of the picture to allow for some small transformation when interacting with me.  In truth, although most people wish for the easy way out, in fact, they do not like being imprisoned by categorization themselves anyway.

Most of the time, I think about how to preserve Buddhism and perhaps more specifically, how to grow it in the USA in a manner commensurate with its original intent but in an a clear and easy to understand manner.  This is in fact a daunting task considering the huge amounts of mis-information about the subject and total lack of context for it to be experienced in.
When we think about preserving Buddhism we should try to consider several critical factors:

1. Context
2. Feeling
3. Social fabric
4. Communication

As many of my friends and readers of this blog may know, our group has set out to establish a Stupa or Maha Chedi similar to Boudhanath Stupa in Nepal, (simply stated, a reliquary of Buddha’s relics which is a functional support for catalyzing enlightenment) of historic scale in the USA.  For many, the first thing that comes into their minds is the task of making something very large and architectural in nature.  A cement dome perhaps or a park monument.  Even this they consider to be a daunting proposition.  But the task is far more daunting than that.  Because a cement dome alone will not accomplish what the object is designed to unless it arises and functions within a living context of practices geared towards enlightenment.

And so it is that my recent trip to honor and get blessings from my teacher, The Lord of Refuge, Chatral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche, I was able to once again readjust my goal but also my internal landscape.  What quickly became evident this year is that for our project to work, for it to accomplish the two tasks of transformation of individuals and preservation of the teachings of Buddha, is that we would have to re-group.   We would have to come together from three major traditions of Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana in order to be truly successful.  

One of the things I felt when returning home from this trip was how powerful the context of meditation, practice and the community element was throughout Asia and how weak and disbursed it was in the USA.  Even within relatively well operating centers in the USA the real feeling of Sangha still seemed like a half baked phenomenon like a patch or over-lay rather than a bone-level commitment as a way of life.  So for several reasons, the task to align with some Theravada schools and monasteries has become important to our work to build such a stupa.  

America is the mecca of consumerism and until today, the main methods to get people to buy things are by the use of three factors that Buddhism is trying to minimize:  1. Hope or grasping, 2. fear or rejection and on many occasion, 3. ignorance.... such as is the case of being misled by falsehoods or when selling mattresses based on people’s wish to black out and call it a day.  Naturally, any tradition or practice anywhere is done by the people in that place and is colored by the trends, values and assumptions of those people.

So here in the USA, people wish to be free of dogma, they do not wish to look up to anyone, they pride themselves on knowing everything, and they are arrogant that they can simply go to the next shop to buy whatever they like best at an even cheaper price.  Our consumerism makes us stupid and proud of it.
The entire framework in American society is that the world is here to entertain us, to make us feel good and look good, never aging all the while this is going on. Many Buddhist centers have felt the need to stoop down to meet these mind-sets in order to sustain operations and so most of these common Buddhist systems have been bought and sold in the market place along with other quick fixes such as Tums or Rolaids or a massage and a manicure.  Our Buddhist systems are in fact “just one isle over at Stop and Shop from these cures and are now being sold to corporations along with mass quantities of coffee and specially designed swivel chairs all geared to increase productivity and maximize company profits.  But this is only in regards to the basic Buddhism 101.  Tantra on the other hand has found its own special market.  What better system to join than one that can be misconstrued to be the officially and religiously condoned path of drugs, sex and rock and roll, where we can simply make our own rules that suit our sense of comfort?   

Sadly, the notion that students have come to me desperately for advise or a way out of their confusion implies that the path they were on has failed to provide good answers. I have been told by many a “would-be student” that they were reincarnations of Cleopatra or some ancient Gregorian Monk and that although they appear to be in front of me to ask my advise on how to have a better job or more organized mind, they are in fact there to tell me how their ad hoc system is already very advanced and that they really just want me to officially let them off the hook so they can do what they have been doing all along.

Despite my best efforts at trying to communicate the view, meditation and action of the Vajrayana system, I feel I have failed.  No matter what I do, I have failed to communicate that enlightenment is not an intellectual overlay, or concept they can add into their pantheon of weekend entertainment options.  I have failed to connect the ornate practices of the Vajrayana into the development of ordinary awareness and have instead simply enabled fantasy which leads to disappointment.  And so, as a doctor, I must adjust the prescription.  I look over my shoulder and see people joyfully taking the bitter medicine not even one long-haul plane flight away in the Theravada communities of Thailand and Burma.  Ah yes, the Vinaya.  The basic structural set of commitments set out by the Buddha himself which form the foundation of all the other practices via Shamatha and Vipassana or Dwelling in Peace and Insight meditation.  

In short, just as the Ngondro or preliminary practices of the Vajrayana systems could be considered to be the most important or profound, each time we address our foundations we are better for it. There is no amount of sweet talk, or any talk for that matter, that will bring people into a stable understanding of their own natures. The only way is for individuals to face their own minds on the battle ground called "The Seat".  And so it is, that this Buddhist from New York, has taken nearly forever to come to a similar conclusion as the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and will insist on students embracing the two fundamental practices of Shamatha and Vipassana before they take the time (or my time) to reveal to me their noble past life successions of which we can never be certain of.  In positive, non-sarcastic tones, I highly recommend that anyone truly interested in Buddhism, drop what they are doing and take a 10 day Vipassana course.  And since they are most normally free, there is one less valid excuse for not doing it.

This written by someone called Son of Peace, who has had to lose much of his hair to be convinced of the truth of impermanence.