The Karma Kagyu lineage in America: Jackson Hole, Wyoming, December 1972

Dear readers,

I submit for your consideration the following excerpt from Volume five of Chogyam Trungpa’s collected works in which Rinpoche deconstructs Vajradhara for us in terms of the life story of Padmasambha, in chapter four, Eternity and the Charnel Ground:

I would like to make sure that what we have already discussed is quite clear. The birth of Padmasambhava is like a sudden experience of the awakened state. The birth of Padmasambhava cannot take place unless there is an experience of the awakened state of mind that shows us our innocence, our infantlike quality. And Padmasambhava’s experiences with King Indrabhuti of Uddiyana are connected with going further after one has already had a sudden glimpse of awake. That seems to be the teaching, or message, of Padmasambhava’s life so far. Now let us go on to the next aspect of Padmasambhava. Having experienced the awakened state of mind, and having had experiences of sexuality and aggression and all the pleasures that exist in the world, there is still uncertainty about how to work with those worldly processes. 

Padmasambhava is uncertain not in the sense of being confused, but about how to teach, how to connect with the audience. The students themselves are apprehensive, because for one thing, they have never dealt with an enlightened person before. Working with an enlightened person is extraordinarily sensitive and pleasurable, but at the same time, it could be quite destructive. If we did the wrong thing, we might be hit or destroyed. It is like playing with fire. So Padmasambhava’s experience of relating with samsaric mind continues. He is expelled from the palace, and he goes on making further discoveries. The discovery that he makes at this point is eternity. Eternity here is the sense that the experience of awake is constantly going on without any fluctuations—and without any decisions to be made, for that matter. At this point, in connection with the second aspect, the decisionlessness of Padmasambhava’s experience of dealing with sentient beings becomes prominent.

Padmasambhava’s second aspect is called Vajradhara. Vajradhara is a principle or a state of mind that possesses fearlessness. The fear of death, the fear of pain and misery—all such fears—have been transcended. Having transcended those states, the eternity of life goes on beyond them. Such eternity is not particularly dependent on life situations and whether or not we make them healthier or whether or not we achieve longevity. It is not dependent on anything of that nature. We are discussing a sense of eternity that could apply to our own lives as well. This attitude of eternity is quite different from the conventional spiritual idea of eternity. The conventional idea is that if you attain a certain level of spiritual one-upmanship, you will be free from birth and death. You will exist forever and be able to watch the play of the world and have power over everything. It is the notion of the superman who cannot be destroyed, the good savior who helps everybody using his Superman outfit. This general notion of eternity and spirituality is somewhat distorted, somewhat cartoonlike: the spiritual superman has power over others, and therefore he can attain longevity, which is a continuity of his power over others. Of course, he does also help others at the same time. As Vajradhara, Padmasambhava’s experience of eternity—or his existence as eternity—is quite different. There is a sense of continuity, because he has transcended the fear of birth, death, illness, and any kind of pain. There is a constant living, electric experience that he is not really living and existing, but rather it is the world that lives and exists, and therefore he is the world and the world is him. He has power over the world because he does not have power over the world. He does not want to hold any kind of position as a powerful person at this point. Vajradhara is a Sanskrit name. Vajra means “indestructible,” dhara means “holder.” So it is as the “holder of indestructibility” or “holder of immovability” that Padmasambhava attains the state of eternity. He attains it because he was born as an absolutely pure and completely innocent child—so pure and innocent that he had no fear of exploring the world of birth and death, of passion and aggression. That was the preparation for his existence, but his exploration continued beyond that level. Birth and death and other kinds of threats might be seen by samsaric or confused mind as solid parts of a solid world. But instead of seeing the world as a threatening situation, he began to see it as his home. In this way, he attained the primordial state of eternity, which is quite different from the state of perpetuating ego. Ego needs to maintain itself constantly; it constantly needs further reassurance. But in this case, through transcending spiritual materialism, Padmasambhava attained an ongoing, constant state based on being inspired by fellow confused people, sentient beings. The young prince, recently turned out of his palace, roamed around the charnel ground. There were floating skeletons with floating hair. Jackals and vultures, hovering about, made their noises. The smell of rotten bodies was all over the place. The genteel young prince seemed to fit in to that scene quite well, as incongruous as it might seem. He was quite fearless, and his fearlessness became accommodation as he roamed through the jungle charnel ground of Silwa Tsal near Bodhgaya. There were awesome-looking trees and terrifying rock shapes and the ruins of a temple. The whole feeling was one of death and desolation. He’d been abandoned, he’d been kicked out of his kingdom, but still he roamed and played about as if nothing had happened. In fact, he regarded this place as another palace in spite of all its terrifying sights. Seeing the impermanence of life, he discovered the eternity of life, the constant changing process of death and birth taking place all the time. There was a famine in the vicinity. People were continually dying. Sometimes half-dead bodies were brought to the charnel ground, because people were so exhausted with the constant play of death and sickness. There were flies, worms, maggots, and snakes. Padmasambhava, this young prince who had recently been turned out of a jewel-laden palace, made a home out of this; seeing no difference at all between this charnel ground and a palace, he took delight in it. Our civilized world is so orderly that we do not see places like this charnel ground. Bodies are kept in their coffins and buried quite respectably. Nevertheless, there are the greater charnel grounds of birth, death, and chaos going on around us all the time. We encounter these charnelground situations in our lives constantly. We are surrounded by halfdead people, skeletons everywhere. But still, if we identify with Padmasambhava, we could relate with that fearlessly. We could be inspired by this chaos—so much so that chaos could become order in some sense. It could become orderly chaos rather than just confused chaos, because we would be able to relate with the world as it is. Padmasambhava went and found the nearest cave, and he meditated on the principle of the eternity of buddha nature: buddha nature is eternally existing, without being threatened by anything at all. Realization of that principle is one of the five stages of a vidyadhara. It is the first stage, called the vidyadhara of eternity. Vidyadhara means “he who holds the scientific knowledge” or “he who has achieved complete crazy wisdom.” So the first stage of crazy wisdom is the wisdom of eternity. Nothing threatens us at all; everything is an ornament. The greater the chaos, the more everything becomes an ornament. That is the state of Vajradhara. We might ask how a young, innocent prince came to have such training that he was able to handle those charnel-ground situations. We might ask such a question, because we generally assume that in order to handle something we need training: we have to have benefited from an educational system. We have to have read books on how to live in a charnel ground and been instructed on what is appropriate and what is not appropriate to eat there. No training was necessary for Padmasambhava, because he was enlightened at the moment of his birth. He was coming out of the dharmakaya into the sambhogakaya, and a sudden flash of enlightenment does not need training. It does not require an educational system. It is inborn nature, not dependent on any kind of training at all. In fact, the whole concept of needing training for things is a very weak approach, because it makes us feel we cannot possess the potential in us, and that therefore we have to make ourselves better than we are, we have to try to compete with heroes or masters. So we try to imitate those heroes and masters, believing that finally, by some process of psychophysical switch, we might be able to become them. Although we are not actually them, we believe we could become them purely by imitating—by pretending, by deceiving ourselves constantly that we are what we are not. But when this sudden flash of enlightenment occurs, such hypocrisy doesn’t exist. You do not have to pretend to be something. You are something. You have certain tendencies existing in you in any case. It is just a question of putting them into practice. Still, Padmasambhava’s discovery might feel somewhat desolate and slightly terrifying from our point of view if we imagine him meditating in a cave, surrounded by corpses and terrifying animals. But somehow we do have to relate with that in our personal life situations. We cannot con the existing experience of life; we cannot con our experiences or change them by having some unrealistic belief that things are going to be okay, that in the end everything is going to be beautiful. If we take that approach, then things are not going to be okay. For the very reason that we expect things to be good and beautiful, they won’t be. When we have such expectations, we are approaching things entirely from the wrong angle. Beauty is competing with ugliness, and pleasure is competing with pain. In this realm of comparison, nothing is going to be achieved at all. We might say, “I’ve been practicing; I’ve been seeking enlightenment, nirvana, but I’ve been constantly pushed back. At the beginning, I got some kind of kick out of those practices. I thought I was getting somewhere. I felt beautiful, blissful, and I thought I could get even better, get beyond even that. But then nothing happened. Practice became monotonous, and then I began to look for another solution, something else. Then at the same time, I thought, ‘I’m starting to be unfaithful to the practices I’ve been given. I shouldn’t be looking for other practices. I shouldn’t look elsewhere, I should have faith, I should stick with it. Okay, let’s do it.’ So I stick with it. But it is still uncomfortable, monotonous. In fact, it is irritating, too painful.” We go on and on this way. We repeat ourselves. We build something up and make ourselves believe in it. We say to ourselves, “Now I should have faith. If I have faith, if I believe, I’m going to be saved.” We try to prefabricate faith in some way and get a momentary kick out of it. But then it ends up the same way again and again and again—we don’t get anything out of it. There are always those problems with that approach to spirituality. 

In Padmasambhava’s approach to spirituality, we are not looking for a kick, for inspiration or bliss. Instead, we are digging into life’s irritations, diving into the irritations and making a home out of that. If we are able to make a home out of those irritations, then the irritations become a source of great joy, transcendental joy, mahasukha—because there is no pain involved at all. This kind of joy is no longer related with In Padmasambhava’s approach to spirituality, we are not looking for a kick, for inspiration or bliss. Instead, we are digging into life’s irritations, diving into the irritations and making a home out of that. If we are able to make a home out of those irritations, then the irritations become a source of great joy, transcendental joy, mahasukha—because there is no pain involved at all. This kind of joy is no longer related with pain or contrasted with pain at all. So the whole thing becomes precise and sharp and understandable, and we are able to relate with it. Padmasambhava’s further adaptation to the world through the attitude of eternity, the first of the five stages of a vidyadhara, plays an important part in the study of the rest of Padmasambhava’s aspects. This subject comes up again and again.

The other day the subject of view, Rangtong, “empty of self” and Shentong “empty of other”, came up here as it pertains to my suggestion that the Dalai Lama should ask Ogyen Trinley Dorje to step down as head of the Karma Kagyu sect and seize its assets as Dalai Lamas past have done when the Karma Kagyu sect has collaborated against their interests as leaders of the Tibetan people, as today’s Karma Kagyu sect did after the 16th Karmapa passed away in 1981 when said sect’s defacto leader, Thrangu Rinpoche, both Situ and Shamar Rinpoches were in their 20’s at the time and had nothing to do with this matter, collaborated with the Chinese Government to make Ogyen Trinley Dorje the 17th Karmapa.

From a Rangton perspective we need not concern ourselves with such matters.

It negates any appearance of impropriety as having no basis in reality.

How convenient for the Karma Kagyu sect and China’s Billionare Karmapa.

This is precisely why as a dharma practitioner, following Trungpa’s example, I instead prefer to think of the impropriety in question from the Shentong, “empty of other”, perspective of Padmasambhava’s charnel ground experience.

Notwithstanding its lack of self existence, I choose to be horrified by what the Karma Kagyu sect has done—we have seen our last Karmapa, we have seen our last Trungpa Rinpoche, we have seen our last Traleg Rinpoche—that is not a creature of China’s Communist Party, nothing less than a crime against humanity from my perspective.

Should you too be horrified as I am by what the Karma Kagyu sect did?

I say yes, you should be as outraged as I am.

If only for the sake of your practice.

Welcome to my charnel ground, pull up a corpse and make yourself comfortable.

Let the horror show begin.

Or not, if you are so inclined.

Karmapa Chenno!




Filed under Buddhism

3 responses to “The Karma Kagyu lineage in America: Jackson Hole, Wyoming, December 1972

  1. I think you’re under selling the rangtong point of view. Just because the conventional and absolute dissolve into emptiness, and emptiness dissolves into emptiness, is no reason why we shouldn’t take conventional matters seriously.

    In a way, it almost seems to me to be a false dichotomy.

    • Karma Tashi Namgyal,

      In practice the Rangtong view is something we have to work out for ourselves as dharma practitioners.

      It’s a cop out, in practice.

      What the Karma Kagyu sect did when it collaborated with the Chinese government to make Ogyen Trinley Dorje the 17th Karmapa has no basis in reality.

      It never happened.

      Well, it did.

      We have seen the last Karmapa that isn’t a creature of China’s government.

      We have seen the last Trungpa Rinpoche that isn’t a creature of China’s government.

      We have seen the last Traleg Rinpoche that isn’t a creature of China’s government.

      It may have no basis in reality.


      I get it.

      What happened, happened.

      And it matters, or least it should.

      Enter the Shentong view.

      Yes we can.

      We can care.

      We can bring this to our practice.

      As we do with all we experience in practice.


  2. Ani Jinpa Lhamo

    Amen, as it were …

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