Writing my recent post on Christianity was so useful for me in clarifying my ideas and thoughts through retrospection and responding to comments, that I am repeating the process with Buddhism.
Back in the dark days of the early 80s there were virtually no books on Tibetan Buddhism in Perth, but the UWA library had a few. The first one I read was The Third Eye by T. Lobsang Rampa. Like many people I found it and his subsequent books a gob-smacking read. Fortunately I had also read enough on Buddhism in encyclopaedias that a dark suspicion began to arise that perhaps the Dewey Decimal Classification of this work as ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ was slightly off. To me it seemed more like an oriental Boys Own Adventure version of Theosophy, which I was also hungrily devouring at the time.
If you do not know the Rampa Story, basically it was one of the most original literary con jobs of the century. The author of the books claimed to be a Tibetan Lama of high rank now living in the west. The book’s descriptions of oddities like Yetis, operations to open the ‘Third Eye’, a heavy focus on psychic powers and lack of basic Tibetan Buddhist knowledge led to an investigation. This revealed that the author was not a Lama from Lhasa, but really a Plumber from Plympton, one Cyril Hoskin who had simply changed his name to Lobsang Rampa.
Cyril/Lobsang however, when confronted with these inconvenient facts responded beautifully with great panache: he was indeed born as Cyril Hoskin, but Cyril had psychically swapped bodies with Lobsang because Lobsang’s body was worn out, and so now he was Lobsang. This must be one of the earliest recorded claims of the New Age ‘Walk-In’ concept (1960). Not one for embarrassment or scuttling away with his tail between his legs, Cyril/Lobsang cheerfully maintained this reality and went on to write a dozen or so more books until his death in 1981.
Despite numerous exposes and the sheer lack of actual Tibetan Buddhist teachings, Cyril/Lobsang sold very well. Even today I still come across the occasional person who believes it was all real. There are still websites devoted to his teachings.
With this initial exposure to ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ my venturing could only go upwards 🙂 I attended some talks and meditation sessions given by various Theravadan teachers, but nothing moved me completely. I did however have the chance to hear Ven. Ajan Brahm talk and these were some great teachings.
Meanwhile I progressed with my western spiritual traditions and only glanced eastwards occasionally. Then in the late 80s a friend quit Wicca in high dudgeon and, after a few false starts, found her way to Tibetan Buddhism and her teacher, Namgyal Rinpoche. On her advice I attended some teachings with Cecile Kwait. Now here there was something real and powerful, and I sensed a tremendous tradition behind it all. I had of course been aware for sometime that aspects of Tibetan Buddhism were in some ways similar to the high magical traditions such as the RR et AC. And while Cecile did not reveal any of these, her grounded spiritual presence and real spirituality touched me.
Then in 1992 His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Australia and my life changed. At this stage I was sceptical about Enlightenment in general and Masters in particular. The ones I had read and met had left me unconvinced. But I went along with an old school friend, just because it seemed like a good opportunity. Together with thousands of others we crammed into a packed Entertainment Centre and wondered at the drawing power of the Buddhist Monk about to talk to us. Shortly before he had won the Nobel Peace Prize and I guess many people, like my friend, were there largely on that basis.
After a short preamble, His Holiness wandered onto the stage. As soon as I saw him I burst into tears and felt myself touched by a very strong, beautiful and incredibly holy presence. I had the same experience last year during his visit and teachings also. As he spoke, the Dalai Lama was simple, direct and practical, full of love and really said nothing new. However, I left that day completely whacked around, my reality changed and forever different.
Despite, for many reasons, continuing to focus exclusively on the western traditions (apart from the practice of Tong-len and dedication), I have kept the free booklet received on that day on some altar in my home ever since. Old and battered now, you can see read the text of this booklet and a brief personal account (not mine) of the visit here.
As the years went by I read more about Tibetan Buddhism but never practiced, preferring to get adept in my base tradition first. The more I read though the more delighted I was that there was this living tradition that offered such intense beauty, wisdom and compassionate action.
The correlation between the traditions is sometimes hard to see; after all the western traditions are originally theistic, newly monistic and Buddhism clearly non-theistic. However, at root there is only Truth, so all authentic traditions must point to the same Mystery. The Qabalah helped this process immensely. And once I got over the terminology and translations I found linkages and correspondences galore.
For example, one of the basic Buddhist concepts is that of Five Aggregates which make up the individual person, but since they are empty of intrinsic existence they are not the person – no self can be found within any Aggregate, even though our conventional identity is bound up and within the Aggregates. The five Aggregates are translated into English in different ways, one of the best I’ve seen is that by Robert Thurman (Dad of Uma):
Matter: five elements (earth, water etc.) or five sense objects and senses.
Sensation: pleasure, pain, and indifference associated with the five senses.
Concepts: all images and words used to organise experience.
Volition: desires, hates, delusions, and many other emotions.
Consciousness: five sense consciousness and mental consciousness.
Anyone with rudimentary Qabalistic knowledge can see the correlation to the lower five Sephrioth, Malkuth through Tipahreth. And indeed in western Hermetic magic the self which operates within these five Sephrioth is in fact the ‘lower’ self, the false self that does not in actuality exist beyond this life and convention.
Several years ago I completed my 20 years apprenticeship in the western traditions and felt ready to experience other traditions. We started attending Wongkurs with Lama Chime of the Origins Centre. A Wongkur is an empowerment or initiation into the current or blessing stream of a particular manifestation of Mystery, most often a Bodhisattva or deity. In simple terms, during the Wongkur the Lama (teacher) remembers that they and the deity are non-different. Through this remembrance and via certain ritual actions on the inner and outer levels, the Lama helps the ‘audience’ to also remember their own non-difference with the deity. By doing so the ‘audience’ receives seeds of blessings that with further meditation upon the deity can bring about deep transformation.
Each Wongkur was naturally a special and a sacred gift, Lama Chime describing them as ‘scared theatre’ and I felt much resonance with this approach and that of the RR et AC. Chime is a wonderful, grounded and beautiful teacher; if you get an opportunity to attend any of his teachings, do so 🙂
We also started attending teachings and meditations at the Hayagriva Centre in South Perth with Ven. Dondrub. The Hayagriva centre is part of the worldwide Fellowship for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, a large Gelupa tradition with much prestige, and dare I say it, money. Started by the incredible Lama Yeshe, the FPMT is now directed by his disciple, the equally incredible, Lama Ropa Rinpoche. The beauty and scale of the Gompa at Hayagriva reminded me, in a way, of a rich protestant church sometimes. It was very different to the humble sessions with Lama Chime. I have to admit to ‘heretical’ questioning of the scale and expense of some FPMT projects.
In May 2006 I was blessed to attend a three day Higher Tantric 1000 Armed Chenrezig initiation with Lama Zopa. If you have met or attended teachings with him you will know how these times are literally a mind-blowing blessing. Lama Zopa taught and guided us through the initiation until 3am in the morning. I have never seen an initiation so magically conducted; somehow Lama Zopa managed to personally initiate over 300 people.
At one point he slowly looked around the Gompa, chanting the sacred OM MANI PADME HUM, connecting with each person. I met his eyes briefly and his presence as Chenrezig was literally next to me and touching me. His enlightened state was awesome to witness.
The more I read, studied and practiced the more Tibetan Buddhism began to resonate with me. There are a number of reasons for this, and this shows up some deficiencies in the Western traditions:
- The Bodhisattva Vow to develop oneself to help others and to keep incarnating until all sentient beings reach an end to suffering;
- Honouring and working with the land spirits;
- The recognition of impermanence, even within the tradition itself, leading to openness for re-visioning;
- Seamless incorporation of the magical into the religious, through ritual, dance, prophecy and other means;
- Teachers who are trained and skilled in the esoteric as well as exoteric aspects of their religious forms;
- Processes and practices that lead towards enlightenment. Robert Thurman speaks of the ‘Enlightenment Engine’ of Tibetan Buddhism.
- The skilful method of Tantra which utilises our primal energies to achieve transformation.
Of course, nothing is perfect and there are many instances of problems within the tradition and the people who practice it. Overall however, I am very impressed with the tradition’s capacity, thoroughness, compassion and skill.
Recently we have been very lucky to attend classes, rituals and meditations at the Phendheling Centre with Ven. Thupten Lodey. This has been very special and this little centre fairly pulsates with compassion. I am also learning, that despite the plethora of Tibetan Buddhist books detailing minutiae of Vajrayana practices and wisdom, there are still secrets revealed by the Lama at the appropriate time.
This is a wonderful journey, and though I am only just starting it this late in life, I am glad I have the foundation of my core tradition. In that way I am ever more aware of the unity of mystery throughout all people, ages, traditions and religions.
May All Beings Be Well; May All Beings Be Happy
Peace; Peace; Peace.