Monday, January 10, 2011

Freedom, Pointing-Out Instructions, and Dharma Study

I have just come from an amazing weekend of teachings given here in Florida by Bardor Tulku Rinpoche of Kunzang Palchen Ling in Red Hook, New York, and formerly of His Holiness Karmapa’s North American seat, Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, New York.

Bardor Tulku Rinpoche (hereinafter referred to as BTR, for brevity’s sake) is recognized as the rebirth of one of Guru Rinpoche’s (Padmasambhava’s) 25 main disciples, Nub Sangye Yeshe, and also as the rebirth of the 19th-century terton (treasure text finder), Terchen Barway Dorje.

BTR taught this past weekend on three of Barway Dorje’s songs that have been published in the book Treasury of Eloquence: The Songs of Barway Dorje. For those who are interested, the songs are on pages 120-130 of the book.

The songs, composed for one of Barway Dorje’s consorts, Tsering Yangchen or Tseyang, are beautiful, clear, and heart-felt instructions in dharma practice; they also contain pointing out (as in, pointing out the nature of mind) instructions from teacher to disciple. Lama Yeshe Gyamtso, who was translating for BTR, told us that Tseyang is said to have attained fruition after practicing Barway Dorje’s instructions.

Pointing-out instructions are some of the most sought-after and mysterious teachings in the whole of Vajrayana Buddhism. It’s said that Buddhahood can be obtained in a single instant given the right match between teacher, student, and pointing-out instruction.

One of the things BTR explained—and which I have felt, intuitively, over the last several years—is that teachers give pointing-out instructions all the time. Because of different affinities and karmic connections, however, students often fail to realize when these instructions are being given. It takes the student’s doing the right preparation work (which I think may be different for every student) and the student’s meeting his or her karmically-connected teacher, in order for the pointing-out instructions to really work—so that the student can be introduced to the true nature of his or her own mind.

Rinpoche explained that in Tibet, it was common for teachers to instruct their students to attend different teachers, or go to specific places to meditate; this was because often, the teachers could tell which other teachers would be of the greatest benefit to students, because of the karmic threads that tied teacher and student together. Rinpoche used Milarepa as an example; Milarepa was sent to Marpa by one of Mila’s other teachers.

It was also common for students to take teachings and empowerments from many different teachers, until they found the teacher with whom they had their heart connection; this practice was not frowned upon or discouraged, but rather accepted and even expected.

The freedom to take teachings from different teachers, Rinpoche explained, is not only necessary but also essential for successful dharma practice. Freedom is your right as a student—morally and legally—to study with whomever you choose.

It is important, Rinpoche told us, to follow your faith.

And then, Rinpoche added, no one should prevent students from choosing with whom they will study—to do so is not only an error, it is a grave error.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I carry some baggage around the issues of freedom. I have lost two jobs that I’ve liked because of situations in which I found myself unable to sit silent while things were happening that were just plain wrong. In each case, the things that went awry were big things, not petty ones, and were fraught with questions involving racial relations and how organizations deal, or fail to deal, with issues of racial prejudice and freedom of speech.

I have not written about these things in detail on this blog, because I’m hoping eventually to have the time and mental space to deal with them in another format. But I want to be clear for readers that with regard to issues of freedom, I have always come out on the side of “for” rather than “against,” even when that stand has wound up hurting me. And I can say, with no hesitation, that if I ever were offered a re-do of these situations, I’d do exactly the same things—or I couldn’t face myself in the mirror every morning (which, at my age, is fairly hard to do!).

As some of the readers of this blog may know, there has been a bit of a dustup at KTD over the past couple years involving who is and is not able to teach there, and with whom KTD- and KTC-affiliated students should and should not study. It is not my intention to rehash this history, because the facts are available elsewhere on line.

But when I hear things, as I did this weekend, that trouble me, then I have to wonder: Am I enabling such troubling situations to continue if I remain silent? Is it my dharma duty to speak out? Or are the sangha and I better served if I simply shut up and do my practice?

Most of the sangha members I talked to about these issues urged silence and caution. I decided I wanted to hear what Rinpoche had to say, so I asked him; my question was the last one at the question-and-answer session on the last day of the teachings.

“Rinpoche,” I asked, “last night in the empowerment, you used the term ‘fierce devotion.’ So when I hear about people being banned from teaching in certain places, and students being discouraged from attending certain teachers, that raises a lot of ‘fierce devotion’ for me.”

Lama Yeshe Gyamtso stopped me right there, and explained that the term “fierce devotion” means intense devotion, not anger. I was happy to hear that, because part of my question was going to be, “What is meant by ‘fierce devotion’?”

I explained that I was not asking out of anger, but rather out of a strong protective instinct—dare I invoke the words “mama grizzly”?—to protect the students’ freedoms to choose their teachers, to protect the teachers’ livelihoods, and to protect the people responsible for imposing limitations from the negative karma involved in their actions.

Lama Yeshe Gyamtso then let the question go forward, and I got my answer.

You have many freedoms in this country, Rinpoche said. One of those freedoms is freedom of speech, and Rinpoche said he would never tell any of his students what to say, or what not to say.

I had a feeling much like the one I had in graduate school when my professor, who was teaching our class in Social Reality and Human Organizations, stood up and said, “Issues of power and authority in organizations are never issues of power and authority; they are issues of fear and insecurity.” I wanted to stand up and cheer!

So when I hear things like the ones I heard this weekend—that a brilliant Western translator and teacher has been banned from teaching at certain Western centers, not by a Rinpoche but by another Western lama—I have to wonder: What kind of dharma traditions do we really want to create here in this wild dharma borderland of North America?

Do we want to stand on the side of freedom or oppression? What organizational decisions and structures do we want to support? I think the times call for some serious introspection and questioning for all of us who are involved in Vajrayana practice in the West.

With freedom comes responsibility. Part of that responsibility, it seems to me, is learning how to trust yourself, follow your faith, and make your own decisions, rather than letting other people make those decisions for you.

These kinds of situations are especially hard for people who, like me, have feet planted in a couple of different—and sometimes conflicting—dharma camps. How can we revere our teachers and the dharma, yet object with lovingkindness and compassion instead of anger and hatred when we see things happening that we feel, in our guts, are just plain wrong?

I know that I will continue to struggle with such questions, and I trust that one day, the answers will become clear.

In the meantime, I think I just got permission from Rinpoche to say a lot more than I have said previously about my observations and concerns.

Oh, and the picture of the sandhill cranes, above: They were in attendance for the full weekend of teachings. Some people even saw them dancing!

And when Rinpoche began to speak about pointing out instructions, the cranes began to call.

A Word Witch welcomes thoughtful comments framed through the lenses of lovingkindness and compassion. Comments are moderated and may take a couple of days to show up; please be patient.


  1. I enjoyed your writing and especially the info from BTR's teaching.

    I was surprised when I heard that BTR was banned from teaching at ktc's. However it came to me that the powers that be knew Rinpoche was in a different lineage and it was a blessing that he was allowed to teach at the ktc's and gather students who were karmiclly connected to him. It was time to draw a line and have students choose. Just a thought:)

  2. Thanks for writing, Liz. Bardor Rinpoche does indeed straddle the lineages. When he teaches mahamudra, he teaches squarely within the Kagyu lineage, and indeed, HH the 16th Karmapa was his root guru.

    He is also, however, the holder of some of the treasure teachings (terma) that are separate from the Kagyu lineage--actually, I think, dzogchen teachings--through his connection with Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava).

    Also, you should know (if you don't already) that it was Bardor Rinpoche himself who resigned from KTD; the edict that he couldn't teach there or at the KTCs came later, after his resignation. And while I think that the people who "banned" him from teaching there may be underestimating the intelligence of Rinpoche's students--in terms of being able to distinguish between the different teaching lineages--what I absolutely cannot understand or agree with in any way, shape, or form, is the banning of Lama Yeshe Gyamtso from teaching at the KTCs.

    Here is a brilliant and inspiring Western teacher, and students have been deprived of the benefit of his teachings for what reason? A need to "control" KTD's message? (As if such a thing could be accomplished.) Or petty jealousy? Why? I don't get it; it makes absolutely no sense.

    I am just thankful for Bardor Rinpoche and his clear message of freedom to study with whomever one wishes--something we all need to contemplate, I think.

  3. Amen, Wordwitch. Let them all do and condemn and limit what they like. That's all just politics, AND anger, to this old ear--but keep questioning and practicing with faith.