Bear Witness to All of Life (May 2013)
Shambhala Sun | May 2013
Bear Witness to All of Life
ROSHI BERNIE GLASSMAN on the three pure precepts—cease from evil, do good, and do good for others— and why they all come down to a single point.
Dogen Zenji says of the first pure precept, “ceasing from evil is the abiding place
of laws and rules of all buddhas.” This abiding place is the state of
nonduality, of not-knowing and nonseparation. The Sixth ancestor of Zen defines
zazen as the state of mind in which there is no separation between subject and
object—no space between you and me, up and down, right or wrong. So we can also
call this precept “returning to the One.”
It’s a very difficult
place to be in, this place where we don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong.
it is the place of just being, of life itself. How many of us can say that we
are open to all the ways of all lives? How many of us can say that we don’t
have the answer? How many of us can say that every way that’s being presented
is the right way?
Zen is a practice
that pushes us to realize what is. To me, zazen is a form of bearing witness to
life, of bearing witness to the elimination of the denial of the oneness of our
life. as human beings, each one of us is denying something. There are certain
aspects of life we do not want to deal with, usually because we are afraid of
them. Sometimes it is society itself that is in denial.
Zazen allows us to
bear witness to all of life. To me, that is the essence of the second pure
precept, doing good. Dogen says, “Doing good, this is the dharma, supreme
enlightenment. This is the way of all beings.”
Bearing witness to
things we are denying or that society is denying, bearing witness to the things
we don’t want to deal with— this is the second precept. When we bear witness,
we open to what is, and we learn. The things that we are in denial about teach
us. We don’t go to them to teach them. When we can listen, when we can bear
witness, they teach us.
For me, the flowering
of zazen is the third pure precept, doing good for others. Dogen says, “This is
to transcend the profane and to be beyond the holy. This is to liberate oneself
What good is it if we
just make ourselves more holy? What’s the point? The point is to serve, to
offer, to be the offering. Of itself the fruit is born. So we don’t have to
worry about what to do. if we cease from evil, if we become that state of
unknowing, if we become zazen, the offering will arise. The fruit will be born.
The question always
comes up: how do we bring our Zen into our life? but Zen is life. What is there
to bring? And into what? The point is to see life as the practice field. Every
aspect of our life has to become practice.
i was trained in a
traditional monastic model whose forms are conducive to the state of
not-knowing. The question for me is, what forms can we create in modern society
that will be conducive to seeing the oneness of life? What are the forms that
will make it easier for us to experience that state of nonduality? Almost
anything we do will cause more dualistic thinking. How do we lead ourselves,
our brothers, and our sisters into a state of nonduality? That’s the question.
That’s the koan.
Journey to Awakening (May 2013)
Shambhala Sun | May 2013
Journey to Awakening
The spiritual path is like any journey we take into uncharted territory—we need a map, a vehicle, and a guide to reach our destination. JUDY LIEF takes us on the three-yana journey of Vajrayana Buddhism.
Maps I have always been fascinated by maps. In grade
school, when we were introduced to map reading and map making, it seemed so magical that the world and its complexity could
be represented by pictures and diagrams on a simple sheet of
paper. It was amazing that if you followed the directions on the
map you would actually be able to get somewhere, even if you
had never been there before. It got even better when I discovered that I could send off a cereal-box coupon and receive in the
mail a genuine pirate’s map leading to a chest of buried treasure.
These sepia maps, ancient looking and burned on the edges, led
me to believe that I could follow such a map to the point where
“X marks the spot.”
There are many kinds of maps. We create internal maps without even being aware of doing so, mapping our physical, emotional, and mental realities. By means of a map, you can find your
way back to where you started without getting lost. A map can
lead you to someplace new or give your friends a way to find you.
Maps give us directions on how to proceed. They provide a feeling
of security and are a defense against bewilderment and disorientation. It is a relief to be able to look at a map and see where you are. It is a relief to know that you are somewhere specific, that you
came from somewhere and that there is somewhere to go.
Journeys Journeys are challenging. We leave our familiar
home and enter new territory. How do we know what to do and
where to go? Embarking on a spiritual journey is like this. The
new spiritual terrain can seem to be a kind of terra incognita,
scary and possibly overrun by monsters. We are afraid we might
get lost and not be able to find our way forward or back. We are
on a treasure hunt, but we don’t know where to look. If we have
the right map, we might be able to find that buried treasure, even
if it has been underground for many years.
On the spiritual journey, it is possible to get stuck and not
really go anywhere. It is also possible to be swept along so rapidly
that we lose our bearings. If we have no map, we might drift
about aimlessly and go round in circles. But if our trip is overly
scripted, there will be no room for personal discoveries. It would
be like signing up for a package tour in which every point of
interest has been spelled out in advance. So we need the right
kind of map, one that gives us a sense of direction and an overview of where we are going but also leaves room for us to explore.
Along with a general map of the territory, we need a good
guide for our journey who can point the way. This guide should
have explored the region so thoroughly that he or she no longer
needs an external map. Their familiarity with the terrain is so
thorough that they have developed a kind of internal map, like
an inner instinctual compass. But although they no longer need
a map themselves, such guides recognize the value of maps for newcomers, as well as the limitations of relying on maps.
On my own journey, I have been fortunate to encounter both
a guide and a map. In my case, the guide is the late Chögyam
Trungpa Rinpoche, the terrain is Vajrayana Buddhism, and the map is the teachings on the stages of the path.
Vehicles In the Vajrayana tradition, one’s journey can be
described in terms of three main vehicles, or yanas. The first is
the Hinayana path of individual liberation, the second is the
Mahayana path of greater openness and compassion, and the
third is the Vajrayana path of indestructible wakefulness. Each
yana has its own integrity and completeness, and at the same time they form a unified system. Although any one of the three
can be studied and practiced separately, the Hinayana, Mahayana,
and Vajrayana are in fact expressions of a single path.
The dynamic nature of this model is exemplified by the use of
the term yana, vehicle, rather than more static terms such as steps
or stages. When you get into a vehicle, you definitely expect it to
move along and carry you forward. Likewise, in the three-yana
journey you are continually moving forward. There is an organic
quality to the three-yana progression, in the sense that with a little
care each experience on the spiritual path naturally evolves and
grows. At the same time, as you progress along the path, you do
not drop the previous yana as you move on to the next one.
Vajrayana teachers also liken the three yanas to building a
house. Here, the Hinayana provides the foundation, the connection with the Earth. There is no way to build a solid house with-
out a foundation—it is what you build first, and it is the ballast
or support for the whole structure. But a foundation alone is
not a house; you need walls and windows and doors. This is like
the Mahayana, for it provides the possibility of hospitality and
a means of communication and exchange with the world. And finally, of course, you need a roof. You need shelter and protection and the kind of adornment that brings the whole picture
together. That roof is the Vajrayana.
This straightforward and systematic guide for practitioners is a
great benefit of the Tibetan tradition. The recently published set
of teachings by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, titled The Profound
Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, presents the three-yana teachings as the framework for deepening and refining the study and
practice of the dharma. Trungpa Rinpoche placed great emphasis
on these teachings and presented them in many individual talks
and in public seminars. He came back to this topic again and
again, and most notably, he used the three yanas as the structure
for every one of the three-month-long Vajradhatu Seminaries he
led for his most senior students. The Profound Treasury presents
these teachings to the public for the first time.
Hinayana: The Path of Individual Liberation
Before you can figure out the map of dharma, you first
have to know where you are. Hinayana is like the spot on the
map that says “You are here.” It is where you begin. This is the
yana that introduces the fundamental principles and practices of
the Buddhist tradition. These key insights are the foundation of
the Buddhist path altogether and the underpinning of the subsequent two yanas.
View In the Hinayana, you examine your view of yourself, your
actions,and the world around you. You contemplate the nature of
your own identity and discover that your seemingly solid self is in fact not all that solid. You see that sensations and experiences
arise and fall continually, but if you try to find what holds them all
together, you come up empty-handed. And as your own solidity
begins to be questionable, you also begin to have doubts about the
so-called solid world outside. There is a softening of the pain of
alienation and the split between I and other.
In this yana, you also look more deeply into your actions and
habits and their consequences. You examine the attitudes and
actions that have brought you up to this point and take a hard
look at where they will inevitably lead you in the future. You
gain respect for how small actions can have big effects. By looking closely into these patterns, you can distinguish where and
why you are stuck and where and how there might be openings
This is the yana of personal responsibility. You begin to see your
own role in creating the thought habits and emotional tangles that
entrap you. You realize how much of what seems to be out there
or coming at you is your own projections bouncing back at you.
This yana has a quality of purity and no nonsense, which
can be summed up by the Buddha’s teaching on the four noble
truths: suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to liberation. The reality of suffering, and the many subtle expressions
of suffering underlying our ordinary experiences of pain and
pleasure, is not that easy to understand or accept. It is like we
are addicted to dysfunctional living, so we keep telling ourselves it can’t really be all that bad. But maybe it is that bad, and
once we take an interest in that possibility, we are beginning to
move along. We are awakening our inquisitiveness. That leads
us to explore what might be causing our suffering, and we discover the destructive power of ignorance and grasping. This is
the truth of the cause of suffering.
The brilliance of this teaching is that right away it gives you
something to work with. Instead of dreaming of how things
might be or should be, you begin simply with what is right in
front of you. You begin to make a transition from feeling victimized: you see that since you are actually responsible for your
situation, you yourself can change it. So instead of despairing
that “you made your bed, now lie in it,” it is more like “you made
your bed, so you can unmake it as well.” This is the third noble
truth—cessation, the possibility of freedom. And finally, with
great practicality, the Buddha gave detailed instructions on how
to move forward. This is the path, the fourth noble truth.
Meditation Like the Hinayana view, which is the foundation for the entire path, the meditation practices of the Hinayana
continue right through the Mahayana and Vajrayana. The central practices are twofold, shamatha and vipashyana—mindfulness and awareness.
Basically, shamatha is the practice of taming the mind; it is a
stilling and settling of the mind. Vipashyana means “clear seeing,” and it has two aspects. There is an inquisitive, investigative component, and also a direct perceptual component that
comes when the mind relaxes and opens out. Both shamatha and
vipashyana are ways of gaining sophistication about the working
of your own mind and the play of thoughts and emotions. As a
result, you are less captured by your opinions and judgments and
not so easily overwhelmed by the intensities of your emotions.
There is a quality of kindness and self-acceptance.
Action The Hinayana is all about slowing down and simplifying. There is a paring down of experience at all levels, with
fewer distractions, fewer thoughts, less drama, fewer entanglements. When you act simply, with mindfulness, your actions
have more power. You speak when something needs to be said,
and you act when action is needed. You are learning how to be,
and you manifest the power of simple genuine presence.
In the Hinayana, there is also a quality of restraint. You practice the discipline of refraining from harmful actions. Because
you are less caught in speediness of mind, you can recognize the
arising of impulsive, negative action and nip it in the bud.
The view, practice, and action of the Hinayana set you on the
path of dharma. They help you build the mental, emotional,
and meditative health you need to grow in your dharmic understanding and realization. They prepare you well for the journey.
Mahayana: The Bodhisattva Path
of Wisdom and Compassion
The Mahayana is a natural outgrowth of the Hinayana. It is
the simplifying and paring down of the Hinayana that makes the
expansiveness of Mahayana possible. Doing the hard work of investigating your own nature and your preconceptions about the world
changes you in significant ways. You become more self-accepting,
gentler, more real and genuine. When you have become a better
friend to yourself, you are ready to be a better friend to others.
View In the Mahayana you see yourself as inextricably connected with all other beings, and because of that your individual
path expands and broadens. Your Hinayana training has brought
you to the point where you sense the underlying inclination of
all beings to awaken, and you gain more confidence in your own
potential. At the same time, you recognize that focusing on your own development is not enough. You cannot be free from suffering if you know that others around you are still suffering.
So the awareness you have cultivated through sitting practice
makes it hard to ignore the suffering of others, and it gives birth
to greater empathy and compassion. Likewise, the silence and
stillness cultivated in your shamatha practice gives birth to a
sense of vastness, openness, and continual expansion. This wide-open quality, since it is free of deception or any boundaries, concepts, or limits, is referred to as emptiness, or shunyata.
Meditation The practice of sitting meditation continues
to be important in the Mahayana. But in addition to the cultivation of mindfulness and awareness, there is an emphasis on the
cultivation of the heart and on meditation in action.
The term “meditation” usually refers to more formless practices, such as placing attention on the breathing process. But once
the mind is somewhat settled, you can engage in a variety of contemplative exercises as a mindful way of reflecting on a particular
subject. This kind of reflection could be about obstacles you need
to overcome or it could be about qualities you aspire to cultivate.
In one traditional contemplation, you contemplate the qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, known as the four immeasurables. This is not done in a
dry or abstract way; you aspire to tap in to the limitless energy
of each of these benevolent emotions and direct it outward to
beings near and far. So at one and the same time, you are deepen-
ing your understanding of these four qualities and you are evoking them on the spot.
Perhaps the most well-known Mahayana practice is that of
tonglen, sending and taking. This practice is also referred to as
exchanging yourself for others. It is a radical reversal of the habit of putting oneself before others; in this practice, others come first.
When others are experiencing difficulty or pain, you breathe that
in; when joy or confidence arises within, you breathe that out to
benefit others. You practice tonglen in relation to your own mental-
emotional process and you practice this in relation to others, starting with those closest to you and extending from there. Tonglen
practice challenges our sense of territory, limits, and boundaries; it
confronts us with the limits of our thoughts, and the limits of our
love and compassion for ourselves and other beings.
In the Mahayana, the practice of tonglen is complemented by
the ongoing practice of bringing wisdom and compassion into
our ordinary, everyday encounters. This is called meditation in
action. Formal practices are like basic training, but the test of
that training is how it manifests in your daily life. It is easy to
be compassionate in theory, but putting it into practice is not
so easy. So along with tonglen practice, you can work with a set
of Mahayana slogans called lojong (mind training) that serve as
pointed reminders to continue the cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion in the midst of daily life. These powerful
little slogans will not let you off the hook.
Although such Mahayana practices as tonglen have become
popular, Mahayana wisdom practices are equally important. In
the Madhyamaka, or middle way approach, you work with a
sophisticated system of logical reasonings to deconstruct your
ego-clinging and fixed views about reality. These cut off any
escape from immediate experience and leave you groundless, in
a kind of no-man’s-land. Although this might sound desolate or
devastating, it is simply the pain of emergence from the constraints of our fear and ego-clinging.
A related practice is the systematic contemplation of the different aspects of emptiness. Once again, you are using reasoning mind to realize the nonconceptual. You do so with such diligence,
putting so much energy and fuel into the project, that eventually
the struggling conceptual mind simply burns itself out.
A key aspect of Mahayana practice is that you continually
bring compassion and wisdom into balance. There is no real
wisdom without compassion, and no real compassion without
wisdom. Fundamentally the two are inseparable, but it is possible to lose that balance, so it must continually be restored.
Action In the Hinayana you cultivated the discipline of
restraint, of refraining from harmful actions. On that basis you
can afford to extend yourself. In the Mahayana, your discipline
is not only to limit harmful actions but to increase activities that
are of benefit to yourself and others. You are challenged to push
beyond your comfort zone and be willing to engage fully with
The notion of virtuous action in the Mahayana has great
depth. Six fundamental principles serve as guidelines: generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and knowledge.
These are known as the six transcendent perfections, or paramitas. There is constant interplay among these six and a variety
of checks and balances. And underlying all of them is the basic
Mahayana principle of putting others before yourself.
There is a subtlety in the approach to action in the Mahayana. If you are attached to the idea of being virtuous, if you are fixated on results, if you want a pat on the back, it is no longer real virtue. You may accomplish a certain level of benefit, but if your actions are less tainted by those kinds of concerns, you can accomplish much more. Without that kind of residue, there is a lightness and humor in your actions, as well as great depth and power.
Vajrayana: The Tantric Path
of Indestructible Wakefulness
The third and final yana is the Vajrayana, which is also
known as tantra. It is the natural fruition of the groundwork laid
by the Hinayana, and the expansion of the path in the Mahayana.
In the three-yana system, the Vajrayana is the fruition, the endpoint, yet it is also a continuation of what has come before. The
Vajrayana does not leave the Hinayana and Mahayana behind; it
incorporates the views and practices of the previous two yanas
and builds on them.
You gather your energy in the Hinayana and extend out in
the Mahayana. In the Vajrayana you dive into reality completely.
When you dive in without hesitation, the world is seen as sacred,
and your ordinary vision is transformed into sacred outlook. At
this point you are already steeped in the view and practices of the
buddhadharma, so the time has come to fully manifest what you
have learned. It is the Vajrayana that shows you how to do that,
and so it is known as the yana of skillful means.
View In the Vajrayana your view is expansive. It is as if you
have been trudging along a mountain trail for miles and miles and finally reach the top, where at long last you have a chance to see the entire panorama. You experience your ordinary world in a fresh way and the most mundane experiences are seen to be infused with sacredness. The Vajrayana view is nontheistic, yet you experience this sacred world as filled with deities, filled with teachers and teaching, filled with symbolism. In the Vajrayan you being to touch in to a realm of boundless space that is both luminous and empty, accommodating birth and death,
samsara and nirvana, all phenomena.
Meditation Vajrayana practices can
be divided into those with form and those
that are more formless. Naturally, the foundation for embarking on these advanced
practices is your training in shamatha and
vipashyana, and in the Mahayana mind
training and compassion practices.
Visualization practices make use of
the mind’s natural tendency to form pictures. In visualization practice you create
an image in your mind of a deity, and you
evoke the wisdom and power of that deity,
identifying the deity with those qualities in
your own nature. Visualization practices are
done in the context of liturgies, or sadhanas,
that include meditation, the recitation of
mantras, and ritual gestures, or mudras. In
tantra, there are many deities representing
different types of realization. For instance,
Avalokiteshvara represents compassion and
Manjushri represents wisdom. However, it
is important to understand that these deities are unlike more well-known theistic
concepts, such as a creator God. Tantric
deities are luminous yet empty, and they
arise and dissolve out of emptiness in the
process of visualization. They embody our
own enlightened nature.
Vajrayana formless practice is the epitome of simplicity and relaxation. This
experience is sometimes referred to as
being like an old dog. There is a carefree,
confident, and nonstriving approach to
meditation and a letting go of pretense.
Trungpa Rinpoche talked about this as
being content to be the lowest of the low.
There is an exhaustion of egoic ambition.
Vajrayana practices are meant to be
transmitted directly by an accomplished
master to students who are well-trained
and prepared to enter into them fully.
They are not taken up casually. The per-
sonal relationship between teacher and
student is paramount. The meeting of the
dedication of the teacher and the devotion of the students provides the essential
spark for Vajrayana practices to take root.
Action Vajrayana action, like that of
the previous yanas, is based on wisdom
and compassion. It has its root in mindfulness and awareness. But at this level, com-
passionate activity becomes more radical,
even wrathful, and totally uncompromising. Such action is described as having four
forms or energies: pacifying, enriching,
magnetizing, and destroying. There is a
no-nonsense approach to obstacles, and a
determination to clear away fearlessly anything that threatens to undermine one’s
progress on the path to the realization of
the sacred, wakeful nature of reality.
In the Vajrayana we recognize that
physical gestures, sounds and utterances,
and thoughts are all gateways to awakening
and should be worked with and respected.
We see that all aspects of our experience,
and the environment as a whole, are
workable on the path to enlightenment.
The Vajrayana is a complete world. Once
you enter it, every action becomes a message of the teaching. There is no boundary
and nowhere to hide.
Treasure The three-yana journey
I have been describing is not a linear
journey. You repeatedly circle back to
the beginning and start over again. Each
time you think you have reached a break-
through, you find that there is further to
go, and it becomes clear that an accomplishment at one level can become an
obstacle at the next. However, you keep
going, drawn by the lure of the treasure,
the promise of awakening, the yearning
for freedom. If you follow the map with
enough persistence, maybe you will find
it. There it will be: X marks the spot. Or
maybe the search itself is the treasure.
Maybe you have been carrying the treasure with you all along.
Judy Lief is a Buddhist teacher and the editor of The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of
Dharma, a new three-volume series presenting the
Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Seminary
teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The
author of Making Friends with Death, Lief
teaches a contemplative approach to facing death
and working with the dying and leads an annual
retreat for women touched by cancer entitled
Courageous Women, Fearless Living.
Inside the May 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine
Look inside the May 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine
Featuring "The Dude & the Zen Master," Andrea Miller's profile of actor Jeff Bridges and Zen teacher Bernie Glassman,
as well as a teaching from Glassman and his analysis of some of the The
Big Lebowski's best-known lines as seen through the lens of Zen koans.
Plus: Pico Iyer on the fires of art, passion, and Zen burning in Leonard Cohen's heart, Judy Lief's roadmap for the three-yana journey of Vajrayana Buddhism, and much more.
this issue's editorial:
For our publisher James Gimian,
this issue's cover photo of Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman says
something about "the profundity we can experience in popular culture and
the popularity we are experiencing of the profound traditions." Disclaimer: Jim is a self-identified Achiever.
feature section: the dude & the zen master
Andrea Miller abides with "Buddhistly bent" actor Jeff Bridges and Zen teacher Bernie Glassman as they reflect on the friendship, spirituality, and shared sense of social responsibility documented in their new hit book.
Roshi Bernie Glassman on the three pure precepts: cease from evil, do good, and do good for others.
Buddhism, or Dudeism? A look at some of The Big Lebowski's best-loved lines, through the lens of classic Zen koans.
more may 2013 features
passion and Zen are fires—burning the self, leaving behind only ashes
and essence, They burn in Leonard Cohen's heart, says his admirer Pico Iyer, and light up the darkness for us.
In her new Leonard Cohen biography, I'm Your Man,
Sylvie Simmons has excavated some choice pieces of wry wisdom from
years of Cohen's conversations. Here are a few enduring Cohenisms.
spiritual path is like any journey we take into uncharted territory—we
need a map, a vehicle, and a guide to reach our destination. Judy Lief takes us on the three-yana journey of Vajrayana Buddhism.
Are we so distracted that we can no longer pay attention to where we are and where we're going? Margaret Wheatley says we better unplug soon.
Look inside a new comic book celebrating nonviolent heroes Thich Nhat Hanh, Alfred Hassler, and Sister Chan Khong.
Yes, Holy Ghost Girl author Donna Johnson
was raised under one of the world's biggest gospel tents. But the truth
of a story moves like water, she says. It's this, and this, and this
too. There is always something more.
The question of human nature is the most important global issue that we face today, says Sakyong Mipham. If we conclude that humanity is not basically good, what hope does the future hold?
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Shambhala Sun, May 2013, Volume Twenty One, Number 5.
On the cover: Jeff Bridges and Roshi Bernie Glassman, photographed by Peter Cunningham.
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Inside the March 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine
Featuring Norman Fischer
on six ancient Buddhist slogans that can help transform life's
difficulties into awakening and benefit, tales of trauma and
transformation from Buddhist practitioners, and a profile of three
psychotherapists who combine Western psychology and Buddhism into a
powerful path to love and fulfillment.
Plus: a survey of the world of Buddhist-inspired popular music, Rick Bass on friendship and eco-warriorship, and much more.
feature section: life is tough / here's how to deal with it
ancient set of Buddhist slogans offers us six powerful techniques to
transform life’s difficulties into awakening and benefit. Zen teacher Norman Fischer guides us through them.
Norman Fischer on why 52 sayings formulated almost a thousand years ago are more relevant than ever.
Andrea Miller talks to Tara Brach, John Welwood, and Barry Magid, three psychotherapists who are combining Western psychology and Buddhism into a powerful path to love and fulfillment.
• Tales of Trauma and Transformation
Inspiring stories and helpful methods. Preview these via the links below.
Jazz, metal, rap, and beyond: Rod Meade Sperry reports on the intersection of Buddhism and popular music. Featuring Tina Turner, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, Born I Music , and more fascinating dharma-music innovators.
showed his friend Scott the best places, the secret places, of
Montana’s remote Yaak Valley. Together, they fought to protect the
wilderness and dreamed of a new Atlantis in the mountains.
Mother to one, sister to the other—award-winning novelist Karen Connelly on three interwoven lives and the call she will always accept.
The intention to benefit all sentient beings is the best of all thoughts, says Sakyong Mipham. Dedicating ourselves to others, we become bodhisattvas.
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Recognizing the judgments we all pass on ourselves, says Bonnie Friedman, is the first step to freedom.
Diana Winston reviews May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga and Changing My Mind, by Cyndi Lee.
Andrea Miller reviews new books by Marc Lesser, Jeffrey K. Mann, Rachel Neumann, Zachiah Murray, and more.
Shambhala Sun, March 2013, Volume Twenty One, Number 4. On the cover: Inset #1 by Frank Yang, #2 by Randy Beacham
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Ruin, Beasties, and Constant Craving (March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
Ruin, Beasties, and Constant Craving
The dharma speaks through music—it always has, it does today. From jazz to metal to rap, ROD MEADE SPERRY surveys the scene. Read his introduction and entries on k.d. lang and Born I Music, and browse our list of online music articles, below.
Buddhist Music: What is it? Is it gongs, bells, and chants? Well, yes. And, no.
has always been part of Buddhist practice, of course, but as the dharma
has made its way into the West—and the West has found its way into the
dharma—the idea of what might constitute Buddhist music has opened up.
was in 2005 that I first noticed how varied, fun, and meaningful modern
Buddhist-influenced music could be. Music had always been a constant in
my life, and that wasn’t going to change now that I’d taken up Buddhist
practice. I’d come up as a punk-rock kid, so I started with what I knew
and found out about the “first Buddhist punk band,” Ruin. If Ruin was
out there, and was so good, I reasoned, there had to be more. I found
many musicians with the artistry, the inventiveness, the passion, and
the commitment I’d come to see in my fellow practitioners. I started
mapping them on my website, TheWorstHorse.com, and it didn’t take long
before an exciting new world appeared to me.
the gongs, bells, and chants of yore might be sampled or stood in for
by scalding punk guitars, otherworldly vocals, or wholly unforeseen new
approaches across a variety of genres. Sometimes the connections are
explicit, sometimes less so—sometimes they’re bald-faced marketing
choices—but like the
dharma itself, Buddhist-inspired music can prompt us to see beyond the
boundaries we so often take for granted. It can be (almost) anything. So
now’s a great time for dharma-music nuts like me. Here’s just a
sampling of the many artists who are making it so.
The Pioneers: Setting the Western Stage
Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Yoko
Ono: These are the names that come to mind right away when
we consider Buddhism’s influence on contemporary music. And
rightly so; these composers have been instrumental in blending
dharma and adventurousness from the get-go, seizing on the
attitudes adopted by America’s Beat poets—Allen Ginsberg was
only too happy to bust out his harmonium and perform his loving takes on Buddhist sutras—and applying them to a range of
Others would join them in bringing a dharmic influence into
so-called serious music. Avant-garde composers such as Eliane
Radigue, Toshiro Mayuzumi, and Terry Riley harnessed orchestras and electronics alike to mimic Tibetan chants and drones
and to create musical complements to actual Buddhist teachings.
Peter Lieberson’s “Drala” was commissioned by the Boston
Philharmonic and his “King Gesar” was recorded by Yo-Yo Ma.
In the pop realm, Laurie Anderson and now-husband Lou Reed
would reflect their own dharma studies in their later work, and
poet/balladeer Leonard Cohen would take up serious Zen practice with the master Joshu Sasaki Roshi.
Meredith Monk, speaking on Public Radio’s On Being, neatly
explained how Buddhism and music-making complement one
another: “It’s really about fluidity, about being so in the moment
that you are in pinpoint focus, but at the same time you’re completely open to what the moment has to give you or to tell you.”
Putting that openness and focus to work, these pioneers
helped set the stage for whole new generations of genre-busting,
Classic classics: The Kundun soundtrack and his Symphony No. 5 are fine examples of Philip Glass’ work
and its dharmic content. The late Peter Lieberson balanced classical and avant-garde elements in Ashoka’s
Dream. All-out experimentalism rules the day in Toshiro Mayuzumi’s Nirvana Symphonie and Eliane
Radigue’s Trilogie de la Morte.
k.d. lang: Singing it Loud
“‘Constant Craving’ is all about samsara.” Ask people about Buddhism and modern music, and you’re almost certain to hear that comment about k.d. lang’s lush and enduring 1992 hit, with its lyrics of longings never fulfilled. Even Buddhists who don’t know that lang is a dedicated practitioner herself seem to make the connection.
And a dedicated Buddhist she is. finally off the road after some nineteen months of touring to support her latest album, Sing It Loud!, lang has new songs brewing but is currently focused on another passion: furthering the practice of dharma as expounded by her late teacher, Lama Chödak Gyatso Nubpa, a master of the nyingma or “old school” of Tibetan Buddhism.
“I think dharma has been a part of who I am, in this lifetime, since before I found my teacher,” says lang. “When I met Lama Gyatso Rinpoche, I felt immediate connection and devotion, and then dedicated the next ten years, until his passing, to him. I still continue giving my ‘civilian life’ to dharma.”
Before his passing, lang says with a little laugh, her teacher gave his student “a to-do list that was almost infinite.” There was a general mandate to build a strong, functioning sangha in Los Angeles, as well as all manner of other initiatives:
“We started Ari Bhod, the American Foundation for Tibetan Cultural Preservation, a sort of umbrella for various things like Tools for Peace, the mindful program that we’re bringing to schools now. We have cultural preservation, text translation, thangka painting, statue-making. Everyone should have an opportunity to integrate the dharma into every aspect of their life and make their everyday life a practice. Rinpoche taught that over and over and over again.”
Meanwhile, lang’s fan base seems at ease with her devotion, just as they were when she came out in ’92 (not such a common pop-culture occurrence back then) or when she’s been vocal about her activism for human and animal rights (although her very public vegetarianism has not gone down well in her native Alberta).
“I want to be all inclusive,” she tells me. “I’m interested in having an extremely diverse audience. It’s a worthy aspiration to appeal to everyone and not sell out.” To keep up with k.d.’s work, visit her online at kdlang.com and at aribhod.org.
Kickin’ It Old School: Though performing in an idiom wholly different from lang’s, Sir Richard Bishop (of Sun City Girls and
a huge catalog of solo work) and W. David Oliphant (of Life Garden, Maybe Mental, and his own solo catalog) have released Beyond
All Defects, an album inspired by Dzogchen (“The Great Perfection”), the main teaching of the nyingma school. The album seeks to
evoke a spiritual journey through programming, droning guitars, and what Bishop calls “big-ass Tibetan horn sounds.”
BORN I MUSIC: Hip-Hop Smooth as Honey on a Razor's Edge
music, and religion—those things are in constant interaction in my
songs,” says rapper/producer Born I Music. “There’s a dharma-piece in
everything I do.” What he’s doing right now is getting ready to release a
new album, King of Kings.
one hand,” says Born about the album’s title, “it’s an egotistical
statement about what I feel my position will be when the project drops.
But it also has to do with the mind. In my music, you’ll hear competing
impulses from the sensory worlds: ‘This feels good. This looks good.’
These are like feudal lords battling for our awareness, our primordial,
fundamental mind. In the end, I believe our natural awareness or
awake-ness is the real king.”
ego/awareness dichotomy is present in all that Born does, and that’s no
accident. “I’m a Buddhist artist and I don’t want to sugarcoat things.
But I’m also in the rap world, which has its trappings: material things,
status. They’re sticky and sweet, and we’re hardwired to be attracted
to them. I’m going to be honest about that, but I also know that
materialism by itself is like honey on a razor’s edge. That’s important
on the dharma path, if we want to lead ourselves to genuine happiness.”
feels that such genuine happiness is something everyone should have,
and he gives his time in several ways, including teaching meditation to
kids. He also thinks his music can inspire an oft-ignored contingent. “I
want to reach out to the audience that’s reached out to the least—those
who are rejected as a ‘criminal element’ or outcasts. I want to tell
them, ‘I’m right there with you. We’re all in this life together.’”
Judging by his excellent Tomorrow Is Today LP, his album with the rap duo Shambhala, and his 2012 single “Number One,” Born’s King of Kings should deliver.
Hear more from Born I Music in this Shambhala Sun Audio interview, all about his Buddhist practice and his Tomorrow Is Today LP.
Ian Astbury and The Cult: Reborn, again
The influential postpunk-turned-
rock band known as The Cult recently
resurfaced with a new album, Choice
of Weapon. Dharma first showed up
as an overt influence on 2007’s Cult
LP, Born Into This. This time around,
spiritually inclined frontman Ian
Astbury is talking to the press not just
about the new music but also about the Buddhism that informs it.
Astbury told MTV that he’s read Chögyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism “countless times.” He considers Pema
Chödrön a “great teacher”: “She has incredible insight. She’s lived
the Western life. She has grandchildren. She understands, but she’s
an ordained Buddhist nun. If you have the opportunity to see her
speak, do.” Choice of Weapon’s cover art even depicts a shaman (a
figure not unfamiliar to diehard fans of the band) brandishing a
dorje, a Buddhist symbol of enlightenment.
Tina Turner: The Queen, Happier Than Ever
Unsurprisingly, much of R&B legend Tina Turner’s connection to Buddhism comes by way of sound—specifically,
chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (“I devote myself to the
Lotus Sutra”), the key practice of Nichiren Buddhism and
of Turner’s Buddhist community, Soka Gakkai International.
She talks about how it has made a famously difficult life better.
How has your practice changed you?
I feel at peace with myself, happier than I have ever been,
and it is not from material things. Practicing the words Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for so long has put me in another frame of
mind, so that even when I don’t practice for a day or a week, I
still feel happy. But I do practice. The chant makes you comfortable because it removes uncomfortable mental attitudes.
What does it mean that your album Beyond is about prayer?
It means that people who work in the arts need prayer as
much as anyone else. I don’t separate my work as a rock
singer from prayer. Everything has been very positive, and
that’s because of my spiritual practice.
Is singing a spiritual practice for you?
Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is a song. It is a sound and a rhythm,
and it touches a place inside you. That place we try to reach is
the subconscious mind.
Lotus Flower Formula: Back in 2007, rapper Xzibit sampled the chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in his
single “Concentrate” (its use of less “enlightened” language peeving some adherents in the process). The leg-
endary psychedelic outfit Acid Mothers Temple devoted a full-length song/album/freak-out to the chant. Pop
figures Courtney Love, Belinda Carlisle, and Duncan Sheik, as well as the late songstress Phoebe Snow, have
also engaged in the practice of Nichiren Buddhism.
Sculptures of Sound: San Francisco Zen Center Opens the Musical Gates
In the public mind, Zen temples are envisioned as bastions
of quietude and order. But the practitioners at the famed San Francisco Zen Center—which just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary—see something more. They see a realm where statues of
bodhisattvas can collude with sculptures made of sound. Hence
Zen Center’s adventurous musical programming that, more and
more, is bringing in respected avant-garde acts.
SFZC’s program director, David Zimmerman, explains that
a member of local arts-and-events collective The Bold Italic
began sitting at Zen Center and suggested that meditation and
music programming might go hand in hand. It’s proven to be, Zimmerman says, “a wonderful dharma-gate outside the traditional.” Soon enough, the celebrated drone-metal duo Barn Owl was performing at SfZC, followed by August’s Soundwave festival, featuring semi-electronic soundscapers En.
At Soundwave, sessions of guided meditation, kinhin (walking
meditation), and chanting led directly into band performances.
This made for one-of-a-kind shows, and the musicians appreciated the heightened quality of presence in their audiences.
Zimmerman says the public can expect more such collaborations
in the future.
Dharma Thunder: The Metal-and-Punk Connection
The interconnection between Buddhism and punk is pretty well
established by now: Zen teacher Brad Warner writes about them
both and still plays bass for the revivified old-school punk outfit
Zero Defex. Dharma Punx, established by Buddhist teacher noah
Levine (also the founder of Against the Stream), even repurposed
a cover graphic from Black flag contemporaries Blast! for its logo.
And as far back as 1982, Philadelphia’s Ruin, founded by guitarist and future Buddhist author/scholar Glenn Wallis, was covering
Leonard Cohen (reportedly a Ruin fan himself) and performing its
own Buddhism-informed material.
Just as punk and metal eventually crossed over into each other,
it was only a matter of time before dharma and super-heavy metallic music did the same. Sometimes only a slight influence, or even
straight-up cultural co-optation, is at play: cult-favorite bands like
Yakuza, Earth, Sons of Otis, Meshuggah, Stargazer, and Skullflower,
as well more arena-oriented acts like Rage Against the Machine,
Loudness, and Uriah Heep, have all used Buddhism-related imagery in their album art. Sometimes there’s real substance. There’s
no better example than Portugal’s The firstborn. Starting as
a death-metal act, the band soon found inspiration in The
Tibetan Book of the Dead—hey, it worked for The Beatles—
and used it as the basis for their first LP, The Unclenching of
Fists, recorded in 2004. This was followed by 2008’s The Noble
Search and last year’s Lions Among Men. Both explicitly address
dharmic themes (Buddhist scriptures and Mahayana Buddhist
thought, respectively) while incorporating an Eastern musical
palette into an often aggressive, always full-spectrum sound.
THE FM3 BUDDHA MACHINE: A Temple of Sound, in your pocket
Aesthetically, it’s sort of a cross between
your grandpa’s transistor radio
and an iPod. But the sound that
comes out of the fM3 Buddha
Machine isn’t what you’d
expect out of either of those.
Instead, the Machine plays
dreamy, drony loops cre-
ated by a duo in Beijing who
took their inspiration from a
similar gadget that some Asian
temples employ to play full-
volume loops of actual Buddhist
chants. (The machines keep the chants
make it seem to the world that the temples are
packed with enthusiastic and vocal aspirants.) The fM3 machine
works in much the same way, only with its own custom sounds.
Music fans quickly learned to love its soothing, lo-fi charms.
Musicians, too: since its 2007 release, the Machine has spawned
four “remix albums” that feature contributions from Chinese as
well as Western artists, including Robert Henke of Monolake, the
metal/drone-duo SunnO))), and the Sun City Girls. The Buddha
Machine can be hard to find; luckily, there’s now an iPhone app that stands in nicely.
IN THE CLUB: Dharma Talks and “DubSutra” on the Dance Floor
While he has yet to rap, Tibetan teacher Sogyal Rinpoche,
author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, has been
experimenting with club music as a way to reach young peo-
ple. “Awake Amsterdam,” held at a hip concert venue in May
2011, combined Buddhist teachings with electronic music in a
nightclub setting, followed by a dharma talk and, yes, meditation. Attendance topped out at 700, and a 2012 “Awake” event
was quickly planned.
In Japan, two aspiring Jodo Shinshu priests, performing as
Tariki Echo, are making Buddhist dance music inspired by the
musical trend of the moment, dubstep. While their helmets
might evoke the famed french electronic act Daft Punk, TE
are their own unique animal. They’ve created their own genre,
“dubsutra,” made by matching Buddhist sutras to dubstep
beats, and released their first album, Buddha Sound, last year.
You can hear their work online at tarikiecho.jp.
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan : Musical Adventures in the Pure Land
As a fan of heavy and—okay—often weird music, I was pretty excited when I
learned about Yamantaka // Sonic Titan. Their name is a hybrid, combining a
Buddhist deity and the title of a truly epic track by the classic doom-metal band,
Sleep. And they sound it: the band’s self-titled debut LP is at turns beautiful, pummeling, noisy, and transcendent. YT//ST is ambitious; they’ve
already completed 33, a rock opera that incorporates Buddhist themes,
and another, Star, is in progress.
When I got the chance to see them recently, I found the band’s blend of musicianship, exploration, Buddhist themes, and theatrics even more potent on stage than it is on record. Led by drummer Alaska B. and vocalist Ruby Kato Attwood, the band—all in face paint evoking noh theatre as well
as heavy metal’s more extreme forms—is capable of holding a music hall in thrall.
Attwood enhances the band’s already undeniable presence through a series of
Buddhist mudras matched with facial expressions that seem at once compassion-
ate and fierce. See them if you can, but listen to them either way. You can stream all
of YT//ST’s debut album online at yamantakasonictitan.bandcamp.com.
Jerry Granelli: The Real Stuff
“I didn’t come to the dharma looking to be a better musician,” Jerry
Granelli says. “I’d accomplished most of what I’d hoped for. But
I didn’t know how to be a human.” At 71, the jazz drummer and
music-and-meditation teacher is as vital and inventive as any artist
could hope to be.
As a jazz musician, he made a name for himself young. That’s
the 22-year-old Granelli drumming on Vince Guaraldi’s beloved
“Linus and Lucy,” the Peanuts’ theme song. He played with the likes
of Carmen McRae, Bill Evans, and Sly Stone, but by the time he
met his teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, in the early 1970s, he was at a crossroads: tired, and perhaps even “done with music forever.”
But Trungpa Rinpoche told him, “no, no, that’s where your real
stuff will come up.”
At Trungpa Rinpoche’s urging, he began connecting with
musicians and meditators as a teacher, and he still teaches both,
blending them together. He says meditation is “mandatory”
for the many players—pros and beginners alike—who attend
his workshops in the hopes that his talent and wisdom might
rub off on them. “They love it,” he says. “It’s a way for them to work with their whole artistic process, their whole lives.
Dharma Americana—Jazz and Beyond: Pianist Herbie Hancock, reed
players Wayne Shorter and Bennie Maupin, and bassist Buster Williams are all
practitioners of nichiren Buddhism; singer Tamm E. Hunt is a Mahayana Buddhist;
Joseph Jarman of the famed Art Ensemble of Chicago is a Jodo Shinshu priest. In
the singer-songwriter realm, musicians like Jake LaBotz, Ravenna Michalsen, Meg
Hutchison, and Alan Senauke are applying Buddhist lessons to musical hybrids
that include elements of the blues and other folk musics. There’s even, thanks to
the great Peter Rowan, a Heart Sutra-inspired bluegrass tune, “Vulture Peak.”
For more about the Buddhism-and-music connection, see this full article in the March 2013 Shambhala Sun. And don't miss these online stories from the Shambhala Sun archives and our blog, Shambhala SunSpace:
The Wu-Tang frontman sat down with the Sun to discuss how far his spiritual quest has taken him, and how far he still hopes to go.
Over a long and brilliant career, the poet
and singer has lived many lives already, from essence of hip to
celebrated lover to serious Zen man. Pico Iyer on Cohen’s
journey from Suzanne to Sesshin.
And to a remarkable extent, Leonard
Cohen is succeeding. In 2007, Sarah Hampson had a rare opportunity to
spend an afternoon with the famed singer and poet. He had the wisdom of
age but was still the essence of cool—the perfect reflection of his
years of Zen.
Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo speaks to Jeff
Pardy about his introduction to meditative practice, and it’s impact on
both his music and the band.
Judy Bond Interviews Radiohead's Thom Yorke at the 1998 Tibetan Freedom Concert.
A series of deaths—her husband, brother
and closest friend—has softened the heart of the once angry poet and
singer. "Sorrow is like a precious spring," says Patti Smith, and with
it has come an outburst of writing, recording and performing.
The Cult's Ian Astbury shares his feelings about the dharma teacher.
the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll. An unwanted child. A believer in the power
of love. A longtime Buddhist. Andrea Miller talks to Tina Turner.
Her new album, Watershed, reflects the dramatic changes in her life since she became a committed Buddhist. k.d. lang talks for the first time about her Buddhist teacher and practice.
In the public’s minds, Zen temples are probably most often envisioned as bastions of quietude and order. But the pioneers at San Francisco Zen Center see a realm where statues of bodhisattvas can collude with sculptures made of sound.
In Japan, two aspiring Jodo Shinshu priests, performing as Tariki Echo, are making Buddhist dance music inspired by the musical trend of the moment, dubstep.
While he has yet to rap, Tibetan teacher Sogyal Rinpoche has been experimenting with club music as a way to reach young people.
k.d. lang photo by Jeri Heiden
Born I Music photo by Chris Carr
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