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An Element of Unreasonability
Ocean of Dharma, our yearlong series of
teachings to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of CHÖGYAM
TRUNGPA RINPOCHE, founder of the Shambhala Sun, continues.
Mahamudra, there is an element of craziness, an element of
unreasonability. You are not conned even by the artistic simplicity of
great teacher Marpa, who lived in the eleventh century, was the first
Tibetan holder of the Kagyü lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism. In his
teaching style and his experience, Marpa represents a person
accomplished in Mahamudra, a Vajrayana approach to meditation and
meditative experience. All together, the earthiness of Marpa’s approach
is very much connected with the ground or the earth, basic earth. Mahamudra means “the great symbol” or “the great sign.” Mudra, which means “symbol,” has two aspects. It represents the wisdom of shunyata, or emptiness, and it also refers to freeing oneself from the samsaric network. Maha means
“great” or “grand” in Sanskrit. Great here has the implication of going
as far as you can go, rather than comparing yourself to something
are three stages of Mahamudra tantra: the ground, the path, and the
fruition tantras. Our discussion here is associated with ground tantra,
which is connected with developing awareness in which existing symbolism
is important. Symbolism becomes a guideline in our day-to-day
situation. Symbolism in this case is not representational, where a
symbol stands for something else. Symbolism here is seeing the deep core
of the phenomenal world as it is. It is seeing the heart of the
phenomenal world as it is. This is not just connected with relating with
people; it is also about relating to events and inanimate objects as
has both a destructive and a creative aspect. The destructive aspect of
Mahamudra is cutting through the samsaric network. The creative aspect
is developing shunyata wisdom. From the point of view of Mahamudra,
perception and seeing symbolism in the phenomenal world involves both
begin with, you cut the dualistic fabrications that develop. Then you
see the emptiness of perception. We could say that the approach of
cutting through is the masculine principle, and the approach of seeing
emptiness is the feminine principle. Shunyata is open space, and the
samsaric net is the obstruction, which creates a problem in seeing the
spaciousness of shunyata.
is a further approach to Mahamudra, particularly to the wisdom of
emptiness. This is experiencing primordial wisdom, wisdom that is born
together with ignorance. Whenever there is a dualistic split, wisdom is
there already. Wisdom occurs together with confusion at the same time.
So Mahamudra can only be perceived by what is called one taste. This one
taste, or one flavor, is beyond two. Pain and pleasure are experienced
and perceived as one flavor.
of Mahamudra are twofold: first there is a sharp blow, and then there
is clarity. It’s very dramatic, in some sense. Each time you perceive
something, the process of perception is to cut and then experience the
clarity. This kind of awareness is not just smooth and tranquil
awareness. The first perception of Mahamudra awareness is a sharp blow,
and then there is an explosion into the nonexistence. Having cut through
any fixation, you discover desolation of some kind, which is actually a
discomforting situation. That is the first glimpse of shunyata in the
in this case is quite different from the shunyata principle in the
Mahayana path of the bodhisattva or the Zen style of experiencing
shunyata. In the Zen tradition, or more generally the Mahayanists’
approach to shunyata, obstacles are removed rather than cut through. The
obstacles are dissolved. It is more like a cleaning-up process than a
cleaning-up process is referred to in the Zen tradition as the
experience of no-mind. This comes from the Yogacaran school of thought
within Mahayana. Yogacarans look at the experience of shunyata as an
experience arising out of luminous consciousness, which is brilliant and
highly intelligent. But still it is mind and mind’s view of the
nonconception of duality. It is a gentle blow. The Heart Sutra talks
about no form, no feeling, no concept, no nothing. The approach is a
gentle one, simply negating, rather than emphasizing the cutting
through. The Mahayana tradition of shunyata is a very contemplative one,
because you contemplate the nonexistence with no-mind.
When you reach the final experience of shikantaza in
the Zen tradition, of transcending any techniques of working with the
breath, you are tasting the core of both duality and non-duality, of
no-mind. However, there is still allegiance toward emptiness. Up to a
certain point, there is a euphoric experience of being absorbed into the
nothingness. It’s very cool and precise. It’s simple but artistic. It
is a work of art.
the other hand, the Mahamudra experience has no room for a work of art.
It is not an artistic measure of anything, and the work of art is not a
reference point. A gentle work of art is too civilized from Mahamudra’s
point of view. Rather, there is an element of craziness, an element of
unreasonability. You are not conned even by the artistic simplicity of
understanding of tantra was a very living experience, not an artistic
or gentle one but a very abrupt and direct experience of Mahamudra. When
he confronted situations in his life, Marpa simply plunged in. At one
point, after having made two trips to India to study with his root
teacher, Naropa, and other great teachers, Marpa returned home and was
absorbed in the pleasure of teaching his students. He had set up an
elaborate tantric mandala and shrine, and he was preparing to give
empowerments to his students.
the night before the empowerment was to begin, Marpa had a dream in
which his own guru, Naropa, was calling to him. The next day he abruptly
cancelled the ceremony and announced that he was going to India for a
third time. He quickly gathered enough gold for the journey and prepared
his baggage. His family was concerned because of his age and how
difficult the journey would be for him, so they hid the gold and the
luggage, hoping that he might stay behind if he couldn’t find his
Marpa discovered what they had done, he was very angry and said that he
was going to India whether he had his gold or not. And he left with
nothing. So his family and students had to chase after him. They invited
him back, saying that they would like to give him a farewell party and
present him with more gold for his trip.
little incidents played an extremely important part in Marpa’s life.
The messages that he received had nothing to do with scholarship or the
refined understanding that can come through linguistic studies or the
study of epistemology. The messages were simple and direct truth, and
his moves were very abrupt and definite.
his third visit was completed, Marpa gave instructions to his seven
children, and they all became great students, scholars, and yogis. His
oldest son, Tarma Dode, was particularly brilliant, and it was Marpa’s
wish that Tarma Dode become his successor. He was a very proud young
man, a learned and accomplished person who was constantly competing with
his father. If his father forgot the details of something during a
talk, his son would whisper to him how to finish a quotation or would
supply the philosophical details.
while Marpa was in retreat with many of his chief disciples and his
children, a neighboring scholar came with an invitation to attend a
garden party of scholars, teachers, and dignitaries from all over the
region. Marpa didn’t want to attend but Tarma Dode wanted to go and show
off. He wanted to exercise his authority and create a good image for
the Marpa family and the Kagyü lineage.
said, “Go if you must. But don’t engage in philosophical debate. Don’t
stay too long. Come home early.” So Marpa let him go, with Milarepa (a
great student of Marpa’s who would later become his dharma heir) as an
escort. They went to the party, and Tarma Dode was unable to avoid the
philosophical debate. He couldn’t play dumb. The discussions were wild
and exciting, and Tarma Dode was extremely pleased by his abilities to
expound fine points of philosophy and his knowledge of yogic teachings.
Milarepa reminded him that they should return early and convinced him
to leave. As they were riding home, Tarma Dode’s horse startled a bird
nesting in rushes along the pathway. The bird suddenly flew up,
defending its chicks. The horse was startled and ran wild. As it ran,
Tarma Dode fell off, with his foot caught in the stirrup. His head was
crushed by boulders. The horse ran back to the stable at Marpa’s house
with its half-dead passenger, and Tarma Dode died soon after. This was
of course tragic and disheartening for Marpa, in spite of all his
understanding of impermanence.
of Marpa’s students mentioned that Marpa had told them that everything
is illusion, that there is no substance in anything. “You used to tell
us that there is no point in worrying about things. But now that this
trouble has come, you seem really upset. How is this possible?” Marpa
replied, “My son’s death is illusion, but it is wild illusion, super
illusion. It is quite different from ordinary stupid illusions. It’s a
of this is related to our discussion of the direct messages associated
with Mahamudra. During Marpa’s third visit to India, Naropa had
magically manifested in the sky a visual mandala of Hevajra, who was
or personal deity. It was very beautiful and elaborate. Naropa asked
Marpa, “To whom will you prostrate, to the magical mandala or to me?”
Marpa thought the mandala was so unusual. It was miraculous to see it in
living form. So he prostrated to the mandala, the guru’s creation,
rather than to the guru himself.
Naropa told him it was a mistake to prostrate to the mandala. Because
Marpa didn’t have trust in human beings continuing the lineage, and
because he was deceived by magic and the superhuman forms he saw, this
would mean an interruption in his family lineage, although the lineage
of teacher and disciple would continue. Marpa was very depressed when he
realized what he had done, and thought that it was the product of
accumulated karma. He had known better, but nevertheless he had
prostrated to the illusion. He was more excited by magical creations
than by Naropa himself.
Dode’s death was the delayed action that came out of this. In Marpa’s
life, the direction and the messages came from a real understanding of
Mahamudra symbolism. When you have this understanding, the situation
creates the decisions for you, rather than you sitting down to think or
activities and development are all examples of real surrendering. If
there’s no real dedication or real surrendering to the lineage, then one
cannot expect a true understanding of Mahamudra. You can’t expect to
get the best of both worlds. If you don’t commit yourself to the
process, you can’t expect to have a Mahamudra experience. In order to
purchase a home, you have to give a down payment.
is fundamentally based on real commitment, genuine commitment. It is
commitment that is not based on day-to-day temperament or ego-oriented
projects or promises. It is based on the understanding that the journey
and the discovery are all part of giving up hope and fear.
Mahamudra, experiences come to you and they are workable. That is the
attitude one must take, rather than expecting those experiences to
constantly be confirming or pleasurable. Commitment has nothing to do
with seeking pleasure or security. It is real commitment.
we don’t have mutual commitment between guru and disciple throughout
the lineage, then what we are going to get is half-baked bread, which
can only produce a stomach upset and further sickness. The purity and
energy of the teachings cannot survive if one of the holders of the
lineage has a half-hearted commitment to the teaching. If the lineage is
not transmitted properly or completely, there is a lot of destruction
and chaos for the students.
example and approach to Mahamudra experience was based on complete
commitment and basic sanity, in which he accepted his everyday life
situations. At the same time, he was able to see those situations as the
path. You might think this sounds like too big an undertaking, but it
is extremely simple, if your patience permits. If you have real
commitment, this means that you trust yourself and you trust that there
is something true in the teachings. Commitment reflects how much you
identify yourself with the teachings and with your own life.
you are committed, then you have no choice. This is true for both
master and student. As far as the master is concerned, once the students
commit themselves to the path, it is like they are passengers getting
into an airplane. In the middle of the flight, the captain can’t kick
out the passengers; he has to hang on to them. At the same time, the
passengers might find it very claustrophobic. There is no chance to
chicken out at all. At that point, it’s too late. Either you get on the
airplane or you don’t. Once you’ve gotten on the plane, there’s no way
out. You can’t even hijack the airplane.
a person is committed to the Kagyü lineage, that person becomes part of
the lineage forever. It doesn’t matter whether you are a star, a chief,
an ordinary dishwasher, or a clerk. It’s all the same thing.
Marpa aged, his experience of continual Mahamudra messages became his
natural home ground. He didn’t have to struggle to tune into anything.
Things would just happen naturally, spontaneously. That comes when one
reaches the level of an old dog—such occurrences are no longer new to
you. You know how to tune into situations quite simply and easily.
Marpa’s life example is applicable to us. Any one of us could work our
way through situations very simply and directly, as he did.
from talk four of “The Life and Teachings of Marpa,” a seminar given by
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche at Karme-Chöling meditation center, Barnet,
Vermont, September, 1973.
Photo: Hudson Shotwell