What Are We Protecting? ~ Travis May

Via on Feb 15, 2011

“From the time we take the bodhisattva vow there is no privacy.”

In The Heart of the Buddha there is a chapter where Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche expounds on the meaning of taking the bodhisattva vow. As Buddhists, once we make this commitment we give up our right to keep any personal corner of our experience for ourselves. But how many of us are actually living up to this standard?

As a natural part of the progression of our practice it is common to take the bodhisattva vow to dedicate, not only this life, but all of our future lives, to working for the benefit of other beings. When the preceptor snaps her fingers and the transmission is completed, we have officially given up the project of “me” for all time.

In Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Trungpa Rinpoche states, “The whole point we are trying to get to is—when are we going to open, really?” But, what does this mean exactly—to give up privacy, to really open completely?

Isn’t one of the hallmarks of Americanism to value our privacy, to take umbrage in our right to maintain a personal space? What does “American Buddhism” even mean then?

We know from the Buddha’s first teachings (aka the path of the hinayana, aka the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma) that our existence is suffering. This suffering is attributed to trishna, to our grasping and clinging.  This attachment presupposes a thing that clings and and entity that holds what is grasped.  In his Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche states that all suffering is caused by our erroneous belief in the existence of a self.  The reason that attachment causes suffering is that ultimately there is nothing to attach our grasping to.

Through our meditation practice we notice a space that begins to develop between our thoughts and what we take to be ourselves. We may eventually see, as Alan Watts once said, “what we take to be the thinker of thoughts is just one of the thoughts.”  We notice that there is this awareness that has the quality of the sun and the stories we thought were our identity are merely clouds passing by the sky of mind.

To bring this back to the notion of privacy—through our practice we begin to see that these teachings may actually be true, and that all of our problems may actually be the result of building this house of cards, and in the end we are protecting an illusion.

Nevertheless, we hold back.  We don’t really want to expose ourselves completely.  We want to practice the dharma, as long as it is comfortable.  To use the dharma in this way is what Trungpa Rinpoche called Spiritual Materialism.  It is using our spirituality to pretend to practice the teachings of the Buddha, but to twist it into another game of the ego.  We fool ourselves into believing we are making spiritual progress, but in actuality we are further strengthening the cocoon of ego that separates us from an experience of true reality.

In the teachings, we have the road map to the path from here to here.  The question is—are we going to take the leap and do what they say, or are we going to let our ego pick and choose the teachings that allow us to appear to be following the path of dharma as long as it is never too painful, never too real?

To realize the non-existence of self, the teachings tell us, we must live our life in a way that shatters the tricks we pursue to keep the wool over our eyes.  We must give up our privacy entirely.  We cannot keep any little corner for ourselves.  Trungpa Rinpoche explains that as we are following the path of the bodhisattva working for the benefit of others, we helplessly attain enlightenment anyway. This is because when we open completely, keep nothing of ourselves hidden, and hold onto nothing for our (non-existent) selves, we are subverting the very mechanism that is keeping us eternally on the hampster wheel of samsara.

I was thinking the other day about a time in middle school when I was in the gym shooting baskets by myself. I was really hot, hitting one shot after another. A friend came in the gym and saw me shooting and made fun of my shooting technique. I was always skinny and weak then and I had a strange looking shot where I would hold the ball down on my shoulder and angle myself sort of sideways to the rim when I shot.  Even though this was quite effective for me, I changed my technique to something that looked better and by the time I was in high school I was quite a terrible shooter.

How I look to others has been a big concern of mine since I was a young kid. Even today, I get uncomfortable talking in front of large groups because some part of me is still so occupied with considering what everyone else is thinking about me as I speak.  I have yet to make that leap into totally relinquishing all vestiges of privacy. I may stick my toe into the water now and again, but I am still holding back.

There comes a point, it seems, when we must ask ourselves the question, “when are we going to open, really?”  What are our priorities ultimately?

I only ever wanted to know the truth, to have some insight into this situation that we call life. I have no doubt that if I follow the instructions of my teacher and follow the path of the great masters that have come before me and who are present now that I will achieve a release from the suffering of samsara and be of benefit to others.  As it says in the text of the Primordial Rigden Ngöndro, “Grant your blessings so that I may receive the courage to be outrageous.”

About Travis May

Travis May is the Director of the St. Petersburg Shambhala Meditation Center and an elephant journal editor. He currently resides in St. Petersburg, FL. You may connect with Travis on his blog, Twitter, or Facebook.

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5 Responses to “What Are We Protecting? ~ Travis May”

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  3. matthew says:

    I prefer working with what I feel. It's not an illusion to me that you and I are separate people with private thoughts. I have no idea where you are or what you're thinking. This existential discomfort and alienation is not a problem to me, but an invitation to mysterious empathy and growth. It bothers me and gives me joy at the same time.

    Wow, that was a total digression. Blessings on your patience!

  4. Travis May says:

    The teachings of Buddhism are exactly the opposite of "original sin." At our most basic nature we are a manifestation of buddha nature or basic goodness (primordial faultlessness). The flaws are temporary stains overlaying this buddha nature. Clouds passing before the sun, or dirt on the window. The practices are soap that clean the dirt off of the window. If the result of all of this work were to get down to something that was fundamentally flawed and vulgar, there wouldn't be any reason to do it, and the realized beings of the past & present would be pissed off little assholes instead of what they actually are. : )

  5. matthew says:

    Good last word. Thanks.

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