Ego, Where Art Thou?

Via elephant journal
on Apr 6, 2010
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@Ryderjaphy Oldsmobile

When you awake, you laugh. – Terchen Barway Dorje

It sure has been one hell of a ride: my life keeps getting more and more surreal the closer I get to its end, kept alive by a defibrillator and a kitchen-sink-full of medications.

When my wife’s gynecologist called Saturday morning to inform her that she needs to see an oncologist, we didn’t know whether we should laugh or cry.

I wish there were such a thing as a real ego, a redoubt, a rock to hold fast to, a higher ground we could seek refuge in—but there isn’t, I’m afraid.

According to Buddhist teacher Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, “A view to hold, a person with a theory, all of this is just conceptual activity.” So we laugh instead.

This doesn’t mean Buddhists don’t have egos or that we’re supposed to be egoless (a common misconception among people more interested in psychology than Buddhism).

In Tibetan Buddhism we are instructed to contemplate what we call self-existence, which is the closest we ever come to discussing the subject.

Take a table, for example. We then take the table apart, and piece by piece we look for the table among all the parts until we can without a shadow of a doubt say that there is no such thing as a table.

Then we have a good laugh at ourselves and enjoy our table for what it is instead of what we thought it was before we contemplated its true nature.

My path began one winter evening in 1972 when I went to bed, a relatively well-adjusted 13-year-old kid enjoying my middle-class suburban life in Yorktown Heights, New York.

I actually thought I was someone—just as most people think a table is a table; is what it appears to be until some tragedy comes along and reduces it to a pile of splinters.

My dad had chest pains and was admitted to Peekskill Hospital, and then while preparing to be discharged, he suddenly died of an aneurysm of the aorta and…was gone forever.

Not quite 10 years later when I met Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, my view of Buddhism was based solely on what I had read up to then. I was totally miserable.

I can laugh about it now, but at the time I sobbed like a baby as I told Rinpoche how it felt to be me, and then I placed my life in his hands. And it has remained there to this day.

When Ngodrup Tsering Burkhar translated my story to Rinpoche, he didn’t respond with “Everything is empty, I’ll fix you in a jiffy,” thankfully.

Instead, Rinpoche listened attentively to Ngodrup, and then he took my hands in his and placed his forehead on mine and said “We will never be apart again.”

Years later, around the time Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche died in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, I remember thinking how the worm had already turned.

That’s how quickly everything changed for Tibetan Buddhism; not that it’s over for us, but we definitely squandered our first attempt at making it our own.

By that time, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche traveled not to any of the 16th Karmapa’s centers (not his choice) but instead he traveled to Taiwan, where the benefactors are, I’m told.

The monastery in Woodstock limped along and the emphasis became the retreat center in Delhi, New York, which is basically where we are today as a lineage.

A friend of mine shared with me recently, from his days as the director of Chicago KTC, the perspective of the home office in India, and what he shared came as no surprise.

After repeatedly extending an invitation to His Eminence Tai Situ to visit Chicago without success, it was explained to him that the old days are gone forever.

We would be more than welcome to visit and study at Palpung Sherab Ling, in Himachal Pradesh, Northern India, for example, but otherwise we were wasting our time.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught Tibetans a lesson they won’t soon forget (the opposite of what we think of as his legacy): We really aren’t worth the effort.

When I look at the past 30 years’ history of the Karma Kagyu in America I can hardly find fault with Tibetans taking care of Tibetans.

This of course is but the perspective of a dying man (now with a sick wife) who chose the Dharma over being a better person (“Look mom, I have no ego!”).

I look forward to hearing what others have to say as to where we’re at as Tibetan Buddhists, especially in light of the cancellation of the 17th Karmapa’s European tour.

As always, my purpose here is to initiate a frank discussion of a topic that concerns me—not to be disrespectful of the tradition to which I’ve committed my life.


Karmapa Chenno

@Ryderjaphy Ego

(@RyderJaphy on Twitter)


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82 Responses to “Ego, Where Art Thou?”

  1. Bill Schwartz says:


    I'm trying to get Lama Kathy to weigh in on this conversation so if you could reach out to her it would be appreciated very much for their is nothing to do with the dharma holding back.

    I can remember when translators started publishing their translations of Tibetan texts people were aghast at the thought of making the dharma available to people as such.


  2. Bill Schwartz says:


    I always like to direct people to Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche's appendix IV "Looking Back: The Purpose of Ngondro" in his "Mind Beyond Death."

    It provides a model for us to discuss the purpose of the various institutions and practices of the past with respect to their purpose to us as a lineage.

    But first we have to fight the battle still being fought in the lineage as to whether anything to the lineage is subject to discussion.

    There are many that went Tibetan as kids in my generation who aren't too keen that there are those among us that believe everything has to be examined.

    To question something doesn't lessen its effectiveness anymore than reading a play by Shakespeare before a performance ruins seeing the play.

    We don't have to be afraid to discuss that which have been taught and believe to be true as if such a discussion is somehow disrespectful of our traditions and institutions.

    In the end and there is nothing to be done but to rely on the dharma however we practice it in all our imperfection for that moment we have to return our bodies to the elements with equanimity.


  3. Shunyata Kharg says:

    Thank you for answer, Sean, much appreciated!


  4. Shunyata Kharg says:


    Shedra, there you are, another word I knew nothing of until you mentioned it. Many thanks! As I once read, "Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance."

    I hope these words of mine find you well.

    Amor et Pax,


  5. Shunyata Kharg says:


    Many thanks for your knowledgeable opinion.

    I would completely agree. Isn’t it said that there are eighty-four thousand Dharma doors?

    What I would really, really be interested in is access to the curriculum of the Kagyu Shedra. I see that you were the translator of Wangchuk Dorje’s commentary to the Madhyamakavatara, which according to Wikipedia is part of this curriculum, so I have an inkling that I’m talking to the right person! Would you be so kind, please, as to indicate to me the books which form part of the Kagyu Shedra curriculum and that are publicly available?

    Many, many thanks,


  6. Shunyata Kharg says:


    I'm very sorry to hear about the death of your friend. My sincerest condolences.

    Being skeptical, from my perspective, is suspending judgment on things, not clinging to them as existing or not existing. So I don’t see being skeptical as contradictory to recognizing, in all its forms, the interdependence of things. The butterfly effect of chaos theory is as real as say anthropogenic global warming.

    Many moons ago, I had a very vivid dream in which I was at the bottom of a very deep swimming pool with some of my closest friends. We were kind of surprised to find ourselves there and this surprise led us to panic so we began to make our way to the surface as fast as we could. I woke up just before I drowned. That day, my mother called me and invited me to a restaurant for supper, something that was not at all usual. At the beginning of the meal, I related my dream to my mother and my brother, both of whom seem very reserved in their judgment of it. That weekend, I was invited to my mother’s house for lunch. Having plied me, and herself, with a generous amount of alcohol she went on to explain that she had invited me out for supper the previous evening to tell me that one of my closest friends had died. The mother of this friend, who lives in the US, only had the telephone number of my family home. My friend had died the night of my dream drowned in a white-water canoeing accident.

    It really is great that people like Sean Jones and Tyler Dewar are beginning to get themselves involved in these discussion threads of yours, Bill. I’m greatly looking forward to being able to converse with them some more in the future!


  7. Shunyata Kharg says:


    Fantastic, thank you again, it really is very kind of you to assist me in this way.

    I do have a couple of questions, unfortunately (for both of us!). Firstly, the URL you give mentions the eight great treatises but doesn't explicitly sate them by name, only giving explicit names to commentaries of the same. Is there any chance you could give me the titles and authors of the root texts (and any English translations you know of)? Maybe the texts you talk of in the rest of your message above addresses this question of mine, but it would be great to have a definitive list anyway.

    The second question is a more general one. Wikipedia's entry for Sutrayana states that it is one of three yanas, the other two being Tantrayana and Dzogchen. Would you agree with this? If so, I suppose the Kagyu school doesn't study the Dzogchen yana … or does it?

    Many thanks again,


  8. Shunyata Kharg says:


    Ups, please scrap the first question of mine if you consider the list below correct!

    1) The Ocean of the Tradition of Reasoning – Rikshung Gyatso

    2) Madhyamakavatara – Tak-gyu Druppay Shingta

    3) Abhisamayalamkara – Jetsun Ngalso

    4) Abhidharma – Drupday Chijo

    5) Vinaya – Dultik Nyimay Kyilkhor

    6) Ratnagotravibhanga – Midokpa Senggay Ngaro

    7) The Profound Inner Meaning – Zabdon Nangjey

    8) Hevajratantra – Zhomme Dorjei Sangwa Jepa

    I see now how your comments on translations fits in with the above! Many thanks. My second question still stands though (at the moment!).


  9. 21taras says:

    Hi Chris, I took a look at that Wikipedia entry and it is quite confusingly written. I am no scholar but I believe the 3 yana classification refers to Hinayana, Mahayana (together classified as Sutrayana) and Vajrayana (which would include Tantrayana/Dzogchen).

    So the Kaygu focus would be on Mahamudra, here classified as Tantrayana, the Nyingma on Dzogchen, with its attendant 9 yanas.


  10. bubba says:


    Thanks for sharing what you found. I would be happy to supply a more detailed list, including English translations of the titles, at some later point; I just won't be able to get to it for the next few days.

    About the sutrayana question, I'm not familiar with the categorization scheme that appears in the Wikipedia entry. In most Indo-Tibetan philosophical texts I've read, "3 yanas" usually refers to the vehicles of the hearers (shravakas), solitary realizers (pratyekabuddhas), and bodhisattvas. There is also the "hinayana-mahayana-vajrayana" usage of "3 yanas," but this appears to me to be more colloquial (used by lamas in dharma talks). It is true that sutrayana usually appears in a diad along with tantra (or "mantra"), but I hadn't heard before of the presentation that has vajrayana as consisting of the two elements of tantra and dzogchen. There was no link provided in the Wikipedia article so it's difficult to investigate the sourcing on that.

  11. Tyler_Dewar says:

    Chris, it is me, Tyler. Haha, some time ago I posed "anonymously" (I admit when I'm going a little tongue-in-cheek with my comments I do occasionally do that, though hopefully to no grossly unskillful effect), and my computer stored that login. Oh dear.

  12. Tyler_Dewar says:

    Those are some brilliant comments on the three prajnas, Bill, and one of the most eloquent statements of support of this approach I've ever seen. Thank you!

  13. 21taras says:

    Hi all, Tyler is of course correct to point out that Vajrayana should not, even in the more casual categorization, be divided into the two elements of Tanta and Dzogchen, but simply Tantrayana, of which Dzogchen is a part. Sorry if I implied otherwise. Chris, I would love to see that list when you get it finished..


  14. parkstepp says:

    With all respect My Friend..and I do respect your Path…I truly feel that Tibetan Buddhism ,along with Christianity,All of the Worlds great Faiths , well as the other schools of Thought,,are quietly merging into a One Very Clear Understanding ,of what the hell is going On.Why we are here….How do our different Beliefs connect,and how are they coming to a common Point.Buddha was Christ to me…Pointing the way to Walk,.. Pointing the Way for Us Beings to Wake Up .All of this must have a common Source…and a common destination,,which is our Becoming aware of our True Nature..Our United Path…Our Oneness.Tibetan Buddhism in America is not is evolving and joining with New Thought…New understandings…It is Being True to its Original Intent..which is to Free Us from this Dream..To show Us all how Beautiful and incredible we Are..Peace

  15. bill schwartz says:


    HHK17 said it best of course, "This is true for Westerners and it is true for Easterners—there is no difference," regarding the three prajnas.

    "This is the way that all the siddhas and great masters of the past have done it, and this is the way we have to do it also" according to the Karmapa.


    PS I refer those interested in subject of Three Prajnas to talk translated by Jules Levinson and edited by you of HHK17's "Hearing, Contemplating, and Meditating."

  16. Shunyata Kharg says:

    Tyler and Sharon,

    Have twittered you both with this, but thought I'd post it here too just in case anybody else was interested:

    The above link is as far as I've got identifying the 8 great texts used in the Kagyu Shedra Curriculum along with any English translations. If anybody has any further information I can add to this, I would be more than happy to do so! Try me on twitter @Shunyata_Kharg ..

    Many thanks,


  17. bill schwartz says:


    I've never personally thought of the Buddha like a Christian thinks of Christ so I have to imagine what that would be like which is an interesting contemplation in itself.

    I remember reading of conversations between Thomas Merton and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche which touched upon how Tibetan Buddhists are so inexplicably uninterested in the original Buddha.

    Whereas Christians are quite vested in Jesus we aren't all that concerned with the Buddha as much as we are concerned with his enlightenment.

    However we think of the Buddha himself what matters most to us is not who he really was as much as what he accomplished and how we can accomplish his enlightenment ourselves.

    From my personal perspective what's really going on is that life sucks but it need not be experienced as such which is the key to unlock that which fetters us to our suffering in this life.

    It's not like the Buddha discovered this key but the key is within each and every sentient being who has ever been or ever will be whether enlightened or not as our Buddha-nature.


  18. bill schwartz says:


    Whenever I see a reference to Chandrakirti I'm reminded of a comment made by Khandro Rinpoche when she was here in 2008.

    During her days she went to Catholic school and evenings studied the dharma with her father in his monastery.

    As a teenager when it came to studying Candrakirti she caused quite a stir when in a snit claimed she wanted to convert to Catholicism.

    She so disliked the Madhyamakāvatāra despite being the reincarnation of the dakini of Tsurphu she felt compelled to go there.

    Just glancing at the Shedra curriculum I can see why every Khenpo I've ever encountered can only sigh wistfully when the subject comes up.


  19. Shunyata Kharg says:


    Some of these texts are hardly trivial to understand, even as a mature adult. I must admit that in the case of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, for example, that finally understanding it after the second read (thank you Garfield for the translation!) has been very helpful.

    For me, the salient feature of this Shedra curriculum is that only a small percent of the texts are actually in English. That is to say, that completing it, even here in the West, means having first to have a strong grasp of Tibetan. As you yourself have mentioned before, it does now seem to me as well that for some aspects of the lineage it is still "go Tibetan or bust".


  20. Shunyata Kharg says:


    I understand, and I really do appreciate the effort involved. I moved to live in Spain at the age of twenty-eight and had to learn two languages, Catalan and Spanish, to get along so I have a fair understanding of what the task of translation entails. I have also worked in both the printing and publishing industries for a few years each, so do also understand the effort involved in getting printed material out of the door.

    Given the choice between writing my own work and translating somebody else’s I would much prefer the former. However, the Tibetan texts we are talking about here are of quite a different character altogether and would even motivate someone like me to get my translators cap on. Shame I can’t either read or write Tibetan, or I’d put my two-cents of effort in as well (no joke).

    I am particularly enamoured by Vajrayana’s "songs of realization" and I understand that a significant portion of the corpus of such literature has still to be translated from Tibetan. If I were a young man without the responsibilities I have now, you can be quite sure that I’d be on the first flight to Dharamsala with the express intention of learning Tibetan (and whatever else it took) to be able to bring these into English. Ho-hum, maybe another lifetime 🙂


  21. John Morrison says:

    I can't even imagine the time and effort involved in translating some of these texts. (I put plenty of effort into just reading some of these in English). As a literature major in college, you can destroy a text with a poor translation – it's just in the last decade that you have seen what I would consider "good" translations of Dostoevsky. And I have yet to find a "good" English translation of Proust.

    And French / Russian are languages with a great number of speakers…

    One of my favorite things about Tibetan texts is that they are often written somewhat lyrically, chock full of metaphors, etc. This is what I like about Tyler's translation of "Feast for the Fortunate" is that it remains true to the style of the original.

    Much as I'd like to read them all now – I can live with getting an occassional "good" translation that was done with a sense of reverence for the original, rather than having translations available immediately that are basically Copy / Pasted into Babelfish and then published….

    Thanks for the efforts both Chris and Tyler (Chris for compiling, Tyler for translating).

  22. bill schwartz says:


    I'm going to have to add Tyler's "Feast for the fortunate" to my reading list.

    Ari Goldfield is going to be in Chicago April 30-May 2 but I won't be able to make it I'm afraid.

    He will be up the street at the Shambhala Center teaching on KTGR's latest "Stars of Wisdom."

    My days of sitting through weekend teachings are behind me but would gladly give it a try for Ari.

    It will be the weekend before my wife's surgery which makes it not a good time unfortunately.

    There are so many amazing translations coming out under the guidance of KTGR and DPR it's hard to keep up.

    The key is as you note not simply being able to read Tibetan but access to such guidance

    It has taken a generation to get up to speed in this regard but we have nothing to complain about.

    Thanks to KTGR, DPR, and the Marpa Translation committee we have much to look forward to.


    PS We also have the translations of Lama Yeshe Gyamtso and others too so we're good with translations.

  23. bill schwartz says:


    My body appears to exist yet lacks self existence like a water-moon that appears to be the moon in a body of water but upon closer examination the result of causes and conditions.

    I may not be my body but that is because just as my body lacks self existence I too lack self-existence and only appear to exist based on the very same causes an conditions as a water-moon.

    When the time comes that my body fails me the illusion of my self-existence will end with the end of this all important condition for my appearance in this world as being self-existent.

    I've tried my best to prepare myself for the moment when the bottom falls out of this condition like the bottom of a bucket full of water gives way emptying the bucket of its water-moon.

    In the past year twice my heart has stopped and I have felt my life slipping away yet fortunately for me enough water remains in my bucket to maintain my water-moon like existence for the moment.

    According to Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche all that keeps my bucket in tact is the merit I have accumulated not just in this but all my life times.

    When this cause is exhausted so will this condition which results in my appearing in this world like a water-moon in a bucket appears to exist but lacks self-existence.

    My bucket is leaking and there is no getting around this fact by denying the relative existence of the bucket and the belief that my relatively existent water-moon will persist.

    It is true that if I fail to gain enlightenment when the bottom of my bucket falls out there will be another bucket of water and the wheel of this mill we call suffering will continue to turn.

    I take no comfort though in such a flow and when my time comes if I've accomplished anything through my practice I will be free of turning this mill stone of a life and gain enlightenment.

    There is nothing to be gained by denying the relative existence of my body and the state for I am done going around and around like a bucket in this water mill of suffering.


    PS Thank you for supporting the Elephant Journal and I encourage anyone that can afford it to do as you have and become a monthly contributor.

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