August 23, 2010

Vajra Regent Ösel Tendzin: Tantric Buddhist Yogin of Shambhala. ~ Patrick Sweeney

If we were to choose one word that encapsulates the impact and importance of both the Vidyadhara, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the Vajra Regent, Ösel Tendzin, that word would be “pioneer.’’ Trungpa Rinpoche was a pioneer in originally de-mythologizing the buddhadharma and making the traditional teachings accessible to people like ourselves. Trungpa Rinpoche was not dogmatically attached to any form of Buddhism, as far as I could tell. He was very flexible and interested in communicating the essence of the dharma in the West. As we know from his auto—commentary on the Sadhana of Mahamudra, he felt that in many ways the dharma in Tibet had become corrupt before the Chinese invasion in the early fifties. He felt there was an insidious corruption regarding how the dharma was being transmitted, and he saw himself as a revolutionary. He saw himself as a pioneer in the sense of wanting to revolutionize how the dharma was being presented, and also a pioneer in creating a modern format for dharma.

Unlike most of the Tibetan teachers who came to the West, Trungpa Rinpoche came to us speaking our language. He was perhaps more interested in our language than many of us. He took upon himself the role of translating the dharma into the English language, and was ultimately more articulate than us, especially around communicating subtle psychological and spiritual states.

But in order for the Vidyadhara’s pioneering activity to fully take root he needed a co—conspirator, someone who would yield completely to his vision and who would willingly become that vision. The Vajra Regent was that person. He surrendered to the Vidyadhara’s vision by first becoming his student and then ultimately becoming his principal student and dharma heir. The Vajra Regent’s consciousness, his heart, his whole being saw something unequivocally brilliant and true, and he surrendered to it. He also surrendered from the perspective of teaching and absorbing the very intense projections and difficulties that come one’s way when one sits in the teacher’s seat. He became the vehicle, the vessel, for Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision.

The Vajra Regent was not only an excellent teacher of Buddhist view, theory and practice, but he also taught from the perspective of being a lineage holder. He entered the very difficult path of becoming a living embodiment of transmissional energy. He actually transmitted the living quality of lineage mind. From his empowerment in 1976 to his death in 1990, the Vajra Regent fearlessly radiated that energy. He gave his life to Trungpa Rinpoche’s larger Shambhala vision of creating an enlightened society.

On an outer level, the Vajra Regent’s family life, which included a constantly shifting assortment of students, was an extension of Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision.  That is how I experienced it. The spirit of his family life was inseparable from the spirit of Trungpa Rinpoche’s effort to show that there could be an experience of basic goodness placed at the core of how we live our lives and make our decisions. This basic goodness could then radiate out from our familial situation into the larger societal environment.

On an inner level, there is a deeper aspect of the Vajra Regent’s manifestation for us to contemplate. The three great archetypes of realized fruition in our Kagyü practice lineage are represented by the monk, Gampopa; the crazy wisdom yogin, Milarepa; the householder yogin, Marpa the Translator; and the mahasiddhas of India. Trungpa Rinpoche’s intention was for us to emulate the householder—yogin, rather than the monastic or crazy wisdom style, of manifestation. The technical term he used was “avadhuti yogin” or “yogin of non-duality.” The realization of his students would be the attainment of “one taste;” the equalization of shamatha and vipashyana experience. This realization would manifest not only in formal meditation practice, but in how one raised one’s children, how one related to one’s partner, how one related to work and livelihood, one’s emotions, and one’s mind. His students were to become family people, not necessarily in the conventional sense, but in the sense that encompassed the larger field of practicing the buddhadharma.

Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision was that for the true tantric teachings to take root in the West, his students must be completely fearless, non-dual warriors. They had to break down the boundary between sacred and secular manifestation. When I contemplate the Vajra Regent, I remember the way he related to his children, how he related to Lady Rich, and how he related to his unconventional larger family, which included all of his students. He was fearlessly engaged in all aspects of reality. Nothing was considered off limits.  Nothing was considered out of the purview of sacred outlook.

The Vajra Regent was, on an inner level, Trungpa Rinpoche’s avadhuti yogin par excellence. He was a person who was engaged with family, with the world, and with organizational responsibilities as the vice president of Vajradhatu. He did his job as practice. He related to his immediate family as an extension of his bodhichitta practice, and he invited his students to be part of that family. There was a deep sense of intimacy that was celebrated on a daily basis. During our time as his students, much of our energy often went into deciding what we were going to have for dinner that night and how to cook it and how it would taste and all the drama, beauty, and boredom involved in that. That became the field of practice.

In addition, The Vajra Regent was constantly working with his emotional and energetic body as a further opportunity for practice. He was not one to shy away from intense emotion. He used the arising of intense emotion as an opportunity to cut through what Trungpa Rinpoche referred to as ego’s dualistic barrier. The Vajra Regent applied Trungpa Rinpoche’s pith meditation instruction to neither suppress nor act out intense emotions, and he encouraged his students to do the same. As a result, emotional upheaval within the Vajra Regent’s personal and environmental mandala continuously arose as a mirror revealing the non—duality of mind and mental projections. Humor and confrontation, spaciousness and claustrophobia, intense intimacy and detached witnessing coemerged in a great colorful flame of prajna enveloping the Vajra Regent and all who chose to get close to him.

At a more subtle level, the Vajra Regent was constantly working with the basic elemental and existential components of life to draw himself and others into the direct experience of dharma. His posture and physical bearing were continuously upright and gentle. Whether he was engaged in formal meditation practice, or in the post meditation experience, his movements were precise, direct, graceful, and pleasing. His speech was simultaneously profound and accessible. His capacity for spontaneous poetry was remarkable. While meditating, he had a yogic mastery of shamatha that allowed him to sit without movement for long periods of time. He used the basic existential transformations of consciousness from state to state as an opportunity for practice. Waking, dreaming, deep sleep, sexual arousal and union, all were seen as practice opportunities. I will never forget the relentless yogic intensity he demonstrated in transforming all circumstances into a mandala of awakening.

At the innermost level, the Vajra Regent endeavored never to separate from Trungpa Rinpoche’s brilliant lineage mind of luminous emptiness. For many of us he was lineage mind, he was mahamudra mind, his very manifestation was the location of penetrating transmissional energy. Even in the midst of intense activity there was a continuity of inner brilliance, unconditioned openness, humor, softness, and intelligence. It is only through examining the Vajra Regent’s practice of this avadhuti yogin discipline, right up until the moment of his death at Pacific Presbyterian Hospital in San Francisco, that we get a true glimpse of the complete path Trungpa Rinpoche was talking about. Trungpa Rinpoche warned us in his last major teaching that chaos was the reference point we had to understand and embrace on this vajrayana path, without guarantees of certainty or guarantees that it would all come out our way.

The Vajra Regent embodied the spirit of that transmission right up to and then beyond the moment of his death. He continued to hold his mind, even as he faced the last great difficulty. Through the three days of an outrageous samadhi period in San Francisco, he sat on a throne in a blue chuba, looking better than most of the people coming in. His posture was better. His complexion looked good.

The last great act of the Buddha was dying, demonstrating impermanence and also demonstrating fearlessness. The Vajra Regent did that in the unique style of Trungpa Rinpoche’s transmission of the dharma.  For me that has been the most important thing about recollecting the purity and the positive qualities of the Vajra Regent.  He took this transmission of becoming a non-dual, househoavadhuti yogin, and he lived fearlessly in light of that. Working with the outer world, working with the emotional and energetic body, working with the innermost world of his thoughts and subtle emotions, the Vajra Regent bound all of that to his experience of transmission.

In terms of how to embody the collective imprint of the Vajra Regent’s transmission, I always come back to his pith assessment of how to understand the path of dharma. After the Vidyadhara’s death, a curious and somewhat aggressive student tried to put the Vajra Regent on the spot by asking a confrontational question, “What is the ground, path and fruition of buddhadharma?” Without hesitation the Vajra Regent shot back, “Maitri, death, and sentient beings.” Then he went on to explain.

Maitri is loving-kindness— in this case unconditional friendship. Death has everything to do with the experience of shunyata. Sentient beings has to do with relating unimpededly to the quality of consciousness that is directly in front of you. As I have contemplated how to understand the guru principle, how to take the Vajra Regent into my own heart, I have done it through internalizing this teaching. This teaching describes how we can relate to the entire path of dharma. It describes how we can relate to one period of meditation, and it describes how we can relate to each moment of relational interaction that occurs in our lives.

Maitri, death, sentient beings:

The ground is to make friends with the situation as it is, to make friends with our life. We make friends with our body and mind as they are – not as we would like them to be, not as we have been told they should be, but as we actually experience them, making an unconditional friendship with them.

The second phase, the path phase, has to do with dying to the resistance to what is actually there. We die to all of the supporting storylines that keep pulling us away from what is actually occurring in a given situation, whether it is relating to our own mind and heart or relating to other. Dying means taking that mini-mind moment we discover in our shamatha and vipashyana practice, where we are able to let go of the solidification of a given mental event as “me”, and turn that into a way of life. In any interaction there is always a need to make friends with a situation and accept it as it is. And then to go further, we die to any conceptual expectation. We die to any conceptual imposition we try to lay on the situation. We open nakedly. We open in such a way that, as it is said in the traditional Buddhist teachings, the two veils of conflicting emotions and subtle cognitive, dualistic setups collapse.

There is naked awareness. The result of that naked awareness is that we open unimpededly to the experience of compassion or unobstructed responsiveness. This is not a contrived compassion, but a simple authenticity – authentically opening to other. Why? Because first, we have made friends with the situation and second, we have died to our attempt to manipulate the situation into a self-generating reference point. And the result of that friendship and death is connection and openness.

This is the journey all students must go on, and in my experience the first stage of unconditional friendship goes on for a long time. Truly making a friendship with oneself is a very difficult thing. As the Vidyadhara and the Vajra Regent taught us, until one takes the spirit of that unconditional friendship deeply into the practice of shamatha, there is the danger that the friendship is somewhat fragile and conditional. It is only in the very intimate, contemplative container of shamatha practice that we start to fully surrender to life as it is, to our mind and body, life history and experience as it is.

The middle stage of dying, seeing through the solidification of self and other, is the whole thrust of dharma. It is very important to remember the purpose of dharma is very simple: to be a more authentic and kind human being, someone who is more available. When I think of the Vajra Regent, this three-fold action of maitri, death, and sentient beings arises as a way to live as him, not in a contrived way of imitating, but in a sense of internalizing the essence of his message and attempting to become that message.

In the Kagyü tradition it is said that half of the path of dharma is accomplished simply by leaving one’s home ground. The purpose of Pullahari Retreat Center is to create a refuge that is an alternative to the conventional refuges we find in our daily life. Specifically, the inspiration is to create a refuge that is in alignment with the unified mind of the Vidyadhara, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and his Vajra Regent, Ösel Tendzin, that is in alignment with Trungpa Rinpoche’s original spirit of experimentation in creating a modern Buddhist way of life here in the West.

Trungpa Rinpoche said at the beginning of his career that the proclamation of truth is fearless. He made that the motto of Vajradhatu.  That is how the Vajra Regent tried to live. Within the complexity of post-modern culture, with all of its competing truth claims, being a dharma practitioner means being a pioneer. What does it mean to walk a genuine path of dharma?  As we see over and over again, it starts with the willingness to work unconditionally with one’s mind, free of any over-arching ideology or “gaining idea,” which is how Suzuki Roshi expressed it.

You never know what will emerge when one invokes the teacher’s mind. The amount of heart the Vajra Regent put into me and into all of his students brought tears to my eyes.  It was unbelievable. For those of us who were in it with him, the thought that we would ever live outside the mandala was very foreign.  It was such a powerful home. But when our devotion can come forth and we can re-create the world we were shown, there is nowhere else I would rather be, no better place than in their world. It was such a beautiful thing when it was alive. When it is objectified and looked at from a distance, it is such a strange thing, yet when we animate it from the inside out with pure devotion, it takes your breath away. It is the only way to live.

Patrick Sweeney is the Vajra heir of famed Kagyu teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and the founder of Satdharma, which contains the Ojai Valley Dharma CenterPullahari Retreat Center, and the Vajra Regent Ösel Tendzin Library and Archives. A member of Integral Spiritual Center, as well as a friend, dharma brother, and teacher, Patrick and I co-led (withDiane Hamilton) an I-I Seminar in Integral Buddhism in May 2007, and are continuing to work together to articulate and clarify an authentic Integral Buddhist view and practice.

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