How Celtic Buddhism Got Started by HH Seonaidh Perks
What is Celtic Buddhism? by Bill Scheffel
Sickness as Path by Ven. Thom Kilts
The Path of the Celtic Warrior and the Wisdom of the Great Eastern Sun by Ven. Thom Kilts
What are the Cultural Implications and Authenticity of Celtic Buddhism? by Ven. Thom Kilts
Painting the Celtic Buddha by Bill Burns
How “it” got started:
It is sometimes only in retrospect that one begins to see the directness of the seeming meanderings on one’s path.
Working with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche – energy of the teachings without the form of name.
There were long periods—sometimes hours—just sitting together silently. He once said, “Johnny never interrupts me when I’m thinking,” meaning we had mutual thought patterns interwoven, though this should not be interpreted to mean I understood all his thoughts. Rather there seemed to be a mutual receptivity in terms of mind because he created a gap in which that could occur.
Working with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche as a personal secretary and personal assistant, traveling with him, all meant I had constant daily contact. At one point we were on retreat together in Charlemont for a year. Communication took place by mutual understanding, rather than by word of mouth, or using ideas and concepts. He taught me more by way of presenting symbol and sign. This required both the space and time of being together alone in order for things to come to fruition. Rinpoche totally understood my specific energy and how it could be used.
The idea of Buddhism was more taken for granted since that was our environment. The “Celtic-ness” issue seemed more out of context. The suggestion was raised by Rinpoche on many occasions—at the time, seemingly out of the blue. Examples of this were many and varied: our exchange in the inner chamber of Newgrange; his asking, “Have you ever been to Iona?;” comments about setting up dharma centers; comments about early Celtic Christian monasticism; going to churches; going to Buckingham palace; going to stone circles; wearing kilts and listening to bagpipes—all seemingly unassociated playtime.
It’s like walking into a room and you’re hit by a radiating energy coming from the presence of the teacher. There’s an immediate rise in your perception, and a general feeling of elation and openness. That’s how it feels. This not only affects you in your every day life, but it also affects your dream world. There’s really no place to escape to, away from that energy. All this is bound to have an effect on where one goes in their life. What happens is you begin to treat everyone the way you would treat your teacher, which is the way your teacher treated you. Celtic Buddhism is only the name of the theatre; the play is the energy of dharma, as transmitted by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
It reminds me of when I was living at an Inuit village, and a group of young boys were sitting around an older Inuit hunter, watching him take apart and reassemble his outboard motor. Not a word was spoken. But everybody knew that they were learning how to perform the same actions. Similarly, when one has an intimate relationship with their teacher, one intently observes all the actions and reactions. Further, form becomes symbol. In transmission, words can often become an impediment to the transmission.
The death of His Holiness the16th Karmapa;
When His Holiness died I realized I had to do something. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche picked up on that, and helped channel that energy. I felt I had to do something. I had to be a vehicle. But I was still very unclear on what that thing was. I was given many opportunities, but it was still unclear to me. It was suggested that I become a servant, since he had actually said to me, “You should go out and be a servant.” My interpretation at the time, for practical reasons, was to become a butler. What I had yet to figure out was what it means to be a servant.
The death of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche:
After his death the feeling that I had to carry on what I had been taught seemed more present, and Celtic Buddhism seemed to be the vehicle for directing those energies. Still it was another ten to twelve years before I would begin to act on this. My process was helped by people asking me what I’d been doing for the last ten to twelve years. After his death, he was still with me. He was constantly in my mind stream. It wasn’t as if he had gone away, it was more that he’d expanded. All that happened was he left his physical form. It wasn’t the end of anything, merely the beginning of the energy he transmitted taking new form, and expanding further.
In retrospect I realized that it would not only be silly, but even detrimental to have more formal declaration of what Celtic Buddhism or lineage should be. In my case I would have only thrown that away. What was more natural, and one hopes ultimately more beneficial for others, is that I establish an environment and path for those with similar energies to carry on the transmission of the dharma. Giving certificates, giving titles, giving medals was like giving a baby toys that all say, “I love you, you should have confidence.” The reality begins when the teacher says you have to go out on your own. Playtime is over.
The form of Celtic Buddhism:
How I began, eventually, to respond to those asking what I’d been up to was, “I’m presenting Buddhism, the vehicle, in a Celtic form.” There is no set, direct instruction, but rather a much more natural unfolding. One expects the unfolding will lead to open space in which to learn, and ask questions. The one rule to keep in mind, taking the self out of the equation is: is the act for the benefit of all beings? The energy remains the same, but the form has become different.
Excerpts from the forthcoming book, How to Cook a Turnip, by John A. Perks
HH Seoanaidh ---On Finding a Spiritual Teacher:
These days, people want to explore the spiritual path and their relationship to it independent of people or “religious authority,” who would interpret it for them. This is a very good thing. It means that people are not taking things on blind faith any more. This means that religious leaders must be accountable, very accountable and open. They cannot fabricate abilities. A teacher must talk about their meditative practice in terms of obstacles they themselves have had to work with and in terms of their own personal progress on that path.
It is important for students to have confidence in their own meditation practice and in the realizations that come through that. It’s helpful to have a spiritual friend or teacher that they can discuss these things with.
Some people just want to be followers of a high flying, spiritual holy Guru. That’s OK, but it doesn’t really get you anywhere. Being dazzled by fame and fortune is certainly a capital Mara.
Some people have an attitude of rugged indiviualism. This also can be an obstacle on the spiritual path because one then feels that he/she can become a God or Goddess without the aid of other beings. Since all beings are already Gods and Goddesses anyhow, it’s really a waste of time to think one can do it alone. If a person can get into an intimate and personal relationship with the phenomenal world, then that could work. But, I think, this would be an extremely rare case. Most of the time, the real reason we do this is to avoid painful interactive relationships, and this goes for students and teachers alike!
So today, because people are not taking things on blind faith, they have a wide variety of different religious disciplines to choose from. However, if one is serious about a spiritual path, then it is important that one make a choice and follow one particular disclipline.
Sometimes, however, people look for a teacher, rather than a religious organization.
I, myself, was much more interested in Sufism, rather than Buddhism. But when I met Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, it seemed right away that we were an excellent match, so I jumped right in. The important thing is that one has to develop an intimate, personal relationship with one’s teacher. So, it should be a good match. I am not a good teacher for many students. I do better with students who are like me- thick and stupid!
HH Seoanaidh---Avalokiteshvara Syndrome:
Sometimes when one looks at the world situation and sees so many people suffering, one is apt to get depressed. And this is exactly what Avalokiteshvara did. Avalokiteshvara looked at all the endless suffering in the world and got so completely and utterly depressed that Avalokiteshvara's head exploded! So the Buddhas put Avalokiteshvara back together again, back together with many heads and many arms so that Avalokiteshvara could accomplish the many tasks required in caring for all beings.
So, we could say that when we feel depressed, we have the beginning of "Avalokiteshvara Syndrome"! The important thing is to make contact with other beings. One could even talk to the ants! Other beings will understand if you speak or manifest straightforwardly, beings can see or feel that energy---which is the genuine heart of Avalokiteshvara...
Celtic Buddhism "pre-exists" in iconography, such as the Celtic cross and knot. These symbols are immediately recognizable in The West, in a similar way Egyptian symbols are, but for many more familier culturally and closer to us in time. This iconography is similar to the entire canon of Western design motifs, the acanthus and rosettes that decorate everything from tablecloths to architectural columns. Celtic iconography calls to us with geometric precisian and depth, it calls to us archetypically. One answer to the question, What is Celtic Buddism might be that it is a design within our own mind, or a design that is mind.
I feel there is a certain softness to the dralas or spirits of the Celtic tradition. This must be the softness of moisture, of grass that stays green twelve months of the year, of moss, lichen and peat. On a planet that is speeding up and heating up, the softness of these dralas call to us like a cosmic first-aid station or oasis. Leprechauns, fairies, dralas; I've not been to Ireland but John Perks tells me the country is thick with them. Thick with an atmosphere of softness, which can be perhaps be invoked wherever we are just by feeling it. Celtic Buddhism is Buddhist in the way Buddhism has always been; that is, as Buddhism migrated from India to China, Tibet, Korea (and now places like Canada, Brazil and Mexico) it has always taken up with the local spirits, who became in turn protectors and other agents of awake.
The indigenous traditions of the Celts survived far better than others; institutional Christianity waged hundreds of years of war upon these "pagan" traditions; some were lost entirely, some went hidden and underground, as the Alchemists and Gnostics did. Chögyam Trungpa was deeply saddened by the loss of the great drala traditions of Europe and his own mind-stream transmitted to us a ground in which we can fill in the path and fruition. It is always our own inquiry and willingness to investigate that actives the ground, path and fruition of the spiritual path.
The mind-that-follows-tradition becomes periodically dogmatic and overcome with its own rules, at odds with the inquiring-mind seeking to take the lid off the box of mysteries; these minds exist in all of us, exist throughout all time. Which is to say the tradition-upholding inquiring essence of Christianity - Christianity at its humanistic best - was frequently preserved or given new life in Ireland and other places of Celtic culture. The traditional cum way-seeking hearts of Christian monks and Druid priests mixed and influenced each other and produced saints and other interesting folk galore. Historical evidence increasingly suggests it is not too far fetched to think that Emperor Ashoka's Buddhist inspired edicts reached as far as Ireland, since Celtic culture spanned the Roman Republic/Empire. And since Buddhist monasteries have been found in Hellenistic Greece, it is now possible to think of Buddhism, Celtic paganism and Christianity as all being part of the same awakened gene-pool - Celtic Buddhism for short.
All these reflections are marginal - which gives another definition for Celtic Buddhism to perch upon. Marginal means "situated on the edge or margin of something." Seonaidh (pronounced SHOW Nee; Celtic for "John") Perks founded Celtic Buddhism according to the inspiration/instructions he received from Chögyam Trungpa. Celtic Buddhism has "lineage holders" but is it a "lineage"? I think it is a congregation of people who have gathered around the same accident or occurrence. What Seonaidh put into words has become this eclectic gathering, certainly "marginal" in comparison to the organizations Chögyam Trungpa founded, but also comprised - from what I hear (or know about myself) - of people on the margins. People who work with marginal populations, for instance, or by eccentricity are called marginal by others. As word, marginal is close in meaning to liminal, which means "occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold" (a definition that works very well, it seems, for drala).
I recently heard an American Sufi teacher lead an evening of meditation. He had a beautiful grasp and articulation of shamatha and vipashyana - or "calm abiding" and 'insight" - the foundations of meditation within nearly all schools of Buddhist tradition. It helped once again recognize that if one meditates with diligence, one can't not experience these principles, provided one is allowing the basic principle of meditation to occur (resting the mind and became aware). Of course extremes occur - too tight, trying to control it all or manufacture highs; or too loose, just making it all up - but within this broad field of meditation there is plenty of room to encounter intersections of, say, Buddhism and Celtic wisdom. To pararphase the French Poet Francis Ponge, but in this sense regarding meditation: Not only has all not been said, but almost everything remains to be said. I think this is particularly true from point of view of nowness; that each era, generation, time - even moment - must find new or fresh ways of articulating tradition and its methods. Celtic Buddhism is an example of one such articulation.
By Venerable Thom Kilts
As I was looking through materials in my spiritual care office, I stumbled upon a wrinkled photo copy of an obviously overused article. It was a copy of a teaching from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche entitled, “Acknowledging Death.” I remember so many years ago sitting in a meeting with physicians and social workers in a small Catholic hospital outside of Boston, presenting this article for reading. I watched as they read, as eyes rolled and saw the shock on many faces. To me it seemed to be a brilliant approach, instead of finding clever ways of talking to our patients, why don’t we just start by acknowledging death? Here was a meeting of people inspired by ways to communicate bad news in new ways, and I was utilizing a teaching from a Buddhist teacher that suggested getting right to the heart of the matter (death) and then starting from there. Of course, the approach was deemed too radical for the purposes of the group and I ended up sharing the article instead throughout the years with students of spiritual care. Now many years later, I sat there and re-read a very familiar and short teaching about approaching “healing,” “sickness,” and “death,” in a very direct and sane way. This teaching has now found its way into a new book called, “The Sanity We Are Born With: A Buddhist Approach to Psychology (Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Shambhala, 2005.”
Anytime a profound teaching is re-read and approached again in one’s life it can take on a new message and profundity. I am now living with a chronic illness which has changed many things in my life for better and for worse. Some realizations with my living with chronic illness have become hard earned truths, very similar to the practice of ngondros. It seems to me through this experience that to properly develop realization we need it applied to life experience and from there it truly becomes realization as opposed to just insight into something. I remember an image expressed to me from one of my teachers: If you are starving, you will never successfully feed yourself by taping sandwiches to your body. We can only experience true realization through the ugly and at times inefficient process of good digestion. I think so many years ago when I first presented that teaching about acknowledging death, that I had a legitimate understanding of the point and still believe in the approach taught by Trungpa Rinpoche. However, there has been a deepening that only could have occurred through the trials and struggles of living with chronic illness. I am not writing some fluff piece that tries to make sickness a truly “spiritual” experience that we should be grateful for. The truth is, the spiritual journey has never been or is even presented as an easy ride for the initiated. This always brings me back to one of the many reasons we don’t seek in Buddhism to convert others to the “truth.” There is no promise of an easier life, a reward, a salvation of sorts that awards our devotion. In actuality there are many times that being on the spiritual path makes life seem even harder and more difficult to bare, though once on the path it can be incredibly difficult to convince oneself to turn back. That’s why I always have a fresh chuckle during that scene in the movie, “The Matrix,” when Cypher says to Neo, “..if I only just took the blue pill.” Somewhere though, through the discipline and embracing of life through spiritual practice we catch those glimpses of a natural state that reminds us why we took the “red pill” to begin with. To continue our journey of “waking up” we need fresh inspiration and motivation and those things are closer then we realize.
So what are the benefits to waking up then? Sogyal Rinpoche once stated that waking up is like being nestled in a warm bed on a cold morning. The Teacher is requesting that you leave this warm comfortable existence and get out of bed. First, we submit a toe to the frosty torture and eventually we crawl completely out of bed. That crawling out of bed is the path and one may think immediately what is the benefit of doing that? No wonder many people can mistake spiritual discipline as a form of sado-masochistic torture. It all comes down to examining completely the so-called “comfortable and preferable condition.” If we stayed in bed eventually we would starve, begin to soil ourselves, generally begin to stink and so on. This realization of what the existence of never leaving the bed can become is a good motivating factor for facing the cold. So logically there is benefit to facing an immediate inconvenience to avoid the more dangerous long term one (like meditating versus not meditating). It seems when we begin to examine our condition, no matter how pleasant it may seem in the moment, eventually the long terms sufferings will out match any momentary ones. So, we meditate and begin to see the workings of a mind that on the surface would be easier to handle if we avoided it all together, but we know that the ignoring will eventually leave us unprepared, but unprepared for what? Getting right to the point, the comforts we crave and create are basically to avoid the reality of death.
Too often in my professional work I see the horrors of unpreparedness when it comes to acknowledging death: Families that continue to require that all possible interventions be continued when their loved one is obviously suffering a great deal; patients who deny the end is near and end up dying in a state of panic, discomfort and agony; and Healthcare workers constantly pushing patients to hold on and embrace the next procedure, when the person could really be preparing for death--If I made a list it would go on and on. I am not talking about creating an obsession with death but a mindful attention to its inevitability. This can put sickness in a more embraceable perspective because it becomes a reminder that our time here has an expiration date. If we made our decisions about end of life care, and how to work with our own illness and others through a lens that acknowledges death, we can avoid many traps that serve only to alienate those afflicted. There is the overly optimistic approach that has people repeating to you constantly that everything will be okay. When you are really sick it is hard to believe that, and sharing your sense of hopelessness and/or despair doesn’t always mean that you are giving up. In fact it can be a healthy step into acknowledging the feelings that are present and very real. Exploring these feelings instead of creating a dynamic of helplessness can actually become a moment of empowerment, where embracing what is considered negative could lead to fearlessness, strength and courage. Actually the overly optimistic approach has always made me feel that those people are really the most cynical because they just can’t or won’t hear what is really happening in the moment. When we are sick and especially dealing with a live long chronic illness, avoiding the truth only leads to mistrust, feelings of guilt and our good intentions becoming negative actions.
When I teach my students to work with patients as spiritual counselors I present the concept of “healthy hopelessness.” This concept is about embracing what is in any given moment and letting go of our desires to immediately try and change what we don’t like. Healthy hopelessness is not about cynicism, actually cynicism could be called negative hopelessness. Healthy hopelessness cuts through the overly optimistic tendency of false promises and assurances that are in reality only self-serving and dismissing. The point here is to work with what is and not convince oneself that there is something unworkable and impossible. Healthy hopelessness is true optimism because it sees the world as fundamentally workable, not solvable (as that is essentially a cynical position), but workable. What does it mean to see the world as workable? It means that we are willing to join those suffering illness and not deny their experience or try and change it. This is important as well when dealing with our own times of sickness, chronic illness and/or dying processes. It is a fearless position and practice because it is grounded in the acknowledgement that death is inevitable in every life. Many practices in Buddhism are concerned with preparing the mind for death and simple grounded practices like letting go of the out-breath when meditating are powerful ways to relate to our inevitable last moments in our bodies. When we embrace the nature of what is, we then can develop the proper and skillful means to address what is in front of us. This means seeing sickness as path.
Sickness as path is a foundation in all Buddhist teachings. When I work with students from all different religious traditions I pass along a foundational Buddhist tenet that is impossible to ignore or deny---we will all experience birth, old age, sickness and death. These experiences are fundamental to the human realm and are constantly occurring all around us and are shared experiences for all of humanity. Each reminder of the human condition in Buddhist teaching becomes a gateway or motivation to practice. With such powerful inspiration why deny or ignore the message that birth, old age, sickness and death provide? They are inevitable and there is no escaping the experiences, so from a perspective of healthy hopelessness why not just give up and give in? When they become a part of our path these experiences serve as real life reminders of why we even bother practicing meditation and receiving teachings. When you have matured on the spiritual journey and the glitz and glamour of golden statues, robes, bells and whistles wear off, the nitty gritty of life becomes the inspiration. This is how the Buddha began his search for truth and it is the place for us to begin again and again as living in this dark age presents such an abundance of distractions.
When I state that we should embrace sickness I am not suggesting that we learn to enjoy it or even appreciate it, but that we should contemplate it. It is a real part of the sufferings that can lead us to pursue deeper realization and spiritual depth. I live with a horrible chronic illness and more times than not I can be miserable and angry about my circumstances. What happens however is that those moments remind me of long meditation retreats where I stared out the widow instead of “meditating.” In those moments I wished I was anywhere else but there, but the discipline of formal retreat forced me to continue to be and stay there until a deeper realization took over. During retreats, if ever given the opportunity for new distractions or to be somewhere else I would gladly take it, but something good always happened when the impulse was overcome and I continued to be and stayed there. I see the wisdom of no escape and the negative hopelessness that results in a life of gathering one distraction after another. When I give up and embrace the healthy hopelessness of no escape, I begin to see the importance of being there and then gain the benefit of discipline. This discipline inspires more inner strength, patience, wisdom, realization, happiness, and a general sense of my place in the world while seeing all experiences as the path to ultimate realization. These truths and experiences are hard earned and each development increases my own sense of depth, understanding and compassion for self and others naturally as though it was my true nature only obscured occasionally by my small mindedness. Sickness as well can become the reminder needed to overcome the power of distraction and avoidance of our true natures. It can become a reminder of the nature of existence and the fact that all things eventually fall apart and expand. My sickness is a part of my path to realization and another aspect of my spiritual journey that force me to meet what is and not what I want it to be. By developing my capacity to further expand out to the universe, the experiences of this body are aspects of path because the journey then has truly become the goal.
In this article I want to discuss inheritance, the embracing of wisdom and the use of what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called his Shambhala teachings. The teachings of Shambhala were presented in 1976 and were compiled in the book, “Shambhala; The Sacred Path of the Warrior.” H.H. Seonaidh has discussed with me a number of times that the work I have done in the field, training ministers of different faith traditions in clinical pastoral education programs, was just one of the many ways the vision of Shambhala can and will manifest. For our purposes I like to call these teachings the wisdom of the Great Eastern Sun, and because the celtic tradition follows in a long line of warriors and principles of warriorship, there seems to be an uncanny congruency with what Trungpa called his Shambhala warriors and how we can begin to perceive Celtic warriorship within our own lineage. Beyond that, these teachings that Chogyam Trungpa left us have a familiar and ordinary quality to them, an earthiness that just makes plain sense when the teachings are embraced and integrated into everyday life. In many of the Great Eastern Sun lectures Trungpa invited all to the table to work with these concepts and therefore we should make ourselves at home, have a cup of tea and contribute in whatever way we can to an enlightened society.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a meditation master, an important figure in disseminating authentic vajrayana Buddhism to the west and left a lineage of teachings called Shambhala teachings geared toward a discussion of wisdom principles open to anyone regardless of being on a formal religious path or a secular spiritual journey. When reading and discussing this lineage of teachings the concepts and themes can seem overly ordinary and over the top brilliant at the same time. As Chogyam Trungpa is no longer with us in the flesh, the task of those of us following the discipline of the inheritance of his teachings each have our own style of relating to him. To me as a long time vajrayana Buddhist I see him clearly as a manifestation of Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche.
Traditionally Guru Rinpoche was the founder of the Nyingmapa School of Tibetan Buddhism. Guru Rinpoche was not a Tibetan person but originally came from what is now Afghanistan. As an enlightened master he was able to do what masters before him could not, which was successfully spread the teachings of Buddhism (vajrayana to be specific) in the Tibetan lands which to others seemed too barbaric and uncivilized for such sophisticated wisdom teachings. This motif in my own eyes was repeated within the framework of Chogyam Trungpa’s own story and journey to the west. Neither figure was an exemplary clean monastic saint and each manifested in numerous ways, in whatever ways necessary, to convey an authentic lineage and transmission of wisdom. Each figure was addressing the world of the setting sun in their individual contexts. The setting sun world is filled with fear of all kinds; fear of self, others and filled with warnings and dangers of all kinds. In Guru Rinpoche's time this was expressed by the wrathful nature of the local deities that would not yield to other attempts at a conversion to Buddhist teachings. In his expression of the Great Eastern Sun, Guru Rinpoche's style of working with the Tibetan people and the land was to integrate and relate to what was there, instead of entering the situation with a "solution." Entering any situation with a "solution" already intact means the approach is based in fear---fear of the unknown and the neurotic need to conform outer circumstance to one's own favor. The Great Eastern Sun approach, which Guru Rinpoche employed is a style of removing what hinders the manifestation of wisdom. This approach is different because it starts by acknowledging the basic goodness of a situation and then attempts to find the means for that goodness to flourish, exist and carry on. By embracing the local deities and utilizing all aspects of Tibetan culture, Guru Rinpoche was successful in establishing the wisdom of the Buddha in that land, essentially because the wisdom of the Buddha was already there----is already everywhere and is the inheritance of all beings. Again, that is different than the missionary approach of bringing something foreign and implanting it there as though the context was once absent from wisdom, but thanks to the masters it becomes whole for the first time. This should in fact sound similar to our current situation here in the west. One part of Trungpa's brilliance was that he blew up every scheme of ours to make the wisdom he was teaching a foreign thing, only available to special people or people of special cultures or time or place. He emphasized the inheritance of our very own wisdom---teachings that start at the level of basic goodness, not the approach that there is something far off that we have to attain, but something close by, ordinary and completely available anytime we need it.
Because I am speaking from a Buddhist lineage and referring to Buddhist teachers, it can be too easy to relate to Great Eastern Sun teachings as though they were a sneaky form of Buddhism 101. What counters that logic is that the teachings do not promote themselves but instead promote our basic decency and goodness. Buddhism is one of the world’s great religions and has many powerful things to offer those of us inclined to follow a religious path. But the reality is that not all of us are so inclined to follow the religious path, many of us are tired of the formality, teachings that seem to only emphasize the furthering of a tradition and/or are just weary of the isolation or divided quality of belonging to one group or the other. On the other hand we may also see that we yearn for something more penetrating and filled with more depth than say a new or even updated self-help philosophy. At some point, especially if we are serious about examining our real world and our day-to-day lives their needs to be a way to converse about the actual possibility of creating an enlightened society. Not something in Hollywood or some notion of a land we go to when we die, but something right here on this earth that is worth preserving, cherishing, carrying on and possibly passing on to our children. We correctly desire something beyond nice concepts and strained hopes for the best, but something practical, useful and because it can be as natural as the breath, something that is present to us now.
A common way of dealing with the condition of our world is to decide that some things are evil and others good, or distinguish things that are "right" from "wrong." This is the logic of the setting sun world, one in which the small mindedness of our perceptions takes on a reality of its own. This becomes especially complicated when you consider the myriad of people in the world perceiving and practicing some sort of comparative analysis every moment. Within this limiting framework, fear and anxiety are sparked and further inspired as other perceptions become potential threats or even worse a confirmation of one's own thinking. From this vantage point basic goodness is to be defined by a criteria that comes from our conditioning. Limited by this view we can come up with all sorts of gimmicks to cheer ourselves up, because our position has become one of going against the world. We may have our separate teams of fellow perceivers to cheer on and give more credence to our precious points of view, and of course when we come up against opposition then we will wage war or try to oppress and/or do away with the challenge. All of this gets very tight, quite quickly, and we lose a sense of space. There is no longer any room for anyone or anything and the whole situation becomes claustrophobic. The tightness lives in our minds as concepts and thoughts harden, narrow and become fixed. The tightness also infects our bodies as we become more rigid, stiff and even ill. With this loss of space and creation of claustrophobic existence there is not even a spark of magic or spirit given a chance to shine through. This is a condensed way of defining the setting sun world, the same world both Guru Rinpoche encountered in Tibet and his later manifestation Trungpa Rinpoche encountered in the west. The concern is not about providing society and culture with a clever critique but to actually take this situation and make it workable. Making it workable and actually doing the work of creating an enlightened society is the path of the warrior and the core essence of the teachings of the Great Eastern Sun.
Returning again to the notion of basic goodness, this is not some theistic position asked to be taken on faith alone, but is to be investigated and ultimately experienced over and over again. As nice as it would be to just point to the place it exists and conjure it up, that is not very practical because with any desire to preserve and move forward that which is worthwhile there is inevitably going to need to be work and discipline. The fact is there are many parts of the setting sun world that are very enticing and distracting. Again, it is not as though there is some evil conspiracy at work here, it is just that the setting sun world takes a lot of effort to preserve, because it is not our natural condition. Its condition is one of self preserving and perpetuating which is essentially exhausting when you truly investigate it. By sensing and even theistically believing that the world will swallow us up and destroy us if we don't control it, we create illusion upon illusion which only leads to more narrowing, fear and anxiety. To break this cycle we have to employ one of the oldest and most successful time-tested disciplines---meditation. One may think, here we are at religion again, and meditation can of course be a remarkable and powerful religious discipline, and/or it can be a great stress relieving self-help treatment, why not? But in the Great Eastern Sun wisdom it is about facing the right direction and opening up to space. Facing the rising sun is a stance of becoming a part of the flow of the universe once again----like it or not, no matter what illusion of control one subscribes to, the sun will rise in the east. The task here of maintaining the discipline of meditation is to encounter the decency and basic goodness of a mind that has been awarded space. Not space as a gift or a serving of pie, but the natural state of mind, non-grasping, open and fertile ground for the healthy unfolding of life experience. There is nothing overly extraordinary here, we eat, shit, play, drink, have sex, and on and on and the wisdom of the Great Eastern Sun doesn't distinguish between this holy activity and that mundane one. The distinguishing point is in how all aspects of life are approached. They are approached either in the stupor and deep sleep of the setting sun perspective or approached by a sense of warriorship within the light of the wisdom of the Great Eastern Sun.
In discussing the possibility of an enlightened society, there may be a secret hope that it should be divorced of all language ever associated with warfare and so a term like Celtic warrior can seem like the antithesis of actually manifesting the wisdom of the Great Eastern Sun. The caution here is again our desire to impose onto our world our perceptions, no matter how noble they may seem, which again comes from a place of fear and desire to control and dictate. To be a warrior in light of the teachings Trungpa presented means to be fearless---but not in the sense of being ready for battle or ready to wage war---but fearless in the sense that we do not cringe from our authenticity. In the Arthurian myth cycle the famous sword in the stone becomes a test of true nobility. Only the true king/ruler of his or her world can pull the sword out of the seemingly impenetrable stone. The foundations of Celtic warriorship in light of these teachings is truly following the discipline of decency and basic goodness. The idea of warriorship is the ability to face the world with courage and bravery--and as stated above facing our authentic presence with that same approach. There is no shying away as a warrior from what is. Like Guru Rinpoche and then Trungpa Rinpoche there is the bravery of facing the unknown with the simplicity and supreme power of authentic presence. The understanding is that the situation at hand should not be anyway other than it is---that all progress begins by meeting things as they are. This may sound very simple and even appear easy, but to practice this level of warriorship in each moment no matter what, makes a person a true noble warrior of the highest class and position. Our contribution to creating enlightened society stems from this essence of bravery and when we do so, we can pull the swords of our basic goodness out of the hardness of the stone of the setting sun world. We then become the rulers or monarchs of our kingdoms and rule with expressions of wisdom, compassion and grace.
There are many layers of profundity that stream forth from the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa's Shambhala lineage. I recommend that members of our Celtic Buddhist community include the study and practice of great eastern sun wisdom as a part of daily practice. As inheritors of one of the many streams of Trungpa's gifts given to us, with only his aspiration that we actualize the enlightened society he saw so clearly---we have an obligation to move forward with our heritage. Ki Ki So So! Recommended Reading: "Shambhala; The Sacred Path of the Warrior," and "Great Eastern Sun; The Wisdom of Shambhala," by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
by Thom Kilts (2008)
I have one of those good friends that for some reason can provide great comfort at time and great irritation at others. The particular friend I am referring to is one that basically put my face right into the question of the cultural implications of this whole Celtic Buddhism thing. You have to understand that through many years before I became ordained into this lineage I looked at it from afar with great amounts of skepticism and misinformed judgment. So in that light you could say I was ripe for a good push into the realm of insecurity with little effort.
There I was fresh "off the boat," from a marvelous and at times mysterious trip to Ireland. My wife and I were newly ordained during our Ireland trip and feeling especially confused as to what that all meant and where we were to go from here. My particular friend I am referring to above has been on somewhat of a parallel journey as myself. We both became practicing Tibetan Buddhists and pursued Religious Studies with a shared particular fondness for a professor of the same Buddhist persuasion in undergraduate college. During that time and in some ways it looked as though we were destined to both follow the same academic path of Buddhist Studies when we entered graduate school. I diverged after a near death experience and demanded a more embodied approach to the study of my faith. I went to a graduate program to prepare for certification as a Chaplain and he went into the academic Buddhist world of translation and textual study. I in no way posit that one path was better than the other, but they differed and in that way our engagement of western Buddhism began to differ too in response. So, in having come back from Ireland with a sense of spiritual renewal filling me up, I was in my favorite Irish pub in Berkeley with a warm Guinness (I don't know why American pubs serve Guinness warm) and speaking of our recent trip to my friend. As soon as I mentioned Celtic Buddhism, he began to laugh hysterically and said, "a friend of mine and I the other night were sitting around trying to come up with some new fucked up crazy new age religious groups and Celtic Buddhism was one of them. I can't believe someone has actually come up with that bullshit."
Noticing that I was not following in his amazement of how absolutely absurd the idea of Celtic Buddhism was, there came this strange silence between us. He immediately in all kindness tried to put on a serious face and began asking me questions about the legitimacy of the whole thing but by then I was thoroughly deflated. The rest of the night I remained quite quiet and removed and nursed my Guinness while we moved on to other subjects. It was troubling to me because it had started to become obvious that my dear religious compatriot and I were running into the same beloved territory of most Americans, which is the unspoken acknowledgement that one should not speak about religion with other people. What a horrible and distancing notion that brought, especially since our spiritual journeys were so close and rooted in many ways by the same tree.
This wasn't however the first realization of the change between us and how we could engage each other around religion. We both have a shared cynicism about the seriousness of western Buddhists and have a shared concern for much of the pretension and yuppie dogmatism that seemed to be the prevailing cultural norm of western Buddhists. Just pick up a recent copy of tricycle magazine and see in between the pages where the serene ads for peace, tranquility and escape for the mere cost of selling your children on the black market in Mexico are there for our enjoyment. For two boys who grew up of the more impoverished persuasion, Buddhist groups can seem like royal tea parties where we could be easily mistaken for servers and not participants. I have felt however at some points that my friend's cynicism outmatched my own. Sitting at a station waiting for a BART train I began talking about a retreat I did with Lama Surya Das (I must say by the way due to my income troubles his group provided me with a full scholarship) and my appreciation for his style and wit. Immediately I got the "tisk, tisk," that comes with the attitude that I must have obviously lost my mind and started drinking kool-aid with the Jones' gang or that in some deeply hidden concern, he would soon see me shooting it out in some small Texas town trying to protect my harem from the FBI. He stated, "the only authentic teachings come from Tibetan Lamas and I won't receive teachings from westerners." This exchange probably marked the first strange quietness between us and as I sat by the window in the BART train in the deafening roar that is the trans bay tube, I began to think that maybe we (my friend and I) are really the pretentious ones. If I can't envision a western teacher as having Buddha-Nature, how am I supposed to envision myself as having any? How racist is it of me to mark Tibetans as especially attuned to enlightenment? I began to reflect on how deep down I had somewhat of the same belief as my friend. It was as if any wisdom that Lama Surya Das shared that hit the nail on the head, must have been a lucky break.
I remember having a one on one meeting with Lama Surya Das and as I walked in the room, needing to mask my judgment as I thought to myself in regards to the formalities, "all come on, do you think you are for real or something?" The beauty of that retreat in particular is that it changed my heart and it was like any true teaching, the mentality I presented became a mirror onto myself. The question became, "am I for real?" I began to question if it were actually possible for a westerner to achieve enlightenment or if I had to pray to take rebirth in some Tibetan form and develop a keen liking to maroon and yellow color combinations. I liked Lama Surya Das' teachings, especially the idea of America the 'Buddha-full." I think he made it possible for me to finally begin to take myself seriously as a Buddhist, regardless of the fact that I was a westerner.
That turns me again back to the cultural implications of Celtic Buddhism. It makes me think of you dear reader whether your reading this to find something to laugh at and tear apart, or if in your heart you feel like a Celtic Buddhist but are trying to figure out what the hell that means. To those looking to tear it apart I invite you to please go ahead and do so and for those reading who are certain they are a Celtic Buddhist, I say go ahead and join this other group that wants to tear the thing apart. I think together in the middle of the fascination, wonderment and excitement to be a part of something "Celtic," and in the skeptical and irritated mind of someone ready to tear at the so called authenticity of this whole thing---is the Celtic Buddhist. Now as I look back in reflection and study my own doubting mind, I kind of have a nice chuckle and what in the world made me think that being a "Tibetan" Buddhist was and is somehow more authentic than being a "Celtic" one. I mean first off the obvious thing, is culturally my ancestors are "Celtic," but that doesn't really matter either. As Buddhists in whatever persuasion we have to learn that oh so subtle dance of not clinging to one's identity and not pretending one's identity doesn't exist either.
In chaplaincy work we deal with cross cultural issues on a daily basis. When I speak of culture here, I am talking about a broad sweep. We deal with different religious traditions, ethnicities, races, cultural groups, and so on. The well trained chaplain begins to quickly realize that while cultural competence can include knowledge of other cultures and faiths, it really comes down to meeting the human condition straight on. As Buddhists I think we can understand this as our fundamental connection in that we will all experience birth, old age, sickness and death, like it or not. How we make meaning from that and deal with that reality on a day to day basis is a part of our identity and culture. Culture helps us define aspects of our reality, as does religion and these things get problematic when we try to enforce our own definitions on other people. The wonderful thing about doing chaplaincy work each day is coming into contact with the absolute multiplicity of meaning making going on out there. I could meet four Buddhist patients and experience four different religions, cultures and understandings. The idea of what is authentic and what is not is something that has concerned Buddhists throughout time. Every time Buddhism has spread into a new culture it has changed that culture, but more importantly it has been changed by that culture. There was a time in old Tibet that people thought only the true and real teachings came from India and they sent many translators and teachers over treacherous mountains to bring back teachings and scripture. I think people forget that at some point the preservation of Indian Tantric Buddhism wasn't the focus anymore. At some point the Buddhism became "Tibetan" Buddhism.
There are many scholars who probably have some notion of the exact moment that occurred but it doesn't really matter for the point I am making here. Stories through time have always traditionally become inflated (otherwise they are not very interesting) and I think it is easy to get lost in the tales of great masters of old Tibet and how with their departure all is lost in terms of authentic teachings. All I know from the Tulkus I have met and studied with, is that each and every one of them started out with an "oh shit what do I do now," look on their faces until they kind of get the deal. For those wondering here what the "deal" is; the job of a true teacher/leader is not to lead anyone to enlightenment, just point out to people what's already there. Here is a better story than old tales of great masters. There was once a servant who tended a bridge and basically his only job was to tell each person who crossed to watch their step, because it's really slippery on the first step. Well the day came where he had to pass along this obligation to another. The servant was well known and when it came time to pick a new bridge attendant he had many willing volunteers. He picked one and gave the instruction that the new attendant dreamed was going to be profound. His only teaching was, "basically you tell each person who comes along to watch their step, maybe 5 % listen to you if your lucky, the others just fall flat on their ass and you come over and help to pick them up. Sometimes the worst part is seeing the same person day after day not listen and you just go over and pick them up again and pray one day they will get it."
So I made up that story but that's basically about the extent of what teaching Dharma is and yet we hold it up over our heads and spend more time whining about what is lost and forget that we have an obligation to move things ahead. Some see this moving ahead as an exercise in preserving as much of the past as we can, and I praise these folks because we get to reap the benefits of their translated texts and such, if we want to. Then there are those of us who want more and desire to move ahead even further. The exact dynamic has been the tension mark in all aspects of culture since the first monkey walked on his hind legs and walked off to get a cheeseburger and a Coke. There are those that see the preservation of the past as the most authentic way and those who see finding creative and new forms of practice as the way to move ahead. I think both sides are wrong when they get clingy and attached to their point of view. I have come to understand that all aspects of truth in the Buddha's teachings come from the middle way philosophy. I think Celtic Buddhism conjures up that philosophy in a strong way.
When I first tried to start making meaning out of this whole authentic cultural implication thing I turned to Celtic Christianity. The world of the Celts will forever be mystery (to their happiness I am sure) and many academics have studied the Celtic world through linguistic study, anthropology, archaeology and so on. It shouldn't be surprising that in those fields the scholars too argue about authenticity of the Celtic world. There are many books and books to counter those books about what it means to be a Celt and what exactly was the make up and design of the Celtic viewpoint on the world. There are only a few things that seem to come into agreement. The first thing is that the Celtic world was culturally highly diverse and scattered across many regions. There is a unique flavor to the art that connects these scattered clans and groups but there is no one way in which a group could lay complete and absolute claim to being purely Celtic. The second is that nature was and still is the central point of the cultures as expressed in the art with images of supernatural beings, animals and people interlaced and inter-connected with nature. It seems that no matter the diversity of each different form of Celtic expression there seemed to be a commonality and shared belief in the inter-connectedness of all things. What fascinates so many of us with the Celtic worldview is that it seems so needed in our current day and age. An absolute worship, honoring and respect for nature and a sense of earthiness in ritual and marking the passages of time and seasons. It would be easy to speak of the Celtic peoples and give it a shiny look and view it like many westerners do about Tibetans, and that they are the most pure culture and we should try an emulate all that they stood for. That of course would be ridiculous.
Now to stand back a little, it has been apparent to me that in world history that it has been advised to not make the same mistakes of the past and here is a shared mistake that both Tibetans and Celtic people made. They both, even though both philosophies of these cultures hold up the interconnectedness of all things, existed in relative isolation. In fact I think that just adds to the mystery and fascination that here were these cultures that seemed to deny the rest of the world---for the Celts it was the Romans and for the Tibetans it was the Chinese and anyone else down the mountain for that matter. Both of these cultures were thrust into the world unwillingly and most times brutally. With the Celts the missions of the Catholic Church seemed to take over but in study its hard to tell if the Catholicism changed the Celtic world or if the Celtic influence changed Catholicism in those regions. That was certainly an issue later in time when the Church became more forceful and seemed to drive out the Celtic influence in whatever way it could. The same is still going on for Tibetans, but in their misery came the first mission of Tibetan masters to the outside world. As westerners, especially ripe for wisdom from the east became worthy students, the spread of Tibetan Buddhism began to cross over not only Europe but made its way to America as well. Though the Catholic Church did a thorough job of indoctrinating the peoples of Scotland, Ireland and so on----its hard to go to any of those places and not still hear tales of the little people and see a Catholicism intertwined with Celtic culture.
As Tibetan Buddhism was beginning its journey to the west, one particular figure stands out and that is Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He in many ways challenged the love affair with anything foreign and out there and sought to teach his students to look "in there." He asked westerners to deal with their own cultures and trust that the truth and heart of the Buddha can live through most anything. I say that for both the heart of Celtic culture and the heart of Buddha's teachings, that they can and have lived though most everything.
So what to say when standing in a bar and your friend laughs hysterically at this funny little thing you're interested in. I don't have any good comebacks for you, but I do request that you hold it with an open mind. Who can really explain why we "feel" connected to anything. How strange would it be to have to explain why I love my wife and daughter and not belittle it so much it makes me look and feel cold and uncaring. We have been integrating aspects of the world around us since we were first born and most times unquestioningly. That's the real crime is that we don't doubt in that healthy way that the Buddha taught. Some say that I am lucky because I have been a Buddhist all my life and so in many ways it is ingrained in me in ways it is not in others. That is rubbish, truly, if I took that to heart too much, because what really makes me Buddhist is that I have always questioned and I was lucky enough to be around and had the choice to grow up in a tradition that encourages a lot of questioning. Just because Buddhism encourages a lot of questioning doesn't mean that we have done a good job at following that advice. As a Chaplain I see and am involved in all different aspects of the religious world and I have to say that sometimes Buddhists can be the most dogmatic and least skeptical religious people out there. This is no attempt to insult but it is a call for more challenge. That is what so intrigued me about Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
The first teaching I read from Trungpa Rinpoche was a copied ditto with the title, "Boredom." Having been a devoted meditation practitioner for many years it was a huge relief to read some teacher talk about how damn boring the whole thing was. He wasn't saying to not meditate but he was being refreshingly honest about what it is. The article grounded things for me but then inevitably I began to learn more about Trungpa and began hearing horrible stories about behavior that I felt was not becoming of a true Tibetan Teacher. So like any true blue western Buddhist stuck on the external formalities, I disregarded anything related to Trungpa Rinpoche and prided myself on my purity.
Years down the road I needed to attend a graduate school to get my credentials straight in order to be a chaplain. Well, Naropa Institute was the only real Buddhist tinged graduate program that entertained seriously the notion of practical chaplaincy practice for Buddhists, so it was off to a university founded by a teacher I simply thought was a freaking mad man. I read more and more of Trungpa's teachings and became just simply enamored with their realistic tone and approach to the subject of Dharma. I was at odds with myself, and I was lucky enough to be able to speak with many of his older students. Some I found to be even crazier than what I thought Trungpa was like and most others I found to be very grounded and serious practitioners. One in particular was instructing one of our meditation classes and he brought out a velvet crown royal bag and set it in front of him. I thought to myself, "great now he is going to ask us all to take a swig of some liquor before we get started." To my surprise he pulled out a bell and a ringer that he kept in the nice crown royal bag. Later in our relationship and after many conversations I talked about my troubles with Trungpa and his behavior and my concern for the proper example and model that a good teacher should give to his students. He laughed as I told story after story of some of Trungpa's more popular exploits as well as some that he was surprised that I even knew of. He complimented me on my research and then asked me a subtle but powerful question, 'how does any of that have to do with your karma?" My first thought and reaction was that it embarrassed me to think that I was following in the lineage of an alcoholic mad man who slept with his students. We then talked about Marpa and his physical abuse, Milarepa and his murdering ways and so on. My response was to insist that they were masters of meditation and their lineages ring true even to this day. My past meditation instructor, clearly amused by my apparent ignorance asked me if I thought it was easy for the generation proceeding Milarepa and Marpa to make sense of it all. I mean didn't Milarepa flash his penis to the gods as an insult and put his head inside a demon's mouth? But those were extraordinary times and we are in modern times. I was challenged to reflect on why here and now were not extraordinary times. Tulku Urgen once said, "the more neurosis, the more enlightenment!"
So why aren't these days we live in extraordinary times? When I was on pilgrimage in Tibet it opened my eyes in many ways. I mean there are Tulkus everywhere and the Tibetan people don't seem too overly concerned with that fact. I met some of these young Tulkus in Nepal and believe me I didn't see much that impressed me, in terms of teaching or behaviors. They were nice and formal and would make Trungpa look like a homeless mad man coming out of a local pub, but their teachings were in my opinion flat and almost repetitive chatter that they regurgitated for my fascinated western mind. I walked away from this whole thing puzzled by the challenge that Trungpa left us. He left us a mess and there are many putting things in order and cleaning house and I say good for them. His influence didn't stop there however. Some of his mess extends to the realm of Shambhala International and Naropa University, all great accomplishments mind you, but his trouble making can't be so quietly contained and put all together so neatly. For me here is where Seonaidh or as others know him, John Perks, enters into the equation.
To read, "Mahasiddha and His Idiot Servant," is like reading the journal of some lunatic who volunteered to partake in one of the greatest freak shows or experiments in the modern Buddhist world. I have to say, I felt lucky that I read this book after and not before I had made arrangements to meet and stay with Seonaidh in Ireland. I mean that old voice kept creeping up inside me, wondering how I was going to deal with this surreal tale and its brutal honesty. I believe it was the honesty part that brought more comfort and was simply the piece that made it so that I could never blow off Trungpa's teachings for good or Seonaidh's either for that matter. I was really excited because right around this time I confirmed through DNA testing that my ancestral origins were primarily from Ireland. You see my family had always lived around Irish neighborhoods and I was always called that nice Irish boy who serves the church (I was working at a Catholic hospital as the only non-catholic Chaplain at one time) and how nice it was that the young ones are still going into the priesthood! I never thought myself to be Irish, though the last name and the facial features always posed a challenge to that notion, but what I am getting at is that in my own cultural exploration I uncovered some of my own self hatred.
I decided as an educator of chaplains and concerned with teaching multi-cultural competency that many Euro-Americans thought of themselves as true Americans and didn't quite get the whole need for people of color to be in touch with their cultural and ethnic roots. I posited that every person had to explore their roots and deal with them because we are all immigrants here. In my own discovery, I found the usual New York (my home state) mix of a little pre-German, English and yes that stinking Irish, from both sides! I grew up luckily in a progressive neighborhood with bi-racial cousins, I mean I'm talking Korean/Euro-American, and African/Euro-American. There was no question in their lives as my siblings and I were the only ones of the "pure" Euro-American set, that my cousins were going to have and have had a lifetime of sorting out their cultural and ethnic connections. There is a great quote from the modern sage Bob Marley that is apt here; 'I am half white and half black but the world, dem only see the black." I saw first hand as we grew up together how even in a progressive neighborhood, I was treated a bit differently. The blond haired, blue eyed white boy wasn't going to steal anything but my relatives with me in each store, well they needed extra watching. It was unfair and later in life I realized the importance of tracking down my cultural and ethnic heritage, so I could be what I believe is someone with true cultural competence, a white person who knows himself to be Euro-American, and not just "American," because I seem to fit some cultural implied "norm" in my whiteness.
Despite being white, I still did grow up poor and I remember one message loud and clear, was that we were not Irish. Even amongst the white folk there are lines drawn, especially in New York. I think one year my mother convinced us we were of Italian heritage. You see I was always a curious sort, asking questions about god and seeing my cousins connecting with the rich stories from their grandmother from Ghana, wondering where the hell I came from. What was my cultural upbringing? I think my mother convinced us we were Italian because we ate spaghetti and lasagna was my favorite dish as a kid. I don't know the motives but learned over time when I lived in Irish neighborhoods that being Irish was not an advantage and by some something to be looked down upon. I spent most of my life living near and around Irish neighborhoods and seemed to blend in just fine but each time I was greeted with that smile that says you are one of us, I secretly snickered to myself a strong, 'yeah right."
So far now I have not only shown you my own racism as it came to seeing Tibetan people as particularly attuned to spiritual enlightenment but am also sharing what was my distaste for what was my Irish heritage. I remember in high school when we each had to share where our ancestors came from and telling the class that we were Italian and the snickering that followed that remark. Even my teacher raised a curious eyebrow, looking at my pale white skin, blue eyes, dark blond hair and a last name like "Kilts," doesn't really spell out rigatoni with my espresso please. Oh what a confused kid I was and this confusion didn't get much attention until later in life.
Later in life to experiment, I started taking my family to Scottish games and became remarkably uncomfortable with the similarities with family reunions I attended when I was really young on my father's side. Drunkenness, throwing big shit and food that consisted of new and exciting ways to eat seasoned meat. It was at one of these events that I began to question the sense of revulsion that crept in. My mother did well to keep us distant from my father's side of the family and instilled in me a desire to shun all alcoholic consumption and drug use, which eventually by the way killed my father. I began to realize that my association with Scottish and Irish culture was drunkenness and a general lack of sophistication. I mean, come on here, I was an almost Buddhist monk at the age of 16, the first in the family to become college educated and one of the first Buddhists in the chaplain world, doing the work and training other chaplains. This rowdy, sunburned, taber tossing, bunch could no way be associated with me in any shape or form. Oh but how life presents us with such magical change and leads us on in mysterious ways.
In my profession as a chaplain trainer I had become notorious for being extremely experiential in my methods and quite confrontational. I was pretty well book educated and damn good in a debate but my particular style of teaching took on a more warrior style of engagement. I called my students out in ways that others thought a little too dramatic and stepped into tension with courage and a keen ability to meet it head on and not back away too easily. After engaging a Catholic student who was much older than me but desired greatly to understand and utilize what I was teaching him about chaplaincy, he connected a lot of what I was teaching (both in style and in content) to a great little book called, "Anam Cara," by John O Donohue (please refer to my chapter on the Anam Cara Principle in Celtic Buddhism). This relationship with an older Irish catholic student and our connection with Celtic teachings that bridged the gap between my Buddhism and his Catholicism, turned my attention to an aspect of my culture I had been blind to.
I feel the need to stop here and bring attention to one important fact and opinion that I share with many Celtic Buddhists, that one need not be "ethnically" Celtic in order to be inspired by and taken with the wisdom of Celtic culture and teachings. I tell parts of my story to poke a little fun at the mind's propensity to establish its view of the world as the "truth." In many studies of the Celtic world there is a vast range of Celtic peoples that stretches along the European frontier. It just so happened that in places like Ireland and Scotland Celtic culture was preserved, primarily by language in those countries. By all accounts the Celtic word was made up of many different peoples whose commonality was less concerned with bloodlines than the preservation of shared values and principles. Celtic people shared alliances with many different cultures and again this continues to make what truly being "Celtic" so perplexing.
How does a culture survive? Many in the past thought it was by becoming isolated and dogmatic in what moves forward and what gets carried on. In reality as we study history we see truly that it is the people that move a culture forward. It doesn't happen in committee or through vote but happens through logic. It happens through what works and what doesn't, it can be and has been as simple as that throughout time. Some of us have a tough time getting with that program but it, like evolution, seems to me to be the prevailing theory that makes the most logical sense.
That brings me back to Buddhism. The Buddha did a special thing on his dying breath when he asked his disciples to work out their own salvation. This final teaching is the one I find for most Buddhists to be the hardest one to follow. I would assume it to be important because what is said on the last dying breath should hold a great amount of weight with anyone. The Buddha was teaching something beyond religion and beyond culture. He was pointing clearly to the paradox of the futility of religion, culture and ego but the necessity as well. The Buddha's teachings like any great teaching was constantly contradicting themselves on many occasions and it became clear that the Buddha taught to circumstance and context. It's hard to define a clear religion out of all that, but the human need to do so, went ahead anyway and thus we have a multiplicity of Buddhist traditions and cultures all over the world. Through time and through testing teachings something continues to prevail in the Buddhist world. There have been leaders throughout the history of Buddhism who have furthered the teachings and helped us continue the search for enlightenment in new, updated and sometimes more effective ways. The fact that the teachings prevail is where our respect must come and our admiration of the lineage and history of the Buddhist religion. Buddhism has not gone away and doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.
This is true for Celtic culture. It has prevailed through the people who continue to pass it on to this very day. It is important to have some understanding and respect for the lineage and origins of the Celtic way, but like Buddhism in order for it to carry on it has to be alive. It is the people who make it come alive. If Buddhism had lost it's touch in terms of helping people make meaning and work directly with the suffering of life it would have faded long ago with self help paperbacks. If the values, customs and principles of Celtic culture didn't have something to contribute to society and our world today, then it would just go away like a teenage fad. It is important to note that as Celtic Buddhists we stand on a long line of tradition from both aspects of what is Celtic and what is Buddhist.
So why Celtic Buddhism? John Riley Perks in his travels with Trungpa Rinpoche and other great masters of the Tibetan tradition was asked, "why not Celtic Buddhism?," and then left to his own devices to figure that one out. Seonaidh had the forsight to see that no one person can dictate what the answer to the question of what Celtic Buddhism should be. It's an understanding that comes from knowing that it is only through people that culture and religion continue and nothing else. If Celtic Buddhism brings people closer to the essence of Buddhist teachings then great something must have gotten through. If it doesn't then it will fade away as it should. The Buddha never asked his disciples to concern themselves with the preservation of traditions and ideas, but wanted the practitioners to further the search for truth and true enlightenment.
Each one of us has our own story as to why we feel connected to Celtic Buddhism and why we feel its important to do our part to further it along. As a lifetime practitioner of Buddhist teachings, I have spent a good portion in the study of texts and luckily in meditation practice. When I decided to not take the monastic path and pursue chaplaincy it was a long journey of self discovery and in that journey I hope I benefited many beings in their suffering. At some point in my journey what was given to me and taught to me was no longer enough. The wisdom teachings of the Buddha always prevailed but it was the limitation of culture that I felt was holding me back. In my day to day work as a chaplain and educator I felt that the lineage I was upholding was pushing me forward while the communities I was a part of made me feel as though I was participating in some sort of historical society exercise in the preservation of Tibetan culture. I never shun nor put down my fellow Sangha members that did this or continue to do this, but it wasn't right for me. For me the cultural elements of what we know to be Celtic culture seem to integrate into my own understanding of how the Buddhist teachings work in chaplaincy and in this modern world. It has asked me to challenge my own sense of self hatred as a westerner, as a Euro-American and made me realize that the continuation of the teachings of Buddha were not meant only for a select culture. I will admit there is something essentially silly about Celtic Buddhism but that silliness is no different than any other type of silliness out there (meaning in my view religion in general). As a chaplain I see the best and the worst of religion in practice. I have seen it devastate a family and I have seen it provide tremendous comfort and guidance during hopeless times. There is something profoundly prophetic in that Celtic Buddhism challenges us to own our own enlightenment as in my belief every Buddhist tradition should. It challenges us to see Buddhas everywhere and not only in golden statues atop massive Asian mountains. Celtic Buddhism asks us to think about how we integrate all the elements of our lives onto the path.
I would hate for there to ever be a war in the name of Celtic Buddhism or a discourse on its supremacy to other forms of western styles of practicing Buddha's teachings. I think it should be taken seriously however and not be considered a joke or some new age attempt to "soften up" the teachings of Buddha either. I always tell my students that if their religion is not challenging them down deep into their core, then they should find something different. I think Celtic Buddhism should pose a challenge to us, not as a "new" tradition and lineage that needs to be defended but one that works to make us more open to inviting enlightened activity into the world.
It is true like my story of being in the pub and being laughed at about the absurdity of Celtic Buddhism that we as Celtic Buddhists will have to take our share of ridicule and at times laughter. I urge you to remember that the Buddha was quite unpopular in his day and that anything prophetic is truly supposed to antagonize and confront accepted "norms." I have had to learn to laugh with those who think this whole thing is inauthentic and just another new age tinkering. I personally would never want to be a part of something that doesn't hold up to scrutiny at all times. For those of us moving ahead with the lineage of Celtic Buddhism, we will impact the "culture" that it will be and will become. While I sat there in the pub not only nursing my Guinness, but nursing my wounds of insecurity I was quickly reminded of the hospitality that was offered to me while spending time with Seonaidh. I remember feeling how much I wish I could be that generous, giving, inviting and open to serving others (and I'm a long time hospital chaplain!). In my time spent with Seonaidh, I was blessed to be served by him as if I were Trungpa himself or as if I was one of many Buddhas out there. I was treated to an immense sense of honesty, humor and ordinariness. When I was in that little cottage out in beautiful Donegal, I felt my spirit lifting and felt as though I could actually be part of something. I don't think in any other Buddhist arena had I experienced the immense importance of community over and above everything else.
In Celtic culture there is pride in one's ability to provide others with great hospitality. There is a desire to be more grounded in the earth and really talk about these Buddhist teachings around a kitchen table with a hot cup of tea and an openness to be skeptical, pissed off or whatever. The core of Celtic culture is that everything is interlaced and interconnected. This is not a teaching that one learns at a retreat or reads in a book about shunyata but a cultural reality that has been preserved for many centuries. Each of us will be drawn to a different aspect of Buddha's teachings and Celtic culture and some things will be of immense importance to some and not to others. There is nothing wrong with questioning over and over again if this is authentic and right, because that process in and of itself is the practice, is the culture of Celtic Buddhism. The Celts as far as we know had an openness to integration that is worthy of dzogchen. Many times in my view throughout history, this openness was used against them, but what stayed true and needed prevailed, because of the people. For some of us those people are our literal ancestors and for others they are our spiritual ancestors.
While I was in Ireland, I had a hard time sleeping at night. I swear that I heard voices constantly and I am not one to speak of these things. We visited many sacred sites with tremendous spiritual power and feeling, like the birthplace of St. Columba. We heard stories from the locals of many fascinating things and tales of people who can commune with the little people. Weird shit to say the least. At night I had felt a restlessness inside and could only confirm through my own experience that I was truly connecting to a holy place. I remember once in a certification committee a member, in a move to challenge my ability to stand firm in my faith, told me about meeting the Dalai Lama and how he seemed like a nice guy but didn't think of him as a spiritual being. My response was not to defend my own experience of my time with His Holiness, but was to confirm her experience, because yeah, he is a nice fellow and one you wouldn't mind meeting on the streets. Ireland can be a cool tourist trip and not wiggle much in terms of the spiritual connection that some feel. As stated above, I say if it doesn't wiggle some spiritual feeling, question that and if it does question that too!
In one of my many restless nights where I envisioned myself being harassed by the little folk, I asked myself for the thirtieth time what this whole Celtic Buddhist thing was about. I had a vision of the Buddha and was instantly reminded of one of the most important mudras in the Buddhist world. When the Buddha achieved enlightenment, it is said that he was challenged by Mara to prove it. Just like our friends out there who laugh at us and say prove that this whole Celtic Buddhist gibberish is authentic. The Buddha simply touched the earth and stated that the earth was his witness. That mudra of the Buddha sitting in enlightenment with his right hand touching the earth about sums up Celtic Buddhism to me. The earth is the witness and the test of authenticity of practice, faith and the power of any spiritual lineage. When studying Celtic Christianity and asking some Celtic Christians what makes it Celtic, the responses all come back as being related to the earth as a way to follow the teachings of Christ in a more grounded way. It's quite beautiful to me really, and don't worry those Celtic Christians get about as much flack if not worse than us Celtic Buddhists. To me, the Buddha confirms the lineage of Celtic Buddhism as a lineage rooted and interlaced with the earth. Everything we do or say must bear witness to the earth and it will give us the feedback we seem to want so bad about how authentic this whole thing is. Tell that to your pub friend, give him another laugh maybe, and be hospitable by buying him a pint, like I did with my friend. The whole thing is hysterical when it comes down to it really. We can either laugh like an asshole with cynicism or laugh like a yogi with the knowledge of shunyata and the heart essence of Buddha wisdom. Your pub friend won't know the difference but you will and that's all that truly matters anyway. Do yourself a favor and don't take yourself too seriously, I have tried it for many years and it is real bother and not worth much time. The earth is my witness and carrying that forward is what I believe is the essence of the cultural implications of Celtic Buddhism.
“When are you going to start the Celtic Buddha?” John would ask me from time to time.
We had finished printing the prayer flags a few months earlier and there were a few flapping in John’s backyard and at our home and at Peg’s sister’s home in Maine.
We were going to attract drala energy and magnetize the environs. John suggested designing the Celtic prayer flags depicting the five buddha families by using celtic iconography. We decided to use different animals to represent the qualities: Heron-Vajra family, Whale-Buddha family, Bear-Ratna family, Wolf-Padma family, and Bee-Karma family. John added some Buddhist phrases and my wife, Peg, arranged them into a format and after printing them on fabric she sewed them and thus we had Celtic Buddhist prayer flags.
When John repeated the question of doing a painting of the Celtic Buddha, I would just smile and shrug my shoulders. But the question became more persistent and I believe I had agreed to do a sketch. We had access to books outlining the techniques for painting Tibetan thangkas and we also had books on drawing and constructing the Celtic knots and spiral work that were illuminated in the Book Of Kells. (List in bibliography.)
While visiting my late mother and sister in Virginia for a week in October, 2002 I had the time to make a rough sketch. Using colored pencils, I blocked out the designs and drew in the Buddha sitting on a lotus in the center (Illus. 1). When I returned to Vermont, I eventually decided on a size and bought some canvas and stretchers. The canvas is then prepared with a few coats of gesso and then sanded smooth. Too much texture from the canvas weave will make it more difficult to draw in the fine details of some the designs, Buddhas and deities. In sketching the design on the canvas regular soft lead pencils were used. I found it best to use a pencil type that was easy to erase, because after the inking stage and before painting all the pencil lines are erased. There was a great deal of erasing and redrawing, especially with the knotwork. This segment of the project took about 7 weeks. Many of the areas were measured and worked out and drawn on paper, then they were traced onto transfer paper and finally were again traced and drawn on the canvas. The transfer paper is taped on the canvas to prevent any movement while tracing. The figure of the Buddha was drawn in accordance with the proportions used in traditional thangka paintings. The Tibetan artists have their own measuring sticks and units for drawing their grids and I merely determined units in terms of my own rulers to match theirs. I studied the various thangkas in books and on the internet to determine some style elements, techniques and materials. In addition, I researched the Book of Kells which was the combined work of the Irish Christian monks in the late 800 AD and the background from which it was created. I remain fascinated and in awe of the skillful and ingenious Celtic artisans and monks who were masters of the spiral, lace and key patterns with their bold arrangements of elemental design. And I was inspired by the playful use of colors and light-hearted flair that demonstrated their relationship or view of the spiritual dimension. This led into many other forays with Celtic mythology and history as well as the designs used by artists and craftsmen.
In selecting the designs I believe some were done out of curiosity to see if I could execute them and some were selected because they seemed to fit into the aesthetic scheme that was developing. Also, my teacher, John, would suggest some figure or personage as for instance, his teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche. Cernunnos and the Flower-faced goddess were also discussed as possibilities.
On the next phase of the work, (Illus. 2) I purchased an array of water-safe, colored pens (Prismacolor) and then redrew the designs over the pencil. I then erased all the pencil work, which turned out to be a considerable amount of erasing, with two or three different types of erasers being used. This phase also took several weeks and demanded my complete attention to be true to my original lines and also to avoid the possibility of the ink running, which occurred a few times. At this phase, one might have to sacrifice the more subtle and graceful pencil lines. I found that the mind had to be very settled to follow a line. As a practice I had to be pretty relaxed and have a quiet mind. I couldn’t do the ink drawing if anything was going on in my environment or if I was distracted by other concerns. I would recommend to anyone interested in pursuing this type of painting to begin with a period of meditation if possible, and perform some purification of the environment and the canvas, as well, by lighting some incense and any other blessing ceremony one is familiar with. Also, one may want to state one’s intention or aspiration to focus or bring one’s passion into the project. I cannot recall at what stage I began doing mantras while I worked. Mantras may be used as a spontaneous device to magnetize the whole situation and thus bringing the mind to focus. I sometimes listened to puja tapes where the mantras would be in the background. At times the mantras were distracting and I just found being quiet a better way to work. I believe there was much trepidation in the beginning of the ink drawing phase. I was aware that I couldn’t make any mistakes. There are many junctures in the process where anxiety or concerns may arise and one has to have the courage to begin and the courage to go to the next step. We have to remind ourselves that we have nothing to lose. If we listen to the mundane mind of everyday concerns we would never undertake and finish such a project. After a while, I began to relax and just allow the drawing process to continue. It was this allowing of the process to continue that brought the painting to life. The different colored inks were not only taken up and used spontaneously but there was also the thinking about where they would go, as well as deciding in the Art Supply Store which colors were suitable. As it turned out the colored outlines that were inked in determined the colors that were used in the painting phase. This was a rather interesting outcome and this process of outlining was an important step.
Also, I had never attempted a painting in this style before. Drawing had not been my forte and I tended toward abstraction and textured surfaces, often layering on paints with metal tools, which are used to apply plaster to walls. The drawing and intricate details were a challenge and required much laboring on my part. But for many years I had been involved and working with the underlying intention to awaken awareness in others through visual art, music, sculpture, theatre, and the environment by creating sacred space architecturally and through the arrangement of stone circle energy, as well. I had touched upon all these areas and I was familiar with the outcomes of these explorations. And thangka painting is in this same field of exploration. It evokes this same intention.
In drawing the image of Cernunnos, I did some contemplation and actually came up with three images, which I finally combined as a composite of that experience. One image was young, innocent looking boy riding on a deer; another was a bit bushy haired and bushy browed; and the third older, darker, sterner, more muscular. Also, in relating to the energy of that archetype, I discovered a very deep dimension, one from which it was not possible to return. And I felt that this archetype connected to the elemental realm, which looks after the natural world. In this realm Cernunnos is the figure-head or guardian of those beings-an aspect of the Lord of the World who directs the deva evolution.
With the feminine image of the flower-faced goddess, I used an interesting photo of a woman as inspiration for the sketch and therefore the sketch had little resemblance to the photo. I did some research into the mythological background of this archetype and her ability to shape-shift into an owl. One of the interesting features was the connection to healing in Europe and the nine plants with their sacred flowers or blossoms. Numerically, there is a relationship to wholeness and completeness and these plants were called the Epiphanies for the healing qualities. And there are other female archetypes that are accompanied by owls, like Athena.
There is a very earth connected feel to this deity, much a counterpart of the green man with leaves and vegetation growing out of the faces – a blend of plant world and the human domain. And also this deity came to represent well-being to me. The deva evolution of looking after the plant world that eventually we relate to as health giving or health supporting. She vivifies the budding plants and trees when they are manifesting blossoms and fruit. When we consider the properties of plants and essences made from plants, both as food and medicine as well as the relationship to our senses, this connection and interdependence is often not acknowledged. But it is a factor in our well-being and in our collective evolution.
The other theme that was developing was connected to the tree of life. This element is common to both the Tibetan iconography and the Celts. In the case of the painting, the vase from which the tree or vine grows is a cauldron/chalice shape. The tree serves both the purposes of life giving and the connection underlying everything. There is the hint here of “Buddha nature”, the underlying reality present in all phenomena. As Gyalwa Jampa Rinpoche has said, “The very force of matter evolving, geometrically, into life is Buddha nature.” It also serves the purpose of acknowledging the spark of the divine life force or the creative love aspect that is inherent in the smallest atom (Anu) as well as the human dimension. So the vine grows and it spirals and it has the potential to become anything. It encircles, upholds and touches and enlivens everything. It evolves or emerges from the ground from which all things proceed. In this movement there is an elemental influence, the geometric forces, the forces of sound and color, in other words, the elements. And in the painting there is a hierarchical depiction to acknowledge the unconscious realm, the atomic realm, and the mineral, vegetable, animal, human, buddaic and deity realms. The Buddha and other realized yogis have related stories of having gone through various incarnations of these realms repeatedly. Also, in the painting, there is the feminine side and the masculine and the interplay of the colors to depict or denote this. In the case of the two figures holding hands with their legs entwined there is a reference to the tantric idea that we are both male and female in nature. Thus they are seen as equal in status and a reminder of the union of bliss and emptiness, wisdom and compassion.
There is also the presence of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. Through these symbols there is the relationship to the five senses and the five Buddha families. Some of the figures and patterns I modified from the Book of Kells with the help of George Bain’s book; and some I merely designed as originals. The basic format that is most notably present in the Celtic Buddha painting is the folio: 28v, Portrait of St. Matthew.
The Flower-faced goddess, often referred to as Blodwedd in Welsh mythology, was the first to be drawn. It was this feminine influence as starting point and inspiration. Also, both the male and female archetypes, as well as other figures and deities, provided motivation and courage to move forward with the project. Since Trungpa Rinpoche instructed my teacher, John, to develop a Celtic lineage, there is a tribute to his teaching and his relationship to the tiger, lion, garuda and dragon qualities known as the four dignities. These will be found in the thangka and they represent meekness, perkiness, outrageousness and inscrutability. Trungpa Rinpoche is wearing Scottish military dress, which he actually wore on occasions and it is an example of the Nirmanakaya aspect of the teacher. Trungpa holds a fan with a dot that represents the unconditional dot in space-the dot of basic, primordial goodness or purity, the origin of everything. I happened to take refuge vows from Trungpa Rinpoche in 1974 and this thangka represents an extension of that relationship as well. Our teacher, John, is on the opposite side dressed in robes. He is holding a bow and appears in his hunter or archer aspect. The large double or crossed Vajra resembling a Celtic cross is the Crazy Heart lineage logo. It is encircled by an orange color, which is the same as the Garuda’s wings. Vajrayogini, a feminine Budda and a yidam of Tantric practices, is depicted in the circle beside John.
In my research I noted that gouache would be a good medium for the painting. The pigments used in gouache have a luster and brilliance of color. The drawbacks of using this medium are that it dries fast and it is not water permanent. Therefore, I experimented with gouache mixed with acrylic medium and acrylics mixed with different mediums to achieve transparencies with the colors. I decided that the way to go for the particular canvas fabric I was using was to apply a new gouache-acrylic product, which could be mixed with straight acrylic colors. I found this to be adequate and later in the process I added a retardant to the paints, which allowed me to take my time. One of the frustrations of paints drying fast is the challenge to reproduce the same value of color when a new batch is mixed. On some areas I favored just the straight acrylic paints. I used a lot of gold mixed in with the colors. Some of the gold pigments had a glossier finish and some a matte finish. When the paints were first applied there was a wonderful brilliance for about ten to twenty minutes, then there would be a gradual fading of the color. Every new color that was applied would change the balance of the whole painting and I would often look for other areas to apply the color once it had been mixed. But one should avoid applying mixed paint to a canvas in an arbitrary way so as not to waste it. It is not a good habit, and doesn’t serve the project. In terms of redoing a color or area that did not seem to fit or work, I believe I only repainted an area on two or three occasions. This condition, of course, had something to do with trying to mix a color to match one used elsewhere and finding once it had dried to be slightly the wrong value. This occurred with a particular yellow. It is interesting to note that when the time came to paint the Buddha’s skin I became overly concerned with getting it right, and of course, I got it wrong. This sort of apprehension about it and the way I applied the paint proved to be the only point where I felt the need to panic. I did some adjustment of the color, but this did not seem to improve things. There was also the concern of whether to shade the features to emphasize the form, but that would have been inconsistent with the rest of the painting. Also, I was beginning to lose the clarity of the line drawing. I consulted a friend who is a master portrait painter. I brought the painting into one of her classes and we discussed what might be done. There was a lot of support from her and members of her class. I went home and later applied some new colors to the Buddha and decided to leave it alone. The Buddha didn’t seem to be too concerned by the whole affair. Which brings me to various ways of deciding matters concerning the whole process of the art-work, which I find amusing and somewhat shy to disclose. You may ask the Buddha, or any given deity that you are painting, what he or she would like to wear or include as silks, garments, ornaments, jewelry, hair styles, color co-ordinations, etc. Why? Well, why not. It’s pertinent to the process.
Interesting phenomenon would occur that made the painting of the thangka take on the qualities of a spiritual practice. There was a notable change in the energy in the painting and in the environment when a particular area was completed. For instance, when I drew or painted the offerings that are traditional in Tibetan thangkas there seemed to an acknowledgement of that action. There is a similar response when doing prostrations or making offerings as part of a visualization practice. The same phenomenon might occur when painting and finishing another design or article of the Buddha’s robes. There is a similar demonstration of this in the way ceremonies magnetize the environment. The painting takes on that capacity. So the whole act of painting the thangka was devotional practice involving body, speech and mind. Often the effect of having finished a particular area would bring about a state of identification with the harmony or wholeness that was being manifested and this would bring about a state of meditative awareness. It is that awareness that is present in the painting despite all its myriad forms and colors. So we could say that the thangka might be used as a meditative support. I mention this as a personal learning experience - that a process was engaged in and allowed to continue and that there was some transformative aspect to that process.
Another level of that transformative process was the relationship that came out of the identification with the feminine archetype in the painting that we call the Flower-faced goddess. In our sangha we had been discussing and also working with archetypal Celtic deities in our deity yoga practice. When I began to explore the relationship of emptiness to Shila-na-gig, Vajrayogini, and the Lion-headed dakini and other feminine archtypes, there developed a series of visualizations that eventually turned up an owl-headed dakini. I later discovered that this dakini is actually a tramen or a guardian/gate keeper of one the directions in the Vajrayogini mandala. It occurred to me that this embodiment was related to the Flower-faced goddess who shape-shifts into an owl. Cailleach is also associated with the owl-faced goddess. I had been somewhat exploring the wrathful or semi-wrathful aspect of the feminine archetype as a vehicle for transcending the idea of self or the tendency of self-grasping. Thus, the emergence of deity or dakini is consistent with or in resonance with the mind of the practitioner, arising, as it were, out of space. This space or emptiness, termed the dharmata, allows a form that may transmit wisdom to express itself. This form may be visualized or seen as male or female or it may be some other symbolic form or appearance, perhaps idealized or horrendous depending upon the conditions in the mind of the meditator. In many instances, painting the thangkas helped with visualizing the deities in detail. This is another reason why thankas may be used as supports for meditation. Also, it is my belief that the thangka transmits the teaching of the particular kaya or yana directly, if one knows how to look. This may at least be true for the one who painted it. As with most art, we the viewer look at pictures and paintings through a filter of preference, likes and dislikes, thus making it difficult to see what’s there. The thangka may transmit the energy of a particular level of realization - which is represented in the deity – along with the qualities, as well as transcendent insights, directly to the mind. One may indeed realize non-duality while looking at a particular thangka, in the same way one may realize the view while listening to the teacher’s oral instructions or during an empowerment. It is the great blessing that the teacher shares with his or her students that flows through lineage, that keeps alive the vibrancy of the Buddha’s original teachings of Sutra and Tantra.
The outcome of this exploration was the appearance of the Owl-goddess who proceeded to give a teaching based on the practice of offering the body. This teaching contained elements of traditional Tibetan Chod. The practice helps the student in the realization of the identitylessness of self, and identitylessness of other, beyond hope and fear. This is prajnaparamita. As in many sadhanas there are phases where one remains in the view of formless meditation. Also, the unique character of the environment had some semblance of a Celtic nature since there was a cauldron in the visualization. The resulting text was somewhat simplified and presented in English along with some mantras. This process was written up as a sadhana and I then practiced it about once a week for a year. During that period it was presented to some members of our sangha. I found the practice to be efficacious and dynamic.
In general, the painting is a crystallized visualization, but it’s not the only characterization of the deity, or mandalic realm that is possible. It is highly personal in many respects. It helps when one has carefully painted all the details in a painting to then visualize those details during a sadhana or practice. But one is not limited by this depiction. For instance, during a given meditation, the deity could show up wearing entirely different ornaments and garments, or none at all. Yidams may appear in an entirely different hue and in another aspect as wrathful or with a consort. It may be pretty spontaneous. One is encouraged to allow this spontaneity to develop, as it is very magnetizing. Then just treat it as ordinary.
Even though the sadhana is a pattern or structure that one proceeds through, there are instances or phases built into this practice where the whole mandala may disappear or dissolve and shifts into formless meditation. Formless meditation is built into the sadhana. It is an intricate part and outcome, although we cannot properly term transcendent space or nonduality as an outcome. Sadhana has the connotation of endeavoring to obtain a particular result. It is space-like, without definition or characteristics. The mind is not involved in fishing for absolutes, essence, or mode. There is some portion of the path that may be talked about, but the greater part may not be described, though it may be transmitted across mind.
More on sadhana: “The two accumulations of merit and wisdom generated by a bodhisattva practicing the six perfections result in the three bodies of a Buddha. The dharmakaya reveals itself when the veil “which covers what is to be known” dissolves. The sambhogakaya, when the veil of afflictions is dissolved; and the nirmanakaya, when the veil of karma is purified.
Playing in the mandala-offer your passion to the mandala beings.
The magnifying, enriching, pacifying, or destroying energies could be in each scene. Deities become like family, they accompany you. When you see these aspects in reality, mentally bow. Visualize the deity and give blessings, give offerings or blessings, nothing comes back.We can ask the deities of the outer mandala for help with life situations.
Sadhana is more exploratory than traditional, so you’re being pushed out into outer space, there’s no support system. The sadhana is completely opened and all aspects of deities are individually realized. All the passions, love, anger, motherliness, nurturing, compassion, are found in this particular mandala (1st one John presented), so when that energy comes together in you, you’re inviting from the universe, that allows primal energy to enter your being. From that point of view, you’re doing a purification practice. In this sadhana, all obstacles would not exist in this light frame, they just pop, they just burn up.(In some way this has to do with the mind aspiring to its inherent luminosity factor while practicing; karmic elements are placed at a level of awareness where they dissolve in that space) Cartemandua is pacifying, Brigit is enriching, Morrigan is the destroying aspect of that energy that destroys all obstacles like hesitation and doubt, we don’t get attached anywhere. So archetypes may represent processes in the psyche. They may stand in for universal or fundamental principles that are difficult to conceptualize or explain. Therefore, a dark-blue deity may represent Unconditioned, Absolute, Abstract Space as a way to relate directly to that space. In this sense, it may be said to be a “path of contrivance”. But in this case, tantra, the contrivance is efficacious and useful.
As one does the practice, the aspects or character of the deities may change and they reveal specific natures. One’s intuitive realization is allowed to grow. Realization of Prajnaparamita is realization of the whole thing, as well as the realization of the feminine quality of the Prajnaparamita in a primordial way. One needs to be mindful and also have a close rapport with the teacher to discuss what comes up in one’s visualizations, and any difficulties one encounters. All kinds of obstacles may arise, energies may be shifted and integrated, dissipated and transmuted.
For the occultists in theosophical discussion, space is an entity. I cannot really counter that assumption, I believe the Buddha might not have taught that summation, that the activity of space would be encompassed or inhabited as a being. It may depend on how particular sutras are interpreted.
Certainly such a being would hold all views equally. It’s consciousness would be comprised, at least some consciousness, of the summation of all views. But from an individual’s perspective, we tend to feel that our own one, tightly held view is synonymous with God’s. It seems to be a cosmic joke, although a sad and profoundly detrimental reality, that men like to kill each other at the drop of a hat for proclaiming a view that may be different from theirs, particularly if it’s about their god or an absence of a god altogether.
There were other interesting occurrences that arose with the exploration of the essence of this archetype, some of them being too fantastic to mention in the light of synchronicity.
Signing the thangka with your name in the corner of the canvas will probably imperile the process, so it’s not recommended. The painting practice is in the nature of an offering. Like doing one big, long prostration while holding in one’s outstretched arms a golden chalice that contains the whole universe.
When the painting is near completion, mantras are drawn or painted on the back of the canvas in their appropriate places. Then a ceremony of consecration is performed to bless the painting, and finally the eyes of the main deity are painted in.
The iconography of The Celtic Buddhist Mandala
The underlying structure of the mandala is a sacred geometric form called Metatron’s Cube. On it’s own it may be studied and taken up in contemplation, perhaps valued from a Pythagorean point of view. Metatron’s Cube contains all the platonic solids. I chose this form because it was interesting; it has a valid basis in Western science and thought, in the cosmologies of Western thinkers from Plato to Kepler. Each one of the five platonic solids has been related to a particular element and in combination the elements make up the world we experience. In this way they may be related to each of the five Buddha families and have a place and function in the mandala. As the mandala may begin with a point appearing at the center of a sphere, so too the drawing of the geometry of Metatron’s cube mimics the natural creative progression of manifestation. Thus, Metatron’s cube is a good form for expressing and conveying the notion of form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Then we find Prajnaparamita, emptiness as the mother of all the Buddhas, in the center of the mandala. She represents this very notion as deity-vast and luminous space. And she is awakened prajna or insight beyond concept. Thus she is looked upon as the secret wisdom dakini. She is four-armed holding a dorje in her right hand, and a red cloth –covered book (the Prajnaparamita Sutra) in her left hand. Her other hands are held up in teaching gesture (Dharmachakra mudra- turning the wheel). She sits on a golden, jeweled, lotus throne held up by eight dragons.
The mandala reflects some aspect of the Celtic Buddhist lineage and is also personal and transitional. There is some representation of a cosmology. It borrows from the traditional depictions of Buddhas, deities and protectors, such as Samantabhadra/Samantabhadri, Tara, Vajrayogini, Maitreya, Ekajati, and Dorje Trolo.
These archetypes are drawn and painted according to the traditional Tibetan principles concerning proportion, iconometry, motifs, and symbols. My main source is Tibetan Thangka Painting by David and Janice Jackson. And for the Celtic designs, my main sources are: Celtic Art by George Bains, and The Book of Kells.
For instance, in the Celtic Buddha painting one can find a similar motif in the portrait of Christ and the portrait of St. John as portrayed in the Book of Kells. There are other esoteric ideas represented in the paintings that I would rather not spell out. I do try to present an accurate picture of the mythology of mythology of the deities as they have evolved over time and also to bring the deities into a new light or archetypal function that would be available to a tantric path. The whole process of painting is entirely intuitive and as a practice it is quite dynamic, because painting the deity in detail is a visualization practice. It is meditation in action. Various transformations and realizations may come out of the process of drawing and painting - a relationship gets developed. The energy of this whole procedure gets built back into, or gets incorporated into the painting. Thus the archetypes take on a life of their own and may be used as supports for meditation.
Here are some ideas that will show the way the painting is organized. It is set up to indicate the five Buddha families and the enlightened activities of pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, destroying and accommodating. These ideas are taken from my notes on the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Venerable Seonaidh. In a general sense these energies may be worked with on a political, karmic or spiritual level. They may come into play in relationships and environments and so they may be treated and applied as psychological constructs in one’s personal mandala. One of the ways we work with these energies is in their activity to alter situations that have gone far out of balance. For example, in the pacifying mode, we may create harmony where too much disharmony occurs. Internally, there is a purifying action, a more gentle purging and a reduction of the intensity of the afflictive emotions; and externally, our presence exerts a calming influence, one doesn’t enter into the fray. So the Bodhisattva action of that is that energy is redirected so it pacifies a situation. In a spirit of non-engagement we take the energy, feel it and neutralize it.
In the enriching mode, we may clean up the environment and manifest some degree of personal elegance, some degree of well-being. Therefore, there is less clutter. We pay attention to small details in the environment; precious things have their own place in the mandala, their own qualities of energy. When we pick things up, we become aware of their energy rather than just the physical form. We may start to feel some shift in the energy of things, notice the difference between the heat, different groupings of plants or arrangements of sense objects. We might have people over for dinner or go to a concert. We create some new kind of enriching space in our lives. Perhaps there is a sense of fulfillment of potentialities, or possibilities. In sitting meditation, each practice has its own karmic manifestations and there is a gathering of merit. In terms of our bodies, as a Bodhisattva we may be slightly masculine and slightly feminine. Energy comes from a quality of practice; there is a particular glow that one sees in various teachers like Trungpa, the Karmapa, or Kyentse Rinpoche.
In the magnetizing mode, it may be characterized by attractiveness, there is an enchanting and seductive quality. When we magnetize our physical being and environment, dralas or fairies are brought in by that quality. There is a drawing in of the energy, expanding it and sending it out. Internally, obstacles may be overcome; awareness is awakened in the environment and is energetic and transforming.
The destroying activity deals with cutting through our neurotic fixations and others, as well, and being able to say no. Saying no to our habits. Crystallized thought formations are obliterated, on the spot. There is a clear quality of being non-attached, but directed. The energy from non-dual space is available to be used for vanquishing and destroying negative forces.
And in the accommodating mode we make ourselves available without condition. We could actually like ourselves and thus give some emotional acceptance to others. There’s a sense of bravery, of going beyond one’s comfort zone, of extending further without the fear of looking foolish.
When we think of spiritual practice and these complicated setups, we have to remind ourselves that we are healing the psychological problem of not seeing ourselves as spiritual beings. The setup is the mandala, it presents a structure to be worked with and through which we contact our basic makeup.
In the mandala painting these qualities and some of the deities or archetypes that may accompany working with the energies are seen in the four directions and the center. The organization is set up to indicate the five buddha families. Their action is transcendent, helping to transmute negativities. They are hidden in the painting, but inferred by the colored disks in the four directions indicating the presence of the Dhyani Buddhas. They are held to be five constituents of the human personality. There are accurate descriptions and explanations of the five Buddhas in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, In general, the lustful deities are employed to transform desire, the tranquil deities help transform confusion and the terrifying or wrathful looking deities could be evoked to deal with the energy of anger. It could be argued that Bridget, Danu/Anu and Cailleach are aspects of the same Great Goddess,but we don't find great agreement with that notion. It could be that the deities are still present as subconscious energies that when connected with have the capacity to enpower or initiate. They, along with Cernunnos and other Celtic archetypes embody the elements and whatever phenomena manifest, like lightning or volcanic activity. There are processes in the body that match the processes of the sun and the moon. On one level Cernunnos or Anu could be a deity who makes us aware of our environment, and our interdependence with the natural world. At the Mahayana level, there might be more celebration, dancing with the deity, walking in the woods. The sun coming out in the morning is the expansion of the deity. There is a joining or union with that whole activity. And a joining of masculine and feminine qualities. On a Vajrayana level, you are the deity, united with the form, mantra and wisdom of the deity. Phenomena come to you and communicate with you. The rotation of the seasons could personify as different aspects, we feel young in the springtime and die in the fall. Cernunnos and the other Celtic deities introduce us to the natural world. And in that joining we feel the feminine nurturing quality that’s inherent in the whole process of life.
In the same way, Prajnaparamita, Tara, Vajrayogini, Ekajati and Samantabhadri share similar relationships. While Tara and like deities may be invoked to bring material blessings, grant wishes and healing, as well as remove obstacles to experiencing a better life, they are also proven initiators that can introduce the practitioner to a mystical dimension and understanding of wakefulness and co-emergent Wisdom. They prod the practitioner to dwell in egolessness.
Perhaps we could take a tour of the mandala by imagining ourselves sitting in the center on the lotus throne. The throne rests on a joy swirl in the center of a transparent crystal, or golden Celtic cross. To our front, we are facing east, the characters are seen in a blue light. It is spring-time, the water element is dominant and we are addressing the Vajra Family, which is pacifying or purifying. The presence of Bridget is peaceful and inspiring. She is associated with fire and water, the morning sun and springtime. She holds the red sun in her hands- her name means variously “exalted one” and “bright arrow”. She is standing in the doorway or on a threshold. She has dual roles both as goddess and saint. The harp signifies her connection with the arts, and especially the bards and the poets. The stone vessel and ladle beside her represents her role in healing, in general, and the healing waters of sacred springs. On a deeper level one may discover different qualities associated with Bridget as one explores the archetype. It should be explained that whatever one might experience in meditation need not match the qualities, ornamentation or appearance that this writer, or any other writer has emphasized or described. In the actual meditation a deity may be active or passive, an energetic presence or invisible. This should be left open. So the mandala painting is just a suggestion, a starting point, an approximation.
Samantabhadra/Samantabhadri in consort are the unadorned Buddha quality of the primordial space, the original wakefulness beyond concepts. He is dark blue in color representing the dharmakaya; and she is white in color and naked to demonstrate the unadorned nature of Absolute Truth and the emptiness of all phenomena. In the older schools, she is the mother of all the Buddhas. We may place Vajrasattva here, as a pacifying archetype of the collective compassion and purity of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
Also, in this direction we see the blue Vajra-buddha, Akshobya in consort. The purifying of anger or aggression, that holds potentially the wisdom quality of Mirror-like Wisdom.
In the South, to our right, in a radiant, yellow-golden light, we see Cernunnos, riding on a stag. In his right hand he is holding a golden torc and in his left hand he is holding a ram-horned serpent. Yellow Tara, (Vasundhara) the golden goddess of wealth, bounty or abundance, is seated in the middle on a lotus. We can be receptive to the richness, abundance and generosity of the universe. Then there is Anu or Danu as the mother aspect. She is seated on a green mound of earth, holding the stem of a lotus. One could hear the buzzing of bees, the singing of birds and smell the fragrance of wonderful flowers. In the beginning of summer, Anu and Cernnunos sort of team up and are consorts. Then we have the presence of Ratnasambhava and consort who are the yellow buddhas of the Ratna family bringing enrichment and fulfillment to the spiritual process. Ratnasambhava transmutes human, intellectual and spiritual pride into the Wisdom of Equality.
Behind the central deity, in the West, a red light is present. This is the realm of Vajrayogini, the Vajra Dakini. She is red in color, the feminine Buddha and archetype of wakefulness that conquers the ego. She is referred to as the Coemergent Mother. She holds a hooked knife in her right hand, which is symbolic of cutting through neurotic tendencies. In her left hand she holds a skull cup filled with amrita which could be a symbol of wisdom or fanatical beliefs, which make us drunk and whoozy. She is engulfed in flames, which are symbolic of transmuting attachments into compassion. She is magnetizing in appearance and action. (See Vajrayogini thangka)
AnaDaire in consort are seated on a lotus. Avalokiteshvara may be located here along with the Padma family Buddha, Amithaba, red in color, in consort. The Wisdom of Discriminating Awareness.
In the actual painting, our teacher, Venerable Seonaidh is in the upper left-hand corner. He is seated on a chair with a pug at his feet. On the right hand side is the sixteenth Karmapa seated on a throne as he appeared during the Black Hat Ceremony that I attended in Boston, I believe in 1975. Seated on a throne in the upper right-hand corner is Maitreya Buddha.
Continuing around to our left in the mandala , we encounter a luminous, green ray of light in the northern direction, the domain of Amoghasiddhi and consort, of the Karma Buddha family. Ekajati, Cailleach, Dorje Trollo, the owl headed dakini, all wrathful or semiwrathful archetypes that have a destroying quality and help to transmute jealousy into All Accomplishing Wisdom. Green Tara could be placed here, helping to clear obstacles on the path or a fulfillment of ends. But Ekajati, the protectress of mantras, may be seen as a wrathful form of her. Some wrathful deities may help with the cutting through of doubt and hesitation.
Cailleach is blue and is seen riding on a wolf. Cailleach’s reign begins with Halloween or Samhaine. She is also a very ancient Goddess; as a goddess of Sovereignty it was believed she tested the Kings-to-be in the Celtic world.
She was also the protector of deer and wolves. It has been written that she is blue in color, with only one eye in the center of her forehead. She is mother earth in wrathful aspect, in the guise of winter, and in her creative aspect, she is credited with the forming the land of Scotland. In Ireland, many landmarks, peninsulas, hills and sites are named after her.
The Owl-headed dakini arose out of my involvement with the first painting.
Dorje Trolo is one of the eight manifestations of Padmasamhava. He rides on a pregnant tiger. He holds a phurba in his left hand and a vajra in his right hand. He represents the ability to destroy the maras. In Tibet, Dorje Trolo manifested in this guise to subdue negative energies that were in the way of establishing Buddha’s teaching in that land.
At the center sits the deity Prajnaparamita. (Also mentioned above) She embodies the ultimate nature of all phenomena. She is golden in color; she holds a cloth-covered book in her left hand and a vajra in her right signifying supreme insight. The center is radiant white light of the Buddha family and it is all-accomodating. The unseen Buddha here is Vairochana with consort representing the transmutation of ignorance into the Wisdom of All Encompassing Space.
Painting Vajradhara: In the winter of 2005-06, I decided to paint a thangka of Buddha Vajradhara. In the Kagyu lineage, Vajradhara is the Dharmakaya Buddha representing the realm of the enlightened mind and the idea that one’s guru or personal teacher and the enlightened mind of the student or practitioner being not separate, are one and the same. His color is lapis lazuli, and adorned in fine silks and ornaments, he is an aspect of the Buddha teaching the tantras. In some traditions Vajradhara is visualized in the practice of deity yoga. In others, Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava is visualized. When I began doing the painting I simultaneously began to study and practice Guru yoga as taken from a practice that the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpa Dorje, presented when he made one of his first visits to the U.S. I proceeded to practice while the painting progressed. It is the practice I still do today when I might do a session of Guru Yoga. Thus the act of painting enhanced and facilitated my ability to visualize the Buddha, although the thangka that I ended up painting is very stylized.
Also, as a reference to Guru Rinpoche the burgundy robe of Vajradhara very much resembles the one seen in depictions of Padmasambhava. As with the previous thangkas, the same sequence of drawing preliminary sketches and finally drawing on canvas followed by the ink drawing and acrylic-gouache paints was repeated. There is not much to say about the actual process besides deciding on the design as I went along, but the effect of doing guru yoga and often reciting reciting the mantra, which I adapted in English, was quite extraordinary. Guru yoga remains one of the most potent practices one could imagine. I also listened to a great deal of baroque music while I painted: Vivaldi, Teleman, and Abinoni, for what it’s worth, which I found inspiring and relaxing. I don’t recommend listening to talk radio while painting as a matter of fact, which I have done on occasion. It tends to muddy the process, it pulls one into the mundane mind of concern with sensitive subjects and opinions. But the background ambiance is a personal matter and may change from day to day.
The painting transmits the Dharmakaya aspect of the trikaya, the realm or Body of Truth that transcends description. Does that mean, if someone looks at the painting will he have the realization that the mind and shunyata are not-two? Does one have to be a Buddhist to see this? Is this possible? As I mentioned before, people look at all art and objects and other people in general with a like or dislike. We add to the raw process of perception notions about what is art or what the subject should look like. And then, if one can not easily categorize or identify and associate what is seen, one gets confused, irritated, frightened and dismisses the whole thing, returning to some semblance of comfort, I suppose. Still, some aspect of the mind sees, even if unconsciously, and it has the potential of shifting the viewer into awakening. Isn’t that what we all are doing? But I do feel the images we see in many thangkas transmit the same teaching that the deity or Buddha represents. The archetype reminds us of an awakened quality of mind. We are speaking shamanicaly here and not in terms of one idol being more sacred than another. Because we are a little more than crazy in this area on the planet at the present time. Broadmindedness does not seem to be a globally appreciated virtue.
Painting Vajrayogini: In the winter of 2006-07, I decided to paint Vajrayogini, who represents the principle of the Co-emergent Mother, and the anthromorphic form of shunyata or vajra emptiness. She appears in semi-wrathful form and has the power to bestow great bliss to practitioners. As the essence of the perfection of wisdom, she destroys ignorance. Many great awakened yogis in different lineages in India and Tibet received transmission into her mandala. The thangka is an aid to visualization for those who may practice her sadhanas. As a principle yidam it may be said that she introduces mahasukka to the practitioner –the great ecstasy – that bliss accompanied perhaps by an expansive, sad, open heart, the soft heart of compassion without limit or boundary.