Archives...collected writings by members of the Celtic Buddhist community.
COMMENTARY ON THE PRACTICE OF TAKING REFUGE IN THE LINEAGE OF CELTIC BUDDHISM— by Venerable Thom Kilts, MA/MDIV, RP
How Celtic Buddhism Got Started by HH Seonaidh Perks
What is Celtic Buddhism? by Bill Scheffel
Introduction to Buddhism [PDF] by Ven. Thom Kilts
Buddhist Psychology [PDF] by Ven. Thom Kilts
The Five Buddha Families Personality Theory [PDF] by Ven. Thom Kilts
Introduction to Celtic Wisdom and Anam Cara Principle [PDF] by Ven. Thom Kilts
The Six Bardos---Death and Dying [PDF] by Ven. Thom Kilts
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
Talk on Depression, Bliss and Emptiness with Seonaidh Yeshe Tungpa May, 2002
Song for George R. M.
Who asks, “What have you done since last we met?”
He was joyful in the sound
of my voice
Expressing the playful nature of the Dakini
I was sad to hear his voice
Bitter at the thought of our deaths
So I am writing this song for him
Joyful Obeisance to all Gurus
Mind stream in Donegal
Flows over happy and sad pebbles
Treating each with tenderness
Heart leaping, love completely unchecked
rushing toward it
Gray hair turning to buff
from washing in bog water
Or it could be Guinness
Leaking inside out
Celtic Buddhism non-existent
Diamond spike of Chögyam
A good place to start
Lineage of unborn mind
from which all arises
The yellow hypnotic flowers
of gorse greenly spiked
Sheltering black-faced hill sheep
Eyes of crystalline agate
Lambs jumping in air with joy
even though the butcher is waiting
for their legs and ribs
Such bravery seeks the
non-existence of self
The double edged sword
cutting both ways
Chögyam licking the blade
Aidan says black people have
White people have black teeth
It locates him in time and space
There is suffering here
“I” wants to save the world
There is suffering in that
Impossible grain of sand upon
Individual aspects of self
The world then turned upside down
through the looking glass
of what is called heart
No need to write about
It says it all perfectly
Grianán of Aileach
Built by a swarm of bees
Waiting for the sun
which opens gorse flowers
In the land of spinning rainbows
I suck my honey
In the long dream time
that is called Ireland
Not waiting for light or dark
Good or bad
Happy or sad
Reflectively being each
Clouds in blue sky
Moon in water
Swan in flight
Union of co-emergent wisdom
From that simplicity
dissolved the central knots
From unformulatable nature of self
has risen a force of nature
Feet of yew root
Nails of blackthorn
Legs of gnarled oak
Trunk of Dakini willow
Arms of mountain ash
Hands of highland brook
Fingers of bracken
Head of Mount Errigal
Hair of kelp
Smile of sun
Anger of lightning flash
Crash of thunder
Display of multitude of rainbows
Spontaneous pots of gold
Aimlessly I roam
When I eat I eat
When I shit I shit
Inhabiting a body is for
the pleasure of others
Elegant or gross
No need to do anything
Undissolved total brightness
Universal deity of whatever
How do you do
So nice to see you
Have a cup of tea
Would you like to play your games?
I am delighted to watch
Here comes the sun
Composed by Seonaidh Yeshe Tungpa
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...
What is Celtic Buddhism? by Bill Scheffel
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.
Sickness as Path
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.
The Path of the Celtic Warrior and the Wisdom of the Great Eastern Sun
by Ven. Thom Kilts, M.A., B.C.C.
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.
What are the Cultural Implications and Authenticity of Celtic Buddhism?
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.
COMMENTARY ON THE PRACTICE OF TAKING REFUGE IN THE LINEAGE OF CELTIC BUDDHISM—written by Venerable Thom Kilts, MA/MDIV, RP
We take refuge in the lineage
Of scoundrels, misfits, and noble ones;
Of those whose only purpose
Is to manifest Buddha-wisdom;
By any means necessary.
We arise today
Through the strength of Dharma
Light of sun, radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire, speed of lightening,
Swiftness of wind
Depth of sea, stability of earth,
And firmness of rock.
We commit ourselves to An Sith (ahn-shee)
We commit ourselves to the dispelling of
An nela dubh (ahn’nella’dov)
We commit ourselves to the development of
An da shealladh (ahn’daa’haa-loo)
As we become Anam Caras (ahn’nam kar’rahs)
To those in need,
May we daily reclaim the chiefdoms
Of us, the children of mist;
And as One, rise up and greet
The Great Eastern Sun
COMMENTARY: One of the most important elements of Buddhist practice is taking refuge. Traditionally one takes refuge in the three jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. In the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism of which the Celtic Buddhist lineage is connected most deeply, practitioners can take as well refuge in the lineage of Gurus and teachers. The notion here is that the Guru is manifesting here and now out of compassion. The formal connection to the religiosity of the Buddhist tradition is through the process of committing to the path of Buddha by taking refuge. In daily life and practice this is confirmed and re-confirmed during each practice session by starting our sessions with chanting a refuge chant. These chants vary from tradition to tradition—lineage to lineage and I wrote a specific refuge chant for the glorious lineage of Celtic Buddhism in 2010 (after a retreat at Anadaire Celtic Buddhist Centre in Saxtons River, VT, USA). My purpose here is to provide some commentary on this practice and more specifically expand on the above sections of the prayer.
I began by taking inspiration from one of the most common prayers in Celtic spirituality; the “Breastplate of St. Patrick.” It has been adapted and utilized in neo-pagan and Celtic Christian traditions and is utilized at every gathering and starts each elemental prayer and/or seasonal celebration. As you can see above, there are parts of that common prayer incorporated in the refuge practice and chant of Celtic Buddhism. This way the pedigree of our refuge practice is rooted both in the Buddhist and Celtic worlds.
Let’s begin by looking at how we utilize the refuge prayer as a practice. Before each session, one should bow to a shrine after providing offerings of water, alcohol, food, incense etc. Then before beginning the recitation one should visualize the lineage holders, siddhas, masters, gurus etc. that are connected to the Celtic Buddhist lineage. One should place special emphasis on teachers and members of the lineage that have the most intense and intimate personal connection for you. This can mean as well including all the teachers who have been a part of your journey and spiritual path. For instance, I consider J. Krishnamurti one of my lineage teachers---this will not be true for others in our community and that is okay. The more personal the connection the more intense the practice. These are the teachers, community members, connections etc. that have brought you to your spiritual path. One part of taking refuge is remembering these people and as well calling out to them. Trungpa Rinpoche when discussing taking refuge would many times discuss the connection with being a refugee. When we commit ourselves to a spiritual practice we are seeing samsara as unsatisfying and are asking the wisdom gurus for “refuge” from the intense winds and influence of karmas, life in general and suffering overall. We in a sense become refugees and are displaced from the world as we are no longer “of it” but are still “in it.” In this way the practice of refuge can inspire our meditation session as it reminds us of our path, commitment and our “status” as refugees in this world.
The refuge practice of the Celtic Buddhist lineage starts with:
We take refuge in the lineage
Of scoundrels, misfits, and noble ones;
Of those whose only purpose
Is to manifest Buddha-wisdom;
By any means necessary.
The first line puts forth our purpose which is to take refuge in the lineage of Celtic Buddhism. On our website there is a page devoted to the lineage which outlines the lineage holders recognized by Seonaidh and goes all the way up to Seonaidh himself and as well the “siddhas” including: The 16th Karmapa, H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and of course Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Again as stated above don’t forget to add your other teachers as well. The visualization of the lineage includes all our members, all your teachers and gurus no matter what tradition they are from. For example, some people in our lineage come from the Zen lineages of Japan and those teachers should be included here as part of their personal “lineage.” All of these people and teachers were a part of what brought you to this path and again should be included here.
The second line for some may feel a little controversial but it is in keeping with the Crazy Heart lineage of our community and tradition. We recognize in our lineage that “teaching” doesn’t necessarily come from our society’s moral standards or socially accepted code of conducts. Many of our teachers and lineage-holders stand outside of these ideals and as well can pose a challenge to our “spiritual materialistic” criteria. From the unconventionality of stories related to Milarepa and Marpa of the Karma-Kagyu, all the way to the behaviors of Trungpa Rinpoche can be and should be seen as teaching. Krishnamurti once said: “It is no measure of health to be adjusted to a sick society,” and so our spiritual path is not going to be about necessarily adjusting to the society we live in. This applies here as we are stating that outsiders, misfits and even scoundrels can be our teachers (this works on many levels).
The last lines speak to the total commitment of the Celtic Buddhist path. We are not a “popular” lineage that is easily accepted by even other Buddhist groups. We have our work cut out for us because we are not a “directive” path either. Your personal journey is the emphasis which has both strengths and weaknesses. There may be times in your practice that you wish our lineage instructed more and times as well where you celebrate the freedom. The crux behind it all is that we are looking for Buddha-wisdom “by any means necessary.” Those who have gravitated to the path of our lineage are open to the vajra world---where mystery, magic and inter-connection are taken seriously and reflected upon continually. This is a connection as well to the world of Celtic spirituality with its emphasis on nature, the otherworld etc. We are stating here that Buddhas can manifest anywhere and in anyway and most often not to our liking. I equate this to the Vajrayana notion of a teacher as a “dangerous friend.” This type of teacher actually challenges our dualism in profound and maybe even at times hurtful ways. Ultimately however the intention and purpose leads us to enlightenment and freedom, but it is hard won and not an easy path. We are acknowledging this in our refuge prayer and even asking the Buddhas to manifest and do as they will and by any means necessary in order to lead us to enlightened wisdom and truth. In many Buddhist lineages and even in martial arts it is stated that “one should not look to the outer behaviour of your teacher but one should look at the total commitment of your teacher to your awakening.” Holding this point up doesn’t mean that we walk blindly or allow or even support the abuse of students by a guru or teacher. In our increasingly politically correct times these points can be very confusing and maybe even frustrating. Well, they have always been and one of the connecting aspects of Buddhism that many of us share is the teaching related to being a light unto ourselves. The Buddha taught us to not believe anything even if he has said it, unless it can be confirmed and reflected on through our own rational, logical and personal perspective. Dedication to a teaching or even a Guru shouldn’t mean the yielding of intellect and personal values---however we should be “open” to seeing things anew and with fresh understanding. The point here? Don’t forget to participate in your own enlightenment!
We arise today
Through the strength of Dharma
Light of sun, radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire, speed of lightening,
Swiftness of wind
Depth of sea, stability of earth,
And firmness of rock.
This verse comes directly from the “Breastplate of St. Patrick,” prayer very common in both Celtic Christian and neo-pagan circles----this is a connective aspect to other forms of Celtic spiritual life. This prayer asks the practitioner to seek “refuge” within nature and not from nature. So here in a sense we are seeking refuge from what is most un-natural in our world while taking refuge in what is most natural. This flows though all aspects of Celtic spirituality where the integration of nature in our lives is imperative to a deepening spiritual life. When the Buddha attained enlightenment he is depicted as holding an “earth mudra,” with the left hand holding the universal aspect and his right hand touching the earth as witness. I would recommend that mudra here as the Breastplate prayer is asking the earth to both witness, protect and encourage our spiritual development. The earth is the true witness to the Buddha’s enlightenment and by intention and design is to be our ultimate witness as well. Let us arise in this! Each aspect of nature is a pathway; the depth of sea, stability of earth and so on. These elements (as this is an elemental prayer) provide us with the foundation to a faith that seeks authenticity and rootedness in what is most “real” in the universe. In Celtic spiritual life one is working with otherworld qualities and so it is essential to be grounded and rooted in the earth.
We commit ourselves to An Sith (ahn-shee)
We commit ourselves to the dispelling of
An nela dubh (ahn’nella’dov)
We commit ourselves to the development of
An da shealladh (ahn’daa’haa-loo)
As we become Anam Caras (ahn’nam kar’rahs)
To those in need,
When writing chants and prayers I wanted to make sure that they were understandable and not weighted down by cryptic language which can make community members feel like outsiders or can create a separation where the important message doesn’t get conveyed. Since this is to be a daily or weekly practice I find it important to be able to understand the intention and message of our refuge prayer so the right intentions can be inspired. This is why it is written primarily in English but as we see above there is still use of Gaelic terms. The problem we can get into with language and/or translation in general is that we can really struggle to find equivalent words to certain ideas and themes. Once when we were in Nepal we were attempting to utilize our budding Tibetan translation abilities to help translate an important journal of an old Tibetan master. We would discuss terminology, the whys behind chosen word structures, to try and best convey the central ideas, but of course still would come up short. In Buddhism this is felt all the time as new commentators and teachers re-look at common translations of terms like shunyata and dukkha. Shunyata has been traditionally translated to “emptiness” which for some is problematic because it misses some of the essential elements that shunyata is trying to convey—primarily that phenomena is not entirely “empty,” it’s still there but “empty” of our preconceived projections. With a common term like dukkha which is translated as “suffering,” it can still come up short. Dukkha probably is more closely related to being “dis-satisfied,” with phenomena which is the root to all types of “suffering.” It’s that ego position of relating to the world through likes, dislikes and ignorance that dukkha is trying to address and not so much a commentary on the world being one giant ball of suffering (as some may interpret Buddhism as saying).
With our refuge prayer I limit it to four essential (I believe!) Gaelic terms to complete our refuge chant. In order to push forward in our spiritual life we hold lightly to a goal and commitment, and this can be conveyed most clearly through the Gaelic term, An Sith (ahn-shee). This is a state of peace and equanimity that is not about transcending reality but being fully “there there.” The peace here is not a mind state that is dull and checked out, but is vibrant, alive and aware! Equanimity is seeing life not through the position of ego but as it is. Where we are in the flow of nature and what is happening around us. This is the path of An Sith.
Next we have An neal dubh (ahn’nella’dov) which can be translated as a state in which dark clouds of obscuration inflict our spiritual life. This is anything which drains our energy, inspiration, desire to benefit others and so on. Any obstacle, inner process or path that obscures our desire to serve other beings and deepen our spiritual training is to be considered a “dark cloud,” of obscuration. The fact that it is related to as a cloud should remind you that it is changeable and workable; that clouds in the sky come and go—as will our own dark clouds. Any powerful spiritual path is going to seek to remove and push beyond obstacles, distractions and darker influences. The Celtic Buddhist path is similar here as well.
In order to push forward even through dark obscurations, one must commit to the dispelling aspect which means asking ourselves “how” do we dispel the clouds of obscuration. This brings us to An da Shealladh (ahn’ daa’ haa-loo) which can be translated as “second attention.” The perception ability developed through meditation and a deepening spiritual practice allows new levels of awareness, transformation and realization. In the traditional Buddhist sense you could say in one way that An Sith is related to the ideals of shamatha, calm-abiding, resting in the natural state; while An da Shealladh is more concerned with vipashyna and deepening insight into the nature of reality and/or Dharma. I utilize the term “second attention” with my students regarding the development of an ability to “hear the story underneath the story,” where we relate to the universe as symbol, very similar to Mahamudra. On one level the shamatha/vipashnya analogy works but the dzogchen/mahamudra analogy may be more on point. With An Sith you can relate the calm-abiding to the ideals of dzogchen practice or in the Zen tradition to the practice of shinkataza (just sitting). This is an apophatic spiritual path where the empting of “self,” brings us to our natural perfection or state. Mahamudra otherwise known as the “great symbol” processes the universe in a ketaphatic way where all phenomena are metaphor or symbol of the enlightened state. Both paths are profound, useful and important to a complete path to enlightenment and so we commit and take refuge in these ideals. We as well within the realm of the Bodhisattva tradition, want to be of service and help to all beings in the universe. We are taking a “Mahayana” position here in that we are surpassing the notion of individual liberation and expressing a liberation that includes all beings. We commit to being here for all beings, lifetime over lifetime if need be, because there is no such thing as an “individual” liberation. This brings us to the term, Anam Cara, or most commonly translated as “spiritual friend.”
The Anam Cara principle is a sacred and important aspect of the Celtic spiritual life. One of the many things that attracted me to the Celtic Buddhist path was a deep feeling that many Buddhist communities seem to neglect the service aspect of our spiritual lives. I have met plenty of fellow Buddhists who are counselors, therapists, social workers, doctors, etc., but these occupations seem to exist somewhat outside of the community. People like myself who have chosen service occupations did so as a personal path, which is fine, but there is a deep need to root it in our faith tradition. As well there are many ways of serving other beings, through art, teaching, plumbing, etc., and in the Celtic wisdom traditions there is the emphasis on all aspects of life being utilized to serve other beings. The Anam Cara principle so central to Celtic spirituality calls us to serve other beings in whatever way we can. I have found in Buddhism that we emphasize dedicating the merit of our spiritual practice to all beings but very rarely do you hear teachings calling members to actively serve and help other beings. Part of this has to do with the fact that by following the teachings of Buddha one is serving the common good on a macro level---but in our lineage we can acknowledge this and as well remind ourselves that we should be actively trying to help other beings in any way that we can—including in everyday activities and moment to moment as we can. Being an Anam Cara to others does not mean trying to convert others or is even an expression of seeing others as weak and needing “help.” It is more concerned with the companion approach to serving other beings, where we are “peers” with other beings and encouraging their own volition and spiritual growth.
May we daily reclaim the chiefdoms
Of us, the children of mist;
And as One, rise up and greet
The Great Eastern Sun.
The notion of warriorship and lineage is not unique to the Celtic world and is something shared with many cultures around the world including Buddhist cultural groups. The chiefdoms being referred to here is related to the notion of warriorship and being part of a “clan.” The “clan” we are a part of is more meta-physical and needs to be re-claimed through constant discipline and effort. Trungpa Rinpoche used to talk about the kingdom of Shambhala and how we try to bring the ideals of that society and way of being to our present reality. The same notion applies here where we are re-claiming what is most natural and sacred about the human condition---and because it is very difficult to do (especially in this day and age) we are reminded to do this every day. The “chiefdom” we are referring to here is related to a mystical way Celtic people refer to themselves, as “children of the mist.” The most direct translation of this term is children of mystery. In Celtic spirituality there is a lot of focus on the “otherworld,” where inspiration and mystery arise as psychological, spiritual, theological and mystical aspects of being. To be of the mystery and to be a “child” of mystery is to commit to the unknown and the position of not knowing. This is not a celebration of ignorance but more in line with the Zen ideal of “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” Here we relinquish our notions of “control” (which is usually ego generated) and embrace the mystery of the universe as an unfolding aspect of our spiritual journeys. We are children of the vajra world where wisdom is unfolding in an unyielding way all around us and through us.
Again as stated above a large part of taking refuge is confirming your commitment to the three jewels of the Buddhist tradition, especially the community of fellow practitioners. You can think of the first parts of refuge prayer as being related to “Buddha,” the second part that integrates the Breast of St. Patrick prayer as commitment to “Dharma,” and the last piece here as our commitment to “Sangha.” To rise up as one is to affirm the inter-connectedness of being, or inter-being. We may have members of our community that we can’t stand to even look at but no matter what they are manifesting and a part of our community and lineage. There is still some aspect of karmic connecting and more importantly whatever manifests is a part of the unfolding wisdom of the universe, we are either awake to it or not. Trungpa Rinpoche discussed Shambhala a great deal and Seoniadh has spoken a number of times of how these ideals can be and are related to the spiritual aspects of Celtic notions of warriorship, clan and chiefdom. I would suggest reading Trungpa’s book “Shamhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior,” as a guide to the last part of our prayer. In that book he discusses the ideals of warriorship, the notion of sovereignty (related to our own sense of chiefdoms) and the great eastern sun. One very earthy component that we can and should connect to is the fact that the sun will always rise in the east. This constant in our impermanent world is a daily reminder that the ideals of Shambhala and of enlightened world are always arising around us. There are plenty of people that through ignorance and their unprocessed pain will try and continue to create a world of the “setting sun.” The “setting sun” world is the world of ego and grasping, where individuals are trying to compete and one up each other in a vicious cycle of suffering and pain. In order to leave this cyclical and damaging path, we have to become refugees of the “setting sun” world and set our sights on the world of the rising “great eastern sun.” This very notion could have been celebrated by our literal and/or spiritual ancestors each solstice in ancient places like Newgrange in Ireland. To rise up and greet the great eastern sun is committing to a path that embraces sacred world even in the darkest of times.
I hope this commentary helps inspire the use of our refuge chant. It is important for a community to have at least some sacred and shared chants that can create a unity and help define a shared purpose. A refuge prayer is as well important for our sense of identity, personal authority and spiritual connection. Every practice from meditation sessions, tonglen practice, vajrasattva practice, medicine Buddha and on and on should begin with a refuge prayer. In Vajrayana Buddhism it is said that our practice sessions should include Hinyana, Mahayana and Vajrayana aspects (there is that sacred three once again!). The three yanas or vehicles of the Buddhist path are integral and connected---not hierarchical and ambition led. They are to be worked with continuously throughout one’s practice and lifetime. A practice session should include refuge, a commitment to Bodhisattva and Mahayana principles (like the Heart Sutra) and then onto elements like purification (Vajrasattva), mandala offering and so on.
May the glorious lineage of Celtic Buddhism only serve to manifest Buddha Wisdom and may its members serve other beings with compassion, hospitality, companionship, love, patience, kindness and all the sacred values of the Celtic and Buddhist worlds!
Talk on Depression, Bliss and Emptiness
Venerable Seonaidh Perks May, 2002
Depression is tough, one could say that. A lot of problems of depression are from, we could say, if we were a tantric doctor, excessive self-absorption in the illusionary self. Self becomes all-pervasive. The self “I” becomes very solid, and it also becomes very unfulfilled because the illusory self can never be completely fulfilled. There are always temporary little things where the self gets what it wants, but it doesn’t last for very long because of the reality of impermanence. And of course, also, it makes the self become more introspective and maybe angry. There’s an inner hopelessness, like sitting in the middle of a really thick soup, all day – a smelly soup…
Obviously, depression becomes biological as well, as the body becomes attuned to the state. All the little molecules start to take on the energy of the depressed state. Rather like, if one were committed to many lifetimes of being in a certain prison, it would be very, very difficult to get out. So how does one manage to get a small glimpse of something else? There are some natural things that have happened to people – you could get struck by lightning. A sense of humor might occur. But generally, for the person in these states, it’s very difficult to get through the barrier. A sense of humor might be seen as an attack on their personality. If someone feels that they are being made fun of, the situation becomes even more solid and there’s really no space at all there. It’s a very, very hopeless situation. Anybody want to ask a question? It’s hard to trust to get out of this because even your dream state’s depressed, and when you are awake it’s depression food, depression furniture, depression glass…
Q.Student: I can say something to add to this conversation and that is, that depression is linked to death. It’s my understanding that depression occurs when the person is experiencing this resistance to death or resisting the teachings that death is trying to offer.
Seon. Yeah, that also could be possible, perhaps s fear of death.
Student: I used to be depressed because I was a person in a boyfriend or girlfriend relation and then when we broke up, I felt unbalanced and I decided my life sucked and that was the succinct thing. I perceived that there was no way out except that if I died I would be OK too.
One of the sources of depression, of course, is the search for the other, but it doesn’t work, because when the other is found the other also has his or her clingings and its shit and then when the love thing gets dissipated you’re stuck with each other’s neurosis. And that isn’t too pleasant, especially if you’re in a tennis situation where the accusatory ball is hit back into either court. “It’s your fault”, “no, it’s your fault”, “you ruined my life”, etc. So it’s not a very hopeful situation here.
Seon: How do we get from there to bliss and emptiness?
Student: Have a psychotic break and have yourself destroyed.
Seon: Yeah, that’s a good one.
Student: I have a feeling that the experience of death is a very enlightening experience because in a sense it does involve the surrender to the divine mystery of life, because who should say that at ninety you should die. Why shouldn’t the body carry on indefinitely? So there is a mystery there and the surrendering into death does involve a voluntary act. There’s the occasion – my grandfather was one – where he fought death very bitterly until he finally let go, and allowed it to happen. So when you say meeting the other, I think that there’s an act of love and surrender, I guess similar to a death experience.
Seon. Yeah, it has possibilities, but it’s very difficult to see that when one is in the midst of the ugly black fog.
Student: But doesn’t depression have to do with the idea that this is going to go on forever. It has the sense of the future. I’m in this thing now and it’s always been like that and it will continue to be like that forever. So you could corral putting it out into the future and bring it back to the present – it would relieve it.
Seon: Well that’s true because there is some actual comfort in being in the depressed state.
Student: It’s hard to arouse one’s will, in the sense of there being the hopelessness of the situation.
Seon: Arouse one’s will? Is that a pun?
Student: It takes a little bit of energy to begin moving out of that state. You’re supporting so many negative statements about yourself that you find nothing positive in your life situations and it can color the whole thing. But you need just a little bit of will to begin moving out of that. And you asked what helps, and I think identifying with something like Vajrasattva, identifying with or just imagining some positive qualities about yourself or re-framing your life situation so that something looks good in it.
Seon: Well, there are actually, as Will mentioned, some beings that can help and we have invited some of them here today to come and visit.
For a person in high depression, it’s very difficult to say, “oh why don’t you just meditate – just sit there and breathe out’, because it’s not really doing anything. And if you tell them to Tonglen, that’s a real kick in the ass. So you have to find somewhere a small thread to start to unravel the whole entity and the small thread could be anything … a box of chocolates, a new car, alcohol, it could be biking, fishing, whatever one finds the entity is attached to. Then you engage in the activity with the person and you bring the person along. Trungpa Rinpoche was an expert at this, he had everybody doing everything, all over the place. It didn’t matter how silly or stupid or anti-dharmic it was. He didn’t say you shouldn’t drink or you shouldn’t smoke, just smoking cigarettes could be a pathway to start to unravel the depression that a person is in. So the next thing that gets introduced, because the person feels some quality of delight in the energy that is being transmitted back and forth between the teacher and the person. Then there can be introduced one of these people here, the deities (pointing to the thangkas). And they can help to dissolve some of the muck.
Some people have asked me, “you know, are these (deities) real, are they alive?” And yes, they are alive, as much as we are alive. There’s some kind of magical quality going on in the transference and transformation that you become the deity and the deity becomes you. There’s a mixing quality in the deity yoga practice that you’re doing. Even on the very simple level of doing Vajrasattva practice. Because in the deity yoga practice, you become the deity and you give it up for all sentient beings. It also has an illusionary quality, all the deities have this opaque shimmering quality. They’re not solid things. And one also starts to take on that illusionary nature of the deity, this starts to get fixed in the subconscious over a period of time. One begins to see that one’s own nature is somewhat illusionary. One begins to see the experience of one’s mind –of thoughts arising and thoughts diminishing. Even though you’re just sitting here meditating, your mind constantly goes on like non-ending movie. But one begins to realize that you’re just sitting here and that is going on, so there must be some illusionary quality to the whole thing. Gaps occur in the thought process and may, through the practice of deity yoga or some other meditation practice, lengthen. Also, a slowing of the mind activity occurs.
Student: Can you say something about the nature of that illusion? How does it manifest on a practical daily level?
Seon: Well, I think the simple thing is, if you’re driving your car and you look in the rear-view mirror, what are you looking at? What is happening? There you are, moving this way forward and you’re looking at something behind you, so a whole weird feeling enters your mind. Now don’t get fixated on it, but if you flash on it, it’s a very interesting thing to do. Right away you get an idea of illusion.
If you look into the bathroom mirror when you’re brushing your teeth you get some quality of illusion. If one were fitting one’s house up with illusionary qualities, it would be good to have one of those mirrors that you look into and see a thousand reflections. That is also a very good quality.
The picking up of, the moving from one situation to another, any transition, like moving from one room to another, you get a different visualization. Rather than becoming dead visually, you start to perk up a little bit, so that you notice when going through a door that you have entered a different situation. If you wake up in the middle of the night and you’re terribly afraid or if you have fear, then you can experience the fear and experience the changing quality of how you get in and out of it and what it is. Since if you change the physical quality of your body your mind becomes more intent. Supposing you took a block of ice and rubbed it on your body, the mind would become more fixated on that, so that the fear might just pop. That’s a way to take the fear away. But the interesting thing is that fear gradually starts to manifest in a more absorbing way because of the illusionary nature that you’re starting to see the whole thing. So you get scared, because the thought of emptiness is kind of like falling through space. When there’s an “I” quality, falling through space is very scary, when there is no “I” quality it’s just a ride or just whatever…
(Addressed to another student) Anyway that’s what you told me to say. (Laughter) I didn’t get it right?
Student: Sometime the experience of the ”I” is very pleasant and sometimes it isn’t very pleasant, but I believe it’s possible to become self-less. There are different qualities of self-less and I think in depression there is an experience of self-lessness which is very painful, whereas in bliss the experience is very joyful.
Seon: Yes, but we haven’t gotten to bliss yet and we haven’t gotten to the reasons why bliss occurs, since you bring it up. So fear is very much associated with the recognition of the illusionary “Iness” or the solidity of that. One becomes very fearful and one wants to grasp onto any kind of solid situation. One may do all kinds of things and take on all kinds of projects so that one’s mind can become slightly distracted about the illusionary nature of all things.
Because of the association with the deities here and the teacher, your specific nature becomes popped, like Phat! popped. You become slightly bewildered and you don’t know which state you are in, like possible waking dreaming state or dreaming awake state or… So that gets popped and bliss can arise. Now the reason bliss arises is that there’s nothing to hold on to, there’s no more self-grasping, no more fear. So some transcendence has occurred and because the being feels free - freedom from all the little stuffy-wuffies – that bliss arises.
The other thing that happens is that because one experiences the painfulness of the whole imprisonment situation, compassion may arise. Because you identify with the other prisoners in the situation then compassion arises for all beings that are imprisoned.
Well, do we have any questions about that? That’s an overall sketch. Bliss doesn’t occur all the time, you have periods of it. It is not like you are eating your eggs one morning and suddenly everything drops away and you become bewildered and then all of a sudden bliss arises. There are intermittent layers like shingles on a roof that occur. It becomes a daily thing and then it gets bigger, smaller, bigger, bigger. Then you start to examine it, it gets very small, then you don’t examine it, it gets very big…
It’s coming and going all the time.
(Pointing to the deities in the thangkas) But these are the people that actually are helping in the situation, keep the situation going all the time. If you have one of these people to be with or hang out with, like Vajradhara, Vajrasattva, Vajrayogini, or Yeshe Tsogyal.
Also, other beings start to become attracted to the energy that’s being put out. As we know, from crystal energy, or all kinds of energies, which you might see in terms of beings, they start to become attracted to that state of mind.
Student: To the blissful state of mind?
Seon: To the non-attached state of mind, yeah. So the world doesn’t transform particularly. Someone might expect or think, “One day I’ll wake up and the world will look totally different. I was living in a black and white movie and one day I’ll wake up and it will be totally technicolor.” That’s kind of an idiot understanding, so things actually become sharper and less sharp at the same time. And things become more interesting, one might see a different quality when looking at a tree, for instance. All these gentlemen here, Trungpa, Karmapa, and Kyentse Rinpoche, they were always interested in how things work, all kinds of little things. So there’s a curiosity like one had when one was a little child about things and looking at things, a spider on your hand or whatever. The kind of experience that shapes this kind of being, experience the space around them. This is how they interpret that experience. Also, the whole symbolic nature of the environment, which is called mahamudra.
Student: Do the deities live in that state of bliss all the time?
Seon: Yes, it’s slightly beyond that. It’s called bliss and emptiness. It’s more in emptiness than it is in bliss. Bliss is somehow still being attached. They call it bliss and emptiness but actually emptiness is the quality. But it’s hard when we are here talking about this to actually picture what emptiness is like. Because we think, well, if I give up everything, if I surrender everything, what would I be? I won’t be anything. I’ll be empty. So, what do I become, an empty garbage can? There’s a quality that you can’t reason out logically how emptiness works.
Student: But during the deity meditation you’re constantly using imagination, intuitively you try to feel that…
Seon: That’s right. You feel, that’s very good. So you feel that.
Student: And then from that, bliss might arise, but it’s not coming from the deity, it’s coming from…
Seon: From the interaction. Yeah. That’s exactly what happens, and in a practice situation bliss can arise. What happens, of course, you want to get attached to it, so you enjoy, but then for the next twenty sessions…
Student: You’re trying to duplicate what you did the other time.
Seon: Yeah. And it won’t work. So, because it was so great you want to do it again and then for the next twenty sessions it’s like pulling teeth. You feel, “oh, it’s hopeless’, but then once you feel it’s hopeless again an opening occurs and it comes back. You always push back and forth between these situations and, needless to say, personal emotional eruptions are very constant. You will find you might start to cry, you might get very angry. It’s kind of like having a constant menopause happening.
Student: But those are the qualities of any spiritual growth work. Because until a person understands their emotions well enough to allow them to flow freely within a balanced harmony, they’ll still be working to raise consciousness of their emotions and they’ll still be victims basically of their emotions, which are inappropriate.
Seon: Well, in this situation, you see, actually there is no inappropriate…there’s no harmony and no disharmony.
Student: So do we say, in terms of the emotions, that in the situation of meditation we are releasing those fixed conditions?
Seon: Yeah. It’s like there is a pot of soup on the stove and it’s boiling away, and then steam comes out, stuff bubbles up. But what is happening …one feels one is being torn apart, which is actually terrific.