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November 29 2014


My First Encounter With the Sixteenth Karmapa

After I graduated from college in 1971, I had the good fortune to travel overland from London to India. I had celebrated at Woodstock and marched on Washington, but that first Asian pilgrimage was the real turning point of my life. Over time, I would find and meet many -- if not most -- of the saints and enlightened masters (Hindu and Buddhist) of that era.

One day in 1973, in the foothills of the Himalayas at a hillside monastery outside Darjeeling, one of my friends surprised me by asking, "Have you seen your picture in the window of the photo studio in town?" I hadn't. He encouraged me to go see it: "It shows your first meeting with the glorious Sixteenth Karmapa, and his thousand-watt smile."

The next day, with the snowy Kanchen-junga (Five Sisters) mountain range filling the Northwestern horizon; I took a thrilling 90-minute jeep ride on the narrow, winding, landslide-prone, potholed road linking the Indian plains at Siligiri to the tea plantation-hill station of Darjeeling. The Das Photo Studio in town provided photos of various Buddhist teachers as well as colorful deity and mandala paintings. In the shop's window was a beautiful, framed color photo of His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa (Buddha) Karmapa, beaming like the sun, his golden-crowned head and smiling face right before mine, face-to-face, tilting toward me in a fatherly way and blessing me with his hand atop my head.

There was just one small but significant problem. My bushy "Jewfro" and sixties beard intruded directly on what Mr. Das ironically called "the perfect smiling Karmapa portrait -- except for your big head!" He did kindly give me a copy of the "ruined" photo, which I still keep pressed flat in an old Darjeeling Dharma-notebook. It remains one of my cherished possessions.

That was my first encounter with the legendary and miraculous Sixteenth Karmapa (1924-81), Rangjung Rigpai Dorje -- which translates as "the Self-Existent Diamond Thunderbolt of Innate Wisdom-Awareness." He was the grand lama of the Kagyu lineage and the 16th incarnation in the oldest line of reincarnated spiritual masters -- an unbroken line stretching back 900 years. He had escaped from Tibet, along with many monks and followers, just before the complete Chinese conquest of that beleaguered country in 1959. His Holiness Karmapa took up residence in Sikkim, renovated an old monastery at Rumtek, and soon became renowned as one of the most extraordinary spiritual masters of the twentieth century. He established meditation centers, monasteries, nunneries and study institutes all around the world, as well as hospitals, schools and infirmaries.

HH played a crucial role in bringing the ancient tantric Vajrayana (Diamond Way) teachings to the western world and was the spiritual guide to hundreds of thousands of people during his lifetime. He was known for his miraculous powers and psychic abilities as well as his remarkably powerful presence and inspiring example. He was truly an enlightened Buddhist meditation master, a sage, saint, teacher and abbot, all in one. His followers said that he could talk with birds and other animals. He appeared and blessed, taught and empowered, healed and helped us in countless ways: in dreams, in visions, in meditation and in reality. He precipitated enlightenment experiences and other epiphanies and spiritual breakthroughs in the hearts and minds of his disciples, me included.

His Holiness rarely gave detailed text-based teachings, at least to us Westerners, although he and was always a powerful, edifying and empowering influence. He radiated such marvelous awakened energy and sacred presence that he helped to forever transform my life. He seemed to directly pour some elixir-like "piece" of himself into each of us, without allowing that sacred spiritual energy to be adulterated by our conceptual minds, personalities or other such obstacles.

Through the realization of his innate Buddha Nature, the Sixteenth Karmapa reflected our own innate Buddha-ness. So many people, including the most erudite Tibetan scholars, were astonished by his direct, intimate, irresistible and inexpressible mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart spiritual resuscitation -- so rare in this world today, so subtle, esoteric and even legendary, if not mythical. I believe that is precisely why almost everyone he knew or ever met seemed to instinctively look up to and be awestruck by him, regardless of their tradition, beliefs or background. Most people, including important lamas, felt that he could see right through them. Some even felt intimidated.

His Holiness was a world teacher of timeless universal truth in the modern world. Many of his well-developed disciples helped bring Buddhism, meditation, Tibetan yoga and mindfulness to the Western world during the Sixties and subsequent decades, such as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the pioneering lama and founder of Naropa University. In 1981, during one of his several world teaching tours, the Karmapa passed away at a hospital in Illinois, which only affirmed his heart-full embrace of all beings, East and West, as his family. The attending physician cried when he saw the marvelous signs and omens around the Karmapa's body for the three days following his last breath. His Holiness continues his universal mission of compassion and enlightenment as the youthful Seventeenth Karmapa as well as via his many students and other emanations.

I can never forget my Lama. He is always with me, in me, of me, closer than my own breath, blood, heartbeat. We are all Karmapa (Buddha) at heart. It's so close that we overlook it; seems too good to be true, so we can't believe it. Our only mission? His mission: To recognize and awaken to this fact, to our true Buddha-nature, for the benefit of one and all -- for a better world and future to be possible, right now, right here.

Experiencing the awakening presence of a sacred master is difficult to comprehend and harder to explain. I feel I "meet" him in my morning meditation practice, through the chants and prayers he taught. The true guru never dies: He or she is a principle, an archetype -- not limited by mortality. I carry him in my heart; he carries me and us all in his. Thus, he never died.

One night in 1981, not long after he departed from this dewdrop-like world, the Sixteenth Karmapa appeared to me in a luminous, clear light dream when I was in the middle of a three-year, three-month, three-day retreat. He softly proclaimed, "I am always with you. Each of you will be with me through all my lifetimes. I belong to you, and you belong to me. We shall never be parted." (from The Miraculous 16th Karmapa: Incredible Encounters with the Black Crown Buddha, compiled and edited by Norma Levine )

Article Source - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lama-surya-das/my-first-encounter-with-t_b_5096782.html

Reposted bycraigcast craigcast

November 19 2014


Spiritual Responsibility and Cult Awareness

Twenty years ago, when there was quite a bit of troubling public news concerning dangerous cults among spiritual groups, I co-authored a white paper called "Spiritual Responsibility" with my Boston neighbor, cult deprogramming expert Steve Hassan. At that time the guru Bhagwan Rajneesh was deported from this country, and Scientology was banned in Germany, etc. Aum Shinrikyo, the purportedly Buddhist group in Japan, which spread poison sarin gas in Tokyo subways, was under intense criminal investigation and eventually found its leaders in prison.

Now people are asking about the Diamond Mountain University incident in the Arizona desert. (NY Times, June 11, 2012) Having spent a significant amount of my life training in silent Buddhist meditation retreats, I have seen that, aside from the undeniable benefits of such rigorous contemplative and monastic practice disciplines, isolation and extended silence can for some also have dangerous repercussions. This may be the case for the insular spiritual group founder, Geshe Michael Roach, and his devoted followers.

This scandal is very troubling as well as troublesome, and raises a lot of questions about spiritual centers and accountability. Michael's group is not the only one whose retreats might look, to the outside viewer, like a mere refugee camp, trailer camp, barracks or prison. Traditional long intensive practice retreats and monastic training rules of reasonable efficacy are well known to sometimes take unprepared people over the edge; practices including long-term silence, fasting, celibacy, sleep deprivation, restricted outside contact, secret teachings, proscribed readings, etc. All these can lend an aura of cultic activity to a fairly harmless group such as any ordinary short-term yoga retreat or prayer enclave, things that we ourselves may be engaged in without remaining very conscious of or vigilant regarding potential dangers and downsides. Having experienced these austere conditions and austerities myself for lengthy periods of time, including several years on end, I know that these things are effective and can be appropriate; it's all a matter of degree, intensity, intention, management and coordination, to be balanced and rounded out with various healthy and nurturing mitigating factors for purposes of group well-being and inner individual flourishment. Unfortunately, unstable personalities who are subjected to such conditions are especially vulnerable; I've found it useful to thoroughly screen and prepare potential trainees who wish to participate, including observing individuals over a period of time and assuring that they complete shorter intensive retreats before becoming overly involved in long-term retreats in often marginal conditions.

It is worth pointing out that experienced cult experts make a significant distinction between generally harmless cults (the die-hard Boston Red Sox fans or the Yale Skull and Bones Secret Society) and dangerous cults (David Koresh's Waco group, and Jim Jones' Jonestown fanatics), and point out that all cults are not created equal nor are equally harmful.

There is not much professional oversight or organizational hierarchy in the Buddhist tradition, although every authorized and qualified teacher answers to their own teacher and their own lineage tradition to a certain extent and traditional monasteries in the Old World had their own systems of checks and balances, including communal monthly rituals and acknowledgements of wrongdoing. This has been the case for over twenty-five hundred years, since the time of the Enlightened Buddha. Eastern disciplines like Buddhism are fairly new in this modern world and our Western culture; we each have to rely on our critical judgment, kindred spirits, elders and the study of other traditional sources of knowledge in order to make intelligent decisions.

"As a simple Buddhist monk" and not as a pope-like figure, the Dalai Lama himself has spoken out on many occasions "against ethical lapses, exploitation, abuse and corruption among spiritual teachers." He believes that "we should be Twenty First Century Buddhists, socially engaged and open to science and psychology and other religions, developing critical thinking through modern education." He has exhorted us to be vigilant and discerning, self-critical as well as tolerant -- supporting each other in spiritual friendship, collegiality and community -- for the sake of advancing a balanced and harmonious, wise, altruistic, and actively engaged compassionate path of enlightenment, of genuine benefit to the entire world.

An old Tibetan saying goes like this: "Don't spy out the flea in another's hair while overlooking the yak on one's own nose."

Follow Lama Surya Das on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LamaSuryaDas 
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