BG 282: Specializing in Letting Go

Episode Description:

Dr. Reggie Ray is an author, teacher, and the Spiritual Director for the Dharma Ocean Community in Crestone, Colorado.

In this episode Reggie and host Vincent Horn conclude their conversation by discussing the recurring cycle of conflict between “authentic lineages” and “institutional lineages” in the world’s religions. Reggie describes the personal toll this conflict had on his teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and how many unorthodox teachers have found themselves threatened and restricted by religious institutions. He then describes how the techniques of Mahamudra can lead us to identify all the places where we hold back as people so that we may find freedom from all forms of restriction.

This is part two of a two part series.

Listen to part one – BG 281: Mahamudra in the Modern World

Episode Links:


Vincent:    Another thing you sort of talked about quite a bit in the Mahamudra program is this notion of authentic lineage. And I wondered if you could say a little bit about what the difference is between authentic linage and what you call institutional linage.

Reggie:    Maybe it would be helpful just to mention the origins of Christianity.

Vincent:    Okay.

Reggie:    Jesus was called mamzer which means he was a bastard. He’s called a mamzer in Hebrew. He didn’t have a legitimate father, Jewish father. And it’s believed that a Roman soldier was the father of Jesus and Mary basically had this child. And within that culture, being a bastard, you couldn’t go to the temple. I mean you were debarred really from the tradition. So he did not, you know, he was a very deeply spiritual person but he had no access to the official institutional lineage. But at the same time he had a direct relationship with what we would call the dharmakaya or with the ultimate reality.  He had his own relationship. And he said actually that’s my father, this ultimate reality is not this human person.

And of course Jesus was Jewish, and there were many people in his Jewish community who were attracted, tremendously attracted to him because they felt that the institutional lineage was basically, it was dead, it was driven by politics, you know, blah blah blah. Well that dynamic repeats itself over and over and over throughout human religious history, and it really repeats itself in Buddhism.

And I wrote a book called, an academic monograph, which probably only two or three people have read, called Buddhist Saints in India. And it really explores this whole history of Buddhism where the really people who are on fire such as Buddha Sakyamuni himself, that they’re often at odds with the institutions around them, because the institutions are always trying to control and territorialize the teachings. And that wasn’t what the Buddha was about. And when he started he was actually criticized for not being part of an existing lineage.

And the first story told about Buddha after his enlightenment. Somebody said what’s your lineage? I’m not going to study with you unless you can tell me that you belong to some kind of authentic institutional lineage. And he said well I don’t. And the guy said why? And he said because I had my own direct relationship with reality, with what’s ultimate, with the enlightened mind. And that’s what I’m teaching. I have my own relationship to it.  And the guy said well maybe so maybe not and he walked off and he did not become a student of the Buddha. I think that’s very significant that that’s the earliest story told about the Buddha.

Vincent:    Already there.

Reggie:    Already there. And we’ve seen that through the whole history of Buddhism and even down to the modern day. You know, Buddhism needs institutions in the sense of institutions have been part of every Buddhist culture and they have served the culture in many many many ways and many good ways. But the one thing about institutions, the Buddhist institutions, which are the monastic institutions and now they’re corporate Buddhist institutions which we see in the west, is they really are more interested in preserving the forms of Buddhism than the inner essence.  And as long as the institutions are ultimately willing to differ to the teachings themselves, to the inner essence of Buddhism, to the experience of enlightenment or awakening or transformation, then they’re fine. They’re good and we need them. But unfortunately through Buddhist history there has been a tendency for the institutions to become self-serving and often de-marginalized people who are actually practicing or people who are teaching practice. It’s happened over and over and happened with Chögyam Trungpa and happened with his teachers. It’s just part of how it goes.

So from my point of view if you want to talk about authentic lineage, ultimately the only authentic lineage is the lineage that delivers the experience of awakening and freedom and love, delivers it as a human experience of transformation. And if the institution is not there, it doesn’t matter. If the institution is there that’s great. But that’s the ultimate marker.  Unfortunately, in the western world, we are so bureaucratically minded that most people simply will not believe anything that doesn’t come delivered by the Roman Catholic Church or the Center of Protestant Ministers or the Council of whatever it may be, or the Buddhist Institution. They simply will not believe it. You know they want to trust authority. It’s sad, but that’s the world we live in right now. But I would say Buddhists are less prone to that problem than most other people. So that’s the good news.

Vincent:    And it sounds like in some ways that’s the world we have lived in for quite a while too, in terms of differing to institutions. I mean you’re saying this is a kind of primordial issue.  [laughter]

Reggie:    Yeah. It’s a primordial issue. You know what I find very very kind of interesting and also humorous, my generation, which is the 60s and 70s, they threw out institutions. Like throw them out. We want to be free. But those very same people now are hanging on for dear life to very traditional Asian Buddhist institutional forms. I think that’s really ironic. What happened to the 60s? Where is everybody?  [laughter]

Vincent:    Was it Steve Jobs or who is it that said you know maybe it’s just a kind of common understanding: Don’t trust anyone that’s over 30.

Reggie:    Yeah.

Vincent:    Well maybe you guys got over 30 and then it went downhill or something. I don’t know. [laughter]

You know this was a story that I didn’t really know until I heard you describe it in the Mahamudra for the Modern World program which was Trungpa’s life as in some way throwing off institutional lineage. And it was so striking to me when you described his experience coming to England, and then sort of teaching in a different way, and really starting to attract people, and then getting a ton of pushback from the institutional lineage of Tibet.

It sounded like such a difficult process to sort of breakaway from that. And it sounded really painful, like a process of dying in some way. And I wondered if you could share a little bit about sort of Trungpa’s experience as you understood it with respect to this kind of breaking from institutional lineage in service of, you know of what you’re saying before, the sort of marker of delivering freedom, love, awakening.

Reggie:    Well he was trained, as I said, in this lineage which is the transformative experience is what we’re looking for. People change. People become free. People become fully who they can be in the sense of being awake and present. So that was his training. And he wanted to teach that. What he didn’t understand when he was in Tibet was he thought he could use the traditional forms of Tibetan Buddhism and the community of Tibetan Buddhism to do it.

And so he went to India and then he went to England as you mentioned. And he looked at his English students and he saw something different from what his compatriots saw. As his wife discusses in her book on Chögyam Trungpa’s life, when his compatriots looked at westerners they saw barbarians. They saw lay people who shouldn’t be given the highest teachings. They saw potential donors who could give money and help them support Tibetan culture in exile. That’s what they saw.

Chögyam Trungpa saw human beings who wanted to be free and who wanted the deepest teachings from him in order to be like him to be free the way he was free. And that’s what turned him on. That’s what he taught to. And he met them. He met us.  He met us halfway. And he, at a certain point he realized the monastic thing is really getting in the way. And so he gave up his robes and became a lay person. And then he realized I need to share the life of these people I’m trying to teach and so he got married.

And his compatriots, as you know from Mahamudra of the Modern World program, they threw him out of the monastery that he had founded actually with them. And they prevented him from teaching and they spread rumors that he’d gone insane. And they even called up the English secret service and told them that he was a subversive person and he couldn’t get a visa to the United States because of it. They wanted to destroy him because he wanted to give the teachings in an open way to people who desperately wanted the teachings.

And it’s an old story. You know you go back to history. Many people have been killed for doing what he was doing and doing what I’m doing. They were killed for it because the institution was so threatened by the actual teachings of Buddhism.

Vincent:    That’s heavy.

Reggie:    It’s very heavy and it goes on all the time. And it’s still going on throughout the world. Talk to the Zen teachers. Talk to the some of the Theravada teachers. Talk to the westerners like me who are trying to teach Tibetan Buddhism in a new way. There are many Asians who totally get it and are a 100% in favor of what I’m doing and what other people are doing, but there are a lot more that aren’t. And it’s an institutional thing. It’s a cultural thing. It’s an ego thing in my opinion.

They do not want to open up. It’s very heavy. And his experience was just about as dark and heavy as I could ever possibly imagine. And as I mentioned in the Mahamudra program, he got to the point where he was ready to kill himself. Because he felt like I’m not going to be able to teach. These people are stopping me from teaching and it’s all I care about. And so, I’m going to kill myself and luckily his wife stopped him.

Vincent:    Good thing he got married.  [laughter]

Reggie:    It’s a good thing he got married to the last possible second, right.  [laughter]

Vincent:    I found interesting as well that later on its like the institutional lineage re-invited him back in? Like once he sort of becomes successful and I’m sure it was different people. But I thought that was very, it’s sort of a sad statement in some ways that it took him really breaking away and becoming successful at having a lot of people paying attention to what he was teaching that took that to sort of, kind of re-invited back in to his original sort of tradition.

Reggie:    Well I wouldn’t say he was re-invited.

Vincent:    Okay.

Reggie:    Because he was not re-invited. And what he was teaching was not re-invited. The traditional Tibetan response, let’s say they were the response on the part of the traditional Tibetan community Tulku community was that because he was so successful that proved that what he was doing was legitimate.

Vincent:    Yes.

Reggie:    And they wanted a piece of the action too.

Vincent:    That’s in some ways, that’s why I’m saying it’s kind of sad cause it seems very clear that there’s a self-serving thing going on there.

Reggie:    I think it was probably self-serving, and I think partly they realized that they didn’t really understand the western world and he did. And he was connecting and he did have good students. I mean the thing that really, you know, to speak in favor of the Tibetan community for a minute: what really impressed them was the level of practice we were doing. It wasn’t just that he had a lot of students and he published books and we owned a lot of buildings.

It was what really got the really good teachers was: wow they’re doing Vajrayogini practice. Wow. These people are doing retreats, which you know in Tibet solitary retreat was considered incredibly challenging and terrifying. And here Rinpoche had hundreds of people going into solitary retreat. And so they really saw that what he was doing was good. But I also have to say this. And if I were 10 years younger I wouldn’t but I’m going to say it. I really don’t think most Tibetan teachers actually fully understand what he was doing or what he did.

And that surprises me. I thought that after his tremendous success and then no. 2 that they saw it, that somehow they would be able to open up to the western environment as nakedly and openly as he did. And I must say, while there is tremendous love for him and devotion and respect for him, strangely enough I don’t really see it happening. I see very few, even the younger Tibetan teacher who really actually really got what he got 50 years ago.

And that makes me sad. And it makes me realize that I think what the Tibetan community is, you know, really I think what it’s come down to in terms of their responsibility is, and I know this from Tulkus that are close friends and very fine teachers, their number one thing now is they really have to look after their own communities in Asia. Most of the focus of monasteries in India and Nepal that they have to support.

And they do need to teach western teachers. But I think, from most of the really good ones, they really realize that’s really where they have to put their energy. And I think it’s appropriate. I don’t, again just to repeat, I don’t think what Chögyam Trungpa was doing, honestly there might be one or two teachers where I think it’s happening, but generally no. And that’s why for me I felt a lot more responsibility and pressure in terms of what I’m doing in terms of keeping alive his approach because his approach is not Tibetan.

His approach is the intersection between ancient culture and modern culture and exploring and exploiting that territory. And that’s what the Mahamudra teachings are all about. They are not, you know, Mahamudra teachings are not Vajrayana. They’re not Buddhism. They’re not Tibetan. They are a series of techniques to lay bare the foundations of human experience.

And when we lay those foundations bare, first of all that is what liberation is.  And number two: we’re not Tibetans. We’re not westerners. We are living in a sphere of human freedom and joy that every single person on this planet has in them and has as an imperative for their own life. And I just think that’s why these teachings and his lineage are so important at this exact moment.

Vincent:    Okay. Great. And you know I wanted to also kind of come at it from the opposite angle. So we talked a bit about the dangers of institutional lineage and the importance of authentic lineage. I was sort of reflecting on modern systems, modern institutions like democracy and how they work. And this is a very simple understanding I’m sure. But part of the ways that something like democracy works is it seems like it keeps, at its best, keeps any one group or one person from gaining absolute power. It keeps the power sort of spread out.

And I’m wondering how we can reconcile the importance of authentic lineage on the one hand, with the recognition that these kinds of modern systems in particular are sort of a critical way to ensure that corruption, extremism, abuse of power don’t start creeping into the communities and cultures and institutions that naturally start to form around people that have an authentic realization that they’re sharing with people. And just what your thoughts are on that sort of side of things.

Reggie:    Well I think as we see with Buddhism, anytime there is what I would call triumphalism, and that’s a term used in religious dialogue to refer to the point of view that you have the best teaching and you have the best community. And Tibetan Buddhism today is really it’s a triumphalist religion. It really has a kind of attitude that it has the highest teachings. And anytime you have that kind of point of view, you’re in ego territory. Anytime there’s a belief that your own approach and your own practices and your own ideas are better than other peoples, that’s what Trungpa Rinpoche called spiritual materialism.  It’s using spirituality to fortify your own ego. So that’s the danger I think with any group that sequesters itself off in any way from any other group.

But then we have democracy which almost has the other problem which is that everybody’s values are as good as everybody else’s.  And if you have enough people who want to do things a certain way they should be allowed to do it. And I would say the problem with that point of view is there are certain values at the root of the human person and some of them are actually in our constitution you know in the United States that really agree.

You know the idea that people should have life. Life is an inherent right. They should have liberty. They shouldn’t be oppressed. And they should be able to find the deepest happiness in their life. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But what happens if there’s no value beyond that?

I mean what if people make themselves happy by actually degrading themselves and making themselves miserable? So you know it’s interesting. We’re sort of in between these two things. We don’t want to have some religion like Buddhism come in and take over because we’re going to be right back where we started.

Vincent:    Not that that would happen really anyway.

Reggie:    Well, no, it wouldn’t. But I mean the Christian right at a certain point had that aspiration of wanting to take over. And on the other hand if we just let everything sort of go and just give up on in terms of trying to discover any basic values in human life then we’re not helping people. That’s not helpful. Anything goes approach isn’t really helping other people. So I think we’re at a very interesting point in modern history where what I feel needs to happen is there needs to be, we need to take on a real exploration of the human person from a spiritual point of view and see what is it.

You know what are the fundamental qualities that really bring true happiness to people? And we need to find a way to deliver it that  doesn’t require people to sign up for institutions. And that’s what I’m trying to do, you know, with my teaching.

Vincent:    I mean it seems like in some ways this is such a challenging area cause as soon as humans start getting together they inevitably have to create some sort of structure or system to be able to work together efficiently or effectively.

Reggie:    That you see, you’re right on it. That’s it. How organized do you have to be, like in my case?

Vincent:    Yeah.

Reggie:    How organized…

Vincent:    I mean you’re obviously not a government. I mean you’re not; there are not 330 million people that you’re trying to serve. [laughter]

Reggie:    No. But you know everybody faces it. Every spiritual community and every person who’s an individual practitioner you know should I be part of the community? Should I get together with other people? How much organization do we need to deliver something really deep and really authentic for people and then how much is too much?

Vincent:    Yeah. And this is sort of one of the big questions on my mind and I think its one we’ve been exploring at lot with Buddhist Geeks, which is not just what Buddhism have to offer the modern world but what does the modern world have to offer Buddhism. And it seems like one of the problems that I keep running into or keep seeing is that you know teachers and practitioners, you know people that are really going deep in their thing they’re like specialists. They really specialized, just like you specialized in 40 years of practice and study and teaching.

And so we’re not experts at institutions and technology. That’s not our specialty. So I guess the bigger question for me is like as you’ve done this for the last 40 years or so, what kinds of things have you sort of learned that need to change on the institutional front, on the kind of systems level front of how we do things? I mean you’re kind of mentioning a really important principle. It sounded like having as much organization as needed but no more. Are there other things that you sort of seen in terms of things you’ve learned from the modern world that could apply to how you kind of self organizes as a community or just thing that you might sort of throw out there.

Cause so many other problems that seemed to be coming up you know all the scandal in the Zen tradition. They seemed to really have a lot of the roots in feudal systems leading to people seeing the teacher in a certain way. It’s institutionalized through the Koan system in terms of how people view the teacher. It’s institutionalized in terms of the very strict top down hierarchy. You know all these things seemed to be a really big part of why these scandals which in the modern context they’re simply not okay. You know the New York Times and LA Times are sort of writing about them, right?

And yet there’s something of real depth that’s being offered in those. We can’t say because there’s scandal there’s nothing good there. So I’m just wondering as a teacher you must have thought about some of these issues.

Reggie:    Well you said something right at the beginning which I want to come back to. Something I don’t remember exactly but something along the lines of that I wanted to, you were reporting that I said that I wanted to offer these Mahamudra teachings in an open way to everybody.

Vincent:    Yes.

Reggie:    At the same time without sacrificing depth. And I would actually turn it around and I would say unless these teachings are offered in a completely open way I am sacrificing the depth. And what I mean by that is the more Buddhism holds on to its identity.  Its cultural identity, its social identity, which means like the hierarchies that you mentioned, its patriarchy, its feudal approach, the more it hangs on to that the more it sacrifices its own depth. You know it’s every interesting that Buddhist institutions and Buddhist organizations and Buddhist lineages often feel they have to protect the teachings from the modern world. And my understanding from Chögyam Trungpa is the more you try to protect the teachings from the modern world the more you are sacrificing the depth of the teachings.

Vincent:    That’s interesting. Can you say a little bit more of that? In what sense is it sacrificing the depth?

Reggie:    I shouldn’t be a specialist in meditation. That’s not really what this lineage is about or a specialist in being in solitary retreat. I need to be a specialist in letting go. I need to be a specialist in letting go of my previous ideas, my previous assumptions about the modern world, about spirituality, about who people are, about higher and lower.  If I can, you know through, the whole point of Mahamudra is to identify all the places where we hold back as people.

All the places where we have all kinds of assumptions about reality; and therefore, we don’t give reality a chance. And we need to let go of those and we need to meet the modern world. We need to meet the internet. We need to meet hospitals and corporations. We need to go in in a completely open way and see what the possibilities are and see who the people are. So the whole process I think of this idea that by opening to the modern world we’re sacrificing the teaching is actually completely wrong and backwards.

Vincent:    I really appreciate that. I was just remembering Jon Kabat-Zinn at one point said the dharma doesn’t need to be policed. It can take care of itself. And in some ways, I wonder if that’s part of the impetus to try to protect things is thinking that somehow like the dharma is going to be at risk in some way.

Reggie:    I think people do think that.

Vincent:    Yeah.

Reggie:    What’s at risk is their concept of the dharma.

Vincent:    [laughter] I think that’s a really great point. Yeah.

Reggie:    Open. Open. Open. Open. Trust reality. Trust this encounter. Trust this conversation. Trust this situation. Trust means you let go. And when you let go you can meet reality as it actually is. And it can be anything it wants to. I mean who has the right to say that business in the modern world doesn’t have spiritual possibilities. Who knows? A lot of people think it doesn’t. A lot of people think corporations are bad.

Vincent:    Right.

Reggie:    Who knows? That’s just somebody’s thought. Why don’t we go and find out and let’s see what happens when we go into whatever possible situation is there. That process frees the practitioner. When I do that I am, that’s how I free myself is by opening myself to threatening situations.

Vincent:    It’s interesting when you talk about it in those terms that understanding of “dharma” isn’t limited to the context of being on a solitary retreat or meditating. I mean the context of running a business, which something that I do, I very much have been trying to catch up with my understanding of what does it mean to practice as business. And it’s been interesting to see like that actually for a long time I haven’t seen them as equal opportunity practice grounds. And that in some ways the way you’re describing it, and I totally agree with this, is that that’s actually a delusion to think that this context is more of an opportunity to practice than this other context.

Reggie:    Very much so. Yeah.

Vincent:    So I really appreciate that sort of broader vision for what this is about.

Reggie:    Well you know coming back to Mahamudra. There’s a saying in Mahamudra which you’ve heard me say infinite times I’m sure over the years, that the goal of practice is to develop a complete openness and acceptance to all situations and emotions and to all people. And to realize that reality itself from top to bottom is always showing itself its perfection. Only through developing a complete and unobstructed openness to the world do we actually get to experience and enjoy and be liberated by the life that we have. That’s the dharma. And any kind of retraction or retreat or setting up oppositions is not helpful. It just imprisons us.


Reginald Ray

Dr. Reggie Ray is an author, teacher, and the Spiritual Director for the Dharma Ocean Community in Crestone, Colorado. He has forty years of study and intensive meditation practice within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Website: Dharma Ocean