Phurba Poetics: A 20th Century Visionary’s Manual for Visualizing Our Lives as Sacred Art
The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma:
Volume One: The Path of Individual Liberation
Volume Two: The Bodhisattva Path of Wisdom and Compassion
Volume Three: The Tantric Path of Indestructible Wakefulness
By Chögyam Trungpa. Compiled and edited by Judith L. Lief.
Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2013
Review by J.I. Abbot
Citizens of our postmodern universe so often use language as a matter of reflex and without much precision. Hence, we speak of various entrepreneurs, statesmen—these days, even reality show hosts—as being “visionaries.” World leaders have been known to speak of having a vision for their countries, and maybe it’s such a perception that has prompted more than one to take up painting upon retirement.
Too often we acquiesce to having others visualize our world for us. Hollywood does this for us, and media outlets; certainly politicians do. Our parents and employers do. Can we pause on that note for a moment? Problems abound when the “perception management” schemes of an elite few weed out authentic visionaries in our midst and replace them with peddlers of wholly politicized or short-term visions: worldviews with expiration dates. In the history of Indo-Tibetan tantric Buddhism, the figure of the mahāsiddha, or sorcerer-saint, has been a trusted archetype for study and veneration because so many sincere practitioners in India, Tibet, and Bhutan have had access to the visionary opportunity of utpattikrama, (the creation stage of visualizing oneself and one’s whole world as the form and domain of a deity). Tibet created its own specialized form of mahāsiddha in the class of religious specialist called the tertön, a sort of spiritual archaeologist in a “short lineage” of hidden and rediscovered “treasure” revelations (terma) that complements the “long lineage” of textual study and transmission of meditation practices (kama).
It could be argued that much of the genius of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-1987), known to his students often as “the Vidyādhara” (wisdom holder), was his simultaneous canonical embodiment and reinvention of the terma tradition. While part of terma encoding and decoding consists in finding literal physical hidden writings and other sacred objects, arguably the richest part of the phenomenon involves the revelations called gongter(Tib. dgongs gter), or treasures hidden in the primordial mind. One example of the latter unfolded in a vision of Trungpa’s, recognized by both Kagyu and Nyingma authorities, which appeared to him in a cave in Taktsang, Bhutan in 1968 and showed him the unity of the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1203-1282) and Dorje Trolö, a wrathful form of Padmasambhava. The resulting terma text, a liturgy titled the Sadhana of Mahamudra, innovatively situates the Kagyu lineage as a somewhat ascetic, focused form of Nyingma teaching (“Kagyu-Nyingma”). A perhaps more unusual gongter series is that of Trungpa’s Shambhala teachings, which distill atiyoga (dzogchen) content from both Nyingma and Bön layers of Tibetan tradition—but in a modern form presented in terms accessible to secular people.
Trungpa’s official terma cycles will be provocative to scholars and practicing Buddhists for years to come. But for some practitioners whose spiritual and creative lives have been struck and shaped by his books and talks (I count myself among that number, though I never met him in person), there’s something about his teachings as a body which bears the mark of terma. I must be clear for the record that many Tibetan Buddhists, including some of Trungpa Rinpoche’s students, would not concur with my stance here. However, for many years, the community’s official archives utilized the terma seal (༔) as its logo to indicate this point of view, and Trungpa’s widow, Lady Diana Mukpo, openly writes in a foreword to the trilogy, “In a sense The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma is a form of terma. Terma teachings appear when the situation and influences are correct and when the teachings are needed.” (I, xxi) It will be the discovery of many who purposefully study the volumes of The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma—“Treasury” might be read in either an ordinary sense or as consonant with the word terma; “Ocean of Dharma” is the literal meaning of “Chögyam”— that his strictness in keeping Vajrayana or tantric Buddhist transmissions ultra-secret or hidden was largely so that they could be more openly revealed once his senior students had collectively sustained a common vision. None of this collection’s material has ever been available to the general public except in occasional excerpts.
This brings me to why this 2000+ page, three-volume lamrim (graduated path) curriculum of teaching, which could easily be nicknamed “The Best of Vajradhatu Seminary, 1973-1986” will be of greatest interest to serious contemplatives—certainly, most of them devoted students of Buddhist tantra, Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen, but also likely committed initiates in Kabbalah, Christian esotericism and other valid visionary transmissions. Trungpa Rinpoche was known for both hosting historic conferences of interreligious dialogue and often hermetically sealing his community from even the influences of most other Tibetan lineages. Preserved as if in amber here from Trungpa’s earliest seminaries is the message of the “threefold logic” of ground, path, and fruition that are the engine that drive this trilogy (I, 549-550). That triad of structuring reality is intimately related to a transmission Trungpa once gave in the context of a text on lojong (Mahayāna mind training) teachings, which asserted that all of our reality is the dynamic of the constant transformation of one of the three aspects of the trīkāya into the other three: everything is the three bodies of the Buddha. (Certainly, no facile equations should ever be made between the trikāya, triyāna, ground-path-fruition, and other Buddhist triads; however, they are all indeed linkable back to the trikāya principle.)
Treasury is palpably steeped and soaked in this theme, for any whose training alerts them to it. Open-minded but discerning students of comparative religion will know not to make simplistic comparisons between the trikāya principle and, say the Christian Trinity or Hindu Trimūrti—but also not simplistically dismiss such likely connections. Trungpa was at the heart of such inter-religious dialogues in the last century, and there are good reasons why his own study and practice resonated with that of fellow groundbreaking mystics.
Once we are hip to this innermost “concordance” to the treasury—triads of mystical hyperlinks that long predate the Internet—it should be clear why even apparent minutiae of the nine yānas of the tantric path (which Trungpa painstakingly lays out as if tiny grain by tiny grain in an endlessly detailed sand mandala display) can help us fine-tune our own contemplative presence, awareness, and alchemy.
For example, in the rare atiyoga teachings of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s Dzogchen Community, mutually complementary levels of presentation are organized into the somewhat different triad of Sūtra, Tantra, and Dzogchen, instead of the Hinayāna-Mahayāna-Vajrayāna of Trungpa Rinpoche’s classical exposition from the standpoint of Vajrayāna. Certainly, for yogis and meditators of the pedantic file clerk variety, such issues will be sticking points that will obscure from view the very vivid nondual atiyoga view that recurs again and again in these pages. Similarly, apparently unforgiving passages regarding transgressors of vows are only valuable when read in the full context of the three volumes and their array of triads, Trungpa’s balancing insistence on heartrending compassion that form the core of the trilogy, and that hermetically sealed vessel of his lineage that Trungpa guarded at a precarious moment in human history. Newcomers to Tibetan dharma understandably freaked out by such brief passages are encouraged to refer to an encouraging text such as Becoming Vajrasattva: The Tantric Path of Purification by Lama Yeshe, whose content is frankly consistent with much of the spirit of Trungpa’s work anyway.
The same Trungpa notorious for his unorthodox epicurean indulgences was painstakingly traditional in his presentation of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist scriptures, commentary, and meditation instruction to his students. That uncompromising effort to be true to the spirit of tradition and often to the precise letter of study and practice in one sense made this supposed maverick ironically everything one might expect in a “high incarnate lama.” In the end, Trungpa Rinpoche always points out the either-or fallacy to which human beings resort most of the time—and many Westerners were baffled at teachings that pointed to the need for modern people to become (among other things) both “meek” and “outrageous,” simultaneously gentle and fierce. And the same Trungpa who legendarily celebrated both Oxbridge pomp and circumstance and humorous jabs at sanctimonious, rigor mortis-beset facets of Tibetan culture named as one of his closest disciples the seminal poet Allen Ginsberg—an artist among artists whose greatest influence besides Trungpa Rinpoche was the bard William Blake.
Blake once declared, “I must create my own system or be imprisoned by another man’s.” How on earth does one align such originality with tradition? Recently, a few modern explorers of Tibetan Buddhism have called Blake the closest thing we have in the West to a tertön—but indeed, how does one reconcile the staunch orthodoxy of the Tibetan dotting of every “i” and crossing every “t”—which Trungpa, to be candid, often enough epitomized— with the visionary rebelliousness of that Blakean, Promethean fire, what critic Harold Bloom perceptively termed “the anxiety of influence”?
It is the threefold logic itself that seems to reveal in these pages how to wield that paradox as a calligraphy brush to craft a beautiful life rather than be destroyed by the interplay of life’s energies. There is a seamlessness of ethics and aesthetics in these pages: a practitioner discovers why working with form is often the best way to discover freedom and formlessness…and vice-versa—much as a poet can work with the constraint of a verse form to find his or her own independent voice. The threefold logic, always rooted in the “trikāya-as-everything” orientation [the author confirms: “[c]onsciousness, but….not consciousness as a reference point—it is just being. That being manifests as the three kayas.” (II, 425)] is the basis for the reminder of never abandoning the “Hinayāna” dimension of disciplining oneself—or the Mahāyāna way of the bodhisattva vow of placing others before oneself. [E.g.: “Generosity is the starting point of the bodhisattva path, and it is also said to reach to the highest levels of realization.” (II, 206)] In Trungpa Rinpoche’s curriculum, one must not proceed to the Vajrayāna without a meticulous grounding in these two foundational vehicles, but they are only lower vehicles in a relative sense, and always ever-present dimensions of the esoteric path.
I’ve called this overview of Trungpa’s living utpattikrama / creation stage practice in book form “Phurba Poetics” and shared my view of it as a sort of handbook or owner’s manual for “building the mystery” (to riff off Sarah McLachlan) that is the tantric aesthetic: the open, clear, and sensitive creative art of nurturing a full and caring life. The “three-sided dagger of emptiness,” called a phurba, is one of the richest living embodiments of all of the highest teachings and the immediacy of the three kāyas. Every tertön has one nearby; the Vidyādhara was no exception. The phurba cuts through the hoarding of spirituality for one’s own gain and anything that separates us from both other beings and their plight…or our full potential openness (III, 654-655). In Trungpa’s vision of a sacred world, there is even a pith instruction calligraphy practice for realizing the fluidity of the trikāya and integrating open space, energy, and precision. Aikido master George Leonard once mused, “I dream of a sword that cuts things together.” With a good balance of study and practice, the Trungpa trilogy can reveal that we do in fact all have access to that dream; it is our common vision to discover.
My own mentor and dear friend in poetry and philosophy, Charles Stein, who has shared so much of the best and goodness of both realms with so many people, once got visibly moved when I shared with him Trungpa’s assertion that a necktie embodies the sambhogakāya: a bridge to join the open sky of the dharmakāya with the earth of the nirmāṇakāya. I don’t think Chuck likes neckties very much, but such is the power of these teachings; they seem to resonate with many people. I know this is why I relate to neckties, actually!
Trungpa Rinpoche’s loyal and inspired senior student Acharya Judy Lief, who compiled and edited this vast collection, is to be commended for finding the voice of her teacher functioning as an unforgettable practitioner of English prose. She has in these books distilled these many years of the seminary down to a course that will be useful both immediately and in future generations. (She has also created an online course based on these books, which is discussed at http://vimeo.com/83697110.) A masterfully allusive index as well as accessible outline of teachings for each volume ensures that many, many people will be able to enter, find their way around, and benefit from the riches of this aptly named treasury.