Comments on “Mastery”

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Noah Infinity Sign 2012-09-25

I just read the first chapter of Time Enough for Love in the “Look Inside” thingy on

Holy crap! :-)

How can people write such things?! How the HELL did Heinlein THINK of the PREMISE for this BOOK?! Right?! Geeze Louise.

Amazing. I have to buy it and read it now. And I don’t have money to spend. Damnit, David! Stop recommending good books. :-)

I am constantly, perhaps more and more, amazed by the creativity of people: Heinlein’s novel (or rather, the first chapter); Thangtong’s bridges; Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s writing and facial hair styles; (to be a little bit of a kiss-ass – sorry) YOUR ability to track a path (perhaps: blaze a trail) through all this Buddhist history and theory in ways that always leave me excited about things I thought I already understood or I wasn’t paying attention to; Franny and Zooey; the film The Tree of Life (see it if you haven’t – I am not sure if I understand what it was “about”, but I am pretty confident it helped me become a slightly better person, somehow); a seemingly ENDLESSLY AMAZING parade of bands and musicians (listen to Lianne La Havas’ album Is Your Love Big Enough? or alt-J’s album An Awesome Wave – great stuff from new folks); and all the paintings and photographs and poems and outfits and dance moves and tree houses and soil rehabilitation techniques and hilarious sarcasm and necklaces, and, and . . .

Sometimes I think of all the art that’s been made, is being made, and will be made – and that I will have come into contact with a virtually unimaginably small portion of it during my relatively short life – and I think it used to make me worry. Now, though, it is, I guess, a relief. The world seems to be as saturated with beautiful, amazing creativity as it is with strife and stupidity. I couldn’t really avoid the good stuff if I wanted to. :-)

It makes it more difficult to (nihilistically) give up than to (compassionately) keep going.

I hope I can contribute someday.


Yesterday I started reading “Hidden in Plain Sight” by the martial artist Ellis Amdur. He has a neat discussion of power and mastery in his forward. Here’s a quote from it:

“An instructor is responsible for teaching a tradition to the highest level that his or her students can achieve. However, this is only true if those students refuse to be satisfied with merely studying under a wonderful teacher, or claiming a wonderful heritage and lineage. Such smug satisfaction at being under the aegis of a master is the opposite of the hunger for mastery itself. . .”

He describes mastery in that context as the meeting of virtuosity and vitality (my interpretation).


Alex Hubbard 2012-09-27

I remember reading the following story yonks ago, I’m not sure where though:

a group of monks are trying to fix a problem at their monastery with the drainage. They’ve traced the problem to a blockage some fifty meters outside of the monastery itself, a blockage in the outlet pipe which has caused a slurry pit to emerge at its base. A deep, smelly pit of filth and slime. Attempting to unblock the pipe fails, they try with long sticks, other pipes, but none of it does the job. Further, none of them knows much about plumbing.

After a while the procrastinating monks are noticed to have been gone awhile, and this fact is drawn to the attention of the high Lama resident at the monastery. On a whim, he decides to investigate. Th monks recount their discovery of the issue and the Lama takes one look at it and says ‘Yep, I see the problem, there’s only one thing for it.’ And, lifting up his robes he wades into the rank pit of waste, sticks his arm down the pipe, extracts the offending rocks blocking it, and wades out again. ‘That should do it’, he says to the astounded monks, and heads back to the monastery without further ado.

Enthralled by the intervention of their esteemed Lama, one of the monks exclaims ‘I always knew our Lama was a great practitioner, but not that he was a plumber too. Did you see him wade through all that shit, he’s a real Master isn’t he?!’

David Chapman 2012-09-28

@ Noah — You have certainly entered into the spirit of things here!

Time Enough for Love is one of my favorite books. It’s a vast sprawling mess; several novels stapled together inside the frame story that you read on Amazon. The first hundred pages are hard to get through, but eventually the epic sweep of the thing, plus the remarkable hero, catch you, and then…

@ Rin’dzin — Thanks! “The meeting of virtuosity and vitality” does seem an insightful definition for mastery.

@ Alex — Wow, that’s a great story, and totally relevant here!

Not many Tibetan lamas would do such a thing, even if they could. Those who would—are indeed masters of tantra.

David Chapman 2012-09-28

Oh, by the way, the aphorisms from Time Enough for Love were extracted and published as a separate book, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long. Much or all of the text is online here.

There’s an awful lot of useful advice in there. Starting with “Any priest or shaman must be presumed guilty until proved innocent.”

“Small change can often be found under seat cushions” has saved my ass more than once.

David Chapman 2012-09-28

Ah, yes, and “Everything in excess! To enjoy the flavor of life, take big bites. Moderation is for monks.” I need to re-read this thing. Half of what I would say about tantra is in there, so I can just steal it.

David Chapman 2012-09-28

“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of–but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”

OK, I’ll stop now. Y’all can read the rest for yourselves.

Noah Infinity Sign 2012-09-29


Thanks! :-)

”. . . but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”

Lol! :-)

“It may be better to be a live jackal than a dead lion, but it is better still to be a live lion. And usually easier.”

“Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a God superior to themselves. Most Gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.”

‘Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded–here and there, now and then–are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. This is known as “bad luck.”’

“God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent-it says so right here on the label. If you have a mind capable of believing all three of these divine attributes simultaneously, I have a wonderful bargain for you. No checks, please. Cash and in small bills.”

“Courage is the compliment of fear. A man who is fearless cannot be courageous. (He is also a fool.)”

Thanks, David.


gregg 2012-09-30

I’ve only gotten to this line:

Tantra engenders all-around cluefulness: savoir-faire, improvisatory panache, and practical élan.

and had to commend hitting it out of the park

A. Karttunen 2016-05-06

I see a big problem when an immature person starts viewing oneself as a special member of elite (or even as a “master”): from there is just a small step to hubris. I guess in many martial arts this is automatically solved by the fact that you rise approximately to that level where you will get beaten about as often as you will win, which teaches you some humility as well.
Not that I’m against the concept of elite (in skills and ability) per se. Still, I have realized that the real masters are often very modest people.

Have you read Kazantzakis’s “Ascesis: The Saviors of God” by the way? Interesting synthesis of Nietzschean and Buddhist ideas, with a strong Kazantzakian flavor. Made a big and lasting impression on me when I read it years back.

A. Karttunen 2016-05-07

Of course one could say that Kazantzakis’ “Askesis” is also about the philosophy of Henri Bergson, but written much much better than Bergson did.

One of the rare books that have recently impressed me is Jaimal Yogis’s “Saltwater Buddha”. I was positively surprised how there was none of the usual “self-help for victims” blather I have come to expect from most of the buddhism books written by westerners, and also how he (quite shortly) writes about dukha without the barely hidden attitude of “sour grapes” often present.

Maybe because he is a surfer, and attaining mastery (which of course can always be improved!) is inherent part of the surfing culture. I don’t know which school of Buddhism he adheres to, but clearly he is not renouncing the joy the ocean can give him. This paragraph right in the introduction already stroke me as a quite deviant from the usual “all is suffering” ethos:

Some say that the “goal” of Buddhism is to become a Buddha - to become awake. And one of the historical Buddha’s very first teachings, recorded in Avatamsaka Sutra, says “the Earth expounds Dharma,” meaning, that the very world we live in describes how to awaken. And since the most of the earth is ocean, I don’t think it’s going too far to say that, with the right intention and awareness, you can learn to be a Buddha by playing in the waves.

David Chapman 2016-05-07

Yes, hubris is recognized in the tantric tradition as perhaps the greatest danger on the path. There are various safeguards against it, which are not entirely reliable.

Thanks for the book recommendations; I haven’t come across either of these before!

rafaelroldan 2016-11-09

I’d like to talk about points of view of you all – especially D. Chapman – about lamas and their flaws. The Lama is supposed to be an example of what students can reach, but reading all that Chapman writes here and looking at my own experience of them and some experiences of others, it’s deeply disappointing.

I’m not asking more of this general talk about this and that theory, but of our experiences with Lamas. Of course they help a lot, even (or especially) when they’re angry with us, but they commit many mistakes. The other day I read this and got really worried:

“Even if they are murderers …”

Well, I’m trying to have such a pure vision, but then what? I just CANNOT reach this level of faith in any human guru, whatsoever… I simply can’t access this level of surrender to the point of ignoring the faults of many lamas.

When I try to apply this so-called pure vision and say that Chinese were good in the end, because they made Vajrayana to spread around the world while Tibetans were keeping it restricted to their world, then a guy calls me “closer to evil”, as If i were really endorsing the Chinese invasion. It’s not that I’m so much worried of what people think of me, but I’m worried that I can’t have faith in Lamas anymore to this point of seeing one of them committing a crime or acting in very ordinary ways and still believe that they are a Buddha as Dudjom Rinpoche suggests in that text.

What keeps us practicing? Maybe, the possibility of becoming noble masters, at least of our minds and help others to do so. If Buddhism is dead, as Chapman what to expect from a corpse? Who are our example?

I just LOVE to read or hear Drugpa Kunleg’s stories, but sometimes they seem a little… hmmm… strange to me… Sometimes I understand them, but when it comes to the point where he wants to have sex with some guys wife and this guy takes a sword and when Drukpa ties a knot on the weapon, then the guy understands that he’s a great master and lets his wife take Drukpa’s weenie on her secret lotus… Well, if we have to avoid supernatural claims, whadda heck this story is telling us?

Please, people, help me to overcome this confuse mind… You are my lamas for this! hehehe

David Chapman 2016-11-09

For whatever my opinion is worth: I think the lama/student relationship would need significant revision/reinvention in order to function broadly in the contemporary world.

Some people are trying to do that. Ken McLeod, Hokai Sobol, and Reggie Ray come to mind as examples.

rafaelroldan 2016-11-09

I love the taste of your brain, but today I have an immense hunger for your pulsating stomach or your beating heart, if you don’t mind to expose them…

Would you, please, be comfortable to leave both this cold and distant technicality or that hot and adolescent fictionality away and tell us some stories about bad feelings you already had on YOUR teachers, any seemingly faults that they displayed and how YOU managed somewhat to stay inspired by them (or not)?? (Damn it! Let your blood spill all over the table! LOM)

Because sometimes it seems that for a Vajra master to really help you, a complete surrender may be necessary and us, 21st c. Western weirdos, seem unable to take this step. Y’know, that thing they say that what matters more is your pure view, not the finger pointing the moon to you… that even if your teacher is the worst person ever, if you see him like a Buddha, that’s the kind of inspiration (blessing) you get.

This is almost spooky for me… so I act like Gollum… the Ring is my ordinary life… and the bats outside the window are telling me to go nuts and dive into that ocean of surrender, no matter how irrational it may be… no matter how much space for abuse there can be in it… (of course this is a joke, but I have a family of bats living in my attic).

David Chapman 2016-11-09

I can’t give you what you are looking for here. Sorry!

Y’know, that thing they say that what matters more is your pure view, not the finger pointing the moon to you… that even if your teacher is the worst person ever, if you see him like a Buddha, that’s the kind of inspiration (blessing) you get.

I think this can work for some people, sometimes. It’s risky and not the right approach for most people.

I have bats living in my bathroom wall, also!

rafaelroldan 2016-11-09

Ok… No food for the demon today… I’ll have to fill my guts with your brain… That’s fine!

I know its risky, but that’s not the whole point you’ve been emphasizing about Tantra? It’s like an investment, only that’s not (just) about the money (a 3-year retreat costs 20 grand, at least).

There’s no free lunch, Bat-room Man! (sorry, couldn’t resist the bad pun)

I had a dream where Ngak’chang Rinpoche was Val Kilmer and headed a group of supermarket thieves using dirty gray sweaters with hoods, but the group was the best sangha in the world and every theft was a huuuge fun teaching on the nature of mind!!!!

But I cannot indulge in thefts like this because I’m not enlightened like him. I’ve to be a nice guy and allow supermarkets to rob me instead (prices getting high here).

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