Comments on “No holiness—vastness!”

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Once again, dear friends, unto the breach

Kate Gowen, Aro Apprentice 2009-02-21

Thanks again, David, for your pellucidly apt commentary on difficulties encountered in practice. I remember something from “Dangerous Friend” that was a glancing reference to the strangeness of seeing ‘personality display’ as teaching: the plaintive query, “Why does my lama like ‘spaghetti Westerns’?” I also have experienced many instances of having run beyond the limits of known ground with that panicked feeling that I am pedalling furiously in midair. Trying to rationalize, to cram the imponderable into all those convenient categories of habitual nescience– it can be exceedingly difficult to appreciate being thwarted in this endeavor.

When I read this bit, it dawned on me that it is very probable that every single thing I’ve ever heard from the Lamas has been a case of ‘method, not truth’– and that if I were less terrified of vast emptiness, I’d have noticed sooner.

Keep up the good work.

Kate Gowen

Between this post and the

Sabio 2010-12-04

Between this post and the Dzogchen link on the Aro site, I am confused. I have two specific confusions:

(1) Length of Training
What I think I read was the traditional way of starting Dzogchen was very long:

Sutra (years) –> Tantra (years) –> rigpa –> Dzogchen

Whereas this post implying that the Aro methods offer a potentially shorter route:

Ngöndro (4 steps) –> rigpa –> Dzogchen (3 parts)

Yet the Ngöndro post seemed to say that this route was long too – just like the Sutra–>Tantra route. Ngöngdro involves years of prostrations, years of chanting magic Tibetan mantras and 2 other time consuming preparations.

(2) Entry points of Training
Further, this post seems to allude to the fact that you can dive right into the first steps of Dzogchen without going through the long Ngöndro prelims.

Arrrrghhhh, I need a flow chart. The words in paragraphs aren’t making sense to me. Any diagrams available to help the cognitively limited brain? Thanks.

No Holiness

Sabio 2010-12-04

BTW, the “No Holiness – VASTNESS” aspect is exactly what draws me to this tradition and away from the others. Though Zen seems to be willing to “Kill the Buddha”, my experience is that to most Zennists this is mainly a pretty theory. Would your tradition embrace, for example, someone willing to challenge cowboy hats and Tibetan magic mantras? Or is that your Sacred Cow? Ironically, “Challenging” may be my sacred cow – maybe I should not care of my cows and take care of the log in my eye before addressing the splinters in my non-Christian friends’.

One of the personal, repeated insights/blessings I have had in my fumblings through this life agrees with your statement that I constantly and reflexively build prisons of identity. Momentary freedom from the insights are the ironic joy which gives me ears to hear some of the messages on your fine site.

I am old, however, and do wonder what dents such practices can have on an old habituated brain. Nonetheless, I am perpetually optimistic because NOW is always good enough for me. I am free of ambitious cravings but always excited with trying to milk out a bit more quality from my short existence for me, my kids, my wife, my friends, my colleagues and my enemies. I am content with small things. [sorry, a bit vague, poetic and philosophic – not very diagrammatic] ;-)

Different ngondros for Dzogchen and Tantra

David Chapman 2010-12-04

The confusing thing here is that the Dzogchen and Tantric ngondros are completely different.

A ngondro takes you from wherever you are to the base of a yana. The Tantric ngondro brings you to the base of Tantra, namely emptiness. The Dzogchen ngondro brings you to the base of of Dzogchen, namely rigpa.

The first phase of the Dzogchen ngondro (shi-ne) is equivalent in function to Sutra: its result is the realization of emptiness. (So it is also equivalent in function to the entire Tantric ngondro, although obviously its method is utterly different.)

The second and third phases of the Dzogchen ngondro (lhatong and nyimed) are together equivalent in function to Tantra itself: their result is the realization of non-duality (rigpa).

How long it takes to accomplish any of these things is up to the individual.

Challenging and asking

David Chapman 2010-12-04

This is a thoughtful comment, to which I’m not sure I’ll be able to give an adequate response, at least not immediately. It concerns the nature of the teacher-student relationship in the Aro tradition, which is a subtle matter. Follow-up questions might be useful.

There’s two models of the teacher-student relationship one might have in mind. One is the Western university model; the other is an Eastern guru-disciple model. The Aro model is maybe somewhere inbetween.

In the Western model, the student in theory should challenge the teacher. “No, you are wrong—why should I believe that—it’s stupid.” (In practice, you’re likely to be punished if you do much of this, even when you are right, but never mind that.) In the Eastern model, the student should not question the teacher. “Whatever you say is the ultimate truth—if it seems wrong, I must be stupid/impure.”

The Aro teachers are open to any amount of questioning, so long as it is questioning. That is, as long it is motivated by a genuine desire to understand. Challenge is motivated by the desire to gain or maintain territory and engage in personal power dynamics. The Aro teachers are not willing to play those games.

If you want to ask about cowboy hats, or the function of mantra, the Aro teachers will be happy to explain in as much detail as you like. (Unless it’s at a public occasion where it would be off-topic.) In fact, I think they’d be delighted to talk for hours about those things, as long as you keep asking more questions.

If you come in with an attitude of “cowboy hats are ugly/stupid/not Buddhist/weird/whatever—prove I’m wrong”, they’ll say “it’s fine you feel that way—so you’ll probably be happier somewhere else, because we like them.”

I don’t know you well, but I think you may have a good insight about yourself there: that challenging orthodoxies may have become a fixed point of your identity. As fixed points go, it’s a good one, in my opinion; it’s frequently a useful function. But if it’s a compulsion—if you can’t let an orthodoxy go without wanting to comment on it—then it limits you.

“Content with whatever is now” is an essential Buddhist message, as I’m sure you know.

Rinpoche and I were once standing looking out over a sea cliff, and after a long silence, he said “At a certain point in life, you realize that there is nothing better than staring at the ocean.”

In case David is insufficiently old [chronologically]

Kate 2010-12-04

Hey, Sabio– I hope you don’t mind my contribution to the conversation; but I am, unlike our young tyro, a fellow geezer. Also someone who has taken awhile to ‘get over’ a reflexive challenging of anything that seems like ‘authority’– it’s definitely one of my hyperreactive ‘buttons.’

Something I have noticed, in this regard, is that it’s a truly silly attitude to strike with regard to Aro: because I think the Lamas are ALLERGIC to making claims to any sort of authority. Not in some PC ‘humble’ presentation as merely humble monks, but in a really insightful way that recognizes that ‘teacher’ is a title conferred by the student, not claimed by the teacher. If their presentation speaks to you, provokes you, engages you to the point where you learn something– they’re your teachers. The person with the power to ‘authenticate’ teachings– is the student. You. Me.

There’s something magnificent– and sobering– about recognizing this. The sobriety has made it possible to see how silly all my fixed opinions and furious postures may well be. After all, the fundamental certainties of my life require no such nonsense in their support.

Part of the teaching– not so accessible to rational critique– is the inspiring example of the Lamas [and, amazingly often, of the Sangha] in their patience, kindness, and good temper. It gets contagious, if you stick around a bit; I mention it because it’s so in the forefront as to go unnoticed. But it’s crucial; I think it’s a criterion to keep in mind in one’s search through the traditions.

Good Temper goes a long way

Sabio 2010-12-04

Hi Kate,

By all means, join in. Who is “tyro”?
Also, though I am very skeptical, I am very capable to drop the skepticism when the doubts are understood. I embrace much in my life and only use skepticism as one of many tools. But I must admit, most people yield over to trust rather quickly after joining. I never did this in Christianity, Marxism, Libertarianism, Homeopathy, Oriental Medicine and many other systems I explored and partially embraced. I always remained skeptical. I am very skeptical of the modern medicine I practice now even though I functional embrace it for many reasons.

Patience, kindness and good temper go a long way indeed. David demonstrates that here very well. It would be interesting to attend group functions but none are anywhere near the East Coast of the USA. Alas.

Staring at Dead Bodies

Sabio 2010-12-04


Concerning the question methods, I totally agree. As a perpetual educator and student and am very familiar with the distinctions you are drawing.

BTW, I think the cow hats are awesome and fun !! Not that it matters, though. But a member of your Sangha could feel to wear other free, classy hats and that there is not a cultish follow-the-guru thing going on there. We have discussed this though and it is not really a concern, though fun to bring up now and again.

Concerning your quote of your teacher. I totally agree. Such insight is easily grabbed by the many folks of equally low caliber of insight as me. But let me question one issue. From my limited understanding of Dzogchen non-duality philosophy, an accomplished person should be able to stare at a pile of rotting bodies from a battle and feel the same. Or does neither Duality nor Non-Duality insight bring one back to liking Ocean views just like the average Joe?

BTW, this is a rather playful philosophical query – I am not too interested in the answer but it did come to mind when I read it. Instead, I am more interested in the skills – the rest takes care of itself, I imagine.

just 'cause I'm old, doesn't mean I'm right

Kate 2010-12-04

Well, Sabio, what I meant was more like ‘young polymath’ or ‘young Master’– imagine my shock:

“Tyro, A beginner or learner in anything; one who has mastered the rudiments only of any branch or knowledge.”

The glory of the horrifying

David Chapman 2010-12-05

an accomplished person should be able to stare at a pile of rotting bodies from a battle and feel the same. Or does neither Duality nor Non-Duality insight bring one back to liking Ocean views just like the average Joe?

Yes to both. The Vajrayana view is that enlightenment does not extinguish preferences, so one might prefer to stare at the sea, other things being equal. But one also should enjoy staring at rotting corpses. And one can practice toward that.

It’s interesting that you chose this example, because sitting at night in an open charnel ground (in which corpses were abandoned to rot or be eaten) is a central Tantric practice. It’s hard to find a proper charnel ground nowadays, unfortunately. A hospital emergency ward is a decent substitute, I have heard. Aro students have practiced at the burning ghats in Varanasi, where corpses are burned on open pyres. Not as good as an exhumed mass grave after a banana republic atrocity, but one has to work with the opportunities that are available.

This practice is woven all through Buddhism for Vampires. There’s not much there on the topic yet, but you might find interesting “Disgust as Buddhist Practice“. Disgust is closely related to horror, and is part of what I expect one would feel staring at a pile of rotting corpses from a battle. And I do start out talking about the taste of rotting human bodies…

Ox & Vampires

Sabio 2010-12-06

Your above explanations of “yes to both.” was right along with my understanding to date. I have used the Charnel practice myself over the years – both in Varanasi and in Emergency Rooms. I even practiced this when I was a Christian Mystic of sorts when I was at a Trappist Monastery for a retreat, I went out at night to the grave yard to contemplate our final fates.

BTW1, I have been meaning to ask – apparently the classic 10 Zen ox pictures use to be only 7. The CIRCLE use to be the last picture – The young monk out in the market place without the ox is now the last (if I remember correctly). I have always viewed that in my head as sort of similar (in a profane way, perhaps) as Aro emphasis that emptiness (the Circle) is not the final goal. Have Aro folks ever discussed or used the imagery?

BTW2, I have every intent on reading both “Meaningness” and “Vampires” but I am working through this site just now. And this site is packed!


David Chapman 2010-12-06

I don’t know of any mention of the ox-herding pictures by Aro teachers. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, whose view is similar in many respects, did write a commentary on them. I don’t recall where, I’m afraid.

I know much less about Zen than about Vajrayana. However, I gather it describes itself as going beyond Sutra (whose end-point is emptiness). That seems to be the point of the last three pictures: the return to form from emptiness. A related Zen saying is “first there is a mountain; then there is no mountain; then again there is a mountain.”

“Return to form” isn’t an Aro thing—it’s characteristic of all Vajrayana.

The following analogy should NOT be taken seriously; it’s impressionistic, misleading in some ways, and based on my very sketchy knowledge of Zen.

Sometimes Hina, Maha, and Tantra yana are likened to an ox cart, a school bus, and a zillion-dollar sports car. Hinayana is plodding and utilitarian, but eventually gets you there. Mahayana is a bit faster, and you take a slew of other people with you. Tantra is fast, flashy, and dangerous. If you don’t know what you are doing, you’ll crash and die (and maybe take a slew of other people with you).

Let’s say “ordinary vision” is a flat plain. At the edge of the plain a mountain range rises: the mountains of emptiness. Sutra takes you to the foot of the mountains. You gaze at them and are considered enlightened.

Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen all take you into the wilderness land beyond. But they have quite different approaches.

What lies beyond emptiness? And how do you get there?

Zen says: Ah, that is a great mystery. Climb the mountain, grasshopper, and you will know. To say more would be sacreligious. Enlightenment is ineffable.

Tantra is impatient with that. You could wander around on foot, get lost, almost certainly get nowhere. Tantra gives you a fast car and a detailed road atlas. You zoom off through the mountain pass, and follow the map precisely to get to a well-defined destination. If you deviate from the prescribed route, you hurtle over a cliff and are never heard from again.

Dzogchen says: that misses the point. There is nowhere special to get to. The point is to enjoy the walk and the scenery. If you’re driving so fast, you’ll miss seeing the landscape, because you are paying attention to the road instead, and you are concentrating on the supposed future destination, not the strange and wonderful rocks and flora and fauna.

Dzogchen gives you a sketch map with some major points of interest, and a big bag of tools you’ll find useful when walking in the wilderness. (Unlike Zen, which doesn’t seem to give you much in the way of resources or guidance beyond the foothills of emptiness.) Then you’re off, heading in whatever direction takes your fancy.

Ok, so are you saying then

DEW 2016-06-22

Ok, so are you saying then that the aro teachers might molest a student if the student thinks that is unacceptable? Eating meat is bad enough. Thanks for the warning dude!


David Chapman 2016-06-23

No; what did I write that gave you that misimpression?

Thanks again for your web

DEW 2016-06-23

Thanks again for your web ministry work. I found your later replies to the karma question which did answer my questions. As far as this post, you wrote: “If you spend enough time with Aro Lamas, it is certain that they will at some point roast your sacred cows—whatever they are. They will contradict something you think every good person must believe. (That might be strongly-held political, religious, or cultural values.) Or they may do something you think no holy person ever should.” I assume you meant it, and Tibetan teachers are notorious for molesting their students. I hope aro is a safe place, but your thread here leads one to think otherwise. Deep peace!

Molesting their students

David Chapman 2016-06-24

Oh, I see! Thank you very much for explaining.

By “they may do something you think no holy person ever should,” the emphasis is on “holy.” The Aro gTér teachers are unlikely to do anything that would be considered immoral by mainstream Western standards for regular people. In particular, the lineage places a very high value on monogamy, and there have been no cases of sexual misconduct by teachers that I know of, or that ever been publicly alleged.

The Lamas are likely to do things that might be considered shocking for priests.

They may have political/social/cultural opinions you would find offensive. There is a diversity of political/social/cultural opinions among the group; some are on the left, and some on the right. They do not find political disagreement to be a problem. If you a strongly committed to either the left or the right being exclusively “right,” their attitude that disagreement is a non-problem will be a problem for you.

They are generally enthusiastic about sex (within the bounds of a monogamous relationship). They drink alcohol with gusto. Many own guns and enjoy shooting them at paper targets. They eat meat and might kill their own dinner.

The Aro lineage is not a “safe place.” It’s challenging and difficult and there are some risks. However, the standard ones (sexual and financial exploitation) are not among them.

Good and bad

Drew 2021-11-22

In general, could this post be validly read by replacing any notion of pure/impure with good/bad, i.e. good/bad according to my own personal preferences?

Good and bad

David Chapman 2021-11-22

I re-read the post, which I hadn’t done in ages. I wrote it more than a decade ago, partly addressing particular circumstances that aren’t relevant any more. I’m not really happy with it now; I’d like to revise it, but that doesn’t seem the most important thing.

It was only meant to be about purity and impurity, which have some unique issues around them. Good and bad are a bit different, although similar enough that probably somewhat similar things could be said. On the other hand, note my comment above, also from more than a decade ago:

The Vajrayana view is that enlightenment does not extinguish preferences, so one might prefer to stare at the sea, other things being equal. But one also should enjoy staring at rotting corpses.

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