Well, at least the first two sections….
As a student and practitioner who is getting ready to dip a toe into ngondro practices (steady there, I still have a little ways to go), this book came at the right time as I study and meditate upon the four common foundation practices (those involving contemplation upon precious human birth, impermanence, karma and our ever-loving dear friend – suffering). As mentioned in a previous post, I underlined a good majority of this book.
Mathieu Ricard provides the foreword, and rightfully so, as he is a student of Yongey Mingur Rinpoche’s (who in turn, is also the heart-son of several of Ricard’s root spiritual masters). He speaks greatly to the importance of these advanced teachings and cites other prominent teachers who have written similar works and focused on these teachings throughout their lives.
Based on a series to talks delivered in 2004 in British Columbia (yay Canada!), “Turning Confusion into Clarity” features many personal stories of his life and those of Yongey Mingur Rinpoche’s father, Tulku Urgen Rinpoche and his brother, Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Other great teachers he studied under and the great masters from before his time such as Tilopa and Naropa are prominent within its pages as well.
Rinpoche shares his heart and speaks to experiences from his spiritual path and his experience of ngondro. Overall, this book is a humorous and joyful glimpse into both his early days as a young monk and as a present-day teacher and author. The personal stories really do make the book one which is a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Part One of the book lays the groundwork and is titled “Entering the Path.” It’s an examination of what materials will be covered and speaks greatly to the nature of mind, and its movement from confusion to clarity. The four thoughts that turn the mind to dharma are featured as well as a note on empowerments and transmission. Rinpoche then gives provides and overview of the four practices of the unique ngondro, setting the stage for a more in-depth examination in the chapters to follow.
Meditation is examined fully in “Turning Confusion into Clarity” in that Rinpoche both provides advice on how to do it- both from a physical and mental standpoint. Several meditation and contemplation exercises are offered throughout the book and serve to develop the stability and understanding required for the more advanced practices that a student will encounter on the path.
Part Two gets into the Four Common Foundation Practices and has a chapter dedicated to each: precious human birth, impermanence, karma and suffering. This provides details on the first part of ngondro or the ‘common’ or ‘outer’ ngondro. I found this section of the book to be extremely powerful as Rinpoche’s ability to tell magnificent stories of the joys and pitfalls for Buddhist practice shines through. He is adept at expressing the challenges of Western students and cites many references that resonated personally with me.
This section of the book also gets into topics such as the six realms of samsaric experience, practicing with the eight freedoms, the four restrictive conditions of the human realm and some of the most profound writing I’ve read on impermanence in my, well impermanent life. It’s strangely comforting to hear the stories of Rinpoche’s panic attacks and fear of death given that I too have these issues present in my life. I love this section for what it offered to me.
The chapters on karma and emptiness were also highly informative as oft-misunderstood terms by non-Buddhists and Buddhists alike. To have it distilled in a way that made sense made it an important read, and again, hearing Rinpoche speak to his own confusion of these concepts, only to be told by his teachers that many students get tripped up by it, was heartening.
Part Three is where things get “whoooshbang! Woo hoo. Strap in and put on your flight suit because we’re going on a wild ride. What is that glowing mechanical bull doing here? Zip Zap Wowsa” kind of stuff. These are advanced teachings folks so be forewarned. If you are not into getting to know ngondro, then half of the book isn’t really going to be your cup of tea, at least perhaps at this point on your path.Don’t be afraid though, and go in with an open mind.
Personally, I’m looking forward to this book evolving with me (and me with it) as I move through the practice path. For now, I’m content with reading and becoming aware of these advanced practices, without engaging just yet. “Patience young grasshopper,” I whisper to myself.
Reality check. This book is ‘A Guide to the Foundation Practices of Tibetan Buddhism’ and not meant to substitute the fine wisdom of a teacher’s guidance. I read it knowing that most of what has been described it not yet for my consumption, but rather for reading through for when the time is right. The materials became a bit overwhelming at times, but it was good to have some exposure to these teachings and visualizations. In a nutshell, this section contains several chapters where Rinpoche introduces the various ngondro practices such as refuge, purification mantra and guru yoga.
Back to the mundane reality of writing this book review…
Overall, I wholeheartedly recommend “Turning Confusion into Clarity” for those students who are serious about Tibetan Buddhism and have some semblance of an interest in learning more about the foundational practices. It’s not a book for beginners. Nope.
In my case, the book presented itself at the right time. It’s good to know the general direction of where I’m headed, so “Turning Confusion into Clarity” is a great roadmap for my journey towards ngondro. No doubt, I will be using it is a reference along the way.
It’s one of those ‘Oh look. I highlighted everything’ kind of books. It’s one of those “I know I will be referring to this book often in my life’ kind of books. It’s one of those ‘Hey this book is making me talk to myself because it’s so good’ kind of books.
Really. It’s that good.
In a strange and auspicious coincidence, I’m currently doing work with the Four Foundations and this book came onto my path just at the right time. I’ve always been a big fan of Rinpoche’s writing and his openness about his panic disorder has always endeared me to him.
*fellow panic disorder sufferer- raises hand*
So stay tuned for a blog post on this book shortly. I’m about halfway in folks.
Take the Buddhists Bowling
WE COULD STOP PUTTING LIDS ON OURSELVES
It is as if we were extraordinary children, possessing all sorts of genius, and we were being undermined by the society around us, which was dying to make us normal people. Whenever we would show any mark of genius, our parents would get embarrassed and try to put the lid on. I don’t particularly want to blame our parents alone; we have also been doing this to ourselves. When we see something extraordinary, we are afraid to say so; we are afraid to express ourselves. So we put lids on ourselves—on our potential, our capabilities. But in Buddhism we are liberated from that kind of conventionality.
The Heart of the Buddha: Entering the Tibetan Buddhist Path by Chögyam Trungpa, page 6
But in Buddhism we are liberated from that kind of conventionality. How I wish this were true. It’s another one of those things Chuggie said that never gets lived out in real life. I’ve been with Buddhists of various kinds, mostly on the East Coast. I knew a few in western Massachusetts, only two personally, and one in Boston. I know about a dozen in Fredericton, NB, and have met hundreds in Halifax. My experience thus far with Buddhists is that they are highly conventional, fearful, repressed, over-controlled and controlling. There is little of the sense of unconventional play and imagination that Chuggie so gleefully describes. Most of the Buddhists I’ve met are quite bourgeois, obsessed with professional success and social status, trying desperately to appear as normal as possible. Those of us who choose not to appear normal, or who couldn’t even if we tried, are treated like errant children or the mentally ill—shunned, chastised, pushed aside. This is a typical problem in many Buddhist communities that I’ve participated in.
But enough complaining. I propose a solution, one that I am trying to enact in small ways. It’s the practice suggested by Dzogchen Ponlop’s Rebel Buddha: see the path of Buddhism as a path of questioning, of challenging convention and the status quo. Very few members of the group who supposedly follow DPR’s legacy, take this challenge seriously. Few of the practitioners I’ve met so far seems to have a fucking clue as to what “rebel Buddha” really means. Or what they think of as “rebel Buddha” and what I think it means are glaciers apart.
So I’ve started to question, question, question everything; push back against conventionality, repression, the obsession with social status, hetero-normativity, white-male dominance, and the intense desire to CONTROL EVERYTHING and everybody. That’s one desire that never seems to be challenged—the desire to CONTROL. We Buddhists are good for tackling desires for pleasures of the flesh, like sex, food, and entertainment, but we utterly fail to even notice the high-octane drive to control, to succeed, to pass (for normal), to achieve, and to be accepted and liked by the mainstream. That’s where Rebel Buddha comes in, not to save the day, but to fuck shit up. Break the barriers of conventionality, repression and control. Talk about sex. Loudly. Be openly, defiantly queer. Go ahead and fail at being a Buddhist. Practice Buddhist tantra in the sangha by performance of the abject—the deliberate violation of social norms as a spiritual practice.
I’ve heard sangha members complain in anguish about the homogeneity of their membership: no young people, no people of colour, no queers, no working class, no immigrants. They always attract more of the same: older (and I mean “near retirement” older); white, anglo, upper-middle class, professional, straights or homonormative gays. Well, I’ve got one of those handy-dandy 12-Step clichés for ya’ll: “Keep doing what you’ve always done and you’ll keep getting what you always got.” We have to break down the culture of conformity within sanghas. That sends a message to others who visit your sangha that “difference is accepted and cherished here.” Allow difference to surface and flourish; allow non-conformity, challenge your own status quo, renounce your incessant urge to CONTROL EVERYTHING. Loosen up a little. Let shit happen. Be the “extraordinary children, possessing all sorts of genius” that Chuggie says is our legacy and our birthright from Buddhism.
As DPR has said repeatedly, we have to get away from directing everything toward shrine rooms and retreat centres. That attracts a certain kind of person—straight, white, middle-class conformists—and we have enough of those already. The Buddha “met people where they were at.” He didn’t preach the same message to everyone. He had different teachings for different people depending on what they needed and what their capacities were. Want to attract the working class? Try mindfulness bowling. Want to attract immigrants? Ethnic groups coalesce around their ethnic food (just ask my Italian relatives). Want to attract young people? Go to the next free punk show, stand near the mosh pit and chant along with the band. Want to attract queers? Go to a queer sex workshop and talk about queer tantric practice. Want to attract creative young adults? Go to the next Reclaim the Streets protest and hold an in-the-street meditation session. Meet people where they’re at. Speak their language. Instead of trying to get them to the shrine room, make wherever they’re at “the shrine.”
But first and most importantly, liberate yourselves from conformity. DPR patiently tries to teach people that social conventions are the most rigidly solidified forms of delusion that we suffer from. Every moment that we become aware of and challenge these rigid social norms—of class status, racism, sexism, materialism, and other social conventions—is a moment of awakening. And yet we barely notice them and never challenge them as Buddhists. Blow off your own lid. If you don’t see the need to challenge your own social conventions and free your own mind, you’re never going to liberate anyone else. And you’re never going to have any kind of compassion or solidarity with marginalized people who really do challenge the status quo.
[Note: I've been listening to the Beatles' experiments with psychedelia while writing this, especially George Harrison's Indian raga.] Oh, and this, “Take the skinheads bowling” by Camper Van Beethoven:
My gosh friends. I’ve been busy… but also not busy.
I started a new job a month ago where pretty much all I do is read, read, read and write, write, write. This is making a limited amount of energy or overall desire for writing here on this stinky old blog. Add to that the book editing process and really quite honestly, I’m thinking about doing a podcast for the next few months until this book is birthed.
So yeah. Busy but not busy. I had a great exchange with my Practice Instructor and she was such a big help. I’m studying the Four Immeasurables right now and while she is a remote instructor, her advice really hit me. Like hit me hard. It was the advice from a spiritual friend that you just absolutely needed to hear at the moment you needed to hear it.
If anyone knocks the validity of a remote teacher or spiritual friend, I say to them – bah my good friend. Bah. I adore my practice instructor (in Seattle) and treasure her as much as if she was right down the street.
Other than that, the trend on this blog has been lately to be posting a wonk-load of book reviews and while I really enjoy it, I’ve realized I’ve overextended myself in trying to read ALL THE DHARMA BOOKS. So less reviews, more personal practice and study and more personal blogging. I want to go back to the kind of posts that likely brought y’all over here in the first place. There are enough book review sites. There aren’t enough struggling to get on the cushion, whiney girl, Gen X-er Buddhist blogs out there. In advertising, we call this the USP- Unique Selling Proposition. It could also be my elevator pitch if you are of the start-up variety.
Other than a new job, great help from my practice instructor, turning down the book reviews and turning up the personal posts… not really much else going on around here.
How about you? What have you been up to?
I’ve missed you.
I have to admit to not being familiar with Lama Marut before coming across his recent book ‘Be Nobody.’ Much like the book ‘The Novice’ by the Naked Monk aka Stephen Schettini, which I reviewed a little while back, it is the story of a ‘religious seeker, finder and then leaver of the cloth’ (monk robes to be specific).
It’s the ideal book for those who define themselves as ‘spiritual, but not religious’ but beware, Lama Marut tackles that very principle of self-definition that we humans are apt to put upon ourselves. The overreaching theme of the book is to ‘undo’ the isms and break free from religious labels as these can only further our feelings of ego identification or separateness from one another.
He takes the wisdom from many different traditions be it Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity and distills it into a book that recommends a new way of being nobody. A way to dismantle the self and be awake. As a ‘religious hybrid’ who studied many traditions both personally as well as academically, Marut is well-versed in both the practices as well as the study which goes with these religions. He uses many stories to help illustrate his message.
‘Be Nobody’ covers a lot of (mainly Buddhist) ground. From the self, no self, interconnectedness, the skandhas (I absolutely adore his mention of the mental afflictions and the metaphor of having a ‘rage in the cage’ style wrestling battle with them), a healthy dose of Shantideva, empathy and guru yoga amongst so many other topics. Believe me, the book gets into it all!
One area of ‘Be Nobody’ where I kind of tuned out was the section on flow states and play and how these work to help us lose our sense of self. I’m not sure why I checked out during this area, but I think it’s just because it’s less of an interest to me than the more ‘dharmic’ materials in the book. I can fully see how it relates to losing one’s sense of self, it just stuck out for me as a section that was tacked on as having some spiritual significance rather than the meaty (and in my opinion more relevant) bits that the rest of the book offered up.
One of the best parts about ‘Be Nobody’ is the pop culture references. I’m a big fan of his use of personal and real-world examples to help support the main principles of the book so any mention of Captain Kirk, song lyrics or movies certainly captures my attention.
Another positive aspect of this book is the ‘Action Plan’ found at the end of each chapter which offers suggestions for how to apply the elements into one’s life. These concrete instructs allow people to put the teachings into practice as a means for transformation. At the end of the book is a set of meditations from the Vijnana Bharvanva Tantra aka ‘Methods for Attaining the Consciousness of the Divine.’ I didn’t go beyond reading these but do plan to revisit them at a later date.
Quite often in ‘Be Nobody,’ Marut speaks to society’s obsession with social media and the correlation it has with the increased levels of depression in our world. He feels that the narcissism that is being demonstrated by living in the ‘iEra’ is something that is quite worrisome.
Overall, ‘Be Nobody’ by Lama Marut was a great read and one I’d recommend to Buddhists, non-Buddhists and those looking to become less Buddhist and more of a nobody. I highlighted a good part of the book and plan to later go back and do some of the meditation practices when I have some time as well as to read the end notes and citations which are chock full of great articles and books.
Time for a long overdue bit of random linkage. It’s been a while folks. Busy with work and head down with practice and study. I’m also amping myself up for some Montreal Dharma Punx action which I’ve let slip.
- Engaged Buddhism Magazine shared an awesome punk show review slash meditation session.
- I am loving your artwork Chris Piascik.
- Glimpses of Yarne is a great short documentary from Kent Martin showing the full on awesomeness of Gampo Abbey.
- I’m currently reading ‘Be Nobody’ by Lama Marut and it’s pretty good. It reminds me quite a bit of the writing of The Naked Monk (aka Stephen Schettini). I’m also dipping a toe into the new Mark Epstein book ‘The Trauma of Everyday Life’ and I really have to say that I’m enjoying it fully.
- I need a human version hat like this for wearing at the meditation center.
- Lastly, I’ve been doing a bit of reading and practice on the topic of impermanence based on some feedback from my supersmart and uber incisive Practice Instructor. I was watching a Tiny Desk concert with Wilco last night and reminded of the chorus of ‘War on War’. This needs to become my ringtone. (The singalong starts at 14:28)
You have to lose
You have to learn how to die
if you want to want to be alive, okay?
You have to lose
You have to lose
You have to learn how to die
if you want to want to be alive
You have to die
You have to die
You have to learn how to die
if you want to want to be alive, okay?
If you’re like me and love the work of Against the Steam and the affiliated Dharma Punx and their various teachers such as: Noah Levine, Vinny Ferraro, Matthew Brensilver, Megan Cowan and ALL of the great folks that have come out of their organization, then how about kicking in a bit of coin to help them build their new center and finally have a home of their own?
They are currently running an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to build and open a space of their very own in San Francisco. Check out this video for all of the details:
You may be sitting around wondering how you can help a fellow human out. Look no further as I have a suggestion if you are feeling a bit of generosity in your warm little heart.
Here in Montreal, the hustle is on the help find a match for Mai Duong. A 34 year old who was diagnosed with acute leukemia, Mai is in serious need of a stem cell donation from someone in the Vietnamese community. Time is truly of the essence.
I was struck by Mai’s compassion for others as demonstrated in an interview with her where she stated that,
“We could be saving lives. If it’s not my life, it’s going to be somebody else’s.”
“I believe in humanity, so I believe that we’re going to find a match. I’m hopeful.”
Given that visible minorities make up such a small percentage of those who sign up for the bone marrow registry, it’s imperative that the words gets out and that people take action. On a positive note, there’s been 1000 new registrants for the province’s registry in just a few days.
Here’s how you can help:
- Spread the word. Share the website, mention it on Twitter or Facebook. Mobilize your sangha to register.
- Join the registry: Quebec, Canada, USA
- Read up on the story of Emru Townsend who was in a similar situation with regards to the search for a donor. His sister, Tamu and his community worked tirelessly to help educate and spread the word and it was his case that educated me on the subject of requiring ethnic donors due to a lack of diversity in the various registries.
Please act now however you are able to. You could help save a life.