The Inner Guru
Forward: This article is for my Tibetan Dharma friends, and makes references to our practice and terms that are not public. I refer to these terms generally but do not disclose any entrusted information. This reflection speaks to universal principles for anyone involved in a spiritual tradition.
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche lives in Boulder and Crestone, Colorado. He’s a noted Tibetan Buddhist teacher who is often called to help with Buddhist people in our local community who are dying, as our principal teacher was often not available. We have a large famous Buddhist community that was headed by a powerful teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, that he considered to be a “madhasiddha” that has now passed. Rinpoche reportedly said that he was looking forward to being with us as we died, as it would be a privilege to see the student’s accomplishment after many decades of these powerful meditation practices. Reportedly, he said that time and time again he’d come to help westerners at the time of death and we are showing… no signs of having practiced or having even been on a spiritual path. (!)
He said that westerners were still very attached and exceedingly frightened and we held onto every single last moment of life that we could, and refused to let go. We had devotion and desperately wanted him to help us, but he said that we were not able to find the inner guru and at the time of death. As the body is in a dissolution phase, it’s too late for him to begin to teach us. He could not point students to turn inward to see in the inner clear light, otherwise called our secret mind nature instruction, if we hadn’t really trained that way properly in our practice. This processes is explained well in The Tibetan Book of The Dead.
It wasn’t that the people were not devoted, actually it was the contrary. It was that we objectified everything, the Guru, the Yidam, we train in worshiping, deifying and externalizing the guru and we look to him to help us at the moment of death. The political commoditization of the tradition and teacher’s exalted roles has helped contribute to mistaken views. As the winds and faculties are dissolving at the moment of death, it’s really hard to impart subtle dharma teachings. If we haven’t trained in the recognition, it was too late, no magic, blessing or phowa, really could help, we are on our own.
How We Are Now Determines Our Mind at Death
Are we getting enlightened, making “progress” on a spiritual “path?” My husband noted that if you have such powerful training methods that could result in attaining enlightenment in one lifetime, you and many of your friends must be getting close now, at least a few. Nope. Admittedly, from what I see from myself and my friends, is some of us having terrible, even semi-violent tempers and many show a tremendous amount of attachment, anxiety and spiritual arrogance. We aren’t as a whole, softening, opening and cultivating wisdom, kindness and working to help others; many seem selfish, proud, escapist and rather narcissistic, wearing the dharma as credential rather than compassion. It doesn’t surprise me at all that we would pass with that same attachment and delusion, and sadly, Rinpoche is correct.
The Inner Light
We may be really devoted to our tradition, our teacher and practice, our daily deity visualization fervently. The problem from what Rinpoche noted, is that when we deify another human being, you are still externalizing and reifying the object of refuge. We look outside, it’s “him” or look outside to the object of our practice if we have a yidam, and this process can continue into the more fruitional esoteric, secret practices such as togyal; the mind looks “out” at something like a T.V. screen. Trungpa called this process “spiritual materialism.” We could spend the entire path looking outward for what is sacred, something to heal us co-dependently, as an object of refuge. We can have sincere devotion and even invest a lot of time in our practice but the foundation, may simply be dualistic grasping.
All of these methods are for one point only, and that is to see our own inner clear light, the subtle inner guru and to train and stabilize there. We can practice with tenacity and devotion for an entire life, and totally miss this basic point.
I’m grateful to Rinpoche for pointing out this grave error, and I so hope that all of our personal practice is clarified.
We know that death comes without warning, anytime. So Rinpoche I presume, was suggesting that we really begin right now to train in a proper way and find this inner refuge. We can the see the subtle, clear light, the inner guru if we have received instruction. Our training becomes part of us, and when we die, we can take refuge and find solace there as part of unconditioned, awakened space. Sometimes, I’ll practice actually dying, I’ll lay down and imagine that it’s…THE moment, breath out and let go. This pre-training makes me less fearful about dying.
Bypassing Spiritual Bypassing
I say this again and again, but I believe that many westerners seek out the dharma as a refuge, coming from a lot of trauma, fear or loss. Even if not, we in the west generally have so much stress, unprocessed grief and anxiety in our culture, we aren’t inherently warm, well and grounded as a whole. Unprocessed trauma and pain, create a lot of “blocked channels,” (mental and emotional obscurations that prevent wellness) so when we implement all of these many practices with a fundamentally blocked being, the methods to liberate themselves become the obstacles, or the constructs of our ego identity and can be harmful in many ways.
I’ve seen my friends think they’re “venerable, or acharyas” and proclaim a very spiritual outer identity, when in fact, behind the scenes they’re not at all. Many are just downright arrogant, hurtful to others, self-righteous and mean.
Why are we not becoming more humble, helpful and patient, but rather often dying in such a fearful way as Rinpoche described? I’ve seen my western dharma practitioner friends, and at times myself, become more sensitive, and more frightened and anxious over the years rather than warmer and more grounded. I’m seeing this as a pattern quite consistently. Where are all of these magical qualities as promised? They have some excuse saying the “that path of purification” is undetectably slow, but I don’t buy it, it works or it doesn’t. I don’t however, believe that the Tibetans or Indians are more holy and we’re fundamentally flawed as some teachers suggest, I think they have a myriad of their own cultural issues and obstacles to overcome.
I do think that we have to start with a fundamentally clear and grounded being in order to even begin shamatha practice, let alone any of the higher rituals or yogas. They always say “you have to have a good, solid horse to ride” or start with a “proper vessel.” If we haven’t resolved a lot of the fundamental trauma in our being, we’re just going use ALL of the dharma in a way that is poison. And, not poison that transforms into wisdom but poison as an unhealthy, toxic, life wasting, poor investment that not only harms you but can harm others too. That’s the root of all of the many recent sad stories of clergy abuse and spiritual betrayal over the past few years. Teachers and students alike, can use the dharma to cover, hide and ultimately, to harm.
Touching Trauma and Starting All Over
For me over the past few years, it’s almost like I had to start at square one and go back to very very deep, dormant and painful childhood wounding and release trauma memories. I have had to process a huge amount of tears and journaling and start to become basically healthy, before I can even do sitting practice. It’s been like a full time job, and I’m grateful for the time in our isolation to do this deep and essential work. The karmic debris that we have accumulated in our energetic system must be routed out, touched and released in order to have any chance of progress.
I have been told that even a lot of our teachers, Rinpoches, Khenpos, monks and nuns alike are abhorrently abused in their development and training. A lot of them, I was told in confidence have full on PTSD and trauma but they themselves hide it because they are supposed to appear to the world as being compassionate and holy. Often it’s just an act, I regret to say, as many of us have seen teachers behind the scenes, act in ways that are contrary to any dharma.
There seems to be a lot of fundamental damage *for all of us* that we need to really honestly take a look at humbly, and delve deep into our human trauma. It’s essential to work on early childhood or past karmic issues, especially if we were abused. This is where we begin the healing process before we apply any of these dharmic methods. We could examine, in an honest way, who we are and look directly at our blocks- what are we are hiding and covering? We should not deny or turn away, but rather face exceedingly painful things that have happened in our past and cry them all out, until things are open and clear. This process is called “opening karmic knots” in the higher tantras. Then, we can get ready to embark on the Buddhist noble path of shamatha and so on.
Yes, there’s a lot of corruption, ego and pain as we are now, but I believe that our obstacles need to be honestly looked at, honored, addressed, released and~ loved. If we begin the spiritual path in this real and raw way, I think we really have a chance to go deep into our heart to recognize the inner guru, the birthright of our clear light. We can then live this life in a sane, open and loving way and at the end… we can breathe out in peace and have no fear.