The Liberating Power of Obstacles

The appearance of obstacles is often met with consternation and a sense of either reactionary emotion or the weightiness of necessary action. However, for meditators or dharma practitioners the obstacle is a powerful opportunity for growth and to practice the self-reflection necessary to cultivate a genuine relationship with who and what we truly are.

These obstacles take many forms. From difficulties at work, to the dynamic process of relating authentically with our partners. This is the practice. Throughout generations realized practitioners have advised meditators to integrate their circumstances into the path, whether they are joyful, sorrowful, or neutral. Obstacles present us with an opportunity to truly put our practice to the test.

When difficult situations arise we have the chance to examine our emotional responses and reflect upon their impact on, not only ourselves, but others, and the environment we occupy. This sense of deep, honest reflection is essential for any meditator or dharma practitioner. Being able to dig deep and uncover our hidden faults, habitual patterns, attachments, aversions, and self-centeredness is the very foundation of cultivating a serious practice.

The surprise is that joyful times in our lives present a unique obstacle and opportunity as well. When we are happy and life is flowing smoothly for us it is easy to stop applying that rigorous self-examination, and our practice can wane. This is sign that the nature of samsara hasn’t truly been integrated into our daily life. This doesn’t mean we should avoid happiness and joy, but we should work at remaining grounded and centered in our awareness. Remaining mindful of impermanence and the circumstances of others keeps us connected to our practice.

By finding this balance we are capable of the profound practice of self-liberation. When obstacles arise we are able to rest in the natural state of mind and allow the obstacles to come into being and pass into the myriad appearances of this limitless display of phenomena. This meditative stability is the natural liberation that pervades the heart of all living things. By working skillfully with obstacles we cultivate this living awareness and venture ever closer to truly discovering who and what we are.

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Khyentse’s Simple Instruction

“The mind is primordially pure, an empty expanse,
Complete with a spontaneously present, radiant clarity.
Looking into the very face of your own awareness,
You will be freed from the sullying defects of duality.
Meditate by settling naturally in unaltered experience.
And in spontaneous action be without hope and fear.
Whatever appears or arises will be naturally liberated, there and then.
These are instructions for the Great Perfection.”

—Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro

translated by Adam Pearcey


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The Extraordinary Breath

The flow of prana or lung within the body is directly connected to mind and its functions. This connection is pervasive. Rather than thinking of mind as being “in our heads” or our “brains” the Ayurvedic and Tibetan medical and spiritual understanding of mind is that it permeates the entirety of our physical bodies and even interacts on an elemental level outside of the limitations of our individual forms. The entire nervous system and our senses are directly linked to mind and the elemental structures of the world. When we examine mind and health through this lens we can see that there is a holistic functioning of our body-mind connection that extends through us, and even into the space of the perceived “other”. Through the coarse act of drawing our life-sustaining breath and returning it to the greater atmosphere we are intrinsically linked to all living things and the physical structures of the world, and by extension, the universe.

By taking a sensitive and honest examination of our surroundings and our own internal state we can come to the conclusion that there is a uniquely pervasive tension, or anxiety that seems to be dominating many of our interactions with each other and the environment. We see our relationships dominated by internal power struggles that lead to people not having their needs met, and the erosion of the empathetic collaboration that brings about authentic, loving communication. This breakdown isn’t limited to the dimension of personal relationships. We see it in our professional lives, the media, and the general provocation of the natural world that has become endemic of our species.

We often categorize anxiety and depression as mental illness and leave it at that, but it seems that a more open and expansive analysis could prove useful in understanding our condition and the deeply interdependent nature of all things. In a sense, we may need to get “out of our heads” in order to understand what our experience truly is, and how to heal our selves, our communities, and our precious Mother Earth.

By opening up to our interdependence, and on an even deeper level, our complete non-dual integration with the entire expanse of phenomena we naturally dissolve the insular misperception of ourselves as isolated entities and can truly nurture the life force that flows through us all as prana. There is tremendous potential for finding common ground in the very essence of our life, our breath. Our breath, is the power that flows through our nerves and manifests as our thoughts, which then comes through as our speech, and our physical actions. When we are aware of our total and undeniable connection we can see that by committing to ahimsa, or non-harm, we are not just making the courageous stance to guard the well-being of others, but we are in fact healing and protecting what we think of as our selves. This is a healing practice that we can experience directly, in the moment, when we do the fundamental act of life, breathing.

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24 Unplug #1

Recently I was off the grid so to speak for a short reprieve. No phone, no internet, no external stimuli or distraction. All I had with me was a collection of essays by Edward Abbey, my thoughts, and the teachings I have received from my generous gurus. After coming out of this mini-“retreat” here are the two stand-out reflections that I would like to share.

Mindful consumption: This is already a strong part of my daily experience, but I think its time to take it a step further. We live in a society bound by consumerism and commerce. It’s numbing and disconnected in a way that renders many of our basic interactions inert and devoid of meaning. By taking these basic acts back from the monolith of industrial ease and its voracious appetite for natural resources we can “feed two birds with one hand” by decreasing the harm we do to our fragile mother and replacing blind consumer hunger with intentional decision making. We can practice ahimsa in even our most basic choices and connections to our vast shared mandala.

Ferocious Compassion and Gentleness: There is a ferocity to real, meaningful compassion. It doesn’t sit idly by and observe suffering. It is the fire in the heart of true warriors. That is what we must be, warriors. True warriors are ferocious in their dedication to protecting others from harm. This ferocity takes many forms, among the most under-appreciated is gentleness. We can be ferociously gentle with our dedication to nurturing those we love and expanding that to our greater communities. Holding space, holding each-other. Listening with diligence at our post, our post as lovers, friends, bodhisattvas,…warriors.

With love.

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The Activism of Mantra

In light of the recent election here in the United States there has been a fire lit for those inspired to action and activism. This fire always burns, of course, but with the full assault on diversity, religious freedoms, and the abhorrent policies of the incoming administration toward people of color, our LBGTQ brothers and sisters, the rights of all women, and the sacred and delicate balance of the very planet that sustains us all, that fire has become a bonfire of potential action and resistance.

The potency of this action is clear and direct. We have access to the power and energy of our individual bodies, our speech, and our minds. Through applying these three gates of action with precision and diligence we can bring about real unity and progress in our communities.

We can talk to each other skillfully, we can march, we can dedicate the processes of our minds to cultivating acceptance, forgiveness, love, and a fierce dedication to justice and peace.

That’s were mantra comes in. The ferocity of our dedication can be directly applied to the circumstances of our communities through the practice of mantra. After all, this is what ngakpa have done for centuries. Ngakpa are lay tantric practitioners who, rather than renouncing the world like their monastic counterparts, live within it. We are dedicated to our communities, to healing them, protecting them, and cultivating positivity within the mandala that we walk through every single day.

The daily practice of a mantra practitioner isn’t some kind of silent, passive cultivation. It’s an active, alive, integration into the internal and external world in a simultaneous display of action. In fact, it’s our responsibility to utilize the intimate gift of transmission that we carry to benefit our communities. There is no turning a blind eye, there is no turning back. Once you have taken on the vows and commitments of being a ngakpa you are, and always will be a servant of your community.

There is nothing more rebellious than directly encountering the suffering and trauma of the world. This is what meditation practice is. It informs our actions off the cushion and brings the rock-meets-bone realities of the world into our perspective.

There is potential in the darkness. A great opportunity to throw open the doors and invite everyone in. When people of different backgrounds and perspectives find unity in their shared magic we can truly give birth to nurturing communities. By living in them, freeing ourselves from distraction, and taking control of our own circumstances.

This love for each other is why we practice…

It’s why we take to the streets…

It’s why we have discussions at the kitchen table…

It’s because we are intimately connected and the power of our body, speech, and mind, is limitless and completely connected.

By harnessing this power for the benefit of all, we are practicing the action of mantra.

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It’s Not So Easy When It’s Real


It’s not so easy.

It never has been.

There are a lot of costumes out there, shawls, robes, hats, jewelry, hair done up in a certain way. Without the trappings of culture and attitude the view remains the same and it remains the key to unlocking our potential as human beings and authentic practitioners.

Simply put, little else matters from the inside. Of course our relative behavior and how we deal with circumstances will have tremendous impact on others and our society as a whole but our commitments and perspective are our own and they must be honored.

Honored in the face of the tremendous adversity of a society that is based on material wealth and a commercialization of everything.

These challenges only make the path more challenging and even more profound for those of us who choose to traverse it with dignity and honesty.

Here is an interview with the great master Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche on the way we live as practitioners in the world and the diversity of our relationships.

Happy travels!

The Ngakpa Tradition: An Interview with Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche

Jeff Cox: Not many people in the West understand what ngakpas are, though many have seen photos of these longhaired, white-robed yogis. Perhaps the one that is best known is the late Yeshe Dorje, who was His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s “weatherman”—that is, he was called on to control the weather for certain occasions. I’d like to understand more about the pure ngakpa tradition.

Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche: Ngakpas can marry and have families. Their practice is essentially inward and a true spiritual practice.

Q: Is a ngakpa lineage more involved with working with the natural forces, the deities of the weather, the local deities? Do they have a more shamanic tradition?

A: They are engaged in similar rituals and ceremonies as those in the shamanic tradition but there is a distinct difference. This is, for the ngakpa the purpose and final goal is enlightenment in order to liberate others and self. Usually in the shamanic tradition no one talks of enlightenment—it’s only for healings and temporary performance which are maybe only for this life’s well-being. The goal is not as high.

Q: I see. You are saying that ngakpas will do similar kinds of things as shamans but the purpose is for creating better conditions for enlightenment, either mental or physical?

A: Yes. Simply, ngakpas do what they do not only for the present moment’s well-being but also for future enlightenment.

Q: I see. Is there anything else Rinpoche would like to say about the ngakpa tradition?

A: Buddhist monks take pratimoksa vows, of which there are two hundred fifty-three. But ngagpas, with their tantric vows and the samayas [commitments], there are a hundred thousand they have to keep in their mental level. It’s about practice in every single moment to keep all this and not engage in non-virtuous things.

Q: When you say “one hundred thousand vows” it’s like saying that at every moment of your day you have to maintain your awareness. It is not that there really are one hundred thousand.

A: Yes, it’s metaphorical.

Q: To keep the mind pure all the time.

A: Not pure but just aware.

Q: Aware?

A: You need a very high awareness to keep one hundred thousand samayas. So if people are keeping that kind of awareness, even though they appear outwardly as just simple beings they actually are great beings—they are realized or high practitioners.Otherwise, most people, if they cannot take the ordained vow or keep all the samayas, then they can only make some connection to the Dharma but enlightenment would be very difficult. No matter what you do, if you don’t want to take ordained vows then become a lay practitioner. All you have to do is keep all those samayas well and then you become a true ngagkpa.

Q: Are you saying that tantric practice in the ngakpa way is more strict than that of the average practitioner who does tantric practice?

A: Exactly. On the mental level it is much stricter.

Q: So a practitioner in a Nyingma monastery who has taken pratimoksa vows or whatever and is also a tantric practitioner wouldn’t have the same expectation as a ngakpa tantric practitioner would?

A: Yes, the difference is that if you are a lay person, in order not to break all these vows every moment you need a high awareness. If you stay in a monastery the vows are much easier to keep.

Q: Okay, I guess the question is: if people were serious about practicing, why would they choose to be ngakpas when it may be easier another way? What is it inside one that makes one choose a ngakpa life?

A: Many people begin to follow the ngakpa tradition because to outward appearances the life looks like that of a lay person in which you can engage in everything: you can take a woman or you can drink alcohol. But what they don’t initially know is that there are very subtle restrictions and disciplines or awareness that must come with that. It is even harder than staying in a monastery.

Q: Because the practitioners stay in life, they are transforming the conditions of natural life, not an artificial life, which in a way a monastery is. So if your mind is disciplined enough to maintain inward awareness as you are saying, then the ngakpa way may actually have more power?

A: Yes. If you follow all the tantric samayas, you can recognize all those poisons and you progress much faster and much more powerfully than others, but also it is a very dangerous path if you cannot keep all the samayas. Then broken samaya is even worse and it brings worse results. Being a ngakpa is like being a snake in a bamboo hole—you have to go up or down, there is no side way you can exit. It is much more dangerous and risky. There are only two ways: If you really follow the samaya practice you will gain the fastest result, gain enlightenment and help others, or if you break samaya you go to hell.

Q: So it doesn’t sound like a job everyone would want. Sometimes people choose this path because they are born into a family of ngakpas?

A: Yes that is one reason, and also, what one prefers. Because of one’s physical nature or mental inclination or because one has reached a certain stage to take a consort or whatever.

Loppon (translator): Or if you come from a family of ngakpas—in my hometown, the twenty-five disciples and their descendants in the area kept the dharma in the family. The ngakpas from the family came together in the village and built a temple we call the ngag kang, meaning the ngakpa’s assembly hall. We didn’t have such formality but because of influence from the monastic tradition we built this temple, gathering on the auspicious days every month to make rituals, and give teachings and empowerments. But this is just a particular family lineage: always the eldest son will become the ngakpa and the rest of the children are sent to the monastery. But of course there are many others not from the family lineage who just want to become ngakpas in order to learn tantra without leaving the social life. There are a lot like that.

Q: The ngakpa path appeals to Westerners but it may not be something that is recommended.

A: No one tells you to become a ngakpa or not; it all depends on your practice. You come to the teaching, you start practice, and slowly progress. When you cultivate your merit, your wisdom is rising and you gain this awareness and then you spontaneously can keep all the practices. Such ones are the true ngakpas, the true practitioner ngakpas. The others are appearance ngakpas, who wear the clothes and leave the hair long. Tibetan lamas are shy to do that in the West but surprisingly many Western students wear these things like yogis.

Q: Yes, these days many Westerners look like ngakpas.

A: Tibetans don’t try to look like ngakpas. That is the difference: If you really follow those samayas you are a great practitioner and nobody can see it from the outside. On the other hand those who cannot follow anything but wear the clothes, it is nothing but costumes and emblems that they hold. Everything goes the opposite way if you really cannot hold the samayas.

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Khandro Rinpoche on Relationships and the Path

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