Mesmerized by the myriad variety of appearance,
Mad with hope and fear,
Beings roam the endless wastes of samsara.
So that they may find relief
In the luminosity and boundless space of their own true nature,
I generate immeasurable loving-kindness and compassion,
Sympathetic joy and equanimity, the very heart of bodhichitta.
My talk this evening centers on the ground of these qualities: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In Theravada Buddhist practice, I understand that these are called the “Brahmavaharas.” In Tibetan Buddhism they are known as the “four immeasurables” or “four boundless states.” I will be speaking to you from the teachings I have received from my teacher Reggie Ray, founder of the Dharma Ocean lineage, and his co-lineage holder, Caroline Pfohl.
Recently I attended a retreat led by Caroline at the Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado. The retreat, titled “The Body Loves,” centered on the topic of bodhichitta and these four immeasurables. The retreat was attended by about 120 people, and I hope to share with you this evening something of the immensely heart-opening practice that I experienced along with them.
Reggie Ray was among the early students of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of both Shambhala International and Naropa University, with which our esteemed Mark Ryan has had a long association. Reggie studied closely with Trungpa until his death in 1987. He was also a founding faculty member at Naropa, and taught there for over three decades. Reggie was also an Acharyara or senior teacher in the Shambhala lineage until breaking away in 2005 to found Dharma Ocean.
Dharma Ocean is the translation of Chögyam Trungpa’s Tibetan teaching name, Chökyi Gyatso; it reflects the Dharma Ocean mission of “transmitting Trungpa Rinpoche’s living lineage in the modern context.”
This evening I have brought along photos of Trungpa and of Reggie, but also of one of the important protectors of the Dharma Ocean sangha, Kurukula. Kurukula is a version of Red Tara. There are many manifestations of Tara, Green Tara and White Tara being the best known. Kurukula is passionate, magnetizing energy; in this lineage she is understood as the protector of love, relationship, families, children, and households. She holds a bow and arrow to slay the demon of aggression or anyone who gets in the way of the protection of love and families. Kurulula is extremely energetic. She is semi-peaceful, semi-wrathful; like a mother, she is fiercely protective of her offspring, all the offspring of the world. She magnetizes and attracts all the virtues of love. Kurukula also helps us keep in touch with our loved ones. I experienced a deep emotional connection to Kurukula and her qualities and wanted to share her energy with you this evening.
Reggie’s teaching appeals to me because of its depth and power, the clarity of his transmission of the full profundity of Chögyam Trungpa’s dharma, and also because of its somatic focus. It is accessible for westerners who do not know Tibetan. Dharma names in the sangha are given in English, and most of the chants and prayers are either written in or fully translated into English. I find that they are rendered into poetic language that shifts my perception, supporting my integration of the teachings. The prayer I offered at the beginning of my reflection is an example of this.
By the time I began doing these somatic meditation practices, I was deeply engaged with the professional training in Somatic Experiencing, which I completed in 2014. Beginning to discover the vastness of the body’s wisdom, the deep truth that the body is the unconscious and the storehouse of all our knowing, has been a revelation beyond anything I can describe in words. Words are not the language of the body. Instead it speaks through the vocabulary of sensation, deep feeling, and the revelation of meanings, images, and spontaneous movement. I have come to see how true it is that most of us are caught in an imaginary world of abstractions and mental distractions. The somatic practices offer a path home, back to the bedrock reality of being a human being in these bodies on this planet in this time and place.
In a few weeks I will be attending a two-week retreat that marks the official entry into Vajrayana practice in this lineage. Vajrayana practice offers powerful methods for the realization of the view of Mahayana Buddhism, the great and vast vehicle, and the path of the Bodhisattva, the path of compassion for and dedication to the full realization of all beings. The teachings on Buddha nature are at the center of this view: that all beings share this core of ultimate well-being, the empty open spaciousness of the Dharmakaya. It is also the essence body of the Buddha and also the body of reality itself, the ultimate existence of the universe. The path of the Bodhisattva entails the gradual dismantling of barriers to fully opening the heart to this great space of ultimate compassion, the boundless dimension of the awakened heart.
What is “bodhichitta”? I had heard the more conventional definition of this term, having to do with enlightenment or awakened mind. “Bodhi” does mean awakened. “Chitta” is often translated as “mind,” but it is from a Sanskrit word that conveys the intelligence, the knowing or awareness of the heart, our basic intelligence. Reggie’s teaching, which resonates deeply with me, is that the heart is the seat of our capacity to know how and what things are. The brain is a processor of what the heart discovers, but the heart is 95% of our intelligence. What the heart knows IS our fundamental intelligence; it is primary and not mediated by the filter of the thinking mind. It is direct knowledge, with no barrier between what we know and how we know and the person who knows. It is nondual knowing.
The heart has two aspects. The first is ultimate bodhichitta, or pure awareness, the Dharmakaya, the fundamental, open, empty, infinite awareness of our basic nature. That is the essence of the heart, and it is in the heart where we can experience this infinite awareness in its purest form. Developing the capacity to love depends on the training to feel the heart and find the doorway to infinite space at the very center of the heart: that is where we discover ultimate bodhichitta. The ultimate nature of this space is love, this empty, open space at the center of the heart. Caroline sometimes uses the phrase the “clear circle of brightness” to help evoke the felt sense experience of the open heart.
The other aspect of the heart is relative bodhichitta, which emerges out of the emptiness of ultimate bodhichitta: all of the qualities we associate with love.
The Dharma Ocean lineage does not adhere to the view that emptiness is empty in the sense that there is nothing going on there. Instead there is warmth, a birthing quality to the space itself. That warmth is what evolves in our lives as our fundamental, loving attitude toward everything: our very nature is to love, in the sense of this absolute bodhichitta, and the warmth that develops into appreciation and love.
Ultimate bodhichitta, then, is the ultimate nature of our awakened heart. But there is something being birthed in the heart, a feeling of being open and connected, sympathetic and empathetic toward beings, our capacity for lovingkindness. These qualities are relative bodhichitta, the “natural children” of ultimate bodhichitta. They arise from that space and are inseparable from it. Perhaps because of this understanding, the teaching in this lineage begins with first practicing ultimate bodhichitta—love without an object—and only then to relative bodhichitta, offering mantras or prayers for the wellbeing of an other.
If you have a real sense of ultimate bodhichitta in your heart, Reggie has said, and allow the qualities of compassion and empathy to arise but fail to act in response to the suffering of the world, that is not real bodhichitta. Enlightened people are not without feeling. They feel with ultimate tenderness and boundless love. The truly awakened person is a person who has complete openness toward reality, an infinite union with reality and no choice other than to allow spontaneous activity for the benefit of all beings to be the guidepost of their lives. The only real freedom is freedom for the world, in the depth of our love. Among many powerful teachings from Caroline at The Body Loves was the insight that when we do bodhichitta practice in this way, the heart gets “seared.” Being willing to be there, in that state, is how we make change in the world.
To summarize, the heart knows that everything is alive. Its luminosity is the basic awareness and energy of love in the emptiness of our Buddha nature, awareness that develops into compassion and love.
The practice of Maitri—unconditional lovingkindness—for oneself is critically important in the Mahayana path because, as Trungpa saw it, as long as we are “running our trips” on ourselves, we can’t help but run them on other people. Reggie teaches practices that go to the heart of cultivating Maitri for oneself, exploring the details of difficult moments and situations in our lives, experiencing them somatically so that the emotional pain can surface and be felt. Through some process that transcends logical or verbal explanation, the emotional resonance with the experience, even in the absence of a coherent story, allows healing to happen. I have seen this personally enough that despite my tendency to need proof and a logical explanation, I have finally dropped that resistance. In other words, I don’t fully understand how or why it works, but I know it does.
A practice that affected me deeply at the retreat was working with Chittamatra Maitri. Basically a structured process of doing shadow work, the instructions are to choose a difficult person—someone who really is a thorn in your side—and make a detailed list of all the qualities about them that drive you crazy. Then you acknowledge that the reason these characteristics trigger you so much is that you have them yourself, in other words, that these are your shadow parts. Then you visualize the person in front of you, and you talk to them. You tell them, in detail, all the things you can’t stand about them, and then thank them for showing you parts of yourself you had not been willing to face. Finally, you wait, and see if they say anything back. This was the part of the practice that really surprised me, despite Caroline’s warning that there is a kind of magic in the neurobiology of our own recognition and connection. Again, I don’t know how or why it works, but what I experienced doing the practice was powerful, and my attitude toward the person I was working with changed significantly.
So, I will close my reflections with a prayer, and then we’ll do a brief practice.
May I develop
Complete acceptance and openness
To all situations and emotions
And to all people.
May I experience everything nakedly,
Completely without mental reservations or blockages.
May I never withdraw from life
Or centralize onto myself.
May my heart be laid bare and open
To the fire of all that is.