Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ‘neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.
As I was listening to his words and watching his self-conscious face I became flooded with thoughts and memories that seemed to beg for expression. I have no idea who will read this or whether it even has any actual significance, but perhaps there will be someone who will find some relevance in it. Kalu Rinpoche mentioned a number of things that would obviously be very disturbing to just about anyone. He talks about being sexually abused by older monks, about his own abuse of drugs and alcohol and the resulting addiction to these, about estrangement from his family, about greed and power mongering among some of the leaders of his religious organization – even to the extent of having his very life threatened when he failed to comply with them. My very first reaction after the initial bewilderment was heartfelt gratitude for his willingness, and perhaps courage, to speak openly about his dilemma. His dilemma is rather complex because he is not just offering a narrative of a young man who has experienced certain hardships – hardships that are unfortunately common to many – it is complex because he also alludes to a deeply troubling and overarching context of who he is, or who he thinks he is, within this narrative. It may be difficult for those who are not intimately familiar with Tibetan Buddhism to fully appreciate the gravity of how significant this specific context may be.
The previous Kalu Rinpoche was one of the most famous lamas of recent times. Without question, among western devotees of Tibetan Buddhism particularly, he was the iconic living example of piety, knowledge and transcendence. Basically everyone considered him to be a consummate master of meditation and many believed that he was fully enlightened, just like the Buddha, liberated from all desire and attachment. But now, the person who has been positively identified as that great master’s reincarnation makes a YouTube video revealing a level of confusion and anguish that exceeds the norm of even what we would consider for ordinary people. How can this be?
Officially, the previous Kalu was a celibate monk. About ten years after his death, however, his former translator, June Campbell, revealed that she had been his secret consort for a number of years. The subject of sex, sexuality, tantric sexual practice in Buddhism and their discrepancies as regards gender, is an area of great importance and warrants a separate discussion. In the case of the previous Kalu Rinpoche, the crux of the matter was his official status being that of a celibate monk. So even though Campbell herself says that Kalu was using her for otherwise orthodox tantric sexual practice, these practices are not permitted to celibates. Therefore the whole situation was immensely scandalous and, predictably, the Tibetan Buddhist establishment did their best to discredit Campbell. For many practitioners and devotees, however, Campbell’s story had already broken two powerful and important spells. The first spell was the perennial affliction of all religion, the spell of blind faith. The second spell was more specific to Tibetan Buddhism, namely, Tulku-ism, upon which it can be reasonably argued that Tibetan culture itself had been based for the past five-hundred years. If one takes the time to seriously research the history, real meaning, and significance of Tantric Buddhism, it becomes very clear that the tradition was fundamentally changed in Tibet, perhaps corrupted. What was once a rare example and brilliant expression of complete gender-qua-spirit equality, Tantric Buddhism in Tibet became just another magical men’s club for enlightenment. Not so much the practice, but the actual praxis of tantra that defined such masters as Tilopa, Niguma and Naropa seems absent in the Tibetan Buddhist establishment of which the previous Kalu Rinpoche was eminently emblematic.
In the context of Buddhism, tantra is a methodology for working with the energy of the passions. Although some passions certainly do seem more potent than others, in tantra all passions are considered very useful for spiritual work. The usefulness however is with the energy of the passion – not the passion itself because the passion itself, by definition, is a delusion. Like learning to ride ocean waves with a surfboard, the energy of the wave as it rises and then breaks must be understood experientially. The ocean wave itself is a geo-cosmic disturbance, and if it’s big enough, it has the capacity to obliterate you. Since the strongest passions tend to arise around sexuality, it makes sense that those energies could be the most useful for a tantric practitioner. There are also passions associated with clarity and exhilaration on the one hand, amnesia and oblivion on the other. And these particular passions have become more prevalent in this current era due to our level of sophistication in manipulating brain chemistry with drugs. Alcohol however still holds a somewhat unique significance in that it can produce both stimulation and depression, sometimes simultaneously. I once had a very interesting conversation with Chogyam Trungpa about that very fact. Among many other things, Trungpa was an authority on that particular subject. But aside from such anecdotal teachings, it appears that Buddhist Tantra only offers a system of specific techniques for working with the passions associated with sexuality. I have personally heard old Gelugpa monks sharply criticize the Nyingmapas (in particular) for their use and abuse of alcohol. Inasmuch as alcohol is technically a required substance in the Nyingma rite of ganapuja, perhaps it ought to be considered sacred then in the same way tantric sex is considered sacred. Perhaps it is for some. Personal power is also a passion, and although its manifestation is very obvious, its energy waveform is extremely subtle. Personal power can be experienced in many ways: through physical strength, physical appearance, knowledge, skills, reputation, authority, spiritual accomplishment, etc. But the possession of money is the premier mode of manifesting personal power, especially when the other modes are wanting.
In 1970 I was hitchhiking from New York to Canada and caught a ride with a couple of artists who lived in Barnet, Vermont. When we arrived in Barnet they learned from one of their friends that a Tibetan lama was giving teachings there at an old farmhouse. They were interested in going to see what it was all about and invited me to join them. We drove to the farmhouse where we found about twenty-five hippies sitting under a tent that had a little platform at its west end. Centered on the platform was a large yellow chair, a side table with flowers in a vase, and a cigarette ashtray. We learned that the lama was scheduled to arrive any minute. We joined the others under the tent and two and a half hours later, Chogyam Trungpa arrived by car and painfully limped his way to the yellow chair. I happened to be directly in his path as he made his way to the platform. As he struggled passed me, he paused, grinned widely at me and said in a shockingly soft and high-pitched voice, “Good afternoon. Have you met any gator?” Together with those who were standing close enough to hear this very odd remark, I was simultaneously incredulous, amused, enthralled and nonplussed. I am in fact originally from Florida. However, absolutely nobody there knew that – certainly not this Tibetan lama. After we were all settled and Trungpa had been served his first of many beers, he sat there studying his audience in silence for at least ten minutes. As the tension reached critical mass and our energies began leaking out in the form of giggling, Trungpa announced, “Today I’d like to discuss sex and money.” That was my first of what was to be many encounters with reincarnated lamas.
Many years later, in what was seeming to become a frenzy of interest in Tibetan Buddhism and a corresponding response by Tibetan teachers to exploit that interest, one might have gotten the impression that each and every Tibetan was an incarnation. By this time I had become something of an insider in this new world of Tibetan Buddhism because of having developed a very close association with certain high-ranking Tibetan lama dignitaries. One of the interesting things I learned early on was that, for centuries, the identification of reincarnations had been notoriously contaminated with monastic/theocratic politics. In fact, some might argue that the systematic identification of reincarnated lamas in Tibetan Buddhism was entirely about politics. The first exposure of this problem to western scrutiny involved the mildly heated contest regarding the identification of the 17th Karmapa. I characterize it as mildly heated because long before the western world had any knowledge of Tibet at all, there had actually been a prior dispute and contest to determine a much earlier Karmapa which was finally resolved only when one of the contestants “fell” to his death from a certain rooftop. Due to mass-media coverage and commercial cinema, even the general public has now heard some details of how some reincarnations are identified as children by their ability to correctly select the personal effects of their previous incarnation, etc. Many of these genuine reincarnated children have also been witnessed to spontaneously greet their previous-life associates by name, having not previously met them in this current life. Somewhat recently there was a very remarkable case involving one of my own gurus. After Dudjom Rinpoche passed away there was a bit of a scramble to identify his reincarnation, as he was a very powerful leader among Tibetan Buddhists. One child, born in Bhutan to an influential family, was presented as the authentic reborn Dudjom. However, there were obvious political overtones and the child was not universally accepted. Later, another child, who had been born in Tibet, was nominated. After much haggling about this, the very elderly Chatral Rinpoche, unquestionably the closest spiritual associate of the late Dudjom, traveled to Tibet to see that child. Rather than present any traditional quizzes, Chatral simply asked the child, “Who are you?” The child did not answer verbally but instead merely pointed his index finger upward, whereupon, clouds immediately gathered and unambiguously spelled out the name, Dudjom, in perfect Tibetan script as though it had been written by a skilled skywriter pilot.
The real problem comes about when there is an “assignment” of recognition regarding a lama who, once authenticated, will gain control of considerable wealth or political power which of course are synonymous. To complicate things even more, sometimes there is believed to be more than one legitimate reincarnation of a previous lama. I have been assured by zealots that this should not be cause for doubt. Since we comprise the three dimensions of body, voice/prana and mind, it is therefore believed possible for an adept to reincarnate separately from any of those dimensions, making possible a body incarnation, a voice incarnation, a mind (heart) incarnation, or any two, or all three. I am not personally aware of any claims of there having been more than three simultaneous reincarnations of the same previous lama. Again in recent times, the well-known teacher and author, Sogyal Rinpoche, discovered that he had another Sogyal Rinpoche in Tibet, both of them claiming the same predecessor. The two Sogyals arranged to meet each other and apparently got on quite well, resolving that one must be the body or speech incarnation and the other the mind incarnation. Part of the dilemma in a case like Sogyal’s is that there had been an official declaration of one of them before the other was discovered. In another case from the 1950’s, the reincarnation of a very renowned female master (Rigdzin Chonyi Zangmo) was announced by some of her followers and that candidate was officially confirmed by the Dalai Lama himself. The problem however was that the reincarnation was a male child. Now this would not normally be an issue except for the fact that Chonyi Zangmo was universally believed to have herself been an incarnation of the supreme yogini, Yeshe Tsogyel, whose vow to always manifest in the female form is central to her spiritual modus. Furthermore, many years later that official male reincarnation of Chonyi Zangmo, who had been authenticated by the Dalai Lama, inexplicably abandoned religious life altogether (at least outwardly) and relocated to China where he accepted a government post and became a Maoist official. There had in fact been a female candidate early on. Perhaps candidate is the wrong term however, because the young female child, having identified herself very convincingly, also specifically requested that she be allowed to remain anonymous. This request for anonymity had been made to her mother, who had been one of Chonyi Zangmo’s closest disciples.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s when Tibetan Buddhist teachers got their first dose of western cultured (and sub-cultured) students, a certain bias inevitably developed. At best, this bias only tempered the way that esoteric teachings were presented. However, in some instances the bias took the form of outright bigotry. There were serious discussions among some Tibetan lamas as to whether westerners actually had the capacity to meditate, or realize ultimate truth. Nevertheless, even with some degree of negative bias among some teachers, Tibetan lamas were very eager to teach and establish Dharma centers. In these western centers lamas received money offerings, land, personal service, and a level of adoration that sometimes seemed downright creepy. The guru business was hot, and being an incarnation was the ticket. In the rush to not miss the rising wave of interest in the west, the already questionable scrutiny associated with recognizing incarnations was in some cases altogether abandoned. There have been an embarrassingly significant number of young Tibetans who were officially declared the reincarnation of such-and-such Rinpoche, only to have their premature title later annulled when it was discovered that their supposed antecedent had inconveniently not yet died. So all of this really does make me wonder what, if any, real relevance remains in the official Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation system. Is there any genuine spiritual value to it in this 21st century?
When I was still in my teens and trying to follow the gradient interpretation of the Longchen Nyingtig, one of my teachers told me a story that turned out to be a game-changer for me. It was related to me as a true story and involved my teacher’s former aristocratic household in Asia. They were a very wealthy household and had quite a few servants. Being also very devout, the family regularly hosted teachings by important masters, particularly dzogchen teachings. One day, while attending to her duties, a completely uneducated and socially insignificant female servant happened to overhear some pith dzogchen teachings given by a master who was visiting there. Having been captured by the real meaning of the teachings she heard, for the next three weeks she made every effort to work as much as she could in proximity to the teaching hall so she could hear as much as possible. After the master had departed, and having understood what needed to be understood, this woman simply integrated the instructions she had serendipitously received from the master into her daily activities without feigning even the slightest outward sign that she was now a practitioner. Years passed and she remained just as unobtrusive and outwardly unremarkable as always. Eventually, she passed away in her quarters. Nobody would have given her passing much thought except for the fact that when she passed, there arose a very conspicuous glow emitting from her room. And when it was opened, the actual space inside her room was completely iridescent with nets of lattice-like light, and rather than a corpse, only her clothing, nails and hair remained. Perhaps she herself was also a reincarnated lama. It doesn’t seem to matter. What seems to matter is the authenticity of the teaching and one’s receptivity to it. In the case of dzogchen teachings, it also matters that the teacher be truly accomplished and stabilized in contemplation so that the true nature of being can be directly mirrored to a fortunate, receptive individual. In my opinion, this level of development on the part of a teacher should never be assumed on the basis of a title such as Rinpoche or Tulku, no matter what famous name precedes it.
Organization can be very good and sometimes it can be indispensable. But when organization becomes institutionalized, the values that were sought to be accentuated through organization become irrelevant, even contradictory, to those whose very souls have, in the process, also become institutionalized. I was also recognized as a reincarnation by some important Tibetan Lamas. I certainly don’t want to discredit them, but for me, it is like the diner in my hometown that has a little shrine above a certain booth where Elvis reportedly sat in 1957. Fortunately, for all concerned, no political or institutional importance was associated with my supposed predecessor – fortunate indeed since I am, frankly, hopelessly engulfed by immense waves of passion and can barely even discern the path, let alone traverse it. My heart goes out to the new Kalu Rinpoche and to all the official Tibetan Buddhist reincarnations who may feel ambivalence about the implications of their lofty title. Let us consider coming to terms with the fact that faith is risky. As with all risks, sometimes you lose. Even loosing can turn out to be positive in some instances, however. The Dalai Lama once said that not getting what you wish for can often be the greatest blessing. Perhaps that can also apply to not finding what you believe in. This is indeed a world of sham and drudgery. For those such as myself who have basically run out of faith, there remains a path – a very subtle path – that neither requires faith nor can be compromised by it. There is a saying that it is lonely at the top. The truth is, it’s lonely everywhere. May we all find a genuine spiritual friend upon whom we can really rely. And may we also find, as self-found, the facticity of our truly real nature, and thus finally recognize who we really are, despite all of our tragic and comical efforts to do so.