Losar: Karma, Clean, Exorcise, Eat

2016/02/08

So Losar is upon us again, Tuesday the 9th by most reckonings. (It’s confusing for some folks because Chinese New Years is today). For those just tuning into this blog, or who have forgotten. Losar is the Tibetan New Years. It’s probably one of the only Buddhist holidays I actually go out of my way to celebrate, with the possible exception of Labdab Duchen. Recently a friend shared an article with me about the traditions of Losar asking if it was a legit article, and in telling her that it was, I got thinking about how common certain ideas and practices are across the world regarding New Years. So I got thinking about the Losar traditions in and outside Tibetan Buddhist contexts.

The Julian calendar New Year of January 1st has really lost a lot of the traditions around the changing year, it’s just a day off work and a night to party. If that’s all you want from it, that’s fine, but I like making everything in life part of my practice. (And by like, I mean I’m oathbound to do so…) Personally though January 1st as New Years has struck me as too arbitrary. Really my favourite days to celebrate New Years would be my birthday (as I’ve mentioned here before) and an event like Tibetan New Years. I like Tibetan New Years because it’s a combination of the Solar and Lunar calendar. It’s based on the moon phase, in relation to where the sun is. (Even though I will admit deciding on which moon phase and what solar position is also arbitrary in many ways, why not the full moon, why not the winter solstice?)

The first thing I want to address around Losar is the period leading up to it known as tön. This is generally a difficult time of year, lots of chaos and obstacles can come up. It’s said to last ten days, seven days, or five days, depending on the tradition. The belief is that as the year comes to a close all of your “simple” karmic loose ends are trying to tie themselves up. This causes upheaval, all the things you didn’t dealt with and aren’t “serious” enough to carry over into the next year will come up. This generally manifests as increased accidents, minor illnesses, odd behaviour between people, and the like. This isn’t a uniquely Tibetan belief, I’ve seen it in south east Asian and south Asian beliefs, and even the Epagomenal days of the Egyptians . Of course since all these cultures have different New Years, it’s not the date itself that has any relevance, but it’s the fact we’re “plugged into” them. So because some Buddhist practices are tied into the solar and lunar cycle we’re attuned to a certain ebb and flow, which makes some days and times very powerful for certain practices, but also means we experience a chaotic tön period, when non-Buddhists have no issues with this period.

Tön is a great time to address what appears to be karmic issues. A way to identify a karmic issue is a reoccurring pattern in your life. So perhaps over the last year you’ve been sick off and on, when usually you’re pretty healthy, that might be a karmic issue. Maybe you’ve had to repair one thing after another at your house, or had to replace all your appliances as they died over a few month period, could be karmic. Maybe it’s been a year of fighting with and losing friends, karmic issue perhaps. So in tön you want to address these issues in the hopes that you’ll clear out the karma connected to them, and not have to deal with them next year. The simplest way is to do work that counters the general trend, but being a Buddhist system, generally you try to counter it for others. So if you’ve had a year of illness, don’t try to heal yourself during tön (or don’t focus only on yourself), but work to heal others. If you know people who are sick, work for them, if you don’t, take the Buddhist approach and scattershot it, work to heal all who are sick and suffering. Granted as an individual person when you try to help so many people at once you’ll probably accomplish nothing notable, but it helps get the ball rolling. Focus on helping others with the same or similar issue you’ve been going through, and remember when you are trying to help all beings, you’re one of them, so you can still help yourself.

There is also a more “active” way of dealing with it. I can’t explain the major details, but in my lineage we create a torma, a cake, of a scorpion which is a symbol of our karma. We say a ridiculous amount of mantras over it, to transfer our karma or at least our attachments to it into the scorpion. Then we light a bonfire, evoke a god into the fire, and burn the scorpion and the karma with it. I know other Buddhist lineages use a cake ram’s head.(Also similar to an Egyptian practice of making a snake representing Apep, and destroying it before the new year.)

Another part of the lead up to Losar is the house cleaning. Basically this is when you should do your big clean. Don’t just tidy up the house, make sure that you’ve vacuumed and washed what you can. If possible focus on the two extremes of your mess first, the daily clutter (all that junk on the sidetable beside your chair) and the more longterm clutter (remember when you thought you’d move that wall unit, and so you stacked everything on the floor and you still haven’t put it back up after three months? Do that now). You want to start the New Year clean and fresh. This is also a spiritual thing, not just physical. It’s common for people to do prayers in every room, purifying the space. So do your banishings, your cleansings. Here is a method I wrote about a few years ago I still use a variation of it.

It’s also traditional to paint the ashtamangala (the eight auspicious symbols) inside the house. Each one represents something else, but if you’re not Buddhist you probably won’t connect with them, but you can still paint your own symbols inside the house. Usually you’d paint it, and then paint over it, but that’s from a time when we didn’t have long lasting latex or acrylic paint and you’d have to repaint every year anyways. Now it’s more common to “paint” with holy water. Think of it as a way of reconsecrating your house and marking what blessings you want for the upcoming year.

It’s also when you do your protector practices, specifically the day before (which in this case should have been yesterday really), so after you banish you set up your wards, you call your protective spirits, give them offerings and reaffirm your connection and requests. In some cases you’re really recharging/refreshing them, or you might just be reconnecting. Even if you’re sure the wards are up and your guardians are there it doesn’t hurt to touch up wards, and it’s good to be nice to your protectors.

Leading up to the New Years you’ve dealt with minor karma, you’ve cleaned the house, exorcised it, blessed it, and warded it.

My Losar altar three years ago.

My Losar altar three years ago.

Then on the day you wear new clothing. In poorer regions of historical Tibet it wasn’t unheard of for people only to get a new set of clothing on Losar, but it was so important to them that if that’s all they got they wanted it for Losar. I think the symbolism is more than obvious about having fresh new clothing to start a new year. Another important part of the Losar celebration is the offerings, of course, Tibetan Buddhism is all about the food. Set up your altar, and pack it with food. Your Buddhas and Dharma texts should be hiding behind cookies and fruit and tea. The idea is to make a big offering to them, to everything, start the year off generous, and in return the year will be generous to you. Do your prayers and rituals over the altar. Leave it for a time. Then the next day, maybe after some more rituals and prayers, it’s time to give away the food. It’s not just food, it’s sacred offerings, the Buddhas and whatnot have taken what they need, now you’re sharing it, and those blessings with everyone else.

Even striped of the Buddhist context you can see the logic and value to preparing for the new year in this way.

If I might sound horribly Buddhist, may all beings be happy in the coming year.

Losar tashi delek.


Buddhism 101: Karma

2016/01/29

One thing I wanted to talk about when I started this series was karma. I can think of no word that isn’t offensive that makes me cringe so much whenever I hear it or read it. It is a word so misused and abused that I try never to discuss it directly with non-Buddhists and part of me wants to only ever use the Tibetan word in general, except then I’d have to explain the word each time, and the person would go “Oh you mean karma?” and I’d be back at square one.

Previously I shared a ten (!) year old essay of mine on karma as it is presented textually in Hinduism, which I’d recommend reading too

As I mentioned in that post karma comes from Hinduism, but it’s somewhat different in Buddhism, and in that post and this one I’m not going to talk about karma as some absolute inviolate rule of reality, or that the texts are 100% right. I’m not looking to argue what karma “really is” but just explain how it’s understood in the tradition.

I’ll give you a hint, anytime you see karma in an internet meme, it’s using it wrong, I can almost guarantee it.

Except for this case.

Except for this case.

So what is karma? Well the word is generally translated as action, but reaction would be a more appropriate word. It’s about cause and effect, in fact you could argue karma is both the cause and the effect, but we focus on it being the effect.

Karma…is complicated, but basically it’s the reaction for what you do. As you move through the world you react to the world, it reacts to you, and karma forms. Everything is karma, no good or bad karma, all karma is unwanted in the long quest for enlightenment. Karma is internal psychological patterns, karma is external life patterns, karma is what pulls you into a vagina/womb eventually causing rebirth. It’s not just the bad stuff that happens and you blame karma, karma is the effect that follows cause, external, internal, magickal, energetic, or personal psychological patterns.

I repeat no good or bad karma. Now more recently the language has shifted, so you’ll find wise teachers who know what they’re talking about saying “good karma” but what they’re really discussing is another concept called merit, which we’ll leave aside to avoid complications. All karma is unwanted, it is what keeps you incarnating and keeps you discontent, even the “good” karma. The fact we’re making distinctions between “good” and “bad” karma shows we’re still trapped in karma and can’t escape this divisive dualistic sense of reality we have. Enlightenment is when you’re free of generating karma.

There are a lot of ways you can divide karma, into what caused it, into what influenced it, into what it influences, and more. I’m not going to focus on that. It’s academically interesting, and if you’re studying to be a monk, it’s good to know, otherwise it’s pretty impractical for most people.

I will talk a bit about a few general divisions of karma though to explain what it is. As I said karma is everything, it’s internal psychological patterns, it’s external life patterns, it’s physical, it’s interpersonal, and it’s abstract magickal woogity…and it can be all of these at once.

Say I’m in a discussion with someone, and they say something that pisses me off, that’s my psychological karma. I have some mental construct that reacts to what they are saying. They piss me off so much I punch them. Now I’ve generated at least three kinds of karma. First off whatever mental psychological pattern I had inside of me that let me get so angry, I just fed it, I validated it, so it grows stronger, I reinforced that karma. Any physical injury I did to myself is karma, it is literally the reaction of my fist hitting their face. I might feel guilty for hitting them later, another psychological element of karma. Chances are now they’re even more mad at me, I’ve ruined a relationship, and might be under threat, that is their reaction to me, that’s the interpersonal karma I generated in this interaction. None of this is a judgment on whether I was right or wrong to hit them, this is just simply cause and effect. (Also notice, all of these karmas, and I don’t have to discuss some abstract woogity)

No good, no bad, no right, no wrong, no Cosmic Judge, just cause and effect. Karma.

It’s not always so extreme though. Karma is the situations we are in, and our reactions to them. Are you in a long term relationship? Karma brought you together. I don’t mean there was some cosmic reason that you two had to meet out of the billions of people on this planet, out of billions of planets in our galaxy, out of billions of galaxies, out of billions of alternate realities and realms. I just mean cause and effect. You decided to be nice to someone at work one day, which led to a friendship, and three years later they introduced you two, cause and effect. But if you decided not to be nice, or you broke off the friendship early and you didn’t meet your lover, that’s also karma.

The problem with karma is the anthropomorphizing of it, and the whitewashing judgemental side of it. This becomes really problematic for a lot of reasons. I know people who purposefully do what they consider “good deeds” when trying to get something good to happen because “karma.” If you’re doing good to get good, you’re acting from the wrong place. Also when you get judgmental with it, it’s easy to use “karma” to make you feel better. So-and-so is an asshole, but don’t worry, karma will get them. Rather than you addressing your own issues, or confronting theirs. It’s also abused in this regard to blame people from crap in their life because obviously, karma, they did something to deserve it. It’s also used as a selfish excuse not to help people “Well, it’s their karma to be poor/sick/whatever, if I help them they won’t learn.” All of that is bullshit, and frankly your misusing a word to satisfy your own selfish inactions and misguided ways. The world reacts, we react, we’re all reacting to each other. It’s not judgment that a pen knocked off a table falls to the ground, it’s just how things work on Earth here and now.

But I hear you saying “If there isn’t a judgment behind karma, why are there rules to follow to avoid it?” Because, generally speaking, these rules are good advice. I’m talking about the five precepts of Buddhism, mentioned here. (TLDR: Don’t kill, don’t steal, avoid sexual misconduct (whatever that is), don’t lie, don’t use intoxicants) Now if I steal, I can create karma. I can feel guilty, or afraid of getting caught, that’s karma, or I think I’m better than the people I’m stealing from and that’s misguided, karma. Maybe someone knows I did it, and wants revenge that’s karma. But a great way to avoid that? Not stealing. Not because there is something cosmically wrong with stealing and if I take your wallet I’ve thrown the universe out of balance, but that it is interpersonally wrong in most cases.

There is a lot to be said about motivation in karma. Arguably the most powerful form of karma is the mental karma, because that’s what sticks with you. Physical karma dies with the body, as it’s the karma of the body. Interpersonal karma dies with the person (generally, meeting up again in other lives happens, but very rarely, so it usually doesn’t matter). But your mind continues, even if you don’t remember anything, it’s the same consciousness, and your karma is still there. How many of us have gone to bed in a good or bad mood, and woken up in the same mood even though we’ve forgotten the cause? It’s similar between lives. If you live an angry life, die angry, chances are you’ll be reborn and deep inside your mind somewhere are all those angry habits you haven’t dealt with yet, that’s a mental karma. The understanding and motivation of why you do something are often more important than the action in the long wrong.

thisiskarmaKarma and morality aren’t clear cut though. In the stories of the Buddha’s previous lives there is a time he murdered a pirate, to save the pirate from his own karma, and he didn’t get karma for it, or a time when he committed suicide, to feed a hungry tigress, and didn’t get karma for it. Buddhist hagiographies are filled with things that at the surface might seem morally wrong, but aren’t karmically wrong because of their purpose and understanding, so you get the occasional murder for a good cause, or poisoning a kingdom for the highest good.

Now before you get it into your head to try some of this, when these people did these things, they were supposedly very enlightened people, psychic and wise beyond our wildest dreams. When the Buddha killed the pirate, he did so because as soon as he saw the pirate the Buddha saw in detail what a horrible life that man was going to have in his next incarnation, so he killed him out of compassion to prevent him from the actions that would lead him to that life. Not to save the lives of the people he would kill, but to save the pirate from his own horrible karma. So unless you’re claiming that level of enlightenment, don’t try this at home.

All of this is without a woogity side of karma. Now here is the kicker…not all forms of Buddhism nor all Buddhists believe in a woogity karma. It’s all mental, physical, and social cause and effect. There isn’t some cosmic scorecard checking off mistakes and successes and failures, it’s all recorded and stored in you. When something happens because of karma, it’s through you, your choices and your actions, not because the universe willed it to balance things out. I’m not saying there is or isn’t a woogity side of karma, if there is, it’s not what karma generally refers to, and not what you think it is.

So the next time something bad happens to you, and you think “that’s karma” you’re right, but remember it’s not that you did “bad” that bad happens, nor because you do “good” that good happens. Every thing that happens, good, bad, neutral and boring, are karma. Cause and effect, without cosmic judgment.


Wednesday Webshare: Sigils, Star.Ships, and Skulls

2016/01/20

The last few Buddhism posts are still coming, but I’ve had a few health issues in the last two weeks, so for now enjoy some of the stuff I’ve come across online.

I just stumbled over a three year old paper in The Journal of Neuroscience titled “Purging of Memories from Conscious Awareness Tracked in the Human Brain” Now it was a very limited study with 18 people, so don’t draw too strong of conclusions from it, but basically it demonstrated the potential for people to consciously forget information. This also only applied to simple information, a sequence of words, you might not be successful forgetting your fashion choices from the eleventh grade with this. But, not only is this perfect for sigil magick when using the banishing/forgetting method…it’s pretty much what we’ve been saying all along. The method of forgetting was interrupting the thoughts. So if you’re trying to forget a word or image (like a sigil) every time it came up you immediately distracted yourself with another topic. Reminds me of my early training, where it was also said if the sigil comes back just laugh, laugh loud and hard until it goes away, and eventually it stops coming back. Interesting to see some research saying that method might actually work.

Now to counter this, Balthazar wrote a great piece on sigils from a more spirit based paradigm, having dropped Spare’s psychological theories, and how it works for him.

I have not been sharing my excitement about this enough, for which I apologize, but there is still time for you to get autographed copies of Star.Ships by Gordon White

I know when I get my copy, I’ll make sure to put a good curse on it, as was a tradition back in the middle ages. And you can find more examples in the book Anathema! by Marc Drogin

While not as exciting as Star.Ships, following in the trend of adult colouring books is the Occult Colouring book. With images like Lucifer’s Fall and Ishtar to colour in

A John Dee painting is shown now to have originally had him standing in a ring of skulls Personally I’d prefer it with the skulls. I agree with the article though, it shows the “confusion” on how to depict and relate to the man. Brilliant budding scientist…but also man who devoted years chatting with angels, and sadly our current culture has trouble holding both of those images at once, so something has to get covered up.

While I can’t vouch for the accuracy, and I’ve only watched the first part there is a compelling documentary on magick in Iceland.


Buddhism 101: Response to Added Value

2016/01/12

Last time I talked about dukkha, often (mis?)translated as suffering in Buddhism. Harry picked up that thread and elaborated more on it, including the causes of dukkha, and some of the different types. I really suggest if you want clarification on the concept in Buddhism you pop over and read that post.

It looks like Harry and I are going to continue our conversation on Buddhism, due to the length of my response to him I’ve decided for now to split up the next few posts between discussion with Harry, and then my own topics I wanted to cover.

I mentioned that Vajrayana is built upon Theravada Buddhism, we hold the same texts important, the same practices, and have built upon them, expanded, and added more. So anything Theravadan exists in Vajrayana, though it might have a shift in importance or emphasis. Harry asks what is the value of this expansion, beyond the access to really cool magick?

That’s a great point that can be easy to miss. If the Buddha originally taught something resembling Theravada Buddhism, and it was good enough for the Buddha, why did these other forms appear? I would break these reasons down to speed, relevance, and scope.

I’ll freely admit though I got trapped by Buddhism, I originally got involved for the cool magick, I thought I could sneak in, get what I needed, and escape…and now I’m a monk…and a good person… I miss being a heartless asshole…

The first reason is effectiveness. (Note: At this point I’m talking theory, not claiming this as a truth, but as how the tradition frames it because I’m not at a point where I can make such declarations.) The Buddha was able to become enlightened because he had worked for many lifetimes to eliminate his karma and set the stage so to speak. So from that point it only took a few years of work to become enlightened, after many lifetimes of getting prepared. There is a state in Buddhism called Stream Entry, which simply put is when you’ve reached a point where you have at most seven incarnations left, but it’s still a lot of work. It might not take all seven, but from how I usually see it explained it seems like they assume you’ll still be in the game for several more lives.

Now in Vajrayana it’s believed you can become enlightened in this life, as long as you’re born in the human realm (which really just means an intelligent being) and have access to tantra, you can become enlightened here and now. One of the best examples of this is Milarepa, probably my third favourite Buddhist Saint. He wasn’t anyone special, he wasn’t an incarnation of a Buddha, or a previous saint, he didn’t have any glorious past lives, he was a regular Joe. He was also a sorcerer and was raised in a troubling family. Eventually he used magick and killed dozens of people at a wedding, including many family members. Even if you don’t understand karma, I’m sure you understand that murdering a bunch of people, especially family, because you’re angry and jealous is not a good step toward enlightenment. Milarepa realized what he did was wrong, and eventually found a lama, who put him to work, and trained him, and because he diligently practiced and purified himself, he became enlightened.

Milarepa didn’t spend hundreds of lives to get everything set up to become enlightened. He wasn’t a Bodhisattva in human form. He hadn’t been a saint. He was a normal man (as much as a talented sorcerer is normal…well…they are in my life) who committed some horrible acts, but through Vajrayana he dealt with his karma and his impurities and became enlightened in one life. This is the promise of Vajrayana compared to some other forms of Buddhism, you can become a Buddha here and now if you commit to the path.

Now to balance this though Vajrayana is not easy, nor is it really safe, remember the vaapad analogy. It’s the Buddhism where you could potentially screw up your karma the most and make things worse, but it’s supposedly the Buddhism that allows you to become enlightened here and now, no matter what, because of these additional magickal tantric techniques. I’d say going from reincarnating somewhere between seven and nearly infinite times down to 1 is a good additional value, but that’s not the only reason.

The second is relevance. Traditionally Buddhism wasn’t exactly conducive to society. To varying extents owning property and possessions was frowned on. Some went so far as to say that enlightenment was impossible with these things, that really you had to give up everything and give your time to meditation alone to become enlightened. Some people have a drive that supports this, not everyone does.

There is a myth (there are a several, details change, story is the same) that a great king invited the Buddha to come teach him, because he had a spiritual calling. The Buddha came and taught the king the path to enlightenment was renunciation, give it all up and meditate. The king pointed out that he was a good king, protecting his people and guiding them, and if he gave up his crown who knew what would happen to his people? But if he remained king he could rule as a Buddhist and guide his people to the Dharma, so he asked is there a way to remain “in the world” and practice Buddhism? At that moment the Buddha transformed into a tantric deity in union (for those unfamiliar, that means he was two gods having sex), something so shocking all the monks fainted (convenient they were unconscious for this so it couldn’t get recorded…), and he taught the king about tantric Buddhism.

Tantric Buddhism is more inclusive of a day-to-day life as we’d picture it. You can own property, be married with kids, you can even drink, eat meat, and have sex, but it’s all done in a way that is mindful and aware. It makes it “easier” because you can keep your life externally much the same, but it’s so much harder because every moment becomes a dance between insight and distraction. You’re challenged to try to keep your awareness at all times. As someone who has done silent temple retreats I can tell you, it is a lot easier to keep focused on emptiness and suffering when all you do is sit and meditate, than it is to remember that your burger is empty as you chat with a friend over dinner.

This is part of the danger of Vajrayana, it’s so easy to think you’re practicing because you do certain rituals and say mantras, but it’s not about what you do when you’re at your shrine, it’s about striving to keep a constant understanding. That’s a large point for another time.

Lastly is scope. Vajrayana holds the Bodhisattva ideal, that your journey to enlightenment is so you can help all beings reach that state. This is where the magick comes into play. It’s not about you. Sure, you can use the magick to help yourself, and that’s not necessarily considered bad or wrong, but it’s really about helping everyone (which includes you) get to a place where they can practice dharma and become enlightened.

Some of my training in Vajrayana is around exorcisms, how does this help others to enlightenment? Well first off, if you’re constantly being disturbed or frightened or made sick by ghosts/demons it’s hard to practice, you might not have the inspiration or comfort. So by ridding you of those disruptions I give you more space to encounter and practice the dharma. Secondly those ghosts/demons have to become enlightened too, and part of the exorcism is connecting them to the dharma so that in their next life they can learn it.

I also have training in tantric wealth magick, how does that help, isn’t greed bad? Yes. But again if you’re too tired from working multiple jobs to pay the rent, or mentally and physically unwell because you’re always worried about where the next meal will come from, then it’s really hard to be inspired to practice. If you’re financially stable, even if you’re not well off, then it’s a lot easier to practice. Then if you can maintain your compassion with wealth, you can use it to support your local temple, or help people.

As my Rinpoche has said “If you want to be a wandering monk, with just a blanket and a bowl, walking the world to meditate and pray, then owning nothing is a great blessing. But if you aren’t that monk, and you’re living in this modern world, then being poor is more of an obstacle than a blessing.”

Our magick helps peoples, not because we believe we can save them, but because it enables them to be in a place that allows them to find a release from their suffering.

Okay, that was about 1500 words on “Why Vajrayana?” and only one of Harry’s questions/points. So I guess I’ll cut this entry off here for now.


31 Days of Magick

2015/12/30

(My Buddhism posts will resume in the new year, holidays eat up too much time)

I wanted to share something that sprang out of a group I’m a part of, the 31 Days of Magick

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Basically it’s just a list of 31 types of magick to do over the course of January. None of them are that difficult, so it’s not asking too much, but it’s asking for a lot in terms of technique, which I like.

Whenever I feel myself in a magickal lull or slump I pick up a book with a good variety of exercises (usually something fairly beginner, as they have the most breadth) and work my way through it. Not because I really need to learn another way to ground, or how to cast a spell with a playing card or whatever, but because I need something different.

I find the same thing with physical exercise, I hit a slump or plateau and have to change something, just a little, to break through and get going again. Even if it’s just putting my hands farther apart or closer together in pushups to work slightly different muscles.

In a magickal slump, you need to flex a few new muscles, and in general I think it’s good practice to do things outside of your normal practice.

That’s what I really like about this 31 Days of Magick. I don’t see myself flipping my life into something even more amazing through it, but I might, but more I see it as something to work my magick a bit differently, to challenge myself and include a few new things, even if I don’t use them again.

So I invite everyone out there to join in with the 31 Days, do something different, after all isn’t magick about the experiment?

(And if you’re interested in looking into the Strategic Sorcery community, then pop over to Jason’s blog, see what it’s about, and consider joining.)

Make it a great new year folks.


Buddhism 101: Responses and Suffering

2015/12/15

As I move into the next part of my Buddhism 101 I first want to share a great post from my friend Harry over at The Unlikely Mage, then address why I’m talking about Buddhism here, and lastly suffering.

He goes into more detail about Theravada Buddhism, as well as Early Buddhism, both the concept and practice.

I’d like to his points/questions, because if you’re unfamiliar with the academic side of Buddhism, it’s essentially 25 centuries of debate and peer review. So reading his post will make the next section more coherent, or skip until this is no longer in italics if reading a post there to read a post here becomes tldr to you.

Vajrayana does have the four stages of awakening. The thing is in Vajrayana (and I believe by extension Mahayana, but I’m not sure) they become “optional.” So if you reach stream-entry, which is still a thing, it’s not necessarily that you cease incarnation within the seven lives, but that you have the option to, or it is sometimes explained that it’s seven lives until Bodhisattva-hood. Also, as Vajrayana became heavily monastic, it codified everything, so there is actually a break down of what “level” of Bodhisattva-hood you’ve attained. It’s useless in a practical sense, and strikes me as every anime power ever. You have Bodhisattvas, but then you have slightly more powerful ones…and then more powerful.

In general regarding the idea of “Does Vajrayana have…” Mahayana and Vajrayana build on Theravada. So even though the focus might shift, it arguably contains everything that came before. A proper monastic education in Vajrayana includes several years training just in Theravada practice and theory before moving on.

As for Compassion v Insight (Death Match of the Kalpa!) my take on the shift is that they are essentially one and the same. Perhaps it’s because I’m steeped in Vajrayana, but it’s hard for me to develop Insight without developing Compassion, because they’re the same underlying property in reality. As you gain wisdom into the nature of emptiness (addressed in a later post I’m sure) you naturally develop compassion because emptiness is compassion in many ways. I find with the three vehicles though each one focuses on one of the aspects, but they’re all really the same thing, it’s just which side of the (three-sided) coin you resonate with.

I wanted to counter the idea of worshiping Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but it becomes a mess of where is the line between reverence, engaging, and worship, not to mention the line between what is “traditional” (textual) and what people do. I’d say with the exception of Pure Land Buddhism (maybe another post) you’re not to worship Buddhas/Bodhisattvas, but see them as potentials and exemplars to attain to. Also they are you and you are them, so the engagement is less about an external entity (which isn’t to deny an external existence) but more about that aspect within you. They can be petitions, and prayed to, and for all intents and purposes worshipped like a god, but the attitude is usually supposed to be more about reverence and thanks, than worship. (But of course, some folks, especially laity do worship them, and again, you give a clear line about what is and isn’t worship, and we’ll have a point to work with, but it’s not something easily defined)

The second (quick) point I wanted to address before moving on, is why am I talking about Buddhism when I deal with magick? Well, even if you’re just looking at the meditation practice and skills developed in Theravadan traditions, the ability to focus the mind and understand it is crucial for good magick, and whatever you or your teacher has said, I’d (perhaps arrogantly) say that no tradition has as good of a handle on meditation and the mind as Buddhism does. It’s spent 2,500 years refining and practicing techniques, they might know what they’re doing. Beyond that though magick is a big part of Vajrayana, even if most practitioners might not use that word. Recently when I was skyping into a brothel to help diagnosis and handle a haunting situation (okay, even I found that a weird experience heh) I was asked my credentials by one of the women, and when I said I was an ordained Buddhist she was confused. Again, this is that lack of knowledge about the different forms of Buddhism. Vajrayana is all about the spirits. There is a saying that if you could see all the spirits in the world around you, you’d be driven mad by it…they’re a big part of our system. But Vajrayana involves dealing with demons, with manipulating your energy to do great things, calling on “gods” to heal, hurt, or help, projecting your mind to other realms, divination…everything you can think of in any magickal system, it’s in Vajrayana. It’s the sorcerer’s Buddhism in many ways. So while I have an intense sitting vipassana meditation practice, I also have nightly feasts I offer to demons and ghosts, I deal with god-like beings to help myself, others, and the world, and work on refining my energy body into more intense states. That’s why I’m talking about Buddhism on a magick blog, because magick exists in Buddhism, though not everyone realizes it, and I think some of the Buddhist tech is amazing. (And not just in Vajrayana, as Harry pointed out it appears in Theravadan cultures, pretty much from the beginning with wearing sutras as protective charms)

Onto the real post proper, but don’t worry, it wasn’t meant to be a long post, so the introductory discussion help flesh this out.

One of the biggest misconceptions of Buddhism I have to suffer through is…suffering. There are Four Noble Truths, they’re basically the foundational principles of Buddhism, and the first one is “All existence is suffering.”

Doesn’t that sound like a fun basis for a religion? Everything is suffering. Except it isn’t. There are layers of issues here, but the primary one is that suffering is a horrible translation. The word used in Pali is Dukkha, and while suffering /could/ be a translation, it’s a pretty extreme one. A better translation would be discontentment or unsatisfactory, or more colloquially just-not-right. The Buddha didn’t mean (nor do Buddhists believe) that all existence is suffering, that every moment is some form of agony, but that reality is not, and cannot be completely satisfactory.

There are moments of great joy, but moments of sadness and horror too. Sometimes people (unfamiliar with what the word means) make comments like “I’d rather live in world where I can suffer if it means I get joy, rather than cease being.” That misses the point. The idea is that it isn’t, and won’t be perfect, and in fact the idea that you need the highs to experience the lows is in many ways how to understand the discontentment. It doesn’t mean big horrible discontentment, I hate my job, my girlfriend left me, my dog ran away with the mailman, my leg was removed by rabid alpacas, but a chronic underlying discontentment. I’m not completely comfy in this chair, my drink has gotten warm as I’ve been typing, the whirring of my laptop is annoying if I pay attention. This sounds like petty stuff, and it is, but it’s what we live in.

People take it as a negative. “If you think everything is discontentment/suffering, then you’re never going to enjoy anything.” Yet look at Buddhists, perhaps for the most popular look at the Dalai Lama, does he seem like an unhappy man? The man practically radiates joy. If you understand that reality isn’t and won’t be perfect, that it can’t and won’t live up to your expectations, and it will be unsatisfactory, then you can actually begin to live in it, and even enjoy it. We’re the cause of the experience of this chronic discontentment. (Is it really so bad that my drink is warm? No, but I had a cold drink, and I prefer that, but now that cold is gone) The basis to dealing with it is understanding that.

What people need to understand is Buddhism isn’t about suffering, and even discontentment isn’t a horrible pronouncement, just a realistic one.

So if your concern or issue with Buddhism has been the emphasis on suffering, realize that’s a horrible translation/understanding of it, and question if every second of your life is pure joy? If not, then the nature of reality as we experience it is unsatisfactory.

Now to contrast this, in tantric Buddhism you come to understand that the ground of reality is actually bliss, but that’s another post for another time.

(And as before, if you have any questions about this post or Buddhism in general, fire away here or wherever, and I’ll see what I can answer.)


Buddhism: Vehicles 101

2015/12/11

This is not the post I wanted, but it seems to be the post I need to write. Basically I want to set out some of the background and context for talking about Buddhism, because a lot of people actually don’t know that much about it, or what they do know is limited to one specific form of Buddhism. That latter point is probably the number one source of issues I have discussing Buddhism, people don’t realize that Buddhism comes in many forms, and will try to correct me because they learned (a little) about another form. (Also, this may be overly simplified or generalizing at points, but remember this is just for a 101 blog post, there are great massive texts that explain this in more detail, I’m doing it in 1600 words)

So to start off I’ll present the historical story of Buddhism, and discuss the three main forms of Buddhism briefly (they are known as vehicles). This will be more about the history of the Buddhisms, and less about what makes them distinct from each other

Around 2,500 years ago in a Hindu kingdom that is now most likely Nepal a prince was born. He was Siddartha Gautama of the Shakya clan. After living a life of luxury until he was 29, he became disillusioned with the world and ran away to become a monk, hoping to understand the nature of things. He tried for years, and eventually found the way, he sat down and meditated for 49 days straight and became Enlightened, he became the Buddha. Buddha just means Enlightened One, or Awakened One.

Buddha taught you could become Enlightened by following the 8 fold path. Skipping details, but basically living a certain life without killing, stealing, lying, etc, and renouncing the world. This was the original form of Buddhism, it’s become Theravada Buddhism (The Way of the Elders) or Hinayana Buddhism (The Lesser Vehicle) now a days with a few changes, but admittedly it’s the closest of the Buddhisms to what the Buddha taught. It’s also in some ways the strictest, you couldn’t become enlightened if you owned property, or worked, or lived in the world, you had to remove yourself from it, meditate, and work on it and you’d realize there is no real you, and all things as transient and impermanent. It was non-monastic too, you ran off into the wild to do it, lived on the fringes of cities. It was a tradition based on awareness, insight, and wisdom. Eventually it shifted to a more monastic style, where you had proper monks and monasteries and you could practice in relative comfort. The forest monk path is still done though, but is the minority.

do not wantThe idea of compassion that people associate with Buddhism didn’t really take a strong hold until about four or five hundred years later and you have another form of Buddhism developing, what’s now called Mahayana, the Greater Vehicle. While Theravada focused on renunciation, meditation, and insight, Mahayana was a more “worldly” Buddhism. It didn’t require the renunciation of everything, but stressed a need to be unattached, that clinging to something, to anything, is what creates the continual discontentment with reality. There were still renunciants, but it was no longer a requirement. Now though the focus shifted to universal compassion. Wisdom and insight were still important, but compassion for all beings took centre stage. Rather than working toward enlightenment directly, you seek to become a Bodhisattva, which is someone who is almost a Buddha, but not quite, basically you have one foot in enlightenment, but you’ve promised not to cease incarnating until all beings everywhere are enlightened.
Because there was now this Bodhisattva ideal, the door was opened for there to be other figures in Buddhism.

Classically Buddhism was non-theistic, not atheistic, as several early schools still recognized the existence of gods, but had no place for them, and never recognized a supreme creator god. Mahayana began to recognize other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by the bucket loads. Still no supreme creator, but you got Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, who largely became interchangeable with, and to an extent served the same purpose as gods and major spirits in other religions. Dzambala rules wealth, Kurkulla rules love, Bhaishagye Guru heals you, etc etc. And gods were recognized, but it was understood that gods are mortal and can and will die eventually, and that gods aren’t enlightened, so you can’t trust on them to really help you.

So now you have a semi-theistic religion that focused on wisdom and compassion, and the idea of helping all other sentient beings.

Not long after this, about a century or two after Mahayana’s appearance, came the next vehicle, the Vajrayana. Vajra is a complex Sanskrit word, it means, diamond, indestructible, lightning bolt and a few other things. So Vajrayana is often called the Diamond Vehicle. It is a lot more similar to Mahayana than Mahayana is to Theravada. The inclusion and emphasis on other figures became more prominent, even more Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were pulled out of the woodworks into the faith. Another thing that made Vajrayana distinct was its inclusion of tantric practices. Now trying to explain tantra would be another post altogether, and it might end up as one… First off tantra isn’t about sex, it /can/ include sex, but there is a lot more to it than sex.

Tantra is a more active way of engaging the system, and it is about using rather than avoiding. A common analogy in Vajrayana is when a Theravadan encounters a poisoned plant, representing attachment and ignorance, they avoid it altogether. When a Mahayanist encounters the plant they strive to pull it out by the roots. When a Vajrayanist encounters the plant they take the poison from it and make medicine from it. So while other forms of Buddhism may avoid sex, alcohol, dead bodies, and a variety of other things, in Vajrayana they are embraced consciously as ways of obtaining enlightenment. So while sex can be a distraction, it can also be a tool for awakening, if used properly. Alcohol can be a distraction, but again if it’s used carefully and properly it can be a tool for awakening. It’s like the Dark Side in Star Wars, you progress quicker, but it’s more dangerous…and you can shoot lightning from your hands, totally true about tantric Buddhism. (Actually it’s closer to Vaapad in Star Wars, but that’s a far geekier reference lost on most people)

12360003_810099039102518_4586438907398427400_n[1]Eventually this form of Buddhism moved into the Himalayan regions. It was largely wiped out in India during the 8-9th century in the Islamic conquest, but it thrived untouched in areas like Tibet. So what is thought of as Tibetan Buddhism actually is just Buddhism from Northern India.

Now there are other forms of Buddhism beyond this three major forms, or vehicles, Zen being the most prominent of them. Without trying to minimize the role of forms like Zen though, I believe you can understand all these other forms of Buddhism as branches off of these three major vehicles.

This evolution of Buddhism, and understanding of the different types of Buddhism is important to keep in mind, because to a lot of people Buddhism is a singular system, but it is not. In fact I would argue that the differences between Theravada and Vajrayana Buddhism are more like the difference between Judaism and Islam, than the difference between Catholics and Protestants. When Europeans first encountered Vajrayana they called it “Lamaism” because they couldn’t tell it was Buddhism, or rather believed those silly Tibetans didn’t know what they were talking about.

If you ever took a world religions class in high school, or maybe even university, or you watched a documentary on Buddhism, chances are it discussed Theravada Buddhism, even if it didn’t explain that’s what it was focusing on. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s like learning about modern Christianity by reading the letters of the Church fathers from 1600 years ago.

Mahayana Buddhism, which is the more worldly form dealing with compassion as a focus, is the most common form of Buddhism. (It’s the type primarily practiced in China) Estimates range from about 50-70% of all Buddhists are Mahayana Buddhists. So what most people know about Buddhism, through Theravada, while much of it still applies to Mahayana is technically about an earlier form of Buddhism. For comparison estimates range from about 10-35% of all Buddhists are Theravadan. (Also, yes, these estimates are over wide ranges, but the distinction between Buddhisms isn’t always clear cut and I’m using several sources to cover my bases.)

Now Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism, or Tibetan Buddhism, the form I practice is the smallest of the major vehicles, with 2-6% of all Buddhists practicing it. What is funny in an odd way, is visually when most people think of Buddhism they think of Vajrayana. They might not think of our weird gods and arcane ritual tools, but the monks, and temples, and statues they think of are from Vajrayana. This is in large part because the Dalai Lama is such a public figure. Two quick facts about the Dalai Lama: First he is not the Buddhist pope, because he’s only a religious figure in the smallest of the major vehicles; second he’s not the Vajrayana Buddhist pope (or whatever) because he’s only the head of a specific sect within Vajrayana. His role and importance in Buddhism is vastly inflated in the Western understanding.

This is will probably be the first of several posts on Buddhism, so if there is anything you want to ask, something you want clarified, or whatever, comment below and ask, and I’ll see if I can work it into other posts.


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