Letters to the Editor Fall 2001

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Willing and Able

Thanks for those two wonderful articles (Wallace and Patt) about presenting the dharma to a flagrantly consumerist culture. But I wonder if some lamas aren’t selling us a little short by assuming that nobody will come to basic teachings on lovingkindness and compassion. That is not always the case. On Memorial Day weekend, 550 people (250 more were wait-listed) came to hear Pema Chodron teach basic shamatha and bodhicitta practices at the Omega Institute in New York. The retreat was entitled “The Places That Scare You.” How’s that for an enticing appeal to the fast-trackers who want instant gratification? So perhaps it depends upon the teacher. And perhaps there are more of us out there than one might think who are ready to work with themselves.

-Lelia Calder
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania


The Same Old Story

I wish to thank Tricycle for staying ahead of the curve with the thought-provoking article by David Patt on the “Commodification of Buddhism“ [Summer, 2001]. Your pitch-perfect balance of inspirational dharma and social issues continues to amaze me. There is, however, an aspect of Patt’s article that I find baffling. He speaks of Buddhism as addressing the fundamental question of happiness and uses the Second Noble Truth to conclude that “the cessation of desire, says the Buddha, leads to peace.” Patt then presents the current climate by stating that “consumerism is the exact opposite idea.” From here on, he wonders whether the West’s unique cultural values—in this case characterized by capitalism—put the Buddha’s teachings in danger of extinction.

It is easy to project that every society in the history of the world was less materialistic than our own. However, if in early Indian history the human mind was not subject to craving and desire in ways that caused extreme mental anguish and suffering, just as they do now, then why was the Buddha giving teachings on how to alleviate this problem?

We have come to know Shakyamuni Buddha as a supreme pragmatist. If the consumerism of which Patt speaks is so culture-bound, then what is the condition that the Buddha is addressing? And if that condition was so different from our own, then why do the teachings on the nature of desire make so much sense to us?

With regard to Patt’s descriptions of the selling of the dharma, the contemporary references to the American marketplace sound very convincing. Yet the greatest masters in Buddhism for hundreds and hundreds of years, from India to Japan, have been sounding off on the subject of corrupt gurus who are motivated by name and fame. In fact, once again, if the desire for “name and fame” were not a defilement that accompanied so-called traditional Buddhism, then why the admonitions against it? It seems to me that then, as now, it’s the same old story.

-Hudson McGrath

© Charles Johnson

Transmuting Kidder Smith

It is both sad and ironic that one of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s “senior students”—Mr. Kidder Smith —presents a “personal growth” account of enlightened military practices he received. To compare what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche described as “an ideal vajra mandala” to Mr. Smith’s account as a “practice combin[ing] monasticism with a boy- or girl-scout outing” is frankly both juvenile and insulting from the point of view of anyone who was a serious participant.

It is curious that Mr. Smith does not mention the wealth of Vajrayana references which he must have encountered, such as the “Mogyal Pomra Encampment” or the source of inspiration for the encampment: Ling Gesar, the “non-dual warrior” of Tibet. MP Encampment generally begins with a lhasang (juniper smoke offering) invocation to Ling Gesar and his retinue of troops and maidens.

Mr. Smith states that “there was no real Tibetan precedent for these military forms” but rather that they were “Trungpa Rinpoche’s own response to the energy of this country.” Does Mr. Smith imagine that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche thought that neurotic dualistic reactions to cultural reality are unique to the U.S.A.—and that consequently he created something new? As we clearly recall, he often made reference to the fact that what he taught, and the methods he taught, were ancient. Mr. Smith says “no one was armed, and we didn’t even practice the martial arts.” He must have forgotten that Trungpa Rinpoche said we were all armed with the ultimate weapon of our minds.

Mr. Smith says that the military forms of his forefathers were purified and transformed, that his “aggression became superfluous, untenable—I had lost all inclination to it.” What about the aggressiveness of neutering your lama’s teachings—or degrading them with glib phraseology and self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing observations?

It was disappointing to read that Mr. Smith’s motivation in attending the encampment was to have a good time with friends outdoors and to satisfy his curiosity, rather than any sense of devotion to his teacher or to serve/experience his teacher’s mandala. Mr. Smith’s article is just another example of the diluting of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings since his death in 1987. In our view, readers of Tricycle would be better served by authentic presentations of the principles and functions of enlightened military as presented by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche himself—or by senior students with a greater sense of dignity and humility.

-Craig and Linda Donegan
Evanston, Illinois

                © Martin Krasney

I am writing to thank you for Kidder Smith’s article on the Buddhist military. For twenty-five years I have been surrounded by Buddhists, some of whom are former students of Trungpa Rinpoche’s, who have made fun of this army, or condemned it, or expressed nothing but horror at its existence. But in retrospect it is easy to see how the negativity about the Vajra guards gushed forth from a bleeding-heart, knee-jerk liberalism.

Perhaps Smith will not convince those who are committed to a negative view of Trungpa Rinpoche and the Shambhala community. For myself, the one question that lingers concerns the current state of this army in the absence of Trungpa’s creativity. It is hard to imagine that, without a mature master, it is being maintained with the wisdom and compassion that makes it a legitimate source of dharma teachings.

-Sally Carlsen

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