One of the reasons I love the Rinpoches I’ve met is that they continually debunk my most beloved prejudices and never cease to confound my expectations. Not always comfortable, it has to be said, but according to the Buddha and the great bodhisattvas, a sign that they are authentic teachers—I’m lucky to have met them.
I mention this because I’m still reeling from Khyentse Rinpoche’s most recent reorganization—I should more truthfully write ‘decimation’—of many of the spiritual misconceptions I’ve acquired over the years that I didn’t even know I had. For example, why am I practising Buddhadharma?
Truthfully, I started trying to practise in the first place because I was mesmerized by some extraordinary men—as I thought of them—and keen to feel less discombobulated. Neither Sogyal Rinpoche nor Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche were like anyone I had ever met before. They fascinated and appalled me in equal measure because they operated on such a radically different level, each with his own quite a distinct style. Most disconcerting of all, they seemed to know me better than I knew (and know) myself. So, when they strongly suggested I learn how to meditate, I had a go. But Buddha, honestly speaking, had very little to do with it.
In those days, I had rather black and spotty ideas of what being ‘spiritual’ meant. A left-wing liberal who valued ‘art’ above all things, I therefore picked up a few bumps and bruises as I learned to roll with the many punches and perforations and shatterings my most highly esteemed ideas were then subjected to.
One of my earliest memories of being in a teaching is of a Saturday morning at the Rigpa Centre in St, Paul’s Crescent, Camden Town (London). Sogyal Rinpoche was late. Not very late, actually, just twenty minutes or so, but the teaching was supposed to have started at 10am and it was hot. As he settled himself on his huge orange seat (I had yet to learn to call it by its traditional name ‘throne’—as an anti-royalist when I did discover the seat’s name I confess it stuck in my throat for many, many years) a woman at the back asked Rinpoche, a little tetchily, what the schedule for the weekend would be. Would lunch be late because he was starting late? And would we therefore be finishing later that evening? She needed to know! She had things to organize! And anyway, if an organization takes out an ad in Time Out announcing a teaching will start at 10am, it’s unprofessional to deviate.
At the time, I felt she had a point. But I’d only just met Rinpoche and the process of chipping away at my preconceptions had only just begun.
Instead of responding to the woman clearly and ‘professionally’ with an apology and a neatly printed schedule, Rinpoche proceeded to tease her about what it was she had really come for. Did she want to receive teachings, or a schedule?
The woman was upset and left in a bit of a huff. It often happens, and sadly some of those who react quickly and walk away from such an encounter harbour grudges and misconceptions for the rest of their lives. I must admit, I considered following her, but decided to stay. Which was fortunate because Rinpoche went on to explain the difference between attending a teaching to accumulate information and facts, or attending to learn how to fundamentally change the way you operate. And I’m still grateful for having at least rubbed shoulders with those ideas so early on.
Of course, back then, I wasn’t at the teaching because I was interested in following the Buddhist path or becoming a spiritual person. I was a singer—a rather screwed up, highly-strung singer, it must be said—who wanted to learn how to relax and wondered if meditation might help. I had no clue about the different yanas and traditions, who Buddha was, why I should care about what he said, and what the point of all this spiritual stuff really is. I certainly didn’t know that Buddhism is about self-moderated brainwashing—the vajrayana shows us how to adjust the way we look at ourselves and our world, and the mahayana shows us how to learn to love all sentient beings so much that their wellbeing and enlightenment is more important than our own. Basically, you’re signing up to change the way you think from top to toe. If I had, I’d probably never had turned up at a meditation weekend in the first place. All that was gradually revealed over the years, to be wrestled with and contemplated and rejected and reconsidered, etc, etc, etc. You know how it is.
By the way, I say ‘brainwashed’ because being by nature a rather misanthropic creature (to the point of being a full-blown sociopath) my brain was—some might say still is—in serious need of an industrial strength wash and blow-dry. Namby-pamby, lubby-dubby, flower-power-type ‘love your neighbour’ stuff would have had no chance. So for me, the great bodhichitta and pure perception teachings necessarily needed to behave like a powerful brainwashing… But it’s probably not a word you’ll find much in the traditional teachings.
Anyway, back to my current state of chagrin. After all this time, you would have thought that my mind and attitudes must have been so neatly retuned that nothing could surprise or unsettle me. Not so. Not by any means. I’m presently reeling from the horror of having unearthed the fact that in spite of donkey’s years of so-called Buddhist practice, I still don’t really know what it is to genuinely long for enlightenment. Worse! I realize I make absolutely no concessions to my need for personal comfort and ease for the sake of spiritual progress. I like sleep more than practice, I usually chose lunch over encouraging a teacher to continue to teach, and, far from trying to remember to be aware in every moment, I love to lose myself in a great book or movie. Sad, but true.
I wonder if I’ll even get close to genuinely longing for enlightenment before I go completely ga-ga?
Gott Buddha im Himmel!