Taming the Tiger: Choje Akong Rinpoche

As some of you already know, Choje Akong Rinpoche, 73, was killed this week in Chengdu, a town in southwest China. Although some news reports used the word “assassinated,” evidently the Rinpoche, his driver and his nephew, were all stabbed to death in an argument over money. Whether there is more to this or not will remain to be seen.

Akong_RinpocheAkong was a well-respected teacher, who co-founded the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West and put a great deal of energy into social activism and humanitarian efforts. He was not a monk but was recognized as a tulku, a reincarnated lama, which is the Tibetan translation of the Indian word guru, meaning “teacher.” Contrary to the popular perception, a lama is not always an ordained monk, but often are lay persons.

In 1959, Akong was among a group of 300 Tibetans who journeyed across the Himalayas to seek refuge in India. Only 13 members of the group survived. One of those survivors was the degenerate monk, Chogyam Trungpa. Both men were only 20 at the time. Some years later, the two settled in Britain and together they established Samye Ling in the Scottish lowlands, which as mentioned above was the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West.

Trungpa was installed as the head of the center, while Akong made beds and cleaned floors. But Trungpa had to leave Samye Ling in 1970 due to controversies over his predilection for underage girls and his drunken behavior. He renounced his monastic vows and split for the U.S. Akong took over in his stead and under his guidance the Samye Ling become a major Buddhist center with retreat facilities open to people of all faiths.

Choje Akong Rinpoche was a Buddhist scholar who made a significant contribution to the spread of Tibetan Buddhist teachings in the West, and also as previously noted, a great humanitarian. In 1980, he founded an international organization, ROKPA, whose aim is to improve the quality of life of impoverished people around the world irrespective of their religion, nationality or cultural background. He also went on to establish more than 100 different charitable projects in Tibet.

In his book Taming the Tiger, Akong wrote,

Taming the TigerAlthough the varieties of suffering may be many, and its intensity and degree may change, there is only one effective way of freeing ourselves from the pain of our existence, and that is to accept it. We still deal with our daily life situations but we stop trying to make the whole world conform to our desires and projections. If we are old, we come to accept being old; if we are young, we accept that too whatever the situation, we simply accept it. Once this acceptance occurs, then to a large extent we are freed from the suffering. Once we are able to let it go, it just falls away from us.”

It may not seem like it at first glance, but this is a rather profound teaching. The idea of the acceptance of suffering is counter-intuitive to our basic thinking. No one wants suffering, let alone accept it. Our instinct is to resist, or even be in denial about a situation that brings suffering to us. However, resisting and lingering in a state of denial only worsen the unhappiness.

Acceptance is what is behind the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: suffering is an unpleasant fact, an inconvenient truth. A bit further in the book, Choje Akong Rinpoche points out that accepting the fact of suffering isn’t fatalism. It does not mean surrender or apathy. It is simply accepting the reality of human existence.

As Akong wrote, “Before we can tame the tiger we must first track it down.” The Buddha tracked the tiger to a place called desire (tanha) and found that the beast was none other than our own mind, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for a sense of self, craving to be free from suffering.

There’s a old Chinese proverb that says when you ride on the back of a tiger, it is hard to dismount. I would add that it is easier to dismount a tiger is that has been tamed, than one that is wild.

The practice of acceptance is an key step in taming our unruly mind that often wishes to run away from suffering. Once we can accept suffering, then we can even welcome it, appreciate it, and come to view a time of suffering as a time for reflection on life, and a time for growth.


Suffering is Beneficial

Yesterday I underwent a rather complicated medical procedure that is part of my on-going treatment for cancer, and needless to say, it wasn’t much fun.  First of all, getting up very early in the morning and having to fast (going without food I don’t mind, but no coffee sucks), does not put me in the best frame of mind for these things. I start with a rather begrudging attitude. After all, it isn’t a procedure that anyone in their right mind would want to go through, and no one would want have my medical problem. I have to make a conscious effort to remind myself that having this disease is a great opportunity.

Raoul Birnbaum, author of the definitive work thus far on Bhaisajyaguru (The Healing Buddha, 1979), wrote another book, Healing and Restoring (1989), which includes a chapter entitled “Chinese Buddhist Traditions of Healing and the Life Cycle.” The chapter is devoted to a discussion of healing based on the Sutra of the Master of Healing and T’ien-t’ai teacher Chih-i’s healing methods. Towards the end of the chapter, Birnbaum provides an excellent explanation of what I mean by disease being an opportunity.

The scripture and rituals dedicated to the Master of Healing are pervaded by a sense of transformation, by a sense that healing is a profound process of change . . . For Buddhists, sickness may provide a jolt of urgency, a vivid sense of the immediacy of suffering and the necessity of conquering it. It provides a striking reminder on the tenuous grasp one may have on human incarnation . . . Further, the enormous focused effort required to harness the mind for curing when the body is in a weakened state may be precisely what is required to attain enlightenment . . . Thus, disease – a very great source of suffering – may be viewed as beneficial by Buddhists intent on enlightenment.”

This point of view is not some great Buddhist revelation. There are many people of faith, doctors, psychologists, self-help gurus, etc., with similar viewpoints. But the diverse methods of healing Buddhism has to offer are unique, that is, uniquely Buddhist.

Healing Buddha
Healing Buddha

The “Master of Healing” is Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine or Healing Buddha, one of the most popular Buddhist archetypal figures, revered in India, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. Birnbaum notes that “In the texts, this buddha continually pledges to assist devotees not only to become healed, but to attain enlightenment in the process.” The “texts” are works from a long-ago age, written and read by individuals who may have taken such statements literally. From a modern perspective, the Healing Buddha is a mythological figure, but also an archetype representing the natural healing powers of the mind and body. The Healing Buddha can assist only in the sense that by meditating on this figure, by contemplating the qualities represented, one can identify with, and “become” a healing buddha.

In the process of becoming a healing buddha, one can undertake to fulfill the third great vow made by Bhaisajyaguru: “I shall cause all beings to obtain what they need.” Obviously, what they need most is to be able to overcome their sufferings. This is exactly the same as the first of the Bodhisattva Vows, “to liberate all living beings.”

I mentioned the other day that suffering (dukkha) is a sort of ill-ness, a dis-ease. It is a cancer that can cause out-of-control growth of cells of pain, dissatisfaction and disconsolation, a malignant malaise. In this sense, all forms of suffering are a disease that must be conquered.

In Chih-kuan for Beginners, one of the works Birnbaum relies on in his discussion of the T’ien-t’ai approach to healing, Chih-i states, “While in his own practice or when working for the welfare of others, a practitioner should be acquainted with the causes of disease and the method of healing them . . .”

The main cause for the disease of suffering is self-cherishing and the main method for healing is cherishing others. Chih-i is credited with composing the Four Bodhisattva Vows, and he said that if a person cannot fulfill the first vow of saving all living beings, he or she can never fulfill the fourth vow of attaining enlightenment. The first vow is figurative because it would be impossible to save all living beings. Yet, the conundrum presented by the idea of enlightenment juxtaposed with the goal of liberating all beings from their suffering, points to the hidden message of Mahayana Buddhism, and this message was conveyed exquisitely by the Dalai Lama during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997, a statement that I’ve presented a number of times before:

If, as a result of one’s commitment to the principles of the Bodhisattva ideal, one sees that the purpose of one’s life is to be of benefit to others, and from the depths of one’s heart there is a real sense of dedication of one’s entire life for the benefit of other sentient beings, and that kind of strong courage and principle – for that kind of person, then time doesn’t seem to matter much. Whether or not that person becomes enlightened, as far as he or she is concerned, it doesn’t make any difference, because the purpose of existence is to be of benefit to others, and if the person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose. Such is the kind of courage and determination to altruistic principles that bodhisattvas should adopt.”

Attaining enlightenment, becoming a Buddha with a big “B” is not as important as becoming a healing buddha. Suffering is beneficial when we use it to benefit others. Healing others is as important as healing ourselves. That is the kind of understanding all healing buddhas should adopt.


Inner Solutions

In a book called Emotional Healing Through Mindfulness Meditation: Stories and Meditations for Women Seeking Wholeness, author Barbara Miller Fishman, Ph.D. tells the stories of eight women, some of whom were dealing with extremely heavy sufferings, such as an abusive relationship, the death of a loved one, and of one woman who was depressed in her marriage and wanted to seek out an old lover. In the introduction, Fishman describes how as a psychotherapist and a student of Buddhist meditation she taught mindfulness skills to these women, specifically how to observe experience through the “six sense gates” (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, and thinking):

Reflecting for a moment, it becomes apparent that all experience has to come through these sense gates; without them, we cannot know the world. Observing experience at the sense gates shifts the focus of attention from outside us to inside us, from blame to the capacity to take responsibility for our own thoughts and feelings and the effect they have on others as well as ourselves.

Healing Buddha
Healing Buddha

It’s important to remember that while there are many external solutions to problems, the purpose of Buddha-dharma is to help us find the internal solutions. And these two approaches may at times seem to be in conflict with one another. But it is the inner world that Buddhism is most concerned with, not the outer one.

This is something I have to remind myself of constantly, even with my many years of practice, and because we have conditioned so strongly to look for solutions outside of ourselves, I think it’s is a challenge for many others as well.

Another good book that deals with this subject is Chasing Elephants: Healing Psychologically With Buddhist Wisdom by Diane Shainberg a clinical psychologist and Zen Buddhist priest. “Chasing elephants is a phrase that means looking for things outside of ourselves,” she writes. Inner healing is only possible when we quit looking for external solutions.

This doesn’t mean that we ignore or reject external solutions. They may bring justice, relief, or a sense of closure. External solutions can be very encouraging. For instance, today I met with one of my doctors to review the results of Monday’s CT scan of my liver. I was not expecting very good news. During my recent chemo treatment, they discovered 5 or 6 tumors and these treatments in the past have not been that effective. But, I was pleasantly surprised. The chemo had effectively treated all but one of the tumors, and evidently it got part of that one. This really bolstered my spirits. Even so, the encouraging news will have a short shelf life, because I still have cancer, and to put it bluntly, cancer is a real mind fuck.

I have to leave the external solution in the hands of my doctors, trusting that they know what they are doing. Obviously, as I learned today, projecting negative thoughts and outcomes doesn’t help anything. Getting angry at the doctors or their staff when things don’t go as smoothly as I like, is not good either, and getting angry at the disease is just futile. I have to work on the inner solution of healing my mind, healing the emotional wounds and overcoming the mental stress.

In Monday’s post on The Healing Aspect of Emptiness, I quoted Lama Zopa Rinpoche from his book Ultimate Healing. In the first chapter, he writes,

To fully understand disease, we have to understand [the] inner cause, which is the actual cause of disease and which also creates the physical conditions for disease. As long as we ignore its inner cause, we have no real cure for disease .  . .

If the inner cause of a problem exists, the external conditions for the problem will also exist, because the inner cause creates them.”

This idea may be difficult to accept, but this is what Buddhism teaches. Personally, I am not convinced that every problem has an internal cause. Some things just happen. Wrong place, wrong time. I am willing to accept a certain amount of randomness. But I am convinced that the only way to truly change a problem or experience healing is to own a problem internally. Otherwise, we are just left with anger, resentment, and frustration, and those are not good healing agents. Not only that, but as Buddhism tell us, there is every possibility that without this inner work, we will experience the same sort of problem endlessly.

I read that Lou Reed, the former leader of that great 60s band The Velvet Underground, had a liver transplant last month. On Lou’s website his wife, performance artist, Laurie Anderson, writes,

When I was speaking recently with a journalist from the London Times, I said ‘I don’t think Lou will ever fully recover.’ We were not talking about his physical condition . . . We were talking about how a traumatic event – a surgery or calamity – can change your life. These things make you reevaluate everything in your life. And while they mark you forever, these traumas can be extremely positive. And I think for Lou this is especially true. He gets a chance to see things with enormous perspective.”

Lou with famed Tai Chi Master Ren Guangy

I saw Lou Reed in concert in New Orleans in 1974. During the song “Heroin” he shot up onstage, or pretended to, but I understand that in the last decade or so, he has been practicing Tai Chi, an internal martial art. I have no doubt that the perspective he has these days is from the inside out.

And Ms. Anderson is right, trauma can be positive. I told my doctor this morning that I was experiencing some pain in my liver. He said, “Pain is good,” and while I appreciated that he meant pain is a positive sign of healing after a treatment, I took it philosophically as well. Pain is good. It hurts, but without it we could never learn, we would never grow.  

It is only through a relationship with my pain, my sadness, that I can truly know and touch the opposite—my pleasure, my joy, and my happiness.”

– Claude AnShin Thomas, Zen monk, teacher, and author, At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace


Flower Dharma

butterfly-dragonflyButterflies drink deep of the
Flowers, and the dragonflies
Dipping the surface of the
Water again and again.
I cry out to the Spring wind,
And the light and the passing hours,
We enjoy life such a little
While, why should men cross each other?

– Tu Fu (translated by Kenneth Rexroth)

In Southern California, we have flowers all year long. Still, springtime brings its special ones, like the wildflowers that decorate the sand dunes along the coast and the chaparral, and carpet the desert, and soon in the cities, the jacaranda trees will blossom in purple splendor. Occasionally, I see a butterfly, usually a Monarch, fluttering in the air, but for some reason butterflies seem rare these days, and I can’t remember when I last saw a dragonfly.

At least we have a multitude of flowers and in so many different colors. They represent not only beauty, but serenity and hope. Once, there was a language of flowers, called floriography. It was way of communication during the Victorian-era in which messages were sent, using a variety of flowers and floral arrangements as a code to express thoughts and feelings that could not be said with spoken words.The language of flowers is thought to be a dead language, but I think we still converse in it from time to time.

In this violent, sometimes ugly world, flowers brighten our hearts. Tu Fu’s line about why should men cross each other reminds me of Martin Richard, one of the victims of the Boston bombing, and the photograph where he holds a sign that reads “No more hurting people.”

We cannot hide from the suffering and sadness around us. It’s no good wishing it would go away. It won’t.

But we can appreciate the beauty of the world, especially the tender and delicate flowers of spring, and let them remind us of compassion and joy. We can even try to emulate them.

IMG_3686b2cFlowers need the sun for sustenance, to grown and carry out life’s activities.

Buddhism has often been compared to the sun, and we, human beings, to flowers, which rise up from the dirt of suffering to blossom and flourish in the garden of life. We need sustenance, too, to carry out life’s activities.

Be like the flowers and bend to the sun.

Put your heart in the sun and the sun in your heart.  


Life is a Carnival

“Life is a carnival,” sang The Band on a recording from their 4th album that featured horn arrangements by the great New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint. “Life is a carnival — believe it or not.”

Deep inside, I am a believer. So was the Buddha, and he said so.


Not in those words, of course. Actually, in his first dharma talk, the Buddha said that life is very un-carnival like, that life is suffering (dukkha). The first of the Four Noble Truths. With the other Truths, he said suffering has a cause, there is freedom from suffering, and then he laid out a path to obtain that freedom. Now, assuming that Buddha understood non-duality, and I think we can, then it is fair to say that he was implying that life is also not-suffering. It’s a bit of a stretch to get to the carnival bit, but I’m using that as a synonym for happiness, joy, and not-suffering.

This first discourse of the Buddha is found in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (“Wheel of Dhamma”). In this text, he calls the search for worldly pleasures, the Ignoble Quest, and naturally, the opposite of that is the Noble Quest. The sutta talks about “the renunciation of the Bodhisattva,” which in this case refers to Gautama before he became Buddha. The sutta says, “it occurred to the Buddha to renounce worldly life, and become a recluse.” Which he did, practicing extreme austerities, yet we know from this same text that that he came to realize that it was better to avoid extremes, whether it be severe austerity or indulgence in sensual pleasure. This became his Middle Way, the path between extremes.

Still, the Buddha and his bhikkhus lived what we would regard today as a rather austere life. That was another time and it’s not realistic to think that we must fare on the Way exactly as they did 2500 years ago. Besides, there is a deeper understanding of renunciation to consider.

I once heard the Dalai Lama say, “True renunciation is a state of mind. It does not necessarily mean that someone has to give up something.” Suffering, too, is largely a state of mind. When we recognize the inevitability of suffering, when we know that suffering is sometimes necessary, that in the long run the experience of suffering can contribute our growth and overall well being, that’s when we can truly transcend it. Not an easy task, at least I haven’t always found it easy. True renunciation is overthrowing the state of mind that acquiesces under the domination of suffering. It’s the inner revolution where we topple one state of mind and replace it with another, the liberated state of mind.

One who is free from the sufferings of existence, which are fixed in graspingness, is said to be liberated, and attains through infinite, immeasurable, countless ways, worldly and transcendental, showers of happiness and bliss.”

Kshayamati Sutra

The kind of happiness I’m talking about is not a temporary or limited happiness, but one that is deep and lasting. “Life is a carnival” doesn’t mean to view our existence as some sort of traveling amusement show. At the same time, it seems that there are many people in this world who see their life as a painful austerity that must be endured, and that is the crux of the malaise we call dukkha or suffering.

Speaking of carnivals (how’s this for a segue?), tomorrow in New Orleans life will be a carnival, with a capital C. Yep, it’s Mardi Gras once again. Or, Fat Tuesday, the day that immediately precedes Lent, for Catholics that annual season of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter. Since Catholics are expected to give something up for Lent, they decided to have one last day-long orgy of hedonism.

It’s good to give something up every so often, but it’s good to have some fun, too. Here’s an opportunity to get in the carnival state of mind New Orleans style, with one of my favorite Mardi Gras songs as performed by Al “Carnival Time” Johnson: