Transcribed by Tanner Holman
Michael: Welcome to Deconstructing Yourself, the podcast for metamodern mutants interested in meditation, hardcore dharma, emptiness, Zen poetics, awakening, metasystematicity, and much, much more. My name is Michael Taft your host on the podcast and in this episode, I’ll be speaking with Rin’dzin Pamo and Jared Janes. This is a first on the podcast – me, interviewing two guests on the podcast at once. And it came about because Rin’dzin and Jared have recently started something new. They’ve co created a contemporary Vajrayana community that they called Evolving Ground and I’ll be speaking with them about that quite a bit in this interview.
Rin’dzin Pamo is a British-born Vajrayana practitioner living in the US. They were an apprentice in the Aro gTér tradition of Tibetan Buddhism for twenty years and are an experienced Dzogchen meditator and mentor. Rin’dzin received the London School of Economics Fei Xiaotong prize for their Masters research on the Chinese tech industry. They worked on international development projects in India, Africa and the Middle East and as a program director for Amnesty International.
Jared Janes is an American-born yogic practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. His early practice was influenced by pragmatic dharma, Unified Mindfulness, and The Mind Illuminated book. With the help of Rin’dzin, he transitioned into Vajrayana-inspired practice in early 2019. Jared’s career started in digital operations and management and he’s now a full-time consultant and podcast producer.
And now, I give you the episode I call, Evolving Ground, with Rin’dzin Pamo and Jared Janes.
Michael: Rin’dzin and Jared, welcome to the Deconstructing Yourself podcast.
Rin’dzin: Thank you.
Jared: Thanks for having us.
Rin’dzin: Great to be here.
Michael: Yeah, it’s great to have you. This is a first: a three-way interview. That has not occurred yet on this podcast. I think it’s pretty common in other podcasts. Jared, of course, you have an entire show based on two interviewers. In this case, we will have one “quote” interviewer, me – and the two of you are coming on the show. So, I’m really looking forward to this. The occasion that brings you here is actually kind of a big deal in the meditation world. I saw just a few days ago, that you, Jared had had Rin’dzin on The Stoa podcast, and that you guys in advance had talked about wanting to talk about Vajrayana, and how to practice Vajrayana, and maybe Vajrayana practice coming or seen in contrast to the viewpoint or the practice perspective of Sutrayana, or what I would call Theravada. And that something like – correct me if I’m wrong here – but like 100 people showed up for this thing. Right? It was gigantic. It was a tsunami in the meditation world and the level of interest was just off the charts. And of course, I actually couldn’t go live but I did watch the program, which was amazing. So, I’m super stoked to have you both here virtually, in the so-called studio to quiz you about this. But what were you up to there? Why did you do this? And what’s the founding vision for what you’re doing? And where do you see this going?
Rin’dzin: Yeah, thank you for that introduction, Michael. You know, I think there are multiple threads coming together for this event that is emerging. One is that the Vajrayana that has been available and that is presented in Tibetan form includes the retention of the Tibetan iconography, Tibetan settings, the use of Tibetan and Sanskrit languages. All of the rituals that we have available to us, those were designed in and for a Tibetan culture, and quite usually for a monastic context as well. So over years – I mean over the last 10 years or more – multiple groups and individuals have been getting together and saying, “wouldn’t it be great to have more variety available within the domain and field of Vajrayana?” And I think that’s what we’re doing. It’s starting to feel like, yeah, the time is ripe. I think almost invariably Tibetan Vajrayana is presented with a non-pragmatist worldview and one that includes reincarnation and the existence of beings as separate entities…beings other than ourselves that we can’t see but that are real in the sense that they have some kind of agency, they can make things happen in the world that we live in. I think partly what Jared and I are doing is that we want to create a space in which we can bring the principles and the functions of that Vajrayana practice into a contemporary cultural setting. So, a lot of the motivation is to do with that.
Michael: How did this come together?
Jared: I can talk a bit about it. So yeah, I had reached out to Rin’dzin a little over a year ago because I was previously practicing TMI or samatha (a variation) from Culadasa and started reading Rin’dzin’s blog, comparing samatha, or concentration-based samatha, to shi-ne, which is found in a lot of Vajrayana lineages, which is an awareness first approach. I guess, technically the same practice but very different approaches. And I think this really does come down to viewing it from a Sutra lens or from a Tantric lens. And we just started talking about the practice as I started to pick up shi-ne and became friends and, you know, basically, for many many months had no intention of making anything formal out of it. And then, you know, this inkling, The Stoa session came up. And we were like, yeah, maybe a couple people would be interested in hearing what we have to say. I don’t know, maybe there’s a need for a community that could approach this practice in the way that Rin’dzin just outlined. Then, like you said, we’re kind of blown away by how many people had taken an interest and have since followed up with some of those folks who had reached out directly and just started to get an idea of what this community of practice might be.
Michael: Mm hmm. Boy, there’s so much to ask. All the questions are getting bunched up in my prefrontal cortex all at once here. So, I’ll go with an easy one, from my end, easy to ask, which is currently – and I realize we’re very, very, very, early days – how are you imagining setting this up? Like, how would this community of practice work?
Rin’dzin: We’re in this great space at the moment. There are so many ideas, lots of different forms, potentially, that are arising. You know, we were talking just yesterday about this and one of the visual images that came to me was like a network of nodes that are both concentric circles and have paths laterally between each other, and different paths that could be navigated towards evermore internal circles. And I like that image because it gets away from the staged idea. I think you and I, last time we were talking, Michael, we were exploring this idea of whether it’s possible to have a scaled, staged Vajrayana that would still be meaningful. And actually, I think I like this idea better. I like the opportunity for people that we could present, that would be to navigate their own way through a network with different supports available so that they can figure out “what is the next thing that is going to be meaningful in terms of my practice; in terms of my understanding, my worldview, the path that I personally am on?” And I think that’s particularly appropriate for where we’re coming from in terms of our roots because the generalization of teaching is very much more a Sutric thing than it is in the particular version of Vajrayana that Jared and I are hoping to make available for people.
Michael: Now, you used an interesting phrase there which was about people being able to work it out for themselves but with support or with resource. What are the sorts of resources that you would see people having in this practice community?
Rin’dzin: We’ve thought about a variety. Do you want to say something about what we’ve done already, Jared?
Jared: Yeah, yeah. And maybe even to put some like very technical meat on the bones as well, I think one of the interesting things that came up when we started thinking about putting this group together was just that my previous career was actually in operating a digital marketing team that was global, so in many different time zones. So, operations and management in the digital arena is one of my skill sets. So that was nice to have that as be maybe the scaffolding or a base framework for us to start putting the practices on. And so far, we’ve just kind of started with setting up a practice group meetup which everybody joins and talks about their own practice, asks questions, reflects. It’s a very collaborative, informal discussion for people to reflect back to each other each of our practices, I suppose.
Rin’dzin: We had the first one of those recently and it was great. Like The Stoa event, we just did free flow and allowed it to continue as long as it did, and we went on for three hours both times. There was lots of interesting conversation. One thing that really struck me was that the range of participants was just fabulous. There were a handful of long term, experienced Vajrayana practitioners, with decades of experience, other people who are coming from Mahayana backgrounds or from other backgrounds have, you know, 10 or more years of practice, and a lot of newcomers as well. So, we have this great range of people who can riff off of each other. And I think as we go forward, conversation is going to be a really important part of this as well. I think there’ll be different styles of presentation, different media, different holding structures for the practices to evolve in as well.
Michael: So, when you and I talked last time Rin’dzin, we did speak quite a bit about the role of the teacher in traditional Vajrayana. And I think in The Stoa event, it would be fair to say that, you know, you were the person presenting, right? People were mainly asking you questions, and so on. However, the structure that you’re describing seems to be much more egalitarian than that. Is that a correct impression?
Rin’dzin: I think the structure can be of multiple forms. So, there may be some situations where there is myself or Jared or one of the other experienced practitioners in the group doing more of a question, answer thing. There are other types of format that I really want to encourage that are more exploratory. And that is going to be a really important part of it, I think. The other thing to say is that neither of us really have a very strong sense of what this is going to look like in a year, in five years, in 10 years time. Already, we started talking about things like, I think Jared suggested this, Vajra Bytes, that he and I having…
Michael: Like a food product?
Rin’dzin: Well, I was thinking of being like B Y T E S but maybe you were… Were you thinking of it as being like munchies?
Jared: Little cheese-filled dorjes or something.
Michael: You heard it here first, folks.
Rin’dzin: One of the great things about this is it’s just been so much fun. I mean we’ve just been riffing off of each other and just having a lot of fun thinking about even just a name for the group. We haven’t come up with a name yet, but we started out as Degenerate Fuckwits. And that was actually quite important.
Michael: Maybe Degenerate Vajra Fuckwits would be more accurate, yeah.
Rin’dzin: Or yogis. Degenerate Vajra Yogi Fuckwits. The possibilities are endless. Actually the degenerate aspect was in some ways quite important because we’re starting from a point in time where in some sense culture is fragmenting, Vajrayana is dissipating, Tibetan Buddhism, in many ways, I think it [Tibetan Buddhism] has just failed to transition to a meaningful opportunity for many people. It’s still available and meaningful to a minority but I think that group is becoming smaller and smaller. So, in some sense, the situation that we have and that we’re starting out from is degenerate. And placing ourselves within that and calling ourselves degenerate is in some way important as well. You know, there have been so many problems with the teacher student relationship, not just in Vajrayana, across different domains. So we want to be very careful about that, very careful indeed. And to recognize that when there is inequality of learning or inequality of information or difference of circumstances, that that doesn’t necessarily lead to abuses of power or, you know, all of the obstacles to the good kind of apprenticeship or learning situation or collaborative learning situation that we know can work, that all of us have seen happen well in different circumstances.
Jared: And I’d also kind of add too, you know, something that we’ve talked a lot about. And it’s something that is kind of the initial image that comes to mind when I think about how we’re going to kind of start constructing these structures and systems to enable for people to be successful in their practice. And I think this kind of meta-systematic approach is important, specifically, the fluid element here. So, I think this begins to approach that kind of rigid hierarchy problem that so many other folks are having or bumping up against these days.
Rin’dzin: But you know, I see this in some ways as going back to the early days of Vajrayana or in Tibet during the eighth century first wave of translations and the way that Vajrayana came into Tibet at that time – it was mixing with the village communities, there was a heterogeneous, non-monastic setting. And I think the teacher relationship in those circumstances would have been very, very different to what it became once Vajrayana became monasticized and once it was more institutionalized over the subsequent centuries in Tibet. So, in some sense, I have in mind that that is somewhat similar to the Western tradition of apprenticeship that we have here. And that there are these very much more close relationships that teachers and students have in those sort of settings that are quite different to the distanced relationship that we tend to think of and relate to when we talk about mentoring or teaching usually.
Jared: And we kind of started from that place in the sense that we were just in a very friendly, close relationship… And then, eventually decided that this is something that is definitely a mentorship type thing.
Rin’dzin: We were talking about that this morning, that there is this idea that you have a big hierarchy, big distance, in the teacher relationship, and that is the norm. And even recognizing that becoming a teacher and taking a teacher is actually a move in the direction of trust–a move in the direction of getting closer to a person. It’s just not something that we tend to think about in terms of the teaching relationship. That’s kind of turning it on its head. And I like that because, you know, Vajrayana is subversive; it does turn things on its head. It’s part of the nature of Buddhist Tantra and Vajrayana to do that.
Michael: Yes, when you brought up the term degenerate, I thought of the classic idea of the “loss of caste,” in quotes, in Tantrism. That even beginning to do this you’re going to, in a way, become an outcast or degenerate in some way – so very fascinating. Now, a huge portion of The Stoa event was dedicated to talking about worldviews. And it felt like much more than practice, that it wasn’t about what practice you were doing so much as the worldview behind your practice. Would you say that’s a fair understanding?
Rin’dzin: I think so. And one of the things we were wanting to do in that event was lay some ground; set out how we see the differences between different sorts of worldviews, because I think those are very often automated, they’re hidden, they’re not seen. And what I suspect we are going to be practicing and presenting is actually a pretty different worldview. It’s coming from a very different worldview than the worldview that I think informs most meditations and most practices and most systems today–including most systems of Vajrayana and including most systems of secular meditation as well.
Michael: Yeah, so of course, you talked about that quite a bit, but can you share for listeners what the basic thing you’re pointing to is here?
Rin’dzin: We called the event from Sutra to Tantra. This distinction is coming from a three-way distinction between Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen in the Tibetan context. And that three-way classification… I like it. It’s a simplifying distinction. It views all practices and all doctrine, Buddhist or not, whatever, in terms of how they might fit into these three very broad categories. It’s not the only one. It’s not the only classification. But it’s very clear, very clear about methodology: how methodology informs practice and how practice is supposed to function. So, it’s a three-way distinction: Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen, that is based in principle and function.
What we were presenting there is that the principle of Sutra is renunciative, but this is often missed because the language has been softened so much. And that’s partly why I’ve been emphasizing dualism a lot recently and was doing so there in The Stoa event as well. What I want to do is to bring attention to the flavor of Sutric language and the language of many practice systems, many meditation systems. The kind of language that I’m talking about on the Buddhist side is very much about non-attachment. You have these aims of non-attachment, of transcending suffering. You have the cycle of samsara; attraction, aversion, and indifference. These are very familiar Buddhist concepts. And in the practices, what this translates to and where this leads to, in many meditation systems that people are engaged with, it translates into overcoming obstacles, taming, controlling, letting go. Anything that implies a separation: you’ve got an observer and you have an observed, there’s an object and you’re focusing on it, you focus on the breath. So, noting, labeling, even bringing attention to, focusing on – all of those techniques are designed to separate, fundamentally. They were designed to separate the aspect of your experience that gives rise to desire and emotional turbulence, anger, passion. They were designed to separate that from the aspect of your experience that is capable of watching that experience and not acting upon it. This is so important to understand. That’s intentional. It’s the whole point of the practice. So, this is what we call the Sutric frame of reference in this context. It utilizes dualism, it draws on our tendency to separate self from other, and the final point of that is to collapse that dualistic experience into the experience of emptiness or, you know, in the Theravadin traditions, that’s the experience of no-self.
So, what this boils down to, I think, is that many meditation systems have inherited that underlying concept. It’s tuned into the concept that emotions and thoughts are problems. And that was very much explicitly a part of the framework that gave rise to this: emotions and thoughts are problems that need to be disciplined and controlled. You know, I’m not saying that discipline and control aren’t useful skills, but with this approach they tend to come at the expense of feeling. So, if you practice this sort of meditation fervently and long enough, eventually the sensation of the desire or the sensation of the anger just isn’t felt anymore. There’s a gradual progression away from the experience of emotion and sensation. This is explicit. And, you know, we talked about this a little bit before, Michael, there’s this movement towards cessation of feeling and maybe some repression there along the way as well. And I think there’s an accompanying judgment with that. There’s a very clearly defined polarization into what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, what is pure and impure. You start beginning to want to avoid circumstances that might give rise to intense emotional experience, or whatever.
Michael: As you know, I’m on the same page in terms of feeling that Theravada-style practice has this not just implicit, but a very explicit goal of removing all emotion except maybe happiness or compassion from your life like you’re never supposed to, in the end, never feel anger or sorrow again, and claiming that that is, you know, a fuller or somehow truer human experience. And, you know, that’s literally there as the goal of the practice, right? That goal never resonated for me. But of course, I was also learning even my Vipassana style practice from Shinzen who’s coming from a Shingon and Zen background. So, he was always very explicit that we’re never avoiding anything and so, it had a different flavor to it. And yet, the more you read other teachers or original documents, or, you know, hang out in different practice communities… I’ve definitely noticed that there is this strong tension between people who feel like the goal is to somehow overcome every emotion and kind of flatten everything into this one band of equanimous joy or something; in a renunciate context, where we’re not interacting with the world in almost any way, and people who are just anything but that and they are all practicing together in one area or talking together as if they’re doing the same work, which I think it’s pretty clear that they’re not. And that makes the understanding of even how to do the same practice utterly different. So, it couldn’t be a more important concept.
Jared: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting too because there’s a bit of an insidious quality that I’ve experienced in my own past that there is a kind of subtle rejection that doesn’t feel overtly against any part of your experience. But there’s still a preference. The funny thing is that you can have some negative emotion arise and you just simply don’t entertain it, you don’t engage with it. But as we know as meditators, right, it’s the same thing with thoughts. Like, when we’re meditating if we don’t engage them, they will begin to subside. So, if there’s always a preference in what’s arising, even though it’s not from an explicit, averse nature, it can still have this quality of downregulating that whole aspect of your experience. And I definitely had that. And there’s a lot of fear around certain parts of my experience of really feeling that they are so dangerous in some ways.
Rin’dzin: It’s interesting because I think one of the things that starts happening is that there’s this tendency to maintain the view when you’re not meditating. So, the method that you apply when you’re meditating becomes the view that you start applying to everyday circumstances. Now, when a method was designed for asceticism or for a monastic circumstance it doesn’t mean that because we have different circumstances now that that method still does not have a valid function. But it can create a kind of schism experience which you have to disregard for a sense of personal coherence. So, you end up with this stance whereby on the one hand there’s a pure unattached, undesiring, ever watchful, dissociated itself. And then on the other hand, you have ordinary experience, and that’s demanding of you. It’s demanding social connectedness, it’s demanding emotional responsiveness, it’s demanding interaction. And so, I think maybe what happens is that the conflict between these two aspects of experience just goes unfelt or unrecognized or starts to cause a little bit of duplicity or relationship tensions or, well, all sorts of things can happen.
Michael: Often there’s quite a bit of guilt arising in the form of something along the lines of, “Well, I should just be more unattached,” or “I should stop grasping so much,” and so on – and feeling like they’re a bad person or somehow not getting it because they’re not kind of floating along in this bubble of supreme non-attachment while still, you know, having a marriage and having a job and perhaps having children and interests and all that – which is not what that worldview was designed for.
Rin’dzin: That whole view was designed for very different circumstances. It was designed for monasteries, and monasteries were places where teenage boys were controlled. You know?
Michael: Yeah, I think it’s very fascinating. And I think you might have mentioned this just for a moment, Jared, in The Stoa program, but I think it’s very fascinating how most world religions are transcendental, right? They’re about getting out of the dirty, evil, stinky, samsaric world, whatever they call it. Like in Christianity, that we’re in the “fallen world” and getting out of that into either heaven, or in early Buddhism, Nirvana. Right? So, there’s this congruence in all these that the idea is to somehow escape this bad place. And so you can get this kind of strange crossover where people are taking their Christian or Muslim or Jewish religious background, and translating it on to the transcendentalism of early Buddhism or even accidentally translating it onto, you know, something like Vajrayana, which is explicitly both transcendental and imminent at the same time, right. In other words, you can get a kind of Protestant Buddhism, either accidentally – or a lot of it was by design – that is, in the end, really kind of anti-life and anti-world and anti-self. Right? All of that is something to be overcome by the sort of white light, angelic, unattached, non-self, soul.
Jared: Yeah, and it’s interesting. I’ve been trying to think about personally like how to clearly just draw a distinction between these two approaches, the transcending one and the more direct approach of Vajrayana. And really, I think it’s easily summed up by just saying that from the transcendent view, you see the project as constructing the circumstances and the lifestyle to be able to move past this world and live in peace. And that peace would be described as emptiness in this scenario. And then from the Vajrayana view it’s more like, actually, just notice that the emptiness or this peace is already available and it’s already operating in this exact moment. And then allow for it to congruently interact with the rest of life. And then we kind of have a more complete stance in the way that we live and engage and view our experience.
Rin’dzin: I think that’s really nicely put. Yeah. I think one of the ways that we’re presenting this, that may help people deselect themselves, is that we’re saying that there is no fixed, permanent, ultimate state available. There’s no state of being that you can get to that once you get to it that’s it, you’re done, it’s irreversible.
Michael: Except being dead.
Rin’dzin: Yeah, you know, I was thinking about that recently. I think that’s kind of like a no state. Isn’t it?
Michael: Yeah. Plus, I’m just joking. But yeah.
Jared: That’s Nibbana. Right? Isn’t that the way it’s described? Blowing out?
Rin’dzin: So, from this view, there’s no Pure Land. There’s no pure state of being.
Michael: And, you know, this idea that there is a place you can get to, from which you’ll never feel bad again and never suffer again and never feel a bad emotion again, of course, is extremely… You know, people really want that. However, I just don’t think any such state exists and even if it did, it would probably not be a good thing.
Rin’dzin: I think that’s an interesting thing, that from the perspective of Dzogchen, the maintaining of that dualist attitude can dissolve and sometimes it’s called the natural state. And sometimes it’s viewed as this place that you can get to that, you know, once you have Dzogchen, that’s it. But Dzogchen practice is more about maintaining a state, and the fact that there is instruction or means to maintain it implies that it is not always going to be there. You can fall in and out of it. And your practice is to become more familiar with that way of being, with that stance.
Jared: And even from that stance, I think we were talking about this the other day, you know, there’s a lot of conditions. I guess in this frame, “samsaric pattern,” that unfolds and even that state isn’t all encompassing. We’re only one mind and body and since we’re in interaction with everything else, there’s just no way to completely escape.
Rin’dzin: There’s no state in which it can be guaranteed that you won’t fuck up.
Michael: And in fact, you can be guaranteed that you will fuck up. [All laugh.] There is a guarantee there. Are you completely conflating Vajrayana and Dzogchen?
Rin’dzin: I am not.
Michael: Because the two circles of the diagram do not completely overlap.
Rin’dzin: Right. And what I see us doing is presenting Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen from the perspective of Dzogchen.
Michael: Yeah, no, this is very interesting to me, and it’s one place where I felt a lot of questions coming up in the dialogue you presented on Stoa. For me, it’s conditioned or in the light of having been in the discussion, you know, for 40 years, about whether we must start with a non-dual practice or not, and, you know, hearing all sides of that discussion for a long time and having done tons of practice and then for the past many years working with meditation practitioners as a, you know, guide or whatever…. It seems like, in my experience, many people resonate right away with a practice like shi-ne, like, you know, shikantaza, or something like that–just dropping in directly. But many people don’t and have an extremely difficult time. And typically, in tradition, you know, the remedy there is, well, let’s do some very dualistic samatha practice, you know? Or maybe it’s still seen in the light of non-dualism but it is–or, you know, maybe it’s still seen from the view of non-dual, but we’re working with the mind in a way that’s very “objecty. “Subject and objecty.” In order to, let’s say, stabilize attention, or whatever. And so Rin’dzin are you landing firmly in the–I’m just gonna say it this way to dramatize it–are you landing firmly in the camp that says, “everyone must start with this shi-ne practice?” Or is it more open than that?
Rin’dzin: I don’t think there’s a must. What I’m very interested in doing is changing the language of shi-ne/samatha so that it becomes possible to practice shi-ne with a different worldview and using a different language. And that’s still in process. Jared and I are still in process of talking about that and figuring out what kind of language works well. But yeah, in terms of your question: first of all, sometimes meditation just isn’t the right thing for people. So, there’s that… Figuring out what works for you and what doesn’t work is in the broader sense, “Does meditation function for me at this point in time? Or would I be better finding something else that is going to be more conducive to what I need and what my circumstances are?” So, there’s that. And then there’s also “What meditation am I engaging with?” And what I find is that the language available for that is very limited. One of the phrases that I really like that Ngakchang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen Rinpoche use for shi-ne practice is “remaining uninvolved.” And it may seem quite similar to non-attachment or to focusing on the breath, but remaining uninvolved as a principle is a very nice way to describe Sutric practice from the perspective of Dzogchen, because it means that involvement is always still there to choose. Uninvolvement is a choice that does not preclude the experience of involvement in any moment. So, there’s always this interconnectedness and this interrelatedness. It’s a very, very subtle difference but if you practice for decades using focus and noting and observing and attention and concentration, you’re going to end up in a very, very different place experientially than if you practice “remaining uninvolved” with whatever arises. It’s just a different practice eventually, I think. Although you could say it is a similar practice looked at through a different lens.
Michael: That’s very true.
Jared: And I think we’ve mentioned before is like that the practice of shi-ne, it still does have a constructed nature to it. So, we’re not saying it’s a completely natural state, but it is a way of, you know, becoming very familiar with the empty aspect of your experience so that then it’s stabilized as you learn how to reintegrate it into the rest of life.
Michael: This strikes me as a very Dzogchen viewpoint, which I think you said up front, Rin’dzin. However, as I understand it, a pretty typical Tantric or Vajrayana view would be that we, do want to have very high level samatha even using the stages of shamatha ala Kamalasila or Asanga, you know, as presented these days in TMI. We would want to have that very highly developed before attempting something like shi-ne. You know, that’s a very common practice path in Vajrayana.
Rin’dzin: Yeah, well, that’s doctrinally true from the perspective of Mahayana. I feel a rant coming on. Sorry.
Michael: Please rant away. But I would say not just Mahayana, right? Also, Vajrayana.
Rin’dzin: Well, yeah. Vajrayana as we receive it now – as it is available now, mostly.
Michael: Oh, please unpack that distinction.
Rin’dzin: Well, Vajrayana was co-opted by Mahayana, doctrinally and institutionally. So, it is true, and it is accurate to say that starting with Mahayana view, Vajrayana and Vajrayana practice appears advanced, but I think we have to look at this word “advanced” because, in this case, often “advanced” is synonymous with being available to a minority. It’s restricted, it’s not easily publicly accessible, you must go through the preliminary stages before you can get to it – from Mahayana view. And that was true in the institutionalized setting in Tibet and it’s been brought like that into the Tibetan Vajrayana that’s available now. And yes, it’s doctrinally correct but I think is also useful to understand that this historical capture of Vajrayana was a social technology. It was an instrument of social control. And the monasticism of Vajrayana served a political purpose. You know, we don’t think about it in those terms now. It occurred over several centuries in Tibet – this is very well documented – and reached its zenith in about the 15th century. And there was this very strong, compulsive, overt political agenda there. Early Vajrayana was very different. It was socially subversive in a way that it couldn’t be when it was made uniform and systematized and brought largely into the monasteries. And it had lineage connections with shamanism in Tibet and with village folklore, you know – the roots that it grew from were communal. It was a non-monastic tradition. And that did continue, but on a very much lesser scale and much less visible. And so, I think, you know, to get back to your question, Michael, using the Mahayana perspective served this purpose of a political agenda and this is what we’ve inherited. And I think it’s completely out of place. I think it’s what you would call a dead tradition. That may sound unnecessarily provocative to some people, but I do believe it. I mean, endless repetitive ritual, it can be extraordinarily powerful in the right circumstances. But the function it’s serving in most circumstances today… I think it’s a hazing ritual, to be honest.
Rin’dzin: There’s all the endless sadhanas and the Tantric ngöndro which take years to complete and, you know, all of the practices… I don’t think those can be seen as separate from the institutionalization and the monastic appropriation of Vajrayana. So, having experience of emptiness meditation and having experience of sitting meditation – you can get a lot of experience within six months, a year, a couple of years. In my opinion, we can start Buddhist Tantric practice alongside that as well, because the nature of the practice is to relate the empty aspect of our experience and to relate nebulosity in our everyday circumstances into all of the patterns that we’re so used to getting stuck with.
Jared: You know, “entranced by,” in some sense.
Rin’dzin: Entranced is a good word.
Jared: The interesting thing too that I might add is just that I think the nice thing about the structure and all of the steps and the methods and the very intricate, detailed map of TMI is that, especially as a solo practitioner that’s not really included with the community, which is the way that most of my practice has been, it was a good foundation to be able to get started with. And yet there is always a bit of a conflict. But I think the reason that something like shi-ne is possible is very much relying on the foundation that’s created by the community and the mentors and things like that as well. And sometimes I think even when people are starting shi-ne there can be a lot of preparatory, “halfway measures” to get people stable and ready to move forward. But it’s very specific and personalized. So, if teachings are being broadly set out… Well, I don’t think there’s any broad way to practice shi-ne other than remain uninvolved. But sometimes those instructions are a little too nebulous for a lot of us.
Rin’dzin: Could I interject something as well? Because I’m aware that I went off on a rant about ritualized, institutionalized setting and what I didn’t say is that we’re very keen to have silent sitting practice, shi-ne practice, with this emphasis on remaining uninvolved, and bring that kind of worldview in relation to the emotional texture of our experience. That is going to be foundational. And I think it’s really not possible to start introducing lots of different practices and lots of more form-oriented practices until we really have a cohort of practitioners who are using the same language and are familiar with that approach to meditation practice. So that’s the starting point that we have at the moment. And we’re developing this practice group for people who want to be involved in that.
Michael: And when you say, “be involved in that,” you’re specifically saying that want to be involved in practicing this form of shi-ne…
Michael: …as their core practice?
Rin’dzin: Shi-ne and Lhathong. Two practices that are associated with Dzogchen meditation and Mahamudra meditation. But we will eventually leave the Tibetan terminology and all of the language around that and develop an English language around it. We’ve started to do that.
Michael: Do you want to share some of the terminology you’re experimenting with?
Rin’dzin: There’s where the practice leads and there’s what the method is: what the practice is itself. And we’ve been riffing off one another with lots of ideas about that. I love remaining uninvolved as the method for shi-ne and for employing the Sutric worldview. The place that that leads to, if you like, “the result” of that practice, I like “effortless clarity.” That really is a great phrase, I think. There’s this sense when you are really familiar with that practice that you’re able to sit without arising thought and stuff coming up in mind and you have this very clear – I like to use the word “bright” – experience that feels like it doesn’t need any effort to maintain. And it is expansive. It’s an expansive experience of awareness and presence in that you’re not cut off from sensation arising. Sensation, sounds, all of the sense fields are heightened in that state. And yet there is little or no thought arising at all.
Jared: And one of the things that we talked about a lot too is that sometimes the spacious element of that, or the clarity element of that might imply that it is very airy, or light. But actually, since all of those sense aspects of your experience are very alive there’s an extreme groundedness and solidity to it as well. So it’s, yeah, both vast and extremely solid.
Rin’dzin: And then for the Tantric language from this perspective, the next meditation would be Lhathong in Tibetan. Vipassana – there is an equation with Vipassana we’ve been thinking about. There’s a huge variety of possibilities in this stage of practice and in this worldview. This aspect has to do with involvement: passionate engagement, creativity, building, the channeling of enthusiasm and energy into appropriate congruent activity. It’s to do with interrelatedness.
Michael: These are very compelling terms in English. Yeah, I can see how it’s quite a rich semantic field that you guys are moving into.
Rin’dzin: And you know, something I’m very interested in is this unhealthy relationship that our culture has with power. And it’s really become a problem word, let alone a problematic domain, but Tantric practice encourages empowerment. It encourages the capacity to take responsibility, to make a difference in social circumstances, and to become actively engaged, and to do that with creative enjoyment. And that is a powerful thing to do.
Michael: Yeah, I think since maybe the 60’s power has been a very problematic word in English, right? People have a very complex relationship with the word. And most of the time, it’s seen as a bad thing. But of course, it’s neither a bad thing nor a good thing. It’s just a thing. And we can have different kinds of relationships with it. I’ve always found it fascinating that the Vajrayana and Tantra in general has this real deep relationship with power and understanding how to empower oneself by using these techniques.
Rin’dzin: One thing that I was wondering about Michael, is that you use the word non-dual, and a lot of people do use the word non-dual. And I think that can mean very different things in terms of experience. So, I would be curious to hear you unpack that and maybe we could have a conversation about non-duality from different perspectives or different ways that we can think about that or understand it.
Michael: It’s interesting. Non-dual is one of those words that is, like many words in Buddhist language, used by a lot of different traditions in ways that seem to mean very different things. It’s like the word is maintained but the meaning is changed. And this is very common. Like how many different things does “samatha” mean in Buddhism.
Rin’dzin: And clearly, samatha points to different experiences that people have as well. And I think the same with non-duality. I think it covers various quite distinct experiences that could be described, really, with different languages and from different perspectives as well.
Michael: That’s true. And I also think, kind of flipping it around resonates for me as well, which is that there are some similar experiences that do have different philosophical language associated with them and yet, when you hear people describing them, even in a lot of detail, they seem to be talking about something very, very similar.
Rin’dzin: Which ones? What are you thinking of?
Michael: I think… Let’s say that there’s an experience of something we could call the “natural mind:” an open, expansive, clear, non-conceptual experience. And this seems to be broadly human and available in every culture at every time. But if the person is coming from a place where they’re in a theistic culture, they’re going to talk about that in a very different way than a culture that is, you know, non-theistic. And whatever spiritual tradition they’re in, they’re going to describe it quite differently. And yet, when you get down to the experiential components – just the: what did you feel and what did you see and stuff like that, they seem to be quite similar. And so, I agree that there’s a lot of things that people are calling non-dual that are quite different than each other. And I would also say, I think there’s a lot of things that sound quite different that are all pointing to something that I would call non-dual. So, it’s such a complex word and used in so many ways over such a long time. I’m not saying that to dodge the issue, but rather to just sort of lay the..
Rin’dzin: It is tricky…
Michael: ..It’s very tricky. You know, a long time ago, I put together a little paper about non-dualism that I find a lot to criticize in now. But my fundamental thesis there was that there’s this, you know, natural mind experience that people have worldwide and broadly across history. But the way they’ve talked about it and written about it is quite different. Using different words, sometimes monist words confusing monism and non-dualism… As you know, philosophically, they’re quite different. But are they different as an experience? You know, it’s a question I’m willing to entertain at least. I don’t think the answer is 100% obvious.
Rin’dzin: I think there are different non-ordinary experiences, distinct non-ordinary experiences, that can be described, and that there’s a lot of crossover between descriptions of those so that it becomes confusing sometimes, which of those different experiences we’re talking about. For example, the experience of a very effortless, clear, state, the kind of experience that we’ve been talking about where there’s no thought arising, that is a very different experience to the one that is described as non-duality in earlier Dzogchen traditions, which would not preclude thought. So, the experience of rigpa, the Tibetan word rigpa, which is often translated as something like “all pervading awareness…” That, I think, is a very different non-ordinary state of mind to the state of mind which is often described as emptiness or is the experience of just not having all that stuff arising in mind.
Michael: Yeah, and I think, again, different traditions even within, you know, micro-sub lineages of Dzogchen and stuff, talk about these things somewhat differently. So, it gets tricky, as we said. And furthermore, there can be more than one non-duality, right? There’s quite a number of different non-dualities or you know, non-dualism that we can talk about.
Rin’dzin: There was a lovely moment in our Stoa event where Doug Tataryn described an experience of non-duality from perspective of his practice and was talking about the non-duality of subject and object. And I thought that was great because it’s a very specific and a really unique experience as well. It’s one that a lot of people have described when they have been practicing the TMI or practicing within staged traditions – not only staged traditions – but it was a really nice description. I recommend people to go and hear that.
Michael: And the non-duality of subject and object, you know, force me to define it, that would probably be the basic definition or the first one I would come up with.
Rin’dzin: But you do – you have practiced in multiple traditions, but you have a Sutric background as well. Is that right, Michael? Would you describe yourself that way?
Michael: Most of my background is Tantric. Hindu Tantra, and/or, you know, whatever we’re learning with Shinzen. So, all my Sutric background is Shinzen Sutric which isn’t very Sutric.
Rin’dzin: So yeah, I think what I’m saying is that if your practice involves a differentiation between subject and object then your experience of non-duality is going to be the non-duality of subject and object. If your practice has not been coming from that route then quite possibly the way that you will have a lens into a non-dual experience would be described as, for example, “non-duality of emptiness and form” in a different setting, or the “non-duality of interrelatedness” or whatever.
Michael: Yeah… In my own experience, the thing that I would be calling non-duality isn’t exactly the same as non-duality of subject and object, it would be more of a “one taste” kind of thing.
Jared: Yeah, it’s funny, you know… So, I think Sutra was a huge—at least Sutric language. It’s really hard to differentiate whether the teachings themselves were inherently Sutric, or if they’ve just been using words and vernacular and kind of scripts that come from the Sutric disposition. So, it really does permeate all very subtle aspects of our experience. So, I don’t know. You know, I’ve had a mixed bag of contemporary Western practices that made up my early practice. And yet, I had this assumption that the subject, you know, as soon as the inner/outer distinction was collapsed…then I’m onto something, that’s what I’m doing. And one of the most counterintuitive things for me is like getting to know the Vajrayana view was like, “Oh, I can actually collapse many dualities. I can encounter my political beliefs as empty, right? And I might have a history of only encountering them as solid and separate and defined. And so yeah, there’s so many other ways that emptiness and form are parts of our experience that are beyond just the self-element of our experience.
Rin’dzin: You’ve reminded me in saying that, Jared, that one of the motivations behind wanting to think carefully about a language of non-duality or coming at it from this perspective is partly because of the situation that we find ourselves in culturally where there’s so much polarization and so much difficulty of communication that I think is somewhat reliant on having that kind of dualistic worldview. And now there’s this real zeitgeist of people figuring out how to talk in a way that understands the opposite point of view; understands a different point of view.
Jared: Yeah, language is huge there. My past podcast was so much about this idea of mimetic mediation, where we are trying to mediate against the warring tribes. And so much of the things that I was cognizant of: what words can I use that aren’t going to have stained connotations, that are trigger points. If you’re very specific about your language…
Rin’dzin: …how can you say the same thing without being inflammatory, is always a difficult question.
Jared: Yeah, and without referring to something that’s already been reified in somebody’s mind as ridiculous or wrong or whatever it is. And so yeah, it’s a way of bringing the nebulosity back to this concept that they had a fixed idea about what it was. And language is just so important, and it frustrates me a lot too because I tend to be quite frivolous with it.
Michael: I feel like, Jared, you’re pointing to the central importance of meta-systemic thinking in doing Vajrayana practice, and it’s something that I hear both of you referencing as you’re talking about this. And to me, I’m so glad you brought it up, Jared, because that whole idea of being able to take on multiple viewpoints, take on multiple worldviews, collapse any particular non-duality… That’s such an incredibly important skill, that to me, these practices both demand and inculcate.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Michael: Are you considering bringing that in, in a more overt sense into the teaching or into the practice?
Jared: Oh, man, I don’t know if I’ve ever even mentioned it. This might have been the first time. I don’t know… Rin’dzin, correct me. Is this something that we’ve talked about before?
Rin’dzin: I don’t know, we’ve talked about so much.
Jared: Yeah well, it seems possible. I can’t talk without heading that direction. So, by proximity, I think some people will be forced to have these conversations that can sometimes be uncomfortable.
Rin’dzin: We are intentionally meta-systematic. And I appreciate Michael picking up on that. I like the Dzogchen view because it is, in the history of Buddhism, it is late enough that it’s able to be meta-systematic in a way that earlier developments could not be because of the historical trajectory. So bringing that overview and understanding things from the aspect of their principal and function I think also fits very well with being creative and figuring out how are we collaboratively going to bring a new practice and system of practice into being in this cultural context that we have.
Michael: The question I often get is not about meta-systematicity. But going back…it’s about “Well, do I do Vipassana practice? Or should I do non-dual practice? And where should I begin?” And I hear this question almost on a daily basis. Maybe several times a day.
Rin’dzin: Uh huh?
Michael: Often. And from my perspective, I do bring up the difference in the worldviews that are usually embedded with these practices. But from my perspective, my general answer, and it’s very individual – it depends entirely on the person and talking with them one on one for a while. But if I could say there’s a general response, it’s “it depends.” And for me, it depends on a whole host of factors of their psychology and what practices they’ve already done and what they’re comfortable with and what’s going on in their life and so on. I don’t feel it’s always the case that they must jump into non-dual practice – whatever we’re calling that – immediately, because, as you said, sometimes it’s just kind of a drowning experience, or a total confusion or frustration experience. Not in a helpful way. But how would you answer that question? Both of you, you know if someone came to you and asked, what would be your response?
Rin’dzin: My response would be, I can’t teach using the language of samatha-vipassana, because that hasn’t been my experience. So, I can teach shi-ne practice and I can show how that can be relevant, as a practice of remaining uninvolved. I do think it’s a different practice. In the long run, you know, you’re actually employing a somewhat different method. It’s non-concentrative. So, I think that method where you’re preparing for shi-ne proper and you are finding awareness in the breath, you’re not focusing on the breath, you’re not concentrating on an object…I still think that that can be very useful. I think it really is the most useful everyday practice. That’s the ground of Tantric practice, if you like. So, I think if somebody wants to increase concentration, develop focus, really hone in on those aspects of practice, then it would be better to find a context in which it’s possible to develop that more: maybe more like TMI or more of a samatha focus. Otherwise, I think for anybody who wants to engage meditation practice with everyday life and the emotional texture of their experience and with going to work and having relationships… probably practicing shi-ne but with the language and view of Vajrayana is probably more appropriate in the long run. But you know, like you said, it depends very much on circumstances and supporting people to figure out what is most congruent to their own circumstances.
Jared: Yeah, it’s interesting for me because I guess even backing up further, before samatha practice I was doing vipassana taught directly from you, Michael. So, you’re the foundation of my more formal meditation history. So. Well, this is something that’s been coming up a lot for me, especially when I was looking at getting familiar with a lot of the folks that have started to come practice with us… What their history was. And there’s a ton of different practices. And I think something that’s going to probably happen over the next however long is that we’re going to – as a community – kind of get an idea of how to view vipassana and many other different approaches from this Dzogchen lens and relate it directly to how it is going to impact shi-ne practice eventually. But I do think shi-ne is kind of the ground of moving forward in at least this little community. But yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about how noting can be re-characterized and I don’t have a hard answer at this moment, but I think there might be some potential there for sure.
Michael: It’s so fascinating, you know, you guys have put together or are in the process of putting together something super beautiful. I’m just so excited about it. I’m curious, like, Jared, what do you see in kind of the deep-blue-ocean-rainbow version of this? Like, what would you see coming of your project? Together with Rin’dzin?
Jared: Oh, man, yeah. Maybe this is a bit of a letdown, but the interesting thing is that the more nebulous my life has become the more I’m like just really excited to see what is happening and what’s arising. And I don’t have kind of any idea what’s going to happen. You know, a few weeks ago or a month or so ago I couldn’t even imagine that we were going to be pulling together a community. So, I have no idea. But hopefully something that is creating a lot of positive impact and an option for practitioners and yogis who haven’t felt like they can find a home because they come from a slightly strange perspective maybe similar to ours.
Michael: Was your main platform during COVID going to be Zoom? What are you using to interact?
Jared: Yeah, Zoom is for the meetups for sure. We’re about to launch a Slack channel as well and make sure that we can allow for spontaneous calls, one on one and groups and have some different channels. Who knows what will come up, but we were thinking book clubs and practice journals. And you know, I’m excited to figure out what the community has planned for us because I think they’re gonna be… So much of the direction is gonna be defined by who starts this journey with us.
Rin’dzin: I think personality is really important there as well. Like, there is this big emphasis in Vajrayana practice on personality and personality being an aspect of the method, an aspect of the way that you come to understand non-dual experiences is through your personality. So, it’s not ironing out your personality to become the same as everybody else’. It’s more in the direction of figuring out differences.
Jared: Yeah this is why I always love the early kind of Vajrayana stories and Mahasiddhas and yogis: they were all so different. And that is such an attractive element of the kind of primordial, uncivilized, degenerate yogi.
Michael: The fish gut eater Mahasiddha and so on. Rin’dzin, I’d love to ask you the same question. Like, what do you see or what is sort of your vision for where this could go? Kind of the biggest setting?
Rin’dzin: Well. I am currently hung up on language, as you may have figured out from what I’ve said so far, I want to – I hope I’m not being too pedantic about this – I really hope that it becomes more clear and that we are able to develop a fresh, new language, not just within this community of practice but one that many people might feel they could adopt and use in relation to different meditations and systems. I’d love to do that. That could be something that as a community we could offer to the wider field, the domain of practice. I would eventually love to have available many different practices that are informed by the principles and function of the methodology of Buddhist Tantra and Dzogchen and all of that Vajrayana inheritance that we have, that I don’t want to see lost in principle. So, you know, the foundational practice of Buddhist Tantra is yidam practice. And you and I, Michael, we’ve talked a little bit about yidam practice previously. So – yidam practice is, for our listeners who haven’t heard that terminology before, it’s sometimes called “dayity” yoga or…
Michael: Yeah. “Deeity” yoga.
Rin’dzin: I did a British pronunciation 🙂 I like the term “being of awareness.” It is a practice in which one engages traditionally with recitation of mantra and eventually identification with, or I would say more, “tapping into the quality of a particular manifestation of a style of awareness” or “manifestation of a quality of being that is admirable.” So that’s quite a peculiar description of yidam practice. But at the moment, the way that that is available, the way that yidam as a practice comes into being is, it has to be contextual. Yidam is a practice that arises from circumstances and that arises within a lineage, a well-established lineage. All of the yidams that are available for people to practice in Buddhist Tantra are associated with particular contexts. They derive meaning, and the practice derives meaning, from that context. It’s just not something that you can just say: “oh right, I’m just going to do this, I’ll do this one here now, I’ll just make this one up,” because it loses the pertinacity of context. And that is really important for yidam practice. So, in future, you know, who knows what will happen with this group. It depends very much on who is involved, and the nature and personalities of the people involved. But I would love to see many of the traditional Tantric practices come into being in a way that is resonant with our particular time and place, our cultural context. And yeah, so that would be great. It’s a big ideal.
Michael: Yeah, westernized yidam practice. That would be amazing.
Rin’dzin: But it can’t happen just like that. I think that, you know, until there is already a well-established community of practitioners and people who have a shared ground and who have been practicing together and who know each other well and have been through all of that first…
Michael: So, creating the web of contextuality that would support the practice…
Rin’dzin: Yes, exactly…
Michael: Well, thank you both so much for sharing today about this project. I wish we had a name for it. I could refer to the name now, but I’ll just say, the project you guys are working on sounds amazing and I really appreciate you being so generous with your time and ideas. So, thank you.
Rin’dzin: Thank you so much. Thank you.
Jared: Thanks for having us.