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Vajrayana, Engineering, and Jiu Jitsu, with Rin’dzin Pamo—Transcript

A Transcript of the Podcast Interview

You can listen to the original interview here.

Michael: Rin’dzin, welcome to the Deconstructing Yourself podcast.

Rin’dzin: Hi Michael, it’s great to be here, thanks for inviting me.

Michael: Oh, you’re so welcome, I’ve wanted to have you on the show for a long time and I would love to begin by asking you just a quick question about your background for listeners who aren’t aware of who you are or what you do.

Rin’dzin: So, I’m coming from a fairly traditional background of practicing Vajrayana. I guess I’ve taken what you might call a depth-first search. I’ve been practicing in the Aro gTér Vajrayana lineage of Tibetan Buddhism since 1998. I became an apprentice in 1998.

Michael: Until recently I’d never heard of the Aro gTér lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Where does that come from?

Rin’dzin: It’s a lineage in the Nyingma school, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘old school’ of Tibetan Buddhism. It has a strong non-monastic, yogic tradition and that’s the tradition that I have belonged to over these years. That’s one of the things that attracted me to that kind of practice as well.

Michael: That it’s householder practice, non monks, and…

Rin’dzin: Non-renunciate in style.

Michael: And so, you began this how long ago?

Rin’dzin: I became an [Aro gTér] apprentice in 1998. Actually I started meditating in 1990. 1990 was my first experience of meditation and I was sporadic in my practice through the ‘90s and then started hanging around the Aro gTér retreats in the mid ‘90s. I was practicing with other groups at that point.

Michael: Is Aro gTér mainly a European thing at this point?

Rin’dzin: No there’s a sangha in America as well. We have Lamas here in the Bay Area. There’s Lama Seng-gé who’s a tantrika and Lama Zér-mé who’s a very, very experienced meditator. She’s been teaching meditation for decades. Both of those have apprentices. They have a small sangha of practitioners that they work with.

Michael: And are you also a meditation teacher in that tradition?

Rin’dzin: I was. I started mentoring in about 2006. I took ordination in the tradition in 2002 and then a few years after that we set up a mentoring program. There’s an online email course on the four naljors which brings people in to ask for a mentor sometimes. Over the years I’ve mentored a lot of people in that scheme. I guess n = maybe 100.

Michael: And so naljors are the meditation techniques of the tradition?

Rin’dzin: Naljor is the Tibetan word for yoga, so ‘yogas of the mind’ if you like.

Michael: And so now you are a software engineer?

Rin’dzin: Oh, I would love to be. I’ve been learning to code for just over a year so I’m a junior level developer. I am hoping to move into the tech industry. I’ve got a lot of background in project management and I’ve been working in international development. Most of my working life was in that area in human rights. My last work was as a program director with Amnesty International. I’m wanting to transition into using that experience at some point, but in the short term get some more engineering experience in a team, that kind of thing.

Michael: Well you’re in the right part of the world.

Rin’dzin: Yeah, for sure, for sure. I’m really looking forward to that. I’ve already met with various people who work in tech and I like the Bay Area very much. I’m looking forward to it.

M: I’ve been reading your blog and you tend to be very systematic.

R: I am, oh my goodness yes, I love systems.

M: So, the thing that I’ve been reading mainly on your blog, what’s the name of the blog again?

R: It’s

M: And so you began this very interesting project of taking The Mind Illuminated book by Culadasa which is of course a very popular meditation manual right now based on Theravada meditation techniques, mainly Shamatha techniques from the Sutrayana tradition. And you’ve been going through the book stage by stage using your very advanced Vajrayana meditation skills as a basis for just trying this completely different system and you’ve been writing about how that’s going for you and I find this extremely fascinating.

R: Oh, thank you, yeah, it’s been very interesting. I had several motivations for that project. One was that a proportion of the people that I had been mentoring over the years, maybe two thirds of those people were coming from Shamatha-Vipassana background so some of them had a lot of experience in that kind of approach to meditation. So I was mostly teaching meditation very much from a Vajrayana perspective and able to talk about that experientially and to be a sounding board in that situation but only really having a theoretical understanding of the differences of a very systematically staged Shamatha-Vipassana path.

There was one motivation that I really wanted to understand that experientially and really know how that might connect to the more expansive experience that we have sometimes in meditation and that the four naljors are designed to work with and to produce. So that was one reason. And then there was also this sense that, in that tradition there’s been a shift, I think, in the way it’s presented. People like Daniel Ingram did a really great job of talking openly about practice. I think that’s a really good thing. There are a lot of forums for that kind of meditation practice. There are many places that people can test their experience anecdotally with other people who may be a little bit further along the path.

Now, in a traditional Vajrayana context mostly you would be doing that with your teacher, maybe with mentors. It’s not traditionally conventional to openly talk publicly about your practice. So in some senses I think I was intentionally breaking a taboo there. There are good reasons for that convention, for sure, and it’s maybe not so necessary if you’re in a small, close-knit sangha and you have peers and very ready access to people who can check in with you, and, y’know it’s a very easy situation there. But that is not available to many people who want to approach Vajrayana practice.

M: It was the same taboo in Theravada practice and so that’s what was so radical about Daniel’s book and maybe still is so radical about it. Also Culadasa, Kenneth Folk, all of these people were really going against the norms and rules of the tradition to speak about these sorts of details of practice very, very openly and that has led to a sort of renaissance in meditation practice, right, many people more interested. 

R: Right, right. I think that’s a great thing. There maybe are one or two forums for people approaching Vajrayana, but we could have a lot more of that. Especially for those who want to test their experience empirically. You know, anyone who has a clue these days is wanting to understand differences in terms of how different meditations function and how to apply them in different circumstances, so, yeah, I’d like to encourage that. I guess I was taking some risk. It felt a little risky for me to start doing that publicly, because of course you’re exposing all your human-ness in approaching a practice brand new and not necessarily always having a great experience or whatever, so yeah, I felt I was taking some risk, but that it was a good one.

M: And it’s part of what makes that blog so compelling is that here’s this very advanced Vajrayana teacher willing to not only try out this other practice from a different tradition but be utterly transparent and vulnerable about what that’s like.

R: Oh, thank you. Well, it’s been a great experience as well. It’s opened up quite a lot for me in terms of the understanding of this very precise approach, through steps. I love that the system itself is so beautifully crafted. That’s something I’ve come to appreciate a lot.

M: So, like, the staged nature?

R: Right, so each stage has a very clear description of where you would need to be to start that stage, how you apply the techniques that you’ve learned and how you will recognize if you have reached a point where you’re accomplished in that particular stage. There’s circles within circles so each step leads very nicely to the next one. It’s kind of perfect in a way. There’s a sort of systemic perfection about it. It’s a complete system and as someone who appreciates engineering approaches, there’s a side of me that really loves that aesthetic presentation of a beautiful system.

M: I’ve definitely noticed that about TMI. I also, as someone who teaches quite a bit, often wonder if systems that are so delineated over determine outcomes. It seems like practitioners have very different experiences and things that don’t line up with the stages and systems at all.

R: Right, so the other side of being an engineer is that you start making things in the real world and it doesn’t work out according to the system. I think a lot of the training that engineers have over the years is learning in situation, so, in a situated context learning to apply method. I don’t know if it has been put exactly like this, but in a spiritual context what you might say that kind of learning is, is getting to understand the difference between absolute truths and method. And that sounds kind of basic, it’s like “oh well, yeah, obviously they’re not the same thing.”

But something I think engineers bring to practice is that they absolutely know that difference. They’re not interested, or some people are not interested in a perfect absolute truth, they’re way more interested in understanding things in terms of principle and function and then applying that to meditation. So I think that moves beyond this approach that we often hear about in connection with engineering which is a sort of tool bag approach, which is good. That’s good…

M: The bodger mentality, where we’re just going to make it work, no matter what.

R: Right, this idea that you’ve got a bag of tools and you’re going to choose one for the right moment and apply this one in that context, or whatever, and that’s great, that works, it’s a good starting point. But it’s limited in its approach. It’s a little bit like rote application, which is very necessary for systematic process, but it’s not the end point. If you’re engineering you might start with that. So you know as a coder I start learning particular functions, or learning the difference between iteration and recursion, and then learning how to apply that, and then I get to a point where I can apply that by rote and it becomes slightly boring, or whatever.

But as an engineer over the years, you’re getting so familiar with that at an automative level that you can then build and create. And I think that is a really important aspect of Vajrayana as well, there is this very, I guess, constructive element as well. You maybe start with deconstruction, but you are building and creating all the time. And you are bringing this intuitive understanding of randomness with engineers have, shit happens when you start trying to make things work. And that is an intuitive, experiential understanding of randomness, which is really important for the starting point of Vajrayana practice.

M: Now in my own Hindu Tantra background, and also working for decades with Shinzen Young in his system, neither of those have a staged approach at all.

R: Oh right.

M: I mean Shinzen’s system is highly, highly systematized but not in terms of stages, steps and

R: linear progression

M: yeah, right, and so I’m curious, does your Aro gTér Vajrayana background have steps and stages in the same way?

R: I think it would be more congruent to describe it as landmarks on a topology of experience. There are identifiable landmarks, and those are described in a particular way and you can move between those. The more experience that you get, say for example, of non-conceptual empty space of mind, the more that becomes a…I want to say a reference point but it’s not exactly a reference point, it’s a place that you’re familiar with and can then employ in relation to other experiences within the whole range of practice.

M: Now, interestingly, the thing that I understand, which is very little, of the four naljor practice from your tradition is that the first naljor, the first stage of shamatha, would be the one that was most closely related to anything in TMI, theoretically, and yet actually the practice is almost, like, opposite.

R: That’s really interesting! Part of my exploration with The Mind Illuminated has been really getting to grips with precisely what is different and what is the same about those two practices.  So there is this emphasis in shi-ne which is the Tibetan word for shamatha, literally that means ‘calm abiding’…

M: …which is what shamatha translates to in English also.

R: Right, so the method of shi-ne is what you would call ‘remaining uninvolved’ which is not exactly the same as the technique employed in The Mind Illuminated. There’s a more concentrative aspect there. So, for example, everything is described in The Mind Illuminated system in terms of objects. So right from the start there’s a concept that is brought that there is a separation mentally from the object which might be an arising thought or whatever – I hope I’m doing justice to the system in describing it in this way – that the technique employed is to separate in some sense from that object mentally so that you observe or see it but you’re maintainig a focus in a different locality, on the breath. And in shi-ne the starting point is that you would expand out in all directions from the arising thought, so your relationship with that thought changes, the mental experience is different but there is no ignoring. You wouldn’t ignore anything in that practice.

M: Would you say it’s fair to say that you’re keeping the ground of being, or Buddha nature, whatever, as part of the meditation continuously?

R: Yeess…I’m just thinking about that. The ground of being is not the same depending on where you’re at. If you’re practicing shi-ne as a newcomer, then you might describe the ground of being as the experience of the gap that occurs when you don’t think for the first time, or for a while, there’s this new experience of “oh wow!” And then, you know, the thoughts come back in and whatever. But if you’re some years down the line and you’re quite used to that, then the ground of experience might be, the ground of being may be the different relationship with thought as that reappears and a kind of expansive experience where thoughts come and go but they’re sometimes described as transparent, or you’re there with the movement of the thought.

M: Yeah, that’s what it sounded to me like it was describing in the practice.

R: Well you’re certainly…in those four naljors…the end point isn’t non-conceptuality, it isn’t the empty space of awareness. That’s one of the landmarks that I mentioned earlier you’re always coming back to. Something that I’ve found in my own practice over the years is that, I’ve always gone back to shi-ne practice and found that deepening that experience helps with the relationship with thought and with the practices that are a little further along the line there. So it’s always been cyclic in practice.

M: Yeah, come back to the basics.

R: And the ground changes as well, the ground deepens, the experiential understanding just becomes…fuller, maybe…is that a good description?

M: Yeah. It reminds me in a way of, this type of practice where you go back over and over again to the basics and then that helps you as you move along, it reminds me of going back to novels one has read as a teenager.

R: Right, yeah, I was thinking about that recently and I realized – we had some friends over to dinner and we were talking about the Shambhala system – and I realized that two of the books that I’ve most read, other than obviously some of the Aro books over the years, are two of Chögyam Trungpa’s Shambala books, Great Eastern Sun and…

M: Sacred Heart of the Warrior

R: Sacred Heart of the Warrior, yeah, I love those books.

M: Definitely the Sacred Heart of the Warrior I’ve read over and over over for decades, right, it’s a fabulous book, it just keeps delivering.

R: Yeah.

M: So obviously your blog posts are very long and very thoughtful and considered, so understanding that we’re doing a little bit of, let’s say, violence to that thoughtful consideration in summarizing but I’m curious if you can say what things about the system, compared to the Vajrayana practice, that you just found weren’t right for you or didn’t work. And I’m not trying to criticise The Mind Illuminated it’s more about the difference.

R: I think the sub-minds framing is something that just doesn’t work for me at all. So one of the ways that the whole Mind Illuminated project is crafted is that it synthesizes various different hermeneutic frameworks. One of those is the sub-minds idea, which is the idea – it goes back to Minsky I think, what was that paper, Society in Mind, mid ‘70s?

M: It was actually a book I think.

R: Right, oh yeah, a book. So he was working with representationalism, trying to figure out how does this work, the way that we cognize and relate to representations in the mind. So Minsky describes these sub-minds as like a set of moving parts which are coordinated by something that has to be looking at those parts, or there’s some way of bringing them together and that they’re sort of competing in some way.

M: Yeah, there’s competing sub-minds and then there’s an orchestrator over-mind.

R: And then theoretically you’ve got this inevitable problem of the recursive homunculus and somehow that framework just doesn’t work for me. I know that it does work very well for others. David has said that he finds it quite useful (that’s my husband, David Chapman) and my friend Kaj Sotala has written quite a bit about that on the Lesswrong site. So it clearly does work for some people. The problem that I find in application is that I don’t have a problem with conflict. I kind of welcome it. So this idea that there is a need to pacify competing, different sub-minds, I’m kind of like “why would I do that?” And I think the motivation for doing that comes from fear of conflict and that is somewhat contradictory to the Vajrayana approach. In that path, your activity is working with stuff, and as soon as you have difference – going back to this idea of the engineering mindset – that once you’re working with the reality of a situation, you get conflict, you get unexpected things arising and messing stuff up. You’re dealing with difference all the time. And common to Vajrayana as well, you are working with the stuff of your everyday life, you’re not leaving that behind, and therefore the approach that there’s somehow a need to have some kind of control and bring order to everything is not the overall approach. You’re not ordering things. There’s an appreciation of order and systematicity, but there’s also this recognition of the role of randomness. And as you develop your skill as a practitioner, rolling with this metaphor here, in the same way that you develop your skill as an engineer, what you’re doing is learning an intuitive response to randomness in some way. You’re getting the depth of experience that allows you to make decisions in context that are working with the forms that you’ve got and creating different forms, and, I want to say ‘manipulating’ so why not? Let’s just say it. You’re getting messy.

M: You know I would say that the purpose for Culadasa framing it that way with the sub-minds is that this is how to become concentrated.

R: Right.

M: And so the idea is you’ve got one main sub-mind whose goal is “I’m going to get concentrated” and then the other ones are saying things like “no, we’re going to go and play Pokemon Go,” or “we’re going to go out on the street,” or “go eat lunch,” or whatever, so those are distractions and so the idea is, well, you want to pacify those sub-minds and get them in line with the main sub-mind who is trying to be concentrated. So given that, you know, you’re saying the sub-minds theory doesn’t really work for you, how would you model the development of concentration in this ‘welcoming of competition’ model?

R: I wouldn’t call it concentration. I think that’s a major difference and employing the sub-minds framework does work to increase that concentration. I think it has side-effects and I think when you’re approaching any system it’s a really good idea to understand potential side-effects, understand its failure modes [link] as well as the way in which it works because all systems obviously are limited. And, you know, we could talk about Vajrayana in that way as well. I’m not only applying that kind of rigorous analysis to the Shamatha-Vipassana path. So, the method that you would employ is ‘remaining uninvolved’ in a more Vajrayana styled meditation. And rather than it being unidirectional, which is toward the concentrative, the emphasis on maybe looking at the breath or being with the breath and going further and further into that deeply concentrative state until you get to jhana experience, very much associated with Shamatha-Vipassana, deep concentrative stuff. Rather than that, in Vajrayana you’re actually moving out in all directions. So you may start with having the breath as a little support for your practice, and you may find that helps to maintain your presence of awareness. But as you become more adept, you’re leaving that behind actually, you’re expanding the field of awareness. It feels quite different. You know, I’m not 100% sure of this, but something that I think happens in the four naljor context is that you’re cultivating the expansive, bright kind of non-conceptual experience first. That is a place that you get to without having that really deep concentrative side of things. And so your first pitstop, if you like, is an experience of very sharp, clear mental clarity. You don’t have thoughts arising; you’re right there. It’s a beautiful space as well. It’s a very vibrant experience. It’s not super, super calm as I have discovered the kind of non-conceptual experience with the Mind Illuminated is: sooo caaaalm. It’s so nice, y’know. It’s quite different. So I think The Mind Illuminated system encourages this calm space first. That’s explicit: after joy, there’s tranquility, before equanimity. And eventually The MInd Illuminated does describe clear, open, somewhat more vibrant, bright space, but for the most part that is within the context of equanimity and there is this kind of back drop of calmness. I think that can be a very valuable experience. It’s certainly a good one to have when approaching Vajrayana. It’s not qualitatively quite the same as what’s described as né-pa [link] in Tibetan, which is ‘absence of arising with presence of awareness.’

M: And so, just to take the other side of things, besides liking the systematic element of The Mind Illuminated approach, what just kind of personally for you practice-wise was a pleasant surprise or something you really enjoy about it?

R: Oh, there’s lots that I enjoy about it. Y’know, it leads to this really great physical experience, it’s a very, very good feel-good path. I thoroughly recommend it for anybody who isn’t feeling great and wants to feel good. It really does that. I did experience my visceral, bodily response to things just being like spontaneously, like “wow!” you know, this lovely waves of sensation just going about your daily activities. That’s really great. Something that I’ve yet to explore that I don’t have a lot of experience with are the deeper jhanas. So, I think in the terminology of that system I’m probably talking here about the lighter jhanas.

M: Yeah, the illuminated jhanas.

R: Okay, yeah, so I’m thinking I’ll probably do an intensive retreat and see if I can understand better that depth of jhana experience. But so far that lightness of being that it gives arise to, that’s lovely.

M: Now a part of your project, and I think you’re doing this to some extent together with David, is to talk about ways to adapt some of the Aro gTér practice or Vajrayana practice that you’re steeped in to a more modern Western context. And this is a little shift of gears, but I’m curious, what do you see as maybe things that you learned from The Mind Illuminated approach that you would use for that adaptation of just other general concerns or interesting details of that idea?

R: One of my motivations in doing this project was to figure out whether it’s possible to apply a linear progressive approach in a modern, contemporary context into Vajrayana and whether that is congruent and would work or not. So some of the ways in which Vajrayana is presented already is very linear progressive. There’s the Tantric Ngöndro or lots of Tantric practices which are: “you don’t do x until you’ve done whatever”. So there’s a question, would it possible and would it be useful to have a more progressive path of stages here in a Western context. I go backwards and forwards over this question. It’s not the way that I learned. I’ve been talking about randomness and the engineering approach and in some ways that is not so unidirectional, it’s much more working with coming back around to lots of different applicative contexts and figuring out on the fly. So I think maybe it wouldn’t be best to have a strictly linear stages, although many people might want that and enjoy it. But I think part of what Vajrayana does, part of its method, is that it kind of bangs you up against order in some way, it knocks order and moves you toward incorporating the random aspect. So the base, the starting point for practice either in Vajrayana meditation or in applying Vajrayana method in your daily activities, in the context in which I’m talking, it’s just an understanding of the impact of randomness on activity. Often it’s said that the starting point for Tantric practice in Buddhism is really difficult and that’s understandable from the perspective of Shamatha-Vipassana or from the perspective of Mahayana. You have in those systems that the starting point is quite a lot of experience of, in Buddhist terms, emptiness, which might be non-conceptual appreciation or reaching a point in meditation where you can actually sit without thinking for a while. It actually doesn’t take that long to get there if you’re practicing fairly regularly. But, you know, I don’t think it’s that difficult to be honest. And I also think that if you approach Buddhist Tantra as a path in its own right, so you’re not looking at the staring point from the perspective of Shamatha-Vipassana or Mahayana Buddhism, you’re looking at it from the perspective of some ordinary life circumstances and like, okay I’m thinking I want to start practicing. When you’re looking at it from that perspective, you regard it as a path in its own right. Then the starting point is understanding randomness and, we do, you know. Particularly people who have had engineering training, they know exactly what that is. So that’s what you’re working with. You’re working with that in your daily life and your meditation can help that. Your meditation is, if you like, the support for your starting point.

M: Good, so can you just give a more concrete example of using meditation to help one understand randomness in their lives?

R: So, let’s take emotions, because everybody likes to talk about emotions…

M: I love emotions!

R: Oh, good, so do I! We have these complex relationships with our emotions and it’s a big deal and everything, so the way that randomness helps in terms of understanding emotions, is that, if you’ve meditated for a little bit and you’re beginning to experience some space and then you have your emotional turbulence or whatever, you start to have a different relationship with, say, anger, whereby you’re fully conscious of the related thought stream. You’re very conscious of the sensations that are occurring in the body. And the element of randomness there is that you allow the unpredictability of a situation, with awareness, to let what happens unfold, so you’re not simply giving in to an expression of the emotion and you’re not repressing the emotion and you’re not ignoring it either. You are literally, on the spot, working with the sensation of the emotion and the space that you have around it and you are learning congruent application.

M: So no matter what emotion arises, you have a practice of working with it directly and clearly?

R: Yeah, and you know, if that’s really difficult you can step back from that and distract yourself or whatever and do something different. The continuity there is awareness, maintaining awareness through the process.

M: That’s certainly how we’re trained in the Shinzen world. It’s interesting to notice that in typical Theravada or Vipassana practice there is an idea that there’s emotions you want to get rid of.

R: Right.

M: Like there’s actually bad emotions that hopefully over time you’re just going to uproot and eradicate, so you’ll never be angry again, kind of thing. 

R: That’s very definitely part of the path traditionally, as traditionally as meditation goes, anyway. There’s a whole worldview surrounding that, there’s a whole framework that gives rise to that practice. It’s a practice that had a genesis, it was born of a particular situation which was an ascetic, renunciative worldview, so the idea of that is, eventually the end point is, cessation, stopping.

M: Yeah, not just a momentary cessation in meditation but cessation from ever being in life again and getting out of the wheel of Samsara and so on. And it’s fascinating because I see that these days, maybe it’s just part of being a grumpy old dude, it doesn’t seem like people realize this theoretical foundation of Theravada practice is, maybe to put too strong a word on it, but it’s sort of anti-life. You don’t like the world that you’re trying to leave.

R: It is, but I think the interest and the emphasis is in, well, does this work? What works in terms of the practice? And if it’s working in some way in your life then actually you don’t care much about the framework, it doesn’t matter. So I think the potential risk is that you get a certain way along the line and then…

M: And it’s been working all along, you’re getting more concentration and more equanimity and..

R: And that’s good and then suddenly something bad happens like a no-self experience, or, you know, you this kind of explosive, dissociative experience and how do you deal with that? And that can be very positive, and it can be quite traumatic as well. I have had, since I’ve been writing the journal up and working on this project, I’ve had people write to me and say “I’m in psychological meltdown, what am I going to do, I didn’t realize this was going to happen?” And I don’t want to be alarmist about that because it’s only a few people who have written with that kind of circumstance they’re dealing with, but I don’t think it’s that uncommon as well. I think the no-self experience is difficult. It can be traumatic. You need to have a very good, strong, psychological base to know how to cope with that. Especially if you’ve got a lot of other things going on in your life, you need to approach it fairly cautiously.

M: Yes. So something that I’ve always appreciated about the Vajrayana approach is that it doesn’t have this view that we’re trying to get out of life and leave the world and so on, in fact it’s quite the opposite.

R: Yeah, it’s got all the good stuff. [Both laugh.] You know, maybe thinking about what the failure mode of that could be: there’s a lot of power that comes from learning to have awareness continuously, it gives you more control of situations for sure, and then if you get too much into that control element you can go off on a kind of a dickhead ego-trip and so on. And that is maybe a risk in that sort of framework. So frameworks have their positive sides and they have their potential failure modes. 

M: And it’s all about knowing the failure modes. The one in Vipassana of the fact that the practice is pretty dualistic to begin with that you were describing, its ‘observer over here looking at object over there’ that’s a very well known failure mode in Vipassana and there’s practices to undo that, that really work. Eventually you take the sense of the observer and make that the thing that’s being observed and then, you know, it pops that bubble.

R: Well that’s very good, but you know as well, there is this end point which is the no-self experience. So putting these two systems together, thinking about how would, or does Buddhist Tantra relate to the no-self experience, I think the question there is: “okay what next?” “What are you going to do with that? How does that relate to your every day experience?”.

M: Yeah, wouldn’t one of the many traditional answers be, well, that’s the beginning point of Tantrism then? Because you’ve had this no-self experience, you have this shocking awareness of vast space, and now you can step into Tantra…

R: From that perspective, yes. So there are different possible approaches to Tantric practice.

M: And, obviously, the failure mode that is most in our face these days with Vajrayana is the issues with, you know, the guru model, the teacher…

R: Oh god, yeah. There’s this guru abuse meme and then what do you know, a ton of people go and play it out perfectly, it’s like the stereotype couldn’t be more beautifully enacted should we say…

M: Sublimely, horribly enacted…

R: Yeah.

M: So is that something you’e been working on, like potential ways to modernize or upgrade or somehow find a way to work around the issues that we see coming up with the traditional guru model.

R: You know I think I want to say that we rightly hear about the bad situations, it’s a shame we don’t hear about them sooner. And that does the headline thing, you know, it takes everybody’s attention, as it should. What you don’t hear about the circumstances where that kind of relationship works well.

M: We hear about it on Deconstructing Yourself because I’m always reminding the listener that my guru experience was exquisite, it was wonderful.

R: Excellent, it was a positive one. And mine too. You know I have huge gratitude to Ngak’chang Rinpoche, Khandro Déchen, to my early teachers Nor’dzin and ö-Dzin in Wales. Those were some great times. I treasure those experiences. Also I would strongly recommend anybody who wants to have a personal hands-on relationship with a teacher in the Vajrayana, traditional context to go to the Aro gTér. That’s been my very positive experience. So what I would like to do is look at that experience, look at where it works and understand that in terms of principle and function. So, the principle is learning by doing, I would say, situated learning. And the function is good, wholesome, spiritual development. So when you put it in those terms, I think everybody understands that and can think of examples of that happening in many, many contexts. So, going back to the engineering context I have this experience of sitting next to a mentor, a coder who has been working for decades and the way that they refactor my code is just amazing, you know it seems like magic, it’s like “woah, wait stop!” “How did you even do that? What were you thinking, why would you use dynamic programming here but not there?” Or whatever. And as they talk through what they’re doing, as you see them, it’s a bodily thing that you see them working and you experience the nature of that relationship. That isn’t something you can get from books. That is not something that you can pick up just by applying lots of different techniques. It’s a relationship. And we understand that relationship, you know we have it in these different contexts.

M: This is certainly in the good version of academia, that would be the idea of your…

R: PhD thesis, maybe.

M: Yeah, your advisor, or whatever. You’re going to learn how to really do the thing from just gluing yourself to them day and night and seeing how it works.

R: Yes, there’s so many different contexts you can think of this working in, there’s lab work you know, how do you even know, how do you learn how to do that stuff? It takes years.

M: On the other hand, at least again in the good version, maybe it does take place. But in some of the more dysfunctional versions of academia you’re not continuously being taught that the advisor is literally God, or is literally some kind of perfected being or is literally, like, worthy of worship.

R: Right, and you shouldn’t be in the Vajrayana context either. That’s kind of tedious anyway isn’t it? You start viewing a teacher as omniscient and infallible in some way and that’s going to lead to problems. The teacher’s role is really to cut through that, I would say.

M: Although it is an explicit part of a lot of the training that is there.

R: Yeaahh, I dunno, I’ve always found that a little tedious. I don’t like that kind of aspect. So, in the traditional language there is the idea that you regard your teacher as an enlightened being. Now, in my terms that doesn’t mean that you go all kind of gaga and childlike and lose your discriminating faculty, and in fact my teachers have been very encouraging of much more of the kind of discriminating side of things, the discriminating awareness and figuring things out, you know.

M: Yeah, that’s excellent, that’s very lucky in a way.

R: Yeah, I feel very lucky.

M: So as you’ve been working on this project, what else have you thought about regarding gurus in the Western context?

R: Well, I think we need to talk about it. I think there needs to be a kind of social analysis which is somewhat different to a private response. Timur Kuran has this socio-economic analysis of societies that get into an equilibrium of preference falsification. I think his book is called “Private Truths, Public Lies”: strong recommend for that. He paints this picture and he uses real life examples. One of the most memorable and fascinating of those was the Eastern European Cold War social norm whereby the whole of society reaches a point where each individual may have private concerns or strong disagreement, and yet they’re not willing to say socially for fear of ostracization. And then there’s a self-perpetuating cycle within which more and more people are not willing to speak out and that reinforces the social norm of preference falsification – you know:  pretending to go along with the regime or whatever. And you get stuck at this point of equilibrium which has quite a large range of difference between what people feel privately and what they’re willing to talk about publicly. I think that’s a useful analysis to bring to a smaller scale guru situation that has gone wrong. Some of the ones we’ve heard about recently have been perpetuated for many, many years. So you have to ask the question, you know, why did that happen? Yes, there was a sociopath. I use that word advisedly, like Sogyal Gokar systematically set out to create a situation where he could then abuse people and use his position of power. And then, how does that continue? There’s this group dynamic occurring where…

M: Yeah, you have to wonder what, you know, the people around him who saw this happening, who were well aware of what was going on day after day on the ground. Then there’s years passing where they’re not speaking out.

R: Yeah, it’s awful.

M: Right.

R: You know, I’m reminded of your fellow guest Chandra Easton. Kudos to her, for talking publicly about her experience in a similar kind of situation and for talking out at the time, when she was a young woman. And she was shut down, by senior members in that group. Now that, I think, is an example of exactly this kind of group dynamic. So we’re not just looking at a hierarchical structure here. I don’t think the structure is the problem, actually. I’ve seen collaboratives and cooperatives in past, I’ve seen them explode with horrendous power relationships, so I think the point of analysis being a group dynamic, that may or may not have been intentionally orchestrated by a guru figure, that is a useful thing to bring. And there’s another, a different analysis that plays into that, that is called evaporative cooling. I think that’s particularly relevant in this Western context that we have where we’re living in a democracy where, for the most part, you can just walk away from situations. So this evaporative cooling concept I think was coined by Eliezer Yudkowsky and the idea here is that as the dysfunctional group norm perpetuates and becomes more entrenched, the people with higher openness leave, they just walk away. And that plays into the reinforcement of the dysfunctional situation again. So you’ve got these two things working together…

M: So everyone who’s left in the group are the people who are okay with what’s going on…

R: I doubt very much that a lot of people are privately okay. I suspect there’s a huge amount of cognitive dissonance in situations like that.

M: Y’know what I mean is they’re okay enough to stay

R: Exactly

M: And they’re not gonna talk out

R: Well, they just don’t know how to address this situation privately, or how to leave

M: So it becomes a self-reinforcing group, or a self-selecting group

R: So how do we deal with that, if we know that that is the kind of dynamic that we’re looking at? I think the only way is to have more public openness, you know, people talking about that kind of dynamic and encouragement of people just being honest when they find themselves in those situations because, let’s face it, people do, many people do. It hasn’t gone away yet.

M: And so Timur’s book, what was his last name?

R: Timur Kuran.

M: And what is his recommendation, does he have a method for undoing some of these features?

R: Hmm, I don’t remember. It’s a while since I read it. He has really good practical examples both from left and right political situations, which makes it more interesting as well, he’s got these examples. But I don’t remember him having a “this is the path out”. He may well do, but I’ve forgotten.

M: Okay, so, anything else you want to get to today?

R: There’s the idea of the teacher as a guide. I like the word ‘guide’. If you take that in a literal context you can think of a guide in the mountains, and you know I have a great fondness for mountains and walking in the mountains, going off track, exploring the scenery, bushwhacking. And this idea of a guide, you know anybody who’s been trekking in Nepal you have a guide, wow, they’ve got experience, they know what’s going to happen if you go off a little side path, or can read the weather, they have this situated, contextual understanding and holding quality. Y’know, they’re so reliable. And they’re dealing with the unpredictable all the time. So I like this idea of a teacher being a guide who has maybe just trodden that particular path a few more times than you have.

M: What are you finding exciting, or interesting, or just delightful in the meditation or spiritual world currently?

R: Well, that’s an interesting question. Hmm. You know I’ve always had a great love of conflict and I really enjoy the physical stuff a lot. I really love the learning through bringing yourself up against the growing edge of your own psychological, physical development as well. Those things aren’t separate for me. I’ve always loved the physical practices and, you know I’m continuing to enjoy that in martial arts, well I’m hoping to continue to enjoy that in martial arts.

M: What particular martial art form are you most acquainted with?

R: Jiu jitsu, outside of the spiritual context. I trained in the Ling Gésar gTerma which is associated with the Aro gTér for maybe ten years or so. So that was great, because itt’s a whole system that your body is your practice and that’s very explicit in that system. But kind of supplementary to that I have trained in jiu jitsu and that is a great learning experience from a very literal, physical place of understanding how to try to get some space. You know, anyone who’s been in the situation of a beginner jiu jitsu practitioner, you’re constantly fighting for breath and when you first have 300lb of black belt on top of you, it’s not a pleasant thing!


You’re banging up against your physical, emotional limits. And I think a lot of people who don’t practice jiu jitsu don’t see the emotional side of that. But for many, the learning is that you are learning to deal better with the emotional content of being attacked and constantly being in that fight-flight response. And that the point at which you experience that becomes further distant as you become more skilled in that context. So again, another approach to Vajrayana would be a jiu jitsu practitioner, you’re learning to get more space around the emotional, physical situation. And then as you become more and more skilled, you’re able to apply that in other parts of your life.

M: Rin’dzin, thanks for coming on Deconstructing Yourself.

R: You’re so welcome. It’s been a lot of fun.

M: It certainly has.

References and links

Rin’dzin on Twitter:


Aro gTér online email course:

Aro tradition mentoring program:

Chögyam Trungpa, Sacred Path of the Warrior:

Chögyam Truncpa, Great Eastern Sun:

Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind:

Kai Sotala’s series on Lesswrong:

Failure modes:

The Four Naljors and né-pa:

The Mind Illuminated, a journal: Day 9

Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification

Eliezer Yudkowsky on evaporative cooling:

2 thoughts on “Vajrayana, Engineering, and Jiu Jitsu, with Rin’dzin Pamo—Transcript”

  1. I’ve been meditating for a decade but have gotten more serious in the past two years & been now to four retreats. I would call myself “early stage but committed”. I was confused by the references in this interview of the “taboo” about “talking publicly about your practice”, which both of you repeated several times in different words. I’ve read Shinzen’s book in which he discusses his experiences in detail, and I’ve read Culadassa’s book as well, in which he’s explicit about the stages. So I was not at all clear about what, exactly the taboo was. As a result that whole section of the interview was mysterious to me. I wish you guys had been more explicit. Isn’t every book about meditation to some degree about the author’s practices and experiences? Otherwise, wouldn’t it be a theoretical, even academic, work? Perhaps my confusion would be cleared up easily but I thought I’d pass this on.

    Thanks for the podcast and your other materials.

    Kind regards,
    Nick Ronalds

    1. What makes books like Shinzen’s radical is that they break the taboo against talking about personal experience.
      If you read books by more traditional Buddhist teachers, they go to great lengths to NOT talk about themselves.

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