“Meditations on Pacification: A Discourse Between Fools” is a collaborative writing project initiated between Lama Repa Dorje Odzer (Justin von Bujdoss) and the lyin’ lotsawa, Senge Drayang (Westin Harris). Writing for both academic and religious audiences, we hope to facilitate a digital discourse on the role(s) of Vajrayana’s so-called “transgressive practices” in addressing the suffering and alienation of 21st century society. Taking conversations between the Indian Lord of Siddhas, Padampa Sangye, and the Tibetan Lord of Yogins, Milarepa, as inspiration, “A Discourse Between Fools” is a novel attempt at literary tulzhug chöpa.
About the Guest Author: Repa Dorje Odzer
Repa Dorje Odzer (Justin von Bujdoss) was empowered as a Repa by His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche. He served as the founder and resident-lama of New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center until it’s closing in December 2016. He has spent the past 20 years practicing in India and the US under a variety of teachers, including the late Ani Dechen Zangmo, the late Pathing Rinpoche, the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, Lama Tsering Wangdu Rinpoche and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche. At present he serves as the first Staff Chaplain for the New York City Department of Correction.
What is Disciplined Conduct/Tulzhug Chöpa?
Disciplined conduct or tulzhug chöpa (Tib. བརྟུལ་ཞུགས་སྤྱོད་པ་, Wyl. brtul zhugs spyod pa, Skt. vratacarya), also variously translated as “practice of the observance,” or even “[yogic] conduct,” is the tantric conduct or lifestyle of Buddhist yogins and yoginis. While there has never been a single monolithic definition, in earlier Indian contexts, vratacarya most often referred to “post-meditation” prescriptions for how yogins should dress and behave, particularly as found in various Heruka-related tantras like chapter 26 of the Chakrasamvaratantra and chapter 1.5 of the Hevajratantra (Sugiki 2015, Szanto 2015). These post-initiatory practices had common themes, like: adopting the appearance of Heruka (growing long matted hair, wearing charnel-ground ornaments, carrying skull-cup and tantric staff), dwelling in frightening places, and engaging in behaviors generally seen as transgressive or antinomian by mainstream society (DiValerio 2015). This aesthetic later became the dominant Tibetan artistic representations of Indian Siddhas: topknot of matted hair, loin-cloth or tiger-skin skirt, often wearing ornaments of bone or precious metal, frequently carrying mortuary (Skt. kapalika) implements (For more on “siddha aesthetics,” see Himalayan Art Resources’ page on “Siddha Appearance” here).
Later, in the Tibetan context, tulzhug chöpa gained further polyvalence, especially in the Nyingma, Kagyü, and Chöd lineages. At the far end of the spectrum, some Tibetan yogins and yoginis chose to emulated a highly-antinomian form of tulzhug chöpa that closely resembled its Indian counterpart (described above)—such examples include Tsangnyön Heruka and the Madman of Ü wearing flayed human skins as capes; Thangtong Gyalpo developing an unkempt, Heruka-like appearance and behaving in unpredictable way; and Padampa Sangye himself, who wandered around virtually naked, advocating the abandonment of hopes, fears, food, and clothing. However, it seems that this style of tulzhug chöpa was practiced rarely at most, as the literary record is brimming with descriptions of the horror, shock, and often anger with which commoners responded to the novel sights of these “madmen” (Tib. སྨྱོན་པ་,Wyl. smyon pa) as they came to be called (DiValerio 2015). However, in other cases, as found in mainstream monastic communities and amongst house-holding lay practitioners, tulzhug chöpa comes to connote a sort of spiritual fearlessness (Tib. འཇིགས་མེད་, Wyl. ‘jigs med)—particularly fearlessness in terms of upholding the conduct and view of the tantric Bodhisattva. (For more secondary source scholarship on tulzhug chöpa, see the bibliography at the end of this post).
The seemingly extreme juxtaposition of these two examples (tulzhug chöpa as naked, cemetery-dwelling, transgressive antinomianism; and tulzhug chöpa as the fearlessly equipoise dance of the Bodhisattva) belies the fact that they are actually just outward manifestations of the same profoundly simple—yet exceedingly profound—inner practice. Put simply (and colloquially), tulzhug chöpa is utterly fearless, “no holds barred” non-dual pure-view.
In the translation of Padampa Sangye’s Vajra-song below, tulzhug chöpa (translated as “disciplined conduct”) appears at the very beginning, hinting at its primacy in the Saddharma of Pacification. Constituting the remainder of the Vajra-song is a series of remarkably pithy and potent slogans that read as a step-by-step prescription for practicing tulzhug chöpa in everyday life. However, this humble, “mind-training”-esque appearance further conceals the fact that encoded within its short verses are distillations of some of the most penetrating of Vajrayana’s esoteric teachings—including Dzogchen, Mahamudra, and Chöd. In this way, Dampa Rinpoche’s Vajra-song truly is a “heart-condensation,” outlining an entire tantric way of life in a single poetic expression.
(**NOTE: When working with highly reduced and simplified definitions like these, it is easy to essentialize and reify wonderfully complex concepts into mere caricatures of themselves. The fearless equipoise of tulzhug chöpa should not be mistaken for nihilistic numbness or social disenfranchisement. For more on the intersections between tantric lifestyles and socio-political agency, click here.)
Repa Dorje Odzer on Daily Disciplined Conduct
Vajra songs, as a genre, are dear to my heart. I think this is because these songs are direct, often free-form and from the heart. They allow a glimpse into what’s been alive for the person who sings them. These songs allow us, if we so desire, to peer into the heart essence of what is important to such great teachers as Padampa Sangye. They are precious instructions frozen in time that still remain fresh and dynamic to this day.
In this particular song Padamapa Sangye reminds us that the mandala of disciplined conduct (as we find it within the Shije, or the Pacification of Suffering tradition that he is credited with founding) is accessible by resting in open awareness, accepting everything, and rejecting nothing. Whatever is experienced in the moment—regardless of how banal and meaningless, repulsive or seductively compelling—is that which we should rest in. Our awareness, or direct experience of mind, is always present, always bright, wide-open and free, even when we feel that we are not.
All too often we bypass the experiences around us that we don’t like. It’s easy to use our spirituality as a set of blinders that hide the crap, hide how ordinary and low we can feel, or even disempower the joyous possibility of every crappy moment in this samsaric life by telling us that Vajra-songs like these are only for advanced practitioners. These dynamics are very common and arise easily within our mindstreams. These thoughts should also be regarded as the object of our practice; we should not turn away from them, or rush to transform them, but release them into our raw awareness. There is no doubt that this can be uncomfortable. Yet over time it can be surprising how the application of resting in the experience of awareness—fresh, expansive and beyond concept—really does allow our clinging and attachments, and our fears and anxieties to burn away like morning dew, or fog, as the sun rises.
Disciplined Conduct and Buddhist Chaplaincy
As a chaplain for the Department of Corrections, my role is to offer open, non-judgemental service to others. This setting offers a wonderfully juicy locale for exploring how and why I feel compelled to react certain ways to certain stimuli. Whether it be spending time with someone who is actively dying and filled with fear or an ecstatic bliss, or a family member feeling left behind or destroyed by the impeding death of a loved-one, or a person recovering from the trauma of having recently been attacked—there are plenty of places to practice the Heart-Condensation of the Pacification of Suffering. There are also an equal number of places to get stuck and fall into the habit of reaction, or the habit of turning away all together. Perhaps most violent of all is trying to spiritualize the painful impossibility of the moment rather than accepting that this moment is impossible. This is the experience of the harmful demons to which Dampa Sangye refers: the demons around us are the very ways that we are provoked and triggered, scared or magnetized, compelled to shrink away or urged to puff our selves up in defense.
In this song Padamapa Sangye asks us: Can we allow ourselves the confidence to confront the present moment? Can we self-regulate and refresh our experience when we get lost, or tired or dull? Will we allow our thoughts to be the treasury of bliss? What about our feelings, can they be a treasury of bliss? And our death and the death of those we are working to benefit, can that experience be a treasury of bliss? Can we experience auspicious freedom amongst the most vexing feelings of bad luck?
For me, the beauty of this Vajra-song is that it is as if Padampa Sangye is pointing his finger directly at us saying, “You! Your experience in the moment is the ground, the path and the fruit of enlightenment! Use it now! There is nothing to fear. This is all you need.” It then becomes incumbent upon us to make this real, to seal it with our experience in every moment of the day and night. Otherwise, if we file this song away, and put it in a dusty place with other books we only use as reference material, we are essentially wasting the preciousness of what it is that we are able to experience right now.
Don’t worry. The Lord of Death is on her way. So is the Treasury of Bliss. Are you ready?
How might you use the Heart-Condensation of Pacification in your daily life? Share your commentary or critiques in the comment section below.
The Vajra Song that is a Heart-Condensation of the
Saddharma of the Pacification of Suffering
An Oral Instruction Offered by
the Siddha Padampa Sangye to the Lord of Yogis Milarepa
This is the saddharma1 of the Pacification of Suffering—
When subduing harmful demons, male and female, it is constructing the yantra2 of disciplined conduct;
When the body becomes ill, it is binding space and awareness as one;
When subtle conceptualizations arise, it is abrading the afflictions by releasing them;
When sleeping alone in private, it is residing in raw awareness;
When in the midst of a crowd, it is directly confronting whatever arises;
When dull, it is awakening with PHAT;
When distracted, it is cutting the root;
When excited, it is relaxing in the expanse;
When chasing after conceptual objects, it is facing the truth of suchness.
This is the saddharma of the Pacification of Suffering—
When bad omens arise, receive them as auspicious;
Whatever thoughts arise are treasury of bliss.
When illness arises, this brings benefit;
Whatever arises are a treasury of bliss.
When dying occurs, take it onto the path;
The Lord of Death is a treasury of bliss.
This is the saddharma of the Pacification of Suffering—
It is the intention of the three times’ victors;
It is the secret speech of Vajradhara3;
It is the vital essence of the four classes of dakinis4;
It is the instruction of the four classes of tantra5;
It is the critical instruction of the aural lineage;
It is the key to the instructed techniques.
That is the saddharma of the Pacification of Suffering.
Jetsün Milarepa was utterly delighted by these words.
Translated from Classical Tibetan by the lyin’ lotsawa, Senge Drayang (Westin Harris). Responsibility for mistakes is his alone. May all beings benefit.
- (Tib. དམ་ཆོས་, Wyl. dam chos) Lit. “sacred doctrine”; saddharma is the Sanskrit equivalent of དམ་ཆོས་.
- (Tib. འཕྲུལ་འཁོར་, Wyl. ‘phrul ‘khor) Lit. “magic circle”; yantra is the Sanskrit translation of འཕྲུལ་འཁོར་, and refers to various magic charms and techniques for protection, good fortune, etc. In most lineages, འཕྲུལ་འཁོར་ is also the name of the completion phase (Tib. རྫོགས་རིམ་, Wyl. rdzogs rim) yogic techniques that focus on the subtle body. Throughout Nepal, one particularly popular yantra charm that is said to protect from earthquakes features an image of the mad yogi (Tib. སྨྱོན་པ་, Wyl. smyon pa) Thangtong Gyalpo (Tib. ཐང་སྟོང་རྒྱལ་པོ་, Wyl. thang stong rgyal po) and is inscribed with various mantras.
- (Tib. རྡོ་རྗེ་འཆང་, Wyl. rdo rje ‘chang) Skt. “Vajradhara,” Lit. “Vajra Holder”; Vajradhara is the primordial Buddha of the “New School” (Tib. གསར་མ་, Wyl. gsar ma) traditions of Tibetan Vajrayana. He is blue in color and peaceful in demeanor, he wears silk ornaments and holds a vajra and bell in his two hands, which are crossed in front of his chest. He is often considered to represent the ineffable expanse of complete enlightenment—the embodied apogee of the Tantric vehicle.
- (Tib. མཁའ་འགྲོ་སྡེ་བཞི་, Wyl. mkha ‘gro sde bzhi) The “four classes of dakinis” refer to the four families of dakinis that surround the central dakini in classic dakini or yogini mandalas. If the center dakini is of the Buddha family, then the four classes are: Vajradakini, Ratnadakini, Padmadakini, and Karmadakini—which correspond to the enlightened activities of pacifying, increasing, magnetizing, and subjugating, respectively. For more on yoginis, dakinis, and their mandalas in Indian and Tibetan Vajrayana, see Elizabeth English (2013) and Simmer-Brown (2001), respectively.
- (Tib. རྒྱུད་སྡེ་བཞི་, Wyl. rgyud sde bzhi) “The four classes of tantra” is a doxographical classification system used by the “New School” traditions of Tibetan Vajrayana. The four classes are kriya, charya, yoga, and niruttarayoga tantra. Scholars like Jacob Dalton have pointed out that the use of the term “anuttarayoga tantra,” which has become so familiar to scholars and practitioners of Vajrayana, is a mistake that should be abandoned. Rather, Dalton argues for the use of “yoganiruttara” or “niruttarayoga,” which are better supported by Sanskrit primary sources (Dalton, Jacob. “A Crisis of Doxography.” JIABS. 2005:152). Following Dalton’s revelation, I will exclusively use the term “niruttarayoga tantra.”
གྲུབ་ཐོབ་དམ་པ་སངས་རྒྱས་ཀྱིས་རྣལ་འབྱོར་གྱི་དབང་ཕྱུག་མི་ལ་རས་པ་ལ་གདམས་པའི་དམ་ཆོས་སྡུག་བསྔལ་ཞི་བྱེད་སྙིང་པོར་དྲིལ་པའི་རྡོ་རྗེའི་མགུར་བཞུགས་སོ།།. Sangye, Lama, Ed. Vol. ༼ཅ༽. Dingri Langkor Tsuglag Khang, New Delhi: 2013. Pecha pp. 321-324.
Dalton, Jacob. “A Crisis of Doxography: How Tibetans Organized Tantra During the 8th-12th Centuries.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 28.1 (2005): 152.
Davidson, Ronald M. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia UP, 2002.
DiValerio, David M. The Holy Madmen of Tibet. New York: Oxford UP, 2015.
DiValerio, David M. Trans. “Introduction.” The Life of the Madman of Ü. New York: Oxford UP, 2016. 1-54.
Larsson, Stefan. Crazy for Wisdom: The Making of a Mad Yogin in Fifteenth-Century Tibet. Leiden: Brill, 2012.
Quintman, Andrew. The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa. New York: Columbia UP, 2014.
Stearns, Cyrus. Trans. “Introduction.” King of the Empty Plain: The Tibetan Iron-Bridge Builder Tangtong Gyalpo. New York: Snow Lion, 2007. 1-80.
Sugiki, Tsunehiko. “Śamvara.” Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Leiden: Brill, 2015. 360-66.
Szanto, Peter-Daniel. “Hevajra.” Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Leiden: Brill, 2015. 334-40.
Wedemeyer, Christian K. Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism: History, Semiology, & Transgression in the Indian Traditions. New York: Columbia UP, 2014.