Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Lions, Tame and Untame

Penny, who just arrived in my comments out of the serendipitous blue, had a very sensitive and intelligent post on negative thoughts and emotions a couple days ago. She said, in part:

We don’t know how to sit with these dark feelings, how to listen to them or how to understand their language. All we perceive is their threat, that they might consume and destroy us. Given our collective ignorance of the ways of the soul and lack of good guides that is well justified fear. These emotions can and, at times, do destroy us. But when we learn to listen, the shadow has a lot to tell us.

The whole thing is well worth reading. I winced a little, though, at "our collective ignorance of the ways of the soul and lack of good guides" -- true though it may be of wandering at random in the modern world -- because there is so much accumulated wisdom about the ways of the soul, in the meditative communities of the world. An incredibly rich literature, and living, unbroken traditions stretching back thousands of years. People have been rigorously investigating the ways of the soul for millennia.

I know I go against the current of modern spirituality, in some ways, by insisting on tradition. But I think it's terribly important. We have so little time, and it's so easy to waste it. I see people sometimes struggling with problems and I feel like a mathmetician watching someone struggling to cope with inifinite series without benefit of Newton or Leibniz. She may be making brilliant progress, and no doubt the struggle itself is healthy exercise, but... Calculus has already been invented. It doesn't need to be done all over again from scratch.

This is not to deny, of course, that in a way it all has to be done over again from scratch. Nobody, as we say in the Tibetan tradition, can walk the path for you. But since I've been under the wing of a contemplative tradition, I think my progress has been ten times faster than it was when I was wandering on my own. I made valuable discoveries on my own. But I also forgot them, or misapplied them. I got tangled in snares that Nagarjuna knew how to untie in the 8th Century, and sidetracked by difficulties the Buddha disposed of in his very first teaching. The going was slow, the progress very uncertain. And terribly unsafe. There are pits -- Nihilism and alcoholism, to name two -- that I could have dropped into, and never come out of, in this life.

I was talking to someone who was studying with a shaman, recently, and my main response was -- how do you know what this person's qualifications are? I have no doubt that some of these shamans are in fact highly realized -- but with no institutional apparatus around them, how do you know? A person doesn't have to be much past my own level of realization to be able to hoodwink me. There are frauds and black sorcerors out there who can be very foolish, or very nasty.

But then -- turn again -- from the outside, how do you know any tradition is authentic and dependable? Traditions themselves can become corrupt. (Though I think this happens rarely to contemplative traditions, it clearly has happened, from time to time.) You still have to check them out. Flirt. Read up on them. Visit them. Ask awkward questions. The trouble is that in the first flush of spiritual enthusiasm, many people will be eager to throw themselves under the spiritual authority of the first guru they meet. Caution will seem like faithlessness or sloth. The Dalai Lama's advice, that you shouldn't accept as a heart-teacher anyone you haven't known well for at least two years, strikes me as excellent advice. (Not that *I* took it, of course.)

One of the things I love about the Tibetan Kagyu tradition that I practice within is that it has not only a monastic tradition and institutional structure for authenticating teachers, but also strong shamanic and householder traditions. Many of its greatest teachers came from outside the monasteries, and studied outside of the institutions. I'm a little wary of traditions that seem a little too orderly and neatly sewn up. The life of the spirit just isn't that predictable, that domestic.

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