Meditation Teachers, Behaving Badly

A great modern Tibetan meditation master recently described the difference between the appearances we expect from people functioning “normally” in polite society, and the boundary-busting work of a real Dharma teacher — and how those expectations often become mixed up with one another:

By and large, human beings tend to prefer to fit in to society by following accepted rules of etiquette and being gentle, polite, and respectful. The irony is that this is also how most people imagine a spiritual person should behave. When a so-called dharma practitioner is seen to behave badly, we shake our heads over his/her audacity at presenting herself as a follower of the Buddha.

Yet such judgments are better avoided, because to “fit in” is not what a genuine dharma practitioner strives for.

Think of [the great tantric meditation master] Tilopa [988–1069]*, for example. He looked so outlandish that if he turned up on your doorstep today, you probably would refuse to let him in. And you would have a point. He would most likely be almost completely naked; if you were lucky, he might be wearing some kind of G-string; his hair would never have been introduced to shampoo; and protruding from his mouth would quiver the tail of a live fish. What would your moral judgment be of such a being? “Him! A Buddhist?” This is how our theistic, moralistic, and judgmental minds work. Of course, there is nothing wrong with morality, but the point of spiritual practice, according to the vajrayana teachings, is to go beyond all our concepts, including those of morality.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Khyentse Rinpoche (b. 1961)

“To go beyond all our concepts, including those of our morality.” How dangerous are those words, so easy to imagine yet near impossible to attain with any impeccability. Who is really willing to do this, in the work of practice and waking up? Who, in these days, would risk taking themself to the edge with a teacher — and maybe beyond? Who would enter what the ancient Zen kong-an [koan] describes as “Taking one more step from the top of a 100-meter flagpole?”

I was beaten beyond any concepts in the So Baek Sahn Mountains of Korea, while not yet an old monk, by a genuinely awakened mad court jester of a Zen master during the days of a frigid winter Kyol Che intensive retreat. Bong Cheol Sunim was either a demon who was destroying Korean Buddhism, or else one of the great awakened ones of the nation’s 1,700 year-old tradition. It wasn’t a smooth ride when living with such a crazy wisdom teacher.

Back during those crazy years of mountain-practice with his pirate-like Dharma activity (during which time, for example, when he would run out of pocket-money for eating, he would drive us to a financially well-endowed temple and honk his car horn furiously until someone came out and placated him with a fat wad of cash, at least so that he would shoo away). This was vintage Bong Cheol Sunim, one of the great Zen masters of modern Korea, or perhaps any age there. (Again, the jury is still out on this matter.)

For him, though, amidst all the mayhem and crazy testing, he was always driving us “beyond all our concepts, including those of morality.” Screaming some Dharma talk while aiming his car on winding winding back-country mountain roads slithering under the front bumper at 90-100 km/hr, slaloming white-knuckled back to the hermitage deep inside So Baek Sahn Mountains, having just concluded some dinner meeting with his local cadre of monks and various restaurant owners and professors and law enforcement folks professing their fealty to him like a Father (really), he would continue the Dharma talk in the car shouting in my left ear grabbing my lapel area for emphasis, just one hand on the wheel, often smoking and using the window control up and down as his ashtray.

Bong Cheol Sunim was always destroying what people thought Buddhist practice should be, and raising it back through a constant, unrelenting baptism by fire. In this, he always reminded us of the words in So Sahn Dae Sa’s 500 year-old classic The Mirror of Zen:

  • [from Wikipedia]:
    As advised by [his teacher] Matangi, Tilopa started to work at a brothel in Bengal for a prostitute called Dharima as her solicitor and bouncer. During the day, he was grinding sesame seeds for his living. During a meditation, he received a vision of Vajradhara and, according to legend, the entirety of mahamudra was directly transmitted to Tilopa. After receiving the transmission, Tilopa meditated in two caves, and bound himself with heavy chains to hold the correct meditation posture. He practiced for many years and then met the mind of all buddhas in the form of Diamond Holder Vajradhara. He is considered the grandfather of todays Kagyu Lineage. Naropa, his most important student, became his successor and carried and passed on the teachings.
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