Jennifer Tummarello

Attached

by on Oct.01, 2010, under Shabkar Visual Essay

History is riddled with images of what Western culture has come to perceive as the classic Buddhist.  This image (as Figure 1 shows) depicts someone in pensive meditation, under a tree, and imbued with all other imagery that Western perception would give to label him as a classic Buddhist; removed and isolated in his prayer.  What many first glance interpretations of Tibetan Buddhism fail to capture is the journey process that the practicing Buddhist embarks on and the various stages of spiritual development noticed as the transformation takes effect.  However, throughout this journey, it is evident that the idealistic goals of the practicing Tibetan Buddhist are complicated by human life and its disordered encounters.  Specifically, through the eyes of Shabkar, a young Tibetan whose journey is described in the autobiography, “The Life of Shabkar,” we can see how relationships and the issue of attachment are brought to the foreground complicating transformation and the goal to transcend the cycle of samsara rebirth.  He desires to “go beyond,” attachment, impermanence, suffering.  The issue of attachment persists, who becomes a source of attachment, who gets detached, and how Shbakar deals with the issue of attachment throughout his journey down the path toward enlightenment demonstrates his transformation and where he struggles to transform.

Statue of classical, peaceful Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

Figure 1). Statue of classical, peaceful Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

On the issue of attachment, Patrul Rinpoche in “The Words of My Perfect Teacher” states that, “families are as fleeting as a crowd on market day…whatever buildings are constructed are bound to collapse…villages and monasteries that were once successful and prosperous now lie empty and abandoned.1

This description of families as “fleeting” is interesting on a broad scale because families, while a source of attachment, affection are also a source of loss, impermanence, and suffering, the same suffering that perpetuates the cycle of samsara.  The practicing Buddhist then faces the dilemma of detaching from the family and local community which he surely has grown to feel a strong connection and likely a sense of self recognition in the place and the people he came from.  Interestingly, in Shabkar’s instance, he decides to break with his family and village life in order to escape samsara and find a teacher to perfect his Dharma practice and become a teacher of compassion.

Image of samsara as a wheel, demonstrating its cyclic continuity; samsara forces people to wander, suffering through various cycles of rebirth

Image of samsara as a wheel, demonstrating its cyclic continuity; samsara forces people to wander, suffering through various cycles of rebirth

However, in leaving his family, is he not contributing to their suffering?  His mother makes clear that his leaving will cause her grief when she says, “if you have compassion for your mother, take a wife and practice the Dharma at home.”2 In addition, Shabkar himself acknowledges his mothers former hardships of loss and suffering with, “my old grandfather and a nun living with us died.  Following this, my mother’s young brother Kyabgo died suddenly at the age of 21. The strain of these and other difficulties caused my mother to age prematurely.”3

This is significant because Shabkar accounts for the grief his family will face after he leaves them with the long term positive actions that will come about when he is able to teach other the Dharma himself, “confident that the wishes and aims of both, mother and son, will be accomplished, in this and future lives.”4  The influence of Shabkar’s immediate family and local life is further important because the Dharma teaches the practicing Buddhist to treat all beings with the same compassion you treat your mother;  all beings have been your mother in some life.  Thus, this creates a disconnect between doctrine and practice in Shabkar’s life and a challenge for the practicing Buddhist.  By treating all beings with a motherly compassion, strangers and even non human beings are elevated to family.  Juxtaposed to this, those who would naturally share the strongest connection with Shabkar, experience a reduced relation to produce a shift in balance occurs, and the earthly mother who serves as all metaphorical associations of compassion fades.  Additionally, internal conflict associated with leaving mother and home demonstrates how natural human tendencies can get in the way of what Patrul Rinpoche describe as a straightforward path to enlightenment.  Later, Shabkar dreams of his mother bringing him a skull cup filled with chang, a dream deemed by his all important teacher as “a connection that will enable you to accomplish the guru’s pith instruction.”5  The dream demonstrates Shabkar’s residual attachment to his mother and the ability of the subconscious to inform us of lingering connections, connections that will pervade throughout the journey to enlightenment.

A classic picture of a Tibetan family, signifies the life Shabkar deliberately left behind for the life of a homeless wanderer.

A classic picture of a Tibetan family, signifies the life Shabkar deliberately left behind for the life of a homeless wanderer.

This image of Milarepa demonstrates finally this lifestyle Shabkar did choose, that of the penniless wanderer who devotes his practice to isolation and detachment.

This image of Milarepa demonstrates finally this lifestyle Shabkar did choose, that of the penniless wanderer who devotes his practice to isolation and detachment.

Another alternative Shabkar could have chosen to practice the Dharma, this image shows a group of monk and tributes the alternative of monastic life.

Another alternative Shabkar could have chosen to practice the Dharma, this image shows a group of monk and tributes the alternative of monastic life. Attachment is then complicated with the idea

Attachment is then complicated with the idea of an all-important teacher, to whom the student remains devoted, obedient and attached in order to learn from.  A practicing Buddhist in Rinpoche demonstrates this affection and devotion to the teacher who “points out the sublime path unerringly to others…at your feet I bow.”6  The designation of the teacher as different, as attachable compared to all other beings stems from the belief that the teacher can directly lead one out of samsara, “no one can bring black jewels from a treasure island without releying on an experienced navigator.”7  We see this devotion in Shabkar who without question begins to follow the Dharma King, saying, “the very moment I met the Dharma King and his consort, I perceived them as enlightened beings of devotion and joy.”8  This is further interesting because Patrul Rimpoche advises to first make sure that the teacher you are following is firstly a good teacher, for a poor teacher will lead you down a dark path where enlightenment can never be achieved.  Patrul Rinpoche stresses the need to first examine the teacher, that it is “difficult to find a teacher with every one of the qualities described in the precious tantras,” that there are, in fact, “certain kinds of teachers we should avoid.”9 Here, we see Shabkar a bit too eager to follow, to gain a role model, perhaps the role model he never had in a father figure.  Additionally, it is also possible that Shabkar is simply eager to start on the long journey toward Buddhahood.  At this juncture, human tendencies toward attachment, toward stability complicate the methodical, ideally singularly journey to Buddhahood, causing Shabkar to stray from the strict doctrine and putting him at risk to skip steps on the Buddhist path.

Image of a Guru; he who the disciple would have obsequious devotion for and he would lead the disciple out of samsara, unleashing the Buddha within

Image of a Guru; he who the disciple would have obsequious devotion for and he would lead the disciple out of samsara, unleashing the Buddha within

As Shabkar proceeds on his journey toward divine awareness, he gains a teacher; one to guide him, to give experiences that will aide the transformation to Buddhahood.  The question of attachment now points at this teacher.  Early we hear Shabkar say of his root master, “while my kind root master, Jamyang Gyatso, was staying at Tashikhyil, I went to visit him many times and offered him whatever I possessed. Because I did exactly as he asked, he treated me with great affection.”10 Later he echoes similar affection for his teacher, the Dharma King resonating with attachment and demonstrating humans innate desire to feel connected, attached to others contrasts what is described in Buddhist doctrine. Buddhist doctrine, in comparison, requests that the practicing Buddhist regard everyone as equal, everyone as your mother11 yet human emotions and human perceptions pervade this divine goal.  Rinpoche also stresses the notion that everything is impermanent, which would suppose that the teacher is also impermanent and just another aspect of samsara to be bound by.  And so, the issue of attachment creates challenges for the practicing Buddhist.  Further, there are instances where Shabkar himself claims to renounce attachment, “I recite more than the customary number of mantras…attachment and perception purified.”12 He can allow himself to be swept up in emotional attachment, or he can remain aloof in all circumstances, soaring above earthly perception, totally transcendent.

Image of the vast Tibetan sky at Mt. Kailash, a classic symbol of emptiness and a place where gods live, it is significant in that it lies physically above the sinful realm of samsara

Image of the vast Tibetan sky at Mt. Kailash, a classic symbol of emptiness and a place where gods live, it is significant in that it lies physically above the sinful realm of samsara

Image of the vast Tibetan sky, a classic symbol of emptiness and an area above the sinful world of samsara

These two examples of attachment to his real family and his teacher lead up to a key focal point in Shabkar’s retreat from all attachment and toward his own interior.  This is a significant part of the journey because during retreat the world breaks down, perceptions break down, and he returns a changed person.  Ironically, the death of the Dharma King runs parallel to Shabkar in the role of the teacher, symbolizing not only the transformation that has taken place within Shabkar himself, but also the ever present strong attachment he has for his teacher crying, “after he had gone, the living memory of my teacher became so intense that I wept and wept quite uncontrollably.”13  Before leaving the Dharma King, Shabkar again demonstrates intense devotion, “it is certain that I shall return to see the father and mother and their sons…Divine Abhe, you who have beeen kinder to me than my own mother.”14  This is significant because leaving Dharma King parallels Shabkar leaving his homeland years earlier and yet his speech distinguishes the two events.  When leaving the Dharma King, Shabkar promises to return, sings songs of lamentation, and “chokes with emotion, tears streaming down his face.”15  Additionally, when asked about his homeland, Shabkar replies to a follower, “my homeland is the primordial purity, the dharmakaya, my mother—samantabhadra… I the renunciate am happy.”16  Clearly, Shabkar has broken with his true homeland and reformed it in the Dharma, in his teacher and now at this stage of his journey, in the teachings that he as teacher passes on to others.  He feels “hopeless anguish-as if his heart has been torn from his chest”17 upon news of his teacher’s death, yet upon reading a letter from his mother where she describes her suffering, how she is “hanging on, just not dead yet” begging Shabkar, her son to return to visit her before she dies, to which Shabkar replies, “there is little reason for us to meet…even if we were to meet I have no more to tell you than the instructions I have given you before.”18 Shabkar has found himself, has found his inner Buddha in the Dharma and created a home there, has created attachment there.  Attachment therefore is not entirely absent, however, throughout the life of Shabkar, we see the source of attachment shift towards the Dharma, the teacher who gifts the Dharma,  and always outward, always farther away from the life he was born into.  Attachment creates a central challenge for the practicing Buddhist because human tendencies limit how well one can detach from samsara itself and thus how well one can complete the transformation to become enlightened.

Bibliography

1.  Shabkar, Tsogdruk Rangdrol, The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, trans. Matthieu Ricard et al. (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2001).

2. Rinpoche, Patrul, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, trans. Padmakara Translational Group et al. (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1998).

3. Image of Endless Sky. North of Mt. Kailash, Tibet. Copyright 1997.  http://www.kreisels.com/tibet98/tibet-bike-photo7.htm

4. Image of Bodhi Tree Buddha Statue. TheBuddhaGarden.com. 1997. http://www.thebuddhagarden.com/bodhi-tree-buddha.html

5.  Image of Samsara. 2009. http://posneg.wordpress.com/2009/01/25/liberated-infostream-infodump-datawell-datamine/

6. Image of Tibetan Family. (Stahl Collection). Old Darjeeling Photographs. http://www.oldmhs.com/older_darjeeling.htm

7. Image of Tibetan Buddhist Monks Play. November 19, 2008.  AP Photo/Anil Dayal. DavidIcke.com.  http://www.davidicke.com/forum/showthread.php?t=11956&page=965

8. Image of Tibetan Yogi, Milarepa.  http://www.allanji.com/mahamudra.htm

9.  Image of Guru-Disciple Relationship. 2010.  http://www.kechara.com/support/resources/recommended-reads/the-guru-discipline-relationship/

  1. Rinpoche, Patrul, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, trans. Padmakara Translation Group et al. (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1998), 48b. []
  2. Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol, The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, trans. Matthieu Ricard et al. (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2001, 32b []
  3. Shabkar, Life of Shabkar, 18b []
  4. Shabkar, Life of Shabkar, 33b []
  5. Shabkar, Life of Shabkar, 44b []
  6. Rinpoche, Words of My Perfect Teacher 133b []
  7. Rinpoche, Words of My Perfect Teacher, 137b []
  8. Shabkar, Life of Shabkar, 43b []
  9. Rinpoche, Words of My Perfect Teacher, 138b []
  10. Shabkar, Life of Shabkar, 21b []
  11. Rinpoche, 41 []
  12. Shabkar, 50b []
  13. Shabkar, Life of Shabkar, 124b []
  14. Shabkar, life of Shabkar 97b []
  15. Shabkar, 99b []
  16. Shabkar, 103b []
  17. Shabkar 125 []
  18. Shabkar, 143 []

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