An Evolution of Lojong Study & Practice
When I started writing commentaries on Atisha’s Lojong slogans, it was because of my wife’s suggestion that we write a book together. The plan was to spend a year going through the slogans, writing our own interpretations and pull them together into a manuscript. We shuffled our deck of slogan cards, choosing one at random to contemplate each week. The slogan would sit on our shrine and before my morning meditation, I would read it, and consider it throughout my day.
Just shy of halfway through the deck two things occurred to me. First, doing the slogans in random order didn’t really work. Often one slogan relates to the next, and out of order they cause confusion. Second, the depth of instruction and meaning of each slogan is vast. Atisha’s Lojong slogans are basically the Tibetan version of Zen Koan practice. Like a Koan, you could contemplate just one Lojong slogan for a lifetime and find new meaning to it each time you revisit it.
This was most notable when my practice moved away from ‘I am suffering’ to ‘There is suffering’. As I began examining whiteness and colonialism through a practice lens, I grew more aware of the systemic aspects of racism, sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, ableism, and the gender binary.
Exposure to different translations of and commentaries on dharma teachings give us new insights and ways of thinking about a teaching or practice. Our relative embodiments and experiences inform how we hear and interpret a teaching. This, in turn, determines the language we use to express our understanding, and often times, who our audience will be. Someone racialised as white will not have the same interpretation as someone racialised as Black or Latinx. Someone who is transgender or queer will not have the same interpretation as someone who is cisgender or heterosexual. Intersections of identity matter too. A Black queer woman will have a different perspective to offer than a Black queer man.
Despite how obvious this may seem, there are plenty of folks ready to assert that gender, race, sexuality, physical ability, and so on, do not matter. The teachings are the teachings, and the teacher is just a messenger. This is a form of spiritual bypassing which arises frequently in dharma communities. The message is that ultimately none of these identities are ‘real’. The problem is our attachment to identity. As if we would be enlightened already if we just weren’t so hung up on someone’s ‘maleness’ or ‘whiteness’.
This argument, whenever I encounter it, is always put forth by someone with a dominant embodiment. White, cisgender dharma teachers are the most likely people to insist that race and gender are ‘just concepts’ and we should work to let go of our fixed ideas about them. Notably though, as Grace Schireson points out in her book Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Masters, the cismale who insists gender is just a concept is unlikely to use the ladies restroom.
In committing to being the change I want to see, I have incorporated my understanding of how the relative does matter into the approach I take when reading commentaries on Lojong slogans. This is something I always do before delving into writing commentaries of my own, as a way to connect with the many ways a teaching can be interpreted and taught.
The four resources I turn to are The Practice of Lojong by Traleg Kyabgon, Enlightened Courage by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Universal Compassion by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and Judith Leif’s commentary available online through Tricycle Magazine.
Each of these teachers has something different to offer. They use different translations and vocabulary, and have all been influenced by different teachers themselves. Their embodiments and cultural, social, and economic placement come through in their commentaries as much as their varied practice backgrounds. All of these things matter, the teachings and the teacher.
We are often told to separate the teacher from the teaching. This is used a lot these days in direct response to the gross abuse of power by teachers like the Sakyong Mipham of Shambhala, Sogyal of Rigpa, Reggie Ray of Dharma Ocean, and Noah Levine of Against the Stream, to name just a few. It’s like the Buddhist version of ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’, the idea being that the teaching is pure, no matter the behaviour of who said it.
Teachings on emptiness show us that you can’t separate anything. All things exist in dependence on all other things, making the statement ‘separate the teacher from the teaching’ counter to a core dharma instruction.
A different approach is to embrace the both/and of the teaching and the teacher. It’s important that we not dismiss what could be a transformative and powerful teaching just because the person we heard it from has done something ethically or morally reprehensible. And we should also consider how someone’s actions demonstrate their own practice. If a teacher is telling us to be mindful of our body, speech and mind so as not to cause harm, and then we find out they coerced female students into sexual relationships, it smacks of hypocrisy and steps should be taken towards accountability. However, the teacher’s inability to follow their own instructions doesn’t mean we should not be mindful of our body, speech, and mind.
Examining the teacher is as important as examining the teachings. The gender, race, ability, age, culture, sexuality, language of the teacher all matter. This is why representation is so important. The interpreter of the teachings matters in that who they are determines the interpretation they have to offer. Each interpretation says as much about the teacher as it does about the audience they attract. We can cultivate the capacity to see the universal or underlying wisdom of a teaching, regardless of who said it, and who said it can determine if we listen to and take that wisdom to heart.
The first time I read Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary on the Lojong slogans was during a five day solitary retreat. Reading Enlightened Courage in five days meant I did not spend a great deal of time with each slogan, although I did consider his commentary to be profound. Most of my reverence for Dilgo Khyentse came from listening to teachers who were once his students. He has obtained a legendary, almost mystical status in death. I didn’t really question the wording in his commentary at that time. He was much beloved and one of the greatest Tibetan lamas of his day — of course his teachings would be profound.
In rereading Dilgo Khyentse as support for my own commentaries, I now see how his presentation is very much informed by the culture and society of Tibet. Take the slogan: Work with the greatest defilements first. Dilgo Khyentse’s relative view is rooted in a classic Tibetan Buddhist approach of monasticism. Based on the context of his own studies, Dilgo Khyentse uses ‘desire’ as an example of a defilement. He taught as a man in a patriarchal culture. Desire is a fitting example of the hardest thing to work with if one is assuming their audience is a monastic man working with their sexual urges. His suggestion is to use ugliness as an antidote, which harkens back to texts attributed directly to the Buddha. Someone else with a largely male audience, presumed to be heterosexual, who would benefit from remembering all the gross fluids of the human body as a way to help them adhere to vows of celibacy. These were all things I didn’t notice when I first read this commentary.
It can be easy to parrot what we have heard from a teacher, not considering if such a repetition is going to actually land with our audience. We must be wary of holding up a ‘traditional’ teaching as being authentic or better than a modern interpretation. Context matters. Desire is a different thing in a North American context. If I were to speak to it, I’d speak to rampant consumerism and the way we tend to try and buy happiness. This is more relevant to an audience living under Capitalism.
In Judith Lief’s commentary on the same slogan, she chooses procrastination as an example of a defilement we could work with. She interprets this slogan as calling us to notice when we are putting things off. This from a white cis-woman likely speaking to an audience of lay-practitioners who are also white, often middle-class, and probably living in an urban setting in North America—a group for whom procrastination is considered something to overcome.
Both Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and Traleg Kyabgon use entirely different translations for this slogan, which is as important to their commentaries as their embodiments and relative views. Traleg Kyabgon’s translation is: Work on the stronger disturbing emotions first. His commentary deals less in specifics and more in the importance of noticing how our strong emotions are easier to work with because they are so obvious. There is also something relatable and universal about ‘strong emotions’, as it does not carry the stigma of a term like ‘defilement’.
In Geshe Kelsang’s book, the slogan reads: Purify your greatest delusion first. He goes on to describe both anger and jealousy as examples of delusions we might work with, offering up their antidotes as patience and compassion, respectively.
Choosing to reference Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s commentary at all could be seen as very controversial. I’ve been warned by several people that he is divisively sectarian, insisting that the path he offers is authentic where others’ are not. This reputation is widely known. The Buddhist Controversy Blog has a plethora of articles on many questionable and concerning aspects of the New Kadampa Tradition, of which Geshe Kelsang is the founder.
None of this stops me from reading his book. I appreciate the importance of exposing myself to more than just one perspective — not in a ‘both sides’ way (there are never just two sides), but in a way that allows me to discern wisdom for myself. The translations of the Lojong slogans in Kelsang Gyatso’s book often use vastly different wording from other translations, changing the meaning significantly. The slogans are also presented in a different order, which matters given what I learned about shuffling the order in my own deck of Lojong slogans. All of this makes for a thought-provoking read.
Referencing these four commentaries prevents me from forming my own sectarian views. I see the benefit of various interpretations and the importance of testing all of them against my own experience. Reading different translations and commentaries contributes to a practice of cutting through dualistic ways of thinking and strengthens the ground of my own practice. Most significantly though, it makes me consider the context of my own commentaries. I want to explore these slogans in a way that is relevant to a contemporary audience of lay practitioners. I also want to ensure that my relative queer experience, as well as my commitment to our collective liberation, comes through in what I write.
As the months, and now years have passed, my personal biases are more clear to me. It’s not that a Lojong commentary published to this blog back in 2016 is wrong, but the limited aspects of my relative views are obvious when they weren’t before. The original perspective fit where I was at that time, and my understanding has since expanded. My ongoing commitment to seeing the ultimate view is a commitment to be aware of the infinite number of relative experiences. The relative and the ultimate go hand-in-hand, and an ultimate view is one which is capable of holding all relative views.
No teaching will ever be presented without bias or context. This is what makes the path personal. This is why there are hundreds of sutras and practices, despite the original teachings of the Buddha being quite basic. There is no one way to express wisdom, and there is no perfect formula for being able to hear that wisdom and begin to embody it.
Not every teacher works for every practitioner, just as not every teaching is going to make sense or click with everyone who hears it. Ultimately, connecting to wisdom is up to us. Therefore we must learn to become our own greatest teachers.
This blog was originally published on Medium.