Monk(ey) Business Part 14: Teaching the Dharma

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Monk(ey) Business is a blog series chronicling the joys, challenges, ups, and downs of my nine years as a Buddhist monk. Enjoy!

After returning to Colorado from my first trip to Nepal I was asked to teach the Tukdrub Trinley Nyingpo Guru Rinpoche Sadhana to the local Pundarika community in Crestone. This is a complex development stage practice within the Vajrayana tradition, coming from a cycle of Nyingma treasure teachings. Here the meditation incorporates one’s entire body, speech, and mind, and involves a sequence of ritual, visualization, mantras, and chanting. From the outside, and at first glance, this kind of practice may seem very foreign and strange, though as we study and practice a particular sadhana we begin to see it’s skillful use in unifying all aspects of the Buddhist path. As the meditations, mantras, and visualizations within a Vajrayana liturgy become more and more embodied, the yidam deity’s compassion and our own innate Buddha nature begin to meet and merge into one, thus revealing our inner wisdom nature, transforming our samsaric perception into enlightened perception. Needless to say, it felt very intimidating to teach this kind of material!

Though I spoke on the meaning and method of development stage practice, I mainly focused on teaching the ritual, visualizations, and sequence of the practice. I’m not sure if anyone got anything out of it, as it was very dense material, and my first stab at teaching it, but I personally deepened my understanding a lot through the process of having to both impart it on others and make it relatable. Over the next few years I went on to create a manual for the practice, as well as to teach it again in San Francisco and Boulder. It was around this same time that I was asked to give teaching recaps at retreats with Tsoknyi Rinpoche. This made me extremely nervous, as I knew everyone would be watching me closely. I also wanted to clarify any questions around Rinpoche’s teachings for people without adding to or distorting them. Sitting up on the teaching platform, all eyes on me, I tried to generate a motivation of service in connection with the group and my own aspirations for enlightenment. I also silently supplicated my teachers and all of the Buddhas of the three times for the experience of authentic Dharma to take place within us. After a little while, my nervousness gave way to joy as I began to focus more on our sangha connection in the room (instead of my anxiety) and the incredible fortune of being able to discuss and practice the Dharma together. 

I guess I did okay on my first go, as I have been continually invited back to offer recaps at Pundarika retreats over the years. The recaps also started to open up a lot of other teaching opportunities for me, and in addition to the Pundarika study groups, I was eventually invited to teach in a variety of Buddhist communities and meditation centers around the United States. This was initially very eye opening for me, as I began to see how different Buddhist and meditation communities practiced and held the teachings. It also asked more of me as a teacher, as Tibetan Buddhist pedagogy is quite specific, and not always everyones cup of tea. Since every Buddhist tradition shares the Four Noble Truths as a basis for understanding and engaging the Buddhist path I began to dive back into the fundamentals of what the Buddha taught, and the essence of what we are looking towards as we aspire towards awakening. In certain ways, out of all of the profound teachings I have received over the years, the Buddha’s first noble truth on “knowing Dukkha” is often what I end up appreciating the most. It gives me permission to be with my human experience, to make mistakes, to relate to and experience the depths of the predicament I am actually in. Instead of a point of arrival, this has allowed for a continual unfolding within my practice. When we decide to sit with the Dharma within our daily life and embodied experience it seems to almost enter our DNA. If we listen, reflect, and meditate enough it just becomes a part of us. This has deeply influenced the way I want to show up for others within my public and one-to-one teaching, as each moment is fresh and alive, and when we serve as a Dharma teacher we are showing up for co-awakening with others within these fresh moments.

As I continued to travel and teach I gained more of a bird’s eye view of how Buddhism and meditation were unfolding in the West. Among the positive signs of some very inspiring communities and teachers I also began to notice how commodified meditation had/has become. As we continue to go through the growing pains of Buddhism taking root in the West, and as the presentation of traditional teachings and practices continue to adapt culturally, some of us are finding (at least here in America), that the culture the Dharma/meditation is being adapted into is deeply troubled and ill. Further, I personally struggle a lot with what can even be considered as American culture. Of course we are a melting pot of a diversity of cultures, some of whom willingly volunteered to be here, and some of whom were forced. But if we look closely many of us have been fooled (or coerced) into the worship and acceptance of the almighty dollar in place of a culture. It’s no wonder that the first thing Buddhist meditation gets “culturally” integrated into is how much it can externally produce, either in monetary or psychological gains. This is incredibly sad, and a cause for alarm, as commerce, self-help culture, and spiritual materialism will only continue to cut us off from our inner well-being and awakening. Future generations of American Buddhists may not have access to teachers and mentors that truly embody the Dharma, but instead hock it for wealth, status, and ego-gratification. 

I find all of this deeply troubling, and as a Buddhist practitioner and teacher I also struggle with it. How do I navigate our deeply sick and wounded culture economically? How do I stay in integrity with the Dharma and right livelihood, while still being able to afford to live where I can be accessible and helpful to others? These are questions I often ask myself. Generally, I feel that Dharma teachers should accept what they are given, and live in accord with the Dana (generosity) model that the Buddha prescribed. When the literal interpretation of this is not possible, I believe we can still live within the spirit of this, making sure that those without financial means are given access to the teachings. I was fortunate enough to have support as a monk, and I could not have done it without the kindness and generosity of so many. I find that post-monk, most just expect me to fit into the rat-race model that is so harmful to humanity and the planet. It’s incredibly unfortunate that we are habituated and manipulated into competing for more and more resources, when new and more compassionate models are possible. Although I am not holding my breath for any immediate changes to the current economic systems that harm the most vulnerable and reward the greedy, I feel that Buddhist ethics can greatly inform how we show up in the world. Do we want to continue the status quo, and let it consume and digest everything in its wake? Or is there a way we can aim our intentions to co-awaken together.