Teaching Tibetan/Tantric Buddhism

By Don Parris

Don Parris

Don Parris

I have been teaching Buddhism over the past thirty plus years, and the most frequently asked question of me is how I got into Buddhism and particularly Tibetan/Tantric Buddhism, a discipline that requires intensive study of Theravāda (classical/individual vehicle) Buddhism for seven years, Mahāyāna (universal vehicle) Buddhism for seven years, and Vajrayāna (Tibetan/Tantric diamond vehicle) Buddhism for seven years. It all began with a telephone call.

The call came as my wife and I were chillaxing on the pristine crescent bay sands of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, sipping mai tais complete with little pink parasols spiked in pineapple wedges. A “Grand Budapest Hotel” Zero Moustafa type lobby boy paraded by, in red pillbox hat, searchingly pinging his xylophone, “Call for Mr. Parris. Call for Mr. Parris.” I took it on the house phone in the Mauna Kea’s stunning blue tiled entryway.

“Don! This will change your life!” Frank, my mentor in the global Big-Law firm at which I was a young associate grunt, always spoke emphatically and was not one for such niceties as “hello” or identifying himself. Straight to the chase; and, as always, he was right—emphatically so.

6With that salutation, the force-of-nature that was the Senior Partner Chair of our firm conscripted me and my ever-valiant wife into a trek to the base camp of Mount Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world—“The Five Treasures of the High Snow”—toward the eastern end of the Himalayas. I had never even heard of the mountain’s home, the Kingdom of Sikkim. However, our alpine guide, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, regaled us for weeks with stories not only of Sikkim, but also of the Himalayas, Tibetan Buddhism, Sherpas, bodhisattvas, tantra, yetis, and his and Sir Edmund Hillary’s 1953 first summit of Mount Everest. After his ascent, Nepal, India and Sikkim fought over Tenzing’s provenance; but first, foremost and forever, he was a Sherpa. Throughout that first trek, the love, care and selflessness the Sherpas and Sherpanis extended to my sometimes struggling wife opened my eyes, mind and heart to a far more evolved life form than the one prowling the hallways of Century City high rises.

4As Frank had prophesized, the Buddhist cultural Himalayas became my life-changing path, journey and sanctuary. I began “taking refuge” not in the Three Jewels of Buddhism—the Buddha (teacher), the Dharma (teachings) and the Sangha (community)— but, in the more western sense of the phrase. I took refuge in the Himalayas where my clients and office couldn’t reach me; and, if I be completely honest, visa versa. However, for me, it soon became less about escape, and more about quest and inner exploration. I eventually took refuge formally in the Three Jewels and became what Buddhism calls a “stream entrant:” one who enters onto the Path seeking a different perspective and way of engaging life. Decades of learning, scholarship, teaching, guiding and practicing later, I’m still swinging through the branches on that evolutionary continuum; but hopefully soon will be able to walk upright.

Tibetan/Tantric Buddhism is an orally transmitted and visually encoded tradition. The Buddha cautioned that its accelerated path to enlightenment—nirvāṇa—was as dangerous as it was expeditious; and, accordingly, had to be undertaken only with the guidance of an appropriate teacher or guru. So, eventually, when fully prepared—or so I thought—I introduced myself to my proposed first teacher, the venerable Geshe Phurba in the alter room of his Himalayan monastery. It was not an audition to be proud of. I bowed, I namasted, I invoked an air of solemnity, and ventured, “I wish to become a Buddhist; I wish to become enlightened; I wish to practice anuttarayogatantra,” showing off a bit with the last to convince him I was learned in his ways, familiar with the highest tantric practices, and serious disciple material.

7His response: “Later.”

Me: “No.” I actually said “no”—to Yoda. By that time I was a partner in the global Big-Law firm; so it was knee-jerk, maybe even genetic. Recovering quickly, I dialed it way back and asked, “Why? It’s already late for me master; I need to start now.”

Geshe Phurba: “You can not. You have no mind.”

Oh, I thought, just a simple misunderstanding. After all, it’s not like I had filled out a formal application for the position. “I have a mind,” I informed him, and promptly proved the opposite by listing everything under my professional CV caption “Awards and Honors:” PBK, Coif, Law Review Editor, JD, Supreme Court clerkship, Big-Law partner . . . .

“Stop!,” Geshe interrupted. “There, you have no mind!” He looked pained, as though it gave him a headache just trying to think down to my level.

Finally, losing all conceit and using his honorific title, I simply asked, “What do I do, Rinpoche?”

“First,” he said, “get a mind. Observe, study, learn, critique, focus, meditate, understand, and practice. Then, teach.”5

“But what about enlightenment?” I blurted out.

Response: “Later.” I had the uneasy feeling we were right back where we started, only much further behind. “Please, Rinpoche, will you help me?”

And he promptly got up and walked out.

Since I was still in the alter room, I did not actually swear; but I channeled it through every fiber of my body.

Eventually Geshe Phurba returned. He unrolled a grimy scrolled painting—a thangka—and hung it on the wall by a small window. He then laid an old frayed rug down before it, motioned me to sit there, and directed me, “Observe, study, learn.”

Don Parris's classroom

Don Parris’s classroom

I had no idea—none—at all. But it felt like a test, so I began studying the image. An hour and a half later, he brought me a cup of foul-smelling and fouler-tasting yak butter tea. It’s an odd and challenging concoction of black brick Chinese tea, yak milk churned to butter, and a generous scoop of salt; all of which is whipped into something of thick soup texture. The resultant taste bears little resemblance to tea, but it is chain-chugged throughout the Himalayas.

An hour after the proffered tea, Geshe Phurba returned, motioned me to sit next to him, and asked what I had observed, studied and learned. “Thank you, Jesus” I mumbled silently. I recited my near-photographic-memory description of the eidetic thangka image: details of the creature holding in his fangs and claws a disc of pictographic concentric circles, of the twelve outer ring images, of the six inner panels including one man chopping down another’s tree, the people with bloated stomachs breathing fire, the wretched souls being boiled, sawed, flayed and dismembered, and of the pig, snake and rooster chasing each other in the central hub. Nailed it!

2My master shook his head with what I chose not to recognize as profound disappointment, and asked me again what I had learned. I asked what he meant. He asked me to leave.

And that was the end of my first teaching with my master.

I had been egocentric, not properly intentioned, and not ready to begin. He, however, was infinitely patient, and had actually accepted me as his student. Decades later, I am still studying that image of the Bhavachakra—The Wheel of Life—and I am still learning its teachings. And I have, for decades, as my teacher wished, been teaching Buddhism.

The second most frequently asked question of me is what my classes are like, such as my Summer Quarter 2016 course on Tibetan/Tantric Buddhism. I should note my conviction that you cannot simply intellectualize your way along the 1Vajrayāna/Tantrayāna Path. It is a bit like learning a foreign language; it ultimately requires some period of full immersion in situ. Living in the Himalayas and particularly in a monastery or gompa, being a part of the Buddhist culture and environment, and joining its rhythm and flow, is integral to understanding the Vajrayāna and particularly its Tantric technology. Otherwise, it’s like reading the operator’s manual without ever actually seeing or using a computer.

So, in our course, I’ll complement lectures and textual scholarship with (literally) hands-on, decoded visual components including statues, iconography, artworks, thangkas, ritual objects and artifacts. From our classroom chairs, we’ll (virtually) go on a pilgrimage, explore monasteries, enjoy a festival/teschu, travel throughout the Buddhist Himalayas, and live among the people of the snows as they go about their daily spiritual lives.

On the experiential side, since this is a contemplative tradition, I’ll try to devote (time permitting) the last five to ten minutes of a few classes to sample abbreviated guided meditations, appropriate for beginners or practitioners, of various types and levels of practice from calm abiding mindfulness, to insight-based investigation, wisdom awareness transformation, and finally just a taste of the anuttarayogatantra or unexcelled yoga meditation. For those who wish to participate, the meditations can be done either in classroom chairs or on the floor (bring your own cushion).

Don Parris's classroom

Don Parris’s classroom

The course will analyze the paradigms of classical Buddhism (Middle Way, Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, and so forth) without which we cannot understand the more esoteric teachings of the tantra. We’ll explore what is—and, equally important, is not—the Buddhist meaning of suffering/dukkha, no-self or non-self/anātman, impermanence and emptiness/shūnyatā, rebirth and the Bardo Thödol/The Tibetan Book of the Dead, nature of reality, and nirvāṇa. The “great schism” of Mahāyāna Buddhism introduced transformative changes in classical Buddhism based upon penetrating philosophical, scientific and psychological investigations and analyses, which we’ll consider in overview. The propagation of Buddhism into the Himalayas encountered and assimilated the indigenous animistic/shamanic Bön religion. The result of these influences was the “Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma”—Vajrayāna Buddhism—with its paradigm shifts, and singular teachings and practices rooted in the tantra. Throughout, we’ll take a look at the architecture, dance, music and fine arts, and the role they play in Buddhism in the Land of Eternal Snows.

3Most importantly, I want to encourage free, open and intelligent class discussion and participation on the topics addressed in each session of the course.

Don Parris will teach Tibetan Tantric Buddhism this summer on 8 Tuesdays, 1-3pm, Jun 21-Aug 9, in the Gayley Center.

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