a question for the teacher

I was lucky enough to attend a retreat on the mahayana teachings of Chogyam Trungpa as taught by Judy Lief this past summer, and even luckier that it’s part of my livelihood to take the teachings presented there and turn them into an online course! The following is excerpted from a transcript of one of the Q&A sessions. I wanted to save this here to come back to now and again.

ME: I’ve been experiencing a lot of emotion, especially since Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche’s visit. The interesting thing about it is that (throughout my life I’ve been a crier but) I’ve just had these episodes of being really wracked by sobs, and there’s no content behind them. Like, usually my tears are compelled by the sense of self-pity or some storyline, and I’m finding that there’s nothing there. And then I was reading today, and Trungpa Rinpoche says something about how when you start to lose your grip on your ego, there’s this sort of depression or feeling of loss that comes up. At the same time that I’m sort of noticing there’s no content and I’m trying to go with that and not create a story out of this emotion, I am getting glimpses of this feeling that nothing is what I thought it was. That sounds trippy and weird to even talk about. But I’m just wondering, where is all this emotion coming from? First of all, I feel like I’m not creating it; it’s just coming through me. And then is it bodhichitta? Or is there a difference between bodhichitta and what Trungpa Rinpoche describes as that feeling of loss or sadness that comes up from that losing the ego?

JUDY: Wow, that’s a great question. At one point, when Rinpoche was talking about emptiness, he talked about when you feel “cold” and “hot” shunyata. He talked about cold shunyata like that experience you’re describing: it’s like you’re on an island that’s eroding away, and it’s a quality of some fear and loss…Everything’s dissolving that we believed in, and it’s like losing your religion. And we are; it’s our religion of “I.” You know, we’re “I-ists.” [Laughter] So this sense of falling apart, in a way—he called that “cold shunyata.” In some ways the initial whiff of that experience is a little harsh like that, with a little bit of intrigue.

This may be a dumb analogy, but it’s like if you were going to go off the high board for the first time. You aspire to do it, but you’re also holding back a lot. It’s like something has to be stepped through or over in order to go further, and it feels like things are eroding because the people behind you are all [laughter] coming up, and you’re more and more uptight because there they are.

This notion of küntak, the illusory world, the world dressed up in costumes—this is our world that we really want to be there for us, you know, so we say. We want it to be there for us, and we’re disappointed, and we don’t want to let go of that fantasy; we don’t want to let go of … We don’t trust if we don’t hold it together, we’re not going to go out of control. That’s a lot of it—very connected with control and trying to feel stable and the predictability and wanting to have everything labeled and sorted out so we can navigate through it and be prepared all the time. So he talked about that as cold shunyata; it’s like you’re approaching something and you’re drawn towards it, so it’s not totally you’re running away scared, but there’s a lot of trepidation in the actual realization that nothing really can be held in the way you would like and long to.

Then he said there’s a point where we’re right on the edge; you’re right on the edge; we can either step back or go forward, and he said then there’s a possibility of making a leap. And at that moment of making that leap, it’s exhilaration and joy and warmth—the shunyata suddenly warms up [laughter], so to speak, in that analogy, and we realize there was nothing to be afraid of and that what we were holding onto was actually full of holes and, in fact, deadly: a constricted view, a small view of our world and ourselves. So another way of looking at shunyata is vastness. It’s got depth—a sacred, profound way of being that doesn’t fit into our little very self-absorbed thing. And it sometimes … I think I’ll end … We’re running out of time, right? Whatever. [Laughter]

Another way I think it’s helpful to think of … A lot of times on paths, we’re trying to fit the dharma into our scheme. We’re trying to either use it as an adornment or shove it into our small world without destructing much of anything. We want it just added on as something cool, you know? As something to make us even more interesting people, or whatever. [Laughter] You know, as special: we’re religious, or we’re serious people, and we’re insightful, profound—whatever. We want to reduce it down to make it fit the ego. But at some point—instead of reducing what is so profound and wonderful—there’s a sense of popping open what is so reduced, and it’s dissolving into the dharma. It’s like that chant every morning becoming … “may … grant you blessings so you may become one with the dharma,” and becoming one with the dharma doesn’t mean you’ve captured it. [Laughter] It means it’s captured you. It’s captured you.

There’s one line I didn’t have marked, but where the Vidyadhara says something about letting the dharma—“when you let the dharma understand you, then you’re better able to understand the dharma.” And that was sort of an odd thing to say. There’s almost like a leap of trust, and this comes from moments without control rather than control, and practice is actually (we’ll work with this more) the dropping of the technique, dropping of trying to get somewhere, dropping of the self-improvement, dropping of all romantic illusions of what it means to be a Buddhist practitioner, and dropping of all our rejection of what we are, our fantasy of where we’re supposed to get. And there’s a lot of dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping … dropping, dropping, dropping. Yeah. Which doesn’t mean we have to throw everything away and be a monk or a hermit. But there’s a psychic dropping of all our accoutrements, all our clothing, all our skin, and all our coverings. And … ground zero. Doesn’t that sound great? [Laughter] Aren’t you glad you came? [Laughter] And for this you paid money? [Laughter]