Reflections on Samaya and Advice from My Teachers
CONTEXT: Restricted Content. This is recorded for my fellow Dharma friends who practice Tibetan/Tantric Buddhism. This is a “self secret” series of reflections intended to correct some of our harmful understandings of our vows and how to clairify and heal.
Greetings dear Dharma Friends. I wanted to give a personal series of reflections about the term Samaya. Samaya means our “sacred commitment or close bond.” The Tibetan word is Tib. དམ་ཚིག་ damtsik and it has to do with one of the vows you take as a tantric Buddhist practitioner. There are three series of vows. The first one is when you actually become a Buddhist that’s called taking refuge, and you take refuge in the Buddha and in the Dharma and in the Arya Sangha (community). So once you’ve decided that this world is filled with a lot of suffering and you want to aspire to develop those qualities, reportedly, that the Buddha had uncovered through his meditation practice, you join the community of “stream enterers” which is called taking Refuge. There’s a formal ceremony.
Once you’ve taken that ceremony inherent to that are five basic precepts:
You are not supposed to kill anything.
You’re not supposed to lie.
You’re not supposed to steal.
You’re not supposed to have sexual misconduct and
you’re not supposed to be intoxicated to the point where you’d break your subsequent vows.
So those that’s the basic sort of entry level of what you follow when you when you say you’re a Buddhist. Then you’ll have a preceptor and it actually take your refuge vows. So it’s a formal ceremony. Sometimes they’ll cut a little piece of your hair and you could be given a name, a new name at that point your refuge name.
The second series of vows we take if we want to practice in the Mahayana tradition that’s the Zen tradition or Tibetan tradition is called the Bodhisattva vow. So that is a particular vow that you take you take it kneeling and you aspire to relinquish your enlightenment for the enlightenment of all others. So others come before you. It’s a vow of altruism and compassionate activity. It’s a vow of understanding that beings believe that they really exist and that things are permanent. We have this dualistic relationship with everything which causes the five root poisons. Seeing through that whole process is basically seeing the interconnectedness and emptiness of everything. A person develops the awakened heart the awakened mind called Bodhicitta. From that, is the inception of a great amount of compassion and a longing for beings to be liberated. Based on that it’s kind of emotional, you have this emotional compassion and longing to liberate others and free them from their suffering as you’re also doing with yourself. So that’s the second vow. That’s your Bodhisattva vow and you’re also given a name for that as well.
The third vow that we take is called as I said, Samaya or Damtsik. That is a tantric vow, this originates in India. It’s kind of been conflated a lot with Tibetan culture since they’ve housed tantric Buddhism for many years as they were in isolation. But these are actual the root of them originated in India so it’s a tantric vow. It started at the “third turning” where the Buddha reportedly gave King Indrabhuti a particular secret instruction where the direct transmission of what he experienced when he sat under the Bodhi tree and became enlightened was imparted to this to the king. The premise of that, is you could attain enlightenment in one lifetime, while you were busy running a kingdom.
You didn’t have to become a renunciate, and meditate all day. You could do it in kind of your waking state. So it was it’s supposed to be like the fast path. It’s supposed to be a path of directly cutting through that dualistic relationship where suffering is created. So we can see the ground of our mind. So when that instruction is given it’s called the ngotro Tibetan: ངོ་སྤྲོད་, Wylie: ngo sprod, THL: ngo trö or pointing out instruction combined with that is a very personal, very intimate bond with student to teacher. That’s a sacred commitment, our Samaya. The first Samaya reportedly happened at the third turning when that transmission was given. So it’s very powerful. For those of you that haven’t had a relationship with a tantric teacher it’s a little bit like a shaktipat or a a very ground zero experience of connecting with the vastness within us.
It’s very powerful and very direct. It’s kind of like a Vulcan mind merge you can kind of do this mind to mind transmission. So there’s a kind of magical aspect. Both the student and teacher have to be prepared to be able to have that relationship. The teacher has to be able to be an open channel and a conduit for the enlightened mind of the Buddha. So he kind of puts all of his stuff aside for a moment and is able and is able to inpart a very powerful, fundamental open state of mind to the student. That’s extremely transformational, and so from there the student, you don’t have to necessarily become a monk and practice all the time. You can be in your ordinary state of your life and you can be a householder.
The practice is that you actually come back to the memory of what was transmitted at that time, many times per day. So it can be done in a car it can be done in the morning when you’re meditating. It’s it’s all throughout the day. So that’s the kind of relationship that you have with this very precious transmission that was given at the first time at the time of the third turning of the wheel of Dharma. So fast forward we have now it’s been practiced in Tibet for what 1500 years. What what we experience now is that when China invaded Tibet they had an exile. So they took they sort of housed a lot of these practices and views and teachings that had become enmeshed with their social structure.
So they had a feudal structure where they would build a lot of monasteries and they’d have one person in control and then a lot of monks and people upholding the community. So their whole entire society became structured around sort of this tantric commitment and that relationship from teacher to student and became institutionalized. Then they created lots and lots of monasteries, nationwide. Once that whole thing cracked and these teachers started to come outside of Tibet they they recreated those organizations in the west.
So you have now a guru and you have a series of lay followers lay or monastic followers that will have this Samaya relationship with the teacher and the community structure around that. Where it can be problematic is once, religion and politics and men in power become conflated, that original vow which was one of openness and intimacy and sort of a treasure, can become now a way to use, to uphold men in power and as a social control mechanism, very much like other religions do.
They use spiritual tenets to maintain power control and to keep an organization together. So I wanted to offer that. A lot of us now have been really rethinking in a more postmodern way or more not really postmodern but actually going back to the root of what was meant at the third turning. A lot of the stuff that’s very heavy handed and punitive and frightening and punishments in the afterlife and shunning people. Being very heavy handed and judging people and having it be the source of unkindness which breaks our second vow our Mahayana vows of compassion and our vows of refuge using that vow of damtsik of Samaya in a way that’s extremely hateful, fear evoking, punitive and controlling. What is said is if you break this vow you can go to varja hell when in the afterlife or have tremendous obstacles.
And so people run around like scared and they feel like they have to do whatever a teacher says and they are sworn into obeisance and they’re controlled by a teacher. So these organizations are structured around the Samaya vow in Tibetan tantric communities. And a lot of us are kind of rethinking that. We’re thinking Hmm maybe the culture and the institutionalization became conflated with that vow and it doesn’t serve the original intentions of the Buddha and it may not serve our highest good and might not be healthy. There’s a term called “structural violence” where you can have an institution and the building blocks of that institution are predicated on fear, control, silencing, secrecy punishment, threats . None of that stuff is enlightened. And unfortunately that’s what’s been exposed for a very long time, but now after the #MeToo movement a lot of our westerners are are looking at these vows and the institutionalization thereof and really rethinking what what that meant. I’d like to offer some personal experiences.
Namely having met my root guru his name was Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche and he lived high up in a mountain nunnery in Nepal in this beautiful sort of tropical nature Wildlife Reserve where there were tigers there. He he had a small nunnery and he sat on this little daybed and had just a little table and pretty much all day long he sat in meditation. He had this big plastic yellow mala and he did the mani mantra all day long. I think it was given to him by the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa. So even though it was plastic it still meant a lot to him. I think maybe he was he thought it was amber but. Anyway when you’d walk in the room with him the whole room was filled with his kindness and you could feel it like viscerally.
He was a pretty accomplished yogi. So he had this kind of shaktipat Buddha field around him and you walked into the room and it just hit you like a ton of bricks. One thing I noticed about him he was extremely humble. So even though he was the abbott of a nunnery there wasn’t that sense of he was like in charge and commanding people around. He was just was so humble and gentle. It was striking. Sometimes I would take a taxi up there to see him and he knew me, because I studied with him for a few years. If I’d bring a taxi driver with me into the room he would greet the taxi driver like as if as if he was a Buddha, like his old friend. He’s like oh and raise his hands up.
And he would have the taxi driver who he’d never met, come forward and kneel in front of him and the two of them would touch heads. And it was so beautiful. Like everyone that he met irrespective of the proximity to him or familiarity or family it was like he would light up like as if he was seeing someone so special and his heart would open. Everyone just felt so so special and so treasured in his presence. It was remarkable. It was I’ve never seen anything like this. I never felt that like that he felt like he was better than us or he knew more. Or that we were in any type of diminutive position it was it’s hard to explain. It just felt the only words I can explain was extremely blessed, extremely open.
It goes to the absolute rock-bottom core of your being. Being around a guru of that magnitude opens you to the point where you can open no further. You go to the most fundamental openness of your being, kind of before all of the pain, before the ego structure, before thoughts before self-doubt before the pain. That’s the power and efficacy of being around a really powerful spiritual teacher is they can bring out the best in you. They bring out the most fundamental treasure within you. So that connection with him, irrespective of all of the scandals and the rethinking of what we’re doing, that connection with him stays the single most treasured, powerful source of refuge. I remember what it was like to be in the room with him. That connection cannot be cut, and can’t be diminished and can’t be stained.
It’s it stays alive within me. I was actually there the night he passed away. I kept on coming back over to Nepal while he was still alive because I felt like like I would lose sort of the blessings of what it felt like to be around him. So I’d go back in for like a recharge and take more and more and more teachings. At some point I remember asking him for pointing out instructions after he had after he’d given it to me like a hundred times. He said “I’ve already showed that to you. You have all that you need now. Please go on retreat and practice and stabilize that confidence within you.” One other time he talked about guru yoga. He was giving a a instruction about a particular practice called guru yoga.
He said well you can imagine the guru above your head you can use the form of me but it’s not really me. It’s just representative. I’m just a representative of something much more vast. It’s not really me. So any time that you would try to attribute all of the qualities of that sacredness only to him, I noticed he would deflect me. He would like he wouldn’t let me grasp onto him and become codependent. Because I I was really all about following rock stars following gurus and believing that this person outside of me was going to make me all better and I could follow them give my life to them and I’d be okay. He would always kind of cut that and say it’s not really me. It’s beyond me.
When I tried to ask for more and more teachings he’d sort of little bit wrathful like “go find this within you.” He could I think he was so bright and so skillful he could see my longing and my need and my devotion but it was confused. It was looking at him for solace and refuge. He’d say no no no, he was better than that. He’s like go out, kind of like don’t tug on my skirt tails. This is it’s not about you giving everything to me. So the way that I was raised in my vajrayana relationship with him was one of humility and not codependency. I said I was there the night he died and he died actually in the middle of the night.
But I came up early in the morning and I spent I spent about a day just sitting with his body (kudung) as he set up in meditation. A lot of people came up. Some of his close western students we all just got to sort of sit on the balcony and meditate with him throughout the day. Some people would come up and they would like cry and be so sad that he had died. But I wasn’t sad. The weirdest thing is it was like the most powerful day of my life was being there with him after he had physically passed away. He was his body was still sitting up and it looked like he was just sleeping. His vitals had stopped, and he looked really beautiful and radiant. It didn’t look sad.
It was hard to be sad because he just looked so beautiful; and the way it felt to be up there with all my Dharma family was it felt like for the very first time I got to understand that that state of mind of openness that transmission from the Buddha was within me. While he was still alive, I always thought oh it’s him doing it. I never kind of got the message that we had access to this inner guru. So it was being with him when he died I could see wow this this is within me and I can train in this and I have access to it for the rest of my life. And that was the biggest gift. I don’t know it’s hard to explain. You could just sort of feel it in the atmosphere. It felt like pixie dust like magical we call them tigle or or bindu or drops of bliss or blessings.
The whole space was filled with that now that he wasn’t alive anymore, and into the evening there were some signs. He started to have fluid come from the nose and his sons came around him and caught the fluid. After that happened his that it’s called tukdam, it means his meditation state in the death state that had broken. Then after they collected this fluid his body slumped over and there was a marked shift in the atmosphere. That whole blessing and bliss thing we’re like okay he’s really gone now . So that was a teaching for me because the gift that I had by being blessed enough to be there when he passed away was the feeling that- vastness, openness that tender heart, that compassion, was within me always. I have access to it especially, when life gets hard.
The more that you train in it, the more you stabilize the more you kind of don’t get so hooked by things that happen in this life. You can stay in that kind of vast, mind of the bird’s eye view rather than the minutiae of the ups and downs of our lives. So that’s a great great great gift. To me that’s my Samaya that’s my damtsik is coming back again and again to that inner guru that is not him per se, but it’s not separate from him, but it’s something that we call it like vajra or diamond like. It’s indestructible. It’s like an indestructible, fundamental connection with that vast quality within us. So that’s my vow, and that’s what I always continue to cultivate within my being. Where I think there’s been a problem is that particular vow as I said, is it has become part of institutions.
It has become weaponized and something that is a heartfelt positive method of making spiritual progress and deepening your humanness has become the source of poison and fear within a lot of my Dharma brothers and sisters. We had another teacher that had been defamed through a lot of complex issues that had happened. When the community was falling apart I remember one woman writing to me and she just said “I am so scared of breaking my vows. I’m going go to (vajra) hell. This is poisoning my whole system and my whole view of everything.” She was like crying and scared. I wound up writing to her as these scandals were happening after the #MeToo movement. I said well let me tell you some of the things that I understand about about these vows and about our relationships with with teachers.
I had gone to Shambhala Seminary in 1992 and they gave us a pamphlet of the 14 root downfalls. So those are the tantric commitments. You can look them up. They talk about not offending or upsetting the mind of the guru and not speaking ill of Dharma brothers and sisters or a whole bunch of different things. I was kind of scared. They also talked about they have some of these seminary transcripts and they talked about vajra hell and punishment and you being bound to the guru with a stake and all this like really intense imagery. I was scared. And I was like 21 years old, and I went over to Nepal and I talked to Tsoknyi Rinpoche and I said I’m really scared, it seems like really easy to break your Samaya.
They talk about as soon as you have the mirror clean through empowerment through that transmission we talked about, as soon as it’s clean it gets dirty one second later. Like it’s as soon as you reify any mental formation you’re breaking your vows. I was like oh my God I’m shaking in my boots . And I came from a very heavy handed family that was very punishment oriented. So it sort of re-triggered some of that self-doubt that I had, mistrusting myself. So it already, right in the first month of me taking Samaya vows and Shambala it already became a a source of poison and a relationship with myself where I was scared, rather than what I talked about previously. This openness and this beautiful, heartfelt connection to the deepest part of ourselves became like “oh my God oh my God, I’m messing up here.
So I talked to Tsoknyi Rinpoche and he said “I want you to put all of that scary stuff out of your mind, it doesn’t help you. The only thing that I want you to take away from that is if you do practice then you can make progress. But if you don’t practice then you won’t make any progress.” So he said I want you to reduce your samaya to sort of an understanding in that way. You can either stay in Samsara or you can begin to to to cultivate deeper qualities. So and that’s actually the most scary is having a method to go deeper within us and turning away from that, staying kind of deluded and reactive. That doesn’t sound like super fun making more and more pain in this life.
So that was actually the scariest thing more so than any afterlife punishment or fire and brimstone or being reborn in a way that you will never hear the dharma any type of afterlife punishment just was kind of like whatever- And it wasn’t about like you take an empowerment and you’ve got to do your practice every single day or you’re like in big trouble. I mean it that whole stuff I think just came from Tibetan institutionalization and it doesn’t help us. Of course if you can’t do your practice every day the Buddhas aren’t going to get you I mean. I mean it we sometimes have just such orthodox remedial views of things that I’m so glad I had teachers around that corrected that. I wanted to offer you a few more stories of Samaya from what I understand as being a Tibetan tantric practitioner for 35 years or so.
I had another Dharma brother who left Trungpa because it wasn’t his particular karmic connection. And he was so scared. He was like people had told him oh you’ve left the Sangha. You’re breaking Samaya. You’re gonna be in Vara hell and have terrible obstacles in your life. He was scared just like my other friend. And he flew over to see Tulku Urgyen and he told me this story firsthand. He kneeled in front of him and said I’m really scared. I’ve broken my vow. I’ve like left my first teacher. I’ve left my first Sangha. Am I gonna have terrible spiritual punishments and stuff? And Tulku Urgyen as I’ve mentioned just how intensely compassionate he was. He used to wear these really thick glasses so his eyes looked three times bigger than they were .
So he looked like I don’t know he just was a really interesting character. So he looked at my friend with so much love and he shook his head and he said “your Samaya is not broken.” And he puts his hand up and he has this finger pointed with one finger and he says “there’s only one true Samaya.” My friend said well as Rinpoche had said that all of his fear was immediately cut and he left and it was exactly what he needed because he needed to speak to someone with that much of authority to clear all of the poisonous and self-doubt and punishment stuff from his mindstream. So there’s only one true Samaya, and that true Samaya is your connection with your open heart and that vastness that you received during that transmission from guru to student.
So that’s it. It’s not a source of poison and inner fear and judgment and hatred for each other where we we make judgements as to who’s the keeper and who’s the breaker, and we shun people like as if we’re Amish. I mean that’s just like obnoxiously hateful and horrible and such an incredible bastardization of that which is open and pure and beautiful. And since we’ve been talking about all this I’ve had a number of friends accuse me of being a Samaya breaker and cut me out of their lives and demonize me. I’m like well no maybe you guys are like orthodox and we have a lot of wrong views and we’ve used these vows to create harm. So I like to say one more conversation I had with Tsoknyi Rinpoche. I’ve written about this on some of the forums.
So I was scared again this is now 30 years later. I went back and had an interview with him and I said I’m still afraid of breaking Samaya and our tantric vows and punishment and all this stuff because one of our teachers now has has left. That line is has been cut sort of. He said once again filled with great compassion and love and nothing scary, he said to me “there is no punisher, no punishment and no punishee, no recipient. “ He talked about threefold purity, and I said well what if a community fails or people leave leave a sangha? He said that’s not the true Samaya. He said to me in confidence, which I’m going to repeat to you guys he said “some Lamas use that type of Samaya to keep their community together but that’s not the real Samaya.”
So that made me understand the difference between the relationship with the inner guru that you receive through empowerment and through the pointing out instructions. Then this whole kind of like I’m owned by a teacher and I can’t leave a community and I can never speak out. I mean that can’t be healthy to never talk about problems that happen in community. I know Thich Nhat Han’s community has got the peacemaker forum where if there’s a problem within the sangha or even with the teacher, you have an open format to be able to discuss things in a healthy way. We don’t make people have a gag order for any type of conflict or impurity, that’s an unhealthy relationship with samaya.
I had one another Tibetan high Lama who’s a friend of mine who reported that he was abused at Rumtek where he grew up. I think it was like what Kalu Rinpoche talked about sexual and physical abuse. He was really young, like six years old and he’d try to run away but he’d get to the end of the street. If you’ve been to Sikkhim it’s kind of remote. He’d get to the end of the street and there’s no place for him to go. So he’d have to go back to the monastery. I’m told from a lot of these forums that the little monks in the monasteries it’s not healthy either. It looks sort of nice that they’re monks and they’re getting this spiritual education but there’s a lot of abuse that happens there. If they try to run away or if they don’t do what the teacher or proctor says, they get beaten and there are reports of rampant sexual assault and they’re told that if they ever leave or speak out about what really happens there, that they’re gonna go to hell they’re “breaking their samaya.”
So I think a lot of us are under this kind of militaristic relationship with the teacher and with an organization where that vow, one of tenderness and openness has now become weaponized. That is extremely unhealthy. I don’t think the Buddha would want us to be scaring people shunning our friends; like the recent publication from Dzongsar, he talked about Poison is Medicine and “don’t hang out with Samaya breakers. Well I guess you could have coffee with them but you should really avoid them” all this kind of like creepy, hatred filled stuff which is not compassion; it isn’t openness it isn’t love. It isn’t the way my teacher was with everyone. That type of heavy-handed shunning people like they do in Scientology, calling people “suppressive people” or the Amish shunning people. Threatening people with hell in the afterlife is, I think that’s actually criminal, it just hurts people.
The dharma is supposed to be a method of liberating, not a method of freaking people out making them doubt themselves, and entrapping people, it’s not a weapon it’s a treasure. The punishment is already inherent in the turning away from the ground of our being. As soon as you get involved with a particular drama, or fixate on something in this life that’s impermanent, it hurts.
So it’s it behooves you to come back to your nature and drop it. So that’s the ongoing living relationship of Samaya which I keep but I don’t keep to the institutional one, where I am having to be silenced and not talk about stuff, or be owned by a teacher or community in a way that is unhealthy. If I’m going be owned by a teacher it’s a mutual agreement because I want to stay with that teacher.
That’s a commitment that I have that my heart tells me is correct. You could never have me speak ill of Tulku Urgyen or leave that community or leave any of my friends there. I would rather die a thousand times over than break that. So it’s that kind of really strong commitment I have to what I experienced with him. But once again it’s not “him.” It’s something more vast than him. So we can’t just get all attached to one particular form of a guru, that outer form, the [rupa] kaya it’s temporary.
There was one other piece that I wanted to offer and this is secondhand report but reportedly Namkhai Norbu talked about Samaya. If you recall you’re you’ve given this vow after you’ve received an empowerment and there’s a part of the vow at the end that says “whatever you say I will do.”
From how he explained it to his students reportedly, I don’t have a citation for this so forgive me I’m actually looking for it but it might have been word of mouth. But Norbu would say that your Samaya from a preceptor at the time of empowerment when you say “whatever you say I will do,” pertains to the wang the lung and the tri. So if the teacher would like you to do that particular sadhana practice for three years or a hundred thousand recitations or six months of retreat or, we had one where we had to do an hour and a half three days a week, you do whatever the teacher says in relationship to the empowerment that you just received. It’s not “whatever” you say I will do, you have a blank check of carte blanche of ownership where your life is owned by a teacher because you received an empowerment!
I know Dzongsar talks about oh you have a Vajrayana relationship with this person, AKA, you’re owned. You can never speak out. You have to do whatever they say. That is just, I think it’s just a royal crock, with all due respect. You’ve received an empowerment and you do whatever they say pertaining to the empowerment that you received. So you’ve made an open commitment to having had a particular transmission. You value that and you intend to accomplish that particular meditation practice that you’ve received. So you’ll do whatever the teacher says in relationship to the practice not “I am now your slave and I’m owned by you, for all time immemorial.”
And that sometimes I just like- face palm. I’m shocked as to how we all have co-perceived these vows and in such a way that has never been explained to me as being the right way. What we’re all practicing as our samaya commitments and our tantric commitments just seems unhealthy and inaccurate. I was really grateful when I heard Norbu’s explanation of that vow.
So as far as I’m concerned, like King Indrabhuti, I try very much throughout the day, many short moments to come back and look at the ground of my mind and my heart. I train in that both in the meditation state on retreat and in the post meditation state. The guru is that inner quality of vast wisdom. It’s a cornucopia of brightness and it can help us so much, to make progress on the spiritual path.
If we form a marriage and a relationship with that and that’s what I have. It can’t really be broken. If it gets broken by me getting involved with whatever that occurs in life, I always come back and that is my that’s my sacred commitment with my inner guru, the preciousness of what my teacher pointed out to me.
It isn’t about not talking about harm in communities, not talking about child abuse and monasteries, not talking about teachers who use that vow to control people and scare them. Talking about those things is actually healthy because it helps us to learn and grow and helps people to not be in pain around our relationship with being a Buddhist. I think that anything that creates self-doubt and pain and fear of the afterlife, and fear of these vows and rah rah rah, that’s poison that is not medicine.
So I feel very strongly connected to what is true nectar, true amrita, a true source of liberation, not a source of hatred, punishment and control. I would invite all of us to really rethink our understanding of these vows in a very personal, intimate way. I hope that the words from Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, Tsoknyi Rinpoche and Norbu Rinpoche bring some clarity to some confusion around these things. Well and wishes to everyone and tremendous warmth during this very hard time. May all of us find the real dharma within.