Since I left the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) close to five years ago, I’ve been spiritually promiscuous. I’ve tried on a number of Vipassana teachers and sanghas in hopes of finding some place that feels like home. I’ve toyed with a local Dzogchen teacher, studied Mahamudra with a Vajrayana teacher and earlier this week, I returned from a six-day retreat that combined Dzogchen and Vipassana.
Usually when I return from retreat there is a bit of an afterglow. The real world seems rather harsh in comparison to the quiet I feel inside. That wasn’t the case this time. It was an odd retreat. Not bad. Just different than what I’m been used to at past retreats at Spirit Rock. This retreat was co-led by two heavy hitters in the Dzogchen and Vipassana worlds (whom I’m not going to name simply because I don’t want this blog to show up when someone Googles them). The main draw for me was the Vipassana teacher who literally wrote the book on Metta/LovingKindness. But, since I had been dipping my toes back into the world of Tibetan Buddhism, I was also interested in what the Dzogchen master had to say.
I wish I had been warned that this was primarily a Dzogchen retreat with an emphasis on the teachings (approx three-to-four hours a day from the Rinpoche and another hour from Ms. Metta). In the past, I’m used to four-to-five hours a day of sitting meditation, plus another two-to-three doing walking meditation. During this retreat I barely broke two hours of meditation per day, and the walking meditation breaks were really just 15 minute stretch breaks.
Which is not to say the teachings weren’t amazing. They truly were. All the things I loved about Tibetan Buddhism – the intellectual rigor, the precision, and the magical infusion of “blessings” – came flooding back to me. Ah, why did I ever leave? But, then in the evenings, when Ms. Metta gave her teachings based in the Theravada tradition, I was reminded why I had changed direction. There is a beautiful simplicity and practicality, a psychological resonance, and a strong sense of morality. I have found a teacher and a sangha I connect with and my practice is strong, why would I want to stray off this path?
Combining the two paths is certainly not unheard of. Many of the Spirit Rock teachers have also studied with Tibetan teachers. Plus, wasn’t the whole point of this particular retreat to show that the two paths are complimentary and ultimately lead to the same place? But one question plagued me for all of the retreat – what does that look like in my daily practice? It’s all well and good to discuss on a philosophical level, but when I put my tush to the cush, what method should I practice?
When it came time for my group interview with Rinpoche, I asked him that very question (though when I mentioned my spiritual promiscuity he had to turn to his translator who probably gave him the Tibetan word for “slut”). His answer was clear and precise. His said that there should be five elements to my pratice: refuge; bodhicitta; mantra or deity visualization; for the main meditation I could do either Dzogchen or Vipassana or concentration or Metta; and then finish up with dedication. And while I appreciated the structure, I was already doing something very similar, and it never got to the question of what path to practice.
Two days later during my group interview with Ms. Metta, I asked her a similar question, but framing it based on her own experience of having studied and practiced both traditions. She also gave me a very learned answer, explaining how there was no conflict between the two paths. Again, that wasn’t getting to the answer I needed.
“So, practically speaking, however, if I want to be serious about awakening, can I practice both or should I just pick one?” I asked.
After a pause, she said, “yeah, just pick one. At least for a period of say six months or so. You’ll never be able to deepen if you keep jumping around.”
For the rest of the retreat I alternated between confidence and clarity and gut-wrenching confusion and doubt. My question still remained. What should my daily practice be?
Having received advice from two esteemed teachers, it was now time to ask the advice of my regular teachers.
During my weekly session with my Vipassana teacher/therapist, I told him of my quest to somehow bring these two paths together and about the advice I had received so far from the retreat teachers.
“Well, what do you think I should do?” I asked.
“I don’t really see telling you what to do as my role. I’m here to support you” he said, clearly in therapist mode.
“Look, you know me. You know my practice. Those two don’t know me from squat. I’m asking you for your advice.” I said.
“I agree with Ms. Metta. Just pick one. So, why don’t you just focus on Metta for the next six months.”
I mulled his answered for a few minutes. I resonate with the Metta practice. It opens the heart and strengthens the concentration. Yeah, that might work. But there was one more person I wanted to ask before I could feel completely settled about the issue.
Two days later I met with the Lama with whom I have been studying Mahamudra (a close relative to Dzogchen, just a slightly different approach). I had been coming to her weekly class for over six months and we had never spoken. While I enjoy her teachings very much, I don’t feel connected in any way to the sangha. I simply slip into class and then slip out, never really making contact with anyone there. (There are reasons for that, which mostly have to do with my own preferences and personality and is no way a reflection on the people there, who have been quite lovely to me.)
I liked the Lama a lot. She is a Western woman, a psychologist, but with all the bona fides of an authentic lineage holder in the Kagyu tradition including completion of her three year retreat. We spoke of my how I was drawn to aspects of both the Theravadan and Vajrayana paths, and how I was at a bit of loss to integrate both. We also discussed the NKT and some of the residual side effects of my time there. For instance, the path of guru devotion is simply not an option for me. I can offer my respect and gratitude, but “devotion”? I just don’t think so, at least for the foreseeable future. She didn’t see that as a problem. Whew.
Towards the close of our conversation, I finally asked her The Question – given my interest in both paths, what should my daily practice be? Her answer: refuge; bodhicitta; Metta as a concentration practice; Mahamudra inquiry; dedication.
Yes! That was it! That is the right practice for me at this time.
For now, I’m feeling pretty confident going into the next stretch of road on my spiritual journey. I feel very fortunate that I am surrounded by the wise counsel of my current teachers to help guide me down this path.