Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Spiritually Unemployed Type Checks Out Reggie Ray

Tonight we had the great, good fortune and treat of seeing Reggie Ray speak in person. I have his book "Touching Enlightenment With the Body" and his teachings, which I first encountered in Tricycle Magazine, have always resonated with me.

But I was not prepared for how deeply I experienced what he said as true. Some of this may drive you crazy, but now you're warned, so if you read on, it's only because you want to be incited! (that's the disclaimer, kids, no karmic lawsuits allowed). He started by saying how much of Tibetan and Asian Buddhism is cultural, bringing with it the hierarchies, the sexism and other aspects that are not essential parts of practice. Yes, I wanted to stand up and shout, yes. That's what doesn't sit right with me. That's one of the things that causes me to say "I am between traditions" when people ask me where I sit these days. It's like that awkward pause when people ask you what you do and you confess that you are "between jobs". Ah so now I get it, I am spiritually unemployed!

Ray seemed so clear and present in a way you don't often see. He talked about how his initial relationship with his Buddhist practice was all in his head and his intention was slightly misplaced. He talked about a brush with a cancer diagnosis (that turned out to be false positive), but lead him to throw out all his academic writings on Buddhism and embrace a more earthy approach that was based on the importance of how we live our daily lives.

I loved his story about his cancer encounter, how he realized as he spent time in cancer clinic waiting rooms, that there are 2 world views. Most of us live in a dream world, he said, even if we say we know we will die some day, we don't really believe it. There is an unreality to it. It's out there in the great beyond of "some day, pass me another slice of pizza, please." The other world view is that of cancer patients, who finally get it on a visceral level that they will die. Once you have been touched by this, he said, it doesn't go away. Speaking as a member of this little club I can attest to what a shocking realization this is. And even though there is a waking up to reality, I don't recommend membership in this club (not that you get to choose)

Ray went on to candidly talk about how he is hated by 12,000 people, briefly touching on his split with the Shambhala community. He spoke of his teacher Chogyam Trungpa with nothing but the utmost reverence and respect.

He did a couple of short body meditations with the group so we could have a taste of his practice, and talked about how his Vajrayana style or pre-Vajrayana meditations bear more similarity to the spiritual practice of indigenous people than Buddhist practice as we know it. It can sound a little esoteric or perhaps heady when he talks about the ultimate reality being accessed through the relative reality but I think it is just the shortcoming of language. It is difficult to describe in words what must be experienced through the body. You need that direct encounter to actually "get it". All the words are really only pointing the way.

He talked about what is really important, is how we live our day to day lives, how we experience each person and circumstance as our path. He talked about how the body is each person's personal gateway to what he calls the "ultimate", what others might call awakening. He talked about how it is all a transformative experience that takes a life time and that it's really all about love; coming to that place where we can deeply appreciate everything we encounter. It's not about "idiot compassion" which has been a subject for discussion out here in Buddha's blogland or "being nice all the time". Just as we can love our children but let them know that some actions are inappropriate, we can use this same discernment but without judgement and unkindness. Not easy, but possible.

I was deeply moved by what I experienced as a deep expression of truth as I listened to Reggie Ray speak. I have seen videos of him and heard his audio tapes and while I often liked what he had to say I was never really touched by it in the same way as hearing him speak for 2 hours. Tonight I experienced the humility and clear vehicle that he is for the Dharma. And for that I am truly grateful.


  1. I love this post - it's so true how we think about death as something that somehow won't happen to us. Because we haven't experienced it, so there's nothing to recall or relate to. It's just abstract, meaningless, just talk. Yet, I always have this feeling that I must accomplish, and finish it, all the things in my life, before I die. And then sit on a cushion and let it all go. And savor those forever instants when we are nowhere but here.

    And like in the Heart Sutra, so marvelous, how the relative fits the absolute, as a box and its lid...

  2. I've enjoyed Ray's work - what I have read and the interviews I have heard. He's tapping into some deep stuff, especially with the body focus work.

    I have to say, though, that the whole "essence of Buddhism" argument is a crock in my opinion. Every last form of the practice, from the beginning, has originated and developed within a cultural framework. And every place it has moved, there's always been a negotiation with the new culture whereby some of the spiritual/religous elements of the new place are incorporated into the practice that was brought from the old cultural home. There is no "essential" Buddhism, just as there is no essential "self" as far as I'm concerned.

    This doesn't mean that the issues of hierarchy, sexism, racism, etc, that are present in Buddhism should be ignored, but I think the search for an essential practice is a red herring.

  3. I love this post too! Ah yes - the "Spiritually Unemployed" - I know it well!

    Yes, so easy to get stuck in our heads with it all, no matter what the path, getting entangled in our thoughts, opinions and judgments about what someone else chooses to do out of compassion, until of course our Heart opens, through a "direct" life experience, and we realize that what we *think* about what someone else chooses to do doesn't really matter... :)

    I love what Reggie Ray said that the Ultimate Reality is accessed through the relative reality through direct experience. Or as I call it - "The Mystery" revealing Itself in the everydayness of life - through the indigenous Earth path - including the body experience. Although this has been a challenging one for me to "get." Body stuff is a hard one... :)

    As always a lovely, meaningful post! Thank you.

  4. Thanks for the input everyone

    And Nathan, I'm not sure Ray is trying to strip Buddhism down to it's essence. I may have it wrong. But I think he is, in a way trying to bring it into the 21st century western world which is more stripped down in some ways than the cultures it comes from. Relating it to Indigenous spiritual practice may be a way of placing it in the culture of this place. I don't know but something about it feels essentially right to me. I often feel a smothering, stifling sense to some of Buddhist and Zen practices. Something in me begs for some informality.

  5. dear carole, thank you for your thoughtful posts, as always.

    I dare say you're NOT spiritually unemployed! You quote Ray as saying that what's important is "how we live our daily lives." Judging by your blog, you're very much "employed."

    My own experience on this point is that I'm looking less and less outside of myself (e.g., towards teachers/authors) but to my own heart's wisdom. "Be a lamp unto yourself," was Shakamuni Buddha's advice after teaching for 40+ years.

  6. I mis-spelled "Shakyamuni" (The Buddha's tribal name).

    Also found the passage regarding the "lamp" in my last post in Joseph Goldstein "The Experience of Insight."

    As the Buddha was dying, Ananda asked who would be their teacher after death. He replied to his disciple -

    "Be lamps unto yourselves. Be refuges unto yourselves. Take yourself no external refuge.
    Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Hold fast to the truth as a refuge.

    Look not for a refuge in anyone besides yourselves. And those, Ananda, who either now or after I am dead, Shall be a lamp unto themselves, Shall betake themselves as no external refuge, But holding fast to the truth as their lamp, Holding fast to the truth as their refuge, Shall not look for refuge to anyone else besides themselves, It is they who shall reach to the very topmost height;
    But they must be anxious to learn."

  7. Thanks so much for your kind post. I was very heartened to read your words, "My own experience on this point is that I'm looking less and less outside of myself (e.g., towards teachers/authors) but to my own heart's wisdom."

    This is very helpful to me at this point in my "spiritual life", a reframing of how I think of it.

  8. Hi ZDS,

    Yes, what a wonderful post! Thank you!

    And, you know, the way he and you wrapped up, by talking about love, was just wonderful.

    The Buddha may have said 'be a lamp unto yourself', but what good is a lamp if it doesn't reach out to others?

    Shantideva put this wonderfully:

    "May I be a protector to the helpless,
    A guide to those travelling the path,
    A boat to those wishing to cross over;
    Or a bridge or a raft.
    May I be land for those requiring it,
    A lamp for those in darkness".

    You know, this blog and this wonderful writing is just one such lamp.

    With palms together,


  9. Hi Carole,

    I'll stand by what I wrote for the most part, but also say I was cranky as all get out when I wrote it, so maybe it was a bit too sharp.


  10. Oh, and your point about relating practices to indigenous spiritual traditions makes sense to me.

  11. cheers Nathan. I do sense a change in tone in your blog from when I first started reading it, perhaps some crankiness??? Ah the winter and difficult life circumstances..... I grew up in Winnipeg so I know the effects of a long winter! I think we all go through some "dark nights of the soul" too, to drag out a crusty old cliche. And it all reminds me of the joke that goes something like "a friend is someone who knows all about us and likes us anyway!" with many bows to you! Wishing you some sunshine and an early Spring thaw!

  12. Is there a spiritual pogey line we can huddle in together? I deeply understand the need to split from a community that has become accreted with superstitious behaviours and group think. After much struggle, I think I've come to terms with what this means. It's going to be stone soup for a while but there's enough fat on my spiritual body to keep me going for a while. :-)

    Thanks for the great post. I've always liked Ray's writings and you made him very human in your eyes.

  13. Spiritually unemployed: Wonderful. Thank you for for this post. I have quoted your beautiful response on Nathan's blog regarding the "telling line" and very much appreciate your practice.

  14. I love it, a spiritual pogey line! This could be the new Un-Sangha. I sense there are few shuffling in this direction. Dress warm, it's cold out there!

  15. a lot of deep stuff here to think about-- I think anyone who has a brush with death will have an affect on their thinking-- change their daily outlook-- to live every day etc-- something we trip off our lips easily-- but easier said than done.

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