Thursday, October 14, 2010


"If you can really visualize this it will be there in the morning"

Drawing by Jack Niland.
"If you can really visualize this it will be there in the morning." Venerable Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Snow Lion Inn, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, October 1972.

The first book of Chögyam Trungpa’s that I read was his first book of teachings in English (besides his autobiography, Born in Tibet), Meditation in Action. The year was 1970 and I was a Sophomore in High School. I had already had my LSD experiences and carried the book around in my back pocket as an emblem of a new, emerging identity (as I carried books by Alan Watts and Albert Camus), a cognoscenti of the spiritual search, no longer dropping acid or eating meat. Over the next six years, I acquired other equally stimulating and confusing identities, for a while forgot about the book and its author. In 1976 I stumbled into one of his meditation centers, met Chögyam Trungpa a few months later and studied at Naropa Institute that summer. That first, single year was such an acceleration of the real and the possible, such a collision between myself and the irresistible and overwhelming world of Chögyam Trungpa, that 1976 alone could be a year to digest, practice with and be in service to for the rest of my life.

 Jack Niland in his NYC apartment.

Jack Niland, Dharma Art International Treasure

My meeting with Jack Niland two weeks ago was a kind of re-union with 1976 or, I might say, 1976 required me finally to have this meeting (no more than an accident). That summer, Jack taught a four-week class on the “dharma art” principles he had learned from Chögyam Trungpa. I sat on the floor with the seven or eight other students and listened to Jack’s lectures, his pure, smitten and unflagging enthusiasm for such things as how the rods and cones of the eye corresponded to the design matrices of Tibetan thangkas, how the earth was a “rinky-dink” planet compared to many other world-systems, how a dot was the first work of art and how the aesthetic and moral catastrophes of the late nineteen-seventies could be transformed into wakefulness through art – all of these, teachings and tales conveyed to Jack by Chögyam Trungpa.

The class did drawings and other "dharma art" exercise and I took copious notes. My notebook probably contained at least an outline of everything Jack had received from CTR, but a few years later I somehow lost it. I still think about the notebook and still feel its loss. 

Jack Niland's design for the 40th anniversary celebration
of Karme Choling (originally called Tail of the Tiger).

Earlier this year, I received and invitation to write an article about Chögyam Trungpa for an anthology on “artists of the Counterculture.” In the beginning of the article I described Jack’s story of first meeting Chögyam Trungpa, which can be heard on The Chronicles of CTR - (PLEASE listen to this recording!) 
At that time, Jack Niland, a young aspiring artist from suburban New Jersey was about to become one of Chögyam Trungpa’s first students. Niland, though just back from living in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and after countless LSD trips, still had no satisfying insight into striking moments of perception he’d experienced as a child: how, for instance, an electric fan clipped afternoon sunlight to produce mesmerizing geometric designs inside his eye. Even the beauty of a schoolgirl in his first-grade class lingered as a haunting apex of the real. Niland not only wanted to reproduce such moments, but to understand them. Academic studies left him bored and feeling sidelined; Niland wanted personal access to the doors of perception. He’d had studied at Cooper Union and conversed with Jerry Garcia but had not found answers to his questions. He was about to take yet another road trip when his sister told him, “Jack, The Dalai Lama has moved to Vermont.” 

“Cool!” Niland said, “We’ll visit him on our way to Canada!” 

A few days later, Niland found his way to “Tail of the Tiger” a fledgling, semi-impoverished spiritual community in northern Vermont with a young Tibetan teacher in residence, a lama who of course was not the Dalai Lama but thirty-year old Chögyam. Niland knocked on the front door of the farmhouse which was the living quarters of the community and was forthright ushered to a small room where Chögyam Trungpa sat by a table with a pad of drawing paper, a brush and a bottle of India ink.
Jack Niland and Tao, when Jack met Chögyam 
Trungpa in 1970. Photo by Roland Sherman.
“There was this little Tibetan hippy guy, this cherubic guy with long hair and a huge grin, Niland recalled, “who looked up and said, ‘Oh, I’ve been waiting for you!’”

Trungpa, with “radiant energy and unbelievable charisma” immediately enlisted Niland to assist him in making his “very first work of art in North America,” a calligraphy of the Tibetan syllable Ah.  As he drew the syllable, Trungpa called Niland's attention to the “dot,” the first moment when pencil, pen or brush meets paper, which is not only the beginning of any line but also the moment form materializes from space. Trungpa called Niland’s attention again and again to the significance of the dot, how the dot is the first moment of arising in space, how the dot is in our hearts, how our mind is a dot. The splash of India ink is really the center of the cosmos.

As he was listening to Trungpa, Niland realized he had found someone who understood the phenomenology of perception. When he mentioned his experience with the fan, Trungpa replied, “Sure, sure, I understand, those colors come from the rods and cones in the eye. Tibetan thangkas are all based on that.” For Niland, Trungpa was the opposite of art history lectures and theories of aesthetics. Sitting in that room with him, Niland had no idea who Chögyam Trungpa was, he just knew Trungpa wasn’t explaining electricity but handing him the current. The syllable Ah, Trungpa added, means what it sounds like, a baby’s sense of wonder. If the Ah, a “pre-thought” and innocent moment of surprise, astonishment, even shock, was Chögyam Trungpa’s first work of art in North America, it was also the signature of his behavior, what it meant to encounter him.
.  .  .  .  . 

The First Western Thangka

A thangka painted by Jack Niland 
according to Chögyam Trungpa's instructions.

According to Chögyam Trungpa, this is the “first Western thangka.” It is a portrait of Sara Kapp, an early and close student of Trungpa’s, who was also Jack’s romantic partner for many years. Jack painted the thangka in the fall of 1970 according to Trungpa’s instructions.

Chögyam Trungpa fully believed in developing “Western thangkas,” works based on the discoveries of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan painting but in no way requiring the wholesale importation of Tibetan iconography. A fully-functional Western thangka would have to utilize images that arise from the Western psyche; or, we could say, from the “first thoughts” of the artist-practitioner. As I wrote last week, Images arising from our unconscious - from space itself - are not yet tethered to our hopes and fears, but can represent pure moments of meaning or "first thought." The valid image of, say, a wrathful deity could as easily be that of a Hell’s Angel on a bike rather than a red demon with multiple arms. 

To appreciate that a thangka could be Western and still convey  sacredness one, of course, needs to go no further than Giotto, Vermeer or Jasper Johns. But the principles of dharma art are an every-person’s art in that (visual) art emerges from a primordial language of mind and cosmos, a language it is impossible not to possess and that becomes evident even in the simplest of diagrams or drawings, if we know how to associate with them.

Drawing by Jack Niland.

In a sense, these diagrams are little more than doodles, but just as it is impossible not to have narrative in writing, it is impossible not to have primordial-ness in doodling. A dot, as we know, is the expression of mind and the first discovering of mind and a line can be none other than the connection of two dots – a simple unity more intriguing than a möbius-strip, something neither one nor two. 
Jack has been doing drawings like the one above for decades. What could be more beautiful or compelling than this diagram which combines dot, circle and square? And it really “works,”  not only as something visually arresting, but as a yantra or vehicle for meditation. I tried it and these are the words that came to me. 

Breath is drawn from all of space, the latter best expressed by the circle. The end of the in-breath is a dot because there clearly is an end, a turning point where breathing in is no longer possible. A point of non-existence. With the out-breath we discover the world, which is a kind of order, the things around us have lines and ninety-degree angles: buildings, telephone wires, trees and the flight of a bird. A square turned 45-degrees inside another square creates a dynamic space, an energy-infused space, a space with lots so of stuff going on. One's own in-breath brings completion – the circle – through the new beginning of the dot, which is also the return to simplicity, becoming primordially refreshed. Or, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Breathing in I know I am alive; breathing out I smile at myself.”
One doesn’t need to continuously reference what one is doing to “dharma art principles” but can, instead, trust ones own associations (as I not only trusted what I wrote above but found it helped me!). Associative mind is the mind of poetry, dream studies and dharma art. In associative mind, one allows the first thought connections with a subject to be accepted – the only way to write a poem, the only way to understand a dream. If we learn the fundamental principles (such as those of painting thangkas) we can become accurate in our creativity and accept all kinds of associations. Accuracy rather than indulgence was another important teaching Chögyam Trungpa gave us about art.

The Law of Correspondences

One of the concepts I find most arresting as I study the universality of the drala principle is the so-called law of correspondences, the Hermetic notion of as above, so below, the relationship between microcosm and macrocosm. We could also say that human (instead of saying "spiritual") systems correspond. That fundamental principles correspond is surely the basis of dharma art. It is not that all systems are the same but that all systems of truth find analogs in other systems and these mutual reflections, besides offering bonds of understanding between peoples, help us understand our own path – and often our own path calls upon us to take up seemingly new and different paths as our own correspondences lead us to our own primordialness.

For me, a good example of all these dimensions of the laws of correspondence is the I Ching and it’s elegant and unfathomable binary simplicity (yang or yin, solid or broken), its ability to describe any and all time scenarios we find ourselves in, and its profound spiritual guidance which seems to stand outside of any religion – or feeling of being religious. 

Learning the meaning of each of the I Ching’s hexagrams is a matter of accumulated associations, matching ones own experience and first thoughts to the gradually internalized or even memorized textual meanings the each hexagram. Eventually, each hexagram becomes an abode one shares – if only for a fleeting second –with the dralas, an abode that has been created through mutual the participation of ones own thoughts and the “thoughts” of the drala (who are a “source” of our own thoughts). 

Inner Truth, hexagram #61

Inner Truth, hexagram #61, is a good example of such an abode. The foundation of all hexagrams are the lower and upper trigrams, and the foundation of the trigrams are the elements themselves, the phenomenal world which is our collective above. The lower trigram is the joyous lake; the upper one, the penetrating wind/wood. Joy within and gentleness without are the most immediately evident aspects of this abode. When we know something is true we suddenly feel so centered (this hexagram is visually symmetrical) that we don’t necessarily even feel the need to express it. The joy of truth is carried gently by the wind and can reach others even if we are not speaking, even if we are not even with them. 

(More on Jack Niland soon.)

Friday, October 1, 2010


History is the dream of what can be. - Diane di Prima

Postcard (by Delfina Piretti) with dorje.

Since my last journal (Sept. 3rd), I have left Boulder Colorado and traveled, with my son Devin to Turkey, via Boston, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York City. I have taken the post card Delfina Piretti made for me seven years ago, as I have on all my trips abroad. It was her tribute to the Western Mountain (the same image I used at the top of the last post) and now I have photographed it in Istanbul, with a Buddhist dorje on it, a symbol of "indestructible truth."

This journal is a continuation of the theme of imagination and a tribute to three people I have encountered on my journey - John Perks, Madeline Bruser and Jack Niland - each of who have contributed to and extended Lord Mukpo's teaching legacy. Each of the three I first imagined visiting earlier this year. Without making much of a plan, it happened.

First, a continuation of the theme of imagination...

The war that matters is the war against the imagination. 
All other wars are subsumed in it.
Diane di Prima

. . . . . . . . 

The war against the imagination must be traced to ourselves and the acquired conditioning we receive that supports the mechanism of war within us. As used in the drala principle and in Diane di Prima's poem Rant, imagination has nothing to do with fantasy, mere daydreams or avoidance of reality. Imagination is the communicative and subtle expression of reality. Images arising from our unconscious - from space itself - are not yet tethered to our hopes and fears, but can represent pure moments of meaning or "first thought." The potentialities can be taken up as guidance and, depending on the strength of our character and the firmness of our determination, can become the foundation of "establishing our kingdom" (to cite the words of Lord Mukpo).

Istanbul, 2005.

Ideas and images of the imagination arise unbidden and suddenly. They are not manufactured by our ego and contain unimaginable (no pun intended) potential; they are expressions of what Tulku Ugen calls the "unconfined capacity" of mind.

 Tarot cards chosen by Jesse Goldman
history is a living weapon in yr hand
  and you have imagined it, it is thus that you
"find out for yourself"
history is the dream of what can be
                                        - from Rant
Nearly every line of Rant is a point of entry, a valid chunk of imagination explication. Instead of the dull and mordant notion of history - and our life - receding into an irretrievable past, history (as Rilke told us) is circular and comes toward us from the future. The "living weapon" is this unconfined capacity of mind which offers us a vacant future, one of pure potential, instead of the narrow route of habit which usually dominates us. But as di Prima says, one must "find out for yourself."

Devin at the piano.
Madeline Bruser

Last last year, my son Devin read a book on playing the piano by Madeline Bruser that changed his way of playing (and ruined his life, as changes in our habits can do, shifting him away from a highly rigorous and ambitious routine of daily practice into... well, he has ended up in Istanbul). After reading parts of her book, I, too, wanted to meet her. Madeline was an serious and accomplished classical pianist long before she met Chögyam Trungpa, but a single opportunity of playing for him in 1979 changed her life and her way of playing the piano forever. The short version of the story is that Trungpa ignored and seemingly mocked Madeline's playing - at the time, a highly dramatic style - until, barely able to maintain her composure any longer, Madeline suddenly clicked into a new mode of playing, far less self conscious and far more natural, actual. She could only remain in the mode for a few moments, but after that night she could never return to her previous way of playing. From the gap of reality Trungpa opened, Madeline went on to develop a way of playing that become a way of teaching others. She wrote a book, The Art of Practicing, and eventually retired from performing in order to devote all her energies to sharing what she has learned with others. In Madeline's words:
In connecting so much with music I was also connecting to my whole life more. Professionally, the key moment came when I discovered a new posture at the piano which came directly from meditation practice, from sitting still and upright for a set period of time every day, no matter what emotions were going through my body. That discipline, after eight years, resulted in my being able to maintain simple, upright posture at the piano too, no matter how emotional the music was. I was able to just let the music flow through me without reacting against it or manipulating it. It just happened that way I just found myself playing that way. Then I had my students try this posture, and they all played 100 percent better on the spot. And that was like light bulbs going on in my head I suddenly realized that I had something important to teach, and that became more exciting to me than performing.
 Madeline Bruser
I respect - and am honored to share - Madeline's assimilation of her experiences and lessons from her teachers, her own diligence and rigor, her commitment to the way of the piano. I visited Madeline at her NYC apartment and 99th and West End Avenue. In upcoming weeks, I will post a video interview with Madeline, a document of our two hour conversation.

John Perks

Adanaire Celtic Buddhist Center, Saxtons River, VT

John Perks

As the maple leaves were accelerating their turn to red, I rented a car in Lebanon New Hampshire and took the short drive sought to Saxtons River Vermont, home of a longtime friend, John Perks, founder of Celtic Buddhism and known within that community as The Venerable Seonaidh Perks. John is also the author of The Mahasiddha and His Idiot Servant, a memoir of his time with Chögyam Trungpa. The photograph above - and the fact that John went on to be Bill Cosby's butler - shows John to be the man he is and as I perceive him: the recipient of many experiences, with a profound, incessant and activated  sense of humor, affectionate, loving, exploring and contributing to the human journey, a sane and lunatic tributary from the mind-transmission of Lord Mukpo (it could not be otherwise). John was quick to dress up for my proposed photo shoot and I assured him his choice of costume would dispel the sense that others might have that he is crazy.

The Venerable Seonaidh Perks

Julia and John Perks

I can't pretend to know what Celtic Buddhism is, though what I encountered at Adanaire - of John, his wife, the land they live on, the stones and shrines he showed me, even the beef bourguignon he cooked for me - was animate with the drala teaching principles; their universality, their common sense, their way of making the spiritual obvious. For instance, from the Celtic Buddhism website, John gives this definition of having a teacher:
With the teacher, whoever is your teacher, in Celtic Buddhism we say Anam Cara. It’s a Celtic term that means “soul mate” actually, so that the relationship between you and your teacher is a similar aspect – it’s one of being soulmates. We’ll talk about the Anam Cara system possibly in our next talk. In any case, when that transmission occurs maybe nothing special happens for a while. Then, because of one’s whole openness and sensitivity towards another being, one’s teacher, then even after that teacher is no longer physically present, still the relationship is there and is still continuing. So that lineage is very much like that.

Central stone of stone circle, Adanaire

From the website, the origin of the Celtic Buddhist lineage:
Trungpa Rinpoche felt that a culture needed to deal with its own history, mythology and social structure in its relationship to Buddhism. He felt that these cultural aspects were difficult to ‘see' because of their transparency, and that through investigation one could come to understand his or her cultural biases and their illusory nature. In Seonaidh's travels with Trungpa, particularly in Ireland, they had many long discussions about the early nature-based Celtic religion and also the Celtic Christian Church. Before Rinpoche's death in 1987, he told Seonaidh that he should go out on his own and start a lineage.
The Venerable Seonaidh Perks says of Celtic Buddhism: 
It's still a big question mark as to what Celtic Buddhism is going to evolve into. It's important to make the question mark very big, so that it remains a big open question. Not only about oneself, but the society in which one lives. Celtic Buddhism could be viewed as an open exploratory adventure with no conclusions.

View from stone circle back to farmhouse, Anadaire.

Jack Niland

I've run out of time to feature Jack Niland in the post, so I will do so next week. Jack is a mind and lineage holder of Lord Mukpo's legacy, someone fated to receive teachings on art and Buddhism no one else necessarily did, meeting Trungpa/Lord Mukpo early after his arrival in the United States. In fact, Jack did not even know who Trungpa was in 1970 when he was ushered into a room - seemingly by accident - to meet him. Trungpa immediately announced, "Oh, I've been waiting for you!" Below are two products of Jack's continuing work with the principles of art and dharma; the first a design motif, the second a pair of identical silk-screened tee-shirts he gave Devin and me.

A current design Jack is working on.

Devin and Bill, Istanbul.

View from 6th-floor hotel room window, Istanbul.