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May 06
Dharma Teachings
Stories of Who We Are

photo by Laura ChenowethShambhala Dharma Teachings

by Acharya Susan Chapman
photos by Laura Chenoweth

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche opens his book, Ruling Your World, with the story about a case of mistaken identity. A pauper who didn’t realize that he is of royal blood learns he is heir to a kingdom. “We are in a similar situation”, the Sakyong points out, “We are all of royal birth.” These few lines summarize a core teaching of Shambhala Buddhism. Whether it takes a moment or a lifetime, our path is about dropping the habit of identifying with the poverty-mind of fear and realizing our true nature, symbolized by the enlightened universal monarch, the Rigden. Sounds simple in theory, but in reality it feels more challenging. Working with the ups and downs of our practice in everyday life can seem more like composting manure than winning the lottery. Thank goodness we have spiritual ancestors whose life stories prove that every situation in our lives, including the darkest periods, are essential to the process of softening our hearts and waking up.

Storytelling is a traditional way of transmitting cultural history to new generations, reminding us of who we are. For me, a treasury of stories is evoked when I chant the Shambhala Lineage Supplication, which puts names on our family tree and describes our path to awakenment. Here we learn that our spiritual DNA descends from the Buddha through three great family lines: the dzogchen, mahamudra and warrior lineages, inseparably mixed in the heartblood of our Sakyongs. The supplication identifies our ancestors: Padmakara, Yeshe Tsogyal, Tilo, Naro, Marpa, Mila and others. Their life stories are potent teachings that penetrate the photo-album version of who we think we should be. They remind us that a spiritual warrior’s path includes dark nights of the soul, those dead-ends, crises and failures that we’d rather forget. When the ground falls out from under us, our ego defenses are weakened. If we’re lucky enough to meet a teacher during auspicious times like these, such a breakdown can give us a glimpse of our true, royal nature. And that meeting could be the dawning of the greatest love affair we’ll ever know.

The lives of great spiritual masters are essentially love stories. They crack open our understanding of what the heart is capable of, exchanging self-interest for something bigger: compassion for all suffering, including our own, and unbearable gratitude to those who show us the way. Hearing these stories awakens our courage to help the world. Since most of us are familiar with it, let’s use the life story of the Buddha as an example. Here we’ll include a few lines from the lineage chant as a form of contemplation practice.

You guide us along the path to liberation.
Like all spiritual biographies, the Buddha’s life is a story about liberation from the cocoon of our false identity and uncovering our true nature. Although he was born a prince, his was a setting sun kingdom, intentionally designed by his father to discourage spirituality. For most of us, this culture of materialism was — and still is, to some degree – our starting point. Pause for a moment to think about how speed, distraction or pleasure orientation hooks you. How does living in a materialistic society affect your confidence?

Prince Siddhartha’s instinct for the truth gained victory over the drip, or negative influences, that pervaded his environment. He escaped the kingdom to see reality for himself: the sufferings of sickness, old age and death. He then saw a wandering mendicant and realized that an alternative lifestyle was possible. For some of us, this realization was a book or a teaching that arrived in our life at just the right moment. Do you remember how your own truth-detector woke you up? What is your personal story of awakening to the sufferings of sickness, old age or death? Did you feel betrayed by the narrative of ‘happy ever after’? Did you despair, wondering what life was all about? Like the young prince, feeling alienated from the conventional world may have been a wake up call from your royal genes.

You awaken bodhicitta.
Bodhicitta means ‘awakened heart’. Even a brief glimpse of this truth can create a radical reversal of how we experience our emotions. Instead of constantly grabbing for the objects of our projections, its as though we turn around and look into our ribcage, curious to find the origin of our feelings. Here we discover the open, tender space of sadness. Learning to abide in that space makes it possible for our relationships to transform into spiritual practice. Once he had established a monastic foundation for his teachings, the Buddha taught about awakened heart to laypeople. These bodhisattvas of our lineage demonstrate how to extend the natural generosity of family and work into a profound path of selflessness.

You teach us the great view of emptiness.
photo by Laura ChenowethWhen he first set out on his path, Prince Siddartha followed the directions of the gurus of his day, including the extreme austerities that brought his quest for enlightenment to a dead end. In Shambhala, the term spiritual materialism warns us that spiritual ambition can be another mask of ego. Recently, the Sakyong has been reminding us to recognize and let go of the struggle to improve ourselves. This discovery doesn’t happen once or twice, but countless times in ever more subtle ways as our meditation experience deepens. Take a moment to reflect on how the fear of ‘doing it wrong’ hides itself in the background of your meditation practice. What happens when you let this go and simply trust yourself?

The Buddha’s moment of trust allowed him to remember his true nature. It was a flashback to a childhood memory of lying in the grass and looking up at the sky with an innocent, open mind. Relaxing all effort, he recognized the great view of emptiness, the space of awareness beyond all concept. He had no words to describe seeing the basic goodness of his true nature. Do you remember the first time you heard the words ‘basic goodness’? How did this effect your path?

You reveal the joy of luminosity.
As the Buddha approached his enlightenment, the negative forces of the external world dissolved, like arrows turning into flowers. This ultimate victory over the dualistic mind gave him the power to enjoy the phenomenal world without being confused by it. The joy of luminosity was revealed and he understood sense perceptions as a play of awake energy. He saw the true nature of our world as sacred. This is the vajra teaching that was given to Dawa Sangpo, the first king of Shambhala, who requested instructions on how to transform his kingdom into an enlightened society.

Transmitting awareness wisdom, you lead us to perfect enlightenment.
Like King Dawa Sangpo, Shambhala warriors in the twenty-first century have responsibilities we can’t abandon. Yet the world is in urgent need of our help. Thanks to the vision and courage of our forefathers and mothers, we have inherited a path that can awaken the power and wisdom to connect with our true nature: the basic goodness in ourselves, our relationships and our society. It is up to us to practice and protect these hard won teachings that have been passed down to us like precious family heirlooms for the benefit of future generations.

Grant your blessing so that I may realize my nature as the profound, brilliant Rigden.

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3 responses to “ Stories of Who We Are ”
  1. Thank you deeply for this. Came at just the right time.

  2. Gretta Hunjan
    May 9, 2013

    Yes, thank you so much for this article.

  3. Joe Caradonna
    May 7, 2013

    Beautiful. Well said. Thank you for this.

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