A note about this post:
This is an assignment I gave myself as a culminating piece for the Spring 2009 Hardcore Dharma class at The Interdependence Project . We had been studying an area of Buddhism known as The Five Wisdom Families or Wisdom Energies, which is one of the fundamental components of the Vajrayana path. (If you want to watch a neat video of Irini Rockwell, a teacher who works with the applying the ideas in this area to daily life, go here. Prepare to chuckle at the people in her workshop who are wearing colored goggles and sitting doggy-style with their tushes in the air.)
Here’s my piece….I welcome feedback from my sangha-buddies and other readers!
Amadeus and Ratna
I love my dharma class, but I really perked up when we started working with the Five Wisdom Families. I need images to make sense of ideas, and the Families are taught using symbols arranged in a mandala. It’s a “mnemonic visual thinking instrument” or “concept map.”
At each of the mandala’s cardinal direction points sits a “dhyani buddha” with a particular color of skin, in a particular posture, holding a specific tool. These symbols help us imagine and remember a basic energy that is linked to an aspect of enlightenment. The holistic image of the mandala is meant to help us to be less dualistic in our thinking about the relationship between the parts and the whole.
In the Wisdom Families mandala the cool, blue buddha of winter is linked to the basic, neither good-nor-bad energy of anger. The hot red buddha of springtime is connected to the basic energy of passion. The buddha of summer with skin that’s green like a young plant is the buddha of action. The ripe, yellow buddha of autumn is associated with pride. At the center is a clear, airy being who stands for mental space. He has no season.
(image borrowed from http://www.buddhistdharma.net)
The basic energies and enlightened aspects, with their Sanskrit family names, are:
- Vajra: basic energy of anger—->mirror-like wisdom
- Ratna: basic energy of pride/richness/expansion—->wisdom of equanimity
- Padma: basic energy of passion—–>wisdom of discriminating awareness
- Karma: basic energy of action—-> all-accomplishing wisdom
- Buddha: basic energy of mental space—> all-encompassing wisdom
The tricky thing about conveying the basic energies and aspects of enlightenment clearly is that, according to Vajrayana teachings, the aspects are all tied up with delusional qualities. It’s impossible to tell you exactly how they are linked; you need to get some insight into the connections by contemplating your own experiences. Indeed, as Reggie Ray points out in Secret of the Vajra World (2001), Vajrayana language is “characterized by a strong experiential rather than a philosophical tone (p.126).” Symbols are better than words alone at pointing us towards our more basic, visceral, emotionally bare experiences because they refer to tangible, directly perceivable things like fire, ice or growing plants.
As I think back, I remember that we began our study of The Five Wisdom Families with a refresher on the idea of co-emergence. Enlightenment, in the Vajrayana model, is a state that arises from the same basic energy as neurosis. As Irini Rockwell explains in The Five Buddha Families , the mandala of the Five Families presents us with “a complete picture of both the sacred world of enlightened mind and the neurotic world of ego-centered existence.” The co-arising of enlightenment and delusion from basic energy is something like the destructive and productive qualities of the natural elements (i.e., fire provides energy but it is also capable of burning you to a crisp).
In Buddhist philosophy, it’s said that the tendency to fixate on a subject-object dichotomy keeps us hooked on the delusional manifestations of the basic energies. When this fixation is dissolved, the poisonous quality is transmuted into the enlightened one. That’s pretty abstract! But again, the images help to unpack the jargon. I couldn’t get enough of the image-rich descriptions of delusional states being transmuted into enlightened ones. Here are some of my notes from readings and class:
Vajra: the directness and coldness of aggression is transmuted into a mirror that clearly reflects all phenomena
Ratna: puffed-up, swollen pride is transmuted into a fertile display of all elements devoid of territoriality
Padma: the heat of passionate grasping/clinging is transmuted into warm compassion
Karma: the arrow-pointedness of jealousy and paranoia is transmuted into efficient action that is in synchronicity with the world
Buddha: the spaced out, dull, “airhead” quality of ignorance is transmuted into an ability to accommodate wisely
Each week in Hardcore Dharma we read, discussed and meditated on a different family. First came Vajra, a family that I was immediately able to connect to. Vajra’s basic energy is anger; cold, sharp anger. I have several milkcrates full of journals at home that serve as my membership card in the Vajra family; open up to any page and you’ll get a sense of the co-emergent qualities of Vajra, in which analytical, systems-minded righteousness is transmuted into a clear-seeing wisdom. In my journals, that meant many pages of intense analysis of whatever was going on in my life, followed some days later by a report at how poorly my super-smart analysis was actually helping me connect to people (no one understands me!!), followed by some moments of abject humility (people still love me? how??), followed mercifully by a cooler mood in which some less self-centered insights were reached. And then the cycle would start all over…
I had a similar experience when we looked at Padma energy. Says Trungpa Rinpoche on Padma’s neurosis: “We are completely wrapped in desire and want only to seduce the world, without concern for real communication. We could be a hustler or an advertiser, but basically, we are like a peacock (Ray, p. 140).” This description of Padma’s downfall filled me with glee. Yes, glee! I had a big smile on my face during that whole class. “Trungpa’s got my number!” I snickered. (For those of you wanting proof, I offer “Exhibit A” again: those stacks of journals. Oh me, oh my, but there’s a lot of passionate grasping there. Just reading some of the passages about past relationships is enough to call up the heartburn all over again.)
As I contemplated my past and present experiences of Vajra and Padma, I felt extraordinarily humbled by the revelation that these energies are not “MY PERSONALITY.” They aren’t Kate’s Personal Psychic Territory. Rather, they are like torrents of water and flames that sweep through me with a force that is outside of my control. Hence the need to train my mind to think of them as forces to channel rather than nuisances to sponge up or extinguish.
So…Vajra and Padma, piece of cake!
But then there was Ratna.
Ratna just didn’t make sense to me. In contrast to my full databank of emotional experiences with anger and passion, I couldn’t find anything about Ratna to connect to. All of the descriptions of personal qualities that belong to Ratna fell flat. I don’t love to cook and I’m not often moved to jealousy or paranoia. Ratna lacked meaning to me until one night when my boyfriend and I, in the mood to watch a familiar movie, rented Milos Forman’s Amadeus. I’d seen it many times before, but in the light of dharma study, it took on a new dimension.
Amadeus tells a fictionalized tale of Mozart’s life from the perspective of one of his contemporaries in Vienna, Antonio Salieri. The narrative is built on the elderly Salieri’s confession to a priest. The priest, a wholly compassionate presence, visits Salieri in an insane asylum where he has ended up after a suicide attempt.
As he tells the story of his life to the priest, Salieri embodies the pompous, territorial aspects of Ratna. Salieri sees Mozart’s gift for music, a gift that God bestowed on him despite Mozart’s complete lack of chastity and humility, as a slap in the face from God.
As I watched this movie, the quality of Ratna’s poison and its relationship to equanimity became clear. Salieri is obsessed with destroying Mozart because he perceives him as a threat to his personal territory. He feels threatened by Mozart professionally, but Mozart’s talent also threatens his self-serving concept of God, a concept at the heart of Salieri’s actions. At the same time, Mozart’s music reaffirms God’s existence because Salieri is utterly in thrall with Mozart’s work and sees it as the voice of God. The voice of God is mocking him.
The scene towards the end of the movie, when Salieri helps the dying Mozart put his Requiem down on paper, demonstrates how a person can be swept away by the basic energy of Ratna. Salieri is overwhelmed by the richness of Mozart’s music, but because he thinks of it as Mozart’s personal territory, as something God has denied him, he misses the fact that he is sharing the experience of the music with Mozart.
How often has the ache of yearning to be associated with beauty obscured the experience of actually being in its presence? All too often.
Going forward, it occurs to me that if what I am feeling somehow conjures both Heaven and Hell inside me, I can be sure there’s a seed of wisdom in there somewhere.
Go watch Amadeus. It’s really good.