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Buddhadharma : Spring 2012
64 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY SPRING 2 0 1 2 class of hellishness reserved for those who kill themselves. No one in their right mind believing this could still be willing to die. We all had our theories: Some felt he was spiritually delusional; they claimed the house was filled with protective, not harmful, dei- ties. They pointed to the many blessings that visiting teachers had bestowed on the space, and the morning smoke offerings that worked to appease harmful spirits, especially the water serpents called nagas that lived downwind of us in the local lake. Other members felt he’d delved too deeply into the “secret” and “hid- den” practice of Vajrayana without guidance, and had unleashed energies that wreaked havoc on him. Others thought, in retrospect, that he could have used more therapy and possibly some newfangled antipsychotics. As a novice to the Tibetan tradition, I was still trying to learn the visible things, such as hand mudras. Talk of energies and deities and multiple world systems didn’t sit well with me. I had come into the tradition without the associated Tibetan culture, and gave talk of the invisible things a wide berth. Viewed from the outside, Vajrayana Buddhism’s complex amalgam of symbolism and ritual can easily come across as supersti- tious and dogmatic until it’s understood that all techniques are for the purpose of going beyond them. Without that understanding, the talk of wrathful deities, wisdom nectar, and house puri- fications sounds an awful lot like Catholicism on acid. It especially doesn’t translate easily into Western psychiatric disorders. In the case of our sangha-mate, the nature of his suffering stood in the cross hairs of dharma and psychiatry. He believed in the power of invisible but sentient forces, but so did many of the lamas and prac- titioners in the community. Who was to say one was spiritual, and the other not? It wasn’t surprising to me that we had many different opinions about the cause of his suicide. The dismay I carried with me afterward resulted more from our reluctance as a community to investigate our own role in the situation; how we—students, teachers, and a lineage itself— might prevent this from happening in the future, even if nothing could have been done about our young man. We avoided the question of how the Vajrayana vehicle could help or hinder someone with severe mental illness, and by extension, how the Buddhist practices themselves have been able to directly address this pervasive form of Western suffering. If Buddhism is entering our culture as psychology, as Trungpa Rinpoche foretold, to what degree will it also engage with the full spec- trum of our psychological ills? Whenever I came down from my room— disheveled, cranky, unmedicated, wanting nothing more than coffee and a quiet place to brood—my housemates understood that I strug- gled in ways beyond the usual bad mood. In fact, the sangha was unquestionably the most supportive and understanding community in my life. No matter how I’d berate myself for being deeply disturbed, they lovingly translated my self-disclosed psychiatric symptoms into a Bud- dhist vernacular that made each suffering—from addiction to anxiety to rage to self-hatred—a symptom of being human with a corresponding antidote, teaching me gentle and spacious ways of approaching myself. At other times, however, the intractability and often-biological basis of my illness collided with If any of us developed stomach cancer, no one would suggest prostration practice as the highest means of cure. But when brain chemistry and emotional suffering interact, the dharma immediately runs the risk of becoming a fuzzy, if not fatal, misapplication.