An Interview with Lama Drupgyu, by Jane Brunette
Editor’s Note: Lama Drupgyu is one of the most accomplished teachers of Vajrayana Buddhism in the West. He began studying with Kabje Kalu Rinpoche in 1972, participated in the first three-year retreat for westerners in Paris, and was also the first westerner to be named retreat master for subsequent three-year retreats. Lama Drupgyu spoke with me by phone, from his home in the French countryside, about his first encounters and personal connection to White Tara, as well as his thoughts on spiritual practice in general and how yidam practice fits in.
– Jane Brunette
Q: How did you first encounter this practice, and what is your personal connection to White Tara?
Lama Drupgyu: White Tara is the final practice we do in three-year retreat before coming out into the world. While this practice might seem simple and rather ordinary in the constellation of Vajrayana practices, it is actually one of the heart practices of many of the lineage holders, including the 16th Karmapa and Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche. The joke we made in three-year retreat was that one finishes with White Mahakala and White Tara to fortify you to secure your finances and be sure of a long life as you come out into the world, which actually kind of misses the point.
The next interesting connection was when I was retreat master in Salt Spring, Canada. During the first retreat, we hosted the great Sakya scholar Dezhung Rinpoche, who spent a couple of months at the retreat center during which time he engaged in a personal retreat on White Tara of about three weeks in my cabin, which I loaned to him for that purpose.
But the real connection came many years later, at a point in my life when — after having spent many years teaching and a number of years in India translating — I was at a point of significant personal struggle. I felt it was necessary to engage in a complete reassessment of my journey and spiritual commitments, and went into retreat in my cabin on Salt Spring island, where I started to dig very deeply into the essential core of what I was engaged in and what was relevant and meaningful in my personal journey.
Within a short period of time, a very powerful process emerged that I identified with the blessing of White Tara. I was not practicing her in a formal sense, but was going in deep to find what I valued. At that time, nothing was sacred or out of bounds, everything was in question, as I tried to get to the deep inner truth of what was valid and what wasn’t for me at the time. It started in a dream, and then erupted into a continuous process that lasted for several months which totally realigned my appreciation of the spiritual journey and the role and function of different aspects of the Buddhist and Vajra world. This led me to my current appreciation for what White Tara means, not as a magic token for longevity, but rather, representing the capacity and sensitivity to align with one’s own deepest essential truth. If we are aligned with our own Buddha nature, then that in itself gives tremendous force and strength, and protects us from any untimely interruptions or untimely causes of death. So what I came to see is that White Tara really represents being rooted in and aligned with the strength and vision of one’s own Buddha nature or truth.
This, of course, has to be understood in the context of the Buddhist and Vajrayana approach to the world, oneself, and the relationship of oneself to the world. In exploring White Tara, moreover, one already has to have a sense of what is the essence of a spiritual journey, in terms of appreciating the essential nature of awareness and exploring the nature of one’s own awareness. This includes understanding how introspection relies on an honest examination of one’s own attitudes, prejudices and projections, and coming to the experience of openness and awareness.
Q: How does White Tara and deity practice in general fit into the rest of the spiritual path?
In Vajrayana, there is a special way of moving in the contemplative domain, which is based on the understanding that it is our own Buddha nature that is expressing itself in every moment, and our own preconceptions, projections and confusion transmute that experience into something lesser. So when we move into the domain of Vajra method, we’re moving into the domain of how to experience ourselves and our world as an awakened being, and the methods give us tremendous capacity for transformation of ignorance and confusion.
Specifically in Yidam practice like White Tara, or other meditational deities, the focus is primarily on personal identity and structures of personal identity. At the same time, we can also say that the deity practices allow us to give voice to our own Buddha nature, which is always present and always encouraging us in our process of awakening. With White Tara, there are all sorts of other elements also at work. For instance, her being a female represents embodiment of qualities of the feminine. In Vajrayana we understand that every face we give to the practice includes all aspects of being. Yet the emphasis here is on the feminine, which in Vajrayana we could say is associated with an embracing openness, awareness and freedom, as opposed to the masculine, which could be represented by the focus on sharp clarity, crystallization of purpose, and intention. These are, of course, not mutually exclusive. Each contains the other in some ways and those aspects are also explored through the practice.
Each of the different yidams embody in one sense all of the principles of Vajrayana and all aspects of the awakening process, yet each one is still unique and precise. Students often ask if I can describe the nature or character of a specific yidam. I don’t think it’s that useful to try and put those distinctions so much into words. The example I often use is when you meet someone, they have a certain appearance, they dress a certain way, have a way of speaking that can be described. The only way to really know them, however, is to spend time with them. And it is also true that in the same way that personal chemistry in relationship is present in the different connections we might feel with other individuals, we naturally may feel more or less affinity with these different faces of enlightenment.
Appreciating this essential nature of White Tara practice was significant for me, in that it really woke me up to the importance of personal integrity in our life and our practice. This points to a weakness in the Tibetan Buddhist traditional culture, where too often, our commitment leads us to territory of personal compromise as we abdicate responsibility for our personal choices relying on an external hierarchy or dogma, or where we come to believe we have to try to be something else; whereas the truth is we have to learn to be ourselves in the deepest sense. The process of our practice should always bring us back to the core or essence of our being — our awake nature — and this is intimately connected to a sense of personal integrity. If this is happening, then the practice is doing what it should. If it leads us away from that, we’re off track.
Q: Could you give me some examples of how can we go off track with deity practice?
A significant trap is people getting involved in these methods without understanding that the methods are simply tools, meant to fuel a process of personal transformation. People may be seduced by the charisma of a teacher, or the exotic quality of the practice; they may become so preoccupied with the detailed application of the “practices” that they forget to use them to fuel their personal process of transformation, which involves honesty, determination, personal responsibility and courage. It is much easier to use all the “religious” aspects of the path to comfort, reassure, and distract us; effectively allowing us to escape responsibility for our own transformation – an approach that is nothing more than “spiritual materialism.”
Another mistake is falling into a theistic trap of thinking of the yidam as separate from us. This is more complex than the distinction between inner and outer and entails a subtle understanding of the interplay of the relative and absolute dimensions of experience. The problem is that when we, individually or as a community or tradition, empower an external object with faith and devotion, it can produce results. But in fact, the result comes from the natural empowering effect of our attention being focussed in a certain way, rather than from there being an “existing” external deity, which is taking the projection to be absolutely real.
The problem with externalization and the idea of blessing is subtle one, because in Vajrayana we have the process of transmission, where great masters receive certain forms and practices, empower them through their experience and transmit those forms to the students. But people forget that the grace of the teacher does not come from their human personal qualities, much as we might appreciate these, but rather because the student-teacher relationship allows the teacher to act as a mirror to reveal to the student their own purity. It’s not the person of the teacher so much as the magic of that relationship and the purity of our true nature to which we owe our respect and devotion.
Q: What would you say is the most essential thing to know about White Tara practice?
A Vajrayana Yidam practice such as White Tara of course has a technical side, and that comes up when we explore the practice. It involves all the Vajrayana insights into human nature, our confused structures of perception and how to transform them into awakened awareness. In what I’ve said above, I’m not denying this technical side, but it is secondary compared to the importance of understanding the essence of the process, and how Vajrayana is more than anything else intended to educate us on how to embrace the world of our everyday experience as truly the expression of awakened being. It is about stepping into life, not with a fearful concept of samsara, but with a fearless embrace of the richness and wealth of awakened being.
White Tara represents something essential: the importance of being aligned with our own life force and stream, and what we should be doing in this life — the personal integrity aspect, which honors the stream of the current energy in our life and life force. Even those who might have some idea or experience of deeper dimensions of being often have some concept of this awakened Buddha nature which is passive; but actually our life force or awakened being is an active engaged and engaging quality. It’s not necessarily easy to find a way to tap into and recognize and become one with that active force. White Tara not only represents this life force — White Tara is this life force, our life force.
Lama Drupgyu will teach a four-day, non-residential retreat on White Tara in March at Sukhasiddhi. Register early to reserve your place at the retreat!