“For thoughts to confer substance, must they possess substance? If substance arises only with the act of identification, this seems impossible, for there could never be an ultimate substantializing thought…”

Tarthang Tulku, Thought Forms in Space, Dynamics of Time and Space


Highly respected teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche recently wrote a book called “Rebel Buddha.” I believe he’s currently on tour promoting said book. It seems to be about, at least in part, the evolution of Buddhism in the West, right now. I am not a student of Rinpoche’s, and haven’t read the book, although I did see him speak once, and was impressed by his presence and his sense of humor. One of his responses to a student’s question will always stay with me.

(from memory)

DPR: So, can we get some definitions of meditation? What is meditation?

Students in audience: Mindfulness, peace, etc.

Older student: Subduing.

DPR: What’s that?

Older student: Subduing.

DPR: Stop doing? Stop doing? That’s good!


In another blog/website, there is some discussion of Rinpoche’s new book, and a particular quote is analyzed, in which he basically says: “Fifty years since Tibetan Buddhism started to take root here, some of the old forms, the old ways of teaching that used to be so fresh don’t even make us blink anymore.” I think the idea is that teaching methods do need to adapt specific to time and place. What may have been shocking to hear many years ago can become commonplace.

In terms of pop culture, a good example is ‘vulgarity’. The stuff you see in music videos, or hear in some music would have made people’s brains explode fifty years ago. At least I think so. I actually don’t know what would happen if contemporary music or art were transplanted into a more conservative past. I don’t think people’s reactions would just be shocked ones, it would be more interesting and complicated than that. Anyway, a lot of people would be surprised.

What made me think of this was the quote at the top about thoughts. In Shambhala Centers, as in Pema Chodron’s books, meditation instruction often includes the element of “labeling thoughts.” You’re told to basically feel your breath going out, and label a thought “thinking” to yourself when you notice that you’re thinking about something.

The “thinking” label part is such a part of this instruction, this traditional way of learning to meditate, that it is, in some ways, a cliche. It’s really really familiar to anyone who’s studied Tibetan meditation in that community.

So this brings me to the DPR book. Is the labeling thoughts part of meditating something that was fresh and new when Trungpa Rinpoche started teaching, in 1960’s America, or is it something more long-lasting? My opinion is the latter. But I don’t want to go into that really, I think my opinion about how to teach meditation is not entirely relevant, especially in the company of many much more experienced teachers.

But this does go back to the Tarthang Tulku quote. He writes about thoughts and subtantiality. Obviously, if one is labeling thoughts in meditation practice, the substantiality of thoughts is one thing that is being worked with.

I lost my train of thought for a bit. Ok. Here’s the other thread. When I was in high school, I think, I was involved in “the occult.” This mostly amounted to reading books and trying to “cast spells,” never with any noticeable results. I did read one book called something like “The Thought Parasites.” As I remember, it was about a man who discovers that human minds have been invaded by alien thought forms, which manipulate and confuse us. So, our thoughts are not really our own, and we’re being influenced by these “thought parasites.” I think the author was A.O. Wilson.

Reading this book was a shocking, thrilling experience. The only other time I think a piece of art affected me this much in terms of the ‘real’ world was watching “Candyman” with my friend Patrick when I was twelve, and being terrified to look in mirrors for the next day. In case you’ve never seen it, or read the book, Candyman involves the ghost of murdered slave who can be invoked by looking in a mirro and repeating ‘Candyman, Candyman, Candyman.’ Then he appears, with a big hook, and kills you.

Well, the thoughts as insubstantial, thoughts as substantializing factor, teaching in Buddhism is very traditional and very good. But the thoughts as independent entities, like living beings, is much less commonly talked about. But I have heard the occasional teacher mention this. Apparently, Trungpa Rinpoche said something to the effect that thoughts and feelings are living things, so we should let them go when they come up (in ‘Glimpses of Adbhidharma’).

Thought parasites/thoughts as living things inside of us. After I read ‘Thought Parasites,’ I was convinced it was true, and I had to do something to save the world, for about a day. Then the spell of the book wore off, and I was back to normal, a little chagrined. Luckily, I hadn’t told anybody about my discovery.

What can you do with the idea of thoughts as living things? They certainly seem to have a force and energy all their own. They are insubstantial, but they don’t ‘go away’ when we don’t like them. They actually seem to get stronger when I dislike them or try to get rid of them. To add to this, they are simply ‘just thinking’, but at the same time extremely complex and interpenetrating.

Part of me worries, too, that, as you start to look at thoughts as living things, you get significantly closer to insanity. Isn’t that what insane people think, that voices are talking to them, or god is talking to them? Of course, it’s attractive to view this approach as just a technique to work with, but there’s something cowardly or too clever about that: to say that seeing thoughts in that way is just a way to observe ourselves, or to meditate is to try to have it both ways (and then the question is why- why try to install that particular safety net?).

That’s more than enough for today. I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of this area, so I’ll write more on the same tomorrow, and try to bring it back to the TSK teachings as well.


Quotes used with permission from Dharma Publishing. Books available from Dharma Publishing. I believe that Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s book is available from Wisdom Publications (of course Amazon will have it).


About jakekarlins

Aspiring writer and artist, dharma practitioner, yogi.

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