Transcending Madness: The Experience of the Six Bardosby Chogyam Trungpa
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The Tibetan word bardo is usually associated with life after death. Here, Chögyam Trungpa discusses bardo in a very different sense: as the peak experience of any given moment. Our experience of the present moment is always colored by one of six psychological states: the god realm (bliss), the jealous god realm (jealousy and lust for entertainment), the human realm (passion and desire), the animal realm (ignorance), the hungry ghost realm (poverty and possessiveness), and the hell realm (aggression and hatred). In relating these realms to the six traditional Buddhist bardo experiences, Trungpa provides an insightful look at the "madness" of our familiar psychological patterns and shows how they present an opportunity to transmute daily experience into freedom.
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Chapter 7: The Bardo of Existence
Hunger and thirst and trying to find an alternative to them is the realm where we are today, the hungry ghost realm. (It is interesting that the subject we are working on and studying together always has relevance to each day's change of temperament and mood. That seems to be quite a curious coincidence.) Hunger and thirst also could be said to be waiting, or expectation. There is a constant demand for something, constantly being busy at something, constantly wanting to learn, constantly wanting to know, wanting to "get it." So one subject connected with the hungry ghost realm is the disease of the learners,
or the hangup of learners. There is so much ambition and hunger to learn something, to know something, which is connected with expectations as well. And that in itself, that ambition to learn, is the obstacle to learning.
You might ask, "Shouldn't we have ambition? Shouldn't we be conscientious and drive ourselves to knowledge? Shouldn't we work hard on our homework? Shouldn't we read hundreds of books? Shouldn't we become successful? Shouldn't we not only be good students, but become famous teachers?" There is that kind of chain reaction of building up status, building up your collection of knowledge,
which may be necessary if you only want to
and if you know that learning is purely a technical thing with no reference to
at all. You can learn without knowing, and you could become a teacher by being learned—but it is not possible to become wise by becoming a good student.
Through this ambition that we put out, in this hunger for knowledge, every word is questioned, sucked in by our pure desire, by our magnetizing state of mind,
in order to gain something.
There is a difference between that kind of hunger and grasping, and actual communication with the subject that you're going to learn, making an actual relationship with the subject. It is like the difference between reading the menu and deciding to eat. If you have a clear idea what kind of food you want to eat, you don't have to read the menu—you immediately order it. But in fact we seem to spend so much time just reading the menu. There are all sorts of temptations of possible dishes: "Shall we order this or that? That sounds good as well. I never tasted this, but it sounds foreign; it sounds good,
exotic. Shall we have a drink before we order? Shall we have wine with the meal? What shall we do?" Such a scene is created around just purely reading the menu. "And before we read the menu, should we have something special, so we are inspired to read the menu? Appetizers? Cookies and nuts?"
of course, the secret criteria that we use in ordering the food, reading the menu, are very embarrassing ones which we don't want to share with anybody.
They are purely restricted to you, particularly if you have invited guests. You don't talk about how much it costs; you just talk about what would be a nice thing to eat. You are tasteful in public, with your friends, but in actual fact
are thinking about how much it's going to cost. If you are a very efficient person,
you will work out the total price, depending on how many people are going to eat. A whole culture is based around the eating and drinking process, a whole independent culture, another kind of civilization, almost. As far as your experience in that particular restaurant is concerned, the whole world is eating there. It's another world. Everybody's complaining; everybody's ordering; everybody's eating; everybody's drinking; everybody's paying; and more people are coming, more and more. Everybody's being served. It is the world of the
If we simplify, we eat because we are hungry and we drink because we are thirsty.
But somehow, that primeval motive is not relevant anymore. We don't eat because we are hungry; we eat because we want the taste, or because we want to go out.
The whole idea of going to a restaurant to eat is because it is different, a change from home cooking, a way of relaxing in many cases. We choose from one highlight to another highlight—constantly changing, all the time.
According to the scriptures there are several types of craziness or levels of hallucination involved in the realm of the hungry ghosts. In the first stage,
you dream of food, how delicious it will be to have it. For instance, you may have an irresistible driving force to have chocolate ice cream. You have this whole image of chocolate ice cream in your mind. In fact, you reach the meditative state of chocolate ice cream. You see it in your vision, your hallucination. The whole world becomes that shape.
Seeing the world as a gigantic chocolate ice cream waiting for you, you go toward it.
But when you get near it, the chocolate ice cream begins to become just a pile of rocks, or a dry tree. That's a second kind of hallucination.
third type of hallucination begins with having a certain idea of food in your mind, a hallucinatory or visionary quality of food. You have in your mind a strong driving force to work for it and eat it, and that driving force goes on and on. In the distance you see food being served and you go there—but suddenly the hostess and the waitresses and waiters become the guardians of the food. Instead of serving you, they have swords, armor, and sticks to ward you off. But the food is still visible in the middle of that whole scene. That's a third type of hallucination of the hungry ghost realm.
And then there is the fourth type. You see the food and you have a tremendous desire to eat. Your desire to eat becomes very active and aggressive, so you have to fight with those guardians and knock them out. Then you rush to the food, you pick it up and eat it. But the minute you swallow it, it turns into flames in your stomach and begins to burn you.
These are all analogies of the different degrees of hunger. That grasping quality of the hungry ghost realm could take different shapes. It could take the shape of some kind of communication with the food or the object of desire—but that could be distorted, once you see it as it is. Or that grasping could be seen as a succession of situations you have to go through, like the person who eats and then finds that the food becomes flames in the stomach. These particular types of hunger and thirst give a general feeling of the hungry ghost realm.
But there's something more than that. In terms of bardo experience, the particular type of bardo experience associated with the hungry ghost realm is called
the bardo of existence, creation, or becoming. You actually manufacture a completely new experience, another type of experience. And the particular experience of sipa bardo, the bardo of existence, is the threshold between grasping with hunger and the experience of letting go—not quite letting go,
but the experience of giving up—in other words, giving up hope. Giving up hope doesn't mean just naively declining, or giving up hope purely out of frustration, that you can't bear it anymore. The absence of hope in this case is based on being able to see the humorous situation of the moment, developing a heightened sense of humor. You see that your striving and grasping is too serious and too concentrated. A person can't have a sense of humor, generally,
unless he or she is extremely serious. At the height of seriousness, you burst into laughter. It's too funny to be serious, because there is a tendency to see the contrast of it. In other words, humor cannot exist without contrast,
without two situations playing. And you are seeing the humorous quality of that.
So what is lacking in the hungry ghost realm is humor. It is a deadly honest search, seriously searching, seriously grasping. This could apply to seriously searching spiritually or materialistically, anything: seriously making money,
seriously meditating with such a solemn face. It could be said to be like perching, as though you were a chicken just about to give birth to an egg. In my personal experience, you see this with babies. When you begin to see a serious face on a baby, you have to make sure that there is a
When we want something, usually we perch very seriously. It is completely humorless. You want to give birth to something: you're trying to pass through,
or manufacture something. Then you grasp it, possess it, eat it, chew it,
The world of the hungry ghosts, or
is based on the seriousness of wanting to grasp something, and it is heightened by the bardo experience to the point where you are not actually hungry anymore.
You see, that's the difference between the bardo experience and the ordinary hungry ghost experience. In the ordinary hungry ghost experience, you are hungry; in the bardo experience of the absolute intensity of hunger, you are not hungry anymore. Because the vision of whatever you want to have is so much in your mind, you reach a certain kind of obsession. In fact, you are so overwhelmed by the desire of wanting something that you forget you are hungry,
that you're starving. You become more concerned with the presence of what you want; you begin to become one with the presence of the thing you want. That's where the seriousness begins to be involved; that's where the perching begins to develop.
At that point it is possible to develop a sense of humor and be able to see that you are actually perching. And you begin to see the ironic aspect of it. Then there's no hunger and no hallucination or desire. That is beyond the bardo experience, when you get through it. But when you are in it, the seriousness still continuously goes on. That's the hungry ghost experience, or the bardo of existence. So fundamentally this realm is based on the relationship between the self-conscious ego, myself, and me. That ego wants to be; it wants to have certain particular things as "my idea;" it wants to be fulfilled. The frustration comes from the danger of its not being able to be fulfilled completely and properly.
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Meet the Author
Chögyam Trungpa (1940–1987)—meditation master, teacher, and artist—founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, the first Buddhist-inspired university in North America; the Shambhala Training program; and an international association of meditation centers known as Shambhala International. He is the author of numerous books, including Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and The Myth of Freedom.
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