By Kellie Schorr
You know that game you play in those awful “team building/ice breaker” events at work; the one that says “If you could talk to any person, living or dead, who would it be?”
I usually answer “Jim Henson” to that question, but these days the one person I’d like to hear from more than any other is Chögyam Trungpa.
In the face of the #metoo movement, American Buddhism has entered a period of awakening and introspection that often looks a lot like “falling apart.” A history of patriarchy, power differential and sexual harm is under the microscope and everyone has something to say about it. Everyone except the gifted visionary who served as the architect for a uniquely Western practice named for the Kingdom of Shambhala.
His death in 1987, at only 48 years old, took a bright voice of insight from this world but left in its place a treasure trove of lectures, teachings and wisdom. This book is a jewel from that collection.
What would Chögyam Trungpa say about our changed ideas regarding sexual relationships, abuse of power and distrust of “crazy wisdom” as a viable teaching method? What would he think of the karma surrounding his interactions that are shaking the foundations and breaking the mirrors? There is no way to know how he would respond, but in this lucid and sharp set of essays the message he gives us is very clear—in terms of karma, what matters is to recognize the past choices, but lean on the next choice—because the future is open.
“Karma is like a game of chess. Wherever you are on the board at this moment is the result of your past actions. But whatever you are going to do in the next moment depends on the present situation. The present situation is partly influenced by the past. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. But at the same time, the present is also influenced by the future, which is open space and freedom.” – Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
The Future is Open: Good Karma, Bad Karma and Beyond Karma, (Shambhala Publications) like most of his works from collected teachings, can be read at any level of experience in Buddhism and shine like a penny in a fountain. His stunning gift for timelessness breaks through. It doesn’t matter that these teachings were spoken in the early 1970’s, they are even more relevant today.
The chess analogy and others bring the ethereal idea of karma out of the clouds and put it on the kitchen counter where we can read the label and touch its truth.
Split into three sections, the book takes you from the birth of karma—what it is, what it isn’t, and how we got it, through the basic Buddhist teachings from the Wheel of Life and six realms, to a positive and joyous sense of freedom as you stop fearing karma, and start living in the present with openness and confidence.
The writing is both lyrical and direct at the same time, with long curling sentences followed by short bursts of humor.
One of the best features is the editor’s notes at the bottom of the pages. They create a sense of inclusion by explaining words and concepts someone new to Buddhism may not know (Skandhas, the Bardo, etc.) and advise more advanced practitioners of the moments where Trungpa goes off-roading from traditional Buddhist thought to put his own spin on things.
Karma is one of the most misused words/concepts in western culture. Its popularity has transformed it from being a deeply spiritual recognition that action creates energy that results in action, into a word describing some sort of cosmic revenge and punishment system. This book strips away that moralistic dualism of “karma’s gonna get you for that” and leaves the reader with a profound first look at the energy that encircles our path.
The book is lovingly and skillfully edited to offer Trungpa’s teachings on karma in a logical, linear manner like a stairwell going into the depths of a cave and coming out on the other side. When you emerge, the light is bright, your heart feels strong and karma has transformed before your eyes from chains of behavior into fresh breaths of liberation.
This book didn’t answer any of my questions regarding what Chögyam Trungpa would actually say about all we are experiencing in our chaotic world of rage, regret and revision. It taught me about karma, and freedom, in a way I didn’t expect which was likely his purpose in the first place.
Deep in our modern struggles, though, his voice does call out some advice:
“Every situation provides us with a chance, an opportunity. When we understand this, situations become logical and workable. The karmic situation is there already, so you don’t have to try to do anything with it. It is an ongoing situation, very simple and direct. Choice generally means having to choose this-or-that. But karma is a choiceless choice. You can’t step back. You have to get into the heart of the choice.”
Photo: Shambhala Publications
Editor: Dana Gornall
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