In INNER KNOWLEDGE by Tobin Shenpen McKee5 Comments

Without meditating, without renouncing the world,
Stay at home in the company of your mate.
Perfect knowledge can only be attained
While one is enjoying the pleasures of the senses.
– Saraha

My dear friend Jenny just sent me this question via email: “Where is there room for passion in Buddhism? Beyond just being mindful of the state of being.  Where is there guidance for being “allowed” to fully feel the intensity of passion?” Knowing Jenny, she’s not asking about sexual or romantic passion. She’s asking about the passion of the gut, the firm grasp of the hand of the universe that grabs us at the core of our being and drags us relentlessly through the daily births, deaths, and rebirths of our own spiritual evolution.

Those of us who live under the influence of this unyielding drive know that there is no escape from it. We must learn, we must grow, we must destroy every ego contraction the moment that we notice it has tricked us, and then we must blithely re-enter our wild lives like wide-eyed children, again and again. We must ruthlessly kill the false self that arises in each moment, and then suffer its inevitable rebirth in the very next moment of our delusion. Passion is the fuel that we use to live and die this way so many times each day.

Jenny’s question is, I think, about the powerful, visceral need we feel to chop down the vines of misconception that grow like weeds in our minds and separate us from our essential consciousness. It is our passion for the raw truth that brought us to the Dharma, and in the Dharma we found a very sharp machete. We can’t help but put it to use.

Problems arise when we start swinging the machete around in public. At some point along the path, many of us find ourselves mistakenly striving to transform Samsara into Nirvana. Tricked by a particularly conniving syndrome of misconceptions, the core energy of our passion, the diamond light that is the fruition of our past merit is temporarily diverted into hopeless worldly pursuits. Whether those pursuits are benevolent in form, seemingly altruistic activities in the interest of other’s wellbeing, or obviously misguided attempts to amass wealth, power and reputation, they invariably backfire in the way that all manifestations of misconception backfire, becoming the very thing they claim or attempt not to be. We loose our way in the labyrinth of spiritual hypocrisy.

We may, for example, find ourselves driven to do good work for others, becoming teachers or healers, or engaging in socially positive activism and politics. We may pour our passionate energy into those activities, thinking that we are working for the benefit of beings. When we are exhausted and stressed out, when the organization becomes dysfunctional or corrupt, and when things don’t work out as planned, we find that we’ve forgotten the Dharma entirely, and have instead become completely immersed in our good work. In this way, we may allow our enlightened passion become subsumed by worldly concerns.

Fortunately, because we are infected with the virus of self-awareness, these charades will always play themselves out until they suffer their inevitable deaths, bearing us and our misconceptions with them into the oblivion of karmic transformation. With the all-too-familiar slap in the face called consequences, we will snap out of our delusion for one more glimpse of the truth, and then of course we will foolishly cast off into the world again, stalwart explorers of the shoreline where the sea of consciousness crashes into the rocks of being. We just can’t help it. We’re passionate.

When we feel the heat of our our passions rise, all we need to do is to ask ourselves one question: “Am I relating as self to other, in the mode of object, agent and action?” If the answer is yes, then the outcome of all of our thoughts, words and deeds will be simple and predictable, obeying the law of karma just as every object on this planet obeys the law of gravity. Every success will result in failure. Every creation will be destroyed. Every wisdom will feed delusion. If on the other hand we burn our delusions in the fire of our passion, burning self and burning other until only the luminous field remains, then still every success will end in failure, and every creation will be destroyed, but instead of feeding delusion, our wisdom will naturally and spontaneously manifest as skillful means.

A nameless eighth-century Tantric yogini put it this way:

Activities that are graceful, heroic, terrifying,
Compassionate, furious and peaceful –
And passion, anger, greed, pride and envy –
Are the perfected forms
Of pure, self-illuminating wisdom.

Or, in the words of Machik Labdron, notably one of the most passionate of the great teachers: “Dharma practitioners these days lust for this life and are attached to it, so they cannot renounce ego-fixation. They employ all kinds of methods to turn back any person or any nonhuman spirit who endangers their friends and relatives or their power and fortune. The devils that those people avert and exorcize through hate-filled wrathful activity, I draw in through the power of love and compassion and gather around me as retinue.”

About the Author
Tobin Shenpen McKee

Tobin Shenpen McKee


Tobin Shenpen McKee is the Communications Manager and Secretary for Rangjung Yeshe Gomde California, the creator of Middleway Method, and the founder of Middleway Network. He served as the Director of Arcata School of Massage for fourteen years. He studied Early Childhood Education at Naropa University, Lomi Lomi at the Lomi Oluea School of Traditional Hawaiian Massage, and Syntropy Insight Bodywork with Shari Sunshine. He is an active student of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche in the Chokling Tersar lineage.

Photo supplied by the author.

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  1. Avatar

    You begin the essay with this quote:

    ” Without meditating, without renouncing the world,
    Stay at home in the company of your mate.
    Perfect knowledge can only be attained
    While one is enjoying the pleasures of the senses.”

    Then you immediately say that you friend Jenny was NOT talking about sexual/physical/sensual passion.
    Forgive me, but I am confused.

  2. Avatar

    Thank You Tobin. A beautifly written expression of the challenges we all work with. It points to why solo retreat is so important as a means for cutting attachment to the concept of “me”. In my experience, it is only through coming to a place of real kind heartedness for oneself and the predicament one faces, that the dance with the Prajnaparamitra can begin. In other words, you have to love yourself in order to be able to leave yourself. Amidst the turmoil of our lives it can be very difficult to cure the infection which Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche called “MeMineItis”.
    Solo retreat allows for a complete break in the constant barrage of concepts one need navigate in order to “make it” in the material world. May all beings who are truly serious about awakening have the opportunity to do solo retreat. In this day and age I feel it is the only way for the majority of people to find any real freedom.

    1. Tobin Shenpen Rangdrol Author

      I couldn’t agree more, but I was trying to write an article about turning obstacles into the path, sort of the antithesis of retreat. I was attempting to celebrate the path passionate engagement, because my friend was butting heads with the path of disengagement. I think if I’d recommended retreat, she’d have bitten my head off. She wanted to find permission within the Dharma to fully feel her passion, rather than to transform or diffuse it. Her sentiment made me think of Chod practice.

  3. Avatar

    Sahara or Saraha?

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