CTSM Chapters 1-3: Transcendental Common Sense • 8 August 2010

Introduction: Buddhism “begins with suffering and confusion” and then works by “unraveling” them to their origins.

Accordingly, Trungpa introduces CTSM, the methodology, as what one might call a wisdom path – a kind of jnana yoga, we might say. He introduces three main types of delusion—the lords of form, speech and mind—and writes that CTSM and the dharma itself works by cutting through the ego’s “elaborate defenses layer by layer.”

Chapter 1: Spiritual Materialism

The chapter begins with a canny discussion of how one imitates teachings rather than internalizing them—the imitation is adornment of the ego. It is role-play. Such practice is not dharma or self-realization or whatever: imitation and spiritual consumerism is the practice of spiritual materialism (p. 16).

Trungpa uses the metaphor of consumption to describe some students’ spiritual practices. This language is particularly apt for students who fetishize old knowledge as valuable in and of itself, rather than living, practical information. “If we regard knowledge as an antique, as ‘ancient wisdom’ to be collected, then we are on the wrong path” (p. 19).

The passage of pages 16-24 is extremely rich in this regard, and prescient when it comes to what has happened in yoga communities in recent decades. This section most closely characterizes yoga communities that think they have some claim to “authenticity” or “ancient wisdom”: reading it cuts right in to the delusion and fundamental egomania we express any time we claim special access to ancient truths.

While Trungpa makes a passing plea that spiritual consumers at least consume selectively and well rather than turning their spiritual houses in to junk-shops, his ultimate point seems to be that knowledge collection is only a shadow of real transmission. Actual transmission is “always up-to-date… not … an old legend… not passed along as… folktales…. It is real experience” (p. 19).

Chapter 2: Surrendering

“Surrender means… trying to get beyond fascination and expectation” (p. 28) of what practice will be like, what fruits it will yield, how it will feel, and what the teachers will be.

“Disappointment… is the best chariot.”

After introducing the idea of surrender and speaking a bit about what surrender is not, Trungpa depicts some of the delusional, radically non-self-responsible forms of surrender. If one surrenders to the idea of surrender rather than to ordinariness, then all kinds of self-deceiving fantasies result—fantasies on the order of “Guruji is perfect, Guruji can do no harm” et cetera.

I expected this book to be a compendium of ways to feel spiritually anxious, an anatomy of spiritual materialism so relentless that I’d finish feeling that some level of SM delusion was utterly unavoidable no matter what. But, on the contrary, Trungpa puts a lot of emphasis here on the need for spiritual self-confidence. I wonder if he was responding to the same kind of self-infantalizing and self-hatred we sometimes feel as Westerners interested in Eastern spirituality… the fundamental distrust of our own personal and cultural wisdom that often manifests in our relationships to yoga and dharma more generally.

In any case, pages 28-33 exhort students to remain grounded and develop self-confidence. “If we begin to give up our self-criticism, then we may feel… as though someone were taking away our job. We would have no further occupation if we were to surrender everything: there would be nothing to hold on to. Self-evaluation and self-criticism are, basically, neurotic tendencies which derive from our not having enough confidence in ourselves, confidence in the sense of seeing what we are, knowing what we are, knowing that we can afford to open” (pp. 28-29). The main argument of this chapter is summarized clearly in its final two paragraphs.

Chapter 3: The Guru

This chapter begins by noting the central delusion in seeking a teacher—the idea that one can “get” anything at all from the teacher (p. 35).

What follows is mostly the story of Kagyu lineage-founders Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa. Among other great anecdotes, Marpa journeys to India to collect teachings to then bring home and use to enrich local tradition and, in a sense, his own renown. He takes notes on the aspects of Naropa’s teachings he does not understand, but the notes are washed away in a river and he’s left with only the teachings he did not write down because they were already part of his experience. He returns home disappointed (disappointment being the best chariot) but more knowledgeable than he realizes at the time. The teachings are practical – anything not living and practical is of little use and thus little spiritual value.

In passing, Trungpa refers to Spiritual Materialism as “ignoring family or… [one’s] practical relationship to the earth.”

There is some discussion of translating “guru” as “spiritual friend.” Trungpa doesn’t note it, but “spiritual friend” is a common term in early Buddhism, and used to characterize many teacher-student relationships—relationships with a high degree of mutuality, honesty  and respect, not characterized by students’ striving to impress or fool the teacher about their own level of realization (one can listen to Hokai Sobol’s recent podcasts at Buddhist Geeks on this subject).

A lovely passage: “ There are many stories of teacher-student relationships… in which the student had to make long journeys and endure many hardships until his fascination and impulses began to wear out. This seems to be the point: the impulse of searching for something is, in itself, a hang-up. When this impulse begins to wear out, then our fundamental basic nakedness begins to appear and the meeting of the two minds begins to take place” (p. 49).

On p. 56, the Buddha’s dharma is referred to as “transcendental common sense.”


Let’s continue some of the remaining discussion of this part of the book in the comment thread for the present post. And at the same time, let’s all go ahead and read the next 5 chapters – through to the end of “Sense of Humor.” J

If it seems time, I’ll post the summary of that section tomorrow. Or perhaps we’ll stay in this section a bit longer…