How I approached the Aro tradition

Approaching Aro

This web site is about “approaching” religious traditions. That is the gradual process of learning about different lineages—and about oneself—to eventually find a spiritual “home.”

This page tells how I came to the Aro lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. My story is neither typical nor atypical. Everyone comes to a religious tradition in their own way. There are some themes and phases that most people experience. It is useful to know about these, and my story includes them. I will write more about those themes on the next few pages.

Approaching spirituality

I had religious experiences starting early in childhood. However, I was raised in a non-religious family, so I had no way of making sense of them. These experiences seemed important, but were not something one could talk about. Instead, I looked for books that had something to say about religious experience. I read about Eastern religions, and a great variety of non-mainstream spiritual paths. I started practicing a muddled meditation partly based on books and partly made up as I went along.

the sacredness of all phenomena

Neopaganism provided my first meaningful experience of organized religion. It had much to offer. It had inspiring ritual practices, group and solo. It celebrated the divinity of all sentient beings and the sacredness of all phenomena. It taught oneness with nature. It upheld the central importance of the feminine. It used romantic love and sex as routes to enlightenment. It provided a religious community and had very little dogma. All these remain important to me. They are on my “must have” list for a spiritual path.

What I could not find in Neopaganism was serious teachers. No one seemed much ahead of me. After a couple of years, I was leading large group rituals. People were looking to me for spiritual teaching. I had enough sense to realize that I was a confused twenty-five-year-old with no spiritual insight whatsoever. If people were looking to me for guidance something was badly wrong. I left.

Over the next few years, I learned a lot from a wide variety of spiritual paths and organizations. Each offered practices and teachings found valuable. Each also had pieces missing, or things I strongly disliked. It was always clear that none of these was “home.”

Shambhala Training

no way could I be a Buddhist

Meditation continued to be important to me. To go further, it seemed I would need to approach Buddhism. That was a problem. From books, parts of Buddhism seemed very right. Unfortunately, other parts seemed quite wrong. Most of it seemed just irrelevant and boring. No way could I be a Buddhist.

Then I discovered Shambhala Training. It was a system of meditation classes developed by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He described it as “secular,” meaning that it was not part of Buddhism or any other religion. (Later it was converted into Buddhism by others, however.)

rigorous, detailed meditation instructions

Shambhala was exactly what I needed at the time. It provided rigorous, detailed meditation instructions. Those greatly deepened and strengthened my sloppy daily practice. And Shambhala gave me a great blessing: the opportunity to work one-on-one with a skilled and inspiring meditation teacher. (The Aro Members program did not exist then. It provides similar training, and does not require that you be a Buddhist.)

What I found missing in Shambhala was detailed conceptual explanation. That might be more important to me than to some others. I find I need to balance meditation with reading and understanding. So as I progressed with Shambhala I read more and more Buddhist books and attended more and more Buddhist teachings.

Looking for a lama

There were parts of Buddhism that had seemed wrong. In my reading, I sometimes discovered alternate interpretations that made sense. These came mainly from Dzogchen texts. (A later page explains why Dzogchen appeals to me so much.) However, you really cannot learn Dzogchen from books. As I approached the end of the Shambhala Training curriculum, it seemed that to go further I would need to find a Tibetan Buddhist lama. I was quite reluctant to do that. (I will explain the reasons later.) Still, meditation was important enough to me that I had to persist.

Over a year or two, I attended talks, classes, and retreats with about twenty different lamas. I was lucky to live in a place where many famous ones taught often.

no generic lamas

I discovered that lamas are all quite different. There is no such thing as a generic high-quality lama. Each lama appealed hugely to a particular audience and might leave others bored or annoyed.

  • Most bored me. They did not seem to have anything to say. I could learn more, quicker, by reading a book.
  • One lama insulted her audience. I did not think she was a good person, never mind a good lama.
  • A few were exceptional teachers in the same style as my best university professors. They led a group through a complex intellectual subject clearly and precisely. I respect this greatly, but it was not what I was looking for.
  • Chögyal Namkha’i Norbu Rinpoche inspired me hugely. He teaches authentic Dzogchen. (I was learning that this is hard to find.) It was obvious that he teaches from personal realization, not from only book learning. He is funny and deadly serious and compassionate and unattached and wild and sane. I attended two retreats with him. There was one hitch. He has thousands of students. It was not realistic to hope to receive detailed one-on-one instruction from him.

After that, I actually gave up. What I wanted did not seem to be available.

Approaching the Aro lineage

Then accidentally I read that some lama was teaching on vajra romance at the local Shambhala center. Although I was no longer looking for a lama, I was curious. “Vajra romance” seemed such an odd thing for a Tibetan to talk about. I had to check it out.

electric, eccentric, hilarious

The lama—Ngak’chang Rinpoche—wasn’t Tibetan. He was English. He taught on Dzogchen men-ngak-dé. This was just what I wanted to learn—but hardly anyone would discuss. And he was electric, charmingly eccentric, and very funny.

I still had reservations about Buddhism. So I was not in a hurry to apply to become his student. However, I went to all Rinpoche’s classes and retreats over the next eighteen months. And I read practically every page on the Aro web site. (It was not so gigantic then!)

I started attending the local weekly Aro practice group. I found I really liked the sangha (community). They were dedicated meditators. They were kind and open to me as an outsider. They were funny. They didn’t make a fuss about being “serious Buddhists” and holier-than-thou.

Then I had a private conversation with Ngak’chang Rinpoche in which I explained my reservations about becoming officially Buddhist, and my mixed feelings about becoming an Aro apprentice. He clarified for me several points about what it means to be a Buddhist. That was very helpful. He recommended that I spend at least the next six months thinking more about whether I wanted to become an apprentice, and also that I talk with current apprentices about their experiences of apprenticeship.

Six months later I applied for apprenticeship and was accepted.

as sure as the color of my socks

At my first apprentice retreat, I took Refuge as a Buddhist. I had been resisting that for years. But the reality was that this was simply a public statement of what had long ago become true. I was confident that the basic principles of Buddhism are accurate. As confident as I am of the law of gravity or the color of my socks. And I was confident that this confidence would never change.