During the early autumn of faraway 1976 I went on a three-week retreat organised by some Tibetan Buddhists. It was in Conishead Priory, then an enormous and rather dilapidated building in the south of the English Lake District. It had been recently purchased by the then Manjusri Institute, and the retreat was a kid-of inaugural event. For a variety of reasons, it didn't really work out for me. There was, however, one undoubted highlight of the retreat: the teachers.
The teachers - the gurus, as we are talking Tibetan Buddhism - were the sadly long deceased Lama Thubten Yeshe and the still-happily-with-us Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Together, they formed a brilliant double act.
The majority of the teaching was done by Zopa. He was, then, a slight and tiny young lama. His English wasn't too good, and he would do a lot of murmuring and muttering of the type that, I believe, only Tibetans can do. So 'receiving the teachings' was a bit of an effort in the first place. And once you had managed to receive them, the teachings did not exactly fill you with joy. Zopa majored on 'the vicious state of samsara'. Old age, impermanence, sickness and death. Death is certain while the time of death is uncertain. The nasty side of karmic consequence. The hot hells and the cold hells. You get the picture.
We young impressionable western students would all be on the verge of buying a one-way ticket into the mountains and jumping off the top of Scafell Pike when Lama Yeshe would breeze in. His grin stretched from one side of the spacious room to the other, while he laughed and joked: don't take it all too seriously, it's all a bit of a blast, really. We would all feel that life was worth living after all, in readiness for another stark dose of reality from Lama Zopa.
There was one time during those three weeks, and one time only, when I recall the normally deadpan Zopa having a really good laugh. He was talking about the need to remain mindful and aware at all times, and the perils of getting carried away, that sort of thing. To illustrate his point, he told a story. It concerned a poor, hard-working Tibetan peasant farmer. He toiled long, long hours in the fields beneath the harsh Tibetan weather in order to feed his family. It really was a tough life, and however much he strived, it was a constant struggle to keep his family fed and warm. Then, one day, his luck turned. He won a lot of money. The struggles were behind him. He was so happy, so excited, that he started to jump up and down with delight. He hit his head on a rafter and dropped down dead.
Zopa found this story hilarious. He couldn't stop laughing. Meanwhile, all we young, modern, nice, western Buddhists, looked at each other in disquiet and consternation. We felt distinctly uncomfortable at the great lama finding humour in such a horrible story. It was at that moment, I now realise forty years after the event, that Lama Zopa Rinpoche showed his true colours: he was a man of the serpent....
I have two companions. They follow me almost everywhere I go. One is just behind me to the left, the other to the right. I sometimes consult them when there are things to do, decisions to be made, or when I'm not sure about the 'rightness' of an attitude I may have. I call these two companions Jesus Christ and the Serpent.
The image which has taken on the name of Jesus Christ may or may not correspond very closely to the figure who walks the pages of the Christian New Testament. I am not overly concerned with that; if you find that interesting, check it out yourself. To me, there is an image, a figure of imagination, who in my imaginal world goes by the name of Jesus Christ. That's all.
He exudes a softly radiant golden-yellow light. I notice that he is always smiling, though I sometimes suspect the expression is hiding a rancour or deep resentment. If I engage him in conversation, he speaks always of pity, love, forgiveness. He is indeed Love. He is the Light of the World. He feels sorry for other people; he seems not to feel comfortable with pain, sickness, death, the inevitables of life. Rather, he wishes to remove them, to erase them; to save us from our sorrows, our sufferings, our pains and lamentations.
He wishes to take away that which is part of us, our needles of pain, just as he cried out in felt betrayal to his father when he was in trouble himself. He has a keen sense of guilt, a feeling which he has passed on to many in the modern western world. His guilt and the ensuing feeling of charity is the inner emotional attitude which drives, for example, the readiness to allow all manner of human being into ones place of living, regardless of their true need, suitability, or worthiness. We feel pity, we feel sorry, we feel the great love of the Light of the World. We feel responsible for everything and everybody.
This imaginal Jesus figure comes with his own formula for living. It consists largely of a sense of guilt, sin, and salvation of the world. This inner emotional attitude gets easily transferred onto matters of our darling Mother Earth, where we all feel guilty for the mess around us, and so are easily duped into all manner of foolish acts and attitudes of 'salvation'. The guilt of this Jesus Christ makes us easy prey for manipulation.
He would also have me turn the other cheek, as the highest form of morality. Turn the other cheek, so that the dark forms that stalk the face of our lovely Earth can get away with blue murder without so much as a harsh word being said against them. Turn the other cheek, he says, and let the wicked go free.....
My other companion is the Serpent. Or he could be a dragon, like a Naga from Buddhist and Hindu mythology. Gold and black, tactile, sensuous, rippling with serpentine energy. He has huge bulging eyes.
Should I seek his advice, it often seems harsh, scary, unforgiving. He looks impassively, sees life as it is, and utters accordingly. He emanates a fierce love, shuddering and without compromise. A love which includes pain, the needles, suffering, death. He may even talk of the beauty of suffering, of its necessity. His presence evokes a mixture of awe, fear, and love in my own soul and heart.
There is no place in my Serpent world for the Christ-like attitudes of guilt, sin, and salvation. She - I have used 'he' thus far, but surely the Serpent could be an underworld queen - finds these feelings tepid, signs of weakness; giveaways of personal power and energy. Instead, she embodies a certain kind of justice which is a reflection of the natural order of things. Punishment and revenge descend upon life when it strays too far from a certain sense of 'rightness'. Crowley's card of 'Adjustment' to replace the normal 'Justice' card in his Thoth Tarot is one which resonates deeply with our lovely Serpent.
There is no place for sentiment in the world of the Serpent. Emotion is rather impersonal, or transpersonal. Fiercely objective, unwavering. If the human species were to be totally destroyed because of its general foolishness, the Serpent would not shed a big tear, or lose too much sleep over it. 'Damaged goods is not worth bothering with' shall be her attitude.
In my own conversations, the Light of the World is first to jump to my aid with kindness and sympathy. But on closer inspection, I invariably find myself following the wise way of the Serpent.......
Images: Lama Zopa nowadays
A Serpent, of course