Impermanence is not an Antidote for Samsara ~ A Guest Post by Bill Schwartz

Ahhhh…Bill Schwartz (@ryderjaphy on Twitter) is like my older Dharma-brother over at Elephant Journal.  More experienced, old and hairy than myself, Bill rocks some Dharma on the digital pages and stirs the Vajrayana pot up every week or so.  Not wanting to be left out I asked him to comment on Impermanence after being lulled by my last post by guest Tamara Levitt on “Finding Peace in Impermanence”.  Other guest posts located here! Everything from emerging Buddhists to Atheists and Pagans…


“Don’t push your wisdom onto others; it doesn’t work.” Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche #emaho

I’ve been trying since this time of year back in the spring of 2006 to better understand how other Buddhists approach being Buddhists, but mostly it has been nothing but a lot of pushing and shoving with little to show for my efforts.

I began on MySpace with what seemed like a good idea at the time, a message board, but that really didn’t work for me (but given how the site was so hot back then it took me months of trying to tame that beast to realize I was wasting my time).

My life is a perfect storm of suffering (heart attack, congestive heart failure, elderly mother hip replacement, wife sole source of income being shown door months from being vested in pension plan) thirty years a practicing Buddhist notwithstanding.

Suffering is that which turned my mind towards the dharma as a child (dad died of an aneurysm of his aorta in 1972, 42 years old, sealed the deal for me) in the first place; I shudder at the thought there may be an antidote to that which my practice so depends.

I read it on the internet (so it must be true), all my years of practice (listening, contemplating, and meditating) was for nothing it seems; all I needed was to (fill in the blank with your opinion) and it would be all good as it should be (cue the unicorn).

It’s a good thing I haven’t the heart to stir the pot like I once was known to (as I was asked to do as guest blogger here); I would throw up a mighty wave of dharma (nirvana and suffering inseparable worthy of my well earned reputation).

I was invited to do the old school Tibetan Buddhist slap down of the via negativity of Zen for readers (like Nixon going to China, something only a great man can do), but instead I prefer to surf my wave of suffering, like the dharma bum I am (gladly free of being edited).

The argument, “I no longer worry about wrinkles thanks to Buddhism” hardly seems worth the effort of examining (tired of flaming that straw man) from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective of Mahamudra (I’m rumored to know something of; don’t believe a word of such nonsense).

All that would accomplish would be to piss off a bunch of people sincerely hoping Buddhism might be their secret I’m afraid; insert image of a smiling Tiger Woods before he drove into a fire hydrant fleeing his enraged golf club wielding wife (or whatever works for you).

So I’ll leave you with whatever you choose (no skin of my nose what other people do), and a Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche quote

 “If you have any doubt about whether you’re doing the meditation practice right or wrong, it doesn’t matter all that much.”

I regret not being a more entertaining guest (I enjoyed having not to answer any editor queries) but this is all I have to bring to the party (thank you for inviting me to ramble): a broken down tired old man with nothing to say and nobody listening.  


Karmapa Chenno!



24 thoughts on “Impermanence is not an Antidote for Samsara ~ A Guest Post by Bill Schwartz

  1. Well, Bill. At least one person’s listening.

    I have to confess I stopped reading your blogs on Elephant, not because they weren’t good, but because I’m not Buddhist and I can’t relate to the nit-picking infighting between two branches of American Tibetan Buddhism. I’m sure there were many others who read with rapt attention and boiling emotions.

    I enjoyed your guest blog here because I didn’t have to wade through all the Chicago/Boulder Buddhist wars to get to your deeply felt, vividly described, very personal, and heartbreaking account of your inner life and how it causes you to struggle with your Buddhism.

    It’s quite refreshing to read a blog that doesn’t wrap itself up in a nice tidy spiritual bow at the end and has the true life impact of the Book of Job. (I know it’s the wrong religion, but I don’t know who the Buddhist equivalent is.)

    Thanks for writing. We’re all pulling for you.

    Bob Weisenberg

  2. Hello Bill.

    I think the ‘Impermanence is not an Antidote for Samsara’ title says so much. So rather than a comment, I wonder if you would entertain a question; does your recent surgery/recovery deepen your understanding of the truth shared in this article’s title?


    • Kris,

      It has much deepened my understanding of this subject of impermanence.

      When facing the end of the line you can’t help but have a better understanding of the subject.

      The fundamentals have to be there though, that being, that impermanence is not an antidote to suffering.

      I’ve used it as such, as we all do, but such a use of the dharma doesn’t turn your mind to it.

      Then it just becomes an antidote, part of our psychological first aid kit, and you miss the point of contemplating it.

      When the doctor tells you that there is nothing more they can do for you, therein lies the difference.

      Properly contemplated it turns the mind to the dharma like nothing else in my experience.

      It connects the dots of a lifetime of practice and makes clear lessons studied but long forgotten.


        • Kris,

          I wish it was wisdom, but simply the swan song of a baby boomer I’m afraid.

          Samsara sucks and we all know there is nothing we can do about this simple fact.

          We can use it to turn the mind to the dharma as I was taught as a young man.

          You can call a wave the ocean (that’s what it really is) and let it knock you on your ass.

          Or you can learn from being knocked on your ass and grab a surf board.

          With practice, you will realize how wave, board, and ocean are the same.

          Sadly, just saying it is so just leaves right where you started and accomplishes nothing.

          That isn’t the dharma, the path to enlightenment, but McBuddhism, the path of convenience.

          Late at night on the road the golden arches can be a welcome sight when your stomach growls.

          I’m not arguing for the eradication of McBuddhism because we all have to start somewhere.

          Chogyam Trungpa himself realized this when he came here and saw our circumstances.

          He started with his organization Vajradhatu (had Allen Ginsberg do ngondro).

          But then he started Shambhala training for those of us not ready for such dharma.

          Today Vajradhatu no longer exists and Shambhala training is called Buddhism.

          That’s were we are at, and I’m perfectly okay with that, though I wish it wasn’t so.

          It wasn’t always like this though, for those of us who followed other Tibetan teachers.

          For example, the 16th Karmapa, and his representative to us, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche.

          We learned the Tibetan way of practicing the dharma in living rooms instead.

          Just a handful of kids and a middle aged Tibetan monk who to this day doesn’t speak English.

          Nothing was made convenient or relevant to us and we made lousy Tibetans.

          Rinpoche wasn’t trying to make Tibetans but Karma Kagyu as the Karmapa told him to.

          From that handful there are still a few of us still around from those days.

          Most are in retreat (of some form) unknown to the world for the most part.

          I’m just dying of congestive heart failure, and preparing myself for the big moment.

          As part of this process, I’m talking about my lifetime as a Karma Kagyu (the bits I can share).

          Some people have begun to find these bits helpful, while others don’t.

          It lifts my spirits when people like what I have to say, and I thank you for that.

          In truth I’ve just begun to connect the dots though and hardly have anything wise to share.


  3. Bob,

    You might learn a thing or two about Tibetan Buddhists if you follow my swan song in elephant journal.

    Thank you for the kind comment though it saddens me that you have stopped reading my articles.


    • Bob,

      Thank you for giving me a second read, much appreciated. I’m not a writer and learn from week to week writing for Elephant Journal how not to embarrass myself with my efforts.


      • Bill,

        Your writing is excellent–clear, lively, provocative, thoughtful, challenging. It’s the sometimes highly specialized content, like competing Buddhisms, which, while I’m sure is important, is beyond my willingness to slog through.

        Beyond that, thought, we are in very different places re: the importance of “authenticity” and “lineage” in one’s spirituality. Most of us here in the U.S. will never win a contest in depth of traditional practice. Not only don’t we try, we don’t think it’s that important.

        Well, actually it’s more than that. Some of us, like myself, are deeply attached in a very personal way to the big three ancient Yoga texts–the Gita, Upanishads, and Yoga Sutra. To us, most of what has been written and practiced since is, at best, a distraction, and at worst an elaborate, overly formalized, ritualized distortion which isn’t unlike the priest-driven Vedic rituals the original Yoga sages were rebelling against in the first place.

        But I know this is a somewhat unusual point of view. Having been deeply Roman Catholic and then deeply Jewish earlier in my life, I now go for the sublimely profound simplicity of these ancient texts, and I prefer my own personal relationship with them than one determined for me with great complexity by various priests and sects throughout the ages.

        And I completely respect the majority of people, most of whom prefer the structure, history and leadership of a highly organized religion.

        Bob Weisenberg

        • Bob,

          We are an organized religion? That’s news to me. It’s more like a family with all the dysfunction one finds in any family.

          It’s hand rolled dharma for which after my generation passes, you will never see the likes of which again, even if you wanted to.

          Today’s up and coming lineage holders speak English and are groomed for a lifetime to relate to Western audiences in ways unimaginable in my day.

          Today’s Western audiences have a depth of knowledge of the dharma,and other religious traditions, also unimaginable in my day too.

          On any given day on Twitter I read the tweets of people that know more about Buddhism than I ever will.

          Unlike them, I was in the right place at the right time, and took the plunge into something I know shit about after thirty years.

          You have got to want it, like my role model the Beat poet Gary Snyder did, who worked his way as merchant seaman to Japan to find his teacher.

          Nobody rolls like that these days, and even if you did they would be ready for you; first contact being a purely one shot deal.

          Where’s the structure, where’s the organized religion? In the heads of Westerners that want it to be such I’m afraid.

          The 16th Karmapa sent my guru to represent him thirty years ago and that’s the extent of our organization thirty years later.

          The 17th Karmapa visits us in 2008, and there is Rinpoche holding the fort, standing by the flag planted by HHK 16 like a rock.

          How is that possible? the dharma we are talking about is in blood and not print, you can’t find it ordering a book on the internet.

          It’s tight, word of mouth, and not accessible to tourists (what we call people interested in Buddhism behind their backs).

          If I wasn’t dying of congestive heart failure I’d be the first to shut down anyone who shared outside our circle what I’m writing about.

          There are ways to get in today, but it’s all about making the dharma accessible to as many people possible, which only makes it more difficult.

          I met Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche in a neighbor’s kitchen back in the living room sangha days which is ancient history these days.

          This is my swan song and not me trying to interest people in the Karma Kagyu lineage or promote some book or new brand of Buddhism.

          I’m just summing up my lifetime as a Karma Kagyu,
          connect a few dots, while I’m still healthy enough to at least write about it.

          When I write and someone likes it, I feel good that someone is reading me, not as a Karma Kagyu but as a human being.

          I understand that my experience is woefully inaccessible to those outside my circle, but that’s all I have to write about.

          I don’t give a rat’s ass about the importance of lineage and authenticity.

          In the foot steps of my inspiration Japhy Ryder of Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, I only know if you want something you have to go after it.

          It’s about the experience of sitting at the feet of somebody that knows their shit because they have done it themselves.

          For me, that’s all I know of lineage and authenticity, what you will never read about in any book but the heart of the Karma Kagyu experience.


        • Thanks, Bill. Your personal and heartfelt explanation is very helpful to my understanding. I appreciate your willingness to spend the time with me. Best wishes to you.


        • Bob,

          In 2008 I was in an audience of old-timers and benefactors with the 17th Karmapa in Seattle.

          He acknowledged our waiting since 1981 for his return but not without criticism.

          Specifically, he wanted us to be more open with those outside our tight knit Vajrayana comfort zone.

          Most of us gasped at the thought (being taught such behavior a violation of our sacred commitment).

          He wasn’t asking us to break such commitments but simply to reach out to outsiders.

          Like he said, we aren’t looking for converts, but we need to get over ourselves.

          Sure, there is much about Vajrayana that is secret, but it is self-secret (not Dick Cheney secret).

          We need not fear violating our oaths in speaking with outsiders like so many of us do.

          I can’t thank you enough for providing me the opportunity to fulfill this obligation of mine.

          None of this has come easy to me and it has been a difficult command to fulfill.



  4. Bill,

    I listened, and can relate to your perfect storm (especially the congestive heart failure, that jumped out at me). I don’t have a lot to say other than I can relate to what you’re saying, since I’m so new at this.


    • Brandon,

      Thank you, I’m glad I accepted John’s invitation to guest blog here (which I resisted at first).

      Obviously, I have a full plate, but it felt good to just sit down and type what I was feeling.

      When I write for Elephant Journal it has to make sense to a particular audience of readers.

      This was a blast for me and it lifts my spirits that you were able to relate to what I wrote.


  5. I like it Bill – as always. What I like about you is that you challenge this notion that Westerners have that right speech = politeness and politeness = not asking tough questions, raising controversial issues, or challenging assumptions.

    When your guru say “don’t give me the book answer” – that’s not polite (to a Westerner) but they said it for a reason – to take you beyond a relative understanding to the ultimate understanding.

    To use Tiger Woods – if he would have had a guru or sangha around him that would have said “umm…I think you may have a serious attachment to porn stars and Denny’s waitresses,” then this whole thing may have played out differently.

    So, keep it up Bill. Every boat needs rocking on occassion – the world isn’t the calm sea of Mahamudra yet – there will be waves.

    • John,

      Each day (especially at Christmas) I look at the mirror and wonder how I ever got this old and teddy bear like.

      I used to be a scary looking dude without the hair I grew for my daughter’s wedding (for the pictures).

      After the wedding I never went back to shaving my face and beard and I’ve looked like Santa ever since.

      Thankfully, I can still make my presence known, which given my circumstances must suffice.

      I’ve always been a difficult child at heart (my grandson a chip off the old block according to my daughter).

      This isn’t me trying to get attention but just me being myself and gladly suffering the consequences.

      My guru and teachers have always accepted me as I am and never tried to mold me into a good Buddhist.

      There are no shortage of good Buddhists but the wild ones are few and far between.

      Fortunately for me, the Karma Kagyu tradition, has a unique fondness for people like me.

      When I go too far, I take my lumps, and try not to make the same mistake twice.

      But like when my father punished me as a child, I know that my punishment is well deserved.

      This just the way I am, for better or for worse, and I thank you for your kind words.


  6. Thanks Bill for taking the time to post. It seems that many come to Buddhism searching for some sort of secret or mystic realization. My own entry was due to a strange need. I played around with what you term as “McBuddhism” when I was in my twenties but it wasn’t until the ensuing birth of my daughter (diving deeper into Samsara) that I realized that my actions will have either positive or negative effects on others. My choice. That simple. That led me to my practice. As useless as it is, the situation would be different without it.

    Nothing is cured but when the tiger is stalking you in the woods I sure as hell want to meet it head-on rather than wallowing in blissful ignorance.

    Maezumi Roshi’s last written words before his death:

    The Dharma of Thusness has been intimiately conveyed from Buddhas and Ancestors.
    It has been transmitted, generation after generation, down to me.
    To complete or not to complete is of no consequence.
    Enlightenment above enlightenment
    Delusion within delusion
    Is also of no consequence.
    Manifest Genjo Koan
    Play freely inward and outward fulfilling samadhi
    Maintain and nourish the one Buddha Mind Seal.
    Life after life, rebirth after rebirth, practice diligently.
    Do not regress.
    Do not let the wisdom seed of the Buddhas and Ancestors be discontinued
    Thus I deeply implore you.

    Cheers Brother!

    You are welcome back to vent unedited whenever and however it moves you.


    • John,

      I’m so glad to have met you, if only as someone capable of stepping out from behind the curtain of spirituality and mysticism so many online wrap themselves up in, afraid to tell their stories of turning to the dharma.

      You know well how I poke and prod people on Twitter every chance I get to simply be who they are instead of being satisfied with being intelligent and well read about a Buddhism that’s entirely of their own creation.

      I’m at the point where “we can keep you alive” with the congestive heart failure, which I’ll gladly take understanding that there’s nothing else that can be done for me, so I appreciate for leaving the door open for me here.


  7. Hey Bill,

    I liked these words “He wasn’t asking us to break such commitments but simply to reach out to outsiders. Like he said, we aren’t looking for converts, but we need to get over ourselves.”

    I think, and this is coming from a Zen outsider perspective, that it seems that many Vajrayana practitioners are wrapped very tightly in the “secret”. Very contrary to Zen where there is no secret training. You simply progress as far as you are able. Not easy by any stretch but not secret.

    Skipping ahead to the next koan or “giving out the answers” has no real effect on the practice since those that are cheting from crib-notes are simply not going to get it.

    Its like giving a monkey a car. There is a chance that it’ll get the ignition started but it sure as hell ain’t going far.


    • Oh, so now we’re all monkeys if we don’t get it, huh? (Just kidding.)

      This has been a most enlightening discussion all around. Great comments from everyone. Thanks to all.


  8. Bill,

    Thanks for the article. This one resonated more for me than most of your Elephant Journal articles.

    Misery loves company, of course. Our suffering is different, and not necessarily to scale. There are things I can speak about and things I cannot. Suffice it to say that I’ve experienced Hell in the space of a few days. Of course, given that I’m a McBuddhist and drama queen, this may mean that I simply have a bad case of hemorrhoids or it may mean that I’m haunted by the guilt of some Dostoevskian murder. You can never can tell for sure.

    Bill, like me it sounds like you have great love, friends and family well beyond this online forum and I’m glad. Naturally, my McBuddhism falls short in giving me what I need, but it is a welcome analgesic and placebo at times. The only real help and comfort seems to come from real connection with loved ones and friends.

    Bashfully, I stand in front of you in my threadbare, hand-me-down, one-size-too-large McBuddhist robe hoping that you’ve got room for one more friend.

    I’m not talkin’ about moving in and I don’t want to change your life, but the occasional tweet would be nice!

    Your McBitch,

    Matt (IntegralHack) Helmick

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