Despite the issues with the religion, there are benefits of Tibetan Buddhism, and I think it’s important to recognise these. It’s easy when we’re first discovering the drawbacks (like abusive lamas, cult tendencies, and spiritual bypassing) to reject everything about it, but those who stuck around for decades did so because they did actually gain some benefit – at least those of us who weren’t directly abused.
Tibetan Buddhism may leave out important aspects of human development, be easily misued (but aren’t a lot of things?) and fail in training their gurus such that they don’t become corrupted by their power, and we may have been brainwashed into accepting behaviour we would never accept in any other circumstances, but we did gain important skills for working with our mind and with others. And even if we move on from the religion, we’ll still retain the skills we developed through all those practice accummulations.
Where Buddhism excels
Human beings have psychological, emotional, energetic, physical, spiritual, and mental aspects to their being with various overlaps between these areas, and (unlike what we see in many Tibetan Buddhist Teachers) a truly self-actualised/enlightened being would not be developed in only one or two areas, but in all. If we’re aiming for this kind of balance in our personal and spiritual development, then we need to recognise what works well on what aspects of ourselves, and Buddhism is a powerful tool (perhaps the most powerful tookl) for developing our mental and spiritual aspects.
Some teachers do teach on energy (the tsa, lung teachings) and I know of one who did include a physical aspect—Namkhai Norbu’s Vajra dance—but the teachings in general deal with the mind and going beyond the mind to develop the spiritual aspect of our experience. If we study and practice knowing this without expecting that the teachings and practice will also solve our psychological, emotional and physical issues, then some study and practice of the Buddhist teachings are very beneficial, and I found the extensive practice that I did extremely beneficial.
Some, however, had some adverse effects, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all deal. You have to know yourself, your needs and trust your own instincts on this as in all things.
Benefits of Tibetan Buddhism in skill development
If you ever wondered why we did all those recitations of practices, it’s because the brain needs a certain number of hours to actually change its structure such that the centres of our brain associated with love and compassion and regulating emotions, for example, light up automatically. This is why, once you’ve done the required number of hours – assuming you did them correctly – the skills you learned from your Buddhist practice become part of how you approach your life and my mind.
Mind you, since the brain is very plastic, you could lose it if you don’t use it. But if you’re truly integrating these practices into your life, then you won’t lose them, and you can always return to your cushion for a top up when things get challenging.
Below, I list briefly the skills developed by Tibetan Buddhism that I believe are valuable and probably even necessary for our spiritual and mental development. Most of these skills can be developed through secular means, of course; they are not only the realm of Buddhism. However, Tibetan Buddhism does do an excellent job of teaching us about the subtle levels of mind.
Being able to settle and observe our thoughts and emotions is a vital skill to develop for the sake of our personal well being. We all need to be able to find relief from our thoughts and emotions when they’re too wild and overwhelm us. It’s important, however, to also be aware that that same ability if used to excess can blunt all emotions, including positive ones. Meditation is a tool for us to use wisely.
Loving kindness and compassion practices:
These practices, if done correctly, make us kinder and more compassionate people and help us to relate better to others. When directed at ourselves, they can increase self-esteem and heal feelings of unworthiness.
What is the point of all that chanting and visualisation? Let’s start with the preliminaries, the ngondro: when done with the awareness that all deities are representations of the nature of your own mind, not some external being or a representation of an external being, and even when done essentially without all the bells and whistles, refuge gives us confidence in our true/Buddha nature, our inner wisdom; bodhichitta/compassion practice makes us kinder and more attuned to others; Vajrasattva practice is a healing tool within which we can right wrongs, energise ourselves and build our immune system; mandala offering is a practice of gratitude and generosity and at its deepest gives insight into the ‘empty’ nature of reality; guru yoga assists us in recognising the nature of our own mind—but I find that if I’ve done offering sufficiently deeply, I don’t need guru yoga.
Oh, and there’s the contemplations on the 4 thoughts that turn the mind to the dharma. What does that do? Exactly what it says it does – develops renunciation. I learned to have deep gratitude for the life I have, an awareness of impermanence that makes me appreciate every moment and every human interaction, an understanding of the nature and pervasiveness of suffering and disatisfaction and a determination to escape that, and a recognition that all my actions have results – postive negative or nuetral. But I got this not from casual reading or from saying them quickly daily but from spending 3 months contemplating each thought, bringing whichever one I was working on into my life as manay times a day as I can remember. After that the 4 lines of the practice were just a reminder.
The three roots practice – guru, yidam and dakini – in which the practitioner arises as the deity: For me, the guru practice helped me to see every sound, perception and thought as sacred, as empty and luminous; Vajrakilaya practice helped me to see that my obstacles were mostly in my mind, and since I worked specifically on some of those obsctacles that I knew I carried from my childhood, it helped me release them. Since I never did the dakini practice, I can’t comment on that.
Other than that, there are various sadhanas that do various things, but the ngondro and three roots practices are the ones from which I gained the most personal benefit, and all while also visualising the same benefit for all other beings.
In general, the practice of visualisation and mantra, when done fully using the three samadhis, and actualising the elements of purity, equality and vajra pride gives a direct experience of the luminous empty nature of ourselves and reality – and yet, the same practices can be nothing more than a fancy form of shamata mediation. It all depends on whether or not you know what you’re doing and actualise it. The knowledge and meditative experience required to do it fully and gain these benefits, however, requires a lot of study and time committment, and I don’t see why you can’t get the same kind of experience using other methods.
Vajrayana practice for me was very inspiring until I became bored with it. I can move on now not because I reject vajrayana, but because I did enough of it.
Dzogchen and Mahamudra:
These teachings drew many of us to Tibetan Buddhism, and practiced well, they can give you a direct insight into the true nature of your mind and reality. Having confidence in your true nature and being able to remain in a state of pure awareness connected to everything and everyone, isn’t just a wonderful state of being, it also enables us to truly find and follow our own wisdom – so long as we don’t get attached to our teacher. The result of that is a sense of freedom and a sense that you can handle anything one way or another. Everything is fluid and workable.
Undoubtably, these teachings are the jewel in the Tibetan Buddhist crown, and beware of look-alike options. You’re better off with a traditional Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen text translated by someone like Erik Pema Kunsang than a Western cult leader. These are subtle teachings, very easy to misunderstand, and, despite his faults and crimes, I am extremely grateful to Sogyal for introducing me to them.
Balancing it out
The danger with any form of meditation is when students use it (at any level) as a kind of drug to get you away from the difficulties of life and/or as an avoidance mechanism, a way to bypass your emotional and psychological issues. So some examination of our childhood patterns and the role of beliefs in our thinking, feeling and perception is an important adjunct to Buddhist practice as well as some kind of conscious body work or exercise.
If you’re feeling a bit numb, or if your non-attachment is making you unable to relate to the people or situation before you with any real empathy, you’re out of balance. I doubt the Buddha meant that to be the result of his teachings on non-attachment, but I’ve seen it in students who have been Buddhist practitioners for many years. There’s a tendency to gravitate towards the nature of mind teachings and leave the compassion teachings behind as if, being Mahayana, they are lesser somehow.
This shows how important it is to take the path step by step, making a firm foundation in each step before focusing on the next. It might be inspiring to have Dzogchen teachings straight up, but we mustn’t neglect those compassion teachings because they help to keep us grounded.
The weakness and the integrity
The weakness in the religion today is in the poor quality of some of the teachers, and yet you can gain benefit even with a teacher you later discover is a fraud—as I and many others did. This indicates that there is some integrity in the Vajrayana ‘system’ untouched by the failings of an individual or even general corruption in the religion. I’m not the only one who feels that the Vajrayana practices themselves—minus guru yoga—are free of Sogyal’s taint.
Some time ago, I emailed Tenzin Palmo and asked the
“Can one gain some measure of genuine realisation through relying on an unqualified teacher?
This is referring to a situation where the student has given complete, unquestioning devotion and fulfilled their obligations as a student and then only later they discover that the lama was not worthy of that devotion. “
Her reply was:
“Yes, it is possible to gain genuine realisation even when the teacher later proves to be unqualified. If the student has a direct realisation of the nature of the mind, then that is so, whatever the status of the lama who gave the pointing out instruction or facilitated this insight. Some teachers have the ability to open the minds of the students even when in other ways the conduct and wisdom of the teacher may be questionable. This is one reason for the confusion nowadays with lamas who have helped so many students yet have been shown to be unworthy of their role. Still these students were helped….”Image by Михаил Нечаев from Pixabay
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5 Replies to “The Benefits of Tibetan Buddhism”
Thank you for an excellent article, which goes beyond issues that many of us are addressing these days. One important point is that some of us had abusive teachers, their teachings could still helped. As i read the comments in 3 groups about recovery, I keep realizing how lucky I have been. After 7 years wandering in the TB community in Berkeley in the 70’s, I met Nakhai Norbu, with whom I have been studying since. I think that he was such a great teacher is that he was fully trained, and ended up in Italy, helping Tucci and then teaching at the Oriental Institute at the University of Naples from 64-94. So he worked for a living, like most of us. He also married an Italian lady and has 2 children. So essentially, he lived his like most of us. He sarted teaching in 1977 at the request of some of his students who were studying with him at the University. He has given more than 600 retreats before he passed away. The retreats involved many DzogChen teachings, some pretty rare. On the last day he would always talk about returning to our daily lives and how to practice. He emphasized simple practices, and there was no requirement for hours of practice of visualizations chants etc. He always emphasized that being aware and present is the important goal. There was no room for any abuse or other shenanigans, especially since he did not reside in any of the groups that were studying with him. I would be luck to see him once a year. He gave me the practices, and it was up to me to practice them.
Thanks for sharing. It’s always nice to hear about teachers who don’t fall prey to the lure of power.
If an unqualified teacher can lead you in a way that benefits, even if it is a set up to exploit and harm some or all the students in the long term … but still to some degree good things happen, things one can use and keep for the future there is a logical point there. That is related to this “source” and “inability to get realization without the lama” – these things are basically defeated if you can source things from the unqualified. You can source them from a book, you can source them from another student who themselves is unqualified if they transmit enough to help. You can gain insight and realization according to conditions and apparently a qualified lama isn’t one of them so therefore the teacher can be what the teaching say. The texts that carry dharma, the mind that seeks to understand the dharma, friends, spiritual friends, others you merely observe, tutors, teachers, strangers … and so on. Thus a lot of the teachings stating its not possible without a qualified teacher are absolutist nonsense for a relative world. Obviously a better guide/teacher/guru will potentially match your needs and accelerate. However, if there is this “deepen” thing about knowledge it might be a trap – there is depth we often miss but some things are simple and not to be churned on about forever – to keep the student trapped. You risk that if you don’t measure the teacher or have others to compare them to. A lot of what I found as fault in Sogyal was the stories of the lives of others and their teachers kindness.
As Stephen Batchelor wrote:
‘Before he died, Gotama told his followers: “After I am gone, do not think you will have no teacher; the dharma will be your teacher.” Unlike a king, he did not expect any one person to be his successor. Instead, he envisaged a community that would be governed by the impersonal law of the teachings he had delivered, just as a republic is ultimately governed by a rule of law rather than any individual ruler. In the ‘Discourse to the Kalamas’, he explicitly warns against believing something “because my guru said it.” The validity of a teaching has nothing to do with the qualities of the teacher. All that matters is whether, when put into practice, it can effect a real change in the way you live.” (source: https://tricycle.org/magazine/quit-guru-yoga/)
Don’t kid yourself: there’s no good reason to attribute the results of practice to anything else than the validity of the teachings.
Exactly. It’s the dharma that I followed that made this work for me. Sogyal was some assistance but it was my diligence in seeking further teachings by reading widely and in doing the practices in a way that worked for me that did it. I sought out the real meaning, the ultimate meaning of the teachings and that’s what I practiced. The refuge was never anything external for me, and neither was the lama, not when I practiced. So how we do these practices makes a huge difference. I never could have just done it in a meaningless way, but it could have been done like that.