Today we have a post by Joanne Clark as a follow up to her last post on Dzongsar Khyentse and nihilism.
“In our practice, we may view the guru’s behavior as that of a mahasiddha, but in the conventional world we follow the general Buddhist approach, and if a certain behavior is harmful, we should say so.”HH Dalai Lama, The Foundation of Buddhist Practice
Leaving the Boat Too Early
In Dzongsar’s recent publication, Poison is Medicine, which is based on teachings that he gave in Rigpa Centres following the revelations of abuses by Sogyal Lakhar, his intention is to clarify “the misunderstandings and misapprehensions about the Vajrayana that were exposed by the Vajrayana guru-related scandals of the 2010s.” (Poison is Medicine; vii) By “scandals”, I presume he means “abuses.” However, with statements such as the following, I question what clarity can result:
“Do you recognize the limitations of reason and logic? Do you accept that empiricism is subjective? Do you trust that what lies beyond reasoning and logic is more than the inspiration to write a poem or the feeling of falling in love? Are you strongly attracted to the state in which nothing makes sense? Do you accept that a state that makes no sense cannot truly be attained by using drugs and alcohol? Have you temporarily experienced that drug-induced state and found it not enough? Do you long to go beyond, once and for all, never again to become entangled in definitions? If you do, then the Vajrayana is for you.” (Ibid; pp 140-141)
In my own experience, I began my Buddhist journey “strongly attracted to the state in which nothing makes sense.” I had powerful experiences, went weak at the knees when my guru was around, and longed to “go beyond.” In Western terms, I was a “born-again” Buddhist. In Buddhist terms, I was ignorant, lacking basic knowledge of the Dharma. In the end, I wasn’t even sane and harm resulted to those closest to me. It wasn’t until I turned to a daily dose of “reason and logic,” studying the Buddhist canon from the perspectives of both the Kangyur and Tengyur, that I regained my sanity and clarity of mind.
So when I read statements such as that one, I recoil. The Dharma’s strength is that it does not require us to rely on born-again experiences or blind faith. Everything can be unpacked—and every word of the Buddha has been unpacked by such scholars as Nagarjuna and other masters of the Tengyur. And discernment and reason are critical tools. Yes, eventually we have to leave it all behind, leave the boat, but we cannot leave the boat until it has safely brought us to shore. Safely.
Does the Vajrayana Need to Be Changed?
A central thesis of this text is that there are essential truths spoken by the Buddha that cannot be altered. That while the trappings, language and cultural contexts can be changed to improve students’ understanding—and DK has much to say about both Tibetan and Western trappings—the Buddha’s core teachings cannot be changed. DK expresses a concern several times that students are asking for the Vajrayana to be “changed” in order for abuses to end. He says “Throughout this exercise, the basic teaching that everything is a deity cannot and must not be changed.” (Ibid, p. 38)
I myself have never asked for the “Vajrayana to be changed.” Practices of pure perception and tantric commitments are important. However, they have to be upheld in a manner that is coherent and consistent with the essential Buddhist outlook- in a manner that doesn’t cause harm or fly against reason. I don’t pretend to be qualified to suggest how that might be envisioned, which is why I have quoted from the Dalai Lama below.
DK claims, as an example of those words of the Buddha that cannot be changed: “The Vajradhara – the name Vajrayana students use for the Buddha – said that everything is a deity. From the bubbles on the surface of a pond to a snow mountain, from a maggot to the family who lives in Buckingham Palace, everything is a deity, including you, the practitioner.”
And he then goes further to write, “The Vajradhara repeated again and again that, having made all the proper preparations and received the highest tantric teachings from your Vajrayana guru, you must not only see her as the Buddha, but she must be even more important to you than the Buddha. And as your guru is the Buddha, you must do whatever she says. “ (Ibid; p. 38)
I am accustomed these days to sources being provided for all claims of what the Buddha or other masters have said. Did the Vajrayadhara/Buddha actually say that? Where, when? Or is it an instruction within a tantra? Which tantra? I am also accustomed to the words of the Buddha being unpacked, often by the great masters of the Tengyur and then maybe by contemporary teachers. I am aware, and DK does discuss this, that within the secretive Vajrayana, in a writing such as his addressed to a general audience, it is not possible for him to be too clear about tantric sources, impossible for direct quotes or advanced practice instructions etc., In fact, he admits that some things he says here about the Vajrayana will necessarily be a little vague.
Nonetheless, it leaves me uncomfortable. One of the greatest features of Buddhism is that it demands of students more than just blind faith. More than just saying “the Buddha says” and following blindly. We don’t just repeat, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” over and over. We engage with it dynamically, unpack it with reasonings provided by such masters as Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti. We realize that emptiness might not be simply a “paradox” of things appearing out of nothing, as DK insists over and over in Poison is Medicine. It might be a coherent and beautiful example of dependent origination. For example, Nagarjuna writes:
“Whatever is dependently originatedNagarjuna, Mulamadyamakakarika Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way; Ch. XXIV, Verses 18-19
That is explained to be emptiness.
That being a dependent designation
Is itself the middle way.
Since there is no phenomena
That is not dependently originated,
There is no phenomena
That is not empty of inherent existence.”
The beauty of this view of dependent origination for myself is that it maintains a coherent and fluid dynamic between conventional and ultimate truth, one with deepening levels of subtlety that correspond to practice. We can view it in terms of cause and effect, then in terms of dependence on parts, then in terms of dependence on a designated basis. And then Chandrakirti unpacks Nagarjuna, Tsongkhapa unpacks Chandrakirti, the goal being not to change the teachings but to clarify them.
Is “Paradox” The Best Way to View Emptiness?
Because of this, I was surprised (and confused) to read DK use Nagarjuna to support his view of emptiness as being a paradox. He writes:
“Nagarjuna tells us that, long ago, having transcended belief himself, the Buddha gave his quintessential teachings about how to shrug belief off altogether. To go beyond belief, without exaggerating the absolute truth or underestimating the relative truth, is the goal of the Buddhist path. I wonder if Stephen Batchelor’s reluctance to accept the notion of reincarnation is a symptom of having underestimated the relative truth. Such an underestimation is equivalent to the MIT physicist throwing away his son’s panda. If Buddhist practitioners continue to underestimate the relative truth and overestimate the absolute truth, it will become impossible for them to go beyond Buddhist beliefs altogether.
“It seems to me that most of the great Indian thinkers of the past, especially the Buddha, saw everything as a paradox. A number of western thinkers would probably agree, but only to a point. As far as I can tell, only the Buddha taught an entire range of techniques to help us live with and enjoy paradox, and to prevent us from preferring one side of a contradiction to the other.
“I would like to stress and repeat once again that Buddha taught in paradoxes because everything is paradoxical.” (Ibid p. 95)
I am no Buddhist scholar—and it’s well beyond my abilities to question his understanding of Nagarjuna—but this is a very different understanding of Nagarjuna’s perspective than any I have received and I don’t really understand what it means. Nonetheless, this view of emptiness as “paradox” perhaps explains some of the interactions I see between DK and his students, where he tries to turn moral values and perspectives on their head (a paradox), where he challenges students to exist in a sort of groundlessness (something that I would see as “underestimating the relative truth” and he clearly does not)
“Paradox” suggests an experience where reasoning and discernment have broken down. Where coherence has broken down. Indeed, a person I engaged with on the blog in response to my last article on DK’s approaches claimed that Vajra hell is described “as being caught up in reason and logic that keeps you out of realizing the truth”
And DKR writes:
“Only the Vajrayana teaches a genuine appreciation of the paradoxical fully and painlessly.” (Poison is Medicine p. 97)
“But to practice the Vajrayana properly we must be ready and willing to let go of old ideas and values and have the courage not to get stuck in the rational world. It’s like the difference between drinking just enough wine to get pleasantly tipsy but in control and throwing all caution to the wind and getting completely sloshed. By the time your wish to shrug Samsara off has passed the point of no return, your Vajrayana practice will no longer involve self-flagellation or penance of any kind, it will just be blissful.” (Ibid p. 140)
And What About Bodhicitta?
I also found in Poison is Medicine very little emphasis on the vital role that bodhicitta plays in Vajrayana practice, the need to generate bodhicitta and have a stable practice of (conventional) bodhicitta as a foundation for Vajrayana practice. This is very different from the coherent fabric of Nagarjuna’s reasoning in his Commentary on the Awakening Mind where he states in the introduction:
“Those bodhisattvas who practice by means of the secret mantra, after having generated awakening mind in terms of its conventional aspect in the form of an aspiration, must [then] produce the ultimate awakening mind through the force of meditative practice. I shall therefore explain its nature.”
I mention this only because that stable mind of bodhicitta is another means by which students navigate safely within advanced practices, safe from extremes.
However, to be fair, DK does speak clearly in this text about no-harm. There are several clear statements such as this throughout the text:
“If a tantric guru abuses a sentient being spiritually, emotionally, physically or sexually, or harms anyone in any way, he is not only breaking the Shravaka and Mahayana vows, but also the Vajrayana vows. An authentic tantric or Vajrayana guru is supposed to love and care for each disciple as if they were her only child.” (Poison is Medicine, p. 181)
Pure Perception Goes Beyond the Boundaries of a Country’s Legal System
He also clarifies his stance on crazy wisdom, using a similar metaphor to the one I used in my last article:
“Unless we can perform miracles, like Virupa, Guru Padma- sambhava or Khandro Yeshe Tsogyal, we are all bound by causes and conditions, and therefore subject to the laws of the land. Crazy wisdom does not give gurus free license to do whatever they like, nor does it say that if both guru and student are consenting adults, what happens between them is their business. The guru and student are free to choose the course of their relationship within the boundaries of their country’s legal system. Even so, the practices of pure perception and obedience to the guru go far beyond all that.” (Ibid p. 158)
I was happy to read that he wasn’t pushing crazy wisdom. His admiration for Chogyam Trungpa and many of his statements, with gurus drinking bourbon and teasing princesses etc., have not made that so clear. However, the last sentence in the quote above is ominous!
In fact, this is the main point. I and other Rigpa students sat through many teachings listening to Sogyal Lakhar publicly humiliate other students. Compassion in his words, harm in his actions. We said nothing. Even for those who had not taken a vow of pure perception, there was a culture of pure perception and when my 16 year old daughter complained to me about Sogyal Lakhar’s behavior, to my shame, I told her that we could not judge how he “worked” with his senior students. This was a complete turn-around from the values I had upheld as her mother. Within such a culture, it is hard to measure the extent of potential harm.
And DK commends Trungpa Rinpoche’s unique techniques:
“It bugs me that more is being said about Trungpa Rinpoche’s eccentric behaviour than his courageous and inventive approach to teaching Americans. Just as parents spend hours talking baby- talk with their new-born babies, Trungpa Rinpoche willingly absorbed as much as he could of American culture and then tried to communicate with his American students on their level. How many other lamas have even made the attempt?”
There is a strange dynamic within Poison is Medicine that on one hand, DK encourages us to “analyse, analyse analyse” a teacher before committing to the Vajrayana path—and he also commends the analytical faculties of many Western students– but in the same text he extols those who wish to leave the “rational world behind,” commends teachers who talk to them in ‘baby-talk’ and condemns reasoning himself:
“Analyse the guru, do a thorough background check and test his reactions to awkward situations, even if that means purposefully annoying or contradicting him privately and publicly. You should also ask yourself how serious you are about learning to think outside the samsaric box. How serious are you about learning how to think differently? Only those of you who have genuinely set your hearts on learning how to transform how you think should even consider setting foot on the tantric path.”(Ibid p. 173)
This statement is an oxymoron. In the same breath that we are told to analyze, we are told that the tools of analysis are to be left behind. And no mention is made of the qualifications a guru should exhibit.
And this is my concern. Unless we have a strong foundation in—yes!— reasoning and discernment, unless we’re prepared to unpack the teachings with those tools, then there is no way that we can possibly assess a teacher and his/her teachings– or understand the purpose of the practices we are engaged in, practices such as pure perception.
Following are the Dalai Lama’s perspectives on this.
The Dalai Lama on Pure Perception 1982
“The practice of guru yoga means that one ignores any negative traits that the guru may seem to have, and that one meditates upon his or her positive qualities. If we can develop the habit of always seeing the guru through his or her good qualities, our confidence naturally grows, and eventually we become able to take our preconceptions about faults he or she seems to display and transform them into spiritually useful tools. Perceptions of faults in the guru should not cause us to feel disrespect, for by demonstrating faults to us, the guru is actually showing us what we should abandon. At least this is the most useful attitude for us to take. An important point here is that the disciple must have a spirit of sincere inquiry and must have clear rather than blind, devotion.
“It is frequently said that the essence of the training in guru yoga is to cultivate the art of seeing everything the guru does as perfect. Personally, I myself do not like this to be taken too far. Often we see written in the scriptures, ‘Every action seen as perfect.’ However, this phrase must be seen in the light of Buddha Shakyamuni’s own words: ‘Accept my teachings only after examining them as an analyst buys gold. Accept nothing out of mere faith in me.’ The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns into poison for both the guru and the disciple. Therefore, whenever I teach this practice, I always advocate that the tradition of ‘every action seen as perfect’ not be stressed. Should the guru manifest un-Dharmic qualities or give teachings contradicting Dharma, the instruction on seeing the spiritual master as perfect must give way to reason and Dharmic wisdom …
“The disciple must always keep reason and knowledge of Dharma as principle guidelines. Without this approach, it is difficult to digest one’s Dharma experiences. Make a thorough examination before accepting someone as a guru, and even then, follow that teacher within the conventions of reason as presented by the Buddha.” (The Dalai Lama and Glen Mullin, The Path to Enlightenment; pp 70-72)
The Dalai Lama on Pure Perception 2018
And here, in a recent text, after devoting some pages to explaining the benefits of the general practice of seeing the teacher as a Buddha, in the context of focusing on his good qualities and perhaps learning from his bad, even outside of tantric practice, and then addressing some problems of abuse within Western Dharma centres, His Holiness states:
“Some texts make statements such as, ‘See all actions of your spiritual mentor as perfect’ and ‘follow your mentors’ instructions exactly with complete devotion.’ These statements are made within the context of highest yoga tantra and apply to exceptional cases in which both the spiritual master and the disciple are highly qualified—for example, Tilopa and his disciple Naropa and Marpa and his disciple Milarepa. If we are the not the caliber of Naropa and our mentor does not have the qualities of Tilopa, these statements can be greatly misleading. Hearing stories of Tilopa’s seemingly abusive treatment of Naropa—instructing him to jump off a cliff and so forth—and Marpa instructing Milarepa to build some buildings and then tear them down, some people think that following their teachers’ instructions includes allowing themselves to be abused. This is not the case at all! Marpa told Milarepa, ‘Do not treat your students like I treated you or the way the great Naropa treated me. Such practice should not be continued in the future.’ This is because it is very rare to find both a teacher and a disciple who have realizations comparable to those great masters.
“I have had many teachers whom I value greatly, but I cannot accept seeing all their actions as perfect. When I was in my teens, my two regents fought with each other in a power struggle that involved the Tibetan army. When I sat on my meditation seat, I felt both teachers were extremely kind and had profound respect for them: their disagreements did not matter. But when I had to deal with the difficulties caused by their dissension, I said to them, ‘What you are doing is wrong!’ I did not speak out of hatred or disrespect, but because I love the Buddhadharma, and their actions went against it. I felt no conflict in loyalty by acting in this way. In our practice, we may view the guru’s behavior as that of a mahasiddha, but in the conventional world we follow the general Buddhist approach, and if a certain behavior is harmful, we should say so.
“The advice to see all the guru’s actions as perfect is not meant for general practitioners. Because it is open to misunderstanding, it can easily become poison for both mentors and students. Students naively whitewashing a teacher’s bad behavior by thinking anything the guru does must be good gives some teachers a free hand to misbehave. On the teacher’s part, poor behavior is tantamount to drinking the hot molten iron of the hellish states and it contributes to the degeneration of the Dharma in the world. Only in particular situations and to particular practitioners should it be taught that all the guru’s actions are perfect. Buddhism is based on reasoning and wisdom and must remain so.” (2018, Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron, The Foundation of Buddhist Practice; p 123-24)
Yes, “Buddhism is based on reasoning and wisdom and must remain so.” How else can the water be clarified?