This week we have a post by Joanne Clark.
One belief on Tahlia’s list of “Beliefs We Need to Examine” has spoken particularly strongly to me:
You must see your master as the Buddha if you want the blessings of the Buddha;
This belief pervades Tibetan Buddhist culture. I had received that instruction myself, first from Sogyal Lakhar and later in a Kagyu monastery, years before I had even received a teaching on the Four Noble Truths. I had also heard the story of the woman who achieved realization as a result of praying to a dog’s tooth while believing that it was the tooth of the Buddha. Both teachings convey the idea that faith alone is sufficient to attain blessings and even realizations, that Buddha has that power through faith alone, like the power of Jesus Christ.
But this does not seem consistent with the Buddha’a teachings. In Vajrayana, seeing the master as a Buddha has a specific meaning and purpose, one that is profound and never divorced from discerning wisdom. However, when it is practiced without the necessary understanding and wisdom of discernment, then all of that meaning and purpose are lost—and dangerous abuses can easily occur.
About ten years ago, there was a big earthquake in Tibet. Some monasteries were destroyed and lives were lost. It was a terrible tragedy. During a broadcast interview of a Tibetan woman at the scene, she repeated several times the idea that they were waiting for the “living Buddha” to arrive and help. In her grief, that anticipation seemed to be the one thing that mattered to her. “The living Buddha is coming,” she said.
Shortly after, I heard that a teacher I knew had travelled to the scene. He was a renowned lama connected to one of the monasteries. Here in the West, some thought he was a crazy wisdom lama. There were stories about his unusual antics. The first time I met him, he smelled of smoke and alcohol and he could be pretty brutal to some of us as well. I wondered if he was the living Buddha?
Certainly, in the midst of tragedy, faith is a tremendous help, so I would never want to suggest that this woman’s faith was misguided. Nor can I judge who is and who isn’t a living Buddha. Faith gives us hope. I also have prayed simple prayers of faith to the Buddhas during my journey through trauma. But how far do we let simple faith go?
Some years ago, I visited a website of a well-known lama. There was a banner running across his homepage which read “If you see the lama as a Buddha, you will receive the blessings of a Buddha. If you see the lama as an ordinary being, you will receive the blessings of an ordinary being.” In light of the fact that this was the first page someone would find who might be just exploring the dharma for the first time, this was strange. It seemed no different than visiting the homepage of a Christian leader, with a banner that instructed followers to take Jesus Christ as their savior—except that Jesus Christ isn’t a man who could enter one’s bedroom some night.
When Milarepa was giving parting advice to his chief disciple Gampopa, he had this to say about seeing the lama as a Buddha:
“You can start to teach and spread the Dharma when you behold and stabilize the realization of Mind-Essence. In time you will see it more clearly, which will be quite a different experience from those you are having now. Then you will see me as the perfect Buddha Himself. This deep and unshakable conviction will grow in you. Then you may start to teach.” (The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa; translated by Garma Chang; p. 490-491)
In Milarepa’s perspective here, the experience of seeing the guru as a Buddha is the result of advanced realization and wisdom—not as something taken on as an early, naïve belief, not something separate from practice and wisdom—Milarepa doesn’t even present it as an instruction, but as a realization. This is an important distinction.
In Precious Garland, Nagarjuna wrote:
“4. High status is considered to be happiness,
Definite goodness is liberation.
The quintessence of their means
Is briefly faith and wisdom.
“5. Due to having faith one relies on the practices,
Due to having wisdom one truly knows.
Of these two wisdom is the chief,
Faith is its prerequisite.” (Precious Garland, First Chapter)
Nagarjuna is clear. We cannot have faith in the absence of wisdom and it helps to know the purpose for having faith. We can have beliefs and they are necessary, as long as they do not compromise our discernment, wisdom and practice, as long as we aren’t blinded by them and led astray by them. Simple, yes, but I think in practice it is not so simple, especially in the Vajrayana and for those of us who come from Judeo-Christian cultures. There is very little space between the instruction of seeing the master as a Buddha and the born-again experience of a Christian.
In a recent publication, HH Dalai Lama referred to the story of the woman who prayed to the dog’s tooth in a discussion on excessive faith. He wrote:
“It is easy to conclude from this story that blind faith is necessary on this path. This is clearly contrary to the Buddha’s emphasis on developing discriminating wisdom. I do not see much point in this story and propose, replacing it with the following, a more suitable account to illustrate the benefit of having confidence in the Three Jewels.
“Two or three centuries ago, a great teacher and sincere practitioner named Togyen Lama Rinpoche lived in Tibet. He had a small clay image of Tsongkhapa on his carefully tended altar. One day, due to Togyen Lama’s genuine practice and heartfelt aspirational prayers, that image of Tsongkhapa actually spoke and gave teachings to him. This came about not from the side of the statue but mainly due to Togyen Lama’s excellent practice. Due to his spiritual experiences and confidence in Tsongkhapa, this clay image became the real Tsongkhapa and spoke to him. However, for ordinary people who lack that kind of spiritual experience and faith, the statue just looked like clay.” (The Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron, Approaching the Buddhist Path; p. 140).
Once again, in this story of strong faith, it is not separated from practice or discernment. Faith strengthens the practitioner’s wisdom—the statue is perceived to give teachings, not just blessings.
Thirty years ago, HH the Dalai Lama made a strong statement about the dangers of instructing students to see the guru as a perfect Buddha and sacrificing discernment to do so. These words are still relevant:
“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; but personally, I myself do not like this to be taken too far. Often we see written in the scriptures, ‘Every action seen as perfect,’ but 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 for me.’ The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple…” (Essence of Refined Gold, Commentary by Tenzin Gyatso; p.54).
And later, he made an ominous warning:
“As for the guru, if he misrepresents this precept of guru-yoga in order to take advantage of his naïve disciples, his actions are like pouring the liquid fires of hell directly into his stomach.” (p.55)
And he spoke about pure perception:
“The disciple must always keep reason and his knowledge of the Dharma as principal 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 him within the conventions of reason as presented by Buddha. The teachings on seeing the guru’s actions as perfect should largely be left for the practice of highest tantra, wherein they take on a new meaning. One of the principal yogas in the tantric vehicle is to see the world as a mandala of great bliss and to see oneself and all others as Buddhas. Under these circumstances it becomes absurd to think that you and everyone else are Buddhas, but your guru is not!” (Essence of Refined Gold; Commentary by pp. 55-56)
So these beliefs do serve a purpose, as with the woman after the earthquake described above, but more particularly in the Vajrayana and even more so in Dzogchen. When we sit on the cushion, there is a purpose to viewing the lama as the Buddha, a purpose that increases the power of devotion and does not skew our critical awareness. There is a purpose to pure perception off the cushion for the practice of highest yoga tantra. There are many statements from Dzogchen masters about the importance of strong devotion in order to practice Dzogchen. It is essential for the introduction to the mind’s nature.
The vital point being made in all of these statements is that the practice of seeing the lama as a Buddha is an advanced Vajrayana practice and it does not mean that we give away our capability of seeing truth clearly as a result of that practice. It is not a blinker. If the lama is abusing students, then these are not the practices of a Buddha. To say that they are the practices of a Buddha—because we are training to see the lama as Buddha—is to sacrifice our discernment and decency. That is blind faith and never a Buddhist practice.
Blind faith is a linear perspective, which sees reality in black and white, simplistic terms. Blind faith cannot allow for troublesome conflicts of interest or complicated realities. For example, how can Rigpa students account for the fact that the lama they perceive as Buddha himself, the lama who has brought them teachings and profound experiences, is behaving like a cruel criminal? Blind faith would say to simply deny reality, blinker the truth.
But Rigpa students can only truly account for the situation through a discerning wisdom capable of seeing a many dimensioned, complex and murky reality—difficult as that is. The challenge of balancing the perception of Sogyal Lakhar, a deeply flawed man who has abused students and must account for his misdeeds in courts of law, with the perception of Sogyal Rinpoche, the lama who brought the Dharma into their lives and whom they have perceived as a Buddha, is huge. Certainly, to acknowledge these two realities in one mind is difficult or impossible for most. But for Rigpa students who have been practicing Vajrayana for many years with Sogyal Lakhar, discounting those years of practice is not tenable either—but nor is it tenable to ignore the harm being caused to themselves and others. I think everyone is seeking their own way of moving forward through this murkiness. For myself, like many other ex-Rigpa, cautions about devotion and viewing the lama as a Buddha are burned into me after years of struggle. In my opinion, teachers and students of Vajrayana in the West must acknowledge the murky terrain we are on if Vajrayana is to survive in the West.
Thanks for your thoughts Joanne.
Another post on the topic of seeing one’s teacher as a Buddha can be read here https://whatnow727.wordpress.com/2017/10/04/are-vajrayana-teachers-really-buddhas/
In that post I draw on Alexander Berzin’s writing on the matter, writing that I highly recommend.https://studybuddhism.com/en/advanced-studies/lam-rim/student-teacher-relationship/seeing-the-spiritual-teacher-as-a-buddha/is-the-guru-really-a-buddha
“The sole purpose of viewing the teacher as a buddha is so we can see these same awakened qualities in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us. It is a tool that helps us to gain confidence in the purity of our true nature.” Minguyr Rinpoche. Lions Roar, Sept 24th 2017
The instruction that we should see our teacher as a buddha if we want the blessings of a buddha is clearly problematic in a world where teachers cannot be trusted to behave as decent human beings, so how are we to practice this under these cricumstances?
Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our Secret What Now Facebook Group. It is only for current and previous students of Rigpa, however, and we do moderate it closely. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
People from other sanghas can join the Dharma Friends Beyond the Temple Facebook Group . It’s a support group for anyone who has left their Buddhist sangha after hearing revelations of abuse by their teacher or after experiencing such abuse. It’s for people who see ethical behaviour, love, compassion and introspection as the core of their spiritual path. The aim of the group is to support each other in our spiritual journey wherever it takes us. Click here and request to join.
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
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