Vajrayana Buddhism issues abound and if you’ve been around a Tibetan Buddhist sangha for any time, you may have heard a teacher talk about the supremacy of the Vajrayana, how it’s the fastest path, has the most skilful means, is for students of the greatest capacity and so on. If we heard someone from another religion talk like this, we’d probably scoff, so is this kind of arrogance something we should buy into? And if we do, what are the results, apart from soothing our ego by making us feel that we’re on the one right path?
The following quote, written by one of the members of the Beyond the Temple Facebook group, inspired this post.
I’m going back to so-called Basics. The 4 Noble Truths, the Noble 8 fold path. I’ve already decided it’s well worth focusing on that for me. The Noble Eight Fold Path is full of suggestions and statements that are more than enough for me to validly follow and see how that works (not just read about and then move on to ‘posher’ ‘clever’ stuff.)
Surely it’s all meant to be about doing It – walking your talk. And if anyone tries to tell me I’m not Buddhist because I reject the clever, complicated Vajrayana practices etc, that’s their problem. I wonder if sometimes people simply (not that simply) just try to do too much and get scattered and forget the really crucial stuff like right speech etc etc. It leads them away from the well-being of all, including themselves, despite their good motivation. And teachers should help remind them when they go down a wrong, time-wasting or unkind side alley. I am not trying to tell a teacher what their remit is, but surely that is blindingly obvious.Beyond the Temple member
These kinds of thoughts and approach to their spiritual path moving forward are shared by many ex-students of abusive vajrayana teachers and their cults. Below I pull out the main points and expand on them.
Many paths, all valid
- The Buddha taught many paths to suit different kinds of people. All are complete paths and all lead to liberation – why would he have taught anything less? If you look closely, you’ll see that all the Buddha’s teachings are contained in the foundation yana in an implicit way if not explicit. Later teachings – if they are genuinely Buddhist – simply build on what’s there. Any Buddhist path is as good as any other Buddhist path.
- The idea that the vajrayana is somehow better than other forms of Buddhism is just arrogance, and yet that’s what we were taught. Such elitism – the idea that vajrayana is the best/fastest/most skilful path – is common in cults, and is as ridiculous as saying that the Christian or any other religion is the best one. The idea that it’s faster is misleading since if it isn’t the right path for you, then you may just be wasting your time, and if you have an abusive guru, then vajrayana will bring you more harm than good.
- Vajrayana arrogance leads to people not paying enough attention to the foundation teachings on which vajrayana is supposedly built. They skip over it or give lip service to it, but don’t actually study and put into practice things like the 10 negative actions to be avoided. If they had done that work, they would be able to discern right from wrong action and never consider that the kind of abuse we saw in Rigpa was anything other than wrong action. A house without a strong foundation will eventually fall down, and isn’t that what we’ve seen here with this massive failure of vajrayana to uphold even a basic ethical stance?
- What use is the study and practice of a path that supposedly teaches wisdom and compassion if it doesn’t lead to followers living the teachings and becoming genuinely good people?
- Isn’t it better to follow a simple path that leads you to be a genuinely good person than to follow a complex one where you get confused about what is right conduct?
Is vajrayana Buddhism truly Buddhism?
After the rose-coloured glasses fell from my eyes in the wake of the revelations of Sogyal Lakar’s abuse, I saw how wafting off into vajrayana land of rainbow light and mantras had resulted not in wiser and more compassionate people, but in minds and eyes closed to the truth of what was actually happening before them. Like the commenter above – and many others – I decided that the most important thing in life was not to follow a complex spiritual regime, but to actually be a good person.
It seemed bizare to me that teachings full of compassion and wisdom could have led to such a result, and I wondered just how far Rigpa had departed from what the Buddha actually taught. To find out, I spent some time looking at the Buddha’s earliest teachings, and some of what I found made it look as if vajrayana wasn’t even Buddhist. Certainly the Tibetan emphasis on unquestioning devotion and ritual seemed the opposite of what the Buddha taught.
The Buddha before Buddhism
One of the books I read was The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings by Gil Fronsdal. It’s a translation of one of the earliest of all Buddhist texts, the Atthakavagga, or Book of Eights, which comes from the earliest strain of Buddhist literature, before the Buddha came to be thought of as a ‘Buddhist’. The approach to awakening laid out in the Book of Eights is incredibly simple and free of adherence to any kind of ideology. Instead of doctrines to be believed, it describes means for realizing peace that bring genuine results to those who live by them.
What may be perplexing to many is that the Book of Eights does not espouse a religious doctrine that exists in opposition to other doctrines. Nor does it put forth a teaching that is meant to be seen as superior to other teachings. In a manner that challenges the religious beliefs of many people – including many Buddhists – the test explicity denies the role of ultimate religious “truth” and “knowledge” in attaining personal peace.Gil Frondsdal. The Buddha before Buddhism
Truth or arrogance?
Of course those who like to maintain that the Mahayana and Vajrayana are superior to the early teachings of the Buddha on the basis that the attainment of ‘peace’ is not full enlightenment will scoff at this simply for the use of the word ‘peace’, but really, why would the peace the Buddha referred to in the first turning teachings be anything other than the peace of full enlightenment? If he was enlightened, why would he teach a path that lead anywhere less than the full state of enlightenment? That idea simply doesn’t make sense. And the Buddha would agree that we shouldn’t accept something as truth just because some lama says so!
Nothing basic about the basics
How does following the ‘best’, ‘the fastest’, or the ‘most skilful’ path that requires us to sit on our bums for hours spacing off in a rainbow realm help us if we can’t even follow the noble eightfold path? ( Right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditative absorption.) And let’s be honest here, can you? Do you? I certainly don’t. I have plenty to work on without falling for the ‘enlightenment-in-one-life-time’ hook. I’m not saying I didn’t benefit from vajrayana, I did, a lot, but I still have to come back to earth and live the teachings in the real world, and what does that come down to? Following the eightfold path!
There is nothing basic about the Buddhist basics and nothing simplistic about their simplicity. The point is that you can have the teachings and practice the practice without all the bullshit. These days, there are so many books and talks and videos around, that you don’t even need to go anywhere near a physical teacher. Like with husbands, you’re better off with none than with a bad one.
I find it very useful to have a valid, real-live teacher, but if I feel a need to see him/her too often, that may be a danger sign – for me anyway. It shouldn’t be necessary really.Beyond the Temple member
What do you think?
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If you’d like a more private place to chat about your ongoing spiritual path after you’ve left an abusive community, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group. This group is for people who don’t want to talk about abuse, but want to keep in touch and share their discoveries, inspiration and challenges as they move on with their lives.
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