Vajrayana Buddhism Issues – Arrogance

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?
Leave your comment below.

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19 Replies to “Vajrayana Buddhism Issues – Arrogance”

  1. So refreshing! Needed this today.
    Let’s cut the BS and elitism and get back to basics.
    Thank you so much.
    Off to meditate. See ya!

  2. Tahlia makes good points – but – my feeling is that when Vajrayana ‘goes wrong’ it’s because it’s in the wrong hands. In other words – dependant on who’s teaching. In the hands of a selfless, non-ego’d person it can be all one could hope for. In the wrong hands – we’ll, it’s all documented.

    1. Yes, it’s so much up to the teacher as to the kind of emphasis they put on certain things and also what attitude they foster in their students.

  3. The late Ian Maxwell often highlightened that topic of overbording ambition to get to the Vajrayana-Teachings, and he once said: “The best way to go fast is to go deep.” I liked that quote.

    1. Ian said a lot of good things. The one I always remember is ‘It’s not about being a good little Buddhist.’

  4. Great points, Tahlia!
    And this new blog looks good, is easy to read, and the comments section is easy to reply in. Nice job.

  5. the notion of a quick way to enlightenment in this lifetime is a great hook. I think all the traditions have some measure of snobbery, “ours is better than theirs”. But awakening happens across traditions and in lots of different ways including unrelated to spiritual practice, such as near-death experiences.

    I think retreats are powerful for practice, and my personal preference is for less talk and more silent contemplation. I’m not necessarily even wedded to the exact practice employed during a silent retreats. Mind you, I still LOVE a good dharma talk.

    Anyway, I’ll just mention something which I think is interesting. A zen teacher, Shinzen Young, was asked if there was a sure fire way to enlightenment. He said ‘strong determination’ sitting is very powerful. Now this is not for the faint-hearted and one should always be careful with any intensive meditation practice, but this practice basically means, getting yourself as comfortable as possible, and then meditating without moving (unless you are in significant pain and possibly damaging yourself of course). Try doing that for an hour!

  6. I’d like to something here in defense of Vajrayana. While it’s true that some of the Western practitioners (so-called) of Vajrayana that I’ve met have been incredibly haughty, smug, and unkind, some others have also been among the kindest and most humble and down-to-earth people I know. Good teachers will set the right tone for practice, and the very best of them will correct any tendencies we may have toward arrogance, if they see that we’re unable to do that for ourselves.

    1. Absolutely. I didn’t mean this to be a blanket criticism of vajrayana, rather just of this attitude of arrogance that some teachers propagate. Certianly Sogyal did, and you can see the arrogance in how DZK puts down Western mindfulness practices and psychotherapy.

  7. Here’s a link to an excellent article that gives some further depth to this issue – thanks Kevin for pointing this out to me. The article reminds me that it’s not just Tibetan Buddhism that suffers from arrogance over their style of Buddhism.

    Knowing the history also relieves us from accepting anything in Mahayana and Vajrayana just ‘because it’s Buddhism’. Knowing that these are later developments made by people who lived long after the Buddha died puts things into a realistic perspective. Regardless of whether or not you take the Mahayana and Vajrayana as ‘Buddhism’, the important point I think is to only take things as wisdom and something to follow after we have truly evaluated. As the Buddha said. ‘Do not accept any of my words on faith, believing them just because I said them.’

    And don’t accept as fact stories like the one of the Buddha reappearing in a sambogakaya form to teach the Vajrayana. It could be just a story someone made up that was then widely spread because it was a convenient answer to a difficult question, ie how is this Buddhism? Now we tend to take this story as proof that what we’re learning is Buddhism, but is it proof? And does it matter if it’s Buddhism or not?

    What matters I think is as the Buddha said, ‘when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.” Kalama Sutta.

    The actual teachings of the Buddha – as close as we can get to them – do have a wonderful logic, pragmatism and freedom from bs that is very appealing for many walking away from a vajrayana disaster area.

    1. That was an excellent article by Rita Gross — brilliant, actually! Thanks for providing the link to that.

  8. Your article really resonated with me, as I’ve basically drawn the same conclusions as you in regards to Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism, the latter of which could more aptly be called, Lamaism.

    I think a lot of spiritually insecure people explore Eastern mysticism and tend to think that without a qualified “guru”, they won’t be able to mature, spiritually. All this is exacerbated, especially in Lamaism, with this notion of lineages. How quickly the guru/disciple relationship turns into a narcissist/sycophant one, and then what you have is not Buddhism but what would be more akin to an initiatory cult.

    I feel sorry for people who follow these paths, especially the ones who are genuine truth seekers. I think a lot of people in general, when approaching Buddhism, think it’s all Bodhi trees, mala beads and lotus flowers. Buddhism is serious, serious business, especially at the later stages, when the adept is becoming aware of sunyata of both the false self and phenomenon; i.e. realization of the dependently-originated self and phenomenon, the former of which is often referred to as ego death. This is where things can get ugly, especially when the teacher hasn’t realized the deathless body of the Buddha, or dharmakaya.

    Expedient means come in many forms, but unless again the teacher is fully realized and knows how to employ those skillful means (upaya), then after these experiences, what often happens is that the adept’s mind is literally traumatized, at which point that ego comes back, and the walls are far thicker than they were before. What’s worse is that many often think that they’ve somehow conquered something through these experiences, and you again have that ego coming back full force.

    It’s tricky business again, especially at the later stages, when one goes past any position of the mind and goes into the realm of the wordless dharma. It’s my contention that many of these so-called gurus really have no idea what they’re dealing with in this regard, and Buddha warns us about this in a few sutras, namely the Sutra of the Dharma Ending Age as well as the Shurangama.

    Living in this age of expediency does much harm to people, especially again those spiritually insecure who think of enlightenment as some kind of medallion they can wear around their neck for all to see. Pride is bad enough, but once you this is mixed in with spirituality, you’re dealing not with the teachings of Buddha, but that of Mara. Nothing clouds the awareness more quickly than this kind of pride.

    This is why, as you’ve pointed out in your article, the foundation is so extremely important. If the adept is not firmly grounded in those basic concepts, then they’re destined to fail miserably in the later stages. Many believe those concepts to be somewhat “obvious” and fail to really become aware of their profound implications, and I think this is especially true of the 8-fold Noble Path. It’s not just about how we conduct ourselves, but the effect it has on the mind as it progresses into the more subtle states of being.

    Anyway, thanks for the article. It was a great read.

    1. Thanks for your well considered comment.I agree that some of the lamas, even those who are actually learned, do not have the realisation necessary to guide others. Having the learning/words is better than nothing though. That’s how we learned dharma despite the failings of the man speaking them. We’re lucky that the genuine dharma is instilled into these guys when young through rote learning. The words themselves teach those who are ready for them.

      1. “Having the learning/words is better than nothing though.” I beg to differ. This may be true in a more academic setting, but when you’re dealing with spirituality, a certain “perfection” is required on the part of the teacher, or else they’ll be leading their followers astray. And it doesn’t really matter whether or not this is intentional on the part of the teacher. More than likely, given the kind of attention and adoration they receive from their followers, they start to believe that they really are spiritually gifted, special.

        There are certain litmus tests one can apply when discerning if a teacher is genuine in his approach in teaching Dharma -most notably, are they trying to make the student more dependent on them, or less dependent on them? If it’s the former, you’re more-than-likely dealing with a charlatan.

        I don’t really consider Tibetan Lamaism to be true Buddhism, especially with its adoption of Vajrayana and Shambhala. It’s a very “Judeo-Christian” form of Buddhism. Anytime you have this admixture of socio-political issues and religio-spiritual ones, the inevitably result is this sort of feudal, theocratic environment, giving these Lamas a very “privileged” place in society, using their “spiritual” reputations (reputations that they may not really have or deserve) as a way to control their people via their conscience, or spiritual insecurities.

        I think the Occident, especially since this whole New Age stuff started gaining traction, is especially susceptible to this, considering most here come from that Judeo-Christian background. I live in Colorado, and this place is heavily steeped with charlatans of all kinds. In Boulder, e.g. you have the Naropa University where drunkards like Chogyam Trungpa are esteemed as being spiritual leaders while they live lives of reckless abandon. Alan Watts was another New Age guru who albeit had some valuable insights, was wrong on some very fundamental aspects of The Way (read “Wayward Mysticism of Alan Watts”).

        I think a lot of this started in the 60’s when the government was conducting a lot of these macroscopic social experiments on the population, especially in relation to psychopharmacology. What you see know with the New Age stuff is just its logical progression into this pseudo-mysticism, and the way that Tibetan Buddhism has become the poster-child for this in the West gives a lot of people this impression that they’re dealing with some esoteric knowledge that only these exotic monks of the Orient know and can transmit to their followers. It’s the perfect combination for establishing another form of religious control, taking advantage of that most fundamental aspect of the human being.

        These people don’t want to give up their reputations as being “gurus”, nor do they want their followers to become independent of them. They give them just enough to satisfy their spiritual curiosities, without giving them any real insight or direction. Instead of meat, they throw them a bunch of dry bones.

        Maybe there are exceptions among them, but I have yet to find any, which leads me to the unfortunate conclusion that most, if not all of these Lamas conducting their business here in West are basically narcissistic charlatans who really have no idea what they’re dealing with, and it’s sad when you look at the faces of these people who have basically turned into sycophants, thinking they’re dealing with someone who genuinely cares about their spiritual maturity.

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