Following on our earlier post about the relationship between democracy and Vajrayana, we would like to examine more closely exactly what Vajrayana is as it remains the most widely misunderstood and misinterpreted form of Buddhism in the Western world.
Vajrayana encompasses two paths that complement each other, sutrayana and tantrayana. Sutrayana involves the study of the traditional sutras, the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuñi, which are found in all schools and traditions of Buddhism. The other path, tantrayana, employs teachings, practices and rituals that are passed directly from student to teacher. They are said to be self-secret, meaning that one cannot understand them without proper instruction and guidance from a qualified teacher who holds a direct lineage of transmission from master to student that extends back to the source of the tantra and who has himself or herself accomplished the teachings.
It should be noted that the tantra referred to here has nothing at all to do with the popular notion of “tantric sex”. This refers more to the Hindu form of tantra, which does have some superficial resemblance to Buddhist tantra but is essentially different. Buddhist tantra is about transforming our poisons (hatred, greed, ignorance) into enlightened mind (bodhicitta, generosity, wisdom). It accomplishes this by means that are outside of our normal, everyday dualistic way of thinking. At its core it employs what is known as Guru Yoga, devotion to one’s teacher. The student has complete confidence and faith in the ability of one’s teacher to lead him or her to enlightenment, so the student follows every instruction of the teacher as completely and perfectly as possible for the best result. In return, the teacher has a responsibility to the student to return lifetime after lifetime until the student achieves the result.
A key practice in Vajrayana is called the Four Purities, which involves seeing one’s own body as the body of the deity, seeing the external world as pure land or mandala of the deity, perceiving one’s happiness as the bliss of the deity, and performing all actions for the benefit of sentient beings (bodhicitta). Deity in this usage refers to the Vajrayana practice of visualizing deities that symbolically represent different aspects of enlightened mind, such as compassion . Through the visualization of oneself as the deity, the practitioner eventually arrives at the realization that the deity and the practitioner are essentially one, non-dual.
Much of the problem Westerners have with Vajrayana revolves around devotion to the guru and what we see as the surrendering of self to another, which has already been discussed in the previous post. But there are other problems unique to Western culture, much of which stems from the fact that Western culture is essentially theistic. No matter what religion we may be brought up in, nearly all of us grown up with a big dose of theism and a strong belief in the solidity of self and other. In other forms of Buddhism, such as Theravada and Mahayana, it is not difficult to see the Buddha as a sort of Eastern version of Jesus who came into the world to save mankind. But Vajrayana is decidedly at odds with this viewpoint. It is difficult for people reared on theism and the solidity of “reality” to relate to a nontheistic philosophy that calls into question the very solidity that we hold so dear and even suggests that “self” does not exist outside of our own mind. We are taught that all our perceptions, all the phenomena we experience are in reality nothing more than the dream fabric of the night. Many people find this very threatening and react strongly to it, at least initially. It takes a great deal of study and work to understand the meaning of these teachings, and in a society in which we want an easy solution to our problems, take a pill and feel better, this is often asking too much. Self-examination and perseverance are not qualities that are highly valued in the West generally. We are constantly being taught that all problems can be solved in 30 minutes just like in the sitcoms.
The importance of having a qualified teacher, however, remains crucial to the practice of Vajrayana. A qualified teacher is one who has attained the goal himself or herself and carries the lineage of transmission of the teachings. Without these two qualities, the teacher is of no benefit to the student. Therefore it is the responsibility of every student to ensure that he/she examine the qualities of the teacher, just as the teacher has a responsibility to examine the qualities of the student. Only when one is certain that the teacher carries the blessings of the lineage and embodies the qualities of a pure teacher should the student commit to that teacher. The stakes are too great to accept less.
Tibetan Buddhism as practiced today is a pluralistic spiritual system that encompasses a combination of effective methods for working directly with one’s own mind to create the conditions for one to realize or directly experience Buddhanature, the primal awareness common to all sentient beings that we call enlightenment. The basis for the method is the enlightenment state itself as opposed to the intellectual capacity of the Buddhist practitioner. The Teacher (or Guru or Lama), whether directly or through a monastic system or other community-like system, is responsible for guiding the student through the stages of the path utilizing transmissions or empowerments (rituals that stimulate the latent seed of enlightenment in one’s mindstream) and teachings on the meditation practices and activities that will result in the realization of enlightenment.
The manner of transmission followed by Tibetan Buddhists today is consistent with the tantric instructions of Padmasambahava, an Indian tantric master who, in the 8th century c.e., established the tantric form of Buddhism in Tibet that is practiced today. The Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism as it exists today is the direct descendent of the work of Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche (Precious Teacher). There was a period of time after Padmasambhava, roughly 100 years, when Buddhism was not allowed to be practiced in Tibet. As a consequence, the transmission continued in secret carried on by lay practitioners until conditions made it possible to reemerge. Tibetan Buddhism today is organized under four main schools: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelugpa. While there are minor differences in the manner in which Buddhism is practiced from school to school, these four schools represent a plurality of lineage through which the Buddhadharma is transmitted to the practitioner. Vajrayana depends on two sources of texts for its teacings, the kama, the original teachings of the Buddha with commentaries by later masters, and terma, revealed teachings originally hidden by Padmasambhava and his consort Yeshe Tsogyal intended for a later time when they would be appropriate.
Common among these schools of Tibetan Buddhism is the recognition of the “Tulku,” or Nirmanakaya form of the Buddha, who is considered an enlightened being who consciously takes rebirth in specific places and times in order to propagate the Buddhadharma and lead beings to enlightenment. A Tulku can only be recognized by a person with authority in a particular lineage. This was the case for Alyce Zeoli who was recognized by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche in 1986 as the reincarnation of Genyenma Ahkön Lhamo, the sister of Rigdzin Kunzang Sherab, the founder of the Palyul lineage of the Nyingma School, and a saint in her own right, and who was enthroned as a Palyul Tulku in 1988.
His Holiness Penor Rinpoche was the 11th Throneholder of the Palyul lineage, which began in 1665 based on the termas (hidden teachings) revealed by Tertön (treasure revealer) Migyur Dorje. The Palyul lineage is one of the six primary lineages that comprise the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism. His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, as the throne holder of the Palyul lineage, was fully authorized to recognize and enthrone Palyul lineage Tulkus such as Ahkön Lhamo. This recognition was unique, however, in that that she is a Western woman (the first to be recognized as a Tulku) and had not studied Buddhism formally before he recognized her. Even though she had no formal training, after consultation with others in his lineage who were also qualified to recognize an individual as a Tulku, His Holiness enthroned Alyce Zeoli giving her the name Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo. In doing so he stated that she was fully qualified to teach the Buddhadharma. Other than that, he did not give her other formal responsibilities in the Palyul lineage.
As Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo’s recognition illustrates, the basic function of lineage in Tibetan Buddhism is to instill confidence in the student that what the teacher is teaching is authentic and is something the student can trust and depend on in their spiritual quest. As such it also serves to protect and safeguard the original teachings against corruption and false teachers. Lineage also provides authority. The origin of any text used, or of meditation practices taught, can be traced back through the lineage to its enlightened source. This safeguards as much as possible the validity and potency to the transmission.
Lineage can also be described as a chain of unending blessings from enlightened mind to the individual practitioner. It is, therefore, the source of all the blessings that the student receives. Without it, there are no blessings and no authentic transmission of the Buddhadharma.
It should also be pointed out that lineage is also supremely important in the other schools of Buddhism, such as Theravada and Mahayana traditions. Although these traditions never developed a Tulku system, they do consider it vital to the integrity of their tradition to trace the lineage of their teachers directly back to the Buddha himself. Thus lineage is not something peculiar to Vajrayana only but a common thread in all schools of Buddhism.
Dzogchen Lineage, History of Nyingma http://www.dzogchenlineage.org/buddhism.html
The Institute of Tibetan Classics, Central Doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism http://www.tibetanclassics.org/doctrines1.html
The Refuge Tree http://www.khandro.net/TibBud_refugetrees.htm
Trungpa, Chögyam; The Mishap Lineage: Transforming Confusion into Wisdom, Shambhala Publications (2009)
Tibetan Lama.com http://tibetanlama.com/buddhism/buddhism_in_tibet.asp
Major Events in Tibetan Buddhism http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/tib_timeline.htm
Bill Cassidy (aka Tulku Tenpa, etc.) has now reached the acme of arrogance. He had the audacity to criticize Orgyen Dorje Den, Ven. Gyaltrul Rinpoche’s center in Alameda, California, for the way they handled the plans for Ven. Yangthang Tulku’s visit to confer the Rinchen Terdzod this November, which has been postponed. But then humility has never been one of Cassidy’s strong points.
The Rinchen Terdzod is a compendium of termas (hidden treasure teachings) compiled by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye (the Great) in the last three decades of the nineteenth century with the assistance of his teacher, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. It is the very heart of the Nyingma tradition and a living transmission of the Vajrayana path from beginning to completion, the fruit of 11 centuries of sublime teachers and tertöns (treasure revealers). It takes some four months to confer these precious empowerments, quite a strenuous feat for Yangthang Tulku Rinpoche, who is in his 80s, and a mark of the depth of his compassion. The Rinchen Terdzod has only been offered once before in the United States, in Maryland at Kunzang Palyul Chöling by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche in 1988 at the behest of Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo. That is how rare it is.
Ven. Yangthang Tulku is a precious living Buddha, a treasure in his own right, who spent 22 years in a Chinese jail where he was subjected to torture, all for the “crime” of being a Buddhist. In return he helped his fellow prisoners by offering them succor and guidance and performing the ritual of Phowa for those who died at the hands of the Chinese in order to guide their consciousness to the Pure Lands. Towards his captors he expressed only compassion and even became a spiritual advisor to some of his guards. Since his release he has continued to teach wherever he is needed, including several trips to the United States.
Ven. Gyaltrul Rinpoche is also a living treasure. He was asked by His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche to come to America to teach the Dharma back in the 1970s, and in 1980 he started Tashi Chöling in Oregon. He has dedicated his life to teaching the Dharma in a new land and is much revered by his students.
So who is Bill Cassidy to criticize these precious masters, which is what he is really doing? He’s a convicted felon and con man who pretends to be a tulku or Zen master or whatever his whim is at the moment. He knows nothing of the Dharma and uses it solely as a means of bilking unsuspecting Buddhists (who tend to be a trusting lot and thus easy marks) out of their hard earned cash. This is who has the utter gall to criticize real masters and to look down his (long) nose at them. He’s a NOBODY who has nothing to offer the world but poison. This is proof that he will stop at nothing to try to pull down the Dharma in the West and inject his poison into the minds of anyone unfortunate enough to encounter him.
The bestowal of the Rinchen Terdzod at Orgyen Dorje Den was intended to offer this powerful blessing to those who live on the West Coast of the United States. It is unfortunate that the event had to be postponed, and we pray that it will yet happen. Let us also pray that the toxic activities of gnawing rats like Bill Cassidy will never harm the activities of our precious teachers.