DEMOCRACY AND VAJRAYANA
There is a school of thought amongst a few Western Buddhists who think that devotion to the teacher should be replaced by some sort of democratic institution in which the role of the teacher is diminished to be replaced by the “collective wisdom of the sangha.” Much of this stems from an interview with Dungse Thinley Norbu published in Tricycle in 1996. Unfortunately, the interview was heavily edited and distorted Thinley Norbu Rinpoche’s intent, leaving a great deal of confusion and misinformation in the minds of many students who read the interview as it seems as though Rinpoche is dismissing Western ideas completely. The point of what Rinpoche actually said is that while democracy and Western philosophical and political legacies have value in a samsaric, ordinary sense, they should never be confused with the essence of the Dharma, nor can they replace the wisdom mind of the teacher who holds both lineage and realization. As he puts it, collecting the opinions of confused beings (in other words, all those who have not attained enlightenment) results in a larger heap of confusion. This is not a recipe for success on the path. Reliance upon a pure teacher who teaches pure Dharma has been proven again and again to result in realization for the student. Simply because Buddhism is now being practiced in the West does not mean that the essence of the Dharma should be forgotten. As Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo puts it, why would a practitioner try to cross the ocean of samsara with a captain who has never made the trip even ONCE?
While Buddhism will certainly change in the West as it has always changed whenever it was introduced into a new country, a new culture, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. The form or forms Buddhism adopts in its new homes in the West will be external only; the essence must remain the same as it has always been or it will become something else, not a path to enlightenment. We must never forget that these beings who are our teachers are bodhisattvas who emanate impartially for the benefit of sentient beings. They have no other agenda than that.
The problem with devotion in our culture is basically one of ego attachment. We feel that turning over control to another will destroy us, so our reaction comes from fear for self. Of course, Buddhism is all about cutting through ego attachment to achieve liberation, but the habit of ego-clinging is a deeply rooted one, especially in the West where self is spelled with a capital S. Actually the objective of devotion is just that, to move us away from the position of self-attachment, which is ultimately self-destructive because it results in the dualistic mind of samsara. Devotion is an essential part of the Vajrayana path, and devotion does not equal democracy. It is more like the Alcoholics Anonymous approach in which the alcoholic turns over his power to his higher power and to his sponsor, who acts as his or her guide to sobriety. The alcoholic discovers that he/she cannot trust his own mind. This realization is based on a long history of disastrous results when the alcoholic depends on his/her own mind to try to attain sobriety and control over his/her own life. So he/she learns to follow the advice of one who has already made the journey to sobriety through the 12 Step Path. The same basic approach is followed when practicing Guru Yoga. One admits that one has never been able to free oneself from the Wheel of Death and Rebirth on one’s own and therefore turns over one’s power to the lama who has already made the journey. This is where the power of the Vajrayana path comes from, not the collective knowledge of samsaric beings, which is worse than useless on the path.
We must always be vigilant in protecting the essence of the Dharma from our own deluded minds.