Archive for May, 2011

The Vinaya in Modern Times

May 26, 2011 Leave a comment

The Tripitaka (“three baskets”), otherwise known as the Pali Canon, the earliest collection of the Buddha’s teachings, is composed of three parts: the Sutras or teachings of the Buddha, the Abhidharma or “higher teachings”, and the Vinaya or rules of monastic conduct.  They contain the basic teachings of the Buddha on the training in concentration, discriminating knowledge and discipline, respectively.  The Tibetan version of the Tripitaka consists of over a hundred volumes, each one totaling more than 600 pages.

Originally, there was no need for a disciplinary code for monks as the first monks were highly motivated, mature, spiritually honest and committed to the simple wandering life.  They tended to attain realization quickly.  It was only when the ordained sangha grew and monastic communities began to multiply that the need for rules of conduct became evident.  Rules were created as the Buddha saw situations arise that required them.  For instance, one rule states that one must always look at one’s seat before sitting in it.  This rule is said to have arisen from an incident in which a monk was invited to a lay person’s house for dinner and sat on his chair without looking.  In so doing, he sat on the host’s baby.  What happened to the poor baby is unwritten, but the result was another rule being added to the list.

Monks today carry 225-253 vows (depending on the tradition), while nuns carry 311-348.  The reason for the discrepancy stems from the fact that the Buddha originally resisted creating a community of nuns all together.  He felt that the society in the Indian subcontinent was not ready to accept females as equals.  Eventually, through the persistent urging of his wife, Yashodara, after their son, Rahula, became a monk, the Buddha relented and created a community of nuns, and Yashodara was one of the first 500 women ordained (she later attained Arhantship).  But women were still not fully accepted as equals, and more disciplinary rules were created for them as a result.

As Buddhism moves into the 21st Century and the West, it is important to review the role of the Vinaya and its place in modern Buddhism.  The first thought that comes to mind is that many of the rules in the original Vinaya, such as how much black wool a monk may own, are obviously hopelessly out of date.  Also the injunction against handling money seems virtually impossible to comply with, particularly for those ordained who live outside of a monastery setting.  Also there are no rules regarding the use of cell phones, computers, social networking and so forth.  Does that mean the Vinaya is outdated?  Should it just be discarded?  What does the Vinaya offer, if anything, for lay Buddhists?  How strictly should the rules be followed, or should they be followed at all?  Western Buddhists in particular struggle with all these questions and more as they attempt to assimilate this ancient tradition into a world that is very different from the one that Lord Buddha inhabited.

In the first place, the Vinaya should not be thought of as just a set of rules, like the Buddhist Ten Commandments, that must be followed blindly.  Indeed, one of the Ten Fetters that bind us to cyclic existence is the foolish fondling of precepts and practices where one essentially turns off one’s mind and practices by rote (silabbata paramasa).  Rather than quibbling over the wording of the Vinaya it seems more important to understand the deeper principles that underlie it.

Given that Western society has neither the means nor the interest to understand the traditional role of Buddhist monasticism, and given the fact that lay Buddhists often assume both teaching and leadership roles in Western Buddhist groups much more often than in traditional Buddhist societies, monks and nuns often have difficulty in identifying exactly what their role should be here in the West.  We struggle with how to preserve the essence of the teachings while implementing the changes necessary to plant the Dharma in the West.  The Vinaya can provide guidance and sustenance for both the lay and ordained communities during this difficult time of adaptation and change.

It should be remembered that the rules contained in the Vinaya were formulated by the Buddha in order to create the optimal conditions for attaining realization by moving away from desire and into a life of Dharma, not to make a rigid list of rules to make one’s life difficult.  The root meaning of the word “Vinaya” is not discipline, but “to remove or lead out from”.  In other words, to remove oneself from the fetters of desire and attachment while leading oneself towards realization.  Therefore the heart of the Vinaya is the motivation we have to do exactly that, not the particulars of each and every rule.  Indeed, Penor Rinpoche, the late head of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, once instructed a newly ordained group of gelong (bhikkshu) monks that to keep the ten basic vows of the novice monk (not to kill, not to steal, not to lie, not to have sex, not to use mind-altering substances, not to dance, not to listen to music, not to sleep in a high place, not to wear jewelry or other body adornment and not to eat after noon) are equal in merit to keeping all 253 vows of the gelong in the time of the Buddha.  That is because these are degenerate times when it is extremely difficult simply to obtain ordination and even more difficult to hold the vows.

The Vinaya shows us that the discipline of mindfulness is essential to making progress on the path. Without it we simply wander lost, just as we have done for countless lifetimes, and there is no benefit.  This is what is important about the Vinaya.  This is also why the Vinaya is important to the lay community as lay ordination also comes with its own set of vows.  Unfortunately many lay practitioners ignore these vows or give them only passing notice as they are more ambiguous than the vows of ordination and thus easier to gloss over or forget.  By studying the Vinaya and reminding ourselves of its importance as one of the three pillars of the teachings, we can maintain our balance even in the most difficult of times.

There is a tendency in Western Buddhism in particular to not only misunderstand the meaning of the Vinaya but also to use it as something to hide behind and for obfuscation.  It has been used by some as a means of attacking other Buddhist schools or centers, accusing their ordained of breaking vows by, for example, selling meat as part of their livelihood or handling money.  Others have used the Vinaya as a way to cover up their own lack of spiritual honesty and breaking of spiritual commitments.  For example, turning one’s back on one’s own root guru is considered a most serious breakage in Tibetan Buddhism, and claiming to be still keeping true to the Vinaya after committing such a breakage seems to be totally missing the point.  Such misuse of the Vinaya is just as harmful as falsely claiming to be enlightened or teaching what one does not actually know or understand.  It can only lead to creating confusion in the minds of people new to Buddhism and schism between the various schools of Buddhism.

Keeping the rules of the Vinaya differs greatly from tradition to tradition.  In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, for example, it is not considered to be a breakage to eat meat or to eat after noon, while in the Theravadan tradition it is.  In Japanese Zen, most so-called monks do not carry the vow of celibacy, a result of a political decision made during the Meiji era.  Comparing one school against another and declaring one to be superior based on this or any other criterion is pointless and harmful to Buddhism in general, particularly here in the West where people do not have the cultural and spiritual background to effectively judge.   We can only encourage all those who follow the path of Lord Buddha to keep their opinions about other traditions to themselves, or even better, to root out such judgment and negativity at their root.


Everyone Needs Vinaya, by Santikaro Bhikku,

The Tibetan Tripitaka,

The Ten Fetters,

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May 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Does Zen mean anything goes? 

Is it OK to act in any way without regard to integrity or honesty?

Does thinking you’re in the right make you right?

Apparently some people, including some who claim to be Zen practitioners, think that the answer to these questions – or should we say koans? – is yes.  You can find them on the internet, in books, on Twitter and Facebook, anywhere where they can find an audience to expound on their particular greatness and rightness.  Some of them even make the (unsubstantiated) claim that they’re really enlightened, so they know what they’re talking about!  They use Zen doublespeak to hide behind, making silly claims, like it’s all just empty anyway, to spray their poisons at whomever their target is that day, then ducking behind their smokescreen when the target responds.  Usually their target is someone who has had the audacity to suggest that maybe they really aren’t all that enlightened and that they’re actually just full of themselves rather than empty of nature.

It’s a sad spectacle, one that no doubt causes real Zen masters to bristle their shaggy eyebrows.  It is obvious these people just use Dharma to defend their own pathetic egos rather than what it was intended for, to root out the poisons in one’s mind.  They seem to think that because they label it “Zen”, it gives them carte blanche to do or say whatever they want.

Let’s see what a real Zen master has to say about that notion.  Here’s what Dogen Zenji, perhaps the greatest of them all, had to say in an essay entitled Shoaku makusa (Not doing wrong action):

The primordial Buddhas are saying,

“Not doing wrong action,
Sincerely doing every kind of good,
naturally clarifies this mind.
This is the Teaching of all the Buddhas.”

This is the universal precept of the Seven Buddhas, our Founding Ancestors, and is truly transmitted by earlier Buddhas to later Buddhas and is received by later Buddhas from earlier Buddhas. It is not only the Teaching of the Seven Buddhas but of all the Buddhas. This principle must be investigated and mastered through practice.

Doesn’t quite sound like anything goes, does it?  Perhaps these people should just shut up and get back on their zafus for a while; a long while.

And then there’s another koan.  Why can’t Western Dharma students keep their vows?  Any vows.  Monastic vows.  Lay vows.  Tantric vows.  Whatever.  It’s a big problem.  Of course, one could just say it’s Kaliyuga.  It’s a very difficult time to hold vows.  Karma ripens very swiftly at this time, so it’s difficult.  Even Asian Buddhists have a hard time holding their vows nowadays. 

But Westerners seem to have a particularly hard time with this one.  Perhaps it’s because of our culture.  We’re not taught that upholding vows is of any value.  Look at marriage vows in the West.  More people end up getting divorced than stay married.  Many do it more than once.  There is no cultural stigma attached to those who break vows.  It’s that old “if it feels good, do it” mentality.  Vows become just words, and holding those vows just doesn’t seem important.

Or maybe it’s because there’s too much stimulation going on in samsara right now.  We are continually bombarded with sensuality and sexuality in both overt and subliminal ways every day, whether we’re watching TV or going shopping or reading a magazine or listening to the radio or just driving down the road.  We can’t get away from it.  So we’re constantly being tempted to break whatever vows we hold so we can get some sort of temporary (usually very temporary) rush.  We figure we can always feel guilty about it later.  Oh well!

Or maybe, to get real, it’s a lack of spiritual honesty and self-integrity that is the real cause.  It takes a great deal of effort to hold vows.  Maybe we just don’t have what it takes to do it.  We don’t really want to make the effort.

And then, to follow that road a little more, why then, when they break their vows, do they turn on their Guru and try to destroy them?  It happens time and time again.  Something in the student breaks, they abandon their robes or their lay vows, they flee the teacher, the temple, the sangha, and then they start attacking.  They attack the very one who showed them nothing but love and concern, the one who returned to samsara for the sole purpose of liberating them and all sentient beings.  Why would they do that? 

Perhaps, as we have discussed before, it is a case of transference.  They are so horrified at what they have done that they can’t face it, so they project it onto the teacher because they know, down deep, that the teacher will never reject them.  Through their deluded logic, they think that the teacher is a “safe” target, one that won’t bite back.  So they turn the self-hatred they feel outward onto the only one who truly loves them unreservedly.  It’s crazy, it’s sad, it’s so deluded, but most of all it’s creating the causes for tremendous suffering for themselves.  That is the saddest part of all.

How much better to stay the course no matter how difficult or impossible it may seem at the moment.  Our true nature is nothing to fear.  It is the source of all happiness and peace.  It is only when we move away from discovering the truth of our being that we make ourselves suffer.  Pray for us, pray for us all.


Coming, going, the waterbirds
don’t leave a trace
don’t follow a path.

–Dogen Zenji

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The Problem with Gurus

May 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Ever since the Vajracharya, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, arrived in the United States in the early 1970s, controversy and gossip have swirled around Buddhist teachers.  Charges of sexual abuse, financial improprieties, alcoholism, you name it, have surfaced at one time or another in connection to various lamas and teachers from just about every school of Buddhism represented in the West.  Are these teachers really so corrupt, or do all this gossip and wild accusations reveal more about the minds of those who are making them than any problem with the teachers?

Trungpa Rinpoche freely admitted to having sex with students, both female and male.  He never denied it.  In fact, he was rather proud of it.  It is important to remember, however, that Trungpa was what is called a “crazy wisdom” teacher.  Crazy wisdom teachers are well-known for their wild, unpredictable behavior.  The famous story of Drukpa Kunley, a crazy wisdom teacher, born in Tibet but who lived much of his life in Bhutan and who lived from 1455-1529, is a case in point.  He was known as the “saint of 5,000 women”, and he was never shy about wielding his “vajra” when he saw that by doing so he could help the female who was the object of his attentions become enlightened.  As he put it,

I am happy that I am a free Yogi.

So I grow more and more into my inner happiness.

I can have sex with many women,

because I help them to go the path of enlightenment.

Outwardly I’m a fool

and inwardly I live with a clear spiritual system.

Outwardly, I enjoy wine, women and song,

And inwardly I work for the benefit of all beings.

Outwardly, I live for my pleasure,

and inwardly I do everything in the right moment.

Outwardly I am a ragged beggar

and inwardly a blissful Buddha.

Obviously such a sentiment would get him in big trouble today.  But during his lifetime he was considered a great saint who led many to enlightenment through his unorthodox methods.  He serves as a model for the type of crazy wisdom teacher that Chögyam Trungpa exemplified.  Such a teacher operates outside the bounds of ordinary behavior.  Due to his enlightened insight, Drukpa Kunley was able to see the needs of his students and give them exactly what they needed to accomplish their path.  Trungpa was no different, but he lived in a different time and a different place.  This caused him problems.

Why then did he behave in such a way?  One of his closest students, Carolyn Gimian, describes Trungpa as having “an extraordinary passion for human beings and a rather outrageous capability to see us from the inside out.  He never preached from afar.”  He presented the teachings of the Buddha in a straightforward manner, without guile and in a way that Westerners, who had no experience with Buddhism, could relate.  He literally paved the way for those who came after him.

Similar problems have beset Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan lay lama who teaches in both the United States and Europe.  He tends to attract young females, and in 1994 a $10 million lawsuit was brought against him by a former student who claimed he coerced her into a lengthy sexual relationship, despite the fact that both were consenting adults.  The case was settled out of court, but it has continued to stir controversy ever since.  However, Sogyal Rinpoche’s books, particularly The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, are cited by many people as their inspiration for becoming Buddhist. 

Even a great lama like Kalu Rinpoche, one of the first Tibetan lamas to teach in the West, has not been immune to malicious gossip and claims of sexual improprieties.  A former nun and translator – who now calls herself an “academic feminist,” whatever that is – accused him of subjecting her to an abusive sexual relationship under the guise of being a tantric practice.

Today, all one has to do is make a search of the internet to find a virtual cottage industry of gossip and accusations against virtually every living (and many dead) Buddhist teachers, not just from Tibetan Buddhism, but every branch of Buddhism.

So what are we to make of all this?  Are Buddhist teachers really so corrupt? 

Perhaps the answer can be found in what psychotherapists term “transference”, or what most of would call projection.  Similar to psychotherapists, Buddhist teachers, in particular those associated with Tibetan Buddhism, work to break the student out of their old, tired habitual tendencies, tendencies that have developed over countless lifetimes and that keep the student trapped in endless rounds of life, death, and rebirth.  Unless the student can break out of these habituated tendencies, they will never know liberation from this cycle.  This is the method that the Buddha taught. 

A crazy wisdom teacher like Trungpa or Drukpa Kunley are masters of this and may wage a frontal assault on the many layers of defenses of the student in order to set them free.  This can often appear to the student as an assault on their sense of self, or ego (which in fact it is), and this can sometimes panic the student.  The student may react to this perceived threat by projecting their own fears and insecurities onto the teacher, and the teacher may respond by reflecting those fears and insecurities back onto the student in the hope that by doing so they may wake up to what they are doing.  If, however, the student has not practiced what is known as guru yoga, or devotion to the teacher, to the point where they have 100% confidence in the teacher, then the result may be that they run away from the teacher and begin to make all sorts of accusations against him or her as a defensive reaction against the perceived threat. 

There are some people who feed off such gossip and accusations, delighting in them, feeling that they make themselves look blameless and spotless, even though the truth is almost certainly quite the opposite.  They begin to think of themselves as better than the teacher, smarter, more “enlightened”.  This is, of course, nothing more than delusion.  All the person is doing is pumping up their own pathetic ego, meanwhile completely missing the opportunity to rid themselves of the poisons which keep them forever revolving in cyclic existence.  They become so infatuated with their own cleverness and “rightness” that they forget that death approaches rapidly, and that they will leave this life totally unprepared for what ensues.  It is a sad situation, but one that continues to be widespread in the West.

Perhaps as Buddhism becomes more mature in the West, such nonsense will diminish.  That is what we pray for.


The Divine Madman, by Keith Dowman, Pilgrims Book House, 2000

Stripping the Gurus, by Geoffrey D. Falk, Million Monkeys Press, 2009

The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, Vol. 8, edited by Carolyn R. Gimian, Shambhala, 2004

“Best-selling Buddhist author accused of sexual abuse”, by Don Lattin, The San Francisco Free Press, November 10, 1994

“The Emperor’s Tantric Robes: An Interview with June Campbell on Codes of Secrecy and Silence”, Tricycle, Winter 1996

“Transference: Are you a Biological Time Machine?” by Michael G. Conner, Psy.D., 2009

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