Good Faith, Bad Faith

[NOTE: This post first appeared on the website of the Secular Buddhist Association, where it attracted a long and interesting string of comments.]

While watching the Dalai Lama on YouTube the other day I was struck by a strange sensation.

I was bored.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like this ‘simple monk’ as Tenzin Gyatso likes to call himself. I had a long private audience with him years ago in Dharamsala that left me flying high for weeks afterwards, and met him again on several occasions. He’s warm, friendly and chuckles a lot. Audiences invariably chuckle along with him, not because he’s mastered the art of comedy but simply because his mood is infectious.

But there’s more to it than that. In a video of a Mind and Life Institute conference, packed with academic brains like Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn, I noticed without surprise that all eyes were on His Holiness. Every one was primed to smile instantly at his magical touch, to erupt in indulgent laughter at the corniest joke. It’s amazing how many scientists jump to less than critical conclusions about the insightfulness of his remarks.

This isn’t the Dalai Lama’s doing. To paraphrase a familiar saying, magic is in the eye of the beholder.

From the very beginnings of my encounter with Tibetan Buddhism almost forty years ago I learned that the teacher is not only there to impart information, or even blessings. He is to be revered. Unlike their brethren from other Buddhist cultures, Tibetans favor the tantric method, said to be the highest, most secret and most sublime of the Buddha’s teachings. In theory, it’s accessible only to those who have already mastered both the narrow path of personal awakening and the broad way of the bodhisattva. However, judging from the way that Tibetan Buddhism is transmitted, you’d be forgiven for thinking that tantra is not the pinnacle of all practices but their very foundation. The lama is everything.

Tantric initiates are required to see the lama’s behavior as ‘fully enlightened.’ What that means is unclear, though all texts agree that it’s indescribable. Many insiders, especially younger ones, presume it to include telepathic powers, perfect virtue and inscrutable intentions.

The usefulness of faith is that it gives you time to gain your own experience and come to personal conclusions

I know. I did once. There was a certain amount of work involved. I maintained a view of the infinitely wise teacher through ongoing conversations with others of like mind. My belief was reinforced by constant reminders that others believed the same. We put our hands together reverentially when mentioning a teacher by name, never criticized any of their decisions and shut doubt resolutely out of our hearts.

It is a fragile view though. Even after years of practice it withers quickly away without the consensus of the faithful. When I disrobed and drifted back to the material world, I found myself thinking of people like the Dalai Lama as ‘just’ human. When he made questionable remarks about homosexuals, inexperienced judgments on marital relations and fuzzy statements about science, I noticed that many of his Western believers leaped into the breach to quickly rationalize his words.

By now however, I felt no such compulsion. I was out of the loop.

To his credit, the Dalai Lama has learned from his gaffes. There have been short-lived furors, but the media soon leaves him again in peace. Despite that, and although he’s widely reviled in China, his image in the West is stellar. Even the remarkable Dorje Shugden affair, in which a murderous schism followed his remarks about an invisible demon, was quickly ignored by the press. Seventeen years later wounds still run deep within Tibetan society and clearly will do for centuries to come.

The Dalai Lama is today exceptionally open to non-Tibetan traditions. He is one of the world’s elite few who’s primary job is to promote world peace in the most warm and fuzzy, non-specific ways. Considering he’s the product of a medieval monastic system he’s made great strides, widely outpacing his Tibetan contemporaries. The oldest of those, with whom I studied years ago, exhibited levels of chauvinism and intransigence that surprised me and hastened my withdrawal from formal Buddhism.

Since then my Buddhist studies have focused especially on these early teachings. In them I discern a flesh-and-blood Buddha who questioned life’s purpose with the angst familiar to thoughtful human beings of every time and place. His frailty and humanness are precisely what make him accessible to me. That’s how, when I don’t understand him fully, I think he might have been on to something, and don’t just dismiss it. The usefulness of faith it that it gives you time to gain your own experience and come to personal conclusions. Leaning on it blindly without trying to understand is one of those unfortunate human failings that give religion a bad name.

I can live with this sort of pragmatic faith. I’m just a faulty and insecure product of the modern age. I don’t have to bend my credulity or rationalize plain wrongs into twisted rights. I don’t have to insist the Dalai Lama is a fully Enlightened Buddha in order to like him. And, as he rambles on before getting to the point of his lecture, I don’t feel guilty about changing channels. Perhaps he was having an off day. Who doesn’t?

Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

5 thoughts on “Good Faith, Bad Faith”

  1. Stephen:

    You are being deeply misleading when you say, without explanation or qualification, things like: “Tantric initiates are required to see the lama’s behavior as ‘fully enlightened.’ ” and “I don’t have to insist the Dalai Lama is a fully Enlightened Buddha in order to like him”

    I suspect you know perfectly well that this teaching refers to Vajrayana (much more accurate term than Tantra) practices in which the meditator tries to see *everybody* including *themselves* as fully enlightened. It absolutely does not mean you have to view the teacher, Dalai Lama or any other, as fully enlightened in everyday life, nor even in non-Vajrayana practices. And when you do try to see yourself and others as fully enlightened, it is with the limitless compassion and determination to work *solely* for the benefit others, in other words, infinite humility.

    And I’m sure you can explain the idea behind such practices, but since you didn’t, I will do so briefly. Basically, the Vajrayana is called the “result vehicle” which means you try to assume the result in meditation in order to achieve it more quickly and fully, rather than work indirectly to create the causes for enlightenment. And this “result” meditation is to be done with the safeguards of limitless compassion and humility, as I said above, which means you must do a certain amount of “cause” work first. Yes, lots of practitioners skip the cause work, but they do so against the recommendations of their teacher (if it’s an authentic teacher and teaching) and at their own peril.

    In fact, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has spoken on a number of occasions about the dangers of misinterpreting these teachings about how to view the teacher.

    Given that these are very clear and prevalent teachings in Tibetan Buddhism which you must have received on many occasions, I have to ask what is your intent in presenting such a simplistic, incomplete and implicitly negative description of the practice of viewing your teacher as fully enlightened in Vajrayana practice.

    Regards. –David Lewis

    1. Sorry David, but that’s exactly the way I was taught by several teachers. While I find your interpretation much more palatable and rational than those I’ve described, the reality is that the latter is all too frequently passed off as authentic teaching. It may not even be the teacher’s fault, but simply the ‘common knowledge’ passed around by credulous neophytes eager to help each other along the True Path. Warnings are needed. There’s a reason this stuff is supposed to be secret.

      I feel no hesitation in speaking out because anyone who really is ready for and serious about these practices will find a properly qualified teacher and not be put off by the ranting of a naked ex-monk.

      1. OK, Stephen, I accept that you never heard it that way, despite having some of the best teachers (Lama Yeshe, Gashe Rabten), and apologize for my snarkiness.

        But I think there may be confusion here between the Vajrayana Guru Yoga practice, which is what we have been talking about, and putting yourself in the hands of an accomplished master for the sake of spiritual (and psychological) development. It’s all way too complicated to resolve here, but I certainly understand getting those two realms cross-circuited. Many traditional Tibetan teachers certainly do encourage that cross-up in a way that comes out different in modern culture — you need to obey me as you would a Buddha — but it’s not at all that simple. And as you say, western students can easily misunderstand and propagate that ignorance to each other.

        But I do have one suggestion — stop propagating the confusion yourself, particularly in the context of a critique. It may not have been your cuppa tea, but it’s been a highly effective system in the Tibetan context, and has worked for quite a few westerners as well. Whether that system is suited for large-scale western dissemination of the Dharma is a subject for another day. But if you feel a need to express public derision, ask yourself whether it is serving a positive purpose toward that dissemination or any other goal.

        Anyway, let me end with a reference to some stuff by Alex Berzin who, like you, studied with some of the best (Serkong Rinpoche, debate partner for H. H. The Dalai Lama and the model for Yoda), but has taken quite a different track.

        In particular… “…

        And this is also the significance of seeing the spiritual teacher as a Buddha. That never was intended to be taken literally. Nowhere in the Buddhist literature does it say that among the qualifications of a spiritual master is that the person is an enlightened being. If the teacher really were literally a Buddha, they should know the telephone number of everybody on this planet, and they obviously don’t. And they would walk through walls and do all sorts of things like that. They obviously can’t. So what it is referring to is seeing the Buddha-nature in the spiritual teacher, and seeing the level of realization of these Buddha-nature qualities, and seeing the possibility of these Buddha-nature qualities within the example of the spiritual teacher and focusing on that. And so this Buddha-nature of the spiritual teacher – that is represented as one of these Buddha-figures, these yidams, in Tibetan.

        So when we see the teacher inseparable from these Buddha-figures, what we are seeing is focusing this on the Buddha-nature of the spiritual teacher, which can be represented by the form and qualities of the Buddha-figure. The spiritual teacher is a Buddha-figure just as a convenient method… So, what are we connecting here? What we are connecting really is our own Buddha-nature with the Buddha-nature of the spiritual master. That is why – I think it was Gampopa who said that when I realized the unity of my spiritual master and the yidam in my own mind, then I realized mahamudra. So we are linking our own Buddha-nature with the Buddha-nature of the spiritual teacher in order to gain the inspiration for us to realize our own Buddha-nature and fully actualize all its potentials. That is the whole point of the guru-yoga.

        (feel free to e-mail me.) –David

        1. Hi David: You don’t have to apologize; I know I’m being provocative. The point of blogging is to invite dissent, after all.

          I respect people like you and Alex who work within the tradition to clarify and refine it. I think you’re indispensable. However, I believe rebellion is equally indispensable.

          The worst case scenario is that people take everything on faith. We all have to stay on our toes, don’t we? Reality is a moving target.

          1. To see someone who is really “working within the the tradition to clarify and refine it” in a beautiful and effective way, look at John Makransky’s book, “Awakening Through Love: Unveiling Your Deepest Goodness”. ( He does wonderful things with Guru Yoga to make it work for everybody, even those without a formal teacher, and thereby serve as the basis for an accessible and authentic practice. In doing so, he shows what it is really about.

            Is rebellion indispensable? Well, I think inner rebellion is what it is all about — not swallowing any more the illusions and misapprehensions that the ego feeds us every second of every day. But rebellion directed outward is a knife edge — both very hard to balance on and probably more dangerous to the wielder than to the ostensible target.

            Good luck!

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