Thirty-five years ago I was in the temple with a younger monk polishing brass statues when the following conversation transpired. Our abbot was off on a teaching tour and had invited another Tibetan teacher to takeover his philosophy classes. It wasn’t going well.
Older monk (me): This new teacher doesn’t seem to know his stuff.”
Younger monk (shocked): “But our teacher chose him.”
Older monk (me): “Yes I asked him about that. He said they were old friends.”
Younger monk (frowning): “There must be another reason. There’s a lesson in here for us.”
Older monk (me): “The lesson is that some teachers are better than others … and perhaps ours made a mistake in choosing this one.”
Younger monk (stops polishing, opens mouth in disbelief): “I can’t think that. I won’t think that.” (Younger monk hastily leaves my presence.)
That was the day I realized that my incessant questioning had finally isolated me from the community.
* * *
This seemingly trivial exchange illustrates the defining paradox of Tibetan Buddhism: guru-devotion.
Here’s how it goes: You should regard your guru as a fully enlightened buddha. To benefit from your relationship with him, you must see him as always having your interests at heart, no matter what. If you doubt, question or reject that, you’re cut off from your source of spiritual advancement now and in future lifetimes, where you’ll suffer countless rebirths in tantric hell.
Is your guru devotion a true
relationship, or just a dependency?
As a desperately hungry spiritual seeker thirty-five years ago I suspended my doubts without a second thought. I’d burned my bridges back home, almost lost myself in drugs, found a home among the Tibetans and done what was necessary to fit in.
As you’d expect, this prescription has its dangers. A recent Canadian documentary reports that the influential Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche abused his female disciples for sex. As in earlier but less explosive exposés, those wishing to tell the story were confronted by a Vatican-like code of secrecy that has silenced even the Dalai Lama. In 1993 he chose to not endorse a letter calling on students to report abusive teachers.
A less public, more insidious, danger is the disciple’s private decision to avoid seeing the guru’s human failings. When the facts of life are incompatible with your spiritual practice, you’re headed for bitter disillusion.
On first contact, Tibetan Buddhism is a welcoming paragon of reason and compassion. However, the teachings are layered with esoteric, mystical, exclusive and secret accretions. On the bottom lie the austere ethics and philosophy of the historical Buddha, referred to as ‘the lesser vehicle.’ Above this is the ‘greater vehicle,’ and then the ‘secret vehicle,’ also called tantra. It’s at this level that a guru is indispensible.
There’s no historical record of the Buddha teaching tantra
Tantra is a rich body of symbolic practice with strict ethical codes. However, it employs sexual and demonic imagery that’s easily manipulated, not only by opportunistic teachers but also by the wishful thinking of devotees. Tantric lore and even contemporary Tibetan history are rife with invisible demons and magical happenings.
Wishful thinking permeates Tibetan religious life. Lamas are routinely referred to as a living buddhas, especially if they’re wealthier, smarter or better-connected. Tibetan culture is deeply stratified. The Tibetan language itself has different vocabularies for speaking up to a superior, across to a peer or down to an inferior. The everyday name for woman is, ‘low-born.’
Although many devotees bury their doubts and questions, the tantric scriptures do not demand it. They wisely spell out the precariousness of the guru-disciple relationship and call on teachers and students to inspect one other for years before making this esoteric pact. In practice however, ‘secret’ empowerments are freely available. The Dalai Lama’s public Kalachakra rituals are organized and attended like rock concerts. Few devotees pass up the opportunity, and then they’re supposed to view the officiating lama as a tantric guru.
Newcomers to Tibetan Buddhism are often hungry for enlightenment, and teachers need students for their ongoing credibility and sustenance. You might wonder, “What’s a fully enlightened buddha like?” More to the point, is this a true relationship or just a dependency?
* * *
There’s no historical record of the Buddha teaching tantra. To lend these practices authenticity the Tibetan establishment calls them the Buddha’s ‘secret’ teachings, carried out in a duplicate body in another realm of existence at the same time he was teaching here on Earth. The practice is further legitimized by the claim that tantra is built upon ‘ordinary’ Buddhist practice. In theory, you can choose at what level you wish to practice. However, tantra is said to make enlightenment achievable in as little as three years, as opposed to the ‘countless lifetimes’ of ordinary Buddhism. Once ensnared in the Tibetan orbit, few devotees opt out.
Is your view of the guru an example of heightened
perception, or the projection of an ideal?
For them, Tantra is supercharged Buddhism. They engage in the most elaborate mental gymnastics to maintain its compatibility with ordinary Buddhism. The inner culture is infused with hierarchical relationships that mirror Tibetan society. ‘Ordinary’ Buddhism and tantric ritual are inseparably entwined.
Ordinary Buddhism depends on the basic practice of mindful attention. This form of mental training, used today worldwide by progressive physicians, requires practitioners to unsentimentally see things as they are. It takes a long-term approach to stress by delivering insight into the ways we think things ‘should’ be. This can be disquieting. By contrast, tantric practitioners need to view every facet of the guru’s behavior as enlightened. Whether or not it’s actually possible to reconcile these two approaches, for all but the most penetrating thinkers they end up being mutually exclusive.
The question that most guru devotees avoid at all costs is the one that mindfulness poses most insistently: Is your view of the guru an example of heightened perception, or the projection of an ideal? When I could no longer isolate these two perspectives from each other, I lost my tantric faith and migrated to the lesser vehicle. It was a step up to reality at the cost of great hand-wringing, guilt and self-doubt.
Since my memoir The Novice was published, I’ve received dozens of emails from people confronting the same dilemma. This is the trajectory of many who came to Buddhism through the Tibetan archway. It’s a welcoming, enticing and beautiful archway. For the spiritually exhausted, beat-up and destitute, it’s hard to resist the promises of supercharged Buddhism. However, sooner or later we all have to consider how it’s working for us.
Decision-making is an emotion
Tantra is not stuff and nonsense, but it’s widely disseminated and practiced in the most superstitious way, quite out of step with its dignity. Its symbolic and narrative value is as powerful as any Greek mythology, but for most devotees that comparison is pure heresy. Even among those who quit, few dare to speak up. I’ve been accused of apostasy and of being a ‘false prophet.’ Some of those who reported Sogyal Lakar’s sexual abuses received death threats.
A prerequisite of ordinary Buddhist practice is to inspect your own motivations, and one of the Buddha’s great insights is that feelings precede reason or, as neuropsychologists put it, decision-making is an emotion. To examine your motivations in that way, to question why you accept and why you reject, is to expose yourself most nakedly to the daring path he took.
I put little stock in the great answers to life, but I value the questions. A half-century of wrestling with belief systems has convinced me that the big one is, “Why do I believe?” There’s a lifetime’s insight in there. Nothing in the tantric scriptures contradicts this critical approach, but as long as you’re in Buddhism for comfort, consolation and security, you won’t be going there.