Yesterday I spoke to a surprisingly shy lot of McGill students and afterwards had lunch with some of them and their Professor, Lara Braitstein. The class was on Tantric Buddhism, and they’d all been instructed to read my memoir (see right), which was on their reading list alongside bios of Marpa and Milarepa — two highly eccentric Tibetan mahasiddhas. There was a time when being elevated to the Buddhist big-leagues like that might have tempted my poor ego, but yesterday it just provoked a hearty laugh.
My, how things have changed! Dissent, doubt, questioning and criticism of teachers came so easily to them all that I had to remark on it at lunch afterwards: “You know, all this talk would have been seditious back in my day.” I recalled how nervous I’d been as a waning monk to speak my mind and transgress the unwritten rule that all things Tibetan were sacrosanct.
Tibetans are more accessible today; more of them speak English and more is known of their quirks. Also, far more is known of the grisly annals of Tibetan history, which have been excavated like never before in search of a rational explanation for the Dorje Shugden debacle. Nothing’s quite as healthy as the clear light of day. Still, I can’t help thinking that the colorful complexities of Tibetan Buddhism, quite apart from its potential for good and, dare I say it—evil, obscure the profound simplicity of what the Buddha taught. Whether you study the Mahayana (advanced) and Tantrayana (esoteric) teachings that have sprung up in the wake of the historical Buddha, there’s no substitute for, and no excuse for not, getting to the root of what he was all about.
Even studying the Pali Canon, championed by the Southern (Early) Schools of Buddhism, demands a critical eye, for it’s not always clear what the Buddha said and what others said for him (presumably but not necessarily in good faith). Just as the Hebrew and Christian Bibles must now suffer the forensic scrutiny of linguists and historians, Buddhist texts and dogmas too are coming under the spotlight. For those who feel threatened by all this, remember that the Buddha wasn’t teaching a belief system so much as a means of enquiry, and even though he used philosophy he wasn’t providing answers. His contribution to civilization was to pull the rug from under our feet and encourage us to let go, for nothing’s been more painful, destructive and futile for the human race than hanging on to our illusions of certainty, truth and righteousness.