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Why I am not a “Tibetan Buddhist” (anymore)

posted by Greg Zwahlen

by Greg Zwahlen

If you’ve received meditation instruction at a Shambhala center, or at an Insight Meditation Center, a zendo, or the ID project, the very first thing you probably learned was that it is possible to look directly into your own experience, using your breath to stabilize your attention somewhat and as a jumping off point. This technique is endorsed by ??kyamuni Buddha himself, right there in the Satipatthana Sutta (Sanskrit: Sm?tyupasth?na S?tra), so it has to be just basic, foundational Buddhism, right?

Well, yes . . . and no. Perhaps it should be, but it isn’t always. As scholar Leah Zahler explains in Study and Practice of Meditation: Tibetan Interpretations of the Concentrations and Formless Absorptions, all Tibetan traditions practice ?amatha using the breath as a means of settling the mind. But in the largest tradition, the Geluk, it was viewed as a mere precursor to the real work of analytic reasoning, and the profound potential of the practice itself was not recognized. In other traditions–particularly the Kagyu and Nyingma–the profundity of the practice was recognized, but the practice itself was sort of “kicked upstairs” by both. It was taught in the context of Mah?mudr? and Dzogchen Semde (respectively), and as such it was often accessible only after one had completed hundreds of thousands of repetitions of ritual practices and committed to a personal guru.
Recently I came across a passage in one of Stephen Batchelor’s earlier books, The Faith to Doubt, in which he described his personal experience of this state of affairs. Batchelor was a monk for a number of years in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in India. He writes:
. . . the institute in which I was studying hosted an insight meditation (vipassana) retreat led by U Goenka, the well-known Indian teacher from the Burmese tradition of U Ba Khin. The method of meditation taught by Goenka is a highly effective technique of developing concentrated mindfulness of body-sensations and feelings, viewed in their aspects of being impermanent, unsatisfactory, and selfless. This retreat had an overwhelming impact on me. Within the short period of ten days my consciousness was unquestionably altered, and I gained direct experiential insights into the meaning of the Buddhist teachings unlike anything I had ever realized through the methods taught by my Tibetan teachers.

This experience made me question some of the basic claims of the Tibetan lamas. The Tibetans maintain that their tradition alone preserves all the teachings of Buddhism: Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. . . [However, the] systematic practice of mindfulness was not preserved in the Tibetan traditions. The Gelugpa lamas know about such methods and can point to long descriptions of mindfulness in their Abhidharma works, but the living application of the practice has largely been lost. (Only in dzog-chen, with the idea of “awareness” [rig pa] do we find something similar.) For many Tibetans the very term “mindfulness” (sati in Pali, rendered in Tibetan by dran pa) has come to be understood almost exclusively as “memory” or “recollection.”
.  . . What I was looking for was a practice of formless meditation and a place to train over an extended period of time. But at that time I could not find a teacher within any of the Tibetan traditions who taught such a practice without the embellishments of guru-devotion, tantric ritual, mantra, visualization, and so on for which I felt little affinity. The Tibetan argument that such practices were necessary as a basis for proceeding into the formless meditations of mahamudra or dzogchen were unconvincing. I only had to look at the Theravada or Zen systems to see that a formless meditation was quite happily practiced without that basis. By this time I found it quite impossible to accept the Tibetans’ critique of the other traditions and their own claims to superiority. The lamas persisted in refuting only antiquated notions of the other Buddhist traditions- notions which had been preserved in Tibet for centuries-but had little understanding of the current condition of the schools they were criticizing (pgs 8, 13).

Chogyam Trungpa, the late Tibetan Buddhist master, recognized this problem, and for this reason he introduced the profundity of the “direct experience” approach to the very beginning of his path. It is given pride of place as the cornerstone of practice in Shambhala centers today. This departure from the Tibetan Buddhist norm was one of his most valuable contributions, in my opinion. Although it was radical in the Tibetan context, to me it seems clear that it was a longer overdue return to the core instructions of the Buddha. A number of younger Kagyu and Nyingma lamas–Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Traleg Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche, and Tsokyni Rinpoche, to name a few–have since followed his example in this regard.

I consider myself a practitioner in the Indo-Tibetan tradition in which I’ve been trained by Tibet lamas and their close disciples. I’ve put in a great deal of study and practice in that tradition over the last eight years. But over the last couple of years or so I’ve undergone a subtle realignment in my approach to and understanding of Buddhadharma, based on the realization that “Tibetan Buddhism” is not quite as all-encompassing of the Indian Buddhist tradition as it believes itself to be. I have a new appreciation for the Therav?da tradition and the value to all Buddhists of the common Buddhist heritage that it has carefully preserved.
Today, many of us are in the enviable position of being able to access nearly the full range of Buddhist teachings that have been preserved. Some people worry that this opens the door to a sort of promiscuous “mixing” of distinct lineages into an ill-advised mess. To some degree this concern is well-founded. But it should be remembered that in India there was an enormous amount of diversity of thought and practice which often mingled in the same monasteries–?r?vakas of various views, Yog?c?rins, M?dhyamikas. To some extent the perceived separation of the various Buddhist traditions today is based more on geography and culture than on any fundamental incompatibility. There are real differences, to be sure, but those differences don’t necessarily all break down cleanly along recognizable “lineage” lines. The contemporary rapprochement can potentially benefit all Buddhists. We also have the modern disciplines of academia at our disposal, and they are of immense potential benefit to this great sorting out process.
Sangharakshita has been a pioneer in conceiving and implementing this approach, and I admire his work in this area. An Englishman, the founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, he calls it “back to basics”–an effort “to clarify what all Buddhist schools held in common: the essential principles and practices that run through the whole tradition.” I have no experience of his organization, but I’ve read a number of his books, and they are a very rigorous effort to do just that. I highly recommend them.
This is also the approach Ethan tends to take at the ID project. We’ve talked about it a great deal over the years, and I think the results speak for themselves.
So the glib answer to the question of why I’m not a “Tibetan Buddhist” is because I am, of course, not a Tibetan. But even the glib response makes a point that, unfortunately, seems to be often overlooked as the various Buddhist traditions are transmitted to the west–we are not living in premodern societies, and (despite how mind-bogglingly extensive the Tibetan tradition is) our opportunities for study and practice are in some respects more vast than those of pre-1959 Tibet. Our practice of dharma can benefit by reflecting this reality. Thankfully, as more and more people become accomplished, this will happen to a greater and greater degree.


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Jon Rubinstein

posted November 3, 2009 at 3:02 pm


what a great analysis. thank you for this – gives me a lot to think about. it is hard to reconcile the certainy of Tibetan teachers about contemplative meditation, with the certainty of a Zen teacher about zazen. I appreciate the explanation and I’m excited to check out Sangharakshita’s work.
Jon



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Patrick Groneman

posted November 3, 2009 at 3:20 pm


Great break down Greg! I am personally trying to discover which traditions I jive with the most and this was very illuminating to just how vast and daunting a task sorting through that all will be.



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Your Name

posted November 3, 2009 at 3:58 pm


Great post, thanks for putting the time into this.
As one who has echewed the formal traditions (in the same vein as Bachelor’s ‘Agnostic Buddhist’, omitting the “who knows if we’re right” faith-based guesses such as karma and rebirth, and the cultural trappings that while pretty are not necessary) I think it would be enlightening to take this topic one step further and discuss what a truly modern Buddhism would look like as it moves past cultural embelishments and sheds the bronze age mythology in favor of rational, verifiable reasons for following the path.



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Rosemary McGinn

posted November 3, 2009 at 4:08 pm


Wonderful, thank you.



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Darren Littlejohn

posted November 3, 2009 at 5:16 pm


Thank you so much for this article. I remember reading that from Stephen Batchelor before I was ever introduced to Tibetan Buddhism. It’s true that some traditions and some teachers choose to present certain teachings and not others. But that’s their prerogative. They can teach what they feel is most appropriate and beneficial to the capacity of their students. If some Tibetan teachers don’t teach what we want to learn should we discount all of Tibetan Buddhism? I say don’t throw the Buddha out with the bathwater. As we say in the 12 Step world, “Take what you want, leave the rest.” That said, if you want to study and practice Vajrayana Buddhism, be prepared to take it all, and you might not always like it. It’s a faster and riskier path. For those who would like a more gradual approach, that exists as well. Take little Buddha bites and chew well before swallowing.
Not all teachers, in any tradition, can be 100% selfless. Some probably have underlying motives. But there are a lot of teachings and so many teachers that it’s easy enough to shop around until we land in a sangha that we want to participate in – regardless if that’s Shambala or FPMT or IMS or Dharma Punx.
In my own groups for 12-Step Buddhist practitioners, we work with materials from many traditions. In my book I write about the connections and differences between Zen, Tibetan in some detail. I like to think of this integration process as a good way for the West to practice what I like to call Applied Dharma.
May it be of benefit.



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Kate

posted November 3, 2009 at 8:24 pm


Thanks, Greg…I’d like to read some Stephen Batchelor now. This is the most engaging thing I’ve read in this blog for a long time, in large part because it’s both scholarly and personal.



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John

posted November 3, 2009 at 10:26 pm


I don’t know much about the Tibetan tradition, but I just had a conversation with a friend over this topic earlier this day over tea. He talked about his Tibetan training, how he wished for a “back to basics” approach and then started talking about Batchelor’s books.
It wasn’t a negative conversation over what was lacking in the tradition. Rather it was just something that “run its course” after 6 years of practice.
Right now, I am in similar position but reversed. I started as a “back to basics” Buddhist, moved to Zen and am now spreading my devotional wings, so to speak and exploring some of the more esoteric traditions. I agree with Darren that we need to (12 step or not) take what we need and what is useful and leave the rest. But always remember that we shouldn’t throw it away, just put it on the shelf for awhile.
Thanks for the topical post!
Cheers,
John



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richard david

posted November 4, 2009 at 12:11 am


The formless “mindfullness and awareness aspects” are indeed of vital importance… These days they are prominantly featured in Tibetan approaches to Dharma in structured ways… such as courses and other training.. Tibetan Buddhism is the complete transmission of the Yanas/Paths which existed in India…
A particular aspect of the teaching at any given time may vary in prominence due to the auspiciousness of the times…What is beneficial and appropriate for beings…What the conditions are….Rest assured there is no aspect left out…. We may need to revisit due to any lapse in our training…



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Erin Koch

posted November 4, 2009 at 1:20 am


Hey Greg,
Thanks for this article. I, too, appreciate the way teachers like Stephen Bachelor introduce Buddha’s teachings directly. Tibetan’s often teach about their long lineage of realized teacher’s before they teach the Buddha’s words.
I often think about Buddhism blooming on the tip of a Hindu stem. There was quiet a sophisticated culture of meditation, including shamata, before Buddha. Shamata alone, or formless meditation will not lead to enlightenment (or so they say, I wouldn’t know). The meditations train the mind so that wisdom can replace confusion. Wisdom comes through contemplating and understanding the 4 noble truths, not through formless meditation experiences. Those beautiful, meaningful and wonderful experiences are worth it, but they are impermanent.
I think the really powerful Tibetan teachers that come to the West understand that we generally don’t want all the bells and whistles that come with the Bon heritage because it feels too foreign for most of us. They don’t want us to blindly practice some sadana without knowing and actualizing what we are doing. They want us to know the meaning in the symbol and to understand that meaning and keep the ember of that meaning burning in our hearts.
In my experience, the practices really do not differ that much. I mean, they do, of course look very different. But there is a lot of mindfulness of body in vajrasattva. There is plenty of analitic contemplation of the 4 noble truths in ngondro. Formless meditation has the same rigpa, or awareness as mantra. Awareness pervades all practices. It is up to the practitioner to pierce the essence of wisdom in a practice. The practice and path, are, after all, just a creation of the practitioner. I just do what I am lucky enough to know about at the end of the day.
Anyway, getting tired as it is late.
Thanks for writing,
Erin



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Peter Sang

posted November 4, 2009 at 2:44 am


Thank you for your very heartfelt and well written essay.
And of course, there’s always “room for improvement” as demonstrated by HHDL’s continuing interest and participation in Western scientific forums, research (be it quantum physics, neuroscience, psychiatry, etc), sourced upon empirically based evidence/proofs, in which virtually many ‘proofs’ or discoveries might bring into question and challenge the core truths and traditions of long held traditional beliefs and teachings.
Interesting that I find one name missing from your Tibetan historical backstory, that being Je Tsongkhapa.
And that in your reference to what you perceive as the lack of importance placed on breath training
by the largest tradition, the Gelukpa, it was viewed as a mere precursor to the real work of analytic reasoning/direct experience as the potential of the practice itself was not recognized as an end unto itself. My understanding is that “breath training” was looked at as training wheels in order to eventually learn how to ride a two-wheeled and possibly multi-geared bicycle. During a lecture last evening, Dr. William C Bushell referenced that Tibetan tradition that states that when you can simultaneously visualize the 722 eyes within the Kalachakra thangka, that you are now considered to have reached an “intermediate level” of your practice.
I’m not putting this out there as a goal (or a defeat) that people should experience, but only as the intensity of the Tibetan system, and why they look upon initial breath training as merely learning how to ride a trycle as a child, without falling over or driving into a tree.
I also respectfully find it necessary to mention that the Theravada school, and while it has been life changing for you, and seems to resonate and harmonize so well for you, is focussed on the enlightenment of the “individual”, as opposed to the more Messianic approach of the Tibetan view.
In later Theravada literature, the term bodhisattva is used fairly frequently in the sense of someone on the path to liberation. The later tradition of commentaries also recognizes the existence of two additional types of bodhisattva: the paccekabodhisatta who will attain Paccekabuddhahood, and the savakabodhisatta who will attain enlightenment as a disciple of a Buddha.
Hence my description of “Tibetan Buddhism” as being a “messianic resolution”.
The above essay is not intended to slight or criticize, but to only add more to the pot on the stove and to be cooked down further.
In summation (and please excuse this horrible mixing of metaphors) but that in photography, people starting out, learning the basics of the medium often ask “What is the best camera “. The answer is the best camera is the one you have with you in the moment, and
not the one you left home or are planning to buy next week.



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Jayarava

posted November 4, 2009 at 3:32 am


I continue to find inspiration in the Tibetan tradition but practice with Sangharakshita. Eclecticism need not be a bad thing if something coherent comes out of it – after all that is what Tantra is. It’s not continual pick and mix but careful selection and then getting on with it.
I’m not convinced by a lot of the rhetoric from traditional Buddhists (not just Tibetan) regarding the antiquity and/or completeness of their teachings, nor the claims to authenticity. Clearly 2500 years is a long time, and the texts we have inherited show that a process has been going on that whole time. In a religion which teaches that all is process, wht are we surprised that the teachings are too? Look at the huge range of variations in Buddhism! Largely due to culture, not Dharma.
I think Tibetan Buddhism is deeply affected by being taught by a diaspora, a group of refugees living in foreign climates and cultures. It must be very difficult. My heart goes out to them. And of course they inspire a lot of people to practice, and have brought Buddhism to a greater visibility – although that can be a mixed blessing.
Thanks for your thoughts on this.
Jayarava



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Shunyata Kharg

posted November 4, 2009 at 3:41 am


Thank you for an interesting and well written piece. I have been studying buddhism for the last four years or so without any association whatsoever with any buddhist sangha, basically because of the same ‘lack of affinity’ for ritualistic practices. I believe that many people living in ostensibly christian cultures share my condition and are looking for alternative forms of spirituality which do not involve the purely faith-based ritual practices perceived as being integral to the christian spiritual path.
My main focus of study and buddhist practice revolves around the tibetan tradition of mahamudra. I have found this to be an excellent blend of theory and practice, a blend I haven’t found so readily available in other traditions. I would say that some the of tibetan traditions I have encountered focus more on theory than practice and that some the of zen traditions I have encountered focus more on practice than theory. It has been important for me to have an intellectual understanding of the philosophical framework in which abstract meditation and mindfulness take place, in fact, I don’t think I could have effectuated the changes in consciousness that I have if I focussed on theory independently of practice or vice-versa.
I think that religions, as institutions, because of their vulnerability to the more pernicious aspects of their social, cultural and political circumstances, have a tendency to lose the dynamism of their original spiritual message. These days, however, the original spiritual messages and the original interpretations of them by recognised spiritual masters are available in the public domain. In the sense that everybody now has access to these texts we could say that religious institutions are becoming irrelevant as the unique carriers of these techniques.



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chodon

posted November 4, 2009 at 4:58 am


i just want to say that the Dalai lama in the book “Open heart” say that he likes Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar who his a follower of the monk Sangharakshit – http://www.fwbo.org — “Nos anos cinquenta o falecido Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar•, um membro desta casta e um grande advogado, ex-ministro da Justiça na Índia e autor da sua constituição, tornou-se budista. Centenas de milhares de pessoas seguiram o seu exemplo.”
the important is a good heart.
by the way “Do you have a meditation practice and follow the Buddhist teachings but don’t belong to a Buddhist community, or sangha, and don’t have a Buddhist teacher? If so, you’re part of a growing community of unaffiliated Buddhists in North America. In the Spring 2010 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly we’ll be focusing on unaffiliated Buddhists and we’d like to hear from you.
What’s your experience of being an unaffiliated practitioner? Are you content with going it alone, or is it a struggle? What have you found helpful in your practice and study? Are you unaffiliated by choice or by circumstance (i.e. no Buddhist center in your town, etc)? Add a comment to share your thoughts on this and keep an eye out for the Spring Buddhadharma, which will offer practical advice for anyone who is traveling the path without a teacher or sangha.” in shambhala sun space



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Al

posted November 4, 2009 at 5:53 am


@chodron
I also liked the essay above. I read the responses and have to admit a lot of it is hard for me to assimilate, retain, and consider because I am an unaffiliated wannabe Buddhist. I don’t have the knowlege/experience base yet to hold it all in a sophisticated manner. A great deal of the reason I’m a wannabe is directly because I’m unaffiliated. I don’t trust that my self-directed study and practice is sufficient for me to take the step to call myself a Buddhist. I have a great deal of respect for those of you who have engaged in your practice with a high degree of diligence and dedication, and I think it would be disrespectful to say I am one of you. I don’t know if my understanding is on target or if there are things I’m doing in my practice that are hidering me. Most of my blocks to actually taking refuge in the triple gem would be alleviated by being part of a sangha, I believe. It does hinder my development to not have a sangha in my life. I live in a place where I don’t have access, at least as far as I know.
I do have Buddhist books, DVD’s, blogs I visit, and Youtube. They are all helpful, but the lack of people I can see face to face is probably not at all helpful to me. Still, I won’t go back to the way it was before I explored Buddhism. Buddhism is my path, even if I walk on it awkwardly for a while.
Don’t worry. I’m not asking for help. I’m just answering your question since I’ve seen little directed at those of us who are unaffiliated. It was nice to be recognized, even in that small way.
Al



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ellen9

posted November 4, 2009 at 10:03 am


Thank you, Greg, for a tremendously helpful and excellent post. I really appreciated your viewpoint, research, and insight; a lot of it resonated deeply with me.
That said, I gotta reveal that one of my first thoughts was “Wow, I gotta get me some of that U Goenka!”
LOL – where the hell is that copy of Spiritual Materialism, dammit . . .



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Greg

posted November 4, 2009 at 10:46 am


Thanks for all of the comments, everyone! I’ll try to respond systematically . .
Jon, contemplative meditation is an interesting subject. I’ve certainly done a fair amount of it myself, and I think it is helpful, but I don’t share the view that it is the only means by which the experience of vipa?yan? can arise. You’re right that this view is hard to reconcile with the fact that shikantaza, for instance, seems to work for people.
@Pat – don’t worry – I think the vast and daunting task of sorting through this heritage is something that be accomplished n collectively. Individually, it is easier than ever to find what resonates on a personal level.
@Darren – I certainly don’t advocate “discounting all of Tibetan Buddhism.” Nor do I challenge the prerogative of lamas to teach what they think will be most helpful. But the idea that once a person is interested in Tibetan Buddhism, they have to hermetically seal themselves into that world, is an ahistorical and counterproductive idea that I most definitely disagree with. I think Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said it well:
“Despite their emphasis on an ecumenical attitude, many lamas encourage sectarianism by guarding their Tibetan disciples possessively and discouraging them from studying teachings from other traditions. Of course, they have a convenient excuse: their students will become too confused if they do this. Thus many Tibetan students from one school have absolutely no idea of the other traditions; but that doesn’t seem to stop them slandering the others. As if it were not enough that they are doing this with Tibetans, the lamas have also coached westerners in this sectarian game and they have been shockingly successful.”
http://mindrollinginternational.org/dharmadhrishti/journal/2009_Spring/DKR_EastWest-WestEast.cfm
He’s talking about the peasant mentality that should be abandoned.
The truth is, I am not particularly Stephen Batchelor’s biggest fan, and I disagree with him on a number of points, but I happen to think he was right in this instance.
Thanks Erin, thank you for your thoughts – I hope you got some sleep!
@Peter – you are absolutely right that in some approaches samatha with the breath is looked at as just the first step in a long process that culminates in extremely complicated visualizations. I’m not a Kalachakra practitioner but I do practice the creation stage in the context of other yidam practices. I’m not opposed to it at all. But I do think that reducing breath samatha to that is ultimately a mistake.



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Glenn

posted November 4, 2009 at 11:12 am


the purpose of the Tibetan meditation practices is to weaken the egoic self, and to bring one to the realization of emptiness, and unique to Tibetan Buddhism the union of wisdom (emptiness) and compassion. Once there, THAT is the practice. A stumbling block on the path IS the clinging to the ritual or mantra.



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Glenn

posted November 4, 2009 at 11:12 am


the purpose of the Tibetan meditation practices is to weaken the egoic self, and to bring one to the realization of emptiness, and unique to Tibetan Buddhism the union of wisdom (emptiness) and compassion. Once there, THAT is the practice. A stumbling block on the path IS the clinging to the ritual or mantra.



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Grady Ormsby

posted November 4, 2009 at 11:24 am


This makes one stop to think about all practices, methods and teachings. Ultimtely, concern about goals, progress and achievement serves as a distraction. Why strive for …….whatever? What’s the hurry? Doesn’t one have ten thousand years or more?
Keep it simple. Find some time every day for sitting quietly, doing nothing. My guess is that in time one will realize that one is “there” without having gone anywhere at all.



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Grady Ormsby

posted November 4, 2009 at 11:33 am


Keep it simple. Don’t worry about methods and traditions and practices and teachings. Most of that stuff ends up as distractions.
Find some time every day for sitting quietly, doing nothing.
In time, without measuring progress or assessing growth, one will realize that one is “there” and it will be right where one was all along.
Enjoy being.



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ARG

posted November 4, 2009 at 11:39 am


Very interesting piece–thank you!



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Your Name

posted November 4, 2009 at 12:14 pm


This has interesting information but seems to approach correct practice as someone would approach which of several esoteric aspects of phenomenology they should focus upon for their philosophy dissertation. Can Shakyamuni have meant it to be so difficult? He didn’t create the avenue to enlightenment. It’s there as a part of our constitutions. He only pointed to HIS path.
Doesn’t Lama Surya Das already address many of this writer’s problems w/ Tibetan Buddhism?



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John McGrath

posted November 4, 2009 at 12:41 pm


I don’t get it. I’m no Buddhist but I regularly look at the tree outside my window and find my mind clearing, in a way. I just perceive and am aware that my feelings are kind and slightly amusing. This called relaxing. I guess I am not meant for a higher state. OK by me.



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Kyoen

posted November 4, 2009 at 1:14 pm


ZAZEN & :-)



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Paul Griffin

posted November 4, 2009 at 1:21 pm


Thank you for this post, Greg. I found it helpful, and I look forward to reading Sangharakshita.



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David Chapman

posted November 4, 2009 at 3:06 pm


I agree with your critique of Tibetan Buddhism as it has traditionally been taught in Tibet *in the past few centuries*, and as it is still taught by many Tibetan teachers. And certainly there is much of value in many other Buddhist traditions (and indeed in many others). On the other hand, the issues you raise *are* addressed by quite a few teachers within the Tibetan lineage.
I would add, to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the others you mention, the Aro lineage (to which I belong and write about). It teaches formless meditation — Dzogchen semde — as the main practice and foundation for everything else. The Aro approach reclaims parts of the Indo-Tibetan tradition that have been, as you perceptively put it, “kicked upstairs” in Tibet during the past few hundred years. (I’ve written quite a bit about the historical/political reasons — mostly bad ones, in my opinion — that that happened.)
David McMahan’s excellent book “The Making of Buddhist Modernism” points out that even casual contemporary Buddhists have far greater access to a far greater range of Buddhist texts than anyone in pre-modern Asian history (including the scholarly elite). We also have various Western conceptual frameworks for understanding them that — although they are sometimes obstacles — can also resolve contradictions that were big problems traditionally.
I have been reading a lot of scholarly work about the history of Buddhism. The main things I’m taking away from it are the thoroughly syncretic nature of all Buddhist lineages, the dubiousness of all their claims to “originality”, and the large role of political expediency in shaping doctrine.
Bearing all that in mind, I think it is reasonable to continue to consider oneself a Tibetan Buddhist, while prioritizing formless meditation, while learning from other traditions, and while maintaining a respectful skepticism regarding some Tibetan orthodoxies.
Cheers,
David



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Shunyata Kharg

posted November 4, 2009 at 3:37 pm


@David Chapman
I thought you were supposed to be on retreat ;-)
Thank you for putting me in touch with the Aro lineage, of which I knew nothing until I read your entry. Wikipedia tells me that there are no extant tibetan teachers of the tradition. Interesting!



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Renzo

posted November 4, 2009 at 8:05 pm


What is coincidence? I happened to have signed up for Google Buddhist Alerts yesterday, and was reading the Satiphatthana Sutta just today. Lo and behold, your most interesting and informative essay, above. I thank you for the directions to which you pointed, and the affirmations which you shared.



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Greg

posted November 5, 2009 at 10:00 am


@David Chapman – thanks for your remarks. I’ve read your site over the last year and I’ve enjoyed many of your thoughtful posts. I too have been reading a lot of scholarly work, and I couldn’t agree more about the value therein.
I do very much remain a practitioner in the Indo-Tibetan tradition, and the approach you consider reasonable is very much the one I recommend. I think in this case it is only the label “Tibetan Buddhism” that I would reject, along with the incuriosity and triumphalism that so often seem to go with it.



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Crazy Wizdom

posted November 7, 2009 at 11:50 am


Curious about Buddhist scripture, particularly the most esoteric. What is a good source? And how many are belived to be still untranslated/or unavailable in English?



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Greg

posted November 9, 2009 at 11:05 am


@Crazy Wisdom
Harunaga Isaacson, who seems to be one of the two leading scholars in the field, has written:
“. .though we do not know precisely at present just how many Indian tantric Buddhist texts survive today in the language in which they were written, their number is certainly over one thousand five hundred; I suspect indeed over two thousand. A large part of this body of texts has also been translated into Tibetan, and a smaller part into Chinese. Aside from these, there are perhaps another two thousand or more works that are know today only from such translation. We can be certain as well that many others are lost to us forever, in whatever form. Of the texts that survive a very small portion has been published; an almost insignificant percentage has been edited or translated reliably.”
The article can be read here:
http://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/fileadmin/pdf/digitale_texte/Bd2-K02Isaacson.pdf
If you just want an overview of Vajrayana, however, you would be better off reading a more general book like Reggie Ray’s.



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Ty

posted November 15, 2009 at 2:09 pm


There are 84,000 different dharmas because of the diverse needs of beings to be tamed. (In the wheel of life there’s a bodhisattva manifesting in each of the six realms according to the needs of beings.) Tibetan Buddhism most resembles Catholic and Orthodox Christianity because of the same human needs. Mudra, mantra, rosaries, rituals, holy days of obligation, novena-ish accumulations of recitations, integration of native practices and superstitions, saints and iconography… These are all skillful means to help us realize wisdom. Sanghas that emphasize sitting meditation first and foremost remind me of Protestant Christians. I’m glad it works for them, but it feels emotionally cold to me. I need more to work with.
“The main practice of devotion is taking refuge and the main practice of compassion is to generate bodhichitta. If we investigate, we will not find a single Vajrayana practice without those two, taking refuge and generating bodhichitta. Look at it this way: once we have a heavy investment in taking refuge and generating bodhichitta, we have the capital to be able to do the business of the higher practices and gain the profit of the development stage, the completion stage, and the three great practices – Mahamudra, Dzogchen, and Madhyamika. Without the capital, we won’t be able to do any business at all. Devotion and compassion are the basic capital for Buddhist practice.” – Tulku Urgyen
I studied with Nyingma lamas, and although they keep telling you Dzogchen comes last after all these other arduous practices, it’s always being transmitted from your very first teaching. They throw you right in the deep end of the pool. The preliminary practices, the ones you hope to get past so you can get the real practices? They keep telling you they’re actually the most profound, and they mean it:
http://www.jnanasukha.org/pdfs/dzogchenviewofngondro.pdf
The difference between the old translation school (Nyingma) and the new translation schools (Sarma), Lama Tharchin once said, is that they are aiming for clarity of visualization – all the tiny details. We are aiming for vajra pride: “I *am* Vajrakilaya!!!” is what’s important, not whether you’re good at visualizing details.
My problem with Tibetan Buddhism has been how to practice devotion sincerely, since it’s usually tied up with notions of obedience to the human guru. The other day on the BART, a gospel song on my ipod brought tears to my eyes, a lump to my throat, and made my hair stand on end. I was so embarrassed. I switched to Battlehooch so I wouldn’t start sobbing.
Thinking about it I remembered those are the signs of devotion. I started to wonder whether it’s the feeling of devotion upward that’s important, not its purported object, not the prescribed ritual. Tulku Urgyen says, “The most perfect circumstance for realizing the correct view of emptiness is upwardly to generate devotion to all the enlightened ones and downwardly to cultivate compassion for all sentient beings.”
http://www.purifymind.com/DevotionCompassion.htm
Can we do guru yoga with our ipods, playing music that makes us feel devotion and compassion? This works for me, in some weird cafeteria Buddhist kinda way:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ApjyAnt4-qE



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maximo hudson

posted January 14, 2010 at 7:22 am


In my mind, one need only to justify one’s spiritual path to one’s self and it is not for me to judge Greg’s chosen path. I am a firm believer in the old adage, “Paths are many, truth is one.” However, I do question the validity of Greg’s speculation that, “‘Tibetan Buddhism’ is not quite as all-encompassing of the Indian Buddhist tradition as it believes itself to be.”
For whatever reason, Greg has publicly decided to rationalize why he is no longer a Tibetan Buddhist, but it is a rationalization that is based, at least in part, not so much on fact as upon faulty perception. This is not to say that his path is invalid, only that his stated reason for “leaving the fold” is, from my perspective at least, based on ignorance.
“It just wasn’t working for me,” would be, for a variety of reasons, more accurate than conjecture based on a mere eight years study of the Tibetan Buddhist path.
Most dedicated students of Tibetan Buddhism who have practiced for considerably longer than eight years will recognize that eight years of study in this discipline is but a beginning.
While Greg’s choice is unquestionably correct, since he made it, his rationalization, as evidenced by his own words, is based upon inaccurate conjecture and insufficient study and not on demonstrable or even generally accepted fact.
Or so it seems to me.



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ConcepcionCalderon27

posted August 3, 2010 at 12:22 pm


Set your life time more simple take the loan and everything you require.



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serialcrack

posted September 30, 2010 at 3:55 am


Yes, sure, I like it, Interesting and educational. Please continue to write more interesting post in your website.



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thwizzle ram bot drek mouth

posted June 6, 2012 at 12:58 am


so what your reason you seem to set ill be brainwashed



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Sis

posted July 14, 2013 at 8:54 pm


Heya i’m for the primary time here. I found this board and I to find It really helpful & it helped me out much. I’m hoping to present one thing back and help others like you helped me.



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Chris

posted July 21, 2014 at 11:22 pm


First , I want to thank you for your honesty, because that is how this all is supposed to work. Even though it is years later. There are 4 major schools in Tibetan Buddhism, 2 focus on meditation and the other two are the analytical paths. I’m not comfortable at all with Gelugpa teachings, but much more happy with the spontaneous joyful teachings of the Kagyu and Nyigma.
I am a Karma Kagyu student . I started as a Pure Land Chinese Buddhist, but the Chinese culture , as the Gelugpa culture made me feel constrained. I studied with the Diamond Way which uses Shamata and Vipassayana by way of visualization etc. I did the practices of Ngondro and Guru Yoga, but found not much change in my life ,but powerful experiences in the presence of visiting great masters.
I met Shamar Rinpoche who while being inseperable from the Karmapa, as head of the Karma Kagyu school, started a Rime or non-sectarian approach based on the 7 Point Mind Training of Atisha. Shamata on the Breath, Form etc and then Vipassayana and study. I stopped the Guru Yoga and Ngondro practice to just focus on Shamata on the breath and Samantabhadra;s Aspiration Prayer after he looked me dead in the eye told me that’s all I should do. My life changed more in 2 years of that practice than years of the other practices I had been doing from the same lineage. My fellow Diamond Way practitioners told me I have to choose my teacher and not mix. But the man who gave me the teachings is the lineage holder! His view is that if we don’t have an idea of what a calm mind is , how can we develop insight? Now whether doing 111,111 prostrations etc gave me the merit to have a calm abiding mind , I can’t say. But I can say, I was not ready for Guru Yoga. Once my mind got habituated to being calm,, I got back to the practices of Guru Yoga, but now I was able to see that Ngondro and Guru Yoga are Shamata, that the end of the meditation is the direct experience of Vipassayan or Lakthong and not just analytical. I don’t think they are better or worse, but more useful for individuals. I wasn’t ready yet as I had no idea what I was doing.
“May I perfect the practice of Enlightened Conduct in accord with the various lifestyles of beings.” from The King of Aspiration Prayers of Noble, Excellent Activity

means that once enlightened , may you provide countless methods of the path to enlightenment appropriate for the times and personalities of the people who want teachings. Not better or worse, just more useful or less useful.

I found calm abiding meditation to be more useful than the powerful dynamic Guru Yogas which I was not yet prepared to do. Sharmapa Rinpoche said that most people jump in too fast to some practices without having a n understanding of basics of working with mind. Some people thrive in sink or swim. I sank.



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