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Common Misunderstandings about Buddhism

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, November 2010

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (1:43 hours)

Today is the nineteenth of November, 2010. I have been asked to speak about some of the common misunderstandings about Buddhism. And there are many different varieties of this, for many different reasons.

There are some that are culturally specific, either to our Western culture, or to Asian and other cultures that are influenced by our modern Western thinking. There are misconceptions that could come from other cultural areas: traditional Chinese thinking, and so on. There can be misunderstanding that arises more in general, due to people’s disturbing emotions. There can be misunderstandings that arise from just the fact that the material is difficult to understand. Misunderstanding could arise because of teachers not explaining things clearly or leaving things not explained at all, so that we project on to them what we think they mean. It could also be that the teachers themselves misunderstand the teachings. That happens sometimes. Because not all teachers are fully qualified; many are sent to teach or asked to teach before they are qualified. And also, even if teachers explain things clearly, we might not hear them properly. A lot of people don’t listen very well and the teachings don’t really register on them correctly in terms of what the teacher actually said. Or they take poor notes and they don’t remember them correctly, and so on.

So there are many, many reasons for misunderstanding. Today I sat down and started to list some of them, and I came up with thirty. That just came to mind sitting down at the computer, at which point, I stopped. And I think that one can find – because of all these different reasons for misunderstanding – many, many mistakes that we make or confusion that we have. And, as I say, not all of them are limited to us Westerners; we find a lot of this misunderstanding among the Tibetans and other traditional Asians as well.

So I thought to limit what I mention here to just a few general topics, rather than just go on and on, although, in fact, we might not be able to cover everything that I noted down here. The areas that I would like to focus on are ethics, the topic of gurus, the topic of practice, and the topic of tantra. So these are only a few. Obviously I’ve left out voidness and all these other things that we could easily misunderstand.

So let’s begin. Since there are quite a few points here, I won’t go into great detail about any of them, but just mention them for your consideration. And these are things we can think about further.

Misunderstandings about Ethics and Vows

In terms of ethics, I think in this case, and in many cases, the misunderstanding can often arise because of translation terms. We often project non-Buddhist concepts onto the teachings. And, for example, we might use Biblical terminology – terminology that has connotations from our Biblical tradition, such as the words virtuous, non-virtuous, merit, sin – these sort of words that project onto the teaching on ethics in Buddhism the whole idea of moral judgment and guilt: that some things are virtuous, meaning good and proper, and we’re good people if we do that. And we build up merit, like some sort of reward. And if we act in a nonvirtuous, not in a holy type of way, then we are bad and we build up sins, for which we must suffer. This is clearly a projection of Biblical ethics onto the Buddhist ethics, because in Buddhism ethics are basically based on developing discriminating awareness between what’s constructive, what’s destructive, what will be beneficial, what will be harmful.

Next it’s a misunderstanding to regard the vows as laws. So the belief that Buddhist ethics are based on obedience to laws, rather than based on discriminating awareness. So, depending on which culture we come from… In some cultures people take laws very, very seriously, and then we become quite inflexible; that we don’t want to break the law: “This is the way it is, and no discussion about it.” Whereas the Tibetans are quite relaxed in terms of the ethical guidelines. It doesn’t mean that they’re sloppy, but it means that in certain situations one has to use one’s discriminating awareness in terms how you apply the guideline. Because what we are trying to discriminate here is whether we are acting under the influence of a disturbing emotion or whether there is a constructive reason for our way of behaving.

To the other extreme, we could look at the vows – I’m talking specifically here about vows – like a lawyer. And so we are looking for loopholes in the presentation of karma so as to find excuses for acting destructively or for compromising and watering down a vow. Let me give an example of how we look for these loopholes in a legalistic type of way. For example, we could take a vow to avoid inappropriate sexual behavior, and then we assert that having oral sex is okay because it’s an expression of love. So we excuse ourselves because we happen to like this form of sexual behavior. Or, after taking a vow to give up alcohol, we say that it’s okay to have wine at a meal with our parents so as not to offend them, or it’s okay to drink occasionally so long as we don’t get drunk. So we make these sorts of excuses to try to get around a vow. The point being that if you take a vow, you take the whole vow. You don’t take part of the vow. This is the way the vow is specified. If we can’t keep all the details of the vows, or of any particular vow, as specified in the text, then don’t take the vow. There’s no obligation to take the vow.

There is an alternative. In the abhidharma discussion about vows, they have three categories: There’s a vow in which you vow basically to refrain from something which is destructive. And then there’s something which is very difficult to translate – it’s literally an anti-vow. It’s a vow not to refrain from, for instance, killing – if you join the army, you’re going to shoot the enemy – or something like that. And then there is something which is in-between. And it’s this in-between category which we could apply here. In another words, we could refrain from part of what’s specified in a vow – like not having sex with somebody else’s partner; or not having violence in our sex; or raping someone, forcing them to have sex; something like that – if there are parts of the vow that we think that I can’t really keep. And making a promise like that is not actually the vow as specified in the text. But it is far more positive, builds up moral positive force – I prefer positive force rather than merit, and negative force rather than sin – so it builds up more positive force on our mental continuum than just refraining from that type of behavior. And so this doesn’t compromise the vow and yet becomes a very strong form of ethical practice.

Another mistake about ethics is misunderstanding that Buddhist ethics are humanistic. “Humanistic” means that we just avoid doing things that would harm others. So long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else, it’s okay. And what we want to avoid is hurting others. This is humanistic ethics, or at least my understanding of humanistic ethics. And although that’s very nice, very good, that is not the basis of Buddhist ethics. The basis of Buddhist ethics is emphasis on avoiding what’s self-destructive, because we don’t know what is going to hurt others: You could give somebody a million euros thinking that we’re going to benefit them. And the next day, because they have that money, they get robbed and murdered. So we don’t know what’s going to be of benefit to somebody else. We can’t see the future. What is specified in the Buddhist teachings is that if we act destructively, on the basis of disturbing emotions – anger, greed, lust, jealousy, naivety, these sort of things – it is self-destructive: it builds up a negative habit to repeat that and is going to cause us to experience suffering ourselves. This is the basis of Buddhist ethics.

Misunderstandings about Rebirth

And a corollary of this is that this idea of Buddhist ethics being humanistic – just don’t hurt others – often seems to come from premature emphasis on Mahayana practice, thinking that we can skip over the initial and intermediate lam-rim stages. Beginning stages, the initial stages: avoid worse rebirths. Well, we don’t even believe in rebirth. The intermediate level: avoid rebirth altogether and samsara. Well, we still don’t believe in rebirth, so none of that really strikes us as important; let’s skip over that. And we’re attracted to the Mahayana teachings because, in many ways, it sounds very much like some of our Western traditions of love and patience and compassion and being generous, practicing charity, and so on. It sounds very, very nice, and so we are attracted to that, skipping over or minimizing the importance of these initial scopes – at which you are working on overcoming the disturbing emotions, destructive behavior, etc., because it is self-destructive – and just going toward trying to help others. So that’s a mistake. Even though it’s important to emphasize Mahayana, it has to be on the basis of the initial and intermediate scopes.

A strong reason why many of us would rather skip over the initial scope teachings is because we think that rebirth doesn’t exist. After all, the emphasis here is to avoid worse rebirths; therefore we take refuge (put a positive direction in our life) and follow the laws of karma to avoid destructive behavior because it will bring us worse rebirths. So we skip over that or de-emphasize it because we don’t believe in rebirth. And especially we certainly don’t believe in the hell realms and the clutching ghost (hungry ghost) realms, and the gods and the anti-gods. We think that they don’t really exist and that the descriptions in the Dharma texts are really just referring to psychological states of humans. That really is an injustice to the teachings and is a big misunderstanding.

I don’t want to go into tremendous detail here, but if we think of a mind, mental continuum, a mental continuum, whether ours or anybody else’s, can experience much further on the spectrum – in fact, the entire spectrum – of happiness and unhappiness and pleasure and pain, and not just a limited amount of that spectrum that is defined by the parameters of our body and our mind as a human. Animals can see further. Some of them, they can hear better. And so on. So why not that the boundaries in terms of what we can experience – in terms of happiness, unhappiness, pleasure and pain – can also be extended and have an appropriate physical form as its basis.

So even though we have in the presentation of karma that there can be some aftereffect [in a human life], some leftovers of previous lifetimes in these other realms, so we find things that are similar to them; nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that we can reduce the discussion of these other life forms that we can take, and others can take, simply to human psychological states. Because of not accepting rebirth and these other states of existence, we misunderstand karma as describing merely consequences of our actions that will happen in this life; and that causes a lot of problems. Because there are big criminals that seem to get away with it – they’re never caught – and we could experience all sorts of horrible things in our lifetime happening to us and we’ve never really done something outstandingly destructive. So karma doesn’t seem to make any sense if we limit our discussion or our view just to this lifetime.

Misunderstandings about Dharma

And all of this underlines a much larger problem, a much larger misunderstanding about Dharma, which is that we can pick and choose within Dharma – within Buddhism – only what we like, and we can discard or ignore what we have trouble accepting: so-called “sanitized” Buddhism. We sanitize it or clean it of all the things that are difficult.

That, well, these stories about karma with elephants that go under the earth and that excrete gold, and all these other things, well – “Oh come on! Those are fairy tales for children!” We don’t see that there’s some lesson in there. Whether we take it literally or not (the way that some Tibetans do) is not the point. The point is not to dismiss it; it’s part of the teachings. Or the idea of in the Mahayana sutras that the Buddhas are teaching hundreds of millions of beings; and there are hundreds of millions of Buddhas attending; and in every pore of a Buddha, another hundred million; and so on. And just being embarrassed about that and saying, “This is too weird,” and not accepting it.

So picking and choosing the parts that we like. Well, there are certain tantric and bodhisattva vows against that: To just take parts of teachings and ignore others, just take what we like. If we’re going to accept Buddhism as our spiritual path, we at least need to be open enough to say, “I don’t understand this teaching,” even if it sounds very weird to us, and “I will at least hold off judgment on it until I get a better understanding, a better explanation, a deeper explanation.” Not to just close our minds off and dismiss them.

Another misunderstanding is that, even if we do accept rebirth, to think that it is going to be so easy to have a precious human rebirth again. We often think that “Yeah, yeah, I believe in rebirth. And of course I’m going to be a human. And of course I’m going to have all the opportunities to continue practicing,” and so on. That’s being very naive, very, very naive. Especially if we think of the amount of destructive behavior that we’ve had, the amount of time that we have spent under the influence of disturbing emotions – anger, greed, selfishness, etc. – as compared to the amount of time that we have acted under pure love and compassion, then it’s quite clear that it’s going to be very difficult to get a precious human rebirth again.

And another fallacy that comes here, a misunderstanding, is that because of attachment to friends and family, striving to have a precious human rebirth so we could continue to be with them. Or even just thinking that if I attain a precious human rebirth again, well, of course I will meet with all my friends and relatives and loved ones again. That also is a misunderstanding. There are how many countless life forms, sentient beings, and we’re all going to be reborn in different situations. And so there is absolutely no guarantee – in fact, there’s a much greater possibility that it’s going to be a very long time before we encounter anyone again from this lifetime. We may. It’s not that it’s impossible. But it’s a misunderstanding to think it’s so easy or that it’s guaranteed.

Misunderstandings about Karma

Another thing in terms of karma and rebirth, then, is that even if we accept that suffering in this lifetime is the ripening of negative karmic potentials built up in previous lives – thinking that “Well, if I suffer, if something bad happens to me, I deserve it.” Or you deserve it, if it happened to you. The misunderstanding here is that it implies a solidly existent “me” who broke the law, is guilty and bad, and now is getting the punishment that I deserve.

We place the blame, then, on “me” – this solid “me” who is so bad and now is being punished – because of oversimplifying the laws of karma, behavioral cause and effect. We don’t see that there are many factors involved with experiencing the ripening of the karma, such as all the circumstances in which various karmic results ripen. There are causes for those. It’s a mistake, it’s a misunderstanding, to think that I am the cause for the ripening of other people’s karma. What we experience arises dependently on all of these factors, not just on me.

I’ll give an example. We’re hit by a car. Now it’s not because of what I did in a previous lifetime that causes the other person to hit me. We think, “Well, I’m responsible for them hitting me.” No. What we are responsible for is experiencing being hit. That person’s karma is responsible for them hitting us with the car. And so, like this, what happens to us is the result of the interaction of many, many different karmic factors, and disturbing emotions, and general factors – like the weather: it was raining, the road was slippery; etc., etc. – that all goes together to bring about the ripening of – well, let’s say not the ripening but the coming about of a situation in which we have suffering or problems.

So these are some of the misunderstandings that can come up in terms of ethics, karma, and so on. I’m sure there are many, many more. These are just the ones that came to my head as I was thinking about it today.

Misunderstandings about Gurus

Now about gurus, I think that’s a big area of misunderstanding, not only among Westerners. First of all, because of the emphasis on the importance of the guru, we misunderstand that the guru needs to be qualified – needs to be a qualified guru – and there are lists of the qualifications. And even if the guru is qualified, we need to feel inspired by this person. Because one of the main reasons for the importance of the spiritual teacher is that the teacher provides inspiration, the energy for us to practice, the model that we want to follow. We can get information from books, from the Internet, and so on. Of course they need to answer questions. They need to be able to correct us where we are making mistakes in our meditation practice. But if they don’t inspire us, we’re not going to get terribly far.

But because of that misunderstanding – that they really need to be qualified and they really need to inspire us – we’re in a rush to accept somebody as our guru without examining him or her fully or properly first, because of this emphasis: “You have to have a guru; you have to have a guru.” And then we risk the possibility of getting disillusioned when later we see objectively that he or she has faults. We didn’t examine properly. This is a big problem, because many scandals have arisen over spiritual teachers who either were rightly or wrongly accused of improper behavior. And sometimes they’re rightly accused of that; they weren’t really qualified. And we might have felt pressured by this emphasis on the guru to accept this person as our guru. And then we see these things happen and we are just devastated.

As an auxiliary to this, it’s a misunderstanding to think that all Tibetans – or, more limited, all monks and nuns; or, even more limited, all Rinpoches and Geshes and Kenpos – are perfect examples of Buddhist practice. That is a very common misunderstanding. We think, “Ah, they must be perfect Buddhists: they’re Tibetan,” or “Perfect Buddhists: they’re wearing robes.” “Perfect Buddhists: they have a title of Rinpoche. They must be an enlightened being.” This is very naive. These are regular people.

There might be a larger proportion of practicing Buddhists among the Tibetans than in most societies; there may be certain Buddhist values which are part of their culture; but that doesn’t mean that they’re all perfect, by any means. And if one becomes a monk or a nun, there can be many reasons. Among the Tibetans, it could be that the family put you in a monastery as a child because they couldn’t feed you, and you would get food and an education. It could be for a more self-motivated reason – that I have problems and I need the discipline of the monastic life in order to overcome these problems.

As one of my Rinpoche friends said, “Wearing the robes is a sign that I really need this discipline, because I’m a very undisciplined person and have a lot of disturbing emotions and I really am putting full effort into overcoming them.” That doesn’t mean that they have overcome them. And so we shouldn’t naively think that they are all enlightened, especially with these Rinpoches and so on. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says: To just rely on a big name of a predecessor is really a big mistake. [He emphasizes] that these Rinpoches in this lifetime have to demonstrate and prove their qualifications, not just rely on the reputation of their name.

On the other hand, it’s a misunderstanding not to respect and support monks and nuns, but rather to make them into the servants of laypeople at Dharma centers. This often happens, that there’s a Dharma center and they have a resident monk or nun – and they have to clean the house, and they have to tidy up and fix everything for the teachings, and they have to collect the fees. And if it’s a residential center, they have to take care of the bedding and all those sort of things. And they can’t even attend the teachings. And the laypeople think that these are our servants. It’s just the other way around. As monks or nuns, they are very deserving of respect, regardless of what level their ethics are. And this is part of the teachings: one respects even the robes. That doesn’t mean that you think that they’re perfect and are naive about it. But a certain respect needs to be shown.

Also there’s a big misunderstanding about guru devotion; this so-called term. I think it’s not a very helpful translation because it seems to imply almost blind guru worship, like in a cult. That’s a big misunderstanding. The term that is used here in terms of the relation with the spiritual teacher means to rely on and trust a qualified spiritual teacher like we would rely on and trust a qualified doctor. The same term is used for our relation with our doctor. But because of the instruction to see the guru as a Buddha, we misunderstand that to think that the teacher is infallible and so we have to have unquestioning obedience to the guru, like in a cult. That’s a mistake. And because of that, we give up all critical ability and responsibility for ourselves, and we become dependent on asking, often, mos (mo, dice divination) – throw the dice and make all our decisions for us.

We are aiming to become Buddhas ourselves, to develop the discriminating awareness to be able to make intelligent compassionate decisions ourselves. So if a teacher is just aiming to make us dependent on him or her, like in a power trip, there’s something wrong here. And it’s a misunderstanding to think that this is okay and go along with it, play into this type of power and control syndrome with a teacher that really is not following the guidelines properly.

It’s also a misunderstanding to project onto a Buddhist teacher the role of a pastor or a therapist with whom we discuss our personal problems and seek advice. That’s not the role of a Buddhist spiritual teacher. A Buddhist spiritual teacher traditionally gives the teachings, and it’s up to us to figure out how to apply them. It’s really only appropriate to ask about questions regarding our understanding of the teachings and about our meditation practice. If you have psychological problems, you go to a therapist; you don’t go to your spiritual teacher. And especially what’s inappropriate is to discuss marital or relationship problems or sexual problems with a monk or a nun. They’re celibate. They’re not involved in that. These are not the people to ask about these types of problems. But again, we expect that – coming from a tradition that has pastors, priests, or rabbis, or whatever, in our churches – that they’re going to take on this general function of guiding us through things in our lives, dealing with us on that personal level about our personal lives and so on.

I’ll give an example. I was with my spiritual teacher Serkong Rinpoche for nine years, very closely; most of the time, every day. Never in those nine years did he ask me a personal question. Never. About my personal life. About my family. About my background. Nothing. It was all day-to-day in terms of either him teaching me, or my working with him to benefit others – to translate for him, or arrange his travels, or whatever. So, very different type of relationship, which is not easy for us to understand.

In terms of working with the teacher, it brings us to the topic of refuge, which I like to call “safe direction.” It’s putting a direction in our lives, indicated by the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. It’s a misunderstanding of refuge to trivialize it into merely joining a club. You know, you cut a little piece of your hair, you get a little red string, you get a new name, and now you’ve joined a club. Especially when, because the teacher is from a specific Tibetan lineage, we consider the club we’re joining to be a specific lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, rather than Buddhism in general: “Now I have become a Gelugpa.” “Now I have become a Karma Kagyu.” “Now I have become a Nyingma.” “Now I have become a Sakya.” Rather than: “Now I’m following the path of the Buddha.” And because of this misunderstanding, we become sectarian, exclusivist, and we never go to another Dharma center. It’s really quite interesting. You look at the phenomenon in the West: most people just stay in one Dharma center and they never go to another one.

And what’s even more confusing is that every teacher that comes seems to want to set up their own Dharma center and their own organization, which is a big mistake, I feel, because then it becomes unsustainable. You can’t sustain four hundred different brands of Buddhism indefinitely in the future – very confusing for new students. And it is a big financial drain and burden to support all these places with their altars, and their libraries, and paying rent, and so on, and so on. In Tibet, although many different teachers came and different monasteries were established, eventually they came together and you formed distinct groups. Not the same groups that you had in India – you didn’t have Kagyu or Sakya in India – but groups that then became sustainable, which brought together various lineages. So even though we have large organizations in Western Dharma – in terms of what’s been started by Trungpa Rinpoche, Sogyal Rinpoche, and Lama Yeshe, Lama Zopa, etc. – we need to, in a sense, go more in this direction… Well, it becomes very difficult because there are two extremes here. One is: if it’s too fragmented, it doesn’t work. On the other hand, if it’s too regulated, that also doesn’t work. And so one has to be very careful here, but I think sustainability is a big issue.

In terms of not going to other Dharma centers, it’s also a misunderstanding to think that we can’t study with other teachers, even from within our own teacher’s lineage. Most Tibetans have several teachers, not just one. Atisha had 155 teachers, it’s recorded. Different teachers have different specialties. One is good at explaining this; one is good at explaining that. One has this lineage; one has that lineage. It’s not being disloyal to your teacher to have many teachers. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says: we can look at our teachers like the eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara, each teacher is like a different face, all in terms of a central figure being our spiritual guidance. Something like that.

So it’s very important, then, not to take several teachers that conflict with each other. That doesn’t work. You have to find teachers that have a good – what’s called dam-tshig in Tibetan – a close bond with each other; are harmonious with each other. Because, unfortunately, there are such things as what sometimes we call “spiritual star wars” between various spiritual teachers that disagree very violently about certain issues – whether it’s protectors, or who’s the real Karmapa, or whatever. These sort of things. So one has to choose teachers that are harmonious if one’s going to have more than one teacher. And what is essential here is to realize that just to listen to a lecture by a Buddhist teacher doesn’t automatically make this person our spiritual teacher with all the implications of guru devotion, although we need to show them respect. As His Holiness says, “You can go to anybody’s teaching and attend it just as a lecture, as you would a university lecture.” It doesn’t imply anything further than that. Okay.

Misunderstandings about Practice

Now as for practice, it’s a misunderstanding to think that the Gelug tradition is purely a study lineage and Kagyu and Nyingma are purely practice lineages, and so if we’re following one of them, we neglect the other aspect – we neglect our study or we neglect our meditation. When teachers emphasize one or the other of these – study or meditation – that doesn’t mean that we do just one and ignore the other. It’s quite clear that we need both of them.

Recently, in an audience with the group of Westerners who had studied at the library in Dharamsala in the ’70s and ’80s, His Holiness used a very nice example. He said that tantra and mahamudra and dzogchen – these sorts of practices – are like fingers on a hand. The palm of the hand, the base, are the teachings of the Indian tradition from Nalanda Monastery, the teachings of the Indian Nalanda masters on sutra. The misunderstanding is to put too much emphasis on the fingers – sometimes teachers do that as well – put too much emphasis on the fingers and to study and practice only the fingers and forget about the hand. The fingers extend out from the hand and are not functional on their own. This was the image, the analogy that His Holiness used, and I think that is very helpful advice. It’s a misunderstanding to think that “Well, all I have to do is practice dzogchen; just sit and be natural and so on.” So, oversimplifying these types of teachings without having the basis.

Similarly, it’s a misunderstanding to think that we are Milarepas and that everyone – specifically, we ourselves – need to go into a lifelong retreat, or at least do a three-year retreat. Only a few people are suited for a life of full-time meditation; most need to involve themselves in social welfare. This is directly the advice of the His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Very, very rare that we really are suited for a lifetime of meditation retreat. Or that we can seriously benefit from a three-year retreat without just sort of sitting there and repeating mantras for three years, but not really working on a deep level on ourselves.

Of course intensive full-time Dharma practice is necessary for becoming liberated or enlightened, and it’s a mistake to overestimate that we can accomplish liberation and enlightenment without that full-time practice. We think, “Well, I can just practice in my spare time and I’m going to become liberated and enlightened.” And that also is a misunderstanding. But it is also a mistake not to be objective with ourselves and about our capacity to be able to do that intensive practice now. Because especially what happens is that, if we push ourselves and we really aren’t able to do this type of practice, we really become very frustrated – we get what the Tibetans call lung (rlung), frustrated nervous energy – and it really messes us up psychologically, emotionally, and physically.

And so this also ties in a little bit with not believing in rebirth, because if we don’t believe in rebirth, we’re not looking seriously in terms of longtime goals after many, many eons of practice. There is the teaching that says it is possible to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to think, “Well, we only have this lifetime, because there is no rebirth,” and therefore pushing ourselves beyond what we’re able to do at the moment.

Also, looking at the other side of this, it’s a mistake to underestimate the importance of daily meditation practice. It is very important, if we are going to sustain our Dharma practice, to have a daily meditation routine. There are many, many benefits of that in terms of discipline; in terms of commitment; in terms of adding stability in our lives; dependability: that we are always going to do this every day, no matter what. And if we seriously are going to try to build up more beneficial habits – which is what meditation is all about – we need to practice.

“Practice” means: in a controlled environment, practice being patient, and so on, by imagining different situations, analyzing what are the causes of our problems: “Why am I upset about this or that situation? Why when I get sick do I become short-tempered? Is it because....” Then you go deeper and deeper, and see, “Well, I’m focusing on me. ‘I’m suffering. Poor me.’” Even if we don’t consciously think “Poor me” while I’m sick, but our focus is on the “me” – that we make that a strong “me.” And then, because we don’t like what we’re experiencing, we become irritated and then we project it onto other people. So this is what you do in meditation; you analyze that, what’s going on each day. So a daily practice in which we examine these things, in which we work on some beneficial habit in a regular type of way, is very beneficial. It’s a big misunderstanding to think that we can do without that.

Also it’s a misunderstanding to think that practice, Buddhist practice, means merely doing a ritual and not primarily to work on ourselves. Many people think that. “Well, I’ll do this sadhana or that sadhana,” and we recite it sometimes in Tibetan – a language that we don’t even understand – and we think that that is practice. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, who was here some months ago, gave a wonderful example. He said that if Tibetans had to recite prayers and various practices every day in German written in Tibetan letters phonetically, without having the slightest idea of what they were saying, he doubts that very many Tibetans would actually do that. Yet we do that as Westerners and consider that practice and that that’s enough. Actual practice means to work on ourselves. Work on changing our attitudes. Work on our disturbing emotions. Analyze. Understand. Build up more beneficial habits of love, compassion, and correct understanding, and so on.

Another misunderstanding in terms of practice is to think that to practice Dharma properly we need to follow Tibetan or other forms of Asian customs – in terms of an elaborate Tibetan-style altar, or shrine room, or even Dharma center. Many Tibetans who come of course like to set up a Dharma center like a Tibetan gompa, a Tibetan temple, with the colors of the walls and the paintings and with – you can see it here in this room. But to think that that is necessary…. And, as a Tibetan would say, if the Western people like it, why not? there’s no harm…. but to think that it’s absolutely necessary is a big mistake. Especially when it is a tremendous expense, in which the money could be used much more beneficially in other ways. So whether this is at a Dharma center, whether this is in our home, and so on, we don’t need something elaborate, Tibetan-style, in order to practice Tibetan Buddhism.

Although the main emphasis in Dharma is eliminating forever the causes of suffering – namely our ignorance, our unawareness about reality, our disturbing emotions, these sort of things – the misunderstanding is to think that overcoming disturbing emotions will happen quickly, forgetting that we’ll still have them, to a gradually diminishing extent, all the way up to becoming an arhat. Only when we become an arhat, a liberated being, will we be completely free of anger and attachment and so on. If we forget this, we get discouraged when we still get angry after years of practice. Very, very common.

It’s a mistake not to have patience with ourselves. We have to realize that Dharma practice goes up and down, just like samsara; it goes up and down. And, over the long term, we could hope for improvement. It’s not going to be so easy. So it’s a mistake not to have patience with ourselves when we do have the down periods. But on the other hand, we need to avoid the extreme of being too permissive with our negative habits and being lax or lazy about working on ourselves. So a middle path here: not beating ourselves when we still get angry, but not just say, “Well, I feel angry,” or “I’m in a bad mood,” and not trying to apply some Dharma method for overcoming that.

It’s very interesting to see what we turn to when we’re in a bad mood; what we turn to for relief. Do I turn to meditation? Do I turn to refuge? Or do I turn to chocolate, or sex, or the television, or chatting with my friends? What do I turn to? I think that is very revealing of our Dharma practice – how we deal with being in bad moods.

It’s a misunderstanding – this is a difficult one – it’s a misunderstanding to think we can gain liberation or enlightenment without having to overcome biology, specifically sex. Despite the fact that in tantra it’s possible, on advanced stages, to use desire and sexual energy in order to get rid of desire and sexual energy, but this is only when we are on extremely advanced stages and have control over our subtle energy system. It’s a serious mistake to consider tantra as a method for having exotic sex. We are aiming to gain liberation. Liberation means liberation from this – this type of physical body with all its biological drives and so on – and to have the type of body of a liberated or enlightened being: made of light, and so on, and not subject to these limitations. So, often we want to gain liberation and enlightenment cheaply, without having to give up these sort of body pleasures, as it were. So this is a misunderstanding.

Misunderstandings about Tantra

So that brings us to tantra, and there are many, many misunderstandings about that. Often these misunderstandings come because of marketing. Tantra, dzogchen, these things are marketed very cleverly as being the easy path, the speedy path, and all of that; the best path, and so on. And because of that marketing – whether marketed by Tibetan teachers or various Western or Tibetan practitioners – for whatever reason they might present it that way, it’s a misunderstanding about tantra or dzogchen, for instance, that these are easy paths.

And being attracted to them for that reason – because we think they are easy and quick – why would we do that? As one of my teachers pointed out, it could either be because we are lazy and so we want something that is easy and quick (we don’t want to put in the work), or we want to find a bargain. Like getting enlightenment cheap, the way that we look for bargains when we go shopping in a store. We have that mentality often when we are looking at various Dharma methods. What’s the bargain? What’s on sale this week? This type of thing. Tantra practice and dzogchen, and all these things, require a tremendous amount of work. They are tremendously difficult. Very, very subtle. And all of them specify that we need to do preliminary practices, which are not easy – these hundred thousands of prostrations and so on.

And it’s a misunderstanding, even if we accept that we need to do these preliminary practices such as prostration, that we’re going to get miracles from them. This also can be from marketing, or it could just be from our own overestimation of the power of these preliminaries. “I’m so desperate. Just tell me what to do. Okay, throw myself on the ground a hundred thousand times, repeat some syllables in another language a hundred thousand times, and then all my problems will go away.” This is a misunderstanding. And so, out of desperation, you do it, you do it, you do it, expecting that at the end some miracle is going to happen. And it doesn’t. And then we are completely disillusioned about Dharma practices.

Now, of course, purification practices can be effective, but not effective when 99% of the time your mind is wandering and you’re not focused on what you’re doing. Or you don’t have a strong, proper motivation. In order for these practices to be effective – and even when they’re effective, they don’t produce miracles – that means doing it properly, with complete concentration and full, proper motivation, and so on. That’s not easy, is it? Or just to think, after I’ve done a hundred thousand, “I’ve paid my dues, and now let’s get to the good stuff.” So, again, in a sense, almost begrudging these preliminary practices. And I just want to get it over with. And not really seeing the value that they have, in and of themselves, to build up some positive force. Like over and over again, putting this positive direction in our life, refuge, reaffirming Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This is the direction I’m going. Over and again, generating bodhichitta. These type of preliminaries are very, very helpful.

Also in terms of these ngondro preliminaries, it’s a mistake to do them before having even a basic understanding of Buddhism, and therefore thinking of it simply as a way to cleanse our sins, as it were. You go to a teacher – and this happens often in the West – we go to a teacher and immediately, before any teachings, before any understandings, “Do a hundred thousand prostrations!” And people actually do it, which is amazing. So you ask yourself, “Why would they do this?” And usually it’s out of desperation, thinking that some miracle will happen from it. Or they are going into some sort of almost like a cult thing and just will obey the teacher, like in the army. That’s a mistake, to just think that the relation with the teacher is like the relation with some officer in an army: you just obey unquestioningly. Its’ very important never to lose that critical faculty. His Holiness always emphasizes that. Be critical. That doesn’t mean criticizing, although the word sounds the same in English. “Critical” means examine what’s going on. “Criticize” means to think, “I’m so much better, and you’re terrible,” looking down on them and with a very negative attitude. So it’s important if we’re going to do these ngondro practices that we have the basis – we understand what we’re doing.

And this is indicative of a larger misunderstanding, which is engaging in tantra practice prematurely, even if we start with ngondro. For example, in traditions that present strong emphasis on this ngondro, these preliminary practices, there’s a shared or common ngondro, which are the four thoughts that turn our mind to the Dharma – that’s basically covering the lam-rim material (the graded stage material) – and then the uncommon, the special, unshared ones, which are the prostrations and so on. And so skipping over, or trivializing, or minimizing these shared preliminaries (the basic lam-rim teachings) and just jumping immediately to the prostration, and so on, often leads to, as I say, very unrealistic attitudes towards the prostrations and the Vajrasattvas and so on, and it can make problems. After a while, you start to question, “Why in the world am I doing this? What is the point?” Whereas if we have a clear understanding – at least to a certain level – beforehand of the importance of building up positive force, eliminating negative potentials (or at least minimizing them), because we want to achieve this and this type of goal, spiritual goal, then the preliminaries made some sort of sense.

So, as I say, the problem here is not just getting into the ngondro prematurely, but getting into tantra prematurely. And this happens so, so frequently because… It could be because we ask visiting lamas to give initiations, even if our group isn’t ready for being able to practice them. Or the visiting lamas themselves offer initiations, even when the audience is mostly unprepared. So we are not totally responsible for this misunderstanding of the overemphasis on tantra and its presentation and practice done prematurely for most people.

Why would we ask for an initiation? There can be many reasons. We think it’s so high. This is the real stuff. It’s exotic. It will attract more people, which means that we will collect more money, so that we can actually pay for the visiting teacher and support our center. So it could be for financial reasons; which is most unfortunate, that that happens. The teacher themselves could be motivated by thinking that “Okay, they’re not going to practice, but we will plant seeds for future lives.” Well, most Westerners don’t believe in future lives. So that’s a misunderstanding. Or teachers themselves don’t really understand that the Westerners don’t have the background to be able to practice tantra effectively. Or they again could be pressured by having to raise money to support the monastery and the monks back home. There can be many reasons for this. But what’s always advised is that if there’s a visiting teacher, to ask them for the basic teachings. And if it’s more advanced teachings that we want, the advanced sutra teachings, you know: advanced teachings on bodhichitta, advanced teaching on voidness, and so on.

Also when being involved with tantra and we want instructions of how to practice, again it’s a misunderstanding to think that the main emphasis in the practice is the visualization and we worry so much about getting all the little details correctly. My teacher Serkong Rinpoche used to use an example, making fun of the Westerner misunderstanding here. He said, “People are coming to me and asking does Yamantaka or Vajrayogini have a bellybutton? This is ridiculous. This is missing what the essence – what the important points are in these practices.”

Sure, when you want to develop single-pointed concentration, and so on, we need all the details, but that’s not what you focus on or emphasize in the beginning. What one wants to get is a basic understanding of – Tsongkhapa says it very clearly – of the three principle aspects of the path.

  • Renunciation, giving up ordinary appearance, clinging to things in terms of existing with true existence, and so on. It requires tremendous determination to be free – renunciation – of that.

  • Bodhicitta. We are aiming to achieve enlightenment. These Buddha-figures, these yidams, represent our future enlightenment that we are aiming to achieve, so we imagine that we’re there now. Without bodhichitta, why would you imagine yourself in this form and do all the activities of benefiting others? So, obviously, we want to be like this in order to benefit others.

  • And then the whole understanding of voidness; that we don’t exist truly like this now but we have the potentials. You have to put in the cause and effect, its dependent arising, and so on. Not that I am Tara – or I’m Cleopatra, for that matter.

So if we’re going to get teachings on tantra, then be sure that it’s teachings on this type of level. This is what we need to emphasize. What is the point of all of this? What are we trying to do? That’s why you need all the preparation beforehand. Not just worry about all the tiny little visualization details. What does the jewelry look like, and stuff like that. Although there are the instructions of what it looks like, but don’t emphasize that, particularly not in the beginning.

It’s interesting: at the Kalachakra initiation in Toronto, Canada, in 2004, His Holiness gave teachings on – I forget which text, but one of the texts of Nagarjuna on voidness, as the preliminary. So that was about three days. And then, after that, he gave the initiation. And what was noticeable was that many more people were there for the initiation than were there for the teachings on voidness. And His Holiness said he really appreciated those people who came only for the teachings of Nagarjuna and didn’t stay for the initiation, rather than the people who did the opposite – who skipped these initial teachings, basis teachings, and just came for the initiation. So this tells us a lot; an awful lot.

In terms of these tantra practices, it’s a misunderstanding to look at the yidams like saints that we pray to for help, Saint Tara, Saint Chenrezig, and so on, like that – and this is not limited to a Western misunderstanding – and, in a sense, worshipping them. They may inspire us, as can Buddhas and lineage gurus, but we need to do the work ourselves.

You see, some of this misunderstanding comes from a translation issue when we make requests to the various gurus and yidams, and so on, in the request prayers. First of all, the word prayer to us carries the connotation of praying to God and “God, grant me something.” Or praying to a saint, and the saint be an intermediary to God for me, so that God will grant me something. Already we are being misled here with a little bit of projection. But when we make requests, the word here is chingylab (byin-gyis rlabs) in Tibetan and that’s usually translated as blessings. Well, this gives a completely different and misleading connotation here. We ask, “Bless me to be able to do this. Bless me to be able to do that,” as if all that we need is the power of these figures to come and bless us and, all of a sudden, we get all our realizations and so on.

This is not Buddhism. The term literally means to uplift and brighten. That’s the meaning. Adhisthana in Sanskrit. Adhisthana – to put us in a higher position; to uplift. That has the connotation of to make more bright. And so I prefer to translate it as inspire. So we request them to inspire us to achieve this and this and that. But these figures – whether gurus, whether Buddhas, whether the yidams – can’t from their own side, by their own power, grant us our wishes and do everything for us, that all we have to do is submit to them. That again is interpolation; projecting a Western idea or concept onto Buddhism. The main emphasis is always that we need to do the work ourselves. We have the Buddhas, the gurus – they can inspire us, they can teach us, they can guide us, but they can’t do the work for us. We have to understand, ourselves.

Misunderstandings about Protectors

Similar to this, it’s a misunderstanding to overemphasize protector practice. Often you have this. At Dharma centers, for example, every week, they do a protector practice. Or every day, they do a protector practice. And even newcomers come and do the protector practice, without having the slightest idea really of what they’re doing. And seeing or regarding the protector as the one that will protect us (as the word protect implies) from all our obstacles and dangers and so on, and forgetting that we need to protect ourselves, in terms of… Whatever happened to karma and refuge?

We’re going in a safe direction (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) in order to avoid going to worse rebirths – the initial scope teachings. It isn’t that we go to a protector in order to avoid worse rebirths. Nowhere does it say that in the teachings, does it? Go to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And they’re not going to protect us in the sense of saving us. They teach us what to do. We have to do it ourselves. They set the example. And karma: avoid destructive behavior. What does it mean to go in that safe direction of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha? The safe direction primarily is Dharma. Dharma, that’s referring – the deepest Dharma Jewel – is referring to the third and fourth noble truths. And so the true stopping of the causes for suffering, and therefore the true stopping of suffering. And the true path or pathway mind that will lead to that – the understanding of voidness, etc. – and that results from it. That’s the direction that we’re going in. And that exists in full on the mental continuum of a Buddha – the Buddhas, many Buddhas – and in part on the mental continuum of the Arya Sangha. And that’s the direction. And if we do that, we protect ourselves from suffering. Dharma, the Sanskrit word, comes from the root to hold us back. Holds us back so that we avoid suffering.

It’s not that a protector does that for us. A protector is like a supplement. There are many ways of viewing protectors. Serkong Rinpoche used to describe the protectors as being like a large vicious dog. He said if you are in the center of a mandala as a deity – let’s say Yamantaka, a really strong forceful deity – you need to be able to have the power to control these protectors. They’re like a wild dog. And although you could stand at the gate and chase away robbers, why do that when you can get a dog to do that? But you have to be the master; you have to be in control. So even if we think in terms of a protector as helping us, in terms of chasing away interferences and robbers and so on, we are the ones that are basically in control of all of that.

In other words, protectors, if we take them as actual beings – which Tibetans do – if we take them as actual beings, spirits or whatever, they can provide circumstances for our own karma to ripen. If we don’t have the karma ourselves, to ripen, what they do isn’t going to help. Same thing like doing Medicine Buddha pujas and stuff like that. It’s not going to be effective; it’s not the cause itself for us to get better. It’s a circumstance for our own positive karma to ripen. Or in some cases with protectors, it’s a circumstance for our negative karma to ripen in a very trivial way, so that it doesn’t form… so that it burns away any more serious obstacles that we would have in the future that would prevent success. They can work in many ways.

But the mistake here, the misunderstanding, is to overemphasize the protector practices; to make that the central thing rather than Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And it becomes almost the worship of some sort of spirit. And there are many problems that come from that, as is illustrated with the controversial protector issue among the Tibetans. So one has to really be careful about that. And I think that it is not very wise for a Dharma center to have a public protector practice every day, or every week, or every month, in which anybody can come – newcomers can come – because… Especially if these texts are translated; they’re pretty heavy. “Smash the intruders, the enemies,” and so on. It can be pretty heavy and very easily misunderstood. So one has to be very cautious about that.

Misunderstandings about Initiation

Now about initiations in terms of tantra. It’s a misunderstanding to take a tantra initiation without examining the teacher or the practice. And even if we do examine them, it’s a mistake or misunderstanding to take the initiation with no intention to actually practice the tantra system. The purpose of an initiation or empowerment is to activate and strengthen – enhance – our Buddha-nature factors so as to be able to engage in the practice of a specific deity system. That’s the whole purpose of it. The various rituals and visualizations, and so on, of what’s going on – it activates these seeds, plants more seeds, so that we can engage in a specific practice. It’s an initiation to start that practice.

When we misunderstand this, we indiscriminatingly attend any initiation by any lama into any practice. And we go either for the blessings or because of group pressure. That’s a mistake to do just that. Going to an empowerment, an initiation, is serious business. And we have to examine fully this teacher. Do I want to establish a special relationship with this teacher as my tantric guru? Most of us have no idea on what that actually means. And do I want to do this specific deity practice as opposed to another one? And am I seriously wanting to do that, either now or I fully intend to get to it later? But just to go – I mean, obviously we can go as an anthropological event. You go as an anthropologist to see what these sort of natives are doing in some native ritual. Okay. His Holiness says if you want to go as, he calls it, a neutral observer, that’s not a problem. But to just go like that really trivializes the initiation process.

And it’s a further misunderstanding to think if we go like that to an initiation – as an anthropology event, or just for blessings, or group pressure: everybody else is going and so we have to go – it’s a misunderstanding to think that we’ve received the vows and commitments from merely being present at the initiation without knowingly and willingly taking them on. You only receive vows if you consciously take them on. Just being there doesn’t mean that you’ve taken the vows or that you’ve received the initiation. Tibetans take their dogs with them to the initiation. It doesn’t mean that the dogs have the vows and that the dog now has the initiation into the practice. I mean, obviously they take it for the blessings or whatever. But do we want to attend the initiation just like a dog? This is the point. Or to think, “Oh, we’ll get high on it.” Something like that.

On the other hand, it’s equally a misunderstanding to think we can receive an initiation and engage in the practice without having taken on and keeping the vows. One of the most important aspects of an initiation, of an empowerment, is the vows. It’s said very clearly in many texts: “There is no initiation without the vows.” And so at minimum we have bodhisattva vows. In all initiations of all classes, including dzogchen, Tsongkhapa and Atisha emphasize that we need some sort of level of pratimoksha vow or practice as the basis for that, even if it’s just the lay vows. Or it doesn’t even have to be all five of them – avoid killing, stealing, lying, etc. Some sort of basis of general ethics. Then the bodhisattva vows. And if it’s the two higher classes of tantra, the tantric vows. That’s absolutely essential. And we need to do that quite seriously, examining: can I actually keep these?

If there’s a practice commitment – sometimes there are practice commitments with an initiation – it’s a misunderstanding that we can bargain with the teacher to lessen the commitment, like haggling with a shopkeeper in an Oriental market to get a cheaper price. Sometimes I’ve certainly seen Westerners do that. In Dharamsala, His Holiness gives an empowerment, and the commitment is to do the practice every day for the rest of your life. For instance, the Lama Chopa (The Guru Puja). His Holiness gives the teachings on that, and the commitment is to do it every single day for the rest of your life. And then the Westerners want to go to it, but they will bargain, try to bargain – well, we have a busy life, and so on, do we really have to do it? Can we just do it sometimes, when we have the time? They try to get it cheap; at a cheaper price. That’s a big misunderstanding.

If we’re going to get the teachings, the point is that we want to do the practice. We’re serious about it. Otherwise, why get the teachings? Just out of curiosity? That’s not the point. These teachings are supposed to be precious, something sacred that you only would study on the basis of really wanting to do it. This of course becomes a difficult issue with the Internet and books and stuff like that, because the other side, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, is that so much is available anyway. And there’s so much wrong information about the Dharma and about tantra, it’s better to have the correct information out there. As His Holiness sometimes jokes, “It’s better to go to a hell with correct understanding than to go with the wrong understanding. With correct understanding, you bounce out of it much more quickly.” So whether that’s to be taken literally or a joke, I don’t know, but it gives us something to think about. But that’s not an excuse. We’re going to get these teachings. There is a commitment. Take it seriously.

If there is this daily recitation commitment, it’s a misunderstanding not to take that seriously and thinking we can miss a day when we don’t feel like doing it: “I’ll only do it when I feel like doing it.” Or taking on too many lifelong practice commitments without realistically considering whether or not we’ll be able to maintain them. That was a very, very common mistake in the ’70s in India. In those days, the initiations were given much more readily – the full initiations with the full practice commitments – and we Westerners took them. We took these empowerments and took on these commitments, thinking that we could always keep them. And you look even just ten years later – let alone twenty, thirty, forty years later – and how many people have actually kept them? And kept on doing them? Only a handful. And even when taking them on in those days, many people really had a struggle to do the daily practice because they left it… They were too busy in the morning. “Morning isn’t a good time for me,” thinking that. And they would leave it to night, and then they would have two or three hours of practice to do. And they would fall asleep while practicing, and then sit there and nod off, and it would take them half the night to get through the thing. And it became a torture. And so this is a big problem.

If we’re going to take practice commitments, be realistic about it – of what we can actually do. And these practice commitments, they’re serious when they say this is to do every day for the rest of your life. And why do you want to do it every day for the rest of your life? Because I’m really serious about gaining liberation and enlightenment. And I understand the basic tantra method – This is very important. His Holiness always emphasizes that if you’re going to be involved with tantra, it should be on the basis of understanding what tantra is all about and having confidence in the effectiveness of the method. Otherwise, why are you doing this? Especially if you think it just comprises some weird visualization and mumbling some mantras, then after a while you give up because it seems ridiculous: “Why am I doing this?” So it’s important to really consider whether or not we can actually fulfill these commitments.

And lastly, it’s a misunderstanding of tantra practice to consider it merely to be a recitation of a ritual or merely repetition of a mantra. Without strong meditation on bodhichitta and voidness, we’ll have that misunderstanding: I just do this ritual; I just recite “Blah blah blah blah blah…” Try to visualize – most of the time we can’t visualize; it’s too complicated. So we want to do the easiest versions and think that something is going to really happen on the basis of this. And very often it becomes just an escape into Fantasy Land without it really being an effective method for putting together all the teachings.

Tantra is a way of putting all the teachings together, so that during the script of the ritual – at this point, you generate the four immeasurable attitudes; this point, refuge; at this point, bodhichitta; at this point, you reaffirm the vows; at this point (many, many points) you do voidness meditation – at different points in the script, we generate different Dharma understandings and realizations. So if you haven’t practiced the methods before that, then when it’s called for in the ritual to just, with a few words, “Now I have the understanding of voidness,” what do you do? You’re just reciting words then. It doesn’t do anything to just recite the words. So tantra practice requires a great deal of all this background. It’s a mistake to think that it’s just going “Blah blah blah” with some recitation – which is mostly done with mental wandering anyway.

Conclusion

So these are some of the misunderstandings that came to my mind just when sitting down and thinking about it. I’m sure there are many, many more that we could list. As I say, there are many misunderstandings that come simply because of the difficulty of the material; especially the case in terms of misunderstanding of voidness, of the different tenet systems, and so on. One of the points about Dharma is: whatever Buddha taught was for the benefit of others. So, if we take that seriously, we try to figure out what is the purpose of all of this – of any of it. If we don’t understand it, ask. Examine. Follow the Dharma methods.

If there are some mental blocks, then building up more positive force is the way to overcome those mental obstacles or emotional obstacles. It says that very clearly in the text, so we need to take that seriously. It’s a misunderstanding not to take that seriously. We don’t understand this. So do a lot of Manjushri practice, for example. And that doesn’t mean just going “Blah blah blah” with the mantra, but with a clear visualization and imagination that my mind becomes clearer and clearer, with lights coming to us in the visualization, which helps us to imagine that graphically. So what that does is establish with very strong willpower to make my mind more clear; be inspired to be more clear. That can be of great help. But to just push and push and push without relying on the Dharma methods to overcome these obstacles and blocks…[doesn’t always help.] And it might require a great deal of effort.

I used to consider some of my travels – going around giving… I was invited to many places to teach – as bodhichitta retreats. I would get, in a sense, stuck in what I was writing or what I was translating, and then I would go out on a tour or something like that. And through that – in terms of interacting with others, trying to be generous with the teachings, and so on – that would build up a certain amount of positive force to come back, and then my mind would be clearer to overcome the blocks that I might have been having. So try to look at things in that way.

So, anyway, these are some of my thoughts. Perhaps you have some questions.

Question about How to Relate to Teachings that Appear Magical

Question: Sometimes it sounds very magical, what is promised, if you do this or that. Like I read in some text about taking refuge: you are protected from humans, non-human beings, and all kind of things which happen. Or you do this mantra and forty thousand eons are purified. So it sounds like a fairy tale. And, for example, for refuge – I always have the question for me: what does it mean when I get up in the morning to take refuge? Is it just getting, again, what I want in life – that I want to aim to enlightenment – or is it only some magical sword that I’ve created for myself?

Alex: Your question brings up two points. One is saying: how do we relate to some of teachings that sound very magical? Like if we take refuge then we’re protected from humans and non-humans. And refuge in this Buddha purifies negative force for forty thousand eons; and in that Buddha, thirty-five thousand; and in this one, five hundred and fifty-six thousand – I’m just making up the numbers – with the thirty-five so-called Confession Buddhas, and so on. And you wonder: Where in the world did they come up with these numbers? And how do I relate to them? This sounds like magic.

The other aspect of your question was what?

Participant: It was about refuge. When I take it in the morning…

Alex: Oh, yes. When you take refuge in the morning, is it actually putting this direction in our lives of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, or is it, again, some sort of magic formula that we say?

Well, as I said, magic formulas are really a misunderstanding of the teachings. I mean, magic means almost that things happen for no reason, and certainly that’s not accepted by Buddhist logic – that a result can happen without a cause. So we don’t have magic here. If we are reaffirming our direction each morning, safe direction and refuge, that really is setting a strong intention for what I’m doing with my day. That’s emphasized in so many teachings. So that has a certain value.

Question: That’s what it is about?

Alex: That’s what it is about.

And it protects me from this and that harm – Well, if I achieve liberation, the third and fourth noble truths, then I’m out of samsara, so I will not experience any suffering. So, okay, we can understand it like that.

Now these numbers, I must confess that I have a great deal of difficulty accepting them literally. And I don’t really pay much attention to that. Now am I picking and choosing in terms of these teachings? I don’t know. I regard it as more in terms of: Doing this is very powerful. Reciting this – as it says in some of the Mahayana sutras – even reciting the name of this bodhisattva builds up innumerable merit of so many eons, and so on. So, okay, recite it or whatever, but I can’t imagine that it just… Even though it gives the impression that just reciting it is enough, I really question if that really can be taken only literally. I think there has to be some understanding of what this bodhisattva did in order become a bodhisattva. Also their names actually mean something. So just to recite their names in Sanskrit or Tibetan and not know what they mean is a problem. And the numbers, as I say, I don’t pay very much attention to personally. Doesn’t matter whether it’s thirty-five thousand or forty-five thousand eons. So it’s not that I would say that this is stupid. That’s putting down the teachings; that’s certainly not something which is positive to do. But I don’t see it as the essential part of the teaching – how many eons it purifies you of.

So, again, one needs to apply what we find in Mahayana, which is the division between interpretable and definitive teachings. Interpretable literally means teachings that will lead us to a deeper understanding, and definitive are what they lead us to. So the definitive are about voidness, deepest understanding of voidness, and everything else is to lead us there. So by saying that this builds up thirty-five thousand eons of positive force and this forty-five thousand, I think just encourages us to build up positive force which will lead to a deeper understanding. So I take it on that level. And not think of it in terms of magic.

That’s a very good point that you bring up. Because many lamas have been emphasizing reading some of the sutras, reciting them, which of course is a very positive thing to do: The Golden Light Sutra, and so on. And in that we find these passages that are not easy to relate to.

Participant: Turn the wheel so it might cure you from cancer.

Alex: Well, to say, “Turn a prayer wheel and it will cure you from cancer,” I think is a little bit naive. A little bit naive.

Participant: Sounds like magic. Whether you have a prayer wheel or…

Alex: Well, it’s not so much magic. I mean, you know the joke? The joke in terms of “May I win the lottery. May I win the lottery…” We’re praying to Buddha or to God. And God or Buddha or whoever appears and says, “You need to buy a lottery ticket!”

And so we have to build up the cause. And so if we build up the causes in terms of positive force and so on – well, the prayer wheel might help us to build up a more positive, optimistic attitude which helps to strengthen the immune system, and so on. But just by itself, it certainly can’t cure us of cancer. That’s naive.

Participant: That’s sometimes what it looks like.

Alex: That’s what it looks like, but it’s a misunderstanding, I think, to take everything totally literally. Although there are some people who do. But the teachings have deeper meanings. “Don’t rely on the teacher, but rely on their words. Don’t rely just on the words, but on their meaning. Not just on their meaning, but their definitive meaning – of what they’re leading to.” So we have these four reliances.

Any other questions?

Question about Reminding the Buddhas to Help Us

Participant: When you recite a prayer, sometimes there’s a sentence or two saying, “Please protect us, Buddhas. Remember the vows you have made, and protect us and do something good to us.” And I always think, well, it must be a mistake or a way that it is not properly expressed in our language or so on. Because I think it’s offensive to make a Buddha remember his vows. He knows his vows. So I don’t understand why we are always doing these reminders to the Buddhas.

Alex: So she says in some of the prayers there are reminders to the Buddhas to “remember your vows to protect us.” I don’t personally know of texts that say that directed to the Buddhas. It’s usually recited to the so-called oath-bound protectors. And these are usually various spirits that have been tamed by Guru Rinpoche or whoever and given an oath to protect the teachings and the practitioners.

Participant: It’s also in the Medicine Buddha and the sadhana.

Alex: Okay. So it’s in the Medicine Buddha sadhana, which I am not familiar with, that we remind the Buddha of his vow to help others with sickness. And your question is: why we need to remind the Buddhas? We don’t need to remind them. It’s the same thing – why do we need to request the Buddhas to do anything? They’re going to do it anyway.

So it’s a matter of making ourselves more receptive and, in a sense, reminding us that they have these vows and that they’ve taken these oaths, so that we get a little bit more positive attitude which strengthens the immune system. Although that’s not the way the texts traditionally explain anything, but that’s how these things work.

Participant: Can this be a matter of translation as well?

Alex: Can it be a matter of translation? I don’t know. I’d have to see the text.

Question about Sexual Misconduct

Question: There’s a vow about sexual misconduct. Sexual misconduct has always been a big mystery for me. What really is sexual misconduct? What do the vows include or exclude?

Alex: This is a very difficult question, a very important question, in terms of inappropriate sexual behavior or sexual misconduct. What is actually included in that? And why? When we look at the evolution of the explanation of the vow, or just in the explanation of the ten destructive or so-called “nonvirtuous” actions about inappropriate sexual behavior, we find that, over history, more and more things are specified. Starting from the Pali literature and then going in India, more and more things are specified, and then the Tibetans take over. And it’s not that it builds up cumulatively; some commentaries in India add certain things and some add other things, and then the Tibetans come and take different pieces of that and put it together in different presentations and different texts.

So this becomes a difficult issue, doesn’t it? Because one could – I mean, I’ve had a lot of discussion with Tibetan Geshes over this. And one could say, well, aren’t these things which were added and they weren’t there originally? Originally it was basically just having sex with an inappropriate partner – someone that is under the control of somebody else or guardianship of somebody else, whether a husband, or a parent, or whatever. And it’s only specified in terms of heterosexual men. In terms of women – it wasn’t specified in terms of a woman practitioner. So obviously things needed to be expanded.

And so the implication being that if things were added, couldn’t more things be added and certain things taken away? Is it culturally specific? What these Geshes said was, basically, just because something was not specified in an earlier version, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t the intention. It’s just that later on they specified what was meant. How did they know what was meant? That’s another question of course. But supposedly they are great realized beings and they know what will produce suffering. The whole point is to minimize suffering that one causes to oneself under the influence of longing desire, disturbing emotions, and so on.

One Geshe, Geshe Wangchen, explained it very, very nicely. He’s the tutor of Ling Rinpoche, the reincarnation of His Holiness’s senior tutor. And he explained that what we want to do, with these vows about inappropriate sexual behavior, is to set a limit. And, as I was saying in my lecture, we are aiming for liberation from biology. And so ultimately we need to overcome all sexuality. That doesn’t mean that we have to become monks and nuns right now. But as an arhat or a Buddha, we’re certainly not going to have sex, and we’re not going to have this kind of body that would have the hormones that would drive us to have sex. So that is ultimately part of the package of becoming a liberated being or an enlightened being, whether we like it or not.

Now the question is: are we going to set any limits to our sexual behavior with the intention that eventually we’re going to overcome sexual drive? And what these vows are doing is setting limits. And so if, within a certain tradition, the limits are set in such and such a way, as specified in a text – well, those are the limits. As I said, if you can’t keep those limits, fine; nobody’s forcing you to keep those limits. So you set a different boundary. But the point is to set a boundary: That, okay, I’m not going to indulge in absolutely any sexual thing, any sexual drive, that comes to my mind, like a dog, but I will exercise some self-control. Not just blindly act out hormones and lust. So that’s the intention of the vow – so that we overcome, no matter what. There is an aspect of lust and attachment involved with sex, no matter what we say, no matter how much love is there. And so that’s what the vows intended.

Now what is actually specified in the vows? We would have to read it in the actual text. This is the text of your lineage. This is what it’s specifying. Now because it doesn’t specify it – it doesn’t say that it’s inappropriate to have sex with animals – does that mean it’s okay to have sex with animals? With a sheep? No. Just because it doesn’t say it, doesn’t mean that it’s okay. So one has to analyze a little bit more deeply. It never talks about being unfaithful to your own partner – it only talks about having sex with somebody else’s partner – so does that mean that it’s okay?

This sexual ethics thing becomes very, very complicated and very difficult. Because it does say that prostitution is okay, as long as you pay for the prostitute, even if you’re married. And so this doesn’t go along with our Western ethics. So can we add things to it that would be inappropriate? Because, certainly from a Western ethical point of view, that would be inappropriate. And I think yes. I think one needs to understand the general spirit of the vow. And so is it culturally defined? Like, for instance, this thing about prostitution? That’s a very difficult one to answer. Very difficult one to answer.

But I think that if one is going to take the vow, one needs to read what is the vow that’s specified in the text. And am I able to keep all of that? And if I’m not then, as I say, take one of these intermediary category promises that I will avoid certain aspects of it. And that’s fine; you’re being honest, not being a hypocrite. I think what causes problems is to be a hypocrite in it: That I take the vow, but I am only going to keep part of it. Because then, undoubtedly, feelings of guilt come up, and eventually you just feel like a hypocrite. And it’s basically making up your own version of a vow. So, if you’re going to make up your own version, don’t call it a vow – in terms of limit. But I think it is very important, in terms of sexual conduct, to have certain boundaries with the understanding that I’m not going to be just like a dog. I’m aiming to overcome being under the control of this because it just perpetuates karma, rebirth, etc., and suffering.

It’s a difficult one. One that we, as Westerners, often will haggle over it. Like in the Oriental market, the Indian market, to get a good price; to get a bargain.

Participant: In a way, having sex means being guilty. Because you’re doing something which doesn’t lead to enlightenment, or whatever…

Alex: Right. Well, this is, again, feeling guilty, thinking that sex is dirty, this is not the path to enlightenment, and so on. That could come. But, again, this comes from the misunderstanding of ethics, as I said in the very beginning. To think that these are laws and you have to obey them, and if you don’t obey them you’re bad; and that sex, in itself, is dirty… I mean, it isn’t the sexual act that is the problem. The problem is the state of mind. And the state of mind is under the influence of longing desire and attachment, regardless of how much love might be there as well. Often that’s an excuse; a justification.

I always advise: if you’re going to have sex, just have sex. Don’t make a big deal out of it, and don’t get too caught up in the lust and overexaggerate it. “I am a samsaric being. I have these bodily functions, and this is what happens, but I’m aiming for something better.” It’s not that it is bad.

This gets into the whole issue of renunciation and determination to be free, the intermediate scope, which is very difficult, this intermediate scope of lam-rim. On the initial scope, I want to have a precious human rebirth. But then, on the intermediate scope, we look at all the disadvantages of even that precious human rebirth. That even if I have a precious human rebirth, I’m going to have the whole period of being a baby, which is fairly useless; the whole period of being an old demented person, which is fairly useless. There’s sickness. There’s frustration. I’m under the influence of hormones. All these sort of disadvantages – the garbage, the baggage that comes along with this human rebirth. And so you want to overcome that and attain enlightenment but, nevertheless, you need the vehicle of the precious human rebirth in order to do that.

So the point is not to overexaggerate the emphasis and not to look at it in terms of incorrect consideration – considering what is basically dirty and a mess as being beautiful and so wonderful and etc. Not worshipping the body. So, given the fact that I have a body like this, I have to eat, I have to sleep, I have to clean it, and there are certain sexual functions that are there. And if I’m not at the level of commitment, basically, to become a celibate monk or nun, then, okay, I will have sex. It’s not that it is bad. Not that I feel guilty about it. But I am using it as a grounds on which to set limits. And so the fact that with my sexual behavior I set limits… Just as I might set limits on how much food I eat, and not just be a complete pig and stuff myself and become obese, likewise, I can set limits on my sexual behavior as well – as certain things I refrain from. Because I see, well, it just is having a desire. So, in this way, you don’t feel guilty about sex.

Very delicate for us Westerners, especially coming from a background of many traditions that might either consider sex dirty or might consider it the best thing in the world – you gain enlightenment by having a perfect orgasm. So we tread on very delicate ground here when we deal with this sexual issue. But, as I say, if you’re going to have sex, don’t make a big deal out of it. Don’t overdo it. Don’t make a big deal. It is what it is. Nothing more. Okay?

So let’s end there with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.